Wine column

Rhone’s focus on premium (4/20/2019)

France’s second-largest wine region has evolved big development plans, including an appeal to Millennials. For publication in the week starting 22 April 2019.

A previous column noted how the wine world seems to be dividing into two main groups: cheap and cheerful versus a focus on premium. In the latter case we get the neologism “premium-isation” where regions sell fewer bottles but those wines attract higher prices.

The Rhône region, the second largest in France after Bordeaux, represents an example of the latter group. Over the past decade exports surged 64 per cent to be worth 507 million Euros last year. Yet the number of bottles despatched to the 205 nations that buy Rhône grew only 9 per cent in the same period.

Last year the Rhône region sold 365 million bottles. A third were exported. Another third were sold domestically to supermarkets with the rest going to a range of outlets including restaurants, online sales, direct sales to individuals and discounters.

Philippe Pellaton is vice president of Inter-Rhône, the body that represents all of the region’s winemakers apart from the ChateauNeuf-du-Pape appellation. Pellaton said Rhône wines were re-positioning themselves “in the mid to premium range segments” of the market.

“Value growth is clearly significantly higher than volume growth, the result of deliberate and very successful premium-isation.”

America remains the Rhône’s biggest overseas market. In the past decade exports increased 82 per cent, but their value doubled to be worth 107 million Euros last year. The United Kingdom is the second biggest destination in terms of both volume and market, but uncertainties about Brexit and the resulting fall in the value of Sterling have shaken the market.

Belgium is the third largest export market, slightly less than the UK. Consumers there were choosing slightly more expensive wines and drinking slightly less of them, Pellaton said. Organic wines were becoming more popular, he noted. Interestingly, the proportion of organic vineyards in the Rhône has risen in recent years, with some AOCs having almost a third of their estates certified organic or bio-dynamic.

Recent years saw the emergence of China as the fourth largest export market by volume, boosted by an increased level of wine awareness among consumers. Exports to Canada last year were worth more than those to China, but more bottles went to China, meaning the Chinese are buying cheaper wine than the Canadians.

Chapoutier.jpgMichel Chapoutier (shown right), president of Inter-Rhône, said the region had successfully positioned itself in a higher market segment domestically “while minimising declining volume sales” at home.

Wines sales across France have plummeted in recent generations, from 160 litres a year per person a half century ago to about 47 litres a head by 2016. Chapoutier, aged in his 60s, said for his generation wine was “just a drink” but for younger generations wine “has become a culture”. It was vital, he said, to attract Millennials. These are the people born between 1985 and 2000. Within half a decade they will constitute the majority of working adults and bring massive spending power. An Accenture consulting report last year said that by next year Millennials will represent 30 per cent of retails sales in the United States, worth USD 1.4 trillion.

The key was to attract Millennials and focus on export, Chapoutier said. “The future for us is exports,” he told a press conference in Avignon on April 18 at the 10th Discover Rhône festival. The event is held every two years.

Guy.jpgMillennials shop differently from Baby Boomers, noted Guy Sarton du Jonchay, co-president of Inter-Rhône’s economic committee (shown right). They want to consume less but better, and they crave “authentic products”. Their consumption habits tend to reflect their social and environmental views and they see themselves as “consumer activists,” which means they will reject products they believe behave unethically.

Rhône valley winemakers have adapted their approach to match Millennials’ expectations. In 2014 they implemented an “environmental landscape charter” to improve viticulture practices to protect the environment. At least two thirds of vineyards no longer use chemical weed-killers, with an aim to eliminate them totally apart from on steep slopes that machines cannot access.

Biodiversity is being promoted to help the environment. Winemakers are partnering with beekeeping associations to increase the number of bees. Some of the 17 crus (top end AOCs) have more woodlands than hectares devoted to vines to provide habitats for birds. Vineyards are installing “bat boxes” to attract bats to the area. Chapoutier explained that bats ate insects at night, which made them a key player in the fight to use natural ways to kill insects.

Philippe Pellaton said Rhône wine businesses and their partners were helping to reduce environmental impacts and promoting best practices, and it was important that consumers became aware of these actions.

Guy Sarton du Jonchay said the Rhône introduced global information systems technology in 2014. By March this year two thirds of all Rhône vineyards had been mapped using GIS technology, which provides visual descriptions of specific vineyards. The aim was to map the entire region, he said.

The technology could identify land that would produce optimum grapes and determine which varieties were best suited for specific terroir. Scientists were also investigating new varieties, related to traditional Rhône grapes, with built-in disease resistance and the capacity to cope with climate change.

The Rhône has traditional produced more red wine than white. Last year almost three in four bottles were red, with 16 per cent rosé and 10 per cent white. Philippe Pellaton said a rise in white wine production had many benefits and it was vital to tell consumers about the great whites in the Rhône. Future columns will describe the textural whites from the Rhône.

The past decade has seen a change to the profile of Rhône wine. Sales of red have slipped from 88 to 79 per cent of the total but rosé sales have jumped from 11 to 19 per cent of the total. Whites are also increasing.

Another column will consider the growth of sparkling wine in the Rhône. Vineyards around the town of Dio are becoming known for the quality of their fizz. Exports were worth 5.8 million Euro last year, mostly to Belgium and Switzerland. While they only account for 15 per cent of total sales, their reputation is growing because of the quality of the limestone-based terroir in the Rhône.

Disclosure: Organisers of the Discover Rhône festival supplied hotel accommodation for three nights for Stephen Quinn plus two fine dinners. Quinn paid his own travel.

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Revival of traditional flavours (4/12/2019)

Something different this week – food and good ideas from the hinterland of the Dalmatian region of Croatia near Split. For publication in the week of 15 April 2019.

The village of Klis in Croatia’s Dalmatian hinterland is probably best known for the imposing fortress that has defended Croatia for more than 2,000 years. It features in the Game of Thrones HBO series whose final series starts soon.

But a few kilometres away is arguably a more important location – Stella Croatica, a family-owned “agropark” dedicated to reviving traditional Croatian food and crafts. It offers a fine model for job creation in rural areas of poorer countries.

For just over a year the site has been growing herbs and selling olive oil, honey and nuts plus fruit and olive products that have a unique flavour profile. Thus this week we have a wine column with a difference: a focus on olive oil and the many products that come from this marvellous tree.

Stella Croatica is about 30km inland from Split, Croatia’s the second-largest city. The land around the property is barren, rocky and mostly scrub. Nothing much grows there apart from herbs and weeds. A terrain suited for goats and olive trees.

But those herbs are marvellous. Brush your hand against the lavender or rosemary bushes and you are enveloped in the most remarkable smells. These aromas are almost magical in the way they linger.

Croatia is one of the world’s largest producers of lavender. Of all the lavender grown in Europe the Croatian variety is regarded as having the best qualities. It grows prolifically on the rocky hills and valleys of the island of Hvar about one hour by ferry from Split, as well as in the hinterlands. Lavender is a popular souvenir for visitors.

Walk around the Dalmatian hinterland and you encounter a local form of “garrique,” that marvellous combination of wild herbs, sunshine and terroir found in the Roussillon region of southern France.

It’s worth repeating the quote that opened last week’s column: In his book Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson wrote that the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate wine and olives. Olives have been grown in the Dalmatian region since the ninth century before Christ.

Stella Croatica makes some of the best olive oil I’ve tasted. These come in a range of flavour options: oils infused with local truffles, lemon and garlic, as well as natural. Last year the company’s oil won the gold medal at the Tokyo olive oil show.

The family-owned company makes traditional handmade Dalmatian delicacies that include candied orange and lemon peel, known respectively as “arancini” and “limoncini”. Another delight is candied almonds, which pair marvellously with the local dessert wine Prošek, similar to Vin Santo in Italy.

olive03.jpgTapenades from olive oil offer another delicious snack or pre-dinner temptation. These are the result of one of the oldest ways to extract oil using a mill called a “toc” (photo at left). It is a stone wheel set vertically on another stone. Together they grind olives into a paste and the oil is left in the bowl below stone wheel. The left-over olive fragments are combined with herbs, fish and salt to make tapenade. The olive must be the most versatile food in the world. Its wood is used as a building material and for firewood. Leaves are fed to animals. Olives are served as food, and used as medicine and spices, and the oil has been burned in lamps for lighting. And olive branches have long been associated with religious devotion and Christian ceremonies.

The olive harvest usually starts on November 2 each year, All Soul’s Day. Picking is typically done by hand using a comb-like device that separates olives from the branches. Another way to harvest involves laying sheets under trees and shaking the trunk and branches. In recent years machines have become involved.

olive01.jpgAnother traditional way to extract oil was to put the olives in a jute or woollen sack, and then crush the fruit with feet or hands. An example is shown at left.

More than 40 of the hundreds of types of olive grown around the world are autochthonous to Croatia. Dalmatia’s most common olive is called Oblica, and accounts for about 75 per cent of trees. Some islands grow olives unique to that location, so you will find unique olives on the beautiful islands that surround Split. The island of Vis was the first land the Romans occupied when they conquered the region. The long-lived emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace on Split harbour and it is one of the best-preserved UNESCO heritage sites in the world.

One way to preserve olives was to store them in large barrels filled with sea water. Most families did not have their own mill or press so several families or a village would share the one device.

All of the foods served at Stella Croatica are based on traditional recipes and local ingredients. Daily tours give visitors a chance to encounter the cultural heritage of Dalmatia. They learn about the preparation and characteristics of top-quality olive oil, taste award-winning extra virgin oils and other Dalmatian delicacies such as fig and prune cake. Croatia produces magnificent dried figs, and I ate a lot.

Owners Melita and Andrija Polic believe that business success and sustainable development are intertwined, so their business strategy is based on respect for the land. “From the very beginning our goal was to become a reliable partner to our employees, business associates, suppliers and the whole community,” they wrote on their web site.

The farm provides work for scores of women from the local villages. “We accept our responsibility and impact which enables us to be the driving force of a positive change in the local community, to improve the quality of life and raise the awareness of preserving our tradition,” Melita Polic said.

olive02.jpgThe family’s story began in 2002 on the island of Mljet, which has a long tradition of producing home-grown products. The family started collecting old recipes for local delicacies.

They followed the advice of their grandmothers, which led to the creation of Stella Croatica. “Our mission is to revive the forgotten recipes of our grandmothers and present them in a new light [to] preserve the cultural heritage of our region.” The company has always followed HACCP principles, a way of managing food safety, and the new production facility (shown above) was build according to those principles. Stella Croatica was the first Croatian company to receive HALAL certification.

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Croatia’s islands of delight (4/6/2019)

The Dalmatian islands of southern Croatia are this week’s focus. Wine has been made there for perhaps 2,500 years. For publication in week starting 8 April 2019.

In his book Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson wrote that the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate wine and olives. The Illyrians and the ancient Greeks developed viticulture in what is modern-day Croatia, planting vines as their cultures spread.

Croatia is shaped like an upside-down six, with the Dalmatian coast stretching along the bottom of the upended six. Winemaking on the islands of Vis, Hvar and Korčula is believed to have started perhaps 2,500 years ago. About 1,800 years ago the Greek writer Athenaeus wrote of the high-quality wine from these islands. A visit this past week revealed some wondrous wines, many from varieties little known to the wine world.

The Illyrians lived in Dalmatia somewhere between the late Bronze Age (about 1,500 years before Jesus Christ) and the start of the Iron Age. Illyrian was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the tribes who lived in what is now known as Croatia. Winemaking probably started with the Illyrians or Greeks along the Croatian coast.

Croatia has two main wine zones: Continental and Coastal. The Continental area in the north-east – the top of the inverted six – produces rich and fruity whites similar in style to Slovenia and Hungary. It also makes big Mediterranean-style reds. The Coastal area, the focus this week, runs from Istria in the north to Dalmatia in the south.

Korcula03.pngOn the islands and the Dalmatian coast a combination of unique grape varieties grown on sandy and rocky terrain within small meso-climates has produced individualised wines that are some of Croatia’s best. An example of a vineyard is shown at left.

The Croatian Institute of Viticulture and Enology was established in 1996 to oversee the wine industry. Croatian wines are classified by quality, which is marked on the label. Vrhunsko is premium quality wine, Kvalitetno is quality wine and Stolno refers to table wine. Suho means dry, polusuho is semi-dry and slatko means sweet. Prošek is a Dalmatian dessert wine made from dried grapes, similar to Vin Santo in Italy.

Croatia currently has more than 300 geographically-defined wine regions, plus a classification system to ensure quality. Each of those main regions is divided into sub-regions, further separated into smaller “vinogorje” which translates as “wine hills”. Wine is popular in Croatia. Locals drink wine with meals though often it is diluted with water: “gemišt is a combination of white wine and fizzy water while “bevanda” is red wine with still water.

Two in three bottles are white, with the rest mostly red plus a tiny percentage of rosé or sparkling. Rosé and sparkling are not traditional but have emerged in recent decades because of demand. Last year Croatia produced about 102 million 750ml bottles, an increase of about a third on the previous year. In 2014, the most recent global figures, Croatia ranked 32nd among wine producing nations.

The arrival of phylloxera, a grapevine pest, in the 1870s devastated vineyards in Europe. For many years Croatian vineyards were unaffected so wine exports boomed. French companies planted vines in Croatia.

But by the start of the 20th century phylloxera took hold leading to the collapse of village economies in many areas. Large numbers of wine-growing families moved to the United States, New Zealand and Australia where they profoundly influenced to the growth of wine industries there. Mike Grgich (born Miljenko Grgić), was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena featured in the movie Bottleshock about the Judgement of Paris tasting.

Croatian vineyards were replanted by grafting traditional varieties onto American root stock. A handful of pre-phylloxera vines still survive on the islands of Korčula and Susak. The image below shows shows an observation tower in Korčula’s old city.

Korcula02.jpgMany vineyards were destroyed during Croatia’s war of independence from 1991-95. A return to small, independent producers has seen Croatian wines once again competing with the best in the world.

Croatian grape varieties can be confusing to foreigners partly because the spellings are unfamiliar but mainly because many varieties are only grown in a very limited area. The main white varietals are Malvasija, Grk and Posip. The last two are only found on the island of Korčula, and Grk is only made in Lumbarda on Korčula. Grk gets its name from “Greek” – an indication of the significance of Greek influence.

Posip makes elegant whites. Interestingly, both Venice and Korčula claim to be the birth place of Marco Polo, the famous explorer. Korčula has two museums devoted to him. Locals claim that Korčula’s noble families used both Croatian and Italian spellings of their name.

One of the noblest families was called Pilič, which means chicken in Croatian. Locals mainain Marco Pilič was also known as Marco Polo because pollo means chicken in Italian. The fly in the ointment is the fact that Korčula was part of the Hungarian empire when Marco was born in 1254.

Korcula04.jpgThe best-known red on the islands and the coastal mainland is Plavac Mali (it translates as “little blue”), a cross between Dobričić and Zinfandel. The latter is also known as Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia, where it is believed to have originated. In Italy that grape is called Primitivo. The Peljesac Peninsula, which includes Korčula and the mainland, is widely regarded as producing the country’s best reds. One of the best I tasted was a 2012 Plavac Mali by the Pecotič family at the Konoba Komin restaurant in Korčula’s old town (label shown left). These wines need to be cellared for two to three years, and then decanted for a couple of hours when served.

A word of warning about the price of alcohol in southern Croatia’s main city, Dubrovnik. Wine in supermarkets is very reasonably priced, at between 5 to 15 USD a bottle. But that same wine in a Dubrovnik restaurant can be up to 10 times more expensive. Let’s call it the Game of Thrones dividend for locals, as tourists descend on this beautiful city that was the setting for many scenes of the hit HBO TV series.

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Poetic guide to Chinese wine (3/26/2019)

A fine new book about China’s wine rebirth notes the many links between Chinese culture and the Western wine world. For publication in the week of 1 April 2019.

At dinner at one of the best restaurants in Foshan, China, in early 2008 my host insisted I choose the wine. The list was extensive and daunting. I sought advice from my translator, a Chinese woman doing post-graduate study in the United States.

She suggested I pick the second most expensive wine. I would not be seen as greedy because I had not chosen the most expensive, and I would not be seen as a cheapskate because I had aimed high. I accepted her reasoning.

The sommelier produced a magnificent decanter, polished the Riedel glasses and gave a theatrical performance as his team worked at a table nearby. They filled the glasses of everyone except me. By the time the sommelier poured me a glass, most of the nine guests had drunk theirs. They congratulated me on my choice.

The wine was corked, though thankfully the second and third bottles they ordered were not. I never got a chance to taste any bottle before it was served.

Things have changed a lot since then. The Chinese wine industry has boomed. The grape wine market is worth more than USD 18 billion a year. China produces more than 1,000 million litres a year of grape wine and has emerged as one of the world’s largest wine producers and importers.

Because the Chinese mostly drink red wine (nine in 10 bottles, on average) China became the world’s largest market for red wine half a decade ago. The world’s largest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon are in China.

This is understandable when we appreciate how auspicious red is in China. It is the colour of joy, happiness and prosperity. White is the colour associated with death. Chinese people wear white to funerals, not black.

unnamed.jpgThe world needs to understand the Chinese market and Janet Wang has helped considerably with the publication of The Chinese Wine Renaissance, timed for release with this year’s Chinese New Year. The book’s title is appropriate. The Chinese have always drunk wine, though initially from fermented rice or other grains. The word “bai jui” translates as “white wine” and refers to highly alcoholic distilled liquor.

In my local supermarket when I last lived in China in 2011 I could buy a litre of “bai jui” for under one dollar US. In the specialist wine shops nearby I could spend several hundred dollars for a small bottle of the finest “bai jui”. But Wang’s book is about grape wine. She writes that by next year China is expected to become the world’s second-largest wine market by value, after the United States. “Per capita wine consumption in China … is barely two bottles per annum (compared with around 14 bottles in the USA, 28 in the UK and 58 in France).” When I first wrote about the Chinese market for China Daily average consumption was about half a glass per year.

This suggests considerable room for expansion, especially because the middle class – about 400 million last year – will probably number more than 700 million within a decade. They have money and are not afraid to spend it.

This explains why Professor Li Demei, probably China’s best-known wine writer, judge and consultant, speaks of “China’s high-potential consumer market”. In 2014 he wrote that domestic production was still “at an early stage” compared with Europe or the New World and China “does not have the ability to compete internationally”. That situation might be changing.

When I lived in China, four in five bottles of grape wine consumed locally were made in the country. Wine Intelligence reported last July that the amount of imported still wine continued to grow at a double-digit rate and accounted for two in five bottles sold.

Janet Wang explains the wide range of wine regions in China. This is important because Professor Li Demei notes that these regions are difficult to understand because they are not defined the way they are in France or Italy.

Wang’s writing style is crisp, befitting a Cambridge University graduate who worked as a commodities trader in London. At times her prose is poetic, such as when she writes that wine represents “the concentrated wisdom of a culture, and the liquid mirror to the heart and soul of a people”. At other times the temptation to use wine puns is a bit much. Her feelings about wine at university are “uncorked and poured”.

Western wine culture resonates with the Chinese mind, Wang believes. A key factor is the value of time in “the diminishing and rarefying nature of wine”. One has only to attend an auction of desirable wine in China to appreciate this.

The concept of terroir finds parallels in the Chinese notion of “feng shui” and “feng tu” (the latter relates to the regional characteristics of a place). The Chinese love the search for balance in food and wine pairing, and the links between wine and health.

Chinese culture is deeply interested in meaning, symbolism and gesture, Wang notes. Her classical education in China — she moved to the UK as a teenager — shows in references to poetry and history. Fine wine and Chinese culture, she writes, are “heavenly born a double, earthly bound a couple”.

Because of the Cold War during the 1950s most Vitis vinifera cuttings came to China from Eastern European. Varieties like Rkatsiteli and Saperavi from Georgia are still being planted. The introduction of “international” varieties from the USA, Italy and France only started in the 1970s, with the “opening” of China after President Nixon visited in 1972. Until then the two countries had not had diplomatic ties for a quarter century.

China also leads the world in online sales of wine, something the West could learn from. In 2011 my Hong Kong colleague David Pedrol helped establish YesMyWine, one of the first online wine portals. He told me that on special occasions such as Tomb Sweeping Day or Chinese New Year the site sold half a million bottles a day. Average daily sales were about 125,000, though prices were low compared with European costs.

Janet Wang points out that mobile phone-led commerce in China is sophisticated, via sites like Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com. These sites make it easy for consumers to order via their smartphone.

Last year Wine Intelligence conducted research in 32 markets. Of these China was the only country that saw improved online purchases of wine. JD.com and Alibaba’s TMall were in the top three online retailers globally. I’ve written about these here.

The West could learn a lot from China, and Janet Wang should be congratulated for producing a helpful and eye-opening book. Here is a link to her web site for more information.

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A wine of stars (3/22/2019)

Wine and mysticism merge in the impressive wines of the organic and biodynamic Argentine estate, Chakana. For publication in the week starting 25 March 2019.

On a road trip to Peru Juan Pelizzatti discovered the peoples of the Andes mountains and its wild landscapes. It was soon after the Pelizzatti family had founded a wine estate in May 2002. He and his wife decided their winery would be named Chakana, an indigenous Quechua word for the stars of the Southern Cross but with a range of other meanings.

“The Inca empire was based on the stars,” Pelizzatti told a group of wine journalists at a London tasting of his wine organised by the Circle of Wine Writers. Pelizzatti (shown below) said he had experienced major change in his life, moving from being an engineer focused on business to a man who loves agriculture and who has embraced organic and biodynamic grape-growing methods.

JuanPChakana.jpegViticulture in Mendoza in Argentina, where Chakana is based, had become too industrialised, adding too many chemicals. Hence the decision to become organic in 2012. The estate was certified organic two years later, and became certified by Demeter and fully biodynamic from the 2015 vintage. “We want to challenge the industrial way of making wine.”

In 2016 winemaker Monty Waldin published a book called Biodynamic Wine. It is reviewed here. “Biodynamics gives wine a unique sense of individuality,” Waldin told me during a Skype interview prior to publication. “The fewer external elements you bring into your vineyard, the more you have a chance to represent your terroir. Biodynamics produces healthier soil with more disease resistance, and deeper rooting plants.

“Terroir is about the micro-biology of the soil as much as it is about climate and location. Soil is held together by micro-organisms and if you distort or kill them [with pesticides] you lose the influence of terroir, that ‘somewhere-ness’ that makes a wine stand out.”

Chakana’s winemaking style involves minimal intervention in the winery. They use indigenous yeasts, minimise the level of sulphur and other additives, and age wines in foudres (5,000 litre barrels) and un-lined cement vats to preserve the grape’s character. “Our goal is to produce authentic wines that express the character and identity of the Andean soils,” Pelizzatti said, noting that working with low levels of sulphur was a challenge because it has become so much a part of modern winemaking.

The estate also practises Ayni, the Andean principle of reciprocity. “To receive something, you must first give.” Ayni is the name of two of his wines tasted in London. All Chakana’s excellent wines are a return to traditional methods, before winemaking became too “industrialised” to use Pelizzatti’s word.

The Chakana, also known as the Inca cross, is a structure that looks like steps on an equal-armed cross. These show the cardinal points of the compass. Pelizzatti said the Chakana was also used for navigation.

The winery is located in Agrelo in the province of Mendoza, with 80 hectares under vine around it. The company has four other vineyards all on the slopes of the Andes at an average elevation of 950 metres, though some are at 1300 metres. The height influences the number of hours of sunshine and the way grapes ripen.

The vineyards were planted with Malbec, Bonarda, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc between 2002 and 2011, along with several recent re-plantings. Gabriel Bloise is the winemaker.

Chakana wines have evolved to associate with their source, a connection to the mountains, local people and traditional values.

The Incas also called the stones used to divert water in their canals a chakana. Water has become a fascination for Pelizzatti, the son of an Italian who as a young man escaped to Argentina after the World War 2 . In a way Juan Pelizzatti was reviving a family legacy because his ancestors made wine around Valtellina in Italy in the nineteenth century.

Many of the clones on the estate have been chosen because they are drought resistant. The region only gets 200 mm of rain a year. Agriculture needs at least 600 mm to be sustainable. Water for the vines comes from melting snow. Vines are drip irrigated.

A blog on the Chakana web sites notes that Pelizzatti hired a Chilean consultant, Pedro Parra, to study the soils of the Agrelo estate. Parra recommended the work of Alan York, which led to the conversion to biodynamics. Alan York died in 2014 but left an indelible mark on Chakana, Pelizzatti said.

That year Pelizzatti went to the small village of Dartington in Devon in western England to attend a course at Schumacher College, a holistic school founded in 1990 by a group of ecologists. There, he wrote, he experienced “a change at all levels: spiritual and human”.

Perhaps this explains the names of the vineyards which provided some of the wines tasted in London. The 2018 Chakana Nuna Vineyard Malbec from the Lujan de Cuyo region is designed for everyday drinking. Nuna means soul in Spanish. The company makes 200,000 bottles of this juicy delight. Most other wines tasted are made in much smaller quantities.

chakana01.jpgChakana makes two delightful reds from single varieties: The 2018 Sobrenatural Bonarda and the 2018 Sobrenatural Tannat, both grown in the Lujan de Cuyo region. Sobrenatural translates as supernatural, and the label (shown left) offers a cute visual pun about the lack of sulphur.

The 2018 Estate Selection Torrontes is an orange wine. Think of it as a white wine made like a red. Grapes are macerated for eight months. It has a superb nose of ginger and tropical fruits like passionfruit and lychees. Only 3,000 bottles were made for this first vintage, though I hope more will appear next year.

The 2018 Ayni Chardonnay (see earlier discussion about Ayni) is textural, smells like fresh bread and has a zesty freshness that reflects the calcerous and limestone soils of the Paraje Altamira region, where vines were planted at 1100 metres. Only 3,000 bottles were made.

Argentina is much better known for reds, especially those made from Malbec, but Pelizzatti believes white wines have a great future in the country, especially given the range of drought-resistant clones available. “I believe the future for Argentina is to show the regional differences associated with our range of terroir.”

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Montefalco, Italy’s rising star (3/15/2019)

Guest columnist Quentin Sadler discovers a new star in the Italian wine firmament: Montefalco in Umbria. For publication in the week starting 18 March 2019.

The landlocked province of Umbria neighbours Tuscany but feels more rural and quiet. Wine has been produced there for centuries with the whites of Orvieto and reds of Torgiano enjoying some success. But neither has managed to break through into the ranks of the great regions.

Umbria might now have found its true champion in the tiny region of Montefalco. This delightful place is well off the beaten track – my taxi to Montefalco from Rome airport covered nearly half the distance on unmade roads. It is centred on the pretty medieval town of Montefalco.

The town is small but utterly charming with beautiful narrow streets, fortified town walls and a scattering of wine shops as well as some excellent restaurants. It is a delightful place to wander around but its heart is the wine from the surrounding countryside.

The place enjoys a Mediterranean climate – olives grow in abundance – though with some aspects of a continental climate, including very cold winters.

Two distinct styles dominate local red wine production: Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG.

DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) wines come from recognised classic regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations, these are a guarantee of quality and provenance. DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) is a step above and the rules are more stringent, with longer ageing and lower yields.

The red wines are blends based on 60 to 80 per cent Sangiovese, the famous grape of Chianti, together with 10 to 25 per cent of the local Sangrantino grape and often some Merlot.

One of the oldest estates in Montefalco is the wonderfully named Scacciadiavoli. It means to banish devils and celebrates an exorcist who lived nearby. It was founded in 1884 and was originally a very large estate. This is where they created the local red blend of Sangiovese and Sangrantino as an alternative to Chianti.

The estate eventually fell on hard times and was broken up, but along the way produced the first recorded instance of a dry red wine made from the Sagrantino grape. That was in 1924 for a local festival and was only made once, before they reverted to sweet wines.

Montefalco DOC was created in 1979 in recognition of improvements in the local wines. Some fine dry whites are made here as well as reds, from blends based on the excellent Trebbiano Spoletino grape, which is a variety on its own and not Trebbiano. There are also some lovely crisp whites made from Grechetto.

I would also add that the nearby Spoleto DOC, which overlaps with Montefalco, produces some truly great white wines made from Trebbiano Spoletino.

But the premier wine from this region is the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG and it is this which is fast becoming one of Italy’s star reds. Originally it was part of the Montefalco DOC but was promoted to DOCG status in 1992. The rules specify the wine must be aged for a minimum of 37 months, including 12 months in barrel and four months in bottle.

Historically Sagrantino was considered so harsh and tannic that they either made sweet wines from it or blended it with softer, less tannic varieties.

The move to dry reds happened slowly from the late 1940s onwards. The sweet wines still exist, with many producers making a Passito Sagrantino from grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars.

One of the most famous estates here is Arnaldo Caprai, a pioneer in adopting modern techniques that lifted the quality of the dry wines. This foresight made the wines more exciting for foreign markets and helped others to see the potential.

It seems to me that Sagrantino has found its moment. Gentle handling, cold fermentation and less new oak seems to have tamed Sagrantino’s tannins, delivering ripe fruit and seductive charms that give the wines much wider appeal than ever before. Yes indeed there are tannins, but they are approachable and enjoyable, giving the wine structure rather than bite.

I have tasted some older vintages that I enjoyed, but for me the quality of the wines really took off from the excellent 2011 harvest onwards. Time and again it was the cool 2014 vintage and the ripe, generous 2015 and 2016 wines that impressed the most.

These are bold wines with big flavours, but there is also real elegance and finesse so they should appeal to lovers of Barolo, Brunello and Chianti as well as Bordeaux. A new star has been born.

Some producers worth seeking include:

Arnaldo Caprai: The whole range is impressive but my favourite was the Valdimaggio single vineyard Montefalco Sangrantino.

Beneditti & Grigi: The standouts were the Adone DOC Montefalco Grechetto white and their Sangrantino.

Scaccadiavoli: This beautiful estate makes lovely red wines as well as a fine traditional method sparkling rosé from 100 per cent Sagrantino.

Tabarrini: Giampaolo Tabarrini is one of those manic winemakers who never sits still and never stops talking, but he is charming and his wines are superb. His Adarmando Trebbiano di Spoletana and single vineyard Montefalco Sagrantinos are exquisite.

Bocale: The charming Valentino Valentini crafts a range of fine Montefalco Rosso and Montefalco Sangrantino that reflect his precise yet passionate nature.

Antonelli: Founded in 1881 and still owned by the same family. Filippo Antonelli is charming and funny and justly proud of his wines and heritage. His Anteprima Tonda Trebbiano di Spoletana and Chiusa di Pannone Montefalco Sagrantino are amongst the very best, while his Contrario Sangrantino is a lovely modern, unoaked take on the grape.

Cantina Fratelli Pardi: A family run estate that dates back to 1919, but produces a range of exuberant and bright wines that are modern in every way and yet true to themselves. Their Trebbiano di Spoletana is an excellent wine, while the Montefalco Sangrantino is richly fruity and seductive.

Every now and again a region emerges from relative obscurity to sit alongside the famous classic wine regions such as Barolo and Chianti, and that is a really exciting moment.

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Quentin Sadler.jpgQuentin Sadler is a wine communicator who has spent more than 30 years in the UK wine trade and has done it all from retail, buying and selling through to marketing. Nowadays he trains members of the trade as well as interested consumers in both WSET qualifications and bespoke courses. He is a popular speaker for wine clubs as well as giving presentations to the trade and hosting wine events and entertainments. Quentin also writes about wine and is a cartographer, creating maps used to illustrate wine books and educational presentations, as well as these articles. His web site can be found here.

History and Asolo’s reds (3/10/2019)

Red wines from Asolo, famous for its prosecco, are worth seeking if you enjoy Bordeaux-style blends. For publication in the week starting 11 March 2019.

The Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG appellation was established in 2009, and sparkling wine is easily the region’s best-known product. But Asolo also offers a range of high-end Bordeaux blends and a rare native red grape, Recantina.

Asolo is about an hour’s drive north-west of Venice. The Piave River, which runs through the region and enters the sea at Venice, has played a major role in Italian history. The Piave is called “Fiume sacro alla patria” or sacred river of the homeland because the Battle of the Piave was the decisive battle of World War I on the Italian Front in 1918. The area features in Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms.

Venice and Asolo have been linked for centuries. The latter has been popular as a place to escape the heat and humidity of Venice’s summer. In 1964 Venice hosted the French president, Charles de Gaulle. During dinner he selected one of the many bottles of wine for particular praise, telling guests it was the best Bordeaux he had ever tasted.

A brave sommelier pointed out that this wine was from the Asolo region. That dinner established the reputation of a wine that soon was renamed Capo di Stato, or wine of the head of state.

To understand the wine we need to return to the theme of war. Soon after World War 2 ended Count Peiro Loredan ordered the planting of Bordeaux grapes in an area near the Piave River with distinct red clay soils rich in iron and minerals called Venegazzù.

The count had carried cuttings from Bordeaux and dreamed of re-creating this French style. He was a descendant of one of the Doges of Venice, the leaders of the city from 726 to 1797 during the era of the Republic of Venice.

Many people talk of the greatness of Super Tuscans – Italian wines made from French grapes since the early 1970s – but Count Loredan was ahead of them.

Early in the 1960s the count created a special Venegazzù reserve, made in limited quantities in special years. It was this wine – from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec and produced for the first time in 1964 – that the French president praised.

The estate, whose full name is Azienda Agricola Conte Loredan Gasparini, has 60 hectares of vines – half planted to Glera for prosecco and the rest to the above Bordeaux varieties. The Montello DOC was established in 1977 and the special DOC Montello Venegazzù two decades later. Dominic Zucchetto, the company’s export manager, said wide temperature differences between minimum and maximum in summer at close to 20°C helped explain why the grapes developed intense flavours while ripening.

The current vintage of the Capo di Stato, the 2015, will become available next year. The estate provided a tasting of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages earlier this month along with the 2015. These are harmonious wines and worth pursuing, though prices rise outside Italy. The current vintage costs 22 Euro at the cellar door but is USD 49 in America and about GBP 35 in the UK.

Gasparini.jpgIn 1967 the count asked Italian artist Tono Zancanaro to create a label. The artist offered two sensual images he said expressed the male and female soul of grapes becoming wine. A woman’s partly naked figure appears as the feminine image with the words “pour Monsieur la Bombe” (right of photo).

The phrase “Des Roses pour Madame” appears on the masculine label (left of photo). Officially only the “male” label appears on the current wine with the “female” reserved for special occasions. It might be because conservative American buyers are wary of the suggestive female image.

In 1975 the count also planted 2 hectares of Glera grapes at the Vigna Monti vineyard. These are believed to be the first Glera grapes planted in the region. Wines from this vineyard were discussed in last week’s column. The region makes other reds under the Montello DOCG. These wines also employ Bordeaux varieties. This DOCG was established in the late 1960s.

Mirko Pozzobon is one of the best young winemakers. He has 15 hectares of vines, planted from 1989. He started the organic certification process in 2010 and it was granted in 2013, with details on the bottles since 2015.

Mirco02.jpgPozzobon uses no pesticides. His main spray is made from grapefruit seeds and is used to prevent the tingroli moth from laying its eggs on vine leaves. Think of it as a form of homoeopathy for the vines. His motto is “good grapes make good wine”. But this process is labour-intensive and requires 30 per cent more staff than traditional viticulture. Luckily Pozzobon has plenty of family to help.

After finishing university Pozzobon made wine in the Amarone region for a decade until 2007. His professor at the University of Verona, Roberto Farrarini, was a winemaker with the great Quintarelli estate. Read more about Quintarelli here. Pozzobon has focused on Asolo since 2012, and has been a winemaking consultant to Giusti since 2014.

One lovely wine is his 2017 Costa degli Angeli made from Mazoni Bianco. The name translates as angels on the hillside and the wine is heavenly. His 2016 Rossi del Milio is named for Pozzobon’s father Emilio, who planted Merlot vines in 1982 thinking they were Cabernet Franc. The wine is 70 per cent Merlot with the balance Carménère, another grape originally planted in Bordeaux. Pozzobon makes 18,000 bottles a year of this opulent and velvety red.

Recantina is the only autochthonous grape in the region. Armando Serena, president since 2012 of the Consorzio Vini Asolo Montello, said only six estates grow this wine on a total of about 10 hectares of vines.

It is scarce because at the start of the nineteenth century Napoleon’s troops were ordered to pull out local grapes and plant French vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Recantina has only recently been re-established in Asolo.

Dr Ian D’Agata, in his huge book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, devotes less than half a page to Recantina, though the grape family has been grown around Treviso in Veneto at least since the 1600s.

D’Agata writes that Recantina “has always been a highly regarded variety”. It ripens in late September, is vigorous and resists common diseases. He describes it as “a very perfumed wine (blackberry and an intense note of violet) with good tannic structure and acidity” and predicts that Recantina will “almost certainly one day” be included in the blends for Valpolicella and Amarone.

recantina.jpgThe Giusti estate provided a vertical tasting of Recantina (shown centre) earlier this month: 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014. These wines spend a year in Slavonian oak and then another nine months in bottle. Winemaker Mirco Pozzobon also uses a touch of mulberry, chestnut and cherry oak.

The wines were cheerful with plenty of red fruit and violet aromas, combined with soft tannins. Giusti has about half of all the total plantings of Recantina in Asolo. In 2014 they made about 5,500 bottles. In 2017 the total reached 12,700.

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Asolo DOCG prosecco sparkles (3/4/2019)

Prosecco is the world’s most popular sparkling wine. Last year 550 million bottles were sold around the world. For publication in the week starting 4 March 2019.

Analysts suggest the wine world is dividing into two main sales streams. One aims to produce lots of inexpensive wine for outlets like supermarkets. The other focuses on high-quality wines that attract premium prices.

The Asolo DOCG region in Italy, one of only two Prosecco DOCGs in the country (the other is Cornegliano and Valdobbiadene) is focusing on the latter stream. DOCG is the Italian classification at the pinnacle of production and stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (controlled and guaranteed designation of origin).

Growth in the Asolo DOCG has been phenomenal. The number of bottles has surged from 1.18 million in 2013 to 12.34 million last year. This column describes some of the best producers in the Asolo DOCG after a visit this past week.

Asolo has many attributes. The quality of the sunshine helps grapes ripen slowly, and the diurnal range – the difference between the maximum temperature in summer when the grapes are ripening, and the minimum temperature overnight – can be up to 20 degrees Celsius. This generates a long ripening process which creates a range of excellent flavours in the grapes.

The region has 10 different soils types, or terroir, another factor for producing a wide range of flavours. Asolo winemakers select specific clones of the Glera grape used to make prosecco to match the soil types to get the best flavours.

The town of Asolo is about a one-hour drive from Venice, itself visible on clear days from the hills of Asolo. The best Glera grapes are grown between 200 and 400 metres. The altitude explains why Asolo is often called the “city of 100 horizons”. It is easy to find remarkable views of beautiful countryside.

Asolo is also known as the “city of women”. Three of the most upstanding characters include Catherine Cornaro, Freya Stark and Eleanora Duse.

Catherine Cornaro became the Queen of Cyprus in the late 15th century. The poet Pietro Bembo, who celebrated Cornaro in verse, created the verb “asolare” to describe a relaxed out-door style of living, and that word has entered Italian language. Stark became famous as one of the first women explorers of the Arab world.

Duse was the originator of what became known as the “method” style of acting made famous by Konstantin Stanislavski. The American actor Lee Strasberg developed this style, which became famous through the work of Marilyn Munro and Marlon Brando.

Stark and Duse are buried in a beautiful cemetery in the hills above Asolo.

Another famous resident of Asolo is the English poet Robert Browning. The street leading to the main square is named Via Browning. Browning loved Asolo so much that he named his last volume of poetry, Asolando, after it. The book appeared the day he died.

Near the end of the nineteenth century Federico Martinotti, a professor at one of Italy’s most prestigious wine school, the Scuola Enologica in the town of Conegliano, invented a way to make sparkling wine that we now call prosecco.

In 1907 a French engineer, Eugène Charmat, patented another way to make prosecco. The world now prefers the term “Charmat method” to describe the way prosecco is made. Professor Martinotti is only remembered in parts of Italy, where his process is called “metodo Italiano” or “metodo Martinotti”.

Prosecco corks.jpgProsecco has become a global phenomenon. In 2013 it became the most popular sparkling wine in the world, overtaking sales of champagne. About 307 million bottles were sold in 2013 compared with a mere 5 million in 1972. Global sales have risen every year since 1998.

A regular prosecco cork is shown at right with a Col Fondo cork. The latter wine does not have as much pressure (3 bars or atmospheres) as prosecco (up to 5 bars) and thus has a different design. Fermented grape juice plus sugar and yeast are mixed in stainless steel tanks known as autoclaves, designed to withstand the pressures that build when sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Base wine is obtained by pressing the Glera grape.

The duration of the fermentation influences wine quality: The longer the fermentation the more noticeable the wine’s aroma and the finer the bubbles. The key difference between prosecco and champagne is the secondary fermentation. With champagne it takes place in bottles rather than autoclaves.

Champagne is usually appreciated for its complex secondary aromas while prosecco is more concerned with primary tastes and aromas. In the mouth prosecco tends to be acidic and crisp, with aromas of apple, pear and white peach.

Prosecco DOCG, also known as Superiore, comes in four forms depending on the amount of sugar left after fermentation. Extra Brut is the driest style with 0 to 6 grams of residual sugar per litre (g/L RS).  Brut is 6-12 g/L RS.  Extra Dry is the most traditional style and has 12-17 g/L while Dry has the highest level of sugar at 17-32 g/L. Asolo is the only appellation allowed to produce Extra Brut prosecco.

Prosecco must contain a minimum of 85 per cent of Glera. Grapes allowed in the blend include Bianchetta, Perera and Glera Lunga, and occasionally Chardonnay.

Gasparini has 60 hectares of vines, half planted to Glera. The estate makes about 450,000 bottles a year including about 200,000 bottles of prosecco. Gasparini plans to convert to organic viticulture and currently uses no herbicides.

My favourite wine was the Cuvee Indigena, made from the oldest Glera vines planted in 1975. It is a result of spontaneous fermentation using natural yeasts, so the amount of sweetness varies each year depending on the degree of fermentation. The word prosecco does not appear on the front label because the owners want people to appreciate the wine before connecting it with prosecco. About 10,000 bottles are made each year.

Their biggest selling prosecco is the non-vintage brut, made using the Charmat method. The wine has mineral and savoury notes encased in a zesty infrastructure.

Abbey.jpgA feature of the Giusti estate is the Saint Eustachio abbey (left), built more than 1000 years ago, that sits above the main vineyard. The estate has about 75 hectares of vines and makes about 320,000 bottle a year. Grapes are also sold to other producers. Ermenegildo Giusti bought the estate in 2004 after making his fortune in Canada. He seems content to spend his money rebuilding the abbey. “We lose money, but that’s not important. It’s for my grandchildren. “

The Bedin estate was one of the first vineyards in Asolo. The grandfather of the three brothers who currently run Bedin planted 1 hectare of Glera grapes in 1948. The estate has expanded to 80 hectares and produces 2 million bottles a year. Bedin exports to 25 countries, and despite their size remain a family concern who make excellent wines.

Dal Bello.pngAntonio Dal Bello (shown at right), owner and winemaker of the estate named after his family, has a passion for the environment. That passion is reflected in the quality of the wines. The estate has about 40 hectares of organic vines. Many of the wines are named in honour of Queen Catherine Cornaro, including the zingy 2018 Fuedo della Regina.

Next week’s column will consider the red wines from the Asolo region.

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New book about Picpoul (2/24/2019)

Last year’s harvest in Picpoul de Pinet was the biggest in the region’s history (90,000 hectolitres or 11.7m bottles). For publication in the week starting 25 February 2019.

The Picpoul region sits in the deep south of France, near the border with Spain, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the largest white wine region in the south of France and accounts for 57 per cent of still white wines produced in the Languedoc. Previous columns about the Languedoc can be found here and here and here.

The Picpoul region specialises in full-bodied, citrus-scented white wines exclusively from the Picpoul grape, also spelled as Piquepoul. The phrase “Pique poul” translates as “stings the lip” and refers to the grape’s high acidity. It matures late and is drought resistant. Grapes become golden when ripe.

Picpoul keeps its acidity even in hot climates (many white grapes produce low acidity in the heat, forcing winemakers to pick early to retain acidity). This makes it ideal for the Languedoc region, with its long, hot summers and relatively mild winters.

Wines finish with a delicate balance between acidity and structure. They partner beautifully with shellfish and crustacea, as well as cheeses and sausages. Picpoul produces wines with aromas of acacia flower, citrus, hawthorn and a range of herbs.

The elegant long green bottle used for Picpoul is linked to the sea. Since 1995 it has been known as a Neptune. About four in five bottles of AOC production come in a bottle with an embossed Languedoc cross and a ring of gentle waves around the neck, and a base shaped like a Doric column.

Picpoul vines thrive in sandy soils, which meant they managed to avoid the devastation of the phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century. The phylloxera louse, which destroys vine roots, does not like sand.

The Wine Searcher site tells us that the appellation runs along the French coast, separated from the Mediterranean Sea by the Bassin de Thau, a lagoon 11 miles (18km) long and three miles (5km) wide. On the horizon are two hills, Saint Claire in Sète and Sant-Loup, an extinct volcano in Agde.

More information and a map can be found here. The Picpoul region covers about 1,500 hectares around the Bassin de Thau. It is a limestone plateau covered by scrubland and vineyards and dotted with pine forests. In the north of the region the scrubland and forests produce a distinct fragrance known as “garrique” discussed in earlier columns.

In the south the landscape is less rocky with more rolling hills and the vines are closer to the sea. This area is almost exclusively planted with vines, and benefits from the influence of morning and evening maritime breezes that lower temperatures.

A few Picpoul vineyards can be found in Portugal and Spain, where it is known respectively as Picapoll and Avello. The grape has been planted in Australia and California.

The United Kingdom is Picpoul’s biggest export market by both volume and value. About 1.57 million bottles of Picpoul were sold in the UK last year, a 46 per cent increase compared with the 1.08 million bottles in 2017. Indeed, Picpoul accounted for 80 per cent of the Languedoc’s white wine exports last year.

It was appropriate that Marc Médevielle launched a new book Picpoul de Pinet: The White Mediterranean Vineyards of the Languedoc in London earlier this month, with photographs by Emmanuel Perrin. Médevielle founded the magazine Terre de VinsPicpoul book.jpg, named the world’s best wine magazine in 2012. More about the book here.

The book says the “picquepoul” grape (note the original spelling) was originally a black variety first mentioned in the mid 1300s in a land lease agreement for a plot of vines in Toulouse. The popularity of Iberian varietals and Bordeaux claret in the early 1800s forced winegrowers to propagate Piquepoul Gris – made into a rose or white style – to survive. White wines became very popular in Nordic countries in the eighteenth century and exports from the Languedoc soared. The region became the third largest exporter of French wines and by the time of the French Revolution [1789–1799] the Languedoc accounted for a quarter of all French wine exports.

Within another two generations vermouth production accounted for a large percentage of shipments. This wine, which used the Picpoul grape, was flavoured with chamomile, quinine, hyssop and marjoram.

In 1963 the French government launched a grand project to develop the Languedoc-Roussillon coast as a tourist destination. This was at a time when Picpoul plantings around the village of Pinet had fallen to perhaps 50 hectares.

Etienne Farras, President of the Pinet Wine Cooperative, was elected mayor of Sète in 1971 and celebrated the marriage of Picpoul de Pinet with the wondrous Bouzigues oysters. Since then, this distinctive wine with its lemony acidity has been recognised as having an unrivalled affinity with oysters.

Machine harvesting replaced hand collection in the 1980s and wine production increased threefold from 1975 to 1983. The Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet appellation was given AOC status in 1985. White Piquepoul grapes became the only approved AOC variety, and over the next decade production doubled.

The AOC today includes 24 privately owned wineries. The Picpoul de Pinet AOC covers the communities of Pinet, Meze, Florensac, Castelnau-de-Guers, Montagnac and Pomerols (the last not to be confused with Bordeaux’s Pomerol).

In 1998 Guy Bascou, president of the Syndicat de l’AOC Picpoul de Pinet until 2017, helped cement the region’s international recognition when he called Picpoul a “rare and popular” appellation – rare in production volume but popular in price.

In future some winemakers aim to make more complex wines from riper grapes with maturation on fine lees. La Revue du Vin de France says that the grape’s feature is its litheness: “The unique character shows lightly smoky, iodized notes and generous fruit, sometimes with overlaying hints of musk and honey that counter-balance the wine’s signature lemony acidity … an extra year’s ageing after bottling helps the wine to open up and show its true colours ….”

A highlight of the region is the summer jazz Festival de Thau in Sète established in 1991, where we can be assured that Picpoul is consumed in large quantities.

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Unique ways to store wine (2/17/2019)

A column last December about wine cellared in a disused mine attracted comment and questions about storage of wine. For publication in week of 18 February 2019.

A wine’s provenance – its source, life cycle and quality of storage – is vital information for serious collectors. In recent years winemakers have tried a range of ways to store their best products. The most common has involved water, though in recent years mines also started being used as cellars.

Storing wine under the sea gained much publicity in 2003 when Raúl Pérez in Spain first aged Albarino from Rías Baixas in a bay. This kind of environment – cold, dark, with constant pressure and no oxygen – can preserve a wine well beyond its average lifespan on land.

The discovery in 2010 of 168 bottles of champagne aboard a 19th-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea appears to have accelerated the trend. This champagne fetched high prices at auction, presumably because of its age and rarity.

The temperature of the water is important, as is the depth at which the wine is placed. For every 10 metres of depth the pressure on the bottle increases by one atmosphere.

The Gaia winery in Santorini, the Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer Champagne houses, Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion in France, the Bisson estate in Liguria and California’s Mira Winery have all employed ocean storage.

Mira called the method “aquaoir” (a play on “terroir”) and concluded that underwater storage accelerated ageing. Its 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, underwater for three months, was reported to taste as if it had aged an extra two years compared with a land-aged version.

In 2014 Clicquot initiated a “Cellar in the Sea” experiment to see how the house’s Champagne would age over half a century. We only have 45 more years to wait to see the results.

At the annual blind tasting of organic wines in London in July last year only two gold medals were awarded in the sparkling wine sector. One was for the 2012 cuvée Abyss from the biodynamic Leclerc Briant brand made by Hervé Jestin. It was aged in the sea for a year at 60 metres.

In the Picpoul sub-region of the Langedoc Julie Benau has stored her “Libero” in the sea since 2012. Rather than submerge wine after it has been bottled, Benau sinks four barrels which spend six months in an oyster bed at eight metres in the basin of the Etang de Thau lagoon south of Montpellier. Tidal movement acts as a form of lees stirring. Benau says the underwater wine is very different from her regular Picpoul.

In Australia Ben Portet, son of Dominic, and in South Africa Craig Hawkins are both experimenting with submerging barrels in tanks filled with fresh water. All the above begs the question: Will SCUBA training become part of the curriculum at wine schools?

Meanwhile, Cantina Tramin in Italy’s Alto-Adige have taken storage to higher levels – cellaring their new premium white inside a disused silver mine at 2,000 metres above sea level.

Willi Stürz, technical director and chief winemaker, wanted to see how his new wine, named Epokale, would age. The first vintage was 2009. In August 2010 staff carried about 1,200 bottles to the Monteneve silver mine in Ridanna. The number of bottles has gradually risen. About 3,000 bottles of the latest vintage are stored in the mine.

The 2009, and all subsequent vintages, have been stored at 2,000 metres above sea level about 3km inside the mountain. Humidity of 90 per cent is constant all year.

Last year Wine Advocate awarded its first perfect score of 100 points to the 2009 Epokale. It was the first time the magazine has given such an award to a wine not produced in Tuscany or Piedmont. Until then all perfect scores had gone to Barolo and Brunello wines.

It was strange being in the mine, about 120km north of the winery in Tramin. It was so cold that my breath condensed immediately. The only light came from the lamp on my helmet. The walls were covered with white lace-like fungus and the floors were muddy because of water dripping from the ceiling. Water comes from the melting ice on the top of the mountain 450 metres above. It was a surreal experience, and I was glad to be back outside in the sunshine.

Stürz said that 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 harmonious maturation and ageing of the wine. Also 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, gave Stürz the title of best winemaker in the country in 2003. The next year Gambero Rosso, Italy’s prestigious wine guide, named Stürz Italian winemaker of the year. He was born in Tramin and has done 27 vintages at Cantina Tramin.

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

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

Wolfgang Klotz, director of sales and marketing, said the ideal conditions in the mine could not be reproduced even with the best cellar. “Ageing in the mine gives the wine an excellent balance without losing freshness and fruit and at the same time maintaining its crispness.”

Grapes for Epokale came from two of the oldest vineyards near Nussbaumer on the south-eastern slope of Mendola mountain. Until Epokale was developed, Cantina Tramin’s Nussbaumer has been recognised as one of the best wines in Italy. Nussbaumer 2012 was named Italy’s best white wine in 2013.

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