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Visit to Slovenia
August my family and I arrived at the La Tunella estate in Colli Orientali del
Friuli. I was thrilled to see this excellent estate and taste their wines, but
even more excited that via their cork supplier, they had arranged to take me
over the border to a Slovenian winery. Border is really a misnomer. Before 1918
this area was Austrian, and between the wars it was Italian, so the modern
frontier only came into being within living memory, and the people are Slovene
on both sides. Of course, many have Italianised themselves, La Tunella sounds
Italian, but the name of the owners is Zorzettig – a Slovene name that has
been Austrianised, from Zorzettic.
centuries of history
We were driven over rolling hills to the village of Dobrovo. Down a tiny lane at the end of which was a beautiful stone manor house bearing the name Movia and the date 1820.
Ales Kristancic, the owner hailed me like a long lost friend although I speak no Slovene and only restaurant Italian. His family have owned the estate, which dates from 1700, since 1820. They have 15 hectares in Brda, seven in Italy and can blend these as they like, and sell the wine as produce of either country.
led me around the lovely old cellars with its array of French barrels and giant
600-litre Slovenian oak casks. All his wines have extensive time in barrel,
though his more commercial Vila Marija label is unoaked (coincidentally the more
famous Villa Maria belongs to George Fistonich of Croatian descent). This area
is called Goriska Brda (Brda means hills or colli ) and is higher than Italian
Colli Orientali, so cool breezes temper the hot Mediterranean summer.
of heavy winter rainfall, and this year in summer too, the vineyards need to be
terraced to avoid erosion. The soils are a variable mix of gravel, sand, and
grow an esoteric range of grapes:
Grapes: Tokaj (Tocai Fruilani/Sauvignonasse); Sivi Pinot (Pinot Grigio/ Tokay-Pinot
Gris); Sipon (Furmint) whose name is said to come from Napoleonic officers
saying "C'est ci bon!"; Rebula (Ribolla Gialla/Robola); Beli Pinot
(Pinot Bianco/Pinot Blanc); Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
grapes: Refosk (Refosco del Peduncolo Verde); Teran (Refosco del Pedun-colo
Rosso); Modri Pinot (Pinot Noir); Cabernet Frank and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Winning over the politicians
the cellars we climbed to a lovely terrace, the sun was now shining and the view
of the vineyards superb. Ales told me that Tito had ordered all wineries to be
collectivised and only the cooperatives could market wine. Kristancic refused
and Tito came to see the place for himself. Being a bon viveur Tito tasted the
wines, was convinced and Movia remained privately owned and in-dependent.
current Slovene President is a regular visitor and close friend; a couple of
years ago he brought Bill Clinton there too.
The current Slovene President is a regular visitor and close friend; a couple of years ago he brought Bill Clinton there too.
the terrace we were served a pair of sparkling wines. Movia Brut (Pinot
Noir) 1998 was magnificent, bright coral pink with clean white persistent
bubbles, almost froth. The flavour was a heady mixture of sweet ripe strawberry
and dry aromatic spice from three years barrel aging. Wonderful wine, very
complex and serious with crisp, clean raspberry-like acidity and a long finish.
Brut (Chardonnay-Pinot Noir) 1998
followed and this was splendid too, beautifully balanced fruit and oak (only 30
months this time, but some barrel fermentation). The mousse was creamier here,
very fine and very persistent. Perhaps on balance the pink was the finer, but
both were very good.
then invited us into his baronial dining room. The table was set as if for a
banquet with a sparkling array of Riedel-style glasses and vast platters of
prsut (prosciutto), salami and cheese produced on the estate. Not having had
lunch I admit I tucked into these, which were delicious, as was the home- baked
the meantime, the cork man was determined to be a living Italian caricature, so
he took it upon himself to do the pouring, dancing and singing his way around
the table and thoroughly entertaining my sons. He considered it bad form to move
on to the next wine before the last one was finished, so it took one and a half
hours to taste three wines!
to serious tasting
Veliko Belo 1998 Gorska Brda:
Grahm please note this wine’s long established name translates as “big
white”. It is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, with a deep rich golden
colour, flavours of figs, pithy grapefruit and a peachy/fleshy texture. This all
contrasted perfectly with the cinnamon toast, vanilla and custard characters
from three years in barrel. The Pinot Grigio gave a delicious light lift to the
Chardonnay and produced a beautifully balanced wine.
Chardonnay 1999 Gorska Brda:
was 100% barrel fermented and spent 18 months in cask. Intrigued, I asked him
when he had decided to plant Chardonnay, before independence, or had he seen the
trend earlier. He laughed, it was well established here by 1820! This was an
incredible, complex, rich and toasty wine. Very like old fashioned white
Burgundy made by a man who has never tasted a new world Chardonnay. It was dry
with lean fruit and an oily, spicy oak character rather than sweet and soft. It
was superbly integrated, full and utterly delicious.
on a stunner
had time for one more wine and Ales chose a stunner:
Veliko Rdece 1995 Gorska Brda
Rdece translates as “Big Red” which is what it was! This is their flagship
wine and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. My, the nose
was superb, spicy with sweet redcurrants and spice. The taste sensation was
great, rich, full yet lean and fresh too. The tannins were firm enough to keep
it perfectly balanced, but were soft and ripe too. Joyous red fruit mingled with
umami /soy sauce characters; it was complex, fine, elegant and long.
so, after a group dance enforced by the corkman, with a red rose in his lips, we
headed back into Italy after this wonderful winery visit.
Fascination of Slovenia
Before this visit I had no experience of Slovenia, so the wines had been a revelation. I have now made two visits and found the wines to be generally very good. As well as Movia I have enjoyed wines from the Goriska Brda cooperative (their Quercus range is particularly good, especially impressive as this by far the largest producer in the country), fine red blends from Kmetija Blazic, superb Sauvignon Blancs from Andrej and Mirko Kristancic’s (Movia’s cousins) Nando Estate and stunning passito-style Rebula from Ivan Batic.
Dare I confess to even having enjoyed a delightful Sivi Pinot from Ljutomer? Yes, that Ljutomer. All in all I found Slovenia to be an enjoyable and fascinating place.
© Quentin Sadler 2002.
The Secret Wines of Hungary
When you conjure up images of Hungary in your mind, which wine styles do you think of? I imagined sweet Tokaji, Bikavér (Bulls Blood) together with the cheap and cheerful white Irsai Olivér from around Lake Balaton and Kékfrankos red from Szekszárd. Prior to my recent visit to Hungary this was the range of wine styles that I expected to see and taste.
I was not disappointed. I found all these wines, they met my expectations, but what really impressed me were the "secret" red wines of Villány-Siklós. These wines, most of which sadly are not available in the UK, were sensational.
Outstanding red wines
The Villány-Siklós Wine Region is on the southern and eastern slopes of the Villány Mountains. The soil here is a calcareous rock base with limestone slopes, covered by sandy loess. The microclimate enables good winemakers to produce outstanding wines of high quality and variety. The indigenous grape varieties of Kadarka (known as the "little brother of Pinot Noir"), Kékoportó (aka Blauer Portugieser), Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch), together with Merlot, Zweigelt, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Pinot Noir are made into blends or single varietal wines.
Three winning winemakers
We visited three of the major producers, József Bock, Ede Tiffán and Atilla Gere, all serious winemakers and who over the last 10 years, were all winners of the prestigious title Hungarian Winemaker of the year.
József’s two flagship wines are blends: Bock Cuvée: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot; and Royal Cuvée: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Pinot Noir, 12% Cabernet Franc and 8% Merlot. Both had excellent ageing potential with great fruit and structure. Most of József’s wines go to private collectors in Russia, Germany, Switzerland and the USA.
Ede, the 9th generation family winemaker, produces indigenous varietal wines, blends and classic varietal wines. We were very privileged to taste a barrel sample of his first vintage of Pinot Noir, 2000. It was stunning! His Grande Selection 2000: a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot was a revelation. Fortunately some of his wines are imported into the UK by Wines of Westhorpe.
The Ultimate "Hun" Wine?
Atilla, in addition to his excellent classical varietal wine styles, has a prestige cuvée called "Kopar" which is a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. This wine is reputed to be the ultimate Villány red wine. I would agree. Some of Atilla’s wines are also imported into the UK by Wines of Westhorpe.
Two separate markets
Why do I refer to these wines as "secret"? Probably because, unless like me you are fortunate enough to visit the Villány region, or at least Budapest, you are unlikely to have the opportunity of drinking these wines. All we really see and taste here in the UK are the wines I imagined drinking before going to Hungary.
The Hungarian marketing and PR representatives need to review the UK market. Consumers who buy the expensive Tokaji may well buy the excellent Villány red wines. I believe there are two possible markets for Hungarian wines in the UK. Cheap supermarket wines and serious wines. But at the moment nobody knows these more serious "secret" wines. Frustrating or what?
© Vivienne Franks 2002.
Sommelier Secrets with Gerard Basset MW
Every two years the Trophée Ruinart competition for the Best Sommelier of Europe is organised by Champagne Ruinart. The final stages take place over a long weekend in June at their magnificent cellars in Reims, and this year I was invited to attend.
I confess that I knew little of what the competition entailed, and also had a somewhat prejudiced view on the role and abilities of sommeliers. However, the weekend proved to be a revelation, and my respect and admiration for the profession of sommeliers since then has risen enormously.
During that hot weekend in June, along with 600 other guests, sommeliers, their families and supporters, plus the organisers, I witnessed 34 contestants from all over Europe participate in this enormously demanding contest. This was not just a contest to show who could open a bottle of wine with the greatest aplomb! All semi-finalists had to undergo written tests on oenology, matching food and wine, serving techniques, cellar management, and a blind tasting. The atmosphere was electric, because for these sommeliers, this competition is their Wimbledon. Inevitably I became caught up with the excitement and it was hard not to pick one to support when it came to the three finalists.
The final tasks
The culmination of the competition was most impressive. The final three sommeliers have to ‘perform’ in front of this large audience while being filmed at the same time. They had to undertake tasks such as blind tasting wines and spirits, correcting faults on a wine list, undertaking a role-play scenario, giving recommendations to diners, opening wine and decanting. All had to be completed to strict timing and under the scrutiny of judges.
Frankly, I was amazed, and cannot think that many in the Wine Trade would have the nerve to lay themselves on the line and be judged so publicly; but the enthusiasm of the sommeliers for the challenge was enormous. During their breaks, I talked to many of the competitors and other sommeliers, there to watch the contest, and learnt much more about how they see their profession and its importance in the UK restaurant trade. One explained to me, many sommeliers in the UK are from overseas, particularly France, because "the UK is the centre to learn about wine from all over the world, to work in a restaurant, even in Bristol, is far more exciting and challenging than in France!"
Gerard Basset MW
No doubt Gerard Basset would agree, having just opened the fifth Hotel du Vin in Brighton! Gerard won the European Sommelier award in 1996, representing the UK, and so understands well the pressures and skills required. I was therefore delighted that he was able to talk to AWE members at a recent seminar about his profession and give other members an insight into the sommelier’s role, about which I had learned so much while in Reims.
His talk was enlightening. He charmed us with his modest, honest approach to his profession. He was frank, and critical that the classic sommelier courses in France are limited in today’s global wine world.
He maintained that a successful sommelier must be proficient in three key areas. They must have sound product knowledge. They must have technical skills, in not only how to serve wine properly, but also in the whole concept of service, in particular its timing, balancing it with the flow of the food from the kitchen. Above all, a sommelier must have good communication skills. A sommelier is a salesman and must quickly judge the customer needs to provide a great ‘restaurant experience’.
Gerard gave us some amusing personal anecdotes about his early days as a sommelier. From these he has learnt that sommeliers must always be discreet, never assume anything, and always let the customer lead the conversation. The ease in which Gerard communicates and discusses his business is enthralling and inspiring. He clearly demonstrates in the most understated way that he is passionate about his profession. Most importantly, he managed to convince us that the sommelier role is complicated, demanding, and deserves huge respect, far more than anyone might have hitherto assumed!
© Carolyn Bosworth-Davies 2002.