The production of sparkling wine in Britain – although not from home-grown grapes – is verifiably over 350 years old, and we know from the two papers read at the newly founded Royal Society in December 1662 that sugar added to a fermented product and sealed in a bottle with a tightly bound stopper produced a ‘brisk and sparkling’ product. The Reverend John Beale’s ‘Aphorisms on Cider’, read to the Royal Society on 10 December 1662, says that ‘bottling is the next best improver’ for cider and that ‘two to three raisins into every bottle’ plus ‘a walnut of sugar’ – a recipe guaranteed to produce a secondary fermentation – works wonders on the cider. A week later, on 17 December, it was the turn of the now famous Dr Christopher Merrett to read his paper, ‘Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines’, and describe how Britain’s seventeenth-century ‘wine coopers’ were making their wines ‘brisk and sparkling’ by the addition of sugar. This practice was certainly happening before 1662 and followed the development of the strong verre Anglais bottles which Sir Kenelm Digby had been perfecting since the 1630s.
Exactly when the first sparkling wine made from English grapes was produced is open to debate. Certainly wines being made in England in the 1750s were considered comparable to Champagne and as has been mentioned earlier, the wines produced at Painshill Place between 1741 and 1779 were often described as such. Of course, Champagne in those days was not always the sparkling wine that we know today. I have a wine list from the Magasin de Vins Fins Chez Terral from Pontac, a village just outside Bordeaux, dated 1760, which lists Champagne mousseux and Champagne non-mousseux both at the same price.
The first recorded production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines – made from British-grown grapes – is probably that carried out by Raymond Barrington Brock at his Oxted Viticultural Research Station in the 1950s. The Daily Mirror of 17 August 1950 carried an article entitled ‘A bottle of Maidstone ’49’ which praised the work of Brock and that other viticultural pioneer, Edward Hyams and ended by saying: ‘perhaps ten years hence you’ll be raising a glass of sparkling Canterbury in honour of the men who made an English wine industry possible’. In September 1959 Brock welcomed members of the wine trade to a tasting and offered a number of different wines, including sparkling wines, to them. I have a letter dated 11 September 1959 sent to Brock by John Clevely, then a young Master of Wine, in which he thanks Brock for the visit and tasting and ends with a postscript saying: ‘Moët must look to their laurels if you really start going “commercial” with that sparkling wine. I thought it was wonderful.’ Praise indeed. Some of these sparkling wines survived undisturbed in the Station’s cellars until the 1980s.
Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones at Hambledon, whose initial (1953) plantings included 20 Chardonnay vines, experimented with the production of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine, and in 1969 Bill Carcary, his vineyard manager, produced a batch of 60 bottles. Salisbury-Jones expanded the plantings of Chardonnay in 1970 with a further 1,000 vines but whether to make still or sparkling wine is not known. In 1979 his winemaking consultant Anton Massel helped produce a batch with apparently favourable results and as Salisbury-Jones also grew Auxerrois and Meunier, which ripened more easily, these became the basis of their sparkling wine cuvée. However, Sir Guy considered that the production costs were too high and the length of time the wine needed to mature was too long to make the product commercially viable and production ceased.
The first producers to make commercial quantities of bottle-fermented sparkling wines were Nigel (de Marsac) Godden at Pilton Manor in Somerset – first planted in 1966 – and Graham Barrett at Felsted Vineyards in Essex – first planted in 1967. As was quite usual at that time, the main varieties grown were Müller-Thurgau and Seyval Blanc and it is probable that it was these that were used. Their wines – never produced in large volumes – were certainly interesting, maybe even worth drinking and in the 1979 English Wine of the Year Competition (EWOTYC) the 1976 Felstar Méthode Champenoise won a silver medal and the NV Pilton Manor De Marsac Brut Méthode Champenoise won a bronze. These early successes, however, didn’t seem to help sales much and their production faded out.
The next appearance of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the EWOTYC (ignoring the carbonated 1983 Barton Manor Sparkling Rosé that won a gold medal in the 1984 competition – delicious though it was) was in 1987, when the first Carr Taylor sparkling wine won a medal. David and Linda Carr Taylor first planted vines at their vineyard in Westfield, near Hastings, East Sussex, in 1973 and until 1983 their grapes were sent to Lamberhurst Vineyards for winemaking. From their huge 1983 vintage, however, when Reichensteiner cropped at 15 tonnes per acre and their total output came to 186,000 bottles, they decided to start making bottle-fermented sparkling wines. They engaged Clement Nowak, a Champagne-based Polish-French consultant winemaker, whose name at one stage actually appeared on the neck-label. For a few years Carr Taylor became the major producer – in fact almost the only producer – of bottle-fermented sparkling wines in Britain and achieved considerable success. Their Vintage Sparkling won a gold medal in the 1988 EWOTYC and their Non-Vintage Sparkling won the Jack Ward Trophy (best large volume wine) in the 1989 EWOTYC. In 1993 they won the IWSC English Wine Trophy with their 1987 Vintage Sparkling. They also entered their wines into overseas competitions – a rarity in those days – and did surprisingly well. Their 1988 Vintage Sparkling Wine was awarded a gold medal at the prestigious Concours European des Grands Vins beating 1,800 Champagnes and other bottle-fermented sparkling wines from around the world, and in 1999, in the same competition, their 1996 vintage was awarded a gold medal, this time out of 4,300 entrants. A fact that tends to get forgotten in these days of Britain’s mega-vineyards planted with Champagne varieties is that the Carr Taylors were certainly the first to make serious commercial quantities of bottle-fermented sparkling wines. They did, however, only ever use what might be termed ‘native’ varieties for Britain: Reichensteiner, Schönburger, Kerner and Huxelrebe being the most important ones. This reliance on non-classic varieties, whilst it gave their wines a point of difference from other Chardonnay- and Pinot-based wines, also gave the wines a character more akin to Sekt or Asti than Champagne, something not all critics and commentators liked.
The next on Britain’s sparkling wine scene was David Cowderoy who, working at his father’s winery at Rock Lodge, produced the 1989 Rock Lodge Impresario which won the IWSC English Wine Trophy in 1991. When David joined forces with others to create Chapel Down Wines (in 1992) one of their first wines, the non-vintage Epoch Brut, made from a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc, was in fact a re-badged Rock Lodge wine. The fact that Chapel Down was not using the classic Champagne varieties (which, with the exception of New Hall Vineyards, were not being grown in enough quantity for them to buy) gave them something of a marketing advantage and enabled their prices to remain reasonable – under £10 – although at the time this was at least twice that of still wines. In the end though, once Chardonnay- and Pinot-based wines started to appear in 1997–98, this marketing edge disappeared and their Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc based wines, although very good and well-priced, were always playing second fiddle to the Champagne lookalikes in quality (and quality perception) terms. At much the same time, John Worontschak, winemaker at Thames Valley Vineyard (today’s Stanlake Park) made a sparkling wine using Pinot Noir from Ascot Vineyard, a 1-hectare (2.47-acre) vineyard planted in 1979 on Crown land near Sunninghill Park and owned by Colonel Robby Robertson. Called Ascot Brut NV, it was released in 1992 and won a silver medal in the 1994 EWOTYC. Worontschak produced a number of Ascot sparkling wines from both Pinot Noir and (unusually) Gamay Noir, winning several silvers and bronzes between 1994 and 2004.
The production of sparkling wines using the three classic varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier – started in the mid-1980s when growers like Piers Greenwood (see above), Martin Oldaker at Surrenden Vineyard, near Ashford (planted between 1984 and 1986) and Karen Ostborn and Alan Smalley at Throwley, near Faversham (planted in 1986), both in Kent, all started growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with the encouragement of Christopher (Kit) Lindlar. After leaving the Merrydown Wine Company, based in Horam, East Sussex, where he had been one of the winemakers since 1976, Lindlar set up as a contract winemaker, firstly at Biddenden Vineyards, and then, in 1986, at his own High Weald Winery at Grafty Green, near Ashford, Kent. Lindlar, who also supplied vines, persuaded the two Kent vineyards above to experiment with these varieties, which had until then been very unsuccessful in Britain. Brock had grown Chardonnay in his collection at Oxted but could never get it to ripen properly. Ian and Andrew Paget at Chilsdown Vineyard planted Chardonnay and also had no luck getting it to ripen. In 1981, a very dismal year for British vinegrowers, the acidity (in grams per litre) in their Chardonnay was higher than the degrees Oechsle. Ouch. Extreme unripeness was a common finding among those early growers who persevered with it, although most decided to give up and removed the offending variety. Only in really hot years would Chardonnay produce anything like ripe grapes and tolerable wine. Pinot Noir, like many of the black varieties then being grown, suffered from terrible botrytis and was very difficult to ripen without huge losses. It is only since the arrival of better anti-botrytis sprays – initially Rovral and Ronilan, but more recently Scala, Switch and Teldor – that growing fungus-sensitive varieties like Pinot Noir has been possible. Meunier, in the guise of Wrotham Pinot, had always been grown in small amounts, but never used for anything other than blending with other, riper, reds. Lindlar’s biggest, and subsequently best-known clients, were Stuart and Sandy Moss who decided, in 1988, to plant a vineyard at Nyetimber near Pulborough in West Sussex.
The Mosses had, by all accounts, been looking at various locations to plant a vineyard – California was at one time the front runner – but it was Sandy’s love of (and business in) early English oak furniture that persuaded them that England was the place. In 1985 Hambledon Vineyards was up for sale and the Mosses viewed it and made a bid for it, but lost out to another bidder, John Patterson, who owned it until 1994. Bill Carcary, who had been at Hambledon since 1966, got to know the Mosses quite well at the time and when they then bought the 49-hectare Nyetimber estate in 1986, they asked Carcary to come and work for them as estate manager and eventually as winemaker and got so far with this idea as to refurbish a cottage for him and offer him a contract of employment. In his discussions with them about planting a vineyard on the land at Nyetimber, Carcary remembers it being his idea that they should plant the Champagne varieties for sparkling wine production, something he had long wanted to do at Hambledon, but which, as has been stated above, Salisbury-Jones had ruled out on cost grounds. In the end, Carcary decided for family reasons not to leave Hambledon and stayed, working for the new owner. Whoever actually came up with the idea to produce bottle-fermented sparkling wines on this (for the time) very large scale is uncertain, but the Mosses went ahead and planted the classic Champagne varieties, something which at the time was revolutionary – some said bonkers.
The vines for the Nyetimber plantings between 1988 and 1991 were sourced from France and it was to Lindlar’s High Weald Winery that the first commercial vintage, the 1992, was taken for processing under the watchful eye of consultant Jean-Manuel Jacquinot. As Lindlar modestly says, ‘while they did hire Jacquinot, the winemaking buck stopped with me; that is to say, had those early vintages flopped it would definitely have been down to me.’ Given the importance of the Mosses’ enterprise, which when all was said and done was still something of an experiment, one has to give praise to Lindlar where it is due. After Nyetimber’s first release, the 1992 Blanc de Blancs Première Cuvée, won the English Wine Trophy in 1997, and subsequent releases went on to garner further awards (see. p. 56), the English wine world started to take notice.
A few years after the Mosses planted, another Lindlar client, Mike Roberts, also decided to establish a dedicated classic-variety, bottle-fermented sparkling wine business at Ditchling in East Sussex. Ridgeview Winery was established in 1995 with thirteen clones of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier and today it covers 6.48 hectares (16 acres), although it has access to grapes from a much larger area. A modern winery, with underground storage cellar, was built and equipped with the contents of the High Weald Winery, which was acquired when Lindlar closed the winery. In order to kick-start Ridgeview’s production line, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes were bought from other growers, including Surrenden, and the 1996 Cuveé Merret Bloomsbury was produced. This wine won the 2000 EWOTYC Gore-Browne Trophy, awarded for wine of the year. Since that first release, Ridgeview has produced a range of wines, all named after London squares or areas – Belgravia, Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Grosvenor, Knightsbridge and Pimlico – and the tally of awards has been impressive. They won the Gore-Browne Trophy in 2000, 2002, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and regularly win gold and silver medals in the major wine competitions. Their most notable success was probably winning the Decanter World Wine Awards International Sparkling Wine Trophy (beating four very prestigious Champagnes in the process) with their 2006 Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs.
When first Nyetimber and later Ridgeview started selling wines and achieving the sort of prices that many in the wine business in Britain had thought impossible, the way forward for home-grown sparkling wines started to look a lot different. Following their significant commercial and competition success, plantings of the three classic Champagne varieties in Britain increased year on year and since the very warm year of 2003, several significant vineyards have been planted. Nyetimber changed hands twice and under its current ownership has expanded on various sites from its original 15.8 hectares to a whopping 258 hectares (638 acres) and growing. Owner Eric Heerema told me he was looking for another 200 hectares (500 acres). Other large sparkling wine producers include the largest, Chapel Down, with access to 300 hectares of Champagne variety vineyards; Gusbourne with 93 hectares; Ridgeview with 90 hectares; and Hambledon with 90 hectares. Other major sparkling players include Bluebell Estates, Bolney, Camel Valley, Coates and Seely, Laithwaite’s, Langham Estate, Exton Park, Furleigh, Greyfriars, Hambledon, Hundred Hills, Hush Heath, Rathfinny, Simpsons, Southern Wines, Squerryes and Tinwood. Together, there are around 30 British producers who control 50 per cent of Britain’s vineyard area and probably nearer 65 per cent of its sparkling wine production. The two French-controlled producers, Domaine Evremond (Taittinger) and what is currently called Pinglestone Estate (Vranken-Pommery) will be added to this list in time.
Extract from The wines of Great Britain © Stephen Skelton (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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Rioja: a world within a world
What’s the best way to arrive in Rioja? For me, it’s coming from Bilbao, taking the road through the mountains and watching Rioja as it unfolds before you. The mountains are majestic, and in between is undulating countryside with rivers running through and hilltop towns spread about. There’s a lot to be said for arriving by rail, too. Take the train from Zaragoza. The last section, Logroño–Haro, meanders past the Ebro and vineyards. For the people who lived here in previous centuries Rioja must have seemed a blessed enclave. Any time is good to come: autumn is particularly beautiful; winter brings snow (and sometimes problems driving); in spring there’s blossom on the trees and in the summer it’s hot, but with plenty of cool places to enjoy wine in the evening. Too many wine regions can be flat monocultures of vines. Come to Rioja, it’s altogether more human.
Haro and the station quarter
When phylloxera came to France, the producers cast around for vine-growing land. Spain was conveniently close and with the opening of the railway line from Logroño to Bilbao via Haro in 1880, Rioja was an ideal source. Thus it was that Haro’s Barrio de la Estación came into being, with wineries clustered around the railway. The first to arrive was R. López de Heredía y Landeta in 1877, followed by CVNE in 1879, Duque de Montezuma and J. Gómez Cruzado in 1890, La Rioja Alta in 1890 and Bodegas Bilbaínas in 1901. (To complete the contemporary set, Muga moved from Haro town in 1970, and in 1987 came RODA.) In those early years the bodegas jostled with factories making brandies, soaps and fertilizers. While some of the Haro bodegas may seem today the epitome of classical wines, Haro was cutting-edge in its day – the first town in Spain to have electric street lighting.
Phylloxera came to Rioja, inevitably, in 1899. The first outbreak was in a vineyard in Sajazarra. The region recovered reasonably quickly as by then the wine world had discovered that the solution was to graft vines onto much more resistant American labrusca rootstocks.
For a number of years Rioja continued to define itself like so many parts of the world in terms of French wines, for instance by selling ‘cepa Borgoña’ (intended to mean ‘Burgundy style’) wines. The really significant change, after Spain’s entrance to Europe, was Rioja’s elevation to DOCa status, denominación de origen calificada, a first in Spain in 1991. While regulation can be criticized for too much policing and of the wrong kind, it has to be noted that a DOCa should never be about selling any wine at bargain basement prices. The very nature of being a DOCa should protect it from that unsustainable marketing. Yet when the DOCa was introduced it was a generic blanket for all Rioja wines to satisfy all interested parties: grower, small producer, cooperative and multinational. Hence Rioja can be sold too cheaply. Surely the wine world has changed? One size (or type of classification) need not fit all.
The naming of Rioja
Before we go any further, this is the place to run through the ever-growing list of possibilities behind the naming of the region. There is a River Oja, which surely must be the reason for Rioja’s name. But this is a little trickle compared to the grandeur of the Ebro, and its dominance in the landscape. Then there’s a possibility it refers to a local tribe called in Latin, Ruccones. Another source suggests that the source is Erriotxa or a similar spelling, which means ‘bread country’ in Basque. The US writer Ana Fabiano suggests that it might come from Rialia, describing a collection of small tributaries in Rioja Alta around the River Oja. She also speculates that it could come from the Basque Arrioixa, or ‘land of rocks’. And thus, the debate continues.
Defining the landscape
Those who like to define Rioja in terms of Burgundy, will note that in geographical terms there are similarities. Imagine Rioja turned upright, clockwise through 45 degrees, and there you have Burgundy. It is approximately 40 kilometres wide by 100 kilometres long, running from north-east to south-west, tucked in between mountain ranges. Administratively it is composed of three provinces: La Rioja (43,885 hectares of vineyards, 118 municipalities), Álava, the southern tip of the Basque country (12,934 hectares, 18 municipalities), and to the east, Navarra (6,774 hectares, 8 municipalities). There is also one bodega to the far west of Rioja that is in Castilla y León. Climatically there are strong differences. Nothing is straightforward about the soils, either, a complex blend of chalky clay, ferrous clay and alluvial types. Add to this the differing aspects and elevations – up to 700 metres, and in a few cases up to 900 metres. Blend in the grape varieties. To finish, there are the decisions of the producers, each serving diverse customer tastes.
The River Ebro, which decants to the Mediterranean, winds through Rioja and into it flow seven significant small rivers – significant in terroir terms, that is, each offering different aspects and soils. All of these come down from the Iberian system of mountains to the south. Starting in the west, the River Oja rises to the south of Rioja in the San Lorenzo mountains and flows down to Haro. The snows and cold of the Sierra Demanda above the river valley have a strong influence on the higher altitude vineyards. Next comes the Najerilla river valley. Again, it rises in the San Lorenzo mountains and comes down to the Ebro with many terraces of vineyards on both sides. The Iregua valley to the east of it flows down to Logroño, creating fertile conditions for plenty of market garden produce and olives. The River Leza joins the Jubera before arriving at Agoncillo by the Ebro, and is distinctive for its cliffs and canyons. Great for walkers, both rivers are distinctive for the difference from the elegant beauty of some of the Rioja Alta landscapes. Finally, the Cidacos valley winds at length down past the Monte Yerga, and the high Garnacha-dominant vineyards of Quel and Arnedo till it comes to the Ebro just after Calahorra.
Rioja’s story is all about diversity. As Ana Fabiano notes, Rioja contains 36 per cent of all the plant biodiversity in Spain. Furthermore when vineyard sites range from 300 to 700 metres, the climate really varies, and that’s before one takes in considerations of slope, aspect and soil. That’s why the vintage assessments beloved of fine wine retailers and auction houses are so difficult. Take the terrible frosts of April 2017. They wiped out 100 per cent of some vineyards, but others escaped completely. In terms of climatic influences, at the north-west end, Rioja is little more than 100 kilometres from the Atlantic, which gives the producers of Rioja Alta a good reason to describe their cooler vintages as Atlantic. The Sierra Cantabria is some protection from the Atlantic extremes. To the south the frequently snow-capped Sierra de la Demanda and the Sierra de Cameros protect the valleys of Rioja from strong winds from the south-west.
To blend or not to blend?
There are now so many styles of Rioja – modern, vino de autor, single vineyard, carbonic maceration and more – and so many strongly held opinions that it is easy to lose sight of one important quality in many fine Riojas. Namely, that they are blends. There are historical reasons for this. Many producers did not own their own vineyards, and there are commercial brands which still don’t. They rely on the growers for supply, growers from right across Rioja. Then there are also producers who wanted to make classical blends of two or more varieties, of Tempranillo with Graciano or Mazuelo, for instance, who own vineyards or buy their grapes from the best places, but not necessarily close to the winery. Rioja Alta producers sourced and still source their Garnacha grapes from Tudelilla in Rioja Baja. This was never an issue, until the debate promoting single vineyard wines became so excessively heated.
There are many kinds of Rioja. Which is better: a cross-DOCa blend of the best grapes, or a single vineyard where perhaps only one variety flourishes? This is the same debate over the merits of Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace in Australia. One is a multi-regional blend, the other a historic single vineyard. Different styles, different consumers, equal pleasure. Everyone has different views: my current notebook is filled with diagrams of Burgundian-style pyramids (Bierzo proposals), interlocking circles (neighbouring village proposals) and criss-crossing rectangles (the CRDOCa vision). Speaking at RODA, director general and all-round viticultural expert Agustín Santolaya pleaded: ‘Don’t Burgundify Rioja’. RODA is the newbie in the Barrio de la Estación, having only been founded in 1989. Santolaya’s mission is to make the best wine from a blend of the best vineyards; the traditional approach, though perhaps in a modern way. Look back at history, he says: ‘Traditionally Rioja blended its wines from great vineyards; there were practically no single vineyard wines made.’
White Rioja reborn
A decade ago, perhaps less, white Rioja had a really terrible reputation. The general view was that it was made from only one variety – Viura – and that Viura was flabby and boring. Yet in just a few years white Rioja has returned to favour. It may still only account for some 6–7 per cent of Rioja production but from that low base its market share has been increasing by some 20 per cent year on year. There are a number of reasons for this. They include: climate change, improved distribution, the requirements of export markets and the creativity of individual winemakers, while maintaining respect for the old ways and the classics. The launch of the latest Castillo Ygay 1986 white from Marqués de Murrieta with some 30 years of age hit the fine wine headlines and helped to bolster the profile of white Rioja as something exceptional. Of course, like the Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva white, it is a one-off, an original. In general, today’s white Riojas are – many of them – beautifully balanced, with subtle oak, and complex. They could not be further from the oxidized, tired wines of the past.
White Rioja is not just made from Viura – though it remains the dominant variety. Malvasía de Rioja (know in Catalunya as Subirat Parent), with its distinctive reddish, yellowish bunches, plays a small but significant part. Garnacha Blanca again amounts for a tiny percentage of the vineyard, but is making some finely textured wines. The Consejo Regulador wobbled a little when it permitted the introduction of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to an already fine line-up of varieties. An understandable step, an attempt to give their wines an international appeal, but the future for a DOCa lies in making great terroir wines with local varieties.
New varieties are appearing. Tempranillo Blanco made the headlines first. This is a genetic mutation; a single plant with white grapes was found in 1988 in Rioja, in Murillo del Río Leza. It’s a late budding variety, but like the red Tempranillo it ripens early. It can show citrus and floral notes and has been popular because of its relationship to Tempranillo itself. Another of the ‘new’ varieties is in fact an old variety, rescued and revived. Maturana Blanca is the oldest known grape variety in Rioja, and may have been referred to in 1622. The fact that it is sensitive to botrytis will have helped it fall out of favour. In character it has bright acidity, a tendency to warm alcohol, and a hint of bitterness on the finish. Another ‘new’ variety is Turruntés de Rioja, no relative of the Galician Turruntés or the Argentine Torrontes. Instead it is similar to Albillo Mayor, found in Castilla y León. It is low in alcohol, with a welcome high acidity, offering crisp apple notes. For a taste of these traditional and new white varieties, look to Abel Mendoza, and to Juan Carlos Sancha, the university lecturer and bodeguero, who has also fostered these rarities.
Extract from The wines of northern Spain © Sarah Jane Evans (Infinite Ideas, 2018)
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The wines of Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a wine country very close to my heart – exciting and frustrating in equal measure. It was only the second wine country I visited in my professional career, when Eastern Europe was my first buying responsibility as a trainee buyer back in the late 1980s. I’ve seen this country take its first steps into a new era, just as I did myself. And I like to think that we’ve matured together, though the relationship has had its rocky moments.
That first trip to Bulgaria was eye-opening, not least because my one and only previous trip had been to Château Lascombes in Margaux. Memories have stuck fast of grim communist wineries; vast marching rows of vines supported by crumbling concrete; dining in huge, ornate ballrooms empty apart from our group; inevitable cucumber and tomato accompanied by ‘tractor fuel’ (a.k.a. rakia) at every meal and scrabbling for coins to pay for a few sheets of scratchy toilet paper from a babushka-type with bad hair-dye. I carried on buying Bulgarian wines when I was back in the UK but didn’t go back to the country for another dozen years or so.
In 2003 I returned for the first internationally judged wine competition, along with Jancis Robinson and a handful of judges from Norway, Poland and Scandinavia. So much was different; better hotels (with free toilet paper) and much better food (though cucumber and tomato are always standard fare). Usually everything was drowned in a thick fog of Balkan tobacco smoke. A mouthful of food and a puff on a cigarette wasn’t uncommon in those days (a habit that only faded with the indoor smoking ban in 2012). Winemaking was evolving, with the first few individual pioneers like Maxxima and Santa Sarah starting to appear, and privatization issues on their way to being resolved. But the larger wineries still seemed to believe that grapes grow in the back of trucks and couldn’t understand when we wanted to look at actual grapevines.
For some though, I think the proverbial penny (or stotinka) was beginning to drop as they realized that controlling fruit quality was going to be the next step for Bulgaria. Of course, problems of land ownership and vineyard neglect were still huge and have had major implications for Bulgaria.
Like all of Eastern Europe, Bulgarian wine has undergone a complete revolution from those early days of communist-scale, cheap, cheerful Bulgarian Cabernets; the ones I used to drink regularly as a student. I remember waiting with great anticipation for the arrival of Oriahovitza Reserve 1979 in Oddbins in the mid-1980s. There was nowhere else where you could get a wine with this level of maturity for the sort of price that even a student could afford. But the wine industry has undergone a complete revolution since then, through the challenges and problems of privatization, and has emerged as an exciting and dynamic scene, scattered with wines that I would be genuinely happy to recommend to anybody.
There is more to wine than just an enjoyable liquid (though obviously that’s important) and the stories behind the wine scene in Bulgaria are fascinating, though it hasn’t always been easy to get Bulgarians to genuinely open up and talk about it. And yet on the other hand Bulgarians are outspoken and blunt, and will tell you exactly what they think of you in so many words. Trust is a difficult thing for Bulgarians still, and they always seem to think there’s a catch, or a hidden agenda, so getting the wineries to tell me their genuinely personal stories has sometimes been hard. The more Latinized Romanians and even the Soviet-scarred Moldovans seem to have found it easier. And it’s a shame, because when you do get through that shell, Bulgarians and their wines are well worth getting to know.
The landscape of the Bulgarian wine industry has changed dramatically since the fall of the Iron Curtain and even more so since the completion of privatization. Accession to the EU in 2007 accelerated the pace of change, bringing with it reformed laws on winemaking as well as significant investment.
As part of the EU membership negotiations, Bulgaria agreed a vineyard area of 153,000 hectares, and official data for 2006 showed an area under vine of 135,760 hectares. However, this was never a realistic reflection of the area of viable productive vineyards and was most likely a political decision to give the industry maximum possible planting rights (which were extremely limited within the EU, basically requiring like for like replacement). Vineyard area continued to fall and the Ministry of Agriculture’s Annual Agrarian Report stated there were just 46,145 hectares in production in 2011, which fell further, to 36,551 hectares, by 2016.
Nearly half of Bulgaria’s vines are more than thirty years old, but in the last five years 6,000 to 8,000 hectares have been renovated each year. This almost certainly reflects purchase of land and planting or replanting of vineyards by large wineries, as well as the emergence of small and medium-sized new wineries with quality aspirations. Today, the majority of wineries have their own vineyards supplying all or part of their needs, and where they don’t own vines, longer term contracts specifying fruit quality and vine management are typically in place.
Vineyard development is likely to continue. Bulgaria had established a government-funded wine sector programme, worth nearly €70 million from 2014 to 2018, to support further conversion and restructuring of vineyards, plus investments in wine cellars and green measures. The change in attitude from technology towards the land shows the major mental switch that the industry has undergone. However, there is still a need to get to grips with the next step, which is to understand what the right locations for specific varieties are, and not just plant vines wherever a winery has been able to buy a plot of land. Look at France for examples of where the link from people to land has been uninterrupted for centuries (unlike Bulgaria where the link between land and individual people was largely destroyed over the years of communism). There are long established reasons why Pinot and Chardonnay grow in continental Burgundy while Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc reign in the Atlantic climates of Bordeaux and the Loire, and Syrah and Viognier suit the baking heat of the Rhone. It’s worth noting how little varietal overlap there is too, unlike in Bulgaria where many of these grapes are found together in the same vineyard. The alternative way of looking at this is that Bulgaria is experimenting with freedom from prescriptive laws about what to plant where.
There are two aspects to quality: the first is freedom from faults and off flavours, while the second relates to the individuality and complexity derived from a location that imparts its unique character. Bulgaria needs to learn from the mistakes of her New World competitors. Frequently vines have been planted without considering the suitability of the variety for each site, with winemakers putting their faith in the power of technology and modern winemaking to overcome any disadvantages, such as the wrong soil or excess heat, and ending up with uniform and even boring wines. In the early years of the new era, it was such a challenge to put together enough land in Bulgaria for a commercial vineyard that owners may have rushed into planting without thinking through what grapes might work best. Terroir may determine character and complexity, but the human factor determines quality level.
New vineyards have their place, and young vines do get older and better balanced in time, which is starting to happen now in Bulgaria with the first wave of new era vines. The earliest investments from the early to mid-2000s are now getting over this problem, and the wines are better for it, showing ripeness at lower and better balanced alcohol levels. Just as an example Bessa Valley Reserva 2006 was 15.7% abv and the latest release is a more harmonious 14.3% abv. But the industry should not forget the old vines – especially gnarly, ancient things planted decades ago. Such vines are often naturally in balance with roots reaching deep into the soil, but importantly, they are not the modern clones that are increasingly widespread, which suggests they have survived because they suited Bulgaria’s conditions. I would love to see someone taking cuttings before this potential treasure trove disappears in a sea of French or Italian clones. And the myth that old vines are automatically better is often disproved by the reality here. Older vineyards from communist times were planted for quantity, on vigorous rootstocks and fertile soils. Just getting old will never completely solve that problem, and in many older vineyards there are missing and sick vines, as well as a few that are overcropping, so giving very inconsistent results.
To explore the idea of terroir a bit further, three factors need to come together. First is the place itself – the soil, climate, microclimate, aspect, rainfall, wind, sun, altitude and nearby water – and of course vine varieties that suit all these factors. Second is competent winemaking, which allows what the place gives to shine through. It mustn’t dominate, either with faults, or through being too technical and manipulative. Third and arguably most important is the human factor – the passion to aim for high quality and to experiment. And yes, this may mean winemakers being prepared to put their reputations on the line and admit they got it wrong sometimes (and I know this is not something that comes easy to proud Bulgarians). There also needs to be a dose of realism, as there must be a market place to sell these wines into. Recent years have seen several Bulgarian producers embracing ‘terroir’ in a move to be recognized for fine wines. As Yuson Jung points out in her 2014 paper: ‘Terroir is a compelling narrative to legitimize the premium quality of their wines and enter the ranks of fine wine in the global wine hierarchy,’ adding that, ‘wine is not simply an alcoholic drink but a cultural commodity and a symbol of identity’.
Local or international – does Bulgaria need a flagship variety?
For the international market, local grape varieties are a good way of gaining interest and starting conversations, though selling a grape no one has heard of from a country with little reputation for quality wine can be a big ask. If a grape only comes from Bulgaria, it is – by definition – a wine of its place, and such local varieties can also be used to add Bulgarian character to blends. In some cases, the fact is that local grape varieties have remained local because they only suit specific local conditions or because they are too ethnic or rustic to gain wider attention. Shiroka Melnishka Loza for instance, only really suits the Struma Valley and its wines can be challenging to drink without modern winemaking. Grapes like Pamid appear totally unsuitable for producing quality wine that will appeal to modern drinkers.
In other cases, with a more knowledgeable approach to viticulture and winemaking there could well be some gems to discover. At the moment, Mavrud seems to be leading the way as Bulgaria’s red flagship, and today it is the most widely planted of the quality native grapes. By no means does everyone agree that this is the only choice, with supporters for Rubin, Melnik 55 and even Gamza. However, as Radoslav Radev (head of NVWC) pointed out to me, the situation is the opposite in the domestic market, where young people often associate local grape varieties with what their parents and grandparents drank. International grapes are the ones with glamour for new drinkers rebelling against their parents.
Finding the balance point between these conflicting demands is a challenge. There is also a valid argument that showing the world what Bulgaria can do with well-known grape varieties helps buyers understand what quality the country can offer. Adriana Srebrinova (owner of Maxxima and Borovitza) explains, ‘I think we will have a better chance of showing the unique qualities of Bulgarian wines through the place where we grow our grapes, because wine lovers in the world know how a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or a Bordeaux tastes, it is easy for them to discern the difference in a Bulgarian Cabernet.’
Extract from The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova © Caroline Gilby (Infinite Ideas, 2018)
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Mosel – a cosmos unto itself
Not only are the valleys of Mosel, Saar and Ruwer unique; they seem like a different universe. Here, grape, climate, soil and topography combine in such a fashion that the ancient contract between humans and vine, between sweat and fruit, is driven to its extreme. It is here that the greatest effort leads to the greatest lightness; that Riesling climaxes with absolute transparency, exactitude and expression. Nowhere else is it more apparent that it is light, not heat, that ripens grapes. Take the legendary south-facing Scharzhofberg in Wiltingen. You climb to its ridge and look at the shrub on its shaded, north-facing side: barely an apple would ripen there.
Until 2007 the Mosel region was still called ‘Mosel-Saar-Ruwer’, also crediting the valleys of the smaller tributaries. These subregions now go under the Mosel umbrella but are as distinct as ever. This region covers the final, brief stretches of three river valleys: the Mosel on its meandering path before it joins the Rhine at Koblenz, the Saar and Ruwer before they run into the Mosel at Konz and Trier, respectively. While the river Mosel rises in the French Vosges mountains and flows north past Metz and Schengen, the German wine region begins at the Luxembourg border. This is the relatively unknown Obermosel where Elbling and white Pinot varieties on Triassic formations dominate. What is commonly understood to be the Mosel region proper begins in Trier and follows the snaking river bends which take 237 kilometres to cover the 96 kilometre distance to Koblenz. By grinding its way into the 400-million-year-old sediments of the Rhenish Slate Massif between 15 and 2.5 million years ago, the river created this spectacular topography, curve by winding curve. The Mittelmosel, where all the most famous vineyards are, runs from Trier to Briedel. Its villages from south to north read like a wine menu: Leiwen, Piesport, Braunberg, Bernkastel, Graach, Wehlen, Traben-Trarbach and Enkirch. Driving along the Mosel in this narrow valley is confusing: the road follows the river but on alternating banks, so after one or two loops and bridges you lose all sense of direction. However, driving early in the morning allows you to see how the rising sun hits some knolls and slopes first, some dells and troughs later. At dusk some parcels are still sunlit while others have been shaded since noon. This mix of exposure, gradient, relative distance to the river and altitude already accounts for many differences in the wine. Add elements like varying subsoils, vine genetics, viticulture and winemaking and you have a perfect matrix of infinite possibility. This alone inspires awe, let alone the vertigo-inducing steepness of the rocky vineyards. The experience is much enhanced by the white lettering proclaiming the famous vineyard names from afar.
The stretch of river from Zell to Koblenz is called Terrassenmosel as the valley becomes a little warmer but much steeper, so vineyards are usually terraced. This is where Germany’s, and possibly Europe’s, steepest vineyard is, the Bremmer Calmont. The Mosel is of course synonymous with slate but there are variations of it as well as other formations. The fact that the Germans like to use the term Schiefer, or slate, freely causes much confusion so caution is advised. The oldest formations are Devonian shales, or Tonschiefer. Depending on colour they are named Blauschiefer or Grauschiefer and are the dominant formation in all three valleys. The same era also left some quartzite, especially in the Terrassenmosel as well as volcanic diabase in the Saar. The Permian era left rhyolite, red with iron oxide, which is often called Rotschiefer; the Ürziger Würzgarten is famous for it. All these formations are weathered to varying degrees; some are so fine you can crumble them in your hand. The dialect word ‘Lay’ means slate, explaining why this term crops up in so many vineyard names. In the Ruwer valley, just outside Trier, vines are more difficult to spot because the vineyards are choice, south-facing, singular slopes not on the Ruwer itself but on tiny tributaries, like Eitelsbach, Weschbach or Kundelbach. They are at slightly higher altitude and don’t benefit from the moderating effect of a sufficiently large body of water, so they are cooler than the Mosel valley. The same is true for the Saar, which is altogether more spacious, more remote and wilder. Merely its last 25 kilometres from just south of Serrig to its confluence with the Mosel at Konz constitute its world wine fame. Few vineyards are directly on the Saar and rise to 300 metres and beyond, both accounting for their coolness. These slopes are much more exposed to the elements. You realize how marginal the area is when you spot signs for the Viezstrasse, or cider route, which also is a speciality here. Saar vineyards are monumental in a different way from those in the Mosel. The good distances between them, their relative isolation and altitude seem to afford them lofty majesty and grandeur that underscores their individuality. The mere mention of sites like Kanzemer Altenberg, Ockfener Bockstein, Saarbuger Rausch, Ayler Kupp and Scharzhofberg will send shivers of pleasure down the spines of Riesling lovers.
But history also plays its part. Neither poetry nor artefacts leave any doubt that viticulture has been a central part of Mosel life since at least Roman times. The Mosel’s ‘rising, natural theatre of vines’ was described as early as the fourth century by Roman poet Ausonius, who had been summoned to Trier, or Augusta Treverorum, an important Roman settlement and garrison, to teach the sons of Emperor Valentinian. Remnants of Roman wine presses in Piesport and Brauneberg bear witness to active, early wine culture. After the invasion of the Franks, Trier emerged as an early centre of Christianity whose archbishops united worldly and ecclesiastic powers, expanded their territory and rose to become powerful electors in the twelfth century. The electorate of Kurtrier was an important church state and wine was central to its economy as countless records document: vineyards are named, Fuders bought and sold, trade regulated, and prices listed. In the tumultuous centuries surrounding the Thirty Years’ War, conflict was never far away, but viticulture, then still dominated by Elbling and field blends, always revived. In 1787 Elector Clemens Wenceslaus decreed that within the coming seven years all lesser varieties were to be grubbed up and replaced with quality vines like Riesling. Much is made of this famous edict but as later records show, it was never fully put into practice, especially since the French occupation of the left bank of the Rhine disrupted the political order once and for all. As one writer noted, the entire Mosel, ‘from its source to its confluence with the Rhine, became a French river.’ The area of Mosel, Ruwer and Saar which Napoleon’s troops had occupied since 1794 became the French Département de la Sarre in 1797. Secularization followed, as did the Code Civil, and former church possessions were sold off. Estates like Scharzhofberg and Maximin Grünhaus can trace their history to these transactions. It is believed that almost half of all vineyards changed hands at that time, a cataclysmic upheaval after centuries of feudalism.
By 1815 however, with Napoleon defeated, the area fell to Prussia. An initial period of prosperity was swiftly followed by disaster: the scrapping of protective tariffs combined with poor harvests spelled hunger and misery. The poverty he encountered among Mosel Winzer moved a young Karl Marx to pen several articles railing against Prussian injustice. Around the same time another social reformer, Ludwig Gall, introduced the idea of Nassverbesserung, literally ‘wet improvement’. Based on the ideas of Jean Antoine Chaptal in France, who had introduced ‘Chaptalization’, i.e. the enrichment of musts with sugar, Gall’s idea was the improvement of musts with sugar solution (sugar dissolved in water) which killed two birds with one stone: it enriched must and diluted acidity. Nassverbesserung thus made unpalatable, sour wine at least drinkable and therefore marketable. Needless to say, the method was and remained controversial, but became so widespread that gallisieren entered the vocabulary – no doubt the practice also helped to entrench the naturrein principle of unadulterated wine firmly in the German wine psyche. Yet this western backwater of Prussia remained desperately poor. Landowners with other income streams could survive, but for farmers especially reliant on viticulture in this narrow valley without much space for other arable crops, each vintage spelled either feast or famine. The Mosel flooded at regular intervals, too, creating more misery. If you look carefully you can see the high-water marks of past floods on doorways and bridges. Thorough as ever, the Prussians commissioned their cadastral inspector and tax councillor Franz Josef Clotten to create a vineyard site classification. Based on the site evaluations of Mosel, Saar and Ruwer vineyards conducted by the Prussian tax authorities between 1816 and 1832, this map was published in 1868 and graded vineyards into three classes. The best vineyards – mostly the same as today – were marked out in dark red and not only served tax purposes but also became a handy guide for wine merchants. A string of good vintages in the 1860s meant that Mosel wines were going up in the world. Geopolitically, Europe was changing, too. Prussia was in the ascendant, threatening the carefully calibrated European power balance of the Vienna Congress. France declared war in July 1870 and by February 1871 the Prussians were victorious. While the Franco–Prussian War set the scene for the creation of the Deutsches Reich in 1871, it also emphasized the strategic importance of the Mosel region. This formerly French and remote province now received a railway line that connected Berlin, Koblenz, Trier and Metz in the newly annexed region of Lothringen/Lorraine. Steamships had already eased transport, but the Mosel then was not navigable year round. Trains meant that wines could now go to market easily. Indeed, if you look closely at old Mosel labels you will see an unusual number of steamboats or locomotives signalling ready transport links. By the 1870s Mosel wines started to become highly fashionable. The English writer Henry Vizetelly described them in 1875 as lacking ‘the robustness of their brethren of the Rhine’ but noted that they were ‘at any rate light and delicate, and possessed of a fresh and at times even a decided flavour, rendering them highly palatable.’ While Rhine wines were drunk with bottle age, Mosel wines were drunk young. The wine chapter in the official catalogue of the Deutsches Reich for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris gives a nod to this fashion by describing Mosel and Saar wines as ‘by now popular’. It was their marked difference to the revered, mature Rhine wines that set them apart. Conscious of the need to support the populace of a border region, in 1896 the government in Berlin started founding not one but three Staatsdomänen, or state domaines, in Avelsbach, Serrig and Wiltingen: this way the state could benefit from the profitable wine business while also providing research and teaching centres serving as model domaines for best practice.
It was also in the nineteenth century that Riesling’s predominance was cemented in the Mosel. In 1845, Servatius Muhl reports lots of field blends in Saar and Mosel, noting Kleinberger, i.e. Elbling, and a hotch-potch of varieties. He notes that Elbling is often co-planted with Riesling, quoting the local wisdom: ‘Kleinberger brings much wine, Riesling makes it good.’ He also remarks that Riesling is planted in some places where it will not ripen in weak and average years. Fifty-three years later in 1898, Koch and Stephanus note that as a development of the past 20 years Riesling had become the predominant variety – but they also point out that in lesser sites Riesling is mixed with Silvaner, Pinot varieties and Traminer. Occasionally there are references to red wine – made from Spätburgunder and Portugieser. They also emphasize the viticultural progress. It was at that time that several harvest passes were made in the best Riesling vineyards, and grapes of the same ripeness were fermented to create different wine styles. Mosel wine was thus at its zenith at the turn of the century – and would remain so until the First World War. In this golden age these wines were amongst the most expensive and desirable in the world. The decades that followed the war were marked by difficulty. The tough conditions of the Versailles Treaty, the economic crisis and inflation of 1929, the ascent of Nazi Germany that ended in devastation, loss and misery. Yet, when German chancellor Konrad Adenauer negotiated the release of the last German prisoners of war still captive in the Soviet Union with Nikita Khrushchev in 1955, he took precious Berncasteler Doctor Riesling from the 1950 vintage with him.
Recovery was slow in the immediate post-war years, but vineyard expansion was rampant from the 1960s to the 1980s. The fact that Nassverbesserung, that relic of the nineteenth century, was still allowed, coupled with the 1971 invention of Grosslagen, or collective sites, meant that much Mosel wine became a parody of itself. One of the most grotesque examples of a Grosslage is the Piesporter Michelsberg, or PiMi in bulk wine circles, with 1,106 hectares – larger than some German wine regions! The figures tell the story: in 1879 there were 6,144 hectares in the Mosel, of which 42 per cent were Riesling; by 1906 there were 7,484 hectares of which 88 per cent were Riesling. In 1964 there were 9,835 hectares of which 79 per cent were Riesling; in 1979 there were 12,298 hectares, of which 58 per cent were Riesling and 22 per cent Müller-Thurgau. All this rode on the coat-tails of former glory and culminated in the 1980s when several scandals broke: amongst them that of inverted sugar syrup in 1980, which centred on the Mosel, where sugar was used to create fake Prädikat-level wines from poor wines, and the diethylene glycol scandal of 1985, where this substance was added to wines to mimic the viscous mouthfeel of rich, sweet wine. Domestic and export markets collapsed and even blameless estates suffered. The region’s reputation lay in tatters. Various parcels on the steep slopes fell fallow.
It took the Mosel until the turn of the millennium to start recovering. Climate change has helped: ‘Mosel, Saar and Ruwer have benefited because there are no more sour wines. Viticulture is much better today. We want to maintain the delicacy, the positive lightness. Vineyards which used to be abandoned because they were too cool are being recultivated, we go higher up, we go into the lateral valleys,’ explains Johannes Selbach of Selbach-Oster. And now Spätburgunder is also winning plaudits. The past twenty years have seen a flowering of quality where old vineyards and vines are valued; where young winemakers invest their futures in this region; where visionaries like Ernie Loosen, Markus Molitor and Roman Niewodniczanski of van Volxem created a dynamo effect with their respective investments and achievements; where arch traditionalists like Egon Müller, Maximin Grünhaus and Joh. Jos. Prüm hold fast to their historic values. Once again Germany and the world are conscious of the uniqueness of Riesling that can be achieved here. The slopes are still as steep, but the counsel from an old book, ‘that no bread in Germany is earned harder, nor sliced more frugally, than in the Mosel,’ is thankfully consigned to history – even though the wines are far too cheap across the board for the effort that goes into growing them. It is a delicious contradiction that such monumental effort should lead to such weightlessness and delicacy. Today the stylistic spectrum of Riesling in this region alone is mind-blowing. If you wonder about the differences between Mosel and Saar Riesling, here are the opinions of two experts. Nik Weis of St Urbanshof says that ‘the particular conditions of the Mosel are even more heightened in the Saar,’ while Hanno Zilliken of Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken notes: ‘The difference between Mosel and Saar is the different weighting of constituents. A Mosel Riesling is carried by its fruit accompanied by acidity. A Saar Riesling is carried by its acidic structure accompanied by fruit.’ Fans should not miss two annual events: Mythos Mosel and Saar Riesling Sommer which draw an enthusiastic and young crowd.
Extract from The wines of Germany © Anne Krebiehl (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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The origins of biodynamics
Biodynamics dates from 1924 and is the oldest alternative agriculture movement. Biodynamics pre-dated the global organic agriculture movement whose founding organization, the UK’s Soil Association, dates from 1946. In fact the very word ‘organic’ was derived from the biodynamic ideal that each farm or smallholding should always work towards becoming a self-sustaining organism in its own right.
The particular feature of biodynamics – and where biodynamics differs from organics and indeed all other forms of alternative agriculture – is the use of nine so-called ‘biodynamic preparations’. These are made from cow manure, the mineral quartz (also called silica), and seven medicinal plants: yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian and Equisetum arvense or common horsetail. These nine preparations are applied to the land or crops either by being first incorporated into a compost pile or by being diluted in water as liquid sprays.
Biodynamic preparations are used in homeopathic quantities, meaning they can produce an effect in extremely diluted amounts, but they are not homeopathic treatments per se. Their purpose is to make the farm and farmer, its crops, animals and wild habitat, self-sufficient, self-sustaining and socially, economically and spiritually robust. These concepts may seem woolly in our world of smartphones and space exploration, but would have seemed less so to 1920s Europeans coping with the ravages of both the First World War and then its even deadlier successor, an influenza pandemic.
The methods used to make some of the preparations may seem strange initially but are neither high tech, expensive, costly to the environment nor potentially harmful. Anyone, from children to grandparents, can (and do) make these preparations. The biodynamic preparations are not patented so they can never realistically be made purely for profit, and they seem to get good results for farms and vineyards.
Sceptics, however, claim the biodynamic preparations produce no measurable changes to either farm health or crop quality; thus there is no ‘biodynamic effect’. Such sceptics argue that biodynamic winegrowers owe the high quality of their wine either to having a top-quality vineyard terroir in the first place, or that vineyards which improved after ‘going biodynamic’ did so because the winegrower learnt to become extra attentive in the vineyard by following a biodynamic ‘prevention rather than cure’ mindset (e.g. better pruning, recalibrating spray machinery so sprays are more effective), and not because the vines were treated with biodynamic sprays or composts. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of winegrowers are using these preparations which are essential to biodynamic agriculture. Their regular use is the fundamental requirement of Demeter, the non-profit organization which has overseen and certified biodynamic agriculture worldwide since 1928.
The biodynamic preparations were created by an Austrian called Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) shortly before he died. His motivation was to remedy what he sensed was the arrested spiritual development of his contemporaries. Steiner believed the forces people needed to kickstart their spiritual development would come from digesting food imbued with these desirable and necessary forces, and that getting these forces into food required a new way of growing food: biodynamic agriculture. For this Steiner developed nine biodynamic preparations to moderate and regulate biological processes in nature. This is the ‘bio’ part of biodynamics. The ‘dynamic’ part comes by understanding the preparations’ role in enhancing and strengthening forces that form or shape material substance, both on the farm and within both the farmer and the crops. These forces are referred to in biodynamics as ‘etheric formative forces’. Like gravity, they are unseen but have a tangible effect on both soil and on crop plants as well as on the animals or humans who digest those plants. Steiner’s nine biodynamic preparations can therefore be thought of as spiritual remedies for the human being which are administered indirectly through the healing process of the Earth. Biodynamic farmers accept that there is no substance or matter without spirit, and equally no spirit without matter. So the point of growing biodynamic food and drink is not only to provide the substances (vitamins, carbohydrates, protein, fats, minerals) to nourish the human body but also to provide the forces needed to form and nourish the human spirit.
The spiritual side of biodynamics is the one most open to misinterpretation, misrepresentation and ridicule. One common misconception is that apart from encouraging you to start wearing sandals and paying less attention to personal hygiene, growing or eating biodynamic food will also turn you into a religious fruitcake. I discovered biodynamics in 1993 but had struggled to find many redeeming features in organized religion from the age of seven (1974) onwards. I am not a fan of sects. I do consider myself spiritual in the pantheistic sense of feeling my spirit lift palpably when I feel a connection with the natural world. This can happen when standing euphorically on the top of a mountain or, more mundanely, when looking at pigeons fluttering around under the eaves of the railway station my train is about to depart from.
In my experience winegrowers – be they biodynamic or conventional – who come across as fundamentalist proselytizers tend not to make the best wines, often because they are inflexible and unwilling to compromise. This may be fine when churning out widgets on a production line but is not adapted to a product like wine, dependent on the vagaries of nature. Fortunately, the fundamentalist proselytizers tend to be in the minority.
Most winegrowers newly adopting biodynamics start by seeing it as I did initially: as a sensible, doable, interesting, inexpensive tool to produce tastier grapes to nourish the human palate – and if they also provide the formative forces to nourish the human spirit, so be it. Biodynamic ultras argue that this purely ‘substance rather than forces’ way of looking at biodynamics means missing the real reason we should be biodynamic. I would argue that materialistic and only vaguely spiritual people like me – meaning exactly the kind of people Steiner developed his biodynamic preparations for – first have to understand and accept how the biodynamic tool works, and only then can we perhaps appreciate that our spiritual development may have lacked something to begin with after all.
Extract from Biodynamic Wine © Monty Waldin (Infinite Ideas, 2016)
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Wine styles in the Western Cape
South Africa is the first New World country to develop a designation for its traditional method sparkling wines that does not ride the coattails of Champagne. Today, Methode Cap Classique, or, more informally, MCC, is the fastest growing wine category in the country, doubling every five years. Not only is quality very high, especially in relation to price; bubbly is also more profitable for the country’s struggling wine growers. They can typically pick grapes for these wines earlier, pulling the maximum output from the vineyard when waiting longer might cost up to 10 percent in crop volume due to dehydration.
The history of sparkling wine production in South Africa is not a long one. The first example came from Frans Malan at Simonsig in 1971 (there are occasional mentions of “Champagne” earlier, and there were definitely sparkling wines of some sort, but there’s no evidence these were methode champenoise wines). In 1935 the so-called Crayfish Agreement with the French had forbidden the use of French wine terms on labels. Consequently, Simonsig called the wine “Kaapse Vonkel” – “Cape bubbles” in Afrikaans, expecting that this would become the accepted name for the category.
Simonsig and other estate producers were largely unconcerned with the export market at the time, so an Afrikaans name seemed reasonably marketable. Simonsig became more serious about bubbly production in 1978; Villiera and Boschendal followed, using the term methode champenoise, which they considered a description of the technique and not a geographical reference. By the time the French protested, more than a dozen producers were using the term. Export markets were just beginning to open when, in 1992, the Cap Classique Producers Association formed. South Africa’s bubblies gained a more marketable, romantic, and French name that also avoided the use of any protected French wine words.
There are over 200 producers making Methode Cap Classique wines, although many do so only in small amounts for wine club members, tasting room sales, and so forth. Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck estimates total production to be approximately 7.7 million bottles. As of 2021 using the designation requires 12 months of lees aging; association members are already adhering to that minimum, but changing the actual regulations has dragged on, so for now the legal requirement on the books is only nine months. Beyond that, prerequisites are fairly bare-bones: wines must contain at least three bars of pressure, and must go to market in the same bottle that the second fermentation occurred in. The association recommends the traditional Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, but other varieties are permitted. Several producers are making Chenin Blanc-based examples, and Pinotage makes an appearance in some examples such as Simonsig’s Brut Rosé.
Growth has presented challenges for the Cap Classique category. With many producers making bubbly but not specializing in it, some are concerned about consistency within the category. The Cap Classique Producers Association is working hard to encourage best practices in-cluding extended lees aging, hand-harvesting, and whole bunch pressing. There is also move-ment toward some sort of reserve designation. As imagined at the time of writing, this would prescribe a minimum 36 months on the lees and limit wines to the three traditional Cham-pagne varieties and possibly Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.
The success and quality of Cap Classique wines often surprises people who associate the style with Champagne’s cooler growing conditions. Ferreira says growing grapes for sparkling wine in warmer areas calls for carefully shading the grapes through row direction and canopy management. Robertson has become a key source for Cap Classique wine grapes, Chardonnay especially, thanks to its limestone soils and a good diurnal temperature shift. Franschhoek is also a leading source. Most of the more successful producers pull from those two districts and perhaps elsewhere. Charles Fox, which uses estate fruit from their farm in Elgin, would be a rare exception.
Vintage Methode Cape Classique is not necessarily a higher-tier product than non-vintage. Given that vintages are not as variable in South Africa as they are in Champagne, many pro-ducers don’t feel the need to blend vintages and choose to produce vintage-labeled wines as their mainstay. Some, however, such as Colmant, consider multi-vintage blending to be fun-damental to creating complex, consistent, high-quality bubblies; the reserve wine is not a tool to compensate for variation, but a flavor and textural component. Blancs de blancs of 100 percent Chardonnay are fairly common; blancs de noirs less so. In fact, the designation blanc de noirs under SAWIS regulations indicates a white wine of any sort made from red grapes, not just sparkling wines. On a related note, Boschendal introduced a still white/pale rosé Chardonnay–Pinot Noir blend, essentially a non-sparkling Cap Classique blend, in the early 1980s, and several other producers have also adopted the style.
Methode Cap Classique sweetness designations conform to E.U. standards; most are bruts. Outside of the Cap Classique category there are a large number of Charmat or force-carbonated wines, generally in more budget price ranges.
Sweet and fortified wines
South Africa’s most famous sweet wine, Constantia, has been resurrected by the producers in the ward of the same name. Klein Constantia introduced their recreation, the Vin de Con-stance, starting from the 1986 vintage. Groot Constantia followed with the Grand Constance from 2003. Despite its prominence, there is no regulated definition for the ward’s dessert wines. Both Klein and Groot Constantia use late harvest grapes, free from botrytis, but Groot Constantia uses red Muscat de Frontignan in its blend rather than just white, creating a clear contrast in color and aroma. Neither is fortified.
Today South Africa designates unfortified dessert wines (known as “natural sweet”) into a few categories. Aside from the late harvest wines exemplified by Constantia’s wines, botrytized, noble late harvest wines play an interesting historical role as well. Regulations dating from 1957 prohibited naturally sweet wines with more than 30 grams per liter of sugar, but Günter Brözel, the cellarmaster at Nederburg, was dead-set on making a botrytized wine akin to those he knew from his birthplace, Germany. Given the generally warm, dry conditions, botrytis is not a common occurrence in the Cape. Brözel proceeded anyhow, producing South Africa’s first botrytis wine in 1969. Named Edelkeur, it brought home more than a dozen gold medals in international competitions but could not be sold locally. The next vintage of the wine was 1972. Nederburg took sales into its own hands by founding the Nederburg Auction in 1975, sidestepping regulations and the regular retail market by using the auction to sell and highlight the wine. Much to Brözel’s dismay, the Edelkeur Noble Late Harvest sold for the same price as Lieberstein, the massive SFW off-dry Chenin blend, but soon the wine’s reputation took off. The wine has consistently been one of the most expensive items in the auction ever since. The auction itself, renamed in 2019 as the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction, remains a stage for featuring some of the Cape’s most exclusive, high-end wines from Nederburg and the other producers invited to take part.
Today, a number of producers also make Noble Late Harvest wines, from several different grape varieties. Paul Cluver, in Elgin, makes a Riesling; Ken Forrester’s “T”, named for his wife Teresa, is a Chenin Blanc. South Africa’s final expression of natural sweet wines would be those made from grapes dried either on straw beds after picking, or desiccated on the vine by crimping the stems and leaving the bunches to hang. De Trafford’s Chenin Blanc Vin de Paille is a notable example.
Historically, fortified wines played a much bigger role in the industry than they do today, and made up the bulk of production until 1953, when natural (i.e. unfortified) wines caught up with them. The latter had begun to grow as early as the 1880s, aided by a burgeoning temper-ance movement that favored them. The Western Cape was the main consumer of the “newer” style of wine, suggesting that fortification was important at least in helping the wines travel well. Today, annual production of fortified wine hovers at just above one million liters per year, compared to over 500 million liters of still wine. Nonetheless, the history shines through in the quality established by long tradition.
Many of these fortified wines were long known by Iberian names – Port, Sherry, etc. – but in 2000 South Africa signed agreements with the E.U. to respect such terms; both “Port” and “Sherry” disappeared from South African exports in 2002, and from the domestic market a decade later. Today, the word “Cape” has, in essence, taken the place of “Port” on labels: a Cape Vintage is a vintage fortified wine, Cape Tawny has the maderized nutty taste one would expect, and so forth. Sherry-style wines bear the stylistic indicator – Amontillado, for example – without the geographically-specific word “Sherry”.
Fortified wines made from the various sorts of Muscat live their own lives, free from Europe-an naming controversies. They are labeled “Muscadel” if they are made from white or red Muscat de Frontignan, or “Hanepoot” if from Muscat d’Alexandrie. Jerepigo (or jerepiko) is unfermented but fortified grape juice, most commonly made from Muscat; it is typically very sweet and decidedly grapey.
Today Calitzdorp, in the Klein Karoo, is home to several producers who continue to offer Port-style wines that can compete with Iberia’s best; Boplaas, Bayly, and Axe Hill are all top examples. The Swartland is home to a few like-minded producers as well. The Muscat-based fortified wines are a specialty of many of the higher-yielding areas, including the Northern Cape. For many co-ops and large operations such as Badsberg or Orange River Cellars their perennial prize winner is a Hanepoot, Jerepigo, or Muscadel.
Sommeliers studying for their exams seem to obsess over the term “Boberg”, a W.O. once used to designate a fortified wine from Paarl, Franschhoek, Wellington, or Tulbagh. There have been preciously few of these since the 1970s, and the term was officially repealed in February 2019.
Extract from The wines of South Africa © Jim Clarke (Infinite Ideas, 2020)
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