Going Dutch – Apostelhoeve Cuvée XII

Apostelhoeve Cuvée XIIThere isn’t much that the Dutch don’t grow – a glance at my weekly vegetable box reveals a predominance of homegrown produce. And no, I don’t mean something you can smoke.

In the five months since I moved to Amsterdam, I’ve eaten Tomatoes, Carrots, Leeks, Peppers, Kohlrabi, Aubergines, Apples, Strawberries, very fine cheeses and cooked meats, organically farmed lamb and beef, all of which were produced inside the Netherland’s modest borders. But until yesterday, I hadn’t tasted a Dutch wine.

“The Dutch make wine?” I hear you cry incredulously. Yes they do, and have done since the 1970s, albeit in miniscule quantities. The climate is marginal – not dissimilar to the UK, but the regions of Gelderland and Limburg (bordering Belgium) get just enough sun to be able to ripen some white varieties. According to wikipedia, a number of red varieties are also permitted for Dutch quality wine, but I have to say I’m not in a hurry to try Pinot Noir or St. Laurent from these climes.

Apostelhoeve is a family-owned farm near Maastricht that apparently had vines growing in Roman times. The owners decided to plant vines again in 1970, and now make a range of white still and sparkling wines. I tried Apostelhoeve Cuvee XII 2013, a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Auxerrois and Pinot Gris.

The first impression was a lack of real defining character – I was hoping for a jolt of Riesling (before I knew what was actually in the blend) or more pronounced florality from the Müller-Thurgau. However, for pure drinkability this wine scores high. The balance between freshness, body and fruit is near-perfect, and the finish has a pleasing elegance (dare I say minerality). This is a well-made wine, dry, medium bodied and the fruit tastes ripe.

At a €12-€14 price point in its home country, it’s unlikely this wine is ever going to be exported to the UK or anywhere else in Europe – there’s simply too much competition from more mainstream producing countries, bigger names and bolder flavours. But I have to say, I enjoyed Cuvée XII and look forward to trying some of the estate’s other wines – a premium priced Riesling and an oak aged Pinot Gris caught my attention.

Apostelhoeve’s tagline “Borgondisch Genieten” did get my head scratching a bit. Roughly translated as “Burgundian pleasure”, it’s a strange choice given that the estate grows no Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. As an aspiration it’s certainly ambitious, but as the Dutch say “Aim for the sky and you’ll end up in the trees”.

Apostlehoeve wines are available from the excellent Ton Overmars in Oud West, Amsterdam, and various other stockists across the Netherlands.

Permaculture in Slovenia: Visiting Miha and Ivan Batic

Miha shows off some young Vitovska vines

Miha shows off some young Vitovska vines

There’s an almost reactionary view that winemakers who practice organic or biodynamic viticulture end up having to be more, rather than less interventionist in the vineyard. The theory goes that instead of a single (noxious) spraying to knock out mildew/pests/anything else living, the organic or biodynamic vigneron will have to tramp through their vineyard countless times during the year, perhaps spraying copper or Bordeaux mixture 5-6 times in addition to endless manual weeding, green harvesting and so forth.

A visit to Miha and Ivan Batič’s vineyards, in Slovenia’s most Westerly Vipavska region, would debunk that fairly swiftly.

Miha Batič is laid-back and relaxed when he picks me up in nearby Gorizia, a town which is now split into two as it straddles the Italo-Slovenia border. In fact he’s in better shape than me, owing to my late night confluence with an enthusiastic Enoteca-owner. We drive through the beautiful Vipavska Dolina (Valley), and suddenly it becomes clear why we’re in a 4×4, as we turn onto a rough track and start ascending steeply.

young vitovska vines

Young Vitovska vines

Vitovska, a variety whose origins are so murky that not even Jancis Robinson’s crack team can unravel whether it hails from Slovenia or Italy, is one of few indigenous species still cultivated here. Miha shows me some young Vitovska vines, not yet ready for production, but growing happily at around 400m altitude, with only the occasional paraglider for company. As we talk about the viticulture, he becomes increasingly passionate.

The Batič approach is to let nature take its course as much as possible. Miha tells me, pointing to a copse, if the trees and other plants can survive up here without human intervention, so can the vines. This means no irrigation, no fertilisers, no biodynamic preparations, nothing. We stop talking for a second to listen to the bucolic sound of crickets, birds and the wind. Miha intones rather poetically “we can listen to the orchestra of animals and this tells us that the vines are healthy”. And indeed, on this gloriously sunny morning it feels like everything is in perfect harmony.

Well, almost everything.

Ducks on snail-patrol (Photo courtesy Ivan Batic)

Ducks on snail-patrol (Photo courtesy Ivan Batic)

We examine some small white snails clinging to isolated vineleaves. “In another month or two, the vines will be covered”, Miha explains. And because the snails (Cernuella virgata) like to eat the leaves, this is not good at all.

Luckily there’s a sensitive solution that will not trouble the chemical companies’ order books. It comes on two legs and quacks. Ducks will roam the vineyard throughout autumn, reaching just high enough to pick off the offending molluscs, but not high enough to grab the grapes.

Pleasure in nature

I first came across Miha and Ivan’s wines at London’s Raw Fair 2012 – a celebration of natural and low-intervention winemaking bar none. I approached the Batič tasting table with a tired palate and wouldn’t have believed I could be amazed by anything at the end of a long day. My interest was immediately piqued.

Note the attractively shaped bottles

Note the attractively shaped bottles

The Batič philosophy in the winery is just as “hands off” as it is in the vineyard. A question about who (father or son) is the main winemaker is politely rebutted: “We don’t think of ourselves as winemakers – we just let the wine make itself”. In practical terms, this means wild yeasts, no additives, and no sulphur apart from perhaps at bottling time.

White wines are typically made with extended skin contact, lending them arresting and sometimes unfamiliar hues – take the wonderful burnished rose colour of the Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris), for example. But these are not difficult, “hair shirt” wines for extreme naturalistas. Rather, the wines are voluptuous, complex and utterly pleasurable.

I barely get my teeth into the reds before we have to rush back to Gorizia (I’m on far too tight a schedule). We take a lightening dash round the winery, which is modest and functional. Everything in the Batič empire radiates passion, without artifice.

Miha sums it up perfectly: “When you drink, your soul must say thank you.”

batic insignia

Tasting notes

The 100-point system is dead. Welcome to my infinitely simpler, less precise, more subjective and universally unknown rating system. I’ll give one star to wines I particularly rate. Or two stars to wines that are off the scale. No stars doesn’t mean bad.

Rebula 2011

A soft and full-textured wine, this is Friuli’s Ribolla Gialla in Slovenian guise. The nose is aromatic, the finish is fresh. Plums and cooked apple.

Sivi Pinot 2009

7-10 days on the skins has given this wine the most wonderful burnished rose colour. Quite blowsy, with a strawberry coulis palate and dry nutty finish. Just a hint of the phenolics (tannins).

Pinela 2009

Creamy textured and structured, lemon fresh acidity and terrific balance, even at 14% alcohol.

* Chardonnay 2007

Kiwi fruit aroma, some nice minerality, green melon and cooked fruit. Very elegant and fresh. Made from 45 year old vines.

** Chardonnay 1999

From an extraordinary year, this is utterly unique. 15% alcohol, but not unbalanced in any way. Arresting flavours of sour apple, white blossom and green pepper (capsicum), with a nutty, bready undertow. Very dry, mineral and savoury finish with a hint of gunflint. Long and exciting.

Bonisimus 2007

A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Pinela and Rebula, with some of the wine aged in large Slovenian oak barrels. Slightly funky and floral nose, giving way to a rich, full-textured wine. Dry and complex, but rather “hot” on the finish. (14.5%)

* Zaria 2010

For me this is the more successful blend. And for the obscure grape variety nerds (hmm, that’ll be me then), what a blend it is: 55% Pinela, 20% Zelen, 10% Rebula, 8% Vitovska, 4% Klarnica, 2% Chardonnay, 1% Yellow Muscat. The aromas range from plums to green tea and jasmine. The wine matures in old oak barrels, which are deliberately not topped up, lending a slight oxidative character – think of a Colheita port, but absolutely bone-dry. Dried apricots, caramel and lemons on the palate. Very complex, defiantly tannic, but somehow manages to be perfectly approachable.

* Pinela 2008

Matured for two years in slovenian oak, which has lent the wine a spicy, vanilla-infused aroma, with a hint of iced coffee. Fresh red berry fruit flavours and a hint of apple. Charming.

* Cabernet Franc

Quite rich for Cab Franc, but with attractive stalkiness that keeps it fresh – and a slight saline edge to the finish. Matured in old barriques – the oak influence is subtle and doesn’t overawe.

Batic wines are distributed in the UK by Pacta Connect. Many thanks to Miha for his time and generosity. I visited in June 2012.

 

 

Fulvio Bressan – Taking the long-term view

Fulvio Bressan

“Better that you have wine in your heart and soul, or you change business.”  Fulvio Bressan, June 2012

Winemaking has developed significantly in the last few decades. Winemakers now routinely draw on a vast canon of research, learning and technology to help ensure that they produce consistent wines and harvest fruit in prime condition, year in, year out. Vintage variation, of the sort that wrote off most early 90’s Bordeaux, is almost a thing of the past.

Modern viticulture (growing the grapes) tends to focus on getting a good return-on-investment, a defined yield (which could be high or low depending on the ambitions of the winemaker), and physiological ripeness – in other words, the point where every component of the grape, from tannins, to pips, skins and flesh, is ripe and not green or bitter tasting.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing though – our supermarkets and wine merchants have shelves lined with fault-free wines, but there is ever-increasing homogenity, with “correct” but bland wines dominating sales. What if the winemaker wants to attain uniqueness, excitement and daring in their products? Perhaps there’s a need to look back to more traditional practices.

Fulvio Bressan is a ninth-generation winemaker from Friuli Isonzo who does precisely that. Not that he has any lack of up-to-date winemaking knowledge. Trained in Bordeaux, Bressan has been making wine at his family’s property since the mid-1990s. But his approach is rather different to accepted practice.

Farming methods

Fulvio is passionate about nurturing the land that his family have inhabited for centuries. That means organic or biodynamic farming methods (Bressan was certified organic until 2001, but in the face of almost wholly absent inspectors could not see any value in renewing his certification). No fertilisers or synthetic products are used, with copper being reserved as a last resort.

130 year old Schioppettino vines

130 year old Schioppettino vines

Fulvio and his wife Jelena (herself an inexhaustible font of knowledge on the family’s winemaking methods) tend their vines (20ha spread across Friuli Isonzo and Collio), with a view to future generations – not just the next decade. For the Bressans, it is important to limit the vigour of their vines not just to keep yields low (and they are very low, at around 3.5 tons per hectare), but also so that the plants are not worn out after 30 years. Fulvio wants his vines to be capable of producing for a century or more. As living proof, they have a prized plot of 130-year-old Schioppettino in Corona, which contributes much of the complexity and depth to the Bressan Schioppettino blend.

Interestingly, the Bressans do not green harvest. Fulvio’s view is that mature vines are self-regulating, at least if they are tended with respect. Green harvesting as a modern practice has become so synonymous with quality, that it is now required under the Friuli DOC laws. Fulvio’s solution is simply to bottle his wines under the broader, supposedly less prestigious Friuli-Venezia-Gorizia IGT category.

Fulvio staunchly believes that grapes should not be grown in locations where irrigation is required – he never irrigates, instead ensuring that his vines send down deep roots to search for water themselves. He does not grow grass between the rows, as this would provide too much competition for the vines, and potentially require weedkiller – instead the stony soil is left bare.

Local varieties

Dark skinned Schioppettino, also known as Ribolla Nera, is one of three treasured indigenous varieties (Pignol and Verduzzo Friulano are the others) which are pretty much the Bressan raison d’etre.  Although the family has historical plots of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and Pinot Grigio, it is likely that these varieties will be grubbed up as they reach the end of their useful lives.

Most revered of all is Pignol or “Pignolo” in the local dialect. “Look at the power of these vines”, Fulvio commented as we strode down the rows of these rather angular, commanding plants. This is not an easy variety to cultivate – yields are notoriously unreliable, and inconsistent, even from one bunch of grapes to another on the same vine. It’s worth the effort though, as the Pignol wine is extraordinary in its power, longevity and complexity.

Winemaking

Fulvio’s strongly held views on the use of cultured yeast to ferment wine are famous – “It is the same thing as getting your wife to sleep with another man, to have your son. Then that is not your son”.  The subject cropped up several times in our conversation, and Fulvio reminded me “If you bring cultured yeasts to my winery, you (will) not arrive back at the home – except in a wheelbarrow.”

During my visit, the winery was being totally overhauled with a new floor and wooden roof. We talked about the traditional lime mortar, and the mixture of 25 different herbs used to seal the wood, to ensure that viable wild yeast cultures could develop easily in the winery.

A combination of stainless steel and concrete vats are used, together with 2000 litre Slovenian “botti”, and old barriques for the Pignol. No new oak or anything else which might unduly flavour the wines is used. A limited amount of temperature control is practised. The aim is to let the grape varieties, and the “terroir” speak for themselves. For Fulvio though, it is also important that the wine communicates something about him, his family, his philosophy – he talks of emotion in wine.

The wines

Jelena opening the Cabernet

Jelena opening the Cabernet

Fulvio’s wines are not for the faint of heart. They are bold and uncompromising, like the man himself. They grab hold of you, and shake you up and down, before you get the measure of their considerable panache. The reds in particular can be incredibly concentrated – that makes sense when you consider the very low yields, and dry-farming in a sub-Mediterranean climate. The Bressan vines have to work hard to produce their precious crop.

Concentration is not a synonym for overripe, jammy or overbearing. Interestingly, alcohol levels chez Bressan are much more restrained than many of their Friulian neighbours. It’s depressingly easy to find Malvasias from Friuli Collio with 14.5% alcohol and above. Yet Fulvio’s wines are typically around 13 – 13.5%. This is due to a combination of the restraint exercised in the vineyards, and the natural yeast strains, which do not maximise alcohol levels as readily as cultured yeasts. It is an important factor in ensuring balance and freshness.

The Bressan wines buck the current trend for easy-drinking young wine. Typically released when they are 5-6 years old, these wines need time to show their best. This point was really hammered home to me, when I tasted some older vintages at a nearby Osteria (see below).

Seek these wines out wherever you can find them – they are rare treasures (the estate makes only around 50,000 bottles a year), created by a winemaking family that care deeply about the integrity of their output, and the long term future of their estate. This passion is very ably transmitted in their wines.

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Tasted over lunch

Pinot Nero vines near the house

Pinot Nero vines near the house

Carat 2006

Just bottled, and very much an orange wine – a traditional blend of Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia and Friulano, with creamy fruit, and aromas of red onion marmalade. Quite seriously tannic (not surprising as the wine stayed on the skins for four weeks), and I have to admit I would want to leave this for a year before cracking open another bottle. Terrific length, driving acidity and a bright future.

Ego 2003

A 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc and Schioppettino, with the latter contributing that utterly distinctive green pepper nose, and the former providing freshness. Elegant and poised.

Pinot Nero 2006

A super-concentrated, spicy Pinot which is starting to calm down and show its more elegant side as it matures (Now noticeably more well-mannered than it was in October 2011). This should be quite special given another few years on the clock – and will effortlessly survive for a further decade.

Schioppettino 2006

I have a love-hate relationship with the 2006 Schioppettino. Sometimes it seems to have an almost green (unripe) note, however there is plenty of brambley, leathery fruit, and a lemon-fresh finish.

 

Schioppettino to the left, Pignol to the right

Schioppettino to the left, Pignol to the right

Tasted in the winery

Verduzzo Friulano 2007

Late harvested, dry but with a wonderful honeyed character, complex palate and beautiful amber colour. Very long, this also has to be one of Fulvio’s most accessible wines.

Pinot Grigio 2006 (Tank sample)

Fulvio describes this as “a silly wine”. He has every intention of grubbing up his Pinot Grigio, once the vines reach an age where he can justify it. I think he’s being harsh – it may lack a little acidity, but there’s an attractive bitter orange note, and full, fat texture.

Cabernet Crown Domains 2003

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, I found the exaggerated herbaceous nose got in the way with this wine. There is terrific structure and staying power, but less individual character than many of the other Bressan wines.

No. 3 2003

Definitely more than the sum of its parts – those parts being Schioppettino, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Nero. A distinctive peppery nose gives way to a silky pinot texture, with red fruits and an attractive saline quality. Elegant, complex and exciting (Or as Fulvio would say – just like him!)

Pignol 1997 (Barrel sample)

Taking a barrel sample of the Pignol '97

Taking a barrel sample of the Pignol ’97

Surely this is Fulvio’s personal favourite. He excitedly told me several times “Now this is wine, Simon”. And I would have to agree. Further proof that the Bressan wines need serious amounts of time to show their best. Aromas of leather and mushrooms give way to sweet blackberry, prune and dried apricot fruit, and a lively lemon candy freshness. Although there’s only 3gr of residual sugar, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was more. Fulvio told me it’s actually the tannins providing all the sweetness. And what structured, refined tannins they are.

This wine could surely live for decades – I guessed it was rather unapproachable in its youth. “If you taste this at one year old, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week” was Fulvio’s response. After 15 years mellowing in old barriques, it still has vitality and freshness, yet so much more besides. Asked when they might finally bottle this giant of a wine, Fulvio shrugged “Maybe next year”.

Tasted at Osteria L’alchimista, Gorizia.

Schioppettino 2005

The only wine the Bressans made in a terrible vintage. And luckily Stefano, the proprietor at the Bressan’s favourite local Enoteca, had a bottle he was willing to open. I really liked the freshness of this wine, the “high definition” raspberry fruit and the slightly lighter texture. It developed wonderfully after nearly two hours of being open, with the nose becoming more integrated and less overtly peppery.

Carat 2003

Compared to the slightly unapproachable 2006, what a treat to try this more mature sibling. Still structured, dry and complex with flavours spanning green tea, herbs, butterscotch, plum and dried apricot. And all underpinned by a supple “come hither” texture.

 

 

Nereo Bressan - winemaker, butcher, prosciutto maker

Nereo Bressan – winemaker, butcher, prosciutto maker

Fulvio and Jelena, standing in front of Schioppettino vines

Fulvio and Jelena, standing in front of Schioppettino vines

Romance in the vineyards

Romance in the vineyards – Bressan style

Fulvio and artist Pablo Figar, with new work for the winery

Fulvio and artist Pablo Figar, with new work for the winery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cannot thank Fulvio, Jelena, Nereo and Paolina enough for their boundless hospitality and generosity during my visit. A debt of gratitude also to Stefano Mestroni at Osteria L’alchimista, for sharing some older vintages with us. And for ensuring that I did not get to bed at an even remotely sensible hour.

Finally many thanks to Pierpaolo Penco, director of the Friuli Isonzo Consorzio, for the lift – and healthy discourse along the way!

 

Bressan wines are distributed in the UK and Italy by Les Caves de Pyrene. Terroirs is a good place to sample them in London.