In The Vineyards With: Thomas Niedermayr

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Shortly before Christmas, I drove for an hour or so north, from Verona up to the Alto Adige. If you’re familiar with Verona, you almost certainly have seen the river which encircles the historic city, the river Adige. Alto Adige is the mountainous region, where that river originates. This area is also widely known by its German name, South Tyrol, because approximately 60% of the local population are native German speakers, whilst only 20% grew up speaking Italian.

It’s a dramatic and interesting route to drive because once you’ve left the fog of the Verona plains behind, the mountains creep closer and the road you are travelling along becomes dwarfed by the rocky landmasses on either side.

Leaving Verona / Lake Garda behind and heading towards the Austrian border

Head into the foothills above the city of Bozen / Bolzano and you find yourself lost in wine country. The roads are windy and impossibly narrow for oncoming traffic, and the villages have remain untouched since yesteryear.

It’s here, at approximately 500 metres above sea level, that you find Thomas Niedermayr. Thomas manages 5 hectares of vineyards (part owned, part rented) at this family-run winery. His father has been cultivating grapes and making wine, organically and with a strong emphasis on biodiversity, since the late 80s but it was more a side-project than a viable business.

Having decided to pursue winemaking as a career, Thomas, who originally studied carpentry, enrolled at the reputed Laimburg research centre to learn oenology. 2012 was the culmination of those studies and it was to prove a defining year; several months of work experience at a biodynamic farm in Austria and then a placement to learn English in London gave Thomas the drive and direction that is so valuable at the start.

It’s still very much a family effort; when we arrive, Thomas’ dad, Rodolf, is cutting back a hedge and his sister is pruning in the vineyards. Meanwhile, a menagerie of animals cluck, peck, sniff and hop around us.

Ducks, geese, chicken… all foul run loose at Hof Gandberg

It’s cold out so after a brisk walk through the vineyards, Thomas shows us his brand new cellar, which he’s made himself, almost entirely from wood – a doth of the hat to his previous passion for carpentry. In that cellar you find a range of white and red wines; some aged in stainless steel, others in wooden barrels of varying sizes…. but not from the grape varieties that you might expect! The most notable aspect that differentiates Thomas from others is his dedication to PIWI grape varieties.

PIWI varieties are hybrids, made from crossing commonly found European grape varieties with a resistant American counterpart and creating a result which is resistant to downy and powdery mildew. The advantage of PIWI varieties is that they remove the need to treat with copper and sulphur and therefore pollute the environment far less than conventional and even organic agriculture. You can find more information about PIWI varieties on this website.

Varieties that Thomas works with include Solaris, Bronner and Souvignier Gris. Each has its own completely different aromatic profile and my resolution for 2019 is to become more familiar with their typicities.

As we leave the cellar, there’s a small table off to one side which is practically hidden by the quantity of bottles, demi-johns and contraptions which lie atop. It turns out that these are Thomas’ many, many micro-vinifications. His first harvest (picked, vinified and bottled) was in 2013 but he admit that he’s still learning and still experimenting.

“If we don’t experiment, how would we know what works and what doesn’t?” Touché.

Thomas’ experimentation.


Thomas Niedermayr website

Visit: 21st December 2018


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Gramenon’s “L’élémentaire” 2016

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I was in Nice a couple of months ago and, because I had the car with me, I stopped by La Part des Anges, a well-known wine shop filled-to-bursting with natural wines, to stock up.

Whilst I love the diversity of wine made in Italy, that same diversity means that it is particularly hard to import wine here because there are so few gaps in the market. Besides Champagne and some of the usual big names, there are many French wines that I can’t find anymore and that I miss. Continue reading

R.I.P. Stefano Bellotti

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If you haven’t already heard, Stefano Bellotti, winemaker and biodynamic guru from Novi Ligure in Piedmont, sadly passed away last week. What he suspected to be a dodgy oyster turned out to be pancreatic cancer and it was to prove fatal. 

Stefano was a hugely important figure to me, as he was to many other people in the industry. (Read the Kevin McKenna and Jules Dressner’s touching blog post here.) If you’ll allow me to indulge in a touch of nostalgia, I’ll explain how I met Stefano and how he changed, irrefutably, the path of my career.

I first met Stefano in 2012. We were at a small “Triple A” wine tasting in Paris, pouring from behind adjacent tables.

I don’t remember precisely if it was the first time I tried his wines (it was almost certainly the first time I tried the more complex cuvées, not just Semplicemente Vino) but I do remember that I didn’t understand these wines. There was something edgy, different and uncompromising about them.

Stefano and his wines are much alike. If you stick your nose in too quickly and ask too many questions, both the man and the wine close up. If you allow them time, gain familiarity, and return repeatedly, you start to not just understand but also warm to them. 

We met each year at the Renaissance tastings in the Loire until on one occasion which will remain engraved in my mind forever, I tell Stefano that I’m going freelance. It’s because of his “je te prends tout de suite” that I also met Dettori, and through them that I met Filippi, and through that connection that I’m where I am today.

At the Paris launch of “Natural Resistance.” Photo: Bertrand Celce / Wine Terroirs, 2014.

Over the next four years, I stayed at the Cascina degli Ulivi many times and helped in the fields, whilst following him through life’s ups and downs. From Jonathan Nossiter’s film “Natural Resistance” and the planting of a new Timorasso vineyard high in the hills to the various problems in the Cascina and the different deceptions that he bore personally. I wrote about it at the very beginning but it remained true until the end:

Stefano himself is a sweetheart. He has such a kind, generous character and (but don’t tell him I have written this) he’s also very sensitive. A pioneer of biodynamics, he has long been questioned and attacked for beliefs that were against the norm but which for him are so inherent that it’s as if it’s woven into his flesh. Sure, I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Stefano but I respect him massively for who he is and what he’s done. (2014 blog post.)

From Stanko Radikon (of whom I will forever have the image of him beaming in sheer joy, because of the novelty of sitting in the passenger seat of my English car), to Beppe Rinaldi, over to Ernesto Cattel, and now Stefano, this has been a rough year for us earth-dwellers but there’s definitely one massive party happening in the after-life.

RIP Stefano. I just hope there’s enough soil and biodiversity in heaven for you not to get bored.

“Would You Like To Try My 2014?”

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I was chatting to Daniele Portinari in Paris last summer. He explained how many Italians reply “oh no, no, no” to the question “would you like to try my 2014?” It was a notoriously wet and cold year in northern Italy with sporadic hail for the especially unfortunate. Many locals would rather forget this annus horribilis.

Daniele was enjoying being amongst Parisians who either didn’t know or didn’t care. They simply heard “Would you like to try my wine?” and the instant reply was “Yes, sure!”

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On Wednesday, I had a whole spread of 40 or 50 wines to taste – it was a good day! – but the Guiry 2014 (100%  Sangiovese) from Tenuta Mara in Emilia-Romagna particularly stood out.  Leonardo Pironi, their winemaker, explains that because it had been a wet and difficult year, they didn’t make their high-end wine “MaraMia” and instead those old-vine, usually superior grapes went into this one, the Guiry. They selected only the very healthiest grapes, which meant that yields were exceptionally low, and they did a relatively short skin contact maceration but the result is a wonderfully drinkable wine.

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In this day and age, a good winemaker is able to make a good wine regardless of how bad a year it was. A less talented winemaker, or maybe one who likes experimenting too much, will end up with a faulty wine regardless of what the elements threw at him or her.

Obviously some years are less stressful for the vineyard team and easier in the cellar than others. It’s also completely normal for one vintage to taste different from the next. You might prefer the balance in 2013 or heat of 2015 but don’t write off 2014 because everyone said it was a bad year.

Side note: if you’re looking for important wines to lay down (Barolo, Brunello, Amarone etc) you would, 99% of the time, be better off going for a different vintage. But, if it’s an everyday drinking wine that you’re after, chances are you might end up with something better than you expect.


TENUTA TERRAVIVA (Abruzzo) “Lui” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2014 Montepulciano (13.5%) 

Highly aromatic wine with tons of black fruit, morello cherries and spice. It’s meaty, earthy and almost smoky. Medium-bodied and continues with lashings of fruit – particularly blueberry and fresh blackcurrants – and super soft tannins. A crowd pleaser.

Incidentally, I also tried their 2015 which was just as exuberant – with just as much fruit – but at this particular time, it had a slight reduction and was a little more flabby.

IL GELSO MORO (Marche) Marche Rosso IGT 2014 Montepulciano 60%, Sangiovese 30%, Lacrima 10% (14.5%)

What style! From the dark-as-night colouring and the relatively high alcohol content, I was expecting a full bodied wine with potentially obtrusive tannins but I am stunned by its elegance. Fruit takes the leading role, with pepper and spice playing the supporting actor. Beautifully balanced and supremely elegant.

ROCCA RONDINARIA (Piedmont) “Spessiari” Dolcetto di Ovada DOC 2014 Dolcetto (12%)

I really like the wines from Rocca Rondinaria. They’re a small winery in this stupendous rocky cliff in Rocca Grimalda, in Monferrato, just north of Ovada and very near Gavi.

“Spessiari” means “pharmacist” in the local dialect and, incidentally, a pharmacist was exactly what I needed when I realised that my boyfriend had decided to pour this wine into my vinegar barrel “because there are too many bottles on your desk.”

I’d had a few sips before the bottle met its untimely end, but I prefer sitting with the wine in my glass for about 15-20 minutes before writing about it. In this case, I didn’t get that possibility.* What I remember is that this wine was more austere and a little more concentrated than its other vintages. This is surely the impact of this cold, wet vintage has had on the native characteristics of Dolcetto but it’s in no way a lesser wine.


* but I will get my own back in other ways….

 

In The Vineyards With: Franco & Giulia Masiero (Veneto)

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When I think of the wine-producing regions in the Veneto, my mind goes to immediately to Valpolicella, Soave, Prosecco. After a short pause, I go to the Colli Berici (south of Vicenza, where there’s young, promising producer Sauro Maule) and the Colli Euganei (home to the eccentric Marco Buratti) but the truth is that there’s actually so much more.

I myself am now based in one of the smaller winemaking towns which was summarily  described by Nicolas Belfrage in “Barolo to Valpolicella” (1999) under the title “other garganegas of the Veneto.” We’re effectively satellites of Soave and that comes as a cutting blow because there is so much talent that deserves to be uncovered. Discovering and sharing these other areas in the Veneto is going to be my focus of the next year or so.

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Franco Masiero

Let me introduce you, therefore, to Franco Masiero. His eponymous winery, Masiero, is based in the Lessini hills in what is essentially a viticultural no-man’s-land.

8 different wines are made from a gamut of grape varieties: garganega, chardonnay, pinot grigio, merlot, tai rosso, cabernet franc, pinot nero. In fact, there are so many micro-cuvées that many of them never get released onto the market but remain as treats for guests and friends.

These wines originate from just 4 and a half hectares of vineyards, which are split over two sites: in volcanic Selva di Trissino and limestone-and-fossil-heavy Sant’Urbano. The vineyards are farmed according to biodynamic principles and the cellar sees next to no sulphur, only natural winemaking. Speaking of winemaking, you’ll find all kind of receptacles: cement tanks, stainless steel, large old wooden barrels and even a doll-sized marble vat.

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This is where Giulia comes in.

To construct a winery was Franco’s dream but it falls on his elder daughter Giulia’s shoulders to take it forward. Her first vintage was 2015 and whereas you might have expected her to be something of a puppet, in the shadows of her charismatic father, she’s actually shown herself to be highly competent. One of her first moves (implemented just in time for the 2016 vintage) was to install large, untreated cement tanks. A risky decision but it has paid off. She works in the fields, tending each vine manually – day in day out. Multi-lingual, poised, and she’s only a mere 24 years old!

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Giulia Masiero

Winemaking is not something that’s been in the Masiero blood for generations so I wondered how this initial dream of Franco’s came about.

Apparently Franco’s best childhood memories are of him, with his father, going up into the hills for a week in November, hunting small game and drinking locally-made grappa. This precious week in the hills was essentially a moment of bonding between father, son and their guests. As I see it, Franco wanted to create an environment in which those same back-to-the-roots, simple pleasures were present in the modern day…. and what better way to spark conviviality than with a bottle of wine.

“Most people spend their disposable income on fast cars or fancy holidays. I could have bought a couple of Ferraris but instead I built a winery.”

I inquire as to the extent of his implication in the winery but whilst he maintains a strong interest, he has new dreams that he wants to see through. What I’m therefore looking forward to following closely is how Giulia will make her mark. They’ve had some difficult years recently – the elements have not been kind and the yields have been low – but this is a winery with huge promise.

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Il Verdugo cresce, le annate cambiano, ma le emozioni restano. 💣💣💣 #Repost @perrikinobevevino with @insta.save.repost • • • Good people make good wines. I still remember when I tried this Merlot with @mathiasskovmand for the first time… we were immediately blown away. Without thinking to much, we both decided we had to bring some bottles back to Denmark! They told us we could buy as many as we wanted, but up 48bottles! The production of Verdugo still is so limited, but I eventually managed to increase the volume of my allocation year by year (now is 60bottles). A wine made by the most genuine family I know, where you breathe nothing but joy, and when you drink their wines you get it all. Yesterday I had the 2015 at Bæst: BOMBA!

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Visit: 11 January 2018

Official Website / Facebook

A Happy Find – Clos du Tue-Boeuf’s La Guerrerie 2009

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I should start this post by explaining that my wine collection is not vast. As you would expect if you have even the slightest idea of who I am and what I do, the provenance of these wines is mainly French and Italian. Curiously, as a whole, it is weighted more towards red wines than to whites or sparkling. I have about 30 bottles laid out on a wine rack and the others are still in their boxes. Despite all my best attempts to catalogue the bottles, every so often, I find something unexpected.

Gallo’s 2006 Merlot is one of them. Thierry Puzelat’s 2009 La Guerrerie is another.


Clos du Tue-Boeuf (Touraine AOC, Loire) La Guerrerie 2009 66% Côt, 33% Gamay (12.5%

If you are in any way familiar with the natural wine scene, Thierry Puzelat should need no introduction.

However, you may be unfamiliar with the grape variety Côt; it is essentially another name for Malbec. In France, Malbec is most notably found in the Cahors region in the south-west, where it can go by the name “Auxerrois,” and in Bordeaux where it is minor variety, predominantly used for blending. It has also made a name for itself in Argentina where it seems perfectly at home at high-altitudes of Mendoza. 

Anyway, to get back to the point of this post, we need to look more closely at the Loire Valley.

Whilst Côt has a couple of more famous neighbours, it has its own, distinctly original form of expression.

Unlike Cabernet Franc, it does not have the black pepper, green capiscum and cassis aromatics that you find in Chinon and Bourgueil.

Unlike Grolleau, it’s a heavyweight wine, which is sturdy and sure of itself.

It’s obviously not Pinot Noir (that you find in Sancerre and a little further in Burgundy.)

It is instead spicy and warming. It has a heavily tinted, deep, mulberry colour and a very pleasing aromatic profile. 

Upon first opening, the initial impression is the unmistakable sign of its vinification in wooden barrels. However, for a 2009, it still smells remarkably youthful. There is no sign of oxidation.

Now almost 8 years old, this wine is at its peak. It harmoniously blends fruit (ripe red fruit – think raspberries, sloe berries and redcurrant jelly) with spice (hearty, cajun spice. Incidentally, it made a wonderful accompaniment to our BBQ-ed jerk chicken.) There’s still enough acidity to keep it lively and enough mellow tannins to be pleasing on the palate. A great find!


Tasted: 23rd August 2017

Price: unknown

Rating: ****


Clos de Tue-Boeuf website

In The Vineyards With: Isabelle & Jean-Yves Vantey (Les Rouges Queues, Maranges, Burgundy)

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It was on one distinctly grey and damp afternoon in late January that our car wound its way through the vineyards of Burgundy, up towards the small area of Maranges, just south of Beaune.

I was with two of the Maule brothers (producers of natural wine in the Veneto) accompanying them as a translator and willing drinking companion on a short road trip through France.

Maranges is one of the lesser known appellations in Burgundy. Strictly speaking, it’s a Village Appellation in the southernmost point of the Côte de Beaune, and within it are 7 Premier Crus. (These 7 climats are: Clos de la Boutière, Clos de la Fussière, La Fussière, Le Clos des Loyères, Le Clos des Rois, Le Croix Moines, Les Clos Roussots.) Continue reading