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Winemaker profile: Stefanie Weegmüller

The wine women of Weegmüller are part of over 300 years of remarkable winemaking history.

Weingut Weegmüller is considered the oldest winery in Pfalz. This is quite a feat in an area with so much history but their reputation for great winemaking has long and solid foundations dating back centuries. The winery was started in 1685 and has been in the family for an impressive 12 generations. The family’s origins can be found in Zurich, Switzerland but they can date their time in Haardt back to 1657.  Despite all this history they still have a consistently forward looking focus, always striving to maintain and improve the quality of their wines.

Today, the winery remains based in the same baroque buildings that have been on the site since the 1730s. Weegmüller is set apart by being one of very few German wineries run exclusively by women. Today, sisters Gabriele and Stefanie Weegmüller work together to drive the business forward and ensure the continuing production of high quality wines. Their focus on quality and terroir means they carefully consider which grape varieties and wine styles will best show the region as its finest. With Gabriele managing the commercial side, Stefanie is able to focus fully on creating the best possible wines which rightly earn their reputation for excellence.

Stefanie has been Cellar Master for more than 30 years and was notably one of the first female winemakers in Germany at a time when the industry was especially male dominated. Her career began in 1984 when she took over winemaking responsibility from her father and a reputation for technical prowess and a clear passion for precise winemaking was quickly evident. As a result, Stefanie has spent over 25 years making some of the highest quality wines in Pfalz. She demonstrates a thorough understanding of the complex winemaking process but also imbues a lot of heart and soul in to Weegmüller’s wines. This enables the production of classic wines which are delicate and pure, perfectly expressing the terroir and showing generous fruit and length.

 

WOTM: Tahbilk, ‘1927 Vines’, Nagambie Lakes, Marsanne 2012

Recently described in The Buyer as ‘quite exquisite’ by restauranter, Roger Jones, our January Wine of the Month is Tahbilk, ‘1927 Vines’, Nagambie Lakes, Marsanne 2012. Produced from the Estate’s 1927 planted Marsanne vines – some of the oldest in the world – this 100% Marsanne will provide a real talking point with guests in 2020.

In a nutshell

Notes of lemon, grapefruit, toast and classic honeysuckle weave through the rich and textured palate culminating in a zesty, citrussy finish.

The producer

Established in 1860, Tahbilk is an historic family-owned winery,  renowned for their rare aged Marsanne. Tahbilk is known as ‘tabilk tabilk’ in the language of the Daungwurrung clans, which translates as the ‘place of many waterholes’. It perfectly describes this premium viticultural landscape, which is located in the Nagambie Lakes region of Central Victoria. The estate comprises 1,214 hectares, including a seven mile frontage to the Goulburn River. Environmental sustainability is paramount at Tahbilk and in 2013 they became carbon neutral. In 2016, Tahbilk was awarded ‘Winery of the Year’ by James Halliday.

The wine

The hand-picked grapes were handled semi-oxidatively; controlled amounts of oxygen were allowed which helped impart secondary flavours and texture to the wine. Fermentation took place with selected neutral and aromatic yeasts at cool temperatures and lasted for 20 days in stainless steel fermenters to enhance the purity of fruit. Made with naturally high acidity to support serious long-term ageing, it was matured in bottle for seven years.

The Perception of Minerality

I first used the expression salt-and-caramel in a tasting note about four years ago. My memory is a little hazy, but I think I scribbled it during a sampling of Juan Pablo Michelini’s Zorzal wines at Prowein. I was searching for words to describe the amazing tang which cut right through the sweet fruit in the red wines; a kind of refreshing acidity at odds with the opulence around it. I thought the phrase a little childish but that it would mean easy recall when I referred to my notes later.

And then, of course, I found myself writing that phrase again and again. Salt-and-caramel. Slightly irritating habit, this, like wiggling your leg in the waiting room. What was happening? Were my taste buds changing? After thirty years in the trade? Odd.

I recalled that Prowein moment a few weeks ago while reading a Wine Folly blog, I Tasted 3 Rocks, So that you don’t have to! In this light-hearted piece, posted in May 2019, Madeline Puckette described licking pieces of chalk, river stone, and slate. She found the connection between slate and Riesling to be apposite; that “chalk feels like licking a hard sponge that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth,” the flavour reminding her of a Brut Zero Champagne; and that while “river stone is supposed to remind people of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir,” its flavour is pretty gross.

Puckette was seeking to explain minerality, but concluded: “Minerality is neither a single compound nor the vines” ability to “suck the minerals out of the soil,” but is a combination of many different aspects including esters, trace minerals, acidity level and a wines’ alcohol level. So, when wine writers write “minerality” they are trying to put a name on a multi-faceted characteristic that science doesn’t have a definition for.”

It’s a bit old hat, this minerality thing. Been done to death. A bit late to the party. And as Alice Feiring said: “Minerality has become a dirty word par excellence.”

Walking between the raindrops, then.

I know, but it doesn’t go away.

Minerality famously did not appear in Ann Noble’s 1984 Wine Aroma Wheel, nor in the first four editions of The Oxford Companion to Wine (“imprecise tasting term and elusive wine characteristic that, along with the descriptor mineral, became common currency in the early years of this century.”) But here are two definitions relayed by Jamie Goode in his Wine Science:

Stephen Spurrier: “I suppose it is easier to define what it is not – that is, it is not fruit, nor acidity, nor tannins, nor oak, nor richness, nor fleshiness. It is not really a texture, either, for texture is in the middle of the palate and minerality is at the end. I think it is just there, a sort of lifted and lively stoniness that brings a sense of grip and a sense of depth, but it is neither grippy (which is tannin) nor deep (which is fruity.)”

Michael Bettane: “Minerality is a fashionable word never employed in the 1970s and 1980s. The only no-nonsense use is to describe a wine marked by salty and mineral undertones balancing the fruit, more often a white wine rich in calcium and magnesium as many mineral waters are. For a red wine I have no idea.”

Now Goode himself: “I know what I mean when I encounter some characteristic in a wine that makes me think “mineral”, but I can’t be sure that when other people use it they are referring to the same thing. I suspect that it’s sometimes used as a way of praising a deliciously complex wine, in the same way that “long” is often thrown into a tasting note when people really like the wine but have run out of more concrete descriptors.”

Similar sentiments from Sam Harrop: “Minerality is a term I have used for many years with a clear and personal understanding that not all wine professionals might share.”

But what is it that provokes these “allusions to minerality,” to use Doctor Peter Dry’s words? A prickling on the tongue, or a savoury aroma on the nose? And – from a commercial point of view – does describing a wine as mineral confer a kind of supremacy? A more romantic artisanal image?

Beverly Tabbron MW, Jim Wilson and Steve Daniel.

Steve Daniel, Beverly Tabbron MW and I had a chat about this in Hallgarten’s tasting room. Steve, fresh from describing one wine as “saltier than a bag of KP nuts,” said: “There is definitely minerality in wine. It has to be there. It’s not acidity, it’s not body. It’s a skeleton which will change but which will let you know where the wine is going.” Steve strongly believes that there is a relationship between minerality and volcanic soils, such as those on his beloved Santorini.

For Bev, minerality is shorthand for a “form of freshness, a salinity. Sometimes I wonder if it is a mild spice.” Then she paused. “But are we just being lazy?”

It seems an elusive concept. Are we searching for a connection between this taste and – inevitably – the impression of rock from which the vine draws its nutrients?

Two well-recounted experiments:

At the end of the 20th century, a German scientist, Andreas Peuke, planted Riesling in three different pots with different soils (Loess, Muschelkalk and Keuper). After some time he collected the resin from the plants, analysed them and compared them. To his surprise, there was a huge deviation in the nutrient levels in the three plants. A definite connection?

Randall Grahm soaked rocks into tanks filled with wine; he too, concluded that the rocks altered the wine to a great extent, detecting changes in the aromas and mouthfeel, and he felt that the wines had gained a higher degree of complexity and density.

But as we know, the correlation between minerality in rocks and minerality in wine has been largely debunked over the last decade by some really clever people, most famously by Alex Maltman, professor of earth sciences at Aberystwyth University, who opined that the geological minerals in rocks (made from chemical elements) are different from the fourteen nutrient mineral elements required by vines. The rock’s chemical elements do not degrade easily and only slowly release their nutrients for vegetation. Then, some of these nutrients are then removed each year in crops, and the soil is further enriched by compost and fertiliser. The result is that almost all of the nutrients in wine come from this humus of decayed plant and animal matter, rather than the geology.

“There would seem to be no basis for the common assertion that a particular kind of bedrock produces certain wine flavours. The term minerality is a contemporary invention.”

Viticultural guru Dr Richard Smart told the Institute of Masters of Wine that viticulture “is not an issue” in wine minerality: of those fourteen nutrient mineral elements, “three of the most important (N, P, S) are not derived from minerals; they are absorbed directly from soil organic matter (humus). Even those which are commonly found in minerals (K, Ca, Mg, and Na) are not directly extracted, they are firstly cycled through organic matter.” He cited minerality as an “invented term as a wine descriptor.”

And in any case, rocks have no flavour at all. Apparently, the “flavour” of stones is caused by an invisible substance called petrichor, which, according to Wikipedia, is “constructed from Greek petra (πέτρα), meaning “stone”, and īchōr (ἰχώρ), the fluid that flows in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology.”

Whoa!

Petrichor

Derived from organic matter like oils from plants, petrichor floats through the air and comes to rest as a thin film over everything on the ground, including rocks. This coating then releases its flavours (vapours) only when a rain hits the ground; hence the smell of rain.

So, sadly, it looks as though the romantic in me is going to have to take a back seat; it seems I am not sucking from the rock’s core when I savour my Zorzal Malbec.

But if the perception of minerality doesn’t come from rocks, where does it come from?

Fermentation, probably. To rehash well documented findings, it may come from sulphides produced by yeasts as they work their magic in converting sugar into alcohol. If the yeasts are having a hard time finding enough nitrogen in the must, they may produce volatile sulphur compounds such as hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans (thiols), often called reduction and which can usually be the cause of rotten egg smell. But sometimes these compounds, such as ethyl mercaptans, can also give off flinty or struck-match aromas that can be quite mineral in character and seem to add complexity to a wine. It’s a thin line. Modern reductive winemaking techniques, like the use of closed top stainless steel fermentation tanks which limit the wine’s exposure to oxygen, can also encourage the release of these subtle sulphur compounds.

And then, of course, there is the other common form of sulphur: sulphur dioxide can affect taste perceptions of minerality. Their presence may ‘tweak’ the flavour profiles of wine in a more salty or bitter direction, creating a mineral effect.

Sam Harrop: “Complexed sulphides are one of the main aromatic indicators of minerality. Reductive handling at wine phase is vital to protecting mineral perception – both aromatically and texturally. Wines with mineral perception have a low pH, complex acid profile, complex sulphide aromas and necessary aromatic and textural balance to provide the x factor”

I suppose that one crumb of comfort for those looking to equate minerality with terroir may lie in the fact that if one of the reasons for the dodgy performance of the yeasts is because some vineyard sites are deficient in nutrients – so causing the yeasts to stress and produce these volatile sulphur compounds – at least it is the effect of the vineyard.

Explanation over, then.

And yet…

Whatever the reasons, it still seems odd to me that the use of minerality is so ubiquitous when it apparently didn’t even exist before about 1984.

Each week in our tasting room in beautiful downtown Luton, Bev, Steve and I attempt to delineate every new wine into just three words. We stock about 950 wines, and when we trawled through our database we found that we had used the word minerality in 49 of them – around 5%. These include seven red wines, one rose and 41 whites, all of which had been tasted in the last six months. Intrigued, we looked at this list, but couldn’t find a common theme. The surprise was the absence of Greek wines, which, given our focus on Greece and the character of its wines, gave us pause for thought – and gave Steve the hump. “I can’t believe we didn’t describe Gaia’s Thalassitis Assyrtiko as mineral.”

Gaia Wines, Santorini

So earlier this week we gave ourselves a couple of hours and went through a selection of a randomly chosen dozen of these wines. The results were surprising.

Whites

Australia – clos Clare Riesling, Watervale, Clare Valley, 2016

Jim: “This has an amazing nose.”

Steve: “Limey and a little phenolic.”

Result: definitely not mineral.

Austria – Johann Donabaum, Grüner Veltliner, ‘Johann’ Federspiel, Wachau, 2018

Steve: “This definitely smells of slate. This has to be a mineral wine.”

Bev: “It is not a vinous taste. It has a slightly ‘drying’ taste in the mouth.”

Result: still mineral.

Crete – Idaia, Vidiano, Dafnes, 2018

Jim: “Wow! What an astonishing nose! Mouth-watering, very complex, a touch of seaweed?”

Steve: “Chalky. This is what it would feel like if you put a lump of chalk into your mouth. This is limestone. The scientists say you cannot taste limestone, but you know what I mean.”

Bev: “It has a non-vinous finish, and so for me that is mineral.”

Result: still mineral, in fact even more so.

France – Gouffier, Rully 1er Cru ‘Rabourcé’, 2016

Jim: “Evolved, just a touch of controlled oxidation, gorgeous, but not mineral.”

Bev: “Apricots and tangerines. Opulent.”

Result: a long way from mineral.

France – Domaine de la Villaudière Sancerre 2018

None of us finds the slightest bit of minerality with this wine.

Steve: “Why doesn’t Sancerre taste like Sancerre any more – this is like an Hawaiian pizza.”

Bev: “This was closed when we first opened it. Now it is almost pineapple.”

Result: nowhere near mineral.

Italy – Feudi di San Gregorio, Fiano di Avellino, ‘Pietracalda’, Campania, 2017

Jim: “This is easily the most mineral. Mineral on the nose, mineral on the finish, perhaps fuller in the mouth.”

Bev: “Wet stone again.”

Result: still mineral.

Ancilla Lugana, ‘Ella’, Lombardy, 2018

Steve: “I don’t know why we would describe Lugana as a mineral. This definitely isn’t.”

Jim: “This is like charcoaled pineapple. A fantastic, vibrant and crisp wine, but not mineral.”

Result: not even close to mineral.

Reds

Argentina – Zorzal, Malbec ‘Eggo Tinto de Tiza’, Tupungato, 2017

A touch faecal when first opening, but within minutes this disappears.

Steve: “This is definitely a ‘natural’ wine. Alive and kicking!”

Bev: “Edgy.”

Jim: “This is my salt and caramel wine.”

Result: mineral, no question.

There were four others where we were unsure. So, of the twelve wines to which we originally assigned the descriptor mineral, only four would now definitely qualify for it. And four would not even come close.  A conundrum: while accepting that wine – of course – changes character as it lies in bottle, here we have three so-called experts, with 60 years of experience between them, conceding to fundamental variances in their use of minerality over a relatively (six months) short period of time. Are we just not good at writing tasting notes? Are we incompetent? After all, WSET students are discouraged from using the word mineral. Blimey!

With most (though not all) of the wines, we found that the fruit elements were now much more advanced than in our original tasting; revelatory so in some instances. Are we writing our tasting notes without giving the wine a chance to recover in the warehouse after reaching us? Or are we – as Bev has suggested elsewhere – just lazy? Using the word minerality as shorthand for something else? And even as I write this, landing on my desk is a note from a producer: “After a long and passionate work in our cellar, we are proud to introduce our new-born: a rich white wine, with notes of tropical fruit and a full body which is supported by great acidity and minerality.”

Well, what do our winemakers make of this?

Juampi Michelini (whose wines kindled this essay!) says: “Of course it is necessary to have mineral soils, especially if they are loaded with chalk. But it also has to do with earlier harvest times, something that has been done more and more throughout the world in the last seven years, as well as more reductive fermentations.

Juampi Michelini, Zorzal Wines

“I describe almost all of my Zorzal wines as being mineral wines – but I always say that minerality is more a sensation of textures than of aromas.”

In the appropriate setting of La Cambuse du Saunier, a bucolic oyster shack which borders a sea salt farm near his Narbonne winery, Gérard Bertrand paused. “Ah, minerality! So controversial. I make a link between minerality and salinity, and the salinity comes from limestone, and if you suck a limestone rock – that is minerality.” He put his index finger into his mouth. “You can feel the minerality in the middle of your tongue.

“You cannot make this during the vinification process. This comes from the rock. We do an experiment. We put Château la Sauvageonne in front of a piece of schist rock; we put Château l’Hospitalet in front of limestone, and we put Château de Villemajou in front of silex, and we ask people to taste the stones and then the wine. They all get the link.

“People need to suck stones.”

At the recent South African tasting held at Phonica Records in Soho’s Poland Street, I asked our award-winning winemaker, Samantha O’Keefe, who said: “It’s a sensation of cold in your mouth.” “Cold?” “Yes.” She laughed. “But I work in feelings and colours and so my tasting notes are often odd. But certainly my wines on stony vineyards give me more minerality than those from red shale soils, which are fuller and richer. I definitely do not think it is a flavour. It’s more just a feeling in your mouth. I think it might just be a way of differentiating from those sweeter, fuller types of New World wines which you often get. But I don’t know!”

She paused again. “Minerality is a texture. It’s a stony quality: wet pebbles. I use minerality a lot. But maybe I am being lazy.”

Lazy. There’s that word again.

It does seem as though some winemakers are anxious to maintain the link between minerality and their wines (as you’d expect!) But are we talking about terroir as opposed to minerality? Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order?

Some key words: refreshing, zingy, acidity, a certain sourness, licked stones. A kind of austere or nerviness or tension; or simply the opposite to ripeness. Whenever I come across what I think is minerality, I pause: “Hello darkness, my old friend…”

But I’m still nowhere near working out what it actually is. Mind you, far better minds than mine have tried and failed; the Oxford Companion to Wine again: “it is not possible to determine whether minerality is a terroir or winemaking effect.”

And why does this bother me so? Why this sophistry in trying to describe something which isn’t there? A flavour – an essence – which may not exist? Am I bending my language to fit a need? What is the need? What is it about minerality? At what point does minerality trans into Fashion? “Sparkling or mineral sir?” Well mineral, obviously, because mineral is Brioni, sharp suited and therefore Continental. But sparkling is, well, gas, isn’t it, and a bit Wyoming. Minerality is cool, it is quartz and diamonds and vaguely Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Good evening, Commander Mineral, we’ve been expecting you,” white gloves ‘n all. Mineral is nuance. It is class, it is style, and hardly Biffo the Bear. “Indeed.” “Yes, indeed.” “Minerality, yes.” “Yes, indeed.” Opulence, move over, Vanilla step aside and all you other flavours tripping the not-so-light fantastic to the strains of the Fat Belly Boogie. Sodium and calcium and manganese are important and not flippant at all and their nexus endows us as professors in white lab coats, like those Cambridge chaps who discovered DNA in the pub. So when I say: “minerality!” am I a luvvy satisfying my inner core, my night primaeval, by licking from the core of the earth and sharing in a pagan rave with matter which is six hundred and fifty million years old? Is it my soul I search for? Aristotle’s tabula rasa? Core is a great word, it is a key word and if you prefix it with hard you get an awkward word, a dangerous word, a bit nihilistic, but who other than the hardcore would go the Paul Grieco’s Terroir tasting to drink wines from heavy-metal soils matched with heavy metal music? Do metal and core satisfy some kind of prehistoric desire to engage with the elements, to go deep, really deep, in to the earth because deep is good, deep is important and it is the opposite of shallow and who wants to be shallow? No, we’ll keep digging in a maelstrom of kinetic exuberance, knocking at the gates of perception, nosing the brimstone, surrendering to something so great no-one understands it (though it may be “the only true measure of greatness in wine”¹), digging like Heaney’s Old Man, right down into the “roiling, boiling, sulphurous, belching belly”² of the earth, seeking approbation and Dante’s felicity and Milton’s liberty to know, desiring good or desiring God, ingesting Plastic Soup, and not flopping into the chair to watch Corrie but rather romanticizing we are the Underworld Gods, Hecate and Hades, with petrichor running through our veins.

Minerality: is this the taste of what is not there?

Reading List

¹ Sam Harrop. Winemaking Intervention in Minerality Perception

² Alice Feiring. The Dirty Guide to Wine

Madeline Puckette, Wine Folly

Jamie Goode. Wine Science

Alex Maltman. Minerality in wine: a geological perspective

Dr Peter Dry. Terroir – It’s the Rocks That Matter

Oxford Companion to Wine

Wendy Parr, Alex Maltman, Sally Easton, Jordi Ballester. Minerality in Wine: Towards the Reality behind the Myths

Natural Wines: Is there a rule book?

Oh dear! The airwaves have recently been alive with invective concerning Natural Wines. Some columnists apparently don’t know what they’re talking about… Eek! In publishing this blog, I am there to be shot at! So on with the tin hat and here goes…

The most arresting paragraph I have read when looking at natural wine comes from Isabelle Legeron MW: “We live in a society where it is fashionable to wear farmer’s boots, and chit-chat at the local butcher’s resolves around how long your meat has been hung. Micro-breweries and espresso bars populate our urban landscapes, and yet, even against this new agro-chic backdrop, we still wash down our outdoor-reared sausages with the vinous equivalent of a battery chicken.”¹

Legeron goes on to say: “Most of the industry has become so mechanized and detached from its roots in the pursuit of intensification or textbook farming that most wine today has never seen a human hand.”²

I first became aware of natural wines in the early nineties through Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route – the most enjoyable wine book I’ve ever read. I had only just entered the trade then, and Lynch’s recollections of meeting Jules Chauvet didn’t really resonate. It has taken me until now… Fast learner, you might say, but actually I’m ahead of the curve if you agree with Alice Feiring’s observation on natural wine: “An overnight sensation that took about 40 years.”³

I recently read (or re-read) these fine books when looking to provide a bit of background information for some of our newer members of staff. In the end I came up with this six-point primer:

  1. What are we talking about?

Natural wines are made from grapes that are farmed organically or biodynamically but differ from thereon, in that the grape juice is then transformed into wine without adding or removing anything during the process.

  1. Great – so where can I find the rulebook?

There isn’t one. That’s the problem. Unlike Organic winemaking, which has strict certifications in every country of origin, no-one has codified the rules of natural winemaking.

  1. But it does sound similar to organic winemaking, doesn’t it?

Sort of, it’s just that natural winemakers go further than organic winemakers. After all, even organic winemaking allows for up to 50 additive and processing aids (though this is still much lower than in conventional winemaking). But probably the biggest thing which underpins natural winemakers is their opposition to sulphur dioxide (SO2). Sulphur is the kiss of death for them.

  1. So natural wine does not contain any sulphur?

Er, not quite. This is where it gets tricky. Sulphites are a natural side-effect of fermentation and are present in almost every wine. Legally, the message “contains sulphites” must appear on the label if the wine has more than 10mg/l of sulphites. So even natural wines may contain sulphites – but 10mg/l is a tiny amount.

  1. What’s the issue with sulphur, then?

The problem isn’t with that sulphite; the problem is with the other type: sulphur dioxide (SO2). In conventional winemaking this is often added by the winemaker as an anti-oxidant or preservative, either when the grapes have just been picked, or just before bottling, and the EU rules allow for 160mg/l for red, 210 mg/l for white. Natural winemakers will tell you that the SO2 changes the character of the wine, lobotomizes it, and masks inferior quality grapes. And may also give you a headache. But just to illustrate how tricky this debate is, Isabelle Legeron allows 70mg/l for wines included in her RAW tastings (so allowing for small additions.)

  1. Got it! So the key for natural wines is No Added Sulphur or extremely Low Sulphur?

Those are definitely the buzz phrases. But also remember that natural winemakers also love the slogan nothing added, nothing taken away. Key themes are:

  • Use only natural yeast, and not purchased (or inoculated) yeast. Nursery-purchased yeast (which has only been available during the last 60 years) can affect the wine by speeding up fermentation and homogenising the wine. One of the most famous is Yeast 71B, which used to be widely used in Beaujolais and produced the famous banana flavour. Using natural yeast – which is naturally present in the grape must and has come from the vineyard and the winery environment – allows the use of the phrase “wild ferment”.
  • No fining – by any of the methods, such as using isinglass, bentonite etc. But you run the risk of leaving impurities in the wine; some winemakers get round this by extra racking – and some equally argue that to use a traditional method like organic egg whites does not make their wines any less natural.
  • No filtration – as this “strips” the wine of character – but it may leave the wine cloudy.
  • Many naturalistas will only ferment and age in neutral containers i.e. no new oak, as that imparts its own flavour upon the wine.

Remember, this is for relative newbies to the trade.

A little history. Although some say that natural wines have been made for centuries in qvevri vessels in Georgia, the movement really began in the mid-1980s in France, partly in opposition to technology. Pesticides became widespread after World War II; commercial yeasts entered the market in the sixties. As Stephen Buranyi points out: “The modern winemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast, to antimicrobials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Wine is regularly passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with various gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.”⁴

But while a kind of antediluvian meme promulgated the movement, it was also inspired to combat what some saw as an insidious wine fashion. Robert Parker’s 100-point wine rating of initially largely French wines affected wine sales, and, some say, incited winemakers across the world to manipulate their product to fit his full-flavoured taste. Had wine lost its way?

The Godfather of this ‘80s natural winemaking movement (although he would never have described himself as such) was Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais producer (see Kermit Lynch above), who joined forces with another legendary figure, Marcel Lapierre, to make wines sans soufre. They were thought to be a bit bonkers; making wine without adding sulphur, the wine world’s equivalent of penicillin?

But during the 1990s, as word of their research spread, a number of wine bars sprung up in Paris specialising in these natural wines. They gained wider fame due to the writings of Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron, whose first RAW tasting took place in 2012. “What had once been the passion of a hard core group of eccentric winemakers in eastern France had, somehow, become cool.” (Stephen Buranyi)

And where was I? When modal challenged trad? When modernists dissed the enlightenment? Where was I during wine’s version of Derrida’s deconstruction? Well, I was working for a wine retailer, getting married, working for a wine importer, washing the dishes, moving house, becoming a wine buyer, going to the dentist, going to this funeral and that christening, selling wine to the supermarkets, moving house again, watching England get knocked out on penalties, selling wine to the sommeliers, reading about Basra and Helmand, Turkey Twizzlers and E numbers, cheering same sex marriage, talking about margins and marginal gains, taking two weeks in the Med, discussing screwcap against cork, heavy glass/light glass, watching us score nul points in Eurovision (why can’t we leave that instead?), marketing wine and drooling over data, always, always, always vaguely aware of this natural wine thingummy behaving like an irritating cousin, and yet avoiding it (or doing the responsible thing, depending on your point of view), until one morning I drew back the curtains expecting to see J.M.W. Turner and instead saw Banksy and thought: Oh.

Where was I? Not paying enough attention, perhaps? Guilty, M’Lud. Bang to rights.

This counterculture crusade, the equivalent of Rough Trade taking on EMI, accelerated in tandem with the likes of Slow Food, the Greens, Think Globally – Act Locally, Carbon Zero, Fridays for Future, Craft Beer, Artisanal Gin and the Occupy movement, along with an indie penchant for dissident or whacky labels. We might be getting ahead of ourselves here, but Legeron is keen to promote the principles of the movement. “There is so much more collaboration and communication amongst natural winemakers both in the same country and around the world, as it is still at such an early stage and everyone can learn from each other.” She reports a large and growing consumer base, with 80% of the audience at her Raw Wine fairs around the world being aged between 25 and 44. “We’re gaining critical mass, it’s not a fashion anymore. There’s a huge opportunity. Also by championing natural wine, we can have an impact on the environment.”⁵

But in the marketplace, the lack of definition is worrying. Time and again our sales teams tell me that the lack of “rules” is a real issue for them. And I know what they are taking about. Recently I visited some acheingly trendy London wine bars, all of them shouting their natural wine credentials, all of them reactionary by nature (excuse the pun). When questioned, each one of them had a different definition of natural, ranging from the fanatical “I won’t drink anything with more than 20g/l of sulphur” to the casual: “Oh I know the winemaker and he’s really careful so I call his wines natural.”

But Eric Asimov of The New York Times once countered: “This lack of definition, repeated in many other ways, seems to profoundly disturb the critics, yet perhaps it is one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans. In the same way that the Occupy Wall Street insurgency resists enumerating goals or anointing official representatives, natural-wine partisans refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument. That frustrates those who fear they will become targets if they do not subscribe to what they see as natural-wine dogma; hence the shrillness of their criticism.”⁶

Such as from Robert Parker: “We all know the type – saving the world from drinking good wine in the name of “vinofreakism.”⁷

Does he have a point? Well, there are some who will simply never get it (“Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all, the long and the short and the tall…”) In our tasting room we taste countless natural wines. First up, some of them are simply horrid. Acidic, foul-smelling, fizzy, the split second that you hold them in your mouth is a split second too long. Sometimes the nose is so awful that we simply throw them down the sink – and then apologise to the sink. Sorry, sink. One particular sample was so bad that the collective groans of the three of us brought people running to the room to see if we were okay. It is difficult to know what to make of these. Most are from potential new producers, and you have to wonder whether these are simply poor winemakers who are jumping on the bandwagon and using natural as their angle. We are also always mindful that some of these are tank samples (not that that should make as big a difference in a natural wine) and they may have been stored for a couple of weeks. And of course there are many conventional wines that make us equally wince, too. But still!

(And yet I still wonder whether an evangelist would say: “Ah, but this is terroir! This is exactly how it should be!”)

Others are simply a bit weird. Some seem to lack acidity, some a bit of depth (that may be the absence of oak) and some seem a bit one-dimensional. All of them without exception smell differently to their conventional equivalents. But hold on: what is an equivalent? And are they really weird? Or is it us? Or are we subconsciously thinking of the price point – which is usually higher than for conventional wines? Perhaps worried about storage? And what is conventional?

Then there are wines from our current producers which may or may not be natural. I always prefer to call them minimal intervention wines so as not to offend anyone. The likes of Larry Cherubino, Ocean Eight (Australia); Riccitelli, Zorzal (Argentina); Antoine Olivier, Naigeon, Gouffier (France); Ancilla Lugana, Roccolo Grassi (Italy); Lismore Estate (South Africa); Bodegas Viñátigo, Xosé Lois Sebio (Spain). We have many more. All of them share a philosophy based around allowing the vines to do their natural thing. But it may be that one of their vineyards is not biodynamic, that although they practice organic growing they are not yet certified, and that they may add in a touch of sulphur if they are shipping to the other side of the world. Or it may be that they simply do not want us to label their wines as natural (or organic) for fear of ending up in the Weird section. As Antoine Olivier said to us on our last visit to his cave in Santenay: “My father is a Christian, my mother is Jewish, so I cannot stand dogma. I adhere to organic rules but I don’t want to be certified. If I have mildew I want the ability to protect my vines.”

A bit of a plea for less extremism, perhaps? After all, not all conventional wines are bad, and, as Tim Atkin said (some time ago): “Blossom Hill and Château Lafite are both conventionally produced wines, but they don’t have a lot in common.”⁸

And yet.

To the right of me I have a bottle of 2018 Château de Grand Pré Morgon, made by a true natural zealot, Romain Zordan. We sampled the new vintage in our tasting room in beautiful downtown Luton three days ago. I brought the half-full bottle home and have had a glass with dinner over the last three nights. It tastes as good now as it did when first opened (not uncommon in natural wines.) I taste it again. It has a fresh nose of damson and raspberries. Young fruit, ripped straight off the bush. It has a kind of purity and vivacity; how can this be after three days? There is no trace of the banana yeast. In the mouth it has a simply amazing palate of crushed fruit, but running through it is a kind of steeliness that refreshes. Again and again.

This may be the freshest and most fruit-driven where did that come from? wine I have tasted in the last six months.

But.

It is cloudy.

And that is what will put some people off. Oh, it’s a natural wine.

But I am steadfast.

You see, to the left of me I have an award-winning Australian Shiraz. Conventionally made. Traditionally made. Call it what you like. Great producer. Full and rich in the mouth. Voluptuous and velvety. A touch of delicious sweetness on the finish. God this is good! When I first came into the trade, oak was everything. I judged a wine by that surge of sweetness, by that coating of toast, by that sweeping, Turandot-like roundness. Great with cheese ‘n onion crisps. A bottle for the first half and one for the second, with maybe another for extra time.

But that was then and this is now. And you know what, this Shiraz, while being gobsmackingly good, is not the one I want to drink. It seems to lack nerve, it seems to lack verve, it seems to lack steel. It satisfies but does not intrigue. It doesn’t haunt me. It doesn’t stop me in my tracks. When Brian Jones first took Keith Richards to his crash pad and put on some music, Richards said: “Crikey, who’s that?” “Robert Johnson,” said Jones. “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?” A stupefied Richards took some convincing that Johnson was doing it all by himself. Is this my Robert Johnson/Keith Richards What the… moment?

But here’s the thing. I now sometimes tire of Robert Johnson. He was my God not long ago. But I find myself agreeing with Roger Daltrey, who said in his recent biography (I’m paraphrasing here) that while the blues are great, after a while they can be a bit samey.⁹ Will I find these natural wines a bit samey? Will I tire of this steeliness, the haunting melody? Will I crave a sweetness fix as I kick off the top bend into the finishing straight? Or will my taste buds accept natural as being…natural. Will my tastes integrate or mature? (Though how mature do you want?)

Where do we go from here? In common with a lot of environmentally-inspired movements, the natural wine movement will continue to grow and may, I suppose, at some point be codified. Would that presage its decline? Would it no longer be seen as cutting edge, but mainstream? Johnny Rotten turning into Perry Como? Is it at a crossroads now, with the fashionistas in danger of over-running the evangelists? Actually, it’s almost certainly gone beyond that now, thank goodness. And in any case, the big gain for me is that natural winemakers appear to be influencing conventional winemakers, who may not be able to abandon all their methods, but who are slowly moving the needle along in that direction.

My Crossroads moment.

 

READING LIST

¹ Isabelle Legeron MW, Natural Wine, e-version, p13

² Isabelle Legeron MW, Natural Wine e-version, p18

³ Alice Feiring, Natural Wine for the People, e-version, p12

⁴ Stephen Buranyi, The Guardian, 15/5/2018

⁵ Richard Siddle, The Buyer, 10/7/2019

⁶ Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 24/1/2012

⁷ Alice Feiring, Naked Wine, e-version, p25

⁸ Tim Atkin website, 19/2/2011

⁹ Roger Daltrey, Thanks a lot Mr Kibblewhite

Kermit Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

Top 10 Tips for Events

Hallgarten & Novum Wines Events Manager, Chris Porter, has been working with the company for almost 20 years and is the brains behind the logistical operation that is the Annual Tasting – our yearly showcase of the best parts of the portfolio. With preparations for the 2020 tasting well underway, Chris has taken a step back to consider the top 10 things to consider when running an event.

 

  1. Objective/theme

First off, define your primary objective and convey this to your customers. It is essential to be as targeted as possible to attract the right audience. What is our purpose? What do we want to achieve? Who do we want attending? Where is our focus? These are just some of the questions you will need to explore.

Whether it’s a large scale event showcasing hundreds of wines, or a smaller affair with a handful of producers, the overriding objective remains the same – to impress and generate business.

Ultimately, an objective combined with a theme brings focus, and will help to qualify the success of your event, with any achievements translating into sales and favourable write-ups.

  1. Timing is everything

Month – Timing is key and this next step should align with your main objectives. For example to gain traction on any newly launched wines, you must consider when the trade reviews their wine lists, as they will be more inclined edit their portfolio around then. Seasonality is also crucial, as certain themes work better at different times of the year.

Day – Most events work well mid-week. If yours is aimed at consumers, try to think when they would most likely have free time such as Thursday, which is late enough in the week but not a prime weekend day.

Time – In most cases it’s important to not start too early. Beginning at 11am works well in the wine industry for trade tastings, as this allows time for travel, but still provides an opportunity to taste before lunchtime. Also bear in mind the finish time and consider the audience. For us, if we’re inviting sommeliers or restaurateurs, they are often limited by service times, so finishing too early may not provide them with the opportunity to attend. For a wine merchant holding a tasting in the evening the hours between 6pm and 9pm are prime time.

  1. Choose the right venue

Venue choice is paramount to success, and as such it is crucial to choose somewhere that can accommodate the right location, capacity and ambiance to enhance your event. Alignment to your theme should also be considered. If you’re not holding the event at your own site, a spacious, well-decorated venues close to amenities such as transport links, hotels, restaurants etc. are a good option, and can be easily transformed to meet your needs. Consequently, opting for a premium venue is usually a good investment.

  1. Get inviting

Identifying your target audience is vital in order to tailor your event accordingly. On top of this, it’s important that any invite you design is clear and concise, with minimal content at the early stage. The essentials, if relayed effectively, should be enough to peak their interest; further information can be relayed at a later date.

Transmission of your invites to your selected audience is quite key, digitally inviting guests is time-efficient and simple, whereas a hand delivered invite is a personal touch that is always appreciated.

Timing is important here, if sent out too early, the event may be forgotten, but too late and run the chance of people already having plans. Two months in advance of the event usually works well and provides a suitable amount of notice for your customers.

  1. Social media – Promote, inspire and share

An extremely useful tool in promoting anything these days is social media. It is a great way to connect with the targeted audience for your event, and in the right hands can be incredibly effective.

The beauty of social media is that it is so accessible, you can easily create a buzz and spread the word across a number of different platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.

To promote events effectively, creating a social media calendar to plan and regulate activity can help to build anticipation through a steady release of content.

Promotion of your event doesn’t stop on the day. In fact, it’s the perfect time to generate some noise about it! Getting staff and guests to use a previously specified hashtag when posting on social media can help endorse your event through various online channels via the sharing of photos and videos from the day. Keep an eye on who has used the hashtag and track the engagement after the event – these could be future customers!

  1. Reception – The gatekeepers

At any event it is essential to have a pair of sociable and welcoming people looking after reception. This is the first point of contact for all guests, and it is important to create a good first impression.  Streamlining this process to minimise time spent at this area will ensure customers remain satisfied, and are not put off by long queues before even entering your event.

The main jobs here are to register arrivals, meet and greet your guests, and be a point of reference through your customers throughout the day. Keeping track of attendance is imperative to understanding the success of the event.

  1. Food

It is important to remember that although sustenance should always be considered, it is not the primary focus of the day. If you opt to provide food, try to keep thing simple. Small plates and finger foods will encourage guests to socialise and also try different flavours with your selected wines. This is key, and where possible should be encouraged as it’s fascinating to discover how different wines pair with different foods.

Alternatively, should you be hosting a winemaker’s dinner or something similar, providing foods that generate a wow factor when paired with your chosen wines, can really help to enhance your offerings. Be mindful nonetheless to select foods that do not detract from the wines themselves, irrespective of the circumstances.

Food for thought…

  1. Provide the right tools

In order for a wine tasting to be effective a few elements are key;

  • Tasting booklets – A source of information as well as a place to make notes.
  • Glasses – Too much is never enough! Try to allow for roughly 2 glasses per guest, however be mindful that some people may take more, and of course there are always breakages!
  • Ice buckets/Ice – This will keep you from running to the fridge but don’t over chill your wines.
  • Spittoons – An essential in any wine tasting. Make sure you provide enough, as they fill up quickly!

Miscellaneous – Don’t forget the little things! Pens, corkscrews, slow pours and jugs of water are all crucial.

  1. Break down/Finish

At the end of the day, you need to breakdown your event and tie up any outstanding tasks. It’s important that this is done efficiently and within the timings agreed with the venue. To ease the pressure I normally start a soft breakdown half hour before finish, just to make the task easier when the time comes.

At the close of the day, encourage guests politely to conclude their day. Then it’s all about working as quickly as possible.

Work with your staff/team to clean up and dismantle any physical equipment, banners, signage and surplus stock etc. You should be leaving your venue in the same condition as when you first arrived.

Once complete, thank staff for a job well done; a small victory drink normally goes down well!

  1. Review & follow-up

Evaluation of your event is a must. Gathering feedback can be done in a number of ways such as via an online survey, paper handouts or simply through conversations. The main thing here is timing – don’t wait too long after the event as people’s memories will fade.

Did things go well? How many potential new customers turned up? Any good write-ups? What didn’t work? What could we do better? The good stuff is great to hear but sometimes it’s better to focus on the negatives. Why? Well these are the things that need fixing, especially if you wish to repeat things in future.

Follow up with attendees & absentees. Thank them for coming and continue discussions if needed. For those who couldn’t attend, recap what they missed and let them know how to remain in contact. Regardless of whether they attended or not, a consistent follow up is key.

WOTM: Champagne Collet Brut 1er Cru, Art Déco NV

Our December Wine of the Month, Champagne Collet Brut 1er Cru, Art Déco NV, is an award-winning Champagne from the region’s first co-operative, established in Art Deco France in 1921. A blend of seven Grands Crus and 13 Premiers Crus, this Champagne is not just suited to celebrations throughout the festive period, but also as a gastronomic partner to a number of cuisines and dishes.

In a nutshell

A broad style of Champagne with developed biscuity notes from extended ageing on the lees and a lovely long and salty finish.

The producer

Champagne Collet with its elegant Art Deco packaging is evocative of the Belle Epoque era from when it was established. It is the oldest cooperative in Champagne, dating back to 1921. Since its inception, Collet has been creating Champagnes of character with authenticity, elegance and great finesse. Located in Aÿ, in the heart of the Champagne region, Collet represents some of the finest growers and mainly sources from vineyards which are based on Premier and Grand Cru sites. Each cuvée reflects the diversity of the region’s terroirs and has been masterfully blended to suit gastronomic cuisine

The wine

The Chardonnay, predominantly from the commune of Vertus, contributes freshness and citrus notes. The Premier Cru of Villers-Marmery contributes the mineral dimension of the limestone terroir along with smoky touches. The Pinot Noir imparts a richness and power thanks to historic Crus such as Ay, Hautvillers and Avenay Val d’Or blended with Crus from Rilly la Montagne. The Pinot Meunier from Villedommange completes the blend imparting a roundness and suppleness.

This cuvée was bottle aged for a minimum of four years in the historic limestone cellars which are centuries old.

Best served with

Young pigeon, veal carpaccio or red mullet.

The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon in the Troodos Mountains

The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon, also known as the Frequency Illusion, is a cognitive bias which describes a tendency to keep seeing things, names or ideas, very soon after we have first met them. It was coined in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board.

Having just heard about the Baader-Meinhoff German terrorist group, he started to see Baader-Meinhoff everywhere. The experience is caused by two psychological processes. The first, selective attention, kicks in when you’re struck by something new; after that, you subconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result find it surprisingly often. The second process, confirmation bias, reassures you that each sighting is further proof that the thing has gained omnipresence.

And right now, standing in the vineyards of the Kyperounda winery in the heart of Cyprus, I am experiencing it.

It’s not so much a name or an idea. Rather, it is a year.

1969.

My only connection to Cyprus goes back to that year. I had a photograph. It was of my newly-married aunty Eileen and her husband, Dougie. He was in the RAF and had been posted to Cyprus. They had left home for the island only a few weeks before. The photograph shows them at dinner at a restaurant. On the back my aunty had scribbled a few sentences about how much she was loving Cyprus, but how much she was missing home. I think it made me cry a little. But what beguiled me was that they were eating outdoors. To an eight year-old growing up in Jarrow this was as exotic and as continental as it could possibly be. My aunty had joined the jet set and turned into Brigitte Bardot overnight. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the remains of the meal on their plates. What was this? It didn’t look like the kind of meat and potato dinners we ate at home. No, it looked … glamorous. (I now think it was langoustines). When the height of sophistication was two weeks in a concrete outrage on the Costa Brava, and when something weird called a croissant was making its first appearance in the relatively new phenomena of supermarkets, here was my aunty eating exotic food on a sun-kissed island in something called The Med. I took the photograph into school to impress. Left it lying around. “My aunty,” I would say to any kid who asked. No other comment was necessary, my eight-year-old mind felt.

The memory of that 1969 photograph is triggered by our host, Kyperounda winemaker Minas Mina, pointing to the top of Mount Troodos. “Over there is where the British barracks are,” he said. We pause only briefly (and I have my flashback), before Minas leads the charge back into the vineyards.

The thing about Kyperounda is that it has the highest vineyards in Europe at 1,400 metres; only Argentina has higher-sited vineyards in our portfolio, and I am so grateful for the cool of the altitude, as the sun is blazing. We are scrambling up and down hillsides thick with thorny vegetation, in which vines appear to be randomly mixed in with other green plants. “We use cover crops in the vineyard to encourage biomass and to keep things as natural as possible,” says Minas. We come across a vine so big it is almost a tree. I’ve never seen anything even resembling this before, and I christen it Hemingway’s Vine.

This is wild and earthy agriculture. There is little delineation between vineyard properties. Crops seem to merge into each other. I look through the binoculars to what look like peculiar lemon dots a few hundred yards away. Through the glasses I realise these are the bright yellow baskets into which Vietnamese grape-pickers, barely visible amidst the vegetation, are gathering the vintage. Definitely no machine harvesting in this vineyard.

Minas points to a slightly more uniform vineyard. The EPOS Chardonnay we had at dinner last night came from this vineyard, but sadly they lost the entire production this year because of hailstones. I marvel at the expense of working in such conditions. We climb back into the four wheel drive and as Minas drives back to the winery, he points to various plots of land and explains that he spends most of his winters scouring the land for vineyards he can purchase, but getting local farmers to sell is a very difficult job, even when they are not getting much money for their cops.

Sitting in the back seat, I hang on as Minas throws the vehicle around steep bends. My rucksack falls open and a paperback, which I bought to read on the plane, falls out. First Man is the biography of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on to the moon.

In 1969.

It is one of my first television memories. Shadowy, grainy, black and white pictures, radio static, repetitive bleeping of the transmitter; hypnotic. And even the eight year old could recognise the import of the eternally famous words: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was only much later that I realised that, famously, that is not what Armstrong said. He forgot to use the indefinite article; “a man…” became “man…” which is grammatically incoherent. At least that’s what I’d always thought. But the book is not clear on this. In it, Armstrong seems to be saying he might have said it: “Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn’t get picked up by the voice mike.”

I put the book back into my rucksack as we arrive back at the winery. Minas gives us a quick tour. Stylish and modern, the winery is built on three levels in order to take advantage of gravity to move the grape juice in the gentlest possible way. Kyperounda grows the usual western varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, but Steve and I are more interested in the native grapes. We are here to have a vertical tasting of the wonderful white wine we import, Petritis, made from Xynisteri, and to put together two single varietal wines using Maratheftiko and Lefkada, two red grapes which are almost always blended.

In the tank room we taste a few Xynesteris. One is absolutely fabulous and its zinging acidity leaps out of the glass. Minas tells us it will obtain its complexity only after sitting for six months on the lees. With a glint in his eye, he then gives us some light coloured juice and are asked what it is. Steve and I both wonder about fermenting Chardonnay, and are put out when we realise it is Lefkada which is being made into rose.

Upstairs, we get started on the Petritis, a wine which works really well for us. A 2018 is a little closed, but with attractive stone fruit, a touch of beeswax, lovely mouthfeel; a 2017 is quite exotic – honey and banana, a touch of oxidation – but quite attractive, adding to the character; a 2015 is sadly oxidised; a 2014 is very good: again, a touch of semi oxidative character, reminding me of some Adriatic whites; a 2010 is well developed and showing a bit of age, but has masses of character – again I get a beeswax and honey aroma and quite sweet finish. It reminds me of an aged Grüner Veltliner; finally, a 2007 is the colour of Sauternes: toffee, rich and honeyed in the mouth, marzipan and fruitcake. Amazing!

As Minas sets up the red blending sessions, I wander out to the terrace and take in the spectacular view. You can see all the way down to the fleshpots of Limassol, some 25 miles away.

The other book I read on the plane on the way over to Larnaka was Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. On 26th September 1969 the Beatles released Abbey Road. Reading Penman’s wonderful book, I came across his thoughts on Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight. I had to put the book down and run the song through my mind. It is the delicious climax of the epic second side, and what always gets me is the change from A-minor to D-minor on Sleep pretty darling, do not cry… McCartney pitches it perfectly and whenever I hear it, wherever I hear it, I have to stop and pause. Imagine being able to create something so beautiful.

Minas signals for me to come back inside. Steve is rubbing his hands as we begin our tasting.

First up, a selection of Maratheftiko vintages:

A 2018 is fresh, vibrant, fruit pastille, lightish; a 2017 is oaky and just a touch volatile; a second 2017 is a little bretty and definitely not as stylish as the first two; another 2007 is a completely different animal – a big brute, quite tannic, huge finish. We think for a while. What does this need? Then we try a 2018 Syrah. Yes, this might do the trick, with its immediate white pepper appeal.

The first blend Steve puts together comprises 90% of the first and fourth Maratheftiko samples and 10% of the Syrah. Doesn’t work: the Syrah is too dominant. For the second blend he removes 5% of the Syrah. It tastes like a good wine but after a while we conclude that it is losing its character. Steve tries a third blend, this time with 80% Maratheftiko and 20% of Syrah. Mistake. It has lost all of its character. We scratch our heads for a while, and then Steve remembers that he has tried a Cabernet Sauvignon on previous visits. Luckily, Minas has quite a lot of back vintages, so we happily work our way through a vertical tasting. A 2004 has a slightly “sour” nose and is too aggressive; a 2005 is fresher and fruitier, well balanced with a lovely fruity finish; a 2007 is very different to the others – very fresh and very herby with a high phenolic content. So we take 85% of the Maratheftiko blend, 10% of the Syrah and add 5% of the 2005 Cabernet. Bingo! This retains the vivacity and character of the Maratheftiko on the nose, but has also got structure and a touch of tannin on the finish. A lovely, lovely wine. High fives all round.

Minas clears up the debris of the tasting and now Steve and I both I go out to the terrace to take an espresso.

It was a few years after its release before I got round to Abbey Road. No, the cultural event of 1969 for me was Where Eagles Dare (although it had been released on 4th December of the previous year.) I must have seen this about eight times. For many years I was one of those saddos who would use “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” as a faux greeting, before Geoff Dyer used the phrase as the title of his quirky book about the film. The memory came to me when I was standing on Mount Troodos earlier. Kyperounda ticks all the boxes, I thought: minerality, indigenous grapes, island locale, altitude – and it was the latter which jolted me back to 1969. Our forthcoming Q3 promotional theme is to be called Altitude! (“…and we must keep the exclamation mark…” I told our Head of Marketing). Standing on Mount Troodos, shivering, I thought that a still from the film’s opening sequence, showing the British commandoes flying over the Alps, would make a great background picture, and I gleefully texted head office. (But such are the lies that memory plays on you. Later at my hotel, when I downloaded the introduction from YouTube, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I’d remembered, and the photography was compromised by those odd Hammer House of Horror titles. Now I would have to go back to the Head of Marketing with my tail between my legs.)

I am jolted out of my memories by Steve. “Back to work,” he says.

Lefkada, then. We has less to play with here. A 2018 is fresh, minty, herby, with good acidity. A 2007, by contrast, is an absolute monster, very dark and oaky and blackcurranty. Steve asks Minas to blend 85% of the 2017 with 15% of the 2018. This is far too heavily balanced towards the heavy 2017, and I much prefer the 2018 wine. Steve agrees, so we then take 80% of the 2017, add 10% of the 2018, and then 10% of our favourite 2005 Cabernet. Nailed it! Really good balance.

Before we leave, we taste some examples of Commandaria, possibly the oldest type of wine still in production. During the Third Crusade, Commandaria was served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre. Traditionally, this has been made as a fortified wine, but Kyperounda’s is an exceptional example of an unfortified Commandaria, made from 85% Xynisteri and 15% Mavro. Grapes are dried in the sun for twelve days (Minas had earlier shown us the ageing tables downstairs in the winery.) This shrivels them and concentrates sugars, flavour compounds and acids. A slow, cool fermentation follows in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then matured in used 225 litre French oak barrels for six years. The wines we taste, from 2005 and  2006, are unctuous and sweet, with lovely toffee apple character and masses of raisiny fruit.

I finger my rucksack as we drive to our hotel and I can’t help rifling through the Armstrong book again. Maybe it’s because it is the 50th anniversary, but I find myself fascinated by the issue of the missing “a.” I had read somewhere that despite his initial claim that the mike may simply not have picked up the word, Armstrong had acknowledged since that he couldn’t hear himself utter the word in the audio recording of the transmission.

In my room, waiting to go to dinner, I do a quick trawl of the internet. Almost immediately I have the answer. In 2006, I read on one of the many Armstrong/Moonwalk sites, a computer programmer called Peter Shann Ford downloaded the audio recording and analysed the statement with software that allows disabled people to communicate via computers using their nerve impulses. In a graphical representation of sound waves of the famous sentence, Ford said he found evidence that the missing “a” had been spoken after all: It was a 35-millisecond-long bump of sound between “for” and “man” that would have been too brief for human ears to hear.

So Armstrong did get the phrase right!

This somehow seems to energize me and I gush out this information to Steve in the bar over a beer. He obviously thinks I’ve lost the plot and suggests I drink something stronger. I scan the shelves and see a bottle of Commandaria. How time changes over a 50-year period. Commandaria may be facing a difficult future, as it is a style of wine which has gone out of fashion and Minas told us that not many new winemakers wish to take up the good fight. The future of the island – the future of Kyperounda – may lie in the beautiful crisp white wines they make, such as our Petritis or indeed the red blends of grapes which a curious world is waiting to discover. Commandaria is of a different era. It reminds me a bit (and unfairly) of Emva Cream and Bristol Cream, those staples of British Christmas households in the sixties which seemed to me then to define exoticism – until I saw that picture of my auntie Eileen.

But unbelievably this 1969 thing will not go away. In the restaurant they’re playing Riders on the Storm, which seems a bit incongruous. This is Steve’s and my era and we chat about those old rock stars. “Remember him… remember her… wow, he was good…” But their hedonistic lifestyles, while we wouldn’t have minded some of it, also came with occasional tragic consequences. We reminisce on how many of the died before their time. Surfeit of excess. Brian Jones, he was the starting point wasn’t he? In 1969. And then there was Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1970, and Jim Morrison himself in 1971.

Amazing. A different era. Doesn’t happen these days.

And yet.

Amy.

Who died within the last decade and joined Jones, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison as a member of the 27 Club: the age at which they passed away.

We raise a glass.

It brings a tear to the eye.

A different era.

Sleep pretty darling, do not cry…

Winemaker Profile: Johann Donabaum

“Great wine is unique. It is as distinctive as the territory and the soil it is growing in and as inimitable as a signature.” Johann Donabaum

 

In 1961, Johann Donabaum’s parents decided to give up mixed agriculture and specialise exclusively on viticulture instead. Although it may have been perceived as a risk at the time, this turned out to be an inspired choice.

Viticulture and winemaking has been a constant throughout the majority of Johann Donabaum’s life. Growing up surrounded by family vineyards, he graduated from Krems School of Viticulture whilst still a teenager. Following his time studying, Johann completed a seven month apprenticeship with F X Pichler. This valuable experience gained him a great deal of new ideas and insight into the practices of a great wine producer, preparing him for his own successful winemaking career.

With his studying and training complete, Johann returned to the family vineyards. His father gave him the go ahead to take the helm and the young Johann was keen to implement his own ideas for the future. He had a clear vision of the direction he wanted his winemaking to take and he decided to focus on quality rather than quantity and champion terroir. This has led to his wines coming to be considered among the finest in Austria and attracting positive praise on the international stage.

Johann cultivates 7.5 hectares. For him, terroir is absolutely crucial. His knowledge of his vineyards is extremely detailed and this means he is able to cultivate the vineyards with exceptional care and attention. Understanding all the nuances of the different plots means they can be given individual attention and this enables Johann to truly express the terroir of his vineyards in the resulting wines.

Using the right grape varieties for the soil is key and many of Donabaum’s wines are on extremely steep terraces where the soil is rich in gneiss and slate. Johann, therefore, uses these plots primarily for growing Gruner Veltliner and Riesling. Johann’s aim with these wines is that they are forceful, dense, juicy, elegant and mineral.

Johann has a strong wine philosophy. He believes wines should be mirrors which reflect origin and terroir, and also the meticulousness and signature of the winemaker himself. For him, the vineyard is where the foundations are built for the quality of the wine and so getting the viticulture right is hugely important. Precise and careful cultivation is how Johann goes on to create wines of the highest standard.

A visit to Languedoc and Gérard Bertrand

Hallgarten & Novum Wines Marketing Coordinator, Charli Truelove, has taken to the road with Sales Manager, Phil Brodie in the Midlands team, and a group of General Managers from Revere pub group to experience Gérard Bertrand’s wines in the South of France.

Gérard Bertrand is one of the most outstanding winemakers in the South of France. He owns 15 estates among the most prestigious crus of Languedoc-Roussillon. Formery the IWC Red Winemaker of the Year and Wine Enthusiast’s European Winery of the Year, he is known locally as the “King” of the Languedoc. Wines bearing Gérard Bertrand‘s signature have a unique style, driven by the fundamental values of excellence, authenticity and innovation.

The Languedoc region, in my opinion, should be considered the next premium wine region of France alongside the likes of Burgundy and Bordeaux. The climate, terroir and winemaking skills have long been over-looked because of the wine trade’s interest in other regions, however only now is this area coming to the forefront of the trade’s mind thanks to producers such as Gérard Bertrand. The quality of Gérard Bertrand’s Estates consist of the finest terroirs of the Languedoc region and the quality of the wines is phenomenal which is reflected in the awards his wines win.

I had the pleasure of staying at Chateau l’Hospitalet. Gerard’s Grand Vin La Clape was voted Red Wine of the Year 2019 at the IWC awards this year. Here we were lucky enough to receive a tour of winery, tasting freshly pressed grape juice – Marsanne, Viognier and Roussanne, at the start of the fermentation process.

Gérard’s philosophy is that to be in harmony with nature is the best way to bring out the typical character of a terroir and to create fine wines. Gérard Bertrand switched to biodynamic farming at the Cigalus Estate in 2002. This type of wine growing strengthens the balance between the vine and its environment. A healthy vineyard, a protected environment and acclaimed wines show just how effective this approach is. Some parcels have been identified as having unique potential, revealing the individual history of the place and age of an exceptional terroir. They are recognized as the Grands Crus of the South of France. Just another example of showing off the amazing winemaking potential of the Languedoc.

During my visit, we stopped at Chateau La Sauvageonne, here the first vines were planted in the 1970s. In 2011 Gerard bought property, the grapes grown here are 70% red 20% rosé 10% white. During the tour of the winery, we were shown how each day the winemakers measure sugar density and temperature and again got to taste freshly pressed grapes direct from the tank, we watched from the top of a tank how the pumping over process works and then ventured out into the vineyards to look at the Mourvèdre vines on the clay soils, which keep the humidity as there is no irrigation here.

With Cab Sav/Merlot blends dominating Bordeaux and Burgundy with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay what can Languedoc claim to be its flag bearer? Rosé perhaps? Recently Gérard Bertrand launched Clos du Temple – a truly unique rosé, alongside other premium rosé: Sauvageonne Rosé, which wins high points scores every vintage… even Jon Bonjovi’s son Jesse Bongiovi is choosing Gérard Bertrand and the Languedoc to produce their wine, Hampton Water.

Languedoc-Rousillon has made leaps forward in recent years in terms of quality and popularity, the region is dynamic and promising with some exciting terroirs and producers. We are so proud to represent this leading French name in the UK, and cannot wait to see where the next few years takes them on their wonderful wine journey.

Winemaker profile: Nicolò D’Afflitto, Director of Winemaking, Frescobaldi

Overseeing the winemaking and viticulture of all seven of Frescobaldi’s historic estates is no mean feat. Yet, Nicolò D’Afflitto has spent more than twenty years doing just that.

Following a rural upbringing on a farm, Nicolò studied Oenology at Bordeaux University, graduating in 1982. His winemaking experience was enhanced spending time living and working in the US before he returned to Tuscany. It was there, in 1991, he joined Frescobaldi, working at Castel Giocondo in Montalcino. Four years later, he was managing all the estates, nearly 3,500 acres in total.

With over 700 years of Frescobaldi winemaking history and the 2020 Gambero Rosso Winery of the Year under its belt, producing consistently great wines is crucial. D’Afflitto believes the vineyard is the key with terroir creating wines with individuality. As such, attention to detail in the vineyard is everything. Nicolò takes a different approach with each of the seven estates and each vineyard needs different techniques to nurture its specific attributes. Each estate has a winemaker, general manager and viticulturist and D’Afflitto is also closely involved, all with the aim of creating something truly special, as well as unique, from every vineyard.

For Nicolò, his top priority is always the fruit. This philosophy is carried forward in both the vineyard and winery with the soil, climate, vine and human input all vital. Combining this care and dedication in the vineyard with assiduous use of oak in the winery allows Nicolò and his team to produce wines that show the grapes’ full potential. Frescobaldi’s long and illustrious history is not forgotten either and Nicolò takes pride in the part culture plays: great historical figures including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo have passed through Frescobaldi’s vineyards and its strong connections to Italy’s art, history and culture remain part of its fabric to this day.

Decades of experience managing Frescobaldi’s wine production means Nicolò has presided over many changes, including the replanting of Castel Giocondo and the introduction of new wines to the market, including Tenuta Perano – the family’s first venture into Chianti Classico and launched in the UK in 2018.

His work sees him travel thousands of miles per year visiting each estate every week to ensure the quality of all 12 million bottles produced reaches the family’s high standards. An experimental vineyard allows Nicolò to work on new trials and explore disease resistant varieties. This experimentation and strive for improvement allows Frescobaldi to build on their centuries of experience and strike the perfect balance between tradition and innovation.

What does the WSET Diploma really look like?

24 wine enthusiasts gather in a classroom in London. Armed with notepads, 12 tasting glasses and a passion for all things wine they are embarking on an in-depth exploration of the world of wine: the WSET Diploma in Wines. After graduating from Plumpton College, Hallgarten & Novum Wines Marketing Coordinator recently embarked on her fourth level of WSET qualification – below she takes a look at it from behind the tasting glass.

 

The assembled band of 24 students glance around furtively, looking, intrigued at the classmates they will spend over 120 hours and nearly 2 years studying with. All have the same aim: to achieve WSET’s ‘flagship’ qualification, the final and most challenging course they offer. Despite such a specific goal the group is diverse, a range of ages and backgrounds, those already working in the wine trade, those who hope to and dedicated consumer enthusiasts. We leave that first introductory class both daunted and excited, eager to join nearly 10,000 Diploma graduates from around the world.

But what drives an ever increasing numbers of WSET diploma students and why is this important to the wine trade?

In 2018/19, celebrating its 50th year, WSET saw a 15% year on year increase in students, more than 20,000 of them in the UK. For those in, or hoping to be in the wine trade there are some clear benefits to achieving such well recognised and respected qualifications. The Diploma in particular is known by employers to be rigorous, demanding knowledge and commitment. Given the complex and ever-changing nature of wine having a high level of wine education can be very appealing to those working in the trade, giving them a greater understanding of such a huge topic.

Both employee and employer stand to benefit. Qualified staff can ensure customers perceive a business as knowledgeable and trustworthy. In addition, having wine educated employees enhances the customer experience which can boost sales. Wine knowledge is communicated to the customer and research proves customers with some level of wine education spend more. For the consumer in both the on and off trade, wine buying, like any purchase, has a level of risk and for more expensive wines the risk increases. Education can alleviate this and increase customer spend.

Conversely, this increase in demand and uptake of consumer wine education means staff in the trade need increasingly high levels of knowledge to meet the needs of their ever more savvy customers. The story and provenance behind wine has become more and more important to the consumer in recent years, increased wine education amongst staff means they are well equipped to impart plenty of information to the customer. Furthermore, staff who have all studied tasting through one standard approach can give consistency to the way they evaluate wine and as such enable them to describe wine to customers with clarity.

Qualifications like the diploma can benefit both wine trade professionals and their consumers. Providing employees with confidence to talk in detail about all aspects of wine means they can pass forward this knowledge to customers, putting them at ease and potentially enabling them to be more adventurous in their wine selection.

Heroic Viticulture!

God, this is an untamed landscape. I’ve never stood in a vineyard like this before. It feels more like a small jungle, a mass of unkempt and wild shrubbery, misshapen and twisted, like Triffids. And, dotted everywhere, huge lava outcrops. A Jurassic park of a vineyard.

If you look closely in the undergrowth you will see vines. But they look wild.

Which is the entire point.

Steve Daniel and I are on the impossibly steep slopes of Mount Ilice, an extinguished crater on the south-eastern flank of Mount Etna. From this vineyard of extraordinary beauty comes an extraordinary wine: Calmarossa.

We are visiting Santa Maria La Nave. And we are in awe.

In the hands of the lovely Sonia Spadaro Mulone, Santa Maria is not just a wine producer, but one devoted to the preservation of ancient vine varieties and centuries-old traditions, a kind of Etna natural history preservation society. “I live for and dedicate every day of my life to my indigenous vine varieties and my wines, taking care of them and sharing their beauty with the world,” Sonia has said. “Many of them are taller than me – they are ancient, fierce, and have been there for centuries. My duty is to protect and safeguard this invaluable heritage.”

The vineyard in which we are standing, situated at 800 metres, was finally purchased in 2016 by Sonia and her husband Riccardo following years of negotiations with numerous owners. They had begun managing it many years before, following in the footsteps of a devoted farmer, Don Alfio, who had biodyanamically cultivated the main part of the vineyard for more than fifty years. It had a pre-phylloxera heart (Sonia’s word) and included some varieties that were almost extinct.

But right now there is a fog which is not so much rolling in as sprinting in from the sea and within minutes visibility is down to fifty yards and you get an eerie Lost World feeling. And then we are sprinting for the car as a downpour of tropical proportions thrashes us.

To say that Sonia and her team are passionate about their work would be an understatement of volcanic proportions. Not only are they acting as wine archaeologists, but they are doing so in some of the highest vineyards in Europe. CERVIM, the Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture, which was set up to promote vineyards at altitudes over 500 metres, vines planted on slopes greater than 30% vines on terraces of embankments, and planted on small islands in difficult growing conditions: refers to this kind of winemaking as ‘heroic viticulture.’ Santa Maria La Nave was admitted to CERVIM a few years back.

The history of Santa Maria La Nave goes back to 1954, when farmer Giuseppe “Peppino” Mulone moved to Catania with his family, and became fascinated by the fertility of the volcanic soil, the lushness of the vine varieties and the magnificence of the grapes. Peppino’s passion for Mount Etna’s vines was handed down to his son, Angelo, and then his grandson Riccardo, his wife Sonia, and their workers, winemaker Enzo Calì, viticulturist Vincenzo Avellina and agronomist Andrea Marletta

And now we are heading to Santa Maria’s tiny underground maturation cellar where we make our way down the spiral staircase, wearing disposable polythene footwear to ensure there is no spread of germs. Attention to detail!

Here we taste through the five different barrels of the 2017 vintage which will be blended into Calmarossa. The wine is composed of 85% Nerello Mascalese, the undisputed prince of Etna varietals but one which was abandoned for generations, and 15% Nerello Cappuccio, a grape which produces epic colour, but one which has often not been held in particularly high esteem, something Sonia and her team are slowly changing. “Some brave winemakers have started to enhance the true nature of this vine variety with a bit of innovative craziness,” she states.

The difference in the barrels is amazing. The first has extreme toffee apple flavours, with a hint of saltiness; the second is more restrained with a touch more steeliness; the third is the biggest yet, with huge deep berry flavours and a delicious hint of sweetness on the finish; the fourth is an amazing concoction of baked cherry pie with a blackcurrant lozenge type kick; the fifth is the most reserved, with beautiful firm tannins.

We then go on to try the 2016 vintage from bottle. Masses of herby notes on the nose, silky and moreish on the palate, complex multi-layered and contemplative. Brilliant.

Now we try the Millesulmare Sicilia DOC Bianco, made from Grecanico Dorato, an ancient varietal which was originally thought to be Greek but one which has now been genetically linked to Garganega. It tastes beautifully, redolent of stone fruit, hints of gooseberries and a touch of lanolin. The grapes for this wine are a pie’ franco, grafted onto Richter 110 and Paulsen 1103 rootstock. They are grown in Santa Maria’s other vineyard, Casa Decima, at Contrada Nave, on the other side of Etna, the north-western slope, at an even higher altitude of 1,100 metres, and it is to here that we drive the following morning.

Thankfully, the rain has cleared and we make the ninety minute journey through the higgledy piggledy southern Etna sprawl and emerge at the far more beautiful northern slopes, where Steve and I jump out of the car and take our picture-postcard photographs of the summit.

The Casa Decima vineyard is one of the highest vineyards in Europe (and was once owned by Lord Nelson, no less.) The team began here in 2000, working with an agronomist who was conducting a fifteen-year experiment to find the best vine stock. “We grafted about six thousand plants of Grecanico Dorato and five hundred of the almost extinct Albanello. Many of them were abandoned and covered by brambles,” states Sonia. In 2004 they bought a number of adjoining plots from local farmers: perfect to preserve a precious DNA that was at risk of extinction. “We found a very high number of gaps in our vineyard, mostly caused by wild animals. In spite of the damage they made, we welcomed them, since they are natural inhabitants and they help us to preserve the local ecosystem. We promised ourselves that we would treat this small vineyard as an oasis, whose rhythm should be natural and chosen by the plants, and not by the human obsession to subjugate nature and use it to produce more to make more money.”

Here the views are expansive, the vineyards a little more restrained than those on Mount Ilice, the views breath-taking. “When I saw one of my neighbours spraying his vineyard, I was so distressed that I immediately tried to buy it,” Sonia states.

“We are looking for pure essence of Mount Etna in a glass,” she says. “We only grow local vine varieties. Our wines are the product of an extreme viticulture, performed in demanding and wild areas at high altitude, in precious patches of land which have been safeguarded during the centuries from the devastating volcanic eruptions, or in plots on steep slopes of ancient extinguished craters.”

Heroic indeed!And quite beautiful.