Highlights of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words: 1,019

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