Wine Tastings & Tours

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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Animals in Viticulture

Now, you may be wondering why the Wine Anarchist has a photo of some guy and his goats (and if you look carefully, chickens) in his blog.  Well he has been a bit quiet in recent months, which doesn't mean he hasn't been drinking any wine at all.  In fact the WA has launched a new big project, which he will be reporting on over the next few months on this blog (or rather his anonymous ghost writer will...).  He has decided to combine his two main passions and areas of knowledge, namely wine and permaculture, to write a book on the permaculture vineyard.

Now permaculture is not something that is easy to define in a sentence or two, but essentially it is a design system, usually but not exclusively for land-based projects.  It aims to imitate nature as much as possible, increasing biodiversity and thus building a more resilient system for food production, whilst at the same time reducing input and increasing yield by creating a closed-circuit system.

Now the WA has noticed that most people involved in permaculture like a tipple of wine, which almost exclusively comes from monocultures, even if it is certified organic or even biodynamic.  He feels there must be another way of doing things to be truly sustainable as has been shown by various systems used in history too, and is now actively researching methods that are in accordance with permaculture and can be used in modern viticulture.

This has led the Wine Anarchist on another trip to the east, where he met Bulgarian winery owner Philip Harmandiev (pictured above) of Damianitza winery in Sandanski in south-western Bulgaria.  This winery is currently undergoing a period of transition.  Philip used to be the editor for a financial magazine in Bulgaria, but always had a passion for wine.  Back in 1998 a banker friend of his asked him to look at this flagging winery with severe problems adjusting to the post-communist realities of Bulgaria.  He took over this run-down winery, concrete tanks and mediocre wines all included.  He then invested in the winery to bring it up to modern standards and bought vineyards in various locations all over southern Bulgaria.  A few years ago he moved the winery to a new location, which left him with the old winery in an industrial estate near the main Sofia to Thessaloniki highway without knowing what to do with it.

Some 3 years ago he had a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus revelation, realising that the way we conventionally grow our food and our grapes for wine production is not sustainable on the long run after he saw the move Food Inc.  The documentary talks about the way modern food is produced and how it harms both the environment and humans themselves.  As an alternative it features an animal farmer, Joel Salatin, who wrote the bestselling book 'You Can Farm'.  Philip was so inspired that he translated the book into Bulgarian and decided to turn the old winery into an animal farm along the principles described by Salatin and at the same time converting his vineyards to organic methods.

At this particular point in time the two systems only touch marginally, as his vineyards are scattered around the country whilst the animals are only on one location.  Moving the animals around would take to much effort to fully integrate them as part of the vineyard management.  However, Philip has experimented with having sheep graze between rows of vines to keep down vegetation, attract beneficial insects and fertilise the soil.  Grape stalks get fed to goats who love that stuff and in return it as compost much quicker than if you were to just leave them.  Grape skins after fermentation are fed to wormeries to turn to compost.

The animals in the meantime are kept on mixed pastures such as cows and pigs together, the pigs  eating the cow dung and at the same time destroying any intestinal pests lurking in there, thus lowering the risk of re-infecting other cows.

Chicken tractors follow cow grazing areas for the same reason and to re-fertilise the soil.

Egg-laying hens get larger mobile homes offering space for several hundred birds, whilst having all the space to do what they like best, foraging free range.

Pigs get to roam free and do what they like best: roll in mud

All enclosures are protected from predators by electric fences and dogs.

Slaughter of animals happens on site under as humane as possible conditions.  Philip's attention to detail goes beyond the welfare of his animals.  In an effort to reduce the environmental footprint of his operation he recycles as much as possible.  For example he uses scrap aluminum printer sheets as roofing for the animal shelters.  Not only do they not conduct heat like other metals and stay nice and cool, it also gives the animals inside something to read when they're feeling bored.

The whole operation is now a successful business as people come back and even pre-order meat, eggs and dairy products of far superior quality than the conventionally available AND production costs are actually lower.  In the future Philip wants to consolidate his vineyard holdings to fully integrate the two systems with sheep, chickens, ducks and geese grazing the vineyards and fertilising them.  A project to keep an eye on.

In the meantime, yes the Wine Anarchist did get to taste some wine too.  The main brands currently produced by Damianitza are No Man's Land, Uniqato and ReDark.  These are the thoughts of the WA on 3 of the wines he got to taste:

  • UNIQATO Rubin 2009: Big hefty wine, deep ruby colour with slight orangey tint on the edge, showing some age; rich nose of milk chocolate or rum'n'raisin, blackberry and morello cherry; the palate is very warm and rich with some spicy notes and lots of ripe fruit. A bit overripe perhaps at 14.5%, big in your face lacking subtlety, finesse.   Rubin is a Bulgarian cross of Syrah and Nebbiolo. It certainly has the power of those two varieties.

    UNIQATO Melnik & Ruen 2010: Med. ruby in colour with a pale rim; the nose reveals savoury notes of bay leaf, eucalyptus and basil as well as ripe blueberry and lush plum fruit and a hint of vanilla; The palate is full with some distinct peppery spice, more blueberry fruit and some well balanced tannins.  The finish is long and juicy.  Very nice indeed.  Melnik is the native variety of south-western Bulgaria and Ruen is another Bulgarian cross between Melnik and Cabernet Sauvignon.

    ReDark 2009: This is the flagship wine of the winery, their super-premium, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Rouen and Rubin.  The colour is still a youthful ruby with purple fringes; the intense aromas display floral aromas of sweet violets and lilac as well as spicy leather and vanilla notes; the palate still has a big tannic backbone, plenty of peppery spice, but balanced by some ripe blackcurrant fruit.  The finish is long and spicy with hints of liquorice.  A classy wine, which will continue to develop for the next 5 years at least.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Pilgrim Beer

On his recent visit to the Netherlands the Wine Anarchist and his wife happened to wander around the historical Delfshaven area of Rotterdam and chanced to pass this inviting looking brew pub.  The area is particularly famous for being the starting point for the pilgrims leaving for the New World in 1620, initially on the Speedwell, then changing onto the Mayflower.  The Pilgrim Fathers Church next door was dedicated to this event.

Seeing the mash tuns through the window of 'de Pelgrem' Restaurant and micro-brewery he decided to have a quick taste on what was on offer. 

It smelled divine, but being pressed for time he decided to go for the 5 Euro for 5 taster samples and the quality throughout was exceptional. 

The staff were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and the atmosphere of the bar was cosy on this quiet mid-week early evening.  Explanatory diagrams on the mirrors explained the basic brewing process.

When it was time to go the WA decided to buy a selection of the beers in bottle to re-taste at home at his own leisure.  Here are his comments:

Stoombier 5%: Golden amber in colour, this is a pilsener-style with a kick.  The nose is distinctly hoppy with herbal notes of stingy nettles and a dried fruit background; the palate is refreshingly bitter with notes of elderflower and a long dry finish.  Oozing with character!

1580 4.8%: This a Dusseldorf style Alt beer flavoured with Hallertauer hops.  The colour is a reddy brown, slightly cloudy;the nose is very malty with notes of prunes and marzipan; the palate is soft and full with some overripe fruit notes well balanced by pronounced hoppy flavours, finishing bone dry.  Very pleasant indeed.

Saison 7.5%: Made in the French style using barley spelt this is deep amber in colour and slightly cloudy; the aromatic nose displays yeasty characters with fruity orange peel and blossom notes and hints of nutmeg and cloves; On the palate a fresh acidity combined with a herbal background and fruity notes.  This is somewhat like a wheat beer with a long, complex and dry finish.

Dubbellam 7%: Despite its name, double lamb, this more like a full grown ram!  Light chestnut in colour, the nose is full of autumnal aromas, reminiscent of wood, dead leaves, nuts and rosehips combining with notes of violets and liquorice; the palate is rich and full, displaying nice fruit flavours of elderberry and blackberry combining with allspice and liquorice, finishing warm and long.

Mayflower Tripel 7.5%: Deep amber in colour, with the nose showing yeasty characters combining with dark dried fruit such as prunes and raisins as well as fresh hay aromas; the palate is lively and frothy with more of the fruit, finishing long, dry and hoppy.  Well balanced with some earthy notes.

VSOP 9.6%: This Chateauneuf du Pape of beers has been matured for 5 months in oak barrels resulting in a dark mahogony coloured brew which is almost still and treacly; the bouquet is rich in chocolate and bourbon vanilla notes combining with overripe fruit aromas, such as moreno cherries and medlars; The initial sweet fruit gives way to to warm liquorice notes and finishing dry and long with distinctly oaky flavours.  A stunning winter warmer!

The samplers in the bar also included a coffee stout which was just like drinking a cold and alcoholic mocca coffee.  Delicious!

So if you happen to find yourself at a loose end in Rotterdam you can do worse then visit this place.  Details below:

De Pelgrem Stadsbrouwerij en Restaurant
Aelbrechtskolk 12

Friday, 10 January 2014

Jenever Museum, Schiedam

The Wine Anarchist has been spending the winter in northern Europe, hence the recent lack of posts.  However at the beginning of this year he spent a few days in his native land the Netherlands and took the opportunity to explore some non vinous drinks while there beginning with Jenever or Dutch gin.

The town of Schiedam (pronounced... no forget it, it's un-pronouncable for non-Dutch speakers) just west of Rotterdam is THE Jenever capital of the Netherlands, in fact its very existence is down to Holland's national drink.  It used to be nicknamed 'Black Nazareth', due to its narrow streets and alleyways like the Palestinian city (the WA has never been there, so can't vouch for that similarity) and for the fact that the streets were black from the brown coal soot emitted by the chimneys of numerous jenever distilleries. 

Jenever production began around 1700 and during its heyday in the late 1800s there were some 400 distillers in the town, directly or indirectly employing 90% of the population of around 12,000 at the time.  The grains, traditionally barley and rye, were grown around the town and the malt was ground in the dozens of windmills in the town.  Nowadays only 2 distillers remain, the commercial Herman Jansen distillers (of which more later) and a small-scale operation in the Jenever Museum itself, and only half a dozen of the windmills remain, which are said to be the tallest in the world (excluding modern energy generating ones presumably), because they had to keep their heads above the warehouses.

The Wine Anarchist and his wife were lucky as they entered the museum, as there was a distillation in progress in the working part of the museum.  All 5 volunteer workers were staring with glee as the clear liquid flowed from the still into the holding vessel. 

Also luckily the staff were in rather better condition than on this cartoon:

 The captions translate as: "Yes, we now something -hick- about it too..." "But the real -hick- experts are lying over there..."

All 5 staff are unpaid volunteers, whose simple love for their work soon became apparent as Ton, one of them, started to give us a detailed account on how they make their jenever.  The method in the making of their 'Old Schiedam' Single Malt Genever (Dutch spelling is with J and English spelling is with G, so I hence the inconsistent spelling) is strictly in the traditional way as they would have done it in the 17th century (except for the fact they don't use brown coal to heat the still anymore).  In 1902 jenever production was revolutionised and changed significantly, more of that later.  This is the last distillery to still use this method, all parts of the process being carried out on site.

First the raw materials, 2 parts barley to 1 part rye, is soaked in water, then spread on the floor to be allowed to start germinating.  As it does starches get converted to sugar at which point the germination is stopped by drying the grain.  The resulting malt is then ground in one of the local mills and a mash is produced by adding boiling water and extracting the sugars from the malt.  The sugary liquid is then fermented to about 5 % to effectively create a beer just like in malt whisky production.  The fermentation takes place in these mash tuns:

This is now distilled 3 times in copper pot stills.  Having seen many a still in Scotland, these are relatively small, about 2.50 metres tall. 

The results of each distillation are known as ruwnat (low wine), enkelnat (single distillate) and bestnat (malt wine) with a respective alcohol content of 12%, 24% and 48%.

Again the process so far is just like for malt whisky, however the stills used here seem less efficient than say for Scotch or Irish whiskeys as the alcohol content of those after their final distillation is usually much higher.  Very occasionally, as also on the day of the WA's visit they produce a special edition with a fourth distillation and longer aging.  Oh yes and talking about aging, the spirit is then aged for 3 years in 225l second hand American oak barrels, which previously contained Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam.

Now there is only one ingredient missing, the one that has given jenever and its British cousin gin its name in the first place: juniper berries.  This is done differently here than at other distilleries.  A small separate batch is distilled in the laboratory with juniper berries to effectively make a juniper extract.  A small amount is then blended into the matured spirit to give it just a subtle hint of juniper.  To re-distil the final product with the juniper berries would result in the loss of the light golden colour which the oak barrels have imparted onto the jenever during the aging process.

Having had an introduction to the traditional way of making jenever, the Wine Anarchist and his wife went to explore the rest of the museum.  Here the modern process of producing jenever is explained too.  In 1902 the introduction of the column still revolutionised jenever production.  In a continuous distillation process higher alcohol levels could be achieved more efficiently and the result was a cleaner tasting product.  Jenever made predominantly from this method became known as jonge jenever, young genever as opposed to oude jenever, old genever, which was made by the old method.  Therefore the common descriptors old and young on jenever labels do not refer to the aging, but to the method.

Usually the first stage for all jenever is still the pot still and and malted barley and rye are still required without the addition of any sugar.  However other grains, most notably maize, are now added too, whilst part of the distillate is re-distilled with herbs, part with juniper berries and part will go into the column stills.  All parts then get blended back together for the final product which may or may not be aged.

The museum also gives a lot of glimpses of the role of jenever in the daily life of the Dutch, from posters from the temperance movement or a glimpse of a 1970's Dutch living room...

to various typical Dutch bar settings from different periods such as the Bruine Kroeg, the brown pub, which was a kind of extension of the Dutch living room:

or the 1970's style Kraker's Café, the hangout for the anarchist scene:

Visitors were invited to add their own graffiti...

Other exhibits included a huge collection of miniature spirit bottles from around the world and many other paraphernalia connected to jenever.  At the end of the tour the Wine Anarchist and his wife finally sat down in the tasting bar for a well deserved borreltje, as the Dutch like to call it, or a wee dram to the Scots.

First up he tasted the Standard 3 year old Old Schiedam Original Single Malt Genever 40%AbV.  The colour is pale gold.  The nose reveals slightly honeyed aromas, a bit lie gingerbread,delicate juniper berry notes without being over-powering, some malty character, molasses and more than a passing semblance with a young malt whisky such as Glen Grant.  The palate is smooth and warm with some spicy, slightly liquoricy notes and a long finish.  A very fine product indeed.

As the Wine Anarchist is always interested in anything organic, he was delighted to spot a jenever made from 100% organic grains: the Notaris Jonge Graanjenever, 35%AbV, from the aforementioned Hermann Jansen distillery.   There is little information on their website or the bottle on the exact method of production or indeed the ingredients beyond that it is made from a blend of grain spirit and malt spirit from organically grown grains and herbs.  However, apparently it is possible to visit the place (something to remember for next time) and someone who has, has written an interesting and informative blog post on it.   Anyway as to the tasting notes: this is a clear spirit, which has not been aged.  It displays a delicate nose of juniper, nutmeg and cloves combined with some floral / herbal notes, colt's foot perhaps.  The palate starts with a gentle sweetness and clean herbal flavours but finishes dry and long.  Very nice character for a white spirit.

Finally the WA tasted the Old Schiedam 10 Year Old Moutwijnjenever from the museum.  The colour was pale gold.  On the nose delicate juniper aromas combined with citrussy notes, lemon and orange peel and hints of cinnamon and vanilla and a pinch of mint.  The palate was warm and delicately sweet with a nice spicy note and more citrussy fruit, finishing long and smooth.  Very good indeed.

To visit the museum yourself it is located on

Lange Haven 74-76

open Tues-Fri 12-5
weekends 11-6

Not all tablets and films are in English as well as Dutch, but English speaking staff are at hand and very helpful.

So cheers from the Wine Anarchist and his new best friend Proosje, the mascot of Schiedam