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.
Quentin 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.
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.
In 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.
Pozzobon 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.
The 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.
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.
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 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.
A 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.
Antonio 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.
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 Vins, 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.
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.
When wine achieves greatness it can inspire the soul. Thus we consider the aesthetics of wine. For publication in the week starting 11 February 2019.
Aesthetics is a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, and the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste. In its finest form, winemaking aspires to be an aesthetic pursuit.
Any winemaker who makes great wine from her or his patch of land – their terroir – is creating beauty when they allow the truth of the land to be expressed in the wine. And walking through a beautiful vineyard in a serene setting helps us appreciate not only the beauty of nature but the essence of aesthetics.
Many vineyards are associated with works of art, which is an attempt to express the connection between wine and beauty. At the Colognola estate in the Marche region of Italy a huge bronze sculpture of a stallion dominates the entrance of the newly-developed winery. Made by Fernando Botero, the great Columbian sculptor, it is twice the size of a normal horse and cost one million Euros.
The statue combines the interests of Serena Darini, the daughter of the owner, who divides her time between winemaking, horse breeding and show-jumping. But it also shows the link between wine and art.
The winery’s interior is precise and clean – much like great art – and the precision is reflected in the wine. Colognola has 25 hectares of estate vines, the bulk devoted to Verdicchio.
Dr Ian D’Agata, author of the seminal book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, believes Verdicchio has the potential to be considered Italy’s greatest native white grape: “The only other white varieties in Italy that can match Verdicchio’s versatility and potential for great wines are Veneto’s Garganega (with which Soave and Recioto di Soave are made) and Campania’s Fiano.”
Verdicchio is one of the many Italian grape varieties named because of its colour. Berries have an obvious green tinge, and the colour transfers to the glass (the Italian word for green is “verde” and the name translates as “small green”).
The Ancona would be considered beautiful relative to any wine region in the world. It sits on the east coast of Italy, about three hours by train due east of Rome, and offers rolling hills, serene valleys, limestone cliffs and superb coastlines with glistening blue seas and white sands. The region has a series of villages with faded stone houses that would be ideal as sets for movies set in the Middle Ages.
Winemaker Gabriele Villani of Colognola said the estate had the advantage of a wide diurnal range in summer because of the altitude, which contributed to the quality of grape flavours. “At midday in summer it’s 25C while overnight it goes to about 10C.”
Cologna’s flagship wine is the Labieno Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva DOCG Classico, fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on lees for 24 months in botti (large format old oak barrels). This wine is picked late, usually about mid October.
The two main DOCGs for Verdicchio in the Marche are Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. The former refers to the castles that protected the land during medieval times. The latter is less well known and is centred on the town of Matelica, nestled in the only valley in the region that runs north-south.
A reflection of beauty within the Matelica region is the more than 70 theatres built in the villages of the Marche last century. In a pre-television age they were the centre of local culture, and we can imagine the wines tasted prior to productions of great Italian operas and plays.
Many wineries put paintings and other beautiful images on their labels, an homage to the link between wine and aesthetics. The Yunnan Red Wine Company, near Yunnan’s capital of Kunming in China, has some of the most beautiful bottle labels this writer has ever seen.
In Bulgaria, Nikola Zikatanov, owner of Villa Melnik, said he was inspired by a story from the Gospel of St John where Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, said he was the root to the vine of life. A replica of a painting depicting the Gospel story sits in the main reception at the winery.
Nearby Orbelus Estate is the first and one of the few certified organic vineyards in Bulgaria. Wines are made in a striking winery and cellar shaped like a half barrel designed by the architect daughter of owner Blagoy Roussev. In this case the winery itself is a work of art.
Not everyone has had an emotional experience associated with a wine though a great wine, like a work of art, can sometimes make us reflect or ponder or smile or perhaps cry. Only one bottle, a red by Quintarelli in the Valpolicella region of Italy, has ever brought me to tears.
Our emotions are weird things that sometimes do not connect directly to what we are experiencing in the moment, but are often linked to memory. My tears with the Quintarelli experience might be connected with a memory of a love from years before as much as it might be the result of an experience from right now. Great art and wine have that rare capacity to bring together the past and the present.
Like a great piece of music or a majestic work of art, great wine has the power to evoke emotions. Gerard Bertrand, founder of Gerard Bertrand Wines in the Languedoc region of southern France, believes an exceptional wine is a combination of “time, space, energy, spirit and soul”.
Does wine have a soul or spirit? Something that exists beyond the physical? Bertrand believes so. “The greatest wines travel directly to the heart,” he said. In a way he is talking about great art as well.
Winemaking can be an art form and wine helps celebrate Humanity’s potential, the same way a Beethoven symphony or a painting by Rembrandt or Titian helps us appreciate Mankind’s majesty. At the sublime end of the spectrum, the alchemy involved in making great wine is a form of magic, a liquid essence of human achievement and spirit.
Like art, wine can be a pleasure for people who understand it but a mystery for those who do not. With time in the cellar of memory, wine helps us broaden our horizons and encourages us to embrace the mysteries of life.
Wine exports from Australia are thriving, and represent the fourth highest amount for any country in the world. For publication in the week starting 4 February 2019.
Six weeks in Australia gave me a chance to appreciate one of the country’s leading wine regions, around Geelong in the state of Victoria.
Australia is the world’s sixth largest exporter – about 780 million litres a year last year — and those exports were worth about AUD 2,720 million (USD 2,100 million) in 2017, the fourth highest total for wine exports in the world after France, Italy and Spain.
Exports last year totalled 852 million litres, the equivalent of 95 million 9-litre cases. The value of these exports rose relative to 2017 to AUD 2,760 million, but represented only USD 2,000 million because of currency fluctuations.
About 40 per cent of Australia’s production is consumed domestically. The local market was worth about AUD 2,800 million (USD 2, 209 million) last year. Australians consume more than 530 million litres a year, meaning a per capita consumption of about 30 litres per adult, according to Wikipedia. White table wine represents about half of local consumption, and red table wine a bit more than a third.
Swiss immigrants planted Australia’s first vineyards around the city of Geelong in Victoria from the mid 1840s. The discovery of gold in Victoria less than a decade later meant prosperous folk had money for wine and by the mid 1860s the Geelong region was known for premium wines and was recognised as the country’s most significant region, both in terms of size and reputation.
A decade later a phylloxera epidemic devastated the area and in 1875 the Victorian government ordered all vines to be ripped out of the ground to try to stop the spread of the phylloxera aphid. It kills vines by sucking moisture from vine roots. Vineyards were not replanted because more money could be made from other agricultural pursuits like growing wheat.
Winemaking did not really resume for almost another century. The Anakie and Idyll vineyards pioneered winemaking in the late 1960s. Since then Geelong, in the south-eastern area of Victoria, has become recognised as one of Australia’s finest cool climate regions, specialising in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz, plus a range of other global grapes like Semillon, Viogner and Cabernet Franc.
Geelong has a similar climate to Burgundy in France. Cool-climate regions have long been recognised as the best places to grow grapes because long and cool autumns provide the best conditions for ripening grapes slowly. This concentrates flavours and ensures distinct aromatics and nuanced profiles.
Chardonnay is the region’s most planted variety and wines made from this variety are elegant and fruit focused. Flavours vary depending on the terroir.
The Geelong region actually consists of three distinct sub-districts. Each sub-region produces different style of wine.
The Bellarine sub-region sits on the picturesque Bellarine Peninsula east of Geelong, the second-largest city in Victoria. Ocean breezes and spectacular scenery are a feature of the peninsula, which explains why the area has the largest number of vineyard restaurants open to the public. Wines made away from the water tend to be sturdier and richer than the lighter and more aromatic wines produced on the peninsula.
Some of the best known estates there include Bellarine Estate Winery, Scotchmans Hill (subs: note no apostrophe), Leura Park and Curlewis Winery. The Bellarine Peninsula has the added attraction of being near one of Australia’s most beautiful ferry routes. Take a ferry from Queenscliff on the peninsula to Sorrento on the other side of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, leading to the Mornington Peninsula wine region. Melbourne sits at the northern end of the bay.
A feature of the ferry ride is the large number of dolphins that follow the vessel. They are beautiful to watch as they sport and play around the ferry, often swimming upside down alongside the ferry, their white bellies aglow in the blue waters.
The Moorabool Valley sub-region is the north of Geelong. It has dark volcanic top soils over sandy loam. It is the largest in terms of distances needed to be travelled between vineyards, though it has the smallest number of vineyards.
The Surf Coast-Otways sub-region south of the city is, like the Moorabool area, warmer and drier than the Bellarine.
Best wines in the Moorabool Valley include Clyde Park Vineyard, Lethbridge Wines and Shadowfax Winery, the last named for the horse ridden by Gandalf the wizard in the Lord of the Rings sequence of novels. Lethbridge Wines are especially good, crafted with great precision by Dr Ray Nadeson. He was a successful academic before giving up science in 2003 to found a vineyard. One could argue that his area of academic research, pain relief, has been replaced by another more pleasant way of dealing with pain.
Best vineyards to visit in the Surf Coast-Otways sub-region include Brown Magpie Wines, Dinny Goonan Wines, Bellbrae Estate and Mt Duneed Estate. The last is located in Pettavel Road, the road named after some of the original Swiss immigrants who made wine. The estate hosts major music events each February, and performers have included Sir Elton John and Fleetwood Mac.
Dinny Goonan is a family-based operation that opened in 1988. It has focused on Riesling and Shiraz. A fascinating newcomer is the “Proserpina” sparkling wine made in an “Italian” style from Riesling grapes. It crisp and refreshing and designed to drink now, with a beer-cap closure.
Australia’s southern states of Victoria and Tasmania produce the finest Pinot Noir in Australia, and most of the best are grown in a u-shaped arc that runs through Victoria on the mainland and the island of Tasmania. The right-hand side of this u-shape traverses the Mornington Peninsula south of the state capital, Melbourne. The base of the “u” covers much of the island state of Tasmania while the Geelong region forms the left-hand side of the “u”.
Mount Moriac Wines, established in 1987, focuses on Pinot Noir and makes some fine examples of Geelong wine. The cool and dry climate — plus sandy loam soils that offer good drainage and limit excess vigour in the vines — are ideal for Pinot Noir. Yields are kept low. Estate wines are only made if the winemakers believe the grapes are of sufficient quality. Pinot is also used to make quality sparkling wines in the traditional method.
Other fine Pinot Noirs tasted in the region came from Scotchmans Hill and Bellarine Estate. The Scotchmans Hill label is kept for the premium end of the spectrum and is best cellared for a few years. But the lesser-priced Swan Bay wine, designed for early drinking, is a delightful mass of black cherries and good acidity and an absolute bargain.
It is natural at the end of the year to reflect on the highlights, and that will be the focus of this column. For publication in the week starting 31 December 2018.
My most unusual wine experience in 2018 was visiting a cellar in a former silver mine, 2000 metres above sea level and about 450 metres below the summit of the mountain that contained the mine.
The cellar contained the 2009 Epokale, a Gewürztraminer made by Cantina Tramin in the Alto-Adige region of northern Italy. Wine Advocate magazine awarded its first perfect score of 100 points to this white wine earlier in the year.
It was the first time the magazine had given 100 points to a wine not produced in Tuscany or Piedmont. Until then all perfect scores had gone to Barolo and Brunello wines. The 2009 Epokale was my best white wine experience in 2018.
Willi Stürz, technical director and chief winemaker at Cantina Tramin, wanted to resurrect a traditional style of Gewürztraminer and observe how the wine aged in a mine. In August 2010 Stürz and his staff carried about 1,200 bottles to the former Monteneve silver mine in the Ridanna Valley about 120km from Italy’s border with Austria. Epokale 2009 was stored for seven years. All subsequent vintages of Epokale have been stored in the mine.
Humidity of 90 per cent is constant all year. The mine was so cold that my breath condensed immediately. The only light came from the lamp on my helmet. The walls were covered with lace-like white fungus and the floors were muddy because of water dripping from the ceiling. Water came from melting snow on the top of the mountain about 450 metres below the mountain’s peak.
Wolfgang Klotz, Cantina Tramin’s director of sales and marketing, said the 2009 vintage was sold mainly to fine restaurants around the world. Its price before the Wine Advocate award was 51 Euros, he said.
A visit to the Vipava Valley in Slovenia offered my most exciting wine region in 2018. Wine has been grown in the valley in the west of the country, about an hour’s drive from the capital Ljubljana, for at least 2,500 years.
Locals are helping to revive the Rebula grape, native to the area. They make it in four styles but the most fascinating is the macerated version. The technique is similar to making a red wine, though with a white grape.
Edvard Svetlik, owner of Svetlik Estate, described Rebula as the “queen” of white grapes who showed her true beauty when macerated. Grapes are fermented using natural yeasts on the skins and macerated for anywhere between 14 and 100 days before spending at least two years in old 2,500 litre barrels and then two years in bottle.
The result is wines with aromas of dried figs, apricots and pears and notes of dried herbs and sea breezes, plus a distinctive colour ranging from amber through to gold. This was my best “amber” wine experience in 2018.
This revival in Slovenia was possibly inspired by the success of the same grape in Italy, where it is called Ribolla Gialla. Vipava and Italy’s Friuli region are only about 110 km apart, separated by the Collio mountains, a sub-part of the Alps. In Friuli wines from some of the big names like Gravner and Radikon sell for more than 80-100 Euros a bottle.
My most charming wine story in 2018 concerned the revival of the beautiful Ruchè grape in Italy. When Giacomo Cauda was appointed parish priest to the village of Castagnole Monferrato in Italy’s Piedmont region in 1964 he discovered his church had 1.3 hectares of vines. Those vines included 10 rows of Ruchè.
Luca Ferraris, winemaker at the Agricola Ferraris estate in the same village, said all of the current 170 hectares of Ruchè in Italy came from those 10 rows. The grape received DOCG recognition in 2010. It is one of the smallest DOCGs in Italy.
Don Giacomo was born in Roero, a major wine area in Piedmont, and knew something about winemaking. In 1965 he began his “adventure” as a priest-winemaker – though he only made 28 bottles that year.
The wine became known locally as “vigna del parroco” or “vineyard of the priest”. Don Giacomo gave cuttings from those 10 rows to locals. When DNA testing became available scientists discovered the grape was unique.
Ian D’Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, believes Ruchè is the one Italian grape that wine lovers really ought to know. For him it is a rare example of an aromatic red variety that makes wines impossible to confuse with any other variety.
The priest’s superiors in Rome told him to give up winemaking and concentrate on being a priest. Don Giacomo ignored them.
In his last years the priest sought forgiveness for focusing on winemaking, maintaining that the wine paid for repairs to the church and food for his congregation. “May God forgive me,” he wrote, “for having sometimes neglected my ministry. But I know that God has forgiven me because with the money earned from the wine I created the oratory and renovated the parsonage.”
The most interesting wine technology was the release in early March of a new cork that used only sustainable ingredients. The new process, Origine, is made of tiny cork granules, beeswax and vegetable oils.
It satisfies the needs of winemakers who want a closure suitable for long-term cellaring. The new method produces corks known as Diam10 and Diam30, the quality closures designed to be used with bottles to be cellared for 10 or 30 years. The process which purifies the cork also uses minimal electricity.
Diam Bouchage, a French company based in the Pyrenees region of France near the border with Spain, is one of the world’s leaders in artificial closures. It makes about 1,500 million corks a year. Diam is the name of the closure for still wine, Mytik for sparkling wine and Altop for spirits.
In 2018 I came to appreciate the joys of aged white wine. The grapes I regard as giving the most joy when aged at least a decade are Verdicchio and Pecorino from the Marche region of Italy.
Happy new year to all my readers. This column will continue in a modified format from 2019, focusing on the connections between wine, diet, health and philosophy. But first I will take a break for January. Best wishes for 2019.
The annual ProWein Business Report aims to be the most comprehensive analysis of the global wine business. For publication in the week starting 24 December 2018.
China has become the world’s most attractive wine export market, according to the annual ProWein Business Report. In last year’s survey China was rated the ninth most attractive. The report noted China’s rising demand for imports and the big increases in volume and value of exports there from Australia, France and Chile.
This is the second report ProWein has commissioned. ProWein is the world’s leading wine trade fair, and the largest gathering of professionals from viticulture, gastronomy and the wine business. Their next wine fair will be in Dusseldorf from March 17-19.
ProWein commissioned the Institute for Wine and Beverage Business Research, headed by Professor Simone Loose, at Germany’s Geisenheim University. The institute surveyed more than 2,300 experts in the wine industry from 46 countries about international markets and trends, and developments in online sales.
The number of participants this year rose 60 per cent from 1,487 to 2,364, making ProWein’s Business Report the most comprehensive barometer of the international wine industry, ProWein said in a press release.
Other countries rated as the most attractive export markets after China included Japan, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada. South Korea, Poland and Switzerland dropped in the listing. The focus of the wine world increasingly was seeing a shift “away from the traditional wine production countries … to the East, Asia and in part also Eastern Europe”.
The first ProWein report said Russia, China and Brazil would become the most attractive markets, and the latest report confirms those predictions. Russia rose from rank 16 to 11 while Brazil went from rank 15 to 13.
The large populations of the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, China) suggested high potential for wine exports, last year’s report said. But tapping into this potential was also associated with high market risks due, in part, to political and economic instability.
The most attractive markets over the next few years would be China, South Korea and Poland, the report said, followed by Russia, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia. These top seven were followed closely by the two important North American markets – USA and Canada – where wine consumption continues to rise.
“The USA and Canada represented an important growth impetus for the international wine sector next to Asia.” Handling geographically and culturally distant markets in Asia would be a major challenge for European wine producers over the coming years, the report said.
The United Kingdom represented the weakest link with the lowest expectations for the future. Factors included constantly rising alcohol taxes, the amount of shelf space lost to wine because of competition between established retailers and discount stores, and the economic and legal uncertainties associated with Brexit. The traditional wine markets of France and Italy were also expected to less attractive.
Four out of five producers interviewed for the report plan to expand export activities to new markets over the next three years. This is understandable given the fact the domestic markets of the biggest wine producers – Spain, Italy and France – are saturated.. New markets were seen as the only way to compensate for losses and generate growth.
This also means the international wine trade will continue to gain in volume and importance. Singapore, the Czech Republic and Taiwan were seen as representing the highest potential for new markets over the coming five years. But fewer exporters saw possibilities in Vietnam, India, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia – regarding them as difficult to penetrate. The proportion of their population who could afford wine was smaller in these markets than in other developing countries. High taxes on wine imports were seen as a major barrier.
Among emerging export markets India was the first choice for wine producers from the New World – Australia, the USA and South Africa. Cultural links via the Commonwealth and a common language would make it easier for these countries to work in India. Yet one in four of producers polled for the report did not see a potential market in any of these emerging markets over the coming five years.
Perhaps surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was ranked fourth among the emerging wine markets. This position illustrates the rising importance of wine for tourists and expatriates in this gateway to the Arab Peninsula. This ranking was in line with other indicators such as the number of participants in WSET courses from the UAE.
Wine retailers are looking for wines from new origins. Almost half of wine retailers who visit ProWein plan to expand their range with wines from new origins. Portugal, South Africa and Argentina were most favoured as additions to existing portfolios.
Online sales were seen as important. The share of producers and wine retailers who run their own online shops was high at 38 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively. But the share of sales generated by these sites varied widely. On average specialist retailers sold more than a fourth of their products online (28 per cent). But producers sold only 5 per cent of their stock online.
But all market players expect online trade to grow. “Asia has leapfrogged several steps in this development and holds markedly higher online shares [partly] because wine consumers are predominantly young.” The majority of specialist wine retailers believe that running an online shop involves a lot of work.
The ability to compare prices on the web keeps profits low: “Over the next years it will be of decisive importance to the industry to find solutions for the in part cut-throat price competition caused by the high market transparency on the Web.”
The wine industry is generally optimistic about the future. Large wineries are the most optimistic. “Wine-growing estates see the situation as stable while co-operatives expect the economic situation to deteriorate markedly. Importers and exporters expect the economic situation to improve in 2019 after a deterioration between 2017 and 2018.” Specialist wine retailers rated the situation as stable.
A wine cellared in a disused silver mine has received the first perfect score for a white wine in Italy. For publication in the week starting 17 December 2018.
The Wine Advocate has awarded its first perfect score of 100 points to a white wine: The 2009 Epokale, a Gewürztraminer made by Cantina Tramin in the Alto-Adige region of northern Italy.
It was also the first time the magazine has given such an award to a wine not produced in Tuscany or Piedmont. Until now all perfect scores have gone to Barolo and Brunello wines.
Willi Stürz, technical director and chief winemaker at Cantina Tramin, wanted to resurrect a traditional style of Gewürztraminer to observe how the wine ages. The wine was named Epokale and 2009 was the first vintage.
Epokale is unique in being stored for seven years in a disused silver mine about 2,000 metres above sea level.
Grapes were harvested at the end of October 2009 and about 10 per cent were affected by botrytis or “noble rot”. After the soft pressing the 2009 remained on the lees for eight months before being bottled.
In August 2010 Stürz and his staff carried about 1,200 bottles to the former Monteneve silver mine in the Ridanna Valley about 120km from Italy’s border with Austria. All subsequent vintages of Epokale have been stored in the mine.
The fact the winery lacked a proper space for long ageing spurred the decision to move Epokale to the mine. The number of bottles has gradually risen. About 3,000 bottles of the latest vintage, the 2016, are stored in the mine.
Cantina Tramin arranged for a guide to meet the author and another journalist in the village of Ridanna. The guide drove us to the mine entrance, and then a small train took us 3km into the mountain. We walked about 500 metres in the mud to the winery’s locked cellar.
Humidity of 90 per cent is constant all year. The mine was so cold that my breath condensed immediately. The only light came from the lamp on my helmet. The walls were covered with lace-like white fungus and the floors were muddy because of water dripping from the ceiling. Water came from melting snow on the top of the mountain. We were about 450 metres below the mountain’s peak.
Willi Stürz said wines stored in the mine were better than those cellared in the winery because of constant temperature and pressure. “Constant high humidity, darkness, silence and above all the constant fresh temperature of 11 [degrees] Celsius are ideal conditions for ageing of the wine. Atmospheric pressure is lower at such a high elevation. Less oxygen is forced into the bottle and the oxygen content inside the mine is lower compared with the air outside.”
Bibenda, Italy’s association of sommeliers, named Stürz as the best winemaker in the country in 2003. The next year Gambero Rosso, Italy’s prestigious wine guide, made Stürz Italian winemaker of the year. He was born in Tramin and has done 27 vintages at Cantina Tramin.
Wolfgang Klotz, the company’s director of sales and marketing, said the ideal conditions in the mine could not be reproduced even with the best cellaring conditions. “Compared with an Epokale stored in the best possible conditions in our winery, an Epokale that has aged in the mine enjoys a more homogeneous maturation process. With time [the] freshness and fruit of a wine usually wither, [but] ageing in the mine gives the wine an excellent balance without losing freshness and fruit and at the same time maintains its crispness.”
The 2009 vintage has been sold mainly to fine restaurants around the world. Its price before the Wine Advocate award was 51 Euros, Klotz said.
Stürz said the Epokale project embodied his company’s passion for Gewürztraminer, a wine they “constantly strive to enhance and improve”.
The discovery in 2010 of 168 bottles of Champagne aboard a 19th-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea received a lot of publicity. These wines fetched high prices at auction, presumably because of their age and uniqueness.
It is possible that this event prompted winemakers around the world to consider new ways to “cellar” wine, though Cantina Tramin had been researching new storage methods for several years prior to the 2009 vintage.
Some companies have stored wine in tidal estuaries and deep water. But this is the first example of wine stored in a mine.
Klotz offered a blind tasting of four 2009 Gewürztraminers at the winery after I visited the mine. Three were grand cru from Alsace and the other was Epokale. It stood out because it was powerful yet delicate. Its freshness balanced its high residual sugar. It had aromas of roses, citrus and tropical fruits along with mineral and spicy notes of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.
“Our goal was to create a new wine that explored, as never before, the ageing potential of Gewürztraminer,” Klotz said.
In his monumental book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, wine expert Dr Ian D’Agata noted that centuries ago the non-aromatic Traminer grape mutated into the spicy variant called Gewürztraminer. It is mostly associated with Alsace in France.
Traminer originated around the town of Tramin in Alto Adige, where Cantina Tramin is located. The suffix “er” is how the German language creates the possessive form. The German prefix “Gewürz” means spicy or aromatic, though in the context of grapes it also means “giving intense aromas”.
Grapes for Epokale came from two of the oldest vineyards near the village of Nussbaumer on the south-eastern slope of Mendola mountain in Tramin. Until Epokale was developed, Cantina Tramin’s Nussbaumer was noted as one of the best whites in Italy. The 2012 Nussbaumer was named the country’s best white in 2013.
Cantina Tramin was founded as a co-operative in 1898. The company represents about 300 growers who cultivate 260 hectares of vines. Cantina Tramin makes about 1.8 million bottles a year. Annual sales last year were worth about 14 million Euros.
In all it was a surreal experience being in the mine, and a relief afterwards to enjoy the sunshine outside. But it was worth it after I tasted this magnificent wine, which deserved the perfect score from Wine Advocate.