Perfect wine in a mine

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.

Words: 1,002

 

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