Bored with Bordeaux? Try St Chinian

I like Tim Atkin’s attitude. When he said that wine lovers should turn to the seriously underrated wines of St Chinian and forget about the botoxed Bordeaux beauties (well those weren’t the words he used but that was his general message), I’m sure he meant it. I like the fact that the superstars of the wine trade actually appreciate low-budget art movies more than Hollywood blockbusters. To me one of the most important things about a wine is character. A wine ought to have a personality, a story to tell. The wines of St Chinian are like that.

St Chinian is a wine region / appellation in the Languedoc, in southern France. It produces some white wines but mainly reds. What makes it interesting is its diversity of styles, mainly thanks to soil differences. The geographical area of the appellation is cut into half more or less horizontally by the River Vernazobres. The land south of the river has calcareous (limestone) soil, and the areas north of it have mainly schist. In the tasting masterclass I attended, we started with some lime soil wines and then moved to schist ones to bring home the differences. Why does soil matter? Because different soils behave in different ways and therefore the growing environment they provide for the grapes will also be different. So limestone, for instance, retains water more than schist does. This means limestone soils will be damper and cooler than schist soils. Schist wines, coming from a warmer soil, will tend to have higher alcohol, more flesh and density. Can you close your eyes and tell what soil the wine came from? Probably not, but as we tasted a flight of wines, some character differences did become apparent.

Let’s now look at some funky facts about St Chinian wines. Something I was particularly happy to learn is that this wine region has a surprisingly high number of woman winemakers. Secondly, they are by law required to produce blends. Blends are good because different grape varieties have different strengths and weaknesses and may perform better or worse in different years, so for a winemaker it’s great to be able to play around and combine and create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I also like the fact that the main grape variety used in the St Chinian blends is Syrah (because I have a soft spot for Syrah), and that a lot of the wines are organic. But what I like most are the wines themselves, as they have a lovely, unique flavour profile that really speaks to me. With all their differences, they share a strong herbal, perfumed character, which apparently echoes the herbs and plants growing all around beautiful Languedoc.

The wines come from a warm terroir that sees little rain, and this is reflected in their ripe, even confit-like, fruitiness. Many have a creamy, soft, gentle texture (which often comes from carbonic maceration) and an underlying sweetness from the ripe fruit. But all this is combined with an exciting, fragrant nose and spicy, herbal flavours. Some wines don’t taste that fruity at all but have a predominantly leathery, meaty character. With the wines of Chateau Pech-Ménel (run by two sisters!) I felt, for instance, that they didn’t have a strong fruitiness to them – partly because I tasted older vintages – but just as well because who wants fruit when you can have spice! The older the vintage, the more I had an urge to keep quite literally biting into the wine, it had such savoury, aromatic richness. Other producers that impressed included Chateau Ladournie and Chateau Milhau-Lacugue.

The wines of St Chinian, we all agree, are much underrated, but there’s one good side to this sad fact: they are not pricy. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one over £20, and most cost around £10 a bottle. That’s a lot of spicy value for your money!

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Alsace – c’est moi

I’ve never been to Alsace, but when I next go wine-travelling, I promise you it will be at the top of my list. Why? Because its wines are so reliably consistent, or consistently reliable, or, simply delightful. And there’s this interesting duality in the wines which I can relate to: typically they are bone dry with a fierce acidity, but at the same time they display a charming, ripe and sweet fruity loveliness. Sweet and tart, hard and soft – in their bipolar character I can see my own personality reflected, kind of.

In recent years I have become much more interested in white wines. It’s not to say that reds don’t interest me, but there’s something lyrical, gentle, pretty and delicate about whites. It’s a bit like comparing the moon to the sun. I’m a moon person.

And as for Alsace, there are nice and pleasant wines at the cheaper end of the scale. These carry the ordinary ‘Alsace’ designation. They are clean, very refreshing and well made, but won’t leave a lasting impression. But then there are the grand crus, and many of these are just superb, especially at 4 years of age and older. What wines am I talking about? Like many other old European wine regions, Alsace has strict regulations as to what grape varieties may be grown there. It is also one of those old-world regions which have the less common custom of producing single varietal wines. This means no blends, and, unlike in Bordeaux or the Rhone Valley, for instance, you are more likely to find the name of the varietal on the label than names of estates or vineyards. Even though today the proportion of white grapes to reds is about 90 to 10 per cent in Alsace, historically this was not so: in the past it used to be around 50-50. The good news for red wines lovers is that Pinot Noir is making a comeback, and current legislation has made it possible to grow Pinot Noir grapes on grand cru sites.

The main white grapes of Alsace are Riesling and Pinot Gris. They are also called noble varieties. Two other noble varieties are Gewurztraminer and Muscat, and there are a further two or three that are permitted. At the particular tasting I attended the other week, we only had Riesling and Pinot Gris. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get very excited about the latter. I found those wines too fatty and bland, without much character. Riesling on the other hand… Riesling can also be pretty neutral but never bland. Even if there isn’t much going on in terms of flavours or aromas, there will always be plenty of acidity, freshness, liveliness to admire. And the reason I have suggested skipping plain Alsace wines and moving straight to the grand crus (the top classification) is that once you’ve tasted a grand cru, in hindsight anything else seems a bit of a waste of time.

At this recent CIVA (Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d’Alsace) tasting I also had the good fortune to attend a Riesling masterclass with Eric Zwiebel MS, from whom I learnt, among other things, that grand cru Rieslings from low-yielding vineyards are wines to be laid down; they age well and are worth investing in. Alsace Rieslings vary greatly because their terroirs do. There are a large number of soil types, and they will produce wines of differing character, but at wine school we’ve of course learnt that the soil cannot be tasted in the wine so I’m still in two minds about this subject and would rather not speculate.

As for the vintages: the wines that struck me as particularly interesting and exciting were those from 2011 and 2010. Although the two vintages have a very different character (2011 was a late, warm vintage resulting in higher-alcohol, sweeter wines, whereas 2010 was cooler and its wines will apparently easily keep for thirty years or more), they have both produced some spectacular wines, I think. I found that the 2011 wines tended to come with beautiful, delicious, ripe fruit character and an oily texture. They were rich, complex, intense, with an invigorating mixture of firm acidity and mellow sweet fruitiness. The 2010s seemed to have a more serious, more savoury and less fruity profile. Less charm but lots of content, and future potential.

To name but a few:

Domaine Paul Blanck Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling 2011

Not overly exuberant but still lots of ripe fruitiness and that combination of sweet and tart that Alsace does best.

Wunsch et Mann Alsace Grand Cru Hengst Riesling 2010

In this wine the more conventional honey and apricot notes combine with some quite original flavours. It has good depth, and a mineral, rubbery character.

Domaine Rieflé, Alsace Grand Cru Steinert, Riesling 2011

This wine has quite a bit of alcohol but it is complemented by zesty, upright acidity. The palate offers lots from citrus fruit to caramel, and great pebbly minerality.

Jean-Baptiste Adam, Alsace Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg, Riesling 2011

A sharper wine with an individual nose, and rubbery, savoury rather than fruity character on the palate.

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

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.

 

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