THE WINES OF SCYTHIA
I have experienced several momentous vinous moments in my five-year-long career. If I sat down with all my tattered notebooks and bundles of tasting sheets, I could count over fifty wines that have been wines of a decisive, consequential or even life-changing and opinion forming nature.
There are the wines that have made tears threaten to cascade down my cheeks; the age defiant, deeply honest and utterly unpretentious 1989 Guy Breton Morgon wines of the world. There are the wines that have tapped at my mind’s door, startling me and begging me to consider entirely new and unexpected realms of possibilities; the Jean Pierre Frick sans souffre vs 10mg/L Steinert Grand Cru Riesling 2012 duos of the world; a set of what could be defined as vinous fraternal twins. They remain deeply embedded in my mind. There are the winemakers whose work and whose wines are so vitally entwined with the viticulture of their region that you just want to grab them and thank them for simply existing and for advancing the modern-day world of wine in ways nobody could imagine possible. These are the Rod Berglunds of the world.
It would be an impossible task for me to single out one of them; I would be committing infidelity to the others. There is, however, one recent tasting that makes my thoughts whirl, and indeed a new categorisation for wines that I have adopted, while not always on paper, at least in mind.
I will rewind to the beginning of July. I find myself sitting in a room bathed in red; not just any red, but a rumbling, reverberating red that fills the room with a deep hum of energy. I’m in London’s Mandrake Hotel. I am about to sit down and Drink Like a Scythian with Rajat Parr and Abe Schoener.
The tasting that is about to unfurl will be one that fulfils Todorov’s definition of the fantastic. Did it really happen? Yes, these wines are in existence, but are their personalities, or was this a figment of my imagination? Can wines have personalities? Can wines be Scythian; Scythians may no longer exist in their original historical context, but is there a wave of Scythians under the guise of winemakers tapping at the gates to a modern vinous Scythia?
This somewhat strange tale has its roots in last January, in a cold and wet New York, in the dark, alluring and grungy wine bar that is The Ten Bells. Raj, who had just been listening to the Dan Carlin podcasts, headed in through the doors only to stumble upon friend and fellow winemaker, Abe Schoener. The ancient Scythians wrestled their way into a wine-fuelled conversation between the two, and that was that. The path of Scythian wines had been forged.
On this hot, red night in early July, Raj explains that we will look at the concept of a different world, era and people, and attach this to wine; these are nomadic wines, not wines of promotion.
Abe nods, “we will follow their conceptual development, we will interact with these wines on a Scythian scale.”
The Scythians were famously nomadic, never settling and never adhering to laws of any city. Abe inhales, “in a way, it’s the opposite of an attachment to terroir, or an appellation system.”
The wines are served blind.
I do not give the wines tasting notes; Scythian wines do not adhere to traditional tasting notes. They do not adhere to format. They (the wines) made this very clear to me; thus instead I give unto each of them an individual Scythian personality.
2016 The May I, Hiyu Wine Farm, Oregon, U.S.
Here, we have a wine that’s one of the secretive Scythians; a little one with an angelic face and a saintly smile, but one that is hiding something. Why? It is somewhat of a paradox; on paper, you might expect this wine to be somewhat feral. It comes from a four vintage (2013 – 2016) solera of 90-120 day macerated Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from the original 2.5 acre parcel of the Hood River Valley farm. In reality, it is breathtakingly pure and there is no funk to speak of. It demonstrates the capacity of Columbia Gorge to be bold, daring and decisive. It takes the notion of terroir and bastardises it in the most courageous and seductive manner.
We sit in silence. Raj smiles and nods. “This wine is the epitome of what it is to live a Scythian lifestyle.”
2016 Spitzer Graben, Martin Muthenthaler, Wachau, Austria
Here we have a truly Scythian wine; a bold one that rings clearly with intent. It’s a leader-of-the-battle type of Scythian. It defies laws. It’s also a wine that mirrors its maker; Martin Muthenthaler. It does not speak of appellation; there is no terminology such as Federspiel or Smaragd. The wine simply stands on its own two feet and speaks of where it is from: extreme conditions, naked stone and the coolest climate: the last vineyard before viticulture becomes agriculture.
2001 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Valentini, Abruzzo, Italy, Abruzzo, Italy
Edoardo Valentini was known locally as the Lord of the Vines, and well, this wine is Lord of the Wines. Here we have the Scythian that is wearing the crown: The King. It is deeply unique and once again from extreme viticulture: mountains. Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc, one of the basic wines used to produce Cognac and Armagnac) is also the most planted in Italy, and - let’s face it - can produce dull, characterless wine. Here, however, it produces some of the finest white wine of the world. This wine embodies what it means to be profound. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It is a true Scythian and fiercely comfortable in its own skin.
Abe, “It mesmerized all of us. The instance of completely shattering the typicity of the region, and establishing a towering classicism at once.”
2015 Summum, Evening Land, Oregon, US
This wine is not Scythian on paper: it is pure, mineral driven Chardonnay from Oregon. I feel it is one of the most successful restrained, Burgundian-style fine wines of the new world. However, its raison d’êtreis undeniably Scythian; it is made by sommelier-trained Rajat Parr, together with Sashi Moorman, born out of a joint vision to create terroir-driven minimal intervention wines that do not adhere to the big, ripe wines that the West Coast is renowned for. From 1984 plantings, this comes from volcanic soils using biodynamic practices and aged in 500L Stockingers. It is fiercely precise and true to its roots. It is the adventurous Scythian; the Scythian that takes dares to go against the grain and to embark upon different life paths. Rajat Parr, sommelier-turned-winemaker is one of our true living Scythians.
2014 Njord, Pinot Noir Précoce, Zealand, Denmark
This was my contribution, and it was a true beacon of light. A hard-to-track-down Scythian escapee wine, this is made in such small quantities that it is quite impossible to find. I read about it online and after speaking on the phone to wine merchants and sommeliers in Copenhagen, I managed to find it at Palægade, and thanks to co-proprietor Simon Olesen I was able to bring this one bottle back to London as a #SuitcaseImport. It comes from young Frühburgunder vines planted on Zealand from a real pioneer, Sune Albertsen (whom I have not yet met, but I am sure he is also a Scythian). This particular cuvée comes from what he deems to be his best vines, planted on the highest part of his vineyard. We pour it, and it reveals its robes; a subtle, shimmering, translucent copper colour that I have never seen before. It is so unusual in colour that it shocks me and even manages to incite worry: could it be faulty? It presents itself somewhat as a ghost of Pinot. The palate is captivating and giving; extremely complex with layers upon layers of dried flowers; lilacs and roses blended with dry earth, rosehips and heathland. It is extremely elegant and dances on the palate, a true ballerina of a wine. It is a Black Swan.
Abe remarks, “What is the system that defines a beautiful wine as opposed to a failure?” It’s true; the colour of this wine is utterly unconventional but that does not mean that it is not deeply and intrinsically beautiful. Once the wine is revealed, he breathed, “I am shocked. I expected this wine to be a nice effort that we would patronize kindly, but it is utterly substantial, dense and complex. What a Scythian Revenge.”
NV Facsimile, Jérôme Prevost, Montagne de Reims
A carefree Scythian! This is a Champagne that is not afraid. Two hectares only, old vine massal selection, indigenous yeasts, no dosage, vinous and powerful, from 100% Pinot Meunier and proud of it, this cuvée is everything that corporate Champagne is not. It is intrinsically wonderful. It is regal, defiant, fiercely proud of itself and focussed. It is a wine that has all of its dials set to the “max” setting.
1999 Le Champ du Clos, Pinot Blanc, Yves Dufour, Aube, France
Having stopped in Champagne before making the pilgrimage to London, Abe tasted with Yves’ son, Charles Dufour. After having explained the notion behind this tasting, Charles’ eyes sparkled and he disappeared for a few moments, resurfacing with this bottle. It is a rare breed Scythian: 100% Pinot Blanc with 15 years on the lees and zero dosage. It is astonishingly intense and vibrant; a vinous ball of energy. I thought this was some form of experimental Champagne, perhaps under flor, but had no idea it was this old nor that it was Pinot Blanc. A greatly intellectual wine and deeply satisying.
2016 Trousseau Singulier, Stéphane Tissot, Jura, France
The Jester Scythian. It teases you: it is a wine that toys with toys with volatility and greenness on precisely the right side of the line; resulting in a deeply complex, ethereal wine, in fact one that is rather hypnotic. A very difficult wine to encapsulate on paper, and it knows it. Cheeky little Scythian.
2014 Cornas, Philippe Pacalet, Rhone, France
The rebel Scythian. The nephew of Lapierre, Pacalet’s delicate yet racy and sometimes piercing, Burgundies are exemplary wines of low/no-sulphur vinification in the region. Alas, here we have a négoce Cornas, because… well why not? It is a gossamer of a Cornas; a free spirited wine born from the desire of exploration.
2014 La Severità di Bruto Farina, Scholium Project, Sonoma Mountain, U.S.
A beautiful, mythical beast. This would be a Scythian of legends; one with superpowers and a beautiful golden plait to the floor. There is so much power here that it is almost unsettling and overbearing, yet it is power of such beauty that the entire room is spellbound. It is a deeply romantic wine. It is the Scythian that captures everybody’s hearts. It is brought to fruition by our other Scythian: Abe Schoener. Philosopher-turned-winemaker, his approach to winemaking is best described as Academic X Scythian.
2009 Jakot, Radikon, Friuli, Italy
The Leader: The Director of the Scythians. Working closely together with the King (Valentini), this Scythian would set guidelines for the other vinous Scythians. It is a wine that is entirely unafraid of being different; a wine that spearheads individualism and tells all the other Scythian wines to not be afraid. It raises its eyebrows; “You want to ban the word Tokaj? Fine!” It booms with laughter, picking up the word by its forefingers and flipping it around, ergo Jakot.
As Abe summarised, this was a tasting to “discuss the subtle relations between the savage nomadism of the ancient Scythians and the wines we love.”
It was a seminal tasting. All of the wines were seminal in their own way. They stirred emotion in us. It was a tasting without judgement, a tasting where we drank, not spat. The wines raised questions, and they gave answers. They surpassed reality and delved into the realm of the mystical.