The Marimar Estate – wines of elegance & beauty

I am so very lucky to do what I do. I get to see fabulous places and to meet many fascinating people. The wine world is full of winemakers and estate owners who are well known, even famous in my world and sometimes I have known their wines for years, so meeting them can often be a great experience.

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Recently I had the chance to meet someone whose wines that I have admired for quite some time – Marimar Torres. Not only were her wines as good as ever, but she was great fun too. Miramar was as elegant and sophisticated as you would expect – she is part of Spain’s Torres winemaking family after all – but she was also very amusing and great company. She came across as totally honest and seemingly without ego – rare in winemakers. We chatted away for well over two hours and in that time I learned a lot about the winery and wines that bear her name, as well as her life and character. I was astonished by how easy she was to talk to, how ready she was to tell me about episodes in her past that I would expect her to keep quiet, as well as mistakes she has made and aspects of her own character that displeased her. Frankly I could have listened to her all day, she was an utter delight. I found that her focus, attention to detail, perfectionist streak and determination shined through all her wines, as did her sheer optimism and sunny disposition. I approve of anyone who takes satisfaction in a job well done.

It’s a hell of a story, the Marimar Torres story – and would make a marvellous film at that. Born into a patrician, winemaking family in Franco’s ultra Catholic Spain, she was in her own words, not so much a rebel as a nonconformist – something that would make life pretty hard and frustrating for her in that place and from that background.

Her parents had her life all planned out, stay at home until she met a rich man to look after her, but Marimar did not see her own future like that at all. She persuaded her parents to let her join the family firm and travelled the world selling Torres wines. Their biggest market was the United States and as a consequence she found herself in San Francisco in the early 1970s and fell in love with the place. In fact she fell in love with more than the city as she soon married an American wine and restaurant critic which allowed her to experience the blossoming food and wine culture of California, a lifestyle that was not available to her in Spain. Miramar told me that she found the whole experience exciting and liberating.

The winery at the Marimar Estate - photo courtesy of the winery.

The winery at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

Eventually being involved with wine wasn’t enough, Marimar wanted to make it too and in the mid 1980s she looked around for somewhere to plant a vineyard. Eventually finding a spot that excited her, she told me that ‘it was love at first sight’, she managed to persuade the family to loan her the money to plant her first vines – she has since bought the rest of the family out and owns the estate together with her daughter Cristina. This vineyard was in the cool Russian River Valley AVA of Sonoma, some 10 miles from the ocean and amazing as it seems, there were no others around at that time. Miramar planted her first Chardonnay vines in 1986-7 and named the vineyard Don Miguel in honour of her father.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate – click map for a larger view.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Marimar was pregnant with her daughter at this stage and also decided to go and study winemaking at UC Davis – she is nothing if not determined.

2-CMT-MMT on Winery Patio (horiz)

Marimar, her daughter Cristina and their dogs on the terrace of the winery – photo courtesy of the winery.

Her first wine was the 1989 Chardonnay and her father was able to taste it shortly before he died, pronouncing it to be the best white wine he had ever tasted, which must have been quite a moment. For all that Marimar is a nonconformist and removed herself to a new and liberating setting, she strikes me as being very family conscious, with vineyards named after both her parents and a wine after her daughter.

In 1992 she built on this success by building a winery – in the style of a Masía, or traditional Catalan farmhouse. Today the Don Miguel vineyard contains 12 hectares each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, together with tiny amounts of Syrah, Tempranillo, Albariño and now even a little Godello.

Nothing seems to stand still here though, in 2002 Marimar planted 8 hectares of Pinot Noir in a new vineyard in the cooler Sonoma Coast AVA and named it Doña Margarita, after her mother.

Around the turn of the century Marimar visited Burgundy and noticed that many of the finest wines and best sites were farmed organically. This chimed with her belief in doing everything as naturally as possible and so from 2000 until 2006 the estate was in conversion, finally becoming certified organic in 2006. Nowadays the estate is totally biodynamic and generates all its own power using solar panels as well. As Marimar said to me, it makes perfect sense to go biodynamic as organics is merely a halfway house on the way to being biodynamic, and the theories of biodynamics predate those of organics. The estate even encourages a population of owls which control the gophers that are the major pest as they burrow through the roots and destroy the vines.

 Preparation 500

Biodynamic Preparation 500 at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Marimar Estate has come a long way in a very short time, so it was with real excitement that I tasted the wines, and they did not disappoint.

ALB_02014 Marimar Estate Albariño
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

I believe this is the fifth vintage of Albariño from the Marimar estate and it is a beauty. There is no oak, but 100% goes through malolactic, which helps with the texture.

The wine is fragrant, floral and aromatic with crisp green apple notes and something richer like pithy grapefruit giving a citrus twist. The palate has succulence and texture, with apricot fruit, the merest hint of pineapple and some citrus again. All of this makes it a little weighty and round in the mouth, but there is then a core of refreshing, enlivening acidity, a touch of minerality and it’s even a little saline, all of which makes it very refreshing. A fine Albariño that is wonderful with a bit of sea bass, but works equally well as an aperitif or partner to tapas – 93/100 points.

AC---twist-top2014 Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

An unoaked (as Marimar says, this is not a word in the dictionary, but everyone understands it) Chardonnay – Acero is the Spanish word for steel, as it is cold fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. Only indigenous yeast is used and the wine goes through 100% malolactic.

The nose is bright, fresh and appetising, as well as restrained and elegant with taught white peach, apple and pear, together with something creamy and rich lurking in the background. The palate offers beautifully ripe and gently opulent fruit with apricot and nectarine notes, a little dash of something tropical and a twist of white pepper too. There is lovely freshness here, but a softness to the texture as well, which makes for a delicious wine – 92/100 points.

marimar_la_masia_chardonnay_generic2013 Marimar Estate La Masía Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The original wine of the Marimar Estate, La Masía means farmhouse. The grapes were barrel fermented in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new, new oak gives greater oak character than older oak, after 5 years the oak is neutral. The wine then undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and is then aged for 7 months on the less in the barrels.

The colour here is a tad more golden than the Acero, while the nose is more pungent, richer and creamier with peach skin, ripe peach and nuts. The palate is gorgeous, restrained, elegant and silky with a creamy vanilla character, rich citrus, green fig and stone fruit. This is a very accomplished wine, very restrained and refined with subtle, but delicious creamy oak in the background and textured, supple fruit. A wonderful wine, I wish I’d had it with a grilled dover sole – 93/100 points.

PN_32012 Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The Pinot on the Don Miguel Vineyard is grown in Green Valley, which is the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new.

The nose is fragrant with ripe cherry and plum fruit with a backbone of fragrant, spicy oak too. Pinot’s classic savoury, earthy quality is subservient to the wonderfully ripe, concentrated and seductive fruit. That delicious, ripe red fruit gives the wine a lovely succulence and a fleshy texture that makes it feel sensual. The finish is very long with that rich fruit and a feeling of delicate power too – 92/100 points.

DMR2013 Marimar Estate Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir
Doña Margarita Vineyard
Sonoma Coast AVA
Sonoma, California

Sonoma Coast is even cooler than Green Valley, being just 6 miles from the Pacific the cool ocean breezes and sea mists roll in making the place cooler, which gives slower, gentler ripening. Mas Cavalls means horse farm, as Marimar’s equestrian centre is just below the vineyard. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new and it was unfined and unfiltered before bottling.

Wow, this was very different. The nose is more earthy and savoury – those cool conditions really show by making it feel more Burgundian. There is plenty of fruit too, but the savoury notes dominate, there are rich cherries, pungent raspberry and a waft of almost sweet spice. The palate is very savoury too, with forest floor and mushroom characters with some polished, red fruit shining through the gaps. Again this is a very seductive wine, with a rich truffle and spicy finish, perhaps a more purist or Burgundian style, but quite wonderful – 94/100 points.

2013 Marimar Estate Cristina Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

Named for Marimar’s daughter Cristina, this is a reserve selection of the best lots of Pinot Noir from the estate, the richest, most expressive and age worthy. After a cold fermentation the wine was aged for 4 months in new French oak barrels. The components were then blended and the finished wine was aged for a further year in 40% new and 60% 1 year old French oak barrels.

The nose is wonderfully fragrant with rich cherry and raspberry fruit, even some subtle richer black fruit notes. There is spicy oak too, something toasty, vanilla and attractively charred together with sweeter spice and a citric twist of blood orange. The palate is richly fruity, richly savoury and refined, with silky, ripe tannins, some lovely minerality and a salty note too. This is a bolder, more lush wine, but it is still beautifully balanced – 94/100 points.

Marimar Estate wines are distributed in the UK by John E Fells. For US distribution, contact the winery here.

Miramar's dogs driving a tractor, but it's ok as they don't drink.

Bonita and Chico, Miramar’s dogs driving a tractor, but don’t worry, they don’t drink, although they both have a reserve bottling wine named after them.

This is a marvellous range of wines. There was real beauty in them and they made sense, the same assuredness and lack of showiness – or ego – somehow informed them all and they were as elegant and engaging as the lady herself. Miramar is very proud of the fact that these are not winemaker wines, they are vineyard wines that express the terroir of where they are grown. Do try them if you can, they are hugely enjoyable as well as being elegant and fine wines that deserve a place in any cellar.

Slovenia – a big little place with lots of style & great wines

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

I really like going to Slovenia, it’s a beautiful country with lots of different of landscapes and influences. The people are charming and the food and wine are terrific. I wrote about a recent trip here.

Firstly let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions about Slovenia. It is not the same place as Slovakia, formerly part of Czechoslovakia. No that, much larger country is to the north and east of Austria, whereas Slovenia is to Austria’s south. Also Slovenia is not part of the Balkans and they will not thank you for thinking that it is. To the Slovenians the Balkans start further south and east.

Slovenia is a tiny country, at 8,000 square miles it is slightly smaller than Wales and New Jersey, but with only just over 2 million inhabitants it is less populous than either of those. Indeed as the capital city, Ljubljana, only has around 280,000 inhabitants, it cannot even claim to be the largest Slovenian city in the world – strangely it seems that honour is held by Cleveland, Ohio – depending on your definition of a Slovenian of course.

Slovenia enjoys a continental climate, 46˚ north runs through the country, just to the south of Ljubljana, and if you look around the world at all the wine regions that are situated at between 45˚ and 46˚ north, it will certainly make you salivate. As you might imagine, the coastal zone also has a Mediterranean influence to its climate.

Historically Slovenia was past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when it was part of Austria, and then Yugoslavia. Before that it was the border area between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and even today it is a link between the East and the West, Germanic cultures to the north, Romanesque cultures to the west and Slavic to the east and south.

All of which helps to explain the wonderful variety you find in the country. Germanic, Hungarian, Italian and Slavic influences can be found in the in different parts of the country, making touring it an exciting experience – like travelling around Europe in miniature.

All of this effects the wines too, as you might expect. Those from the Istrian coastline often have an Italian and Mediterranean feel to them, while the wines of North Eastern Slovenia have a feel of Austrian purity about them.

Recently I have put on some very well received Slovenian tastings, so I thought that I would tell you about them as I really want more people to discover the delights of Slovenian wine.

Wine map of Slovenia - click for a larger view.

Wine map of Slovenia – click for a larger view.

Slovenia has three main wine regions, Primorska, Posavje, and Podravje, which are then divided into districts.

Podravje is in the north east of the country, it borders Austria and Hungary and includes the important districts of Jeruzalem-Ormož and Ptuj.

Posavje is in the south east and borders Croatia – I have not shown any wines from there.

Primorje means coastal or littoral and incorporates all the districts near the sea and the Italian border in the west of Slovenia. This region includes the districts of Goriška Brda / Brda, Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley and Kras.

Podravje Region Wines

My first two wines come from Puklavec & Friends. The Puklavec family had been growing grapes and making wine since at least the 1930s and Martin Puklavec ran the cooperative in Jeruzalem-Ormož from the 1930s to the 1950s. The family had lost their vineyards over the years and in 2008 decided to buy back the old family estates and to get back into the wine business. They have done so in a very clever and focussed way. They make clean, well made, international wines that have wide appeal and so are readily available, even in the unadventurous UK, they also make Tesco Finest Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc-Furmint, which is also very drinkable.

Puklavec-Freinds-Sauvignon-Blanc-Pinot-Grigio-2011-e13334456961882013 Puklavec & Friends Sauvignon Blanc-Pinot Grigio
Puklavec & Friends
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Jeruzalem-Ormož

Jeruzalem-Ormož is a beautiful place of rolling hills between the Drava and Mura rivers. The rivers temper the heat, as do cool winds from the north, which makes it perfect for fresh, ripe and balanced white wines.

A light fresh, easy drinking white with just 10.5% alcohol. It’s bright, grassy, floral and fruity with a light touch of the tropical about it and it gives plenty of uncomplicated pleasure – 84/100 points.

Available in the UK for £7.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

411628_a_puklavec---friends-furmint-4116282013 Puklavec & Friends Furmint
Puklavec & Friends
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Jeruzalem-Ormož

I love Furmint, it’s a classic Hungarian grape where it famously makes the sweet wines of Tokaji as well as some very exciting dry whites. The grape is widely grown in eastern Slovenia, where it is used to make dry white wines and is traditionally called Šipon.

This wine is a little more complex and has a lovely bright, floral aroma with fresh citrus and some richer herbal notes as well. The palate is a little broader with some apple as well as lemon, lime and a dash of orange and those herbs again. Lees ageing has given some body to the palate and there is a little touch of spice too. All in all an attractive and refreshing wine – 85/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

Bojan Kobal, a photograph I took when we were both judging in Dubrovnik.

Bojan Kobal, a photograph I took when we were both judging in Dubrovnik.

The next two wines are made by Bojan Kobal, a friend of mine who is a very talented winemaker – not that I would say that to his face, obviously. He is a very nice fellow whose family have been involved in winemaking since 1931. In fact Bojan grew up surrounded by vineyards and wine and went on to study oenology, which led on to a series of senior winemaking jobs to hone his craft before he returned to run the family estates.They are based in the Haloze district of Lower Styria / Štajerska, which is a stretch of hills along the banks of the Drava River near the charming city of Ptuj. The vineyards in this part of the world look gorgeous, as they grow grass between the rows to prevent soil erosion on the steep slopes.

For some reason Bojan’s wines are not yet available in the UK, which is strange, because they are really very, very good. If any importers are reading this, do yourselves a favour and bring in Bojan’s wines.

Kobal SB2015 Kobal Sauvignon Blanc
Kobal Wines
Ptuj
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Štajerska (this translates as Lower Styria, Upper Styria is a region of Austria)

If you think you know Sauvignon Blanc, think again. This is an amazingly good take on the grape. Yes it is fresh, yes it is bright and has plenty of zing, but it isn’t a caricature of a wine as so many commercial Sauvignons can be. This is serious stuff with depth, concentration and richness as well as that lovely refreshing zing of acidity that Sauvignon does so well. There is grapefruit, mandarin, passionfruit and lime on the nose and palate, while the palate also has a lovely creamy texture from ageing on the lees. This is amazingly long and fine and carries its 14% alcohol effortlessly. If more Sauvignon tasted like this, I’d drink it! A great wine that really excited everyone at my tastings – 93/100 points.

b400000489962012 Kobal Blaufränkisch
Kobal Family Estates
Ptuj
ZGP / PDO Štajerska

I like Blaufränkisch, it’s known as Lemberger in Germany and Kékfrankos in Hungary and in Slovenia it is more properly called Modra Frankinja, but I guess Blaufränkisch might be an easier sell. The grape is known sometimes as the Pinot Noir of the East, because it produces wines with similar weight to Pinot and that often have a similarly fragile quality. Despite being associated with Austria and Hungary more than anywhere else, the grape goes back to the time of Charlemagne, hence the Frankish part of the name. There is actually a small town called Lemberg – Lemberg pri Šmarju – in Lower Styria and some sources say it was from there that the grape was exported to Germany and hence the reason for the Lemberg name there and in the USA – although of course the area was part of Austria at that time.

The nose is rich and enticing with ripe plum and earthy notes with a touch of spice and some leather showing development. The palate is soft and round with juicy fruit and smooth tannins giving a velvety texture. There are rich plum, prune and dark chocolate flavours going through to the incredibly long finish. This is a fine wine, beautifully made and very polished, everybody was impressed and I didn’t want the bottle to finish – 93/100 points.

Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

Primorska Region Wines – the Vipava Valley

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

I was very taken with the Vipava Valley. It is a beautiful rural landscape and is home to a bunch of dedicated winemakers who use the sub-Mediterranean climate together with the cooling winds that rip through the valley, to craft some stunning wines. Like most of the country, the wines are mainly white, but there is a little bit of red too. Excitingly the valley is home to two indigenous white grape varieties not found anywhere else, Pinela and Zelen.

Zmago Petrič, on the right, explaining his wines.

Zmago Petrič of the Guerrilla Estate, on the right, explaining his wines.

CP2014 Guerila Pinela
Guerila Estate
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

This is a new estate, created by Zmago Petrič in 2006, but they are really going places. Zmago farms their 7 hectares bio-dynamically and use spontaneous fermentations with the wild yeast. This Pinela is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on the lees for 9 months.

This lovely wine manages to straddle being both rich and fresh. It has mouthwatering acidity with fresh apple, rich citrus and some creaminess on the palate. This has lovely concentration and focus and it is a lovely, delicious and appetising style of wine that would go with just about anything. I have a hunch it would be great with pesto – 91/100 points.

CC2012 Guerila Cuba
Guerila Estate
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

Zmago produces this unusual, to me anyway, blend of 50/50 Merlot and Barbera – Barbera is of course from Piemonte in Italy, but is quite widely used in the Vipava Valley. This wine is fermented in stainless steel to accentuate the fruit and then aged 2 years in 225 litre oak casks.

There are savoury aromas here, together with some black fruit and coffee notes. It is a medium bodied wine with soft tannins and lots of red and black fruit, with touches of espresso and cocoa from the oak ageing. There are dried fruit characters too and a distinct note of blackberry. A lovely wine – 89/100 points.

Primož Lavrenčič

Primož Lavrenčič of the Burja Estate.

Burja_Petite-Burja-Zelen_0.75L2014 Petite Burja Zelen
Burja Estate
Podnanos
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

Another small, 6 hectare, estate that is farmed bio-dynamically. Primoz’s family own the well known Sutor Esate , but in 2009 he decided to set out on his own and so created Burja, which is named for the Bora wind that roars down the valley. I was thrilled to try the other local grape, Zelen means green in Slovene.

The wine is aromatic and fresh smelling with some light creamy notes. There is plenty of apple and grass and fresh blossom too. The palate has a nice creamy touch, but apart fro m that it’s a zesty wine and has citrus flavours, green apple and something saline and mineral about it. A delicious and easy to drink wine that would be perfect as a classy aperitif or with shellfish – 91/100 points

Burja_Burja-Bela_0.75L2013 Burja Bella
Burja Estate
Podnanos
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

The main white wine of the estate is this blend, which is a very different style. It is a blend of 30% Laski Rizling / Welschriesling, 30% Rebula and ‘other varieties’, I assume some Malvasia, Pinela and Zelen. Fermented in upright wooden casks with 8 days maceration on the skin. Spontaneous fermentation with the wild yeast, 18 months ageing in oak barrels and no filtration.

The nose is attractively waxy and smoky with some sweet spices and nuts. The palate is smooth and soft, but mouth filling, with nuts, cream and rich peach together with a seam of fresh grapefruit acidity keeping it all balanced and thrilling. This is very fine, with a long satisfying finish – 93/100 points.

Primorska Region Wines – the Kras & Istria

These two districts are a little more demanding I find. The wines are very specific to their place and style and they use grape varieties that are often very difficult to tame. In fact the main black grape in these areas is Refošk, which is also widely used over the border in the nearby regions of Italy. Over there it is called Refosco. In the Kras / Karst district Refošk is often called Teran. The main white grape around here, and also very often over the border, is Malvazija, Malvasia in Italy.

Branko & Vasja Čotar - photo courtesy of the winery.

Branko & Vasja Čotar – photo courtesy of the winery.

Cottar fizz2009 Čotar Črna
Branko & Vasja Čotar
ZGP / PDO Kras / Karst / Carso

I have long admired the wines of Čotar – pronounced Cho’tar – it is a father and son run winery in the Carst, or Kras in Slovenian, district that is just inland from Trieste. That city, now so obviously Italian was once a principally Slovene city and the principal port of Austria. The Italian Carso district has the same limestone soil riddled with cave systems and underwater rivers and produces similarly fascinating and unruly wines. They are thoroughly European wines with astringent characters and often more minerality than fruit.

Branko & Vasja Čotar began making wine for their restaurants in 1974 and slowly winemaking took over. They bottled their first vintage in 1990 and today they farm 7 hectares in this harsh limestone landscape that has an iron-rich topsoil. They grow Refosco, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc, Vitovska, or Vitovska Grganja or Garganja which is a local white grape. All the farming is organic, the fermentations spontaneous and they use as little sulphur as possible. In my experience they make a stunning Cabernet Sauvignon.

This wine is a sparkling red Refošk, which is not to everyone’s taste, but i love red sparklers. Rich and refreshing, as you drink them cold and serve them with fatty meat dishes. The base wine spent 3 years in big wooden vats and the finished wine spent 12 months on the lees, but was never disgorged. The lees remain in the bottle.

The froth is lovely, a bright deep blackberry crush and raspberry colour. The nose is forest floor and smoke from the oak, as well as dried fruits of the forest. The palate is rich and fresh with lots of blackberry and spice. An acquired taste, but a good one I think – 89/100 points.

Cottar red2006 Čotar TerraRosa
Branko & Vasja Čotar
ZGP / PDO Kras / Karst / Carso

This is an amazing wine. I do have to admit that there was some bottle variation, but the best ones were wonderful. It is a blend of 40% Teran, 40% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. A wild yeast fermentation in open wooden vats, no added sulphur and long maturation in 6 year old barrels. It is unfixed and unfiltered.

There was plenty of funk on the nose as you might imagine, but loads of freshness and fruit too, plums, blueberries and blackberries, as well as a little dusting of peppery, coffee oak. The palate offers loads of fruit all mixed up, plums, raspberries and blackberries, as well as spice, herbs and espresso tones. The finish is long and satisfying, but the wine cries out for slow roast lamb or suckling pig – 92/100 points.

The 2005 is available in the UK for #22.50 from VinCognito.

The view from the estate towards the sea. Photo courtesy of the winery.

The view from the Polič Estate towards the sea. Photo courtesy of the winery.

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Polič Estate terrace by night. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Polic2013 Polič Organic Refošk
Polič Estate
Truške
PGO / PGI Slovenska Istra

This is yet another new winery and once again everything is organic and biodynamic. This is only the second vintage and Neja and Peter Polič could not have chosen a more wonderful spot to build his winery. It is in the hills looking down at Slovenia’s short stretch of coast with the city port  of Koper and the beautiful seaside town of Piran in the distance. Strictly speaking this wine would be a ZGP / PDO Koper, but Peter keeps to the looser rules of the PGI Slovenska Istra, which is the same as Vin de Pays. He only grows 3 things, Refošk, Malvazija and olives.

I have only tasted the red and I was very impressed. Refošk is a difficult grape to tame. It can appear rustic, old fashioned and lacking in charm to someone not used to it. Not this one. Everyone loved its stylish character. It’s unusual too, but in a good way. The wine was aged in french barriques for 7 months.

The nose gives rich blackcurrant fruit together with prunes, malty loaf, chocolate and raisins. The tannins are smooth and velvety while it gives flavours of rich bitter cherry and cherry stones, more chocolate and kirsch. There is plenty of acidity, earthy, herbal Mediterranean flavours and a long, fresh finish. A wonderful take on a grape that I often find hard to love, I did love this. Drink it with Mediterranean food, even a little bit chilled – 91/100 points.

Primorska Region Wines – Goriška Brda

Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

Looking north in Brda.

Looking north in Brda.

Aleš Kristančič on the terrace at Movia.

Aleš Kristančič in full flow on the terrace at Movia.

Ambra-1500-sq2012 Movia Sivi Pinot Ambra
Movia Estate
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

Movia was the first estate that I visited in Slovenia, back in 2002 and it was a total revelation – I wrote about the visit here. I thought the wines were amazingly good then and I do now as well, but they have got a lot more quirky in recent years. Movia has belonged to the same family since 1820, eight generations of winemakers so far, and has long been the most famous producer in Slovenia. Since Aleš Kristančič took over from his father – also Aleš – a few years ago he has taken the estate in a new direction, towards natural wines. It isn’t a big estate, just 15 hectares – 7 of which are actually over the border in Italy – you can spit over the frontier from the winery terrace, but it is now farmed organically and bio-dynamically. The passion, some might say manic exuberance with which Aleš assaults everything, really shines through in his wines. Like him they have something to say and have a vital energy about them. He is a dedicated winemaker with great attention to detail and all his wines are good, many are astonishing.

There are three things that I generally don’t like, Pinot Grigio, Natural Wine and Orange Wine – these are white wines fermented on their skins like a red wine – and this is all three in one! And what do you know, I loved it. It was fermented in barrels on the skins, with no added sulphur or yeast and then aged for 18 months in oak – they like oak at Movia, but the wines hardly ever seem oaky as they leave it in the wood for so long that the flavours seem to fall away again, or so they tell me.

The colour is a rich apricot, while the nose has aromas of peach skin, red apple and dried apricots, there’s some orange peel notes together with ripe melon and something salty and gently smoky like ham. The palate is a beguiling mix of fresh, rich and salty / savoury with a deep core of sweet ripe, dried fruit and lots of minerality too. The finish is long and the wine is rather moreish, which is a shame as I have none left. A great wine, that shows what you can do with Pinot Grigio, but it isn’t for everyone – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 a bottle from Meadowvale Wines.
Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

Marjan Simčič, the quiet winemaker of Brda.

Marjan Simčič, the quiet winemaker of Brda.

Just a stroll away from Movia, you come to Marjan Simčič’s winery and Marian could not be more different from his neighbour. Where Aleš Kristančič is loud and gregarious and turns every tasting into a karaoke party, Marjan is quiet and unassuming. And yet he is equally passionate about his wines and it shows too. Again this is not a big estate, just 18 hectares that the family have tended since around 1860 and again half of them are in Italy. Until 1947 Brda and Collio were the same region, the words both mean hill in their respective languages. Marian farms organically and bio-dynamically and does not fine or filter his wines and only uses the natural yeasts.

Sim Sauv2012 Simčič Sauvignon Blanc Selekcija
Marjan Simčič
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

Barrel fermented Sauvignon aged in cask for 24 months, so again not to everyone’s taste, but this is a great wine none the less. There is a real polish to this wine, you can tell that it’s good as you drink it. The oak and the lees ageing and the spontaneous fermentation have all worked together to make this a richly textured wine. There is fresh acidity there, but it still feels fat, there is varietal character too with that rich blackcurrant leaf note. The palate feels pristine and beautifully balanced and it is very rich with a silky texture. If you like good white Bordeaux, then this is for you. I would love to try it with a sole – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Bancroft Wines.

Sim PN2012 Simčič Pinot Noir Selekcija
Marjan Simčič
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

This Pinot was fermented in stainless steel tanks with a long skin maceration and then aged for 28 months in French oak vats. The nose is wild and intoxicating, possibly from the wild yeast, light smoke and coffee and cedar as well as a touch of kirsch and even a twist of orange peel. It is wonderfully concentrated with rich, ripe cherry fruit, smooth, velvety tannins and a plump, sumptuous feel to the palate. Nothing like a Burgundy, but a magnificent wine – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from Bancroft Wines, Hedonism Wines, Red Squirrel and Slurp.
Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

The reason for writing this was to pass on the fact that lots of people really enjoyed these wines when I showed them in recent tastings. In fact they found them exciting. There was such variety, everything in fact from brisk, pure white varietals, to fine white blends, natural wines and complex long aged reds. There was winemaking and grape growing of the highest order – most of these wines were made in the vineyard and not the winery – there was passion, there was ambition and above all there was joy.

These were wines that could really be enjoyed and isn’t that what it’s all about?

So the next time you are feeling adventurous, try some Slovenian wine. I can guarantee that you will enjoy it.

Hardscrabble & Feasts in the Douro

The Americans have a genius for words that describe exactly what they mean, so that you can understand it even if you have never heard it before.

Hardscrabble is just such a word and means that the land is so difficult to farm and so poor in nutrients that all you can do is to scratch a subsistence living. I first came across the expression at Linden Vineyards, where Jim Law had bought an abandoned “hardscrabble” farm and turned it into one of Virginia’s most exciting wineries. The place was so steep and stoney that Jim even named the vineyard and the wines produced from it “hardscrabble”.

Rugged, unforgiving vineyards are very often the best place for wine grape growing though, as they force the vine to work hard at surviving and so produce a small crop of tiny grapes with concentrated flavours and depth. In fact land like that, steep, stoney, inhospitable, inaccessible and harsh is perfect for wine grapes, but almost useless for any other marketable crop, which is why so many of these places have become famous as vineyard regions. These hard landscapes tend to be a feature of European wine making more than anywhere else and seem to be most frequently found in the Mediterranean world. RoussillonCinque Terre, Santorini, Pantelleria, Rapsani and Priorat could all be regarded as “hardscrabble” wine regions.

Portugal and Galicia do not actually have Mediterranean coasts, but surely they are culturally part of that world too, so I would add the astonishing Ribera Sacra to that list and perhaps the most wild and romantic wine landscape of them all – Portugal’s Douro Valley.

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The Douro – vineyards and cruise ship.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

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The terraces soften the landscape and look very appealing.

The Douro is the 3rd longest river in Iberia, after the Tagus and the Ebro. In Spain – where it is called the Duero – it flows through Castilla y León, home to Ribera del Duero and Toro. The countryside here is beautiful, but not rugged or particularly harsh, that comes later once we are within sight of Portugal.  Arribes (del Duero) – where the river marks the frontier – is where the dramatic landscapes start, from here to Vila Nova de Gaia, near Porto, major centres of population are scarce and the wild, rugged, steep, hardscrabble hillsides dominate. In Portugal’s Douro Valley these slopes are home to the vineyards that create Port wines and the still / table wines of  D.O.C. Douro.

The Douro is one of the world’s great wine regions, but I had never managed to visit the place for myself until just the other week as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign. What I saw fascinated me and educated me about the wines from this beautiful place.

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New terraces side by side with rubbed out vineyards.

The region is renowned today for the rich, sweet, fortified Ports, but of course it wasn’t always like that. In the middle ages – and before – this valley made normal wine, probably quite ordinary stuff as far as we can make out from the sparse records. It is even possible that the first wines known as Ports to the outside world were more akin to red Vinho Verde – light-bodied, low in alcohol and very acidic. We certainly know that even though Cromwell favoured them these wines did not catch on with English consumers until the early eighteenth century.

In those days the spirit was only added as the wine was being shipped, this was to protect it from turning bad on the voyage, so that ‘Port’ would most certainly have been dry – as long as the alcoholic fermentation was complete. It seems that until well into the 1820s there was no set time to add the spirit and no set amount of spirit either, so wines labelled Port could have varied enormously from dry red wines to something like the Port we know today. From what I have read it would appear that adding the spirit before the fermentation was complete – and creating a sweet wine – was not universal practice until the 1850s.

Even then not everyone approved, the influential Joseph James Forrester – created Baron Forrester in 1855 in recognition of his important work in mapping the Douro wine region – was campaigning against fortification and trying to persuade Port makers to return to making normal, but high quality, red wines.

Looking at the vineyards it really struck me just how much Port some people must drink! I like Port, very much but just cannot drink very much of it and yet, looking at the vast expanse of vineyards, someone must drink it all. Looking at those intensively planted slopes it is astonishing that is took so long for table wine production to catch on here. It was not until 1952 that a serious attempt was made to produce a fine red table wine from the region, the legendary Barca Velha made by Ferreira. It was slow to catch on at first, but gained in reputation until eventually the tide turned and more and more growers started making table wines in the Douro region. Finally in 1979 the Douro Denominacão de Origem Controlada / D.O.C. was created for the dry, still / table wines of the region – Port had already had its production zone defined by charter in 1756, making it probably the earliest such official wine region in the world.

Even today though the wines of this valley remain less famous than Port, which is a shame because many of the wines that I tasted were really good, but then so were the Ports themselves.

I have often wondered why the ‘Port’ region is so far away from the city whose name it takes. Well the reason is simple, near the coast the weather is wetter and more humid, so the grapes are grown further East and inland where they are sheltered from the Atlantic rains and winds by the Marão and Montemuro mountains. This gives the Douro a more continental climate with extremely hot summers and harsh winters – there are some pockets of a Mediterranean climate too the closer you get to the Spanish border.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Baixo Corgo – the original area where it all began. This westernmost subregion is wetter than the others and is widely regarded as most suitable for the production of the simpler Ruby and Tawny Ports. However, some of the wines that I tried from this area were superb.

Cima Corgo – the heartland of Port production, this is where the majority of the famous Quintas, or grape farms, are located.

Douro Superior / Upper Douro – this is the hottest and driest zone and extends all the way to the Spanish border. Because it is so cut off it is the most recent zone to be cultivated and so is not intensively planted. Much of this zone is used for table wines rather than Ports.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Classically the vineyards for Port production are on the well drained schist soils – decayed slate – and are terraced to make them easier to farm and to counter soil erosion. The traditional terraces look lovely, either the socalcos – the original type that look like dry stone wall steps, or the bigger nineteenth century type terrace that is a gentle slope contained by a dry stone wall that allows use of horses and mules.

Patamares at front right.

Patamares at front right, terraces behind.

The more modern patamares, with their big earth banks and very low density planting are not nearly so attractive or in keeping with the landscape and I understand they are now out of favour again.

Everywhere you look in the Douro there is a feast for your eyes, it truly is beautiful and you can clearly see why the wines are like they are. It is a place that draws in the heat and almost abuses the vines that grow here by denying them water and nutrients – all so they can produce tiny amounts of deeply flavoured juice that always has a deep mineral character to it. When drinking the wines you can almost imagine that you are tasting these hillsides.

I will write more about some of the wineries I visited and some of the wines I tasted, but here are some of the highlights of my trip, the first of which had nothing to do with wine:

Trainspotting in the Douro
It has long been a dream of mine to travel on the Douro railway, the wonderful meandering train track that opened up this inaccessible valley in the mid to late nineteenth century. Sadly this was a short visit, so that ambition is still to be fulfilled. However, I was able to se the famous railway station in the delightful town of Pinhão. It’s a famous tourist attraction in its own right because of the beautiful tile decorations, which really are worth seeing.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

And now for some wine highlights:

Alves de Sousa, Quinta da Gaviosa
The first stop on my visit was at Alves de Sousa, this turned into a real highlight because they made us feel so at home – oh and the wines were really very good indeed.

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Tiago Alves de Sousa telling us about his 80 year old Abandonado vineyard.

This is a true family concern run by Domingos Alves de Sousa and his son Tiago. The impression I got was of a really good balance between Domingos, who seemed traditional and old fashioned in all the good ways and Tiago, who clearly loves his land, but would have been equally at home in a New York bar or an architects practice. The family have long owned some superb vineyards, but have only been producing and bottling their own Ports and table wines since 1987.

They own several Quintas, but we were at the beautiful Quinta da Gaviosa near Régua in the Baixo Corgo, which is the hub of their operation and the family home. The slopes are steep and the deep schist soils clearly visible through the thin ground cover.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Ambonada vineyard. It was abandoned and has been brought back to productive life.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Abandonado vineyard. It was abandoned and has been nurtured back to productive life.

The Alves de Sousa were among the pioneers of table wine production in the Douro and I thought all their wines were fascinating. Good though their reds and Ports are – and they  are very good – it was a couple of whites that really fired my imagination here.

For their white wines they use traditional white Douro grapes – a mixture of Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Viosinho and Arinto – from a mixture of very old vines – 60 years old or so – and newer carefully planted vineyards very high up on north facing slopes where the air is cooler and so the grape’s acids are better preserved.

The 2009 Alves de Sousa Branco de Gaivosa Reserva is a beautifully complex, textured, richly fruity, herbal and flavoursome wine, full of flavour and all balanced by a wonderfully crisp acidity – 88/100 points.

Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal BrancoThe 2007 Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal Branco  is an altogether more individualistic sort of wine, full of character and depth. For this dry white they decided to make a wine with some of the personality and intensity of a white Port. To achieve this it was fermented (on the skins for the first 48 hours) in new French oak with hyper-oxidation and hard pumping over and a further 6 months in new French oak. The result is extraordinary, full flavoured, concentrated and quirky with barley sugar, caramelised orange, rich apricot, spices and honey, in fact it sort of tastes like a very rich Sauternes, but is bone dry. It put me in mind of those new wave amphora aged wines and orange wines, but unlike most of those it is utterly delicious  – 93/100 points.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval
A wonderful highlight was staying at the beautiful Quinta do Noval, whose Ports and table wines are justifiably famous. It was tremendously exciting to spend a night at this wonderful place surrounded by the neatly ordered terraced vineyards. A comprehensive tasting of their range followed by a stroll around these terraces gave spectacular views – mind you the one from my bedroom took a lot of beating too – and helped get an overview of this amazing place.

The view from my bedroom, the building centre right is Noval's winery.

The view from my bedroom, the building bottom right is Noval’s winery.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

Later a civilised aperitif of Noval Extra Dry White Port and tonic prepared our palates for a fabulously traditional dinner of roast goat that paired perfectly with the superb Quinta do Noval red table wines. My favourites were:

Touriga Nacional2009 Quinta do Noval Touriga Nacional
D.O.C. Douro

 

This had a deep and beautiful colour, while the nose was scented, aromatic and herbal with heather, oregano and rosemary, spices and an earthy, rocky, granite minerality.
The palate was savoury and rich with deep sugar plum fruit, earthy and granitic savoury characters, round tannins with just a touch of bite and great length – 89/100 points.
quinta_do_noval_2007_douro_doc_3__39102_big2009 Quinta do Noval
D.O.C. Douro

 

If anything this blend of 80% Touriga Nacional; 20% Touriga Franca was even more exciting, more intense and vibrant.
The colour was a lovely opaque and intense cassis, while the very rich nose offered liquorice, earthy mineral notes, wild herbs, mocha and a hint of spice.
The palate was very smooth and supple with fine grain tannins, fleshy black fruit to the fore, a supple texture and touches of warm granite, clean earth, leather and eucalyptus. I really loved this wine, it was rich, concentrated and pretty full-bodied, but still had plenty of freshness and elegance – 93/100 points

As I say it was only a short trip of a few days, but I was able to visit some wonderful places and try some superb Ports and wines that really made me aware of the great quality and wonderful things that are produced in this astonishingly beautiful valley. It may be a hard place to grow grapes, but the results do seem to make all the hard work worthwhile.

Other delights
I will tell you about some of my other experiences another time, but I will leave you this time with one of the great simple pleasures of Portugal – the coffee.

Coffee is everywhere in Portugal and the bars all announce who their coffee supplier is on their signs, much as pubs here used to indicate their brewery. The coffee in Portugal always seems very high quality to me and much hotter than the strangely cold coffee they serve in Italy. My favoured style is the Café Pingo or sometimes Pingado, the local term for a cortado, noisette or macchiato. I have been told that the same coffee in Lisbon and southern Portugal is a Café Garoto, but some people describe that as a weaker version as well, so order with care.

As well as coffee the Portuguese like their cakes too, and what cakes they have too. My favourite and the signature cake of Portugal is the scrummy pastel de nata – or if you are greedy (yes, yes, like me) the plural is pastéis de nata. Some people translate these as custard tarts, but that is to do them an injustice. Made properly the pastry has a crisp and flaky texture that makes these tarts irresistible when partnered with the rich creamy, eggy custard-like filling.

Pasteis de nata really are delicious...

Pasteis de nata really are delicious…

The lovely city of Porto / Oporto – I can never work out whether it starts with an O or a P! –  has a vibrant café culture and boasts a handful of wonderful cafés from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, all are worth a visit. So far my favourite is the beautiful fin de siècle Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

A café Pingu.

A café Pingu.

So, you see the Douro is an amazing place, beautiful, a joy to visit and full of delights. I will tell you a bit more about my trip there and to Porto very soon.

Wines of Andalucia: On the Rise

Bodegas Barranco Oscuro in the Alpujarras

Recently I have become aware that Spain’s most unlikely seeming wine region is on the rise and producing wine that is worthy of attention. I wrote a piece about it that has been published on Catavino – you might like it…click here to read my article

 

 

Natural wine – fad or future?

Biodynamic Pinot Meunier vines in Champagne

Natural wines are everywhere at the moment, they have caused quite a stir and the Natural Wine Movement seems to be gaining momentum all the time. People are talking about them and asking about them – which is great as I want people to talk, ask and think about wine.

As a name ‘natural wine’ sounds wonderful, it sounds pure and well…natural. It also implies that all other wines are somehow NOT natural.

Is that fair? Are all wines that do not declare themselves to be ‘natural wines’ not natural or somehow un-natural?

I know of many producers who do not like to make much of a song or a dance out of their ‘natural’ credentials, but to let their wines speak for themselves – so you can enjoy their wines without knowing that they are made from or organic grapes or on biodynamic principles. So, are their wines unfairly assumed not to be natural? I think so.

A part of me thinks that the term ‘natural wine’ is so massively positive towards a small minority of wines that it becomes overwhelmingly negative to the remainder – it implies that there is something wrong and artificial with all other wines. It is a bit like the anti-abortion people describing themselves as ‘pro-life’ – as if those of us on the other side of the debate are somehow opposed to it. Continue reading