The Return of the Sun
Posted: 3rd May 2022
The wine trade has been stretching its limbs after Covid. Some tastings are still online while others have returned to the traditional form, with producers or importers standing behind tables showing their wares. Back on the first spring-like day, 10 March, there was an Occitan wine tasting in the Royal College of Surgeons: a change from the collection of pickled foetuses and two-headed horses stashed away downstairs.
I liked the organic wines from the Domaine de la Grange, a crisp white in the 2020 Terre de Tramontane range and even better, a juicy red made from the winning combination of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. It seemed to be an excellent food wine. Interesting was the 2020 Rondeur Apassimento made from dried Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache grapes. It was naturally quite sweet. The estate manager Nicolas de Saint-Exupéry recommended it as an aperitif. The ‘Tradition’ range from the Côte de Thongue was top notch: 2020 Prat Bibal (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), 2021 Combelle (Syrah and Cinsault) with a proper tarry Syrah taste, and 2020 Selection Sabatier (Carignan and Syrah).
Another excellent organic estate was the Domaine de Pech Ménel: a good 2021 white leads on Rolle; a 2017 Saint Chinian with a dominant Mourvèdre and impressive length; and four vintages of Château Pech Ménel – 2015, 2013, 2010 and 2009 to demonstrate how well it aged.
Château Canet in Minervois uses a special protective yeast on picked grapes that delays the onset of fermentation for a week. Two reds impressed me: the sappy 2020 with its obvious Syrah character and the 2018 Les Evangiles: 90% Syrah and a much bigger proposition.
The Domaine F Jaubert in the Roussillon makes a slightly sweet Syrah-dominated red (it’s 14.8% – if all the sugar had fermented out it would be 16%) with the lyrical name of Hexaplex Trunculus, but I was even happier with the fortified VDN 2002 Or du Temps, a blend of red and white Grenache made in concrete vats – old wines to sip on their own.
Graft buys throughout the region. I had a good, old-fashioned 2018 Xavier Côtes du Rhône, a 2020 Le Sud Pinot Noir from Burgundian Bruno Lafon, grown 200 metres up in the Limoux and a lovely 2020 Château Combel-la-Serre, Le Pur Fruit du Causse Cahors, grown on limestone, un-oaked, just 12.5% and reeking of raspberries.
Domaine Gayda was in London in April. Here the wines from the hot south are made by a cool Loire man, who ensures the whites have good acidity, something instantly noticeable in the 2021 Flying Solo white. The Chenin Blanc ‘Figure Libre’, is naturally one of his best wines – the pineappley 2020 no exception. Among the reds the 2020 Flying Solo is made of Grenache Noir and Syrah and is quite a bargain. In a similar idiom is the 2020 En Passant, which blends Syrah and Carignan. After that the wines grow in complexity: 2021 Figure Libre Freestyle combines Syrah with Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan to make a wonderfully haunting cherry-like brew. Villa Mon Rêve is one of two top wines along with the Chemin de Moscou (a wine for the Ukrainian General Staff?). The 2018 was also cherry-like, to which the 2016 added an element of creaminess. The 2014 was much fleshier. It was ageing beautifully.
Wines from Australia continues with its excellent online tastings with samples delivered a few days before. This month we celebrated 50 years of Chardonnay. When I returned to London from Paris in 1985, everyone was drinking Australian Chardonnay. I was enthusiastic for a while too, but that slightly oily, fruit-salad character put me off and I stopped. Australian Chardonnay is much more conscious of its Burgundian prototype than it was back then. There is some question as to whether it has gone too far in the other direction.
Oz Clarke appeared bubbling with enthusiasm both for the original Australian Chardonnay and its more stripped down version. Top growers have left the hotter regions behind. These days the best Chardonnays come from Margaret River, Great Southern, the Yarra or Tasmania, with Leeuwin, Giant Steps and Tolpuddle topping the tasting – the latter was my favourite. High up in the Adelaide Hills they can still make great Chardonnay, like the 2020 M3 from Shaw+Smith.
Phonetically Austria is a short distance from Australia and they too went to huge trouble to issue us with kits for their annual tasting, in this instance some 48 mini-bottles of wine. Those early Australian Chardonnays were over-ripe.
“With climate change Austria’s whites in particular are changing too and many Grüner Veltliners are hardly recognisable to someone who started watching Austrian wine all of thirty years ago.”
The only Grüner Veltliners that hit the spot were those from the Domäne Wachau and Birgit Eichinger. The first DW wine was a light 2121 Federspiel from the Terrassen with a little cattiness to it and a great structure. The 2020 Smaragd from the DW’s Steinwerk Spitzer Graben was still quite closed but looked very promising. In the Kamptal Birgit Eichinger makes some of the best, ripest Veltliners for miles around, Ried Lamm in particular.
Riesling, on the other hand, has proved more constant; is it more resistant to climate change? Birgit’s 2020 Gaisberg was good – brimming with lemony, mango-like fruit. The 2019 Dürnstein Federspiel from the excellent Tegernseerhof was a lovely specimen with a classic white peach aroma. Of course this was upstaged by the 2019 Steinertal Smaragd which was much more concentrated in its peachiness. DW’s 2020 Achleiten Smaragd was also concentrated, with something of a marmalade character – quite gorgeous. The more mature 2016 Smaragd Mauterner vom Stein from one of my favourite estates, the Nikolaihof, was prettier and more elegant than the others.
At Prieler in the Leitha Hills, Pinot Blanc/Weissburgunder is a house speciality. The 2016 Ried Seeberg was as good as it gets, with its apricot-like aroma. Austrian Weissburgunder might have more potential than Chardonnay, but Gernot Heinrich is a past master at vinifying Chardonnay and he has land in the Leitha Hills too. There is a little taste of butter and confectionary sugar in his wine, but it is not exaggerated.
Some of the most lyrical Chardonnays (also called ‘Morillon’) come from Styrian hills in the south. There the Polz Brothers have planted it high up on the Grassnitzberg. The 2019 is a classic with its creamy, oatmeal and hazelnut aromas. It was one of the best wines I tasted from this vintage. Austrians also make sweet Chardonnays. In 2020 my friend Helmut Lang made a lovely Beerenauslese tasting of yellow peaches with a wonderful zesty finish.
The other main grape variety in Styria is Sauvignon Blanc. In Vulkanland in the South-East, Albert Neumeister has been a star for over 30 years. His 2019 Ried Moafeitl is unusually peppery, but impressive. The locus classicus of Austrian Sauvignon Blanc is South Styria, where dry wines were introduced by the late Willi Sattler. Now his son and grandsons make the wine: a peppery 2020 from Gamlitz, a much fruiter 2019 Kapellenweg and a Kranichberg from the same year with splendid keeping qualities. In 2020 the Sattlers made a Beerenauslese, a rare thing for Styria, with lots of lychee, mango and pineapple flavours.
The Polz brothers were also in at the budburst of Styrian wines in the eighties. Their 2020 simple Sauvignon Blanc DAC has what Austrians call an ‘elderflower’ nose (we might say ‘catty’). The 2019 ‘Therese’ is riper, while the 2017 Hochgrassnitzberg had me thinking of rosewater. Talking of which, South East Styria specialises in Traminer. There was a delicious one from Neumeister: a 2019 Steintal with a massive aroma of red roses.
Blaufränkisch is not always the most charming of Austria’s black grapes, but there are some people who really know how to handle it. One of these is Dorli Muhr in Prellenkirchen in the far east of the country. At the basic level there is a Blaufränkisch-dominated 2019 ‘cuvée’ with nice, vigorous fruit. The 2019 Prellenkirchen Blaufränkisch has a bit of pepper; the 2019 Obere Roterd is smokier, while the top wine was the limpid 2019 Kranzen.
Over in the Leitha Hills, Prieler has always been a dab hand at Blaufränkisch. Georg’s father Engelbert established these rich, Burgundian wines in the eighties, and the 2017 is cut of the same cloth. Prieler’s 2017 Marienthal comes from Rust on the Neusiedler Lake. This is a famous site, and the wine does it no discredit. On the other side of the lake, René Pöckl has a sensationally good 2019 Blaufränkisch Classique with its blackberry aromas and cooling, raspberry-like fruit. Heinrich also has an excellent 2017 Ried Winderer Altenberg Blaufränkisch from the Leitha Hills and Blaufränkisch also goes into his supple 2017 Pannobile Cuvée.
Zweigelt is a crossing of Blaufränkisch and St Laurent. IR is new to me, but their 2020 Zweigelt has a classic cherry aroma, good concentration and depth. Helmut Lang owns a St Laurent vineyard where he makes dry reds in Ried Neufeld. His 2020 was a notable success, a wine of pure fruit and huge appeal. Over in Furth in the Kremstal, the Malats have always excelled with Pinot Noir. The 2019 is light in body but full of typicity and charm.
Helmut Lang has made a ‘non-vintage’ orange-coloured, sweet Pinot Noir Beerenauslese with lots of peach, orange and dried herb aromas. Even better was his 2019 Goldmuskateller Eiswein. Again it had me thinking of white peaches.
Two further wines tried at home: the 2020 Graffigna Reserve Malbec (Sainsbury £7) was superb value for money, plenty of red and black fruits hung on an excellent structure. Secondly, a 2019 Grafite Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) comes from my old friend Johnny Graham in the Douro. This is still quite dense and spirity and takes a good half hour in a jug to come round. It is built to last and brims with dense amaretto cherry character. A lovely 2018 Quinta do Crasto was much more evolved, but lighter in comparison.