Wine column

Collio: Beauty and diversity (6/15/2019)

Collio is a beautiful part of the world with plentiful forests and hills that produce a diverse and healthy environment. For publication in the week starting 17 June 2019.

Collio landscape.jpgModern winemaking started in Italy’s Collio region in the second half of the nineteenth century, though wine has been made in the region for about 2,000 years. It is the most north-eastern region in the country.

As mentioned last week, Collio winemakers focus on quality by keeping yields low. The region’s 1,500 hectares produce about 6.5 million bottles a year compared with neighbouring Soave’s 15 million bottles a year from only 1,100 hectares.

Lower yields per hectare enhance wine flavours and quality. A typical hectare in Collio has about 4,400 vines. In Soave DOCG rules require a minimum of 4,000 vines per hectare but DOC wines tend to have up to 6,000 vines.

Grapes are mostly hand-picked because vines are grown on slopes, though the rows are wide enough to allow tractors sufficient space to operate. The soil in Collio is relatively uniform. Locals call it “ponca”, and it consists mostly of marl and sandstone. Ponca gives mineral and saline characteristics to wines. More information is available in the video at the end of this column.

Collio toast.jpgCollio has about 350 winegrowers, who have an average of about four hectares each. Some are shown above toasting the region, which makes at least 18 wines from about a dozen grapes. Last week’s column discussed the grape varieties.

The Collio Goriziano DOC represent only 3 per cent of all DOC white wines made in Italy. Last year 87 per cent of Collio’s wines were white. The Collio was one of the first regions to receive DOC status, in 1968.

Summers can be hot while winters are cold and rainy. Average winter temperatures are about 4C with 1,350 to 1,400 mm of rain. Because of the rain the region is lush, with green rolling hills and forests. Indeed, three quarters of the region consists of forests and hills while only a quarter of the area is planted to vines.

Robert Princic, who stepped down last month as president of the local winemakers’ group, the Consorzio Collio, is the owner at Gradis’ciutta. He told me only about 15 per cent of producers were organic or biodynamic. I suspect the large amount of forests and breezes from the Adriatic help eradicate grape pests. Mountains in the north shield vines from cold winds.

Vines tend to be planted on slopes with southern exposures to maximise sunshine hours. Collio is also famous for its orchards. One of the best ways to see the region is to travel the “wine and cherry road”, established in 1963. Do make a point of visiting some of the fine castles.

Collio winemaker Marco Primosic likened winemaking in the region to composing music for an orchestra because of the wide range of grapes – 18 at least. Different grapes work together to create something better than the individual instrument. “Over time the grapes lose their individual characteristics to reflect the terroir instead.”

One of the delights is the Collio Bianco, a blend of estate-grown grapes developed from the mid 1990s. It has a maximum of 15 per cent of aromatic varieties (Muller Thurgau and Traminer Aramatico). In the blend Friulano typically provides body, Ribolla Gialla gives acidity and Malvasia Istriana contributes floral characteristics.

In 1966 Cyril Ray, one of England’s best-known wine writers from the 1950s to the 1980s, described Collio wines as “whites from the hills that encircle the town of Gorizia” and recommended they should be drunk young when they had a “fresh taste and floral bouquet”.

Collio corks.jpgIn 2009 the region adopted a special bottle with a yellow capsule and the word “Collio” engraved at the top of the extra-long neck. The long neck is slightly narrower than traditional bottles, which means a narrower cork which tends to limit oxidation.

This bottle weighs 500 grams, well under the 600 to 650 grammes of the heavy bottles some regions use to impress consumers. It is part of the region’s attempts to be environmentally sustainable. Screw-cap closures are not permitted.

Collio whites do not have the longevity of Verdicchio from the Marche or the whites of Soave, but they can be safely cellared for up to about six years.

Richard Bourdains specialises in Collio wines and writes for Decanter magazine. “These wines develop up to a point. The aromas become less floral but stay fresh. The wines tend not to develop tertiary aromas.” Bourdains said the 2015 vintage was drinking well and believed the “best window” for most wines was between three and six years after they were bottled.

“Collio whites do not oxidise, which is a good thing. The acidity softens but juicy fruitiness continues. The common denominator of Collie is the quality, which is very high. They are nice wines to drink.”

Ronco Blanchis.jpgA highlight of my visit to Collio was a tasting of 12 vintages of Friulano between 2006 and 2018 from the Ronco Blanchis estate, presented by winemaker and owner Lorenzo Palla (shown with bottle). The grape was originally called Tocai Friulano. But the European Union forced Italy to change the name to Friulano to avoid confusion with Tocai/Tokaj from Hungary. The change took effect from 2008.

Wines from 2015, 2012, 2009 and 2006 stood out, though all were fine wines. All showed the way the local soil is expressed in the wines.

Another highlight was a dinner at Spessa Castle prepared by Antonia Klugmann, a Michelin-starred chef. The dinner marked the announcement of six Collio Awards, given annually to people who contributed to the scientific development of the region.

gold bottle.jpgFootnote: Earlier this year Sandro Bottega, owner of the distinctive Bottega wine company in Italy, sent me a bottle of non-vintage Bottega Gold Prosecco and a bottle of non-vintage Moet champagne. He invited me to taste and compare these wines, and kindly included a piece of Grana Padano permesan cheese to have with the wine.

Three friends and I tasted the cheese and wines one evening, and all four preferred the champagne, though the vote was close.

Meanwhile, last month the Court of the European Union confirmed the validity of the three-dimensional marks the Bottega company registered to protect the distinctive features of its iconic metallised bottles of Bottega Gold and Bottega Rose Gold, introduced in 2001.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consorzio Collio who provided flights, some meals and four night’s accommodation.

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Small region, big reputation (6/8/2019)

Collio in the north-east of Italy is small but punches well above its weight in terms of the quality of its whites. For publication in the week starting 10 June 2019.

The Collio region, about 140km north-east of Venice, averages about 6.5 million bottles a year from its 1,500 hectares of vines. Soave Classico to the south, discussed in previous columns, averages about 15 million bottles a year even though Soave Classico has 400 fewer hectares of vines.

Collio winemakers aim to focus on quality as a selling point. Lower yields per hectare enhance wine flavours and quality. Unlike Soave, Collio exports a small proportion of its output even though it has a high reputation in Italy.

Richard Bourdains specialises in Collio wines and writes for Decanter magazine. “Collio gets more awards than any other area relative to size.” Last year Collio won three times more Slow Wine awards than Soave Classico (19 versus 6), Bourdains said.

A comparison could be the Margaret River region of Western Australia which makes 2-3 per cent of Australia’s wines but typically gains one in five of the country’s wine awards.

Bourdains described Collio as a “small but highly significant appellation” located between the sea and the mountains specialising in a varied production of prestige white wines “made predominantly by small-to-medium scale grower-winemakers”.

Collio landscape.jpgCollio has about 350 winegrowers, with an average of 4 hectares a grower. They make at least 18 wines in the Collio Goriziano DOC but represent only 3 per cent of all the DOC white wines made in Italy. Last year 87 per cent of Collio’s wines were white.

From May 29 to June 1 the Consorzio Collio, which represents local winemakers, invited about 60 journalists from around the world to Collio Experience 2019. The aim was to increase the region’s visibility.

When DOC status was first awarded in 1968 Collio’s main grapes were all autochthonous: Ribolla Gialla (45 per cent), Malvasia Istriana (30 per cent) and Tocai Friulano (24 per cent). From 2008 the EU forced Italy to change the name of the last wine to Friulano to avoid confusion with Tocai/Tokaj from Hungary.

Nowadays Pinot Grigio is the most-planted grape (26 per cent), followed by Sauvignon Blanc (20 per cent), Friulano (15 per cent), Chardonnay (9 per cent) and Ribolla Gialla (7 per cent).


A Primosic wine

Winemaker Marco Primosic likened winemaking in Collio to composing music for an orchestra. Different grapes work together to create something better than the individual instrument. “Over time the grapes lose their individual characteristics to reflect the terroir instead.” One of his bottles is shown in the photo.

One of the delights of the region is its Collio Bianco, a blend of estate-grown grapes developed in the mid 1990s with a maximum of 15 per cent of aromatic varieties (Muller Thurgau and Traminer Aramatico). In the blend Friulano typically provides body, Ribolla Gialla gives acidity and Malvasia Istriana contributes floral characteristics.

One of the finest Collio Bianco I tasted was a 2015 Gradis’ciutta Riserva made from the three grapes just mentioned. Gradis’ciutta has converted to organic production and the emblem will appear on bottles from this year.

Ronco Blanchis.jpg

Lorenzo Palla from Ronco Lanchis

Other excellent producers along with Gradis’ciutta and Primosic were Ronco Lanchis, Drius and Caronesca.

The Consorzio Collio has submitted an application to become classified as a DOCG but the process has stalled. Robert Princic, who stepped down as consortium president last month, is the owner at Gradis’ciutta. His lovely Riserva appears a model for a DOCG wine. He said his aim was to create something age-worthy.

Princic noted the region’s clean environment and sustainable approach to agriculture. “Gradis’ciutta chose to be organic a decade ago and cut its use of herbicides. We are taking little steps to help the land grow.”

Richard Bourdains said Collio wines had some ageing potential, though the best drinking window was three to six years after bottling. The wines do not develop tertiary aromas in the same way as those from the Marche or Soave. “Collio wines do not oxidise, which is a good thing, and aromas become less floral but stay fresh.”

Alessandro Sandrine.jpg

1997 Friulano

I tasted a 1997 Friulano from the Marco Felluga estate. It is still fresh and zesty, with pronounced terpene aromas reminiscent of an old Riesling. In the mouth the wine offered flavours of lemon curd creaminess and grapefruit with a touch of flinty minerality. The photograph shows the estate’s current winemaker, Alessandro Sandrine, with the bottle.

About 20 per cent of the vines in Collio are planted to Sauvignon Blanc. The grape has been grown in the region since about 1860. Legend has it that Count Theodor de la Tour from the Loire married into a local family. At the time the French government banned exports of vine cuttings. So the count smuggled cuttings into the country with bunches of flowers for his wife.

Richard Bourdains noted that Collio’s soils were mainly Ponca, which was ideal for Sauvignon. Ponca is composed of marl and sandstone and contains marine fossils (see the video below). The Collio hills were under the sea 56 million year ago. Collio shares a border with Slovenia and Austria. In Slovenia’s Brda region locals call Ponca “Opoka”.


Brother and sister at Drius estate

Collio winemakers say Sauvignon Blanc is difficult to cultivate. Ripeness needs to be precise when grapes are harvested. This often means picking several times which can be expensive. “Locals tell me the best land for Sauvignon Blanc is where elderflowers grow,” Bourdains said. “I do know the R3 clone is best for Collio in terms of aromatics.”

Bourdains said Sauvignon Blanc was a difficult wine to taste because of people’s mental associations with the Loire or New Zealand. “It’s natural to put this grape into mental pigeon holes.” Another big variable in grape quality related to where it was grown, he said. “You get the best aromatics from north-facing slopes because grapes mature best in the shade.”

Part of Collio Experience 2019 involved a seminar on economic sustainability. The noted wine economist Professor Mike Veseth, author of the Wine Economist blog, said sustainability in the wine world was based on three legs: environmental, social and economic. They were like a stool that needed all legs to be balanced. “But traditionally economics has been seen as an enemy of the other two,” he told the seminar.

“We are at a critical moment in terms of economic sustainability worldwide,” Dr Veseth said. “The price of wines below 11 Euros is collapsing. Wines priced above 15 to 20 Euros offer lots of opportunities worldwide. But expect lots of competition in this segment.”

This was the moment for Collio to “focus on quality, be consistent with what you produce and communicate this to the world”.

This is sensible advice.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consorzio Collio who provided flights, four night’s accommodation and some meals.

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Durello’s intensity of flavours (6/2/2019)

The Durello region between Verona and Vicenza in Italy is becoming recognised for the intensity of its sparkling wines. For publication in the week starting 3 June 2019.

Italy makes a range of fine sparkling wines. The best known is Prosecco and this column has written extensively about it. Other well regarded sparkling wine regions described in this column include Franciacorta, Trento, Lambrusco and Asti Spumante.

Franciacorta and Trento are made like champagne and use the same French-originated grapes to make dry wines with fine bubbles. Franciacorta comes from Lombardy and Trento from the far north of Italy in Alto-Adige. Lambrusco is a sweet red but producers are also making a more dry style from the grape that gives the wine its name. Asti Spumante is another sweet sparkler, made from Moscato grapes.

The latter pair are made using the Charmat or Martinotti method, as is Prosecco. This process is explained in previous columns about Prosecco. The main distinction is the fact that champagne styles tend to be dry while Charmat or Martinotti method wines tend to be sweeter.

This column focuses on Durello. It is less well known than those listed earlier but becoming more popular, especially among people bored with sweet wines. In recent years production has been growing by 50 per cent a year, to 1.2 million bottles last year. The region has about 400 hectares of vines and plantings have been rising by about 15 per cent a year in recent years.

Durello lees.jpgThe number of producers has also soared. The original six had grown to 45 by the end of last year. The region believes it has the potential to make about 3.5 million bottles a year, though the exact total is imprecise because the number of bottles to be disgorged is not known. Some wines spend up to a decade on the lees, absorbing the flavours of the yeast, before being disgorged and bottled. The photograph shows the lees (yeast cells) in the neck of the bottles. Main export markets are the US, the UK, Japan and Germany.

Durello refers to the region and the style of wine. The wine is made from the Durella grape. The Durella-Durello distinction can be confusing at first and is based on the final character in words that signify gender in Italian. The grape is feminine and the wine is masculine. The region received DOC status in 1988.

The wine Durello must be made with a minimum of 85 per cent Durella. The balance can be Chardonnay, Garganega, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Noir. Durello is made in the Lessini Mountains east of Soave, between the provinces of Verona and Vicenza.

Most other sparkling regions use either the champagne method, known as traditional method or “metodo classico” in Italy, or the Charmat or Martinotti method. With “metodo classico” the secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle while with the other method that fermentation happens in a stainless-steel tank known as an autoclave.

Durello uses both methods. The former is labelled as Lessini Durello while the latter is known as Monte Lessini. The first is fruitier with more noticeable aromas. The other is more nuanced, textural and structured.

This is partly because of the region’s volcanic soils and partly because wines made with the Charmat method spend less than a year ageing in the bottle. Wines labelled Monte Lessini spend at least 24 months ageing on the lees, and at least 36 months if the wine is to become a “riserva” (reserve).

The region recently allowed production of Monte Lessini wines with nine and 18 months of lees ageing. The objective appears to be a way to encourage winemakers to embrace “metodo classico” instead of Charmat methods and increase the volume of that style of wine. Currently about 70 per cent of Durello are made via the Charmat method.

Diletta Tonello is the winemaker at Cantina Tonello, taking over from her father five years ago. She gave me two pieces of volcanic rock to rub together, to notice the smells from those rocks. The same aromas can be found in the Durello sparkling wines.

A major characteristic of Durello is its searing acidity, coupled with the tangy minerality typical of volcanic wines and a hint of tannin from the grape skins.

For me this acidity and minerality make Durello distinctive. The acidity comes from the Durella grape and when you taste the wine you will find hints of chalk and iodine. The origins of the minerality were discussed in last week’s column.

The combination of acidity and minerality might create concerns for people who have never tasted this wine before, the same way that encountering the piercing acidity in English sparkling wine can be confronting the first time. With Durello the acidity can come across as aggressive.

Yet this acidity also makes the wine ideal as a palate cleanser at the start of a meal. The choice of food to pair with it will also influence one’s appreciation. The acidity would be perfect for serving with battered food like tempura or fish and chips.

Some of the best Durello tasted included Diletta Tonello’s 2015 Teti Lessini Durello reserve, the 2015 Dal Maso Pas Dose Nature Lessini Durello and the 2014 Casa CecchinExtra Brut Lessini Durello reserve.


Tonello wines.jpgDiletta Tonello names her wines after Greek words, some for the elements associated with winemaking. Teti means water. Her 2013 Pas Dose Aura (nil sugar in the dosage) is named after the word for wind. The wind blows through the vineyards and helps reduce diseases connected with humidity. This wine offers intense umami flavours with a clean and lingering mouthfeel; the kind of wine that makes one’s mouth water in anticipation. Cloe is Diletta’s still Garganega and Eos is a still wine made from the Durella grape.

Dal Maso winemaker Nicola Dal Maso demonstrated the sabring technique used to remove the cork on special occasions (see video).

As the name suggests, his 2015 Dal Maso Pas Dose Nature Lessini Durello mentioned above has no added sugar in the dosage. It is clean, precise and elegant and sings of the volcanic soils from which the grapes came. “We don’t want to copy Franciacorta,” he told me. “We are making something unique.”

Our tasting took place amidst the beautiful surroundings of the Dal Maso estate and winery. Nicola also showed seven journalists where he makes his famous Vin Santo Gambellara. Only three regions in Italy make this sensational sweet wine, and Gambellara is the only DOC among the trio.

Durello dried grapes.jpgAfter the harvest the best Garganega bunches are placed in small boxes inside the winery’s drying area called the “fruttai”, where they remain for about six months. The dried grapes are made into wine which is aged for at least a decade in small oak barrels. “It is a wine for great occasions. You remain speechless after tasting it,” he said.

Dal Maso also make a Recioto di Gambellara DOCG. These sweet wines are wondrous, and a complete contrast to the austere acidity of Durello. Think of them as the yin and yang of vinous beauty. Yet they are all wines that cry out to be tasted.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consorzio Vini Soave who provided flights, meals and accommodation.

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Volcanic hills of poetic wine (5/26/2019)

The delicious wines grown on the volcanic soils of the Euganean hills about 60km from Venice feature this week. For publication in the week starting 27 May 2019.

The Soave region is a patchwork of sub-zones. Vineyards are often not much more than two hectares, passed down through many generations.

Each winemaker is an artisan. They know their land intimately. Locals argue that it is the soil that contributes to flavours and they have started making wines that best reflect their terroir.

The region has 33 cru. Think of these as wines from land with distinct personalities. Locals use terms like the “sinuous” Costeggiola, the “poetic” Carniga, the “heroic” Slavinus or the “mighty” Foscarino. The larger wineries have also mapped their cru land, and all winemakers are bottling from selected single vineyards.

Garganega is Soave’s main grape. It has been grown in the region for at least 1,000 years making it one of Italy’s oldest varieties. Garganega can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent of the blend. For Soave DOC up to 30 per cent of the blend can be Chardonnay or Trebbiano di Soave. Soave DOCG also contains the same amount of Garganega, and up to 30 per cent can be Trebbiano di Soave.

The terroir gives wines distinct structure and sapidity. The latter refers to a stimulating richness of flavour. The late-ripening Garganega provides weight and a diversity of styles from fresh, zesty and floral through to the rich sweetness of a Recioto di Soave.

Recioto is becoming less popular because of changing tastes, high production costs and people wanting a drier style of wine. The high costs relate to the fact the grapes are air-dried for several months to concentrate flavours, losing half their weight in the process, which means far fewer bottles than for regular Soave.

This week we talk about wines grown on volcanic soils. In his 2016 book Volcanic Wines, Canadian master sommelier John Szabo notes that volcanoes have a strong grip on Mankind’s imagination. They have been seen as the playground of the ancient gods; a place of myth where traditions were forged in heat and mystery. Ulysses encountered the gods in the Pastures of the Sun near Mount Etna. The shield of Archilles was created on Vulcan’s forge. The gates of Hades were said to be at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

Soave was the first Italian region to reach out to other volcanic wine areas, forming the first association of Italian volcanic wines. Today, Volcanic Wines is a brand with global reach. Recent research in Soave shows how volcanic soils there have evolved and acquired complex structures, deeply influencing flavours in wines. Volcanic soils give special properties to wines such as high acidity, minerality and salinity plus a potential for longevity. Szabo noted that minerality was not an aroma. “It’s a salty taste sensation noticeable in wines grown near the sea.”

Land formed from volcanic eruptions millennia ago produces what Jancis Robinson MW calls “steelier” wines. Szabo noted that soil is not the only factor affecting the taste of wine. Indigenous grapes and ancient cultivation methods also made volcanic wines distinctive, he said.

Aldo Lorenzoni is the director of Consorzio Vini Soave, the organisation that represents Soave winemakers. In recent years the Consorzio has organised scores of events such as Soave Days, Tutti i Colori del Bianco, Vulcania, Volcanic Wines and the Soave Preview to showcase the region’s innovation.

Lorenzoni noted that late last year Soave was officially listed as the 58th Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO recognises extraordinarily beautiful landscapes that combine agricultural bio-diversity, resilient ecosystems and important cultural heritage.

The Soave Stories conference mentioned last week celebrated the first decade of the “Volcanic Wines” project, creating a bridge between Soave and New York, where the second international conference on volcanic wines will be held next month.

One of the most interesting volcanic regions is the Euganean hills east of Soave, about 60 kilometres from Venice. The hills were formed by a series of volcanic eruptions starting about 43 million years ago. On a clear day the clock tower in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square can be seen from the top of Mount Gemola in the Euganean hills.

Basalt rock.jpgLava in the hills cooled to form trachyte, rhyolite and latite. Many of the fine mansions in Padova and Venice were made from these beautiful basalt stones.

The hills, known in Italian as Colli Euganei, have about 3,000 hectares of vines, and they mainly make red wines. Merlot is the most-planted red, with about 500 hectares, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon (275 hectares) and Cabernet Franc (230 hectares). Moscato Giallo is the most planted white, with about 270 hectares.

The direction of the slope determines the climate. Hills with a southern exposure, bathed by direct sunlight, grow Mediterranean flora like olive trees, cypresses and laurels and can happily ripen red grapes.

Vines on the opposite side of the same hill can be in a different meso-climate, producing excellent white wines from Glera and Moscato. The latter is a large and historic grape family. Moscato Bianco and Moscato Giallo were planted by Greek settlers.

Fior d’Arancio, which means “orange blossom,” is made from Moscato Giallo and became a DOCG in 2011. Three different versions are made: A sparkling sweet wine, a sweet passito from semi-dried grapes, and a version that is kept in barrel until the wine becomes dry. As the name suggests, the wines have a distinct orange blossom aroma.

Bordeaux grapes are believed to have been planted from about 1870 but they have developed local characteristics.

Cangina Vignalta.jpgOne of the best producers is Cantina Vignalta. Their Gemola, named after one of the highest hills mentioned earlier, is a blend of 70 per cent Merlot with the balance Cabernet Franc. We tasted the 2012 and 2006 vintages. This is a classy wine with mint and cassis aromas and a distinct savoury taste from the volcanic soils. If well cellared it would taste superb in two decades, but is drinking well now.

The company’s Fior d’Arancio is named Alpinae. It offers a cascade of ripe apricots and oranges on the nose and in the mouth. This wine has won several gold medals and is a special delight. But get in early because only 8,000 bottles were made of the current vintage (2015).

Local nature guide Francesco Loreggian said the Euganean hills were a naturally healthy area that sustained a wide bio-diversity with minimal use of pesticides. It is also an area that makes lovely wine that deserves to be visited. If you do, make sure you get a copy of The Venetian Hills: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Colli Euganei by Patricia Guy. It is beautifully written with lovely photographs.

The great Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) spent his last four years in the hills. Petrarch’s home is a museum in the village of Arqua Petrarca. The English poets Lord George Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley rented a villa in 1818 in the hills near Este.

More information about the area can be found here.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consorzio Vini Soave who provided flights, meals and accommodation.

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Potential of aged Soave (5/20/2019)

This week we visit Soave where a conference of journalists and producers heard about Soave’s potential for ageing. For publication in week starting 20 May 2019.

Soave is one of Italy’s best-known wine regions. Soave is also one of the country’s best whites for cellaring. A conference called Soave Stories this week celebrated this quality wine and noted its potential for ageing.

Soave vines.jpgThe conference was held in the majestic Palazzo del Capitano, a palace in the old town of Soave. A six-metre wall surrounds the old town and separates it from the vineyards that seem to flow in all directions. Soave sits at the foot of the Lessini mountains. From a distance the palace dominates the town, which looks like a classic medieval walled city.

The Soave region only produces whites. It is in north-east Italy, about 30km east of the city of Verona, and stretches to the foothills of the Lessini Mountains. Soave became a DOC in 1968. It also has a DOCG designation known as Soave Superiore. Both are sub-divided into general and “Classico” designations, the latter applying to wines produced in the heartland of the Soave region.

The conference began with a tasting of wines from 25 local producers. Wines were grouped into those grown on limestone or volcanic soils. The influence of the latter will be discussed in next week’s column.

Each producer offered a current and older vintage. The latter was typically from somewhere between 2008 and 2011 or 2012.

Later Kerin O’Keefe, Italian editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, and Sandro Gini, chairperson of Consorzio Soave (the group that represents winemakers from the region), discussed the potential of Soave wines for ageing.

Garganega is Soave’s main grape and can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent of the blend, though it is common to find 100 per cent Garganega. For Soave DOC up to 30 per cent of the blend can be Chardonnay or Trebbiano di Soave, also known locally as Nestrano. Yields for DOC wines must be no more than 14 tonnes per hectare and wines must have a minimum alcohol of 10.5 per cent.

DOCG Soave also contains mainly Garganega, though up to 30 per cent can include Trebbiano di Soave. In France Trebbiano di Soave is known as Ugni Blanc, where it is used to make cognac.

An earlier column discussed ageing potential in Italy’s Marche region, where locals have advocated for the beauty of aged Verdicchio, the main white grape from the region.

Interestingly, both regions embrace the same grape. Research dating from 1929 showed that Trebbiano di Soave and Verdicchio in the Marche are the same grape.

Dr Ian D’Agata, author of the seminal book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, wrote that the only white varieties in Italy that could match Verdicchio’s versatility and potential for great wines were Veneto’s Garganega and Campania’s Fiano.

Trebbiano di Soave is different from the Trebbiano Toscano variety grown in Tuscany in northern Italy. The latter was originally allowed to be part of the blend, but experience showed that it made inferior wines and eventually the Toscano variety was banned, Kerin O’Keefe said.

“In the 1970s Soave’s reputation was tarnished because producers relied more on Trebbiano Toscano and less on Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave to increase production.”

From the early 2000s producers chose quality over quantity and focused on the blend of Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave. “By 2009 a full-blown renaissance was underway as producers sought to make quality wines that express the terroir and have ageing potential,” O’Keefe said.

The tasting proved that Soave can be wonderful when the wines are cellared well. But the same question arises in both regions. Do local providers have enough old bottles in their cellars? My research showed that it is generally not the case in the Marche, nor in Soave, apart possibly from the large co-operatives.

Soave DOC consists of about 7,000 hectares. The region has the highest viticulture density in Italy, with almost 3,000 small family-owned estates. Each has an average of about two hectares. Many small estates make fewer than 50,000 bottles a year. They run as small businesses that do not have the cash flow to keep museum stock.

The question must be asked: Who will cellar young Soave for up to a decade so that people can enjoy these majestic aged wines? The most likely candidates are restaurants and individuals.

Restaurants mark up the cost of wine on their lists, often savagely. A column from Croatia in April noted that restaurants in Dubrovnik charged up to 400 per cent on what they paid for the wine, and that was for recent vintages — from 4 Euro to more than 55.

In the UK a wine that a medium-range restaurant purchased for Euro 4 will be sold for 30-50 Euro / pounds. Why such a high mark-up? Traditionally restaurants have argued it was because they had to be responsible for cellaring and also cope with the occasional corked bottle. That was justification for high charges.

Other factors like high rents in London also come into play, plus the reality that some restaurants lose money on food and so need to make up the difference with wine.

Most wine suppliers will compensate restaurants for dud bottles, so the argument that prices have to be high to allow for faults is easily dismissed. And modern closures like screwcaps and diam corks eliminate many wine faults.

So the only justification is storage costs. Given the already high costs some restaurants impose on wine, imagine what wine will cost in London if restaurants start selling decade-old Soave, given the mark-ups they impose for recent vintages?

What then is the answer if, like me, you love old Soaves? Individuals need to cellar these fine whites. One option is to cellar half bottles, because wine in 375ml bottles tends to age more quickly than in 750ml containers. It is the consumer’s choice. My choice is to spend the 40 Euros or pounds that restaurants charge to buy a high-quality wine in a bottle shop to drink at home.

map Soave.pngThe Soave region is shown at the right of the map, with Lake Garda at left. It exports more still whites than any of Italy’s regions. The Soave region produces more than 50 million bottles a year and about four in five of those are sold abroad in more than 80 countries. Only about 16 per cent of Soave is consumed in Italy. Main export markets include the UK, the US, Japan and Germany.

If you would like to know more about the 33 Soave cru, see this link.

In his 2016 book Volcanic Wines, Canadian master sommelier John Szabo notes that the oldest civilisations of the Mediterranean developed around volcanoes. Volcanoes could be creative as well as destructive, Szabo wrote. They could be a “huge plough which nature uses to overturn the bowels of the earth”.

Volcanoes create a variety of soils. These in turn produce a range of intricate wines, which will be discussed next week.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consortio Soave, who provided flights, meals and accommodation.

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Quality whites from Laudun (5/16/2019)

For quality textural whites, consider Laudon in the Rhône. These wines represent remarkable value for money. For publication in the week of 13 May 2019.

Four in five bottles produced in the Rhône are red. But the region produces some excellent whites, which we explore this week.

Condrieu and Saint Peray in the Northern Rhône are world famous and command high prices. Soon the world will start to appreciate whites from the Laudon area in the Southern Rhône.

Andrew Jefford, the noted wine writer, believes Laudon is the best village for white wines in the Rhône region. “It is one of the most unusual villages in the Cotes du Rhône.” Indeed, he said, the most exciting current project in France was the “revelation of terroir in the Southern Rhône region”.

About 7 per cent of wine from the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC is white. Laudon makes much more as a proportion of the total. Almost one bottle in five there is white compared with the average of 6 per cent of whites from the entire Rhône Valley last year.

Laudun has applied to join the 17 existing Rhône cru – wines recognised as being the best in the Rhône. The paperwork was submitted to the national regulatory body, the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité, in 2013. The result will probably become known by 2022.

Caroline Lefièvre is the project manager for the cru application. She works for the winemakers’ professional body, the Syndicat des Vins de Laudun. She acknowledged the extended time frame and said it was typical for that kind of application.

Laudun01.jpgLaudun has to prove it is recognised by its peers, show it sells quality wine and provide lots of data about the region. It must also provide soil samples. Winemakers from other regions visit to assess the local wine.

Wine has been made in Laudun for about 2,500 years. Vines are known to have been planted around Caesar’s Camp, a large fort on a vast plateau near the village of Laudun, from the fifth century before Christ. The river was a strategic water-way so the fort’s garrison were stationed there to control it. Romans lived in the area for more than 1,000 years. Earthenware jars used to store wine from that era, called dolia, have been found in the region.

In 1599 Olivier de Serres became known as the father of French agriculture after the publication of his famous book the Theatre of Agriculture. It was the most influential work about winemaking for two centuries after its publication. In the book de Serres described Laudun wines as “among the best in France”.

Laudun is one of 21 villages that make up the group known as the Cotes du Rhône named Villages. It encompasses the villages of Tresques, Saint-Victor La Coste and Laudun. Last year Laudon produced about 563,000 bottles of white. Major export destinations include North America and the United Kingdom.

By law, all whites are a blend of at least three grapes. Grenache Blanc is the most widely planted variety – it’s about a third of the total for white grapes. Clairette, Viognier and Roussanne are also widely planted. Currently 24 wineries operate in the area. Production has boomed in recent years, with a 37 per cent increase between 2012 and 2018.

Andrew Jefford believes Laudun is “a perfect environment to grow vines”. Vineyards are planted from the floor of the valley of the River Tave up to the surrounding hills. The area has three main soil types and flavours vary depending on the soils and the grape variety grown.

Jefford describes the whites as “complex and balanced” because of the influence of stony soils, which give structure, and sandy soils which add finesse and fruit flavours. Most wines are very reasonably priced, retailing for between 6.5 and 11.5 Euro in the villages.

“South Africa is making a name for itself with complex white blends but Laudun wines are just as good for a lot less money. Given the inflated prices of white burgundy, Laudun offers an excellent option if you’re looking for grown-up wines, especially to have with food,” Jefford said.

Laudun whites have aromas of tropical fruit, white peaches and apricots. In the mouth they offer a rounded sensation with a persistent often velvety finish.

Some of the nicest wines tasted at the 10th Discover Rhône festival in Avignon included the 2017 Michel Chapoutier Joseph Viola, a zingy and expressive blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier, and the 2016 Villa Sinnae made by Laudun Chusclan Vignerons, a co-operative.

The former gets its flavours from the quality fruit and spent time only in stainless steel, while the latter received 11 months in older oak which provides delicious texture. The Sinnae has a majority of Viognier (35 per cent). Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Bourboulenc contribute their various magics.

The latter company also makes a lovely red from a 50:50 blend of Grenache and Syrah called the Dolia, an homage to the clay jugs mentioned earlier. The wine tastes of zesty sour cherries with a touch of tar and earth on the nose. Jefford noted that Laudun has lots of cherry trees and “the flavours often show up in the wines”.

Laudun02.jpgOther impressive whites included the 2016 Maestral from Domaine des Maravilhas and the 2017 Excellence by Laudun Chusclan Vignerons co-operative. The latter is a textured blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Viognier and Roussanne while the former is from a biodynamic estate.

Also lovely were the 2017 vintage from Domaine Carmelisa, another textured blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Clairette and Grenache Blanc, and the 2017 Sols & Sent (translates as “soils and aromas”) by Vignerons des Chemins, 60 per cent Grenache Blanc with the balance Viognier and Roussanne. Some are shown in the photograph.

More information about Laudun wines can be found here.

We finish with a mention of what must be one of France’s smallest regions: Clairette de Bellegarde in the Rhône. The region made about 36,000 bottles last year, all from the Clairette grape, from only 8 hectares of vines. Wines are fresh while young but develop flavours of honey and lime as they age. Some examples are shown below.

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Disclosure: Organisers of the Discover Rhône festival supplied hotel accommodation for three nights for Stephen Quinn plus two fine dinners. Quinn paid his own travel. The Syndicat des Vins de Laudun supplied six sample bottles.

Sweet wines from the Rhône (5/4/2019)

This week we continue our discussion of some of the 17 “crus” or elite regions in the beautiful Rhône Valley. For publication in the week starting 6 May 2019.

The Rhône River has served as a link between northern Europe and the Mediterranean Ocean for centuries. Roman soldiers sailed up the river from the Mediterranean in the fourth century before the birth of Jesus Christ.

This means the vineyards of the Rhône Valley are some of the oldest in the world. The wine hierarchy consists of 17 “crus” to signify the best sites and wines, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC or Lirac AOC, discussed last week.

Just below them are the 21 Côtes-du-Rhône Villages — areas with a distinct geographical name such as Chusculan or Laudun (the latter will be discussed in a later column).

All these Villages are in the Southern Rhône. They make red, white and rosé, though the bulk (96 per cent) are red. The quality is superior to generic Côtes-du-Rhône wines but said to be below the “cru”. Thus you have a pecking order, with various areas seeking to be classified into a better category. Laudun, for example, has applied to be a “cru”. About half of the 17 “crus” are in the Northern Rhône.

Pont d'Avignon.jpg

The famous Pont d’Avignon, noted in song. Floods washed part of the bridge away 300 years ago

Rasteau is a “cru” that makes sweet and dry wines. The sweet fortified wines are known as “vin doux naturel” or naturally sweet wines, and they are one of the few sweet wines in the valley.

They can be red, rosé or white, though not many of the last are made. Vines are believed to have been planted in Rasteau since 30 BC. The Rasteau AOC has been in place since 1944. Unfortified dry red wines were given AOC status effective from the 2009 vintage.

Grenache tends to be the main grape, in its black, grey and white versions, because it builds sugar content quickly. This grape gives wines aroma, structure and a generous “roundness” in the mouth.

Sweet wines used to represent a much larger proportion but are probably only about 2 per cent of the current total in Rasteau. As of the 2016 vintage, only 22 hectares were devoted to fortifieds, but they produced unique wines.

Fortified wines must reach at least 252 grams of sugar per litre in the must, which means close to 15 per cent of potential alcohol. In other words, the grapes need to be picked ripe. The wine is fortified by the addition of neutral alcohol, a process known as “mutage” (as in stopping fermentation to make the wines “mute”).

Sweet wines labelled “Hors d’âge” must be stored for five years before being sold. Wines marked “Rancio” must have been subjected to the oxidative treatment of that wine style. This is achieved by only filling the barrel half full so the wine reacts with oxygen.

A lovely example of the oxidative style is the 2017 Domaine des Coteaux des Travers “Labartalas”. This bio-dynamic estate ages Grenache Gris for 30 months in half-filled barrels. The wine has aromas of pears and pairs marvellously with local cheeses.

Domaine La Luminaille makes a delightful sweet 2017 Grenat from vines that are at least 90 years old. The “grenat” relates to the garnet colour of the wine. Both wines sell for the ridiculously low price of about 6.50 Euro, plus taxes. It is another bio-dynamic estate.

Another highlight was a 2004 Domaine Grand Nicolet Tuile. The “tuile” refers to a roof tile and indicates the colour of the wine. It tastes like a medium sherry but with profound length and flavours of dates and figs, and shows how well these wines age.

The village of Cairanne in the Southern Rhône was promoted to “cru” status as of February 2016. It is noted for its hot weather and fruity wines. Most of the wines are red, with 4 per cent whites. A feature of the region is the amount of underground water, which forces vine roots to burrow deeply to find nourishment.

Two of the most appealing whites were the 2017 Domaine Alary Clairette and the 2017 Domaine de l’Oratoire Saint Martin, a blend of 40 per cent Clairette with the balance Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne.

Exciting reds tasted included the 2016 Domaine Les Chemins de Seve – 80 per cent Grenache with the balance Syrah – and the 2016 Domaine Richaud, which was 50 per cent Grenache with the rest Mourvédre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise and Carignan. The latter is another bio-dynamic estate that ferments its reds in concrete tanks.

Wines from the Costières de Nîmes AOC south-west of Avignon have been made for more than two millennia, making it one of the oldest vineyard regions in Europe.

Veterans of Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Egypt later settled in the area about 31 BC, which explains why bottles of Costières de Nîmes bear the symbol of the Roman settlement at Nîmes – a crocodile chained to a palm tree. According to a chart in the kitchen of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, many of the towns were the main suppliers of wine to the Popes during the era known as the Avignon Papacy.

Reds account for about three in five bottles produced. It has one of the highest proportion of organic producers. A third of all exports go to China. It achieved AOC status in 1986 and was renamed Costières de Nîmes in 1989.

Vinsobres.gifVinsobres is the furthest north of the Southern Rhône “crus”. It has been a “cru” since 2006. Decanter writer Matt Walls describes wines from this area as “fresh” which he attributes to a combination of altitude, constant winds, grape varieties used and viticulture practices. Vines are grown at altitudes between 200 and 450 metres.

The Mistral blows from the north during the day and the Pontias blows from the Alps at night, ensuring plenty of breezes to keep vineyards free of insect pests as well as regulating temperatures as grapes ripen. Wines are mostly red, made from Syrah partnered with Grenache and Mourvédre.

“These are the polar opposite of ‘Parkerised’ wines,” Walls said. The term relates to cellaring reds made with ripe grapes in new oak to please the palate of a famous American wine judge, Robert Parker. Interestingly, red wines are allowed to have up to 20 per cent white grapes in the blend.

One of the most delicious reds tasted was the 2015 Chateau Montplasir Hauts Galets, whose vines were planted between 1955 and 1974. These vines were grown at up to 500 metres altitude, and the wine offers vibrant aromas of spicy red fruits.

Another delight was the harmonious 2016 Domaine Chaume-Arnaud red blend, made in concrete tanks. It received no oak and is from another bio-dynamic estate, certified since 2003. Their labels are shown in the photograph above.

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Disclosure: Organisers of the Discover Rhône festival supplied hotel accommodation for three nights for Stephen Quinn plus two fine dinners. Quinn paid his own travel.

Rhône reds with potential (4/27/2019)

The world knows Châteauneuf-du-Pape but the Rhône region has other great reds that are better value for money. For publication in the week of 29 April 2019.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the best-known wines from the Rhône region and prices have soared along with the wine’s reputation. The wines can sell for hundreds of Euros a bottle in France, and much more around the world.

But the Rhône offers some other excellent wines, as a recent trip to the 10th Discover Rhône festival showed.

The name Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates as “the Pope’s new castle” and the history of this appellation is linked with papal history. In 1305 Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, was elected Pope but refused to live in Rome.

Four years later he shifted his court to Avignon. Seven successive Popes made up what became known as the Avignon Papacy from 1309 to 1376. Benedict XII, the third of the seven, ordered the building of a palace that became known as the Palais des Papes. It is one of the largest Gothic buildings in Europe. The 10th Discover Rhône festival took place in the palace (shown below).

Palace of popes.jpgChâteauneuf-du-Pape wine became linked with the papacy even though the Popes tended to drink burgundy. But they did order the planting of vineyards around the Rhône. Prior to WW1 the bulk of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was sold to Burgundy as “vin de médecine” to boost the strength and alcohol level of burgundy.

The bulk of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine is red with about 7 per cent whites. Appellation rules do not permit rosé to be made. The wines have traditionally been stored in heavy bottles embossed with Papal symbols. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is huge: It alone produces more wine than the whole of the Northern Rhône.

Because of Châteauneuf’s reputation, land prices have risen markedly in recent years, with people reportedly paying 450,000 to 500,00 Euros a hectare.

Pont d'Avignon.jpg

The famous Pont d’Avignon, destroyed by floods in the early 17th century, but famous in song

On the other side of the Rhône River land is much cheaper at around 45,000 to 50,000 Euros a hectare. There you will find some outstanding wines such as in Lirac. In 1947 when Lirac became an AOC it was the first to produce red, rosé and white wines. Last year more than four in five bottles were red, with 10 per cent white and 5 per cent rosé.

Vines have been grown in Lirac for at least 2,000 years. The town of Roquemaure on the river became an important port for exports. Historians tell us that when Hannibal left Carthage to attack Rome with his 38 elephants and 38,000 troops in 218AD he crossed the Rhône River at Roquemaure.

The port is also said to be the place where, in 1862, the phylloxera louse that devastated much of Europe’s vineyards first arrived in vines ordered by a local merchant. But that is only one version of the origins of the disease.

Decanter journalist Matt Walls is writing a book about Rhône wines. “If Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a lion, then Lirac is a panther,” he said, noting the feline yet powerful nature of the wines. He attributed the finesse and freshness of Lirac to the large number of woodlands in the centre of the appellation that provided biodiversity, and the clever use of the Cinsault grape in blends.

Some of the best tasted at the Discover Rhône festival included the 2018 Chateau Le Devoy Martine rosé and the 2017 Chateau Boucarut rosé. A highlight was a chance to compare the 2015 Chateau Montfaucon Baron Louis red with the 2005 vintage of the same wine. The latter showed how these wines age gracefully. Think herbs of Provence and balsamic notes encased in a soft tannic structure, and intensely drinkable.

Rodolphe de Pins, owner of Chateau Montfaucon, and Lirac colleagues presented a fine dinner for visiting journalists at Numero 75 restaurant in Avignon. There we tasted several excellent wines. The 2015 Domaine d’Arbousset’s La Vigne d’Yvon, certified biodynamic from 2016, and the 2016 Domaine Coudoilis Hommage, along with the 2010 vintage of Chateau Montfaucon Baron Louis, were some of the highlights of a fine evening.

Another relevant feature of the Rhône is the age of vines, with many estates producing from vines at least 50 years old. In the Rhône “old vines” actually means a half century, rather than the 35 years in many other parts of the world.

Lirac vineyards are laid out in terraces on hillsides and in garrique scrubland. The area has a Mediterranean climate with plenty of heat in summer. But the famous Mistral which blows from the north tempers the heat and protects the vines. This powerful but icy wind also keeps vines healthy by sweeping away insects and any chance of disease such as fungus.

To the north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape we find two other exciting Rhône “crus” (these are the 17 best regions in the entire Rhône): Gigondas and Vacqueyras. They are sometimes described as “siblings” of the biggest appellation, but they produce wines that are quite different from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Gigondas.jpgAndrew Jefford, the noted Decanter columnist, points out that people typically think of the Rhône in terms of the tiny North and the much larger South. But the South needs to be differentiated, he said. “Gigondas is only 25km from Châteauneuf-du-Pape but it is completely different.” Jefford describes Gigondas as the “northerner of the South” because of its freshness. The AOC sits on a high-altitude island with moderate amounts of sunshine whose terroir gives the wines subtlety and minerality. The image shows examples of Gigondas wines with their distinct logo on the bottle.

A feature of some of the best wines tasted was the tendency to use whole-bunches of grapes with stems, and to ferment in concrete. Noted wines included the 2016 Chateau de Saint Cosme and the 2016 Domaine La Bouissiere Tradition. Almost all the wines in the Gigondas AOC are red.

Vacqueyras wines are also almost entirely red. Grenache is the main grape, allied with Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre as in Gigondas. The wines are similar to Gigondas in the sense of finesse and freshness combined with power. Historical records show wine has been made in Vacqueyras since the Middle Ages. It has about 1,460 hectares of vines and winemaking is the main economic activity in the region.

l’Affirmé01.jpgOne of the best wines tasted was the 2016 Domaine de la Ganse l’Affirmé, with its formidable red and black fruit aromas and deep sense of promise in the mouth. The image shows the symbol or logo of Vacqueyras. It means winemakers need to use special bottles, which tend to be more expensive than ordinary vessels.

Next week’s column will consider some of the other southern Rhône “crus”: Vinsobres, Rasteau and Cairanne.

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Disclosure: Organisers of the Discover Rhône festival supplied hotel accommodation for three nights for Stephen Quinn plus two fine dinners. Quinn paid his own travel.


Rhone’s focus on premium (4/20/2019)

France’s second-largest wine region continues its development plans, including an appeal to Millennials. For publication in the week starting 22 April 2019.

A previous column noted how the wine world seems to be dividing into two main groups: cheap and cheerful versus a focus on premium. In the latter case we get the neologism “premium-isation” where fewer bottles are sold but those wines attract higher prices.

The Rhône region, the second largest in France after Bordeaux, represents an example of the latter category. Over the past decade exports surged 64 per cent to be worth 507 million Euros last year. Yet the number of bottles despatched to the 205 nations that buy Rhône grew only 9 per cent in the same period.

Last year the Rhône region sold 365 million bottles. A third were exported. Another third were sold domestically to supermarkets with the rest going to a range of outlets including restaurants, online sales, direct sales to individuals and discounters.

Philippe Pellaton is vice president of Inter-Rhône, the body that represents all of the region’s winemakers apart from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation. Pellaton said Rhône wines were re-positioning themselves “in the mid to premium range segments” of the market.

“Value growth is clearly significantly higher than volume growth, the result of deliberate and very successful premium-isation.”

America remains the Rhône’s biggest overseas market. In the past decade exports increased 82 per cent, but their value doubled to be worth 107 million Euros last year. The United Kingdom is the second biggest destination in both volume and market, but uncertainties about Brexit and the resulting fall in the value of Sterling have shaken the market.

Belgium is the third largest export market, a fraction smaller than the UK. Consumers there were choosing slightly more expensive wines and drinking a little less of them, Pellaton said. Organic wines were becoming more popular, he noted. Interestingly, the proportion of organic vineyards in the Rhône has risen in recent years. Some AOCs have had almost a third of their estates certified organic or bio-dynamic.

Recent years saw the emergence of China as the fourth largest export market by volume, boosted by an increased level of awareness among consumers. Exports to Canada last year were worth more than those to China, but more bottles went to China, meaning the Chinese are buying cheaper wine than the Canadians.

Chapoutier.jpgMichel Chapoutier (shown right), president of Inter-Rhône, said the region had successfully positioned itself in a higher market segment domestically “while minimising declining volume sales” at home.

Wines sales across France have plummeted in recent generations, from 160 litres a year per person a half century ago to about 47 litres a head by 2016. Chapoutier, a Baby Boomer, said for his generation wine was “just a drink” but for younger generations wine “has become a culture”. It was vital, he said, to attract Millennials. These are the people born between 1985 and 2000. Within half a decade they will constitute the majority of working adults and bring massive spending power. An Accenture consulting report last year said that by next year Millennials will represent 30 per cent of retails sales in the United States, worth USD 1.4 trillion.

The key was to attract Millennials and focus on exports, Chapoutier said. “The future for us is exports,” he told a press conference in Avignon on April 18 at the 10th Discover Rhône festival. The event is held every two years.

Guy.jpgMillennials shop differently from Baby Boomers, noted Guy Sarton du Jonchay, co-president of Inter-Rhône’s economic committee (shown right). They want to consume less but better, and they crave “authentic products”. Their consumption habits tend to reflect their social and environmental views and they see themselves as “consumer activists,” which means they will reject products they believe behave unethically.

Rhône valley winemakers have adapted their approach to match Millennials’ expectations. In 2014 they implemented an “environmental landscape charter” to improve viticulture practices to protect the environment. At least two thirds of vineyards no longer use chemical weed-killers, with an aim to eliminate them totally apart from on steep slopes that machines cannot access.

Biodiversity is being promoted to help the environment. Winemakers are partnering with beekeeping associations to increase the number of bees. Some of the 17 crus (top end AOCs) have more woodlands than hectares devoted to vines to provide habitats for birds. Vineyards are installing “bat boxes” to attract bats. Chapoutier explained that bats ate insects at night, which made them a key player in the plan to use natural ways to kill insects.

Philippe Pellaton said Rhône wine businesses and their partners were helping to reduce environmental impacts and promoting best practices, and it was important that consumers became aware of these actions.

Guy Sarton du Jonchay said Inter-Rhône introduced global information systems technology in 2014. By March this year two thirds of all Rhône vineyards had been mapped using the technology, which provides visual descriptions of specific parts of vineyards. The aim was to map the entire region, he said.

The technology could identify land that would grow optimum grapes and determine which varieties were best suited for specific terroir. Scientists were also investigating new varieties, related to traditional Rhône grapes, with built-in disease resistance and the capacity to cope with climate change.

The Rhône has traditionally produced mostly red wine. But the past decade has seen a change to the Rhône’s profile. Sales of red have slipped from 88 to 79 per cent of the total but rosé sales have jumped from 11 to 19 per cent. White sales are low but increasing.

Philippe Pellaton said a rise in white wine production had many benefits and it was vital to tell consumers about the great whites in the Rhône. Future columns will describe the excellent textural whites from the Rhône.

Another column will consider the growth of sparkling wine in the Rhône. Vineyards around the town of Die are becoming known for the quality of their fizz. Exports were worth 5.8 million Euro last year, mostly to Belgium and Switzerland. While these exports only account for 15 per cent of sparkling sales, their reputation is growing because of the quality of the limestone-based terroir in the Rhône.

Disclosure: Organisers of the Discover Rhône festival supplied hotel accommodation for three nights for Stephen Quinn plus two fine dinners. Quinn paid his own travel.

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Revival of traditional flavours (4/12/2019)

Something different this week – food and good ideas from the hinterland of the Dalmatian region of Croatia near Split. For publication in the week of 15 April 2019.

The village of Klis in Croatia’s Dalmatian hinterland is probably best known for the imposing fortress that has defended Croatia for more than 2,000 years. It features in the Game of Thrones HBO series whose final series starts soon.

But a few kilometres away is arguably a more important location – Stella Croatica, a family-owned “agropark” dedicated to reviving traditional Croatian food and crafts. It offers a fine model for job creation in rural areas of poorer countries.

For just over a year the site has been growing herbs and selling olive oil, honey and nuts plus fruit and olive products that have a unique flavour profile. Thus this week we have a wine column with a difference: a focus on olive oil and the many products that come from this marvellous tree.

Stella Croatica is about 30km inland from Split, Croatia’s the second-largest city. The land around the property is barren, rocky and mostly scrub. Nothing much grows there apart from herbs and weeds. A terrain suited for goats and olive trees.

But those herbs are marvellous. Brush your hand against the lavender or rosemary bushes and you are enveloped in the most remarkable smells. These aromas are almost magical in the way they linger.

Croatia is one of the world’s largest producers of lavender. Of all the lavender grown in Europe the Croatian variety is regarded as having the best qualities. It grows prolifically on the rocky hills and valleys of the island of Hvar about one hour by ferry from Split, as well as in the hinterlands. Lavender is a popular souvenir for visitors.

Walk around the Dalmatian hinterland and you encounter a local form of “garrique,” that marvellous combination of wild herbs, sunshine and terroir found in the Roussillon region of southern France.

It’s worth repeating the quote that opened last week’s column: In his book Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson wrote that the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate wine and olives. Olives have been grown in the Dalmatian region since the ninth century before Christ.

Stella Croatica makes some of the best olive oil I’ve tasted. These come in a range of flavour options: oils infused with local truffles, lemon and garlic, as well as natural. Last year the company’s oil won the gold medal at the Tokyo olive oil show.

The family-owned company makes traditional handmade Dalmatian delicacies that include candied orange and lemon peel, known respectively as “arancini” and “limoncini”. Another delight is candied almonds, which pair marvellously with the local dessert wine Prošek, similar to Vin Santo in Italy.

olive03.jpgTapenades from olive oil offer another delicious snack or pre-dinner temptation. These are the result of one of the oldest ways to extract oil using a mill called a “toc” (photo at left). It is a stone wheel set vertically on another stone. Together they grind olives into a paste and the oil is left in the bowl below the stone wheel. Left-over olive fragments are combined with herbs, fish and salt to make tapenade. The olive must be the most versatile food in the world. Its wood is used as a building material and for firewood. Leaves are fed to animals. Olives are served as food, and used as medicine and spices, and the oil has been burned in lamps for lighting. And olive branches have long been associated with religious devotion and Christian ceremonies.

The olive harvest usually starts on November 2 each year, All Soul’s Day. Picking is typically done by hand using a comb-like device that separates olives from the branches. Another way to harvest involves laying sheets under trees and shaking the trunk and branches. In recent years machines have become involved.

olive01.jpgAnother traditional way to extract oil was to put the olives in a jute or woollen sack, and then crush the fruit with feet or hands. An example is shown at left.

More than 40 of the hundreds of types of olive grown around the world are autochthonous to Croatia. Dalmatia’s most common olive is called Oblica, and accounts for about 75 per cent of trees. Some islands grow olives unique to that location, so you will find unique olives on the beautiful islands that surround Split. The island of Vis was the first land the Romans occupied when they conquered the region. The long-lived emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace on Split harbour and it is one of the best-preserved UNESCO heritage sites in the world.

One way to preserve olives was to store them in large barrels filled with sea water. Most families did not have their own mill or press so several families or a village would share the one device.

All of the foods served at Stella Croatica are based on traditional recipes and local ingredients. Daily tours give visitors a chance to encounter the cultural heritage of Dalmatia. They learn about the preparation and characteristics of top-quality olive oil, taste award-winning extra virgin oils and other Dalmatian delicacies such as fig and prune cake. Croatia produces magnificent dried figs, and I ate a lot.

Owners Melita and Andrija Polic believe that business success and sustainable development are intertwined, so their business strategy is based on respect for the land. “From the very beginning our goal was to become a reliable partner to our employees, business associates, suppliers and the whole community,” they wrote on their web site.

The farm provides work for scores of women from the local villages. “We accept our responsibility and impact which enables us to be the driving force of a positive change in the local community, to improve the quality of life and raise the awareness of preserving our tradition,” Melita Polic said.

olive02.jpgThe family’s story began in 2002 on the island of Mljet, which has a long tradition of producing home-grown products. The family started collecting old recipes for local delicacies.

They followed the advice of their grandmothers, which led to the creation of Stella Croatica. “Our mission is to revive the forgotten recipes of our grandmothers and present them in a new light [to] preserve the cultural heritage of our region.” The company has always followed HACCP principles, a way of managing food safety, and the new production facility (shown above) was built according to those principles. Stella Croatica was also the first Croatian company to receive HALAL certification.

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