Verdicchio : what to make of it?

Italy is a producer of some of the world’s most sought-after wines. Barolo, Brunello, Amarone, Bolgheri and Taurasi are just some examples of wines that make many people dream. They all have one thing in common : they are red wines. It is clear that Italy’s whites have a much harder time to attract people’s attention. What is the reason for that? Are Italy’s white grapes not good enough to produce high-quality wines? Or are they not appreciated at their true value?

The three white Italian grapes that get the most praise internationally are Fiano, Garganega and Verdicchio. Italian wine expert Ian d’Agata calls the latter “Italy’s greatest native white grape variety” in his widely acclaimed “Native Wine Grapes of Italy”. Despite the fact that Verdicchio gets positive press from wine critics, it rarely features on wine lists, it is not widely available in wine shops, and the Marche region, where Verdicchio is home, is never the subject of international vintage reports, as are Tuscany and Piemont.

I was in the Marche on holidays last summer, where I visited a few wineries, and I spent the last couple of months exploring the grape in order to better understand it. Is Verdicchio actually only a second rank grape, or is it a hidden gem?

I mainly tried Verdicchios from the Castelli di Jesi DOCG and a few from the Matelica DOCG, both in the Marche region on the Adriatic Coast. Verdicchio is also found as Trebbiano di Soave in the Veneto and as Turbiana in Lugana, but I decided to focus on the Marche at this stage, and in fact mostly on wines from the Jesi region because this is by far the biggest area, Matelica only consisting of about 300ha (roughly one tenth of the Jesi region), which means I found very few Matelica Verdicchios in the shops in my area.

Tasting my way through a series of wines,  I found that Verdicchio has in fact many faces. Apart from sweet wines and sparkling wines, I distinguished four types of Verdicchios. Firstly there is what I call the “pure” rendition of the grape, then there is a later harvested version of Verdicchio as well as an oak-aged version, and finally there is the easy-drinking, fruit-forward Verdicchio. I briefly described them so you know what you can expect and look for.

1. The “pure” version of Verdicchio

Many wine critics and wine makers consider Verdicchio to be at its best when it reflects the pure characteristics of the grape. There are a few hallmark traits that are high acidity and an almond finish. If there is a white grape that can translate the idea of structure, it is verdicchio. The acidity and the slightly bitter twist in the end are important contributors to that, but there is more to it. Verdicchio is not an aromatic grape. The absence of strong and typical aromas and flavors, such as freshly cut grass or boxwood in Sauvignon blanc, enhances the relative importance of structure  in Verdicchio. In wines that have more fruit, the acidity is an element that creates a contrast, or supports the fruit. In Verdicchio, however, acidity is the main feature.

It would not be entirely fair to say that the fruit is completely absent in Verdicchio. There is often a bit of peach, citrus fruit or pear, and there can also be floral aromas.  More often, however, you will find lovely mineral aromas in the nose, that emphasize the fresh character of Verdicchio. Another aroma that consistently occurs, is a certain herbaceousness, or a vegetal note, somewhat reminiscent of fennel or dried herbs.

All these elements together make of Verdicchio a very dry, perhaps somewhat austere wine. Not everyone likes high acidity in a wine, or can appreciate it in its pure form without fruit to counter it. Also the almond in the end may be a hard nut to crack for some.

It is clear that in its “pure” form, Verdicchio is hardly a crowd pleaser. It lacks aromatic power to impress people from the first whiff, and the focus on structure rather than fruit is not something that helps to convince occasional wine drinkers either. While certain wineries in the Marche swear by this “pure” form of Verdicchio, it is not at all unlogical that others try to find ways to make Verdicchio more approachable.

2. Later-harvest Verdicchio

One way of doing that is working on the aromatic side and harvest Verdicchio at a later stage, when the grape is riper. This brings along stronger aromas of exotic fruit, summery flowers and sometimes even a touch of honey. These wines are not sweet, hence the later-harvest as opposed to proper late-harvest. But it is clear that a later harvest has a consequence for the structure of these wines : the acidity is definitely not as high and there is more fruit, which makes for a different, rounder wine. There where it gains in aromatic diversity and perhaps even complexity, it also loses somewhat in freshness and structure. It is fair to say it also loses a bit of its varietal typicity, but this style of wine will probably appeal to a larger group of wine drinkers.

3. Oak-aged Verdicchio

While aging Verdicchio in oak barrels is cursing in church for some, for others it is another way to soften the character of the wine and add a layer of complexity. Verdicchio not having heaps of fruit, it is clear that oak can easily smother the freshness and purity of the wine. In the oak-aged wines I have tasted, however, I did not come across vanilla-heavy wines, or other cases of excessive use of wood. The wines rather displayed some extra complexity, adding delicate smokey aromas for example. I have a tendency to believe that oak-aging can work for Verdicchio. When done properly, of course, but that goes for all wines.

4. Fresh, easy-drinking Verdicchio

This is probably the best-known type of Verdicchio, symbolized by the amphora-shaped bottles, introduced by Fazi Battaglia in the 1950s. These wines are more perfumed, have an attractively crisp acidity and lack the almond bitter in the end. More often than not these wines are looked down on in the wine press, and are cornered as “simple summer quaffers”. It is true that these wines are highly interchangeable with other summer-proof wines, but some of these entry-level Verdicchios are ridiculously cheap, give drinking-pleasure, have good balance and attractive fruit. The Moncaro Verdicchio, for example, cost under five euro and offered a pleasant glass of wine.

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Conclusion

So what do I make of Verdicchio? I certainly do not think it is a second rank grape. As a matter of fact, I did not come across even one wine that I would call bad, not even under 5€. There are few grapes that can claim such a consistent performance in each price category like Verdicchio. On the other hand, the lack of aromatic power makes it hard for Verdicchio to compete with the likes of riesling or sauvignon blanc.

I have to add a caveat to that as it seems that aged Verdicchio is a completely different matter. The aging potential of Verdicchio is said to be enormous and wines of 10 years+ are described as much more complex than younger wines. Unfortunately it is impossible to find aged Verdicchios, so I cannot say much about the quality of older Verdicchios. One thing I do believe is that the people who are willing to store Verdicchio for more than 10 years are a very small niche of wine drinkers.

Of the styles that are developed to make Verdicchio more approachable, I find the attempts to age it on wood the most interesting. If done cautiously, and with the necessary sublety, these wines can exist in their own right and attract a new public. Even if oak-aging is still somewhat controversial for Verdicchio, it does offer opportunities that are worth exploring.

Does this mean I do not like the “pure” version of Verdicchio? Absolutely not. In fact, these wines have a great selling proposition that should be used much more to market Verdicchio : the food-pairing potential.

Verdicchio : your food friend!

Verdicchio is probably one the most versatile and food-friendly white wines I know and believe every sommelier should have it on his/her wine list. Since Verdicchio is all about structure, it leaves ample space for many different kinds of flavors and it keeps its ground with all sorts of exotic combinations that are typical of today’s fusion kitchen. While chefs go crazy inventing new and exciting dishes with a range of flavors you would never dream of combining, sommeliers (or clients when there is no somm) need to find a wine that pairs with all this. Verdicchio is a definitely an option to consider in many of those cases. It has the extraordinary feature that it does not impose itself on the dish, while not letting itself be easily overpowered either.

Verdicchio is a no-brainer with fish and sea-fruit, but it pairs wonderfully well with richer dishes as well. I had the Tralivio of Sartarelli (a “pure” Verdicchio) with a cheese fondue and the acidity was a welcome refreshener at the table. Or what to drink with penne with mushrooms, chestnut, balsamico vinegar, rucola and candied lemon?

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Verdicchio is able to absorb all these flavors and still keep its own identity. And the most difficult match of all : bitterness in food, such as brussels sprouts or Belgian endives. The almond bitter finish of Verdicchio actually echoes these flavors beautifully. When in doubt, drink Verdicchio.

Recommended wines

Here are a few Verdicchios I liked very much and that are worth seeking out :

Luzano 2018, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore – Marotti Campi

I visited this winery during the summer and got a personal tour of the estate by Giovanni Marotti, who is the founder of the current winery, when he heard I was from Belgium. It turned out that he had worked in Belgium as a young man… He was very proud to show the estate, and I have to say that the view from his winery was indeed astonishing.

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The Luzano Verdicchio is very Verdicchio. The strong almond bitter in the finish was already preceded by almond aromas in the nose. But this is one of the rare unoaked, “pure” Verdicchios that also had a nice fruit component with lush peaches, and the inevitable vegetal note. Great acidity as well. We had this with grilled cauliflower and chickpeas, with a dressing of tahini, lemon and cayenne pepper. Another good match. The Salmariano, which is oak-aged, is also worth seeking out.

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Il Priore 2017, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore – Sparapani

Another winery I visited last year. “Winery” does not do Sparapani justice, as they actually also run a gas station and a restaurant.IMG_4005

The Priore 2017 displayed ripe pear, green herbs, and a remarkable salinity. The wine is nicely balanced, and the bitter twist in the end is actually more like a grapefruit bitter, rather than an almond bitter, which made it a bit more approachable. Elegant wine.

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Podium 2016, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico – Garofoli

Garofoli is one of the prominent wineries of the Marche and the Podium Verdicchio is a wine that consistently gets good press. I also decided to list it here, but rather on the basis of its performance on day two.

On day one this wine was definitely good, but perhaps a bit middle of the road, with the Verdicchio characteristics present, but in a very mild way. It was only on day two that this wine really developed real character, with more freshness, structure and the almond finish. A wine that needs time to further develop.

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Verdicchio di Matelica 2016 – Monacesca

Monacesca is one of the leading wineries in Matelica and the Mirum is the wine that often gets the best press. This is a Verdicchio that is harvested later to develop more ripeness and more fruit. The pineapple, honey and herbal notes that I had in the 2015 were indeed attractive, but the acidity was more on the background. This wine worked well with Belgian endives in ham rolls with cheese sauce.

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It is, however, the “regular” Verdicchio that I liked most, with its very cool aromas, full of minerality and herbs. This is a hallmark Verdicchio, built around the acidity and the dryness of the wine. The finish was remarkable, fresh and long, with a caramel note that came several seconds later, despite the fact that this wine did not age on wood. I really liked this.

Donna Cloe 2016, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva Classico – Sparapani

At Sparapani’s they also do a Verdicchio that is oak-aged, and it is lovely! The nose is subtle, almost etheric, with great minerality and something that made me think of iodine, suggesting salinity. The use of oak did not push the acidity to the back at all. The acidity is an important driver of this wine, but the wood does not go unnoticed either. The impression is one of old wood, however, like you can have in Burgundy aged in old casks. There is something that reminds me of very good Chablis here!

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The wine evolved quite a bit, and later in the day became more “pure” Verdicchio, in a sense that the herbal notes and the almond bitter became more prominent. This is a wine that stands its ground. It even accompanied a chicken tikka masala without many problems.

Does anyone need convincing that Verdicchio should really be your food friend?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaujolais Nouveau : has it changed?

The first time I consciously drunk Beaujolais Nouveau was in 1998. I was in Angers in the Loire region as an Erasmus student (the EU exchange program for students). A few French guys responsible for helping foreign students to integrate took us to a local bar on the 3rd Thursday of November, the day the new Beaujolais comes out. I wasn’t into wine yet at that stage, but already then I noticed the very specific candy and banana aromas that come with the “nouveau” style, the very young wines that are made with “macération carbonique” or carbonic maceration. I will leave out the technical details of how these wines are made, but the “nouveau” wines are meant to be fruit-forward, easy-to-drink and they are made to be put on the market as soon as they are ready. Ironically, the heavy marketing campaigns of the past for this style of Beaujolais cast a shadow on the rest of the wines made in Beaujolais, and very much gave the whole region a bad name. I remember I wasn’t impressed in 1998, and never picked up a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau again.

Until today… It’s that moment again : the 3rd Thursday of the month, just 21 years later. I happened to be in Paris and entered a local wine shop. There were several Beaujolais Nouveaux on sale, and there was one that caught my attention : Le p’tit nouveau 2019 of Antony Perol, a new kid on the block according to the French press. His Beaujolais Nouveau 2018 received raving reviews in French wine magazines, Bourgogne Aujourd’hui giving it 17,5/20. In addition to that, it’s an organic wine and it contains as good as no sulfites (0,02g/l). If you could expect something different and more interesting from anyone, it would be from a wine maker like Anthony Perol, young and ambitious, and working very differently than traditional wine makers.

The color of the wine was amazing, it was just as purple as the capsule on the bottle! The first sniff was very disappointing : bonbon anglais, as the French say very gracefully. Pure candy, basically. This did not last, however, as the wine evolved into something more metallic, not particularly attractive either, to settle eventually in dominantly green aromas. The wine has a certain freshness, which is pleasant. Nothing too heady or sugary here, and there’s even a bit of tannin, not typical for “nouveau” wines. The herbaceousness, however, is very persistent and makes it difficult to enjoy this. Finally, there is a hint of barnyard in the finish. I can appreciate a bit of “funky” aromas as long as they are not overpowering, but when it stays on the back of your tongue, I simply cannot have it.

Conclusion : I went for a radically different type of Beaujolais Nouveau, and radically different is what I got. Unfortunately, I cannot say I find this better. Next appointment with Beaujolais Nouveau in another two decades. Perhaps.

 

HVE : a complementary label to organic and bio-dynamic

I wrote an article for Meininger’s Wine Business International on the French label “Haute Valeur Environnementale” (HVE). Farmers who have the HVE certified label, pledge to keep the use of pesticides and fungicides to a strict minimum.

You can read it here : https://www.drinks-today.com/wine/news-analysis/france-tries-alternative-organic

Try the 14-day free trial if you don’t have access!

Is France on its way to ban pesticides?

If you thought Brexit was the only source of entertainment with yelling people, bickering politicians and social media exploding with discussions between people who don’t listen to each other, you’re wrong! France experienced a very heated summer, and climate change for once has nothing to do with it. The subject that heated people’s tempers more than the tropical temperatures was the introduction of so-called non-treatment zones for farmers, proscribing them to spray pesticides within a certain distance of neighboring homes and schools. 

On September 9, 2019 the French government launched a 3-week national consultation on a proposal to ban the use of pesticides in a 5 metre zone from housing for low crops and in a 10 metre zone for high crops, including vines. France is the first country to launch non-treatment zones to protect the population’s health, the proposal being a joint effort between the three ministers of agriculture, health and ecological transition. Debates on the use of pesticides are obviously not new, but a very symbolical and highly mediatised case accelerated things substantially in 2014 when school children in Villeneuve, a town in Bordeaux’ Blaye region, became nauseous due to the spraying of fungicides in next-door vineyards.

Several attempts were undertaken since then to introduce non-treatment zones and other measures, that were subsequently withdrawn by court rulings after protest of agricultural lobby groups. French farmers and their representative bodies vehemently oppose government plans to curb the use of pesticides, arguing that they will lose thousands of hectares. They also point to the fact that spraying procedures have evolved already and that they follow strict rules on the use of pesticides, based on scientific research. Factors such as the speed of wind, the amount of pressure, and the type of spraying device used, are indeed taken into account before deciding how, when and where to spray. These arguments, however, did not placate civil society groups and environmental organizations, who find the farmers’ efforts and the government’s current proposal too little too late.

Enter a whole new dimension in the debate, as organic and natural wine enthusiasts started asking why it was necessary to use pesticides in the first place. However appealing this thought may seem, conventional farmers were quick to point out that copper, accepted in organic agriculture, is a fungicide, and not particularly good for people’s health either. The 2014 Villeneuve case aptly demonstrated their point, as one of the two vineyard owners who were charged, was an organic wine maker.

Daniel Cueff, mayor in the Breton town of Langouët, decided to take the law in his own hands and banned the use of pesticides and herbicides within 150 metres of housing. Needless to say that this caused quite a stir, some farmers arguing they would lose entire plots if this became a national measure. Unfortunately for Mr Cueff his decision was overruled in court, the judge arguing that decisions on the use of phytosanitary products are the mandate of the minister of agriculture. The latter, Didier Guillaume, was also quick to declare that non-treatment zones of 150 metres would be “madness for the consumer”.

There is, however, an alternative for the government’s one-size-fits-all regulation, and that’s curiously an alternative that Didier Guillaume favors in the first place : local charters. The idea is that local citizens and farmers get together and work out a compromise that suits them. Only in the absence of a local charter will the national rules be applied. This solution is also largely favored by the farmer organizations, who would hate to see “Paris” imposing rules on them. While the local charters leave room for flexibility and compromise, it is, however, no option not to have non-treatment zones at all. They may be reduced to 5 metres instead of 10 “if more performing spraying devices can be used”. If the idea of locally negotiated charters seems a good idea to some, it may prove challenging in areas where the powers that be are also in the business of wine making. Again, the 2014 Bordeaux case was telling, as the local mayor at that time was actually one of the two vineyard owners who were charged for spraying in the presence of school children.

At the date of publication of this article, the number of comments on the ministry of agriculture’s website grew to a whopping 27,000. While other consultations mostly fail to attract any attention at all, this one clearly shows that the heated summer is very likely to extend in a heated fall. With France topping the Food Sustainability Index, which also looks at sustainable agriculture, for three consecutive years, it comes as no surprise that it is the first country putting non-treatment zones on the political agenda. While it will be interesting to see what the final outcome will be in France, it’s equally intriguing to see how little debate there is in other countries. Will France’s regulation provoke similar initiatives in other EU countries? The French chest-beating that comes with the acknowledgement of their efforts on sustainability might just trigger new dynamics elsewhere. Or then again, it also might not.

Domaine Brana : showing the way in Irouléguy #Winophiles

I’m joing the #Winophiles this month in their exploration of Irouléguy, a wine region in French Basque Country. I’m very excited about this, as it brings back memories of my hiking holidays in the French Basque Country in 2015. This region is very beautiful, at the foot of the Pyrenees but also on the Atlantic coast, where surf’s up. If you hesitate between the mountains or the sea for holidays, you have both there!

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I was hiking in the region with a group, so there was no time to go visiting wineries. But when we were in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we were given two hours to see the town. I have to admit : I didn’t see town. I took this opportunity to go the winery shop of Domaine Brana instead!

The Brana family was active in the region already since the 19th century, but it was only in the ’70s that Etienne Brana lay the foundations for the current Domaine by starting a distillery. In 1984 he launched himself in the wine business and contributed to putting the AOC Irouléguy on the map. Not that Irouléguy is now known all over the world, or even in France for that matter. There is simply too little wine being produced for that, and finding Irouléguy wine outside France is no simple matter.

It’s for that reason that I bought a mix of Brana’s wines to take home. The whites and rosé didn’t last long, they were simply too good. Nowadays it’s not so unusual anymore to find white Irouléguy, but Etienne Brana made a point of making also white wine of petit courbu, petit manseng and gros manseng (also known from Jurançon) as that was a tradition before in Irouléguy.

His Ilori Blanc 2014 was a very fresh wine with lots of flowers in the nose and a rather high acidity. The Albedo Blanc 2014 was almost completely the opposite, with loads of ripe fruit like pine apple and apricot, a touch of wood and even a bit of honey as it opened up. There was a lovely contrast of ripe and fresh in this wine, the fruit being opulent and the acidity rather in the style of a Chablis. An intriguing wine.

I have a special place in my memories, however, for the Harri Gorri rosé 2014, one of the best rosés I ever had in my life. This was a wine I could sniff on forever, with red currant, strawberries, green herbs and beautiful minerality. Again the profile of this wine was very fresh and precise. Finally a rosé that has its own identity and is more than a white wine with a pink taint! I absolutely loved it. I have spent endless hours looking on the net for a place where I could buy it, but alas…

For the reds Brana also set out to choose his own path, favoring Cabernet Franc over the more common Tannat. Brana argued that Cabernet Franc was a grape that actually originated in the Irouléguy region, and that Tannat is the grape of Madiran. That might have been a smart move. It’s only a few days ago that Peter Dean reported in The Buyer that the Gascogne-based cooperative Plaimont Producteurs is gradually switching to Manseng Noir, as Tannat is producing alcohol levels that are hard to keep under 16°C in recent years.

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When I visited the winery shop in 2015 I tasted the Irouléguy Rouge 2010, but back then, it wasn’t fully coherent yet, and the wood was pretty dominant still. Nevertheless I bought two bottles, knowing this was a wine with great ageing potential. I was a little afraid that it would still be too early to open a bottle now, but a quick sniff after opening the bottle made it clear from the start : this is a beauty! Blackberries, blackcurrant, cigar box, graphite, laurel, all jumping out the glass in a beautiful bouquet. Complex like a maze, precise like a Swiss watch, and fresh like a first year student. My fear of sturdy tannins was ungrounded, the structure being velvety instead.

There’s an additional thing that’s interesting here as well. During my sommelier training we always had to discuss a wine systematically, including things such as color and viscosity. The latter is something I nowadays don’t do anymore as I don’t find it very relevant. But from the first sip of this Irouléguy, I immediately noticed that this wine was very concentrated, the viscosity reminding me of a Valpolicella Ripasso for example, but then without the sweetness. Very remarkable! This is a wine with character. Cool climate character by the way. And not unlike certain Bordeaux. That should not come as a surprise, the blend consisting of 60% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 30% Tannat.

It’s still early days to be thinking of lists, but I’m pretty sure this wine will be in my best of 2019 list somewhere. If I think of how it was when I tasted it in 2015, it’s clear this wine has come a long way. This goes to show that we often drink this kind of wines too early. And it’s nowhere near its end. Quite the contrary I’d say. My next, and sadly last, bottle will probably open in three or four years. If only I could find more of Brana’s wines. It’s clear that this is a visionary winery, a flag bearer for the appellation.

Here are the links to the other Winophiles’ posts :

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Payal at Keep the Peas shares Basque-ing in Irouléguy Wines and More

 

 

 

Sven Nieger : a welcome rebel in Baden

During a recent stop over in Baden-Baden, I had time to visit only one winery. The wine region Baden is mainly known for Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder in German. It is also known as the hottest wine region of Germany. Everything is relative of course  if you think of summers in the south of Europe, but still, there is a clear difference between the Spätburgunders of the Ahr, situated further north, and those of Baden, the latter being richer and more full-bodied. Not being a huge fan of big and bold wines, I looked for wine makers who dare to go off the beaten track. When I read about Sven Nieger, I knew that he was my man.

Sven Nieger is a relative newcomer in Baden. He only started in 2010 and did not have the advantage of being born in a family of winemakers. He did, however, Go to the Geisenheim institute and worked in other wineries in Germany and New-Zealand before he started on his own. When he came back to Baden, he had to start from scratch, having no land and no winery. Nieger was able to buy vineyards, amongst which three Grosse Gewächse (grand cru), from older colleagues who had no successors and sold off their lands. He showed me a few pictures of the early days, when he was literally making garage wine. He now has a new space with more professional facilities. “But it was more fun working in the garage”, he laughed.

Despite Baden being a red wine region, Nieger focuses on riesling. “Many people don’t like riesling because it’s too sour, but I want to prove that riesling can also be a wine they like”. That is also why he doesn’t mention the grape on his labels. He wants people to judge the wine without any prejudices they might have about riesling. I told him I’m surprised that he is confronted with such opinions on riesling, the grape after all being the nec plus ultra for certain wine drinkers. “We are in Baden”, he reminded me. “People here are used to wines that are round, creamy, and more full-bodied”.  And this is also the second reason why he has rather unconventional labels. The 2014 vintage was not an easy one, producing wines with very high acidity, his rieslings fetching 9g/l instead of the 5,5-6g/l he has in other years. We tasted the Underdog 2014 and indeed the acidity here was high, but not higher than you’d expect in riesling. And then there is Nieger’s rosé : it is bone dry! Again not very much in the tradition of Baden’s wines. The committee judging the region’s wines on their typicity didn’t think much of Nieger’s wines. Eight times he had to send in a bottle. Not wanting to play that game anymore, Nieger decided from then on to declare his wines as Badischer Landwein. And that was the end of that. And of his ambitions to join the VDP at some stage, a German group of top wine makers. When I tasted the 2014 Underdog, it was simply amazing, enormously complex. I think Baden will regret having lost Sven Nieger.

Anyhow, he seems very happy with the path he has chosen. Also no lack of ambitions : “When people drink my wine, I want them to say: This is a Nieger wine.” And so far, things have lifted off quite fast for him, being chosen “newcomer of the year” by Falstaff magazine and getting good press in Germany and abroad.

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We started off with his 2016s. His Riesling range consists of three Grosse Gewächse (Grand Crus), one wine that is a blend of grapes of these three vineyards, and one entry level Riesling. Because of the fact his wines are now declared as Badischer Landwein, he cannot mention the names of the vineyards on his labels, and for sure not call them Grosse Gewächse. So he gave them other names : Ungeschminkt (without make up), Underdog, Unbestechlich (incorruptible), Ungeniert (unashamed), and Ungezähmt (untamed). The message is quite clear.

The entry-level Ungeschminkt was already a nice starter, with lots of fruit and refreshing acidity. The Underdog is  a step up, being the blend of the three Grosse Gewächse. The grapes come from the foot of the hills, where there is more loam. The wine was still a bit shy though, and still needs to develop a bit further. Of the three Grosse Gewächse, the Unbestechlich was my favorite. Here the vineyard is based on granite soil. Slate or schist are probably the types of terroir that are most associated with Riesling, but granite is not unusual either. Alsace’s Charles Baur describes the acidity in riesling from granite soils as “delicate”. And that’s the perfect word to descibe the acidity in Nieger’s Unbestechlich. It is perfectly integrated, leaving the front stage for a beguiling mix of saffran, summer blossom, green herbs, and orange peel. The saffran very much reminded me of the 2014 Rieslings of Mosel’s Markus Molitor. But whereas most of Molitor’s Rieslings are sweet, semi-sweet or have at least some residual sugar, this Unbestechlich is completely dry. The Ungeniert, also from granite soil, was similar to the Unbestechlich but more timid at this stage, and will benefit from further ageing. The Ungezähmt, finally, does have some sweetness, but also a mineral touch and sufficient acidity to keep it nicely balanced.

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It became clear during the tasting how passionate Nieger is about his wines. Even though the 2017s were not on sale yet, I could still taste the whole range. I could also taste the 2015s and certain 2014s. What I thought would be a one hour visit, turned into a three hour one, but time passed as if it were only one hour. Tasting through all these Rieslings was very interesting and clearly showed the differences from one year to another, the 2014s being very fresh and dry, while the 2015s were richer and riper. Nieger decides every year whether he will make the Rieslings dry, off-dry or semi-sweet, letting the vintage decide. While that is probably the best for the wines, that might make it harder for the consumer in terms of knowing what you will get. His experiments do not help to make that any easier, his 2017s having aged in oak barrels, again not a very typical thing to do with Riesling. The oak is not very present, however, only adding a hint of smoke here and there. I’m very curious how the 2017s will evolve, as they were rather shy when I tasted them. Nieger agreed that they are still too young, but is convinced that they will open up with further ageing. That is also why he will put the 2018s on the market before the 2017s, as the 2018s will be more straight-forward and easier to drink, a consequence of the hot vintage.

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19 bottles further, aroma’s of homely cooking started entering the room. I visited Sven Nieger because I wanted something different, and not only did I get a fantastic overview of his wines, I also felt the passion and ambition of an untamed wine maker. I am convinced that that will take him very far.

 

How is red Burgundy 2015 faring?

2015 was a vintage marked with warm weather in Burgundy resulting in wines with a lot of fruit, and good concentration. Upon release I heard some saying it was somewhere in between 2009 and 2010 in terms of style. Tasting a number of them young I found them rather ripe for my taste, preferring the 2014s, having more tension. We’re four years down the line now, so I was curious to see how the 2015s had evolved since then and if they had some of their “baby fat”. Still too early to open the more prestigious appellations, so I decided to open a few bottles that should be up for business by now.

The first wine is Dureuil-Janthial’s Rully “En Guesnes”. I visited Vincent Dureuil in 2017 and I didn’t find him at a good  moment. There had been problems in the vineyards due to bad weather and he had been up all night. As you can imagine, he was not very talkative… Luckily his wines did the talking for him. Dureuil-Janthial is especially known for his white wines, but I find him equally impressive for the pinot noirs. And La Revue des Vins de France seems to agree about the overall quality of his wines, as he was recently chosen Winemaker of the Year in France.

His basic Rully is a wine that gives enormous drinking pleasure, with plenty of ripe red fruit, and great balance. The “En Guesnes” is clearly a step up : the nose is simply enticing!

The bottle needed half an hour or so to settle down, but once it did it was enchanting, with ripe cherries, and even forest fruit. This wine definitely had meat on the bone, good concentration, and had a very smooth, velvety mouthfeel. I’m hesitant to say this, but the character of this wine actually reminded me of certain Vosnes! There was also an interesting touch of curry spice, that gave it a very individual personality. I was especially looking out for the acidity in these 2015s,  and I’m glad to say that the balance of this “En Guesnes” was just right with good acidity to counter the ripe fruit. Ripe and smooth tannins gave the backbone, and the long finish made for a great wine! No hurry to drink this, but already so enjoyable.

During the same long weekend in Burgundy I also visited Alain Gras, perhaps not such a big name as Dureuil-Janthial, but still considered to be one of the top producers in Saint-Romain. It was, however, the Auxey-Duresses Très Vieilles Vignes that drew my attention there.

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Upon opening it gave a somewhat austere impression, but half an hour later the aromas were almost literally jumping out of the glass, with ripe red fruit, noble cedar wood, and a hint of rubber. Very expressive! Again perfectly balanced, no heaviness, instead offering tremendous drinking pleasure. A very cheerful wine, more abundant than Dureuil-Janthial’s. I found it to be best after chilling it for about 20 minutes.

The last of my little red Burgundy 2015 series was the regional Burgundy of Robert Sirugue, based in Vosne. His Petits-Monts 1er Cru is still in my top 5 of red Burgundies I ever had, a very memorable wine. The regional Burgundy 2013 then again was disappointing, very meagre, so I was curious how the 2015 would turn out (unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of this one). Not chilled it was not enjoyable! Cherries on alcohol was all that came through. After half an hour in the fridge the wine gave a better impression, with also some nice ripe raspberries. This wine was considerably lighter than the other two, obviously being a wine for fast(er) consumption. As soon as the wine’s temperature went up again, the heat started coming through again. This is a bit what I feared for 2015, and as could be expected, it was the wine with the lesser pedigree that had suffered most. With the vineyards for such regional wines often being in the plains of Burgundy, where the loamy soil is very heavy, it should not come as a surprise that hot vintages leave their marks on the wines coming from here.

But all in all, I was very happy with what I found. Just as some of the initially very ripe 2009s are now beginning to show more elegance, the 2015s might evolve the same way, and already now the balance seems to be better in the 2015s than it was in the early days of the 2009s. So I think the future is looking bright!