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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.