Slovenia… the (little) European nugget

This was our first departure on board of the Wine Explorers’ new house-office-mobile, a brand new G700GJ campervan offered by Pilote, the French market leader.

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I looked forward to test this vehicle, fully equipped for the project : two offices, four beds, a kitchen, a huge fridge and a bathroom… what else could one want ?!
En route for 1200 km, heading south-east of Europe. After two days of driving, as a reward for the journey, a wonderful spectacle awaited us. The Monte Forno, the last rampart between the northern tip of Italy, Austria to our back and Slovenia proudly standing in front of us.

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With only 85km left before arriving in Slovenia, we couldn’t wait!

One of the most interesting vineyards in the world

Coup de cœur for the Slovenian vineyards, the preserved green treasure of Europe, where German, Slavic and Roman cultures have been intermingled for millennia. Only a drop of water in the world’s wine-growing ocean with 22,300 hectares planted (0.5% of the European vineyard), the country produces some of the best wines in the world. Its 2,400-year-old wine tradition, its unique climate (protection by the Alps from the north and the oceanic influence in the west), its complex soils (opoka, schist, granite…) and its multitude of seductive autochthonous grape varieties, made Slovenia one of the most interesting wine cultures that we have discovered so far.

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“The Slovenian wine market is growing very rapidly. With the help of some of the biggest names of Slovenian winegrowers, such as Marjan Simšič, our country is increasingly recognized as a wine country”, Saso Papp, CEO and co-founder of vinoo.co explained. “We are the only country with the word LOVE in its name – sLOVEnija”, he proudly added. A whole symbol.

The country has three main wine regions: Primorska, in the west (along the Mediterranean) and the Drava (Podravje) and Save (Posavje) valleys in the west. We chose to start with the wine-growing sub-region of Goriška Brda, in the west (1000 hectares of vineyards), nicknamed “Tuscany of Slovenia” for its undulating landscape.

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A small corner of paradise and a must stop for any wine lover. Its very particular location, 50 km from the Alps and 20 km from the sea, which makes it a fantastic region for the cultivation of vines.

Bjana Estate, the effervescent story of Miran Sirk

Miran Sirk and his wife, Petra, are the proud owners of Bjana Estate, a small 6.5-hectare estate in the Brda wine region, specializing in sparkling wines produced in traditional method. Their story is as beautiful as it is touching.
Until the early 1950s, Miran’s father owned a hundred hectares of vines. But after the Second World War, the vineyard and the house were requisitioned by the State and divided, as in most areas, under the regime of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

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The family then only had a small piece of their own house, and little land. In 1976, it was the coup de grace. An earthquake destroyed the whole house, as well as other surrounding dwellings. The vineyard project was buried and along with it, the young Miran’s winemaking dreams.

In 1991, after the creation of Slovenia and the independence celebrated, Miran only had one dream in mind : to rebuild the house and the family estate, in order to produce great sparkling wines. He had to start from scratch. He replanted the vineyard in the same year, but couldn’t rebuild the house and the cellar before 2007, lacking money… A crazy bet and the work of a titan, during which, from 1991 to 2009, Miran worked as trade inspector in the casinos, traveling a lot and accumulating days of 16h, to earn enough money to pay for the construction.

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Today, thanks to his idea of planting a vineyard exposed to the north – in order to reduce the effect of the sun in this warm Mediterranean region – Miran produces, without a shadow of a doubt, world-class sparkling wines. And his “Cuvée Prestige” (70% Chardonnay, 30% Rebula), aged 56 months on the lees in bottles (!), has literally blown us away… Respect.

Marjan Simčič – Mr. Opoka

Another fantastic winemaker from Goriška Brda, and a great favorite of Wine Explorers, the emblematic Marjan Simčič, whom I like to call “Mr. Opoka”, or “the rock star of Rebula“.

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Every time I think about this visit and this encounter, I get goosebumps. Rarely have I had the opportunity to taste white wines with such intensity and depth. Wines of meditation, combining power and elegance, density and lightness, length and precision. Memorable.

Marjan and his family own 18 hectares of vineyard – some vines more than 55 years old – with parcels on both the Slovenian and Italian borders ; historical-geographic-political conflicts oblige. Marjan discovered different types of soils, one of them having obtained world-wide reputation for its unique character as a “terroir”: opoka.

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“The soils of Brda, deposited by ancient oceans on the surface of the hills, are fascinating. Wind, rain and sun have crushed, washed and heated them for thousands of years. The result: opoka, a soil rich in minerals which makes it possible to produce unique wines with a recognizable terroir“, Marjan, the 5th generation of winegrowers on the estate since 1860, explained.

Here, the dominant and most famous variety is the white Rebula(1), which accounts for about 25% of the wines produced in the region ; offering generous and inimitable wines. But that’s not all. This winemaker, who has magic in his fingers, also produces among the most beautiful cuvées of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that we have never tasted… (yes!).

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We finished the visit by admiring a beautiful sunset in one of its vineyards, right next to the Italian border. A moment out of time.

Vinakoper, land of Refosk

Next followed a change of region with Istria, in the south-east of Slovenia. And a change of scenery with Vinakoper, a 570-hectare estate created in 1947. A very successful example of a “fairly massive” producer, who has managed to concentrate exclusively on quality and who deserves to be visited.

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The key to success : a vineyard spread over 10 micro-locations around the town of Koper, one more beautiful than the next, from ground level up to 320 meters above sea level. Preserved and virgin sites of any dwelling, along the Gulf of Trieste, offering a microclimate unique to the region. We admired one of the vineyards, a plot of 64 hectares on the Debeli Rtič peninsula, literally plunging into the sea. Wild asparagus grow here on the edge of the forest. We improvised a picking and ate some green asparagus on the spot. A delight.

Overall, the wine range positively surprised us, with iconic wines around the red grape varieties Refosk (the most popular red varietal in Slovenia) and Cipro (an Istrian early ripening indigenous grape variety with only 6.6 hectares of vines in the whole world!).

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“Slovenia still lacks gratitude, even though wine has been produced here since the Roman era. Thanks to indigenous grape varieties such as Refosk, a variety with incredible potential and in which we firmly believe, it seems possible to make a difference and to assert Slovenia as a wine country with its own identity”, Gregor Bandel, the sales and marketing Director, explained.

Suklje, the revival of traditional viticulture

We finished our Slovenian stay at the Suklje estate, only a few kilometers from the Croatian border.

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A small and charming 7-hectare vineyard in the south-west of the country, in the mountainous region of Metlika. Here, there are no less than five generations of passionate winegrowers who have succeeded one another to make this estate one of the jewels of the region.

In 1994, a great turning point was initiated by Joze, the father, with the first bottling and an undeniable qualitative turn. Until then, the wine was sold in bulk, a common practice under the Yugoslav air. Matija, the 5th generation of vine growers, took over the reins of the vineyard, planted partly with Blaufränkisch (Modra frankinja), Laški rizling, Kerner and Sauvignon blanc ; under the watchful eye of his father. Katja, her sister, and her husband Guillaume Antalick, both doctors in oenology, also consult the vineyard.

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The Suklje family is actually turning the vineyard towards local and responsible oenotourism, offering exclusively fresh local products at the vineyard table (where you eat wonderfully well). A wine bar project has also been set up in Ljubljana, the capital(2). It is an initiative of Matija, Katja & Guillaume. We wish them all the best in this great adventure!

Let’s conclude this most rewarding journey with a humorous touch. We discovered an ingenious and original way of “re-filling” bottles of wine for the weekend! Practical and economical, the wine pump seems to be a success. Well done Vinakoper for this great initiative.

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Slovenia, we will be back soon. I promise. Your vineyard is a treasure.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

 

Thank you to Bajna, Marjan Simčič, Vinakoper and Suklje estates for their warm welcome. And a huge thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable help and winery recommendations.


(1)
The Rebula, aka ‘Ribolla or Ribuela is a white grape variety originating in Greece but which has been cultivated in Slovenia for at least 750 years.
(2) For more information on the Suklje wine bar in Ljubljana: https://www.facebook.com/winebarsuklje/

Do you know Vietnamese wine?

Wine in Vietnam ?! Unthinkable, I was told at the time of preparing for the project. And yet, there are no fewer than twenty estates… and a few million bottles produced every year (1). I decided to go there, with the invaluable help of Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours – the only company in the country specializing in wine tourism.
Direction Dalat, the biggest region of production, in the north of the country.

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Getting off the plane, I was awaited by Mr Huang The Hung, a lovely local guide, who was going to join me on this journey to help me with translation and winery visits. Indispensable in Vietnam.

Dalat, the headquarters of the Vietnamese production

From the airport, it took us no less than four hours to drive to Dalat, 180km inland. The city is perched at 1700 meters above sea level. Walking along the winding and damaged roads, the succession of wild landscapes through which we passed was breathtaking. Rice fields, forests, rivers, mountains, coffee plantations.

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I was so happy. Even the dampness in the air, which literally sticks ones clothes to ones skin, couldn’t alter the wonder that animated me.

The end of the road was reached by nightfall. Suddenly, thousands of white dots began to shine in the dark, following us along the road. It seemed like we were in a Japanese cartoon. As if a colony of fireflies had taken up residence in the mountain… The moment was magical. Quasi mystical. But what is it, then? These are the heating lamps used to grow flowers in greenhouses in the region, my guide explained. Dalat, with its more temperate climate, is renowned for its floral cultures. I laughed at so much naivety on my part.

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The next day, we visited Dalat Beco, one of the country’s flagship estates, which was set up in 2000. With 670,000 bottles produced each year, Dalat Beco‘s team confided in me that they are part of the medium-sized Vietnamese estates. One grape variety dominates the vineyards here: Cardinal. Its particularity: it is vinified in white as well as in red!

Visiting the bottling site, I was curious about not seeing any vineyards around the estate and questioned my hosts. “There was a vineyard a few miles from here: a failure, because of the altitude. Everything is now produced at the coast, three hours from here. The grapes are transported by truck to Dalat”, they explained.

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Purchases are made exclusively from farmers. Why not relocate the production in this case? Simply because “the altitude of Dalat ensures optimum conditions for the fermentation and the ageing of the wines”.
In this part of the world with an extreme climate, up to three harvests are done per year. Consequently, the vine never rests and its life expectancy does not exceed 8 years (one can grow vines for up to 15 years if grafted onto a rootstock). As in Bali, one can thus make wine all year round, simply by spacing the periods of pruning on different plots. This allows the wineries to have cooler and non-vintage wines.

Ladora Winery, based on the “wine from grapes” initiative

Before 1976 – and the independence of Vietnam – a production of liqueur and fruit wine, managed by the French excisted.

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It was not until 1998, however, that the first grape plantations appeared, under the impetus of Ladora Winery. In 1999, Vietnam’s first “wine from grapes” was born (in a tropical environment, grapes can be harvested from the second year).

The estate is both imposing and impressive, with its immense stainless steel tanks installed indoors and outdoors, and produce more than 2.5 million bottles per year. Upon entering the winery, it is compulsory to wear a white coat, a hygienic hat and protective footwear : Ladora Winery strictly applies the standards of European production. And I felt it in the wines, which are more homogeneous than elsewhere.

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A Skype session was organized with the management of the group, Ladofoods (also a producer of cashew nuts), based in Ho Chi Minh City, the capital. A fun and original situation. Here I was, having a discussion on a big screen with Sir Nguyen Hun Thuy (General Manager) and Nguyen Tran Quang (Senior Advisor of the BOD). I learned that Château Dalat, created in 2013, is the premium brand of the group. It includes international grape varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A clear commitment to quality. And a step forward towards a more modern viticulture.

A vineyard at sea level

Whether Dalat Beco, Ladora Winery or any other winery of Dalat, the vineyards are all located in the coastal area of Ning Thuan, 130km away, at sea level.

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Only this part of Vietnam seems to give convincing results for vine cultivation. It is also the hottest region in the country. Today, while visiting some vineyards of Ning Thuan, it was “only” 30°C in the air. Temperatures easily reach 36°C at this time of the year.

I learned that Ning Thuan was very busy until the 2000s. The opening of new, more attractive regions, emptied the coast of its tourists. As a result, this partially abandoned region, with deserted beaches has a ghostly atmosphere. Strange. Whatever, the vineyards that faced us were beautiful.

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Ladora Winery has planted 20 hectares of Vitis vinifera for its great cuvées. The rest of the parcels, planted with Cardinal grapes, correspond to contracts with local farmers.

I met with the owners of My Hoa, one of the few family micro-estates in Vietnam, started in 2000. This craft production, made at the back of the house, is unpretentious but of great charm. Here, the wine ferments quietly in small plastic tanks. The family is as discreet as they are lovely. « We are far from the big productions of the country. » They have 2 hectares of vines, mostly planted with Cardinal and with a little NH01-48, an unnamed white local hybrid.

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The vineyard is planted with a pergola system, 1.5 meters from the ground, allowing work to be done at the height of man.

We tasted the white wine, made 100% from the grape variety NH01-48. The beverage was served fresh, with ice cubes. Why not. The mouth was sweet and had a sour taste, but went well with the boiled chicken served during lunch, to my surprise. I tasted the red wine with a little rice alcohol added. A harsh and unusual taste for the taste buds of a Westerner. “That’s how men drink it here”, Miss Hoa explained to me, laughing.

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The estate seems to experience great success: to satisfy the demand, the Hoa family plans to plant another hectare of vines next year, behind the house, in place of the current rice field. Like what, the taste of any wine is the world is always suited to local taste buds. And this must be respected.

We finished the meal – and the journey in Vietnam – with the discovery of Vú sữa (also called Chrysophyllum cainit), a green fruit in the shape of an apple, with a milky appearance inside, and whose pulpit, delicious and juicy, has a taste of almonds and ripe white fruit.

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A delight ! To be discovered exclusively in this country.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Dalat BecoLadora Winery and My Hoa for their warm welcome. Thank you to Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours, for having helped, guided and advised me in the organization of this great trip. Finally, thank you to my friend Denis Gastin for introducing me to Raymond.

(1) Although it is complicated to have the exact figures of viticulture in Vietnam, it is estimated that there are about 20 estates, for an annual production exceeding 10 million bottles.

Cambodia, the newcomer on the Asian wine map

Having left Burma early in the morning and after a full day of traveling with three planes (Heho-Mandalay, Mandalay-Bangkok, Bangkok-Siem Reap), I was very excited about landing in Cambodia. I heard that there is a small vineyard lost in the Battambang countryside and I planned to get my hands on it!

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Where is it? What does it look like ? Why having planted vines in Cambodia? So many questions that I looked forward to finding answers to… Onwards for a most incredible exploration off the beaten track.

A well hidden vineyard

Do you believe in good luck? Personally, I do. Whenever I found myself back against the wall during this great adventure, I always had the good fortune of meeting someone who got me back on track. For that, I am grateful every morning.

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My Cambodian star was Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand whom I met three weeks earlier). He met with Mr. Chan Thaychheoung, the owner of the famous Cambodian estate, a few years ago and offered to put us in touch. What luck!

After a brief exchange in summarized, but effective English, here I was, disembarked in Siem Reap only knowing that I had to take a bus the next day to Battambang. That’s all. I did not know where or what time to take the bus. The staff at the guest house in which I stayed for the night did not speak English. I was sent to the neighboring laundry, where the owner seemed to be in the habit of referring travelers. “It costs $6 to Battambang, with a bus leaving at 10am”.

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The next day, a mini bus picked me up. It was filled with a dozen friendly travelers. I learned that we all paid a different price, between $5 and $7. Anyway… We headed towards the railway station at the exit of the city – because buses are prohibited in Siem Reap. After 200 km, in somewhat chaotic traffic under a lead sun and 4h30 of road travel later, I arrived with an almost 2h delay to a “bus stop”, which was nothing but a small shop literally lost in the middle of nowhere.
I hoped that I was in the right place and that my hosts will have had the patience to wait for me.

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Outside, a dozen Cambodians craned on the side of the road, carrying placards at arm’s length, all promoting their Guest Houses. A little further away, Mr. Chan Thaychheoung and his son Chan Senghong were waiting for me with big smiles. What a welcome ! We did not know one another yet, but I already loved this family. They emited such positive energy.
So the wine adventure finally began. And begins with a memorable dinner.

Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery, the only one

Mr Chan Thaychheoung has such a touching story. Loving wine since the age of 21, he decided at the time to buy twenty vines, which he tried to grow in his garden. Failure. Putting his dream aside, he became a farmer, and like many other producers in the region, he grew oranges. But the competition was tough.

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So he began to think : he wanted to grow different fruit from those of the other Cambodian farmers. He then remembered his unsuccessful attempt to grow grapes in his youth. He decided to go against the current by growing grapes – something unique in this country.

Mr Chan Thaychheoung started out cautiously with 9 plants of the red Black Queen variety. Just to see… He succeeded with his first vintage in 2004, with a few bottles produced for friends and family. This was a revelation. Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery was born. In stride, he planted 3 hectares of Black Queen and a few vines of Shiraz, a grape variety which he particularly likes. A significant cost and a risky bet : he invested all his savings.

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A tireless worker, he gradually enlarged his vineyard, always reinvesting every penny of his limited capital. In 2013, he bought Shiraz plants from Israel and planted 3 additional hectares. Today he has 10 hectares.
At the moment the equipment is modest. The wine is vinified in glass bottles. It doesn’t matter, Rome was not built in one day. They have just invested in 3 stainless steel tanks made in China for next year, with a total production capacity of 7,000L. Step by step.

Fruit juice, education and pedagogy

This year, the rainy season was very intense and the harvest was not good enough.

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As a result no wine was produced and instead organic grape juice made from 100% Syrah, which delights the taste buds and which I enjoyed a lot, was produced.

We also tasted the wine production of last year. An atypical wine, also from the Syrah grape variety and far from European standards. But which within context and accompanied by a few ice cubes (it is a custom here), refreshes the palate and pairs very well with the local dishes made from fermented vegetables.

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Mr Chan Thaychheoung showed me with great pride the educational garden he created in front of his house. A true open-air museum, where the Cambodians come to admire the vine, a plant which was unknown to them before.

“It is important that we educate local people by showing them what a vine looks like and how a grape bunch grows”. A real success, where each of the visiting tourists seemed really enthusiastic, always having a glass of straw syrah juice.

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And there’s something for everyone here. We even met a group of curious monks who came to discover this new attraction, which is as playful as it is essential. Congratulations!

Bambou Train & Angkor: two must-sees

A bit of fun this weekend before leaving for Vietnam, aboard the “bamboo train”, a must-see attraction in the Battambang area which I was pleased to discover with the Chan family. It is a kind of motorized railway made up of a bamboo platform, which in the ’70s made it possible for the personnel responsible for maintaining the railway lines to get around, and then in the 80s to bring soldiers and their allies to the front.

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What gives it its charm and undeniable attractiveness to tourists from around the world, is it being a single rail for two directions of traffic. Suddenly, when meeting another train arriving from the opposite direction, the train stops and is dismounted to let the other train pass. And at a maximum speed of 50km/h, it jolts a lot. Best to keep a hand on ones hat.

Another unmistakable and most spectacular place is Angkor, in Siem Reap, with its temples, classified as a world heritage by UNESCO. Rise at dawn (the purchase counters open at 5am and are taken by assault), for an unforgettable and magical experience.

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Seeing the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex – is a unique moment. The gigantic columns of this edifice sculpted on all sides is a mystic sight to behold. The world is so beautiful when viewed from this angle…

Cambodia (still) presents many difficulties for wine making : extreme temperatures, a rainy season in summer accompanied by high and constant humidity. Not to mention a lack of access to advanced equipment. Whatever. The Chan family has the guts to make wine here, and everything is sold on the spot, and in addition to this, people come back. Every wine can find a shoe that fits.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Mr Chan Thaychheoung and his family for their extraordinary hospitality and for opening their house to me with such kindness. Thank you to his son, Chan Senghong, for being such a good guide and the great opportunity to discover the magic of Battambang. Finally, thanks to Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand), for his valuable con

Burma, the two vineyards on the other side of the world

We continued our Asian trip by visiting the inescapable and fascinating Burma, a wonderful country of picturesque beauty. Nestled in the mountains, on the shores of Inle Lake, the only two Burmese wineries are hidden – as discreet as it is intriguing.

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En route to a colourful journey, accompanied by my friend and oenologist Amélie Mornex, who has true passion for Asian viticulture.

Mandalay and its positive energy

We arrived in Mandalay, the capital, under a crushing sun, a lot of dust and among omnipresent poverty : I had the impression of having taken a 50 years leap back in time. Only 30% of the households here are connected to electricity (2). Despite this, the people that we met all had a big smile on their lips and a palpable joie de vivre in their eyes. It was heartwarming.

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We paced the streets of the city astride a bike with two seats back to back and driven by a local guide. Amelie in front, facing the direction of the road, and I in the back, facing the traffic. A very convenient way to admire the landscape.

Nothing could be more agreeable than dining along the river Irrawaddy, where boats, canoes and other makeshift boats unload thousands of canvas bags filled with food, in an unceasing and steady flow, in a fashion as organized as an ant-hill. We met a couple of German tourists who arrived from Munich and we decided to share a dinner together at sunset. The place was beautiful, devoid of anything artificial. Many families live here in precarious wooden shelters, barefoot in the sand, dust and rubbish.

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Facing us, the laundry dried on bamboo palisades. Children were playing in the sand. The younger ones had their bottocks in the air,a few pigs grazing among them, looking for something to eat in the trash. Some inhabitants were soaping up in the river, it was time for us to take a shower too.

The next day at dawn, we departed by plane to Hého, 230km to the south: it was the easiest way to reach the two vineyards, considering the condition of the roads (it would take a day by bus to get there). We left at 6am. It was still dark outside and the spectacle in the streets of the city was something to behold, it had an almost mystical element to it: dozens of bare feet monks, draped in violet tunics, were in search of food offerings for their one and only meal of the day(3). A highly respected ancestral ritual in Burma.

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Aythaya, the Burmese pioneer

It was cool outside when we got off the plane. Quite nice. We were 1200 meters above sea level on the slopes of the Taunggyi Mountains.
It is here that Berth Morsbach, a German who specializes in tropical crops, created Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) in 1998, the first winery of Burma. A major challenge, he remembers, in a country with no wine culture and hostile weather conditions… The place is beautiful!

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With its ecological bungalows facing a vineyard as flowery as it is impeccable and its restaurant mixing delicious traditional dishes and world class cuisine, Myanmar Estate is a privileged place of the high Burmese bureaucracy.

Hans Leiendecker, the director and oenologist of the estate – also German and a graduate of the prestigious University of Geisenheim – gave an exciting explanation of the different production sites.

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In total, 10 hectares are owned by Aythaya and the equivalent under contract, spread all over the country, up to 800km of the winery:
-some in the north, at 1200 meters above sea level, along the Kyan Hnyat River, a favorable area for red grape varieties;
– some in Loikaw, to the east, at 850 meters above sea level, where Bert had established the first basmati rice plantation in the country in 1986;
-some in Mektila and Yamethin, in the center of the country, where the largest production of table grapes from Burma is also to be found;
-and some at Mount Popa, 300 meters above sea level, an ancient volcano in the center of the country which exploded about 400 years BC with very fertile soils.

On this February morning, Sauvignon Blanc arrived at the estate in small boxes.

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The grapes were beautifu and destined to be used for the Shan Panya Brut cuvée, a refreshing and very aromatic sparkling wine ; perfect for an aperitif.

A most complex tropical viticulture

At Aythaya, Hans is well aware of the difficulties in producing Vitis vinifera in a tropical climate. This is why the grass is cut very flat here: to protect the vines from moisture. There is always a minimum of 20% humidity during the day and usually around 90% humidity at night. Result: in Burma you can have vine diseases – like powdery mildew – without even having rain! This year, for the first time, they even saw botrytis. “We’d better grow mushrooms”, Hans said laughing.

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For him, tropical countries will never be real wine-producing countries. Growing conditions are too complex and the cost of production is twice as high. “It is impossible to make organic wine for example, with twenty to twenty-two sprays per year needed, compared with seven to eight on average in Europe“. This is the other side of the coin. “If there are only two wineries in Myanmar, it is maybe because there is reason”, he added.
As for the local fauna, it is better to be vigilant. It is not uncommon to encounter black-necked spitting cobras, white-lipped pit vipers (green snakes that look like branches in the grass), or pythons, lost between the rows of vines.

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I suddenly realized that I was wearing flip-flops walking in the vineyard… Not very smart.

Red Mountain Estate

A very pretty estate at the top of a small hill overlooking Inle Lake and facing the Paung Paing mountain range, Red Mountain was created in 2003, under the expertise of the French oenologist François-Xavier Raynal – who established the vineyard and managed it until 2015.
Divided into two sites, the vineyard of 75 hectares has been the laboratory of many experiments. International varieties such as Petit Verdot, Macabeu, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Merlot were quickly abandoned due to the lack of mature grapes.

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Red Mountain is now focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat à petits grains, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in white ; Shiraz, Carignan, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo in red.

“We are focusing on one harvest per year, for a production of about 160,000 bottles”, according to the young and very sympathetic oenologist Naw Naw Aye, who took over the winemaking this year. An important challenge for her, because after a few years spent doing marketing at Red Moutain, Naw Naw is starting from scratch on the wine side. She has just returned from a one-year apprenticeship at the Suze la Rousse University (France), where she learned a few basics.

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Her teacher, Marie-Josée Richaud, came to Red Mountain for a month especially to encourage her pupil, whose first harvest was about to start a few days later. We wish her all the best in this great adventure!

Discovering Inle Lake

Since the two Burmese vineyards are located only a few minutes away from the famous Inle Lake, we took the opportunity to discover it, on board of a canoe.
Sailing the banks of the lake at sunset, we admired the fishing villages on stilts. On small, long, narrow boats, the fishermen have an acrobatic and a most original style: one leg wrapped around a paddle to advance with circular movements, the other leg on the prow to keep balance.

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A boat approached us. Two fishermen literally posed for us. In the end, they asked us for some money… I refused politely. The fishermen turned around without resentment, immediately heading to another tourist boat.

We concluded our wonderful stay in Burma at the beautiful ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines hotel, where we were welcomed by our friend Arno Di Biase. The place was idyllic: wooden bungalows on stilts, a spa, welcome cocktails on the terrace… here every little detail counts and makes the stay unforgettable.

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We enjoyed a last moment of relaxation at the SPA of the hotel, with an application of thanaka on the face, a cream obtained from bark of trees. It hydrates the skin and protects it from the sun. It was very pleasant and refreshing. Children, women and the elderly put thanaka on their faces every morning. You should try it too.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) and Red Moutain estate for their warm welcome. Thank you to Hans Leiendecker for having helped us on our travels in the country. Thank you to my friend Amélie Mornex for having accompanied me so well in this country that she knows like her pocket. And finally, thanks to Arno Di Biase, director of the ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines, for having hosted us in his beautiful establishment and for his valuable role as a guide in the streets of Nyaungshwe.

 

(1) There are apparently two to three new vineyard projects in the country, according to local sources, but no one is sure that this will succeed.
(2) To make some money, Burma sells some of its electricity to China and Thailand.
(3) Monks have until 11am to eat. Then they have to wait until the next day before taking their next meal.

The Thai vineyards: unforgettable and unclassifiable

As beautiful as it is fragile, as wild as it is welcoming, it exceeded all my expectations. Defying the laws of classical viticulture. Off the beaten track and reserving some wine treasures… The Thai vineyards are a really nice discovery!

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Thailand has a dozen wine estates, mainly in the Khao Yai region (in the north), which cover less than 4,000 hectares(1). Lets discover a fascinating wine world, consisting of a handful of passionate (and positively crazy) people.

Enthusiasm displayed despite major challenges

Having landed at dawn at Bangkok airport (4:30 am), I was pleasantly surprise by the professionalism of the Thai taxis: clearly posted prices, a unique queue and impeccable service. As soon as I arrived in the capital, a special atmosphere got hold of me.

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The joyful bazaar of the electric wires in the streets, the delicious smell of food in the air, the morning song of the birds and the still sleeping city gave me the impression of absolute plenitude.

I met with Mr. Pairach Intaput, the President of the Sommeliers’ Association of Thailand, at Bo Lan Restaurant – the ultimate Thai food refinement. Here I had the opportunity to learn that the wine history of the country – which started in 1995 with Château de Loei (now abandoned) and then with GranMonte in 1999 – is just beginning to emerge. “Since the promotion of wine is forbidden in Thailand, it is for the moment impossible to write a book on the subject. Moreover, the sommelier association has only officially been recognized since 2015: before, wine was assimilated to other strong beverages and responsible of alcoholism”, Mr. Intaput explained.

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Here, as in many humid and tropical climate countries, it is possible to do up to two harvests per year : with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested.

For most conscientious winemakers, only the grapes produced during the dry season are harvested. Then, thanks to a product called Dormex – a plant growth regulator that is generally applied within 48 hours after harvest – uniform budbreak is promoted ; so that the plant can rest.

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“It’s not difficult to grow vines in Thailand. However, taking into consideration the atmospheric pressure and permanent humidity, it is (almost) impossible to make organic wines, as treatment against diseases such as mildew or gray rot is inevitable”, according to Mr. Intaput.

GranMonte, a beautiful family success story

After having met up with my friend Amélie Mornex – a French oenologist who loves making wine in Asia and who has been spending most of her time there for years – we headed to GranMonte, a two and a half hour drive north of Bangkok.

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The first impression upon arriving in front of this 15-hectare estate, at 350 meters above sea level, left me speechless. This vineyard was planted in 1999 on soils of clay, loess and limestone, rigorously cut into twenty blocks and have no less than twenty grape varieties coexisting… Among them, some international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and Viognier. As well as other more surprising varieties, such as Semillon, Verdelho and Durif(2)!

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We met with the adorable Lohitnavy family. Visooth, the dad – a former racing driver and editor of an automotive magazine – wanted to make a change in his life to make wine. Sakuna, the mom, runs the restaurants and cafe of the estate. Mimi, the younger daughter, is taking care of marketing and public relations. And Nikki, the eldest of the two sisters, is responsible for viticulture and winemaking.

It was with excitement that we rose the next day at dawn for a harvest session of Chenin Blanc! Scissors in hand (not easy but quite fun), we cut the bunches in good humor under beautiful sunshine. 

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The sanitary aspect of the grapes is superb, promising a beautiful vintage.

Nikki Lohitnavy, the revelation in terms of tropical viticulture

I say it without detour : who says never having drunk a “great wine” from a tropical viticulture has not yet drunk one of GranMonte’s wines…
I already see from here people rising to the niche on the notion of great wines, crying out for heresy. Not at all ! Firstly, what is a great wine? This is a very personal question… A question of emotion, joy, deep feeling, plenitude, gluttony, which I like to describe as a moment as intense and comforting as a night by the fire in the arms of a loved one.

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Meeting with Nikki Lohitnavy. “At the age of 10, I wanted to be a botanist”. Graduated in oenology from the prestigious university of Adelaide, Nikki first traveled the world to train perfecting her technique, especially in northern Brazil, where she learned how to tame vines in an extremely humid environment. In 2009, she did her first vintage at GranMonte. A real qualitative shift for the estate, according to the press. This is a revelation.

From the straw on the vine trunks (to reduce the number of herbicidal sprays and to add organic matter to the soil), to the banana fibers used to tie the vines (for their eco-friendly aspect), Nikki is constantly experimenting. “I am currently experimenting with four new grape varieties: Sangiovese, Barbera, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. My dream would be to have more room to test many other grape varieties, but land is very expensive here”.

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The technology and equipment used on the estate are not bad either. “We operate our vineyard with a precision agricultural system called ‘Smart Vineyard‘, which incorporates microclimatic monitoring to help us to achieve the best grape quality potential in this unconventional viticulture climate”.

Nikki literally opened my eyes, by showing me that with passion, a lot of know-how, hard work on vines and state-of-the-art equipment, it is possible to make fantastic wines in tropical viticulture.

Oenotourism, the key to success

Despite its recent wine history, Thailand is already very advanced in wine tourism. Bravo !
As in Silverlake (Pattaya), where around 800,000 visitors annually visit the estate (!). People are fond of visiting the different parts of the estate by minibus. A real “amusement park” experience, extended at lunchtime in the restaurant and in the evening in one of the very nice Hollywood style rooms of the resort.

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In a more “zen” style, at Village Farm & Winery, in the Khao Yai area, you can meditate in the middle of the vineyards for a weekend, enjoying the calmness of the rooms without television or internet.

On the “nature” side, Alcidini Winery, the smallest Thai vineyard with 8 hectares, welcomes visitors in its pedagogical field conducted with an organic philosophy. A real challenge in a such humid part of the world : no pesticides, the use of sheep to eat the grass between the rows of vines and buying cow manure from the neighboring farmer.

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Finally, on the “music” side, the annual Jazz & Wine festival organized at GranMonte, which we had the chance to attend and enjoy, is a must-see cultural event.

Beautiful and fragile nature to preserve

On the way back, we had the good fortune of making two epic nature stops. The perfect opportunity for me to narrate the beauty of the Thai biodiversity to you and, I hope to make you want to (re)visit it!
Elephant Stay : a site dedicated to the protection and preservation of elephants. They are trained for parades and military demonstrations (in memory of their use as strike force during wartime). We enjoyed watching the daily shower of these impressive mammals, who are as comfortable as fish in the water.

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Khao Yai National Park, highlight of the stay. With 80km of coastline from east to west, this UNESCO World Heritage site is the country’s second largest park and is one of the largest forests in Asia. You can even pitch a tent there for the night… for a most exotic nature revival experience.

WineExplorers’ cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to GranMonte, Alcidini, Village Farm Winery, Silverlake and PB Valley for their warm welcome.
Thank you to the organisation of the Khao Yai National Park, and especially to our lovely guide, Ms. Issaya Siriwachanawong, for having taken us off the beaten path. Finally, thanks to the team of Elephant Stay for having allowed us to admire the bath of the elephants: an unforgettable moment. And to my friend Amélie Mornex, who helped me a lot with pictures during this trip. 

(1) Thai vineyards are found in three regions ranging from 110 to 530 meters above sea level: Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin) and Pattaya in the center of the country and Khao Yai in the north.
(2) Durif is a French variety originating from the Dauphiné, a spontaneous crossing of Poutin and Syrah. Named petite syrah or petite sirah in California, it is also known by this name in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Finally, it is also known under the names of bas plant, dure, duret, dureza, duriff, dyurif, gros noir, Kek Durif, nérin, pareux noir, petit duret, petite serine, petite sirah, petite syrah, pinot de l’Ermitage, pinot de Romans, plant durif, plant fourchu, serine, serine des Mauves, sirane fourchue, sirane de Tain and syrah forchue.

India, between challenges and (beautiful) discoveries

Arriving from Paris with Saudia – an airline that I highly recommend by the way for the unmatched comfort of its economy class – I looked forward to stepping on Indian soil for the first time to discover its vineyards!

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As soon as I landed in Bombay, the atmosphere of the city electrified me. The smell of spices in the air, the overpowering heat, the incessant ballet of cars in the streets and the horn concerts, make the most populous city of India a unique place.
On the way to a colorful visit, in a country where viticulture only really started in the 1970s, and which today counts 90 wineries for about 20 million liters produced last year.

A booming viticulture, leaded by Sula Vineyards

It was with some members of the Asian Wines Producers Association (AWPA) – Denis Gastin (Founder, wine writer), Sumedh Mandla (President) and Visooth Lohitnavy (CEO of GranMonte, Thailand), as well as with Sumit Jaiswal (Marketing Manager, Grover Zampa, India) and Professor Charoen Charoenchai of Thailand, that I had the pleasure of traveling in India. A very nice team!

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After a 3-hours drive, we arrived in Nashik, in the northeast of Bombay, the country’s main wine-producing region with 40 estates. A plateau perched at 680 meters above sea level, known above all for its production of fruit and vegetables (n °1 in the cultivation of onions, for example).

Wine production in India is mainly divided between three wine-growing regions(1): Nasik and Pune on the west coast, two regions in Maharashtra State (80% of Indian vineyards) and Bangalore , in the south, in Karnataka State (10% of the vineyards).

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With 120,000 hectares of vines in 2015 and an area that has doubled in fifteen years, the Indian vineyard is booming.

We were expected at Sula, India’s leading wine producer, with 60% of the market share. Perhaps you have had the opportunity to taste one of their wines? You know, these labels with a logo so characteristic with the shape of a sun with a mustache! Although difficult to access (Indian roads are sometimes in poor condition and lack road signs), the success story of Sula forces admiration. With no fewer than 250,000 visitors a year, this precursor in oenotourism has understood everything. Its annual music festival – the Sulafest – with an international program (more than 120 artists performing over a period of three days), is a model of the genre. Not to mention the nice restaurant and the 35 rooms of the domain.

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On the wine side, however, I wondered. A large part of the Sula grapes (as with the majority of the Indian estates, as we shall see below) is bought from the farmers of the region. How, then, to ensure quality grapes? Especially with such an important production.
“The policy of Sula is strict,” we were told. “If the farmers do not bring the grapes on the right date, they have penalties: this prevents clusters from being harvested too early”. A necessary initiative for a good final result : the wines are well made.

Making wine in India is a challenge

Let us not forget that the cultivation of vines in India remains above all a challenge. The tropical climate of the country, with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested, make it an extreme production site. There are two harvests per year (the most qualitative being in April, during the dry period).

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Two prunings are also required. The first just before the rain in May and the second, more precise, after the summer monsoons, for vine growth programmed from October to March.

In addition, wine taxation systems vary from one state of the country to another. A real paradox, illustrated by the Grover Zampa estate, wich have two production sites (Nashik and Bangalore) – each one with its own vineyards. In 2012, a merger took place between Grover (in Bangalore) and a wine company from Nashik, to avoid taxes on the price of bottles between the two states (more than 1/3 of the final sale price).
Moreover, protectionism on agricultural land forces producers to sublet land to neighboring farmers to expand and supply themselves with grapes. However, in order to control the quality of viticulture, estates take long-term leases on land belonging to local farmers (20 years, with a 15-year renewal option).

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Add to this the fact that India is not a country of wine tradition : its inhabitants consuming 9 milliliters per person per year (compared to 42 liters(2) in France). And to top it off, not only is alcohol prohibited in many states ; but in addition, advertising of wine is prohibited in India. All these factors could be discouraging.

However, this is not the case at all! The enthusiasm of the wineries visited is palpable and pleasing to see. And although it seems that globally the climate is more suitable for white wines, the quality is there and some Indian cuvées frankly deserve to be highlighted in all colors, sparkling wines included.

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Five delicious Indian wines discovered and which I highly recommend :
Insignia 2015, from Grover Zampa (“Coup de cœur Wine Explorers“ – 100% Syrah – Bangalore)
Sparkling Cuvée NM, from York (100% Chenin Blanc – Nasik)
Réserve Collection Viognier 2015, from Grover Zampa (Bangalore)
Sauvignon Blanc 2016, from York (Nasik)
Dindori Réserve Viognier 2016, from Sula

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Bangalore, a region of predilection for white wines

After waking up at dawn and 1h30 on a plane, direction Bangalore, to the south, we encountered a drastic change upon our exit from the plane! No more urban pollution and the hubbub of the city. We even heared the birds singing. The traffic was calm. Bitumen roads, wide and flat. And a lush vegetation.

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Welcome to the “silicone valley” of India, a region with dazzling economic prosperity. There, we visited Grover Zampa, the country’s second biggest winery and a great example of fine Indian wines. The first vines were planted in the mid-1980s (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chenin Blanc). And the estate is consulted by the French oenologist Michel Roland.

Some parcels of Grover Zampa 180-hectares vineyard reach over 1,000 meters above sea level. As a result : temperated days (26 to 28°C) and cooler nights.

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The day before, we visited their vineyards in the region of Nasik (40 hectares). Since the wine range is identical in the two regions, it was possible to immediately and indisputably realize the difference in profile between the wines. The altitude of Bangalore – combined with clay-silty soils – offer tense wines, more aromatic and more complex, particularly noticeable in the whites.

It was the end of January and a plot of Sauvignon Blanc had just been harvested that morning. 70% of the harvesting was done by women. Hand sorting of the grapes followed – demanding control that benefits the production, with elegant wines on the whole.

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York Winery, a family story

On the other hand, more and more small family structures, such as York Winery, are emerging. York is a project initiated by the Indian Lilo Gurnani in 2003, at a time when he developed a passion for wine and began to read a lot on the subject. Born in Nasik, he wanted to follow the growing wine movement in his region. He named his domain YORK, taking the initials of his three children, Yogita, Ravi & Kailash. A whole symbol.

Today, two of them have taken over the reins. We met with Kailash Gurnani, one of the sons and director and chief oenologist of the estate (having studied at the University of Adelaide).

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“If our brand is recognized today, it is because we are a family business. This is our story and we are the faces behind it. That’s our marketing strategy”, he explained. Adding : “with a family management, we also ensure a better control over our wines”.

The Indian wine industry is therefore beautiful and well expanding. But also at the heart of many debates. What does the future hold for this young sector with so many constraints?

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“The wine industry is growing steadily at a rate of 10-15%, and this growth could be much greater if other states in India become accessible to sell wine”, according to Kailash. Out of 1.2 billion people, less then 100 million people in India can be tapped. Having said that, the current increase in wine tourism is very encouraging and men & women of all ages are enjoying wine.

In conclusion of this most rewarding journey, Denis Gastin and I visited the mountains of Nandi Hills, 30 km from Bangalore, to meditate a bit on the discoveries of the week. Some intrepid monkeys eventually came to keep us company.

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India intrigues me now more than ever and I wonder. In a country five times bigger than France, whose cultural diversity, landscapes, gastronomy, climate and language change on average every 100km, I know I will have to come back to discover and enjoy more of it, visiting other regions and other wineries. I am already delighted.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Sula Vineyards, Grover Zampa et York Winery for their warm welcome and this first unforgettable visit to India.
Thanks to my friend Denis Gastin and the AWPA (Asian Wine Producers Association), for their kind help in organizing this trip.

(1) Production is also emerging in Hyderabad (central Telangana State), as well as in the states of Andra Pradesh (south), and Himachal Pradesh (in the north). (Source : http://www.suddefrance-developpement.com)
(2) Vin & Société estimation

Austria, a vineyard of character with great charm

Coup de cœur for the Austrian vineyards, whose origin date back to the earliest Antiquity. A vineyard area both modest for its size – 44,000 hectares and thus about 0.6% of the world’s vineyard(1) – and great for its wines. Especially with regard to the grape varieties Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. A good excuse for us to stop at Domäne Wachau, along the Danube, to gain a better understanding of these two varieties.

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But also for the great red wines of Burgenland. We met with two exceptional winegrowers, in love with nature, with certain talent, a well-tempered character and an unparalleled kindness. Together with 9 other Austrian winegrowers, they created the “11 women & their wine” movement to further highlight women in the world of wine.
Discovery…

Domäne Wachau, at the top of the appellation

A high-ranking cooperative with around 250 winegrowers involved in nearly 400 hectares – each of them having shares in the company – Domäne Wachau has seduced us with its great white wine terroirs.

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The steepest plots of this estate located on the 48th northern parallel, proudly standing on the Danube heights at an altitude of 200 to 500 meters, have poor soils of gneiss, schist and quartz, giving the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner wines remarkable tension and minerality. “Everything is harvested by hand to be as precise as possible”, Roman Horvath MW, the director of the estate, explained.

We visited the vineyard with Heinz Frischengruber, the oenologist of the estate. These two men form a very sympathetic duo. “The Wachau is the coolest region in the country”, Heinz commented. That is why its great whites are also famous.

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He added, “welcome to one of the oldest cultural landscapes in Europe ; a gorge of only 33 km in length with unique landscapes and rare flora and fauna that made the Wachau a UNESCO World Heritage Site”.

Walking along the paths that border Singerriedel, one of the top vineyards of the valley(2), one realizes the difficulty of working certain plots. Preventing erosion is important and terrace work is often indispensable. Here, the main task during winter is to rebuild parts of collapsed walls. An eternal recommencement, year after year, that forces admiration.

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“Although most vineyards are planted on the right side of the Danube (southern exposure), more and more vine growers are planting on the other side ; looking for more finesse in their wines”, Heins added. Maybe a new turn for the region? To be followed closely.

Judith Beck, a biodynamic lesson

Welcome to Burgenland, the flattest state in the country, but also the hottest and therefore the earliest for the maturity of the grapes. Recognized for the quality of its red wines, it goes from the Slovakian border to the north, down to the Slovenian border to the south, and borders Hungary to the east.

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Here we met with Judith Beck. Smiling, she welcomed us during a tasting session and invited us to join the table. The tone and atmosphere were warm. Judith began her first vinification in 2001 alongside her father. She converted the entire vineyard to biodynamics in 2007 with the help of her husband, Uli.

For her, “Sankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch are two very interesting grape varieties, both are complex to vinify and complicated to work with, but of fabulous potential”. Her cuvée St Laurent Schafleiten 2013 is a fine example : a gourmet wine, juicy, full of black fruit and spices.

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For Judith and Uli, biodynamics is their foremost aim to produce authentic wines with individual aroma profiles while maintaining healthy soils and vines.

“We encourage the formation of humus, by regularly applying manure that we prepare ourselves and by cultivating grass between the rows. Herbal infusions (nettles, camomile, horsetail…) and biodynamic sprays such as horn manure and horn silica, used in accordance with the moon’s rhythms, naturally strengthen the resistance and physiological maturation of the grapes”, Judith added during the visit of the vineyard with some chickens frolicking freely around us.

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They are also part of the Pannobile association, a group of 9 wineries favoring the production of local grape varieties, respecting traditions and partaking in the collegial tasting of wines from the various estates. A great initiative.

Silvia Heinrich estate, the Blaufränkisch in all its splendor

Silvia Heirinch is for me, THE great lady of Blaufränkisch in Austria. In 2010, she took over the reins of J. Heinrich, the family estate of 36 hectares.

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Her first decision was to pull out all the white vines. She has always believed in the potential of the reds here and her production is a real success. The wines are pure, generous and built for ageing for the finest cuvées. With a vineyard consisting of 75% Blaufränkisch – alongside Zweigelt, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah – Sylvia is a jubilant winegrower. “We have a unique job : we can both imagine our product, shape it with our hands and at the same time taste it. Every year is a chance to be able to do something new”, she enthused.

We visited the Goldberg, a vineyard nicknamed “the Grand Cru of Reds”, perched at 210m altitude and less than a kilometer from the Hungarian border. Here, on this terroir of exception, some of the great wines of the estate are produced.

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And it is not without reason that this woman with multiple caps – mom in the evening, winemaker and oenologist during the day, but also on the road part of the year to promote her wines – was elected winemaker of the year in 2014. “Being a vintner is not working eight hours a day, it’s a way of life. Working with nature requires patience, serenity and much humility”.
Adding,”my parents did not want me to become a winegrower. It was not a woman’s job for them. My father was a good winegrower but didn’t have the passion. He eventually retired and that’s how I got my chance”.

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Last year, Silvia even built a cabin on her plot of the Golberg, a small haven of peace, where she comes to recharge her batteries during the sunny days.

Some very nice Austrian wines tasted during our journey:
Bambule! 2014, from Judith Beck (a natural wine, 100% Neuburger)
Riesling Smaragd Kellerberg 2014, from Domäne Wachau
Alte Reben 2011, from J.Heinrich (100% Blaufränkisch – “Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
St Laurent Schafleiten 2013, from Judith Beck
Elegy 2011, from J.Heinrich (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot)

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

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Thank you to Silvia Heinrich, Judith Beck and Domäne Wachau for their warm welcome. And a big thank you to Barbara Handl from Austrian Wine for having allowed these beautiful encounters.

 

(1) Source : OIV, 2016
(2) Domäne Wachau is the only producer in the whole Wachau wine-growing region to produce wine on all the famous Wachau vineyards, such as Loibenberg, Achleiten, Tausend-Eimer-Berg, Singerriedel or Kellerberg.

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.

Slovakia, vineyards in reconstruction to be discovered

One can only marvel at the beauty of the Slovakian vineyards.
3000 years old, it is concentrated in the south of the country, along the Carpathians(1).

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After being marked by more than 40 years of real socialism(2) and the collectivization of vineyards by the State, the Slovakian wine sector is now booming and is full of wineries one more interesting than the next. Some have opted to focus only on production, exclusively purchasing their grapes from vine growers. Others, more recently, have invested in the vineyard and have created their own estates. We met with three of them.

Modern viticulture that has suffered from “real socialism”

From 30,000 hectares in 1990 to less than 17,000 hectares today(3), Slovakian vineyards are slowly being rebuild.

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After the velvet Revolution of 1989, state wine companies began to collapse. The vine growers, who were previously obliged to sell their grapes to these big farms, now found themselves in a difficult situation. They had two options : they could either continue to sell their grapes to other new establishments, or they could establish their own estates.

Slovakia – after gaining its independence in 1993 – took the decision to apply a protectionist policy on imported wines, thus encouraging a qualitative progression of local production for almost 10 years(4). This allowed winegrowers to sell all of their production in Slovakia at low prices without foreign competition.

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Divided into six regions – Small Carpathians and Eastern Slovakia to the west, Nitra and Central Slovakia to the south, Southern Slovakia and Tokaj to the east – a more qualitative approach is now being adhered to. As proof, a system of controlled appellations was set up in 2009.

Mrva & Stanko, a successful example of controlled grape purchases

Established in 1997, Mrva & Stanko was born from the meeting of two men. Mr Mrva, a talented winegrower who has made his mark in many European countries, and Mr Stanko, a Slovakian businessman. They began with 12,000 bottles and immediately made the choice to buy grapes from producers, in order to concentrate exclusively on investing in equipment (winery, cellar, barrels…).

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“In Slovakia, it is normal to separate the vineyard part from the production part. One hectare is very expensive”, according to Mr Mrva, who admitted that he preferred leaving to Austria during the communist period. Understandable when you are passionate and want to produce nice wines.
Now producing 400,000 bottles, the Mrva & Stanko estate has grown extensively but still remains qualitative, only buying grapes within 2.5-hours driving distance maximum from the production site, for better control of the quality. Thus the winegrowers under contract with whom they work are all located at the 48th parallel north (equivalent to Vienna in Austria, Munich in Germany, or Brest in France).

We met with a winegrower working for Mrva & Stanko. “We work hand in hand and grow the vines according to Mr Mrva’s recommendations. Everyone is happy like that and it is very pleasant”, he explained.

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We ended the visit by discovering the cellars of the estate. There are private lockers, rented to wealthy clients for storage of the great wines of the estate (a system we had seen in China). This approach seems to please a clientele long deprived of premium bottles. Count 600 €/year for a locker of a hundred bottles.

Tajna, the renewal of independent viticulture

Tajna estate is a new and very promising project and is a great example of the Slovakian wine-growing revival. Starting from zero, Rastislav Demes and his father planted 16 hectares in 2011, in the commune of the same name. “We have total freedom of action, both in the choice of grape varieties and in the management of the vines and the equipment used”, Rastislav enthusiastically explained..

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With its high-tech wine cellar, Tajna is well equipped to produce great wines. “It’s in the details that we are making the difference”.
During the wine tasting, Rastislav kindly proposed to us to choose the music of our choice. Delicate attention. We opted for a jazzy and convivial atmosphere. The wines of the estate, although made from young vines, are already very promising : mineral, generous, with nice tension and great freshness.
“The geological substratum of the Slovakian wine-growing regions is very varied : from limestone to granite, via volcanic rocks and river sediments, the typicity of the Slovak « terroir » is indisputable”, according to Rastislav.

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We finished the day with a delicious Perkelt cooked by his dad, a traditional meal made from marinated meat and potatoes. A delight.

Some nice Slovak wines discovered during our journey :
Rizling Vlassky Tramin 2014, from Tajná (80% Rizling Vlassky, 20% Tramin)
Vinolovca Exclusive 2013, from HR Winery (70% Rizling Vlassky, 30% Pinot Gris)
Cuvée 2012, from MRVA & Stanko (Hron, Vah, Rimava, Rudava)
Pinot Noir 2013, from Tajná
Cabernet Sauvignon Barrique 2012, from HR Winery

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HR Winery, a women’s story above all

Created in 2012, HR Winery is the story of a hunter and wine enthusiast, who succeeded in acquiring a vineyard of 230 hectares with 30-year old vines. Often traveling to satisfy his first passion, he entrusted the reins of the vineyard to two women. Beata Saskova, oenologist. And Mila Kissová, the sales manager. A duo full of joy and energy.

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While visiting the vineyard with Beata, we were amused by the radio, which suddenly began to sing on the village loudspeakers, alternating two pieces of traditional music and flash-info for five minutes. It was 3pm and time for advertising!

We discovered no less than 26 different grape varieties on the estate. Alongside the international varieties, there are others emblematic of the country, such as Rulandské Biele (Pinot Blanc), Devín, Pálava and Rizling Rýnsky (Riesling Rhénan) for the white and Frankovka Modrá, Svätovavrinecké (Saint-Laurent) and Rulandské Modré (Pinot Noir) for the red.

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After the visit, we improvised a tasting and a photo session in a room filled with stuffed animals. The “trophies” of the domain. Rather special but fun.

To conclude, it is impossible not to mention the famous Tokaj wines.
Known as the “wine of kings, king of wines“ in Hungary, it has been the subject of many dilemmas between the two countries since the Second World War. Although Slovakia has a legitimate right to the Tokaj designation and can produce it, only Hungary has the right to market it within the European Union. A big and understandable frustration for the Slovaks.
In any case, the country’s viticultural future is indeed there and its positive growth is encouraging. A country to discover urgently.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to MRVA & STANKO, HR Winery and Vino Tajná for their warm welcome. Thank you also to Miklós Jobbágy and Guyard Paul for their nice winery recommendations.

 

(1) Source : Slovak National Statistical Office
(2) Socialist parties throughout the world experienced splits in the 1920s (or “real socialism”) applied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the latter being proclaimed the “homeland of socialism”.
(3) Source: Slovak National Statistical Office
(4) It was at the time of Slovakia’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004 that the producers had to face rapidly a major international competition.

Poland, a country where wine has a taste for victory

What a beautiful country… I’m moved every time I think about our stay in Poland and the kindness of its inhabitants.
Strongly touched in the last century by incessant wars, struck by a terrible genocide, and with a communist regime that is just beginning to soften, the country is still in the midst of a search for identity and is gradually rebuilding itself, like a phoenix rising from its ashes.

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The production of wine is still confidential. Yet, a real craze for wine seems to take over Poland.

An emerging wine scene

Imagine : it wasn’t until 2009 that it became legal to buy Polish wine in the country… Finally it became possible for local winegrowers to market their production and thus to formalize their activity.
A new era opened for Polish viticulture. In just a few years, a very lively amateur wine-growing scene developed in the country, with groups of small producers, mainly in the regions of Zielona Góra in the west, Wrocław in the south-west and Podkarpacie in the south-east.

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“Productivity is moving in the right direction”, Roman Myśliwiec, the president of the Polish Institute of Vine and Wine(1) explained.
Today, there are about 400 amateur vineyards, covering a total of 400 hectares(1). However, only ten estates are actually officially registered(2). We met with three of them.

Adoria Vineyards, an American in the vineyard

Born in the middle of the Californian vineyards, Mike Whitney has lived in Poland since 1995. A former CEO for big corporations, he wanted to settle permanently in this country after meeting his wife. At the same time, he wished to start producing wine.

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But Mike had to start from scratch. Both on the technical side, and for the purchase of equipment. This huge and exciting challenge has lead him all over Europe to meet with suppliers for the construction and equipment of his winery.
After a year and a half of research on more than 300 sites, Mike settled in Zachowice in the south in 2005. He planted 3 hectares of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Bacchus on clay-sandy soils in this former German region which had become Polish after World War II, after Poland’s borders were redefined by the Allies.

“We didn’t built all of it on our own”, Mike humbly said. “We had the chance to work with a large team of professionals from around the world on this project, including consultants from Oregon and Tuscany.

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In the end, Mike is a busy man. “Being a vintner is a good job for a dad : I can modulate my working time as it suits me”, he said during the dinner where we enjoyed delicious home made pasta with pesto. It was an ideal dish to warm us during this late autumn. The harvest was barely finished and it was already -3°C at night. The gas heating ran at full speed in the campervan.

Winnice Jaworek, from metallurgy to wine

“This year is a good vintage,” according to Lech Jaworek, owner of Winnice Jaworek. The priest came to bless the grapes before the harvest. This is an important Catholic tradition.
Lech Jaworek is an engineer in the metal industry. And it was slightly coincidental that he planted his first vines in 2000, right next to his company.

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In 1995, after the change of government, he was told that he had to either purchase the 120 hectares of property next to his company – including all the buildings and the land – or abandon his business. In order not to lose his factory, he had no choice but to buy everything. But what to do with all this land? It was there that he had the idea of creating a 15-hectare vineyard on this ancient 14th-century wine land (when the monks imported vines to make the mass wine). A very nice idea!

For now, the equipment is still a bit precarious and the labeling of the bottles is done by hand. While waiting for stainless steel tanks, a cold room has been improvised with a lot of malice. Bubble wrap is covering large tanks during fermentation.

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Nevertheless, the buildings are gorgeous and seem made to become a real winery. No doubt that this old farm from the eighteenth century, with its typical and charming red bricks, will rapidly become a recognized tasting place.

Interspecific grape varieties – in this case Solaris and Regent – seem to produce better results than Riesling and Pinot Noir because they are more resistant to humidity and diseases. And the honey wine of the house, made with brandy distilled in a simple column, heats up the soul and regales the taste buds.

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Some Polish wines tasted during our journey:
Chardonnay 2014, from Adoria Vineyards
Metoda Tradycyjna NV, from Adoria Vineyards (65% Riesling, 35% Bacchus)
Moscato 2013, from Jaworek (100% Muscat)
Marszalek 2014, from Krokoszówka Górska (100% Maréchal Foch)
-and a curiosity : Miodowe, a honey wine from Jaworek

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Krokoszówka Górska, the natural wine

Thousands of young Poles emigrate every year to find work in England or Germany. The profession of farmer is disappearing. Here is the sad but realistic report done by Marek Górscy. Going against a current where costumes and ties are more fashionable than boots and pruning shears, Marek decided to leave his office to become a winemaker in 2005.

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“Today I no longer look at my computer at work, I get up and contemplate nature”. Marek now takes his time and reconnects with his roots. Neither fining nor filtration nor sulphite in his wines. Marek wants to make “clean” wine. With one hectare of vines and an annual production of 6,500 bottles, he just manages to generate an income. Whatever. This freedom has no price.

The fact that Poland joined the EU gave him the opportunity to receive training in viticulture and oenology, as did other young winemakers in conversion in the country.

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Outside the rain was pouring down. Marek served us a delicious Polish coffee to warm us up. It reminded me one of the Turkish coffee I had a few year ago. Strong but so tasty. “Temperatures can go down to -20°C in winter!”, he concluded.
Making wine in Poland definitely remains a major challenge.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Adoria Vineyards, Jaworek and Krokoszówka Górska for their warm welcome. Thank you to my friend Marc-Antoine Brekiesz for his valuable contact with a Polish translator. And finally, a very big thank you to Rafał Kisielewski, for having accompanied us in our research and for having put us in good hands during our trip to Poland.


(1)
Source : Polskiego Instytutu Winorośli i Wina

(2)Among the ten officially registered estates in the country are : Adoria Vineyards, Winnica Jaworek, Krokoszówka Górska, Winnica Maria Anna, Winnica Płochockich, Winnica Stara Winna Góra, Winnica Miłosz, Winnica Jura, Winnicy Golesz ou encore Winnica Wzgórza Trzebnickie
(3) Source : http://www.krakowpost.com/