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

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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Several attempts were undertaken since then to introduce non-treatment zones and other measures, that were subsequently withdrawn by court rulings after protest of agricultural lobby groups.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!

Rethinking Wine Enthusiast’s No 1 wine

In one of his NY Times wine columns, Eric Asimov makes a case for rethinking wine criticism. He sees the retirement of Robert Parker as an opportunity for wine critics to quit producing “dreary scores and tasting notes”. He argues that one of the core goals of any good wine writer should be to give consumers the tools to educate themselves. “The most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves. This can best be achieved by helping consumers gain enough knowledge to make their own buying decisions without the crutch of the bottle review.”

This article convinced me to write an article I was already brooding on for a while, but of which I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to write it. I’m talking about my experience with the number 1 wine of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 of 2018. If you haven’t seen that list yet, just try and imagine which kind of wine you would expect on the number one spot. I assume many will think of a top Bordeaux or Burgundy, a Barolo perhaps, or a Californian cabernet? Plenty of options, but I’m sure you didn’t think of a Barbera, did you? Yes, Wine Enthusiast’s Wine of the Year is a Barbera, or to be more accurate a Nizza, a former sub-zone of Barbera d’Asti which became a DOCG in its own right a few years ago. The Cipressi 2015 of Michele Chiarlo received 95 points and was described as follows :

“Elegantly structured, delicious and loaded with personality, this benchmark Nizza offers earthy aromas of truffle, leather, game, pressed violet and ripe black-skinned fruit. The aromas carry over to the savory palate, along with star anise, black cherry, mature plum and crushed mint. It’s balanced by polished tannins and fresh acidity.” 

This wine happens to be available in a supermarket here, and I had drunk the 2014 of the Cipressi a while ago. I recommended it even in a blog post I wrote about Barbera. Not knowing that the 2015 had meanwhile been ranked No 1 by Wine Enthusiast, I ordered a bottle to taste this new vintage. When the bottle came out the box, it was impossible to ignore the big label on the bottle that showed that the wine was voted No 1 by Wine Enthusiast. I was very surprised to see it, and for a moment I even thought it might refer to a best buy ranking. But no, it tops the general list with wines that Wine Enthusiast calls : “the best of the best”.

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How about that?! I bought “the best of the best” for around 15€. Hard to believe, isn’t it?But I am a firm believer that wines do not have to be expensive to be really good, so it was not without certain expectations that I popped the bottle. This is my tasting note (a lot less elaborate than Wine Enthuasiast’s) :

Attractive nose, dark cherries, cedar wood and a touch of barnyard. On the palate it’s pretty straight forward, fruit driven and supported by the typical barbera acidity.

I was disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but anything that is chosen as the wine of 2018, should have more complexity, depth, length, something out of the ordinary, something that makes you silent and conclude that life is good…

It was obvious that this wine was not in that league.

Surprising? Well, it shouldn’t be. This is what I wrote about a year go : “Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young.”

And here’s a description by Ian D’Agata, author of Italy’s wine grapes, of how barbera wines should be: “bright, fresh, vinous, loaded with brambly fruit…”.

If you look at the Cipressi like that, it’s actually a good example of what a barbera should be. Loaded with fruit, fresh, attractive. Above average even. And definitely a good value. The kind of wine that I would normally enjoy. If… I approached it as barbera. What happened here was that I let myself be led by a ranking that created unrealistic expectations, instead of relying on what I know about barbera.

Or as Asimov puts it : “By subjecting seemingly every bottle to evaluation, year in and year out, these reviews convey the sense that the quality of a wine is random. With nothing else to go on but these reviews, consumers are not liberated by knowledge; instead they are bound to reviewers, dependent on the direction of the critical thumb.”

Funny detail : Wine Enthusiast’s website also shows user reviews. This is how one user described the same wine :

Smooth finish, great bouquet, excellent value. A great wine to go with a wide variety of food for the everyday table.”

 He nailed it…

 

 

 

New Etna Rosso finds

It’s about two years ago now (time flies!) that I took a closer look at Etna Rosso and recommended a few wines I liked. As I like to explore new things, I haven’t had Etna Rosso for a while, but recently I felt like going back to these intriguing wines. What I already mentioned in my previous post about Etna Rosso is confirmed in the wines I had this time as well : there is not one profile for Etna Rosso. Terroir and vintage are usually elements that are given to explain the differences, but my impression is that the style of the winery is just as important.

Here are three Etna Rossos I can wholeheartedly recommend :

ER 2014, Etna Rosso, Theresa Eccher

2014 is considered a difficult year for Italy, but things turned out relatively well for Sicily. Decanter’s Michael Garner describes the Etna Rossos of this vintage as balanced and perfumed, delicious to drink young. Theresa Eccher’s ER is very light in color. There is already some evolution here, the red fruit no longer being the freshly cut fruit that was probably there a couple of years ago. A hint of coffee, cedar, and a fresh, leafy herbaceousness give this wine an elegant and fresh profile. This is a very light type of Etna Rosso, for sure not one that is built to last. If the comparison with Burgundy is one that you often hear for Etna Rosso, then it is certainly applicable for this one. If you have this vintage, drink up, it’s in a nice spot now, and will not get better.

Nero Nibali 2015, Etna Rosso, Vino Nibali

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Very aromatic, the ripe red fruit comes floating out of the glass. There is a spiciness that reminds me of curry powder, and a hint of barnyard that adds to the complexity of the wine. A touch of noble cedar wood makes it complete. At this stage the wine is still very much fruit driven, but there is a structure behind it all that the ER of Theresa Eccher did not have. The tannins are ripe and give a bit of bite, which I like. Despite that, the global feeling I have here is one of satin softness. The savoury spiciness sets this wine very much apart from Theresa Eccher’s Etna Rosso. Beautiful!

Archineri 2012, Etna Rosso, Pietradolce

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Very ripe nose, with dried fruit, plum, spices, cigar. Very luscious wine, with also a hint of black chocolate in the background, kept sufficiently fresh by a good acidic backbone. The ripe/fresh contrast is quite big, but it works out well, the two keeping each other nicely in balance. If I didn’t know what this was, I might have guessed this was a Brunello… 2012 was a very hot vintage, so this could explain the very ripe fruit here. I am curious to try other vintages of this wine. Being able to deliver a wine in balance in such a hot vintage clearly proves craftmanship!

Conclusion :

Three different styles but three lovely wines. It was nice to reconnect with these volcanic wines and to see that the quality of these randomly bought bottles was very good . The focus on Etna wines these days does not only reflect a hype, but also the fact that this is simply a region that produces great wines.