Wine column

Nice to win an award (9/19/2019)

I was one of three writers shortlisted for a prize by Hungarian


Video from Asolo, Italy (7/14/2019)

Something different this week: A video instead of 1,000 words. This video shows the beauty of the Asolo wine region in Italy, north-west of Venice:

Rebirth of native grape (7/6/2019)

Italy’s Asolo wine region, made famous by a war novel and conflict, is resurrecting a grape pulled up 200 years ago. For publication in the week starting 8 July 2019.

Wars have had a major impact on the Asolo wine region north-west of Venice.  Between 1792 and 1802 Napoleon’s army fought a coalition of Austrian, Russian and Italian troops in northern Italy in what became known as Napoleon’s Italian campaign.

In 1801 Napoleon ordered his troops to replace local grapes with French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The aim was to impose French order, and he believed one way to do that was to plant French grapes.

A handful of winemakers in Asolo have been resurrecting the Recantina grape, the only variety native to the region. Armando Serena, president since 2012 of the Consorzio Vini Asolo Montello, said six estates currently grew this grape on a total of about 10 hectares.

Grape expert Dr Ian D’Agata allocated only half a page to Recantina in his huge book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, published in 2014, though he said he would give it more space in his new book, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, published earlier this year. I have yet to read the new book.

D’Agata said Recantina had been cultivated at least since the 1600s around Treviso in Veneto. It “has always been a highly regarded variety,” D’Agata said in an email. He described it as “a very perfumed wine (blackberry and an intense note of violet) with good tannic structure and acidity” and predicted that Recantina would “almost certainly one day” be included in the blends for Valpolicella and Amarone.

The Giusti estate near Montbello has half of the Recantina vines in the Asolo region, and has planed another six hectares in the past few years. Recantina Montello Colli Asolani has been a DOC since 2012. Asolo is best known for making Prosecco.

Ermenegildo “Joe” Giusti founded Giusti Wines in 2003. The estate’s flagship Recantina is called Augusto, named after Joe’s father Augusto who was born in Venissieux in France and who had a passion for wine.

Giusti01.jpgErmenegildo is shown with the Benedictine Abbey of St. Eustace on the hill above. He  left Italy aged 17 and became a millionaire in the property industry in western Canada as founder and owner of the Giusti Group. Canadians could not pronounce his first name and insisted on calling him “Joe”. He is still called “Joe” in Alberta.

Giusti lives half the year in Canada and the other half in Italy. He currently has 75 hectares of vineyards on 10 properties between the hills of Montello and the Piave River, with plans for another 25 hectares. A new 20 million Euro winery designed by Armando Guizzo is scheduled to open next year with a capacity for 2 million bottles a year.

The Piave River, which runs through the Asolo region and enters the sea at Venice, has played a major role in Italian history. The Piave is called “Fiume sacro alla patria” or “sacred river of the homeland” because the Battle of the Piave in June 1918 was the decisive event of World War I on the Italian Front. A young Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver there, wounded while delivering cigarettes and chocolate to the front. The events inspired his novel A Farewell to Arms.

Recantina was in the Asolo area well before Napoleon arrived, Giusti told a small group of journalists visiting his estate in March. “When the French established themselves here, the grape was ripped out and then forgotten for centuries,” he said.

Some Recantina vines survived in the vineyards of the Benedictine Abbey of Nervesa, along with other places around Montello. It was reintroduced at the end of last century. “Joe” Giusti was keen to plant this grape soon after he purchased the first vineyard in 2003 but waited a few years because he already had a thriving Prosecco business.

The first Recantina vintage was in 2014. “Our first vintage was a total disaster. The wine smelled dreadful,” Giusti said. “Oh my God,” I thought then, “Napoleon was right when he decided to rip out this grape. This wine is horrible.”

mirco pozzobon.jpgGiusti told winemaker Mirco Pozzobon, shown amidst the vines, to pour it down the sink, but Pozzobon convinced him to wait. The wine improved and a year later tasted wonderful. “I’m glad I listened to my winemaker,” Giusti said with a smile.

Pozzobon graduated from university in 1997 and made wine in the Amarone region for a decade. His professor at the University of Verona, Roberto Farrarini, was a winemaker with the great Quintarelli estate. Pozzobon has focused his attention on the Asolo region since 2012 and has been winemaking consultant to Giusti since 2014.

Pozzobon matures the Augusto mainly in 2,500-litre Slavonian oak barrels for 12 to 15 months, followed by nine more in bottle. It is a return to a traditional method lost with the arrival of stainless-steel tanks. Pozzobon said he also uses a touch of mulberry, chestnut and cherry oak. Mulberry trees were available because their leaves were needed to feed silkworms. Asolo was a major producer of silk prior to World War 1, and like the cultivation of Recantina that practice is being resurrected.

Viticulturists at the Conegliano Research Centre have identified three distinct versions of the variety: Recantina a pecolo scuro (dark stalk), Recantina a pecolo rosso (red stalk) and Recantina Forner, the last named for the family farm where the vines were found. The grape has been listed in the official Italian register of varieties, D’Agata said.

The Società Agricola Giusti Dal Col, to give the full name, made about 5,500 bottles of Augusto Recantina in 2014. In 2017 the total reached 12,700. Last year Wine critic James Suckling gave the 2015 Augusto 92 points. He awarded 93 points to the 2016 Recantina by neighbours Serafini & Vidotto.

“Joe” Giusti said he had spent almost 2.5 million Euro restoring the Benedictine Abbey of St. Eustace, built in 1052 but destroyed at the end of World War 1. The abbey renovations are precise and a beautiful place to taste wine. In total Giusti is believed to have spent about 52 million Euro on the vineyards, winery and abbey.

He admitted he was not making a profit from wine. “Money means nothing to me. Everything comes back, like a form of karma. It was always in my heart to give something back to the community.”

Giusti05.jpgThe abbey sits above the main estate at Giusti Wines, surrounded by vineyards. On a nearby hill the Montello Military Ossuary holds the remains of Italian soldiers who died during the Battle of the Piave in June 1918. War and wine remain intertwined in this part of Asolo.

A version of my story appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business magazine in April 2019, pages 80-81.

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Marlborough continues to dominate (6/29/2019)

New Zealand has 10 wine-producing regions. Marlborough is easily the biggest. It makes 70 per cent of Kiwi wine. For publication in the week starting 1 July 2019.

Marlborough remains the giant among New Zealand’s wine-producing regions with its 26,850 hectares of vines. The region has about 80 per cent of all plantings in the country and produces seven in 10 bottles of the country’s wine.

To put the size into perspective, Hawkes Bay is the second-biggest region with only 4,500 hectares of vines.

Growth in Marlborough has been significant. Only half a decade ago the region had about 20,000 hectares, with 17,725 of those devoted to Sauvignon Blanc.

Exports dominate the New Zealand wine market and will become increasingly important because domestic consumption continues to slide. Last year the value of New Zealand wine exports grew for the 23rd consecutive year to reach NZD 1.75 billion (about USD 1.15 billion).

Matt Duggan.pngMatt Duggan is the chief viticulturist for Jackson Estate Wines, based in Marlborough. He was in the UK this week for a series of meetings with the company’s suppliers. “Marlborough is getting planted out,” Duggan said. Most of the growth had come from big companies. Water storage prices meant only the big players could afford the costs. “The region has very few small family estates,” Duggan noted.

Jackson Estate continues to be one of the leading family estates. It has 70 hectares of vines. Duggan joined Jackson Estate last year from neighbouring Cloudy Bay. “I completed my science degree in Dunedin, before moving north to study viticulture and oenology at Lincoln University. Family and work opportunities led me to Marlborough where I was named Marlborough’s young viticulturist of the year three times in my early career,” the company’s web site notes.

At least two bottles in three made in Marlborough are Sauvignon Blanc. Duggan believes Marlborough is adopting a three-pronged approach to this variety. It continues to produce a commercially-focused fresh and aromatic or “green” style for the millions around the world who love this type of wine. For many young people it is the “entry point” for their wine journey.

Stich Bottleshot NV.JPGThe next level is a premium style of Sauvignon Blanc that has some bottle age. An example of this is the Jackson Estate Stich. It is named in honour of John “Stich” Stichbury, the founder of Jackson Estate. His family has farmed the land for more than 160 years.

Cloudy Bay, who many believe started the fashion for Kiwi-style sauvignon blanc, is a neighbour. I enjoyed the pithy lemon character of the Stitch with its intense length of flavours. A wine that could be cellared for another five years.

The third style is textured and mineral like a quality Sancerre from the Loire in France. We will probably see a push for this style in the next few years. A fine example of this is the company’s Grey Ghost. It is almost old world in style and slightly riper than Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.

The Grey Ghost is named after an old gum tree planted by John Stichbury’s grandmotherJackson Estate Grey Ghost NV.JPG in 1867. She often told her grandchildren a story about a grey ghost groaning outside on windy nights.

Half of the wine spends about 10 months in old oak barrels, with the rest in stainless steel, before it is cellared. The current release is the 2015. This is a delicious and different wine that is worth seeking. Only about 20,000 bottles are made. “We want flavours of savoury herbs and to avoid aromas of grassy herbs,” Duggan said.

Peter McCombie, a Master of Wine based in Europe, was born in New Zealand. “Oak ageing for Sauvignon Blanc is coming of age in New Zealand,” he said, noting that these wines could be cellared for many years unlike the fruit-driven version of the wine designed to be consumed in the year of the vintage.

Duggan’s main role is ensuring Jackson Estate continues to grow high-quality grapes. But he is unofficially involved with winemaking because the team is small and members have many roles. “Winemaking is something I’d like to get more involved with.”

Four family-focused estates in Marlborough have been pioneers in wine-making innovation. In 2001 Jackson Estate along with Forrest Wines, Lawson’s Dry Hills and John Belsham introduced the use of screw-cap instead of cork closures.

Since then what was pioneering has become accepted. More than 90 per cent of wines in New Zealand are sealed with a screw-cap, and in neighbouring Australia the percentage is higher.

Dr John Forrest of Forrest Wines has long maintained the Marlborough region would be world famous for its Pinot Noir if Sauvignon Blanc had not become the dominant grape. Peter McCombie MW agrees with him, noting that vines were being planted on clay soils to get more “substantial” wines.

JE Vintage Widow Pinot Noir NV.jpgJackson Estate has two Pinot Noir vineyards totalling about 4.5 hectares. Each year the company produces a wine named after each vineyard: The Gum Emperor, on heavy clay soils and named after the Gum Emperor moth, and the Somerset. They also make a blend of both vineyards called the Vintage Widow. The current vintage, the 2015, of the blend is a “cracker from a cracker vintage,” Duggan said. It has graceful tannins and is perfumed and floral.

The Cental Otago region in the deep south of the country is better known for Pinot Noir but Marlborough offers better value for money because of its lower production costs.

Until 2001 Chardonnay was the most-planted grape variety in New Zealand. Massive plantings of Sauvignon Blanc from the late 1990s reduced Chardonnay’s influence. By 2005 Sauvignon Blanc had double the number of hectares as Chardonnay, and by 2017 Chardonnay plantings had declined to the point they represented only 9 per cent of the country’s total production.

Shelter Belt NV BottleThe 2016 Jackson Estate Shelter Belt Chardonnay reminds me what fine Chardonnays New Zealand can make (see earlier column). Jackson Estate has 4.5 hectares of Chardonnay clone 95 and they make an elegant and balanced wine with flavours and aromas of white peach. If placed in a blind tasting it could be mistaken for a good white burgundy. In terms of price it is much better value.

Jackson Estates exports at least 90 per cent of its production. Key markets are the UK and Australia though soon the US will overtake Australia. It makes about 35,000 12-bottle cases a year.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the lunch guest of RandR Communications, the PR company representing Jackson Estate in the UK. Bottle images and photo of Matt Duggan courtesy of RandR.

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Celebrations for La Livinière (6/23/2019)

This year the La Livinière region in the deep south of France celebrates its 20th anniversary of being founded. For publication in the week starting 24 June 2019.

The La Livinière region is small, with about 400 hectares devoted to vines in the 2,700 hectares of the official area of ​​the appellation. It sits in the heart of the Minervois in the deep south of France, perhaps 70 km from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

La Livinière has 39 winemaking families and two co-operatives. Wine has been made there for millennia, though documents can only confirm about 1,000 years. A Roman document from 1069, believed to be the oldest written mention of winemaking, calls the area “Lavineira” which means a “place planted with vines”.

CWW tasting.jpg

Rosemary George MW (left) with Isabelle Coustall at the CWW’s La Livinière tasting

Isabelle Coustall is president of Minervois AOC La Livinière, to give the region its full name. She said only red wines were produced and explained that over centuries locals had noted that the soils were best suited for red grapes.

Syrah, Grenache and Carignan are the main varieties, with a little Mourvedre to add to the mix. The three main varieties represent about 90 per cent of the grapes grown in the region.

All wines are blends. A minimum of 60 per cent of the three main varieties (in total) must appear in the region’s blends.

The soils of La Livinière are a mixture of shale, sandstone, quartz, marble and limestone, plus large pebbles, sand and clay where major erosion has occurred. The area is a succession of sandstone hills dotted with woods, with stone fences separating plots of land. Grapes are grown up to 400 metres.

Rainfall can be low. The average for the region is between 400 and 500 mm a year. South-facing slopes, which get the most sun, often receive less rain.

Wines have reasonable age-ability. Probably a decade is a realistic time frame for cellaring. With time wines offer aromas of garrigue, black olives, fresh balsamic or menthol notes, spices and sometimes truffles.

Garrigue usually refers to low-growing fragrant shrubs that grow wild on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast. They include juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender.

In terms of wine, “garrigue” relates to the aromas associated with the plants mentioned in the previous paragraph. It is a bit like the aromas of “herbes de Provence” combined with a mix of minty-herbal notes plus more floral fragrances. Previous columns have talked about “garrigue”.

Some locals say that the Carignan grape contributes most to “garrigue” aromas. It can be difficult to grow. Rosemary George MW, president of the Circle of Wine Writers, said it made the kind of wine that improved with vine age. “People say that when you plant Carignan you are planting for your grandchildren.”

Vinification styles in La Livinière involve relatively long maceration, often three to four weeks. Wines must be matured on the estate in vats, barrels or bottles. A noticeable trend seems to be a return to fermenting in concrete tanks. Great traditions never die.

Wines cannot be sold as an AOC Minervois-Livinière until after January 1 of the second year after the harvest – that is, at least 13 months of maturation. All wines in the appellation are tested by an independent body.

Members of the Circle of Wine Writers tasted 16 La Livinière wines in London on 17 June 2019, hosted by Isabelle Coustall. One was from the 2012 vintage though the majority were made between 2014 and 2016.

Coustall combines being the owner and winemaker at Chateau Sainte-Eulalie with her duties as president. Her 2017 Le Grand Vin is made from Carignan vines planted in 1910 and Grenache vines that are 80 years old, plus Syrah planted in the 1980s. The wine is not oaked and is made in concrete tanks. “We want to make great wine without oak,” she said, aiming to highlight the quality of the fruit from old vines.

Another fine wine was the 2016 Chateau Maris Dynamic made by Robert Eden, a distant relative of the British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden. The wine, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, comes from organic grapes fermented in concrete eggs.

Special mention must be made of the wines of Audrey Rouanet, a gifted winemaker aged perhaps 30, who took over from her father. The 2016 Domaine Rouanet Montcelebre Borealis is her first vintage of La Livinière wines and it is delicious. Like many wines from the region it has good acidity, soft tannins, ripe red and black fruits and a balanced sense of mineral freshness.

The great Languedoc-based winemaker Gerard Bertrand also featured in the tasting, with his brooding 2015 Clos d’Ora. It is a blend of the region’s three main grapes plus a touch of Mourvedre, with all grapes from a bio-dynamic estate. The wine is fermented in concrete and spends a year in oak.

It is ripe, polished and very classy, and presented in a heavy bottle. We could debate the negatives and benefits of heavy bottles. The wine retails in the UK for about GBP 150, which is well above the average price of wines from La Livinière, which typically retail for GBP 14-18 in the UK.

Wines from La Livinière are worth seeking. They represent a good combination of value and quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Primosic wine

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

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

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

Ronco Blanchis.jpg

Lorenzo Palla from Ronco Lanchis

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

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

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

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

Alessandro Sandrine.jpg

1997 Friulano

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

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

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


Brother and sister at Drius estate

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

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

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

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

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

This is sensible advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words: 1,175

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information about the area can be found here.

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

Words: 1,152

Potential of aged Soave (5/20/2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words: 1,111

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