Wine column

Sicily’s sweet success (8/10/2018)

This is the final column from Sicily. It looks at why the industry is doing well and considers some local wine styles. For publication in week starting 13 August 2018.

Wine from Sicily is vastly better than what it was three decades ago. Back then it tended to be produced in bulk and was often sold to the mainland or other European countries to improve the depth of wines there.

Why have wines improved so much?

The better producers prune their vines severely to concentrate flavours in the grapes, and many harvest at night to avoid the torrid daytime heat during autumn. Better harvesting techniques also ensure that grapes are not oxidised before they are crushed.

More modern winemaking techniques have been introduced, including the blending of local Sicilian grapes with international varieties, and a range of experimental blends. Now we find Grillo or Insolia blended with Chardonnay or Viognier, for example.

Nero d’Avola is often now found combined with Frappato in Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines discussed last week. It used to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon but this combination makes wines that are too tannic when young.

The largest single grape-growing region in Italy lies in the far west of Sicily between Salemi and Marsala. The latter gives its name to the famous wine, which comes in dry as well as sweet styles. It is a vast region – larger than Tuscany or Piedmont. Vineyards spread as far as the eye can see. It’s a good place to witness the slow, rural Sicily of centuries past.

Sicily used to be best known for fortified dessert wines such as marsala, and provided a large part of Italy’s total production of fortifieds.

The island still makes excellent dessert wines. These come in the form of a golden or light amber dessert style known as passito. It is popular with biscotti on Saint Martin’s Day, the hard biscuits dipped into the wine.

Saint Martin of Tours was buried on November 11 and that is when he is commemorated. It is believed that Saint Martin encouraged viticulture in the Touraine region of France. He is a patron of, among others, wine cask makers and drunks. November is the winemaking season; hence the connection with drinking.

But another reason is also cited. Saint Martin’s Day traditionally marked the start of 40 days of fasting. So people ate and drank as much as possible before the fast. The term “Saint Martin’s summer” is a traditional Sicilian reference to a period of unseasonably hot weather in early to mid November.

Winemakers use a special process when making passito whereby semi-dry grapes and even raisins find their way into the must. Unlike marsala and port, where alcohol such as brandy is added, passito is not a “fortified” wine.

The best passito is said to come from the islands of Pantelleria and Lipari. The former is off the southern coast while the latter is part of a group of islands off the north-east coast, also known as the Eolian islands.

There wines are made from Malvasia di Lipari, identified by genetic testing as identical to Sardinia’s Malvasia di Sardegna, Calabria’s Greco Bianco, Croatia’s Malvasia Dubrovačka, Madeira’s Malvasia Cândida and Spain’s Malvasía de Sitges.

Ian D’Agata in his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy describes the wine as “honeyed and long, with delicate dried apricot and fresh peach aromas and flavours” with “an extremely intense note of oranges”. Once tasted this kind of wine “can be unforgettable,” he concluded.

Wines made on Pantelleria, a volcanic island, come in dry and sweet styles. The DOC Moscato di Pantelleria wine is fresh, dry and aromatic, with aromas and flavours of dried herbs, ginger and apricot. The sweet Passito di Pantelleria is sticky-sweet and lusciously creamy, with honey and orange marmalade aromas and flavours.

Prices can be high because of the difficulties associated with viticulture on the island – harsh working conditions such as hand harvesting on hot volcanic rock. Production has fallen over the past 20 years, Dr D’Agata notes in his book because about 80 per cent of the island is a national park so planting new vineyards is difficult.

The areas around Syracuse and Noto, in eastern Sicily, also produce good Moscato wines. The grape is sometimes referred to as Zibibbo, its Arabic name.

Zibibbo is also the generic term for a sweet wine made from grapes partially fermented in the sun. It is believed to be a very old process, probably from the Middle Ages. Wines are typically slightly lower in alcohol than Marsala (15 per cent compared with Marsala’s 18 to 20 per cent).

The Greeks are usually credited with the introduction of viticulture in Sicily about 600 BC, bringing grapes with them when they colonised the island. Viticulture developed in “Hellenic” eastern Sicily around Mount Etna, extending southward to Catania, Syracuse and Ragusa. But the Phoenicians also grew grapes in this part of Sicily, especially near flat coastal areas.

The grape Americans call Zinfandel is actually a Sicilian variety called Primitivo that may have been introduced by the Albanians who settled in Sicily in the sixteenth century. It was probably taken to California in the eighteenth century by Spanish colonists or later by Sicilian immigrants.

Nero d’Avola is a much more common red and has become Sicily’s most popular non-fortified variety. It is sometimes blended with other reds but when allowed to stand on its own makes a full-bodied wine.

The grape originated around the town of Avola near the east coast. Grapes are stored in cooled vats to stop premature fermentation. This helps retain distinctive aromas and flavours. It is another example of new methods that have led to the renaissance in winemaking in Sicily with which we began.

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Video by Stephen Quinn

Ambassadors for Sicilian quality (8/3/2018)

Two women with different approaches are achieving notable results in the Sicilian wine region of Cerasuolo di Vittoria. For publication in week starting 6 August 2018.

Gaetana Jacono of Valle dell’Acate winery and Arianna Occhipinti at the agricultural co-operative named after her are producing marvellous wines from local varieties. Though they use the same grapes their histories and style of wine are widely different.

A visit this week was a revelation about how much their wines have raised the standards from this area. Both are on the region’s wine route, the Strada del Vino, and they (along with COS and Gulfi) represent the must-visit estates of the 20 wineries in this part of Sicily. The other two were not available for visits this past fortnight.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria is the only Sicilian DOCG, the nation’s highest indicator of quality. The region is centred on the small town of Vittoria, about 30km over the Iblei mountains from Ragusa. Ragusa is a picturesque city often used as a film set, and probably best known as one of the locations for the Inspector Montalbano television series.

Ragusa sits at about 500m elevation, while Valle dell’Acate and Occhipinti are in valleys at between 90 and 220m. The former is based outside the tiny village of Acate, while the latter is in the Bombolieri hamlet.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria red is a blend of Frappato (up to 50 per cent permitted) and Nero d’Avola (50 to 70 percent allowed). The latter is the most planted red grape in Sicily and originated around the town of Avola, about 40km from Ragusa. Some versions are 50:50. Frappato provides the lighter notes of rose petals and red berries with Nero d’Avalo contributing darker tones of blackberries and fruit compote.

The result is a wine that smells and tastes of dark cherries (cerasa is the word for cherry in the Sicilian dialect). This DOCG is a truly delicious wine and deserves world attention. In summer’s heat it should be served chilled, the way you would serve a white.


Gaetana is the sixth generation at Valle dell’Acate. The estate’s original winery, known as a “palmento,” was rebuilt in 1917 and is the largest example of this type of building. (It is in the background of the image of Gaetana at left.) A palmento used a millstone to crush grapes. Juice was gravity fed to concrete vats for fermenting and old wooden barrels for maturing.

Arianna started with one hectare of vines in 2004. Since then Azienda Agricola Arianna Occhipinti has evolved into a respected estate, with 28 hectares of vines and another five being planted. They also produce a range of natural products: olive oil, honey, cosmetics made from wine and condiments from fruit grown on the property.

Their production scales are as different as their histories. Valle dell’Acate averages about 400,000 bottles a year, with the potential to increase to 500,000. The estate comprises 100 hectares, 70 of them planted to vines.

Occhipinti averages about 140,000 bottles a year and appears happy to stay at that level for the moment. Almost all the wines sell each year, based on allocation to a range of clients. When I visited in early August two of the estate’s four wines were sold out. Thirty per cent of Occhipinti sells nationally, with the rest going primarily to the US, Norway, Canada and Japan.

Carlo Casavecchia has been winemaker at Valle dell’Acate since 2013. He started his career in Sicily in 1984 as a fresh graduate, remaining there until 1996 before making his name in Piemonte. Gaetana said Casavecchia encouraged her to pick earlier than usual to get more elegant and fresh wines. The results are much more Burgundy than Bordeaux, despite the potential for big tannins and ripeness from the Sicilian summer.

It gets hot in summer. But a wide temperature range as grapes ripen, known as a diurnal, helps produce excellent flavours. Summer maximum temperatures reach about 32C but at night they drop to 20C.

Gaetana describes her Cerasuolo di Vittoria as a “distinguished marriage between the elegant Nero d’Avola and the fragrant Frappato”. She believes it is an excellent match with spicy dishes. Her wines embody what she calls a “modern way of drinking” with fresher, less concentrated wines that should match with food rather than dominate it. Valle dell’Acate offers cooking classes in their beautifully-renovated House of Pairings, or Casa del Gelso. It is available to groups of four to 12 guests.

In January 2013 Gaetana was chosen as brand ambassador for Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines and the Ragusa territory. She travels the world telling people about the quality and values of this territory.

Valle dell’Acate produce a delicious 100 per Il Frappato, plus two momentous wines known as Il Moro and Tane, both from Nero d’Avalo (the latter contains a touch of Syrah). A splendid new addition is the 2013 Iri da Iri, a blend of 70 per cent Nero d’Avalo with the rest Frappato. “Iri” is the local word for rainbow, so think of a rainbow within a rainbow to understand the quality of this wine. It glows with sensuous quality.

In February Valle dell’Acate released four new wines under the Bellifolli line, aimed at the “younger generation”. These are delightfully fresh and aromatic, with distinct labels based on baroque art in Ragusa. The estate became certified organic as of this year.

Occhipinti.jpgArianna Occhipinti (shown left) believes in natural wine-making. Grapes are grown organically without chemical intervention. Fermentation occurs spontaneously via only natural yeasts. Minimal sulphur is used to keep the winery clean. “I make natural wines, but more importantly I make territory wines,” she told me, “because when you choose to make wine you must choose the right place.”

Her unique SP68 White is a 40:60 blend of Anbanello and Moscato di Alessandria. The former grape, indigenous to the area, has been effectively reborn at Occhipinti. The latter is also known as Zibibbo. The wine spends 12 to 15 days on the skins. SP68 is the name of the nearby road. This is an IGT wine because Anbanello does not have a designated region, known as a DOC, but it is something special. Italian wine specialist Ian d’Agata described Arianna as “one of the up-and-coming stars” of Italian winemakers.

Flagship Occhipinti wines can be recognised by their wax seals. The 2013 Grotte Alte (translates as high caves) is the current release Cerasuolo di Vittoria and spends 32 months in large Slavonian oak vats. It is a 50:50 blend of the DOCG grapes. Arianna described it as a “Mediterranean wine that preserves the taste of the sea and the Iblei mountains”. It’s a remarkable wine that needs time to open to show its beauty.

Both estates could be the next Italian region discovered by Americans, based on recent newspaper articles. Erica Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, chose his three favourite Frappato wines in a recent column. They were made by COS, Occhipinti and Valle dell’Acate.

Meanwhile, Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture has asked wine merchants to block sales of Australian wines labelled as Nero d’Avola. The ministry claims that only wines produced from the Sicilia DOC using Nero d’Avola can have the grape’s name on labels, and says Australian wineries are deliberately misleading consumers.

Sicilian wines are becoming increasingly popular in Australia. In Sicily only red wines made using at least 85 per cent Nero d’Avola can be labelled a Sicilia DOC. More about the “debate” between Italy and Australia can be found here.

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The joys of Sicily (7/28/2018)

Summers with almost no rain and good terroir produce grapes in Sicily that have the potential to make great wines. For publication in the week starting 30 July 2018.

Most of Sicily’s wine production – four in five bottles – occurs in the provinces of Trapani, Agrigento and Palermo in the west of the island. Trapani produces about half of the total output there.

Palermo and Trapani make three DOC wines: Alcamo, Contessa Entellina and Marsala. DOC refers to a region of controlled origin, where strict rules apply to production methods, styles and yields. Marsala has traditionally been Sicily’s most famous wine and was Italy’s first DOC.

Like port and sherry, marsala is a fortified wine. It has an alcohol content of about 20 per cent and is usually made from Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia grapes. Marsala had the same reputation as sherry and madeira for more than a century. But by the 1950s it had been relegated to the kitchen as a cooking wine. Recent years have seen a renaissance. Modern Marsala is usually divided into three different styles: oro (golden), ambra (amber), and rubino (ruby).

The Greeks are usually credited with the introduction of viticulture in Sicily from about 600 BC. But the Phoenicians, traders from nations we now call Syria and Lebanon, grew grapes in coastal areas of the island before the Greeks, from about 900 BC. A major Greek wine region developed around Mount Etna in eastern Sicily, extending southwards to Catania and Siracusa.

Sicily’s only DOCG (highest status) wine is Cerasuolo di Vittoria from around Ragusa in the southeast corner of the island. This DOCG was established in 2005. Regusa is the most prosperous city of Sicily. Wines are made from Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Nero d’Avola originated between Ragusa and Siracusa but has spread everywhere, often with fluctuating results.

This hearty grape is Sicily’s most popular non-fortified varietal. Similar to Syrah in terms of profile, adaptability and flavours, it is often blended with other reds. But when allowed to stand on its own it can produce elegant wines.

One of the best wines tried this week in Ragusa was a 2016 Floramundi Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG by Donnafugata. It consists of the classic Frappato (60 per cent) and Nero d’Avola blend, and was harvested in the middle of September.

Grapes were grown in the Acate region. Soils are sandy interspersed with a substratum of calcareous tuff and clay, which give the wine structure. But it is the intense aromas and flavours of cherries that make this wine so memorable.

The name of the region appears to come from “cerasa,” the word for cherry in the Sicilian dialect. The wine offers intense aromas of raspberries, strawberries and red currants plus a touch of black pepper. Tannins are soft. It’s a marvellous partner for local salamis, cheese and grilled vegetables. Given it is summer in Sicily, and day temperatures reach 35C, this wine needs to be kept in the fridge and served chilled.

Floramundi.jpgThe Floramundi label shown left deserves mention. The intertwining of flowers and fruit evokes the dialogue between Nero d’Avola and Frappato – and also the art of Carla Fracci, the great ballet dancer. Fracci is the patroness of Donnafugata Floramundi and was the special guest when the 2016 vintage premiered last year. Labels on Donnafugata wines are the work of the artist Stefano Vitale.

Wines produced from the Etna region north of Ragusa are very attractive. The region’s volcanic soils and winds from the Ionian Sea give the wines unique character and vitality. Locals make red and rosé from Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese, and whites from Carricante, Catarratto, Inzolia and Grecanico.

The area of Messina in the north-east tip of Sicily has three DOC wines: Mamertino, Faro and the famous Malvasia delle Lipari. Lipari is the largest of eight islands in the Aeolian archipelago off Sicily’s north tip and gives its name to a golden-yellow wine known as Malvasia delle Lipari.

Italy’s once-glorious group of sweet Malvasia wines have faded in popularity because of changes in consumer tastes. People now seem to desire dry and serious red and whites. Malvasia delle Lipari wines vary in the amount of residual sugar (sweetness). The lighter and drier wines are intended to be drunk with main courses, or perhaps as an aperitif.

Those marked “dolce natural” – similar to vin doux naturel – are sweeter and best paired with desserts. Even sweeter than these, and fortified with grape spirit, is Malvasia delle Lipari Liquoroso. It can contain 20 per cent alcohol and is aged for six months or more in barrel. Pair it with the local dessert, cannoli – deep-fried pastry tubes with a creamy filling, typically sweetened ricotta cheese and pistachio nuts.

Zibibbo is said to be Sicily’s oldest grape, imported by the Phoenicians on the island of Pantelleria, south of Sicily’s mainland. It is a variety of Muscat of Alexandria and makes pure sweet wines. These were popular years ago compared with the trend for dry crispness now. Other historians say the Saracen Arabs introduced Zibibbo to Sicily during the ninth century, though this is disputed because Muslim laws reject alcohol.

Grape growing on Pantelleria became a World Heritage site in November 2014, the first time an agricultural technique has been included in UNESCO’s heritage list. It is one of the most beautiful islands in the region.

Zibibbo can make anything from table wine to grappa. But Zibibbo made in a style similar to Marsala is different. It is produced from grapes partially fermented in the sun and then distilled naturally, without the addition of spirits.

It is typically slightly lower in alcohol than Marsala (at about 15 per cent compared with Marsala’s 20 per cent). The Zibibbo grape is similar to Moscato, and the wine known as Moscato di Pantelleria Naturale is made mostly from Zibibbo grapes.

Other notable Sicilian grapes including Carricante, Catarratto, Grillo, Perricone and Inzolia will be discussed in future columns.

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Innovation and wine sales (7/20/2018)

Wine consumption in Europe is falling, and wine companies need to find innovative ways to market their wine. For publication in the week starting 23 July 2018.

Global wine production last year dropped to its lowest level in 60 years, according to figures from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). The OIV said wine production was 250 million hectolitres (mhl). Of that 243 mhl of that was consumed.

The previous lowest production level was in 1957, when volume was 173.8 mhl, the OIV said. Consumption in European countries that historically embrace wine – France, Italy and Spain – continued to decline.

Given that wine is mostly a luxury product, this week’s column proposes innovative and creative ways to market wine. It offers a synthesis of interesting and worthwhile ideas this columnist has encountered over the past few years.

Many traditional marketing methods are safe, but boring. This column offers new ideas and possibilities, though it should be noted these are random thoughts and are not presented in any order of priority or importance.

Many benefits occur from having your wine or wine region associated with something or somebody in what I call the “fame” business. Probably the best-known examples in recent years are the impact of the movie Sideways on pinot noir sales in California, or the influence the film Judgement of Paris had in making people aware of wines from that state.

Another aspect of fame is getting endorsements from well-known individuals. This does not need to be through advertising, such as the way George Clooney promotes a certain kind of coffee capsule. It can simply be the way that wines can be associated with certain famous individuals. Rosé in Provence has benefitted from movie actors who have bought estates in the region and this style of wine has flourished through association.

The wines of Gerard Bertrand Wines in the Languedoc region of southern France have certainly been helped by the fact that Bertrand is a former captain of the French rugby team.

It would be safe to say that the wine business has been slow in embracing the power of digital technologies. These include e-commerce, social media and mobile phones. In China, the e-commerce site regularly sells an average of 125,000 bottles a day, and upwards of 500,000 bottles a day in the lead-up to holidays like Chinese New Year. They know how to use the power of e-commerce.

Elsewhere in China, one in four of all bottles of wine sold in the country go through Tmall, part of the huge Alibaba Group. In China 500 million people buy online, and 61 per cent of those sales are via the mobile phone.

In Australia, Treasury Wine Estates has used augmented reality (AR) to market the 19 Crimes label. The project is believed to be a world first in the application of AR for wine marketing. After downloading the app people point their mobile’s camera at the label. The face of a convict on the label comes to life and tells a story.

The Better Retailing site reported late last year that the brand had grown 60 per cent in volume sales and 70 per cent in value in the previous year. More than one million cases were sold last year in the United States, after the app launched there six months earlier.

Wine marketers especially need to think also about the power of the mobile phone.

Technology can be used to generate creative ways to use traditional media such as magazines to market wine. In France some companies are exploring links with new technologies like “sniff” tags on bottles that allow consumers to smell the contents inside.

It is a truism in advertising that sex sells. But we also need to appreciate the influence of authority figures in certain cultures. Using sex requires us to be discreet and subtle. With authority figures it is vital to design things like labels for the appropriate audience.

In China, a company in Ningbo experimented with selling the same wine in the same shop with two different labels. One wine sold five times as many as the other. Why? Because it had an “authority figure” on the label – in this case it was the head of a Pope on an Italian red.

Another factor to consider is the audience to whom you are selling. Some consumers want to be associated with wines that have a reputation for helping the planet. Numerous research studies show that the Millennial generation – those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s – will buy products they believe help humanity.

If this is the case with your estate, think about things like corporate social responsibility. Lots of examples can be found in South Africa where vineyards are leading the world in sustainability. Backsberg Estate was the first carbon-neutral vineyard in South Africa. Carbon neutral means the total amount of carbon dioxide or carbon compounds the estate releases into the atmosphere is either reduced to zero or balanced by actions to reduce those emissions.

Owner Michael Back instigated the carbon neutral project in 2006. He received recognition for sustainable winemaking at the annual Green Awards organised by the drinks business magazine in 2015, which greatly enhanced the estate’s reputation.

The Simonsig Estate, in the Stellenbosch winelands about 45km east of Cape Town, has embraced a unique form of corporate responsibility, though it does not publicise this action. Simonsig has built a crèche and school on the estate for farm workers’ children, as well as providing houses for 260 staff.

In South Africa two thirds of vineyard workers are seasonal, and permanent accommodation is rare. About two thirds of the Simonsig workforce live permanently on the farm, and Simonsig employs five teachers at the crèche and school.

Another way to entice people to buy your wine is via creative ways to generate a sense of uniqueness and desire. Perhaps partner with Italian painter Elisabetta Rogai who paints with wine instead of conventional colours and has made a range of Tuscan wines world famous.

The key question to ask is how to make your wine unique, or what is unique about your wine. What is its unique selling point? An example would be the way the world’s most northerly vineyard, Lerkekåsa Vineyard near Gvarv in Norway, has become successful through a combination of innovation, a unique site and good wines. It attracts visitors to sleep in the large barrels in its vineyard. They had a waiting list of more than a year when I visited in 2016.

We live in an increasingly visual world, and wine companies need to explore the power of images and video. Imagine the power of a video showing the beauty of your vineyard from the skies, using drone footage. Get your message to the world on your web site via video interviews instead of text. Promote your labels with powerful images.

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Italy’s best aromatic whites (7/14/2018)

Cantina Tramin is one of Italy’s finest producers of aromatic white wines for which it has won a host of awards. For publication in the week starting 16 July 2018.

Many critics say Cantina Tramin makes the best Gewürztraminer in Italy. Its focus on aromatic white wines has seen it win hundreds of awards around the world.

In his monumental book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, wine expert Dr Ian D’Agata noted that centuries ago the non-aromatic Traminer grape mutated into the spicy variant called Gewürztraminer, which is mostly associated with Alsace in France.

Traminer originated around the town of Tramin in Alto Adige in northern Italy, where Cantina Tramin is located. The suffix “er” is how the German language creates the possessive form. Alto Adige was part of Austria for more than 1,000 years before the end of World War One. The town of Tramin is also known as Termeno because Italian and German are both spoken in the region.

Traminer is one of the world’s oldest grape varieties and is believed to be the parent of many important varieties including Pinot Noir and Riesling.

The German prefix “Gewürz” means spicy or aromatic, though in the context of grapes it also means “exuding intense aromas”. Dr D’Agata confirmed the grape’s origins: “A lot of Gewürztraminer is grown in Alto Adige [but] it is neither native nor traditional to Italy.” Alto Adige only became part of Italy in 1917, after World War One.

Gewürztraminer grows best in cool climates with a long ripening period. It rarely produces good wines in hot climates. If grapes are harvested early to preserve acidity the wine often lacks the tropical fruit characteristics which are attractive in a great Gewürztraminer.

When grown in the best location, such as around the town of Tramin, the wines combine floral and spicy aromas with a firm backbone of acidity which makes them extremely elegant.

D’Agata wrote In the January 2015 edition of Decanter magazine that the only Gewürztraminers that match Alsace for quality come from the Alto Adige “and out of these, Nussbaumer is the best”. Nussbaumer is Cantina Tramin’s best-known Gewürztraminer and the only wine to receive the highest rating in every leading Italian wine guide.

Over the past 15 years Cantina Tramin has focused on quality by improving cultivation and through advanced winemaking techniques. Winemaker and technical director Willi Stürz has been the driving force behind this development.

Bibenda, Italy’s association of sommeliers, gave Stürz the title of best winemaker in the country in 2003. The next year Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most prestigious wine guide, named Stürz Italian winemaker of the year. He has done 27 vintages at Cantina Tramin.

Ext Cantina Tramin

Photo by Stephen Quinn

The company has a distinctive winery (shown at left), designed by architect Werner Tscholl. It is on the edge of the village on the western side of the Adige Valley and a major landmark. The building opened in 2010 and blends harmoniously with the surrounding countryside. Cantina Tramin was founded as a co-operative in 1898. The company represents about 300 growers or 180 families and includes 260 hectares of vines. In other words, the average ownership is slightly more than one hectare per family.

The co-operative prides itself on its flexibility. Wolfgang Klotz, director of marketing and sales, said the arrangement combines the advantages of small plots cultivated directly by owners with the chance to exploit economies of scale associated with being a co-operative. This enables Tramin Cellars to offer fine wines at reasonable prices. “Each grower is encouraged by being financially rewarded according to the quality of the grapes supplied.

“The relationship between grower and land is intimate. Vines have often been planted by their grandfathers,” Klotz said. Small plots mean that grapes can be picked within a couple of hours, ensuring flavours and acidity are retained.

Willi Sturz.jpg

Photo by Stephen Quinn

Winemaker Willi Stürz (shown left), born in the village of Tramin, said he aimed to preserve primary aromas in the grapes. They are delivered to the press via conveyor belts to reduce stress. “In all phases of the fermentation process we avoid the loss of aromas through gravity feeds and by controlling the fermentation temperature to prevent evaporation of aromas.” Stürz said in summer the hot weather was tempered by a cooling breeze from Lake Garda called “Ora”. The area also has a diurnal range of 20 degrees Celsius. Vines are thus able to rest during the night which prolongs the ripening period in what in California is called “hang time”. During a long “hang time” grapes continue to ripen on the vines well into the autumn and are sometimes not picked until mid October.

A long, gradual ripening season is a pre-requisite for the production of aromatic and concentrated white wines whose body is underpinned by mouth-watering acidity. To date Cantina Tramin Gewürztraminers have received 26 top awards from the Gambero Rosso wine guide – more than any other Italian winery.

Gewürztraminer wines are full-bodied yet delicately spicy with vibrant acidity. They partner beautifully with savoury dishes, or Thai and Asian cuisine, and especially with mild creamy Indian dishes and seafood, particularly lobster and crayfish. In 2007 Gambero Rosso named the Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer as one of the 50 wines that have led Italy’s wine renaissance.

Dessert wines made from Gewürztraminer grapes are a revelation. Wines from botrytis-affected grapes such as the Terminium have been declared the best Italian sweet wine several times since 1997. In 2002 the prestigious wine magazine Civiltà del Bere included Cantina Tramin among the seven best wine producers in Italy. A decade later Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave Terminum 96 points out of a 100.

That same year Terminum received the Grand Gold at Mundus Vini – an award that selected the best 37 wines in the world from more than 6,000 wines from 45 nations. World champion sommelier Luca Gardini chose Terminum for his list of the world’s best 100 wines.

In 2013 Gewürztraminer Nussbaumer 2012 was awarded the title of Italy’s best white wine, and a year later Stoan 2013 was named Italy’s best white. In 2006 the Guida migliori vini d’Italia declared Cantina Tramin Italy’s top producer of the year. Weinwirtschaft magazine in Germany selected Cantina Tramin as the “best Italian wine co-operative” In 2011, 2012 and last year.

Cantina Tramin makes about 1.8 million bottles a year and produces two ranges of wines. These will be discussed next week. Annual sales last year were worth about 14 million Euros.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Studio Cru, who provided meals and accommodation.

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A gem awaiting discovery (7/8/2018)

Most Franciacorta is consumed domestically in Italy but this wine style offers value for money compared with champagne. For publication in week starting 9 July 2018.

In recent years the world has gone wild for Prosecco, the sparkling wine made in the region of northern Italy with the same name. But Italy produces another, many say vastly better, sparkling wine. It comes from the Franciacorta region of Lombardy in the country’s central north.

Franciacorta refers both to the region and the name of the wine. It is made the same way as champagne. In France this process is known as “methode champenoise” or the “traditional method”. In Lombardy locals prefer to call their style the “Franciacorta method”.

In both case the wine gets its bubbles via secondary fermentation in the bottle. During fermentation the CO2 created when yeast eats sugar to produce alcohol is absorbed in the wine instead of escaping as it does for still wine. This creates the fine “bead” people associate with quality sparkling made in the traditional method. Both of these styles are usually drier than Prosecco with a less fruity but more yeasty character.

Depending on the style, Franciacorta spends a minimum number of months ageing on the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation – known as “sur lees”. This ageing makes a wine more complex and gives it unique flavours that in a quality wine verge on the sublime.

Prosecco is made with the Glera grape, a white variety that has been grown in the Veneto and Friuli regions for hundreds of years. It has high acidity, which makes it good for bubbly, but the resulting wines can be one dimensional.

Franciacorta is made from the same combination of grapes grown in the Champagne region: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc.

The major difference between franciacorta and champagne is the fact the Franciacorta region is warmer than Champagne. Franciacorta grapes tend to be riper, producing a wine with less acidity and minerality than Champagne, but restrained elegance and elegant flavours. The time spent on lees is about the same.

Non-vintage franciacorta cannot be released until at least 25 months after harvest, and wines must spend 18 months in contact with the lees. Vintage franciacorta must spend 30 months on lees, but in practice it is often three years or more.

Just as the Champagne region produces blanc de blancs – wine made with 100 per cent Chardonnay – so Franciacorta offers a similar delight, known as “saten”. The name refers to the idea of silk, and the aim is to create a wine that is soft and creamy. A “saten” must contain a minimum of 50 per cent Chardonnay but it is often 100 per cent.

This “saten” style of franciacorta represents about a fifth of all bottles produced.

A Millesimato is the product of a single vintage. It must be aged for a minimum of 30 months on its lees and cannot be released until at least 37 months after harvest. A Riserva represents the pinnacle of the pyramid. It must spend at least 60 months ageing on its lees.

About 85 per cent of the vines in Franciacorta are planted to Chardonnay, with 10-12 per cent Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir in France) and the balance Pinot Blanco. Since last year a fourth grape will be permitted in the blend: Erbamat. This it is a late ripening white grape that makes quite neutral, high-acid wines. Up to 10 per cent of Erbamat is permitted in the blend.

Franciacorta’s growing zone, shaped like an amphitheatre, was created by retreating glaciers that left behind mineral-rich soils of morainic origin. The rolling hills benefit from a warm meso-climate, tempered by cooling breezes that flow from the foothills of the Rhaetian Alps in the northeast.

When the region was granted DOC status in 1967 there were 11 producers and about 100 hectares of vines. From 1996 to 2006 sales of Franciacorta grew from 2.9 million to 6.7 million bottles. Increased planting in recent years means the number of hectares had grown to almost 3,000 by early this year, with annual production averaging about 17.5 million bottles. Output in 2017 was down about 40 per cent because frost damaged vines. Frost is the most common problem in Franciacorta compared with hail in Champagne.

The region’s maximum potential production would be about 25 million bottles, small compared with an average of 300 million a year in Champagne. To put Franciacorta into perspective, that 25 million bottles is about what the Moet & Chandon house alone produces each year.

Franciacorta became a DOCG in 1995, the first sparkling wine region in Italy to get that status of guaranteed quality. The Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta was formed in 1990. It represents almost all producers and is responsible for setting codes of practice and promoting self-regulation. One of these related to a gradual reduction in yields and choice of grapes (yields per hectare in Franciacorta are less than half those in Champagne). The consorzio oversaw the replacement of Pinot Grigio with the current trio of grapes. By late last year the number of growers had risen to 190, and almost all of them make wine.

Franciacorta is popular in Italy. Four in five bottles are sold domestically. Of the balance, Japan takes 60 per cent of all exports because the Japanese believe Franciacorta pairs superbly with foods like sushi. Other markets include Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United States, the United Kingdom and China.

Tom HarrowTom Harrow (left) of Honest Grapes, a London-based wine company, is UK brand ambassador for Franciacorta. He said about 70 per cent of the region was organic as of this year, and the consorzio intended to get to 100 per cent by 2022. It currently has the highest percentage of organic producers in the country.

Harrow noted that in Franciacorta producers interpreted the concept of ageing widely, so labels that said three years of lees ageing might actually have had a lot longer. “If it says 36 months on lees, it usually means at least [three years].”

A tasting in London of a range of franciacorta last week was a revelation. Vintage wines from 2010 to 2013 represent excellent value compared with vintage champagne. It seems franciacorta is a sparkling wine gem waiting to be discovered by the world.

Words: 1,000

UK’s first Pinotage vineyard (6/30/2018)

The first commercial Pinotage vineyard has been planted in the UK to see how that grape performs in local conditions. For publication in week starting 2 July 2018.

New data released last month for English Wine Week show that the United Kingdom has 502 commercial vineyards and 147 wineries. The vast majority are in southern England – 152 in the south-east and 136 in the south-west. Scotland has four and Wales 23, with another 19 in northern England. The rest are scattered in various parts of the country.

Last year another one million vines were planted in the UK, the highest number for a single year, though industry analysts suggest another 1.5 million could be planted by the end of this year.

As of late last year the UK had about 2,550 hectares of vines, which means the total has tripled since 2000. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay represent almost two thirds of all vines in the country. Seven in 10 bottles made are sparkling.

Peter Richards MW and his wife Susie Barrie MW wrote the Essential Guide to English Wine to coincide with English Wine Week. It has been published by the International Wine & Food Society.

Meanwhile, the first commercial Pinotage vineyard in the UK has been planted at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens vineyard at Horsham in southern England. It is an experimental plot of half a hectare to evaluate how this grape will cope with English conditions.

Pinotage was created in 1925 in South Africa when Professor Abraham Izak Perold crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsaut, also known as Hermitage. The new grape’s name is a neologism from Pinot and Hermitage.

Pinot Noir has often struggled in South Africa because it has been planted in the wrong locations, though Cinsaut has always grown well. The aim of the new grape was to combine the flavours of Pinot Noir with the easy-to-grow characteristics of Cinsaut.

Johann Fourie has been appointed the winemaker at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens. He has been cellarmaster at the Benguela Cove estate in South Africa since 2016. At the UK vineyards he is working with viticulturist Duncan McNeill to plan the wineries and manage winemaking. Fourie was named best oenologist in South Africa in 2015 when he received the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year award.

Fourie said Pinotage ripens early, attains high sugar levels, offers moderate growth, has a short growing season, resists rot and is well suited to cooler climates – all of which are relevant for the UK. It buds slightly later than Chardonnay, another early ripener.

Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens covers about 81 hectares. A second site, five km away at Manning’s Heath, was planted in 2017 to create the UK’s first golf and wine estate. The two estates have a combined 16 hectares of vines planted to the traditional Champagne grapes of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

About 60 per cent of plantings are Chardonnay, with 30 per cent Pinot Noir and the rest Pinot Meunier. The first crop is due in 2020 with the initial release of wine in 2023. Total production is projected at about 75,000 bottles of sparkling wine a year.

The Horsham site features a Grade 1-listed woodland garden first planted in 1801. The gardens will open to the public in January next year. Renovations began in July 2017 after the current owner, Penny Streeter OBE, purchased the site. Streeter is a British entrepreneur based in Cape Town in South Africa.

The garden restoration project has been described as the largest of its kind since the restoration of the gardens of Heligan in Pentewan, St. Austell, in Cornwall during the 1990s. Heligan consisted of about 400 hectares of magnificent gardens at the start of the last century, but fell into neglect when the staff went to fight in the trenches during World War One. Most never returned, and the gardens became overgrown.

No maintenance was carried out for eight years at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens, and it required a team of up to 20 gardeners working since the summer of 2017 to restore the site. They cleared almost 16 km of pathways along the steep valleys.

The new vineyards are part of a new South African-style wine farm experience. Penny Streeter said the aim was to create a “special visitor experience”. “People can enjoy beautiful English parkland and woodlands, now with wine tastings and pairings, good food and an entertaining events programme. Brits who have travelled to South African wine farms can enjoy the same friendly and relaxed wine culture just an hour by train from London, in exquisite countryside – and maybe a round of golf.”

Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens and Mannings Heath Golf & Wine Estate are divisions of The Benguela Collection, a wine producer and hospitality group that Penny Streeter started in 2013 after her company acquired the Benguela Cove wine estate on South Africa’s southern coast. The group now includes four restaurants and a hotel on the Garden Route, the main wine tourism drive in the country.

Johann Fourie said Pinotage should work well in UK conditions if managed properly. It was important that the grape be picked early before cold and disease pressures set in. “Being thick-skinned makes the grapes resistant to rot, which is a key factor. Unlike many Bordeaux grape varietals, Pinotage doesn’t have any unpleasant ‘green’ flavours when not picked fully ripe,” he said.

“In fact, more winemakers are moving towards picking Pinotage earlier and making a more finessed Pinot-like style of red wine from the grape.” Because Pinotage ripens early it accumulated sugar quickly, he said.

Pinotage can be used to make a good base for sparkling wine. So if all else failed, Fourie said, “we’ll end up with a unique English sparkling that’s got a South African twist to it”.

As of late last year South Africa had about 7,000 hectares planted to Pinotage. The first single variety Pinotage wine was made in 1941. Wine critic Tim Atkin named a Pinotage as his South African red wine of the year last year.

Pinotage is grown in 10 countries: Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, five states in the United States, Zimbabwe, Germany, Switzerland and South Africa. It will be fascinating to see how it performs in the UK.

Words: 999

Burgundy’s guarantee of quality (6/23/2018)

Tastevinage aims to provide consumers around the world with a guarantee of quality for Burgundian wines. For publication in the week starting 25 June 2018.

Burgundy is one of the most beautiful but complicated wine regions in the world, the result of history and a range of other factors. The region’s most prestigious wines attract some of the highest prices in the world but it can take years to understand the wines.

The Tastevinage process, introduced in 1950, consists of a test of wines from every part of Burgundy designed to select those that match the high standards associated with their appellation and vintage. Selected wines are awarded the recognition and seal of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, which translates as the Brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin. Despite the name, women are permitted and the current chair of judges is Jeannie Cho Lee MW.

The award allows consumers to identify wines that because of their “integrity, personality and quality” are worthy of distinction, Tastevinage’s web site says.

Tastevinage offers many benefits. It is a way to help consumers understand a complicated region, a chance to recognise quality, and also more recently a way to guarantee provenance or authenticity.

The Confrérie organises two Tastevinage tastings each year, in spring and autumn, in the huge Cistercian cellar at the Château du Clos de Vougeot. September last year marked the 100th time the tastings have been held.

About 250 judges are chosen each time from connoisseurs and others with recognised palates. They are winegrowers, wine merchants, leaders of viticultural associations, brokers, winemakers, restaurateurs, government officials and knowledgeable wine lovers. Confrérie officials and journalists are also present as “disinterested observers”.

At each table a score of wines, presented with no details of the grower or négociant, are subjected to rigorous examination for two hours. The questions judges ask are precise: “Does the wine conform to its appellation and vintage? Is it typical and will it improve with age? Is it a wine I would be happy to have in my cellar and proud to serve to my friends?”

During the first Tastevinage on 28 June 1950, 133 wines were offered for judging. In recent years close to 2,000 wines are tasted, an indication of the recognition of the importance of the award.

Judges give each wine a score out of 20. The final selection is determined by the average grade of each wine. Only those that receive 13 or more can be declared Tastevinage.

In tandem with the wine-tasting, wines are sent for analysis to a laboratory. Analysis is based on eight criteria that provide data for an “identity card” for each wine.

Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin staff regularly select Burgundy from wine shops and the wine departments of large supermarkets to subject them to the same kind of analysis that Tastevinage wines endure. This double guarantee of authenticity means consumers can be confident when choosing a Tastevinage wine.

TastevinageHow do we recognise a wine given a Tastevinage award? A sticker is placed on the bottle (see left for an example of the image involved). The sticker includes a bottle serial number and wine reference, plus details of appellation and vintage and a unique reference number. More than 200 million bottles have been recognised by the Tastevinage sticker since the project’s creation. Producers are also allowed to use a special label. Images of the sticker and label can be seen here.

In recent years an ultra-violet mark has been added to labels to safeguard against counterfeit. Ultra-violet ink is invisible to the naked eye but turns blue under ultraviolet light. It can be used to detect, identify and return stolen property.

On average about two in five bottles are given a Tastevinage label or sticker each year. Of the 557 wines (315 white or sparkling and 242 red) judged at the most recent tasting, in March this year, only 181 received the Tastevinage seal of approval — about a third of all wines presented.

Judges now also convey the title of “major” to wines they believe to be outstanding. This award started with the 100th event last September. At the March tasting only 17 wines received the award.

Perhaps a reason for the ultra-violet markings is the fact that China has embraced Burgundy as well as Bordeaux in recent years. Given the high prices paid for wines from both regions, the temptation to make fakes must be high. The wine world desires authenticity and producers are looking at a range of ways to provide it.

Jeannie Cho Lee MW believes Asia’s love affair with Burgundy began in Japan from the 1990s when wine lovers and restaurants embraced Burgundy. “In Singapore, a small group of fine wine collectors have always been Burgundy fans. But in Hong Kong and many cities in China like Shanghai and Beijing, the shift to Burgundy is recent,” she wrote in Forbes magazine last year.

It should be noted that Burgundy will never displace Bordeaux because in volume terms production in the former is small relative to Bordeaux. Burgundy has about 28,500 hectares of vines versus 120,000 hectares for Bordeaux. The best Burgundy remains the most sought-after French wine in the world and this fact – combined with small production volumes in the past few years – has driven prices up.

Recent vintages in Burgundy have been poor. The harvests from 2012 to 2014 were less than perfect. Some great wines were made, but yields were down. Thank goodness 2015 was a superb vintage.

Guy Seddon is a Burgundy specialist with the fine wines team at Corney & Barrow in London. This company, founded in 1780, is one of the oldest independent wine merchants in the UK. Seddon was generally positive about the 2015 vintage but noted that the 2016 vintage would be more expensive because of the low yields compared with the previous two years.

Judges at recent Tastevinage events have used a special glass specially adapted for tasting Burgundy. It was designed by the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin and has an oblique rim said to be inspired by Burgundy’s slopes. The lower side means aromas are more able to be appreciated, while the higher side displays the wine’s colours more elegantly.

The author was privileged to attend a press tasting of the 17 “majors” from the March event in Verona, Italy, earlier this year. The wines were superb.

Words: 1,021

Croatian quality discovered (6/17/2018)

The wines of Croatia offer consumers a chance to appreciate something unusual and high quality. For publication in the week starting 18 June 2018.

Wine is believed to have been produced on Croatia’s southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Hvar and Korčula about 4,000 years ago. We know that viticulture can be dated to the Illyrians, followed by Greek settlers, from the 5th century BC.

About 18 centuries ago a Greek writer known as Athenaeus reported on the quality wine produced on the Dalmatian islands. Coins from the period have motifs related to grape cultivation, demonstrating the importance of wine to the economies of Greek colonies.

Croatia also has the world’s oldest vineyard. The Stari Grad Plain site on the island of Hvar has been growing grapes for 24 consecutive centuries and became part of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008.

About 130 traditional grape varieties can be found in Croatia, though locals focus on about 40. Grape varieties have evolved to become beautifully suited to their terroir. In recent years European Union standards have been adopted, guaranteeing the quality of the wine (more on that later).

Croatia has long had a wine culture, with high levels of per capita consumption. Dr Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan recently published a fine new book, Cracking Croatian Wine: A visitor-friendly guide. It quotes a 2015 study that ranked Croatia third in the world, with annual consumption that year of 59 bottles a head. It should be noted that global comparison is difficult because of varying data-collection methods.

The Statistical Yearbook of the Republic of Croatia 2017, the most recent published, showed that Croatia produced 7.6 million litres of wine in 2016 (about 9.8 million bottles). This was way down from the peak production year of 2010 (14.3 million litres). This reduction is a result of a focus on quality rather than bulk.

Wine is a popular drink, especially with meals. It is often diluted with still or sparkling water: gemišt is a combination of white wine and carbonated water and bevanda a blend of red wine and still water. About seven in 10 bottles produced in the country are white with the rest red. Sparkling and rosé are relatively rare.

After the devastation caused by phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, Croatian vineyards were replanted by grafting the traditional varieties onto American root stock. A small number of pre-phylloxera vines survive on the islands of Korčula and Susak.

Croatia was part of former Yugoslavia until 1991. Under the Communist system, wine production was based in large cooperatives. Private ownership of vineyards was discouraged and quantity rather than quality the main focus.

Many vineyards and wineries were destroyed during the four-year Croatian War of Independence. After the war ended in 1995 the wine industry expanded, with a focus on small, independent producers.

Last year 18.5 million tourists visited the country. More than a million of those were involved with nudism, for which Croatia is world-famous.

Croatia has two distinct wine-producing regions: Continental (Kontinentalna) and Coastal (Primorska), which includes the islands. Each of these regions is divided into sub-regions, which are themselves divided into smaller “vinogorje” (literally “wine hills” but actually grape-growing areas). Croatia has about 300 geographically-defined wine-producing areas.

The Continental region is in the north-east of the country. As the name implies, it has a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. The region mostly makes white wines similar in style to those in neighbouring nations of Slovenia, Hungary and Austria. On the north coast, Istrian wines are similar to those produced in neighbouring Italy.

The coastal wine region runs from Istria in the north to Dalmatia in the south. It has a Mediterranean climate with long, hot and dry summers and mild, short, wet winters – well suited to wine production. Istria and the north coast focus on fruity, dry white wines from a wide range of varieties, of which Malvazija Istarska is the main grape. It also makes dry reds, many from the Teran grape.

Further south in Dalmatia the islands and hillsides focus more on Mediterranean-style reds. The region has a wide variety of meso-climates with some harsh regions, resulting in a wide range of terroirs. Many indigenous grapes are grown here. The best known is Plavac Mali, an offspring of Zinfandel and Dobričić, which grows mostly along the Dalmation coast.

Wine labels can be confusing to visitors because Croatian names are often a collection of consonants, and many of the grape varieties are similarly unfamiliar. Horkey and Tan suggest the white grapes with the most potential include Grasevina, Grk and Posip along with Malvazija Istarska and Malvasija Dubrovacka (neither is related to the Italy’s Malvasia, and note the different spellings).

Croatian labels

Examples of Croatian wine labels

Plavac Mali is the flagship red of Dalmatia while Teran is the main red in Istria. Teran is known as Refosco in Italy. Other interesting reds include Babic, Darnekusa and Lasina, the last often called the Pinot Noir of Dalmatia. Croatia’s Tribidrag (or Crljenak Kaštelanski) is the same as Zinfandel, widely grown in California.

Some labels display an indication of the wine’s quality, similar to Italy’s IGT and DOC or France’s AOC system. Croatia’s rankings are Vrhunsko for the best quality wine, Kvalitetno for quality wine and Stolno for table wine. Crno vino is red wine and bijelo vino is white. Suho refers to dry wine and polusuho for semi-dry wine.

Croatian wines won seven gold and platinum medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards last year. This year the number rose to 10. Be one of the first to re-discover this new country.

Odd-spot: The city of Dubrovnik was the location for filming the fictional city of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, who produced the winning wine at the Judgement of Paris in 1976 (made famous by the movie Bottleshock), was born in Croatia. He has been making wine there since 1996.

Disclosure: Three sample bottles were provided by Dario Drmac, founder of the Wine and More web site that specialises in Croatian wine. My friend Quentin Sadler supplied two more which were consumed at my home. Charine Tan gave me a copy of Cracking Croatian Wine: A visitor-friendly guide, which she co-wrote with Dr Matthew Horkey.

Words: 1,001

Homage to Pecorino’s saviour (6/10/2018)

This is the third and final column from the Marche region of Italy, home of some of Italy’s finest aged white wines. For publication in week starting 11 June 2018.

Guido Cocci Grifoni founded Tenuta Cocci Grifoni and planted grapes from the early 1980s. The estate is in the most southern part of the Marche, with 50 hectares of vines on a property of 95 hectares.

This is the only DOCG Pecorino area in Italy. Guido Cocci Grifoni is credited with rediscovering the Pecorino grape in the 1980s after it was believed to be extinct. The estate has been producing Pecorino since 1989 from the original Vigneto Madre, or “mother vineyard”.

This vineyard produces grapes with thick skins suitable for making long-lasting and structured wines. They are made in steel tanks, aged in the bottle, and offer strong floral aromas, high acidity and a noticeable minerality. Tenuta Cocci Grifoni wines typically can be aged for at least a decade.

The vineyards are surrounded by canyons and ravines, some at least 100 metres deep, which the locals call “the Badlands”. Vines are planted horizontal to the slopes instead of the more common way of running vines vertically down the slopes. General manager Marilena Cocci Grifoni, daughter of Guido, said that horizontal planting meant fewer vines and lower yields, but offered excellent ways to prevent erosion.

Rainfall can be intense in the area and water moves quickly down the slopes. The estate also plants shrubs to prevent erosion, a technique known as “girapoggio”. Vines are hand-picked because the slopes are too steep for mechanisation. Yields tend to be about 5.5 to 6 tonnes per hectare, half of what local laws permit. The Adriatic is about 5km away and sea breezes cool the vines in summer.

The estate is farmed organically and exudes health, though the expense and paper work involved in certification is offered as a reason why it has not happened. Butterflies flitter seemingly everywhere across the property and wildflowers bloom between rows, set against the snow-capped Apennine mountains in the distance.

The 2013 Guido Cocci Grifoni DOCG Pecorino is an homage to the estate’s founder (2013 was the first vintage), as well as pioneers and visionaries around the world, Marilena said. It spent 18 months on lees in stainless steel tanks and was bottled in July 2016. This superb wine could be cellared for another 15-20 years.

The labels on all Cocci Grifoni wines celebrate local wildlife and flowers. The bufo bufo toad adorns the 2016 Pecorino DOCG (this toad eats insects in the vineyards). The wine is aromatic and zingy with an almost chewy texture. Marilena opened a 2010 vintage to show how this wine ages. It had a slightly brighter gold colour and an intense mouthfeel, with glorious length. “With time the 2016 will become like the 2010,” Marilena said.

Tenuta Cocci Grifoni have partnered with Birdlife Italia in a project called Wine for Life that aims to protect wild birds and their habitats. Claudio Celada, director of the project, said the aim was to understand the “close relations between sustainable agricultural practices and the survival of the specials that live and nest in these environments”.

Castrum Morisci is another estate that has embraced organic practices – for the past eight years – but has not sought certification. They are also exploring biodynamic options. The estate has 7.5 hectares of vines in the southern part of the Marche, near the beautiful town of Fermo and a few kilometres from the sea.

Vines are up to 40 years old, and the estate makes about 25,000 bottles a year. They have the distinction of being the only estate in Marche with braille labelling. Labels are bright and different.

As well as using stainless steel and barriques, the estate is aiming to revive a tradition of using terracotta amphoras instead of barrels for fermentation. They have 15 in three sizes; the largest half dozen are 500 litres. Amphoras are expensive – about 3,500 Euros each, or more than three times the cost of a new barrique – but the results are impressive. The amphoras were purchased from Tuscany.

Wines have pronounced fruit characters. Skin contact is encouraged via stirring up to four times a day with special metal paddles the agronomist, known only as Luca on his business card, invented.

One of the company’s most interesting wines is called Padreterno, which translates as holy father. The 2017 is a non-filtered  blend of Moscato, Malvasia and Vermentino, each grape vinified separately in amphora before blending.  It is fresh, textural and the combination offers aromas that display the best characteristics of each varietal.

Another fascinating wine involved invoking a tradition in a new way. The 2013 Vino Cotto is produced by cooking a range of grapes in an oven or copper kettle, effectively baking the must. The name translates as “cooked wine”. The must reduces to about a third of its initial volume. Originally it was a way of getting something from unripe grapes rather than discarding them.

Vino Cotto can be aged for years. It appears to be unique to the Marche and was mostly made by families for their own use. Traditionally barrels were topped up with each harvest. It tastes like bitter-sweet black chocolate mixed with toffee pudding, and is traditionally served with biscuits.

Terra Fageto overlooks the Adriatic near the town of Pedaso and the capital Ancona, and must have one of the best sea views of any vineyard in Italy. Four generations have worked the land. Most of the wines are certified bio-dynamic. Michele Di Ruscio is from the youngest generation and said the Passerina grape was resurrected on the estate 20 years ago. He noted the grape usually produces high yields but if yields are controlled the wines can be high quality. The 2017 is a delicate and pale wine in a distinctive expensive bottle that will age gracefully.

The estate’s 2017 Fenesia Pecorino DOCG was picked early, from August 10-15, to allow the natural acidity to shine. “The 2017 shows great promise, and confirms how well suited the area around Pedaso is for growing this grape,” Michele said.

La Calcinara was planted by the grandfather of the brother and sister who currently run the estate. Paulo Berluti is the agronomist and also a pianist. His sister Eleonora is the winemaker and also an artist. It is a beautiful estate made more beautiful by the artistic temperaments of the people who work there. Music by the great jazz pianist Stefano Bollani was playing during our visit.

The estate will be certified organic in 2019 and the wines are excellent, each with a unique label designed by Eleonora. The 2017 Clochard is 90 per cent Verdicchio with the rest Chardonnay. Clochard means homeless. Another exciting wine is the 2017 Mun (translates as moon), a delicate rose made from Montepulciano grapes that are picked early. It looks like the first light at dawn and has a delicate tang like fresh red fruits sprinkled with salt.

Paulo Berluti said all their wines were dedicated to “freedom, the moon, dreamers, the land and crazy people”. One fascinating wine is the 2013 Folle (the fool) also made from Montepulciano grapes but macerated for 45 days and then aged in old barrels for three years. It gets its name from the attitude of locals who said winemakers should never macerate Montepulciano for more than 15 days, Eleonora said. All of the wines on this estate have profound energy.

Words: 1,175

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of Marchet, the marketing arm of the Ancona chamber of commerce, which provided meals and accommodation.

Categories: Home page, Uncategorized

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