A Roundabout Route To Serbia


Article originally published - 22 Jul 2014 at Jancis Robinson 

Monty Waldin writes about this new vineyard venture in Serbia, adding. 'I have absolutely no commercial link with this wine's owner/founder/winemaker Don McCulloch and don't intend to have any commercial link with it. I've given him the barest bit of advice but pro bono. I just think it is a fascinating project and I really hope it succeeds.' 

A few years ago when my Chateau Monty television series was being shown on Britain's Channel Four, I received dozens of emails from people which began, 'I want to start my own biodynamic vineyard just like you…'. The request which most piqued my interest was sent by Jessica Standing, Secretary of the UK Biodynamic Association, on behalf of 'someone who wants to plant a biodynamic vineyard in Serbia and is keen to have your advice'. The would-be wine-grower turned out to be Don McCulloch, originally from Bexley Heath in Kent but with Franco-Scottish parentage (pictured). 

Born in 1956, Don left his local comprehensive school at the first available opportunity (aged 15), finding work at the London Stock Exchange as a 'blue-button' or dealer's runner. McCulloch is tall, very strong and stocky, and played rugby. He describes the key requirement of his first job as being able to 'muscle my way across the trading floor to the jobber, the chap who actually completes any share deal'. 

After spells working for his uncle making instrumentation gauges for aircraft, and as a quantity surveyor on a couple of oil-fired London power stations, McCulloch joined the Metropolitan Police in 1979. 

In his spare time McCulloch raced single-seater cars at the (then also Formula One) Brands Hatch circuit while becoming a member of his local pistol-shooting club, training with members of the England shooting squad and its head coach John Chandler. 

Asked why he joined the police, McCulloch says 'partly it was because I had become proficient driving at speed and comfortable handling firearms, but the underlying reason was that our family has always had a strong sense of public service'. McCulloch's elder brother Neil had been a fireman but was killed in 1973 aged 31 trying to put out a blaze in the science lab at a secondary school in Gillingham, Kent. One other firefighter was seriously injured. One of McCulloch's sisters now works as health and safety officer for a local school. 

McCulloch rose quickly through the police ranks and in 1984 applied to be a protection officer for the royal family. The final stage of the application process involved training with the SAS in Hereford, firing live rounds in dark rooms containing fellow officers posing as members of the royal family. Over 3,000 police officers applied for the job in his year but of those only McCulloch and one other were accepted. McCulloch later formed part of a world record-breaking team ('Brownridge') for the fastest circumnavigation of the British Isles (excluding Ireland) for an under 30-foot ridged inflatable boat. 

Having retired in 2009 (police officers can serve a maximum of 30 years) McCulloch and his Serbian wife, Seka Nikolic, who has a natural-health practice in Hampstead in London, planted a three-hectare vineyard in the Fruška Gora region of Serbia, approximately one hour north of Belgrade. The first vintage was 2011. [See tasting notes below - JH] The nearest town, Sremska Mitrovica, became one of the Roman empire's four capital cities after this was split in 294 AD (modern-day Trier, Milan and Nicomedia in Turkey being the others). Each hosted a mirror administration of Rome should the latter come under attack. Five Roman emperors were born in Sirmium (including Probus - AD 232-282) and 16 lived there at one time or another. The land and the surrounding area has probably produced grapes for most of the time since then, except for when the Ottoman empire ruled and more recently with the collapse of the communist system and subsequent demise of the state-run co-operative wineries. When their local wine co-operative shut in around 1983, Sremska Mitrovica's grape growers had no choice but to pull up the vines and sow corn (maize). This was because under the communist system wine could only be made in co-ops, not privately. 

McCulloch_Serbia

Now this same land (sandy-coloured clay over chalk at around 160 metres), or at least a 3.5-hectare patch of it, bought piecemeal from ten individual smallholder owners, has been replanted by McCulloch with vines - mainly Bordeaux grape varieties for red wine plus a little Pinot Noir, plus Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer for whites, using budwood from the Rauscedo nursery in Italy. The Bordeaux grapes were planted in the same percentages McCulloch wants to have in his flagship red Coupage, meaning 'blend': 60% Merlot plus 13% each of Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

I met McCulloch for the first time when visiting the biodynamic Te Whare Ra estate in Marlborough, New Zealand, in spring 2011. He quietly appeared out of a murky back room where he was cleaning barrels, getting some hands-on experience before his own first Serbian harvest later that same year. He introduced himself as the 'guy who emailed you several years ago from Serbia about the biodynamic vineyard'. It was only when he showed me his first wine recently in London, the Coupage 2011, that he had the chance to explain his fascinating personal history, or at least those bits of it not covered by the Official Secrets Act. 

There are 3,000 bottles of the Coupage 2011. For it, McCulloch co-fermented the Merlot with the Malbec, both of which ripen at around the same time, and performed a separate co-fermentation for the Cabernet Franc with the Cabernet Sauvignon, with the Franc picked slightly overripe and the Cabernet Sauvignon just ripe. All grapes were destemmed, and fermented with indigenous yeast in stainless steel. As the fermentation was still finishing the wine was run off to barrel - the aim being to 'prime' the new barrels (made of Serbian oak) and prevent any pick-up of astringent wood tannins and flavours. The marc was pressed and the press fraction kept separate. The wine finished its fermentation in barrel, and was racked back to tank allowing the thick lees (yeast sediment) to be discarded. The clear wine was then returned to barrel where it aged for 18 months. The wine contains 12.5% alcohol. McCulloch used water-based inks for his bottle labels. The wine has a UK retail price of around £20 (see below). 

McCulloch has used biodynamic methods since the get-go but because Serbia is outside the EU he has found organising certification difficult. The most important thing he did, in my view, was to add lots of biodynamic compost made from sheep and other animal manures mixed with straw to the soil before planting the vines (as a field crop, maize/corn is notoriously hard on soil). Such biodynamic practices usually help prevent young vines suffering stress from either heat in summer or cold from winter into late spring. 

Organic matter allows each vine to build a carbohydrate reserve in its root system which promotes steady rather than excess growth through flowering, but won't stop the vine from suffering a necessary stress as it starts forming its seeds and ripening what forms around them, the bits the wine ends up being made from: the skins and juice. Another estate which added lots of biodynamic compost derived from mainly animal manure to its vineyard before planting in similarly depleted soils (by rabbits this time, not corn/maize) was Burn Cottage in Otago on New Zealand's South Island. Both its Pinot Noir and McCulloch's Coupage are reds which - although very different in terms of line, mouthfeel and flavour profile - really do taste as brilliantly luminous as they look.

Perhaps those who say composting 'muck is magic' may have a point, after all? 
McC, Coupage 2011 Serbia

Monty's tasting note 
The wine has a really brilliant crimson colour. The nose shows lovely red fruit notes (crushed cranberry) with a light oak dusting over the top. The palate shows balanced, clear, sweet, ripe but savoury red fruit tannins with well-integrated oak leading to a fine fresh finish. It is a very clear and digestible wine. It's youthful (age of the wine) and exuberant (young vines) so if you want to drink it now, decant it in the cool of the morning and let it warm up by a couple of degrees as lunch- or supper-time approaches. It's a lovely example of how red wine can be deep without being over-oaked or over-extracted or too heavy. The intensity of the aftertaste will increase as the vines age. 

Julia's tasting note 
Two separate co-ferments: Merlot/Malbec and Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon from a newly replanted vineyard near Fruška Gora. Biodynamic farming. 60% of the blend is Merlot. Sandy coloured clay over chalk. 12 months in Serbian oak and 14 months in bottle before release. 

Bright but dark crimson/cherry. Gentle, refined aroma of dark fruit, black plums and a touch of sweet spice and vanilla and a hint of something almost but not quite floral. Harmonious and the opposite of in your face. On the palate, excellent freshness and tannins that give shape but are not astringent. Still quite chewy. Spice and oak shows again on the palate but there's real harmony here and an attractively dry middle-European savoury quality with good acidity. Good length and very satisfying with plenty of spicy dark fruit in the middle. Tastes like a wine full of integrity and without artifice even though you can taste the oak spice up to the finish. Still quite young - you could broach it now but it seems to have a good few years ahead of it. (JH) 13.5% 
16.5 Drink 2014-18

Coupage 2011 is available from the McCulloch website at £20, and also from Trina's Wines in Putney, SW London. Both places also stock the other McCulloch wines - Traminac, Riesling, Pinot and a Cabernet blend, priced £12-15. If you live in London, you should also be able to find these wines in several pubs: The Lord Stanley (NW1), Tufnell Park Tavern (N7) and The De Beauvoir Arms (N1).

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