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Northern Italy in September 2014

Northern Italy in late summer 2014

I was fortunate enough to be in Northern Italy in late September 2014. We were in the Veneto, Alto Adige

It was a particularly fortunate time to be in the region. It was harvest time after one of the most difficult vintages in living memory. Ordinarily, the growers can expect 300 days of sunshine every year. In the Valpolicella region of Veneto they had 100 days of rain during the summer. When we were there the weather had improved, and there was some hope that another week or two of hot weather would save some of the harvest, and improve the ripening prospects of the grapes not yet harvested.

It’s tempting to immediately write off the Italian vintage of 2014 – ‘oh, they had terrible weather, that was a dreadful year. An awful vintage.’ But that would be wrong. The amount of work done, and livelihoods at risk are just too important to summarily dismiss an entire vintage. We learnt a lot when we were there.

We visited six vineyards over two days, and tasted more than 60 wines. We discussed the problems of the vintage with the winemakers, the owners, and the marketing gurus. We were treated royally. Of course, the wines we tasted were wonderful – they’re not going to bring out the rubbish to the folk they hope will sell their wines to Irish winelovers.

Cantina Valpantena
We got to see different types of wineries, and different types of winemaking.First up was a co-op. All the grapes are bought in from local farmers, who get paid according to the weight and quality of the grapes. We were lucky to see a tractor arrive into the yard as we awaited our guide. The tractor arrived and drove on to a weigh bridge, where a type of pneumatic syringe sucked some juice from the grapes. The farmer then drove his tractor to large crusher, sunken at ground level (see the photo below), and tipped his load into the vat. He then returned the twenty yards to the office beside the weigh bridge, where the paperwork was ready for him. Within ten minutes of his arriving at the winery his grapes had been weighed, assessed for quality and were being pressed. And the price for his harvest had been agreed. The efficiency was very impressive.

This particular co-op is geared towards producing good quality wines at affordable prices. Later in our trip we saw the other end of the scale, where the grapes are hand-harvested into small (ish) plastic crates, designed to ensure the weight of the grapes does not crush those on the bottom of the crate. Tractors are different, and we could see plenty of grape juice flowing from the bottom of the tractor into the crusher. I’m no oenologist, but I’m guessing that this method is fine provided there is no great distance between the vineyard and the grapes’ final destination as berries. Otherwise, oxygen will start to work its evil, and the juice will become oxidised. So, speed is of the essence, and while we didn’t see the next step, I’m guessing some small amounts of sulphur were quickly added to protect the juice after pressing. Nothing wrong with that – every bottle of wine in the world contains sulphites (there’s another article here somewhere about all that!).

So, to stand out from the crowd, and make very good wine from large harvests coming from various growers, this co-op needs a top-class winemaker. And they have one – he’s the good-looking one in the photo below.

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Matt Thompson is his name, and he’s quite famous in the world of wine. Originally from New Zealand, he travels the world working as a consultant to wineries all over the world, in particular New Zealand, Italy and Chile.

We had dinner with Matt and his partner the night before we visited the winery, and he was very generous with his knowledge. He was kind enough to introduce me to brouglio, a kind of Italian Jaegermeister.

Matt has a great team around him, and he is in demand as a winemaker to the point where, the previous year, he was on 170 flights. That’s a lot of air-miles.

Cantina Valpantena is the name of the winery/co-op, and they make wine for Alpha Zeta, and Torres del Falasco, among others. It has 300 growers, and the vineyards are set in the hills outside Verona. In Greek, Valpantena means ‘The Valley of the Gods’, but local folklore has changed this to mean ‘The Valley of All Wines’. An indication of how good the whole system works at Valpantena is the fact that they can produce a very good Ripassa Della Valpolicella that we can sell for under €20.

Pieropan
Next up was the town of Soave, and the Pieropan winery. The town itself is a stunningly beautiful walled town, and the Pieropan winery is on what seemed to me to be the main street – a narrow, hilly street with lots of twists and turns. A narrow gate – just wide enough to allow entrance to a tractor – and a sign on the wall outside was all there was to indicate this was not just another house on the street. Mind you, the current owners live above the winery, so in one sense it is another house on the street.

Again, a tractor arrived as we waited for our host. You can see the difference in size here. These vineyards are owned by the Pieropan family, and the tractor pulled three containers (pictured below), and tipped them into the crusher, which was located just inside the gate. No need for weighing, or checking quality (that is done in the vineyard).

This was in Northern Italy in September 2014. And the winemaker is Andrea Pieropan. The care and attention that goes into the Pieropan wines is very impressive, and are reflected in the wines.

This was in Northern Italy in September 2014. And the winemaker is Andrea Pieropan. The care and attention that goes into the Pieropan wines is very impressive, and are reflected in the wines.

When our host, Andrea Pieropan (the good-looking one on the left this time), arrived, he immediately brought us up onto the roof of the winery, where the views of the surrounding Soave Classico region are stunning. The vineyards aren’t obvious from this distance, but in the first photo the Soave Classico vineyards are visible in the distance. The other photo is actually of a vineyard, almost hidden , where the grapes for the top Pieropan wine, La Rocca, are grown. It is a stunning wine, which I think is reminiscent of a very good Burgundy and, coming in around the €30 mark, is wonderful value given the quality.

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The Pieropans are traditionalists. They have no time at all for stainless steel, with most of their wine fermented and stored in cement tanks. The only wine that receives oak treatment is the La Roca, giving it a rounded creaminess.

Recently, the producers of Soave Classico lobbied successfully for a change in the law that allowed them to use screw caps on their bottles without having to drop the term ‘Classico’. This contrasts with the producers of Valpolicella Classico (see Allegrini below), who can only use cork closures on their Classico wines.

The Pieropan Soave Classico is crisp, dry and fruity wine, made from a blend of Garganega (85%) and Trebbiano di Soave (15%) grapes. The 2013 that we tasted had a touch of mineralogy, with flavours of peach and melon. To quote Robert parker – ‘A fantastic value wine… No one comes close to giving a more graceful and delicate voice to the workhorse Garganega grape’.

All of the wines we tasted from Pieropan were excellent, but the standout wine was the 2012 La Rocca, which is made from 100% Garganega, from a single vineyard, in the photo above. It reminded me of a good Burgundy. It is the only Pieropan wine that gets oak treatment. A real gem.

Allegrini – Valpolicella Region of The Veneto
We went from Soave to the Veneto region, where the best Valpolicella grapes are grown near the shores of Lake Garda. The lake plays an important role in the development of the grapes during the growing season, with the cooling breezes from the lake helping to lengthen the ripening process and concentrate the flavours.

Corvina is the important grape in Valpolicella, with support coming from Corvinone, Rondinella and the best-forgotten Molinara, which was delisted as an obligatory component in 2003.

Valpolicella comes in three styles – the basic Valpolicella, Ripassa della Valpolicella and Amarone  della Valpolicella. Amarone is made from dried grapes (wine made in this way in Italy is known as Passimento in style). The grapes were traditionally dried in the roofs of the vineyard buildings, on large trays. The photo below is the Pieropan drying room which, although it is in Soave, has a vineyard in Valpolicella. Most vineyards making Amarone now have large drying rooms with industrial air blowers to both help the drying process and lessen the risk of disease.

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Ripassa is often called a ‘Baby’ Amarone. When the Amarone has been made, the grape skins are taken out, and the regular Valpolicella is passed through the skins for a second fermentation. Ripassa means ‘passed through’, and the process adds body and structure to the basic wine, and also some alcohol.

The Allegrini vineyards are most impressive. They overlook Lake garda, and are amongst the best vineyards in the Veneto. Their top wine, La Poja, is made from 100% Corvina, and was the first Valpolicella to be made this way. It is a single-vineyard wine, coming from their best vineyard. At over €100 a bottle, it would want to be good, but boy is it good.

The Allegrini family have been making wine in the region for generations, and have been involved in the community, and in agriculture in the area since the 16th century. Bit of history there so. And if, by any chance, you’re looking for a nice getaway for a break with a few friends, the  chateau, for want of a better word, is available for hire. And quite impressive it is….

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Believe me, these photos don’t do it justice.

The Allegrini Valpolicella is made from grapes grown in the Valpolicella Classico region. However, it is not called a Classico because they have chosen to use a screw cap closure, and the rules of Valpolicella Classico do not allow this, unlike the rules for Soave Classico mentioned above. It is expected that the producers in Valpolicella will successfully lobby to have the rules similarly changed.

Franz Haas
Vineyards tend to be beautiful places. However, some are in the most stunning locations, and the combination of a beautiful vineyard in a special setting can leave you awestruck. The Franz Haas winery is such a place, as are their vineyards. They are located in the Dolomites, in the Alto-Adige region, with a view across the valley to the Alps. Austria is a few miles off to the right. This is the view from the door of the winery. They’re the Alps.

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If you ever want to taste a Pinot Grigio as it was meant to be, try one of Franz Haas’s. Since it became very popular, it has become a bit bland. This always happens with wines as they become more popular. Ubiquitous can mean over-produced and lacking in quality. Not in this case, though, and you can taste why Pinto Grigio became popular in the first place.

Franz Haas also produces an excellent Lagrein, one of the region’s best-known local grapes.

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The photo above is of one of the highest commercial vineyards in the Alto-Adige region, where Franz grows Riesling. It is a planting of Riesling. There are some experimental vineyards at higher altitudes, but this planting has been a successful experiment for Franz. the land around here is not cheap – about €1M a hectare, and the area in the photo covered with vines is about half a hectare. the wine would want to be good.

To summarise, it was a very informative visit to Northern Italy. A few days to savour the wines and hospitality of people that give a damn about how they make their wines.

August Bank Holiday Special

Every Bank Holiday weekend, we lose the run of ourselves and give a 10% discount on purchases of any 6 (or more) bottles of wine. The offer obviously excludes any wines already on special offer, and sparkling wines.

It’s a great opportunity to stock up on some of your favourite wines, or buy in advance if you have a get-together on the way. We like long weekends, so the offer applies from Thursday through to Monday.

Our Corporate Services

Corporate gifts are something of a speciality for us. From a well-presented single bottle, to twinpacks, magnums, hampers and full cases of wine, we can supply a wide range of gifts tailored to match the situation.

Some tips on choosing the right gift
Sometimes it’s worth considering quality above quantity. A few years ago a customer told us about a corporate gift he had received for Christmas. He was very much into his wine, and knew his stuff. One of his biggest corporate partners gave him a gift of a case of wine, and he ended up throwing it all down the sink. It was all basic ‘supermarket’ wine. His comment was that the same money spent on a single bottle would have been wonderful.

Some wines can impress simply by what’s on the label – Chateauneuf du Pape and St. Emilion Grand Cru spring to mind. Of course, just because it says that on the label, it doesn’t mean the wine is any good. But when you do get a good one, and the recipient is knowledgeable about wine, the impact is strong – job done. If the recipient is a wine connoisseur it is worth considering a gift of one or two bottles of wine rather than six or even a full case. The trick is to buy them a wine that they wouldn’t ordinarily buy for themselves – these are wines that they will cherish and remember who gave it to them.

For general gifts on a budget, twinpacks work well, and now that the country is emerging from the hell of the past few years, gestures like this are greatly appreciated again. We think it’s a good idea to steer clear of obvious wines (e.g. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). Some people will have it in their minds that they don’t like one or the other. So, in order to ensure that they won’t have a sinking feeling when they see the wines, choose a wine whose variety is not as obvious, and blends are good in this regard. Also, something different is always intriguing.

For these general gifts, it is also a good idea to give wines that can be enjoyed without food but are robust enough to be enjoyed with most meals. A really good ‘food’ wine can be disappointing if it is opened to go with TV, and since it’s impossible to know when the recipient will open it, a wine that ticks both boxes is a better option.

Wine Tasting Nights

For Sports and Social Clubs, a Wine Tasting Night can be great fun. We have done many of them over the years and they work really well. We supply the wines – usually up to eight different wines – and talk through the basics; how to taste wine, how to spot faults in wine and how to understand the more complicated labels.

Spot prizes and quizzes on the night add to the fun, and we also offer a discount on any of the wines ordered. We do not sell any wines on these nights (it takes away from the fun and our licence forbids it), but are happy to give a discount on any of the wines tasted that anybody orders.

The quality of the wines we taste on these nights depends on the budget and the number of people attending, so give us a shout if you’d like more information on these nights.

Sulphites in wine

The laws in Europe and the USA are very different when it comes to labelling wine bottles and the amount of sulphites they contain. And, since this is Europe, we won’t bother with the laws in America, except to say that they have the labelling part of the laws wrong.

In Europe, a wine can be labelled as being made from organically-grown grapes if the wine contains less than 100ppm (parts per million) of sulphites. There are other elements in making organic wines, but we’ll concentrate on the sulphites levels here.

Typically, the better winemakers (whether certified organic or not) will use less the 50ppm and, since sulphur is a natural by-product of the fermentation process, it is impossible (and undesirable) to have zero sulphites in wine. It is worth noting that our bodies produce sulphur on a daily basis, and there are far higher dosages of sulphur used in other foodstuffs.

I think the problem with high levels of sulphites in wines is that these wines are also very likely to have been subjected to herbicides, pesticides and systemic fertilizers. And, since there is no evidence that excess sulphites in foodstuffs causes headaches, it is far more likely that the overall excesses of chemicals used in badly-made wines is what gives that feeling of ‘oh, I didn’t think I drank that much last night’.

So, while there is a focus on sulphite levels, it is the overall cocktail of additives that are the enemy, and it is a good thing that there is measurement of sulphite levels, as this helps to identify the winemakers that care about their vines and make wine properly.

The problem, of course, is certification, but that’s another story, and another article. Which is here somewhere.

Organic certification and why some winemakers aren’t certified.

We think there should be a category of certification in winemakers for “Wines made by people that give a damn”. If there was, almost all of the wines we stock would be categorised thus. We would like this figure to be 100% and are always working towards that, but it is impossible to verify the provenance of every bottle.

So, certification exists for Organic and Biodynamic wines (see the article about these and Natural wines elsewhere on the site). But not every winemaker wants to be certified, and here are some of the reasons why:

Some winemakers do not like the idea of somebody in a white coat with a clipboard telling them how to do their jobs, particularly when it will change very little about how they grow their grapes and make their wine. Especially when they have to pay for the privilege.

If your neighbour is not organic, it is very difficult for you to be. The wind is the problem. It is highly unlikely that any sprays used by your neighbour would adversely affect your end product (and systemic fertilizers are irrelevant here), but the occasional drift onto your vines would very likely mean that you would fail to meet the guidelines.

A Spanish winemaker once told me that he did not not want to be part of what he saw as a flawed system. He would have met the criteria for both Organic and Biodynamic certification, but did not want to be involved.

One very highly respected Australian winemaker told us that under no circumstances would they consider seeking certification as organic, even though they believe they would comfortably meet the criteria, and could well afford the cost. This is because they want to reserve the right to intervene should adverse weather conditions mean the crop was at risk and could only be saved by non-organic intervention. It hadn’t happened, and is unlikely to, but they don’t want to be restricted in any response that might be needed in the future. Also, they feel it is much worse to have your certification withdrawn than never to have had it in the first place.

Our ‘Winemakers That Give a Damn’ use organic sprays, no chemical herbicides, pesticides or systemic fertilizers – they care for the land and use sustainable farming methods. And, after they’ve done all that, they are good at making wine with the grapes. After all, just because you can grow grapes organically it doesn’t mean you’re a good winemaker.

It’s when the two are combined – good practices in the vineyard and good winemaking in the winery – that you can taste the difference.

The Differences Between Bordeaux and Burgundy

In Bordeaux they blend the wines from a few different grapes, in Burgundy they don’t. One of the reasons they use a number of grapes in Bordeaux is the unreliability of the weather. In order to protect against spring frosts, hail and autumn rain they plant vines that flower and bear fruit at different times. That way, the entire crop will not be devastated by one bad weather event.

The main red grapes in Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Malbec and Carmenere are also grown in the region. The main whites are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. They also have a Left-Bank/Right Bank thing going on. On the Left Bank of the Garonne river Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the blend, while on the Right Bank the main grape is MerlotSome of the famous regions on the Left bank are Médoc, Haut Médoc (which itself contains St. Estèphe, Margaux, Pauillac and St Julien), Pessac-Léognan and Graves. Pomerol, St. Emilion, Fronsac and Côtes de Blaye are among the regions on the Right Bank.

In Burgundy there is no blending of grapes and the wines are 100% varietal. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two great grapes of Burgundy. Aligoté is the ‘other’ white Burgundy grape, best known for the addition of blackcurrant liqueur to make a Kir. Chablis is considered part of Burgundy and, while Beaujolais is often referred to as part of Burgundy, it is a distinct region of its own.

Apart from Chablis, Burgundy contains the Côte d’Or (consisting of the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune), Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais.

In Bordeaux, estates are referred to as Châteaux, while in Burgundy the term Domaine is used in the estate’s name. There are over 7,400 Châteaux in Bordeaux, and most of them are nowhere near a castle.

Rules and Regulations:
Throughout France, the AOC system operates, but it has different variations of the rules in each region, and sometimes with an appellation (St. Emilion is one such case). The rules are way too involved and boring to go into here, but a couple of the basics can be helpful. For example, the biggest AC in Bordeaux is Bordeaux AC, and Bordeaux Superieur is simply any wine that is more than 0.5% stronger in alcohol than Bordeaux AC wines. Bourgogne is the basic Appellation in Burgundy, and can represent good value, particularly when the wine comes from close to a designated village, such as Meursault or Volnay.

A Bordeaux bottle

A Burgundy bottle

90s Night – A Review

Our 90s Wine Club night on November 4th was great fun. We had eight wines open for tasting that received 90 points or more from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator or The Peñin Guide. The wines we chose were:

2011 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc)

2010 Grosset Off Dry Watervale Riesling (Australia – Clare valley)

2010 Pian dell’ Orino Rosso di Montalcino (Tuscany – 100% Sangiovese)

2010 AN/2 (Majorca – a blend of local grapes (Callet, Mantonegre, Fogeneu) with some Syrah)

2010 Clos Mogador (Spain – Priorat. Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cariñena)

2010 El Reventon (Spain – Castilla y León. 100% Garnacha)

2006 Leoville Barton Saint-Julien (Bordeaux, Medoc. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc)

2003 GD Vajra Bricco Delle Viole Barolo (Italy, Piedmont. 100% Nebbiolo).

They all showed well, with the El Reventon getting the most first preferences on the night. The Off Dry Riesling was also a hit, surprising most people with its accessibility. We opened the Leoville Barton because Robert parker said it was too young to open and, while he has a point, it was still drinking well but will obviously become even better with a few more years’ cellaring. It suffers from the same problem a lot of top Bordeaux wines have – by the time it’s at its best there will be none available.

Organic, Biodynamic and Natural. What’s the difference?

There is a lot of discussion, and a little controversy, about Organic, Biodynamic and Naturalwines these days. So, what is the difference?

Organic wines don’t actually exist legally. What does exist are wines “made from organically grown grapes”. Put simply, organic grapes are grown with the minimum of intervention and using as few chemicals as possible. Pesticides are a no-no. Most growers would, however, use sulphur, but keep its use to a minimum. Without the stabilising effect of sulphur, wine spoils easily.

The difference between Organic and Biodynamic was best explained to me by Daniel Jimenez-Landi, maker of one of our most popular wines, Bajondillo, and such stellar wines as Pielago, Ataulfos and The End. Daniel explained that, during the first two weeks of the moon’s cycle, the sap in all plants rises and falls back during the second fortnight. So, you don’t prune the plants during the first two weeks. That’s Biodynamic. There’s a lot more to it than that, obviously, and the moon plays a part in it all. Interestingly, Daniel (at the time I met him) is not part of any Organic or Biodynamic movement and his wines are not certified in these categories. He does not want to be part of these movements. I don’t think he likes having to obey anybody else’s rules when it comes to making wine.

So, to Natural wines. There’s no definition, no rules, no legal status. It seems to be based around the ethos of the least possible intervention at every stage of the process. Some natural winemakers don’t even use any sulphur and will only use natural, local yeasts. There is a lot of antagonism from some other winemakers towards the Natural Wine movement. It’s a bit like ‘are you saying my wines are unnatural?’ In some corners they are seen as self-appointed overseers of how wine should be made and resented accordingly.

Is one better than another? Is Biodynamic better than Organic, and Natural better than both? No is the answer to that, simply because there are good and bad winemakers in each category, just as there are in each country and in each region. If it shows that the winemaker cares throughout the whole winemaking process, then the wine in your glass is more likely to be very good and an excellent expression of the wine of the region concerned.

There’s a winery called Acon in the Ribera del Duero region in Spain. The owner, a man in his seventies, has installed a sound system in the cellar and, while the wines are maturing in barrel, he plays music to them for an hour a day. Does this improve the wine? I doubt it, but I do know that he shows the same level of care throughout the entire growing and winemaking process, and cares greatly for the land and the environment. Not surprisingly, his wines are superb, but they’re not organic, biodynamic or natural. Does it matter?