Wine column

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. This was about a third of all the 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 wine French 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.

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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.

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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.

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

Benefits of age (6/3/2018)

We discover further delights associated with aged Verdicchio and Pecorino in one of Italy’s most beautiful regions. For publication in week starting 4 June 2018.

The Marche is one of Italy’s most attractive regions, with its long and untamed coastline, majestic mountains and valleys, and scores of historic Renaissance villages. The region’s star white grape is Verdicchio, a perfect partner for local seafood when young which transforms with time into one of the country’s finest wines.

The Marche has two main DOCGs for Verdicchio: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. The former is named after the castles on the numerous hills and is better known and larger. But both produce fine wines.

Verdicchio translates as “small green” and refers to its colour in the glass. The grape can be made into a range of wine styles. Its naturally high acidity makes it a good base for sparkling wines. These are produced using traditional and tank (charmat) methods of fermentation. Ampelographers, the people who study grape history, believe Verdicchio is probably indigenous to the Marche, though there appears to be a genetic connection with Trebbiano and Greco.

Locals estimate that perhaps 40 per cent of vineyards in the region have embraced organic or biodynamic forms of viticulture, high by European standards.

The Pecorino grape is also said to be native to the Marche and some producers are making fine whites since it came back into popularity (these will be discussed more next week). The grape has no connection with the cheese of the same name, though historians suggest the grape’s name comes from pecora, the word for sheep, because wandering shepherds (and probably sheep) used to eat grapes.

Another lovely white from Marche is made from Passerina, a rare local variety. The grape ripens late and is named for the sparrows (passero) that eat ripe grapes. The wine’s zingy acidity makes it an ideal companion for salty and fatty foods like the salamis of the region, as well as the tangy olive oil.

Gabriele Tanfani, agronomist and winemaker at Villa Bucci in the village of Ostra Vetere, is proud of the fact the estate is entirely self-sufficient. Villa Bucci has 350 hectares of crops, flowers and vegetables, including 31 hectares of vines and 150,000 olive trees. It also has planted more than 20 clones of Verdicchio – all grown in its own nursery – and it generates power from solar panels. The estate has a small museum of winemaking, with tools dating back three centuries. “We don’t throw anything away,” Tanfani said.

Villa Bucci has been organic since 2000. A feature of their vines is the mingling of old and young plants in the same rows. This produces unique flavours in their wines. The estate produces 120,000 to 150,000 bottles a year, depending on the quality of the vintage. The Bucci Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico represents about half of the estate’s annual production. This wine is a blend of a range of tanks of the same vintage each year.

When young this Verdicchio is fresh with a slight saline touch. Tanfani said this might be because of the influence of the Adriatic Sea about 20km away. Breezes from the Adriatic are known as “bora”.

The Villa Bucci Riserva is only made in the best years. It spends 18 months in 7,000-litre Slavonian oak barrels, some of them more than 80 years old, then 8 months in bottle before being released. It has been named best Italian white wine three times since 2005. The current release, the 2015, is delicious.

A tasting of earlier vintages – 2014, 2010, 2005, 2004 and 1992 – showed how this wine evolves. The green-yellow colour remains consistent, a feature of Verdicchio. The 1992 was a glorious experience and shows how well Verdicchio ages. It was still fresh and zesty and could have been mistaken for a much younger wine based on the colour though the intense aromas and flavours showed the beauty that comes with age.

Local laws permit yields of 13 tonnes to the hectare, but Villa Bucci only picks about half that amount per hectare, which contributes to the quality of their wines.

Brunori is another family-run organic estate that focuses on quality Verdicchio. The estate is near the village of San Paolo near Jesi in the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico region. It has 6.5 hectares of vines, and all grapes are picked by hand. Mario Brunori founded the property in 1956 and it is currently run by his grand-children Cristina and Carlo, guided by Mario’s son Giorgio.

Cristina is the winemaker and Carlo the agronomist. Both are sommeliers and Carlo also manages a wine shop in Jesi. Average production is about 40,000 bottles a year.

Their flagship wines are the San Nicolo Superiore and the San Nicolo Riserva – the wines named for a specific plot in the San Nicolo hamlet. The former has been produced since 1975 and the 2017, the current vintage, is elegant yet powerful. The riserva, only made in great years, was first produced in 2006 to mark the estate’s 50th anniversary. The 2016 has the classic bitter almond taste of great Verdicchio combined with zesty lime flavours plus profound length.

They make a nice red wine known as Aborada from the Lacrima di Morro d`Alba grape. The 2016 offers a sweet perfume of violets and roses, with sour cherry notes on the palate and a refreshing acid zing. Brunori also makes a local speciality, a liqueur known as Finocchi produced by macerating cherries in Sangiovese and Montepulciano. It tastes of sour cherries with some residual sweetness, and is delightful at the end of a meal.

The Colonnara co-operative is located near the town of Cupramontana, regarded by some as the world capital of Verdicchio. Colonnara is much larger than Brunori, making about 400,000 bottles a year compared with 40,000 at Brunori. The co-operative has 150 members and produced its first wines in 1963. They make a delightful champagne-method sparkling from Verdicchio that spends 60 months on the lees.

But it is their dry Verdicchio wines that sing sweetly. Grapes for the classy Cuapro come only from member estates that are organic. Its name is an amalgam of the first two letters of Cupramontana, Apiro and Rosara – the last two words referring to specific terroir in the area.

Colonnara provided Verdicchio from 2015, 2003 and 1988 to show how their wines evolve. Even with the 1988 the colour was almost unchanged from a young wine, but the flavours were remarkable. Think unfiltered honey on toast with a dribble of lemon juice. It is like tasting honey that contains beeswax, which gives a waxy chewiness to the wine. Old Verdicchio is such a delight. Drinking it truly reflects the rewards of patience. Wines were tasted in a new museum in Cupramontana, Museo dell Etichetta, which had a fascinating display of wine labels from several decades.

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

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Wine, beauty and truth (5/27/2018)

Visitors to Italy’s Ancona region get to appreciate the beauty of aged Verdicchio, one of its main white grapes. For publication in the week starting 28 May 2018.

The English Romantic poet John Keats once wrote that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” concluding that it’s all we need to know. Until recently I did not fully understand what he meant in relation to wine. A visit to Italy’s Ancona region this week helped me appreciate the power of those words.

Any winemaker who makes good wine from her or his patch of land – their terroir – is creating beauty if they allow the truth of the land to be expressed in the wine. That to me is the true meaning of terroir.

They are also creating truth by allowing the beauty of the soil to show via the wine. The Marche region, with Ancona as its capital, has several profound means of expression through wines made from five great grapes – Verdicchio, Pecorino, Passerina, Sangiovese and Montepulciano.

This week we will focus on Verdicchio. Dr Ian D’Agata, author of the seminal book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, believes Verdicchio has the potential to be considered Italy’s greatest native white grape: “That statement may come as a surprise to those who have tried only neutral or watery Verdicchio wines, at times even bottled in improbable amphora-shaped bottles.”

He was referring to about two or three decades ago when quality was low. Since then wines have improved markedly. D’Agata believes the only other white varieties in Italy that can match Verdicchio’s versatility and potential for great wines are Veneto’s Garganega (with which Soave and Recioto di Soave are made) and Campania’s Fiano.

Verdicchio gets its name from its colour. Ripe berries have a very obvious green tinge (the Italian word for green is “verde”) and the word translates as “small green”. Young vintages of the wine are highly acidic with a distinctive green tinge in the glass. After about a decade flavours change but the colour remains consistent. Young wine offers a slight bitter almond tang in the mouth along with a hint of salinity.

The Verdicchio grape has been grown in central Italy since at least the fifteenth century, though some have suggested it was grown between Jesi and Matelica in the Marche region as early as the eighth century, D’Agata wrote.

The Ancona would be considered beautiful anywhere in the world, and May is one of the best months in which to visit. It sits on the east coast of Italy, about three hours by train east of Rome, and offers rolling hills, serene valleys, limestone mountains and superb coastlines with glistening blue seas. The region has a series of villages that would be ideal as sets for films set in the Middle Ages.

Every one of the estates visited from May 23-27 displayed a keen instinct for beauty, and an appreciation of the truth that can be found in Verdicchio.

At Colognola, known as Tenuta Musone in the village of Cingoli, the beauty is represented by a huge bronze sculpture of a stallion by Fernando Botero, the great Columbian sculptor. Said to have cost about one million Euros, the sculpture dominates the entrance to the newly-developed winery. Serena Darini is the daughter of the owner and is passionate about horses. She divides her time between winemaking, horse breeding and show-jumping.

Colognola has 25 hectares of estate vines, the bulk devoted to Verdicchio. The winery’s interior is organised, precise and clean – which is reflected in the wine. Their flagship wine is the Labieno, currently fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on lees for 24 months in botti (large format old oak barrels).

This wine is picked late, usually in mid October. This column focuses on older vintages because they are a true delight. I tasted a 2007 Labieno, which had spent a few months in old French barriques (225 litres). Winemaker Gabriele Villani has been making wine at Colognola since 2002 and the 2007 was an homage to a unique traditional method. After grapes are crushed and the juice put into stainless steel tanks, Villani adds about 5 per cent whole bunches of Verdicchio grapes.

He should be encouraged to make more of this style of wine. The result is wondrous. After a decade it is gold in the glass, glossy with soft acidity and a range of perfumes and flavours like beeswax, acacia and bitter almonds. It should be served only slightly chilled because it feels like a red in terms of structure and texture. In 2007 this wine was classified as a VQPRD, which translates as “quality wine produced in determined regions”.

The two DOCGs for Verdicchio in the Marche are Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. The former refers to the castles that protected the land during medieval times. The latter is smaller and less well known. It is centred on the town of Matelica, nestled in the only valley in the region that runs north-south. Matelica wines offer high value in the price:quality equation.

An indication of beauty and truth within the Ancona region is the number of theatres in the towns. These symbolise the value society gave to art and culture a century or more ago. More than 70 theatres were built in the Marche in the eighteenth century. They were the centre of local culture in a pre-television age, and we can imagine the wines that were tasted prior to productions of great Italian operas and plays.

One of the most interesting estates in Matelica is Cantina La Monacesca. It makes about 150,000 bottles from its 33 hectares of vines, grown at about 450 metres above sea level. Highlight of a tasting there was their 1997 Verdicchio, made in stainless steel. This was another superb, even sublime, older wine that shows the potential of Verdicchio for ageing. It exudes aesthetic texture and romance. The estate exports to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.

The sheer beauty of the Ancona region needs to be experienced. The rolling hills are dotted with olive trees and fluffy white sheep. The region feels and smells healthy, from the vines through to the pastures and fields that produce the grains that become the superb local pasta. The meat, seafood and cheese are world class, and the coastlines a visual delight.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of at least four DOCs in Ancona. These will be highlighted in future columns. Meanwhile, do yourself a favour and drink some aged Verdicchio. It is unique. The closest similar experience might be tasting aged Semillon from Australia’s Hunter Valley, which also transforms with time from simple pleasure to aesthetic delight.

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

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Bulgaria continues quality drive (5/18/2018)

The first United Kingdom tasting by European Independent Winegrowers took place in London earlier this month. For publication in the week starting 21 May 2018.

The European Independent Winegrowers group, also known by its French acronym CEVI for Confédération européenne des vignerons indépendants, was founded in 2002 with one main aim – to protect the interests of independent winegrowers in Europe.

An independent winegrower is defined as anyone who owns their own vineyard and makes and sells their own wine without using a negociant. As of May this year CEVI had more than 12,000 members in 11 countries: France, Switzerland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Hungary, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Italy, Belgium and Spain.

Members exchange information on best practice. CEVI also increases members’ visibility within the industry through events such as tastings. The first tasting in the United Kingdom was held earlier this month in London.

It was not possible to taste all the wines from the 60 producers in London, so I focused on wines from Bulgaria. In the early 1980s Bulgaria was the world’s second largest producer of wine, though most of that wine was sold, often in bulk, as cheap plonk to the Soviet Union.

International varieties were introduced in the 1960s to replace traditional grapes, something younger winemakers believe was a mistake. They are rectifying that issue by planting and working with indigenous grapes.

The state-owned industry declined after the end of the Cold War in 1989. From the early 1990s state-owned wineries were sold to private or family interests. Wines have improved markedly in the past two decades. Some local producers have attracted overseas investment or European Union subsidies, which have helped to improve quality. Another major contributor has been the development of boutique vineyards, most of whom are members of CEVI.

The non-profit Bulgarian Association of Independent Wine-growers is a major part of the renaissance. Ivo Varbanov, winemaker and international concert pianist and the association’s energetic chairman, believes strongly in the industry’s potential.

Many vineyards are on the same latitude as central Italy or southern France suggesting the climate can provide appropriate conditions for viticulture. For many years the plains around the Danube River and the regions near the Black Sea were the main winegrowing regions, but in recent years vines have been planted in many new areas. In particular the Thracian Lowlands, and the Rose and Struma valleys produce fine wines.

A return to traditional grape varieties, many of them red, has been a feature of the renaissance. Gamza – the Bulgarian name for Hungary’s Kadarka – is similar to Pinot Noir and comes from the cooler northwest and central north regions close to the Danube River.

The southwest is the warmest corner of Bulgaria and is home to the Melnik grape, named after the town of Melnik in the Struma Valley, which has an almost Mediterranean climate. The Melnik grape has a range of clones such as Melnik 55, known as early-ripening Melnik, and Broad-leafed Melnik, which ripens later than most reds.

Melnik tastes like a Rhone red. Unlike Rhone reds Melnik is, like Pinot Noir, difficult to grow. Villa Melnik make juicy reds with this grape that offer robust and rich flavours. These kinds of wine need food.

The Rubin grape is a hybrid of Nebbiolo and Syrah and was created in Bulgaria in the late 1940s. It is grown throughout the south and eastern parts of the country where it is made into wines characterised by their dark colours. The grape used to be made into sweet wines exported to the Soviet Union but locals now focus on dry reds.

Many suggest the traditional variety of Mavrud has the potential to become Bulgaria’s flagship grape. It gets its name from the Greek word for black because it makes dark wines. It is mostly grown in the Assenovgrad region.

The Bratanov Family Winery is about 100km east of the city of Plovdiv, one of the 10 oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. Bratanov make wines with charming acidity and soft tannins. It is based in a former Soviet warehouse. As with much former Soviet architecture, the buildings are ugly. But the wines are beautiful, indicating where the owners’ financial energies have gone.

Their lovely 2016 Chardonnay has creamy texture despite no oak treatment, the result of being left on lees for eight months. They also make a deliciously floral Tamianka. This white grape is indigenous to the Balkans.

Ivo Varbanov Wines originate from the same ugly warehouse as Bratanov and are also attractive. Such a welcome contrast against the dull squalor of the buildings. Each year Varbanov names his wines after classical music, such as his 2013 Firebird Syrah or the profound 2015 Poissons D’Or Chardonnay. His 2010 Clair de Lune Chardonnay, tasted in 2015, was truly elegant and is worth seeking though it appears to be sold out.

A highlight of the London tasting was the Varbanov 2009 Tuileries Rose, a blend of 83 per cent Marselan and 17 per cent Merlot. The grapes are co-fermented and then aged for seven months in French and Bulgarian oak. The wine is almost orange in colour with a nose of ripe persimmon and quince and a profound length. This unique wine is named for Modest Mussorgsky’s Tuileries from Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano.

Ross-idi Winery is based in a former concrete factory in Sliven, 300km east of the capital, Sofia, in the Thracian Valley. It is another case of ugly factory but beautiful wine. A feature of all the wines is their profound length. Winemaker Eddie Kourian ferments his chardonnay in a 700-litre concrete egg. This elegant wine spends eight month on the lees.

Kourian planted Gewurztraminer despite locals telling him the region was too hot. He keeps vines cool through judicious canopy management. His standout wine was an “orange” Gewurztraminer macerated for 30 days to get the right colour and texture. It’s wine to treasure because of its wondrous length and quality.

About eight centuries before Christ the Thracians worshipped the Greek wine god Dionysus. Thrace was said to be his home. Wine goblets made from gold, regarded as priceless treasures, have been cited as evidence of Thracian wine traditions. Bulgaria is producing new kinds of treasures in its wines from boutique estates.

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Wine of the saints (5/13/2018)

Vin Santo, which translates as wine of the saints, is one of Italy’s best dessert wines and comes in a variety of styles. For publication in week starting 14 May 2018.

The origins of the name Vin Santo are shrouded in history. Some historians suggest it came from Carthage in Tunisia because that part of North Africa is only about 50km from Sicily. Others say the wine originated in Tuscany.

The most logical assumption is to connect the name with the church because Vin Santo is pressed and fermented in the spring, which occurs around Easter. Wine has always had strong links with religious ceremonies in Europe. Regardless of its origins, Vin Santo is made throughout the country.

Vin Santo is usually sweet, with intense flavours of hazelnut and caramel through to toffee and fruit cake. When paired with cantucci (biscuits), Vin Santo becomes “Cantucci e Vin Santo” – traditionally a way to welcome friends and visitors. I prefer it solo at the end of a meal or with blue cheese like Gorgonzola.

The winemaking process gives the unique flavours. Healthy bunches of grapes are dried after harvest in a well-ventilated attic, a process known as “passito”. Some producers store the bunches on cane or wooden racks or mats; others hang them from the rafters.

Some winemakers leave the bunches until March; others press in December or January. It is a matter of personal choice but all agree it is important to inspect the bunches regularly to check against rot. The drying process concentrates sugar content.

After pressing the must is put in barrels ranging in size from 50 to 200 litres. The former are known as caratelli, which translates as “small casks”. Barrels are left in an attic for several years waiting for natural fermentation to finish. It can take up to four years. Over time the barrels develop their own yeasts known as “madre, or “mother”, which help develop flavours and contribute to the oxidised nature of the wine.

The wine ferments slowly in summer, does almost nothing during winter and resumes fermentation in the spring. The result can be something of a lottery. Some wines are almost dry, with noticeable heat from alcohol of about 18 per cent. Other producers make very sweet wines of about 220 g/L of residual sugar and about 14 per cent alcohol.

Stephen Brook from Decanter writes that some people have likened Vin Santo to Sherry because of its oxidative tones, but he notes it is closer to Madeira because of its higher acidity. “Good examples of Vin Santo should be gold or bronze in colour, have aromas ranging from dried apricots to orange peel, honey and caramel, and should show considerable complexity on the palate, with flavours reflecting the aromas together with a velvety texture and clean acidity.”

Italy’s Vin Santo is not related to the Greek dessert wine Vinsanto, despite the similar name. I tasted a range of quality Vin Santo wines at Vinitaly (see photo below).

Vin Santo.jpgMany regions produce Vin Santo using grapes indigenous to that region. Some claim the style originated in Tuscany. In that region and parts of Umbria and Marche Vin Santo is typically made with a blend of Trebbiano Toscano (which adds honey flavours) and Malvasia Bianco (for perfumed notes). Other white regional grapes are added to the blend.

In Tuscany, Capezzana makes a Vin Santo de Carmignano from 90 per cent Trebbiano Toscano with the balance San Colombano. It looks and tastes like a sweet sherry. At the other end of the spectrum from the same region was a 1999 Vinsanto del Chianti by Farnito made with Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianco, aged in oak and chestnut caratelli for 16 years, and only released last year. It was full of Oriental spices.

Perhaps different versions of Vin Santo could be likened to one species of animal made unique because of isolation. The Farnito is a turtle from the Galapagos islands while the Capezzana is the same creature from somewhere in India. The 2002 Vin Santo de Montepulciano by Avignonesi in Tuscany was an incandescent joy. A turtle from Australia? Tuscans also make a red Vin Santo called Occhio de Pernice (“Eye of the Partridge”) mostly from Sangiovese and a red version of the Malvasia grape called Malvasia Nera.

In Veneto, the wine region of Gambellara makes a Vin Santo with Garganega, the grape of the Soave region. The DOCG wine known as Recioto di Gambellara is a classic. I tried a 2007 Menti Vin de Granaro which had the black colour of a classic Pedro Ximenez and smelled like toffee and fruit cake yet still had good acidity. It had been fermented and aged in 40-litre oak barrels for up to four years.

In Emilia-Romagna, Lusignani produce a Vin Santo di Vigoleno that has an almost saline nose yet tastes of candied orange peel. Locals use a traditional process that involves drying grapes until December 1 and then pressing three times to extract the juice. Wines are decanted each year into progressively smaller barrels and usually aged five years.

In Marche, locals make Vin Santo di Offida from the rare Passerina grape and in Lombardy the wine known as Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Passito comes from red grapes.

In Trentino, producers use the Nosiola grape in Vin Santo di Trentino. The 1983 vintage Vin Santo by Marco and Stefano Pisoni is superb. Think rich and nutty Christmas pudding with touches of soy sauce and tamarind. The wine is aged in small acacia barrels for five years. The estate has been biodynamic since 2011.

Perhaps the most unusual wine come from Valle de Tevere in Perugia, where it is known as “smoked Vin Santo”. Traditionally locals dried tobacco leaves in their kitchens and the smoky aromas permeated the wine stored in the houses. The region does not yet have an appellation. About 15 families make wine, mostly for home consumption. The one I tried, whose name I cannot remember, was like drinking smoky treacle. A wondrous experience.

Good Vin Santo is expensive. After drying, 100kg of grapes yield only 15 to 20 litres of must. The longer the drying period, the greater the concentration and sweetness, and the smaller the volume. With long barrel-ageing evaporation can be as high as 40 per cent.

Once you have tried a great Vin Santo you will look for more.

Words: 1,010

15th vintage of VinNatur fair (5/7/2018)

Natural wine group marks 15 years of growth at its annual fair in northern Italy. For publication in the week starting 7 May 2018.

VinNatur held its annual tasting and fair in Sarego near the Italian city of Vicenza in the Veneto region of northern Italy last month. It was the fifteenth edition of the natural wine fair.

A total of 160 producers from seven countries presented their natural wines at a beautiful estate known as Villa Favorita.

“Natural wine” is the name given to a product derived from healthy agriculture that rejects the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilisers. Great attention is given to soil quality and its natural balance.

VinNatur was established in 2006 to counteract what president Angiolino Maule believes is the poisoning of the environment through excessive use of chemicals. The association advocates for making natural wine, the name given to a product “derived from a healthy agriculture which rejects the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers,” Maule said.

In conventional viticulture it is possible to use up to 180 active pesticides and another 140 chemicals in the cellar and during wine making. It is not necessary to declare any of these chemicals on the label. Sulphur dioxide is the only permitted chemical, in tiny amounts.

Over the past decade VinNatur has increased membership from 65 wineries in 2006 to almost 200 from nine nations in Europe this year. Members produce about 6.5 million bottles of natural wine a year from about 1,500 hectares. About 5 million of the bottles are made in Italy.

The headquarters are in Vicenza in Italy. Members also come from France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia. All producers seeking to join VinNatur agree to have their wines analysed to check for as many as 88 residual pesticides. The aim of the tests is to ensure authenticity of wines and coherence with VinNatur’s principles.

Angiolino Maule said the organisation wanted to go beyond simple self-certification. From this year, people who consumed VinNatur products would know the wines had been officially certified by external laboratories, verifying that no pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilisers have been used, he said.

Checks are done every year and are compulsory for any producer seeking to be a member of VinNatur.

Angiolino Maule said his organisation was aiming to get rid of copper and sulphur in vineyards, instead recommending its members use vegetable extracts that help vines build resistance to diseases.

VinNatur collaborates with universities in Trieste, Udine and Florence with the aim of reducing dependence on chemicals. “We work with the scientific community, not against it,” Maule said.

Samuel Cogliati, author of Understanding Natural Wines, said the term “natural wine” had no agreed definition and was “not yet recognised by law”. “Since the law does not provide any framework,” he wrote, “the term ‘natural’ continues to be used ‘at the discretion’ of the user. Recently other wording, including ‘naked wines’, have been preferred.”

In July last year VinNatur sent 80 samples of members’ wines to be analysed to check for traces of 188 pesticides. All came back clean, confirming that VinNatur offers consumers “real guarantees and not simply declarations,” Maule said.

in Europe white wines are permitted to have 150 milligrams per litre of sulphur and red wines 100 milligrams a litre. One milligram per litre is equal to one part per million.

Analysis of the 80 wines revealed that 45 samples contained less than 10 milligrams a litre and the other 35 had less than 50 milligrams a litre.

It was the first time all samples analysed had negative results. In 2016 of 150 samples analysed, four contained pesticides. Maule described last year’s results as “a very important outcome” because it confirmed VinNatur was “moving in the right direction”.

“We wanted to go beyond a simple self-certification. It is important that VinNatur wine consumers will drink wines which have been officially certified by external laboratories.”

All producers who have joined VinNatur in the past five years have had their wine analysed.

VinNatur continues to work on its biodiversity project, supervised by agronomist Stefano Zaninotti from the Vitenova Vine Wellness company in collaboration with biologist Irene Franco Fernandez, botanist Cristiano Francescato and entomologist Costanza Uboni.

They are capturing data from studies of soil, flora and fauna at the vineyards of 17 members. The aim is to develop an appropriate scientific model that allows wineries to understand the most suitable plants for preserving soil fertility which help vines to develop properly. “This will lead to a higher resistance of the vine itself,” Maule said, “further reducing human intervention and getting closer to VinNatur’s aim: a healthy viticulture as naturally-driven as possible.”

Members tend to be small, independent producers from vineyards with low yields per vine. They harvest by hand and pay “special attention to grape integrity”. Grapes are organic which means no insecticides or herbicides are allowed. Members are not permitted to add sugar or acids to modify grape juice, and they also agree to avoid techniques such as micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis treatment, clarification and micro-filtration. Sulphites are only allowed when weather conditions deteriorate.

The natural approach also extends to the cellar. Only natural yeasts are permitted. “We want to respect the raw materials,” Maule said.
The association aims to reduce and, if possible, eliminate the use of sulphur dioxide. The side effects on human health were well known worldwide, he said. This is possible thanks to a constant improvement of spontaneous fermentation, along with selection of the most suitable yeasts, which are already available in nature and which give a distinctive value to wine a far as personality and uniqueness.

Words: 976

Disclosure: VinNatur provided accommodation for Stephen Quinn for two nights while he was in the Veneto region of Italy.

Italy’s wine ambassadors (4/29/2018)

Education and wine promotion go hand in hand at Vinitaly, where the number of international buyers rose this year. For publication in week starting 30 April 2018.

The 52nd edition of Vinitaly in Verona, the beautiful city of Romeo and Juliet in northern Italy, attracted a total attendance of more than 128,000 visitors from 143 countries over its four days. Vinitaly ended earlier this month.

Prowein in Germany and Vinitaly both claim to be the “world’s biggest wine fair”. It is difficult to know which claim is more accurate and depends on definition. ProWein is only open to people in the wine trade while Vinitaly combines both trade and public.

ProWein is probably bigger in terms of the total number of square metres of exhibitor space, while Vinitaly attracts more people. We should not neglect Chengdu in China in terms of size. It has the potential to become the biggest in years to come.

At Vinitaly the number of accredited international buyers rose 6 per cent compared with last year, with 32,000 buyers arriving at the Veronafiere conference centre from 143 countries. Attendance from Italy’s key markets also rose compared with last year. The United States was up 11 per cent. China surged 34 per cent, Northern Europe (Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark) up 17 per cent, while the Netherlands increased 15 per cent and Poland leapt 27 per cent.

More than 4,380 companies from 36 countries exhibited their wares over the four days, 130 more than last year.

Maurizio Danese, president of Veronafiere, said this year’s Vinitaly confirmed its position as the best place for the promotion of Italian wines to the world of wine.

A separate event called Vinitaly and the City this year attracted almost 60,000 enthusiasts to the centre of the historic city of Verona as well as neighbouring towns of Bardolino, Valeggio sul Mincio and Soave. This project had emerged in the past two years to become a significant product in its own right and “as such will be further developed as of the next edition,” Danese said.

The CEO of Veronafiere, Giovanni Mantovani, said the increased attendance by wine professionals at Vinitaly this year showed how business-to-business wine sales had become consolidated in recent years on an international scale.

In recent years Vinitaly has been developing its wine education arm, Vinitaly International Academy (VIA). It was launched in February 2014. The first version of its wine certification course was held just before Vinitaly in 2015.

The rest of this column describes a week of this year’s certification course designed to teach Italian wine in great detail to professionals from around the world. It is taught by one of the world’s experts on the subject, Dr Ian D’Agata, the author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

A typical course consists of four mornings of formal lectures given by Dr D’Agata, with tutored tastings run by him in the afternoon. The examination is held in the morning of the fifth day, in the case of this course on April 10.

The course cost 1,290 Euros and included accommodation and some meals. Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development provided airfares for participants from outside Italy. In all 58 people attended the course, and another dozen who had failed previous courses arrived for the exam on the last day.

People who scored 75 or more out of 100 received a pin and are permitted to call themselves Italian wine ambassadors. Anyone who scored 90 or more was invited to return in the afternoon to undertake a blind tasting examination with Dr D’Agata. Those who pass that tasting are allowed to call themselves an Italian wine expert.

In all 122 ambassadors have been accredited around the world from 28 countries over the past four years. The biggest cohorts are from the United States, China and Canada, which also happen to be among the biggest export destinations for Italian wine. The VIA web site is confusing because the text notes a total of 122 ambassadors but the graphic associated with the page says 162.

Among this year’s cohort of 70 (58 who did the course and the dozen who attended only for the examination), 23 became Italian wine ambassadors.Two people became experts. Becoming an expert is a very high honour. After four years of courses in Italy, China and the United States the total number of experts around the world remains small, at only nine. The pass rate for ambassadors this year was 35 per cent, an indication of the complex nature of the course. This columnist did not pass.

Most participants chose to stay for Vinitaly, which ran from April 14-18. In return for accommodation and transport during Vinitaly, participants were asked to take part in guided tastings or similar activities for three days of the trade fair. These were organised in collaboration with local consortia, institutions and associations.

Stevie Kim, a Korean American, is managing director of Vinitaly International and the founder of VIA. Dr D’Agata is scientific director of VIA. Kim said she had embraced an educational approach to life and work and was “completely committed to education”. The academy was close to her heart “because year after year we are able to gain some critical mass into the community which promotes Italian wine”. These people tend to be sommeliers, wine buyers and wine journalists.

Kim said Vinitaly International Academy was about creating a group of “highly qualified and specialised Italian wine ambassadors around the world”. It was also aimed at simplifying the vast diversity of Italian grape varietals by explaining the characteristics of Italian wine around the world. Italy has one of the highest numbers of native grapes of any country.

One of the major events associated with Vinitaly is OperaWine, held just before the start of Vinitaly. OperaWine gives international wine professionals a chance to taste and experience Italy’s 100 greatest producers, as chosen by Wine Spectator magazine. Some of the wines were sensational, but the event is not for people who hate crowds.

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Chianti Classico’s global focus (4/13/2018)

Chianti Classico DOCG continues to produce wines the world wants, with exports going to 130 countries last year. For publication in week starting 16 April 2018.

The last time this column wrote about Chianti Classico, in June 2016, the DOCG exported to 100 countries. As of late last year the number had soared to 130, an indication of the region’s global reputation — especially given the area of hectares of vines and the average number of bottles made has not changed.

Chianti Classico is the name of a wine made in a specific geographical area of 7,200 hectares of vines in the centre of Tuscany. Only this wine can use the region’s symbol — the black rooster, the gallo nero — which appears on the neck of every bottle. It is a clever marketing tool; the rooster provides an easy way to recognise the wines.

For the past decade Chianti Classico DOCG has averaged 35 million bottles a year. Last year four in five of those bottles were exported. North America is easily the biggest market. The USA took a third of all exports, and Canada 8 per cent meaning that 41 per cent of Chianti Classico DOCG exports went to those countries. Other key destinations included Germany (12 per cent), Scandinavia (5), the UK (4), and Switzerland and Japan (3). Exports to China and Hong Kong declined to only 2 per cent of the total.

September 2016 marked the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the borders of the Chianti Classico region by Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany. He identified the villages of Radda, Greve, Panzano, Gaiole and Castellina as the leading sites and these villages represent the nucleus of the region today.

Chianti and Chianti Classico are separate DOCG regions (in Italy DOCG represents the highest guarantee of quality). The total Chianti region consists of about 70,00 hectares between the provinces of Florence and Siena in Tuscany. This is an apt time to talk about that black rooster.

During Medieval times the republics of Siena and Florence often fought to maintain dominance over the Chianti region, which lies between the two cities. Legend has it that the cities agreed to establish a definite boundary. Two knights would leave from their respective cities at an agreed time and the boundary would be fixed where they met.

Departure was set a dawn, with the signal to ride the crowing of a rooster. The Sienese chose a white rooster and the Florentines a black one. The cunning Florentines starved their rooster in a dark coop, so that as soon as it was freed it began to crow. This allowed the Florentine knight to depart earlier than his Sienese counterpart, who waited until daybreak. The knights met at Fonterutoli, only 12 kilometres from Siena, which meant that almost all of Chianti came under Florentine control.

Now-a-days strict regulations govern winemaking. The base level wine, known as Chianti Classico Annata (annata is Italian for year or vintage) must be aged for at least a year before release. For decades the higher level wine was known as Chianti Classico Riserva. It must be aged for 24 months before release, including at least three months in bottle.

In 2014 a level above Riserva, Gran Selezione, was introduced. It can only be made from grapes harvested from a winery’s own vineyards, must have a minimum alcohol of 13 per cent and be aged for at least 30 months. Wines for this new level became available from the 2010 vintage because they had already had the minimum 30 months of ageing.

All Chianti Classico must be made from a minimum of 80 per cent of Sangiovese, with the balance coming from a range of grapes such as Canaiolo Nero, Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Some producers believe the best wines come from only Sangiovese. Others maintain that only indigenous grapes in the smaller component of the blend produce the best results.

Yields are kept low under DOCG laws, with a maximum of 7.5 tonnes per hectare permitted, or about 2kg per vine. In the Chianti region which surrounds Chianti Classico yields can be as high as 9 tonnes a hectare.

Some of the finest wines tasted this week came from Fattoria di Cinciano in the Poggibonsi sub-region on the western edge of Chianti Classico. Their entry level wine from 2015 displays typical cherry notes and is very drinkable. The 2013 Cinciano Riserva – 95 per cent Sangiovese with the balance Colorino – is even more delicious, with a chalky mouthfeel associated with the calcerous soils on the estate.

Highlight was the 2013 Gran Selezione made from vines planted in 1971. This memorable wine is solely Sangiovese, with soft tannins and bright fruit. Winemaker Valerio Marconi said yields were kept to a third of the permitted maximum to concentrate flavours.

Ian D’Agata, author of The Native Wine Grapes of Italy, said Sangiovese was like Merlot in the sense that it succeeded in most places it was planted. D’Agata believes Canaiolo Nero makes Sangiovese taste better. “It’s the Robin to Sangiovese’s Batman,” he said. “It brings out the best in Sangiovese.”

Marconi also presented his 2009 Vin Santo made from Malvasia Blanco Lunga and Trebbiano Toscana. This is a superb dessert wine, created by drying grapes in a tower on the estate for three months.

D’Agata wrote that this Malvasia was an important part of the Chianti blend invented by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, who maintained the best possible recipe was seven parts Sangiovese, two parts Canaiolo Nero and the rest Malvasia. The Chianti Classico consortium eliminated Malvasia from the blend in 2006. This is why Marconi uses his white grapes planted in 1971 for Vin Santo (the wine of the saints).

Young Chianti Classico smells of red fruits like sour cherries and red-currants. Over time these aromas change to darker fruits like plums, and with further years in the cellar people will notice dried herbs. Some Chianti Classico also offers aromas like violets when young that evolve to dried roses when older.

Chianti’s colour changes over time. Young Sangiovese is typically ruby red. The intensity of the colour varies depending on the terroir (Chianti Classico essentially comes from three kinds of soil) and the grapes in the blend. Young riserva wines tend to have a richer ruby red hue with a light orange rim. Gran Selezione are a brighter ruby red, tending towards purple. After about a decade in the bottle the colour changes to garnet.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, who provided accommodation and meals.

Words: 1,052

Categories: Home page, Uncategorized

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