A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

New Zealand Spreads its Wings – 5 Wines of the Week and something rather special

Don’t only drink Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – there is so much more to enjoy.

I don’t know what it is with me. Perhaps I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to wine, but I love variety. The very thing that makes wine exciting to me is the infinite variety available. Which seems to put me out of kilter with many wine drinkers here in the UK who would appear to only drink the same few wine styles all the time.

If that is you, please, please branch out, experiment, try something new – what’s the worst that can happen?

Which brings me to my theme – New Zealand. Please remember to click all the links.

Marlborough vineyards - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Marlborough vineyards – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

I have long admired New Zealand wines and well remember my first taste of a wine from that far off country and it excited me very much. It was 1984, I had recently joined the trade and the company I worked for introduced three extraordinary sounding new wines to the range, one wine each from Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

They all seemed exotic beyond belief. You have to realise that the wine revolution had not yet happened and such things were not widely available. The Lebanese wine was Château Musar 1977, the Australian was Berri Estates South Australian Cabernet-Shiraz and the New Zealand wine was a Gewürztraminer made by an estate called Matawhero in the Gisborne region of North Island. I remember it as being really good and wish that I could still buy it over here.

I had recently fallen for the charms of the Gewürztraminer grape and drank a lot of it at the time – I hardly ever do now as the examples from Alsace seem much sweeter nowadays.

So my first taste of New Zealand wine would now be regarded as  a slightly left field offering, but I did not realise that then. Sauvignon Blanc did exist in New Zealand in those days, but it was early days. There wasn’t very much and it was far from being the most popular or dominant grape. Indeed the now ubiquitous Kiwi ‘Sav’ (why do they miss the U out when they pronounce it?) would have been the oddity then. What’s more the Marlborough region barely produced any wine at all. It is the now largest wine region in the country and produces something like 60% of New Zealand wine, while around 60% of production is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the years I have seen New Zealand wines proliferate on this market and sweep all before them. Everyone now drinks New Zealand wine. Or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc anyway. That is the dominant grape and most widely produced and consumed style.

Which has bugged me for quite a long time.

I like many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs and can see the attraction, but I want other things too and so wish that wine drinkers would experiment with all the other lovely wines that New Zealand produces. Of course it would help if the major outlets got a little more creative and actually stocked some of the other exciting wines coming out of New Zealand. However, things are getting better, it’s slow, but a wider range of New Zealand wines is beginning to be available.

To make my point I recently put on a tasting of the more unusual wines coming out of New Zealand at the moment. It wasn’t exhaustive by any means, but I managed to find some real variety and excellent wines that many people would enjoy. Collectively they are my Wines of the Week.

The White Wines

New Zealand is a cool climate wine producing country and so the production is overwhelmingly white. Although there are some warmer places and Pinot Noir of course performs well in the cool conditions of South Island, it just isn’t hot enough to ripen black grapes to make red wines in most of the country. My line up of white wines was really good, they all showed well and had that classic Kiwi clean brightness to them that  that I can only sum up as a feeling of purity.

Vineyards in Gisborne - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Vineyards in Gisborne – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

image-12015 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Gisborne

Albariño is a Spanish grape from the north western region of Galicia, where it is most famously used to make the often delicious wines of Rias Baixas. They are amongst the best Spanish white wines and are great with seafood. The grape is also grown over the border in Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho. This is the second vintage of this wine that I have tasted and I have loved them both. Te Awa are a wonderful winery, who produce some terrific wines and created the Left Field label specifically for the less widely seen styles of wine. I am thrilled that Albariño might be breaking through as a popular and international grape variety – it certainly deserves to.

The aromas are floral and scented with delicate, but ripe peach and zesty citrus aromas. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with mandarin and nectarine characters and a twist of lime on the finish. This is a light, fresh, crisp style that is really, really good and would be gorgeous with some seared scallops or just on its own. It feels pristine, bright and pure as a mountain stream, surely anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would appreciate this – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from The Wine Reserve – for more stockists click here.

Yealand's Seaview Vineyard - photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

Yealand’s Seaview Vineyard – photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

yealands-estate-gruner-veltliner-nv2014 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Yealands Estate
Awatere Valley, Marlborough

Yealands is an impressive producer and is the brainchild of the engaging Peter Yealand who in his time has farmed mussels and deer as well as wine. Most of their production is from a large single block of vines – the largest single parcel of vines in the county – in the Awatere Valley, the cool south eastern part of Marlborough. It is right by the sea and is called the Seaview Estate as it looks out over Cook Strait.

Grüner Veltliner is the signature white grape of Austria, where it makes some tremendous wines. Much like Albariño, I get the feel that Grüner Veltliner might be on the cusp of breaking through as an international grape and again I think that is an excellent thing. 15% was fermented in second and third use French oak barrels and the wine spent 3 months on the lees with lees stirring to help the complexity and the texture.

Another wine with a lovely aromatic nose that is delightfully floral and gently spicy with a dash of white pepper. Again that purity shines through and the palate is gorgeously silky and lightly textured, being gently creamy like coconut – presumably helped by the oak. There is plenty of discrete apricot like fruit too as well as refreshing citrus acidity giving plenty of zing. Again I cannot imagine anyone that likes Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc not enjoying this, but it is deliciously different – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from Great Western Wine – for more stockists click here.

image-1-22014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Villa Maria
Wairau Valley, Marlborough

Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose, as the skins are pink.
This wine is from Fletcher’s Vineyard which is in the famed Golden Mile, which is a strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the sub-region of Rapaura.

The nose is fresh and enticing with pear, delicately smoky peach and some mineral notes.
The palate is by turns stony and mineral, pear-like and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit and mandarin too. There is a leesy texture here too giving a gentle smokiness and a lightly ‘mealy’ quality that is very attractive.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominant than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from The Pip Stop and The New Zealand House of Wine.

image-12013 Esk Valley Verdelho
Esk Valley Estate
Hawkes Bay

I am very fond of Verdelho as it is a lovely grape and I wonder why we don’t see it more often. Just to be clear, it is not the same as Verdejo or Verdicchio or any of the other similarly named varieties that people often assume are the same. It is actually the Madeira grape, but put to a very different use here. Some authorities think Verdelho might be a long lost clone of Riesling, but they say that about Albariño too.

Esk Valley is a wonderful estate that is much more famous for producing some of New Zealand’s finest red wines, but they also make some marvellous whites, including some excellent Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Selected from two vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and was mainly cold fermented in tank, with some being fermented using the natural yeast in large – 600 litre – French oak casks.

Delightfully aromatic and floral with a real zing of lime and a mineral edge together with a touch of oiliness. On the palate the texture marries beautifully with the freshness and the minerality. The oak just gives a dollop of cream and a bit of complexity, but never dominates, while some tropical fruit and citrus flavours of mandarin and lime make it utterly delicious – 89/100 points.

The 2014 vintage is available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company and The New Zealand House of Wine – for more stockists click here.

The Red Wines

Being a cool climate country, New Zealand is nowhere near as famous for its reds as its whites and only a small proportion of the country’s production is red. Pinot Noir is by far the most dominant grape and is the main one used in South Island – by some margin. However, other grape varieties do get a look in and, just as with the whites, the number of grape varieties used is increasing and becoming more exciting. Hawkes Bay – or Hawke’s Bay – in North Island is home to the greatest concentration of red wine production in New Zealand – apart from Pinot Noir which is mainly from South Island. It is warmer here, with well drained soils, so it can produce some good concentrated red wines. The Gimblett Gravels is the most prestigious sub-zone and home to many of the country’s finest red wines. Traditionally it’s Merlot and Cabernet country, but Syrah is quickly becoming pretty mainstream, while Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo, Montepulciano and even Grenache are beginning to get noticed.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

lf-btl-malbec-nv-d-jpg2014 Left Field Malbec
Te Awa Collection
Hawkes Bay

Malbec has been used in some of the Cabernet-Merlot blends of Hawkes Bay for quite a number of years, just as it is used in Bordeaux, but often with a higher proportion. I have only once before had a single varietal Malbec from New Zealand though and that was in the 2003 vintage (I think) when Esk Valley made one because their Merlot and Cabernet were not up to the mark and so all they had left was Malbec. This version is completely unoaked.

The colour was an extraordinary vivid, deep purple – you could paint with this. The nose gave off rich plum, blueberry and blackberry, together with rich cocoa and some pungent spice notes. The palate was fresh and juicy, with chunky rich fruit and a deep inky feel. There is liquorice and pepper together with black fruit and a dryness from the – artfully tamed – tannins that gives the wine a sappy, briar-like flavour. I love the upfront and juicy quality of this. It feels fresher and cooler than its Argentinian cousins and would go very nicely with a barbecue or a steak, I would enjoy it chilled too – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

trinity-hill-wine-568d7a79694b32014 Trinity Hill Tempranillo
Trinity Hill Estate
Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill is a great producer – right up there with Craggy Range – that produces some of the best Syrah in the country, as well as many other great wines. One of the best ways to taste their wines in the UK is by visiting the excellent Bleeding Heart restaurant, which is part owned by John Hancock who owns Trinity Hill. The Tempranillo was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a mixture of tank and French and American oak barrels for a short time.

Again this youthful wine had a bright and vivid purple colour. The nose was earthy and a bit spicy with juicy plum aromas and the sweeter note of dried currants. The palate was sumptuously fruity with lots of black fruit, a touch of red fruit and a sort of sweet and sour thing going on with a touch of drying tannins. This is totally unlike the Rioja style of Tempranillo, being more fruity and less savoury in style. It might not reach the same heights of excellence as Trinity Hill’s Syrah, but is is a lovely wine with vivid, ripe, chunky fruit – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £18 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

1staete_landt_arie_syrah_20112010 Staete Landt Estate Arie Syrah
Staete Landt Estate
Rapaura, Marlborough

Staete Landt was the brainchild of a charming Dutch couple called Ruud and Dorien Maasdam. In Marlborough’s early wine days they bought an old apple orchard and turned it into one of the most respected wine estates in the country. The estate name is a reference to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered what we now call New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staete Landt’, land for the Dutch state. I like them and I love their wines. They and their wines always have something to interesting to say. In the early days, late 1970s and early 1980s, plenty of people planted Cabernet and Merlot in Marlborough and then discovered that they just cannot ripen properly, so apart from Pinot Noir and the odd maverick, you come across very few black grapes in Marlborough. So, finding someone brave enough to make premium Syrah in the cool conditions of Marlborough is a real thrill.

Just as with the Sauvignon Gris above, the estate is in the ‘Golden Mile’ strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the Marlborough sub-region of Rapaura. Ruud has conducted in-depth soil analysis on his vineyard and identified 24 different blocks which are treated as individual vineyards in effect. Since 2005 Syrah has been planted on two of them, but the 2010 comes just from the Arie block. The grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed. They had a pre-ferment cold soak for seven days and a long post fermentation maceration as well. These techniques help colour and flavour extraction while not extracting tannin. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

The maturity and class of this wine really showed. The nose was smoky, spicy and earthy with rich cherry, blackberry (some dried, some fresh fruit) and some dark chocolate. The palate was svelte with fine, sweet tannins, some leather and herbs as well as black fruit and some mushroom and truffle from age. It had lovely freshness running all the way through it and was very stylish and fine with a long finish – 92/100 points.

The 2011 is available in the UK for around £22 per bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Which could have been a great end to the tasting, but I had dug deep into my cellar and unearthed a wonderful treasure for the finale:

Vidal Estate in the 1920s - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate in the 1920s – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Soler bottle1998 Vidal Estate Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon
Vidal Estate
Hawke’s Bay

I have always been fascinated by the Vidal Esate for as long as I have known about it. Founded in 1905 it is the oldest NZ winery that was just a winery and not a mixed farm as well. Spaniard José Sole, had been making wine in New Zealand since 1865 and had anglicised his name to Joseph Soler. His nephew, Anthony Vidal, arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888 to help his uncle at his winery in Wanganui on the West coast of North island. Eventually Vidal wanted to set up his own winery and he bought an old stables and half a hectare of land near Hastings in the southern part of Hawke’s Bay, which was warmer and drier that Wanganui and boasted well drained stony soils. Today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria group and one of their best vineyards in Hawke’s Bay is named in honour of Joseph Soler.

I am always in awe of them when I think what drive and what determination the pair of them must have had to go all that way around the world in sailing ships to an isolated place with a tiny population and an uncertain future. 

This wine was a rigorous selection from a single block of the Soler vineyard, which had only been planted in 1993, so was very young. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in open vats with hand plunging four times a day to extract colour and flavour. It was pressed after two weeks post ferment maceration and then aged for 21 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. 1998 was a great vintage in Hawke’s Bay and perhaps the first to serve notice that this is a great red wine region.

The colour was quite gamey and brown, like Brown Windsor Soup, and a great deal of tannin had adhered to the inside of the bottle. The nose was vivacious and alive with currants, leather, cocoa, gamey / meaty, espresso and mint notes. The palate was very smooth with those currants again, dried blackcurrants, a savoury, meaty character, rich coffee, figs, fine milk chocolate and the merest touch of ripe, fine grain tannins. It had great complexity and concentration and was still vibrant and delicious with a wonderful decayed sweetness like rich dried fruit. I loved the wine and would like to try it with an old fashioned saddle of mutton or steak and kidney pudding, luckily I still have another bottle – 94/100 points.

This is no longer available anywhere that I am aware of, unless you want to offer me a lot of money for my last remaining bottle!

It was an excellent tasting, even though I say so myself, and gave a little snapshot of some of the new styles and interesting things coming out of this dynamic wine producing country – and not a Sauvignon Blanc in sight.

So the next time you drink something from New Zealand, try a different grape variety or style. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Wine of the Week 27 – amazing value dry Riesling

I love Riesling. It is one of the best white grapes in the world and it produces such a wonderful variety of wines that it pains me that more consumers do not love it as I do. It still seems to evoke laughable images of the 1970s and Liebfraumilch for many people, but what those people have to remember is that all the things they find funny about the 1970s now, were not funny then. Their younger selves – or their parents – actually liked wearing safari jackets and flares, eating chicken kiev and drinking Blue Nun – get over it I say.

It also might interest you to know though that Blue Nun never had any Riesling in it and most Liebfraumilch and cheap German wine was – and is – made from Müller-Thurgau grapes and not Riesling at all.

Riesling can be stylish, classy, refined and elegant and what’s more a great many are dry. If you want dry wines made from Riesling, then drink Riesling from Alsace, Austria, Washington State or Chile. All these places are produce some superb dry Riesling, but my Wine of the Week this week is cracking dry Riesling from the Clare Valley in South Australia. If the delights of Riesling have so far eluded you, but you enjoy Grüner Veltliner or Albariño, do give this wine a try, you might well enjoy it.

Clare Valley Vines at Taylors Wine. Photo courtesy of Taylors Wines.

Clare Valley Vines at Taylors Wine. Photo courtesy of Taylors Wines.

Map of South Eastern Australia  – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of South Eastern Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

The Exquisite Collection Clare Valley Riesling2013 Aldi The Exquisite Collection Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia
Riesling was once the work horse white grape of Australia and it is still widely grown. However, two areas of South Australia have really made a speciality of it and now produce superb premium Riesling in their own unique style, although many other grape varieties are planted there too. These wine regions are the Eden Valley and the Clare Valley.
Clare is probably the most famous and produces the iconic style of Australian Riesling, dry, medium-bodied and with lots of fruit balancing the grape’s natural acidity. They normally appear richer than their European counterparts and often have an oily character to them.
If you read the small print on the label you will see that this wine is made by Taylors Wines, who are a large, but very good quality family run producer that exports under the Wakefield label to avoid confusion with the Port house. 

Strangely the Clare Valley is not that cool, it actually has a Mediterranean climate, but the nights are cool and together with the height of the vineyards – around 350-400 metres above sea level – this ensures the wines retain their freshness, acidity and balance. It is an area of gently rolling hills in fact and not strictly speaking a valley at all, but it is very beautiful.

The nose is enticing and glorious with the freshness of lime and lime zest, some grapefruit and tangerine too and there is something mineral and stony about it as well. It smells fresh, vibrant and pristine, but has a little oily, waxy richness too.
The palate has lots of zing and fat, ripe fruit too. It has lovely, mouthwatering acidity making it clean, and crisp, as well as a juicy quality to the fruit; apples, pears and white peach, together with lemon and lime zest on the finish and some steely minerality.
Really good stuff that is just perfect as an aperitif or with light meals, fish dishes, shellfish and it is really good with most Asian cuisine – anything you dip into sweet chilli sauce in fact  – 88/100 points, this scores high for value and tastes much more expensive than it is.

I don’t like the label of this wine or The Exquisite Collection name Aldi have given the range, it’s a pretty terrible name, but who cares if the wine is this good?

 Available in the UK at £6.99 per bottle from Aldi.

I will certainly make sure that I have some of this on hand over Christmas, it is utterly delicious and a bargain at that.

Wine of the Week 24 – tasting País without Prejudice

The world is full of delicious wines and fascinating wines. They aren’t always the same ones mind you, but when they are that is when the real fun starts. Chile is quite rightly seen as a source of lovely everyday drinking wines as well as increasingly a finer wine producing country too. Chile’s producers are also starting to fashion good wines from a wider and wider range of interesting grapes. The days of Chilean wine only being made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are well and truly over.

It is now possible to get world class Chilean Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Roussanne amongst many other interesting grape varieties.

However, wine had already been made in Chile for hundreds of years before the use of international grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, made Chilean wines more visible on the world market. Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, Chilean farmers were growing grapes and making wines for local consumption. Mostly this was from a grape that has long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands.

Eventually this mutated into the País grape and for two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile. Eventually it was supplanted, for quality wines, by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence. In the main País has soldiered on in the more remote areas where the vineyards are smaller in scale and owned by peasant farmers who do not have the resources to follow modern trends.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torres originally arrived in Chile like a whirlwind, breathing new life into the wine industry there in the late 1970s. He brought modern winemaking techniques with him and for 35 years Chilean wine has been mainly modern and cutting edge. In recent years though I have been fascinated to see some producers beginning to hark back to older techniques and times past.

The wonderful De Martino for instance are fermenting some of their wines in huge earthenware vats called tinajas, much as rural Spanish producers did in the past.

Chile Map watermarked

Torres Chile is based in Curicó, rather closer to this rural idyll than some of the other big names of Chilean wine, so they seem to have paid attention to the growers there as well as those further south in Maule. For these farmers it is very hard to make a decent living as they cannot afford to replant their vineyards with the new grapes the market demands. Instead they are left with old vine, dry farmed País like their ancestors used to make the local wine. Miguel Torres Chile saw it as a challenge to turn this into an opportunity rather than a problem. They helped to make sure the grapes were well grown and the vines healthy, they ensured the viticulture was all organic – relatively straightforward in Chile’s dry climate – then they needed to turn those grapes into a great product that would ensure the growers made a decent living. Although the project is run by a large and successful company, it is a fair trade project, so there is something cooperative-like about it and what’s more they use sustainable viticulture – so what’s not to like.

It really is a wonderful and virtuous concept and much in keeping with the ethos I heard whilst spending a week with Miguel Torres a couple of years ago. The first wine they made from these País grapes was a pink sparkler called Santa Digna Estelado Rosé and it really is a great product – try it if you get a chance.

Now they have also made a red wine from these amazing vines and the second vintage of it is my Wine of the Week:

Pais2013 Reserva Del Pueblo País
Miguel Torres Chile
Curicó, Chile
Named for the old village wines, or everyday wines of the pueblos of Chile’s past this is a rare – but not unique – pure País wine and as such gives us a glimpse into Chile’s vinous past. Only a glimpse though as this is beautifully made. 40% of the wine is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames País’s rustic drying tannins without tipping it over into bubblegum characters.
The colour is verging on deep purple, while the nose is an enticing mix of cooked blackberry, plums, cassis and fragrant herbs.
The palate is immediate and juicy with fresh acidity, deep, sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit that feels fresh and lively, together with a little firmness from the tannins. I had no idea what to expect from this wine at all, but it really is delicious and slips down rather easily. This has something of Beaujolais and rustic Pinot Noir about it, but is more richly fruity and I found it best slightly chilled. It goes with pretty much anything and nothing – 89/100 points. Marked high for the sheer pleasure it gives.

Available in the UK at £7.50 from The Wine Society.
Miguel Torres Chile wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

País is not often a grape that springs to mind when you are trying to decide what to drink, but trust me, this is a deliciously drinkable wine and a real bargain too.

Wine of the Week 9 – a winning Riesling

Columbia Valley / Ancient Lakes, Washington State.

Columbia Valley / Ancient Lakes, Washington State.

Many of you regular readers will know that I love the Riesling grape. For me Riesling produces some of the very best white wines in the world and, in my opinion even a modest example can deliver a huge amount of pleasure. I am well aware though that many people do not love Riesling as I do and that many wine drinkers who have excellent taste in all other respects often lose all reason when it comes to Riesling.

Some of the people I serve Riesling too tell me it is too sweet, even when I pour them a dry wine. Others just seem to think it is a passé 1970s thing to be locked away in a vault along with the equally dubious and hilarious safari suits, bell bottoms and wing mirrors – when was the last time you saw an old-fashioned wing mirror on a car?

Riesling is frequently damned as being the grape that gave us Liebfraumilch, a wine people loved to drink in the 1970s, but now like to pretend was only ever drunk by others. In actual fact Liebfraumilch and all those other cheap German wines – Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, Piesporter Michelsberg etc. – that have almost, but not quite, disappeared from the supermarket shelves were never made from Riesling, but the lesser quality Müller-Thurgau. By the way it is possible to make good wines from that under appreciated grape too.

The other day I wanted a white wine with some intrinsic purity, minerality and elegance to go with my rather wonderful home made spaghetti alle vongolespecial ingredient here & here  and amazingly simple recipe at the bottom of this article hereMy thoughts turned initially to those lovely white wines from the slopes of Etna in Sicily. Sadly the branch of Marks and Spencer I was in did not stock their Etna Bianco and so I had to rethink my plan.

At first glance they did not seem to stock many wines that did what I wanted. Last week’s Wine of the Week would have been a great match with my spaghetti and clams too, but they didn’t have that either, so I had to get creative. Focussing on the wine style rather than origin and grape variety I eventually chose a Riesling from Washington State in America’s Pacific North West. In my mind a wine like that would be a more natural partner with Pacific Rim and spicy Asian cuisine, but my spaghetti had a similar purity to it as well as a little kick of red chilli in true Sicilian style – and hey isn’t spaghetti a type of noodle?

Sadly I have never been to that part of the world, but I do know that the climate is much cooler than California, so delicate grapes perform very well there.

Honourable Riesling2013 The Honourable Riesling
Charles Smith Wines
Washington State, USA

Charles Smith has become a sort of rock star wine maker since his first vintage in 2001. Originally from central California, where wine would have been all around him, he travelled the world managing bands and music tours before catching the bug and settling in Seattle to retail wine. That same year on a trip to Walla Walla, an important wine growing area in Washington, the itch became more serious and he soon settled in the area and started to make wine. His first vintage was the 2001 and he released just 330 cases. Well that small acorn has grown and Charles now commands a loyal following as a committed, passionate and self-taught wine maker and original marketeer of his wines, much like Randall Graham in California. He makes a wide range of wines, but can be regarded as something of a Riesling specialist, one of his most famous wines is Kung Fu Girl Riesling.

Evergreen Vineyard from the air - photo from Milbrandt Vineyards.

Evergreen Vineyard from the air – photo from Milbrandt Vineyards.

This wine is actually a single vineyard wine from the Evergreen Vineyard which is owned by the Milbrandt Brothers, Butch and Jerry, not David and Ed by the way. Also a source of fruit for Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Evergreen is situated in the far north of Washington’s Columbia Valley A.V.A. and since 2012 the area has had it’s own Ancient Lakes A.V.A.. Although Seattle is famously wet, this far inland the area is very dry. What’s more the place is high, cool and windy, which together with plenty of sun delivers ripe flavours at lower sugar levels, which hopefully makes balanced wines. The thin rocky soils ensures the vines have to work hard and produce concentrated grapes with good minerality, which suits Riesling very well.

The man himself, Charles Smith looking suitably rock & roll.

The man himself, Charles Smith looking suitably rock & roll.

I assumed that I would like this wine, but it is very, very good in a seductively easy drinking style. The nose is aromatic, lifted, richly floral and full of tropical tinged citrus, lime drenched in fact. This limey character goes on to the palate too and while the acidity is refreshingly high and keeps the wine clean and pure, it is not tart at all. In fact the acidity has a soft sweetness to it – the wine though is dry – like lime curd or a rich key lime pie. The flavours pull off a great balancing act between being vibrant and powerful, while the whole thing is actually rather elegant, pure and laced with cleansing acidity and complex mineral characters. The Honourable Riesling delivers a huge amount of pleasure and if you are anything like me you will find it just slips down – 91/100 points. I gave it an extra point for the sheer pleasure it gave!

A lovely wine to drink on its own, with spicy food, Asian food, Pacific Rim cuisine and yes it was perfect with my spaghetti alle vongole, I would like to have it with tapas too.

Available in the UK from Marks & Spencer at £12 per bottle.

If you are one of those people who have failed to find the joy that Riesling can offer, then this might well be the wine – give it a go, I think you will enjoy it.

 

 

Wine of the Week 6 – a great dry white wine & great value too

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

I presented a wine at a tasting last night that had all the criteria to be my wine of the week. It is delicious to drink, stunning quality and great value for money – what more could you ask for?

Well, for me nothing, but it will leave a great many people cold because this wine is a Riesling. Riesling – pronounced Reez-ling – is one of my absolute favourite grapes. It is a grape that, when it’s good, shows such diversity of styles and yet always maintains a purity and a minerality which makes the wines feel poised, fine and elegant.

Most UK consumers seem to resist the delights of Riesling because they think that they shouldn’t like it, just as they shouldn’t like Chardonnay anymore, because they now drink Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Many UK consumers assume that all Riesling is sweet and even when they taste a dry one often pull a face and pronounce it to be sweet. I find the resistance to Riesling in this country to be very odd, I love dry Riesling and I also love Riesling with some sweetness – what’s not to like about a wine with a little sweetness?

Anyway, my wine of the week is a dry Riesling from the wonderful French region of Alsace. Despite being in the north east of the country Alsace is one of the driest, warmest and sunniest spots in France and that is why they can produce fully ripe, dry Rieslings.

With the Vosges mountains, its half timbered houses and walled medieval villages it is also one of France’s most beautiful regions, although it’s Germanic culture does set it apart from the rest of the country. The people speak a Germanic language and much of the superb cuisine has a German slant to it. It is that Germanic culture that has given them both of their most important grape varieties – Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

trimbach_riesling_bot2011 Trimbach Riesling
Maison Trimbach
Ribeauvillé
A.C. Alsace

Founded in 1626 Trimbach is one of the great old wine houses of Alsace and 12 generations on is still family run in the delightful town of Ribeauvillé. They produce a wide range of wines including all the famous Alsatian grapes, but are something of Riesling specialists as they produce two of the most iconic examples in their Riesling Clos Sainte Hune and Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile.

This example though is their most humble Riesling from their ‘classic’ range, but it is a splendid example of just how delicious Alsace Riesling can be.

This wine is bone dry with an elegant, stony and apply nose. The palate is wonderfully concentrated with some fresh and cooked apple notes, lemons and dry honey. It also has pure, fresh, clean acidity and minerality that keeps it lively, crisp and taut. The finish is refreshing, thrilling and long with some apple and pear skin succulence to it too.

This is a superb dry white wine that everyone should try as it is delicious and versatile. I would expect anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would enjoy it if they are open  index enough to give it a taste. It is wonderful as an aperitif, with fish or light meals and even with Thai cuisine – 89/100 points, it scores high marks for being such great value.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.95 per bottle and £11.99 per bottle from Majestic. Other UK stockists are available here.
US stockists are available here.

So, please do try this wine, it is a great dry white for summer that will go with all sorts of food, it’s salads and goat’s cheese as well as fish, white meat and spicy food. What’s more if you don’t finish the whole case, the high acidity ensures that it ages well too, so there’s no hurry to drink it all.

 

Austria part 1: passionate wine makers

P1060001

Neusiedlersee from the vineyards.

A little while ago I was lucky enough to have a fabulous trip around most of Austria’s wine regions. I was pretty excited about it as I had long wanted to get a real look at this resurgent wine producing country.

Personally I have always been drawn to the Austrian /  Central European culture and have always enjoyed the food and the beer and liked the look of this part of the world. So, I was looking forward to getting better acquainted with it as well as seeing the wine regions and meeting many of the important winemakers.

For reasons of economy I flew in through Bratislava, which is very close to Vienna and was for hundreds of years the Imperial Austrian city of Pressburg or Preßburg. I didn’t have time for a meal, unusually for me I didn’t have the inclination either as I knew my plans for later that evening in Vienna, so I grabbed a sandwich and a beer at the airport.

I was already somewhere interesting when something as a simple ham and cheese sandwich bore no relation to its counterparts at home. It came on black bread with smoky Black Forest ham, rich cream cheese, loads of pickles and was delicious. The beer too was far better than such a simple thing as a lager would normally be in my life, it had a rich hoppy character and a depth of flavour that would astonish most members of CAMRA.

Arriving in Vienna for the first time in 27 years I strolled around this grand city trying out some of the wonderful coffee houses and cafés for which the place is justly famous. It seemed as though almost every building housed a cake shop – do they really eat that much cake I wondered? Watching the Viennese at play over the course of the evening it seemed that they really did – and later I joined them myself.

Dinner that night was a sort of pilgrimage for me. All my life I have been excited by schnitzels – I know it sounds strange, it even looks odd to me now I have actually typed the words, which is akin to saying them out loud. Hell, it’s cheaper than therapy! I am always drawn to schnitzel on a menu though, even if there is finer fare to be had. I have this theory that schnitzel is the best dish in the world – no not a theory, a belief! So I went to the place where the schnitzel began.

The Wiener Schnitzel is a classic dish, but it seems that no one can actually find much of a history for it. I remember reading that General Joseph Radetzky von Radetz – he of the march / waltz fame – was supposed to have brought it back to Austria after campaigning in Lombardy and Milan. A Milanese Cutlet / Cotoletta alla Milanese is superficially similar and the Austrians were supposed to have refined it by bashing the meat out to tenderise it and make it very thin. Sadly it seems that this is a myth though and no one knows exactly where it came from or when.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller with a €2 piece for comparison.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller alongside a €2 to compare the sizes.

In Vienna there is a restaurant called Figlmüller that not only claims to have invented the schnitzel, but to have done so as recently as 1905. I find that extraordinary as 1905 is only just beyond living memory, my grandfather was 20 and my own parents births were only 22 years away. How can something so famous and so universal be that recent? Anyway I went and had a most excellent Wiener Schnitzel washed down with a rather splendid beer and copious amounts of Grüner Veltliner from the restaurants’ own vineyards.

For desert I visited the Café Sacher inthe world famous Hotel Sacher, which makes probably the most famous chocolate cake in the world. I felt that at least once in my life I should try the original in the actual place that gave the world the sachertorte. The café is rather lovely with genuine old world charm, open till midnight and serves a stunning red Zweigelt Beerenauslese, from Weingut Kracher in Burgenland, which is absolutely perfect with a slice of sachertorte – a better match than coffee actually.

Having immersed myself in the most famous, possibly clichéd, but certainly delicious, aspects of Austria’s gastronomic culture, the next morning I felt ready to explore her wines.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

Touring the Vineyards
The start of my trip was billed as a vineyard rally through Leithaberg and Neusiedlersee. Of course with my new found instant knowledge I knew that Leithaberg was a Districtus Austriae Controllatus / D.A.C wine region near Eisenstadt that covered the lower reaches of the Leithaberg mountain and faced south east towards the beautiful lake called Neusiedlersee.

Despite sounding mysterious, the vineyard rally turned out to be simplicity itself, no hard hat or special training was required. We were taken to two different spots in the surrounding vineyards to meet some winemakers and taste their wines.

Our first stop was right in the middle of the vines with barely a building insight – other than church towers in the far, far distance. The weather was warm with clear blue skies and the spot stunningly beautiful with that feeling of total peace that I associate more with vineyards than anywhere else. Spying a falcon in flight just added to the feeling of being somewhere special.

Leo Sommer

Leo Sommer

Weingut Sommer
There we were met by the impossibly youthful looking Leo Sommer who was representing Weingut Sommer, the winery his family have run since 1698. Leo had set up a tasting for us right where the slope stopped at the foot of a rocky ridge. Looking one way I saw the vineyards sloping gently down towards the lake that shimmered enticingly in the distance. In the other direction the land became much steeper with fewer vineyards.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

The Sommers farm 30 hectares here and they aim to capture the essence of the place in their wines. The summer here is hot and dry, with ripening helped by the warm winds blowing in from Hungary’s Pannonian plain. The nearby lake though manages to temper and balance that heat in the height of summer, while helping to keep the autumn cold at bay during the later part of the ripening season. This is the important Altweibersommer or Indian Summer that allows them to harvest very late in this area.

Looking away from the lake towards the ridge - the van is where we had our tasting.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

A close up of the same scene.

White Leithaberg D.A.C. wines can be made from Pinot Blanc  / Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Grüner Veltliner or a blend of any of these and we tasted two of the Sommer’s Grüner Veltliners. One had some oak with lees stirring, while the other was all stainless steel, yet they both summed this place up to my mind. To different degrees they both had a richly textured ripeness leading to a taut, stony mineral finish and when looking around this glorious sun drenched landscape with its sandy loam and slate soils, it struck me – this was precisely what these slopes should produce.

In many ways standing here felt as though I was in a little protected pocket by other less forgiving climates – much like Alsace or Central Otago. The more I thought about that when we visited all the different regions the more I realised that is exactly what the Austrian wine regions are – mountains and more extreme weather dominate the rest of the country – we often glimpsed snow-capped ridges , so these places in the far east of Austria are an oasis of temperate growing conditions.

Our next port of call reinforced this view. This time we were nearer the lake, right at the bottom of the gentle slope before the flat land that surrounds the Neusiedlersee and our hosts were Martin Palser and Birgit Braunstein, a married couple who just happen to both be winemakers and each runs their own winery.

P1060041

Birgit Braunstein & Martin Palser

Martin Palser 
Down here it seems there is much more limestone and Martin grows Chardonnay on this soil, which makes his take on the Leithaberg D.A.C. very different from Leo Sommer’s wines. His 2011 Chardonnay Reserve impressed me very much with its lovely balance, very Burgundian character and pronounced minerality – I know, I know – and Martin told us that this minerality was the character of the place and was more important than grape variety in his opinion.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

Birgit Braunstein
Then Martin handed over to his wife who presented two red wines made from the region’s signature black grape – Blaufränkisch. Red Leithaberg D.A.C. wines must contain at least 85% of this with up to 15% of St. Laurent, Zweigelt or Pinot Noir. I have enjoyed Blaufränkisch before – even as Lemberger in New York’s Finger Lakes, but none have impressed me quite as much as these two made by Brigit Braunstein. Her 2009 Blaufränkisch Reserve Leithaberg D.A.C. was beautifully fruity and balanced with gorgeously ripe fruit together with elegant spice, the delicious cherry-like acidity that I associate with the grape – and a streak of pure minerality. Somehow the wine managed to keep quiet about the 18 months it had spent in new oak and was superbly integrated.

Standing on their terrace looking across the vineyards to the lake I was struck by the place, conditions and landscape and how they seemed to echo the wines that I had just tasted. The breezes blew the otherwise searing heat away – “air conditioning for the vines” as Martin put it – and these are ripe, cool climate wines. They are keen on biodiversity here and the fields were a colourful riot of cherry trees, wildflowers, grasses and herbs as covercrop between and around the vines, while the sandy loam soil, slate and limestone that it all grows in is key here. The defining characteristic of Leithaberg D.A.C. seems to be the minerality and I felt that it was all around me as well as being in the glass.

All in all it was an excellent beginning to the day, I felt peaceful, invigorated, more experienced and better informed and it wasn’t yet 11 o’clock.

Weingut Birgit Eichinger
Funny things wine trips. You live in close proximity to people you barely see the rest of your life, you lose all track of time and get dragged from one place to the next at breakneck speed with barely a backward glance – until you start writing anyway. You get given far more meals in a day than is strictly required – and sadly get to like them. What does stand out though, what makes all the suffering (really?) worthwhile is when we visit somewhere that touches the heart and a good few of the visits on this Austrian trip did just that, but one of the most memorable was to Weingut Birgit Eichinger.

Brigit Eichinger

Brigit Eichinger

There aren’t many women winemakers in Austria, so Brigit Eichinger is pretty unnusual – strangely the only other one we met was also called Birgit, Birgit Braunstein – what’s more Birgit Eichinger and her builder husband Christian have only been running their estate since 1992 when they started with 3.5 hectares. The winery was built in 1994 and they have been adding vineyards when they can and today they farm some 15 hectares in Strass.

Strass is in Kamptal which in turn is part of Niederösterreich, which is in many ways the heartland of Austrian wine as it includes the famous regions of Wachau, Kremstal and Wagram amongst many others and so certainly defines my view of Austrian wine – the whites anyway.

Site matters here as there is no one single terroir. Many of the vineyards have loess over gravel and loam, but others have sandstone, slate and schist, so as in Alsace matching the grape variety to the site makes real differences to the wine. There is even volcanic rock on the Heiligenstein slope from where Birgit produces a stunning, spicy, pure and intensely mineral Riesling.

To qualify as Kamptal D.A.C. a wine must be made from Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, so Birgit’s deliciously floral and exotic Roter Veltliner – also known as the Roter Muskateller and no relation to Grüner at all – and her Chardonnay are simply labelled as coming from the wider area of Niederösterreich.

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The landscape here is spectacularly beautiful – actually everywhere we went was – with the terraced vineyards cascading down the slopes towards the small town of Strass where Birgit’s winery sits at the foot of the Gaisberg slope.

All the wines were superb and I know that many of us would have purchased a few bottles if we had had the space in our luggage. The Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners in particular showed their class with a concentration and yet lightness of touch that gave them a feeling of tension and sophistication that certainly brought a smile to my face.

Birgit’s beautiful wines are available in the UK from John Armit Wines and in the US through Weygandt-Metzler Importing for other teritories check here.

The whole trip was a delight – apart from being locked out of my hotel room and two of my colleagues missing their flights – and my enthusiasm for the country and its wines has been totally rekindled. I will write about some of the other places I visited and wines I tasted in Austria soon.

If Austrian wines have passed you by then you really do owe it to yourself to give them a go. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had by exploring the wines of Austria.