Konnichiwa Tokyo!

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Konnichiwa Tokyo!

Tokyo - I'm coming your way! 

Come say hi to me at Vinexpo (held at Prince Park Tower Hotel) on the 15th and 16th of November. See the website for details on how to get there and get in. 

I'll be hosting two seminars:

A Journey in Champagne, 5.00 PM - 6.30 PM on Tuesday 15th

Austrian Wine ‐ Off the beaten path, 10.30 AM to 12.00 AM on Wednesday 16th

Personally, I can't wait! I haven't been to Japan since 2013, when the last World's Best Sommeliers competition was held in Tokyo.

Naturally, I didn't have much time for touristing that time, and I won't now either, but nonetheless I am looking forward to spending some time at what is definitely one of my favorite places on the planet. 

 

Photo: From my visit at one of Masumi's kuras in the hinterlands of Nagano.

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Update

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Update

A lot has happened since I wrote anything on this website. I log in every once in a while, shocked to find that people still drift here somehow, and I feel a little ashamed that I haven’t been able to post anything in three years. I wonder how I ever had time to do so at all. My goal was always to build and maintain an active presence on the blog and in social media, but work and life simply got in the way. Couple that with a desire to not just put out content, but something actually meaningful every time I sit down to write, and the result is nothing at all. So, I will not make any promises that I will keep up the writing. Still, I owe it to you, and to myself, to if nothing else stick my head in once in a while and give a little update.

Between then and now, a lot has happened. In the second half of 2014 I decided that I had to leave my job in Copenhagen. With 8 restaurants under my supervision and three more to come in 2015, it had simply gotten too big for me, and although I took great pride in the work I did and it gave me some wonderful opportunities to travel the world, meet wine makers and experience what it’s like to wield big buying power, I had gotten too far away from the essence of the job of the sommelier, too far away from the guests and the bottles. I began looking around for something else. I was in negotiations with some interesting groups in Europe, but by pure happenstance found myself on culinary trip with a group of winemakers and sommeliers from France, Italy and USA. One of the few people of this group that I hadn’t met before was Robert Bohr, New York sommelier of almost legendary stature. We talked a lot over these few days and found ourselves agreeing on so much when it came to how to run a restaurant and what really makes for good service and hospitality that we decided then and there, without really discussing any details, that we had to work together. I distinctly remember the phone call to my girlfriend (today my wife) asking her if she wouldn’t mind moving to New York. A few months (and some grueling work on visa applications) later, we packed our bags and settled in downtown Manhattan, a few blocks away from Charlie Bird, a lovely little neighborhood restaurant which I’d like to think has a wine program that punches well above its weight.

I had travelled a lot to the states, but never to New York really, so it really was a gamble. But the city has given me a wonderful welcome, and I truly enjoy exploring all it has to offer (a lot!). The wine community is strong and energetic and there are opportunities here that are rare to find elsewhere. Sure, I miss aspects of life in Scandinavia, but I think I will call this city home for some time now...

Parallel with this move, I was preparing like never before to take the ultimate test and compete in the World’s Best Sommelier competition. Perhaps it was crazy to try to take on so much at once, and the past year has been incredibly demanding, with barely any free time between settling in a new city, a new job, running a small business and studying like a demon for the hardest test of my life, but I knew that I would be in a better spot if it all succeeded.

I’m not going to write a long write up of the competition like I’ve done in the past (others have done a great job of that). Suffice to say, it was really tough and I came back with a noticeably greyer shade of hair (in my beard at least). But I felt good doing it all the way to the end. In fact, I think that what in the end won me the title was the sense that even though this was the chance of a lifetime, my life was still pretty damn good, I didn’t need a title to prove anything, to myself or to anyone else. This is in stark contrast to the past when I felt there was so much riding on a win and I perhaps pushed myself past the point of what’s sane and healthy, both for myself and the people and relationships in my life. Let’s just say I have some debts to pay on that front.

So what happens next? Well, I won’t spill the beans just yet, but there are some really, really exciting projects on the near horizon, in New York and in other parts of the world. If you want to stay connected, make sure to interact with me on Twitter or Instagram, where I am easier to be found.

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What's in Store?

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What's in Store?

It has been some time since I updated the blog. I always knew it was going to be difficult to keep it up though. I could say that I have been too busy, which is true, but that is a bit of a cop-out. Performance anxiety is a much truer explanation. What little I have put up has been read at a degree I never dreamed of and scrutinized, commented on and either lauded or hated. How was I ever going to top that? Enter complete writer's block. The solution? Bring back the concept of the blog. A blog is not supposed to be a forum for lengthy discussion that requires brainstorming, rewriting and proofreading. A blog should be short comments on everyday actualities. That does not mean some subjects will be tackled more in-depth, but every post should not be an effort to top the last one.

So, an easy way to get started is to share some goals and overarching plans I have for the next time period.

Like any workaholic, when I reach a goal I feel invincible and take on a bunch of new things. I knew this was going to happen and allowed myself time to say yes to everything and sort out the mess afterwards. So here I am a few months after being able to call myself Europe’s best sommelier. Apart from that, I can add to my CV a couple of new lecturing gigs, a regular column in a wine magazine plus a bunch of bits and pieces (like judging at the upcoming Decanter World Wine Awards in April). However, I have no plans of going freelance, and I remain working as Wine Director and sommelier on the floor as well.

Now, the principal goal for the next couple of years is pretty easy to formulate: I want to be crowned the World's Best Sommelier in 2016 at the competition held in Mendoza, Argentina. I would be a total fool not to go for it now. But how to best go about it?

You may think "why not just prepare like you did the last time, it seemed to work out alright? Why fix it if it ain't broken?" You're right, but maybe the formula is broken, even though it might not appear so. Basically, the mode I have operated in for the last few years leading up to the 2013 competitions builds on setting unattainable standards and goals, intense self-deprecating and sacrificing sleep and happiness for results. It is something you grow mighty tired of, and not something one can keep up forever.

So what is the glorious future like? A state of Zen-like clarity and mindfulness of course! Probably not, but one can always dream. I do intend to seek balance in a different way than before. If I will achieve it or not is obviously not clear yet, but where I in the past egotistically put aside friends and family to dedicate myself more fully to the craft, I hope to do the opposite and in turn be in a happier, more harmonious state. Hopefully that will lead to having more energy and motivation when the going gets tough.

Much of the groundwork has been laid and I can focus on updating and adding on to what I already have, especially in terms of preparing for the theoretical tests. I know this part of the competition is usually downplayed, but make no mistake: A strong theory knowledge is usually the key to advance to the podium. It is also, by far, what requires the most time in training. This means I can focus more efforts on the other disciplines: tasting and service. Blind tasting needs to be done continually to stay good at it. Service too, but much of that is kept up by just working the floor. But there are things I could do better. For example, I am toying around with ideas like doing some bartending, which is a huge hole in my game.

Another clear way to expand my understanding of the wine world is travel. Being in the vineyards and cellars is an infinitely better way to learn what is special about a place than reading about it. With record low prices of airplane tickets, there really is no excuse to not do it. For the price of decent night out, you can get to Paris, Frankfurt or Milano and back from most of Europe and from there it's only a few hours by car to some of the main wine regions in Italy. My plan is to visit the vineyards once a month for a few days. It may seem optimistic, but so far it seems doable. I cannot recommend travelling enough, especially to all you young professionals, if you just plan ahead and buy when tickets are cheap.

Perhaps the biggest change I am attempting is that I am trying to make practice a part of my everyday life in a much more integrated fashion. Even though my employers encourage my competing (careerwise, I wouldn't be where I am without it), there is an inherent conflict in the allocation of time and energy. I believe that this can not only be mitigated, but that we can create synergy by prioritizing staff training on all levels and building stronger, larger sommelier teams on the restaurants.  The goal is to create a self-feeding system, where new people can enter easily from the bottom and people on the higher rungs better themselves by educating and challenging each other.

So this seems like a good place for a plugs: I am looking for ambitious and intelligent sommeliers who want to evolve and challenge themselves and in the process teach others. If this sounds like something for you, let me know.

So, I'm not gone just yet. Expect more content and perhaps some fun  news soon. Until then, drink well!

IMG_1996
IMG_1996

Oh yeah, the image has no relation to anything in particular, except lightening up this block of text. That awesome dog is "guarding" a pretty famous vineyard, visible in the background. Can you name it?

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Why Wine is Actually Really Important

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Why Wine is Actually Really Important

Since winning the title of Europe’s Best Sommelier I have given quite a few interviews to more or less wine savvy journalists.  It is not unusual to sense some unease on their part when we talk over the phone or in some café. Some even begin the conversation by apologizing for now knowing enough about the subject. Others, who have reluctantly been handed the task by a superior, almost go out of their way to make sure that I know that this type of snobbery is below them. Appreciation of fine wine belongs to the same level of culture as opera, perceived by many as utterly pretentious and thus for most journalists easier to mock than understand and interpret. So far, no matter the outset, the conversations have blossomed to something interesting but sadly far outside the scope of the 500 words or so they’ve been asked to produce. So I thought I would elaborate on one of the things I have been harping on about which deserves more in depth discussion: Why wine is important to humanity and why everyone should be paying attention to it.

None of the images in this post are related to anything in particular (except being ofsoulful places and wines), but are just shots from pretty vineyards from one of my last travels that I felt like shareing. This beautiful vineyard is Burn Cottage. Central Otago, NZ, one of the most well kept biodynamic vineyards I have visited.
None of the images in this post are related to anything in particular (except being ofsoulful places and wines), but are just shots from pretty vineyards from one of my last travels that I felt like shareing. This beautiful vineyard is Burn Cottage. Central Otago, NZ, one of the most well kept biodynamic vineyards I have visited.

Why wine?

Invariably, once the reporters figure out that I am not an arrogant snob (well, I am, but maybe not the sort they were expecting) but a pretty average guy, one of the questions they want answered, is: Why wine? How did you get into this? And why should we take wine seriously, when it really just boils down to another way to get drunk?

I suppose it is a relevant question, and I do not have a good, quick answer. Wine was not seen all that frequently in my childhood. My mother and father had belonged to some wing of the intellectual left and red wine was the drink of choice, but when I was growing up, money was scarce and the little wine that made it to the dinner table was but pretty basic, cheap stuff. My father held some notion of what he liked (more often than not Italian or Spanish, made at some cooperative or industrial giant’s modern facilities). The selection was made not by grape or region but by brand name, even though some old-school appellations like Rioja did hold some kind of cache. My mother, who worked in rehabilitation of alcoholics and other addicts, never really kept alcohol around, except for about once a year when a bottle of Campari (usually drunk with grapefruit juice to make it even more bitter) appeared and disappeared. She still claims that the best wine she had ever had was some mystic brew served around a campsite in Morocco from an unlabeled bottle.

Flavor had always intrigued me though. I had never been a picky eater, and I liked cooking and eating. When my parents got divorced, I was about 10 years old. My mother worked shifts and when she was working nights I cooked for my siblings. She would not have us eat junk food. What I cooked was rudimentary stuff, but it taught me to experiment with sweetness, acidity and the interplay of spices and to this day I still cook a mean Bolognese or Chili con Carne and hold a special love for anything simmered for hours. Even earlier, for my seventh birthday, I asked to be taken out for sushi, which I had never had. In the early nineties in Sweden, this was not an easy task. The sole Japanese restaurant in town did not serve sushi, but they could do sashimi and were happy (albeit intrigued) to do it when they learned that I had asked for it. I probably found it more interesting than delicious, but did not let it show. I even held dreams of being a chef and did take some restaurant jobs at an early age. However, decent enough grades in school made me feel like I was throwing away the effort by going to culinary school, which at the time was basically a haven for petty criminals and potheads who couldn’t qualify for anything else. I should probably be glad I didn’t go that route.

Good lawnmower/fertilizer combo. Marlborough, NZ
Good lawnmower/fertilizer combo. Marlborough, NZ

As for alcohol, I did get to taste wine at the dinner table from time to time, but had to wait until I was 16 or so to get a small glass of my own. By that time, I was more used to beer or polish vodka bought out of the trunk of some smuggler’s car and drunk outside in parks and on beaches or if we were lucky, in someone’s house abandoned by adults for the weekend.

I went straight from high school to the university, probably fuelled by an urge to move out more than to study. I pursued an education in nanotech engineering. It was fine enough, although two years in I decided to take a break and never returned. What I did find at university though were older peers, with more developed tastes in music, art, food and drink. We held big dinners, cooked and spent our money on craft beer, better booze and occasionally decent wine.

During my break one of my friends got me a job at the state’s monopoly liquor store. I ended up staying for almost two years. I approached wine like everything else; if I was going to do it, I would be good at it. It was something to master and learn quickly. It appears I am still working at it.

The first wine that I can remember really catching my attention was a simple nebbiolo from Piemontese giant Fontanafredda. It might be hard to grasp now, but at the time, I was blown away. How could a glass be filled with so much nuance and beautiful, floral fragrance? From that point, I was hooked. I have retasted the same wine since and while it is still decent enough, it doesn’t quite live up to my romantic recollection. But nebbiolo still fascinates me, and holds a special plane in my own pantheon of grapes.

At the shop, which as any swede knows is a pretty dull and sterile place, I didn’t get to taste a lot, but I met some great people who gave me guidance and tips to push me forth and finally, as my interest grew beyond the shop’s needs, encouraged me to quit and go the route of the sommelier. I probably haven’t told them enough how thankful I am for that.

I will not bore you with the rest of that story. You know how it ends.

Cool vineyard cow at Seresin. Marlborough, NZ.
Cool vineyard cow at Seresin. Marlborough, NZ.

Why everyone should care about wine

Many of my family and old friends, even though they are proud of my accomplishments, fail to grasp how wine can fill so much of my life, especially during these last few years when I have dedicated virtually all my time to it. Sure, it can be tasty enough and the inebriation it brings has a plethora of positive side effects (until it doesn’t any more). But I truly feel that wine is important and can play an integral part in bringing humanity onto a path I fear we’re losing track of.

In an age where we are busier than ever and we are getting more and more disconnected from nature, wine can provide a promising contract. It is one of very few consumable goods that has an easily recognizable and meaningful origin. It is one of the last ties we have to the soil that feed us. With branding and industry trickery, it might be moving further away, but there is at least a thread of hope that we can work with!

Sure enough, in fine dining establishments around the globe you can listen to endless tirades about which farmer has grown the ingredients that lie artfully scattered on your plate, but this is hardly something most people get to experience (and most of those that do seem to find it a mind-numbing exercise).

As for food, we have for the most part stopped buying vegetables grown locally and seasonally. Shiny tomatoes and pristine apples lie in droves in the supermarkets even in February. At at the slightest discoloring or bruising, they get rejected and thrown out. They taste about as interesting as a piece of plastic, even in season, as all the flavor has been bred out of them in favor of looks and stability. In many countries it is now illegal to butcher your own meat and sell to your neighbor or god forbid, to make cheese with your raw milk to the farmer’s market. Everything is standardized, boring and bland but at least safe and plentiful.

(That this sort of practice of growing food is highly dependent on oil and its derivatives and is depleting the topsoil at an unprecedented rate is an entirely different, but infinitely more important discussion that we will need to have very soon.)

In the process of prioritizing more money and more gadgets over dinner time with the family, we have forgotten about real food, and most young people in the west today are shocked at the prospect of eating for example offal or homemade sauerkraut. At least once a week I have to explain to the cashier at the market what common vegetables are. “That’s celery” or “That’s not iceberg salad, it is a head of cabbage”. It’s a shame.

So what does this have to do with wine?

The house that Judy and Tim built, while living in a camper for years. Neudorf Estate, Nelson, NZ.
The house that Judy and Tim built, while living in a camper for years. Neudorf Estate, Nelson, NZ.

Since the eighties and the rise of Parker and dominance the American market, we’ve been told that "the truth is in the glass", i.e. that taste is all that matters. Wine writers' top priority has been "de-mystifying" wine, to make sure that consumers are not scared off by terminology or anything remotely difficult to understand (or pronounce).

While it has done a lot of good, this philosophy has also been responsible for reducing wine to a commodity like any other. If wines only responsibility is its flavor, who cares about where it comes from and the stories of who made it? Who cares about context when they can have “gobs of hedonistic pleasure”?

Even though most people view wine as just a tasty beverage that gets them tipsy and relaxed over dinner and have no notion of what the “Ribera del Duero”, “Châteauneuf-du-Pape” or “Sonoma Coast” on the label implies, the information is right there for those who want to seek it. Combined with the collective wisdom of the known universe that is available at all times via your smartphone even the most useless appellations, like South Eastern Australia gain a certain meaning. Five minutes on Google will at least tell you how little it implies and thus point you in another direction next time. The name and address of the producer is printed on the label and within seconds you can see images from the vineyards and read vintage reports from the family that owns the vineyards, or perhaps even enter into a Twitter conversation with the winemaker herself. Spend half an hour and you can start to grasp the history of the place, understand what has shaped it through the years; factors like wars, trade, religion and climate. All of a sudden you are connected directly to the soil through the pipeline that stretches from the roots of the vines to your taste buds. And there is no doubt that this intellectual exercise can change, and hopefully ameliorate the aesthetic value of what’s in the glass.

Vineyard worker having lunch on a cool spring day at Burn Cottage. Central Otago, NZ
Vineyard worker having lunch on a cool spring day at Burn Cottage. Central Otago, NZ

Granted, most of the bottles on the shelves of your local wine pusher are probably lacking in what I call “personality”, by which I mean something that makes them distinctive and unique. The concept is related to terroir, but not equal. There are wines without a true sense of terroir that can still have personality; Champagne and Madeira come to mind as immediate examples. When explaining what I mean by personality in wine, I use people as a metaphor: We’ve all encountered that stunningly beautiful woman or man who upon further investigation turns out to be mean, self-absorbed or just plain boring. They can still be pretty to look at, but usually their appearance also fades in our minds after this unpleasant discovery. The pleasure they can offer is at best momentary. The opposite is of course possible as well. The Holy Grail, the 10-pointer with a PHD and great humor (who is willing to talk to you) is naturally a very rare thing, but ultimately worth searching for.

Wine is very much the same and I think we should apply the same objective in drinking that we do in our romantic lives. What makes it even better is that our taste in (partners and wine) is different and the combination of aesthetic beauty and unique personalities almost limitless. Making the case for romantic promiscuity is problematic, so I will stick to the vinous kind.

So how do you find these rare gems? Well, there is no step-by-step guide, and trial and error is probably the only way. The best thing a beginner can do is to let an expert, a proper wine merchant or sommelier guide you. They have certainly taken the wrong path a few times and found their way again, and their knowledge can help you from making the same mistakes.

Wines with soul and personality are not by necessity expensive, although once you start finding them and delving deeper, you will almost invariably start spending more as well. There’s as much pricey wine lacking in personality, as there are bargains wine with lots of it if you look in the right places. I would like to point to some of my favorites in that second category, but I fear this is getting awfully long-winded, so I will leave that for a later post and wrap this up.

Wine can be the lens through which we can experience the physical manifestation of the history of a place and the culture of the people that inhabit it. We can choose to be blind to it, but for those with an open mind, it is there to see and explore.

So, that is what makes wine so special and important. If we lose that last connection, what’s left? We have become so dependent on the wonders of “progress” in form of science and logistics that we are losing connection with the real world. We consider nature our slave, with the sole purpose of providing us with nutrition, pleasure and other things to consume for all eternity. This attitude will no doubt come back to haunt us. We, as humans, need more context in our lives, not less. Is there a more natural starting place than what we eat and drink? Think about that next time you have a casual glass of wine, and perhaps you can start applying the same mindset to everything else you consume as well.

If you are looking for a true manifesto on what makes wine great, I recommend Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise or Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine, both required reading for any wine-romantic, and texts that certainly have shaped my way of thinking. Also, if these thoughts strike a cord with you on a more general level, seek out the books or online lectures of Joel Salatin, who writes from the perspective of a farmer.

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My Thoughts on Natural Wine

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My Thoughts on Natural Wine

Discussing the virtues or follies of the natural wine phenomenon and its cult like following has been a favorite pastime for wine professionals for a couple of years now. Lately it has also spread to consumer magazines and wine aficionados pounce on the opportunity to finally take a stance (which is mostly expressed in poorly worded pastiches on Facebook along with much virtual back-slapping). There is little, if any, real discussion. Frankly, I am bored to tears with the whole thing, and in a way torn as to whether or not I should delete this whole tirade and ignore the topic, instead of adding fuel to anyone’s fire. But on the other hand, if I can just publish my views I can just refer to that and move on to more interesting discussions next time I meet someone in the wine trade, who without a doubt will bring the topic up within the first ten minutes of conversation.

During the last MAD symposium, where luminaries in the world of gastronomy descend on the town for cutting-edge seminars and happenings, I heard the following repeated almost ad nauseum by big-shot international chefs, winemakers and sommeliers who just had to visit all the “cool” restaurants while they were here:

“What the hell is going on in Copenhagen? The food is spectacular; delicious and intellectually challenging, but why is everyone serving undrinkable wine? Of course, I have to remain diplomatic and would never say it out loud.” Some of the more wine-savvy visitors lamented, “They’re not even serving any good natural wine! The more obscure and faulty the better!”

Copenhagen, where I live and work, has in the last few years become a Medina (not quite up to Mecca standards) of natural wine. This is, of course an effect of Noma becoming the most talked about restaurant in the world a few years ago. Noma’s dogmatic approach to rediscovering and interpreting local ingredients resulted in a light, vegetable-driven cuisine with overtones naturalistic purity. Creativity through constriction, you could say. The same radical dogmatic applied to the wine list results in a selection of exclusively European wine, made by using methods of biodynamic agriculture (or at the very least organically, if the farmers beard was deemed long and raggedy enough) without additives, including sulfur dioxide.

Sulfur has been used as an anti-microbial and anti-oxidative agent in winemaking since Roman times. It can be added at various stages in grape growing and winemaking. Without it, wine is prone to spoiling, losing their aromatic freshness and turning brown. However, sulfur is an irritant and there are limits set on its usage. Most winemakers agree that it should be kept at a minimum (optimally only used at bottling), and a few brave souls work without it, or with extremely small quantities. Especially wine made for export usually needs to be protected, unless it can be shipped carefully in refrigerated containers and trucks, which adds a significant cost, and frankly doesn’t happen very often.

Now, back to Copenhagen, via Paris. Although the natural wine scene had been slowly stirring ever since Jules Chauvet convinced a handful of Beaujolais winemakers change their ways in the early 1980’s, it was only 20 years later that the movement gained enough critical mass to really make itself known. Paris especially became a hotbed of wine bars and restaurants featuring only vin nature. These places were edgy, cool and contrarian. They had a clear message and a very black-and-white view of the world: either you were with them or against them. Perfect for anxious foodsters.

Paris is a given on the top list of destinations for any restaurant professional searching for inspiration. Ambitious young chefs and sommeliers everywhere sucked it all up, and by 2007 there were major vin nature outposts in London, New York and Copenhagen. Aforementioned Noma and Bocuse d’Or winner Rasmus Kofoed’s Geranium, also a natural wine outpost, were the hottest places in Copenhagen, booked for months in advance and attracting fledgling and determined volunteer staff from all over the world.

Some more or less natural wines that everyone could and should enjoy!
Some more or less natural wines that everyone could and should enjoy!

Let’s get personal. Back in 2008, when I started my career as a sommelier for real, I was quite drawn to the idea of vin nature. I was (and am still) attracted by the philosophy itself. But it was also a way to be radical and rebellious, to take a stance, seem cool and score all the hippy wine chicks (no, not really, they don’t exist). I read a lot, tasted a fair bit, bought a little and sold almost nothing. Perhaps I was in the wrong, way-too-uncool place. Either way, the interest was not quite there. What did best was those wines which even in classic renditions play around with oxidation; especially Champagne, Loire valley whites and wines from the Jura Mountains in France. The wines made by small, environment-conscious producers here, with minimal intervention clearly had a sense of life and intensity about them that their more conventional peers often (definitely not always) lacked. On the other hand, I never got into the more aromatic white grapes vinified without sulfur (like Riesling). I also generally struggled with the taste of many reds, which often end up with drying, rancid hazelnut-like tannins on the finish. This seems to be a clear sign of oxidation and a sensation that can ruin a wine for me, even though the flavor otherwise might be clean.

Two styles of wine more than any other drew me back from the absolute abyss though. German Riesling with residual sugar and Sherry. These wines literally cannot be made with completely natural principles, both requiring additions of different sorts. Despite this, they are undisputedly unique and belong to the pantheon of the world’s greatest wines. So if I had to forgo the beauty of a Mosel Kabinett with its unparalleled capacity for transmitting terroir, to fully embrace the vin nature dogma, something was seriously wrong. Even though my wine lists today are made up of 99% conventional wine, I still keep some vin nature favorites on there, (admittedly mostly for myself and other sommeliers). Usually I go for “the classics”, wines that won’t offend and stay true to the typicity of their appellation, but still offer personality and a good story. When I dine out I have natural wine on a regular basis, but I am very picky with what I choose and I have learned to stay far away from wine pairing menus, where I commonly find too many blatantly faulty and unpleasant wines.

Back to the restaurant scene in Copenhagen. Those hard-working poor souls who managed to live through years of brutal 80-hour weeks have now graduated, and Noma-alumni restaurants are popping up like mushrooms. With them follows the wine philosophy they’ve been steeped in, accentuated by the radicalism of youth (and freedom?); sulfur is not just unnecessary but plain evil. White wine is supposed to be brown, or at least orange. Red wines are supposed to foam a little. Champagne is for philistines; you should have (and enjoy) some Grolleau based pet-nat from the Loire. The more muddy sediment that ends up in the iso-glass (chosen with calculated nonchalance) the better.

And here is the crux. The sommeliers that run these lists often lack proper wine education, and points of reference to conventional wine (for lack of a better term). If a classic Meursault somehow crept under their radar, they woulnd’t know how to relate to it. They have worked for their entire professional career with only vins natures and have effectively missed out on 99% of the world of wine. They have been infused with the dogma that everything else is not only different, but it is stuffy, without interest or just plain evil. Their view of what wine is supposed to be is skewed so far away from mainstream that they lose all connection with reality and the palates of their guests. But bolstered by trend-sensitive media and anxious foodsters they feel invincible. It is a perfect parallel to that classic Danish tale of the emperor and his new clothes.

These “sommeliers” may never have tried a classic Bordeaux, and in fact many of them scoff at the notion. I have heard statements like “Cabernet Sauvignon is a shit grape”, “Real wine can not be made outside of Europe”. They fake sneezing attacks when you approach them with a glass of wine with added sulfur (yet somehow manage to drink Perrier or San Pellegrino water on the side without any issues, both of which are high in sulfur). For them, there is no need to try a wine from South Africa. It is inherently bad.

Now, I may be too harsh, but I have simply been served too much decidedly faulty wine in otherwise respectable establishments to let this slide, and then been chided when I pointed this out. No, maderization or rampant volatile acidity is not a sign of terroir, and it never will be. In fact, if all your white wines taste like lambic, no matter where they are from, why not serve beer instead?

That faulty wine is being served to such a degree is creating an unfortunate polarization. Where a few years ago the naturalists (sic!) were the aggressors, today they take a more actively defensive stance. Late-to-the-party winelovers exclaim their hatred of natural wine, scoff and laugh at biodynamic practices, wear “I heart SO2”-teeshirts and in general dedicate way too much time on social media talking about something they could as easily ignore.

Because, really, there are magnificent natural wines and it would be an equal shame if passionate wine drinkers take the contra-contrarian stand and dismiss the whole genre based on a few bad experiences. The wines of Pierre Overnoy in the Jura, of Dard & Ribo in Rhône, Catherine & Pierre Breton in the Loire along with many others deserve to be on as many great wine lists as possible.

All of this conflict because we don’t understand the virtue of moderation. No matter what you think of the most hardcore natural wine, you can not deny that the phenomenon itself has been great for the world of wine as a whole. When I meet winemakers in South Africa, Portugal or even the epicenter of evil wine capitalism; Napa Valley, they all express the desire to use as little intervention as possible and make pure, lively wine. Organic and biodynamic practices are becoming de rigeur everywhere, and for the right reasons too. You would have to be totally daft to think that that is bad in any way. In a way, the natural wine movement has also helped propelled the new interest in traditional wine. All of a sudden the wines of Bartolo Mascarello, López de Heredia, Gentaz and Clos Rougeard are back in style. It is long overdue.

The most undervalued wine in the world today?!? More great natural (although I am sure some will debate that...) wine from Muscadet in the Atlantic Loire valley.
The most undervalued wine in the world today?!? More great natural (although I am sure some will debate that...) wine from Muscadet in the Atlantic Loire valley.

I prophesize that the term natural wine will fade away over the next ten years, to be replaced by something infinitely better and more powerful. The trend has certainly peaked, and the fact that we cannot yet agree upon what natural wine really is shows how fickle it is. It is also time for the naturalistas to grown up and drop their elitist and borderline racist (again, remember good wine can not be made outside of Europe) views. I hope and think that we can shift focus to something much more important: wine with soul and personality. Let’s leave the devil in the details. If we need a label we could call it authentic, artisanal or just real wine (by the way, when was the last time you had some unicorn wine). It would include the best of the natural group along with classic producers like Vega Sicilia, but also leave room for Eben Sadie and his friends in South Africa, Araujo in Napa and Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux. Hell, we can even find a way to bend the rules to allow Penfold’s Grange in there somehow I am sure, despite its apparent lack of terroir. Let’s be inclusive for once and accept the fact that multitudes make the world a fun (and tasty) place to be.

Let’s end this rambling mess with some quick tips.

TIPS FOR VIN NATURE “SOMMELIERS”

  • Stop being elitist.
  • Help yourself to a proper wine education. Read the books and drink the wines. If you decide to limit your knowledge to 0.1% of the world of wine, you don’t have the right to call yourself a sommelier. I’ll even help (with the drinking part)!
  • Don’t buy wine on good stories or length of winemakers’ beards.
  • Don’t try to pass on faults as terroir. You should at least be questioning yourself and your palate if someone sends a bottle back.
  • If you’re going to sell un-sulfured wine, invest a properly cooled cellar. I bet this is actually the cause of a majority of the faulty wines you’re serving.

TIPS FOR CLASSICALLY MINDED WINOS

  • Drop the polemic bullshit.
  • Give natural wines a chance. Go for the producers that have been doing this since before there was a term and a trend for it. As with anything else, they are usually the most consistent.
  • Be thankful for all that the movement of organics, biodynamics and natural winemaking has done for the world of wine. It's brought another level of consciousness to conventional producers as well.

TIPS FOR JOURNALISTS AND BLOGGERS

  • Enough with the sensationalism. If things seem black/white it’s only because you don’t know better.
  • Dare to criticize, even if your peers are praising.
  • Realize that in today’s world, you’re powerful. Take responsibility and act accordingly.

TIPS FOR NATURAL WINEMAKERS

  • Realize that you’re in a bubble before it’s too late and get your shit together.
  • Your French witticisms really aren’t all that funny. The naked girl on the label doesn’t exactly help neither.

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Europe’s Best Sommelier – The Showdown (part 3)

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Europe’s Best Sommelier – The Showdown (part 3)

This is a long one. I apologize beforehand, but it felt weird to cut it up even more. Maybe my mom will be able to read through it without falling asleep. If she does, I will be happy! Read part 1 and part 2 here of this report here.

Sunday September 29th:

As is customary, we were not told whom the three were who had qualified for the finals after we were done with the semi-finals, even though we knew the judges had already tallied up the score. We were left to cook and try to get a full night’s sleep. The day after the semi-finals was spent in Monaco, with a tour of the city, a gala dinner at the prestigious Hôtel l’Hermitage and for my part at least, a few €16 Campari Tonics at Café de Paris.

About an hour before we were to meet at the Casino on Sunday the 29th the rain was hammering down in a very ominous way. Vicious thunder and lightning. The ten semi-finalists made our way through the crowd for another hour of nervous waiting. If our hearts weren’t pounding before, they sure were now.

God damn it. I am running out of wine here with all this typing. The Clos Rougeard served well, but now it’s time to more onto heavier stuff. How about some Equipo Navazos Amontillado #37 to help with the writers block? Amazingly, complex wine. Perhaps a tad too powerful for casual drinking. But it sure tastes good.

Onward with the story! All 37 candidates were made to wait outside in full sommelier gear as defined and enforced by the international sommelier association: white shirt and bow tie, with apron and an open short-cut jacket. Anywhere else people would think you were heading into a bull-fighting show. The theatre filled up, mostly with proud relatives I would imagine. Sommelier competitions never have been, and never will be a sport for the public. Chefs have an advantage there to be sure. Cooking is at least something everyone can relate to.

The ten semi-finalists were made to go on stage and three envelopes were handed to Serge Dubs, who took the opportunity to make us all sweat a bit more, before announcing:

“Candidate number 12: Julia Scavo, Romania” Julia is a fierce competitor, and perhaps the person I saw as my most powerful competitor should we both get to the stage. She has worked in France for many years on the Riviera, and competes in French. She is a brilliant theorist, a great blind taster and has a level of charm I have a hard time matching. She is also as of now the only woman to have reached the stage in the European championship. (See correction from João Pires in the comments section below.) (Véronique Rivest of Canada did the same feat in the World competition earlier this year.)

“Candidate number 28: David Biraud, France” David is one of the most experienced candidates of all. I have seen him do very well (in Strasbourg 2010 he was my favourite on stage) and not so well (in Tokyo earlier this year where his performance felt forced). He is also a very well rounded candidate, and has that romantic flair the French do so well.

“Candidate number 11: Arvid Rosengren, Sweden” What a feeling. A strange mix of pride, joy and utter fear. I was now going to compete in front of all these people?

David Biraud, me and Julia Scavo - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard
David Biraud, me and Julia Scavo - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard

We drew numbers to decide who was going to start out. Me, first, then Julia and David last. Going first can be either a plus or a minus depending on your mind-set. Sometimes I like going later, just to have the nerves calm down by pure exhaustion. But it can also be good to be the first out, ride the wave of excitement and get it over with. I was led backstage; the others into some dark chamber even further below to await their judgement. I am happy there were no cameras back there, as the pep talk I was giving myself might have provided endless embarrassing entertainment for others on YouTube.

When I was brought on stage, I felt focused and ready, if not quite calm. The stage is set up they way a restaurant would look if a crowd came to watch people eat. Two tables of six, a table of four, another table of two, a large service table at the back and a clean table up front - for the blind tasting.

The conferencier, Enrico Bernardo, a legend in his own right as previous European champion and the youngest (and some say most convincing) ever to conquer the World title as well in 2004, welcomed me up, shook my hand and started presenting the first task.

“Your first task will be to select a bottle of champagne and serve to this table of six. They are having beef Carpaccio with truffles as a starter. You have five minutes.

In an ice bucket lay three bottles covered by a napkin. All from one of the main sponsors: Moët & Chandon. There was a regular rosé, a 2002 Grand Vintage Rosé and a 2004 Grand Vintage. The choice was quite easy, and I think all finalists went for it: 2002 Rosé. Moët has stepped up their game lately, and the vintage wines are pretty damn good! And with Carpaccio why not some rosé.

Tasting the wine was another legend: German Markus del Monego MW and the Worlds Best Sommelier 1998. The spacing around the table was tight, and the slippery silver trays didn’t help, but I managed to avoid any accidents and finished the task with plenty of time left.

“Next up, on this table of four, a wine club is gathered. They will have a six-course menu. The theme of the day is thegreat sweet wines of the world. You have seven minutes to recommend sweet wines to go with their meal.”

Panic. Well, not really, but my wits certainly left me momentarily. All of a sudden you stand there thinking: “Sweet wines. Well, there is Port… and… Sauternes… and what else?” I take a moment to compose myself, recommend a sweet champagne to start with (and get some brownie points with the sponsors) and then set out explaining my method: I will go gradually up in sweetness, starting light and moving to very sweet. I start out with a 1995 Riesling Kabinett from Fritz Haag with Foie Gras. In retrospect, with my wits about me I should have good for Spät- or even Auslese. Next up, a powerful scallop dish. I go for Demi-Sec Vouvray from Domaine Huet. Then 15 y.o. Verdelho Madeira with a Lobster dish with curry and coconut milk. 1985 Dow’s Port to go with Venison. And 2000 5 puttonyos Tokay from Oremus with a dessert I don’t even remember. I do my whole spiel with coffee and tea recommendations, sweet digestives and cigars and finish ahead of time, feeling like I’ve spent an hour rambling.

Food and wine pairing (I think) - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard
Food and wine pairing (I think) - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard

If I was to go back and re-do it, I would certainly put more emphasis on the great sweet wines of the world. Sure, I love Vouvray, but when someone wants “great” they are probably expecting Sauternes. I would also not use the same country of origin more than once. It was not spelled out specifically in the task, but with so many great wines out there, why not include a Vin de Constance, a Ruster Ausbruch (which would have been magic with that lobster dish I am sure) or a Vin Santo?

Next up: “Decant this magnum of 2007 Barolo for a table of six. You have five minutes.”

Five minutes is not a lot, but just about enough to do this in a gracious way. When the wine is poured for taster Serge Dubs, he asks “Wouldn’t you agree this is a great expression of Sangiovese?” Now, the task is not to know that the grape of Barolo actually is Nebbiolo, that’s kindergarten stuff. The task is to in a diplomatic and gracious way correct a guest (or not). I try to explain that I myself often mistake the two in blind tastings, but that the two are quite different. With a 2007 Barolo, the tannins shouldn’t be too Nebbiolo-like anyway, and if the guests were expecting a Sangiovese, they might very well enjoy this quite a lot.

Next up, four wines to be tasted blind in twelve minutes, and then six beverages in three minutes.

Twelve minutes to taste and describe four wines will make anyone sound like a blabbering idiot. The first one is a tricky white wine. I re-taste it after describing and it hits me: Stone fruits, nuts and honey. Rhône Valley! Marsanne and Roussanne! Number two is a modern red with a certain kind of elegance but a serious tannic structure, plenty of oak and an alcoholic punch. I feel uncertain, but go for 2009 Ribera del Duero. Number three is a dead-ringer for Nebbiolo, and it’s a pretty one too. I lose too much time here, going off about how lovely this stuff is and what I would like to serve it with. I end up going with 2004 Barbaresco, as it is so light and fresh. The last one is a fragrant sweet wine. I am stopped before I am able to conclude anything. Not to give too much away but I would have gone for Málaga Moscatel and still wouldn’t have been close!

The spirits are fairly straightforward, and at this point I am confortable and not too nervous (which I feel really hurts my blindtasting abilities, especially the quick spirits tastings where you have 30 seconds per glass). The first is an aromatic pomace brandy, I go for Italian moscato grappa, the second a Gin, with the third I go for Bourbon. After that an elderflower liqueur. Next: A heady sweet red wine, I go for Jumilla Monastrell Dolc. Finally a bitter, semi-sweet thing, I go with Amaro, knowing that is not quite right.

Then there is another classic task: Correct a winelist carefully planted with errors. I won’t get into details here, but you can see if you can find the errors yourself (even though the picture I found is of pretty poor quality). The list is about 12 items long, with wines from China, Japan, Thailand as well as classics like Shafer and Bindi Winegrowers. I manage to find most of the errors, but miss a few ones that should be obvious, like a 2013 Grace Koshu from Yamanashi. The 2013 has not even been made yet!

Photo shamelessly stolen from Eric Boschman - http://blog.lesoir.be/saturdaywinefever/
Photo shamelessly stolen from Eric Boschman - http://blog.lesoir.be/saturdaywinefever/

“Finally: This gentleman wants your help to source some great wine for his birthday. Please give the current market price in euros for 2001 Harlan, 1989 Petrus and 1994 Penfold’s Grange”

Certainly a relevant task. Sommeliers need to stay updated and keep an eye on the market. I was pretty close with my quotes on the Harlan at €700 and Penfold’s at €250, but I am apparently not quite up to date with my Petrus, guessing only €1500 (a better estimate would be double that). I blame my guests for not asking for it more!

Phew! I survived. And it felt pretty damn good. Now I get to go sit in the crowd, and being the first out on stage I actually get to see the others compete.

Julia is next. She works through the practical elements with speed and although she seems a bit stressed at first, panting and walking back and forth, she compensates with beautiful language and charm. I am getting worried. Her food and wine matching were good, although I felt like there was no red line through it all. She started out too heavy and then actually moved back in terms of sweetness. Her tasting sounds so good that I seriously begin to doubt my own conclusions. She goes for Austrian(?) Riesling, Sangiovese, Barolo and much like me, is stopped before she can conclude on the last wine. Spirits in order; Grappa, Gin, Scotch Whisky, Elderflower liqueur, sweet red wine (can’t remember precisely) and something I can't recall on the last one.

Her wine list correction is good, she finds quite a few things I did not, but also misses a lot. Above all; she has that female charm. And she speaks French! Someone from behind whispers to me: “Everything just sounds better in French.” Yikes, I am seriously getting worried now.

David is last on stage. I have never seen him this good. He has speed, grace and he is quite charming. He is not getting lost in the language like he sometimes has in the past. He finishes the champagne service, the decanting and the wine and food pairing on time. Much like with Julia, I am not in agreement with all his choices on the pairing, again lacking a harmony in the menu, and he forgets both aperitif and digestives recommendations. Those extra points can mean a lot.

Duilio Rizzo - PhotoGraphic
Duilio Rizzo - PhotoGraphic

In the blind tasting David manages to finish on time and goes for an all-Italian conclusion: Vermentino from Sardinia, Sangiovese from Tuscany (much like Julia), Barolo and Malvasia di Liparia. Could it be? In my head, it kind of makes sense. He goes for Eau de Vie de Coing on the first spirit, Gin on the second, Scotch Whisky, Elderflower Liqueur, Crème de Mûre and some sort of liqueur. Seems kind of sketchy, given mine and Julia’s conclusions.

Afterwards, I feel uncertain. I think the audience got their moneys worth. Out of all the competitions I have seen, there has always at least been someone who was a clear third. Not today. If feels incredibly close.

While the jury goes through deliberations, Serge Dubs takes the time to present the beverages tasted blind. I unfortunately was too beside myself to get proper vintages, producers etc. They were in order:

  • 2009 La Rodeline, Marsanne, Valais, Switzerland (Decent enough, correct grape, and the correct river)
  • 2009 Rudeles, Ribera del Duero, Castilla y Léon, Spain (Score! All but producer correct)
  • 2007 Beni di Batasiolo, Barolo, Piemonte Italy (Wrong vintage and appellation, but elsewise OK)
  • 2010 Yarden Gewürztraminer Icewine, Galilee, Israel (A good wine, but impossible to pinpoint blind)

Relief! The conclusion on number one and two is enough to earn me a few points, and missing the conclusion on the last one is meaningless, as I would never have guessed it anyway.

The spirits were (again, I am missing the exact brands for some of these things):

  • Traminer Tresterbrand (pomace brandy), Austria
  • Bluecoat Gin, USA
  • Heaven Hill Bourbon Whisky, USA
  • Vestal Elderflower Liqueur, Poland
  • 2007 Pisano Liqueur de Tannat, Uruguay
  • Jägermeister Bitter, Germany

With that result, I felt like I was ahead. I had been worried about the blind tasting before the competition, as I know nervousness impairs my tasting quite a lot, but it actually turned out much better than I could have hoped for all throughout the competition.

The winelist is also presented with the errors corrected. I also manage to squeeze in a few more points than the other two here.

The decision comes alarmingly quickly, and we are called on stage once again. Shinya Tasaki, world champion in 1995 and president of the association is handed a white envelope from the jury and opens it carefully. The suspense is horrible.

“Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe 2013: Sweden, Arvid Rosengren.” I honestly don’t even hear what he is saying. But I hear the familiar voices roar from my girlfriend and friends down below. What a trip!

Victory - Photo by Arunas Starkas, Lithuanian Sommelier Association
Victory - Photo by Arunas Starkas, Lithuanian Sommelier Association

Next up: What now?

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Europe's Best Sommelier - My Story (part 2)

4 Comments

Europe's Best Sommelier - My Story (part 2)

Find part 1 here. The waiting is the hardest part. I drew the worst possible number going in to the semi-finals, 10, meaning I would have to wait until all the others were brought in behind the closed doors to perform whatever evil tests they might have devised for us. So there I sat, for about three hours, going through every possible scenario, and trying to stay calm. The brusque Italian ladies who were cleaning the halls at the Casino in San Remo would not allow me to use the bathroom, which definitely did not add to my comfort, but probably did add to my speed in the practical parts of the tasks to come.

This is where describing the test gets tricky. It might sound deceivingly easy. Trust me, it is not. When you know you are working against the clock and the test is set up to confuse you and see where you slip up, your brain somehow says farewell and stays behind.

Product placement. I humbly await millions in royalty... - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard
Product placement. I humbly await millions in royalty... - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard

First, the practical tests:  I enter a room with three tables set up, each with two persons. Other than that there is a small table with a glass and a plate of cheese and a long service table set with glasses, decanters, candles, coasters, wine cradles and everything else necessary to perform decanting and other parts of wine service. There are also several bottles of beer, spirits, water and wine, amongst them a bottle of wine in an icebucket. Serge Dubs, the chairman of the Technical Commitée of ASI and previous winner of both the European and World competitions present the first task, while handing you a piece of paper which looks like a list of everything on the service table:

“You are the head sommelier of a restaurant. Last night you asked your trainee to prepare this mice-en-place for you. You have a table of two guests here. The lady has asked for a glass of white wine and after that they would like to share a bottle of red wine. You have five minutes.”

I get stuck on the list, somewhere on line three “Non alcoholic beer…” I am expecting a trap, but it is time to move! I quickly scan the table. There is only one white wine, in the icebucket, a 2012 Gavi from Piemonte, Italy. The bottle has been opened, plastic cork lying in front of the icebucket. I grab it, wipe it off and turn around, about to move to the table. “STOP! IT’S A TRAP!” my brain yells (thank you Brain!). I edge back, grab a tasting glass and pour a sample. I have to taste it twice to get it. It’s suble, but the wine has a TCA fault(commonly referred to as “cork”) . There is no other bottle to be found.

“The wine is faulty. Would you like me to proceed with serving it?” I ask the judges.

“Move on to the red wine.”

Phew. Dodged it! I (admittedly very sloppily) decant and serve the red wine, a 2010 Chianti Classico, not realizing that the list I was handed said 2011. Damn! My brain is about halfway across the room laughing at me now.

“Time! Next task: Taste and discuss the combination of these two cheeses and this beverage. You have three minutes.”

I sit down by the small table. On the plate are two servings of cheese, a mozzarella and a parmesan. In the glass a pleasantly familiar beverage – a sake of pretty decent quality! Score! Unbeknownst to the judges of course, I do work with sake quite a lot at Umami in Copenhagen. And I am lucky enough to have inquisitive, curious students.

Last year, after service at Umami one of them asked “What about sake and cheese – wouldn’t that work?” Honestly, I did not know, but it was worth a try. We went over to our French sister restaurant Le Sommelier and got a bunch of classic cheeses. As it turns out, sake served chilled is probably one of the most universal good matches with cheese. It tackles creamy cheeses, also the sharper ones based on goat’s milk by playing on it’s suave texture and roundness, while it allows saltier cheeses to shine through while kind of coating them in an oddly refreshing layer. And somehow it works magic as a palate cleanser. The only problem is selling the match. Most people will react with skepticism. My solution would be to serve it in a black glass and reveal the combination after the fact.

I tried to express as much to the judges, and I think I got the message across. I found sake and parmesan especially to be a good match. With the mozzarella it was just smoothness with more smoothness, but the parmesan and the sake was fun combination.

Then it was time to move on. With sake and parmesan still on my palate, I went on to the blind tasting. Same format is in the quarter-finals: two wines and three “beverages”. But this time it was an oral presentation. Ten minutes in all. I won’t bore you with the whole thing. You're basically trying to descibe the wine, recommend how to serve it and with what and draw a good conclusion on what it is. The first wine was a rosé, pink in color and young and fruity. I placed it in Navarra, Spain with a Garnacha base, mostly due to the color. The red was a pretty elegant wine with dark fruit and eucalyptus-toned spice. I went with Victorian Shiraz, even though the high acidity didn’t quite fit in. I was later told by another candidate who had managed to get word out from a judge that the rosé was indeed Spanish Rosado and the red was a South African Shiraz. Pretty decent.

Oral blind tasting - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard
Oral blind tasting - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard

On the spirits I did not do as well. I struggled with the first one, again showing how difficult it is to work with taste under pressure. It was a Vieux Prune (a an aged plum distillate). I went for old Calvados. The second was an aged Tequila. Score on that. And the last was obviously a Bitter, but light in color. I went for Italy, but it turns out I really ought to have known it – being a national Danish treasure – Gammeldansk Bitter!

I will admit, I felt like I was not quite sharp enough on the practical part, as I got on the bus that would take us to lunch and touring in Monaco. I felt like I had blown it. But all candidates seemed to have a sense of dread about the whole test. Only two or three had picked out the corked wine. Silent glee! Maybe I was still in the game!

Part 3 coming soon….

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Europe's Best Sommelier - My Story (part 1)

8 Comments

Europe's Best Sommelier - My Story (part 1)

First off, a warning. This post will be about me. Me, me, me! I am sorry, I really am not a very narcissistic person. Promise... As I am writing this, it is only about 48 hours ago that I was crowned the winner at Concours de Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe, the competition of the Best Sommelier of Europe 2013, organized by ASI, the international sommelier association. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it, and the last couple of days have been non-stop congratulations and celebrations. But I thought it would be good to get my memories and thoughts down before they fade into nostalgia.

With me tonight to help with the recollection is a bottle of 2008 Clos Rougeard, an absolutely beautiful wine based on the notoriously difficult Cabernet Franc grape from Saumur-Champigny in the Loire valley, France. This is one of my very favourite wines and although the 2008 is still a baby, it is quite approachable. Aromas of wild dark berries and floral notes mingle with a suave texture, while the sleek acidity carries it all the way through. A very pretty wine, and it will only get better with some age. It should still be available in many markets. I urge you to seek it out! Anyway, back to business.

Blind tasting practice - Picture by Sören Polonius
Blind tasting practice - Picture by Sören Polonius

The competition this year was the 13th in order since the first one was organized in 1989. It has been held every two years, but seems to be moving into a triennial programme as of late. One candidate from every European country with a certified sommelier association competes for the title of Best Sommelier of Europe. The candidates have to win the right to compete in their own country first. This time there was 37 in all. The competition is fierce, and the roster is pretty much the same as in the competition for the World title. In fact, the last four world champion sommeliers have all won the European title first. the list of previous winners include luminaries like Paolo Basso, Gérard Basset, Isa Bal, Andreas Larsson and Serge Dubs.

This year the competition was hosted by the Italian and Monegasque associations in San Remo, Italy. For someone from the cold north (who also just came back from the cold early spring of New Zealand’s south island), getting some late season sun and warmth was a very welcome treat. There was sense of faded grandeur about San Remo, like a sun-bleached photo. Walking its narrow streets, it was easy to mentally travel back a century to the golden years of the Riviera.

The competition was held in the Casino in San Remo, Liguria
The competition was held in the Casino in San Remo, Liguria

Day one of the competition started with a theory test to be finished in 60 minutes. Let me go off on tangent here. Many people who witness these spectacles never understand how much preparation and work goes into making it to the stage for the final showdown. Studying for the theory test is by far the most time consuming and difficult part of the preparations. This is also what normally separates out those who are willing to dedicate themselves to the study and those who aren’t. Personally, I estimate that I have spent around 2500 hours over the last three years just on theory studies. What does the test encompass? Well, just about everything related to wine but also spirits, coffee, tea and service related things like cheese, chocolate and cigars. A few of sample questions from this years test, just to let you get a feel for it:

  • What is Sotolon in relation to wine?
  • Which two appellations from the Rhône Valley are based on Muscat?
  • What grape is Touraine-Azay-le-Rideau rosé based on?
  • Name the communes of the Swiss region Chablais.
  • Name all the subregions of Niagara Peninsula.

There was also a large questions relating to the more practical aspects of working as a sommelier, pricing and stocking for a wine list. I ended up spending too much time on this, going perhaps too deep in to the answers, and ended up being quite pressed for time. I did finish all the questions though, leaving only a few answers blank. My worst performance was probably on a large question on liqueur ingredients. I need to spend some more time behind the bar… XUXU liqueur anyone?

Next up was a written blind tasting of two wines and three spirits. This exercise is not so much about guessing the right wine as it is about describing the wine in proper fashion, recommending how and with what to serve it. But getting it right doesn’t hurt of course. The wines were (I unfortunately don’t know exactly what they were) a rather neutral, young Austrian Grüner Veltliner, which I was able to pick out. The red was a Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder rather) from Baden, Germany. I debated with myself whether it was German or New Zealand, but in the end decided to go for New Zealand due to the rather high alcohol. I always struggle with the more rustic kiwi Pinots and Spätburgunder. It must be something about the clonal material (and the oak handling I think). The spirits were an Italian grappa, a scotch whisky and dark, heavy Jamaican rum. At least I think so, as I haven’t managed to get any more information on that.

The practical test in the quarter-finals consisted of decanting and serving a bottle of red wine in four minutes tops for a table of two. Fairly standard fare. But there was also a hurdle thrown in, as the guests complained the wine was too warm upon tasting, to judge the sommeliers diplomatic skills and ability to solve problems during service.

The happy semi-finalists
The happy semi-finalists

The semi-finalists were announced later that day. Proceeding to the next day of competition was:

Aristide Spies, Belgium

Christian Jacobsen, Denmark

David Biraud, France

Julie Dupouy, Ireland

Matteo Ghiringhelli, Italy

Rodolphe Chevalier, Luxembourg

Francesco Azzarone, Norway

Julia Scavo, Romania

Eric Zwiebel, United Kingdom

Very, very dangerous competition. Six of us had also been semifinalists in the competition for the world title in Tokyo earlier this year, and many had several years of competition more than me. This would not be easy.

And even though there is a dominance of French or “semi-French” sommeliers here, it is a huge achievement to have three Scandinavians in the semi-finals. A fantastic feat! And to add to that, Christian Jacobsen is my colleague who runs MASH in London, having been my assistant sommelier in Denmark and training partner for long. This is probably the first time there are two sommeliers from the same employer going this far in an international competition.

Part 2 is here.

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Amazing Aussie Pinot

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Amazing Aussie Pinot

Who would have thought that a wine trip to Australia would end up being a Pinot Noir trip? Sure, we knew that there were a few outliers making stellar wine, but to find the level so high was a surprise, and the very best wines were in a class that can compete with truly great Burgundy. I know it may sound improbable to many of you and I really hope we will be able to put together some fun blindtastings to try this thesis.

Of course there was great Shiraz (especially Jasper Hill and Craiglee stood out), tremendous old Sémillon (Yarra Yering), elegant Cabernet (Mount Langhi Ghiran and Yarra Yering) but the Pinots have really made the deepest impression. Below is a light profile of two of the visits that affected me the most. Common to them both is the location in Victoria state, close to Melbourne and the windswept coastline.

By Farr (Geelong, Victoria State)

We were a bit nervous driving up to meet with Gary Farr. Everyone we had met with before that had warned us that he was a ”grumpy old bastard” and it was a wise move to get the first verbal crack in to get him off balance right away, or he would run you over. This prooved to be unneccessary. Retirement (at least in practice) seemed to be working well for him. Today, his son Nick takes care of the vineyards and winery.

Nick Farr in the vineyards
Nick Farr in the vineyards

Moorabool Valley in Geelong was the most prominent wine region in Australia at the turn of the last century. Swiss immigrants were the first to plant grapes here, and they brought their beloved Pinot Noir with them. Sadly enough, phylloxera ruined everything and as opposed to in South Australia, no old vineyards from that period remain. Gary Farr was the first to make great wine here again, at Bannockburn Winery, in 1978. When the owner died, Gary left and started his own winery, aptly named By Farr. Gary worked thirteen vintages at the famous Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, and his style of winemaking was always very influenced by the great Jacques Seysses (although many would say that the Dujac style has changed lately). The wines are elegant and floral but with a serious edge to them, imparted by a high proportion of whole clusters in the fermentation. Most producers today choose to destem and vinify only with the grapes, but at By Farr anywhere between 30% and 100% whole clusters go into the wine. This is a tricky technique that requires perfectly ripe bunches. When done right, the result is a herbal, floral style of wine with lighter color but great intensity of structure. The wines demand air and time to open up. All the wines here, from Chardonnay to Shiraz and Viognier are recommended, but the Pinot Noirs stand out. The top cuvée 2011 Tout Près (single vineyard of densely planted vines, 100% whole cluster and 100% new oak) was perhaps the best wine tasted on the whole trip, but it also took 12 hours to really open up and shed some of the initial austerity and blossom into a hauntingly beautiful floral and herbal masterpiece. This, I believe is on the level with the very best Burgundy Grand Cru, and in that light it is really exceptionally good value. I can’t want to surprise this to my francophile friends and guests with this, and I will certainly put away a case or two for myself as well.

Very Aussie vineyard map
Very Aussie vineyard map

Bass Phillip (Gippsland, Victoria)

The visit at Bass Phillip is one of the most surprising ones I’ve ever undertaken. I had never tasted the wines before, and truth, the only thing I knew was that they are some of the most coveted in Australia, and fairly expensive. The way I had had the whole thing explained to me, I was expecting a luxury project with a fancy designer winery and unlimited resources. I was also told that Phillip Jones was an eccentric with a bad temper. In all honesty, on this beautiful Saturday, I was more in the mood for shopping in Melbourne. But all right, let’s go out and taste the wines really quick and get back I though. I ended up staying the whole day tasting (I should say drinking) wines with Phillip and his wife (and her fantastic homemade chicken noodles) in the rather messy office/kitchen whilst spitting into a chipped coffee cup.

Phillip Jones in the Bass Phillip Winery
Phillip Jones in the Bass Phillip Winery

The landscape in Gippsland is at this time of year green and lush. The rolling hills and dotted with sheep and cows. This is dairy country. Not a whole lot of wine around here. Actually we didn’t see any other vineyards except Jones’.

I might have gotten ahead of the story, but when we got there it was obvious that there was nothing luxurious about this place. I have rarely seen such a small and frankly, quite messy little winery. It’s not Henri Bonneau, but it’s up like a down under version! Old tractors, broken vats and even a couple of old caravans lined the outside. Inside there was barely enough room for the barrels, that were covered in blankets to keep malolactic fermentation going. Bottles (in cases or just standing around; closed open or broken) are everywhere. Jones himself is almost the caricature of a wine grower, and I could easily see him heading up a radicalist Roussillon cooperative instead. We taste a huge array of wine, and the choice is either to swallow or just spit on the concrete floor in the winery. Is there a toilet? Just go in the vineyards, boy. There is crisp Chardonnay, restrained Gewurtztraminer (it was misspelled on the label of the first vintage, but Jones liked it so he kept it), serious Gamay and a line-up of Pinot Noirs that manage to shake my understanding of wine. How is it possible to make such delicate yet intense Pinot Noir out here, in the outback? Talent might be part of it, but hard work probably makes up the lion’s share. Everything here is handmade. Nothing else works in vineyards where the density tops out at 17000 vines per hectare. 17000! Usually when you talk about dense plantings in the new world, 8000 is the norm, and I only know of a handful of French vineyards that can topple the density at Bass Phillip. This can yield as little as 150 grams per vine, just enough to make a little under 20000 bottles in all. Sure, the wines are not cheap, but in terms of production costs they are a bargain, especially when measured against the competition from the rest of the world.

Casual winetasting at Bass Phillip to say the least
Casual winetasting at Bass Phillip to say the least

The style here is a bit more juicy than at By Farr (100% destemming is the norm here), but still very elegant and structured. The alcohol level sits comfortably between 12% and 13%, remarkably low these days. These are wines that will hold for a long time, and the better cuvées certainly demand it. We taste wines all the way back to 1992 (in halfbottle at that) that are stunning and actually feel like they need even more time to show the full potential.

It doesn’t seem like there are many visitors here, which is perhaps why we’re treated with such great hospitality and honesty. The reputation is probably enough to scare most people away, and if not that then the looks of the place. This is nothing for the faint of heart. But the wines are absolutely world class. Don't be afraid of the price tag!

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Aussie oldtimers

Travelling is an integral part in learning about wine. There is only so much you can learn from books and tastings at home. Some say that you can only taste truly objectively that way, comparing only ”what’s in the glass”, but I disagree. Wine as all about context, and to understand the context of a wine, you really need to see the place and meet the custodians of the vineyards. Visiting vineyards all over the world has made me question my prejudiced opinions many times. In my early career, like many young sommeliers, I was prone to statements like ”South Africa can not make real wine” or ”Australian wine is all overextracted and alcoholic”, statements I today find not only ridiculous and embarrasing but downright dangerous, as I still see them propagated throughout the world of wine, by some quite imposing figures at that. The solution the problem is to take every chance to question yourself, and the best way to do that is to travel the world, which fortunately is getting easier and easier. My travel schedule this year has, admittedly, been extreme. The year started out with two trips to Italy, Piedmont and Tuscany respectively. After that I spent two weeks in Japan where I competed in the World’s Best Sommelier Competition and explored the very different realm of sake. Then there was a wonderful trip to Galicia, a weeklong exploration of Pinot Noir in Oregon, vacation in the spanish Basque country and a packed tour of California. Needless to say, I’m glad I don’t have a family to care for.

But this last trip takes the cake: five days travelling Victoria, Australia and after that almost two weeks in New Zealand. These two countries have had to take a lot of flak in the wine press and trade, after quickly becoming immensely popular in the 80’s and 90’s with cliché styles of oaky Chardonnay and heavy Shiraz for the aussies and lean, green Sauvignon Blanc for the kiwis. But there is so much more that they have to offer. I hope to be able to share with you some of the clostest kept secrets of wine ”down under”.

Vineyards at Mount Mary

First day kicked off with visits at two of the most iconoclastic wineries in Victoria. First up was Mount Mary. In very rustic, but cosy facilities some of the most special wines in Australia are made. These are definitely not blockbusters. Robert Parker, the famous wine reviewer could not get his hands on these wines for a long time, but when he finally did, he gave their flagship wine, the Bordeaux-style blend ”Quintet” a scathing 78 points. But there is a cult following, especially on the domestic market. The wines are lean, low in alcohol and elegant. Best in show today was 2011 Triolet (a white Bordeaux-style blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle) which will age beautifully, and the very lightly coloured 2011 Pinot Noir that surprised with intensity of structure and flavour. Winemaker Sam Middleton explained that trends was nothing they concerned themselves with at Mount Mary, they defined their own style, as they have since 1971. Sam is the third generation of Middletons to make wine here, and we can only hope they do not give into trends and pleasing critics anytime soon. This is great wine.

Mount Mary tasting

Next up: Another Victoria favorite – Yarra Yering. Much like Mount Mary, Yarra Yering was founded by a doctor,  Dr. Bailey Carrodus in the 1970’s and they have carved out their own following by making wines that no one else can copy, under some of the most easily rememberable labels in the world of wine. There are no bad wines here, but best of show today was the 2001 Dry Red Wine #1 (Cabernet Sauvignon) and the 2010 Carrodus Merlot, a hommage to the late doctor, who passed away in 2008.

One of the most unique and beautiful labels on the planet

We were also able to loot the gigantic cellars of the great doctor, and brought a few halfbottles to a local restaurants for dinner. The 1987 Pinot Noir was meaty and full of dark fruit, the 1986 Dry Red #2 (Shiraz) elegant and floral, but the real showstopper was the 1982 Sémillon, golden and full of stonefruit and honeysuckle. I am glad to hear they are reviving the Dry White #1 (Sémillon and sometimes a bit of Sauvignon Blanc), which also tasted great from barrel. Incredible performance, especially from halfbottles! Those that think Aussie wines can not age need their heads (or palates) checked.

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Oregon Impressions

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Oregon Impressions

In late June, I participated in the Oregon Pinot Camp, a three day event for ~270 participants from the wine trade. The Oregon Wine Board also took us foreigners on for a few extra days, visiting wineries not a part of the OPC this year. The Camp is a huge events with seminars, tastings and workshops all focused around Pinot Noir and its expression in the Willamette Valley. The event is very casual (not many suits or ties to be seen) and the hosts made a great job of making us feel welcome. Even though I work a lot with American wine I realized beforehand that I had no clear image of what Oregon Pinot Noir really stood for. The supply that reaches our shores are far from stable, and I can almost never keep a wine on the list for a full year, let alone keep older vintages. This means my perception of the wines on the whole have been marred heavily by a handful of producers and a few vintages. I am not sure that I will have an easier job generalizing about Oregon Pinot now. It is obvious that the region is extremely diverse, and still finding its way as well. Vintages play a huge role, as do winemaking philosophies. If anything can be said, I think the Pinot Noirs in general are a tad more balanced and a bit more bright than their Californian counterparts, although California surely has had more time, experience and money to figure out how to best use its terroir. My belief is that Oregon has the potential to make better Pinot, even though they might not be there yet.

The view overlooking the coast range at Willamette Valley Vineayrds
The view overlooking the coast range at Willamette Valley Vineayrds

I am so grateful for the opportunity to visit Oregon and being able to meet its dedicated winemakers. I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the people, which to an outsider seems much less polished and fake than the Californian equivalent. The quality of produce and food was excellent, and the commitment to sustainability across the whole state is admirable. Oregon is definitely going on the list of places I could see myself moving to and perhaps trying my hand at making wine.

Since media generally isn’t allowed to the OPC, I will not try to take on its role and write a full report. I will rather leave you with some images and thoughts that I hope can capture some of the beauty of the place and its wines.

A good example of the volcanic Jory soil prevalent in Dundee Hills.
A good example of the volcanic Jory soil prevalent in Dundee Hills.

In general, the wines show high quality and greater potential. However, there are too few wineries really able to take the lead and show the way forward. There is a palpable sense of necessity that you don’t really get in California. All wineries everywhere have to make money, but there certainly is a difference if you are an IT mogul retiring into winemaking, hiring the best consultants money can buy to do all the work, or if you and your family moved out to the countryside, built a house and are trying to figure winemaking out for yourself.

Too many winemakers seemed to be spread thin, making wines for perceived audiences at pre-decided pricepoints. Perhaps I am coming from a privileged position, but this is prevalent throughout the wine world, and only great producers seem to be able to transgress this barrier. This is perhaps better illustrated with the other varieties grown here, but applies to Pinot Noir as well. I encountered too many bland Pinot Gris wines with generic fruit flavors, 11 g/L residual sugar, set to be sold at the same price point as everyone else’s Pinot Gris. Too many “Dry Rieslings” with 15 grams residual sugar “because that’s what the customers want”. Too many Chardonnay’s with cliché oakiness and full malolactic butteryness. Stand-outs were few.

Jason Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards.
Jason Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards.

Too few winemakers seemed to have the nerve (or perhaps the financial capacity) to say “To hell with it, I’ll make the best god damn wine possible and charge what it’s worth!”. Those that do, like Jason Lett (Eyrie Vineyards), Maggie Henderson (Antica Terra) or Michael Etzel (Beaux Frères) not only make the most exciting wine, but are also building and lifting the reputation for the region as a whole.

Michel Etzel of Beaux Frères in his biodynamically farmed estate vineyard in Ribbon Ridge AVA
Michel Etzel of Beaux Frères in his biodynamically farmed estate vineyard in Ribbon Ridge AVA

A note on vintages: We were warned several times in an almost apologetic way about the 2011 vintage as being tart, acidic and underripe. I could not disagree more. 2011 looks to be a beautiful vintage, for those producers who knew how to handle it. As for Pinot, the wines are light in style, with lovely red fruit and spice notes. I did not find many bad examples at all, on the contrary, the 2011's are great pretty much across the board. Chardonnay seems less successful, with most producers going the route of trying to put more make-up on the wine to make it accessible earlier. In my opinion it has only served to make them disjointed. I’ve noted my standouts below. 2010 also seems reliable across the board, while I find many of the 2009 wines a bit too warm for both reds and whites, but certainly pleasing in the short term.

In closing: Thanks so much to the Oregon Wine Board and the Oregon Pinot Camp for a fantastically well organized, fun and educational Camp. This definitely ranks among the very top wine trips I have been on, and I would love to come back one day.

The view from Adelsheim, Chahalem Mountains AVA
The view from Adelsheim, Chahalem Mountains AVA

These are some of my top picks from Oregon (not all of them were at the OPC):

Antica Terra – Huge, intellectual Pinots and beautiful, crisp Chardonnay (standout in '11).

Beaux Frères – I had previously put these wines off as too made-up, but was surprised to find real elegance and beauty here.

Bethel Heights – later vintages promising across the board.

Cristom – Proponents of whole cluster fermentation. Great, elegant wines that age fantastically (we had a 1996 auction reserve on the last evening which was just spectacular, and no where near full evolution).

Evening Land - Powerful Pinot and elegant Chardonnay. Employs Dominique Lafon as a consultant.

The Eyrie Vineyard - The pioneer. Classic style. Regularly releases old stock.

Johan Vineyards – Cool project by Norwegian ex-pat. Very much into biodynamics and funky wine.

Lemelson Vineyard - Surprised with the evolution of this domaine. Very good across the board.

Montinore Estate – Great, honest biodynamic wine.

St. Innocent - Serious stuff. Very elegant and structured wine.

Stoller – Good value wine. Great Chardonnay in 2011.

Copper Mountain – Great Chardonnay and Pinots. Funky no-sulfite “Life” Pinot for those that are into that.

Soter Vineyards – Juicy and great value Pinot.

Thomas Vineyard – Fantastic cult Pinot. Worth it if you can get your hands on it.

Erratic Oaks Vineyard belonging to Firesteed
Erratic Oaks Vineyard belonging to Firesteed

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Travelling man: Galicia Part III – Valdeorras

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Travelling man: Galicia Part III – Valdeorras

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Part three of this Galician travelogue brings us Valdeorras, which definitely marks the high point of the whole trip for me. Over the last years I had tried a handful of wines from this area that have been stunning, but I was nonetheless surprised about the level of quality that I encountered. And the people who make these wines left powerful impressions. Perhaps the quality potential is as great or greater in other parts Galicia, but at this moment, Valdeorras benefits more than any other region from the combination of an obviously noble, yet still fairly unknown grape and the bubbling enthusiasm and ambition of a young generation of winemakers. Valdeorras straddles the border between Galícia and Castilla y Léon, with the region on Bierzo on it’s immediate east. Bierzo and Valdeorras share the red Mencía grape as well as the white Godello, athough in distinctly different proportions, with red grapes dominating in the much more continental Bierzo. Both of these grapes are quickly proving their worth in a market that is demanding more elegant, light wines as opposed to alco-juice with too much makeup.

The key difference in the climate and potential for grapegrowing lies in the Sil valley corridor that stretches all the way to the Atlantic ocean, allowing cool winds and 1000 mm of rain annually to reach Valdeorras. Most of the classic vineyards lie on the fairly flat Sil valley at an altitude up to 450 meters above sea level, but some, including Rafael Palacios as well as Spanish superstar winemaker Telmo Rodriguez have planted at altitudes as high as 750 meters. This is something they might have regretted in 2013, when frosts decimated the potential harvest by as much as 70%. Spring frosts and hail are major issues, as is rot and mildew during summer. In short, making wine here is not a simple, stress-free life.

Soils in the region are varied, but there is a high proportion of black and grey slate, as is evident from the roof tiling of the houses. Valdeorras is in fact Europe’s foremost producer of slate.

The name Valdeorras comes from ”Valley of Gold” and even though many might want to associate that to its wines, it really refers to ancient roman mining activity in the area. The miners needed something to drink, and as a result, Valdeorras can lay claim to being the oldest winemaking region in Galicia. Over time, the vineyards fell into the hands of monastic orders and it is only in the last 30 years that the huge potential here has been realized.

Valdesil

In the pretty little village of Portela in the north-west of Valdeorras, you find Valdesil, vintners for seven generations, who have been instrumental in bringing the fantastic potential of Godello into the limelight. In fact, José Ramón Gayosa, ancestor of the family that runs the winery, was probably the first to really see something special in the grape and planted a whole vineyard exclusively to Godello, unheard of at a time when field blending was the best way to insure a harvest every year. His work still lives on today, in a vineyard called Pedrouzos filled with healthy and still productive vines dating back to 1885, making them the oldest Godello vines in the world, and the genetic source of much of the Godello that is being planted by quality-minded vintners today. All of Valdesil’s young vineyards are propagated with massal selection from this vineyard.

Valdesil's Pedrouzos vineyard. Godello dating back to 1885.

The fruit harvested at Pedrouzos goes into a special bottling of a couple hundred magnums, and is unfortunately not among the wines tasted. Judging by the quality of the other wines tasted, I would jump on any opportunity to taste it.

Almost needless to say, no systemic treatments are used in the vineyard and cover crops are used throughout to create competition for the vines and keep the soil from eroding away.

We tasted these wines in the old family home. And by old I mean 14th century, although there have been additions over time. Just being in this wonderful old house, with different rooms and areas representing different centuries of construction, was a majestic experience in and of itself. The close quarters made it very hard to capture on film, so I can only recommend a visit Valdesil, and hope that they bring you there.

As a general statement, I think these wines are amazing. They are pure and fresh, with a great sense of place and honesty about them that I admire. They also represent astonishing value, and I recommend them wholeheartedly.

The labels at Valdesil do a good job of portraying the different soiltypes in an artistic way

2011 Valdesil ”Godello sobre lías” A

30 year old vines from several plots, vinified individually and blended together. Aged for four on lees in steel vats without malolactic fermentation. Intense, stony minerality on the nose. Ripe citrus and cool orchard fruit. Soft, creamy lees-driven palate, without becoming dull. Finishes with a herbal, fennel-like note.

2008 Valdesil ”Godello sobre lías” A

Very soft, leesy nose, like fine Chablis. Riper fruit notes, such as apricot and white peach. Rich, opuent palate, but surprisingly fresh, mineral finish.

2010 Valdesil ”Pezas da Portela” AA

Selection of 11 ”pezas”, or plots, from the slate soils of Portela. Plots vinified individually and aged for 6 months in French oak vats of different sizes, and then 6 months in steel for integration. No malo.

Very dusty, reductive nose – wet stones, liqourice and hard, green fruit, along with a touch of toasty oak. Creamy, smooth palate. Very Burgundian in style. Perhaps a bit less “distinct” when compared to the steel/sur lie Godello, but extremely pretty, and will age very well no doubt.

2009 Valdesil ”Pezas da Portela” A

Dusty, autolytic nose. Herbal notes with anise and dried rosemary. Fresh acidity and a mineral sense. There certainly is fruit here, but this is very much structure-driven. Beautiful.

2011 Valderroa, Mencía

Clean, light. Very floral. Berry character on the palate, with a prickly hint to it on the tongue. Finishes with fennel and violets. Complex for such an affordable wine.

Rafael Palacios

“Rafa” Palacios has all of a sudden become a superstar in the winemaking world. His story has been retold so many times in the last year that I am almost reluctant to do it again. Wine flows in Rafa’s blood. The Palacios family comes from Rioja Baja, where they still have the Palacios Remondo estate. Older brother, Alvaro makes some of Spain’s most prestigious red wine in Priorat, and nephew Ricardo is responsible for some equally great Mencía in Bierzo.

Rafael Palacios

Rafa however, is a lover of great white wine, as is evident from the bottles lining the shelves of his office. Grand Cru burgundy, Lopez de Heredia, old Maximin Grünhaus, Didier Dageneau and many more. I have said it before, but one of my must trusted ways to estimate a winemakers character and personality is to ask what he drinks. When you know that a winemaker drinks truly great, iconoclastic wine, it’s a safe bet that he himself will make something interesting and unique.

Rafa discovered Godello almost by an accident, and instantly saw the potential.  After a stint with Valdesil he began acquiring small plots on the side. In 2004, he vinified his As Sortes Godello for the first time. The name refers to a Galician hat, sorte, from which is was customary to draw lots to settle inheritance, leading to the fragmented vineyard that is evidente all of Galicia. Today, 26 plots and little over 20 hectares, all in the subregion O Bolo are under his control. The landscape here is more mountainous and rugged compared to the lower altitudes towards the Sil river. We are in fact in the part of the region more influenced by the Bibei river, just around the corner from the Quiroga-Bibei subregion of Ribeira Sacra and the topography reflects that.

As we drove up towards the vineyards, it was evident that Rafa, although welcoming and passionate, had more important things on his mind than to cater to visitors. He was noticeably distressed and gloomy. Slowly, he begun telling us about the terrible frost that had hit his vineyards in May. The frost lasted for five hours, rendering all of his expensive protection systems useless. He estimated that 60%-70% of the potential harvest had been lost already, and flowering was not going well, adding to his problems. He even feared for the life of his oldest vineyards, which at 93 years of age had not tackled the frost well. Seeing the look in his eyes as we inspected the vines was gut-wrenching. Not only may his whole years harvest be in ruins, but imagine having to grub up and replace vines with such a history? For someone who may have romantic notions of becoming a winemaker, take a second to think about that. I am not sure I could take that level of stress.

Vineyards in the Bibei Valley of Valdeorras. Notice how many new vineyard plots are being carved out.

(I have since, heard that flowering in fact has gone better than he originally feared and that the damages may have been overestimated. Joy!)

Rafa’s wine represent the pinnacle of Spanish white wines for me. They have a level of refinement and that paradoxical combination of power and elegance that is found in truly great Burgundy. The fact that he has only been doing this for a few years makes it even more remarkable. The wines are still affordable and fantastic value, especially the medium-level Louro do Bolo. I recommend all wine lovers to seek these wines out, especially in the 2011 vintage. They drink fairly well now, but do show a reductive streak, and will do well with a few years of cellaring.

2011 Rafael Palacios “Bolo”

Entry level, steel fermented. I have not been terribly impressed by this in the past, but I feel I have to re-evaluate. It has always felt too primary, too much like “generic white wine”. Perhaps I have just been tasting it too close to bottling, because this is pretty good! More more real wine, with great body and acidity with just a hint of that pear drop aroma spectrum. Recommended, but perhaps go for the second-latest vintage?

2011 Rafael Palacios “Louro do Bolo” AA

Fermented in 3000-L oak foudres from Normandy (because of the tightness of the pores and neutral flavour). This has been one of my go-to wine for quite some time now.. I liked the 2009, loved the 2010 but 2011 is head and shoulder above in terms of refinement and balance. What a beauty. This is subtle yet rich. Powerful yet sleek. Juicy yet mineral. A bit reductive on the nose, leave this for a year or two or decant before serving. A contender for “best value wine in the world”.

2011 Rafael Palacios “As Sortes” AAA

Fermented in 500-L barrels. Smoky, reductive Burgundy-like nose. Great acidity and powerful, bold flavours of citrus and orchardfruit. Dense and complex. Finishes on a mineral, almost salty note. This is perhaps the most immediately impressive of the wines, even more so than the O Soro, which is definitely harder to taste. A beauty. If you call yourself a wine lover and you’re not drinking this yet, you’re doing something wrong.

2011 Rafael Palacios “Sorte O Soro” AAA

From a single vineyard, on sandy soils, biodynamically tended. This is one of the highest plots, at 740 meters altitude. This somehow feels lighter than As Sortes, but I think it is a question of acidity playing a trick on me. It is so complex and dense, yet weightless in a paradoxical manner. The minerality is almost fierce and so intense that is induces eye-brow sweating, like a great Chevalier-Montrachet. My notes on this are barely coherent, and I have made no mention of fruits or other actual flavors. This is a true sophisticated beauty, and will need a few years to really show what it has to offer, but I believe there is true greatness here. There are a little over 2500 bottles made. Please, try to get your hands on a few.

Now, go get some Godello!

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Wine(s) of the week

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Wine(s) of the week

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As someone who has spent most evenings working in the restaurant trade, I take every chance I can to cook and spend quality time with people around me. Sometimes its relaxing, sometimes it is stressful (like when I decide to make one of my all time favourite dishes, kokotxas al pil-pil, for the first time ever and serve for the in-law family, going by a video tutorial only), but either way I just love sourcing ingredients and combining them into simple, but flavorful dishes. The result was far from perfect, but on the porch with the sunlight in your face and a good glass of Meursault, it was good enough. Here are some tasting notes of other great wines I’ve enjoyed with good, simple homemade food this last week, or simply when cooking.

N.V. Equipo Navazos "La Bota de Fino #35 - Macharnudo Alto", Jérez, Spain

This has been my cooking companion for the whole week, and I've been able to have it mostly to myself. For this, I am both thankful and a bit sad. Sherry is no doubt an acquired taste, and this is a "take no prisoners"-sherry . The wine was originally sourced from the cellars of Valdespino by the good people at Equipo Navazos who are doing a great job at bringing sherry back into style - at least in some quarters. The grapes come from the Macharnudo Alto pago, generally regarded as one of the very best vineyards for the palomino fino grape due to the very high proportion of pure white albariza chalk.

The wine has a rather deep, golden color and this is more of a fino amontillado than a pure fino. The nose is intense, saline and angular with both apple, nuts and pungent cheeserind crowded together. Not much flor character. The flavor is bold, mineral and lasts for a very long time. I'd like to say it is an intellectual pleasure, but at the same time, I enjoy it immensely. A stellar bottle.

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2010 Gerard Boulay "Monts Damnés", Sancerre, Loire, France

When was the last time you had to select a dozen bottles of wine for a week and went for a Sauvignon Blanc? I will be the first to admit not taking Sancerre all too seriously, it’s one of those wines that sell by name alone and takes very little effort. But this is something else, and definitely ranks up there as one of the best and most unique interpretations of this grape and terroir I have ever had. It comes from what is perhaps the most priced vineyard in the whole appellation, literally translated into ”damned mountains” in the village of Chavignol. The soils here are terres blanches, white limestone, much like in Chablis. The incline is so steep that it makes mechanized labor impossible.

Boulay is only of the top producers of the area. He works without pesticides and herbicides in the vineyard (one of the steepest plots of Monts Damnés), and in the winery he is one of very few to work with natural yeasts and without manipulations like adding enzymes to fermenting musts to promote those aromas many asssociate with Sancerre. This wine is fermented in large old barrels and is not filtered before bottling.

This makes for a very intense, bright wine, so full of life and energy. There is a serious minerality and structure to it, but this just dances on the tongue, so vibrant and sublime. Oak fermenting has given it a smooth texture, but it still has fierce acidity all woven together in perfect balance. It finishes on that mystical dusty mineral note so often found in wines from limestone soils – I will leave it to others to try to explain the concept of minerality in wine, but I will not deny that it is there.

This is so open and lovely now, but I would be interested to see where it is at in 4-6 years as well. I reckon it might have moved away from the initial fruity and floral state into something more brooding, but equally pleasurable.

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2010 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey St-Aubin 1.er Cru "Les Muergers des Dents de Chien", Bourgogne, France

What a delightful surprise is was to find a great selection of wine, including this one in a small bistro in a tourist-trap town. Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey might have one of the most confusing names in all of Burgundy (there is a plethora of Moreys, Colins and variants of the two), but he is certainly one you will want to remember if you dig great white Burgundy. Pierre-Yves used to make the wine at his fathers famous domaine, Marc Colin in Chassagne-Montrachet, so he is far from a rookie, even though his own label is only 8 years old. If I could summarize his style briefly, I would say that it is sleeker, more mineral and perhaps more austere than many of his neighbors’, but at the same time intensely floral and aromatic. I love it, and without having experimented with aging the wines myself, I think they will keep beautifully, and some cuvées definitely demand at least a few years.

St-Aubin is a commune which is known for a high and consistent minimum level of quality and good value wines (in terms of Burgundy). The exceptional sites are few, but this is one of them. The vineyard names Murgers des Dents de Chien lies high up on the Mont Rachet with a southerly exposition. The name refers to the rocky nature of the soil (Dents de Chien being the the “dog’s teeth”, and Murgers (or Muergers as Colin-Morey spells it) being a local name for stone walls). It lies a mere stones throw from Chevalier-Montrachet, but further up the hill, but the exposure is more southerly).  What is has against it is altitude and the cool breeze from the valley that flows down from the valley that leads up the village of St-Aubin. But with climate change, perhaps we will regard this vineyard more highly in 100 years?

This is not a wine for cowards. If tastebuds had asses, this wine would kick them. Judging the nose alone, you might expect an anemic, lean figure – it is pure citric fruit and white flowers. But the palate has the composure of chiseled marble statue, so powerful and weigthy, yet smooth and beautiful. It might make me a masochist, but I love drinking wine like this, wine that hurts a little. Especially in a vintage like 2010, with its fierce acidity. So, if you're into that, drink now or over the next 2 years, otherwise, keep for up to 10 years.

PYCM

2008 Domaine du Collier, Saumur Blanc, Loire, France

Antoine Foucault is son of Charly, who together with brother Nady runs the legendary Clos Rougeard in Saumur, who make what many regard as the pinnacle of Cabernet Franc (although their white Saumur "Brézé" is stunning). Antoine worked there for four years, but at the young age of 26 left to purchase a few hectares of vines in Chacé, the commune of Saumur, which is most famous for its white wines, based on Chenin Blanc of course.

Antoine runs this domaine together with wife Caroline. They farm without fertilizers and chemical pest treatments in the vineyard, and the winemaking is non-internventionist with only native yeast and sulfur only at bottling. The cool cellars are key, much like at Clos Rougeard. I wouldn’t put Domaine du Collier the “natural wine” camp, but this style of winemaking is for me ideal in terms of balance between nature and man.

Now, I have never tried the other white wine Antoine makes, Saumur “Le Charpenterie”, from 100+ year old vines (the ones that go into the regular Saumur Blanc are 30-70 years of age), but for me this epitomizes what Chenin Blanc is all about. It jumps out of the bottle, so fragrant and ethereal, with yellow apple, honeysuckle and sweet spice. The palate has a lovely sense of paradox: density and weightlessness at the same time. The acidity lifts this huge mass of concentrated flavor and carries it all the way through. There is a touch of sweetness in the finish, but I feel like it is less than in recent vintages. This has perfect balance, is an immensely usable wine, this can tackle richer fish and shellfish dishes but also lighter meat courses much better than any Chardonnay. Although I see no immediate reason to age it, I am sure it will keep for a very long time.

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Travelling man: Galicia Part II – Ribeiro & Ribera Sacra

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Travelling man: Galicia Part II – Ribeiro & Ribera Sacra

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On the second day of our exploration of the wines of Galicia we headed to the inland region Ribeiro, which is quite unlike coastal Rias Baíxas (http://arvidrosengren.com/2013/06/19/travelling-man-galicia-part-i-rias-baixas/). The night was spent at the fabulous countryside manor at Casal de Armán, which cannot be recommended highly enough. This old priest manor dates back to 1727, and now houses an ambitious enoturismo along with restaurant and winery. Ribeiro is the most historically prominent of the Galician wine regions. Today around 2700 ha remain, but the whole region used to be covered with vineyard. The ancient romans first planted vines here and for centuries Riberiro was famous for its tostadas, dense sweet wines made from dried grapes. Another synonym for these wines was Ribadavia, which is also the name of the main town, situated by the river Avía, one of the hitherto unofficial subregions of the area today, and also where Casal de Armán is located.

The region is topographically diverse with the better grapes grown in hillside vineyards, and high yielding grapes like Alicante Bouschet and Palomino on the flatter valley floors. Soils are mostly rich and sandy with granite subsoils. There is a certain Atlantic influence, but much less compared to Rias Baixas, and higher diurnal variation to show for it.

Albariño grows here but the focus lies more on the Loureiro and especially Treixadura.

Loureiro literally means laurel, which refers to the distinct herbal character this grape can impart to wines. It is likely to have originated in Minho, in northern Portugal. It is much more widely used in Vinho Verde (keep an eye out for the powerful wines from Quinta do Ameal for a good example), where it yields very fresh, flowery wines.

Treixadura is also of probable Portuguese provenance, and is known as Trajadura across the border. The wines made from this thin-skinned grape are much lower in acidity than Albariño with a distinctive fatty mouthfeel combined with fresh orchard fruit character.

There are a multitude of other varietals allowed, with Souson and Caiño being the most important for red wine. Dull, high-yielding grapes like Alicante Bouchet and Palomino are also widely planted, but thankfully on the decrease.

Ribeiro, seen from the courtyard at Casal de Armán

Casal de Armán

Although the building housing the restaurant and rooms dates back to 1727, the winery is fairly new, dating back to the end of the last century, although the family behind the bodega has been growing grapes and making wine for local consumption for much longer. Winemaking here is straightforward, yielding honest and distinctive wines. As we tasted the wines throughout a lovely dinner involving more delicious Polbo á Feira, I do not have any real tasting notes, so a general comment will have to do. Although the reds were juicy and well made, I generally preferred the whites here. The basic Casal de Armán Blanco is an almost varietal Treixadura with a touch of Godello and Albariño. It is fresh with aromas of grapefruit and white peach, with that rich mouthfeel Treixadura imparts. The Finca Os Loureiros is a pure Treixadura (the name, perhaps confusing, comes from the laurels planted in the vineyard), fermented in larger barrels with lees stirring for five months. The wine is rich yet fresh, with a delicious creaminess imparted by the lees.

Coto de Gomariz

Like Casal de Armán, Coto de Gomariz is located in the Avia zone of Ribeiro. The soils here are mainly granitic with sandy topsoil, but there are outcroppings of schist not found elsewhere in the DO, which certainly makes for some interesting wine. Here Ricardo Carreiro and Xosé Lois Sebio make some of the most idiosyncratic wine in Galicia. The vineyards are farmed biodynamically with inspiration from Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming principles, such as abstaining from fertilizing and tilling, although I am unclear as to what degree (among other things, Fukuoka also recommends not pruning, which seems nigh impossible with grapevines), and at the time did not quite have the wherewithal of mind to inquire further.

Tasting the great wines of Coto de Gomariz

Xosé presented us with most of the current portfolio, again referring to his wines as “proyectos”, implying that there was a lot more to be had as well. Generally speaking, the quality level is extremely high, as is the value in most markets. Their entry level label “Flower and the Bee” is lovely in both red and white editions, and the white wines were spectacular all-through. I found a few of the reds a bit constructed and overly rich and oaked, but nonetheless on a high level.

2012 Coto de Gomariz “Flower and the Bee”

Treixadura. Intense, waxy orange fruit character with medium acidity. Still maintains freshness and even finishes on a mineral note. Great value. Would like to see this in a few more months.

2011 Coto de Gomariz “X” A

Albariño + 5% Trexiadura from a single vineyard on schist soils, which is rare in Ribeiro. This is rich, opulent and really sunripe, but in combination with high acidity. Drinks like great Pfalz Riesling, with that eyebrow-sweat inducing mineral intensity.

2011 Coto de Gomariz A

70% Treixadura + Godello, Loureira & Albariño, fermented in steel. Wonderfully complete, aromatic and rich. Flavors of ripe stonefruit, orange and grapefruit. Creamy mouthfeel.

2010 Coto de Gomariz “Colleita Seleccionada” A

A blend of 12 grapes, but primarily Treixadura from a single vineyard “Finca O Figueiral”, planted in 1978, fermented and aged on lees in barrel. Rich, waxy, golden and intensely mineral. Not oaky at all. Fantastic

2010 Coto de Gomariz “Salvaxe“ A

Old vine seleccion of local grapes like Lado and Silveiriña, together with the usual suspects. White flowers and stone fruits. Intense and powerful with great acidity and dusty minerality. Drinks like a great dry Vouvray.

2011 Coto de Gomariz “Flower and the Bee” Tinto

Sousón. Dark colour, typical of the variety. Soft with light berry flavors. A bit prickly on the tongue, like a serious Beaujolais.

2010 Coto de Gomariz “Abadía de Gomariz” A

Sousón, Brancellao, Ferrón, Mencía, matured in second fill oak barrels. My favourite of the reds, both in terms of drinkability and unique personality. This is dark in color, filled with blackberry and spicy oak notes on the nose. The body is surprisingly light, very elegant and fresh. There certainly is structure, but the tannins are well tamed here.

2007 Coto de Gomariz “VX Cuvée Caco”

Sousón, Caiño longo, Caiño da terra, Carabuñeira (Touriga Nacional), matured in new oak. Still very young and bright. Oaky spice notes and dark cherries. Good purity and elegance. Certainly a good wine, but not all that exciting.

2007 Coto de Gomariz “VX Cuvée Primo”

Sousón, Carabuñeira, Caiño. In new French oak for 30 months. Dark, opulent, dense. Very powerful stuff. Roasted coffee and spice notes and tough tannins. Would impress and please a lot of people.

2008 Coto de Gomariz “Seica” A

Sousón, Garnacha, Carauñeira. The first vineyard that was converted into biodynamics, vines trained en vaso. Only one barrel made of this. Opaque. Opulent, roasted nose with dark fruit aromas. Palate is leaner and drier than the nose would imply, with a lovely peppery greenness. This really carries the oak better than the previous wines. This will need time.

2009 Coto de Gomariz “HUSH”  A

Very old vines. Blend of local grapes, primarly Sousón. 14 months on 500-L French oak previously used for white wine. Dark. Dense nose with dark fruit and a powerful floral element – violets. Smooth palate with great purity.

Ribeira Sacra

I had expected the landscape to gradually become more dramatic as we headed towards Ribeira Sacra and its notoriously dramatic steep vineyards, but the change was rapid, and all of a sudden we were just there.

Riberia Sacra - the view from Adegas Mouro towards the Miño

This region covers the rivers Miño, Sil and Bibei and the vineyards that hug the steep slopes on their banks. The name of the region literally means “sacred riverbanks”, and it is easy to see why. Much like Ribeiro this region used to be covered by vineyards, many of which are abandoned now. It is a powerful sensation gazing into the deep forest on an impossibly steep slope and seeing the roman terraces everywhere. But phylloxera and nematodes destroyed the winemaking business and many abandoned the vineyard. Today 2500 hectares remain divided by 2800 growers. Much of the expertise that the historic people had has been lost in and it is only in the last decade that talented producers, many of them foreign to the region have begun mastering the expression of the Mencía grape here.

There is a distinct backwater feeling to Ribeira Sacra. You can feel the poverty and the backbreaking work that goes into living here. Again and again we heard the story of young people moving as far away as they possibly can. Maybe the economic crisis will change that, much like it has in Greece, where youth disillusioned with cities, education and “the market” return back to the countryside.

Mencía is a difficult beast to tame. It combines rather fresh aromatics; it has been likened to both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc in the past, although with tough tannins and a propensity for high alcohol. Hardly a recipe for success. And perhaps more devastatingly it was forced into an image it could never live up to for many years, when winemakers made dense, opaque wines marred by heavily toasted oak, essentially making a bleak, austere copy of the wines of Ribera del Duero or Toro. It seems now that Mencía is finding its place, making fruity, middle-weight wine with lovely floral and spicy aromas. The comparison with Cabernet Franc is not entirely valid, but there are at least parallels to be drawn on the aromatic spectrum.

Regina Viarum

Our first visit was at Regina Viarum, in the central Amandi subregion of Ribera Sacra. This producer controls some of the best vineyards, and certainly one of the best views in Ribeira Sacra (if not the world!). This is a giant in comparison to most of the smaller ventures here, and there were plenty of domestic tourists pulling up into the courtyard as we enjoyed the imposing view over the river with proprietor Iván Gómez Veiga.

No doubt Regina Viarum, with their fruity, easy-going wine have turned a lot of domestic wine-lovers on to Ribera Sacra wines. However, these are mass market wine, and even though they are decent value and well made for their category I did not find the wines here of particular interest and will abstain from boring you with the complete notes. The best wine was an organically grown Mencía in a striking engraved black glass bottle, aged for a few months in barrel. This wine is fresh and aromatic but with a substance and structure I felt lacked in the other wines.

Adegas Moure

José Manuel Moure is a grand old man of the appellation and head of the Consejo Regulador. His bodega lies in the subregion Chantada, in the northwest of the appellation, overlooking a bend in the Miño river below. The winery was founded in 1958, but the family had been growing grapes for as long as anyone could remember.

When we met up with José he was noticeably distressed, on and off the phone with what my rudimentary Spanish led me to believe was a cork supplier. Apparently a batch he had received was no good. One of the many situations on this trip where my romantic notions of winemaking got reality-checked.

José lightened up during the tasting, and his wine, although a tad rustic, expressed a lot of life and purity.

2011 Abadía da Cova, Albariño

30 year old vines. Includes 15% Godello. Burly and rich nose, jumps out of the glass. Ripe and big on the palate, yet with piercing acidity. Almost feel acidified.

2011 Abadía da Cova Mencía

Purple. Plum, blackberry on the nose. Ripe and pure. Zingy acidity and a touch green on the palate.

2011 Abadía da Cova Mencía “Barrica”

6 months in barrel. Lots of oak on the nose; coconut and vanilla. This is opulent and rich, with juicy sweet fruit flavors. Pleasant, but simple.

2011 Moure de Autor

90% Mencía + Tempranillo. Top wine of the estate, and usually highly among the topwines of the region. This has plenty of sweet notes, but is fresher and more distinct than the previous wine. Well balanced in that classic Spanish style with plenty of oak notes. Might age well, into an elegant balsamic, dried herb state.

Guímaro

Unfortunately we did not get to visit Guímaro, but instead we tried these wines with Raul Perez the day after in Valdeorras. Raul makes his Ribera Sacra wines (El Pecado and La Penetencia) with Pedro Rodriguez Pérez at Guímaro, and was instrumental in making Pedro realize the huge potential there was in his family’s old vines.

Pedro is one of the young that have returned to the country, in what is now Spain’s demographically oldest region. He works his family’s old vineyards in the Amandi subregion, some of them with a steepness of 50 degrees, together with his parents Manolo and Carmen. It is hard to fathom working vineyards like that on a warm day (or any day, with my fear of heights).

Guímaro - image from their website

The bodega was created in 1991. Until then the wine was only made for local consumption. It was one of the first to join the D.O. when it was created in 1996. They are now working on organic certification.

In the winery, traditional methods reign; wild yeast fermentation, foot treading of grapes, inclusion of stems and predominantly old barrels. This gives a lighter, more elegant style of Mencía compared to the ones from Bierzo and the modernists in Ribeira Sacra. All in all, lovely, expressive wines that I would love to see more of, although the production is very small. I think they could seriously change the way many perceive Spanish red wine.

2012 Guímaro Blanco A

Godello and Caiño Blanco from 50-70 year old vines. Aromatic, mineral. Loaded with flavor and already now drinkable and expressive, although I would love to see this with more age. Finishes with a steely, mineral acidity.

2012 Guímaro Tinto Joven A

Un-oaked Mencía from ~40 year old vines. Heady, clean nose loaded with red fruits and oriental spice. Lovely purity here.

2010 Guímaro “Finca Meixeman” A

Mencía from 70 year old vines in a single 1.2 ha vineyard on schist facing south-east. This is dark and rich, with fairly potent alcohol, darker fruit character and floral notes. Very serious stuff. Not quite as pleasurable as the simpler wine, but will age beautifully.

Next up in this installment, my favorite part of the trip: Valdeorras.

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Manifesto of a Drinker and some Summer Reds

In case you're wondering: Yes, I am enjoying vacation. This week is the warm-up, spent in my girlfriend's family's summer house on the danish west coast. Friends and family come by, stay a few days and head on. It is all about relaxation, good food and wine and the occasional bath in the freezing cold north sea. As far as the wines we've opened and enjoyed this week there have been many. I will give you some brief notes further down. But first off, I think this is as good a time as any to explain my philosophy on drinking.

A drinker's manifesto

All professionals in the wine trade claim that alcoholism will never strike them, and to an extent I can agree with the sentiment. As long as I care about quality, and rather pour poor wine into a sauce than drink it, I feel safe. At the same time, addiction is very real. I can wake up in the morning and long for great Riesling. Many might think this is all snobbish, but they are probably not the target audience for my ramblings anyway, and can for all intents and purposes should probably stop reading now.

Even if you can successfully evade physical addiction, you only have one body, one brain, one liver. The physical damage from ingesting a bottle of wine a day on average should not be underestimated. I respect it very much, and try to live soundly in most other aspects of my life.

But even if I can mitigate some of the deleterious effects of alcohol in the long term with otherwise healthy living, I still suffer the short term ones. Hangovers are no fun, and I am not a fun drunk; I get tired, irritable and slow of mind if I get too much.

So my philosophy is that there is a finite amount of sips, and I try to make every bottle count. There is a tired old cliché in the wine world that goes something like "Life is too short for bad wine", but this is usually uttered by people whose wallets ensure that they don't have bad anything. Trust me when I say that I do not have access to that wallet, even though oftentimes I drink like I do (which in my mind makes it even more enjoyable). I do spend a very large proportion of my income on wine. What you do not see is that my wardrobe is only updated when absolutely necessary, that my wine cabinet takes up one tenth of my apartement and that my car is a bike (and one bought used). It is all about setting the right priorities.

What I mean by making every bottle count is that I want to learn something from every wine I drink. A perfect bottle of wine will teach me something about a grape, a region, a vintage or a producer. Being delicious is not enough. Telling a story is just as important. Sometimes this means spending more money than I can reasonably afford on "benchmark wines" (as star sommelier Rajat Parr brilliantly expresses it in his book Secret of the Sommeliers) when dealing with Bordeaux, Champagne or Bourgogne. But this also means that I spend great focus and passion on the unsung heroes of the wine world, like the fantastic wines of Galicia that I have been writing about, which is just as much of a benchmark in a sense.

In the isolation of this summer getaway, focusing on these wines and the impressions and emotions they bring forth is clearer. There is less noise, less intrusion, more time for introspection. I can revisit some of these bottles the day after. While I thoroughly enjoy the buzz of a mild intoxication with friends and family, these wines have also taught me something about the world and myself. Thank you for that, tenders of vines and makers of wine!

Here is some notes on a trio of red wines enjoyed with dinner two nights ago.

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2009 Dard & Ribo, Hermitage, Rhône, France

René-Jean Dard and Francois Ribo are icons in the world of natural wine, working with few alterations and a philosophy of making wine to be drunk, not kept. I will get into my position on the natural wine scene sooner of later (but for now I am utterly tired of discussing it - it's old news). Let is just be said that I like a handful of these producers a lot and I've been a fan of these guys for a while. Still though, I had not tried their Hermitage before. This was served to me blind. The imprint of the grape was powerful with smoky meat, ripe blackcurrant and a touch of greenness, which brought me right to the Rhône valley. It was too rich and not floral enough for Côte Rôtie. The palate was so juicy and velvety that combined with the expressive varietal and regional character it could not be much else. I got the vintage wrong (guessing 2010) but the rest right.

Now, this wine got us thinking and talking. Even though we could all agree that it was delicious in its own right, was this really a "worthy" Hermitage? It was so soft and easy drinking. Hermitage is supposed to back a certain punch, and this was all velvet, no glove.

I did manage to come very close to guessing the wine correct blind, so some might say the terroir shines through, but in reality I felt the imprint of the winemaking more than anything and made a qualified guess based on the percieved quality level. Proponents of natural wine make the claim that the winemaker is taken out of the picture letting the terroir speak for itself, but I digress, I very often feel "natural wine" before I sense if it is based on Gamay, or Côt or Carignan.

In conclusion, this was a great bottle, and the first of the reds we emptied. I can certainly recommend it for the pure hedonistic factor, but I do not feel it represents Hermitage terroir very well, and I would rather point towards the equally delicious and much less expensive St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage from this producer.

2005 Domaine de Montille, Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru, Bourgogne, France

I wrote more about the domaine in a previous post.

I hesitated for a long time about opening this, and rightfully so. It was hard, unyielding and frankly, quite unappealing. Too angular and harsh, not enough fragrance and warmth, mirroring many of my experiences with this Grand Cru and with the vintage as well. Not bad, but not exceptional. 30 hours later, the last half of the bottle has transformed  into something quite different - and very beautiful. Wild forest raspberries and deep red cherries on the nose, along with a lovely dark floral note and warm oriental spice. The palate also seems fuller than the evening before, and although there is still a dark, brooding aspect to it, there is enough sweetness and richness to counter. I had my doubts about the aging potential after the first taste, figuring it would be one of those wines that never come around. I  had my ass thoroughly handed to me on that one. If you have these, hang on for a few years and you will be rewarded.

2005 Château La Conseillante, Pomerol, Bordeaux

I also opened this (a few hours in advance) with a sense of dread. Would it be ready? My fears disappeared as soon as the cork was pulled. GOD DAMN! What a nose: it is packed with sweet black plum and dark cherry, liqourice and milk chocolate, tar and tobacco, violets and dried herbs. So open and expressive. It is warm and suave and borders on what I like to call slutty, but there is true grace beneath all that plush fruit.

Granted, I have not has enough Petrus or Le Pin or some of the other greats, but I keep coming back to La Conseillante as my most trusted estate in Pomerol (it also fits my wallet much better). This bottle was very close to perfect, and once again a much needed reminder that Bordeaux can not be discounted or forgotten, even though it seems like (we) sommeliers try hard to hype just about anything else. You can keep this for many years, but I recommend anyone who has some to open one bottle now and revel in this beauty.

More notes to come! Enjoy summer, and choose your bottles with care!

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Vacation Wine

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Vacation Wine

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Tomorrow me and the missus (or girlfriend rather) head out to her family's summer retreat on the Danish west coast. This is how we usually start our vacation and strange as it may sound, this is usually the best part. Even though I love travelling far and discovering new cultures, languages and first and foremost: places to eat and drink, that week on our own in the small house near the cold North Sea is just such an amazing way to start the vacation with. Usually the weather is not even that good but it does not matter. The fresh air, sunlight until late at night and the sweet smells of food on the grill and wine in the glass is something that keeps me longing for the whole year and really sets the tone for the summer.

Part of the equation is of course the lack of responsibilities. There is only one thing on my list; bring the wine. Naturally, this falls on me, and it's a job I wouldn't delegate to anyone else (I've had my fair share of "Buy-3-get-1-for-free" Riojas and it's just not worth the stress on my liver).

You would think this is an excellent opportunity to clean out the wine cabinet, but instead of that, I have been bringing home more bottles over the last couple of weeks, to the point where cases line up against the wall in our tiny metropolitan apartement. However, there's a limit on how much we can consume over the course of a week, so I have to exclude a lot, and the selection needs to be perfect. I am getting close...

Where to begin? And what to leave behind!?!

Highlights include:

* A perhaps not-so-surprising number of bottles of Burgundy. What is surprising is that most of it is red. I am more of a white wine drinker, but everyone else prefers red (and this is the in-laws after all, an important demographic to please). What am I most excited about? After drinking what I'm drinking tonight; the 2003 Volnay Champans from De Montille seems alluring.

* Germans, all of it with residual sugar. Some staples like the fantastic 2008 Kabinetts from Schäfer-Fröhlich and Zilliken  as well as some sweet stuff from Schäfer-Fröhlich and Müller-Catoir to go with (or be) light summer treats.

* A handful of Loire wines. Red from Clos Rougeard, white from the nephew at Domaine de Collier and monumental Sancerre from Gerard Boulay.

*A single Bordeaux (05 Conseillante) and a single new world wine (05 Mt. Langhi Ghiran Shiraz). Outstanding producers in regions that generally do not excite me as much. Also, just a single bottle of Piemontese red, which is probably suitable for the season, but the 2011 Langhe Nebbiolo from Beppe Rinaldi is just a beauty that I have been enjoying a chilled of almost every day over the last weeks.

* Some Fino Sherry from Equipo Navazos. Just one bottle. I reckon I will get to keep this for myself, which is just fine.

So what do you drink with packing? I bought a fair amount of aged Domaine de Montille recently, and although I trust the producer and admire the style immensely, I have had dissappointing wines before, probably owing more to my inexperience with at what stage of maturity to approach them than the producer. This was one of the bottlings and vintages I had least experience with and also at a point where it would probably be great or gone, so I figured it would serve as a good benchmark. It was, in every sense of the word.

2001 Domaine de Montille Pommard 1er Cru "Les Pèzerolles"

2001 Pommard "Les Pèzerolles", Domaine de Montille, Bourgogne, France

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Wine is nothing more than alco-juice, however pleasurable that may be, without context. The hedonistic pleasure is infinitely heightened by knowledge of what made the wine what it is; the terroir and cultural heritage it sprung from. So I can not refrain from some background information:

Hubert de Montille is one of the most iconic proprietors in Burgundy, forever immortalized as one of the protagonists in Jonathan Nossiter's controversial documentary Mondovino (which, despite its shortcomings and sensationalism, I can highly recommend to any wine romantic). Hubert, vigneron by birth but lawyer by necessity (being born at a time where a 3 ha vineyard was nothing you could make a living from), made wine in his spare time. These wines were usually light in style, austere and needed long bottle age to blossom. They had a cult following, but lost out in the post-Jayer era of boom in Burgundy. His children, Etienne and Alix helped out although they also persued supplementary careers until the 1990's. 2001 was actually the first vintage made by Etienne as full-time winemaker. The vineyards are biodynamically farmed today, but was in conversion from organics at this time. Hubert always included a proportion of stems. Etienne is more pragmatic and in vintages like 2005 there was no destemming, whereas in 2004 no stems were left. The wines rarely go above 13% alcohol, and somewhere between 20% and 50% new oak are used on the best premiers and grands crus. Etienne also owns Château de Puligny which has been improving in quality over the last years and is now making very impressive wine, as well as the  Deux Montille négociant with his sister Alix, that produces some great value wine.

The premier cru Pèzerolles lies above the exceptional premier cru Les Petits Epenots in Pommard and is generally regarded as good. The topsoil here is white marl, which makes for a lighter wine than the village is otherwise known for. The vintage, 2001, is most remembered for the hailstorm that ravaged Volnay and also hit southern Pommard on August 2nd. Thankfully, Pèzerolles lies is the northern sector and was spared. To generalize, the wines of the vintage are fairly light, low in alcohol and fruit-forward. I find a lot of 2001's to be drinking well, right now, but admittedly my experience is almost exclusively Côte de Nuits. They are generally good, but not great wines. I fact, I drink Côte de Beaune reds far too seldom.

Tasting note:

Cherry red with a brick rim. The nose is surprisingly fresh right out of the bottle, I had expected both more funk and more austerity. But no, this is just full of tart red fruit, liqourice, dried mushrooms, violets and sweet tobacco. The palate is so graceful and velvety and although acidity is high and fresh I would be hard pressed to call it a  backbone, the sensation is too ethereal for that. There is only a little bit of heat and soy-sauce like savoriness on the finish to lead the thoughts to Pommard. It's just too fresh.

This drinks very well on its own on this early summer night, but would work very well with dishes that combines elegance with that autumnal earthiness, such as light game birds like pigeon or quail with seared foie gras and cherry sauce. Impressive in every sense, and I am glad I opened it now, because even though I am sure it will live on for 5-10 years, it has hit that point of intermediary evolution where I prefer my red Burgundy.

Hopefully, I can muster enough effort to report on the other vacation wines later this week. Do you have any special bottles lined up for the summer? Is it all fresh whites, or more powerful reds for the barbecue?

I will leave you with this very appropriate gems from the lovely Portico Quartet.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0N_Ix8YUjk&w=640&h=480]

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Travelling man: Galicia Part I – Rías Baixas

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Travelling man: Galicia Part I – Rías Baixas

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If there is one Galician wine that has managed to gain a real foothold in the world of wine, it is Rías Baixas. Clean, easily affordable and hugely drinkable wines based on the Albariño grape combined with clever marketing has propelled it to the forefront of Spanish winemaking in a relatively short time. Rías Baixas won its glory in the end of the last century, at a time when it was a one-off in Spanish wine, making fresh, modern style white wine to match the revolution that was taking place with red wine making elsewhere in the country, and fit well with the boom of the culinary scene. It was the Spanish white wine, and in many ways still is. I certainly found some spectacular and interesting wines here, but left full of questions: Is Rías Baixas being passed by more interesting regions? Was it a mistake to associate so heavily with one grape?  What is the future of a region that seems to have reached its maximum quality potential?

Rías Baixas means the lower estuaries (for the sommelier students: these are Arousa, Pontevedra and Vigo) of the lazy rivers that creep through Galicia and meet the Atlantic ocean. It is subdivided into five sub-regions of which the most important is Val do Salnés. Most of the vineyards lie fairly close to the ocean and none can escape the influences it brings with cold winds and plenty of rain, making the scenery green and lush. It also makes it particularly hard to work without fungicides here, and almost no one works organically.

To add to the winegrower’s hardship, vineyards are heavily fragmented, as the old inheritance laws mandated splitting of vineyards between children. Most of the vines are trained en parral, high pergolas that act as fence posts around small farmsteads. Quality focused producers these days train their vines lower and in much higher density, seeking plots that are more resistant to fungal pressure. But some old vineyards (and by old, we’re talking upwards of 200 years!) are very highly regarded and turn out some impressive wine.

There are several grapes allowed in the area, both white and red, although Albariño completely dominates the others, covering 96% of the vineyard area. In the subregion O Rosal, close to the border with Portugal and the Minho/Vinho Verde region, white Loureiro (there is also a red version but it is even more rare) plays an important role and in Condado do Tea, further inland, red grapes like Caiño Tinto and the rich, white Treixadura excel.

According to the wonderful tome Wine Grapes (http://winegrapes.org/about-the-book/ - a must have for all wine nerds) the greatest genetic variation of Albariño is observed in Minho in Portugal where it is known as Alvarinho, thus making it likely to have originated here.  For long people have drawn associations between the flavor of Albariño and Riesling, speculating that there is truly noble blood in Albariño’s ancestry, but this has proven false with DNA testing. And I don’t find the two particularly alike. Albariño is much richer, glyceric (which imparts a sense of sweetness and body not related to sugar) and lower in acidity. It relates much more easily to Grüner Veltliner in my opinon.

Visits and tasting

We started out with a quick seminar and a tasting at the imposing Consejo Regulador of Rias Baixas. Although some of the wines were certainly good and the tasting well organized, there is no story to tell here. The best of the wines tasted are included in the short tasting notes below and I’ve left out those that did not move me. I try to be concise and in these, and not delve to far into “fruit salad”-descriptors.

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As always, my scoring system is fairly rudimentary and should be taken with a healthy handful of salt. Where I can, I have linked to the wine on Wine Searcher.

A: Recommended. If it fits your preferences, go get ‘em.

AA: You should go out of your way to source these wines.

AAA: Take a loan and buy more!

 

2011 Gerardo Mendez “Do Ferreiro”, Albariño

Lean and a bit green on the nose. Sharp acidity. Refreshing and light.

2012 Fillaboa Albariño

Glyceric with rich, sweet stonefruit and grapefruit. Fresh acidity.

2010 Fillaboa “Seleccíon Finca Monte Alto” Albariño

A fuller, richer style, although it has mouthwatering acidity as well. Well-made.

2012 Viña Nora “Val de Nora” Albariño A

Light, aromatic and very youthful aromas. Medium-bodied, glyceric palate with great balance.

2012 Viña Nora Albariño A

Concentrated, fruity with good structure based on acidity. Very smooth.

2009 Viña Nora “Nora de Neve”, Albariño

Barrel fermented. Buttery, smooth. Good acidity with lactic hints. I feel this is too influenced by the oak treatment.

2011 Adegas Valmiñor, Albariño A

Subtle, mellow and round. Quite mineral on the finish.

2011 Adegas Valmiñor “Davila”, Albariño, Treixadura, Loureiro

Fresh green apple on the nose, with a floral note that almost resembles dry Muscat. Creamy, rich body.

2012 Adegas Galegas D. Pedro de Soutomaior, Albariño A

The most compelling of the wines from Adegas Galegas tasted here. Very complete Albariño. Young and fresh, but still verging on complex and great balance and body.

 

Forjas do Sálnes

It was at Forjas do Sálnes that we first encountered the term ”proyectos” (there is probably a proper Galician way to spell that too), which would haunt us for the rest of the trip. Apparently, just having an estate and making wine is not the way to do business here. Every wine is a project, has a purpose and an ending. The division between brands and ”product lines”, for lack of a better wording, is unclear.

Forjas de Sálnes belongs to Rodrigo Méndez, a member of the Méndez family of the Do Ferreiro wines. He started Forjas (meaning forges, which reflects the family’s background as smiths, much like “Do Ferreiro” does) with the intention of only making red wines. His friend, the obiqutous Raúl Perez came along to help him (we will see more of Raul later in this travelogue). Raúl, in turn, wanted to learn more about white wine making in return and in the end convinced Rodrigo to do both at his estate, which is lucky because the white wines tasted here were some of the best of the whole trip.

Rodri Ménde and his hidden-away vineyard.

 

Rodrigo’s priorities became obvious straight away as we followed (or tried to follow, rather) his car into a mountainous, forested area that did not look like anything I had imagined about Rías Baixas. In a small clearing in the eucalyptus and pine-forest, lay his pride: a beautiful vineyard, planted to a plethora of local grapes. Why up here, where no one else had planted vines since roman times? Rodrigo explained that due to the fragmented structure of Galician vineyards, it’s impossible to work organically even if you don’t spray; you have too many neighbors spreading the stuff haphazardly. Up here, he was alone, and could work without chemicals. And on top of that, the altitude, soils and distance to the ocean (just a few hundred meters beyond the woods) would provide exceptional conditions for winegrowing, lessening the impact of fungal diseases. The vineyard is only a few years old and not yet productive, so time will tell what the result is. But it would soon be apparent this man has a nose for finding special vineyards, so you would be a fool not to trust him.

Next up, we drove to the Finca Genoveva, a wonderful little farm owned by an elderly couple. Rodrigo tends the vineyard close to their house and hopes to take it over once they pass as none of their children have an interest in wine. It was here, that he and Raúl Perez found a cache of old bottles of Albariño, up to 30 years old, produced for family consumption in the most traditional way. The bottles where the corks had lasted had apparently been a revelation, as you hear him tell it.

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Farmed by three generation of only women, the vineyard holds some parral-trained vines that reached 200 years old, definitely the oldest productive vines I have seen. Pictured below is the oldest vine, Caiño Tinto of well over 200 years of age. The vineyard also has a few vines of Ratiño, which is not allowed in the DO. Rodrigo was unsure if it was the same as the Portuguese Ratinho. The vineyard is sprayed with sulfur four times a year, but other than that there is no intervention, the vineyard has reached an age where it just handles itself.

This gnarly bastard is Caiño Tinto, 200+ years old and officially the oldest productive vine I've met.

After this, it was time to rush to the winery, which was definitely not as sexy as the vineyards we had just seen, basically being an oversize garage, way too large for the operation. Almost all of the barrels are old, and apart from some smaller barrels for the reds everything goes either into steel or large foudres, without any lees stirring and no added yeast. Malolactic fermentation is a non-issue as the malic acid is so low to begin with.

The tasting became rushed as we had spent too much time gazing at vines and we did not manage to get through all the reds before having to rush on, but the wines were stellar none the less. They are certainly different from the Rías Baixas most of us know, but amazing, intense and thoughtprovoking wines in their own right. As you can see, I was quite taken with these and if you manage to find them, I cannot recommend them strongly enough. I caught myself thinking about great Chablis when tasting the whites again and again. The reds were more idiosyncratic and left me without parallels, but good they were.

 

2012 Leirana (BS) A

Albariño. Concentrated, salty and intense. Mineral > Fruit. Will need time to come around fully.

2011 Leirana A

Albariño. Creamier than the 2012, but yet with intense acidity and minerality. Like a great Chablis.

2010 Leirana ”Finca Genoveva” (BS) A

Rich, creamy, full-bodied, green apple like acidity. Ripe stonefruit and cheeserind on the nose. Reminds me of aged Raveneau.

2011 Leirana ”Finca Genoveva” (BS) AA

Albariño. Fresher than the 2010, with more light tones of melon, stonefruits and a powerful mineral kick on the finish.

2011 Goliardo ”A Telleira” (BS) A

Albariño from a seaside vineyard. Three barrels made, one of which becomes the more famous Sketch (LINK) from Raúl Perez. Rodrigo tells us that the vineyard lies ”above the sea” and that the tide actually goes in below the vines. No matter if you believe that roots actually can transfer salt to the finished wine – this is distinctly saline and mineral. Very Riesling-esque in structure, almost austere.

2005 Leirana ”Luisa Lazaro” A

Albariño. The acidity of the 2005 Leirana vintage was so high that Rodrigo decided to hold back the 2005 and was using it to top up barrels. By today, the wine has evolved fully into a deeply colored, mineral and again, very Chablis-like creature. Delicious!

2010 Goliardo Caiño Tinto “Tintos de Mar” A

The only red tasted from bottle and the only one I managed to get a tasting note on, which pains me. The Loureira and Espadeiro tasted from barrel were intriguing, but I have no notes to share. This comes from the old vines mentioned above. It is light, elegant but with an quite powerful structure. The flavor is full of cracked pepper, smoke, dried herbs and blackberries. Intriguing.

 

Bodegas del Palacio de Fefiñanes

This is the grand old man of the appellation. The winery dates back to 1904 and the brand Albariño de Fefiñanes first adorned a bottle in 1928. I have been a fan of Fefiñanes’ wines for some time and they have featured on almost all my wine lists at one time or another. I had read up on the history of the estate but was in no way prepared for the majestic 16th century palace in Cambados, Sálnes which is their home. The wines of this producer are rather sleek and elegant (some would say austere), and I was expecting a squeaky clean high-tech operation of some size hiding behind those old school labels. I was thoroughly mistaken. Everything is housed behind those thick granite walls, including a lovely spartan garden with some old vines.

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The grapes are sourced from local producers on mostly granitic soils, harvested at low yields and destemmed. The wines are fermented with cultivated indigenous yeasts and there is no malolactic fermentation.

 

As for these wines, my preference has always been for the standard Albariño, which is usually excellent value. It might be a step up pricewise from the light, fruitdriven styles, but there is also a jump in quality which I find easy to justify. I was pleasantly surprised to see the age worthiness of the wines, especially the III Años.

2012 Albariño de Fefiñanes A

2012 was a vintage of horribly low yields (down 60% in Rías Baixas from a record high in 2011) in almost all of Galicia, but the end results seems to have been quite successful.

Fruit-forward and youthful with primary tones of pear drops, grapefruit and green apple. Rounder on the palate with great acidic kick and freshness.

2009 Albariño de Fefiñanes A

Very intense, fruity with intense minerality and great acidic backbone. A real pleasure at this point.

2008 Albariño de Fefiñanes

More subtle and secondary than the 2009. Doesn’t have the same kind of sparkle and is much richer and full-bodied.

2010 ”III Año” Albariño

 Aged for three years on its lees in stainless steel.

Ripe nose with stonefruits and orange zest. Creamy and full-bodied. The high acidity becomes appararent first in the aftertaste.

2007 ”III Año” Albariño A

Light yellow. Slightly evolved nose with white flowers and stonefruit, like white Bordeaux in a way. Soft, round but with well integrated high acidity. Makes the case perfecly for aging high end Albariño in the mid term.

2004 ”III Año” Albariño

Evolved color and nose full of nutty tones. Great structure and full of life although the fruit character is no longer dominant. An intellectual pleasure.

2011 ”1583” Albariño

Named after the birth year of the Vicount Fefiñanes, who built the palace. It spends six months in old french barrel with regular bâttonage.

Buttery, smoky nose with pink sweet grapefruit, juicy pear and melon. The palate is finely balanced with fresh acidity and smoothness. Well made, although I do prefer the style of the regular bottling.

2007 ”1583” Albariño

Opulent, toasty nose. Still has lots of fruit but the whole thing feels less well integrated. There is actually a disctinct oakiness here. Doesn’t have the liveliness like the 2007 III Año does and the acidity, although precent feels disjointed.

 

Pazo de Señorans

Pazo de Señorans started making wine in 1989, but the beautiful countryside manor dates back to the 16th century. Although it doesn’t have the extensive history of other producers, many would probably list this at the very top of the quality hierarchy in Rías Baixas.

We were greeted and shown around by the all-female trio at the head of the bodega; charismatic owner Marisol Bueno Berrío-Ategortua (who is also the former president of the appellations regulating agency and credited with much of its popularity in the 1990s), daughter Vicky and oenologist Ana Quintela. The pazo really feels saturated with history. Amongst other things, it houses a secret chamber where the last king of Portugal is said to have hidden when he went into exile.

Vicky Bueno, Marisol Bueno and Ana Quintela of Pazo de Señorans.

The estate focuses solely on Albariño and makes only two wines (there has been an oak-aged wine called Sol de Señorans released in the past as an experiment. I am unsure if this is still made), both fermented aged in stainless steel. There is also some excellent Orujo and Orujo de Hierbas, destilled on the property. The focus is on ripe, healthy grapes and generally the wines have more fruit and depth to them than what is typical in the appellation. The Seleccíon de Añada is only made in the best vintages. The grapes come from fairly old (45+ years) vines and is aged for 30+ months on its lees in stainless steel and 12 months in bottle. It is definitely one of the benchmark wines of Rías Baixas, and consistently one of the most lauded wines of Spain.

Small copper pots for destilling Orujo (grappa).

 

2012 Pazo de Señorans Albariño A

Soft and creamy with young, primary fruit and a lovely floral note. Round mouthfeel with ripe stonefruit character and high glycerol content – feels sweet, but there is very little residual sugar.

2009 Pazo de Señorans Albariño A

Subtle and slightly evolved fruit notes with that fine floral note coming through again. Has the same smooth and rich mouthfeel. Wonderful at this age.

2006 Pazo de Señorans Seleccíon de Añada A

Current release of this icon. Quite pale and youthful looking. Ripe, almost tropical fruits on the nose. The palate is more taut with a backbone of serious acidity, and the hallmark creaminess from the lees.

2005 Pazo de Señorans Seleccíon de Añada A

Again very rich fruit on the nose; mango and passionfruit. Fantastic structure on the palate, and the acidity is mouthwatering on the finish. Flavours of orange zest, peach and apricot. Very compelling, a real pleaser.

Finishing thoughts

Albariño is definitely the star of the show here, but it is obvious that Rias Baixas doesn’t have to be a one trick pony. Let us hope that the Galicians are wise enough to use Albariño as a wedge to get into markets and then introduce the other fine wines as well. At this point however, it seems more like the local Consejo Regulador is trying to obscure the fact that Rias Baixas can mean something else than clean, crisp, easy-to-drink white wines.

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Travelling man: Galicia - Intro

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Travelling man: Galicia - Intro

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We circled the airport in Vigo three times before landing. It might have been due to scheduling issues, but me and my travelling partners at least theorized that the ruggedness of the green but mountainous landscape below had something to do with it. And sure enough, once we actually touched ground on that short airstrip, the pilot hit the brakes so hard that I had to catch myself from smashing into the seat in front of me. After leaving our bags at the hotel, we headed out to catch the last hours of sunshine and some decent food, which was well needed after having spent 5 hours waiting at the dreadful 2G-terminal at Charles de Gaulle. I am absolutely convinced one of the circles of hell is an exact copy of 2G. No extra hellfire needed.

Unbeknownst to us, there was some sort of traditional spring festivity going on in town. For all my Google-fu, I have not been able to figure out what it was all about. But the music, and white clad women wearing flowers made for a nice welcoming. We sat down at one of the few open on this special Sunday, ordered the first of countless plates of Polbo á Feira (Galician classic: octopus with olive oil and paprika) and other lovely creatures from the sea. With that, some fresh, tangy white that went perfectly with the seafood. No tasting notes this time, the table could not have fit my notebook even if I had brought it. A calm set it, and I started getting that longing feeling which still lingers, weeks afterwards; this is one of those places I could live and be happy. And it was only going to get better, the coming morning we headed into wine country.

To call the wines of Galicia a novel experience would be somewhat of an exaggeration. For many years (decades at this point) this region has been touted as the most exciting winegrowing region of Spain, by some of the more competent wine writers and savvy sommeliers. And even though there in some circles is a certain hype, these wines are still a tough sell to the end consumer. You will get a suspicious stare recommending a Spanish white wine to most restaurant guests, and all of a sudden you have something to prove. Grüner Veltliner used to get the same treatment, and I know our sommelier elders fought the same battle with German Riesling. With older guests, that battle is still very real.

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Luckily, at this point, with quality and price being where they are, championing the wines of Galicia is an easy cause to adopt, and I would dare to call it a righteous one. If I was convinced about the level of quality of wines before visiting the region, I was coming back positively in love.

Disclosure: The trip, which took place in May 2013 was organized by ICEX, the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade. Transport, accommodation and most meals were paid for as a price for winning a competition organized in Stockholm, Sweden concerning knowledge of Spanish Wine. Thus, we visited a selection of producers representing all tiers of quality.

 

Also: I am not a wine critic; I have no intention of reporting on wines and producers I did not find interesting, so do not look to me for any kind of conclusive or comprehensive report. I can only hope to motivate someone else to take up that investigation for him or herself.

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Grape Expectations in South Australia

Just about everyone has had a taste the powerful Shiraz being produced in South Australia’s Barossa, McLaren Vale. Many are familiar with the steely Riesling from Eden and Clare Valley. Several of us have at least read about great Coonawarra  Cabernet, although good examples are few and far between. A few have even understood that great Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay can be made in the cooler reaches of Adelaide Hills. But what else is there?  

Australia has gone through some radical changes over the years. Not that long ago that 80% of the country’s production was fortified wine, and over 90% of the 2000 wineries today did not exist in 1970. Since the mid-1980s Austalia has excelled at providing exactly what people want. For many years that was tropical, high octane Chardonnay with a good dollop of oak and opulent Shiraz with more than a hint of residual sugar. All this at prices that got supermarkets salivating. Want that in a box? No problem, mate! Volume? Are you joking?

 

At the same time, Robert Parker and other powerful critics lauded extravagant, high-alcohol “gobs of fruit”-type wines, best exemplified by Mollydooker. The message was clear: Big is beautiful. And Australia was good at delivering just that. And they went all-in.

I won’t begrudge the aussies. I would probably have done the same thing. But the effect of this strategy, coupled with a very strong dollar, is that when the pendulum swung and those wines were no longer in fashion Australian wines became decidedly unmarketable.

 

The lesson is clear: It is good to have something to spearhead a market with. But once that is done, diversity is needed to keep interest high.

Now, I am a big fan of Australian wine, and I still find great surprises in the wines of some of the iconoclastic wineries, especially in Victoria (the likes of Jasper Hill, Mt. Langhi Ghiran and By Farr feature heavily on my lists and cellars). And I certainly think Australia has an almost unlimited, hitherto untapped potential to produce unique wines if it sets its mind to it. So I was happy to be invited to the tasting event entitled Alternative Australian Wine Grape Varieties with the hugely knowledgable Justin Knock MW (follow Justin on twitter), hosted at the spectacular Restaurant AOC  in Copenhagen.

 

The goal of the tasting was to present some of the not so well known grape of South Australia. I find this experimenting hugely interesting, as the only thing that really separates the old and the new world is experience. Who’s to say that Shiraz is what the aussies are supposed to be doing just because that is what is planted? Maybe somewhere on that huge landmass they have the potential to produce sublime wine with Nebbiolo, Pinot Gris or Fiano?

There are a few obstacles though. Australia is hot; there is no denying it. Labels proudly tout “cool climate”, but the term is only relative to the rest of Australia (with the possible exception of Tasmania). Lack of irrigation water and increasingly erratic climate may also put a hamper on which grapes are able to thrive. With the marvelous quality wines coming out of Portugal, Greece and Spain today, I would put my money on the proven heat-resistant grapes of the Mediterranean like Mourvèdre (which there is a substantial amount of already, but it is rarely bottled on its own), Bobal, Touriga Nacional or white grapes like Assyrtiko or Carricante.

This tasting hinted that the trend had turned towards Italian grapes. I personally think this is misguided. I know Italian food and wine will never go out of style, but apart from a few exceptions, Italian wine is pretty bland stuff. It sells because of some romantic ideal, not because of what is in the bottle. I think it would be a dangerous road to go down, because Australia will never have that innate charm that Italy conjures in customers’ minds. And maybe the Italian charm works on the domestic market, but I doubt it will have the same effect on export sales though. Justin did point out that the selection wasn’t wholly representative though. I’ll have to take his word for it, until I visit later this year.

The best wines in the tasting were the Viognier from Yalumba, which really represents exceptional value and the Mourvèdre from Yangarra which was juicy, but actually had complexity. No surprises here, the varietals are no strangers to Australian winemakers. Overall though I left with the same feeling that I came with; there is great potential here, but it’s just that - potential.

I think part of the problem is that too few winemakers actually explore the world of truly great wine. I rutinely ask winemakers who they look up to, whose wines they drink with dinner at home. If you see the right empty bottles on his or her shelves, you have probably met someone who also makes great wine.

Thanks to Damien Miller, ambassador to Denmark and to Justin Knock MW for an informative event.

Tasting notes

Scoring

A: Recommended. If it fits your preferences, go get ‘em.

AA: You should go out of your way to source these wines.

AAA: Take a loan and buy more of this.

2011 Primo Estate, Pinot Grigio, McLaren Vale

Aromatic with lots of sweet fruit on the nose. Well-balanced, if not quite fresh. Round and well polished. More Gris than Grigio. Well made, and definitely something many will like. But hardly what the world of wine needs more of.

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2011 First Drop “Bella Coppia”, Arneis, Adelaide Hills

Fresh, pineappley nose with a touch of mint. Smooth palate with good acidity. Surprisingly light, and none of the bitterness that I typically associate with Arneis. A good effort.

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2012 Primo Estate “La Biondina” Colombard, McLaren Vale

Simple, primary fruit on the nose, which might become more interesting with a bit more bottle age.  The palate is quite fat and round and doesn’t fit all that well with the nose.

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2009 Cariole, Fiano, McLaren Vale

Rich, round nose with yellow apple, grapefruit and orange zest. Low acidity and quite funky. Complex in a way, but I’d say it’s past its prime. I have not tried younger versions.

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2010 d’Arenberg “The Hermit Crab”, McLaren Vale

(74% Viognier, 26% Marsanne) Ripe stonefruit and fennel on the nose. Slightly prickly on the palate with ripe apricot and yellow peaches and a lovely waxy character from the Marsanne. A classic in its own right, and a well made wine.*

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2012 Yalumba Viognier “Oxford Landing”, South Australia A

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Bright, typical Viognier character on the nose of apricot, aniseseed and yellow pear. Quite zesty on the palate. One of the most affordable wines in the lineup, and a favorite of mine. Very good effort at capturing the soul of Viognier without being too heavy. The French could learn something here.

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2009 Primo Estate “Il Briccone” Shiraz/Sangiovese, McLaren Vale

This is primarily Shiraz (the 2011 vintage states 85% Shiraz) so perhaps doesn’t fit at all in the lineup. Opulent, red-berried nose with some of that saline tell-tale Sangiovese seaweed and soy note (Yes, I am currently taking suggestions for better tasting note nomenclature). Lots of clove from the barrels. Warm finish.

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2009 Mad Dog Sangiovese, Barossa Valley

Sweet, almost raisined fruit tones. More than healthy dollop of residual sugar. Oriental spice. Has a certain rustic charm.

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2006 Primo Estate “Joseph”, Nebbiolo, McLaren Vale

Lean, green, pyrazine-rich nose – much more like Merlot on the nose than Nebbiolo. Well structured. A good effort, and a fun wine. Plenty of potential here, but still a long way to go.

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2007 Longview Riserva, Nebbiolo, Adelaide Hills

Cherry liqueur and mature spicy notes. On the palate this is everywhere, no focus as at. Acidity stands out as does the sweetness, which lingers on the finish. Not bad.

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2009 Thom Clarke “Morella” Nebbiolo

The first of the Nebbiolos to actually look like Nebbiolo! Liqueur-like nose with too much oxidation for its age – raisined fruit. No fun at all.

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2010 Bleasdale Malbec, Langhorne Creek

Deep purple color. Dark, opulent black fruit character with roasted coffee tones and violets. Serious tannin structure. Finishes a bit raisined, but all in all a well made hedonistic wine.

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2010 Yangarra Mourvèdre, McLaren Vale A

2010_Mourvedre

wine in the tasting. Rich, spicy, roasted nose with a  lovely mint chocolate character on the nose. Juicy, rich fruit on the palate. Serious, but soft and drinkable. By no means a great wine, but the best red today.

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2009 Hentley Farm, Zinfandel

Distinctly meaty character – no brett police here. Certainly a touch of oxidation as well. I don’t mind, there’s plenty of typical dark raspberry fruit as well.Not without complexity.

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2010 Penfolds Reserve Tempranillo, McLaren Vale

Well-balanced, modest wine with some fine spicy notes from the wood and red fruit character. Well-balanced, but not as exciting as I would have hoped.

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Sounds of Spring

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Sounds of Spring

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Something very visceral happens to me when the sun starts to shine through the greyness that descends on this part of the world in early autumn. All of a sudden beauty starts creeping into life again, beauty that had not only been missing, but in many ways had been forgotten for the better part of a year. It really makes me wonder whether people really are designed to live this far north (55˚) and in such a climate. Like many Scandinavians, I speculate that I would miss the distinct seasons if I moved further south. But the older I get, the more certain I get that this is just a rationalization for  cowardice and laziness (if you hate it so much, move!). I've grown aware of my propensity for the winter slump (I wouldn't go so far as to call it a depression), but I still get stuck in it, unable to get my head above the clouds. And bit by bit I forget. Forget that sadness and anger are not default states of mind and that people can actually smile at each other in the street and mean it. I try to combat this with high doses of Vitamin D, training and opening decent bottles of wine (not to mention consuming monopausal doses of dark chocolate). And I am much better at keeping spirits high today than I was ten years ago. But the feeling of the spring sun coming out is still like a miracle; like it's setting you free from some dark, dank underground prison.

In a few weeks as I become accustomed, I guess the intitial glow will fade into the background. Certainly, I am generally more happy during summer, but I am rarely as ecxtatic as in those first days of true spring (and yes, it is a devastatingly late spring). All of a sudden food starts tasting better (I suppose this is not entirely subjective. Even in todays globalized world, going through the winter larder is more survival than pleasure), random people begin looking good and smiles and laughter come more easily. For me however the most apparent sign of change is my taste in music and wine. I catch myself playing songs and thinking "It's been a long time", like I am not receptive of the (objective) beauty inherent in the music until a certain point.

Here are three of the tunes that most apparently start appearing on my playlists again after the long winter, year after year. Most of them are instrumental for some reason. Maybe winter is the time for the verbal, the introspective and intellectual thoughts while spring and summer is the time for the sensual, hedonistic and primal?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxz0PajnIeY&w=420&h=315]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCCJc_V8_MQ&w=560&h=315]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRoIuEe6Bbs&w=420&h=315]

And yes, I do realize I haven't spoken much of wine. This is supposed to be a wine blog, isn't it? But I fear I will delve too deep into the land of cliché. Wonderful German Riesling certainly is on my mind more often, as are the complex wines of Jerez, (which finally seem to be on the verge of gaining a critical mass of hype on the internet, although the sherry producers themselves speak of hard times. A recent visit to a surprisingly sunny Galicia certainly helped kickstart my Vitamin-D trip. More on that later...

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Today I am drinking this. The 2010 Côte de Nuits-Villages from Denis Bachelet, one of my favorite producers of red Bourgogne, might as well have been an autumn wine, perhaps expressing more spice and in a few years haunting secondary notes to match game, mushrooms and smells of decaying underbrush. But today it perfectly captures the essence of spring, starting out with a slight green tone much like the wild berries I picked as a child, just below the point of ripeness with searing acidity, and yet so delicious. With some air, it reveals a darker blackberry fruit character and that initial harshness morphs into a tarry smokiness redolent of late summer nights like meat on the grill and sweet tobacco. What a perfect wine to symbolize the transition of the seasons.

The bottle is featured against the backdrop of a painting by a very inspiring man, my girlfriend's grandfather, who passed away late last week and is to be buried tomorrow. The painting depicts the rising sun amongst the rosehip-covered dunes of westernmost Denmark where the family spent their summers, and captures the soft Scandinavian sunlight so well.

Do you share this powerful feeling of transition? How does it translate into your perception of art, music and taste?

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