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This week's wine is a truly stunning dry white that comes complete with heart-warming story. It comes from inland Slovenia, not the western bit where I spent most of my recent visit. An exciting new producer, Verus, a triumvirate of particularly ambitious young winemaking friends, has produced a range of thrillingly pure 2007 white wine varietals. Most of them are selling for £7.99 from www.therealwineco.co.uk in a handsome screwcapped bottle, and I can recommend all of them as beautifully made, precise varietal expressions, and have chosen the steely, firm Furmint as the wine that stood out for me.
I tried out the wines on a group of cynical middle-aged men who are regularly to be found round our kitchen table and they were all entranced, not just by the wines but by the phrase on the labels immediately under Verus Vineyards: 'Dedicated to family tradition and friendship'.
But first, the story of the enterprise, so eloquently told here by my fellow Master of Wine Angela Muir, who has for years, in her capacity as winemaking consultant, toured the world's wine cellars instilling fear and eventually admiration in those who run them:
VERUS: the Latin for true; the name chosen by some of the most exciting young winemakers I know for the wines produced by their new venture.
A true story of how a really lovely, highly drinkable new range of white wines arrived in this country.
After a lifetime spent tasting, selecting, buying, blending and, ultimately helping other people learn to do all those things, I have come to the obvious conclusion that the single biggest obstacle in the world to making good wine is people.
A great deal of the job of a consultant is to hold a mirror up to a company's management and persuade them to look straight into it to see how they are perceived by their potential customers. Just occasionally, we find potentially excellent winemakers looking back at us. This marks the beginning of a beautiful process because good winemakers are naturally self-critical, open-minded people. They enjoy tasting with other professionals who will tell them the truth about their wines and those of their competition. Each year what they produce shows how much they have learnt. In each cellar, the results will be different, not just because of the soil, the climate etc but also because of the people. This is what happened in Slovenia. However, this is not entirely a pretty story even if it does have a fairy tale ending.
My company [Cellarworld] was lucky enough to be invited to look at seven of the largest cellars in Slovenia in June 2002, just under two years before Slovenia was due to join the EU. Our brief was to tell the wineries what, if anything, they would need to do to compete with all those monster producers of excess wine sitting on their doorstep. There was then a protective import tax on wine that allowed all the wineries to sell at a profit…not something you can easily do with bad wine in a buyers' market. They had also been heavily protected by their citizens' drinking habits. Well over 80% of the wines were sold in bulk or in litre bottles and consumed with soda water. This is a very forgiving way of drinking a lot of poor wine without noticing the nasty tastes. Only the "best" wines could even dream of being sold in a 75cl bottle. "Best" was determined by a cosy tasting panel of fellow citizens...old professors and senior professionals who had mostly lost sight of what was happening elsewhere in the world. As a result, our seven wineries were rather shocked by the number and prevalence of major wine faults that we found and explained. Four of them went off muttering balefully about interfering foreigners and three of them banded together to employ us. We brought in New Zealand winemakers for the first two vintages, mainly to help get the cellar work, vineyard liaison and record keeping right.
Slovenian grapes are excellent to work with and the choice of New Zealanders was no accident. Although there are red grapes in Western Slovenia, its crowning glory is white wine: from dry through to classic sweet dessert wines made from a fine handful of international and local varietals [she means 'varieties' – JR] each with its own crisp, clearly defined character. The fruit potential shines through even the faultiest winemaking. Not only is the terroir spectacular for white grapes but also, for nearly two decades now, the vast majority of Slovenia's growers have been signed up to a system of certified sustainable viticulture.
The vineyards are a joy and utterly beautiful, many on terraces that curl gracefully round the contours of the hills giving exceptional sun exposure, shelter from more northerly cold weather, fine drainage and good access to mineral subsoils. Slovenia is surrounded by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. It has everything: Alpine landscape with winter ski-ing and summer walking and fishing; access to the glorious Dalmatian coast and a splendidly unspoilt, rural feel to it. Considering how close it is to us and how easy it is to get there now, it is amazing how long it has taken for us to catch on to Slovenia as a travel destination at least for short breaks.
By good fortune, our three cellars each had a young, aspiring English speaking oenologue with enough interest and enthusiasm to support the changes in the cellars that needed to be made and to learn why they were so vital. One cellar was a large co-operative in Western Slovenia producing really lovely Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay as well as the local grapes: crisp, dry Rebula, easier, broader, Sauvignonasse (formerly known as Tokay Friulano); one was a newly privatised cellar in the ancient town of Ptuj (pronounced much like a sneeze and well worth a visit especially around the beginning of Lent when it has a wonderful wine festival with inhabitants dressed up as some very pagan straw figures) producing delicate Sauvignon Blancs and Rhein Rieslings (one of which was recommended in Jancis Robinson's article this March in the Financial Times [see my Slovenian tasting notes - JR]); the other was in the loveliest landscape of all: the Jeruzalem hills behind the town of Ormoz on the Croatian border. Here, the vineyards produce perfectly balanced Sauvignon Blanc, Rhein Riesling, Sipon (the classic Furmint grape of Tokaj), Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Laski Rizling (a far, far cry from the dreadful medium dry plonk we used to see so much of over here), Yellow Muscat and Gewurztraminer.
Our client was a large cellar with its own vineyards producing the best of its fruit. These were managed for the company by a passionately good viticulturist who formed part of a close knit team. His best friends in the business were the winemaker, the Slovenian market sales manager and the export sales manager, all in their thirties and all family friends. The cellar's wines came on by leaps and bounds although there were those in there who did not want the new initiatives to succeed. Very good new investment was put into the cellar and ….then…there was a regime change. The fruit that didn't come from the cellar's own vines came from a growers' co-operative. This co-operative took over the cellar. Among the leading lights in the co-operative board were relatives of those managers in the cellar who were not keen on progress.
A nasty business ensued which saw our winemaker dismissed on trumped up charges. (He later won his appeal against this dismissal but decided not to return). His friends were so incensed that they resigned.
With the support of their friends and family, three of them [see them at www.verusvino.com - JR], including the viticulturist have set up their own small winery dedicated to making really excellent wines from these very beautiful vineyards.
Verus is the result…the first vintage of the new company …and, for a first vintage, the wines are showing textbook results…all drinkable, all true to their different varietals and to their very lovely origins. I was thrilled to bits to introduce my friends, Danilo, Bojo and Rajko, who own and run Verus, to Mark Hughes, another friend who has worked with me in the past, and even more thrilled to learn that Mark has been out to see the vineyards and winery and placed his first order in what I hope will be the beginning of a long and fruitful working relationship for both companies.
With these notes, I am, of course, placing my first order for delivery for my personal consumption…
The Verus range comprises a grassy Sauvignon Blanc 2007 and crunchy, grapey Muskateller/Yellow Muscat/Rumeni Muskat 2007 (both of which I noted enthusiastically in my Slovenian tasting notes) and a pure, classic, off-dry Riesling 2007, a smoky Pinot Gris 2007, and medium sweet Late Harvest Weslchriesling 2007 but arguably the most distinctive, certainly the most distinctively middle European, is the Furmint 2007.
Furmint, known in Slovenia as Šipon, is of course the classic white grape variety of Hungary's sweet, golden Tokaji but an increasing proportion of it, even in north east Hungary, is now being vinified dry and shows just how noble this grape variety is. Since about 2003, Hungarian growers have been experimenting with making dry whites from this fiery grape, trying out oak ageing and lees contact, and some of them even seeking out specific terroirs most suitable for dry white wine growing. (There is a strong parallel here with what is going on in that other traditional sweet white wine territory, the middle Loire, where an increasing proportion of Chenin Blancs are now being grown specifically for dry wines – see Dry Chenin – the Loire's new weapon).
It would seem as though the Verus team has been absorbing all these lessons for this is a delightfully well balanced wine that, like a great Saar Riesling for example, is low in alcohol but high in extract, acidity and – character! This Verus Furmint is only 12% alcohol and is wonderfully refreshing but the grapes are so high in acidity that it was not picked until the beginning of October. You could certainly drink this wine now but I don't think there is any hurry whatever to drink it and would like to see how it evolves over the next 12 mlonths at least. Most of these Slovenian grapes were cool fermented for three weeks in stainless steel but 15% of them were fermented in new French barriques, and a certain amount of lees stirring has also played its (delightfully non obvious) part in adding extra layers of fiery, eastern European flavor to a wine that really should titillate your taste buds.
Just 475 cases have been made and, alas, the wine is so far available only locally, in Poland and Croatia, and from Mark Hughes' Real Wine Company (which supplied that Mas Viel Pinot Noir I recommended here). Needless to say, I have no axe to grind for this particular importer; it just seems to be particularly good at sourcing wines that are both well-priced and interesting at the moment.