The Soul of Wine
Posted: 5th July 2021
In June the chance to taste wine ebbed back at a sedate pace. The first stirrings of this new spring came in the form of a promissory case from Demeter and respekt-Biodyn in Austria. It did not make it in time for the online tasting with Monty Waldin, as British Customs and Excise grabbed it and held it hostage until I coughed up some money, but it was well worth waiting for.
The wines were all biodynamic, and therefore made according to the principles laid down for growing (potatoes) elaborated by the wine-hating Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamism involves doing a lot of things that many find ever-so-slightly baffling. Some, such as the application of various natural preparations to the soil, are obvious enough, and there are particular times and stages of the moon stipulated for planting and picking etc which follow a lead from the ancients. Horses are used for ploughing. Other ideas, such as the burying of cow horns filled with dung at the four corners of the vineyard are harder to digest, but all I can say is: if it works, it is fine by me.
In the last two or three decades wine has improved immeasurably on a technical level, but in a great many instances it has lost its soul. Biodynamism may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but it does aim to restore the soul of wine. So, in a more or less descending order, here were the wines – ten Austrians and two Germans:
2019 Grüner Veltliner Kalkvogel, Weingut Herbert Zillinger
Grüner Veltliner has been going through stormy times. Part of the problem with Austria’s workhorse grape is that climate change has reduced the acidity of many wines and encouraged greater levels of ripeness that can result in blandness. Add to this a new Austrian sensitivity to alcohol, which means trying to keep everything down below 13 abv. Some grape varieties don’t respond well to moves to cap their alcoholic effusiveness. Grenache would be a case in point for a black grape, Grüner Veltliner is a green grape that needs 13 plus.
The Wienviertel between Vienna and the Czech border has been the source of many decent Grüner Veltiners in the past, but a recent trip revealed some fairly boring wines, to the degree that I despaired of finding anything I liked there ever again. This Zillinger Kalkvogel has routed my doubts. The colour was deep, the wine slightly turbid, but I instantly recognised a proper ripe Veltliner by its smell of pineapples. On the palate there was a throbbing power and wonderful length. This was great Grüner Veltliner like those that ravished me in the good old days.
2017 Marienburger Fahrlay Grosses Gewächs, Grosse Lage Weingut Clemens Busch
Clemens Busch in Pünderich needs no introduction. A member of the VDP, he is one of the very best wine makers in the Mosel Valley. This was one of two German wines in the tasting. A wine with an absolutely enchanting nose that evoked a warm apricot tart, with lots of peach-like Riesling tastes on the palate and those apricots again. In contrast to the Veltiner, this is a Riesling that is all in delicacy; and it gets better and better in the glass.
2018 Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC Ried Oberer Wald, Weingut Feiler-Artinger
This was one of two red wines in the case. I met Kurt Feiler first in 1991, when he was still in his teens. I find it alarming to think that he is now a mature man! And this is a mature man’s wine too that comes from just behind the Neusiedlersee where Feiler-Artinger make their wonderful sweet Ausbruch wines.
For me, the style of Blaufränkisch made in the Leitha Hills is more attractive than the more famous examples from Mittelburgenland. I find it generally silkier and more Burgundian. Kurt’s wine is one of the best. It smells of creamy raspberries, revealing the use of oak casks a bit, but the touch is far lighter than it was. There is a lot of rich cherry fruit on the palate and plenty of life in it yet.
2019 Riesling Ried Gebling 1ÖTW, Weingut Sepp Moser
I have long been an admirer of Sepp Moser’s Ried Gebling in the Kamptal, where the wines are made by Sepp’s son Niki. The Mosers are members of the Traditionsweingüter organisation and part of the nobility of the Kamptal. This Riesling is at the opposite end of the scale to the Busch wine: it has considerable body, length and power. There is a pretty citrus note on the nose and a little taste of marmalade and quinces on the palate, it is long and complex.
2019 Kapelle Weißburgunder, Weingut Leiner
The second German wine comes from Sven Leiner in the Pfalz. It has a lovely citrusy nose, but it is above all an elegant, playful wine with great, ripe acidity and length. There is something that refreshes the palate in Leiner’s wines, and a complete absence of anything ponderous.
2017 Ried Zöbinger Hirsch 1ÖTW Kamptal DAC Riesling Weingut Hirsch
Another member of the Traditionsweingüter and in Johannes Hirsch another man I have known since he was not much more than a boy. This wine improved considerably in the bottle once opened. It was not such a typical Riesling at first, but carried plenty of weight and spice with a chunky, meaty finish. By the next day its character had fully emerged and it was showing really good length and structure.
2013 Blaufränkisch Thenau Biodynamisches Weingut Birgit Braunstein
The oldest wine in the tasting came from Birgit Braunstein in Purbach, famous for its fugitive Turk. I have admired Birgit’s wines for some time. This is a relatively light and supple Blaufränkisch and not deep in colour either. It is the polar opposite of some of the big, gummy Blaufränkisch wines you meet in Mittelburgenland. It is not robust but it is very pleasant now.
2019 Parcellaire Blanc #1, Weingut Johannes Zillinger
A wine made by another Zillinger from the Weinviertel and this time a blend of Welschriesling and Chardonnay. It produces a brew with just 11 percent alcohol. One element seems to have been aged in oak and makes for a creamy wine with a taste of pears with a good shuddering length and quite a searing, high-acid finish.
NV Hollenburger Riesling, Weingut Christoph Hoch
A blend of three vintages from limestone soils near Krems. Again this wine has a very modest alcoholic reading of 11.5. The acidity is up front, but it is a refreshing, summer wine with good peachy length.
2018 Cara, Weingut Ploder-Rosenberg
Vulkanland with its defunct volcanoes is famous for making Gewürztraminer, but this wine is an exception in that it is a blend of Bronner, Souvignier Gris (both new to me), Grüner Veltliner and Weißburgunder. This was the first of the orange wines, made naturally without using sulphur and obviously spurning the malolactic fermentation that converts the sharp malic acid into a creamy lactic acid. The alcohol was once again low at 11.5 and the wine was not hugely concentrated. There were some pretty fruit notes.
2018 Chardonnay Bambule, Weingut Judith Beck
Another orange wine, this time from Gols above the Neusiedler lake. The wine was cloudy with in-your-face acidity, rather than lengthening the tail. It was long and lively for all that, but reminded me of dill pickles and cider, relieved by a little taste of peaches.
2018 Weißburgunder, Weingut Schmelzer
Another wine from Gols, and another natural wine that had me thinking of cider. The ‘malic’ in malic acid derives from the Latin for apples. It was cloudy again and frothy; and the acid struck before anything else. It was not so bad, but I didn’t quite know how I’d serve it.
Besides these Central European wines I have been out and about, including attending a reception above a ladies’ club in Maddox Street for awards given out by Bloom’s Gin to encourage all-female businesses to get off the ground. It was fun to sip gin and nibble canapés on a sunny roof terrace after being locked up all this time.
I went to the big Spanish wine tasting in Westminster, a very well-organised affair with flights of wines brought to your table. I only had time for five or six flights, but tasted good things. I was struck by the fact that there are still parts of Spain that are great value for money – like Toro, particularly from Bodegas Rodriguez y Sanzo. There were three super wines from El Grifo on Lanzerote: a Malvasia, a Moscatel de Alejandria and the Listan Negro-Syrah blend that was best of all.
As chance would have it the Roussillon tasting was in the same place. This was a moment of great nostalgia for me, having been fourteen years a member of the tasting jury in the Roussillon and latterly president. Many of names were familiar to me, such as Mas Baux or the Château de Jau. The best of Jau’s straight wines was Jaujau Ier Red (awful name), but the real joy was the Rivesaltes Ambré with its aromas of honey and liquorice. These fortified VDNs are the region’s trump card. Dom Brial had a lovely figgy Primage, like a wonderful light port and a Rancio Sec with a tarry nose and a hint of seaweed like an excellent dry amontillado.
It was a huge joy to be reminded of Vaquer, where the late owner used to make astonishingly long-lived Burgundian-style wines. Their successors bear the ‘L’Exception’ label. There is also a VDN – Préface 1994 – which smells of pain d’épices.
I liked a leathery red Carmin 2018 at the Domaine F Jaubert, but again it was the VDNs that won me round: Or du Temps 2002 was all toffee and seaweed with the sweetness of oranges – a wonderful wine for chocolate. My real discovery of the day was the Domaine Vial Magnères in Banyuls and its gorgeous fortified 2018 Rimage or the Gaby Vial 7 Ans. The best wine in the tasting was the Banyuls Grand Cru André Magnères 2009: chocolate, toffee and butter, and utterly delicious.