Albanian Surprise – Çobo Winery, Berat, Albania

Some kilometres outside Berat you think you’ve landed in a real dump with nothing much to offer than a statue in the centre of town and the ubiquitous cafés surrounding it. The place is called Ura Vajgurore and this is where the gem is to be found.

Çobo Winery in Ura Vajgurore, near Berat, Albania

The winery consists of a huge house attached to the cellar, bottling plant and tasting room. A charming gentleman steps forth and introduces himself as Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker and marketing director. He knows how to do all three of these things well. Here’s why.

Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker, marketing director

Taking us through the cellar which produces no more than 100 000 bottles per year, he tells us that the grapes are sourced from their own vineyards and others that they buy in. The stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation look pretty new and shiny and then there’s the room where all the vats are kept most of them new Barriques and some older large ones. I notice the riddling board where several bottles of sparkling are awaiting a turn and he tells me it’s his new baby, making a bubbly out of Puls, a white wine grape only found in this region. Everything is done by hand and carefully monitored by Muharrem himself. His first batch of Shendeverë, the name of the fizz suggesting the good life, has been sold out except for a few bottles kept for tasting.

An impressive tasting room

Our next stop is the tasting room, a fabulous facility where you’re able to indulge in the line-up of wine as well as have some bread, cheese and olives to go with it. Shesh I Bardhe is an example of a traditional Albanian white wine, kept as pure as possible to its traditions without too much interference. It’s got a strange flowery nose almost like honeysuckle and has some gooseberry on the palate with good acidity and something slightly bitter but not offensively so, on the finish. Shesh i Zi reminds me of Pinot Noir which I find out later is in fact true. It’s acidic, bright and fresh with berry fruit on the palate. But it’s Kashmer that gets my attention. The name is made up of the 3 grapes it contains viz. Cabernet (Kabernet) Sauvignon, Shesh i Zi and Merlot. This is an earthy wine and tells the story of its terroir. There’s enough fruit and acidity to keep it interesting right through the finish which is medium. The flagship is next up – E Kugja e Beratit meaning ‘the red of Berat’. This grape varietal is also called Vlosh and has seen the inside of small oak barrels for 6 months and 4 months in big ones. It comes from a small parcel of land measuring 2 hectacres. It has a deep nose of horse, leather and covers the palate with thick, velvety tannins that are not overwhelming. The finish is looong and satisfying. Put it together with a meaty dish on a cold winter’s night and life’s complete.

The reds got my attention
Muharrem’s new baby – a sparkling made from an original Albanian grape called Puls.

As I said before, Muharrem knows what he’s doing. The pricing is somewhat more than you would expect from Albanian wines but the quality is all there and for a small set-up like his, paying €30 for their E Kugja e Beratit is not unthinkable. It might be difficult to sell this to a consumer after import taxes, transportation, etc. but production is so little that he probably doesn’t have a lot to export anyway.

What a surprise to find a top class winery in the wilds of Albania that understands the international market and sticks with what it knows best i.e. grapes from the area that speak of the oldest winemaking tradition in Europe.

Links:

Çobo Winery

Ackerman Winery – Saumur, Loire Valley

The more you read about this company, the more you like it. From the word go, Jean-Baptiste Ackerman, understood the principals of local and locality. He did his homework well and then transferred his store of knowledge applying it in a new place.

Ackerman Winery, Saumur, Loire Valley

From the caves of Champagne where this wealthy banker’s son from Antwerp, learnt the tricks of the trade, Ackerman proceeded to Saumur in the Loire Valley in 1810. His vision was to recreate those fine bubbles of mousse rising steadily to the top of the glass using the grapes of the area. He bought some of the best tracts of underground galleries consisting of cool, limestone caves and started implementing his ideas. Instead of importing experienced workers, he decided that local was best and launched forth in educating the people around him teaching them the ‘méthode traditionelle’. He even married locally. His bride was the daughter of a rich banker carrying the name of Laurance and hence the brand name Ackerman was extended. His sparkling wine, which he labelled ‘champagne’, a mistake that would cost him dearly, received high acclamation from a wine-tasting jury spurring the company on to export. Due to his efforts, an addition to the railway line from Paris to Rennes and Angers, ended up in Saumur and from there Saumur Brut became widely known in England, Russia, Sweden, Germany and Belgium.

Ackerman and Laurance, a formidable pair

Today, Ackerman has not lost the vision and passion that Jean-Baptiste Ackerman had for the product and the company. They operate sustainably, making sure that waste is separated, water re-used and their footprint minimised. They’ve been able to reduce pesticide-use by 40% without losing production, cut down the amount of water that is used mostly for washing the bottles and have encouraged their growers to plant grass in between vineyards which works against soil erosion.

The cellar master’s chilly office at 12C

Taking care of their labourers is high priority. The average age of their 150 workforce is 45 years, an ageing population and hence training in load carrying is vital. Planning for retirement with mentor-based training is another way this way company looks out for its own. Disabled people are employed in bottle-conditioning.

The products from this winery are held up as benchmarks for the rest of the region. In 1956, they joined forces with Rémy Pannnier and have gone from strength to strength in quality and quantity. Both still and sparkling wines are produced from the highest quality of grapes grown in the Loire Valley creating tannic, earthy Cabernet Franc from Chinon, delicate sparkling wines using Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and even Pinot Noir in their cuvées and nutty, intense Chenin Blanc.

Creamy crémant

The iPad guided tour takes you on an informative, delightful journey through the caves including an installation art exhibition with a writhing python, a beautiful blonde and a spider web stretched across a huge hall. The whole tour costs a meagre €5 including a tasting of their entire extensive range, if you so wish. When the personnel are chatty and genuinely friendly, you know you’re in the Loire Valley and not in Paris or some other renowned regions where egos outstrip generosity and kindness. The service here is superlative and when you can walk away with a stash of outstanding bubbly and a few robust stills, most of them for under €10 per bottle, you count yourself lucky.

Friendly Wines for Friendly People

If you ever thought that a Monday night couldn’t work as a wine tasting event, you’re probably right. But Maanantaiklubi (Monday Club) organised by the Wine Minister Veli-Antti Koivuranta himself, is always a success. It’s got a lot to do with lots of factors that turn dull Mondays into celebrations, not least of all the friendly crowd and Veli-Antti’s knowledgeable and laid-back demeanour.

The tastings are always blind i.e. the bottles are wrapped in tin foil. The descriptions help you along to guess what’s in the glass. The wines are handpicked and high quality. The snacks are superlative and best of all the price is within everyone’s reach.

Friendly Wines, just in time for Valentine’s Day, is kick-started by Mionetto Gran Rosé Extra Dry, recognisable as a Prosecco but not made from Glera grapes but strangely reminiscent of the classic pear and apple flavours. At €8,99 from Alko, it’s a nice little number with a touch of strawberry to remind you it’s a rosé.

More bubbles are next leaping forward into a whole new category with André Clouet No 3 Rosé Champagne Brut. At €39,95 you would expect so. Hailing from Bouzy, a region known for it’s Pinot Noir grapes, this one gives you opulence and plenty of red fruit pulled together by that lovely yeasty character of baked bread.

Not being much of a Viognier fan myself, The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne 2015 is surprisingly acidic, the one element I usually find lacking. It’s got honey melon and a little ginger too which turns it into a good choice for seafood. McLaren Vale, Australia, is where it’s made on the d’Arenberg Estate and the name is appropriate for the terroir of calcerous remains of shell fish, the hermit crab being one.

In the set of reds, the Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 catches me off guard when I’m almost convinced it’s from Bordeaux with that unmistakeable fireplace ash nose. It’s bold with enough body and tannins to match any pan-fried steak or roast beef. And while we’re on the subject of tannins and body, get your tongue around Numanthia Termes 2013, a robust wine full of blackberry, plums and wood. This wine’s not for the faint-hearted and can stand its own with any red meat.

The line-up at the Monday Club usually consists of at least 6 wines, 7 to 8 more often than not. Good bread, cheese, cold cuts and lots of sweet goodies all from Stockmann’s delicatessen adds to the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of tasting quality wines for a mere €25. For an evening out in Helsinki, that’s a real deal.

Links:

To join, look at the website:

Wine Minister’s Wine Club

FARM – Serious Farmhouse Style

Tones of earthy beige, scenes of stuffed warthogs feasting with foxes and beavers, chandeliers that add a touch of class and overstuffed shelves with classic farmhouse staples is what greets you when you enter this restaurant in Tallinn’s Old Town. It’s big, just like a farmhouse kitchen, and there’s an open range where the chefs cook and cavort but all of this is so stylish and so well done creating that cosy, warm feeling of belonging.

Feast with wild abandon - taxidermy at Farm Restaurant
Feast with wild abandon – taxidermy at Farm Restaurant

Attention to detail is evident. Menus look handwritten and are tied together with string. The rabbit liver paté I order comes in a small jam jar and is scooped out with a spoon on to the crisp toast. The combination of creamy, nutty, elegant paste is complemented by chokeberry onion marmalade with a hint of sweetness, a hint of sour. The texture of this dish is balanced and the flavours are just remarkable. The Paul Mas Chardonnay from Languedoc works but it’s the Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir that really does the trick with this dish with its light, juiciness and overtones of pepper.

Your typical farmhouse shelf adds to the ambience
Your typical farmhouse shelf adds to the ambience

The waiter is attentive, shows sincere concerns on whether you like this and asks his colleague if he forgets the name of a certain ingredient. They’ve obviously been trained well, not too much, not too little.

Rabbit liver paté in a jar
Rabbit liver paté in a jar

The red deer from Saaremaa is perfectly pink and rests on a bed of wild mushroom orsoto, a type of risotto with kernels slightly larger reminiscent of bulgur. I take a bite of gooseberry, bitter and sour and not at all to my liking. But then I mix it with a bit of the creamy orsoto and top it with a slice of red deer and it’s exactly what you need for that lift of acidity that transforms bland to bloody good. Red deer is similar to what we commonly know as roe deer. The meat is lean and the flavour is mild compared to elk but its taste is unique in its refinement. The juniper wine sauce adds that vital tartness to complete the dish. My choice of wine Raimat Abadia Cabernet Sauvignon/Tempranillo 2013 is heavy enough to carry it through to a satisfying wholeness of flavours.

Succulent Red Deer from Saaremaa Island, Estonia
Succulent Red Deer from Saaremaa Island, Estonia

The wine list, by the glass anyway, is disappointing. If you offer me a glass of Zonin Prosecco one more time instead of a decent champagne or cava as an aperitif, you might find yourself with one less customer. Why, when small bottles of champagne are readily available?

The exclusive use of local ingredients is really pleasing and it shows in the freshness of the flavours. The price is so worthy of a mention too. The entire meal, and I forgot to mention the homemade bread with home made butter, including a gin and tonic for starters, cost €44.

Ambience: Light, cosy, stylish

Food: Local Estonian ingredients, game, wholesome

Prices: Dead reasonable for top quality

Service: Attentive, warm

Wines: Disappointing selection by the glass

Drinks: Non-alcoholic homemade lemonade

My rating: 8/10

Links:

Farm Restaurant

Remy Galichet Champagne

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Links:

Veinidkoju – http://www.viinitkotiin.com/index.php?id=viinitkotiin-wines&product_id=863

Remy Galichet – http://www.champagne-remy-galichet.fr/-La%20maison