Weekly Apéro Hour: The Magician of Verdejo, Serbian Natural Wine, A New Indie Wine Mag

Here’s Your Weekly Apéro Hour!

DRINKING. When people list the so-called “noble grape” varieties, you’ll notice the predominance of one language: French. There are a few Italian varieties, a few German; the only Spanish grape in that list is Tempranillo. I cannot think of a stupider list at the moment except that horrible 50 Best Restaurants thing. Why would you ever want to limit your experience of wine to a few high-priced and finicky French grape varieties? How boring. (To be fair, technically the list is based on the quantity of each grape variety planted worldwide, but I mean, if you use a word like “noble,” it’s clear what is meant.)

Case in point: two recent experiences with non noble grape varieties that were pretty mind blowing.

The other day, after a long spree of drinking Aussie and French wine quite intensely, I rummaged around for something different and came out with a Verdejo from MicroBio Wines, a project from winemaker Ismael Gozalo in the Ruedo D.O. of northern Spain.

This bottle was just exactly what I was looking for: a fresh but flavorful and round white, ideal for winter. We crushed it alongside a few bites of salami. About halfway through the bottle, I noticed the alcohol percentage and was shocked.

“What is the ABV of this wine, would you guess?” I asked my lovely drinking partner.

He chewed a piece of salami and took another sip of wine, thinking. “11.5 percent?”

That’s what I had also thought — but it was 13.5! The aromatics of the wine, which was made without any sulfites, seemed to mask the alcohol content beautifully.

Reading up on Ismael’s website, I learned that he makes this wine in an old-fashioned vertical press, sort of like the old-fashioned basket press but in this case outfitted with inox to allow just a hint of oxidation to touch the grapes (many winemakers would frown upon this, but Ismael trusts that his fruit can withstand a bit of air). I think this oxidation shows in the wine in an incredibly pleasant way.

I also learned that his vines are ungrafted (on their own rootstock) and as much as 200 years old! And that he’s known as the “Magician of Verdejo” locally. OK, so I am officially on a mission to get over to Ismael’s vineyard. Soon! 

(If you’re looking for another awesome natural Verdejo, try Santyuste, by Esmeralda Garcia in Segovia. It’s delicious!)

Again looking outside the usual suspects: recently, I tried a Serbian red wine, from a French couple, Estelle & Cyrille Bongiraud. As you can probably imagine, Serbia has been producing wine for many many centuries, but there isn’t necessarily what you’d call a natural wine scene there, and generally the country’s exports are rather low, which certainly would have to do with the political-economic situation there in the past few decades. But the Bongirauds have installed themselves in the Timok Valley of Eastern Serbia (bordering Romania), which apparently is full of limestone bedrock — ideal for winegrowing.

Cyrille being a renowned soil scientist and Estelle being a Burgundian grower, they never meant to end up in Serbia but apparently were simply traveling through when their car broke down and they were stunned by the terroir: “Beautifully maintained, old vineyards with deep root systems on limestone soils. Artisanal, organic methods of cultivation and winemaking that had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries,” according to the website of their Australian importer.

Over time, they gave up their work in Franc and founded this winery, called Francuska Vinarija, about ten years ago by renting seven hectares, mostly of red grapes, from local growers. They have also planted a vineyard with indigenous grape varieties.

The 2011 “Obecanje” (translation: “Promise,” in Serbian) wine I tasted is, to my incredible surprise, made from an older clone of Gamay à petit grain (small berries).

“What is the grape variety of this wine, would you guess?” I now asked my lovely drinking partner.

He replied, “Something in the Syrah family?”

It’s fun to be surprised by a wine. Per the importer website, again: “This small berry, thinner skinned version of Gamay is believed to have arrived from France during the Phylloxera era, as French vignerons sought solace in Serbia’s sandy and chalky soils that were resisting the nasty aphid’s advance.”

The wine was much higher in alcohol than you’d expect from most Gamays — 14.5%, although, as with the MicroBio wine, it held the alcohol quite well. The palate was very expressive, full of ripe plums and black cherries and prunes, with a garnet hue, and an overall juiciness flattered by soft chewy tannins. If this is an old version of Gamay, well, that’s amazing. I would have thought something more closely related to Plavac, the Croatian ancestor of Zinfandel!

Well, I loved the wine and will seek out more from the Bongirauds.

READING. Yes, it’s another indie mag. About wine. We’re not going away, us indie mag publishers, with our devotion to excellent journalism and creative design. We’re proliferating! It’s an invasion! Make room on your bookshelves and coffee tables! (OK, not that much room, these are biannual publications, we can’t afford to come out more often, don’t worry.)

It’s a pleasure to discover Above Sea Level via their inaugural issue, which is focused on California wines. In these pages, I found some very original approaches to wine, like the collaboration between art duo Lazy Mom and natural wine bar owner Bradford Taylor (Ordinaire in Oakland; Diversey in Chicago) that pokes fun at typical tasting notes through wacky sculptural illustrations and commentary. A new take on the Michel Tolmer school of wine humor, I might say. And there is a really great feature on label art, as well as a review of a temporary museum exhibition focused on wine in the modern age, at the San Francisco MoMa.

There’s also an incredible photo essay feature on California’s persistent fog — what a cool way to approach terroir. And a brief interview with legendary importer Kermit Lynch. And some winemaker-written pieces. It’s been a while since I’ve drunk some California wine of visited the state, and it was nice to briefly transport there such a beautiful magazine. (Time for a visit, soon, perhaps?)

OK, time for a confession: I’ve officially developed a minor obsession with indie magazines. I love how different they all are and how much effort and thought goes into them! So I am thinking about trying to do an indie mag pop-up somewhere. Just an idea at this point. But if I keep thinking it and talking about it, eventually it will manifest! That’s how life works, right? For me, anyway.

More soon…

xRachel

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In Toní Carbó’s Barrio: A Visit to Cellar La Salada in Penedès, Spain

Visit October 24, 2017

 When I first met Toní Carbó, a winemaker who went from virtually unknown to an instant cult classic—his wines are found at Bar Brutal in Barcelona; Maurice in Portland, Oregon; Bar Ordinaire in Oakland, California—at H20 Vegetal, during the heat of late summer in Spain, I was captivated by the energy of his wines, their attractive labels, and his humble attitude. A few months later, I was in Barcelona visiting some friends, and took a short train ride out to the Penedès, the heart of the Cava region, where Toní is the latest in his family lineage to grow grapes.

Toní greets me in a 4×4 wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Since H20, he has cut his hair, which then was a bit shaggy, grown past his ears. He takes me directly to a vineyard in an area called “La Salada,” where we stand before gnarled bush vines (untrellised) in beige-brown clay soil, on a flat piece of land with mountains in the distance.

“My grandfather was a shareholder, from a familia muy humilda—a very humble family, says Toní in perfectly clear Castellano Spanish, even though Catalan is his first language. I appreciate the effort particularly in the current political climate—later, I will return to Barcelona to catch the tail end of the latest protest against Madrid’s crackdown on the independence movement, getting lost in crowd of flag-waving marchers after an afternoon of showing their regional pride.

In a bold move, Toní’s grandfather broke away from the señores feudeles (the feudal lords), and formed a bodega (winery) with other growers—a sort of cooperative. They purchased a few hectares of vines, specifically taking plots that were on poor soil, very difficult to cultivate, and made bulk wine, probably sold in barrels.

The past two years in Northern Spain have been very, very dry, and some vines didn’t produce even a single cluster of grapes—something he has never seen before, Toní tells me as we examine the 68-year-old vines. “You see how they respond to the heat and dryness—they are in survival mode,” he says. In this plot, Toní has Xarello and Macabeo—two of the grapes commonly found in Cava, that ubiquitous bubbly drink, Spain’s version of Prosecco, differing in that it’s made in the traditional method rather than Charmat.

The 1970s and 80s saw something of a “lost generation” in Penedès, because large houses paid tempting prices for grapes, so people didn’t bother to bottle their own wine—but this changed in the 90s with the formation of the Cava D.O. and, concomitantly. As small growers lost their best customers, many of them stopped operations, sold off their land, and moved away to urban areas to work in factories. Toní’s family also closed their bodega, called Cellar La Salada, for a time. “Every year, my father thought they would have to tear out these vines,” he tells me.

In the early Aughts, Toní decided to restart production in the bodega. He began, he tells me, by making “vinos muy Parker”—wines in the Robert Parker style, with high alcohol and corpulent palates, something that should be easy to do in this dry heat. He and his friend and neighbor, Ramón Jané, hired an oenologist to help them restart production at their bodegas—but when he recommended levels of various additives that seemed high to Toní and Ramón, they simply added half of those amounts. Then came a turning point: Toní found his way to La Dive Bouteille, a large natural wine salon in France’s Loire Valley held every winter for the past decade and a half.

“And there a world opened to us,” he recalls as we drive to another vineyard—Toní holds over 20 hectares. In 2005, Toní began reducing the use of pesticides in the vineyard, and in 2012, he converted his vines to organic and made his first natural wine for the market, without any sulfites or oenological products added.

We are now standing in the “Les Perellades” vineyard, looking at Malvasia, Sumoll, Montanaga, and Xarello. “This is my barrio,” says Toní, gazing toward the nearby forest. “I’m born here, grown up here.”

We make our way to the small winery, built in 1911, where Toní’s Cellar La Salada wines are made without any sulfites at all. Because the wines have such playful labels, I had prejudged them as simple blends, but I learn quickly that expression of terroir is definitely a goal here. The wine called “Bufarella,” for example, is a Xarello with skin contact, made from one hectare of vines planted in 1982 on a north-facing slope that matures slowly and therefore maintains freshness. There’s another single-vineyard wine called “Hermot,” made from old-vines Macabeo.

Toní’s winemaking maintains many of the area’s traditional techniques. “My family, historically, did wine with skin contact—we called it vino brisat,” he explains to me. They foot stomped the grapes, and did everything by hand, without additives—and that’s what the family drank at home, Toní says. The winery has recently been remodeled a bit, but Toní has kept and still uses the underground tanks where wine was fermented, and he has also held onto one barrel that dates back to 1955. “I want reminders of what was here,” he says.In this cellar, one of Toní’s most popular wines is made: Roig Boig (“crazy red”), a pink-hued pét-nat full of freshness and savory notes, made from numerous red and white heritage grapes of Catalunya, including Sumoll, Roigenc, Mandó, Cannonau, Monica, Torbat, Parellada, and Xarello. The label, drawn by Toní’s partner Ana’s cousin, depicts a slightly wonky-looking guy with sparse hair, panting with thirst. “Drink me everyday,” is the message behind that label. Which one could certainly do—yet, later, we’ll have the Roig Boig with a rich turkey dish at lunch, and the acidity and bubbles cut right through the fat—this isn’t just an aperitif wine.

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Next is a visit to Mas Candí, the winery run by Ramón Jané, Toní’s unofficial “associate.” Ramón, like Toní, also broke the cycle of selling his family’s grapes to the large Cava houses, and began bottling his own label in the mid-Aughts. Toní explains that he and Ramón have only a “handshake agreement,” rather than any formal contract—they work together because they like to help each other, like the “agricultores de antes,” the agriculturists of a previous time, Toní says. It’s about both of them succeeding.

In Toní’s cellar, all the wines are made completely without sulfites; in Ramón’s, they may occasionally have small amounts added—this allows the pair to diversify their portfolio, while keeping a completely sulfur-free winery for certain vinifications. It’s the first time I’ve heard of anyone doing this, and it seems really practical.

The other popular bubbly wine from Toní and Ramón is actually made here, at Mas Candí—the Tint Sec, which means,“I’m thirsty” in Catalan, and is a white wine made of Xarello and Parellada. We taste the 2017 from a tank; the nose is fruity, peachy, and the palate delivers a healthy burst of acidity. After tasting, we head to lunch, where we meet Toní’s partner Ana, who he says is fully involved in the winery.

Lunch at Cal Xim is amazing; we have traditional Catalan dishes like trinxat, a cabbage and potato “tortilla”; roasted red peppers with anchovies; rovellon mushroom caps roasted and dressed in rich olive oil; alongside, we drink the still version of Tint Sec, which Toní and Ramón plan to rename “Baldidi” to avoid confusion—it’s very aromatic, with fresh, soft fruit flavors, and some tropical notes—plus 2016 “Ovella Negra,” a saline, bright white wine made of Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia with two weeks on the skins; and 2015 “La Fusta,” a Xarello wine made from a vineyard Toní’s father planted in 1985, which is fermented in 1000-Liter chesnut barrels, and is mineral, with overtones of white flowers, and a lovely medium body.

To finish, we have the aforementioned pairing made in heaven: dark turkey meat with stewed prunes, with the savory Roig Boig pét-nat. It could not be more perfect. This is what Cellar La Salada and Mas Candí wines are about—relishing the products of agriculture and viticulture, in humble but artful settings. It’s a celebration of Catalunya, without employing the political system or waving any flags, but rather acknowledging the unique history of this region, and the role of small farmers in keeping that history alive.

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Nobody Drank Much Water At H20…

I hope that my latest feature on Sprudge Wine will serve as something of a lighthearted mood-lifter (tu te calmes and carry on, is perhaps what Thierry Puzelat might say…?). It’s a write-up of the raucous and extremely well-curated two-day natural wine fair H20 Vegetal, held last month in Catalunya, Spain. You can read it here

xRachel