A glass of Kopár 2006

Once I had a friend, Gyuri, when I still lived in Budapest. He was the first person I knew who loved wine, and he was a major influence on me and on my ideas of what good wine is all about. It was also Gyuri who introduced me to Attila Gere’s Kopár Cuvée. Gere is one of the best-known and most prestigious winemakers in the Villány region of southern Hungary. He is particularly famed for his Bordeaux-style red blends.

photo 1Kopár was one of Gyuri’s cherished wines, and it went down in my personal wine history as The Wine of Villány – and at that time, it was The Wine in general for us, as fifteen years ago we still had little access to serious foreign bottles.

So here I am in 2014, opening this beautiful bottle of Kopar 2006 for the family Christmas lunch, and I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia. Gyuri is long gone – he was taken by cancer over ten years ago… but Kopár is still here. After a few hours of allowing it to breathe, we clink glasses and I sniff. Coffee and black pepper hit me, accompanied by intense berry aromas. The wine still needs to breathe but it’s clear that we’re in for a real treat.

The first sip shows a surprisingly soft palate, although with lots of savoury notes, and the wine is still quite closed. photo 2Again, coffee and black pepper, and lovely rich ripe berry fruit, with cedar wood, lively acidity and velvety ripe tannins. The wine finishes with graphite minerality and long berry, cherry and prune notes. If this bottle were with us in another hour or two, it would be great to see what it had to offer in its full bloom…

At this stage in its life it’s a serious, savoury, medium-bodied wine that could well live another 5-8 years. It’s spicy, fruity, balanced and has a great intensity of aromas and flavours. And it’s a beautiful way to remember Gyuri and his love of life.

 

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Champion of Purity

Isabelle Legeron: Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally

Cico Books 2014, hb, 224pp, £16.99

Book review

Cover Natural_wine

There is a Jewish concept we learn from the Torah, called shmita. The commandment of shmita (the sabbatical year) instructs you to stop working the land every seven years; let it lie fallow, let nature take over and do its work without you trying to be in control. Don’t plant, don’t cultivate, don’t harvest. Re-wild. Step back, let it rest – and share. Take down the fences and let everyone, animals and humans, come and partake of whatever grows in your field.

Reading Isabelle Legeron’s recently published, beautifully produced book, I realized that she and fellow members of the natural wine faith advocate a very similar idea to that found in the Bible. They claim Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. Instead of interfering with her work, we should allow her savage ways to rule our land, and leave her room to produce whatever wine she fancies producing.

The first observation Legeron makes is, while it’s the ‘in’ thing to be a foodie and care so much about where and how our ingredients were sourced, how come we don’t care a bit about how our wine was made? It is true; what she terms the ‘agro-chic’ trend indeed seems to be much more interested in all food products but wine. Why indeed?

I have an explanation, based on my own kitchen-related activities. I buy organic veg whenever I can. I also want to make sure my eggs come from happy chicken. Do I buy organic wine? No. Why? Because with wine my considerations lie elsewhere. Wine is a work of art. Unlike an egg or an onion, it is complex, individual. How its components are produced is secondary from my consumer perspective to how it tastes – at least that was my attitude before reading Legeron. Furthermore, any supermarket will sell happy eggs and organic leek, but only the odd specialist wine shop will have a selection of organic or natural wine of decent quality. To go to a wine shop is a shlep as it is. To go to one that sells ‘happy’ wine is just too much of an effort. So a lot of it is a matter of convenience, I’d think. But also, I have found in my personal comings and goings that a lot of smaller winemakers, even if they’re not certified organic or natural, care an awful lot about how they make their wine and what they put into it, starting with the quality of the grapes. And up until now that’s been good enough for me.

Legeron states that her book is a tribute to those winemakers who ‘remain natural against all odds’, defying modern winemaking practices. The question immediately arises: what is wrong with modern winemaking practices? And this is wherein I feel the weakness of this otherwise attractive and carefully edited book lies. We fail to get a convincing argument as to why natural, traditional, and old-school are better than contemporary, high-tech, progressive. Sure, I agree that just as you should discourage your friends from eating junk food, you should talk them out of drinking mass-produced, industrial junk wine. But staying away from junk doesn’t mean I have to go natural and SO2 free. Who said that winemaking techniques of the past produced better wine than those of today? I would have argued to the contrary. Historians I’ve read seem to agree that most wine produced in the past was probably foul, for a number of reasons; whereas today, unless you’re really unlucky, you’ll find that even the cheapest glug will be clean, wine-like (as opposed to vinegar-like) and inoffensive, though admittedly soulless.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: do I want my wine to be ‘healthy’ or do I want it to taste like I expect it to taste? This is where the interesting twist comes in: Legeron claims that we are too accustomed to our expectations. She doesn’t for a minute try to argue that natural wine is just like ordinary wine. It looks, smells and tastes different. (I felt she could have dedicated a lot more space to this point, actually; to explain to us novices in much greater detail how natural wine should be appreciated.) But she states that this difference is good, even if it’s unusual, even if we are first surprised or even shocked by it. To me this seems to be the crux of the whole natural wine debate: are you prepared to call something good that doesn’t live up to conventional expectations? Something completely outside the box? I don’t know if I am, but the book has certainly made me think.

Legeron with wine glassLegeron is of course right about many things, and I wholeheartedly agree that exploitation of the land, overuse of chemicals, or stripping the wine of its natural substances by filtration or other intervention are all bad things, not to mention outright adulteration. Of course diversity, naturalness are great and to be cherished. And yes, perhaps we are too set in our taste ways when it comes to wine, and aren’t prepared to open our horizons to new flavour or texture experiences. This may well be, but the fact remains that I have tasted very few strictly natural wines – ‘strictly’ meaning without any added SO2 – that I enjoyed. Most were smelly, unpleasant, hazy liquids tasting of rotten fruit or solvent or other undesirable things. I know that smelly cheese also takes a while to get used to. But smelly cheeses have a tradition of their own. Smelly wines, with the odd exception, do not, as far as I know.

‘Wine started life everywhere as a simple drink’

Certainly. And the same applies to many human achievements. Music also started as a simple thing, and so did architecture. But these things developed into an art form and their finest examples soon became elements of what we consider high culture. Not all wine and not all buildings have to be sophisticated or ‘manufactured’, for sure. Whether you ride a buggy or an Aston Martin convertible is your choice, and either may suit you at different times. But it doesn’t mean we should go back to using buggies only, does it? I know, it would be much better for the environment, but it would be kind of naïve to imagine this could realistically happen. So, as much as I enjoyed and even admired Natural Wine, I’m still not convinced why going back to the old ways would be desirable.

But, as Legeron states, the purpose of her book is to start a conversation, and this she undoubtedly achieves with her respectable, edifying, engaging and positive content. I even like the fact that she is such an unashamed idealist. People who feel strongly about something are so much more convincing than the wishy-washy middle-of-the-roaders. Even if you don’t agree with them.

 

What the bleep do we know… about the wines of Lebanon?

The average wine drinker, probably nothing. The connoisseur will have heard about, and possibly tasted, Chateau Musar. But thanks to Lebanese-born wine expert Michael Karam, who gave a presentation on the subject at the Emerging Regions tasting in September 2014, now we know there’s more to Lebanon than the oxidized Musar bottles that turn up at tastings as exotic examples of wines of the 70s.

Lebanon today produces around 7 million bottles of wine per year. This is very little indeed – any commercial producer will put out more than this. For example, to take a neighbouring country, Israel’s Carmel winery (and Israel is also a small producer) alone makes 15 million bottles annually. So we could call Lebanon a boutique, or even garage, wine country.

The majority of Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, mainly from its western parts and to some extent the eastern areas. The Bekaa Valley, Karam told us, is part of the historic triangle where wine originated thousands of years ago. The Phoenicians here may have been the first wine merchants. But the modern history of wine in Lebanon starts with the Jesuits, in the 19th century. Some monks were making their own wine from grapes brought from Algeria – mainly Cinsaut and Carignan. Then Domaine des Tourelles was established in 1868 by a Frenchman, and the French influence continued after the First World War, when Lebanon became French territory. Winemaking then got another push, and Chateau Musar was established in 1930, 50 miles north of Beirut, to supply the French with wine.

Lebanon gained independence in 1943 but the French wine culture was continued. It was only from the 1990s on that international varieties were beginning to be planted, and more and more new wineries established. Today there are 42 producers in the country, including such new names as Chateau Florentine, Chateau Ka, and Chateau Ksara. According to Karam, it is the Mediterranean red varieties, such as Cinsaut, Carignan, Mourvedre and Grenache, that best express Lebanese terroir and identity.

What future for the wines of Lebanon? With such a small number of producers and bottles, the aim clearly won’t be to conquer the international market, but Lebanese wines can be an exotic, interesting addition to the palette. The whites I have tasted were a bit too obviously oaky and the reds sometimes very tannic but the wines have a lot of spice, which I like. Some are now readily available in the UK (Ixsir, Ksara, Tourelles, and of course Musar) at a reasonable (though not inexpensive) price if you fancy serving local wines with your Lebanese-inspired dishes.

 

 

Some kosher recommendations

With the High Holy Days round the corner, some of you may be wondering what to stock up with for your festive meals. Below are some Israeli wines I’ve tasted over the past year and recommend heartily. All are kosher and none are mevushal.

 

WHITES

tavor sauv bTabor Adama Sauvignon Blanc 2013

With a wine like Sauvignon Blanc, which is appreciated for its freshness and youthful zing, always buy as recent a vintage as possible. With certain exceptions, mainly oak-aged examples (which should be marked as such, unless they’re French), this wine is not meant for ageing.

Tabor has really hit the nail on the head with this wine. It’s everything a Sauvignon Blanc should be – at least in Agi’s books: starting with an interesting and very fresh nose with a combination of citrus and tropical fruit and some grassiness. On the palate it’s medium-bodied and acidic, and has that prickly nettle component that I love so much and that’s a hallmark of Sauv Blanc. Some minerality on the finish. Very enjoyable and refreshing – certainly the best Israeli Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted.

Tabor winery is in Israel’s Galilee region, at the foot of Mount Tabor. They have also recently started making a lovely Roussanne (I think the first vintage was in 2012). It will be interesting to those of you who are looking for a grape variety that is a bit more unusual and less known to experiment with.

www.twc.co.il

Flam Blanc 2012

A blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, this wine attracts with a buttery, sweet honey nose and peach fruitiness. Lees ageing adds to its complexity, but it hasn’t seen any oak. The palate is restrained, very mineral and shows good acidity. Toastiness from the lees, and a slight prickle – perhaps a tiny bit of CO2 left in there? Peach, apple and citrus fruit. A more complex but still refreshing and crisp white.

www.flamwinery.com

 

ROSÉ

castel rose 2013

 

Castel Rosé 2013

I think I can say this without sounding too biased: everything Castel’s winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken touches turns to gold. The meticulous attention to detail that all Castel wines reflect is a blessing for us wine-lovers, and an example all Israeli winemakers ought to follow. The rosé is a relative newcomer at Castel, the first commercially produced vintage having been 2011. Over the years it’s been moving closer and closer to perfection. The 2013 vintage is even leaner, more delicate and more restrained than the previous year’s. The strawberry and peach fruitiness is still there but becoming more subdued, which results in a sleek, elegant wine with delightfully refreshing acidity.

www.castel.co.il

 

 

REDS

Tulip Syrah Reserve 2011

What makes Tulip winery special is not just their wines but their strong underlying ethical policy: they employ several people with mental disabilities from the local residential community in Kfar Tikvah, near Haifa. But regardless of ethics, Tulip’s Syrah Reserve is a serious and classy wine that I greatly enjoyed. A savoury nose of meaty, mushroomy aromas is followed by a smooth, balanced palate. The savouriness remains, but is complemented by intense spiciness. Long, spicy finish. Very nice, rich wine.

www.tulip-winery.co.il

yatir forest

Yatir Forest 2010

The wine’s name carries a double meaning: on the one hand it’s a reference to Yatir Forest in Israel’s Negev area; on the other it’s very appropriate thanks to the wine’s intense forest fruit character. Lots of fresh berries and blackcurrants will you find on nose and palate, together with coffee and pepper spice from oak-ageing. The tannins are still a bit grainy, but my guess is this one will age beautifully. Yummy.

www.yatir.net

 

 

Southern delights

May and June saw me mad busy studying for my final WSET exam. To take time off, I popped in to a couple of tastings of South African wines. It was time well spent. We tend to associate South Africa with inexpensive supermarket gluggers but how far that is from the full truth!

First of all, there’s a lot of winemaking history here. Did you know about Constantia, for instance? One of the most prestigious dessert wines ever, with a spectacular history going back to the 17th century. Hardly known today but it’s on its way back. More about Constantia later.

The two flagship wines of South Africa are Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. As most New World countries, South Africa also mainly produces varietal wines but this is of course a blanket statement and may not at all be true for certain producers or regions. Winemaking tendencies are changing, which means more restrained use of oak and allowing more room for vineyard expression, for example. But let’s look at the specifics.

CHENIN BLANC

One of the amazing things I learnt about Chenin Blanc is how multi-faceted this grape can be. Anything from light, fruity, easy-drinking refreshment to heavily oaked, aged, complex and rich. The styles are so varied no generalization can be made really. And even the most brilliant cost peanuts compared to Burgundy, although some of them easily compete with a rich and mature Chardonnay.

Rudera de Tradisie CB 2010

A fruit-driven example with sweet-and-sour freshness. Caramellized fruit, oak restrained, well-integrated alcohol. Great acidity and lots of flintiness, which I like. The wine rolls along your tongue as you enjoy a burst of apricot flavours. £16

Jean Daneel Signature CB 2003

One of my favourites at this tasting. First time round I found it way too oaky but as it aired it opened into something much more and the oak withdrew into the background. The wine shows much lees influence but this is well balanced by intense honeyed fruit and flinty minerality, plus fantastic acidity. This vintage is not available any longer so you’ll have to buy the 2011/2012 and wait a few years. £19-20

Beaumont Hope Marguerite CB 2012

A delightful, youthful, fresh wine, and the first in the tasting that I could easily identify as Chenin. Citrusy, green apple aromas on the nose, some oak and some sweet candy touch. The palate has more honeyed, apricot flavours and lovely acidity, paired with a lean body and medium alcohol – only 12.6%, very unusual for these warm-climate wines. £16-18

PINOTAGE

Pinotage is a modern grape. It was created in the 1920s in Stellenbosch by crossing the Pinot Noir and Cinsaut varieties. I guess the idea was to produce a hardy grape that would perform well (meaning high crops) in the warm South African vineyards. As we found out from Greg Sherwood MW, who introduced the wines to us, bush vines are not uncommon among the better producers, and some of them very old as well (meaning the vines, not the producers). Bush training is typically used in hot, dry areas where the grapes need protection from the heat of the sun. It’s a low-vigour training system, i.e. not very economical compared to other, higher-vigour systems, but with a high-yielding grape variety this may actually be good news for quality.

But to come back to the grape. Pinotage has a rather unseemly reputation for a pungent paint / solvent smell, but properly vinified examples do not display the unattractive aroma and can be rich, intense, interesting – and ageworthy. The wines listed below come from some of the top producers of Pinotage.

Kanonkop Pinotage 1999

A fruity and youthful wine, especially considering its age. The grapes came from bush-trained, 55-year-old vines. The fruit is a touch too jammy for my taste but some interesting leathery, smokey notes counterbalance the stewiness.

Simonsig Pinotage 2003

A wine of 14.8% ABV but well made enough for the alcohol not to show. Restrained with a smooth, soft palate. Coffee, smoke and red fruit dominate. Likeable.

Sumaridge Epitome 2009

A roughly 50-50 blend of Shiraz and Pinotage. A chewy, tannic wine with a savoury character. Coffee, mint, toast, and black cherrries. Loved this one.

Aaaaand the bonus: a 1966 Lanzerac Pinotage!

Light garnet, with quite a bit of sediment – understandably. It’s been sitting in that bottle for 48 years! Oxidized, medicinal nose, smokey. Lean body and acidity that is still great. Not much fruit to find here, but you get a strong herbal character and savoury mushroom notes instead. It surprises with an incredibly powerful, smoky (smoked ham, to be precise) finish.

Lanzerac 1966

Sake!

Well, actually, in Japan they don’t call it that. In Japanese sake is quite a generic term, meaning something like ‘booze’. This I found out after sparing no time or effort trying to explain to the non-English-speaking Japanese waitress that I wanted to have some sake. She just pointed at the drinks menu, throwing me a perplexed smile, implying, ‘Look, silly, these are all sakes.’ So, before we even begin, I must teach you the Japanese word for sake: NIHONSHU.

DSCF2509

Very long cordons on high-trained trunks – what an unusual sight!

While in Japan, I tasted a number of different alcoholic beverages, including shochu, a spirit that can be made from grains or fruits, and wine made from the Koshu grape when we visited the Kurambon winery near Mount Fuji. That was also quite interesting, especially to see how they train their vines (I think in an attempt to protect them from humidity and fungus infections). But the wines are made in essentially the same way.

Sake, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. It’s more like making beer (from the limited knowledge of beer-making that I have).

I and my family paid a visit to the Shin-Se brewery outside Kyoto. They weren’t quite used to welcoming tourists, apparently, but the fact that we had come all the way from Europe, and that I wanted to write up the story, seemed to help.

The brewery was a surprisingly old-fashioned plant, and most of its equipment couldn’t be described as high-tech by any stretch of the imagination. This is actually a general observation I have made about Japan. We associate it with the latest cutting-edge technology, which may be true in some sense, but in people’s lives this is not reflected at all. The cars they drive, the trains and buses, the buildings typically give the impression of worn-out objects from a different era.

ShinSe outside

Shin-Se from the outside.

Let’s start at the beginning. What we call sake is made from rice, and rice alone. But sake is a complicated matter, because how you clean the rice will produce several different types. So producers polish their grains to different levels of purity, to get closer to the starchy middle (for more expensive sake) or to include the rest as well (for cheaper products). The result is plain GINJO for less pure sake and DAIGINJO for a drink of purer starch content.

In Shine-Se ten different kinds of sake rice are used. These are fermented separately and produce separate brands or styles. In a high-quality sake, I was told, you won’t have more than two kinds of rice blended (but in commercial drinks anything goes).

sake

The technology may not be the latest, but hygiene is still very important

After washing and polishing, the rice is steamed for about 40 minutes. The water quality is considered very important, just like with beer, and producers tend to have their own source of water. The damp rice is then laid out thinly, in a single layer, on large flat trays and dried so that only the middle remains damp. The rice then undergoes a careful selection process and is then moved to a large flat basin, where it is allowed to pre-ferment for three days. This pre-fermentation serves to hydrolise the starches in the grain – that is, to convert the starches into sugar, which can then be fermented in the next stage. Our brewery uses cultivated yeasts to start the ferment, and temperatures can reach 33-37 C in the process. Temperature control is carried out manually as it is a very nuanced operation, our guide explained. The rice is under constant 24-hour surveillance at this stage to make sure temperatures don’t rise above 45-47 degrees.

When this hydrolisation process is over, the real ferment begins in large stainless steel tanks. 4 parts steamed rice are normally mixed with 1 part malted rice and water is added to create the mash. The tank is called SHUBO, meaning ‘mother of the sake’. The ferment, in various tanks, takes up to a month or so, at low temperatures.

When the fermentation is over, the brew is filtered – or not, in which case we get NIGORI, unfiltered sake white as milk. The sake is then left to rest in tanks (or less commonly in wooden casks) for several months. But some sakes, I was told, are allowed to mature for up to 30 years. Standard sake has an alcoholic strength of 15-16% but some reach 21-22%.sakes

Just like with most spirits and beers, what matters with sake is not the ‘vintage’ but a consistent house style. This is achieved through choice of grain and careful management of the fermentation process.

At Shin-Se we tasted a variety of sakes from cheaper and simpler to more complex and refined. Some were fruitier, others had pungent vegetable flavours and aromas. My favourite was a JUNMAI DAIGINJO, which means that it’s an all-rice sake, that is, no alcohol was added separately, and the rice was polished down to 50% (as opposed to 70% in a less pure plain sake, or 60% in a Ginjo).

One of the difficulties is, though, that all the labels only had Japanese script so it’s very hard to identify in hindsight what the full range was!

tasting away

the flight of sakes we tasted, going from right to left. Don’t ask me what the labels say!

 

The beginnings of Israeli wine

Oh Palwin… a legend, at least in Anglo-Jewry.

http://www.jpost.com/Arts-and-Culture/Food-And-Wine/Wine-Talk-History-in-a-bottle-350160