Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fungi delights

We’re due to head back to Ireland in the next few days – and all very hectic trying to finish everything off – next time we return it will be harvest time in mid-October.

Aside from the grapes looking pretty good at this stage, lots of other things (very frustratingly) are just reaching optimum ripeness. We’ve already had plenty of blackberries and now plums, pears and peaches are all over the place – literally falling off the trees all around us.

The other really special wild treasure are mushrooms in the forest – all shapes and sizes. About 60% of Slovenia is covered by trees, so mushroom hunting is very much a local pastime - and speciality. Truffles are also apparently around, but hunting for them is forbidden so they don’t really feature in the local cuisine.

However there are a multitude of fungi of all shapes and sizes. I only wish we knew more about them – something to read about over the Winter. Many of them look vaguely familiar – but not familiar enough to try!

I did however find something I have never seem before – a mushroom that looks like it would be more at home it the sea as a red starfish! Picture quality isn't great as it was taken with a phone camera in a dark forest. I have no idea what it is – any ideas?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Only 74km to Go......

Saturday was Gaelforce West day in Mayo. With over 3,000 competing in 2010, in just a few short years it has become the “largest one day adventure race of its kind in the World” – these would be the ones that involve a 12km run, kayaking across a fjord (Killary Harbour), running up and down a mountain (Croagh Patrick) and then cycling 33km to the finish. Must be loads of them.

Anyway, in sympathy (or stupidity), I decided to enter a local 74km cycle race on Sunday. The course looked simple enough on paper and there are plenty of worse things than cycling through vineyards. There were the same number of competitors as Gaelforce.

Vineyards = hills. 74km of them.

I survived….. just about.

Holy Cow!

I fulfilled a lifelong ambition this evening and managed to milk a cow. The joy. It was my second attempt. A dismal performance the day before dented my somewhat inflated confidence. In fairness, I have to say that it is bloody hard to milk a cow. The only thing that urged me on to try again was the delicious smell that lingered on my hands – a mixture of warm cream and, well, shite … of the fresh, sweet manure variety. Rather like a teenager who has been kissed by her favourite pop star I was reluctant to wash. Having practised good hygiene I was delighted to find that the smell remained and I spent the rest of the evening cupping my hands over my nose and inhaling deeply.

I’m aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm and I’m reminded of a night a few years ago in Dublin’s Chapter One restaurant. Liam and I were holding a Cabot and Co dinner and we opened a bottle of Beaucastel 1981. It divided the table down the middle. Once the glasses were poured there were those of us who stopped talking and gladly fell into the stink. There were others who pushed the glasses away from their place setting and eventually poured their glasses into ours (result!). One poor soul even had to leave for some air.

Back to the cow. I’ll be returning tomorrow to perfect my technique, which is improving. Maybe I’ll persuade Liam that we should get a cow when we go home. But that’s an udder story… (sorry).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Polz Brothers, Spielfeld, Austria

Here in Kog, we are within 5 minutes of Croatia, 15 of Hungary and 30 of south eastern Austria. The region from here up into Austria is known as Stajerska, or Lower Styria, continuing into Austria as Styria, or Steiermark. The whole region is effectively a contiguous wine-producing region with many similarities on both sides of the border.

A few years back, Miro Munda from around the corner here in Jastrebci, approached the Polz bothers literally just over the border in Spielfeld about a joint collaboration for bottling his wines. So it seemed natural we would pay a visit too!

Today, Eric and Walter Polz’s eponymous winery is one of the most famous in the region. True, the region as a whole doesn’t have the same level of recognition as Wachau or Kamptal, there is no Gruner Veltliner grown (although it’s a topic of debate at the moment) and about 90% of the Riesling is Laski and not the supposedly better Renski variety. But 15 million year-old chalky and sandy soils produce ideal sites for Sauvignon Blanc and Morillon (Chardonnay) and it’s these two white varieties that the area has become justifiably well known for.

The Polz brothers have steadily expanded the winery over the past 25 years and now it hosts a huge array of gleaming fermentation tanks, various sized grape crushers and all sorts of control panels with lots of buttons to push – a bit like the set of a James Bond film!

I have to admit that I don’t have much time for supposed “premium” Sauvignon Blancs – maybe I’m a philistine, but I prefer my Sauvignons simple and quaffable. And the issue of oaked-Sauvignon Blanc…, well, let’s not even go there. As for Chardonnay, well, there’s plenty of it about from just about every other wine-producing country in the world.

So after having embarrassed myself by asking to taste Gruner or Riesling, I reluctantly settled into tasting a series of Sauvignons and Chardonnays – with the odd Pinot Blanc and Traminec (Gewurztraminer) cuvee thrown in.

And I’m quite happy to admit my prejudices about Austria’s ability (or more rightly, Eric and Walter’s ability) to produce quality versions of both were overturned. What really stood out was the minerality in both. The vineyards really do impart an amazing minerality, seashell sediment style to the wines and the climate (a mix of Alpine and Mediterranean) means the grapes can fully mature slowly, resulting in a relatively late harvest and maximum freshness combined with good fruit concentration. And what about the oak? Well, the use of 2,500 litre old “botte” rounds out the wines and gives an extra dimension of richness without ever dominating the original fruit.

Yields are generally low, averaging around 40 hl/ha across the range and all the wines express varietal character, but with a regional individuality.

There are three levels of quality – for me the Classic line was the best. The Morillon/ Chardonnay 2009 (with no oak or malolactic fermentation) had a great minerality with richness of lime fruits and firm acidity (the acidity is a positive characteristics of many of the wines).

They also own another local estate called Tscheppe and the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc tasted was wonderfully structured – partly from skin maceration and a tiny portion aged in barrels – and partly from the ripeness of the 2007 vintage.

Whilst tasting at the state-of-the-art “Cellar Door” shop, it became clear that the winery was a very popular destination in itself. Case after case of wine was dispatched into the back of various vehicles including a Bentley Continental convertible! Apparently turnover on a single Saturday approaches that of a busy Dublin city-centre wine shop on Christmas Eve!

Now that’s successful wine tourism!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kog Wine Festival Weekend

Last weekend was the turn of our local community in Kog to host their Wine Festival, or “Dnevi Turizma” as they call it. Actually the “tourism” term is a bit of a misnomer as the weekend is primarily frequented by locals who participate in both the organising and enjoyment of the activities. It is great for us to be a part of such a small, local community – we’re pretty much the only “outsiders” here.

The weekend also coincided with the Feast of the Assumption on the Sunday, so it was a unique mix of religious and wine-related activities. Unsurprisingly, the two intertwined very neatly together!

The weekend started with a family cycling “expedition” on the Saturday morning – a loop of about 8km up and down the local hills that involved a couple of stops for refreshments at local wine producers along the way. It was a really relaxed, enjoyable affair with great wine, food and lively conversation along the way. The tractor support is something every family outing should have! When tired of the hills, throw the bike and children into the trailer!

Later that afternoon the focal point was the local area outside the church and school where wine tastings, food sampling and good, hearty local dishes were on offer. Again, all for the benefit of locals.

On the Sunday the more religious influences came into play. An outdoor morning Mass at a local shrine was followed later in the afternoon by the Stations at 3pm at another shrine – in fact, probably the best setting ever for a Mass, under the drooping branches of a weeping willow tree, with more tables laden with bowls of goulash and plenty of spritzers for after the mass.

The other key aspect of the weekend was the installation of the local Windmills, or “Klopotec”. Traditionally the vanes and mechanical aspects (i.e. noise-making) are installed over this weekend and the hills now resonate to the sounds of thousands of the wooden hammers hitting the wooden panels on each windmill. They are very much a cultural symbol of this region, but also an effective bird-deterrent – just as the grapes are beginning to get nice and sweet!

The irony of course is that it was billed as “tourist” event, when effectively it was the 150 – 200 of the locals participating – and from our perspective, all the more enjoyable for that. Of course, “tourists” include people from the next parish, so there must have been a few of them too! However, in an area that historically involved all sorts of different cultures laying claim to the region (part of the former Austro-Hungarian empire) it is ironic that it’s the other areas of Slovenia (mostly western) that are thronged with the international tourists.

It’s not to say the potential isn’t here – it’s absolutely here in spades with the beautiful scenery, vineyards, good wine, food and above all, welcoming people. A visit to the Polz winery a few days later just over the border in Austria demonstrated what “wine tourism” can bring to a region in a very positive way. And undoubtedly it will happen here in time.

But for the moment, our little corner remains wonderfully undiscovered and predominantly “local”.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Do Good Looks add to the taste of Wine?

Having said that all was quiet a week or so ago, we’ve had a spurt of activity over the past few days. We have had many early morning sessions in the vineyard giving the vines their final major haircut prior to the harvest in October.

Actually this is pretty back-breaking work. Shuffling down a very steep incline, with your left arm raised up high grabbing the top shoots and then your right arm up equally high, snipping them off. Try keeping both arms above your head for a few hours and you’ll get the idea!

The other task was to strip away most of the leaves from the Eastern side of the vines – the side that only gets the morning sunshine, and open them up to a bit more exposure. Again, done manually, this is a time consuming task, but it really allows you to look at each vine individually and get an accurate idea of how the fruit is coming along.

The whole issue of whether or not to trim the top of the vines instigates a bit of debate. Some winemakers prefer to leave the top shoots to grow, so long as they don’t get too long to drop back down over the vines and grapes. The reasoning is that the newer shoots, and more importantly newer leaves, photosynthesise more efficiently and contribute to better sugar levels in the grapes.

And the argument against this method? Well, it looks a bit messy!

Seriously though, there are those who believe that the vineyard must look perfect. Our own decision was led largely by Ivan who has worked the vineyard for over 20 years – this is the way he has always done it, so who are we to argue with him! But we don’t think it will make that much difference this year – the weather has been generally good and we haven’t had any hail like last year, so the vines are in good shape and are working well anyway – with or without a haircut. In a bad year, with the vines struggling, the extra “growing power” would definitely be more important.

However, ever curious, we decided to try a brief taste test and sample some of the grapes – and compare them with some from another vineyard that leaves the shoots to grow. The result? Everything still tastes bitter! Inconclusive at this stage…….

Well, there was one exception – the Muscat grapes are absolutely delicious right now – and very much liked by the local deer. We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for any intruders.

The difference in the various stages of ripening can be seen from the three bunches above – on the left is Riesling, centre is Sipon and the right is Muscat – all from our vineyard.

Blind Tasting Dinner with a difference

A few weeks back we were invited to a blind tasting dinner – with a difference. A group of local winemakers and friends do it every couple of months and it was a great evening of good food, lively debate – and of course good wines.

The idea was that selected guests were asked to bring wines to match a menu that they knew in advance – the objective being to select wines that they thought would best match the food. It was a three course meal, with four wines chosen for each course – and tasted together with the food.

All the wines were poured blind, so no-one knew their identity, including those who bought them (unless you could guess your own wine of course). After each course you voted for the wine that you though worked best with the food – not the wine you might like most, or might taste best on its own – but purely based on the food/wine combination.
We were asked to bring a wine for the Main Course and another for the Dessert. We chose the Mugneret Gibourg Bourgogne 2007 to match the main course of lamb and were really happy when it was voted the best match! For dessert, we brought Miro’s Fuga Mundi 2006 – a really great dessert wine – and it was just edged into second place by another slightly lighter, but sweeter, wine.

A great idea for a theme and something we might try back in Ireland!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Rotten Neighbours

It has been a quiet couple of weeks. July and August are normally pretty pedestrian in the vineyard – a bit of trimming excess growth, stripping away some excess foliage and spraying. The hum of the tractor going through the vineyards can be heard all around – most people spray every 10 days or so for peronospera and oidium (powdery mildew).

I have stood in Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy on many occasions and marvelled at the fact that a producer can own just a few rows of vines, producing just a barrel or two of juice, and be surrounded by other growers also doing their own think to coax fruit towards optimum maturity from their own vines. I’ve often wondered what happens if the neighbouring rows are less well attended to, or if one is biodynamic and the other is a chemical monster? Surely there must be some overlap or overflow of techniques impacting on the neighbouring vines? It’s something producers can often be remarkably reticent to talk about: why, if you are espousing the merits of biodynamicism, mention that the chemicals being sprayed on the vines next to yours have a direct impact? The reality is that adjoining rows of vines all share the same microclimate, and all human intervention certainly has an overlapping effect.

In our case, it’s a lack of intervention. The pros and cons of what you actually use to spray or treat the vines aside, the reality is that they do need some form of attention. Our small vineyard adjoins neighbours on both sides. On one side the vines are under a caretaker arrangement – with what seems to be a rather lazy caretaker. A recent stroll down the perimeter of our vines revealed a rather scary outbreak of oidium on the neighbouring vines – due to lack of attention. Remember, these are supposed to be white grapes!

More worryingly, it had spread the 1.5 metres or so onto our own vines and the side of the row facing the neighbour’s vines has all become infected. A rather depressing session of dropping rotten fruit ensued.

It’s not really the done thing to call up the neighbour and give out about they way they are managing their vineyard – after all, it is their vineyard and if they want to make rot-infested wine, it’s their choice.

But do remember that when you are cracking open that bottle of biodynamically produced Grand Cru Burgundy that has been crafted from a mere 4 rows of vines in a shared vineyard such as Clos Vougeot, that the neighbour might just has sprayed their vines with chemicals to within an inch of their death which will travel by air, and leach through the soil, into your own wine. Or that slightly “funky” flavour could be an interesting mix of rot, powdery mildew and peronospera…….