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

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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.

Shock, Horror and a Golden Lining

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My alarm clock seemed louder than ever this morning. I got back from Paris late last night and having enjoyed every baguette crumb, every bite of cheese and every drop of wine, I was running a high sleep deficit.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am. Half an hour later, I was standing at the top of a vineyard, secateurs in hand, admiring the view down the Val d’Alpone and over to the Soave hills.

We were picking garganega grapes for our recioto today. The Recioto di Gambellara is a traditional dessert wine made in my adoptive town by letting the grape bunches dry out over a period of about 4 months. Gambellara’s Recioto is not like other passito or straw-wines, because we hang our grapes on vertical nets…… which is exactly what we then spent the afternoon doing!

Brutal as my wake-up call was this morning, it is nothing compared to the shock, 3 days ago, when the De Bartoli family in Sicily discovered that someone broken into their winery during the night and stolen 600kg of passito grapes.

Screenshot of their Facebook post. Click for full-screen.

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In The Vineyards With: Uros Klabjan (Istria, Slovenia)

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“I don’t know what this year has been like with you but 2018 is even worse than 2014 for me.” It’s with that bold admission that Uros Klabjan greets us when we pull up in his winery. “Every single day, it rains.”

Once he’s shown us round the vineyards and the cellar, he takes us to his mother’s trattoria. She’d set aside a large table outside, under an ancient pergola vine. We sit down, open a bottle of wine and, eh voilà, the heavens open. We make a mad dash for shelter and, such was the violence of this sudden downpour, that we grab the bottle and a couple of wine glasses. “Don’t worry about the napkins or the cutlery,” Uros calls out. “Don’t worry about the dog bowl,” I echo.

This particular valley – the Osp, only a few kilometres from Trieste and the Istrian coastline – has a Mediterranean microclimate but gets particularly battered by the competing winds: the easterly/north-easterly Bora and the strong north-westernly Mistral.

The soil type is also a battlefield between the limestone in the dramatic Karst Plateau on the northern edge and the white marl from the more gentle hills to the east. Despite the humidity, it’s clearly a fertile area if the number of vegetable patches dotted around the village are anything to go by.

My dog photo-bombing Uros in the vineyards

Uros doesn’t count by hectares (although, later we calculated 10) but by number of vines in his possession (around 60,000) mainly of refosco d’Istria and Istrian malvasia with some moscato giallo (from local Hrastovlje biotype), pinot grigio and merlot.

In the wine cellar, thanks to the small size of the barrels and tanks, each parcel is vinified separately but the varietal blends (from the same fields) are often co-fermented. Fermentation takes place for a short time on the skins, with native yeasts and no added sulphites. The maturation stage is allowed to continue for as long as needed, Uros sticks firmly to his hands-off, no-intervention policy. The wines decant naturally and remain unfiltered, even at bottling.

Labels with a white background indicate younger vines (between a respectable 25 and 40 years old) and aged in stainless steel tanks for everyday drinking. Black-coloured labels means a more structured, powerful wine from the old-vine parcels (over 50 years ago) and aged in old Slovenian oak barrels.

Klabjan’s cellar under the family house

Whilst we’re tasting barrel samples in the miniscule cellar, I probe further into how 40-year-old Uros got to this point.

It turns out that his passion for wine and natural winemaking stems directly from his grandfather. The vineyards have been in the family for generations but it was only when Uros’ father started making wine with modern technology and conventional oenology (it was his father who purchased the steel tanks and vinified with selected yeasts) that Uros became convinced of the road he wanted to follow when his turn came to take the reins.

As a result, he’s a welcoming, positive, energetic man, whose wines reflect that magnetism and vivacity. They are honest, authentic reflections of this unique place and the man who made them. If you happen to see these wines out-and-about or to be passing through the area, they’re some of the best coming out of Slovenia. Seek them out!

Intense old-vine malvasija – my coup de coeur!

Visit: 11th July 2018

There’s little online presence in English for the winery, but The Morning Claret wrote about a visit in 2015 and Chateau Monty has a detailed profile.

Uros can be contacted via email: uros.klabjan@siol.net

Feudo d’Ugni’s “D’Ugni” 2007

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In my line of work, I get to taste a lot of different wines. I’m not going to even try to deny that it’s one of the perks. That said, most of the wines tend to fall in the middle of the spectrum: a handful are banal, most are decent, many are good and a few are very good. Just a very small number of the wines I drink are showstopping.

I was at a dinner last night. The first wine was an Italian natural wine so extreme that drinking straight vinegar would almost have been preferable. Next, there was a soulless wine from a leading conventional producer in France. The third wine was a little bit like Goldilocks: there was no off-putting SO2, and it was balanced and pleasant to drink. The fourth wine, though, blew the others out of the water.

It was a magnum of Cristiana Galasso’s top wine “D’Ugni.” I tasted her range at a Vini Veri tasting about three years ago, on the advice of Helena from Colombaia. Sage advice, as always.

Last night, just a splash of this wine was poured into my glass, without me paying any particular attention to the label. It was a casual dinner with friends and winemaker colleagues but bottle exhibitionism wasn’t the focus of the evening. It could go any way. As it happened, I brought the glass up to my nose and inhaled. Time stopped.

There’s an animality to this wine which blows your senses away. No, it’s not reduction, nor any kind of brettanomyces. It’s a noble animality. Meaty, spicy, and pure. I remarked to whoever was listening that red wines from the Veneto just don’t reach this level of aroma intensity. It had to be Montepulciano.

To be honest, you can detect the alcohol content (14.5%) which was probably better masked ten years ago when the wine was made. But I’m nitpicking.

There’s absolutely no question in my mind: this is a perfectly mature wine, which shows delicious tertiary characters without losing its grape variety or its terroir.

The tannins are amazing integrated. There’s no indication of any heavy handed cellar work (either oak barrels, sulphur or chemical trickery.) The wine is simply earnest and genuine.

After that intense animality, you get the full range of savoury Mediterranean flavours: mainly rosemary and black olives, with prunes and cooked berries. Any generous plush fruit has passed on, leaving behind a very graceful, precise wine which is absolutely, utterly, lip-smackingly delicious.

Price: not cheap for sure, but worth it…

Rating: *****


Tasted on 29th and 30th April 2018


If you’re based in the UK, you can buy this wine via the Buon Vino website.

Favourite French Wines Within The Louis Dressner Selection

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I’m waiting at the airport in Austin, Texas having spent the last week and a half in the USA. For the sake of transparency, it should be said that I was there showing the wines of a producer for whom I work, but who does not feature in any way in this list.

It’s been an intense but fun trip. Louis Dressner Selections imports some of the most interesting natural wines into the USA (clearly they’re not the only ones…) and so it’s been highly amusing frolicking with the likes of Thierry Puzelat and Arianna Occhipinti for a week.

It’s also been fun tasting wines that I don’t get to try too often. Here’s a selection of my favourite discoveries:

DAMIEN COQUELET (Beaujolais) Morgon Côte du Py 2015 Gamay – vieilles vignes

Côte du Py is the most emblematic appellation in Beaujolais, largely because of Foillard and Lapierre. I’ve even had so many good experiences with that particular cru that I get rather excited when I come across it again.

Damien Coquelet is a young (just turned 30 years old) winemaker who, having legendary Georges Descombes for a step-father, has spent his entire life living and breathing Beaujolais.

This is a light-bodied but poignant wine with good length and depth, having been aged for 8 months in Burgundy barrels. It is a far more serious wine than his other expressions; I also tasted the Beaujolais Villages and the Chiroubles, both of which are only aged in stainless steel and lack the body of this Morgon.

In my glass, I have a wine bursting with red cherry and strawberry aromas, all whilst being underlined by the terroir’s characteristic ferrous base note. The mouthfeel is austere and profound; rooty and rustic. Typical Côte du Py, in my opinion.

It’s easy to say that gamay wines made through carbonic maceration are simple, juicy “fruit bombs” but, with this wine, there’s more than meets the eye. It’s like a child who’s pretending or possibly aspiring to be a grown up. There’s a structure and austerity to this wine which makes it old beyond its years. Just 3000 bottles were made.

KEWIN DESCOMBES (Beaujolais) Morgon 2016 Gamay

I remain in Morgon for the next wine but shift over to talk about another producer and a different vintage. Kewin, or Kéké as he is more commonly known, is Damien Coquelet’s younger half-brother. Both Damien and Kéké have the lion’s share of their vineyards in the cru of Morgon, but despite the same origins they produce such different wines.

Now, admittedly it’s not an entirely fair comparison because 2015 was a hot and sunny year and 2016 was far more difficult in Beaujolais, which received several lashings of hail during the growing season.

That said, there’s no denying that Kéké’s Morgon is exuberant, magnanimous wine, with lavish black fruit, raspberries and prunes. Whereas Damien’s was austere and somewhat introverted, this is a completely different style: it’s outgoing and bold. The tannins here are plush and velvety and the result is remarkably enjoyable. It’s a country mile away from what I think of as traditional Morgon but is this the new emerging style of Beaujolais?

DOMAINE FILLIATREAU (Loire) Saumur Champigny 2015 Cabernet Franc

Listening to Fredrik’s description of his winery to the various clients who approached his table, I mentioned that out of all of us winemakers on the tour, he’s working the hardest. Those clients were treated to an enthusiastic and passionate spiel about his father, about the uniquely shaped vineyards, even the troglodyte tunnels and habitations that gives Saumur its unique features. “Yes, but I need to. Nobody wants Saumur-Champigny these days.”

He’s not wrong. It would seem that these days Loire reds – if it’s not Gamay or Pinot d’Aunis – are not seen as particularly sexy.

These old vineyards were planted by Fredrik’s father and grandfather. The local limestone “tuffeau” soils are key: firstly they continue to release water to the vines even during dry summers and this, in turn, gives a superb elegance to the wine.

Such an attractive nose; all the spice of Cabernet Franc with none of the barnyardiness. 30 days of maceration means that it’s a substantial medium-bodied wine, but it’s wonderfully soft with perfectly ripe tannins. It finishes a little short but it’s a pleasure to take another sip. 

COMBEL LA SERRE (Cahors) Château Combel La Serre 2015 Auxerrois / Malbec 

Cahors is another appellation that has seen a sharp fall from grace… because until recently drinking many of those black wines was like taking a suckerpunch to the face. For that reason, it’s refreshing to find a Cahors wine with the perfect amount of weight.

Julien Ilbert, another young, dynamic French winemaker, only grows Auxerrois (a synonym of Malbec) for his Cahors wines; but he uses a mix of cement, stainless steel and some fibreglass for the vinification and some old wood barrels for the ageing. As a result, you get beautiful fruit characters (black fruit, berries, herbs and garrigue) and just the right balance of tannins and acidity.

It strides down the middle path between traditional, rustic, tannic Cahors and a carbo juice which has lost all sense of territory, resulting in a wine which is thirst-quenching but not frivolous. A sure bet.

DOMAINE DE LA PEPIERE (Loire) Monnières-Saint Fiacre 2015 Melon de Bourgogne

Domaine de la Pepière is situated in Muscadet. How could an appellation as dull as Muscadet slip into my six favourite discoveries? Well, as well as the classic Muscadet expressions, they make a handful of more interesting, individual single crus. My favourite of which (after trying each of them a couple of times at least over the course of the week – pity me!) was this: Monnières-Saint Fiace.

Unlike the other single vineyard cuvées which are on granite, volcanic basalt or clay soils, the Monnières-Saint Fiacre vineyard is planted on a very particular type of schist soil, called gneiss. It gives a slight bitterness to the finish of the wine which, in my opinion, gives it the edge over the others.

Relatively long ageing (2 years) in stainless steel gives complexity without adding adornment.

Holding up the glass to the light and you don’t need to The colour is one of those ‘barely there’ nude tones – Melon de Bourgogne was never the Picasso of the grape world. All the wines have great minerality and tension. This particular cuvée has a particularly high citrus feel – lime and lemon peel – which would lend itself superbly to shellfish and sea food – and let’s face it: that’s what Muscadet does best.

JULIEN PINON (Loire) Vouvray Pétillant Brut Non Dosé 2011 Chenin Blanc

Last but certainly not least, another surprising wine from one of the more traditional French wine regions. 100% Chenin Blanc, harvested a little later than normal, left for 5 years sur latte (i.e. on its side, with all the yeasts of the secondary fermentation) before the dégorgement. 

I really liked this wine. It had such an distinctive nose with so many savoury, umami notes: peanuts, soy sauce, lemongrass…. That the grapes are a little riper than normal means more aromas, more originality and more personality. Don’t get me wrong – it’s dry, salty and there’s a frank earnestness to it that I find in other zero dosage wines too.

I would happily sip this while sitting outside on a warm summer evening, or kick off a meal with this as a substitute for Champagne.

In The Vineyards With: Olek Bondonio (Barbaresco, Piedmont)

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When you go to visit winemakers in Barbaresco and Barolo, you probably expect established stately families, snobbish talk and high prices to justify the extensive and inaccessible wine cellars.

Olek Bondonio is the antithesis of all that. Despite being “the guy next to Gaia,” he’s a straight-talking, down-to-earth man who just happens to make wine and incidentally has a passion for snowboarding.

Olek currently lives and works in a house (La Bercialla) that dates back to the 1800s when his ancestors made wine. As a child, though, he grew up in Torino, only coming to the farmhouse during the summer months. Before taking the reins in 2005, he travelled extensively to France (one year as an exchange student in Bordeaux) and to Australia and New Zealand for harvest. Starting with the two hectares of the land in the photo below, Olek now works six hectares of vineyards organically.

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The beautiful, south-facing Roncagliette vineyards. Photo credit: Emma Bentley, 2018.

The six hectares are split over three different plots: Roncagliette (in the Barbaresco DOC), Starderi (also in Barbaresco) and Altavilla (where he has planted barbera and dolcetto.)

His Roncagliette vineyards (the initial two hectares) actually border those of Gaia. Olek has only good things to say of his more famous neighbour. “Angelo Gaia would be in the vineyards at 4 or 5 am, one hour before his team started, walking through assessing the vineyards. Many producers today outsource everything and they don’t even know where their vineyards are!”

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Yeah, that’s my dog casually gatecrashing (literally!) to get in the pic.

Olek makes down-to-earth, honest wines. As a general rule, the fermentation takes place in large cement tanks, maceration normally takes place for about a month and the nascent wine will subsequently be aged in large wooden barrels (as in the photo above) until they’re ready for bottling. Along the way, there’s minimum intervention and very little sulphur; no chemical or oenological “make-up” going on in this wine cellar.

We tasted several barrel samples of the 2016 vintage. By calling them simple, honest and down-to-earth doesn’t quite do them justice; they’re wholesome, vibrant and expressive.

P.S. Top Tip: the Langhe Nebbiolo wine is great value-for-money. Unlike the vast majority of producers in the area who make a selection based on the quality of grapes, Olek’s Langhe Nebbiolo wine comes from high-quality nebbiolo grapes in the famed Barbaresco vineyards, but is bottled just a year or so too early to qualify as Barbaresco.

There’s no official website but you can find Olek’s wines in the UK through Tutto Wines and Berry Bros Rudd.

Visit: 8th March 2018