Wine column

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

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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Royalty of Californian wine (11/3/2018)

The Napa Valley makes 4 per cent of all America’s wines but contributes massively to the Californian economy. For publication in the week starting 5 November 2018.

The United States is a major power in the world of wine. It is the fourth largest producer on the planet and its economy is a significant driver of world spending on wine.

Wine is produced in all 48 mainland states, but California is the powerhouse making about 90 per cent of all the wine in the country. If California were a single nation it alone would be the world’s fourth largest producer.

The United States has maintained its position as the world’s largest wine market every year since 2010. Domestic sales were worth USD 35.2 billion last year, a 3 per cent increase from the previous year. Its exports last year were worth USD 1.5 billion.

Last year California shipped 241 million 12-bottle cases within the US, which represented 60 per cent of the country’s domestic wine market.

Within California, the Napa Valley is probably the best known American Viticultural Area (AVA). Wine has been made in the valley since 1861. The American Indian word “Napa” has many translations, including “grizzly bear,” “house,” “motherland” and “fish”. The most plausible seems to be that it is derived from the Patwin Indian word “napo” meaning house.

Interestingly, the Napa Valley produces only 4 per cent of wines grown in California. But a tasting this week organised by the London Friends of Napa showed that the valley makes some of the best and most prestigious wines in the world.

It must be said that these are expensive wines by European standards if we consider that the average price of a litre of wine in Italy, for example, sells for under five Euros. But we pay for quality, especially when the prices of these wines are measured against First Growth from Bordeaux.

The most expensive at the London tasting was a 2012 Morlet Family Vineyards “Passionnement” Cabernet Sauvignon which retails at £301.60. The 2014 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon costs £220 and the 2012 Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon sells for £188.

Research on the Wine Searcher site shows that 2012 Château Lafite Rothschild sells for a minimum of £376.

Many factors contribute to the high prices of Napa Valley wines. Grapes are expensive, especially for highly-desired Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes average about USD 7,000 a tonne, while a tonne of Cabernet Sauvignon costs at least USD 9,000. The same grapes in Australia cost about AUD 2,000 a tonne (USD 1,441). In countries like Italy, which had an exceptional harvest this year, grapes cost as little as 300 Euro a tonne (USD 341), though that was the price for lighter reds, and not Cabernet Sauvignon.

Land is also very expensive in the Napa Valley, along with labour costs. Land in the valley sells for about USD 500,000 an acre (USD 1.2 million a hectare).

But bottom line these are classy wines that deserve their price tag, especially in a rich state like California, which has one of the highest proportions of millionaires on the planet. People in California are accustomed to paying high prices for things they value.

All of the wines tasted at the London event were good to great. No disappointments, or duds. White wines – mostly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling – were much less expensive than the reds but equally classy. They typically retail for between £25 and £35 in the United Kingdom.

Two of the most interesting wines came from Yao Family Wines, a business relationship between Yao Ming and some American partners. Yao Ming is China’s most famous basketball player and one of the country’s best-known athletes. He retired in 2011 after several seasons in the world’s most prestigious competition, the National Basketball Association (NBA), with the Houston Rockets.

Yao remains one of the best regarded athletes in China and the US. In his final season he had the distinction of being the tallest player in the NBA, at 2.29 metres (7 feet 6 inches).

In 2009 Yao bought his former club team, the Shanghai Sharks, to help them out of financial troubles. He founded Yao Family Wines in 2011, after visiting the Napa Valley for the first time in 2009. Yao says he fell in love with the “quiet beauty of Napa Valley”.

Yao partnered with Napa winemaker Tom Hinde to focus initially on Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery launched its first brand, Yao Ming Napa Valley, in December 2011. They make two classic wines: Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Yao Ming Napa Valley Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Both have received good to excellent reviews. The current vintage is the 2015 and it is ripe and luscious with restrained use of new oak.

The company launched its second label, Napa Crest, in September 2013. The 2017 Napa Crest Sauvignon Blanc is a zesty and full-bodied white with impressive texture, the body emboldened by the addition of 10 per cent of Semillon. It reminds me of a zingy Bordeaux white. Under Californian regulations, wines only need to contain 75 per cent of a grape to be labelled as that variety. But in the Napa Valley the minimum is 85 per cent.

Another lovely white was the 2015 Inglenook blend known as “Blancaneaux,” a sophisticated Rhone style combination of 50 per cent Viogner and 30 per cent Rousanne with the balance Marsanne. It is a classy wine that could cellar for a decade.

Data released this week by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) showed that the United States produced 23.9 million hectolitres (mhl) this year, a two per cent increase on last year. It has managed a similar level of production for the past three years, confirming its position as the fourth biggest producer in the world.

The world made 282 mhl of wine this year, one of the highest levels since 2000. This came after a historically low global harvest last year.

In Europe the major producers were Italy (48.5 mhl), France (46.4 mhl) and Spain (40.9 mhl) who all recorded high production levels. Germany (9.8 mhl), Romania (5.2 mhl), Hungary (3.4 mhl) and Austria (3.0 mhl) have predicted harvests above their five-year averages. Portugal (5.3 mhl) and Greece (2.2 mhl) were the only countries to see a decrease in production compared with 2017.

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Joys of aged Verdicchio (10/27/2018)

We return to the excellent Verdicchio grape in Italy’s Marche region, noting its potential for aged greatness. For publication in week starting 29 October 2018.

Dr Ian D’Agata, author of the influential book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, believes Verdicchio has the potential to be Italy’s greatest native white grape. The grape flourishes in the Marche region, on Italy’s east coast, and has become the region’s flagship.

D’Agata said the statement could “come as a surprise to those who have tried only neutral or watery Verdicchio wines, at times even bottled in amphora-shaped bottles”. He was referring to about three decades ago when quality was low in the Marche.

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A tasting in the  Palazzo dei Convegni, Jesi

Since then wines have improved considerably. Dr D’Agata believes the only other white varieties in Italy that can match Verdicchio’s versatility and potential for greatness are Veneto’s Garganega (from which a range of Soaves are made) and Fiano from the Campania region.


This week we consider some good to great producers of Verdicchio.

Pievalta near the small town of Jesi is one of the pioneers of bio-dynamic grape growing in the Marche. In 2002 Baron Pizzini recognised the region’s potential for nurturing Verdicchio and purchased almost 30 hectares in two parcels of land opposite each other on the Esino River. Alessandro Fenino joined him as winemaker and, using the baron’s experience in organic farming, started to work bio-dynamically in 2005. Pievalta was the first estate in the Marche region to be certified by Demeter.

A feature of the vineyards is the growing of legumes between rows as cover crops and the use of biodynamic preparations to improve the soil. “We don’t transform the grape into wine,” Alessandro Fenino said, “but leave it to express itself freely” for the benefit of the people who drink the wine.

A feature of the region is the number of medieval villages around Jesi, all 24 of them full of history and beautiful buildings. The Marche is also famous for the artists born there, including Raffaello Sanzios, Donato Bramante and Giacomo Leopardi.

Pievalta gets its name from the small church, or pieve, at the entrance of the main property. Of the almost 30 hectares, 24 on one side of the Esino River are on calcareous soil and are noted for their zesty freshness combined with minerality.

The 2017 Pievalta Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore, labelled as “Pievalta”, is a zingy and delicious wine. The 2015 riserva, labelled as “San Paolo”, is even better with intense floral aromas and flavours.

Verdicchio wines from Pievalta are pressed and then fermented in stainless steel tanks. Ageing also occurs in onex, for a minimum of six months. These whites receive no oak contact, the better to show the grape’s fruit flavours.

Pievalta also makes a charming sparkling wine from Verdicchio called Perlugo. After ageing for half a year in stainless steel, it spends 10 to 20 months on lees to develop complexity. The number of months depends on the quality of the vintage. The wine offers aromas of nuts like almonds plus biscuits and bread.

This column has previously mentioned Colognola, known as Tenuta Musone in the village of Cingoli. The estate is memorable because of the huge bronze sculpture of a stallion by Fernando Botero, the great Columbian sculptor, that greets visitors. The wines are also memorable, which a recent second visit proved.

Colognola has 25 hectares of estate vines, about 85 per cent devoted to Verdicchio. The winery’s interior is organised, precise and clean – which is reflected in the wine. Their flagship Verdicchio is the Castelli di Jesi Riserva DOCG Classico “Labieno”, usually fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on lees for 24 months in large format old oak barrels known as “botti”.

This wine is picked late, usually near the middle or end of October. Winemaker Gabriele Villani has been creating wine at Colognola since 2002 and is happy to experiment. His 2007 was an homage to a traditional method: After grapes were crushed and the juice put into stainless steel tanks, Villani added about 5 per cent whole bunches of grapes.

The result is wondrous. After a decade it is gold in the glass, glossy with soft acidity and a range of perfumes and flavours like beeswax, acacia and bitter almonds. It should be served only slightly chilled because it feels like a red in terms of structure and texture.

The current release is the 2017 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore, labelled as “Via Condotto”. It is zesty and fresh with a refined mineral streak that acts as a spine on which to hang beautiful fruit flavours. The current release of Labieno, the 2015, comes from vines that are more than 35 years old, and is shaping to be as beautiful as the older vintages.

Verdicchio ages better than most Italian white wines and previous columns have exulted over the beauty of these aged wines. The problem is, very few estates have large stocks of older wines. The majority of the estates are small-ish and do not have the capacity to store wines for a decade. It does not make sense economically for them to cellar large numbers of bottles. Estates tend to sell all of their wines each year.

This means the only way to taste old wines is to buy them at restaurants or cellar them yourself. The latter is probably the best approach because in the former case you will pay high prices. So do yourself a favour — buy several cases and put them in your cellar for a decade.

vignamato.jpgOther fine estates worth buying wine from include Vignamato (see left), La Staffa (see an earlier column about them), Marotti Campi, Giusti, Stefano Mancinelli and Bucci. The last is one of the oldest and most impressive producers. Ampello Bucci was an academic before he became a winemaker and has the fatherly demeanour of a senior professor. Like all great winemakers, he makes wine for himself and not the market. “I stick to the one style each year. If you like it, good,” he said with a smile.

Bucci noted that two decades ago when he started, his wines had less than 12 per cent ABV. Now his wines are more than 13 per cent. “This is because of climate change.” Bucci has been smart about museum releases and retains a portion of each vintage. He limits the number of bottles of aged Verdicchio he sells to restaurant to three.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the Collisioni Wine Project, who provided his travel and accommodation.

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Memorable rosé from Bardolino (10/20/2018)

Bardolino DOC makes distinct wines, Bardolino and Chiaretto di Bardolino, that the world will come to appreciate. For publication in the week starting 22 October 2018.

Chiaretto is a crisp rosé made from red grapes using methods usually reserved for white wines. Winemakers limit the juice’s contact with skins, which reduces the colour. The resulting wine is pale pink. Hence the name, from the Italian word “chiaro” meaning “light” or “pale”.

Bardolino is a lighter type of red with high acidity and soft tannins. Traditionally both wines have been designed to be consumed young. Bardolino DOC is promoting three sub-zones known as La Rocca, Montebaldo and Sommacampagna.

The perfumed aromas of fermenting wine surrounded me when I arrived at Monte del Frà in Sommacampagna, the first of a range of memorable visits to wineries in the Bardolino DOC earlier this month. The estate is named after the religious order of brothers (fra) who lived on the hills (monte) in the area. Napoleon’s troops demolished the original monastery.

Three in five bottles produced at Monte del Frà are white, with the rest red and rosé. Export manager Paola Antonaci said wines were blended to meet a consistent style and the estate exported to 51 countries.

The estate makes a range of excellent wines from several regions. The best are their Bardolinos, which offer rich and spicy notes, and their textural and zingy Chiarettos.

Cantine Tinazzi makes two kinds of rosé, one designed for the domestic market and the other for overseas sales. The specifications are almost identical for each wine. The estate has a cooking school and it was fun to make the pasta and sauce for our own lunch.

The Santi winery exudes history and character. The estate makes Valpolicella wines as well as Bardolino. Cellar director Cristian Ridolfi explained the technicalities of the drying process used to make Amarone, and why three red grapes – Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella – are used in the blend. Corvina is susceptible to rot when humidity is high but provides good acidity (though it lacks tannin). Corvinone contributes peppery flavours and tannin. Rondinella adds colour and tannin.

Sweetness increases during the 120-day drying process as grapes lose 30 per cent of their volume. Santi uses barrels made from cherry and chestnut as well as traditional oak from France and Slavonia. Chestnut and cherry barrels are more expensive because they take longer to make than French oak, and everyone wants them, Ridolfi said. “Every winery wants chestnut at the moment.” A cherry barrel costs about 2,000 Euro – about twice the price of a French barrique.

Canopy management is one of the keys to successful grape production. The Bardolino region uses Guyot and trellises. The aim with Bardolino is to get higher sunshine to ripen grapes, while with Chiaretto the aim is to lessen the amount of sun to get higher acidity.

Poggio delle Grazie is a small estate of 15 hectares that sold grapes to other winemakers before starting to make their own Chiaretto in 2014. Most of their wines are worth seeking.

Poggi.jpgOne of the highlights of my time in Bardolino was encountering the wines of Le Fraghe. Winemaker and owner Matilde Poggi (at left) is president of Independent Winemakers of Italy and makes delicious wine. She is an individual: “I’m not following the market, I’m making wines to follow my own taste.”

Poggi’s 2017 Bardolino is a zesty delight of strawberries with a distinct chalky mineral backbone that sings in the mouth. She has been using screwcaps since 2008 because “they are best for my wines”. Her 2017 Rodon Chiaretto is also delicious.

Silvio Piona is making small amounts of quality wine at Albino Piona. Through a translator he told me he fell into a vat of wine aged four and avoided wine until he was 20, which must have worried his family because he is the fourth generation. Piona’s 2017 Bardolino was one of the best tasted during a week in the region.

Vigneti Villabella produces close to four million bottles a year. Franco Cristoforetti is a co-owner and also president of the Bardolino Consorzio. He explained that the wine estate is part of the giant Cristoforetti-Delibori group founded 40 years ago by Walter Delibori and Franco’s father Giorgio Cristoforetti.

The estate produces a wide range of wines from both the Valpolicella and Bardolino DOCs, including a group of excellent organic wines. The estate has an excellent Michelin-starred restaurant called Oseleta, named after the small bird that eats ripe grapes.

A highlight was a tasting of the company’s Villa Cordevigo white (2015) and red (2011). Both are made from grapes that have been air-dried. “The red sells very well in China,” Franco said, “partly because of its quality and partly because it’s half the price of Amarone.” The white has a distinct aroma known locally as “luigia,” a combination of lemon and mint flavours. It is 80 per cent Garganega with the balance Sauvignon Blanc.

Franco said consorzio members were proud to make rosé. “We want to be known around the world for making rosé.” Bardolino is the only region in Italy that produces rosé from indigenous grapes.

Daniele Domenico Delaini (shown below) is the owner and winemaker at Villa Calicantus. He pushes against convention, making Bardolino and Chiaretto designed to be cellared rather than the local approach of selling the current vintage.

Delaini.jpgDelaini’s wines are superb, full of energy and character from an organic estate that will be fully certified as bio-dynamic in 2020 (the process takes five years). He worked as a banker in Paris before he realised his true passion. In 2011 Delaini returned to Italy to resurrect the family estate, which has fallen into disrepair. It is a beautiful place, 2km from Lake Garda. “If a place has beauty, it will make beautiful wine,” he told me.

Delaini aims to make wines that are elegant like Burgundy and can be cellared for decades. All have that something extra that makes them stand out. His best is the Bardolino Avresir (the name is riserva in reverse) made from low-yielding vines. It spends two years in barrel (30 per cent new oak) then a year in bottle before release. “It is my focus because I believe the region needs a flagship concept, a way to be known to the world. Delaini is a name to remember for the future.

Another exciting visit was to the Tenuta La Presa estate, which makes sparkling wines from local grapes as well as Bardolino and Chiaretto. The Bardolino is amusingly named “Baldovino” in reference to a local mountain with a bald top. It is full of wild strawberries and red currants with zingy acidity. All of their wines exuded class.

The week in Bardolino ended with a masterclass of rosès from around Italy. The wines included Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Castel del Monte Bombino Nero, Salice Salentino Rosato and Cirò Rosato as well as Chiaretto. If nothing else the tasting showed the quality of rosé in the country.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of the Consorzio Tutela Vino di Bardolino who provided transport, accommodation and meals.

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Quality produce in Spain (10/17/2018)

These photos from my mobile phone are from the central market in Valladolid, about 110km north of Madrid. The produce is high quality.

Rose revolution in Bardolino (10/13/2018)

This month several events were held to mark the 50th birthday of the Bardolino DOC in Italy’s Veneto province. For publication in the week starting 15 October 2018.

The fascinating thing about the neighbouring Bardolino and Valpolicella regions in northern Italy is the fact they grow the same grapes yet produce entirely different kinds of wine.

Some experts maintain it is because of the unique terroirs of each region but other factors include different wine-making styles, traditions, economics and a desire to fashion wines to meet specific markets.

Bardolino map.jpgThe Valpolicella region sits north of the beautiful city of Verona, famous as the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Bardolino region (shown left) is west of Verona, with Valpolicella as its eastern border and Lake Garda to the west.

The Adige River separates Bardolino and Valpolicella. Soils in Bardolino are known as “morainic” and were created thousands of years ago when glaciers carved out Lake Garda, transferring rocks from the mountains in the north to land south-west of the lake. These soils are full of smooth rocks and are poor quality, but ideal for growing grapes. The terroir gives Bardolino wines minerality and a lightness and elegance that some liken to Burgundy. Soils in Valpolicella, on the other side of the Adige River, are darker and give red wines more structure, colour and higher alcohol.

The same red grapes – Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella – are grown and blended in both regions. Corvina dominates the blend in both areas. It is highly sensitive to its terroir and has high acidity. It contributes sour cherry and plum flavours to the blend and its thick skins makes it ideal for drying.

Corvinone translates as “big Corvina” because people thought it was a relative of Corvina. But recent DNA testing showed the grapes are distinct. Corvinone contributes the tannin than Corvina lacks, along with pepper flavours. Rondinella is a child of Corvina and contributes colour and tannin. The name comes from the round shape of its berries. Its resistance to fungal diseases, likeCorvina, make both ideal for the drying process used to make Amarone and Ripasso in Valpolicella.

Grapes for these Valpolicella wines can be dried for up to 120 days to concentrate flavours and sugars and soften tannins. By contrast, Bardolino wines can only be made from fresh grapes. These distinct winemaking styles are a major differentiator between the two regions.

Other columns have focused on Valpolicella, so this column will talk more about Bardolino, especially given the week of activities at the end of September to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Bardolino DOC. The region gets its name from the town of Bardolino, on the eastern edge of Lake Garda.

Bardolino makes two distinct reds – Bardolino and Chiaretto di Bardolino. The latter is a rose style while the former is a lighter type of red with high acidity and soft tannins. Traditionally both have been designed to be consumed young, but many locals now argue for the ageing potential of Bardolino.

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An aerial view of Lake Garda

The region received DOC status in May 1968. In 2012 the Consorzio Tutela Vino di Bardolino became responsible for safe-guarding and regulating the appellation via quality control and promotion abroad and domestically. Last year Bardolino and Chiaretto di Bardolino became two separate DOCs. The consorzio wants Chiaretto to become known as the best Italian rose.

New guidelines introduced at the same time allowed the proportion of Corvina to be as high as 95 per cent (previously 80 per cent), and the maximum of Rondinella to be 40 per cent (up from 15 per cent). This has resulted in the planting of more of both grapes.

Maximum permitted yields have been reduced from 13 to 12 tonnes per hectare. Bardolino is promoting three sub-zones known as La Rocca, Montebaldo and Sommacampagna, which are allowed maximum yields of 10 tonnes a hectare.

Because of the “morainic” soils, Bardolinos display distinct mineral qualities. Younger wines offer floral aromas while older wines smell of spices like cinnamon and cloves plus violets.

Mario Plazio selected wines for the prestigious Gambero Rosso guides for 15 years. He believes Bardolino is in a similar position to that of France’s Beaujolais region a few decades ago, and suggests Beaujolais offers a model for what the Bardolino region could become. “Beaujolais was not well known 30 years ago and its wines sold cheaply. They are similar in being easy to drink, fruity and approachable, with low tannins.” Plazio said the best Bardolino had the potential to age the same way as the 10 “cru” in Beaujolais.

Angelo Peretti is director of communications for the Consorzio Tutela Vino di Bardolino and also believes in Bardolino’s ageing potential. He noted Bardolino’s changing profile. A decade ago the region produced 4 million bottles of Chiaretto and 20 million bottles of Bardolino each year. Currently 10-12 million bottles of Chiaretto are made, along with 12-16 million of Bardolino. Future ratios were likely to be closer to 15-18 million bottles of Chiaretto and 6 million of Bardolino, Peretti said.

The consorzio intends and hopes that prices will also rise, in the same way that prices increased over time in Beaujolais. Currently the average retail price of a bottle of Bardolino in Italy is about 6 to 7.50 Euro, with Chiaretto worth about 1 Euro extra.

Most wines are sold locally because of the high number of tourists. The region’s population averages about 30,000 souls but about 12 million visitors arrive each year, mostly during the extended summer (Lake Garda has a Mediterranean climate).

Bardolino’s winemakers have tended to make wines that satisfy the tourists’ demands, but with the intention to export more wine they see the need to match wines with international styles. In the case of Chiaretto in recent years this has meant making and blending pale pink wines with floral aromas and zingy acidity, as part of the “rose revolution” that started about 2014.

Some dissenting winemakers see tourism as destroying traditions and are actively working to make more memorable wines. They and other innovative winemakers will be the subject of another column.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of the Consorzio Tutela Vino di Bardolino who provided transport, accommodation and meals.

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