Sunday, July 26, 2009

WSET Trip to Austria

Dwayne Perreault - Up until a couple weeks ago, I didn't know much about Austrian wines, but my impressions from what I had tasted were generally positive. So I jumped at the chance to take part in a trip organized for Dutch WSET diploma course students by Holland's only Master of Wine, Frank Smulders. This was a four-day trip where we visited some of Austria's top wineries. It would take too long to cover them all or to delve into every wine, but here are my favourites:

Weingut Bernhard Ott, Wagrum

"Mr. Veltliner," as he is called, as 95% of his 30 ha are planted with this variety. Ott is a giant of a man in stature physically, but also in terms of his international reputation, exporting to 15 different countries. Biodiversity and biodynamism are what he preaches, but as a means to an end, which is to produce the best wines possible. It doesn't hurt to have a great terroir, and Wagram is particularly blessed with mineral-rich loess soils which can be 20 meters deep. These loess drifts were deposited in prehistoric times by violent wind storms and they are particularly kind to Grüner Veltliner.

Frank Smulders MW and Bernhard OttPre-tasting at Ott's vineyard. (L to R, foreground): Frank Smulders MW, Bernhard Ott, Ott's marketing director.

These were my favourite Veltliners, mineral wines with many fruit and spice nuances, and alive with complex acidity. It was here where I learned that the "sour milk" smell I get from Veltliners is not due to malolactic fermentation but is a natural component of GV's bouquet, as it was clearly evident in "Der Ott" 2008, which did not have a malo. The 2007 did, and was also more complex. "Rosenberg" comes from a deep loess site and is meant to age several years in the bottle. This was evident as we tried the last three vintages: the 08 was a bit alcohol-rich, the 07 was already better, lighter and more elegant, and the 06 was rich with lemon and tropical fruit with floral tones, beautifully thick in the mouth with a long aftertaste.

Ott's marketing director confirmed that there was a cowhorn buried somewhere in the vineyard, but wisely wouldn't tell us where it is.

Weingut Franz Hirtzberger, Wachau

Wachau is famous for its Rieslings, even if this grape only represents one-eighth of all plantings. The region has embraced Grüner Veltliner, since unlike Riesling it has no competition from Germany. Hirtzberger has 20 ha of mostly terraced vineyards on granite and slate soils rising steeply from the north shore of the Danube. As in the Rheingau in Germany, this creates perfect conditions for Riesling, which thrives on slate's high mineral content.

Hirtzberger's terraced vineyards in SpitzHirtzberger's terraced vineyards in Spitz, on the north shore of the Danube in Wachau.

There are three styles of white wine in Wachau. Steinfeder is made from early harvested grapes to provide a lighter style dry wine with crisp acidity. Federspiel is medium-bodied, and Smaragd is a powerful wine made from late-harvested grapes. The top Riesling tasted here was the "Smaragd Singerriedel" 2008, a powerful wine with great minerality. A special mention goes to the "Smaragd Honivogel" 2008, a benchmark for Grüner Veltliner in its own right, very full and fat, showing great promise despite having been bottled only at the end of April.

The Hirtzbergers are passionate about Austrian wines and are eager to know how it goes with their fellow vintners. This was confirmed by a look in their glass dumpster, which was filled with empty bottles of vintages from all over Austria.

Weingut Bründlmayer, Kamptal

Bründlmayer exports 35% of its wines to 27 different countries, making it a truly international winery. We were guided by the very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Thomas Klinger, Marketing Director for the business.

Brundlmayer's vines at the Heiligenstein in KamptalBründlmayer's vines at the Heiligenstein, in Kamptal.

Bründlmayer's success can be attributed to its 12 ha (more than one quarter of all plantings) on the Heiligenstein, the crown jewel of the Kamptal, as close as one gets to a Grand Cru in Austria. This is a hot micro-climate (it was originally called "Hellenstein", because of its hellish daytime highs). The varied sandstone, mica, slate and volcanic soils, as well as the cool night-time temperatures, produce tremendous white wines of character.

We tasted extensively here from a broad range of styles. The 2007 "Zöbinger Heiligenstein Lyra" was a magnificent Riesling, with a flowery pollen and acacia honey bouquet. mineral and beautifully dry. The 2002 and especially the 2001 were touched by botrytis, resulting in slightly sweeter wines with less acidity. The 2008 "Alte Reben", made from Grüner Veltliner, had great white fruit concentration and white pepper, along with what I call the GV sour milk in the bouquet. I was impressed that the 2002 still had very crisp acidity, a sign that Veltliner is a white wine with true ageing potential.

Bründlmayer also makes Eiswein, and according to Klinger, harvesting in November is attractive to forego the problems of rot and bird predation. Since the harvest temperature is set at -9° C by Austrian law, I (as a Canadian) have trouble seeing how this is possible, since even in Canada icewine harvests usually take place in January.

Weingut Wellanschitz, Mittelburgenland

Austrian red wines are even harder to come by on the export market, but the best ones come from the Blaufränkisch grape in Burgenland. This little-known and underrated grape prefers heavier loam soils and the hot continental climate of the Pannonian plain bordering Hungary, where Blaufränkisch is known as "Kekfrancós". In a simpler style, these are tasty fruit driven wines, not unlike Sangiovese, with dark cherry fruit, medium-high acidity and medium tannins.

Everything we tasted at Wellanschitz was an honest expression of Blaufränkisch, and refreshingly good. Their "Blaufränkisch Reserve Well" 2006 showed this grape’s potential: a deep wine with spicey caramel, dark cherry and chocolate. Blending with Bordeaux varieties is common here, as could be tasted in the "Fraternitas" 2006, which contains 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and a darker, cassis-like flavour.

Wellanschitz is a true (6th generation) family business, and they enjoy drinking champagne, so they make their own Blanc de Blancs from Chardonnay vines "because it's cheaper to make it than buy it."

Weingut Krutzler, Südburgenland

Krutzler is a fifth-generation winery and considered by some to be Austria's best red wine producer. Their 12 ha of vineyards are concentrated in an amphitheater of iron-rich loams sheltered by forests on the Pannonian steppe. Hungary is clearly visible in the distance, but as in St. Emilion, this iron-rich soil produces red wines with great mineral character. Krutzler must see the similarity, as their Merlot 2007 had a right-bank concentration.

The Blaufränkisch wines go further though. The 2007 Reserve had even more fruit than the Merlot, with a darker character. And the flagship wine is the "Perwolff". The 2007 was a dark-fruit bomb, with full but soft tannins to back it up. It was amazing to taste Blaufränkisch at this level, for Krutzler would be a first class Grand Cru if Austria had such a classification system.

A curiosity of Südburgenland is the Uhudler grape, a vitis labrusca variety used to make rustic rosés and brought over during the phylloxera era in the late 19th century. Say it out loud: OO-HOO-DLER. It's not very good.

Young Gelber MuskatellerYoung Gelber Muskateller (Muscat) grapes, used to make a locally popular light and fruity summer wine.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Visit to Bordeaux: Clos du Jaugueyron and Belle-Vue

Earlier this month we spent a week in the Dordogne. Not surprisingly I took the time to visit Bordeaux, in this case the South part of the Haut-Médoc: in the morning Clos du Jaugueyron (Haut-Médoc and Margaux), and Belle-Vue (Haut-Médoc) in the afternoon. Two adjoining properties producing great (and great value) wines, but with very different approaches.

Visting Bordeaux with this great 1977 Peugeot 504 that I borrowed from my friend IgorVisting Bordeaux with this great 1977 Peugeot 504 that I borrowed from my friend Igor

Clos du Jaugueyron is a small property owned by winemaker Michel Théron. With its 5 hectares Clos du Jaugueyron could be regarded as a "left bank garage wine". Not far from the truth actually, because Michel made his first vintages in the garage next to his house in the village of Arsac. Michel's approach is rather un-Bordeaux so to say: he is both owner ànd winemaker of Clos du Jaugueyron.

For most grand Bordeaux châteaux there is an owner who employs a complete team for the production of the wine, the usual roles being: (general) manager, technical director, cellar master, vineyard manager and… external consultant (œnologue conseil). At Clos du Jaugueyron Théron does it all himself. And besides that, he makes honey, great pâté from rabbits that he caught in his vineyard, and other delicious things that − in one or another way − come from the land he owns.

I am excited to be the importer of Clos du Jaugueyron. It is a great wine with a strong personality. In the 1,5 years that I have sold the wine it has gained a good number of faithful followers. For your information, this is what Robert Parker says about Clos du Jaugueyron: "Rich, concentrated, perfumed, and impeccably well made. If you can find it, it is well worth buying."

Michel Théron in the vineyard of Clos du Jaugueyron: look how perfect his grapes are lined up!Michel Théron in the vineyard of Clos du Jaugueyron: look how perfect his grapes are lined up!

Théron's starting point, as for most winemakers who aim to make quality wine, is to spend most of his time in the vineyard, and spend less time in the cellar. Eye-catching in the vineyard is the way the grape bunches are perfectly lined out along the vines, a direct result of the applied pruning method. The grapes are well exposed after the recent leaf thinning – and as a compensation for 'lost' foliage Théron's vines are allowed to grow high up. See the picture as an illustration to this story.

At Clos du Jaugueyron the grapes enter the fermentation vat uncrushed, to produce wines that are fresh and fruit-driven. But the wines need structure too. Racking the wines as little as possible, and thus having it mature on its lees, helps it to gain the desired structure.

Michel Théron in the new cellar of Clos du JaugueyronMichel Théron in the new cellar of Clos du Jaugueyron

In the first years in his new and more spacious cellar Théron had the habit of rolling his barrels around, in order to have the lees and the wine mixed. Today, lacking the space to roll, he uses a self-made sort of battonage stick to ensure that there is enough contact between wine and lees.

We tasted the Haut-Médocs from 2006, 2007 (just bottled) and 2008 (from vat), and for lunch the splendid Clos du Jaugueyron 2001 Margaux. This rare Margaux is a real beauty. In perfect shape now, very complete and harmonious, classic, fresh, pure and convincing.

From the Haut-Médocs I was especially surprised by the appearance of the 2006: already very approachable, and simply delicious – a complete tasting note will follow later. The 2007, in the same style, is somewhat closed now, and seemingly somewhat leaner. Noticable detail: the smokey tone. The 2008 is very promising, with vital fruit and good matière. The 2008 vintage will be the first vintage that is officially organic.

In the afternoon I visited Vincent Mulliez, owner of De Gironville, Belle-Vue (Haut-Médocs) and Bolaire (Bordeaux Supérieur, just across the road, the D2). Belle-Vue is established in 1996 when the previous owner Rémy Fouin set apart his best (Gironville) vineyards with the aim of producing a wine of… say Margaux quality: Belle-Vue directly borders the 3rd classed growth Château Giscours. Mulliez joked that it would be a good sign when one day people would describe Giscours "as the neighbour of the famous Château Belle-Vue." But until today this is the other way round, I'm afraid.

Vincent Mulliez in his cellar: impeccableVincent Mulliez in his cellar: impeccable

On my website I describe Mulliez as someone who leaves nothing to chance, and the funny thing was that he used the exact same words when describing their approach: "We leave nothing to chance in the aim to come up with the best possible wine from our terroir." And that can be seen in the investments that are made. For example the cellar looks impeccable. Not over the top, but impeccable.

And behind these wines is a full team of experienced people. There is a technical director, Vincent Bache-Gabrielsen (originally from Norway), and a (female) cellar master Marie Perez. Œnologue conseil is Christophe Coupez, director of the Centre d'études et d'informations œnologiques de Pauillac. In comparison to the Clos du Jaugeuyron one could say there is more 'technique' behind this wine, the approach is more academic so to say.

Vincent Mulliez showing the Belle-Vue vineyardVincent Mulliez showing the Belle-Vue vineyard

Together with Mulliez, who worked in London as a banker, we tasted Bolaire, De Gironville and Belle-Vue from the vintages 2006 up to 2008. Tasting the Bolaire was a confirming experience: a couple of months ago I had picked out this wine as a grand Bordeaux Supérieur. I had tasted and compared many many petits châteaux, many of them uninteresting, but the Bolaire clearly stood out. And it did again. This is a very well made affordable Bordeaux. It has power, grip, ripeness, and good fruit with some sweetness.

The Belle-Vue was my favourite. This wine (with over 20% of petit verdot, and for a small part, just like Clos du Jaugueyron from very old vines) is stylish and more polished. A seductive wine, round and ripe, with good grip also, and with a velvet texture. The 2006 and 2008 stood out for me.

After these very interesting and enjoyable visits I headed back to the Dordogne, driving the 1977 Peugeot 504 from my friend Igor. But not before I made stops in Bordeaux, visiting Jane and Francis Anson, in Saint-Emilion, picking up some wines in the shop owned by Jean-Luc Thunevin, and in Castillon-la-Bataille, eating a delicious Andouillette à l'ancienne. What better way to conclude a great day?

Should you be interested in these wines, here they are:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bodega Horacio Calvente

Dwayne Perreault − One of my pet peeves with Spain is the lack of interesting white wines with recognizably individual characteristics. Yes, you have some affordable and tasty Ruedas if they are made from 100% Verdejo, nice drinkable wines with fresh fruit and citrus flavours, but I tend to tire of Rueda pretty quickly. I'm rather bored with oakey, vanilla-rich Viura-based blends from Rioja.

Bodega Horacio Calvente
Somontano has built its reputation on varietals made from Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Gewurtztraminer, but do these compete with similar wines from Burgundy, the Loire or Alsace? The same could be asked about the oaked Chardonnays of Penedès. Why bother when you can get the real thing from Pouilly-Fuissé and even Meursault for about the same price? Finally, there are some amazing Albariños from Rias Baixas, but they also cost a pretty penny and are not always worth it.

So now for something completely different: a dry Moscatel de Alejandria (Muscat d'Alexandrie), a Vino de la Tierra de Granada Sur-Oeste by Bodega Horacio Calvente. As far as I know this wine is not available in The Netherlands but I happened to bump into it while visiting Granada two years ago. It was a lucky find, and I brought a box home with me. That was the magnificent 2006 vintage, which was later singled out by Neil Beckett in his annual 1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die. I had no idea at the time that this was considered one of Spain's best wines and is served in the nation's top restaurants. I paid around €9 a bottle.

Muscat d'Alexandrie is a grape with a high sugar content and is usually used to produce fortified sweet wines such as Muscat de Rivesaltes. When the wine is vinified so that the sugars are mostly converted into alcohol, the result is an incredibly dry and alcohol-rich wine, but here with delicate nuances of stoney minerals and notes of grapefruit and tropical fruit and an almost grappa-like aftertaste, without the burn. Don't be fooled by the 12,5% on the label; a few glasses of this in the afternoon will give you a good glow. Dangerously drinkable, both thirst quenching and appetite whetting at the same time.

My girlfriend was recently back in Granada and brought back two bottles of the 2007. The price rose, as is common in Spain, from €9 to €12. I feel confident in saying this is a slightly lesser vintage than the 2006, with the alcohol winning out at the expense of the delicate fruit—maintaining that balance seems to be the main challenge for Calvente, growing 40 year old vines at an altitude of 900 metres.

Don't get me wrong, this is still excellent wine. It's hard to beat the 06, which had a tiny bit of residual sweetness. The 07 is more gripping and austere, but should be considered on its own merits. It's a fascinating, powerful wine made in a style that is not seen much these days at this level.