Red – White – Red: Wines of Austria

Even to look around properly was going to take me two days, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board tasting last month was so huge. It wasn’t the best choice for a venue – the size of the rooms unfortunately did not match the number of visitors and there were some very crowded moments. But apart from that, a splendid event and a fantastic showcase of what’s going on in Austrian wine-making. There were over eighty producers, presenting hundreds and hundreds of wines.

Austria is known mainly for its white wine, although it also produces a significant amount of reds. The wine regions lie in the east of the country, along the Austrian-Hungarian border going north–south. There are four main regions: Niederosterreich (Lower Austria), Vienna, Burgenland, and Steiermark (Styria). Within these there are a number of appellations, marked DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, in Latin – but why?). Instead of discussing climate and soil in great detail, I’ll just briefly say that Austria has favourable conditions for growing wine grapes and there are many interesting varieties as well as achievements of the highest standard.

Two examples that quickly spring to mind are Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. Riesling shows fantastically under the responsible care of Austrian wine-makers, and its specimen at the tasting came from all over the country, from Vienna to Kamptal to Sudsteiermark in the south, bordering Italy. They were all well made and offer a very reliable alternative to German Rieslings.

Gruner Veltliner is an Austrian speciality and I enjoyed finding out more about it. It is a medium-bodied, acidic wine with a vertical, nervy structure. Its flavours vary from citrus to pears and apricots to honeyed notes, but it tends to have a unique underlying grassiness or prickliness that I find particularly attractive. The older wines may show some vegetable, herbal character, but typically this is not a wine to be aged. It should be appreciated for its youthful, fruitful zestiness.

The precision-winemaking which seems to characterize Austrian producers really suits these varieties, where, to my mind, transparency and clear definition in aromas and flavours, body and acidity, are essential. So the resulting wines, though differing in style, all rang clear, like a well-articulated sentence. But everything else I tasted, whites and reds, were good, honest wines, made for drinking and not for showing off. Commendable!

To find out more about the wines of Austria, visit

Griselda the Kirschmaker

the Keiser property

the Keiser property

It was a bit like walking into a picture book. I was staying with a friend in Zug, a small town just outside Zurich. Knowing how crazy I am about fruit brandies, he treated me to a visit to a family-owned distillery. As we walked up the hill path, the clouds had just begun to lift over the hills surrounding the lake of Zug. Covered in dark wooden planks, the house was your stereotypical Swiss alpine home, and how pretty, how rustic! Especially when you know that something really extraordinary is produced behind those walls…


a wide range of eaux de vie

We were greeted by a buoyant and very friendly lady with ginger hair. Her name is Griselda Keiser, she told us, and, continuing a family tradition, she produces a range of fruit brandies in her home distillery, on equipment inherited from her ancestors. The most famous brandy around Zug is, of course, Kirschwasser, an eau de vie made of cherries. But you shouldn’t think of normal eating cherries, she tells me. These are smaller, and specially developed for Kirsch-making. But the range of her fruit brandies was much greater: distillates of plums (Pflümli), Mirabelle (a small yellow plum producing the most delicious eau de vie), pear William, quince, and even Kräuter, a traditional liqueur which contains a secret blend of dozens of different herbs. Upon tasting it, the most obvious ingredient was aniseed.


vintage Kirsch from Zug

Griselda showed us around the property with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately she doesn’t speak much English and my German is not great, either, but I did get the gist of what she was saying. Alas, when she offered us a taste of her different eaux de vie, I didn’t understand what she was saying, and so only ended up tasting the herb liqueur. What a shame. But I had at least become closely acquainted with her 2009 Kirsch, since I have a bottle at home, and it’s the smoothest, gentlest, most delightful drink with a very intense and pure cherry aroma. And yes, Griselda produces vintage distillates. She claims there are perceptible differences between the harvest of each year – and she particularly warmly recommended the 2009.


the fruit is fermented in wooden casks


Griselda shows us her traditional pot still

Showing us around the distillery, she explained that the still she uses is over 100 years old and is fuelled with wood. The fruit is hand picked and carefully selected so that only the best goes into the ferment, as blemished fruit will give off-flavours. It is then fermented in wooden casks in her cellar over several months (imagine the smell!), and then in January, when her other business, the sale of flowers, goes quiet, she gets down to the distillation work. Not only the fruit but also the stones go into the pot. These give the spirit an added twist of bitter almonds. Griselda distils twice to ensure purity of the alcohol. It’s a difficult balancing act, distillation. If you distil to a lesser purity, you’re left with richer flavours and texture (this is how traditional fruit distillates, including brandies, are produced). But in some products, for example vodka or gin, you want to achieve the purest alcohol possible, with an almost ethereal texture. It is the distiller’s decision where on this scale of purity and flavour richness they want their product to stand. What can I tell you – the end product at the Keiser distillery is very convincing!

The spirit is then moved to large demijohns (glass carboys), where it matures before being bottled. And if you want to order a gift for someone, Griselda will choose a bottle of your preference and even produce a beautiful, personalized, hand-written label.DSCF2418

If you’re ever in Switzerland, do visit the Keiser distillery. The place is charming, the surroundings stunningly beautiful, the welcome friendly and warm, and the Kirsch amazing!

Sonoma to go 100% sustainable by 2019

Impressive news, although its ambitiousness is probably more what strikes me than an understanding of what is actually meant by being 100% sustainable. In any case, here is the press release issued by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, and it does throw some light on how this sustainability will be implemented in practical terms.

Click here to read the full press release.

The main points are listed below (and I’m quoting from the press release):

  • Sonoma County is committed to becoming the first 100% sustainable wine region in the United States through a three-phased program to be completed within the next five years.
  • The first phase of this effort will focus on helping winegrowers assess their sustainable vineyard practices through trainings and educational sessions focused on over 200 best management practices such as land use, canopy management, energy efficiency, water quality assessments, carbon emissions; healthcare and training for employees and being a good neighbour and community member. Although many vineyards and wineries are already implementing sustainable practices, the goal is to assess and collect the assessment data of 15,000 vineyard acres per year for the next four years until every acre of planted vines are under assessment for sustainability.
  • Phase two will involve the Sonoma County Winegrowers working with vineyard owners to achieve certification. To ensure against “greenwashing”, third-party verification and certification programs will be used, focused on environmental, social and economic viability and continuous improvement.
  • Another critically important factor to this initiative is transparency, which will be accomplished through regular progress updates, an annual Sonoma County Wine Region Sustainability Report Card and a vineyard and winery real-time tracker on the SCW website.

Sonoma County has some of the world’s most prized grape-growing areas in the world with the first vineyards dating back to the 1820s. The region’s unique combination of rich geological history, fog patterns generated by its 70-mile Pacific Ocean coastline, and topography has given rise to 16 unique American Viticultural Areas (AVA) that house about 500 wineries. Each AVA offers distinct climate, soils and temperature areas perfect for growing world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and more.


Koshu – made in Japan

A single grape variety, from a country that I never thought had its own grapes. Koshu is the name of a white grape, but also of a town in Japan around which it is grown and the wine produced. Koshu is a small town not far from Tokyo, in the Yamanashi prefecture. On the map below, the area is marked orange. Its main claim to fame is its wine production, from this one grape – a single wine but many nuances. japan-map

Koshu is probably not the most exciting or unusual grape variety you’ve ever encountered, but it seems to be surprisingly versatile and it does a great job at producing reliable, enjoyable, fresh white wines, some of it sparkling. At this tasting held in February 2014 in London, eleven producers showed around thirty wines. Some were lees-aged and richer, spicier, more complex, while others had a neutral, subdued style, and again others a lot of youthful fruitiness with candy sweetness. In general, most wines were young with relatively low alcohol levels (could be a great plus in the growing fashion of low-alcohol wines), and without a lot of perceptible acidity, although according to the descriptions tartaric acidity levels are in the range of 6g/l (which is fairly high).

Koshu is a bit of a mystery grape. In Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Voulliamoz write that while the Japanese claim the variety as their koshu grapesown, this is hard to justify as it comes from a species that is not indigenous to the island. It seems likely that it was either introduced from Eurasia or crossbred from indigenous Japanese varietals. The bottom line is that, so far, scientists have been unable to relate Koshu genetically to any other known grape variety, so its exact origin remains unknown.

So how did the Japanese start making wine? The Koshu of Japan website tells us that “winemaking in Japan was started in 1874 by individuals living in Yamanashi Prefecture’s Kofu City. The first winery where full-scale wine production began was established in 1879. The Dainippon Wine Co., Ltd., founded in 1877, had sent two young men to France. What they learned there led to the start of wine production in Japan using the local Koshu grape… Following the end of World War II, wine production increased dramatically. There are now 80 wineries in Yamanashi Prefecture.”

The two producers I particularly liked at this tasting were Aruga Branca and Kurambon.

Aruga Branca Brilhante (sparkling, 2008)

Quite fruity nose with yeasty notes. The wine was aged on the lees for 36 months, and underwent 3 further years of maturation after disgorgement. Light-bodied, low in alcohol and with a good backbone and sharp mouthfeel, but a richness of flavour, almost rum-like.

Aruga Branca Pipa (still wine, 2009)

Obvious lees – and oak – influence: aromas of bread, butter, sweet vanilla and coconut. Palate rich in nutty, yeasty flavours, fruit is not pronounced. Acidity very gentle. Quite creamy, almost full-bodied with medium alcohol and intense minerality.

Four Seasons, Kurambon (2013)Kurambon

A very neutral wine, with just a touch of biscuity lees influence. Good acidity, some fruity candy sweet notes. Very restrained but pretty.

Sol Lucet, Kurambon (2013)

Fruity and youthful and slightly savoury. Acidity again very moderate. Medium body and low-ish alcohol. Melon, peach, pear and coconut, with good minerality. Well made.

Sol Lucet, Kurambon (2011)

Lees influence quite prominent on the nose, together with citrus fruit. Savoury palate with slightly more intense acidity. Subdued style but with lots of mineral notes, especially on the finish.

Southern Europe – stay local or go global?

Decanter recently held a themed tasting of Southern European wines – from Greece, Italy and Bulgaria. Most of the wineries represented were Italian, unsurprisingly, since they’re the world’s largest importer of wine. But I was interested in what the Greek and Bulgarian producers had to show – I came away only half satisfied. Firstly, there were only three Bulgarian wineries at the event, as opposed to twelve Italians.  Secondly, they only brought red wines with them, and most of these were neither well made nor interesting in other ways. Well at least I got to know a couple of local varieties.

The Greek wines were a more interesting mix, and there were quite a few on the Italian stands that made the trip worthwhile. Not all the usual Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio, but several barely known indigenous varieties from small appellations, and some even organic.

While quite a few wines are made from international varieties, the Italians, and especially the Greek, seem to be comfortable working with their local ancient grapes, and I believe they have a much better chance of surviving on the international market if they promote what is unique about them – the local grapes, the local traditions – especially when we’re talking about small and barely known appellations, wine regions. I’d much sooner taste a red or white Mavrud from Bulgaria than a Merlot or Syrah produced there, because it will probably resonate better with local soil and climate, and wine-making traditions will have evolved around these indigenous grapes. While a Centesimino from Ravenna is likely to always remain a niche product, it will have preserved something unique and original, a piece in the global wine-making puzzle that is just as worthy of attention as the global superstars.


The region represented was Plovdiv/Trakia. The wines, alas, all red, except one rose but I’d rather skip that altogether. In general I found that the wines were not ready to drink: too many grainy tannins, roughness, and the fruit was either overripe or too green (ageing won’t help that…). The best I tasted were blends, one made of the local variety called Mavrud with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, the other all international varieties. I would have loved to see more well-made indigenous wines, whites too! Hopefully next time?

Semela Premium Reserve 2006

Mavrud 50%, Syrah 25%, Cab Sauv 25%

A smooth and ripe wine with bright ruby colour, black fruit and quite a bit of oak influence (vanilla and spicy flavours). Good acidity, some green leafiness. The finish is not particularly long and all in all the wine is quite simple but it’s well made and pleasant to drink.

Enira Reserva 2008

A really yummy blend of Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Luckily, they even managed to keep the alcohol level down, at a rather unusual (in today’s world) 13%. The wine is ready and together, the tannins are smooth and the ripe fruit is complemented by lots of spice: coffee, vanilla and cloves.


Of course, again, what interested me most were indigenous varieties, and I had a feast! I tasted the aromatic and grapey Moschofilero, a white varietal; the well-known Greek red Aghiorghitiko, another white called Vilana, and even some varietals unique to Crete and the Aegean Islands: Kotsifal, Vidiano, Athiri… but the loveliest of them all was a Malagouzia.

AXIA Malagouzia 2013

This wine was made in the region of Amynteo, in the middle of continental Greece, from the white Malagouzia grapes, grown on a sandy/limestone plateau. The nose has the vegetal, green, almost pungent character of a Sauvignon Blanc, with that unique prickly gooseberry aroma. And the palate it is smooth with nicely integrated acidity and fairly subdued flavours – until you come to the finish! Suddenly there is a totally unexpected burst of the most beautiful floral notes. A memorable and delightful wine, to be drunk young, while its floral charm lasts.

Assyrtiko 2013

A white wine from Crete, from the grape variety of the same name. Its beauty lies not in intensity but in its elegance. A pleasant, savoury white with high acidity, unintrusive, youthful fruit flavours, a touch of lees influence and some savouriness. The wine comes from the island of Crete.


The Italian wines all came from the northern-ish region of Emilia-Romagna. I was astonished by the number of local grape varieties I had never heard of (e.g. Pignoletto, Albana, Centesimino). But some of the well-known grapes also produced unusual and lovely wines. For example, a Pinot Grigio from near Piacenza…

Campo Bianco Pinot Grigio, DOC Colli Piacentini 2013 – organic

A fairly intense, youthful, cheerful nose. Pretty aromas of fresh fruit and honey. What makes the otherwise pleasant and fruity palate really interesting is a touch of smokiness, but the dominant flavour is still honey. A very enjoyable, mineral and fruity wine – and the person saying this is not generally a fan of Pinot Grigio!

Fondatori, Albana Secco, DOCG Romagna 2012

A characterful white produced by the Merlotta winery. After a pretty, floral, fruity, honeyed nose, the palate surprises with intense oat/grain flavours – from lees ageing – and smokiness, combined with peach and pear fruit. Full-ish body and high acidity with well-integrated alcohol. Lovely!

Arcolaio Centesimino, IGT Ravenna Rosso, 2009

A very well-made red wine from unique variety with the most charming name. Centesimino, the winemakers tell me, is a weird and ancient variety unique to the Ravenna area. It produces extremely floral, aromatic wines, which is quite unusual for a red. The Centesiminos I taste have a distinctly muscat-like aroma. This one by the Leone Conti winery also presents warm, rich, smooth, juicy flavours, red fruit, and a touch of muscat on the palate as well. A medium-bodied wine with very warm alcohol. Interesting, unusual.

Marsala, Catarratto, Passito . . . wines of Sicily

Jane Hunt and Tina Coady have pulled off yet another well-organized and enjoyable tasting for the wine trade. The theme: Sicily; the exhibitors, in most cases, the winemakers themselves. Everything about the event was professionally done, and the number of wineries represented was more than impressive.

For an island less than a tenth in size of Italy, Sicily has a surprising 17 wine regions, and a large number of local, indigenous (or at least so regarded) grape varieties, learning about which was to me the highlight of this tasting event.

Even though Sicily is mainly known for its red grape (and wine) called Nero d’Avola, red wines actually only make up about one-third of its production. Whites dominate, and, again, most of them local varieties with assertive masculine names such as Catarratto, Grillo or Carricante. Catarratto is in fact the most widely planted variety on the island, beating the internationally much better-known Nero d’Avola by more than 10 per cent. Catarratto comes in two shades: comune, the more common and less interesting kind, which tends to overcrop and produce fairly average wines, and lucido, which shows better concentration and more individuality in the hands of a good winemaker. But it does not only produce light white wines: because it oxidises fairly easily, it is also used in Sicily’s speciality fortified wine, Marsala.

BottleMARSSeccoMarsala is produced in the eponymous western wine region of Sicily, in and around the town of the same name, and its history goes back to the late eighteenth century. As with many other fortified wines, its creation had to do with long sea voyages. An English trader tasted the wines of Marsala, fell in love with them and decided to ship some back home. To make sure the wine didn’t go off on the long journey, he stabilized it by adding some spirit. Marsala then had a hugely successful career, especially in the British Navy, where, story has it, it even replaced rum on board ships and became Nelson’s ‘victory wine’.

The classification of Marsala seems at first a rather complex matter. It is, to begin with, classified according to colour. It can be Gold, Amber or Ruby. Then there’s the age factor. The youngest Marsalas are called Fine, then comes Superiore, and the oldest ones are called Riserva. Finally, there’s the sweetness level. Marsala can be dry, off-dry or sweet. The grapes used are mostly white (e.g. Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia), but red Marsala – from Nero d’Avola – is also produced.

I tasted two white Marsalas at the event, both produced by Vito Curatolo Arini: a Superiore and a Riserva, both dry. They were lovely examples of a well-made fortified wine with smooth texture and great flavour intensity: nuttiness, dried fruits, a medicinal character, and an extremely long finish.

passito Abraxas


Another special delicacy produced on the island is Passito, a dessert wine made from late-harvested grapes. The one example I tasted here was produced by Abraxas, and it was 100% Muscat of Alexandria grapes, locally known as Zibibbo. A beautiful, intensely flavoured wine with great flavour concentration of apricots and honey. No such acidity as one would expect from a Tokaji aszu, for example, but it’s produced much further south and the grape variety is also inferior to the Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains used in the making of the Hungarian cousin. That said, the result is a delightful and rich wine – but with much higher alcohol. An average Tokaj aszu will be in the range of 11-12% and here we had a warming 14.5%. The owner warned me that his Passito was the real McCoy, not to be confused with the ‘cheap rubbish’ widely available at airports and touristy places, which is really a liquoroso (inexpensive sweet wines with added alcohol) and has nothing to do with Passito – but unfortunately at this point there is no legislation protecting the name and the product.

Green wines

Why would someone visit Oxford’s Trinity College if not for a wine-tasting? The event was organized by specialist importers Clark Foyster and featured about forty wines, mainly  by small producers whose bottles don’t appear on Britain’s supermarket shelves.

I decided to do a themed tasting of ‘green’ white wines, those that always feature at the beginning of tastings and wines that I typically approach with no expectations. Green wines have a young, fruity, aromatic style with lots of zesty acidity. They please a certain audience but the stereotyped, judgmental  east European evil elf always tells me not much excitement is to be had here.

Evil elf was wrong. I was intrigued to discover how, while these wines were obviously variations on a theme, they were very individual and distinct variations. Below are my descriptions of the ones I have found most interesting.

schloss-gobelsburg-gobelsburger-riesling-kamptal-austria-10224971Schloss Gobelsburg, Gobelsburger Riesling    Austria, 2012

Pale lemon with a confectionery, green fruit nose, with a hint of the characteristic rubberiness of Riesling. The palate surprises with its lively acidity, which I believe will give this wine great ageing potential. The flavours are pretty standard, peaches and pears and green apples, and subdued, but there is something about the acidity, the mouthfeel, that makes this wine delightful to drink. Smoky, mineral finish. A very young wine still, but with a long career ahead of it, I believe.

Adega Vinho Verde    Portugal, 2012

Attractive, perfumed nose with intense youthful fruitiness. On the palate it’s lean, with great acidity and some vegetable notes – cooked cabbage and asparagus – accompanying the green fruity flavours.

Alvarinho contactoAnselmo Mendes Alvarinho Contacto    Portugal, 2012

Grapes and pears on the nose, and some vegetal character. The palate has a richness which must come form the skin contact (the grape juice was left on its skins for 12 hours before fermentation), undercut by tangy citrus fruit. Very sharp and lean body, so refreshing!

Arenae Malvasia de Colares Branco    Portugal, 2010

The organizers described this as a ‘classic’ wine that comes from ungrafted vines growing on sand near the sea by the town of Sintra. I’m not sure about classic, but it was certainly interesting. The colour is a deeper shade of lemon. The nose doesn’t give away much: fairly generic fruit, pure, youthful aromas, though with a hint of savoury saltiness. Bone dry palate with the same salty character, almost cheese-like, with the youthful fruit relegated to the background. Some buttery notes – oak-aged? Flinty, mineral finish. Lots of character.

Les Demoiselles, Touraine    France, 2012

Sauvignon Blanc. Pronounced, prickly, grape and elderflower nose. The palate is surprisingly gentle with good but not aggressive acidity, and a good intensity of flavours. A beautiful example of a Sauvignon Blanc. Refreshing, but has a roundness, softness about it.

terravin-sauvignon-blanc-marlborough-new-zealand-2010.656.fullTerraVin Sauvignon Blanc    New Zealand 2011

Very pungent, savoury, vegetable nose – so promising, you want to bite into it! Beautiful and intense on the palate – an excellent Sauvignon Blanc. Tasty vegetable and fruit, gooseberry and asparagus. Lovely.

Confuron Gindre Bourgogne Aligoté     France 2011

Savoury, unintense nose with some pears and grapes. On the palate the fruity confectionery is overwhelmed by salty flavours. Lean and straight and transparent, uncomplicated but well made. Mouth-watering acidity, flinty finish.