Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wine Weekend - Part Two

A bit more information on the rest of the Producers who travelled over....


Does a winemaker who sells their wine for €5 a bottle work less hard than one who sells for €50 a bottle? There are many things to debate about winemaking – terroir, grape variety, elevage, climate and of course that all important price. But one issue that probably causes more debate than anything else – and can be universally relevant to any winemaker on the planet, is the issue of Organics. With the certification originally conceived as a way to quite simply to highlight a particular (and very positive) approach to winemaking, it has been somewhat hijacked in recent times by the rather nebulous “Natural” wine movement in addition to being effectively crippled by unwieldy legislation that strangely applies the “organic” aspect only to work undertaken in the vineyard.

So as a Producer, what do you do? You can either go down the as-yet undefined and uncertified “natural” route, or you can choose the Organic certification, but approach the entire process in both a knowledgeable and sympathetic way – understanding rhythms and cycles that take place in both the vineyard and winery.

Emmanuel Guillot-Broux does just that. In his own words “organic winemaking is not about the label – it’s about respecting the earth, man and wine.” His father, Jean-Gerard Guillot, worked for various winemakers further north in the Cote d’Or, including a stint with Bernard Michelot in Meursault. In 1978 he returned to Cruzille, recognising the potential of some of the prime vineyard sites that were effectively lying idle in a (at the time) less prestigious region. Starting with just 1 Hectare, he applied his experience gained in the vineyards in Meursault and worked rigorously to develop the Domaine.

In 1991 he was awarded Organic Certification. The Domaine expanded to encompass a number of key vineyards – “Perrieres” (stony place), “Genevrieres” (place of junipers) and “Combettes” (little coomb) – again, echoing the continuing influences of the Cote d’Or. 21 years after Organic certification the natural balance in the vineyards allows each terroir to express itself with amazing identity. Yields are relatively low (between 30 and 55 hl/ha), harvesting is by hand and natural yeasts are used for spontaneous fermentations.

But Organic certification is not a be-all and end-all to winemaking. It doesn’t mean your wines arte made magically (or more easily) by Mother Nature. Any winemaking requires considerable skill (and the odd helping hand from Nature) to utilise the range of tools and techniques available to the producer. Understanding their impact can only be gained through experience. So, for example, the contentious (but essential in my opinion) SO2 is used sparingly. How many certified Organic winemakers will note on their website that they use minimal sulphur? Many just avoid the issue and hope no-one asks. For me Emmanuel is a “true” Organic winemaker, producing wines that reflect pure fruits, transparency, individuality and energy. Better that I can actually understand how he achieves this, rather than being caught up in a debate about trying to understand what “natural” actually means.

WEINGUT KÜNSTLER, Rheingau, Germany:

Gregor Breuer came over as Gunter was unable to attend. Is Riesling still an insider secret here, or has it emerged onto the wine stage as a fully fledged alternative to other less racy and interesting whites? I’m not sure to be honest: I think it has yet to be fully embraced and there’s still a fear of getting a limp, watery and slightly sweet version. Oh how I wish I could convert many friends to this great grape variety.

The Künstler family have been at winemaking since 1648, so you’d expect they’d know a bit about it by now. Actually, the original winery was about 80km North of Vienna in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic. However the family had to move at the end of the Second World War and in 1965 Franz Künstler re-established the winery in Hochheim-am-Main in the Rheingau region of Germany.

He quickly re-established their reputation, winning many awards and in 1992 Günter Künstler took over the reins and continued to develop the Estate. The silverware continued to arrive: in both 2001 and 2002 they were awarded “Best German Wine Producer” at the International Wine & Spirit Competition/London to even more recent accolades: “100 Best Wine Estates in Germany” in Vinum Magazine and “Winemaker of the Year 2001” for Günter from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Around Hochheim-am Main, the River Rhine changes its direction and begins to flow westwards for about 35 kilometres. Hochheim is the only wine-growing community in the Rheingau region (one of the world’s smallest and most exquisite wine-growing regions) that is directly located on the River Main. Here, shortly before joining the Rhine, the River Main flows around a south-facing and cone-shaped hill that is neither shaded from the east nor from the west. This is where the Rheingau offers the "King of White Wines", the Riesling, a unique south-facing location while up to 880 meter-high mountain ranges of the Taunus protect the vines against the cold north winds. This creates a Mediterranean microclimate along the 50 degree line of latitude where even lemons, figs and almonds can ripen.

And it is that northern location that in the summer months provides longer periods of sunshine during the daytime. Thus, the Riesling grapes are able to ripen fully, even at moderate temperatures. This favourable location, supported by the light reflection and warming influence of both rivers, guarantees the uniqueness of these vineyard sites.

Today the vineyard area totals 37 Hectares representing the most prestigious vineyard sites in Hochheim such as Kirchenstück, Hölle, Stielweg and Domdechaney. 76% of the wine estate’s areas under vine are "Erstes Gewächs" classified sites.


We first met Anna-Rita and Paolo Masi at the end of a long trawl around the annual wine circus that is VinItaly in Verona. Five days of slurping, burping, hog sandwiches and noisy Italians (not to mention pretty much every other Nationality) would be enough to test anyone’s stamina. I think we visited them on Day Three, and then again on Day Four – and then again on Day Five – just in case!

They are a bit of a rarity in Tuscany – excellent wines at reasonable prices. It’s a sad fact, as Tuscany is home to some of the world’s greatest wines, but many at eyewatering prices. Yet Paolo greets us every year with an effortlessly accomplished range of silky smooth and perfectly polished wines that manage to the achieve the near impossible – combining individuality and quality with approachability and sheer drinking pleasure – you can’t ask for much more.

Paolo is someone who takes his work very seriously. Although the huge folder that constantly accompanies him contains details of every single accolade (deservedly so – most recently “Best Value Wine” in the influential Gambero Rosso 2012) that the wines have collected, and his furrowed forehead and a semi-permanent slightly stressed look give the impression of a marketing genius, you get the impression that he’s happiest out in the vineyards working with his vines.

The Masi family have owned the estate since 1900. It is located right in the heart of the Chianti Rufina area, on the top of a hill overlooking the Argomenna valley on one side, and the right bank of the Sieve river on the other. The vineyards are at an elevation of 300 meters above sea level, lying on a very stony soil, locally known as Galestro. The micro-climate is ideal for the ripening of the grapes. It is dry and breezy, marked by scarcity of rain and a remarkable range of night and day temperatures in summertime. There are 30 Hectares of vineyards, along with 20 of Olive trees and another 20 of Forest.

For all the 112 years of family history behind him, Paolo has a very modern approach. In the last fifteen years he has been engaged in a programme of research for the highest quality. Continual investment in planting new vineyards, building a new winery for the vinification and the obligatory purchase of lots of oak barrels has paid dividends.

JEAN-MARC MILLOT, Burgundy, France:

We have been working with Jean-Marc for just over 10 years now. When we first met him, he seemed very shy – in fact, I don’t think he spoke a single word during the tasting. If your image of a winemaker is one of a garrulous, opinionated and confident man (or woman), then Jean-Marc doesn’t really fit the bill.

However his wines were impressive in their own right, and more than made up for his lack of idle chit-chat. In recent years, his reputation has soared, and his quiet character has emerged somewhat to embrace a scarily load ringtone on his mobile phone and some very trendy red-rimmed spectacles. But he is still, relatively speaking, a quiet man – preferring to let the wines to do the talking.

Jean-Marc has been growing grapes and honing his winemaking skills since the late 1980’s. He started Estate bottling in 1992 with a limited range comprising a Cotes de Nuits Villages, a bit of Vosne Romanée and some Clos Vougeot. In 1997, he and his wife Christine, had the opportunity to take control of some vineyards that had been leased out to other producers. This allowed them to add substantial plots of Premier (Vosne 1er Cru “Suchots”) and Grand Cru (Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux) to their range.

Jean-Marc strives to produce pure, soft, mesmerising Burgundies, with the accent firmly on the watchwords for Pinot Noir – aroma and fruit. All the fruit is de-stemmed and care is taken not to over-extract on the basis that the low yields achieved mean the density of texture and flavour are already to be found in the fruit.

Following harvest, the musts are cooled to below 10 Celsius for a “cold soak” allowing an initial aqueous extraction (rather than full alcoholic extraction) and the juice is pumped over the cap for 4 or 5 days of maceration. Fermentation normally lasts for about 14 days, with twice-daily punchdowns. The wines are then racked into oak barrels – no more than 50% new oak for the Grand Crus, and 25% for the Village and Premier Crus. Bottling is usually relatively early to preserve freshness and aroma – the 2010’s will be bottled in April 2012.

Volumes produced are small – around 1,200 bottle average per cuvee.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Wine Weekend - Part One

We have just spent the past few days criss-crossing the country - mostly under cover of darkness – with our seven friends (who coincidentally happen to be wine-producers as well!). Early morning starts followed by long days were the format, and all rose to the occasion magnificently and went far and beyond the call of duty.
The wines were fantastic and the reaction to them equally positive. The Knockranny House Hotel team did a superlative job – the hotel was completely booked out, the Masterclasses booked out and the amazing 8-course Gourmet dinner, courtesy of Chef Seamus Commons, also booked out.
I was in school-teacher mode, gently nudging the group around and shuffling everyone from place to place, and as a consequence didn’t actually get to taste that much! At one point I got very scared when I realized I actually had a clipboard in my hand, so I spent the Saturday afternoon trying to casually “lose” it on various tables – all to no avail.
Aside from the high points with the Producers and their wines, the 5 minutes spent listening to my first Dawn Chorus of 2012 outside the Hotel at about 06:45 on the very calm and mild Sunday morning was wonderful.
So a big thank-you to Anna-Rita, Bozidar, Renato, Gregor, Roland, Emmanuel and Jean-Marc for making the trip over.

Here’s a bit of background information about some of them….more to follow.......

CANTINA DEL PINO, Piedmont, Italy:
“Readers who haven’t discovered Cantina del Pino yet owe it to themselves to do so. Proprietor Renato Vacca is making some of the most compelling wines in Piedmont today. Along with Andrea Sottimano, Luca Roagna and Giorgio Pelissero, Vacca is one of the most promising producers among the younger generation in Barbaresco.”
“This range from Cantina del Pino and proprietor Renato Vacca is one of the most impressive I tasted this year. Every wine from this small cellar in the centre of Barbaresco is fabulous. I can’t say enough good things about Cantina del Pino. I never turn down a chance to drink these wines, as they are exceptional.”

Both of the above quotes are from successive vintage reviews by Antonio Galloni of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. You’d think that they would create either a big-headed, arrogant winemaking monster (and let’s face it, there are a few of them around) or alternatively instil a fear of future failure (“how can I keep this up…”). Remarkably neither has happened with Renato Vacca – he just exudes enthusiasm for what he does, soaks up any feedback and is also genuinely interested in wines and winemaking techniques from outside Piedmont. He seeks an almost Burgundian elegance in his wines and he manages to tame the awkwardness of young Nebbiolo by working in harmony with his fruit – yes, there is oak – but also intelligent maceration, extraction and of course an awareness of optimum harvesting times.

At 7 Hectares, Cantina del Pino is pretty small, and there isn’t much wine to go around – but aside from the quality of the wines, there’s a fascinating historical aspect to the Cantina. One Domizio Cavazza was the director of the Royal Enological School in Alba from 1888 - 1913. When he arrived he surprised everyone by purchasing land and making his home in Barbaresco. The noble families expected he would reside near the more famous estates in Barolo. He purchased the Ovello cascina (farmhouse and land) and he began making wine. For the first time the wine made from the Nebbiolo vineyards surrounding the village was called Barbaresco. For the people of this area it was a huge compliment. Cavazza was very charismatic and an outspoken supporter of the farmers in the Langhe. He celebrated the birth of his first son by planting what became a well-known landmark in the region, a large Mediterranean pine tree. The estate began to be known as the 'cascina del pino' or winery of the pine.

Renato Vacca's great grandfather purchased the vineyards after Sig. Cavazza prematurely died and his family moved to Torino. The Vacca family have lived there ever since and in 1997 Renato decided the time was right to stop selling the grapes to the local co-operative and to make wine himself under the Cantina del Pino family name. Today – with the very same vineyards that were the first to ever produce a “Barbaresco” back in 1894 – he produces World class wines.

VERUS VINOGRAD, Jeruzalem, Slovenia:

 I have been lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time in Slovenia over the past few years – or Slovakia as my friends seem determined to repeat with infuriating regularity – so we have decided to re-name it Slovenakia to keep everyone happy. Aside from a problem with the country’s name, there is the delicate question of where it is – geopolitically. To many, it’s Eastern Europe, although many Austrians and Italians to whom it borders might be a little surprised at this. Decanter Magazine sidestepped the issue neatly by recently declaring Verus as one of the “Ten Best Central and Eastern European Producers” – when you think about it, that’s a pretty large geographical area, so no small achievement for Verus.

Slovenia has always had a pretty good reputation for wine producing – moreso White than Red. It’s a reputation that has waxed and waned with various fashions in what we like about wine – in the 1970’s the UK quaffed millions of litres (more than from any other country) of slightly sweet Laski Riesling. And then the fashion changed and Slovenia went into a bit of a tailspin and had to do quite a bit of thinking. In the West of the country, bordering Italy, they began to produce rich, full-bodied whites and hearty, thunderclap reds. However, over in the East, things are a lot more influenced by the southern Austrian region of Styria and the Pannonian Sea that washed over most of the land millions of years ago here and right up (through Hungary) to Bürgenland left a rich plain behind it. The winemakers in this corner decided to go down the fresher, crisper style for whites and in recent years have been gaining considerable recognition for their efforts. In the recent Decanter World Wine Awards, Slovenia won more awards pro-rata to entries submitted, than any other country in the world.

Verus Vinograd is a project that started only in 2007. But to assume that there are just 5 years of experience behind the project would be wrong. Three friends – Danilo Snajder, Bozidar Grabovac and Rajko Zlicar – came together to form the company having worked in different aspects of winemaking previously. Crucially, Danilo and Bozidar worked for the large local co-operative and believed in the potential that could be achieved by isolating key vineyards and producing smaller volumes of high quality wine. On leaving, they knew exactly where to go and who to approach – and promptly secured access to the best sites in the region.

The winery is 12 Hectares in size, with some additional contract vineyards where the trio specify the rigorous viticultural procedures that must be followed and then harvest the grapes themselves. They are obsessive about quality – on a recent visit I plunged my bare hand in to feel the cap of a fermenting vat of Pinot Noir, only to see Danilo’s shocked expression – and then all too late, his carefully gloved hands. But this care pays dividends too – for the first couple of vintages they bottled everything by hand, filling the bottles right to the very top so as to reduce the amount of air left, and therefore minimise the sulphur required. Even today, if you tilt an unopened bottle, it’s difficult to see the air bubble inside.

Jancis Robinson made their Sipon (Furmint) one of her “Wines of the Year” in the Financial Times and their Sivi Pinot has picked up a very dedicated following closer to home. There is an as-yet unreleased Pinot Noir in the pipeline.

WEINGUT MORIC, Burgenland, Austria:
The idea of making wine is a relatively romantic one – the image of gently pressing perfectly ripe grapes under your soft-skinned feet, with the juices flowing evenly into vats and magically fermenting themselves into wonderful wines is a pretty common dream. The reality is somewhat different: pestilence, hail, snow, wind, stuck fermentations, flooding, uneven flowering, near-permanent bankruptcy and a myriad of strange-sounding chemical faults should be enough of a reality-check to put most people off. But how about taking on all of the above and deciding you still wanted to make wine – but with a grape variety that had never been bottled on its own until about 15 years ago? One that had always been used as a blending variety. The juicy, succulent variety Blaufränkisch intrigued Roland Velich – as did many other things – e.g. swimming against the mainstream, true expressions of terroir at the geographical extremes of winemaking, expressions of perfume and elegance from the fruit rather than power and opulence and many other ideals.

I began reading about Roland and his wines whilst I was trying to figure out whether or not we had a stuck fermentation with our own Slovenian Modra Frankinja (Blaufränkisch) and I was Googling late at night for people who’d had experience with Blaufrankisch. I think I Googled “best Austrian Blaufrankisch” and the name Moric came up time and time again. I was fascinated with the information – here was someone who had a singular vision to produce a very specific style of wine with a variety that most had beaten into submission by extraction and drowning it in oak to hide the sour cherry and “lighter” characteristics – yet he believed in emphasising the purity, minerality, perfume, acidity, delicacy and fine tannins of a variety that many would consider was not capable of producing such layers of complexity. He had researched possible vineyard sites in forensic detail and settled on an initial two vineyards some 10km apart in Burgenland – Lutzmannsberg with its clay, sand and loam soil and 90y/o low yielding vines and Neckenmarkt with its slate and limestone soils and 82 y/o vines.

His first vintage was 2001 and in his own words the reaction from his critics and peers was “relatively unanimous: we’ve got something lean and wispy, it’s got relatively little alcohol and relatively little new wood. No new super-Burgenländer. Of no great interest.” But he had achieved his desired delicacy – a balance between tannins, acids and alcohol – and those outside Austria began to take notice. Then came 2002, a magnificent vintage and by this time open-topped wooden vats had been added for spontaneous fermentation with natural yeasts followed by ageing in large 500L and 1,000L casks. The world was beginning to notice. The arrival of David Schildknecht (of Parker’s Wine Advocate) to taste the 2004 vintage (which he reviewed very positively) was followed by his reviews of the 2006 vintage to which he awarded the highest marks ever (if you’re counting points) to an Austrian red wine. Suddenly other Producers were interested in this more “elegant” style of Blaufrankisch.

Back in the dim glow of my computer screen I decided to email Roland and see if he was interested in having a visit from a curious Irishman. He agreed and I went along with another Slovenian winemaker – a 7 hour round trip. I was hugely impressed by the wines – they were the first set of wines I had tasted in a long time that were so multi-layered – they just unwound and revealed themselves in their own time. Nothing big, broad, brash or blousy – just amazing depth to the wines. It only struck me afterwards that we spent almost three hours tasting only 5 wines! You can make comparisons to top Pinot Noirs from Burgundy (perfume and finesse), Syrahs from the Northern Rhone (spice and herbs), Nebbiolo from Piedmont (tannin structure) – but above all, Blaufrankisch is unique.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Burgundy 2010 Initial Impressions

Back in November, Sinead, I and John Wilson travelled to Burgundy for our annual visit to the Producers we work with. More detailed notes on the individual tastings will follow, but it’s worth starting with a brief overview.

Undoubtedly 2010 is a great vintage for both Reds and Whites. Since the growing season in the Summer of 2010 and the subsequent harvest, reports had been filtering out about the high quality of the fruit. But that’s not to say it wasn’t challenging for the Growers. An irregular – but prolonged - growing season delivered fruit that was both phenologically and physiologically ripe but the density and concentration of the grapes meant that care needed to be taken with extraction, maceration and elevage in the barrels – reduction during the elevage has been a recurring challenge for many growers.

Stylistically 2010 is very different to 2009. Where the 2009’s Reds have fleshy opulence with a broad mouthfeel, the 2010 Reds have a deeper, concentrated core of ripe fruit and instead of being broad and voluptuous, they are dense and multi-layered. The Whites are classic, taut, minerally and exhibit grapefruit-style fruit characteristics rather that the riper, smoky lime fruit style of the 2009’s.

But these are broad generalisations – and generalisations are often dangerous. The question that everyone seems to want answered is: Is 2010 is better than 2009? For us merchants a simple “Yes” would be great – but to be honest it’s not that simple. For the Reds, the peaks of 2010 are definitely higher than the peaks of 2009 – but there are considerable variations in the overall quality levels of the 2010’s and the 2009’s are a more homogeneous group. For example, I feel that both Meo Camuzet and Emmanuel Rouget produced better 2009’s than their 2010’s.

With the Whites it’s a bit easier – yes, the 2010’s of all those that we tasted with are better than their 2009’s.

The best 2010 Reds have an amazing crystalline core of sweet (and I mean ripe, not sugary) dense red fruits that are amazingly concentrated and that linger for ages on the palate. BUT there are some less impressive reds that exhibit slightly worrying levels of extraction and reduction (we tasted barrel samples - racking prior to bottling will certainly “freshen” up the wines, but it depends to what extent they revert to this state in bottle – a lot depends on the lees that they sat on for the past 15 months). In these cases, the same producer’s exuberant 2009’s are definitely preferable.

The best 2010 Whites have that classic racy acidity balanced by slightly less “showy” fruit that the 2009’s – but in a more pure, linear style. There is less evidence of oak on the palate, not necessarily to do with changes in elevage, but the way in which the density of the original fruit has withstood the impact of the barrels. There is very definitely a lot to like in the 2010 Whites.

Overall – if one does need a generalization to hang the vintage on – I’d say the 2010’s tend to express their individual terroirs more, whereas the more flamboyant style of the 2009’s tended to obscure the detail of the terroir differences. As to where they sit with other vintages, I’d say the Reds are closer to 2005 in ripeness, with a hint of that very desirable 2008 freshness. For the whites, similarities with the minerality and purity of 2004 come through, allied to a bit of extra ripe fruit in the vein of 2007.

As an aside, it has become slightly fashionable to write down the 2009’s, with some describing 2009 as a more “simple” vintage and 2010 as a more “pure” Burgundy vintage. Whilst this may be a marketing necessity of those trying to sell the 2010’s, it’s unfair to pass such a simple judgment. Wine is ultimately about pleasure – and uniquely with wine, it’s also about when one derives that pleasure. The 2009’s will be more enjoyable at a younger age – and there are literally hundreds of delicious wines at entry level that will provide enjoyment to both the Burgundy beginner and long-time fan equally. The 2010’s will take more time, and there isn’t that uniformity at “entry” level, but the best 1er and Grand Crus will provide undoubted great pleasure many years down the road.

So what about prices? Well, conventional theory would normally tie prices in some way to the volume of wine available. For 2010 this produces a bit of a challenge as yields were down by up to 30%, so prices should rise. However we are also in the middle of a minor economic hiccup (!), so that needed to be taken into consideration by the growers. On the other hand, the voracious appetite of the Chinese buyers for all things wine-related has apparently turned from Bordeaux to Burgundy… So you can see quite quickly there is no rhyme or reason to 2010 pricing. Some of the producers we work with have kept prices almost the same as 2009 (Pierre-Yves Colin Morey and Jean-Marc Millot – take a bow), some have reduced ever so slightly (Meo Camuzet – take a bow), and others have increased (Mugneret-Gibourg - Hmm…although their quality is stunning and they would most likely argue they have been underpricing for years).

As to the Producers we tasted with, the Whites of Pierre-Yves Colin Morey really were outstanding and we’re very lucky to have our allocation. For the Reds, the complete range from Mugneret-Gibourg were the highlight of the visit – certainly a notch higher than their excellent 2009’s – only lack of volume will make these allocations painful to manage. Potentially less painful, definitely less expensive and nonetheless impressive were Jean-Marc Millot’s delicious reds.

More detailed impressions from each of the producers we visited will follow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wine Producer Weekend in Co. Mayo

We’re starting the New Year by welcoming some of the Producers we work with to Westport. In conjunction with the award winning Knockranny House Hotel, we’re organizing a Wine Weekend on January 27th and 28th.

The Saturday afternoon features a walk-around tasting with the producers manning the tables and pouring their wines and we'll be showing other wines from our Portfolio as well. There will also be Masterclasses where the Producers will showcase older vintages and more limited cuvees of their own wines. In the evening, everyone will sit down to a gourmet Tasting Menu created by Connaught’s Best Chef Seamus Commons and designed to match selected wines.

Producers attending are:
Jean-Marc Millot, Burgundy, France
Domaine Guillot-Broux, Macon, France
Weingut Moric, Burgenland, Austria
Verus Vinograd, Jeruzalem, Slovenia
Fattoria di Basciano, Tuscany, Italy
Cantina del Pino, Piedmont, Italy
Weingut Kunstler, Rheingau, Germany
Plus many other wines from our Portfolio………

We might even get them all to the pub for a pint of Guinness and some music at some point!

Price is €189pps for the 2 nights B&B, Tastings, Masterclasses and Saturday’s Gourmet Dinner. Further details from http://www.khh.ie.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How To Fake French.....

I'm supposed to be doing a million and one other things rather than watching videos on You Tube - including writing up our Burgundy 2010 notes for our Offer - but I couldn't resist the following....

Brilliant - featuring techniques doubtless used by many an Irish Wine Importer!