Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vanya Cullen: Margaret River's biodynamic pioneer

I last visited Cullen in the Margaret River region of Western Australia about 15 years ago, hard though that seems to believe. I loved their wines, even more their vineyards and winery. It was - and is - a very special place.

In the meantime they've gone organic and, more recently biodynamic, a step that has changed the wines less than you might imagine. I think they were probably pretty well organic then.

Many people in the natural wine fraternity I suspect would hesitate to label their wines natural. They use sulphur (as I'm sure I'd be tempted to do if I made wine in Australia and needed to export it), and oak - slightly too much so for my taste in the case of their top of the range Diana Madeline Cabernet though as a 2009 it was far too early to tell. On the other hand it was Cullen's wines that convinced me of the effect of the biodynamic calendar. I tasted their Sauvignon Semillon earlier this year on a leaf day and it was totally out of kilter. Happily yesterday (a fruit day) it was tasting fresh, crisp and delicious as was the 2009 Kevin John Chardonnay, my favourite wine of the tasting.

Vanya Cullen says that she went down the biodynamic route because their soils were so depleted. She says they'd tried everything else but biodynamic treatments were the only thing that reinvigorated the soil. "The minerality in the wines has increased as has the sense of tasting the land in the wine."

This sense of connection with the property also brought her personal solace when her mother Diana died back in 2003. "It helped to take the emptiness away" she says simply.

Although some other Margaret River producers such as Cape Mentelle and McHenry Hohnen are experimenting with biodynamic treatments none is approaching it with such rigour or conviction as Vanya. "It's such a joyful way to farm and the best way to be a custodian of the land for future generations".

Cullen's stash of cows' horns. Apparently 6 will treat the whole property. I have to say I find this the hardest aspect of biodynamics to get my head round but for an explanation of how it works in relation to wine see this YouTube video from Mark Beaman of Paul Dolan vineyards.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A sneak preview of Soif, south London's latest natural wine bar

I seldom venture south of the river if I can help it but annoyingly some of the best natural wine haunts are now establishing themselves there. Artisan & Vine, Green & Blue and now Soif, the third restaurant in the Caves de Pyrène-backed group which includes Terroirs and Brawn.

Actually I say 'now' but it doesn't open until Monday but we got a sneak preview last night when it was open to host a Green and Blue tasting with Alice Feiring who was reading from her new book Naked Wine.

I've mentioned Feiring before and will come back to the book in due course but I liked the way the tasting was pitched as an 'anti-Beaujolais nouveau night'. We tasted two proper gamays, Hervé Souhaut's Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet La Souteronne 2009, an appropriately breezy, delicious vin de soif and Foillard's much more muscular, savoury 2009 Morgon which opened up beautifully as the evening wore on.

We also got a chance to sample some of the dishes on the menu which included a very good rustic paté and a to-die-for cep and caramelised onion tart, to which the blurry photo above in no way does justice. There will also be jugged hare which is pretty exciting.

It's all very much in the same register and style as Terroirs and Brawn though slightly bigger and less hidden away than the latter and, being Battersea, with probably a rather different vibe. (Ed Wilson the executive chef of the group (below) told me he wasn't quite sure how the locals would react. Apparently a couple had already helpfully offered some suggestions about the kind of dishes they thought they should be doing. Goodness knows what they'll make of the wines and even of the name. So-if, soyf or swuf?

Anyway they're spoilt for choice if they choose to be. It's a fantastic list and the food is the kind of modern bistro that Wilson does so well (though Colin Westal who was Rowley Leigh's head chef at Le Café Anglais is the one who will be heading up the kitchen on a day-to-day basis). Incidentally he (Wilson) is also going to be acting as consultant to Green & Blue who are expanding their restaurant operation in East Dulwich from next month.

Soif is at 27 Battersea Rise, London SW11 1HG. Tel: 020 7223 1112. If you're coming from central London it's a 8-10 minute walk from Clapham Junction station.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Seresin pinots and why wines need air

You might conclude from the absence of posts, I've been keen to let my OH bask in his moment of glory* but I've just been insanely busy with the manic round of tasting that preceeds the run-up to Christmas, a time when even adventurous drinkers retreat into the time-honoured favourites that are on special offer.

That doesn't mean I've stopped drinking natural wines though and as I have a whole stack of bottles awaiting comment, let's get six out of the way first - a fascinating series of Pinot Noirs from the New Zealand producer Seresin, whose grapes are organically and biodynamically grown and which makes wine with the minimum of intervention. (Indigenous yeasts, no fining or filtering).

As a range they all tasted quite conventional. They would get a green light in my classification** and purists might even not regard them as natural as Seresin both uses both wood and (I presume from the taste and the distance they have to travel) sulphur. But since they were made in a similar way it was fascinating to see the impact of terroir.

The one that was most obviously 'natural' was the 2008 'Sun and Moon' Pinot Noir which the top of their range and at £50-60 (if you can get it) about twice as expensive as the other wines. At first we found it a little heavy and woody, rustic even, but it did burst into glorious, opulent sweetness five days later which suggests, as Seresin website indicates, that it's a wine for keeping. (The earliest drink date is 2012). I'm not sure it's twice as good as the other cuvées though, certainly not if you're not prepared to cellar it. (It comes, Seresin says, from the steep hill block of our clay rich hillside Raupo Creek vineyard in the Omaka Valley)

There was also another bottling from the same vineyard, the 2008 Raupo Creek Pinot Noir which was more immediately appealing with a floral nose and fine silky texture, though at present slightly short and hard on the finish. It very much needed food - and, like the other wines, more time. ("From our clay rich hillside Raupo Creek vineyard, with 60% originating from our steep hill block and 40% from the flats")

The 2008 Tatou Pinot Noir, by contrast, was grown on the "stony free-draining soils of the Tatou vineyard which is located at the western end of the Wairau Valley". I felt this wine was slightly out of balance at the moment with the wood too much in evidence, masking the fruit.

There were two named after Seresin's daughter and mother respectively, Leah and Rachel. Leah, "a blend of eight different parcels of fruit from Raupo Creek vineyard, the alluvial shingles of our Tatou vineyard and the Home vineyard, which is made up of a variety of Waimakariri type soils of alluvial origin", I found the least impressive of the line-up - which isn't to say it wasn't enjoyable. More like a simple fresh tasting young Burgundy like a Chorey-les-Beaune which makes its £20-odd price tag a little steep.

Rachel, which is drawn from the same vineyards but from different clones, I found more attractive, both prettier and more multi-layered, again with a way to go. Interestingly it's the wine that seems to be most widely available in the UK (at £20 from the Wine Society and around £23 elsewhere) though I'm not sure if that means the others have been already snapped up or it's the one that Seresin has the greatest quantity of or which most appeals to the buyers.

But our favourite bottle - and the one that was finished first was the 'Home' pinot 2008 which seemed to have a lot more texture or 'matière', as the French say, and quickly opened up to reveal luscious sweet - but not excessively sweet - fruit. (None of these wines had the sometimes jammy sweetness of Central Otago pinots.) "From the lower terraces of the Seresin home vineyard with Waimakiriri type soils of alluvial origin with free draining basalt pebbles."

So for those of you who are confused (I'm having difficulty following this myself) my preferences would be for drinking in the immediate future 1) Home 2) Sun & Moon 3) Raupo Creek 4) Rachel 5) Tatou and 6) Leah

This is a fine range of wines by any standard but I'm left with the feeling they could be finer still. Despite the fact that they were all 3 years old, they still needed time to evolve - unusual in 'new world' wines though I admit that's an increasingly redundant classification. All benefited from some aeration - we tasted all except the 'Home' five days on from almost full bottles and they'd generally improved.

I also can't help feeling, heretical though this might seem in New Zealand circles, that they wouldn't have evolved in a more interesting way under cork. In a Twitter exchange with the winemaker Clive Dougall (isn't it the only way to talk to winemakers these days?) he said "Air is good for those wines definitely. I nearly always love yesterdays left-over wines, although [there's] often none left. We try to allow oxygen to be part of the process instead [of putting the wines under cork] Looking forward to when we can choose permeability of cap though."

And although it was fascinating to see the differences in the respective terroirs I wonder if the wines wouldn't have been even more rewarding had there been more variation in vinification and oak treatment. But then I'm neither a winemaker or an MW so what do I know ...

*If so it hasn't worked. I'm still waiting for another post ;-)

** Green = you probably wouldn't be able to tell this from a conventional wine, Amber = a little more challenging, Red = for natural wine aficionados only