Hungary, far more than world class sweet wines

“There is no Hungarian village without a cellar”.
This is a good summary of the wine culture in Hungary, anchored in history since ancient times and the conquest of the southern bank of the Danube by the Romans.

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Having suffered under Communism until the end of the 1990s – like many eastern European countries – the Hungarian vineyards are gradually restructuring, with a progressive return to quality wines. The country now has some 150,000 hectares of vines(1), spread over 22 wine regions.
From east to west, we focus on two of them : Tokaj and Etyek-Buda.

Tokaj, land of aszú and puttonyos

Arriving from Budapest, the road is a succession of green fields. Then, suddenly, small mountains in the form of domes, emerge on the horizon like mushrooms from the ground. On these hills, vines are planted on the hillsides.

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Welcome to Tokaj, the 3rd largest Hungarian appellation with 5,500 hectares planted(2). An ancient volcanic area on the foothills of the Carpathians, which has been classified as a World Heritage Site since 2002, where there were once more than 400 active volcanoes.

Here people speak “aszú“ and “puttonyos“. Stuck between the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, the Tokaj vineyard enjoys ideal conditions for the development of the famous Botrytis cinerea. The grapes touched by noble rot are harvested berry by berry (!), it is these units of measurement that determine the level of sugar and the concentration of the wines(3). These wines are aged at least three years in traditional stone cellars, where a black fungus, Cladosporium Cellare, develops on the walls, helping the wine to age.

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We visited with admiration the natural 1km tunnels that form the cellar of Château Dereszla, where no less than 1,000 barrels lovingly look after a part of Tokaj’s liquid gold, at a constant humidity of 90%.

Some great Hungarian sweet wines from the Furmint variety tasted during our journey:
Tokaji Muskotaly Réserve 2003, from Château Dereszla (“Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
Tokaji Aszú 2006, from Samuel Tinon
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008, from Demeter Zoltán
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008, from Grof Degenfeld
Tokaji Aszuescencia 2003, from Erzsébet Pince

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A vineyard in full mutation turned towards dry white wines

The Tokaj region is not only a great region of sweet wines. On the contrary, the production of high quality dry white wines is booming. “The production of the last Aszu wines goes back to 2010 in the region. Since then, climatic conditions have impeded the production of sweet wines ; or sometimes only a production of extremely small quantities were possible. And small estates that only make sweet wines are currently in danger”, László Kalocsai, director of Château Dereszla explained, during an exciting tasting of dry white took from different tanks (for the assemblages).

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Moreover, the region remains the poorest in Hungary(4) with 4/5 of the vineyard managed by farmers who have less than one hectare of vines and can’t make a living from it. A government program has been put in place to develop tourism in the Tokaj region. With a budget of € 300 million, which extends from 2013 to 2020, it is assumed that priority will be given to small family estates(5).

Some very nice Hungarian dry wines tasted :
Ré:serve 2012, from Abraham Pince (100% Furmint)
Tokaj Szamorodni 2007, from Samuel Tinon (“Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
Tokaji Kabar 2013, from Château Dereszla (100% Kabar – a unique grape variety from Tokaj, with only 11 hectares)
Cabernet Franc 2012, from Demeter Zoltán
Kékfrankos 2013, from Etyeki Kúria (100% Kékfrankos, also known as Austrian Blaufränkisch)

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A production of sparkling wines has also been developing in Hungary for about 8 years. Grof Degenfeld, an organic winery since 2008 and producing a delicious cuvée “Furmint Sparkling Brut 2011“, is a good example.

Samuel Tinon, the discreet genius of Tokaj

Samuel Tinon was born in the vineyards of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, another beautiful region of sweet wines(7). He was 21 years old when he arrived in Hungary in 1991. Samuel learned Hungarian on the spot and quickly became the director of the Royal Tokaj Wine Company, the first joint venture between East and West, created in 1989. He already had gold in his fingers. In 1999, he created his vineyard of 5 hectares in the Tokaj appellation.

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With his wife Mathilde Hulot – a correspondent for numerous wine-producing magazines and co-author of reference wine books(6) – they settled in the town of Olaszliszka in 1998, in the center of the Hatari grand cru.

Samuel cultivates two varieties: Furmint and Harslevelu, planted on clay and loess soils on the Zemplén hillsides (slope between 30 and 40% facing south). Among his wines – which, I must admit, are all delicious – one was my Hungarian favorite wine : his Dry Szamorodni. A wine – or rather a base method by name – which means “as it comes” in Polish, at a time when workers picked up whole botrytised clusters (not individual berries).

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Samuel makes a dry version from it with fermentation in open tank sous voile (under the veil). A unique wine in the world and which to this day is part of the great Wine Explorers’ discoveries, both for its complexity and for the emotion it has given us. A pure moment of meditation.

Etyek Buda, the other (promising) face of the Hungarian vineyard

The region of Etyek has been known for wine for 200 years; especially for its chalk soils and its production of sparkling wines. However, it is not always a favorite when talking about Hungarian wines. Wrongly…

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The Etyeki Kúria estate is a great example of its success. Started in 1996, it has made a name for itself thanks to its production of red wines; making great Pinot Noir and Kékfrankos wines. In 2009 Sára Matolcsy, the owner, enrolled Sándor Mérész – one of the country’s best oenologists – to manage the 26 hectares estate (plus 17 hectares in the Sopron region).

Together, this sympathetic binomial makes Etyeki Kúria one of the jewels of the region.

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Conclusion (unavoidable) on the Eszencia, a very rare nectar that we had the pleasure of discovering at Château Dereszla and which is a must to taste at least once in one’s life, as this sweet wine is an explosion of perfumes and flavors. Why? Imagine a grape syrup in reality, made from the best botrytis grapes harvested berry by berry, sometimes fermenting more than twenty years in small oak barrels, with more than 600g/L of sugar, less than 3 degrees of alcohol and 17g/L of acidity… There, all is said.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Château Dereszla, Grof Degenfeld, Erzsébet Pince, Demeter Zoltán, Samuel Tinon, Abraham Pince, Tokaj-Hétszőlő and Etyeki Kúria for their warm welcome.
Thanks to Gergely Somogyi, publisher at Tokaj Today, for having guided us so well in our wine wanderings in Tokaj. For more information on tours of vineyards organized by Tokaj Today : www.tokajtoday.com.
 

(1) Source : Sommeliers International
(2) Of the 11 000 hectares of Tokaj appellation in Hungary, only 5,500 hectares are planted.

(3) A unit of aszú is equivalent to 25 kg. After maceration, the wine is filtered and again put in oak barrel to age for at least two years. Then it is bottled and remains in the cellar for at least three years, two of which are in oak barrels. The wine thus obtained, called “Tokaji Aszú”, is marketed in bottles of 50 cl. Thus, 4 puttonyos means a minimum of 90 g/L, 5 Puttonyos minimum 120 g/L, 6 Puttonyos minimum 150 g/L and Aszú Eszencia minimum 180 g/L.
(4) Before the Second World War, more than 25% of the population were Jewish. Many of them have been deported and the region has become industrialized and mechanized, resulting in unemployment and poverty.
(5) According to a government calculation, an average of 10 hectares is required for a producer to make a living from his production. => A person who would come to settle in the region would receive 10 hectares, free over 30 years (already planted) + 30K€ + 60K€ for a loan with interest at 1.9% over 20 years + wine marketing programs for the promotion of Tokaj.
(6) Some reference wine books co-written by Mathilde Hulot : Le petit Larousse des Vins : Connaître, choisir, déguster, 1900-2000 : Un siècle de millésimes, Visages de Vignerons-Figures du Vin, Voyage au-dessus des vignobles de France or Les 100 vins cultes. For more information on Mathilde Hulot : http://mathildehulot.com.
(7) The sainte-croix-du-mont, or sainte-croix-du-mont appellation, refers to a French wine with a registered designation of origin produced in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. Together with the appellations Cadillac and Loupiac, they form a small region producing sweet wines in the vineyard of Entre-deux-Mers, in the Bordeaux region. The AOC sainte-croix-du-mont is extending over 500 hectares planted with the varieties Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

Denmark, a newcomer on the European benches

I am lacking the words to describe the beauty of Denmark.
Upon our arrival, we were moved by its brightly colored landscapes. Its virgin aspect, wild and unspoilt. Its unequaled blue sky.

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Starting in the South, from the Dutch border, we were eager to discover the Danish vineyards, the young student on the European benches.
Because even though the Danish Vineyards Association (1) was created in 1993, it was not until 2000 that Denmark was  (finally) allowed by the EU to produce wine commercially (2).
Today there are a hundred producers. Most wineries are less than 2 hectares in size, producing in difficult conditions. To make a living from this passion remains quite a challenge. The guided tour follows.

Skaersoegaard, a lush green velvet

Nearby Kolding – on Jutland island, West – our journey started with Skaersoegaard estate. Being the second “biggest” Danish winery with 5.5 hectares, Skaersoegaard is a beautiful place to visit urgently.

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Paddle in hand, we were invited to visit the property by boat. Sven Moesgaard, the owner – and one of the pioneers to have planted vines in Denmark – fell in love with this place, largely due to the lake. “Without this body of water, I would never have planted vines; it provides the necessary protection against frost”.

A family of swans were watching us from a certain distance, hidden in the reeds. These are the employees of the winery, Sven laughingly explained : they maintain the vines by eating weeds and feed the soil with their droppings. Effective and free labor!

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The vineyard tour over, it was time for fishing on the lake for Ludo and for a nap in the shade of a tree for me. We were happily awaiting the evening BBQ at the water’s edge, in which a thousand pinecones would flame and crackle, to our greatest delight.

Not easy to be winemaker in Denmark

However, why plant vines in Denmark, where the climatic conditions are cold and the period of sunshine very short? “By challenge! “, Sven, who was an engineer in the pharmaceutical industry, before becoming a winemaker, said. “People have always thought it was impossible to plant vines and to make wine in Denmark…and I hate what is impossible”.

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As a result, you can find on Skaersoegaard estate – as elsewhere in Denmark – exclusively interspecific varieties (like Solaris, Rondo, Orion, Regent, Ortega, Cabernet Cortis, etc.), which have the advantage of being more resistant to vine diseases (powdery mildew, downy mildew), often with earlier maturities. And it works pretty well. Fortunately. Because vine treatments are banned by the Danish government (only three soft sprays are allowed) and the challenge of maintaining the vines in good condition is huge.

In addition to this, draconian hygienic standards are imposed by the government.

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Danish growers are not only forced to wear a full protective suit and overshoes to access their cellar, but also to have a “white” room, isolated from the rest of the buildings, washable from the floor to the ceiling, for cleaning technical equipment. What a surprise the first time we saw it… It’s (almost) like a hospital room. And attention to regular controls! “If these standards were applied to older wine countries, the majority of wineries in the world would have to close their doors”, Sven laughingly added.
To boot the government doesn’t provide any funding for this new business, which is for now judged as unprofitable. “No matter, the wine is primarily a story of passion”.

A night on Samsø island

Having left Skaersoegaard estate in the afternoon, we had to rally Rёsnes peninsula, East (on Sealand), where we were expected for our second visit. And it seemed that on this day the GPS of the Wine Explorers’ Truck  decided to play some tricks on us.

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Forgetting that the “shortest route” selection had been checked in the GPS, we naively followed it. After barely 20km, we were already facing the sea, in front of a ferry terminal. Amused by the idea of a boat crossing, we quickly forgave our guide.

A first stop halfway forced us to land on Samsø, an island of 100 square km and 3,700 inhabitants – and 100% energy independent and renewable (3). The place is bucolic. The inhabitants live in tune with the rhythm of the sea and the seasons. Everything is so quiet that no ferry will sail in the evening. We decided to spend the night on the island and to leave the next morning at dawn.

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We had the perfect excuse to stay a little longer.  The scenery immediately gave us the feeling of having arrived at the end of the world. We savored the moment with relish. This night, the undertow of the waves would be our lullaby.
Would we continue our journey the next day?…

Dyrehøj Vingaard, the vineyard on the peninsula

Freshly disembarked from the ferry and not yet fully recovered from our emotions, we headed towards Dyrehøj Vingaard, the largest Danish winery. A 8-hectares vineyard literally plunging into the sea. Denmark is definitely full of landscapes one more picturesque than the other.

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We met with Betina and Tom Newberry, brother-sister-farmers, who specialized in the breeding of pigs for a long time. A few years ago, they left everything behind to embark on a wine adventure, focusing on a strategy around oenotourism. The Rёsnes peninsula remains a must in terms of Danish tourism.
And fortunately, the place has a wonderful microclimate for making wine : the sunlight off the water is so particular that its brightness is reflected on the vine with a mirror effect, helping the grapes to mature.

Some Danish wines to discover:
DON’s Cuvée Brut 2013, from Skaersoegaard (60% Solaris, 40% Orion)
RÖS Muscaris 2014, from Dyrehøj (90% Muscaris, 10% Solaris)
Utopia Rondo 2006, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 9 months in new Hungarian oak)
Utopia Cougar Rondo 2009, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 22 months in new French casks)
Hedvin 2010, from Skaersoegaard (blend of Rondo, Régent, Léon Millot and Cabernet Cortis), a fortified wine (4) with notes of cooked black fruit.

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Kelleris Vingård, the most bordelais of Danish vineyards

After a (fresh!) morning swim in the Øresund strait, facing Sweden, we took the direction of Kelleris Vingård, two kilometers away from the sea, where the owners, Susanne and Søren Hartvig Jensen, a lovely couple, were going to host us.
Søren is a winegrower like no other. He was told repeatedly that Denmark is not a country suited for producing red wine!

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However…With a lot of courage and a touch of craziness, he bet on a production mainly focused on the blue Rondo variety. “I’m not a little crazy, but completely crazy for wanting to specialize in red wines! As consumers like red wines with a long barrel aging, the challenge to make such wine was fun!”.

An unconditional fan of Bordeaux, Søren even added two round towers to his home, to give his estate a castle-like touch – and built a vaulted cellar in order to store his barrels.
He also planted a few plants of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on an experimental basis and confessed with a smile that in 10 years, none of them have ever reached maturity. A great illustration of how the Danish climate is complex! “Let us not forget that only 12,000 years ago, there were still 3,000 meters of ice in Denmark”.

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We ended the trip with a meeting with Søren’s friend Jean Becker, former president of the Danish Vineyards Association. He explained that mutual aid between wineries is still difficult in the country, probably due to a lack of knowledge and feedback regarding viticulture at the moment.

Denmark remains to this day a newborn throughout the history of wine, with the future ahead.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to Skaersoegaard, Dyrehøj Vingaard and Kelleris Vingård for their warm welcome. And thank you to the French Embassy in Denmark and especially to Raphael Caron, for having advised and guided us in our research. Finally, thank you to Jean Becker for having accepted an interview for the Wine Explorers’ project.

(1) Danish Vineyards Association (DVA)
(2) Along with Sweden and England
(3) For more information about Samsø : http://www.euractiv.fr/sections/energie/samso-lile-100-renouvelable-et-energetiquement-independante-312971
(4) A fortified wine is a wine whose alcohol content is increased and the fermentation stopped by adding alcohol in order to retain residual sugars.

John Barbier, the Colorado cook-vintner

“I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct” 

Born on May 28, 1972 in Arpajon in France, nothing predestined John Barbier to become a winemaker in remote plains of Colorado. And yet… Here is the portrait of an American success story as we like them: a man as manic as discreet, as demanding as generous, primarily Epicurean and vinifying by conviction, to the delight of our palates.

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WINE Explorers : Can you tell us about your unusual career?

John BARBIER : My name is a tribute to John Wayne, my father loved him. In a way the United States and I were made to live together! After my studies in the restoration sector, I joined the army as butler of the General of Bourges. After that, I put my bag on my back, and headed towards Australia and Asia. I have always wanted to travel, to explore the planet. I did everything: from being a waiter in Adelaide, to cooking in the bush, to being a touristic guide. I had to earn my daily bread. This was followed by a period of two and a half years where I furrowed the Caribbean and Bermuda serving on a cruise ship.

WE : How did you start Maison la Belle Vie winery ?

JB : I arrived in the US in 1996. I decided to try my luck there, because traveling opened my mind and gave me a thousand dreams. I chose to work in Aspen (Colorado), a beautiful ski resort. Restaurant work has always fascinated me and I quickly wanted to open my own business for the challenge ahead. I had the opportunity to open my first restaurant in Glenwood Spring in northern Colorado. It immediately turned out well and I opened a second one nearby, in Grand Junction. Maison la Belle Vie came into being naturally and in the continuity of my two other businesses.

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WE : Is wine always related to gastronomy for you?

JB : I grew up on a farm and I love local produce, the history behind it. I also love the French know-how and all that goes with it. Food and wine have been two great friends since forever. My family taught me about life and respect. Being at the table is a very important moment for me, where a good meal is consistent with a good wine, but also with the place and time. Cuisine is a mix between savoir-vivre and how one receives people.

WE : Do you still have time to cook?

JB : I cook when I have friends at home. I take time for them and it’s a real pleasure. I love creating dishes according to the season and especially depending on what I find in my garden. Knowing how to combine the elements of a dish together is an ongoing challenge. Besides, I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct.

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WE : Why do you defend the concept of “oenotourism“ so fervently? 

JB : For me, oenotourism is all the little extras added to the wine tasting. This is essential today to differentiate one from others in a market as competitive as the wine industry.
My vineyard is small but very welcoming. My guests feel at home and never want to leave. We offer them a charcuterie platter with local ham and sausages, good cheese, traditional baguette, antipasti… We recreate a friendly mindset that people have lost and which everyone wants . We even do dinners on the farm, with very simple and friendly food and wine pairings, in a warm atmosphere. To get back to basics for a more serene life during an evening is very important for our customers who like to say “this is real life.”

We also organize weddings half of the year, often up to two per weekend as the demand is high.

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WE : What do you think of Colorado wines?

JB : The wine industry in Colorado is young. We began producing wine in the early 80’s. After many adjustments and experiments, wines have gradually improved. We have made a lot of progress over the last 10 years, especially with red wines. They are delicious. Today we have reached one hundred wineries throughout the state.
We now have programs that help us to develop and to become more competitive. This teaches us not only to make wine but also to grow grapes in altitude: we are at 1600m above sea level and we must adapt! We cannot plant anything we want, only what the earth wants to offer us.

However, the State of Colorado has seen the financial potential of the wine industry and that’s why a research center was created in order to help us in terms of viticulture but also in the development and marketing of our wines.

WE : What do you hate most?

JB : Snobbery!

WE : Your motto?

JB : Do what we love. Do not drink moonshine wines. Do not keep the most beautiful glasses and dishes only for special occasions.

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WE : Do you have a favourite wine?

JB : Hmmm…my favourite wine. I particularly enjoy wines from B & E Vineyard in Paso Robles(1), especially their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. On the French side, I adore a good Gigondas. And even though I’m not very focused on white wines, I like to open a Condrieu from time to time.

WE : What do you like most?

JB : Sharing a good meal and my favourite wines with friends.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

(1) For more information on B&E Vineyard : http://www.bevineyard.com

Emma GAO, the great lady of Silver Heights

Focus on Silver Heights winery, a Chinese micro vineyard, far away from the established standards, producing only 40,000 bottles per year, and where we had the chance to taste the best red wine of our Chinese trip. A little jewel…
To follow is a summary of our meeting with Emma Gao, the winemaker of the family estate, a delightful young woman close to the hearth.

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WINE EXPLORERS : How did you become involved with wine ?

Emma GAO : It was my father who had the idea for me to learn winemaking in France for a better future career. I went to Orange and later to Bordeaux, and spent a total of 4 years in France. The French lifestyle and rich culture impressed me. I loved studying at the Bordeaux Oenology University with internships in some wineries. As you know this school is serious with the best professors who influenced me a lot with their professionalism.
I returned to China in 2004 to work in Xinjiang winery as winemaker, and then I went to Shanghai for wine sales-training, in order to have a global approach to the wine business.

WE : How was the Silver Heights winery born ?

EG : While I working my third vintage in an industrial winery in China, I realized how hard it was to produce quality wine. I got really upset that time and talked to my father about it. He told me over the telephone to come back to Ningxia, and that we will buy tanks and dig a small cellar for me to make the wine that I wish to make. My parents has a yard where they live, of less than 1 hectare planted with vines, fruit trees and vegetables. So I was so happy to start our own wine here! In 2007, our wine was recognized both by Wine Amateur in China and by overseas professionals. In 2009, Torres China, our distributor, helped us to come up with the name Silver Heights and to market the wine by promoting it in great hotels and restaurants in China.

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WE : Why Silver Heights almost disappeared recently ?

EG : A few years ago it was still the country side here. Now we are surrounded by buildings. And unfortunately our little farm was considered to be taken by a Real Estate Developer, in order to built a residence with a park. Because in China all land is the property of the Government(1).
The French Ambassador, who visited us once when he came to Ningxia, found that we had a little piece of paradise in the middle of the city and recognized that Silver Heights is a cooperation model in wine between France and China. So they wanted to support us and wrote a letter to the Mayor of Yinchuan to convince him to keep one corner of the park for us and to build a wine museum to welcome visitors.
With this very kind letter from the French Ambassador, we were allowed to keep a part of our farm, where our history and first vintage started and with which we have strong emotional ties. Thus, a happy ending! The 2012 & 2013 Silver Heights vintages will be aged here.

WE : What is your project of the wine cellar in the mountains ?

EG : In the very beginning we started with a total production of only 10 barrels, mainly for friends and family. Then little by little, this production increased every year, because the wine gained a good reputation, which was unexpected!  Then, my father and I decided to invest in a stable development, so we found some land in the mountain and planted new vines, in total 40 hectares. We planned to built a bigger facility in this beautiful vineyard touching the mountain.  We have the help of French architect Philippe Mazier who also had  many good ideas for designing the Silver Heights winery. The same architect will transform our ancient farm into a culture museum.

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WE : What makes Silver Heights one of the most recognized Chinese wineries today ?

EG : Our 16 year old vines have always been carefully maintained by my father. The altitude of 1200m, the sunshine, the dry wind and the Helan mountains that protect the vineyard, provide a very healthy environment to produce quality grapes and to make good wine. In addition,the temperature difference between day and night here is greater than 20 degrees, which is a plus for the maturation of phenolic compounds.
And above, all the wine that we produce here truly reflects the terroir of Ningxia, disease-free and very pure. We have recently planted new French rootstocks with which we hope to improve the quality even more.

WE : However, Ningxia is facing extreme viticulture, why ?

EG : While we are on the same latitude as Bordeaux, the climate here is continental. We are situated in a very dry region with an annual rainfall of only 200 mm, compared to an evaporation rate of 1600 mm! This presents a  real challenge and necessitates the use of drip-irrigation. On the other hand, this climate does offer the advantage of a disease-free environment which allows us to practise viticulture without the use of pesticides.
The huge temperature difference between summer and winter: 37°C to -25°C obliges us to bury the vines during the winter to protect them.  This sadly has the effect of reducing the vegetative growing cycle.

WE : Can you introduce your different wines to us ?

EG : We select only the best grapes for making the Silver Heights range, which we age in oak barrels for between 12 and 16 months, in accordance with traditional methods and without filtration.
Three main wines are produced : “The Summit“, a wine made ​​for ageing   a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt(2).

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And the “Family Reserve“, a friendly wine for everyday consumption. Finally we have a last label, “Emma’s reserve” our iconic wine, only produced in great vintages.
Our second brand Vallée Enchantée is made with the rest of the grapes once sorted. This is a wine for everyday consumption and is sold regionally.

– – – – – –

As we mentioned in the introduction, it is at Silver Heights where we felt most emotional about a Chinese red wine: “Emma’s 2011 Reserve“, a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt. A nose of black fruit (blackberry, blueberry and blackcurrant) with notes of violet, spices and roasted coffee. An elegant and fresh palate with velvety tannins and a good length. To be enjoyed exclusively in a magnum size bottle.

– – – – – –

WE : Where are your wines sold ?

EG : Torres China is exclusively distributing our wines. With Torres, we are presented in the most prestigious restaurants and five star hotels in China: in Shanghai, Beijing and even Guangzhou.

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WE : Where does this very special connection between Silver Heights and Torres came from ?

EG : I’m very lucky to have worked with Torres China in 2008-2009 as a training manager. The GM, Alberto Fernandez, discovered our first wine, still in barrel at the time. He liked it and because of the passion he had for it, he decided to take over the packaging, marketing and media relations. And Damien Shee, GM for Torres Beijing also invested a lot of passion by promoting Silver Heights to the premium restaurants, always organising events to promote the brand.
At Torres, they said they are « emotional investors ». They just wanted to help us as a boutique winery to make the dream that my father and I share come true. You know, Torres China represents only family wineries from over the world. And they believe that only family wineries can make good wine continuously. Torres is contributing in many countries like Chile, China, Russia…for environmental protection, charity and local cooperation.

WE : How do you see the wine evolution in China in the coming years ?

EG : If you look at the evolution of the economic growth in China over the past decade from a global point of view, it is clear that the demand is still very luxury and premium wines oriented. New world wines are well represented on the market. Wine also reflects a very good image of health so people like to offer it as a gift – especially red wine, it’s very respectful. However that doesn’t even represent 1% of the population.
Wine is associated far more with Western culture than with Chinese culture. In the future we will need the influence of sommeliers and wine critics to educate the Chinese consumers, and hopefully at the same time go for a more qualitative and affordable Chinese wine production. So hopefully one day wine will be chosen instead of Baijiu and Huangjiu – our traditional spirits – in the glass of 1 billion Chinese consumers.
Let’s wait another 20 years and we’ll talk again…

 WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

For more information: www.silverheights.com.cn

(1) [Refers to the state land expropriation if the public interest so requires, in accordance with procedures prescribed by law and authority farmers collectively owned land into state-owned land, and shall be given the rural collective economic organization of landless peasants and landless reasonable compensation and proper placement of legal acts.]
(2) Cabernet Gernischt, grown in the country for at least a century, seems to be a very close cousin of Cabernet Franc, according to ressente studies.

Coco Farm & Winery – featuring the 2 Great Ladies of a beautiful project

“We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“, IKEGAMI CHIEKO.

 In our article on Japanese wines we spoke about the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a great example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers (the students).

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)


In this article we will focus on this estate started by Noboru KAWATA in 1984 in Ashikaga (Tochigi prefecture) which is today in the good hands of his two daughters : Ikegami CHIEKO, responsible for the Winery, and Machiko OCHI, responsible for the Center.

WINE EXPLORERS : Can you tell us a bit about your background as an introduction ?

IKEGAMI CHIEKO : I was born on the 15th of October 1950. After graduating from Tokyo Women’s University I started working for SOSHISHA, a publishing company in 1972. One day I decided to take an oenology course at Tokyo Agriculture College and found it fascinating. So naturally I joined the Coco Farm & Winery in April 1984.
I have been the Vice Presidente of the Coco Farm & Winery since 1989, and in 2009 I was awarded the titel of executive officer by the Tokyo Agriculture University. I’m also the Chief Governor of COCOROMI GAKUEN (a facility of social welfare) and a member of the Union Japonaise des Œnologues.
MACHIKO OCHI : I’m the second daughter of Noboru KAWATA. I was born on the 23rd of January 1956. At the university I majored in social welfare. I immediatly started working for COCOROMI GAKUEN. And before I took over my father’s position (Chief Administrator of COCOROMI GAKUEN), I worked in vineyard as a grape grower.

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WE : How was the Coco Farm & Winery’s vineyard born ?

IKEGAMI : When Noboru KAWATA (founder of COCOROMI-GAKUEN) was the teacher of a special class for mentally and intellectually challenged junior high school students, he found that his students always looked like they were feeling nervous at their school desks. However they acted very differently in the mountains.
Because their intellectual abilities were impaired, the families of these students thought they could not amount to much. Thus, their developmental needs were not a priority. However, Noboru had a different idea…
For these students, only hard work at the farm could possibly highlight their capabilities. He created the vineyard for the students in order for them to be able to experience the joy of harvesting and to end up in the vineyard at least once a year, to provide them with something that could give them a sense of selfworth.  He wanted them to be able to be proud of what they can accomplish and since there is such a strong link between what ones does and who one considers oneself to be, he wanted them to be able to link themselves in this manner to their occupation.
MACHIKO : Our father chose grapes from many other fruit because it could be turned into wine. He always enjoyed wine for the joy of sharing it.

WE : What are your students doing at Coco Farm & Winery ?

MACHIKO : Students perform a multitude of different tasks throughout the year which includes the following :
1. Putting paper umbrellas around all grape clusters
2. Cutting the grass in the vineyards
3. Pruning
4. Shedding vine leaves
5. Taking care of the young shoots
6. Harvesting the grapes
7. Collecting the pruned shoots
8. Spraying the vineyards with the required chemicals
9. Crushing and pressing grapes
10. Working on the bottling line
11. Assisting packaging for shipping
12. … and so much more !

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WE : Are visitors sensitive to the fact that challenged people are working in the vineyards ?

MACHIKO : Half of the people don’t notice that fact nor do they care about it. The other half is very impressed that they are working in this way.
IKEGAMI : But in the end it is always an exciting thing to work in a vineyard with the aim of obtaining the highest possible quality of grapes, regardless of who tends to the vines.  

– – – – – –

This vineyard in the mountains, North of Ashikaga, is a physical challenge to work in: it has a steep slope of 38 degrees average of inclination ! We tested it, it’s really abrupt. Why did you choose to plant vines here ? “Because at the time it wasn’t possible to obtain agricultural land on flat ground, only on the steep slopes of the mountains“, said Machiko.
However, the southwest exposure offers very good conditions for the ripening of the grapes. And the steep slopes allow efficient drainage of rainwater between mid-June and mid-October. Rather important considering the average annual rainfall of between 1,100 and 1,200mm per year! And for the students this exercise of endurance is very beneficial: “they learn patience, it allows them to work with the seasons and sometimes lead them to improvisation working on sloping land, which is very stimulating“, Ikegami added.
Moreover these are excellent soils for growing vines: a mixture of graphics, basalt and Jurassic shale.

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And when they are not working in the vineyard, the students are involved in transporting the logs, from the farm to the edge of the forest. Because it is here first moistened, then stored in columns of sections aligned in nature – where it will later develop shiitake, the delicious Japanese mushroom that goes wonderfully with soups, meat and fish.

– – – – – –

WE : Oenotourism is highly developed on the Estate. Is it one of the key of Coco Farm & Winery’s success ?

IKEGAMI : From its origen wine has had a very strong connection with food. It must remain something fun for people coming from the vineyard and the cellar, to sit in the restaurant and to order wine. On the other hand, COCOROMI GAKUEN is a center of social well-being in which it is not common to have any fun. So it would be very nice if the many customers who visit COCOROMI GAKUEN do so not only for comfort, but also to enjoy the environment related to the wine.
And we must always keep in mind that a winery shouldn’t only be a cash machine; we must continue to improve wine quality and customer satisfaction above all. Wine tourism is an important point, but it is the general harmony reigning over the domain that is our strength.

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WE : Are you having difficulties working with mentally and intellectually challenged people ?

MACHIKO : They tend to be very honesty, and very rigid. So we always have to behave in the right way. They are fantastic people.

WE : Why do you have such a great diversity of wines in the range ?

IKEGAMI : Coco Farm & Winery always try to listen to the « voice » of the grapes – telling us which wine they want to become.
Also we don’t use cultivated yeast. We ferment only with natural ones. We venerate what the grapes want to be. The number of wines in the range is decided naturally. And we have quite a few products in the range now, mostly made from Muscat Bailey A, Norton, Tana, Riesling Lion*, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Manseng.

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WE : Which are your 2 most successful wines ?

IKEGAMI : Our sparkling wine NOVO, a pure Riesling Lion made in the traditional method champenoise.
And DAIICHI GAKUSHOU (“first movement”), a red Muscat Bailey A – which is one of typical Japanese grape varietals. We use natural yeast, no chemical treatment, just leaving the grapes to do what they want to do. No filtration and a long aging. This wine is the first trial and the first step to Japanese wine growing.

WE : Will you increase the number of students in the coming years ?

MACHIKO : We would like to, but I’m not sure that we will be able to. The current students are getting older and many of the new students have more severe problems. And it’s hard to find staff, many people don’t like this type of work which is rather hard and dirty.

WE : Any new wine coming soon in the range ?

IKEGAMI : I don’t know if we will add a new wine to our range in the near future, but it is possible. “We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“.

Wine Explorers’cheers,
JBA

 

*Riesling Lion is a crossing between Japanese Koshu Sanjaku x Riesling. With the same parents of the variety Riesling Forte.

For more information : http://cocowine.com

 

 

Thierry Bernard, a daredevil winemaker in Madagascar

” A vocation is having one’s passion as a profession” (Stendhal)

Brat, having a military background and being passionate about rugby, weapons and comics, portrays a non-standard daredevil winemaker.

WINE EXPLORERS : Tell us more about your story.
THIERRY BERNARD : Born in December 1967 in Bergerac, I am the son, grandson and great-great grandson of farmers and wine-growers. Raised as a boy-scout and educated by Sisters in a private school, my strict childhood taught me the true values of life. At the age of 10, I already drove the tractor in the vineyard. But above all I wanted to join the Marines to protect my country.  At age 16, I did my training and a few years later I became first a paratrooper, and later a sniper.

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After serving my country for many years, the need for a new challenge arose. Meeting with a neighbour, Luke Deconti, from Château Tour des Gendres, brought me the desired challenge! During a vintage (1989), I watched and learnt the art of winemaking. I started studying and reading the writings of Emile Peynaud.  Meanwhile my father, who understood my wish, decided to do some restructuring, abandoning livestock …and building a brand new winery. Château Singleyrac was reborne from the ashes. I started with vintage 90, under the watchful eyes of my mentors. The dream.  My dry white, a Sauvignon-Muscadelle, noticed by Pierre Casamayor will be served by Alain Passard at l’Arpege. A first victory. My passion, which became a vocation, would never leave me again.

WE : Where did you get your nickname of “daredevil winemaker” ?
TB : An article about Clos des Terrasses in the “Revue du Vin de France“, for which I worked, appointed me as “the daredevil winemaker of Bergerac”! This was related to my other passions: enduro motorcycling and rugby. At the origin of the creation of the 15 de la Grappe with Regis Lansade (winemaker in Pecharmant), a club of former rugby players and passionate winemakers, playing n°6, I was already named “The Irish” for my combat-like temperament.

WE : Is it right that you made wine for the English writer William Boyd ?
TB : Yes, Château Pécachard 2005, a 100% Cabernet franc, vinified in 1.20m high and 2.80m wide vats, feet crushed and aged in 500 liters barrels! An incredible memory. A nice and crisp wine noticed at the time by Antoine Gerbelle and Bernard Pivot. Also the Pécachard Rosé 2006, loved by the Chelsea football club.

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WE : What lead you to Madagascar ?
TB : After a break in 1998, followed by two difficult years (divorce, a motorcycle accident, reluctance to let go), I returned to vinification for a winery, but without passion…
In 2005 I resigned and went on vacation for three months…to Madagascar . There I discovered a much less stressful way of life! It’s hot, the girls are beautiful and moreover there are vineyards ! I had to do something here. Back in France, my friend Luc Deconti asked me to replace the Head of Culture on a property in Saint-Emilion for a month, because he was sick. I accepted. The collaboration finally lasted four years! Until one day another friend, Jean Charles LUTAUD, wanted me to advise a friend of him newly appointed in Madagascar, on making wine. I accepted without hesitation and helped during my vacation in Mada. In 2009 I started my company in Madagascar, a consulting society in agriculture, agronomy and viticulture named OPEX Mada SARL.
 I was the first winemaker to have produced, vinified and marketed wine made from French noble grapes in Madagascar, with the 2010 vintage of Clos Nomena (owners: Pâquerette et Jean Allimant). An established proof that we can produce – not without efforts –  wine made from noble grapes in Madagascar.
To date, my activity as winemaker focused on Soavita and on agriculture for BIOAGRI (production of potatoes) and Artémésia Annua (artemisinin production for new anti-paludien drugs).

WE : How did you become the viticulterist and winemaker for Soavita ?
TB : Even though Soavita, run by the Verger family since 1973, is one of the most famous vineyards of Madagascar, it was a huge challenge that awaited me: the vineyard was in a very bad state. Wine sales were close to zero. Soavita was only a shadow of itself! Everything needed to be restarted again, the challenge was there! Touched by the story of Natalie, I offered her a hand in teaching her how to make wine. I fully invested myself in the vineyard and in the winery. After a lot of work, 2012 was finally the first correct vintage. The 2013 vintage was promising. Soavita has perked and sales were now increasing.

 

Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard

Nathalie Verger & Thierry Bernard


WE : Which wines are you producing there ?
TB : Kameleon NV (Non Vintage), a dry white 100% Couderc13, at 11.5%. A fresh and friendly wine to enjoy with shellfish or grilled fish. Cellar price: 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). In red, Château VergerNV, a 100% Petit Bouschet, at 12.5%. Aromas of red berries. My favourite wine. To be enjoyed with the local cuisine.  Cellar price : 12000 Ariary (around €3.70). And Domaine ManamisoaNV, a light red 100% Petit Bouschet, perfect as an aperitif. Cellar price : 10000 Ariary (about €3.10). Also a curiosity : OMBILAY, a delicious walnut wine.

WE : We talked about many issues that affect the proper functioning of the Malagasy vineyard. Can you tell us more about these problems ?
TB : There are many viticultural problems in Madagascar. Firstly, the population is poor, but people consume a lot of wine. And you need money to buy wine. Theft is unfortunately commonplace : wire, wooden stakes , grapes, everything gets stolen… Then climate is the second problem :  mainly the total absence of rain during the growing phase of the vines and abundant rainfall and cyclones during the harvest period which greatly damage the grapes.
The vineyard is also very old and it is difficult to produce hybrid cuttings here to replace the old vines and even more complicated to import noble vines (the price and paperwork required is discouraging ). The Malagasy viticulture suffers due to a lack of support by the Government – like the agricultural sector in general.
And on top of it, termites attack the wooden stakes! So it is better to use large diameter stakes if you don’t want to change them every year.  But other than that, you can make wine here – Soavita is proof!

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WE : You welcome a lot of students at Soavita to share your passion with them. How do you see the progress of viticulture in Madagascar since you arrived here for the first time in 2005 ?
TB : I love to share my passion with young people from this country. I welcome a lot of Malagasy students here, but viticulture and wine production doen’t seem to be  their concern… It is not in their culture.  Moreover no school provides wine training in Madagascar, it is a pity. The solution might be to send young people to France to receive a good education. For this however, it is  necessary for the French Embassy to issue them visas. Stay tuned.

Madagascar is a country full of challenges. This is what makes it so attractive. Viticulture is possible, Thierry Bernard has proven this. You simply need to have your passion as a profession, as summarized Stendhal. 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Michael Weder – Namibian winemaker and spirits distiller

« The wine “industry” in Namibia is in its infant stage »

Michael Weder @ Kristall Kellerei

Michael Weder @ Kristall Kellerei


WINE EXPLORERS
: What is your background ? Any link with wine ?
MICHAEL WEDER : My background is in labour law and not in wine making. I was for years a member of a wine club, as I enjoy drinking wine, and I attended two short wine making courses for “garagist” at the University Of Stellenbosch (South Africa).

WE : How did you get this crazy idea to make wine in Namibia ?
MW : We bought the Kristall Kellerei in March 2008 as Katrin (my wife) and I had decided to own a business where we can work together. We also decided that this business had to be in Omaruru, but why – this I cannot tell you. It was a great challenge for both of us and we enjoyed it since the beginning.

WE : What characterise the Kristall Kellerei winery ?
MW : Altitude is 1220m above to see level which give to the Estate some freshness during the night. Soils are sandy with a bit of clay, sot hey are not too fertile which is good as the vines have too fight in order to find nutrients. We have about 2,8 hectares currently under production (but will be increased to 6ha during the next two years). Colombard is the main white grape planted (with a smattering of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc) and Tinta Barocca for reds (with a bite of Ruby Cabernet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage). Weather is a challenge in the Omaruru region : mostly hot and dry, with summer rainfall of about 280mm. So we have to be carreful with rote when harvesting.

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WE : Some details on your cuvées ?
MW : Our two wines are blends and dry (but not bone dry). We use stainless steel tanks and pure (French) yeast for fermentation.
Rüppel’s Parrot Colombard, our white, is a blend of Colombard (95%), plus a touch of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin. The red one, Paradise Flycatcher, is a blend of Tintat Baroca (30%), Shiraz (25%), Ruby Cabernet (25%), Malbec (15%) and Pinotage (5%).

WE : What is your market strategy in terms of sales and marketing ?
MW : Currently we produce too little wine to think of exports (around 4,500 bottles a year). This will change within the next twelve years are we are thinking on a long term evolution. Currently, most of our sales take place across the counter, and some up-market lodges and hotels in Namibia also receive small quantities of our wines for their wine lists.

WE : You are also very well know for your spirits. Why making spirits ?
MW : We have obtained a good reputation for our spirits for which we have received international recognition in the last years. When we purchased Kristall Kellerei distillation was already part of the set-up and we decided to contunie, once again for the challenge and the fun it represented. It is easier to produce than wine are you are less dependent of weather and fruit/plantes deseases and it is a fantastic complement for the all Kristall Kellerei range.

WE : A few words one your spirits range ?
MW : We currently distil grapes (Nappa), prickly pears (Matisa), corky monkey-orange (Lumela) and pommegranate (Granate).

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WE : How do you see the Nabian wine industry nowadays ?
MW : The wine “industry” in Namibia is in its infant stage and it is my hope that this will grow. The first wines were made by catholic brothers in the vicinity of Windhoek – about 1894 – but this was discontinued during 1978 when the last cellar master passed away. The second attempt at wine making and distilling is here at Kristall Kellerei when the first vines (Colombard) were planted in 1990 by Helmuth Kluge, the previous owner. There are two other vineyards, both of whom are also managed by amateur winemakers. On the one hand this is a severe handicap as necessary knowledge and skills are lacking; on the other hand, this leaves a lot of room for innovation.

WE : What are your plans for the future at the winery ?
MW : We are expanding the acreage with Colombard being the main variety, although we are also toying with the idea to plant not so well known varieties… Surprise !

Wine Explorers’cheers,
JBA

For more information : www.kristallkellerei.com

Christophe Durand, a South African Norman in the vineyard

« I love wine but it must be good »

Former mannequin model and passionate about karate, nothing pre-destined Christophe Durand to viticulture. However, meeting with a self-educated wine lover.

Christophe Durand in his vineyard @ Perdeberg

Christophe Durand in his vineyard @ Perdeberg


WINE EXPLORERS : Before becoming a winemaker for Wines d’Orrance, your vineyard, it seems that you’ve had a thousand lives. What brought you to South Africa ?
CHRISTOPHE DURAND : I discovered this beautiful country in 1989 when I was here for six months modelling and I have always vowed to return one day. It was only a few years later, after my separation from my first wife, South African herself, that I decided to drop everything to be with my first daughter , Ameena .
Arriving from my native Normandy with my clogs to start from scratch wasn’t easy. So I started by picking up small food jobs from server to bodyguard. Life is made of beautiful encounters and opportunities that must be seized. My meeting in Cape Town with Claude Gillet, owner of a Burgundian cooperage, was my first turning point in wine and an upheaval in my life. Believing in me, he not only chose me as his South African agent but above all, he gave me his passion for wine and his love for Burgundy. My passion and my curiosity for the cooperage industry were such that my company was an immediate success. In just three years I already had 10 % of the market.

WE : What lead you to make your own wine ?
CD : During these first three years in contact with South African producers, I had the chance to make wine experimentations for fun. I found my style and I took my chance in 2000, making my first wine under the name Cuvée Ameena, the name of my first daughter who is now 20 years old. I didn’t grow up with winemakers or wine people in general, so I had to learn fast, very fast and from scratch. I discovered a passion that would never leave me. I read a lot, tasted a lot to train my palate and always listened to any advice, good and less good.

WE : What is your philosophy regarding the wine you produce and wines you like to drink ?
CD : Unearth beautiful terroirs and let the nature take its course, that’s my philosophy. Working in the vineyard, harvesting the finest grapes possible, and once in the cellar, do as little as possible, simply by monitoring the harvest, like taking care of a child taking its first steps.
I love fruity wines, easy to drink, which reflect their terroir, the sexy wines of Burgundy, the great ladies of Bordeaux, the finest of Rhone Valley, the precision of Alsace, the minerality of Sancerre. I love wine but it must be good.

WE : Can you give us details on your 3 wines ?
CD : The Cuvée Ameena is a pure Syrah. Half the vines are bushvines in the Swartland region, more specifically in Perdeberg, a terroir providing good structure and a black fruit character to the wine. The other half is coming from the Elgin region, closer to the sea and offering elegance, spices (white pepper) that I always look for in the Syrah. Both plots, once harvested, will undergo their fermentations separately and then be blended to age in French oak for 18 months.
The 2nd wine is named Cuvée Anais, name of my second 9 year old daughter, is a 100 % Chardonnay coming from two beautiful vineyards, one in Elgin, the other one in Franschhoek, regions which bring elegance and minerality to the whites.
Kama, the 3rd wine, is a Chenin Blanc, in honor of the Indian origines of my wife. Kama, in Sanskrit language “the pleasure of sens”, comes from a bush trailed single vineyard, allowing the Chenin Blanc to give the best of itself. This wine is my favourite and I like to take care of it because Chenin Blanc is more fragile and sensitive to oxidation .

WE : Was your meeting with Claude Gilois, founder of “Vins du Monde“ and “Chasseur de Crus“ the turning point of your wine life ?
CD : The meeting with Claude Gilois, who I like to call my ” Spirits father “, was the begining of my wine life. He first discovered me through my wines. Then in 2003 he started importing my products in France, and step by step, thanks to word of mouth, we now export to 14 countries. He guided me, exposed me to the world of wine, meeting a lot of great personalities, which was a unique opportunity for me, not coming from a vineyard setting. It helped me to affirm my style. I owe him a lot.

Christophe Durand & Claude Gilois - Waterfront, Cape Town

Christophe Durand & Claude Gilois – Waterfront, Cape Town


WE : Your greatest emotion on a South African wine ? On a world wine in particular ?
CD : My first great emotion was for a South African Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 from Neil Ellis, a nice and balanced wine with grapes from Stellenbosch. Ornellaia 1992 or a Charmes Chambertin 1949 from Laporte and more recently a Château Clinet 2007. I constantly discover with excitiment the world of wine…

WE : Can you tell us more about your new  cellar in the center of Cape Town ?
CD : We were, my wife and I looking for a place in the center of Cape Town for four years, to be able to produce and raise our wines, but also to offer tastings and sales of our products on site. Something that wasn’t always evident in the past because I rented a place from another producer.
We luckily found a 300 years old place being part of Heritage Square building, officially dated from1771, right in the center of the city. This is an incredible opportunity to have got hold of this 320 square meters place full of great history, with a natural freshness and constant temperature of 20 degrees (60cm thick walls), perfect for wine.

WE : Any project in the future ?
CD : As we say in English, “the sky is the limit“… This year I will have some Roussanne, an exciting Rhone varietal, and next year I start to produce Pinot Noir.

Wine Explorers’cheers,
JBA

More information about Vins d’Orrance : www.vinsdorrance.co.za