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Roxanich Vina, natural wines in Istria, Croatia

Sometimes you earn the best rewards when arriving to your destination takes time and effort. Isn’t it true in life anyway? When you are in another country you have never been to, you have to rely in your navigator. Timesaving invention, as no matter how far-reaching your destination is, you never get lost. Or almost never. We were in the countryside of Croatia, a narrow barely-paved road going away form a small village named Kosinožići and we passed by Roxanich Vina because we did not see the sign in the front of the building, so we kept on going even if the navigator said we had already arrived. We turned around when the road ceased to be a road, and on the second pass we finally saw the winery sign and eureka! Arrived!

Two hours of driving under rain and a bit of snow was time enough to be in the need of getting warm and replenish our energy levels. Marjan was there waiting for us and he welcome us warmly. We entered the tasting room and in front of our eyes laid a nice collection of Roxanich wines. We thought: “Wow! Great! Nice nice display!!” but then, Marjan kept on bringing more bottles, so our eyes were wildly open, like those of a kid in front of a candy shop. He also offered some prosciutto and cheese, so we just relaxed and got ready to enjoy.

The tasting consisted of four sections, each offering different styles of wine. Marjan was explaining about wine, vinification and many other things we wanted to know about. He was extremely patient with us. We started with the fresher wines, those in which the maceration period with the skins (because here all the white wines are macerated on the skins) was just a few days.

Draga 2013 is a Pinot Blanc with two days of skin maceration. It was the opening wine and it was a great wine, very well done, fine and very tasty. Mirna 2013 is a Sauvignon Blanc with also two days on the skins. Very surprising and fine wine. These two wines stay two years in steel tank. SoRelle 2013 is a Chardonnay with four days of maceration; 10% of the must stays three years in barrel and 90% in steel tanks.

Normally, you begin a tasting nice and easy, just stretching your muscles getting ready for the long run, but rather we started with a full sprint. Such an amazing way to begin with. Wonderful wines indeed.

Then followed serious white wine stuff: wines made for the hardcore fans of the macerated white wines. These three wines have an ageing period of six years (six, 6, six) in oak barrels of different big sizes. Antica 2010 is their flagship white Malvazija wine with six months on the skins. Milva 2010 is the Chardonnay with also one week of skin contact. Two single varietal wines that pleased us so much. Finally, a white blend, and as Marjan said, a blend of grapes. The grapes are harvested then they go together through the vinification process. Ines u Bijelom 2010 is a blend of Verduzzo, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Friulano, Riesling Italico and Glera. Seventy days on the skins and six years in wood. After these three wines, we were in absolute awe.

If the first three wines were good and enjoyable, the following three were just amazing. So much intensity in the glass coming from the skins yet at the same time very elegant wines that made you want to taste more and more. And then a bit more.

After a brief pause to meditate on the previous wines, we started with the red wines.

The first one was their flagship red wine; the one that Marjan said is their best-selling wine. In fact, they had run out of this wine and they only had a few small 0,375 ml bottles left, with all the magnums and regular bottles long gone. SuperIstrian 2009 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon 40%, Merlot 40% and Borgonja 20%. It is a great wine indeed and once we finished the tasting we came again to this wine for another sampling and we understood why it is their best seller. The second red blend is Ines u crvenom 2008, not as grape blend as the Ines u Bijelom 2010 but rather a wine blend, where each variety is vinified on its own and then they are combined. The grapes are Syrah, Barbera, Lambrusco, Malvasia Nera, Cabernet Franc and Borgonja.

Next were the three single varietal reds: Merlot 2008, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 and Istiranac Teran Ré 2008. We have stated in previous occasions we are not fans of the Teran grape, but the one Roxanich produces made us rethink our position about this variety. Very good wine, as well as the other two. Very enjoyable all of them with six years of ageing in different-size wood vessels. Smooth, elegant and enjoyable wines.

This was part three of the tasting and we were not finished yet, but before continuing, we opted for strolling around the cellar for knowing more about Roxanich Vina. This is an organic winemaking company, with traditional elaboration methods and a biodynamic farming belief. Technology, as well as mechanical and chemical intervention, are not used in any phase of elaboration. They own wood vessels of 35 hectoliters and 55 to 70 hectoliters, as well as barrels of 600, 500 and 225 liters. The bottling of each wine is always performed under a waning moon. It was in November 2008 when their first three wines, Teran 2005, Teran Re 2005 and Merlot 2005 came out to the market. Nowadays their annual production comes around 50,000 bottles.

After visiting all the premises, the day still cold and humid, we went back to the tasting room where two bottles of sparkling wine were waiting for us: Les Bulles Brut Nature white, a Malvazija wine, and Les Bulles Brut Nature rosé, produced with the Teran grape. Really great wines to finish the visit with.

Our first ever visit to a Croatian winery couldn’t be better than to Roxanich. Marjan was an excellent host, the wines were really enjoyable and the place was very nice. The leading man of the company, Mato Matic, was held in Ljubjana, Slovenia, due to a snowstorm so we could only talk by phone, but hey, now we have another reason to go back and thank him for all their kindness. Besides, Spanish wine is always welcome in the follow-up visit and we are true ambassadors of our wines when we go abroad, so some wines are due next time.

On the other hand, who needs an excuse to visit such a great winery as Roxanich Vina? Finding great wines as these ones is a wonderful thing, but finding people like Marjan and Mato is way much better. They overwhelm you with their attention and their kindness.

We will talk soon to the Mladen Rozanic owner and winemaker of Roxanich.

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Jean Michel Morel and Kabaj Wines

For Jean Michel Morel, every visit starts with a glass of his wines in your hand. It does not matter whether it is 11:00 or 19:00. You can be sure he will give you a glass of wine, and then he will start talking. And he will talk very passionately about wine and his wines. We visited Jean a few months back, and we still had pending the second part of the winery visit, as during the first one we never passed the distribution room. That gave us the best reason to repeat, and we repeated indeed. This time, before getting into it, we told him there was no way we would miss the underground cellar and he said for sure we would go. That did not assure us of anything, but the glass of wine was there so we took it easily. Going with the flow, as they say.

The first task at hand was samples of the 2014 vintage, still in unlabeled bottles: Beli Pinot (Pinot Bianco), Sauvignon, Ravan (Friulano), Rebula and Sivi Pinot (Pinot Grigio). In the area, the 2014 summer and harvest time was very rainy, and people still say it was not a great year. We only can but disagree, as other 2014 wines we have tasted were just incredible. Jean agreed to it. His 2014s are really good, with a long sapidity in each variety reflecting also the local Opoka soil. The Opoka (Ponca in Italian) is a marl limestone soil originated in the Pleistocene period rich in marine sediment. The samples were really good, with the soil character in them and at the same time they were so distinct from one another. Hard to say which one was our favorite because all five of them were absolutely enjoyable wines.

After this selection, we moved a bit back on time. 2007 was the vintage chosen for the Chardonnay and for the Amfora wine. This wonderful wine is a blend of Rebula, Malvasia and Friulano. The wine stays in the amfora untouched for one full year. This method of ageing the wine in amfora is called Kartuli, and it was developed in the ancient Caucasus area known nowadays as Georgia. His Amfora 2007 is a spectacular wine with a very special way vinification. Once he has the right blend, the must goes with the skins to the vessels until next vintage when it is passed into big oak barrels. Not all the times this happens, as sometimes it stays longer depending on how Jean feels about it. As for the Chardonnay, well, just an amazing wine.

As my faithful reader, you already know I loved these two wines. Hey, what can I say? I love all the wines Jean produces. Not my fault, but his and his only.

After these wines, we moved on to one experiment Jean is conducting including his Pinot Noir. In our first visit, we were highly surprised by how good this wine is and now we had the chance to taste his experiment. The experiment consists in burying a few cases of bottles under the sea. They rest 25 meters below the surface of the close Adriatic Sea. One particularity of this process is that every month the bottles have to be scrapped off the huge amount of red and white sea coral that get stuck to them. The bottles stay there for one year before being finally rescued. The wine was very curious. It was good too, and had a lot of sapidity. Jean said in some bottles a bit of marine water gets in. To make comparison, we enjoyed the other Pinot Noir, no sea for it. Same vintage, same vineyard and great as the first time we had the chance to taste it. Now we are convinced leaving wine in the sea floor for some months can affect the way it ages.

The first par of the visit ended with his wonderful Merlot. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I repeat myself. I’m sorry, but I love it.

It was time to go down to the cellar and see those totems of wine called quevry or amphora. Jean has a few of these vessels buried underground for his Amfora wine, and the room where they are located, which you can see through a peep hole, has an aura of a sacred ground for wine.

We moved to the barriques and barrels room, where we stated straight from them, Several varieties, several vintages still cellared, wonderful experience as you could see the difference between the same variety in the bottle for 2014 and the barrel for 2015 and 2016.

Jean makes a visit a very nice experience. The food is great, the wines are incredible but his passion is the best.

We will talk soon with Jean Michel Morel about his wines and his passion for his job.

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I Clivi, true passion for the Friulano

It was a long time since I wanted to visit Mario Zanusso. I had published an article about the winery he is running along with this father Ferdinando, I Clivi, and then I had the chance to run an interview with him. It was a very nice opportunity to learn a lot about the way they feel about wine and winemaking, and ever since then I wanted to visit him. One day, stars lined up correctly and we finally met.

The day was really cloudy and rainy, which made it bad for visiting the vineyards. Setting my feet in a vineyard is always nice and especially if the vineyard is one of my beloved Ribolla Gialla. I Clivi di Ferdinando e Mario Zanusso is located in the very heart of the Collio, and the house over the cellar in on the top of a hill surrounded by their vineyards, very much château-like in Bordeaux.

When doing the article, Mario was kind enough to send me many pictures that I used for it. When I stepped into the office, everything was like in the pictures: Ferdinando was at his desk working, exactly as he was portrayed, and Mario was there too, in front of is computer, so I had this small feeling of Deja-vu. Because in fact, I had already seen it.

We went to the front porch and Mario explained about the vineyards and a funny thing about DO limits. It happens that they have vineyards in two faces of the same hill: one side is Collio DOC, province of Gorizia, and the second one is Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, province of Udine. In both cases, by the way, the soil is the marl and sandstone flysch (ponca) rich in marine sediment of Pliocene origin. Of course, they have to vinify all separated to keep each DOC seals. Mario loves to do all the vineyard works organically, as well as in the cellar.

Then we moved to the downstairs cellar. Everything was ready there, cases of wines in pallets to be shipped away, must in the steel tanks, as no white wine touches the wood. There was only one oak barrel in one corner, the lone representative of this style of ageing vessel. Looking at it, seeing one barrel among so many steel tanks, it was very bizarre. The purpose of this barrel is to age the lees of the Friulano must once they move one tank to another. Later on, they mix parts of these lees with the wine to give it more structure while it ages more.

They produce around 50,000 bottles a year with four white varieties (Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla, Verduzzo and Friulano) and a red wine elaborated with Merlot. The Merlot is their only wine passing through oak as the white wines do all their processes in steel tanks. The Friulano is the heart of the winery, as they produce three different wines with this autochthonous variety, one coming from Brazan vineyard, Clivi Brazan, and the second from the Galea vineyard, Clivi Galea. The third one is Friulano San Pietro from the vineyard called the same way. With the Ribolla they produce a wonderful sparkling wine and a dry wine. And the Verduzzo is an amazing wine whose production is barely 4,000 bottles per year. The Malvasia Vigna 80 Anni is a wine produced with the Malvasia Istriana with a total of 3,000 bottles per vintage.

It was time then to enjoy some of their wines. Time was a bit constrained, so we did just a few. We started with the Friulano San Pietro 2016. Very fine and elegant wine, maybe a bit cold as Mario said, but it was really enjoyable in your glass. The Malvasia 2016followed, and as you can expect, it was wonderful, fresh, with a great structure, a wine that give you so much pleasure. Finally, the Verduzzo 2016, that to my surprise, as I had never tasted before a single varietal Verduzzo, it was incredible. A wine I instantly fell in love with. Luckily for the company but unluckily for me, they had run out of the Ribolla Gialla wine, so this way I have another excuse to come again.

It was a quick visit but at the same time it was very well worth it. Mario is a great person and a great winemaker. He is doing really good wines in the Collio and I just can’t wait for the next time I go visit him again.

Photo (c) I Clivi

Franco Terpin, outstanding skin contact white wines in Friuli

The first thing that catches your attention when you see Franco Terpin is his hands. He is a big guy, and his hands are really big. The second thing is that he is a great guy, one of those persons you instantly like. He is so much passionate about his wines and he loves to taste them with you and explain as much as he can about them and then telling you stories. And that’s very good, keeping in mind our visit was late in a Sunday evening, in a family time.

It was dark outside, a bit cold too, and Franco’s properly named winery is at the very end of a small side road, one of those places in which you need to ask for directions to every living soul you may find in the road, and there are not many. Once you get there, everything fits into place. Franco is here to welcome you and show you the premises. If you base your expectative in the number of bottles Franco sells every vintage, you might expect the place to be small and dark, kind of a cave run by an eremite. On the contrary, the place is very well illuminated and modern looking. All the typical machinery is there, and then you see a few long rows of French barrels for ageing the wines he is carefully producing every year. You can also find a collection of empty bottles of wines produced by his friends and from wineries around the world. These are the vessels of old wine souls that for sure made Franco enjoy when he shared them down in the night of time.

In one corner of the basement there are a big wooden table and a cupboard containing wine glasses that make the place resemble a country home living room. This is the tasting room. Over the table, Franco displays the wines he is producing and he explains all of them, including details of the winemaking process as well as funny tales of his trips around the world. His main line of wines is Franco Terpin. Here he produces five white single-varietal wines and one red wine. A Pinot Grigio, a Friulano (called Jakot), a Sauvignon, a Chardonnay and a Ribolla Gialla. I know you would love to read which one I enjoyed most. However, being my faithful reader as you are, you also know that I love macerated white wines from Friuli. And of course, Franco’s winery is in San Floriano di Collio, Gorizia (Friuli Venezia-Giulia), so I can’t but love all his wines. Let’s say in a scale of 1 to 100, I would grade his wines in the same order they were tasted as 99.1, 99.2, 99.3, 99.4 and 99.5. Why not higher grades? Well, Franco is going to read this article, therefore I want him to make them better for the next vintage instead of sitting pleased with himself after some Spanish crazy-about-macerated-wines-from-Friuli guy gave him such a high ratings.

The Pinot Grigio had a wonderful rosé color. As he explained, this grape is the whiter of the red grapes, or the redder of the white grapes, so a short maceration period turns the color of the must into rosé. It is also a delicate wine both in the nose and in the palate. The Friulano, a local variety, was really nice, as well as the Sauvignon, a wine that expresses so well the marl limestone soil of this area. Then his two best examples of macerated white wines: the Chardonnay that was powerful yet much tamed and balanced, and the amazingly amazing Ribolla Gialla. Did you know I love the Ribolla? Well, this one is really good. Overall, his wines are very delicate, not going over the top in any level. They are easy wines to drink and definitely greatly enjoyable.

His red wine is Sialis, a Merlot-based wine. Very interesting example of the character this grape has in the Collio, where it is the most-planted red variety.

We were enjoying Franco’s stories, tales and anecdotes while we were enjoying his wines. We mentioned a few Malvasia wines we had previously tasted and then he disappeared. As if he suddenly realized he had the dinner in the oven. Few seconds later, he showed up with a bottle with a strange label on it. No variety, no vintage, just a drawing of three guys and a word: ILLEGAL. Eyes wide open, eyebrows raised, dead silence… 500 bottles of this wine he is producing with Malvasia. I love Malvasia wines from the Collio, where there are not that many, and from the Carso, both the Slovenian side and the Italian side, where there are a lot more. The Carso is just a bit southeast from here. This wine, however, was simply… uhmm… let’s say brutal. It was potent in the nose and the palate, high of everything, including alcohol, and extremely good. A wine not for the faint of heart, a wine that grabbed us from the very first sip. Appalling, strong, full of all the good things in a wine. Its name comes from, well, let’s not get into that. Did I mention it has 16% abv?

Franco works his vineyards organically and naturally and then in the cellar all he does is letting the wines express themselves, no corrections done, no chemicals, no added enzymes or selected yeasts, only the indigenous ones. Just the way wines have been produced in this area for decades.

We will talk soon to Franco about his wines and his winemaking philosophy.

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Mediterranean Malvasia Wine Tasting in Friuli

Nataša Černic, the owner of Italian Carso winery Castello di Rubbia, and I started some months ago dreaming about organizing a wine tasting of Mediterranean wines produced with the Malvasia grape. It started as a small event, maybe eight wines from three countries and maybe thirty people attendance. As it usually happens when you dream enough, things get easily out of hand and what was to be a small tasting became a huge event. Wineries started to get on board, some were present, some sent their wines and by the time we sat to breath and count, we had 25 wineries and 110 people had booked their participation. When the gates were open, 40 more people came for a grand total of 150 participants.

The plan was to offer wines coming from Canary Islands all the way to Greece, stopping in continental Spain, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia and including different subvarieties of this important grape. Malvasia is a name that covers many subvarieties, including Malmsey in Madeira, Malvasía Volcánica and Malvasía de Sitges in Spain, Malvasia Istriana, Malvasia di Candia Aromatica and Malvasia Delle Lipari in Italy and Malvasia Istarska in Slovenia and Croatia to name a few.

Nataša also invited guest speakers form the wine industry and from the academic field, experts who talked about the history of the Malvasia, about wine and natural winemaking such as Andrea Amistani (wine historical) Dr. Marco Pecchiari (biologist), Professor Sabina Passamonti and Professor Klemen Lisjak. Robert Draper, one of the guests, is a journalist for the New York Times and National Geographic who in 2013 wrote an article about Malvasia wines in Croatia.

Yours truly also spoke a few words in front of such a magnificent audience and it was about the wines representing Spain. Three wines were the chosen ones: El Grifo Malvasía Seca Colección 2016 and 2017, a Malvasía Volcánica from Lanzarote, Sasserra 2006 Malvasía de Sitges from Vega de Ribes and the sparkling Clos Lentiscus Blanc de Blancs 2015 from Barcelona. We want to send a special warm gratitude to Enric Bartra from Vega de Ribes for his generosity and extreme kindness.

From Portugal we presented Casa de Mouraz Branco 2012, from Dao, a blend of Malvasia, Cercal Branca, Encruzado and Bical.

While doing the preparation for the event, we had the chance to visit and present the wines from some great producers from Croatia: Giorgio Clai could not attend the event for minor health issues but he offered his Sv. Jakov 2015 (again our gratitude to him and Dimitri Brezevic). Roxanich Vina was also present with its Antica 2010 (thank you so much, Mato Matic) and Antonella Kozlovic kindly offered her Santa Lucia 2015. A big heartfelt thanks to all of them.

From Italy, we had present I Clivi Malvasia 2016, a wonderful dry example of this variety in Collio produced by Ferdinando e Mario Zanusso. Mario was really kind with us too. Alexis Paraschos was also there to present his elegant Amphoreus Malvasia 2011. Another expert in macerated wines from Friuli was Damijan Podversic with his Malvasia 2013.

Also from Friuli came Venica & Venica, Vignai da Duline and Edi Kante. From Puglia the winery Duca Carlo Guarini was present. From Malfa we had the splendid Malvasia delle Lipari produced by Francesco Fenech and also was present Emidio Oggianu from Sardegna.

From Slovenia, Kristina Mervič and her father Boleslav (a big hug for both of you) were present with their JNK Malvasija 2015, a wonderful wine from Vipavksa Dolina, where we also found producer Lisjak Wineart. Vinokoper from Koper and Vina Stoka from Kras. And a heartfelt hug to Viljem Zizmond of Vinar Guštin fir his kindness and his wonderful Malvasía.

Three beautiful examples of Malvasia from Greece were also invited: From the Peloponeso came both Estate Theodoralakos and Koroniotis while Karavitakis came from Crete.

Finally, Nataša presented the second bottling of her incredibly wonderful experiment Cadenza D’Inganno 2011. Really amazing wine. We spoke about this wine in previous articles and we had enjoyed some bottles of the first bottling. The second one was just like walking in the clouds.

It was a huge success this first edition of the Mediterranean Malvasia wine tasting.

Nataša Černic would like to thank Franco Lacop, President of Regionale Council Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Alenka Florenin, Mayor of Savogna d’Isonzo – Sovodnje ob SoČi and politician Riccardo Illy and his wife for their participation in this event.

Coming up next, Nataša is organizing The Faces Of Natural Wines. Please check for info at www.castellodirubbia.it

Our eyes are now set in February 2019 for the second edition of this event, but firstly, please be aware in June we will organize another international wine event at Castello di Rubbia.

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Paraschos, organic winemaking in Collio

It is early in a cloudy autumn morning and the day is slowly waking up, with a bit of dew still in the air. In the Bed and Breakfast, the daily routine begins to fill the silence. Customers are sitting in the parlor for breakfast and you can hear some farm animals in the distance. Underneath the B&B sits the winery, where we find all the required tools to make excellent wine, and surrounding the property you can see part of the vineyards. The estate is run by Alexis Paraschos, heir of the family winemaking tradition. He is one of those people you immediately like. Because he is producing great wines, but because he makes you feel good when you not only visit him and talk about wine with him. He is the leading man at Sozietá Agricola Paraschos after his father passed him the reins of the family business. The property is located in the heart of the Friulian Collio, in San Floriano di Collio. The family is of Greek ascendency, and you can see that in the winery logo, the pi symbol Π.

In the early 2000s, they made the change from traditional winemaking to organically and subsequently naturally methods. They also started to use skin maceration for their white wines. Far from being a fashion style as some people are identifying this winemaking method with nowadays, skin maceration in the white wines is the ancient way in which wines were elaborated some 8,000 years ago to help preservation and ageing of the wines. Not only in the Caucasus area where this method was born, but also in what was later known as the Istria region, including areas of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy where San Floriano sits. In fact, the skin maceration and the natural winemaking philosophy were the only way white wines were produced here, especially in the Slovenian side of the border due to the restrictions happening behind the Iron Curtain back in the day.

Alexis produces really good orange wines. Red wines as well, obviously. He is producing single-varietals Pinot Nero and Merlot, and a Merlot-based blend called Skala with a bit or Barbera and Refosco.

The white wines are where we will stop today. The single-varietal wines are Chardonnay, Kai (Friulano), Not (Pinot Grigio), Ribolla Gialla and Sauvignon. The white blend is Ponka, produced with Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Picolit, Verduzzo and Pinot Bianco. The vinification of the white wines includes a period of skin contact ranging from two days of the Kai to up to two weeks for the Ribolla Gialla. Then all the wines age in big Slavonian casks of 15-25 hectoliters for at least two years.

Then we have three more special white wines. Alexis is a believer in the use of amphora for the fermentation and ageing of his wines. His amphorae are terracotta-made in Micene and the island of Crete and then he adds a treatment of bee wax in the inside layer. The wax comes from bees raised in nearby Dolegna del Collio. He started using this elaboration method back in 2009.

And what is so special about these wines besides the amphora? Well, they truly are wonderful wines. The Amphoreus Malvasia is a single-varietal example of perfection in a bottle. The fermentation in the amphora goes for twelve months on the skins and then it goes eighteen more months in the bottle to round the wine before it is released to the market. The yeasts are autochthonous and there is no added sulfur at all. We had the opportunity of enjoying this wine in a tasting of Malvasia-based wines and out of seven samples, this was the most valuable one.

Amphoreus Bianco is the second white wine. Mostly Ribolla Gialla with Chardonnay, the must also ferments on the skins in amphora for twelve months. Then it goes to the bottle. Again, the yeasts are autochthonous and there is no added sulfur at all.

The final special white wine is Orange One. As Alexis calls it, the “true white wine from Gorizia”: Friulano, Istrian Malvasia and Ribolla Gialla. Maceration on the skins by variety, spontaneous fermentation and 24 months of ageing in large Slavonian casks.

Soon we will talk with Alexis about his winemaking philosophy.

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Juan Carlos Sancha, recovering traditional grape varieties in Rioja

One of the first things you do after visiting a winery is commenting on the wines and talking about which one you liked the most, and which one you liked the least. There are times that it’s easy to make both choosing, though the wineries I usually visit are always wineries that make wines of my liking. I do not usually like to write about what I do not like. I do not consider myself a wine critic who talks about good wines and bad wines. I prefer to write about the wines I like and the wineries that for one reason or another have a special meaning for me. This special meaning is not on the wines they make, but the people behind it. This is what I most like about the world of wine: meeting  these people who teach you what they do, who share with you not only their passion for their work, but also share with you their time and , in many cases, their own home.

Marian and Juan Carlos are two of these people.

In a very particular way that when I remember I still smile about it, my wingman Andrew and I arranged a date to visit the winery. It was about getting there, getting to know each other, talking a little bit and tasting their wines. But soon Juan Carlos said that rather to come in the middle of the morning, it would be better to arrive at 2:00 pm and have lunch together. It was an invitation that it can hardly be rejected because it distilled kindness everywhere. So, we set the GPS to go to our destination, Baños del Río Tobía, in the very deep heart of the Rioja Alta, but in the south side where it almost borders the outer edges of the DOC Rioja and in winter it always snows. And you as my faithful reader will ask yourself: “Rioja? Which Rioja winery is this one?” Easy. The name is Juan Carlos Sancha.

Juan Carlos is not the classic winemaker. For starters, he is doctor in viticulture and professor at the University of La Rioja. Besides his academic background, he has been making wine for the last 30 years. Firstly taking part in different projects with other people and since 2007 for himself in the winery that bears his name. Juan Carlos does not cultivate what everyone else does. On the contrary, his calling has always been to work with less known and developed varieties and recover some that were condemned to oblivion. His work is well documented in the academic world and is also evident in his winery. However, before talking about it, we must first say that the winery produces around 35,000 bottles a year, with grapes coming from nine hectares spread over 45 plots around the village. Next to the winery they have a small vineyard that is used as a multiplier, that is, vines are not planted to grow grapes but to regenerate the vines that have been lost.

We must highlight that Juan Carlos does not make wine using the Tempranillo variety. Like some of his Riojan colleagues, he is recovering the use of traditional Rioja red varieties such as Garnacha, with which he produces a line of wines called Peña El Gato. The name refers to some plots located next to the hill Cerro de La Isa in the outskirts of Baños. It is a wine collection that works in two different ways. The flagship wine is Peña El Gato, a traditional Garnacha with an aging of 11 months in barrel. Then, there is a collection of six bottles that come from six different small plots with different soil and exposures. The objective here is to show the difference when making wine with grapes marked by these characteristics. Finally, there is a very special version of this Garnacha: Peña El Gato Natural. A wine that has been produced for the last four years and always runs out before it is released to the market. They started producing a barrel and after such a successful acceptance, they gradually increased production. Still, they only produced 3,300 bottles of the 2016 vintage.

The other line of the winery is Ad Libitum, name that in Latin means “At pleasure”. It includes two white wines and one red wine. The latter is made with a grape that has practically disappeared from the wine map in La Rioja. And it had practically disappeared because Juan Carlos is one of the few winemakers who makes a wine with the Maturana Tinta variety, a traditional Rioja grape that has been cultivated for a long time.

The white wines that complete this collection are a Tempranillo Blanco (9,500 bottles in 2016) and a Maturana Blanca (2,600 bottles in 2016). The Maturana Blanca does pass through barrel, unlike the first one that only goes through stainless deposit.

We had the visit beginning at 14:00 and after the introductions, Marian took us to the Cerro de la Isa from where you can see all the plots in la Peña El Gato and also the course of the Najerilla river. It was very interesting to see the differences between the plots. In addition, at the top of the hill the Sancha family has installed a temple with a picnic area that delights anyone who can get up there and enjoy the views, food and wine carried with them and if you are lucky, and in this area you are, you can see the Tears of San Lorenzo.

Coming down from the hill, which opens your appetite even if go up by car, it was time for some appetizers. To begin with, Ad Libitum Tempranillo Blanco 2016. A very rich and very fresh wine. Very pleasant acidity that helped this wine to be easily drank. It was very rich. Then we enjoyed the Ad Libitum Maturana Tinto 2014. A very surprising wine that aged for 11 months in oak and with a great aromatic balance that could lead you to think it could be a Cabernet Franc. For me, a wine like nothing I had ever tasted before and that I certainly enjoyed a lot.

Now it was time to sit around the table. The main course was some delicious beans with the Anguiano Denomination of Origin. Anguiano is a nearby village. Very tasty and also homemade. Together with the beans, the second course, the dessert and the coffee we enjoyed Peña El Gato 2016 and Peña El Gato Natural 2016. I had already tried the Peña El Gato before and it was one of the reasons for this visit. And the natural wine, well, what can I say? Fantastic does not get to describe what I thought of this wine.

After lunch we went to the cellar. We took a tour to see the facilities and then we enjoyed two more wines. The first was resting in a 500-liter cask that Juan Carlos is making together with his students of the Enology Master. A lot of Garnacha, some Maturana and a little bit of other varieties. All the grapes are destemmed by hand. According to Juan Carlos, and the wine was in the barrel for only five weeks, it is the best wine he has ever made. I’m not going to argue with him, though I’m from Bilbao city center. I’m not fighting around with anyone after two dishes of beans, but I can say that the wine was fabulous. In my opinion, it could be bottled right away because we did enjoy it a lot.

And to finish our visit, we approached to a strange object located next to some barrels. We reached to it, we touched it, we smelled it, and then we realized it was a 500-liter terracotta amphora. A clay vessel!!!!!!!!! Juan Carlos told us it was full of Garnacha from the Peña El Gato. We tasted it and a word came to our mind: ecstasy.

The article began by saying that after making a visit to a winery, you always categorize the wines and choose the best and worst, or better and less better. Here, already on the highway, which by the way was far away, I still did not make up my mind.

The amphora one was spectacular. The red blend, superb. The natural wine, amazing too. The Maturana Tinto, so unique and special that it was great. The Peña El Gato, I liked it a lot beforehand. El Tempranillo Blanco, one of those wines that make you like white wine. Jean, yes I like white wines, but exactly as this one. It’s hard to say which one was better, because I liked them all and none less than the others because each one was great on its own way. It is a small problem to decide between six wines so great, but it is also a blessed problem.

Soon we will talk to Juan Carlos about a lot of things, because that conversation goes for a long way.

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Kabaj Winery, the Kartuli Method in Slovenia

Someone once said that why we should talk for clarifying some problems when we can fistfight over them. The relationship between Jean Michel Morel and I started this way. After I published an article about Orange wines he was educated enough to send me a private message instead of saying in public I did not know anything about wine. We then talked a bit about the topic and challenged each other to meet in his home turf. Hey, I’m from Bilbao! I won’t ever back away from a good appetite-opener fistfight.

Therefore, a visit was due and a visit was done. Kabaj winery also has a bed and breakfast in the small town of Šlovrenc in Goriška Brda, Slovenia, just a few kilometers from Gorizia in Italy. It is in the countryside and a very nice area full of vineyards in both sides of the border. Here is where Jean moved from his hometown Paris and after developing a winemaking career in Bordeaux and Languedoc Roussillon, he came to work for Borgo Conventi in Friuli. His marriage to Katja Kabaj in 1989 finally made him settle down at the Kabaj homestead.

Since then, the winery has grown to a big estate. They have several labels and now we can say they make outstanding wines. For the not-in-the-know, Slovenia is not a country in which great wine are produced, but as you go discovering, you can fall really in love with them.

Jean elaborates around 70,000 bottles a year coming from over 12 hectares of vineyards. It is a huge number for a family-owned winery. He mainly works with white varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Friulano, Rebula (Ribola Gialla), Sauvignon, Malvasia, and then Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. All the white wines undergo maceration on the skins, some for one day as the Pinot Grigio, some others like the Rebula for up to thirty days. He started doing this in the early 2000s, when he realized this was the traditional way of producing white wines in Slovenia and the best way to preserve and age white wines.

The most important aspect of Jean winemaking work is that he is one of the few producers in Slovenia using the Kartuli Method. What is this? Well, this is the traditional winemaking method of Georgia, where the must remains on the skins for a long period buried underground in big terracotta amphorae. In the case of Jean, he produces this way a white blend of Rebula, Malvasia and Sauvignon. On average, the maceration takes between 10-12 months in the amphora, and then the wine is transferred to big 2,000- and 3,000-liter French oak barrels for one year and one extra year in the bottle.

Upon arriving to the cellar, Jean gave us a hearty welcome, thus we disregarded the fistfight as a way of solving our differences. Maybe some other time, not this one. Jean took us inside, to the area of the winery where the wine cases are ready to be shipped away. There was a bit or activity as workers were around. We could see bottles of different wines here and there, also wines by other producers. Therefore, we started talking about wine, winemaking and the Kartuli Method. At the same time, Jean was serving glasses of wine. We were enjoying all of them, as once we have discovered this style of making white wine with skin maceration. His wines are completely natural, coming from organic vineyards and no use of chemical compounds, only autochthonous yeasts and no added Sulphur nor filtration. His wines are very clear, no trace of sediments and for us, very fine and elegant. We tasted almost all of them. We talked about the cellar and he explained about the big barrels and the buried amphorae in the underground cellar. We asked to go see them but he asked us to be easy, to enjoy the wine and to take our time. Two hours after our arrival, still in animated conversation, Katja brought some prosciutto and other food that we enjoyed. As with the wine, it was all produced in their farm, completely natural.

Talking about the Kartuli Method, Jean offered two samples of Georgian wines, a Kratsiteli and a Saperavi. They were good, but his wines were much better. One hour later, three hours after our arrival, we asked again to see the cellar, and he gave us the same answer: wine and be easy. I’m from Bilbao, 1,80 and 93 kilos but Jean is a bit taller and a bit heavier, so who I am to go against his will? We had to go but still he offered two more wines: a Sauvignon Vert that was so good and the Pinot Noir he is now producing. Absolutely amazing wine.

Jean promised us that next time we will visit the cellar and see the amphorae. Well, it seems that we need to return to visit Jean. After all, he knows how to manage the situation and we cannot be without seeing all that he does in his cellar.

Here ends Part One of the visit to Jean Michel Morel and Kabaj Winery. Soon, an interview with him and Part Two of our visit.

Jean Michel Morel & Aitor Trabado

JNK, the Slovenian Vipava Valley most treasured secret

Kristina Mervič is a Slovenian winemaker who transpires passion for her work when you talk to her. And you get easily taken by her passion and her wines. Firstly, she is not a woman to put stickers in her bottles, stating that she is a natural wine producer, certified organic vineyards or biodynamic vision. On the contrary, she makes wines the way her father Boleslav did before her. In fact, in this side of Slovenia that back in the day was far from the Western world, the white wines were always made macerating the must on the skins and they did not add anything to the wine like sulfites or other chemical compounds because there was no money to buy sulfite or chemical compounds to add. It was just natural winemaking because it was the only possible way to do it.

In the heart of the Vipavska Dolina DO in Slovenia, and located in the small countryside village of Sempas, is where we can find Kristina’s winery JNK. The Vipavska Dolina, or Vipava Valley, is one of the main DOs in Slovenia, placed to the east of Goriska Brda and southwest to capital city Ljubljana. Kristina owns 3.5 hectares of vineyards, such a small property she has. The soil here is the characteristic Opoka: sandstone marl formed during the Pliocene period and rich in marine sediment and minerals. Vineyards are low as compared to other wine areas, between 100 and 300 meters above sea level. The average yield per plant is around 1.5 kilos per white varieties and 2 kilos per red varieties.

She has planted white varieties Rebula, Malvazija, Green Sauvignon (Friulano), Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon, and then she has Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. She produces single varietal wines with these grapes an also two blends: Sv. Mihael and Rdece.

One thing that gets your attention is the maceration time. Usually in nearby wineries the white wines macerate on the skins for a period ranging from 3-5 days to up to 30-45 days. Kristina keeps a short period that rarely goes over 8 days for every variety. The maceration period of the red wines, on the other hand, is usually larger than in other places, going to up to 40 days. Kristina likes to age her wines before releasing them to the market. First, she likes to keep the wines in oak barrels for one or two years, depending on varieties and vintages. Then a similar period in the bottle follows, thus her wines are on the market 3-4 years after harvest.

We had the opportunity to visit her and share a good quality time with her. Her father came by too and besides the wines and the conversation, we had the opportunity to share great homemade prosciutto. As you can imagine, many of the products they consume at home are homegrown and they only buy in the local supermarket the products they cannot produce.

The more we enjoy a glass of Ribolla Gialla or Malvasia the more we fall in love with them. Here in Slovenia they are called Rebula and Malvazija, and Kristina is a master producing wines with them. We tasted three white single varietals: Rebula 2009, Rebula 2004 and Malvazija 2012. The white blend was Sv. Mihael 2005 (60% Sauvignon, 40% Pinot Bianco, 20% Rebula and Malvazija), the single varietal Merlot 2009 and a red blend Rdeče 2006 (55% Cabernet and 45% Merlot). The wines were so amazingly perfumed, with a fine and elegant nose and really good in the palate. Wines really worth enjoying them while having a nice conversation. It is has to tell which one was more pleasant that the others. The Rebula 2004 had a nose that took you away from the very beginning, still at the top of its game and with long years ahead to give more pleasure. The Merlot was just incredible.

Kristina produces a small number of bottles every year and she keeps a good number of them at her cellar for ageing. Her place is worth doing a visit as she is very passionate about what she does and the wines are a great discovery.

Soon we will talk to Kristina about her wines and her winemaking philosophy.

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Pepe Raventós, natural wines in Penedès

Many times, we meet winemakers whose parents already made wine and taught them the ins and outs of winemaking. Other times, less times, the grandparents also devoted themselves to wine. Seldom, very rare, do we find someone who is the twenty-first generation of his family. This translates into about five centuries of family viticulture.

This is the case of Pepe Raventós, the heir of a saga that began in 1497, shortly after the Discovery of America. His family, Raventós i Blanc, owns 90 hectares of vineyard and forest in the heart of Penedès, in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, which are currently managed by Pepe who, according to family tradition, follows the principles of biodynamic viticulture.

However, today we are not going to talk about what is being done at Raventós i Blanc but rather about a much smaller project Pepe started three years ago, in 2014, with the idea of ​​making natural wines vinified in the garage of his house on the farm Mas del Serral. This project, Natural Wines by Pepe Raventós, consists of three wines elaborated following the traditional methods. Pepe applies biodynamics in the vineyards, working organically and respecting the soil. He understands the vineyard as an ecosystem in which grapes are only a part of it, like man, leaving the vegetation cover and allowing animals to be an integral part of a whole.

Biodynamics is governed by a lunar calendar that indicates when work is to be done in the vineyard. In the property, they make the necessary preparations for the care of the field: dung, silica, dandelion, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, yarrow and valerian. The compost they also use comes from their own animals and from nearby ecological farms when necessary. And of course, Maria Thun’s preparations and others are used when necessary including dilutions of ashes for rabbit pest, antifungal horsetail or the preparation of the wise men. Phytotherapy, including applications of horsetail, nettle and comfrey, is also a fundamental part of the process. As we see, biodynamics is the root basis of the work in Natural Wines by Pepe Raventós.

The work in the vineyard is manual, and when they need extra help, they use horses. Yeast, enzymes or any chemical compounds are not added and there is no temperature control in winemaking, which makes the process as natural as possible.

The soils of the vineyards are calcareous. They consist of a clay layer rich in nutrients, organic compounds and water, and a second layer underneath formed by calcareous rock, full of marine fossils.

We mentioned Pepe makes three wines in this project. For them he uses two autochthonous varieties: Xarel·lo and Bastard Negre. The three wines are produced in a very limited quantity:

Xarel·lo de la Vinya del Noguer Alt. Vines nearly 50 years and calcareous soils. In 2015 the wine fermented in a concrete tank and in a 1,000-liter terracota amphora. Subsequently, in 2016, the processing method changed replacing the concrete tank with a 1,500-liter wooden cask while still using the amphora.

As a curiosity of the 2016 vintage, the part of the must fermenting in the amphora finished the process one month after it started, while the fermentation in the wooden cask stopped in winter and it was not until the temperature rose in the spring that it started again to finish by the end of April. Then he made the blend and bottled it without clarification or filtering. The wine then rested in the bottle for six more months.

The 2015 vintage offered a rather fine wine, perhaps with a somewhat low acidity, but still very pleasant to drink and easy to match with food. A wine that stood out with the character of the Xarel·lo. The 2016 vintage presents a bit of turbidity. The nose is very aromatic, with certain notes of apple compote. In the mouth the acidity grabs you from the very beginning and the final result is very good. It is very nice and very well done wine. The two vintages are quite different from each other, as it should be since there are always differences between one harvest and the next. However, the difference in the method of elaboration is great. Both went through terracota, but the ageing in wood in 2016 makes it a much more structured wine with its sharpest acidity. That, of course, as well as the differences between both vintages. The wood is not present at all in your glass, which is very pleasant.

Two wines that adapt to different tastes but at the same time they are very delightful and easy to drink.

From this Xarel·lo wine, 2,166 bottles were made in 2015 and 2,824 in 2016.

Ancestral is a natural sparkling wine, 100% Xarel·lo, grapes coming from the Vinya del Mas vineyard. Calcareous and clayey soils. The wine begins fermentation in stainless steel tanks and finishes it inside the bottle, just as it was done in the past.

If something characterizes this wine is the grip it has. Visually it looks a lot like Xarel·lo 2016. On the nose it grabs you from the beginning and before tasting it you already know that you have something special in the glass. When tasting it, a very well balanced acidity makes the wine spectacular, very aromatic and with very fruity. It is indeed a different sparkling wine, with a very thin bubble and that has nothing to do with the cava wines made in the area. These are two concepts of wine, the cava wine and this ancestral, which clearly show their differences. Personally, I thought it was an excellent wine and that certainly made me enjoy very much while it remained in the glass.

Unfortunately, when it comes to producing this Ancestral, the production is quite limited as well. The production was 1,671 bottles in 2014 and 1,418 bottles in 2015.

The third wine is a red, Bastard Negre, from Les Terrasses del Serral vineyard. Vines over 40-year old in very poor calcareous soil. The wine ferments in 225-liter open barrels of 4-5 uses. The wood does not show up to the wine, hence the reason for employing used barrels. No temperature control during fermentation.

In 2014, the production was 582 bottles and in 2015, the number diminished to 483 bottles.

Soon we will talk with Pepe Raventós about his wines and his winemaking philosophy.

Photos (c) VN by Pepe Raventós

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