Wine column

Aesthetics and wine (2/11/2019)

When wine achieves greatness it can inspire the soul. Thus we consider the aesthetics of wine. For publication in the week starting 11 February 2019.

Aesthetics is a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, and the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste. In its finest form, winemaking aspires to be an aesthetic pursuit.

Any winemaker who makes great wine from her or his patch of land – their terroir – is creating beauty when they allow the truth of the land to be expressed in the wine. And walking through a beautiful vineyard in a serene setting helps us appreciate not only the beauty of nature but the essence of aesthetics.

Many vineyards are associated with works of art, which is an attempt to express the connection between wine and beauty. At the Colognola estate in the Marche region of Italy a huge bronze sculpture of a stallion dominates the entrance of the newly-developed winery. Made by Fernando Botero, the great Columbian sculptor, it is twice the size of a normal horse and cost one million Euros.

The statue combines the interests of Serena Darini, the daughter of the owner, who divides her time between winemaking, horse breeding and show-jumping. But it also shows the link between wine and art.

The winery’s interior is precise and clean – much like great art – and the precision is reflected in the wine. Colognola has 25 hectares of estate vines, the bulk devoted to 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: “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 is one of the many Italian grape varieties named because of its colour. Berries have an obvious green tinge, and the colour transfers to the glass (the Italian word for green is “verde” and the name translates as “small green”).

The Ancona would be considered beautiful relative to any wine region in the world. It sits on the east coast of Italy, about three hours by train due east of Rome, and offers rolling hills, serene valleys, limestone cliffs and superb coastlines with glistening blue seas and white sands. The region has a series of villages with faded stone houses that would be ideal as sets for movies set in the Middle Ages.

Winemaker Gabriele Villani of Colognola said the estate had the advantage of a wide diurnal range in summer because of the altitude, which contributed to the quality of grape flavours. “At midday in summer it’s 25C while overnight it goes to about 10C.”

Cologna’s flagship wine is the Labieno Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva DOCG Classico, 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 about mid October.

The two main DOCGs for Verdicchio in the Marche are Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. The former refers to the castles that protected the land during medieval times. The latter is less well known and is centred on the town of Matelica, nestled in the only valley in the region that runs north-south.

A reflection of beauty within the Matelica region is the more than 70 theatres built in the villages of the Marche last century. In a pre-television age they were the centre of local culture, and we can imagine the wines tasted prior to productions of great Italian operas and plays.

Many wineries put paintings and other beautiful images on their labels, an homage to the link between wine and aesthetics. The Yunnan Red Wine Company, near Yunnan’s capital of Kunming in China, has some of the most beautiful bottle labels this writer has ever seen.

In Bulgaria, Nikola Zikatanov, owner of Villa Melnik, said he was inspired by a story from the Gospel of St John where Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, said he was the root to the vine of life. A replica of a painting depicting the Gospel story sits in the main reception at the winery.

Nearby Orbelus Estate is the first and one of the few certified organic vineyards in Bulgaria. Wines are made in a striking winery and cellar shaped like a half barrel designed by the architect daughter of owner Blagoy Roussev. In this case the winery itself is a work of art.

Not everyone has had an emotional experience associated with a wine though a great wine, like a work of art, can sometimes make us reflect or ponder or smile or perhaps cry. Only one bottle, a red by Quintarelli in the Valpolicella region of Italy, has ever brought me to tears.

Our emotions are weird things that sometimes do not connect directly to what we are experiencing in the moment, but are often linked to memory. My tears with the Quintarelli experience might be connected with a memory of a love from years before as much as it might be the result of an experience from right now. Great art and wine have that rare capacity to bring together the past and the present.

Like a great piece of music or a majestic work of art, great wine has the power to evoke emotions. Gerard Bertrand, founder of Gerard Bertrand Wines in the Languedoc region of southern France, believes an exceptional wine is a combination of “time, space, energy, spirit and soul”.

Does wine have a soul or spirit? Something that exists beyond the physical? Bertrand believes so. “The greatest wines travel directly to the heart,” he said. In a way he is talking about great art as well.

Winemaking can be an art form and wine helps celebrate Humanity’s potential, the same way a Beethoven symphony or a painting by Rembrandt or Titian helps us appreciate Mankind’s majesty. At the sublime end of the spectrum, the alchemy involved in making great wine is a form of magic, a liquid essence of human achievement and spirit.

Like art, wine can be a pleasure for people who understand it but a mystery for those who do not. With time in the cellar of memory, wine helps us broaden our horizons and encourages us to embrace the mysteries of life.

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Aussie wine exports thriving (2/3/2019)

Wine exports from Australia are thriving, and represent the fourth highest amount for any country in the world. For publication in the week starting 4 February 2019.

Six weeks in Australia gave me a chance to appreciate one of the country’s leading wine regions, around Geelong in the state of Victoria.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest exporter – about 780 million litres a year last year — and those exports were worth about AUD 2,720 million (USD 2,100 million) in 2017, the fourth highest total for wine exports in the world after France, Italy and Spain.

Exports last year totalled 852 million litres, the equivalent of 95 million 9-litre cases. The value of these exports rose relative to 2017 to AUD 2,760 million, but represented only USD 2,000 million because of currency fluctuations.

About 40 per cent of Australia’s production is consumed domestically. The local market was worth about AUD 2,800 million (USD 2, 209 million) last year. Australians consume more than 530 million litres a year, meaning a per capita consumption of about 30 litres per adult, according to Wikipedia. White table wine represents about half of local consumption, and red table wine a bit more than a third.

Swiss immigrants planted Australia’s first vineyards around the city of Geelong in Victoria from the mid 1840s. The discovery of gold in Victoria less than a decade later meant prosperous folk had money for wine and by the mid 1860s the Geelong region was known for premium wines and was recognised as the country’s most significant region, both in terms of size and reputation.

A decade later a phylloxera epidemic devastated the area and in 1875 the Victorian government ordered all vines to be ripped out of the ground to try to stop the spread of the phylloxera aphid. It kills vines by sucking moisture from vine roots. Vineyards were not replanted because more money could be made from other agricultural pursuits like growing wheat.

Winemaking did not really resume for almost another century. The Anakie and Idyll vineyards pioneered winemaking in the late 1960s. Since then Geelong, in the south-eastern area of Victoria, has become recognised as one of Australia’s finest cool climate regions, specialising in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz, plus a range of other global grapes like Semillon, Viogner and Cabernet Franc.

Geelong has a similar climate to Burgundy in France. Cool-climate regions have long been recognised as the best places to grow grapes because long and cool autumns provide the best conditions for ripening grapes slowly. This concentrates flavours and ensures distinct aromatics and nuanced profiles.

Chardonnay is the region’s most planted variety and wines made from this variety are elegant and fruit focused. Flavours vary depending on the terroir.

The Geelong region actually consists of three distinct sub-districts. Each sub-region produces different style of wine.

The Bellarine sub-region sits on the picturesque Bellarine Peninsula east of Geelong, the second-largest city in Victoria. Ocean breezes and spectacular scenery are a feature of the peninsula, which explains why the area has the largest number of vineyard restaurants open to the public. Wines made away from the water tend to be sturdier and richer than the lighter and more aromatic wines produced on the peninsula.

Some of the best known estates there include Bellarine Estate Winery, Scotchmans Hill (subs: note no apostrophe), Leura Park and Curlewis Winery. The Bellarine Peninsula has the added attraction of being near one of Australia’s most beautiful ferry routes. Take a ferry from Queenscliff on the peninsula to Sorrento on the other side of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, leading to the Mornington Peninsula wine region. Melbourne sits at the northern end of the bay.

A feature of the ferry ride is the large number of dolphins that follow the vessel. They are beautiful to watch as they sport and play around the ferry, often swimming upside down alongside the ferry, their white bellies aglow in the blue waters.

The Moorabool Valley sub-region is the north of Geelong. It has dark volcanic top soils over sandy loam. It is the largest in terms of distances needed to be travelled between vineyards, though it has the smallest number of vineyards.

The Surf Coast-Otways sub-region south of the city is, like the Moorabool area, warmer and drier than the Bellarine.

Best wines in the Moorabool Valley include Clyde Park Vineyard, Lethbridge Wines and Shadowfax Winery, the last named for the horse ridden by Gandalf the wizard in the Lord of the Rings sequence of novels. Lethbridge Wines are especially good, crafted with great precision by Dr Ray Nadeson. He was a successful academic before giving up science in 2003 to found a vineyard. One could argue that his area of academic research, pain relief, has been replaced by another more pleasant way of dealing with pain.

Best vineyards to visit in the Surf Coast-Otways sub-region include Brown Magpie Wines, Dinny Goonan Wines, Bellbrae Estate and Mt Duneed Estate. The last is located in Pettavel Road, the road named after some of the original Swiss immigrants who made wine. The estate hosts major music events each February, and performers have included Sir Elton John and Fleetwood Mac.

Dinny Goonan is a family-based operation that opened in 1988. It has focused on Riesling and Shiraz. A fascinating newcomer is the “Proserpina” sparkling wine made in an “Italian” style from Riesling grapes. It crisp and refreshing and designed to drink now, with a beer-cap closure.

Australia’s southern states of Victoria and Tasmania produce the finest Pinot Noir in Australia, and most of the best are grown in a u-shaped arc that runs through Victoria on the mainland and the island of Tasmania. The right-hand side of this u-shape traverses the Mornington Peninsula south of the state capital, Melbourne. The base of the “u” covers much of the island state of Tasmania while the Geelong region forms the left-hand side of the “u”.

Mount Moriac Wines, established in 1987, focuses on Pinot Noir and makes some fine examples of Geelong wine. The cool and dry climate — plus sandy loam soils that offer good drainage and limit excess vigour in the vines — are ideal for Pinot Noir. Yields are kept low. Estate wines are only made if the winemakers believe the grapes are of sufficient quality. Pinot is also used to make quality sparkling wines in the traditional method.

Other fine Pinot Noirs tasted in the region came from Scotchmans Hill and Bellarine Estate. The Scotchmans Hill label is kept for the premium end of the spectrum and is best cellared for a few years. But the lesser-priced Swan Bay wine, designed for early drinking, is a delightful mass of black cherries and good acidity and an absolute bargain.

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Highlights of 2018 (12/31/2018)

It is natural at the end of the year to reflect on the highlights, and that will be the focus of this column. For publication in the week starting 31 December 2018.

My most unusual wine experience in 2018 was visiting a cellar in a former silver mine, 2000 metres above sea level and about 450 metres below the summit of the mountain that contained the mine.

The cellar contained the 2009 Epokale, a Gewürztraminer made by Cantina Tramin in the Alto-Adige region of northern Italy. Wine Advocate magazine awarded its first perfect score of 100 points to this white wine earlier in the year.

It was the first time the magazine had given 100 points to a wine not produced in Tuscany or Piedmont. Until then all perfect scores had gone to Barolo and Brunello wines. The 2009 Epokale was my best white wine experience in 2018.

Willi Stürz, technical director and chief winemaker at Cantina Tramin, wanted to resurrect a traditional style of Gewürztraminer and observe how the wine aged in a mine. In August 2010 Stürz and his staff carried about 1,200 bottles to the former Monteneve silver mine in the Ridanna Valley about 120km from Italy’s border with Austria. Epokale 2009 was stored for seven years. All subsequent vintages of Epokale have been stored in the mine.

Humidity of 90 per cent is constant all year. The mine was so cold that my breath condensed immediately. The only light came from the lamp on my helmet. The walls were covered with lace-like white fungus and the floors were muddy because of water dripping from the ceiling. Water came from melting snow on the top of the mountain about 450 metres below the mountain’s peak.

Wolfgang Klotz, Cantina Tramin’s director of sales and marketing, said the 2009 vintage was sold mainly to fine restaurants around the world. Its price before the Wine Advocate award was 51 Euros, he said.

A visit to the Vipava Valley in Slovenia offered my most exciting wine region  in 2018. Wine has been grown in the valley in the west of the country, about an hour’s drive from the capital Ljubljana, for at least 2,500 years.

Locals are helping to revive the Rebula grape, native to the area. They make it in four styles but the most fascinating is the macerated version. The technique is similar to making a red wine, though with a white grape.

Edvard Svetlik, owner of Svetlik Estate, described Rebula as the “queen” of white grapes who showed her true beauty when macerated. Grapes are fermented using natural yeasts on the skins and macerated for anywhere between 14 and 100 days before spending at least two years in old 2,500 litre barrels and then two years in bottle.

The result is wines with aromas of dried figs, apricots and pears and notes of dried herbs and sea breezes, plus a distinctive colour ranging from amber through to gold. This was my best “amber” wine experience in 2018.

This revival in Slovenia was possibly inspired by the success of the same grape in Italy, where it is called Ribolla Gialla. Vipava and Italy’s Friuli region are only about 110 km apart, separated by the Collio mountains, a sub-part of the Alps. In Friuli wines from some of the big names like Gravner and Radikon sell for more than 80-100 Euros a bottle.

My most charming wine story in 2018 concerned the revival of the beautiful Ruchè grape in Italy. When Giacomo Cauda was appointed parish priest to the village of Castagnole Monferrato in Italy’s Piedmont region in 1964 he discovered his church had 1.3 hectares of vines. Those vines included 10 rows of Ruchè.

Luca Ferraris, winemaker at the Agricola Ferraris estate in the same village, said all of the current 170 hectares of Ruchè in Italy came from those 10 rows. The grape received DOCG recognition in 2010. It is one of the smallest DOCGs in Italy.

Don Giacomo was born in Roero, a major wine area in Piedmont, and knew something about winemaking. In 1965 he began his “adventure” as a priest-winemaker – though he only made 28 bottles that year.

The wine became known locally as “vigna del parroco” or “vineyard of the priest”. Don Giacomo gave cuttings from those 10 rows to locals. When DNA testing became available scientists discovered the grape was unique.

Ian D’Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, believes Ruchè is the one Italian grape that wine lovers really ought to know. For him it is a rare example of an aromatic red variety that makes wines impossible to confuse with any other variety.

The priest’s superiors in Rome told him to give up winemaking and concentrate on being a priest. Don Giacomo ignored them.

In his last years the priest sought forgiveness for focusing on winemaking, maintaining that the wine paid for repairs to the church and food for his congregation. “May God forgive me,” he wrote, “for having sometimes neglected my ministry. But I know that God has forgiven me because with the money earned from the wine I created the oratory and renovated the parsonage.”

The most interesting wine technology was the release in early March of a new cork that used only sustainable ingredients. The new process, Origine, is made of tiny cork granules, beeswax and vegetable oils.

It satisfies the needs of winemakers who want a closure suitable for long-term cellaring. The new method produces corks known as Diam10 and Diam30, the quality closures designed to be used with bottles to be cellared for 10 or 30 years. The process which purifies the cork also uses minimal electricity.

Diam Bouchage, a French company based in the Pyrenees region of France near the border with Spain, is one of the world’s leaders in artificial closures. It makes about 1,500 million corks a year. Diam is the name of the closure for still wine, Mytik for sparkling wine and Altop for spirits.

In 2018 I came to appreciate the joys of aged white wine. The grapes I regard as giving the most joy when aged at least a decade are Verdicchio and Pecorino from the Marche region of Italy.

Happy new year to all my readers. This column will continue in a modified format from 2019, focusing on the connections between wine, diet, health and philosophy. But first I will take a break for January. Best wishes for 2019.

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Prowein notes Asia’s potential (12/22/2018)

The annual ProWein Business Report aims to be the most comprehensive analysis of the global wine business. For publication in the week starting 24 December 2018.

China has become the world’s most attractive wine export market, according to the annual ProWein Business Report. In last year’s survey China was rated the ninth most attractive. The report noted China’s rising demand for imports and the big increases in volume and value of exports there from Australia, France and Chile.

This is the second report ProWein has commissioned. ProWein is the world’s leading wine trade fair, and the largest gathering of professionals from viticulture, gastronomy and the wine business. Their next wine fair will be in Dusseldorf from March 17-19.

ProWein commissioned the Institute for Wine and Beverage Business Research, headed by Professor Simone Loose, at Germany’s Geisenheim University. The institute surveyed more than 2,300 experts in the wine industry from 46 countries about international markets and trends, and developments in online sales.

The number of participants this year rose 60 per cent from 1,487 to 2,364, making ProWein’s Business Report the most comprehensive barometer of the international wine industry, ProWein said in a press release.

Other countries rated as the most attractive export markets after China included Japan, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada. South Korea, Poland and Switzerland dropped in the listing. The focus of the wine world increasingly was seeing a shift “away from the traditional wine production countries … to the East, Asia and in part also Eastern Europe”.

The first ProWein report said Russia, China and Brazil would become the most attractive markets, and the latest report confirms those predictions. Russia rose from rank 16 to 11 while Brazil went from rank 15 to 13.

The large populations of the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, China) suggested high potential for wine exports, last year’s report said. But tapping into this potential was also associated with high market risks due, in part, to political and economic instability.

The most attractive markets over the next few years would be China, South Korea and Poland, the report said, followed by Russia, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia. These top seven were followed closely by the two important North American markets – USA and Canada – where wine consumption continues to rise.

“The USA and Canada represented an important growth impetus for the international wine sector next to Asia.” Handling geographically and culturally distant markets in Asia would be a major challenge for European wine producers over the coming years, the report said.

The United Kingdom represented the weakest link with the lowest expectations for the future. Factors included constantly rising alcohol taxes, the amount of shelf space lost to wine because of competition between established retailers and discount stores, and the economic and legal uncertainties associated with Brexit. The traditional wine markets of France and Italy were also expected to less attractive.

Four out of five producers interviewed for the report plan to expand export activities to new markets over the next three years. This is understandable given the fact the domestic markets of the biggest wine producers – Spain, Italy and France – are saturated.. New markets were seen as the only way to compensate for losses and generate growth.

This also means the international wine trade will continue to gain in volume and importance. Singapore, the Czech Republic and Taiwan were seen as representing the highest potential for new markets over the coming five years. But fewer exporters saw possibilities in Vietnam, India, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia – regarding them as difficult to penetrate. The proportion of their population who could afford wine was smaller in these markets than in other developing countries. High taxes on wine imports were seen as a major barrier.

Among emerging export markets India was the first choice for wine producers from the New World – Australia, the USA and South Africa. Cultural links via the Commonwealth and a common language would make it easier for these countries to work in India. Yet one in four of producers polled for the report did not see a potential market in any of these emerging markets over the coming five years.

Perhaps surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was ranked fourth among the emerging wine markets. This position illustrates the rising importance of wine for tourists and expatriates in this gateway to the Arab Peninsula. This ranking was in line with other indicators such as the number of participants in WSET courses from the UAE.

Wine retailers are looking for wines from new origins. Almost half of wine retailers who visit ProWein plan to expand their range with wines from new origins. Portugal, South Africa and Argentina were most favoured as additions to existing portfolios.

Online sales were seen as important. The share of producers and wine retailers who run their own online shops was high at 38 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively. But the share of sales generated by these sites varied widely. On average specialist retailers sold more than a fourth of their products online (28 per cent). But producers sold only 5 per cent of their stock online.

But all market players expect online trade to grow. “Asia has leapfrogged several steps in this development and holds markedly higher online shares [partly] because wine consumers are predominantly young.” The majority of specialist wine retailers believe that running an online shop involves a lot of work.

The ability to compare prices on the web keeps profits low: “Over the next years it will be of decisive importance to the industry to find solutions for the in part cut-throat price competition caused by the high market transparency on the Web.”

The wine industry is generally optimistic about the future. Large wineries are the most optimistic. “Wine-growing estates see the situation as stable while co-operatives expect the economic situation to deteriorate markedly. Importers and exporters expect the economic situation to improve in 2019 after a deterioration between 2017 and 2018.” Specialist wine retailers rated the situation as stable.

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Perfect wine in a mine (12/15/2018)

A wine cellared in a disused silver mine has received the first perfect score for a white wine in Italy. For publication in the week starting 17 December 2018.

The Wine Advocate has awarded its first perfect score of 100 points to a white wine: The 2009 Epokale, a Gewürztraminer made by Cantina Tramin in the Alto-Adige region of northern Italy.

It was also the first time the magazine has given such an award to a wine not produced in Tuscany or Piedmont. Until now all perfect scores have gone to Barolo and Brunello wines.

Willi Stürz, technical director and chief winemaker at Cantina Tramin, wanted to resurrect a traditional style of Gewürztraminer to observe how the wine ages. The wine was named Epokale and 2009 was the first vintage.

Epokale is unique in being stored for seven years in a disused silver mine about 2,000 metres above sea level.

Grapes were harvested at the end of October 2009 and about 10 per cent were affected by botrytis or “noble rot”. After the soft pressing the 2009 remained on the lees for eight months before being bottled.

In August 2010 Stürz and his staff carried about 1,200 bottles to the former Monteneve silver mine in the Ridanna Valley about 120km from Italy’s border with Austria. All subsequent vintages of Epokale have been stored in the mine.

The fact the winery lacked a proper space for long ageing spurred the decision to move Epokale to the mine. The number of bottles has gradually risen. About 3,000 bottles of the latest vintage, the 2016, are stored in the mine.

Cantina Tramin arranged for a guide to meet the author and another journalist in the village of Ridanna. The guide drove us to the mine entrance, and then a small train took us 3km into the mountain. We walked about 500 metres in the mud to the winery’s locked cellar.

Humidity of 90 per cent is constant all year. The mine was so cold that my breath condensed immediately. The only light came from the lamp on my helmet. The walls were covered with lace-like white fungus and the floors were muddy because of water dripping from the ceiling. Water came from melting snow on the top of the mountain. We were about 450 metres below the mountain’s peak.

Willi Stürz said wines stored in the mine were better than those cellared in the winery because of constant temperature and pressure. “Constant high humidity, darkness, silence and above all the constant fresh temperature of 11 [degrees] Celsius are ideal conditions for ageing of the wine. Atmospheric pressure is lower at such a high elevation. Less oxygen is forced into the bottle and the oxygen content inside the mine is lower compared with the air outside.”

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

Wolfgang Klotz, the company’s director of sales and marketing, said the ideal conditions in the mine could not be reproduced even with the best cellaring conditions. “Compared with an Epokale stored in the best possible conditions in our winery, an Epokale that has aged in the mine enjoys a more homogeneous maturation process. With time [the] freshness and fruit of a wine usually wither, [but] ageing in the mine gives the wine an excellent balance without losing freshness and fruit and at the same time maintains its crispness.”

The 2009 vintage has been sold mainly to fine restaurants around the world. Its price before the Wine Advocate award was 51 Euros, Klotz said.

Stürz said the Epokale project embodied his company’s passion for Gewürztraminer, a wine they “constantly strive to enhance and improve”.

The discovery in 2010 of 168 bottles of Champagne aboard a 19th-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea received a lot of publicity. These wines fetched high prices at auction, presumably because of their age and uniqueness.

It is possible that this event prompted winemakers around the world to consider new ways to “cellar” wine, though Cantina Tramin had been researching new storage methods for several years prior to the 2009 vintage.

Some companies have stored wine in tidal estuaries and deep water. But this is the first example of wine stored in a mine.

Klotz offered a blind tasting of four 2009 Gewürztraminers at the winery after I visited the mine. Three were grand cru from Alsace and the other was Epokale. It stood out because it was powerful yet delicate. Its freshness balanced its high residual sugar. It had aromas of roses, citrus and tropical fruits along with mineral and spicy notes of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.

“Our goal was to create a new wine that explored, as never before, the ageing potential of Gewürztraminer,” Klotz said.

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

Traminer originated around the town of Tramin in Alto Adige, where Cantina Tramin is located. The suffix “er” is how the German language creates the possessive form. The German prefix “Gewürz” means spicy or aromatic, though in the context of grapes it also means “giving intense aromas”.

Grapes for Epokale came from two of the oldest vineyards near the village of Nussbaumer on the south-eastern slope of Mendola mountain in Tramin. Until Epokale was developed, Cantina Tramin’s Nussbaumer was noted as one of the best whites in Italy. The 2012 Nussbaumer was named the country’s best white in 2013.

Cantina Tramin was founded as a co-operative in 1898. The company represents about 300 growers who cultivate 260 hectares of vines. Cantina Tramin makes about 1.8 million bottles a year. Annual sales last year were worth about 14 million Euros.

In all it was a surreal experience being in the mine, and a relief afterwards to enjoy the sunshine outside. But it was worth it after I tasted this magnificent wine, which deserved the perfect score from Wine Advocate.

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Indian wine’s costly progress (12/7/2018)

India’s wine industry is small and probably at the stage of the Chinese industry about three or four decades ago. For publication in week of 10 December 2018.

It will probably be many years before drinking wine in India becomes a way of life in the way it has evolved in many European countries. Leading sommelier Magandeep Singh describes India’s wine industry as being in its nascent stage, but he regards it as promising.

Singh says the industry “needs time and inputs” as well as more rules and regulations. It was important, he said, to establish a formal body to govern the industry and bring a sense of authority and reliability to Indian names and brands.

Magandeep Singh runs the Wi-Not Beverage Solutions company in Delhi. He has written one of the few books about the Indian wine and spirits industry. The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Drinking in India was published last year.

Singh believes Karnataka and Nashik are the best regions in the country for making wine, and he has a slight preference for the former. For him the best wine brands are KRSMA, followed by Grover-Zampa and Fratelli. “York is also very good while Reveilo and Vallone have decent wines.”

India’s huge diversity of climate and geology means relatively few areas are suitable for viticulture, mostly around Maharashtra, the Punjab and Karnataka. Within the Maharashtra region, vineyards are found on the Deccan Plateau. Jancis Robinson MW calls the city of Nashik in the state of Maharashtra the “wine capital of India”.

Vines are trained on bamboo and wire in pergola style to increase canopy cover and to get grapes off the ground to avoid fungal diseases. The canopy protects grapes against sunburn. Rows are spaced wide to help aerate the vines. Irrigation is vital.

The Sultana variety, which originated in Turkey, is the most widely planted grape and represents more than half of the 60,000 hectares in the country.

The turning point for the modern industry occurred in the early 1980s when the Tonia Group, helped by French winemakers, planted international grapes in Goa on the west coast.

In her monumental book The Oxford Companion to Wine, Robinson notes the emergence of India’s growing middle class fuelled the development of the wine industry. By the start of the 21st century, she wrote, demand was said to be increasing at a rate of 20 to 30 per cent a year.

Viticulture was believed to have been introduced to India by Persian traders about 4,000 years before the birth of Christ. Historians believe these early plantings were mostly table grapes.

Wine became the drink of the Kshatriya, traditionally the ruling and military class of Hindu society. They essentially protected their interests and those of society by fighting during times of war and governing in peace time.

During the 16th century Portuguese colonists in Goa on the west coast drank mostly fortified wines such as port. Alcohol was forbidden under the Moghul empire from 1526 until 1857.

The British started to control India from about the 1850s. They encouraged viticulture. Vineyards were planted widely in the states of Maharashtra, Kashmir and Gujarat. These were beginning to flourish until the phylloxera louse devastated the industry in the 1880s, as in most of the world’s wine regions.

Negative religious and public opinion about alcohol developed at the same time. In the early 1950s several states introduced prohibition. The Constitution that evolved after India’s independence from the British in 1947 declared that one of the government’s aims was the total prohibition of alcohol.

wine shop India.jpgThe big issue for wine in India is retail costs. Prices are extremely high in restaurants, and also high in bottle shops (see example at left), relative to incomes. Singh describes the mark up on prices in restaurants and hotels as “crazy”. These costs, combined with the high taxes on foreign wines, make wine drinking unaffordable for the average citizen.

Ranjit Gupta, CEO of the Amfora Wine and Food company, confirmed the high mark-ups on restaurant wine lists. A bottle of premier cru Burgundy typically costs at least 200 USD. But India with its 1,400 million population has many rich people who are willing to pay high prices.

In a month in India it has not been possible to taste a large range of wines, but I have done my best. Two of the most pleasant I tried were made by Sula and Fratelli, the latter named for the Italian term for brothers. Peiro Masi from Tuscany is the chief winemaker. The company makes artisanal wines with an emphais on sustainable viticulture.

I can confirm that wine is expensive relative to many people’s buying power. Prices vary considerably from state to state, depending on taxes and local laws, as well as market forces. In Delhi, for example, wine and beer have a maximum retail price listed on the back label. A 750ml bottle of Kingfisher beer is supposed to sell for no more than 125 rupees in a bottle shop, and a similar size bottle of Sula has a maximum retail price of 600 rupees.

But shops usually charge much more, depending on demand and availability. I typically paid around 800 to 1,000 rupees a bottle for Sula wine (USD 11-13 or GBP 9-10) in Delhi.

The mark up in restaurants is brutal, often five to seven times the retail price in a bottle shop. In the Imperial hotel in Delhi, for example, a bottle of Sula costs GBP 44 (USD 56) even though the hotel probably paid about GBP 5 (USD 7) a bottle. A glass of white wine in a small café in central Delhi cost 700 rupee plus 20 per cent VAT on alcohol. This makes it almost as expensive as the same quantity of wine in England or the US outside of major cities.

In restaurants in other states such as Rajasthan, restaurants typically charge between 23,000 and 32,000 rupees a bottle. The average annual salary of a waiter in some of these restaurants would be about 100,000 rupees – enough to buy three or four bottles.

Singh has some strong views about the state of wine education in India. He describes it as “lacking and sporadic”. He is puzzled that people in the industry appear “hell-bent on aping Western sensibilities”. To Singh this makes no sense: “1.4 billion palates need their own set of rules, not an arbitrary one proscribed by the West”.

Personal observation showed that wine waiters tended to have minimal training. They filled each glass to the brim – perhaps to empty the bottle quickly and encourage the purchase of another bottle – and they had little idea how to present wine such as offering ice buckets to keep wine chilled.

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NZ’s most-awarded winery (12/1/2018)

New Zealand’s most-awarded winery focuses on producing great wine, and the awards tend to follow. For publication in the week starting 3 December 2018.

Villa Maria has won more awards for its wines than any estate in New Zealand. Founder George Fistonich was the first person in the country’s wine industry to be knighted, becoming Sir George in 2009. He more than deserves the honour.

Sir George argues that the secret to Villa Maria’s success lies not in chasing awards but on focusing on making quality wine that consumers can enjoy. “Get this right and the awards naturally follow.” He is right, and the results show.

In 2016 Villa Maria was named New Zealand’s wine company of the year – for the fifteenth time in 19 years. In 2004 Wine Spectator magazine named Villa Maria as “one of the world’s 50 great wine producers”. Wine Magazine in China named the company New Zealand Winery of the Year in 2012.

It was not always like this. The company started small – just Sir George. In 1961 when Sir George was only 21 he leased five acres (two hectares) of land from his father in Mangere near Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. He started with about half a hectare of vines. Villa Maria’s first vintage appeared in 1962.

Over time Sir George sourced grapes from the greater Auckland region. In the early 1970s he started hiring staff and the company began to expand. Today Villa Maria employs more than 250 permanent staff, has vines in most of the major wine regions, and exports to more than 50 countries.

Sir George has focused on innovation. In the early 1980s Villa Maria instigated the first grape growers’ bonus in the country – where grapes were purchased based on quality rather than quantity. In 2001, to avoid problems with cork taint, Sir George moved the entire production to screw-cap and he has continued the use of this technology.

Villa Maria is famous for its “cellar door lunches” where people can taste wines that are only available at the winery. The site has the advantage of being close to Auckland airport, and a relatively short drive from the country’s biggest city.

George Fistonich.jpgOne of those lunches was recreated in London late last month for a small group of wine writers. It was a superb event, from the delightful 2014 traditional method sparkling to start, followed by a pair of wines with each of the four courses.

Highlight was the new release of the 2014 Ngakirikiri, only the second made so far (the 2013 was the first and current release). Sir George (shown left at the lunch) described it as his “flagship wine” because it represents the pinnacle of the company’s achievements. Ngakirikiri means “the gravels” in Maori, and is from the Hawkes Bay area in the upper-mid north of the North Island. Ngakirikiri is an awesome wine, a mass of rich black fruit with a host of nuanced aromas that seem to change with each sip. The 2013 is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch (3 per cent) of Merlot. The 2014 is all Cabernet Sauvignon. Vines were planted in 1991.

What impresses is the supreme elegance of the wine and the relatively soft tannins. The quality of the fruit comes from low yields of 2.5 tonnes a hectare, from vines that are in their prime. This wine retails for £102 in London and is as good or better – these issues are entirely subjective – than Napa Cabernet Sauvignon at more than twice the price discussed in a column last month.

Another superb wine was the 2016 Keltern Chardonnay. It is part of a group of single site wines chosen to highlight the unique terroir in New Zealand. Keltern is located on red soils in an ancient river bed east of the Maraekakaho region in Hawkes Bay. The vineyard sits on deep loam soils sprinkled with large free-draining gravel rocks.

The Keltern region is considered one of New Zealand’s premier sites for Chardonnay. Villa Maria’s Keltern is probably the most awarded white in New Zealand.

Villa Maria started embracing organic and bio-dynamic practices “before it became fashionable”, Sir George said. About 20 per cent of the range of properties Villa Maria manages are organic. “We might get to 100 per cent organic in the next 20 years,” he said with a smile.

Four of the wines available only at the cellar door were tasted at the London lunch: the sparkling to start, the 2014 Ihumatao Verdelho, the 2015 Single Vineyard Attorney Pinot Noir and the 2016 Reserve Shiraz. Each was a revelation, from the zingy sparkling to the plump and appealing Verdelho, to the pristine and charming Pinot Noir and finally a beautiful Shiraz, full of brooding dark fruit and spices.

Shiraz grown in New Zealand is very different from the same grape grown in Australia, even in the cool regions in the south-east of Australia. New Zealand is further south, on the same latitude as Tasmania, and tends to have deeper fruit flavours and finer texture.

Grapes for the Shiraz also come from Hawkes Bay. It is almost inky purple in colour with a perfumed nose of liquorice and graphite, mixed with notes of violets and cocoa. The tannins are soft and refined, and encase the fruit in a silky embrace.

Sir George said the Shiraz vines were planted 25 years ago and were “starting to perform now they’re a quarter century old”. Villa Maria has access to vineyards in most of the best regions in the country, especially Hawkes Bay which is noted for the quality of its Chardonnay and Shiraz.

The quote from Sir George featured on the company’s web site is both revealing and celebratory: “No great wine ever came from a spreadsheet. Winemaking is an art, not a numbers game and our winemakers and viticulturists understand this. They pick our grapes based on flavour and ripeness, not on achieving a certain yield.

“It’s a luxury we have from being family-owned which means everything we do is for the good of what’s in the glass. For us it’s simple: our wine is far more important than how many zeros are on our balance sheet.”

Bravo Sir George. The world needs more winemaker/owners like you.

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Rich glow of amber wines (11/25/2018)

A new book about orange/amber wines highlights the beauty of one of the world’s more unique styles. For publication in the week starting 26 November 2018.

A colleague recently asked what I considered the major trends in wine over the next few years. My answer focused on the increased popularity of natural wines and health because people have become more aware of what they put into their bodies.

Natural wines are made from grapes where no pesticides or other harmful chemicals are employed in the vineyard, and/or where fewer chemicals are used in the winery.

A significant related development is the rising popularity of “orange” or “amber” wines because these wines tend to be natural. Wine writer Simon Woolf has recognised this trend with the release of his first book, Amber Revolution. The book has been available via his web site for some months, but its release in the UK was embargoed until November 20 to allow for magazines with long lead times to be able to review the book at the same time as media that can produce feedback almost immediately.

It is a timely and beautiful book. Woolf writes well, and he has important things to say. Indeed, he received this year’s award for international feature writer at the International Wine Writers’ Awards sponsored by champagne maker Louis Roederer last month.

Amber Rev.jpgIn the book’s preface Woolf clarifies what he means by “orange” or “amber” wine: “This book focuses only on wines made with white grapes treated as if they were red, fermented together with their skins (and sometimes stems, too) for a period of multiple days, weeks or months.”

This style of wine-making takes time and skill. As Woolf notes, the technique “resists mass production” and requires considerable patience and skill to execute well, which means “these wines will never dominate supermarket shelves”. Amber wine is not fully understood, which is why Woolf wrote the book (cover shown above). “For all the exponential growth of interest, a great deal of myth, superstition and ignorance still surround the style.”

Twenty years ago, Woolf notes, it would have been impossible to write such a book. The major problem he encountered now was what to leave out.

Major producers of amber wine include Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Guilia region, neighbouring Slovenia and ancient Georgia. Previous columns have extolled the virtues of wines from those parts of the world.

Wine has been made in Georgia for at least 8,000 years, making it one of the earliest wine regions in the world. Georgia is noted for the way it produces wine in clay containers called kvevri (known as qvevri or churi in different parts of the country).

These egg-shaped vessels are used for the fermentation, storage and ageing of wine. They look like amphorae without handles and are either buried so that only the top shows or are set into the floors of large wine cellars. Kvevri are buried to stop them toppling during earth tremors.

The most unusual of traditional Georgian wines are known as Kakhetian, which translates as orange or amber wine. These are macerated for several months with skins, seeds and stems. They can be very tannic. Wine-makers who use kvevri claim  their wines are stable and do not require chemical preservatives to ensure longevity and superior taste.

Vipava Valley.jpgIn Slovenia, excellent macerated wines are made from the indigenous Rebula grape in the Vipava Valley (shown at left) about an hour’s drive from the capital, Ljubljana. These wines are easy to recognise because of their burnished bronze or gold colours, and profound flavours. The intensity of colour and flavours depends on the number of months of maceration and the time spent in old barrels, typically at least 1,000 litres. Flavours range from dried fruits like apricot through to balsamic notes mixed with dried herbs.

These amber wines pair well with a wide range of foods. For example, they can be consumed with slow-cooked red meats or stews, cuisines which traditionally have been seen as needing a heavy red.

Collio in Friuli in Italy’s north-east corner is just across the border from Slovenia. Collio is regarded as one of Italy’s most important white wine regions. A few metres away, across the border, the wines from Slovenia are less well known and sometimes attract lower prices, despite being of high quality and made from the same grape varieties. The Rebula grape in Slovenia is known as Ribolla Gialla in Friuli.

Many commentators believe Brda is western Slovenia’s most serious wine region. Collio means “hills” in Italian. Brda has the same meaning in Slovenian. Essentially Brda was part of Italy’s Collio wine region but became detached when the border was fixed in 1947 after much debate at the end of World War 2. The border went through villages, displacing families into different countries.

In Brda, Kabaj winery and its winemaker Jean-Michel Morel were one of only two Slovenians listed in the world’s top 100 wineries by Wine and Spirits magazine last year. The other winery was Movia and its winemaker is the brilliant Ales Kristancic. Both estates make formidable wine.

Wines made in amphorae are also making a comeback in the Alentejo, the major wine region in southern Portugal. There the clay pots are known as talhas. The word relates to the shards of pottery often found in the area. Romans were making talhas pots and wines in the region more than 2,000 years ago.

The Herdade do Sao Miguel (St Michael Winery) near the UNESCO-heritage town of Beja started its amphora project three years ago. Winemaker Paulo Pecas sourced his winery’s 21 amphorae from around the region, buying from families who no longer used them.

Most of the clay containers are at least two centuries old. “We are using the amphorae the way the ancient Romans used them [to make wine]. We refurbish the amphorae and line them with beeswax and this lasts for ten years before we need to do it again.” This estate’s wines are sumptuous.

Similarly, Woolf’s book is a lovely read. The photographs by Ryan Opaz are beautiful and Woolf knows how to tell a compelling story. One of the best sections starts on page 209 with profiles of 180 quality amber wine producers, of the thousands worldwide. The book’s focus is the three regions/ countries mentioned earlier, but Woolf notes that lots of countries are embracing amber wines. For the latest details, visit Woolf’s web site.

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Wine and the mind (11/18/2018)

Appreciation of wine appears to be a multi-sensory experience, rather than just our senses of taste and smell. For publication in the week starting 19 November 2018.

Consumers in a wine shop or supermarket usually cannot taste wine at the point of purchase. Their main assessment of its quality and thus the choice to buy is invariably based on external factors such as brand name, price, advertising or the label, combined with what they know from experience.

Other factors may also come into play, such as the weight of the bottle or the number of stickers indicating success in wine competitions.

The ‘flavour’ of a wine is an integrated interpretation by the brain of a range of sensory stimuli. Until recently people believed the stimuli mainly related to what we taste and smell.

Recent research suggests that drinking is a multi-sensory experience affected not just by taste and smell, but also by sight, sound, touch and cultural expectations.

Professor Charles Spence from the University of Oxford has conducted a range of research projects looking at the factors that influence how people perceive what they are tasting. Music is one key factor. “A growing body of scientific evidence now shows that what people taste when evaluating a wine, and how much they enjoy the experience, can be influenced by the music that happens to be playing at the same time.”

His latest research shows that by playing the “right” music one can influence the perceived acidity, sweetness, fruitiness, astringency and length of a wine.

The great French wine scientist Professor Emile Peynaud – often called “the father of modern oenology” and the author of The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation – always advocated for total silence during wine tasting.

Noted chef Heston Blumenthal, who runs Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, this month told a Sydney newspaper how taste perceptions could be manipulated. The trick to making any wine taste better was to picture someone “you love dearly” while sipping it. To test the theory, Blumenthal said, people should take another sip while thinking of someone they disliked. In the latter case the wine would have a bitter taste.

Blumenthal believes the differences in how people perceive wine are because of the link between taste and memory, which he discovered while researching the relationship between the brain and the gut at the University of Marseilles. “It might be the single greatest discovery that I’ve ever made,” Blumenthal told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Oxford’s Professor Spence recently wrote that high-pitched music enhances the flavour of sweet and sour foods, while low-pitched sounds enhance bitter flavours. He’s developing his findings into the concept of “sonic seasoning”, where flavours are matched with certain sounds to enhance the taste experience.

Passengers on some long-haul flights with British Airways can access musical pairings via the in-flight entertainment system. Professor Spence devised them to complement the food and wine on offer.

Dr Adrian North also showed that background music can significantly alter the taste of wine in an article in the British Journal of Psychology. In 2011 Dr North gave 25 students a glass of wine and told them to drink it while listening to four different kinds of music and then asked them to rate four different characteristics of the wine out of 10.

He found that playing Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (which contains the melodramatic O Fortuna) made the Cabernet 60 per cent more “powerful and heavy” compared with no music. And playing Nouvelle Vague’s zippy cover of Just Can’t Get Enough made a glass of Chardonnay 43 per cent more “zingy and refreshing” than without music.

“These results indicate that the symbolic function of auditory stimuli (in this case music) may influence perception in other modalities (in this case gustation),” Dr North wrote.

Other recent experiments and inventions challenge the traditional idea that taste resides solely on the tongue.

Dr Alan Hirsch of the Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago maintains that 80 per cent of what people perceive as taste is actually smell. Other related research from the University of Chicago has shown that mineral water tasted worse from a flimsy rather than a firm cup.

I suppose the latter is similar to the sensation of trying to drink beer or champagne from a plastic cup rather than a long-stemmed glass. It just does not cut it.

Scientists in Singapore have developed a futuristic Martini glass connected to an app that transforms water into a virtual cocktail (“a vocktail”) using electric pulses, scent cartridges and LED lights. The device digitally simulates multi-sensory flavour experiences.

Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe developed the glass and the app while at the National University of Singapore. Drinkers chose the colour, aromas and flavours of their virtual cocktail via the app which connected through Bluetooth technology. Dr Ranasinghe also invented the Digital Taste (a.k.a. Virtual Flavors) concept.

Does this mean that complex flavours can be reduced to electrical pulses, smell and colour? A confronting prospect for someone who loves the sensory joy of tasting wine.

Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University has conducted research into how colour can affect people’s enjoyment of whisky, and these results could be extrapolated to wine tasting.

In an experiment in 2013 Professor Spence created three different sensory rooms to highlight different aspects of whisky. In the “Nose” room green lighting, real grass, deckchairs and the sound of a lawnmower made the whisky significantly grassier on the nose. In the “Taste” room, which was completely red with lots of rounded edges and tinkling music, people found the whisky tasted much sweeter.

And in the “Finish” room – with creaking floorboards, assorted clocks and piles of books – the whisky had a significantly woodier aftertaste. The participants liked the whisky significantly more in this third room, probably proving that clichés about the joys of sipping whisky in deep armchairs in front of a crackling fire are true.

Consider your environment carefully next time you open a bottle of wine or pour a glass of whisky.

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Quality reborn in Bulgaria (11/9/2018)

Winemaking is undergoing a renaissance in Bulgaria, one of the claimants to being the cradle of winemaking. For publication in the week of 12 November 2018.

Several nations lay claim to being the place where winemaking started, including Armenia, Turkey, Iran, China, Georgia, Greece and Bulgaria.

This week we return to Bulgaria. Its wines deserve mention because of their recent improvements in quality as well as the country’s fascinating history. We know that vines grew about 3,000 years ago is the Thracian Valley that runs through the middle of Bulgaria almost to Istanbul in the west.

The Thracians worshipped the Greek wine god Dionysus and Thrace was said to be his home. Homer praises Thracian wine in the Iliad about 2,800 years ago.

Bulgaria made mostly cheap wine for many decades. The wine business was nationalised during the Soviet era after the end of WW2, when Bulgaria became part of the Soviet Union. The state wine and spirits monopoly, Vinprom, was set up in 1949. By the 1970s Bulgaria had about 200,000 hectares of vines – about three quarters designate for making wine and the rest spirits.

All exports went through the state monopoly Vinimpex. Most went to comrades in the Soviet Union, though during the 1980s Bulgarian wine was the fourth most popular import in the United Kingdom. At the time Bulgaria was the world’s fourth-largest exporter of bottled wine.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw sales plummet, just as the more recent conflict in Ukraine affected sales to Russia. The 1990s saw a period of confusion as individuals sought to reclaim collectivised land. Anyone wanting to establish a viable vineyard needed several hectares and that involved negotiating purchases with lots of people, many of whom had left the country.

But in recent years winemaking in Bulgaria has undergone a renaissance, with a focus on quality. As the Oxford Companion to Wine notes, “in most markets Bulgarian producers are focusing on quality at the expense of volume”.

The non-profit Bulgarian Association of Independent Winegrowers is leading that change. Ivo Varbanov is the association’s chairman. He is also an international concert pianist who names his wines after great musicians. His 2013 Claude Debussy Chardonnay is a delicious cross between Burgundy and Bulgaria, with honeysuckle and minerality and majestic follow through. Varbanov’s sense of humour is reflected in the label that says “drink in moderation, but always with enthusiasm and food”.

New vineyards are being planting, boosted by European subsidies, as Bulgaria attracts foreign investment. But Varbanov says the Bulgarian industry needs passion and education as much as it needs money. “Investment alone does not guarantee great wine.”

Bulgaria had about 67,000 hectares of vines in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). But only about half of those hectares were being tended, noted Guy Labeyrie, a former Bordeaux winemaker who now owns vines in Bulgaria. The rest lie fallow because of ownership disputes.

Bulgaria has a shortage of good winemakers, Varbanov said. “The industry needs creativity and innovation because we have too many old-school winemakers. We have so much potential here,” he told me in Sofia, the capital.

Julia Kostadinova, editor of Gourmet Publishing in Sofia, confirmed the renaissance of the wine industry in an interview with me in Sofia in June 2015. “Important things are happening in the vineyards,” she said. She writes the influential wine blog DiVino.bg.

Bulgaria tasting.jpg

The author (left) at a tasting in the Bratanov cellars

The industry focuses on exports so international varieties have become important. “Our local varieties with great potential [include] Melnik, Mavrud, Rubin and Dimyat. But they are still exotic and work needs to be done.” One of her dreams, she said, was to give a five-star DiVino rating (95-100 points) to a Bulgarian wine from a local variety. Domestic sales will do well over the next few years, because wine has a trendy image, Ms Kostadinova said. More and more younger people were drinking wine, boosted by improved incomes. This is despite the fact Bulgaria has some of the lowest average salaries in the European Union.

The International Organization of Wine and Spirits Record reported that Bulgaria was among the top six in the world for consumption of spirits per capita, at about 14 litres per adult a year. Wine is becoming seen as a healthy option compared with spirits.

It is difficult to calculate how much wine is consumed. Bulgarians have traditionally made wine from vines in their back gardens and this is difficult to monitor. In a highly-rural country grapes seem to grow everywhere.

About 70 per cent of the wine sold in Bulgaria is red but younger consumers want whites so more vines are being planted to bring the ratio more towards 60:40. A new generation of younger winemakers like Eddie Kourian and Nikola Zikatanov are winning international awards, adopting innovative ideas such as fermenting in concrete eggs.

The Bratanov Family are also innovators. Their 2011 Cabernet Franc offers a wondrous nose of brambles, ripe cherries and blackberries plus spices and dried herbs. A wine that made my mouth water, it has a chalky mineral backbone with soft tannins. Touches of coffee and mocha emerge with time.

The Castra Rubra estate represents an example of the drive to export, with three in five bottles going overseas. Half of those go to China. Other destinations include Japan, the United States and most European nations. The estate was said to cost about 100 million euros to establish. It is based near the village of Kalarovo. Michel Rolland is a consultant.

The Castra Rubra, or red camp, was a military base on the Via Diagonalis, a road the Romans built in the 2nd century AD to connect Rome with their eastern capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul). Camps provided safe housing and were places to change horses and rest. The estate purchased the name when the winery was built in 2006.

The links between history and the present continue to influence Bulgarian wine, as the industry evolves with a focus on quality and boutique estates.

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