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Fri 09 Dec 2016

A Winners’ Trip to Tuscany: Part Two

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In October four lucky members and their guests made a ‘trip of a lifetime’ to visit some of our favourite Tuscan producers in the company of Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW.

Here’s the second instalment from Societynews editor Joanna Goodman (read part one here).

Into the heartland of Chianti Classico for the winning members of our Tuscan tour starting at Castello di Brolio, the birthplace of modern-day Chianti, followed by an afternoon in the company of Paolo di Marchi at Isole e Olena to learn about the rebirth of Chianti in the post-seventies whicker-flask era and finishing up at Fontodi with Giovanni Manetti where the grapes were still coming in! A final flit to Carmignano country and Villa di Capezzana on the way to the airport completed our trip…

Good morning Siena!

good-morning-siena

What a difference a day makes. Opening up the shutters on our second morning in Tuscany, the sun streamed in and the view across the hills in the early-morning mist was stunning. The vision was made even more magical with the appearance of a host of hot-air balloons, hanging surreally in the sky before us. Today was going to be another great day.

Yesterday, our adventures in Montalcino and the very south of Chianti Classico were fabulous, despite the drizzle and cold. We’d found out about the fickle sangiovese grape and how it changes from place to place (even changing its name in Montalcino where it is called ‘brunello’), but today we would learn even more about its capricious nature, as well as the history of Chianti itself.

Castello di Brolio – the birthplace of Chianti
I had visited this famous Tuscan estate around 20 years ago and knew that we were in for a treat. Back then, we hadn’t gone inside the imposing castle – ancestral seat of the Ricasoli family since 1141 – so I was thrilled to learn that we would be taken on a guided tour.

The group at Castello di Brolio The group at Castello di Brolio

We were met by Elisabetta, a cousin of the current Barone (Francesco Ricasoli), who took us first on a quick tour of the vineyards to point out the different aspects and soils of this vast 1,200-hectare estate, 230 of which are under vine. Most of the vineyards are south/south-west facing and at an altitude of 200-500 metres above sea level. 80% of the vineyard area is planted with sangiovese, but merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malvasia, plus experimental plantings are also grown.

Elisabetta explained that one of the most important aspects of the estate is the fact that they have more than 20 different soils on the estate, the five most important being: galestro (a schistous clay soil), sandstone, argilliti (sedimentary clay marl), limestone and alluvial soil.

She took us to the side of the road to point out the different rocks to help in our geological education. Some of the rocks dug out of the vineyard were huge – it gave you some idea of how hard the work must have been for the original land workers who would have had to haul out these rocks by hand. Nowadays, machinery and dynamite make it a little easier!

Brothers Dominic and Paul Tooke survey a large galestro boulder at BrolioBrothers Dominic and Paul Tooke survey a large galestro boulder at Brolio

History of the Ricasoli family
Elisabetta explained that the castle was strategically placed almost mid-way between Florence and Siena and that the side facing Siena was constructed of red stone mirroring the buildings there. The north side facing Florence is made of ‘green stone’ (limestone), in homage to the architectural style of that city.

Castello di BrolioCastello di Brolio

It seems that the castle has always been caught in between these two warring rival cities, but the ‘Iron Baron’ Bettino Ricasoli is credited with bringing about peace and unifying Italy, going on to become prime minister of Italy not once, but twice!

Whispering the secret password to get us inside the enormous castle walls, Elisabetta took us on a tour of the castle telling us more about the incredible Bettino, whilst showing us around the museum set up to display his many accomplishments.

He was a real polymath – an artist, philanthropist, scientist and politician – interested in the education of the children on the estate; he studied soils, collected shells, carried out early research into phylloxera; his studies of grape varieties and experimentation in wine led to the first written formula for Chianti as we know it today, identifying the importance of sangiovese in the blend.

Although the formula has been modified over the years, sangiovese is still recognised as the most important variety in the mix and today must make up at least 70% of the blend (80% for DOCG wines). The rest is made up of either native canaiolo or colorino, or non-native cabernet sauvignon or merlot. White grapes, which were included in the original formula (their acidity helps to fix the colour of the wine, among other things), can no longer form a part.

You can go on guided tours of the castle and I would thoroughly recommend it: there’s plenty to see and the castle is truly atmospheric in all its gothic splendour. Our host hinted that the building was still patrolled by the Iron Baron and someone heard her whisper thanks to no one in particular as we left.

Tasting the Castello di Brolio wines
We headed back down to the office building for a tasting with export manager Andrea Maiolatesi who took us through some of the more recent developments at Brolio.

Tasting at Castello di Brolio with the family tree (the inspiration for Colledila label) in the backgroundTasting at Castello di Brolio with the family tree (the inspiration for Colledila label) in the background

Since the early nineties, the 32nd Baron of Brolio, Francesco Ricasoli, has been engaged in a massive replanting project. Using modern techniques, help from the university of Florence and also with the knowledge passed down over generations, he has set about replanting the vineyards, matching terroir to variety and identifying the best clones of sangiovese, matching vines with the best rootstock and increasing the vine density.

They are fortunate to have such a wide variety of different terroirs to play with all on one estate as well as a wealth of different vine stocks at their disposal.

Buyer Sebastian Payne MW had told us in the coach on the way here that he had stopped buying the wines for a while as they hadn’t been as good as they had been in the past, but that now they were really starting to shine again. All that hard work and endeavour is starting to reap dividends.

We started our tasting with the white Toricella 2015, a Tuscan IGT wine made from 75% chardonnay and 25% sauvignon blanc. Our group of members seemed to really like this wine. I can’t help but feel that the first wine of the day, especially a white in a predominantly red-wine region, always seems to have a little something extra about it! Sure enough the wine was beautifully poised – lush oaky vanilla flavours from oak-aged chardonnay combining with fresh, bright acidity from the sauvignon blanc.

Next came a red – Colledilà 2013 Chianti Classico DOCG – a Gran Selezione wine. This comes from a single vineyard and is 100% sangiovese. The Gran Selezione label is the highest category, above Riserva, and the grapes must come from the estate and the wine aged for a minimum of 30 months. It has to pass muster by a tasting panel from the Chianti Classico consorzio. Andrea explained that this wine isn’t produced in every vintage and that it undergoes 20 months in barrel and a further 10 in bottle. ‘It needs further ageing’, he said, but despite the smoky, cigar character, it wasn’t heavy but showed great elegance already. Sebastian says that he has bought a little for members, which will be released at a later date.

The Castello di Broilio Chianti Classioc DOCG 2013 is also a Gran Selezione wine made from 90% sangiovese, 5% cabernet sauvignon and 5% petit verdot. Still quite firm and ‘chewy’ with savoury, truffley aromas, there’s lots to get your senses around in this wine. It’s the big brother of the Brolio Chianti Classico, the 2013 vintage of which we currently list.

Casalferro Toscana IGT was the invention of Francesco Ricasoli when he took on the running of the business in 1993. His first release was a 100% cabernet sauvignon, in 1997 it was 50% cabernet 50% merlot but now, in the 2013 vintage, it’s 100% merlot. Why the change? After lots of tasting with his agriculturalist, Francesco decided that the merlot from this one particular vineyard was so amazing that it really warranted being made into the wine on its own. ‘Chiantified merlot’, Sebastian said and he must have approved of its sweet, herbaceous balsamic fruit as it’s currently on our List!

The final wine in the line-up was another relatively new invention of Francesco Ricasoli’s, made in tribute to Bettino Ricasoli. Called Brolio Bettino Chianti Classico DOCG 2013, it is made from predominantly sangiovese and is unfiltered and aged fo 18 months in large traditional barrels (botti). Lovely ripe red fruit with a touch of typical austerity, this could be drunk now or cellared further, we were told.

Osteria del Castello - highly recommended!Osteria del Castello – highly recommended!

We were treated to lunch in Brolio’s restaurant, Osteria del Castello, before heading to our next appointment and very good it was too. Knowing that we were to be eating out in the evening too we tried to limit the number of courses taken (always tricky in Italy – even more so when there were some really interesting dishes on offer, created by chef Silvia Zinato).

If you are ever in the region, I’d recommend a visit, or you can even stay in some renovated cottages on the estate.

Isole e Olena – the story of Chianti’s rebirth
Winding our way up through the narrow forest roads, you really got a feel for just how isolated parts of Chianti Classico are. Sebastian said that the roads were much improved since he has been visiting these parts and that in the winter, the roads can still be quite hairy.

Sebastian explained that Paolo de Marchi’s family were Piedmontese and had bought up two neighbouring estates based around the hamlets of Isole and Olena in the west of Chianti Classico in the 1950s. The land had been share-cropped but, but as was the case with many such estates, the locals had abandoned the land for work in the cities.

Sebastian Payne and Paolo de Marchi - Sebastian had said that Paolo always had something interesting to say on his visitsSebastian Payne and Paolo de Marchi – Sebastian had said that Paolo always had something interesting to say on his visits

It wasn’t until 1976 that Paolo took over the estate and he had to start practically from scratch with very little money. ‘The first years were all about survival,’ Paolo told us. ‘I had to borrow money from the banks to try to rebuild the tumble-down houses and replant the vineyards.’ It wasn’t until 1987 that Paolo planted his first vines, a project that is still ongoing. Importantly, he realised the significance of clonal variety in the vineyards; using massal selection he has managed to create vineyards with a great diversity of plant material.

‘Sangiovese isn’t genetically that strong,’ he explained, carrying on the refrain that we had picked up from our first visit in Montalcino. ‘It isn’t like cabernet sauvignon, for example, that gives a strong identifiable character, no matter where it is planted, sangiovese, is less easy to pin down, it’s more variable and sensitive to its surroundings, this is its beauty….think of it like the Alps, with lots of smaller peaks rather than the Himalayas with its great mountains!’

But he didn’t just stick to sangiovese, planting chardonnay, syrah and cabernet sauvignon amongst others too. Sebastian had told us that Paolo is always experimenting and trying out new things.

He took us up to the tiny hamlet of Olena where one family have moved in and are gradually renovating some of the ancient properties. Paolo explained that he has always tried to maintain something of the history of share-cropping – not-for-profit ventures such as bee-keeping, experimenting with ancient strains of wheat, orchards of apples and apricots – all great for maintaining biodiversity, essential for the good health of the land.

Before getting onto the subject of Chianti’s revival of fortunes (for which he can claim to be one of the trailblazers), Paolo shared his concern for the future. This is hard physical work and Paolo worries who will take over from him in the future. He knows it will be hard to let go of all that he has worked for but recognises that he will need someone to challenge and experiment as he has done and that he will need to stand back and watch them make mistakes.

‘I studied oenology at Turin university, but you don’t really learn about making wine properly until you get your hands dirty in the field and the winery.’ Looking around our band of members, I could see that some were wondering if they’d ever have what it takes to take on such a fantastic project – they were certainly under Paolo’s spell, anyway.

The perfect storm which dealt a huge blow to Chianti
The sun was starting to go down, but we were still wandering around the ruined buildings of Olena and Paolo was in full flow, telling us about the history of Chianti and the constant struggle to produce top-quality wine.

Deserted streets of Olena

In the post-war period there was a demand for cheap bulk wine and, unfortunately, Chianti at that time was all about quantity and not quality. A surge in price for bulk wine (remember the old raffia flask wines?) didn’t help matters. The wine produced at this time was thin and pale in colour with white grapes helping to sweeten the rather tart, often unripe sangiovese. Sadly the DOC rulings came about in 1966 enshrining some of these bad practices and the mix of grapes in law before any of the moves to create more quality-focused wines could take hold. Things were only set to get worse when the oil crisis of the 1970s saw a slump in the bulk price of Chianti, just as the fruit from newly planted vineyards planted to meet the earlier high demand came on stream, creating a huge surplus. The bulk price fell dramatically leaving many estates on the verge of collapse.

But it’s an ill wind that doesn’t bring someone some good, and so it was for the top-quality producers of Chianti Classico. Innovative winemakers started to experiment with their wines, reducing the proportion of white grapes, introducing ‘foreign’ grapes like cabernet and merlot to beef out the sometimes austere sangioves, making 100% sangiovese wines and playing around with smaller barriques to age the wine in rather than the traditional botti. Because these wines flouted DOC regulations, they had to be labelled as simple vino da tavola, but their reputation grew and they started to gain attention, earning the sobriquet ‘Supertuscans’.

Paolo arrived just at the right time you could say. He focused on low-yielding clones, re-established the abandoned terraced vineyards and set his sights on producing quality Chianti. He too created his own Supertuscan, Cepperello, which is usually 100% sangiovese, though sometimes he adds in a little cabernet sauvignon to flesh out the mid-palate.

Cellars dug out of the rock at Isole e OlenaCellars dug out of the rock at Isole e Olena

We walked through the cellars, dug into the rock below the house, and Paolo told us of his plans to extend – he’d like to be able to age his wines and release them when mature for the top restaurants. He said that when he first started out he had barrels all over the house, including the bedroom, ‘it nearly drove my wife mad!’

Back in the main building above the cellars, Paolo took us through his wines, talking all the time about changes in climate, in winemaking, in consumer tastes. But regardless of external forces, the Isole e Olena style remains one of elegance, with fragrance and drinkability to the fore. His 2014 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico DOCG has attractive red fruit and spice with a richness to the finish. It has a splash of syrah in the mix. ‘Table-friendly Chianti’ is how Paolo describes it and you can imagine it going beautifully with some of the lovely food we’d tried over the last couple of days.

Next came the 2013 Cepperello IGT Toscana. 2013 was a pretty good year in Tuscany, ‘like the old days with harvest in mid-October,’ Paolo said. Made from the best plots of sangiovese on the estate, the wine is aged in French and American oak barrels for 20 months before bottling. Very full-bodied but with the characteristic red-fruit character, the wine still feels like a sleeping giant. One for the cellar, I’d say.

Isole e Olena villa

We tried two of Paolo’s ‘Collezione Privata’ wines – a 2009 syrah and a 2013 cabernet sauvignon. Paolo said that he wasn’t trying to create another Supertuscan but felt that both the cabernet and syrah do well here. They are lighter than elsewhere and fresher, reflecting the terroir (though not to the extent that the sangiovese does.)

The sun was sinking fast and we had to take to the road again for our final appointment of the day at Giovanni Manetti’s Fontodi estate in Panzano. It wasn’t too far away, but the roads were going to be wiggly!

Fontodi’s Giovanni Manetti – a fellow trailblazer for Chianti Classico
Like Paolo de Marchi, Manetti is one of the heroes of modern-day Chianti. His vineyards are in a prime location in the conca d’oro (golden shell) of Panzano – a south-facing natural amphitheatre in a relatively high-altitude location for Chianti (400m above sea level).

It’s because of this higher position that they were still picking at Fontodi, the cellar hands were still scrubbing and washing down the grape reception area when we got there ready for the next day, which Giovanni said would be the end of the harvest. We worried that he’d had rain all day as we had in Montalcino, but he said that it had been fine here – a special spot indeed!

For someone who had been harvesting for weeks now, he still looked remarkably fresh and took off at a brisk pace to show us as much as he could of the winery in the fast-dying light.

The sun setting over PanzanoThe sun setting over Panzano

He showed us the amphitheatre of vines stretched out below the village on the hill to the right and explained how he had gradually persuaded all his neighbours to follow his example and convert to organic farming (well, all but one neighbour, apparently!) We asked how he had managed to do this and he said that it was largely a question of demonstrating how much healthier the soil and therefor the grapes were. I imagine Giovanni’s charm worked a treat too. He is now using most of the principles of biodynamic viticulture too.

In the winery, there’s very much a hands-off approach too. Everything is designed to make the most of nature – the cellars built so that gravity can be used to move the wine from place to place (rather than being pumped). Giovanni said that he leaves the grapes sealed for 24 hours and lets fermentation start naturally, ‘last night it was so cold however that we had to heat up some of the vats!’ he revealed. When the sun went down it was decidedly chilly up here.

I couldn’t hear much of what was said on our tour of the winery as it was still very much a place of action even this late into the evening. One thing that did surprise me on our tour of the cellars was the number and variety of sizes of clay amphorae clearly being used for winemaking. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise as the Manetti family have been manufacturers of fine clay amphorae for centuries. Giovanni’s brother is in charge of that side of the business and apparently there is a boom in demand for amphorae for the wine trade with orders coming in from across the globe.

Giovanni Manetti showing us one of his clay amphoraeGiovanni Manetti showing us one of his clay amphorae

‘It’s a natural fit for our family,’ Giovanni explained. ‘We started experimenting with using the amphorae and we really like the results… there’s a degree of porosity which seems to work well with the wine.’ They certainly look impressive too and a great showroom for the terracotta side of the family business!

But it isn’t just terracotta that Giovanni is experimenting with. He proudly showed off his latest acquisition, a newly delivered huge wooden vat in the traditional botti style but made in Burgundy from French oak. We put our heads inside to breathe in the heady vanillin aromas. Giovanni wanted to see what the toasty oak character would give to the wine in this large format… interesting.

fontodi-brand-new-barrel

Time to taste Fontodi
It was quickly down to tasting through the range of wines before heading off to Giovanni’s local trattoria for dinner; we certainly didn’t want him to have a late night before the final push!

The first wine was a new project, from an historic vineyard high up behind Panzano in the village of Lamole owned by the Manetti’s cousins. Giovanni explained that the family had stopped bottling the wine in the 1970s as the high production costs made it unworkable. Now the two families are working together, the wine is fermented up in the village then brought down to Fontodi. Very different in style from the other Fontodi wines, Filetta di Lamole Chianti Classico 2014 is not a ‘big’ wine but it has structure and Giovanni says it can age well. It is very typical of the classic Chianti style, a little bit astringent and sinewy but with attractive fruit character and delicate aroma.

Giovanni Manetti and Sebastian Payne MWGiovanni Manetti and Sebastian Payne MW

Fontodi Chianti Classico 2013 was next up (Sebastian said we had just shipped this wine to Stevenage). Giovanni explained that for him this wine represents their house style, a sort of vinous business card made from a blend of wines from different vineyards on the estate. I thought it had lovely brambly, bosky flavours with great depth and subtlety, and an exuberant freshness to the finish.

Next came a sneak peak at the 2015 vintage – a stunning vintage here as almost everywhere in Europe and certainly in Italy. Not yet in bottle, this was incredibly rich and full; Sebastian revealed that he had agreed to buy some from Giovanni for a special bottling for members to be released in several years’ time.

Fontodi’s Gran Selezzione wine, Vigna del Sorbo Chianti Classico, came next from the unusual 2012 vintage. The wine comes from a single vineyard – one of the most beautiful on the property with vines with an average age of 40-50 years. Made from 100% sangiovese, this weighs in at a powerful 15% alcohol, but it wears its power lightly, feeling quite gentle on the palate with distinctive notes of roses, herbs, tea and cherries vying for attention. Giovanni said it would keep 20 years at least.

The Fontodi Supertuscan, Flaccianello della Pieve, was to be our treat over dinner. No time to waste! We were ushered into a flotilla of waiting Land Rovers and whisked down to Giovanni’s fantastic local for dinner.

The journey back to Siena was a very sleepy one filled with wakeful dreams of fabulous food and wine, inspirational winemakers and beautiful scenery. Tomorrow would be our last day in this Tuscan paradise, but we were going to squeeze in a trip to Villa di Cappezana, north of Florence and en route to the airport.

Tenuta di Cappezana – a taste of history in Carmignano
This part of Tuscany, to the north of Florence, used to be a favourite spot for the Medici and other wealthy Florentines to take refuge at the height of summer. They built fine manor houses here and had hunting lodges and parks and of course, grapes and olives were grown. It is quite low-lying here compared to Chianti but although it is hot in summer, there’s a wonderful refreshing breeze that comes down from the Appenines.

Carmignano only has 12 producers in the consorzio and Cappezana is the oldest and largest – in fact, you could say that the DOC (and now DOCG) was created almost for this estate alone. What’s the main difference between Carmignano and Chianti? The biggest difference is that the wine must contain cabernet sauvignon. But this non-native is no newcomer here: it is thought that the Medicis brought it here and that the vines planted at Cappezana by ancestors of the Bonacossi family brought cuttings from Château Lafite, no less.

Today this large property is still in the hands of the Contini Bonacossi family. Bernadetta is in charge of the wine and her brother Vittorio, the olive oil. Several generations of the family are employed in the business and it was a niece, Sabrina, who met us and showed us round.

The first thing that struck us as we got off our coach was the heady scent of fresh olive oil. How exciting! They had started to pick the olives and we were to see the pressing of the olives first hand. Apart from the deafening noise of the press, the most surprising aspect of olive-oil production is the incredible luminous green colour of the new oil as it oozes out of the machinery.

Fresh olive oil at Tenuta di Cappezana

We could hardly believe our eyes. Then we were treated to the sight of more ancient amphorae, some dating back as far as 1881! These beautiful old glass-lined pots are filled with the new oil where it stays for several weeks to allow the sediment to fall out.

Amphora of olive oil at Tenuta di Cappezana

If it wasn’t for the incredible smell you’d almost believe you were looking into large vats of Swarfega!

We risked sensory overload when we were taken into the lofts where the Capezzana Vin Santo was ageing gracefully. We went from room to room and saw tiny vat after tiny vat of cherry and chestnut wood in a variety of different sizes.

Grapes for Vin Santo drying on straw matsGrapes for Vin Santo drying on straw mats

The grapes (mainly trebbiano) are dried on cane mats until January after harvest then fermented very slowly in these casks, caratelli, for four or five years. Yields are tiny and get less by the year, but the final product was amazing. Our guide explained that her aunty was passionate about these wines and thought they should be enjoyed on their own as meditation wines not spoiled by pairing with dessert.

Time was tight so we sat down to a light bite (four-course Tuscan traditional menu) before racing off to the airport. The house rosé, Vin Ruspo 2015, came first with fresh toasted bread and the new extra virgin olive oil. I think I would have been happy to stop there! Then came a fresh pasta and home grown baby Savoy cabbage sauce with Barco Reale di Carmignano 2014. This is the equivalent to Montalcino’s Rosso and is made from 70% sangiovese, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 10% canaiolo and 5% cabernet franc. It had a lovely ruby colour and smooth tannins accompanied by cherry/plum fruit.

Next with a traditional beef stew came two vintages of Carmignano Villa di Capezanna – the 2013 followed by the 2006. The wine is a standard mix of 80% sangiovese with the balance cabernet sauvignon and sees 12 months in new oak. The fruit is very perfumed and the wine shows real elegance; the 2006 was particularly soft and perfumed.

With the main course there followed the Riserva wine which they call Trefiano DOCG from the 2010 vintage. This is made from 80% sangiovese and 10% each of cabernet sauvignon and canaiolo. Refined, elegant and sophisticated, it was rich and chocolatey but yet with freshness still. Ghiaie della Furba IGT is their Supertuscan. Also from the 2010 vintage, it is made from grapes grown in the alluvial soils of the Furba River valley (ghiaie are pebbles). It is made from 50% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot and 20% syrah and given 15 months in oak. Less overtly fruity than the previous wines and quite savoury in character, it possibly still needs time. Finally a pear and raisin cake (which seemed quite British in style) came with a glass of 2009 Vin Santo Riserva.

It couldn’t have been a more perfect way to complete this Tuscan tour.

Joanna Goodman
News & Content Editor

Many thanks to the estates who hosted us and to Peter Cox for some great photos.

If you enjoy going behind the scenes with our buyers, visit the Travels in Wine™ pages of our website.

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Thu 24 Nov 2016

A Winners’ Trip to Tuscany: Part One

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In October four lucky members and their guests made a ‘trip of a lifetime’ to visit some of our favourite Tuscan producers in the company of Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW. Here’s a behind-the-scenes write-up of the delights and discoveries made along the way by Societynews editor Joanna Goodman.

I’m not sure that any of us, the four winning members and their guests, or the members of staff asked to accompany them, could quite believe our luck at being picked to take part in a four-day tour of Tuscany’s top wineries.

All the prize winners had to do was propose someone for membership of The Society back in the spring of this year. My job was to help make sure everyone had a good time, along with my colleague Emma Dorahy from Buying, who had arranged the tour, and buyer Sebastian Payne MW, who proved to be quite the composite tour guide! Oh, and to be tour scribe… we packed in quite lot to our three days and learned an awful lot too, so I wanted to share some of that here.

A good place to get the party started. Osteria Le Logge in SienaA good place to get the party started. Osteria Le Logge in Siena

We were based in Siena for the duration of the trip and had dinner on our first evening at the Osteria Le Logge, close to the Piazza del Campo and set up by Brunello producer Gianni Brunelli. Widely regarded as one of the best trattorias in Siena, appreciated by tourists and locals alike, the restaurant specialises in typical Tuscan dishes given a modern twist. The dining room used to be a pharmacy and still retains the old shop-fittings making for an atmospheric setting in which to enjoy the food and, of course, excellent wine.

Gianni Brunelli looks down on us benevolently. Gianni Brunelli looks down on us benevolently

After dinner we were asked if we wanted to see the cellar. All of us thought this a little strange, not appreciating the significance until we got there. One of the waiters accompanied us through the winding streets to a small locked door which opened into a tiny bar area and café, and small stage used for occasional jazz nights, we were told. But what lay underneath was astonishing!

Laura Brunelli’s latest venture – an amazing cellar of wine beneath the streets of SienaLaura Brunelli’s latest venture – an amazing cellar of wine beneath the streets of Siena

As we burrowed deeper beneath the streets of Siena we came upon room after room of amazing bottles from around the world and from top vintages too, each individually wrapped in cling-film to protect the label from the damp. We had fun wondering around, famous-label spotting, calling out when we found something of note, in a sort of vinous version of ‘Top Trumps’!

‘I’ve found some Pétrus!’…’There’s some amazing Penfolds over here’…

Playing vinous ‘Top Trumps’ in the Osteria Le Logge cellar!Playing vinous ‘Top Trumps’ in the Osteria Le Logge cellar!

We could have stayed for hours, but the waiter needed to get back and we needed to get some rest ahead of our busy schedule the next day, which would include a visit to Laura Brunelli’s estate in Montalcino. So we’d get a chance to pass on our compliments for the meal and ask her more about her new cellar venture.

Brunello di Montalcino
We woke to a rather grey, cold morning, with temperatures down considerably on the previous day; not typical of the weather here, we were to learn from talking to winemakers later on. Yes, Tuscany gets pretty cold in winter, but to have such a rapid change in temperature is not usual, they said. Thank goodness, everyone had pretty much finished harvesting!

No trip is complete without a talk from your tour-guide, so on the road out to Montalcino (20 miles south of Siena), buyer Sebastian Payne MW took to the in-coach microphone to give everyone the low-down on the properties we were to visit and explain a bit about the region.

Sebastian takes to the in-coach microphone and proves to be quite a hit at the tour-guide bit!Sebastian takes to the in-coach microphone and proves to be quite a hit at the tour-guide bit!

A bit of geography…
Further south than the Chianti Classico vineyards, those of Brunello di Montalcino, enjoy a warmer more Mediterranean climate (the sea is just 20 miles away); the countryside is more open here, with cereal and other crops sharing land with the vine. (Chianti Classico is more hilly and wooded). Vines around the picturesque hilltop town of Montalcino itself enjoy an elevation of around 600m above sea level, which gives a pleasing freshness to the wines and off-sets the summer heat.

…and some history…
Sebastian surprised us by saying that Brunello di Montalcino is a relatively modern wine, first appearing around 1870, and was practically invented by one man, a certain Ferruccio Biondi-Santi. Biondi-Santi took a scientific approach to winemaking, taking care to plant vines in the right place and carrying out experiments in the winery to establish the ideal methods of production. Significantly, he fermented his grapes separately. At the time it was standard practice to co-ferment, not just different varieties, but red and white grapes too. He also matured his pure-tasting, high-quality sangioveses in cask, a radical new step at the time

The other key differentiator of the wines of Montalcino identified by Biondi-Santi was the type of sangiovese grape grown here, the sangiovese grosso clone, known locally as brunello, which gave its name to the wine. It gained DOC status in the 1960s (upgraded to DOCG in 1980 – one of Italy’s first).

Of course, microclimates and different soil types are usually key in producing subtle nuances of flavour in single-varietal wines and the best producers have vineyards in a variety of expositions, as we were to learn from the charming Francesco Ripaccioli at our first-stop, Canalicchio di Sopra.

Canalicchio di Sopra – one of the founders of the Montalcino consorzio
After a very warm welcome from the winery cat (makes a change from the more habitual wine dog), who made a point of greeting each of us in turn, we were given a brief overview of Francesco’s family’s property and an explanation of the importance of terroir for their wines.

Francesco Rippacchioli and his incredibly friendly winery catFrancesco Ripaccioli and his incredibly friendly winery cat

Francesco explained that Canalicchio is a sub-zone of the Montalcino region (‘sopra’ means higher), and that the family has vineyards here on the northern side of the town and in another important ‘cru’ of the region, Le Gode di Montosoli. The soils of the former are richer and mainly clay and give and opulence and silkiness to the tannin in the wine. Soils on the slopes of Montosoli are more stony marl and limestone, giving a minerality and freshness to the wine.

Looking up towards the hilltop town of Monalcino from Canalicchio di SopraLooking up towards the hilltop town of Monalcino from Canalicchio di Sopra


Francesco said that the first ever producers of Montalcino in the 1870s were from the Montosoli area and his family, originally farmers rather than winemakers,
were one of the 12 producers to form the consorzio helping the wine to gain its DOC status in 1962. They are obviously proud of their heritage and significant role in the development of the wine, particularly as founders of the DOC who also have vines in the original area of production. The label they use celebrates this heritage depicting the bell tower in Montalcino harking back to the original label design used on all Montalcino (they were given special dispensation to use it).

The Canalicchio di Sopra label depicts the bell tower in Montalcino – once the label designated for all the wines of the denominazioneThe Canalicchio di Sopra label depicts the bell tower in Montalcino – once the label designated for all the wines of the denominazione

Above the roof of the winery loomed the most enormous crane and Francesco called us over to look at the huge clay pit that had been dug out behind their house for a new cellar, which they hoped to have ready for next year’s vintage. It was also a way of showing us the different types of clay in the vineyard. Looking down into the vast abyss, it was hard to picture it covered over and primed ready to receive next year’s grapes. But Francesco is full of energy and dynamism, so I’m sure he’ll make it happen.

Making more room. Francesco showed us the great pit dug out at the back of the property to house a new cellar. It was also an elaborate way of showing us the different types of clay in the vineyard!Making more room. Francesco showed us the great pit dug out at the back of the property to house a new cellar. It was also an elaborate way of showing us the different types of clay in the vineyard!

Talking of vintages, it was time to go and taste.

Would the real sangiovese please stand up!
But before we got down to business, there was one more important lesson; one which we would hear over and over again during our four-day trip and which was key to understanding what makes Tuscany one of the great classic wine regions.

Sebastian was explaining to us that in terms of style, Canalicchio di Sopra’s wines have something in common with red Burgundy – elegant, with a lightness of touch, not over-blown or over-extracted (a criticism that can be levelled at a good deal of Brunello!).

Admitting to being a big Burgundy fan, Francesco took up the point being made suggesting that three of the world’s best red wines (in his opinion) are made from three of the most problematic grape varieties – pinot noir, nebbiolo and sangiovese.

‘Because the grapes are not constant you get a greater variety. The grapes are more fickle and susceptible to their terroir and to weather conditions so they give a greater expression of where they are grown.’

Aha! I had never thought about wines in this way, but it made total sense and gave a whole new perspective for me at least – a light-bulb moment in my 26-year wine vocation!

The first tasting of the tour...The first tasting of the tour…

The desire to let the terroir be expressed through the wine had led to a change in the way they make their wine, Francesco went on to explain. Now, the aim is for more purity of fruit and cleanliness in the wines, changing barrels more frequently, controlling temperatures during fermentation. ‘Classic, rather than super-traditional’ was how he summed up their approach.

We started with the 2014 Rosso de Montalcino. The Rosso is usually declassified Brunello di Montalcino, often made from young vines and should be a producer’s calling card, says Francesco. 2014 was a tricky vintage throughout Italy, but Francesco’s Rosso, though lighter in colour than it would perhaps usually be, had a lovely red-fruit character and definite elegance.

Moving on to the 2011 Rosso di Montalcino, we were treated to something of the ‘balsamico’ character that Francesco had said was a hallmark of his wines. By balsamico, he means a savoury character to the fruit, nothing to do with the vinegar of the same name! A very different vintage for this area produced a lovely pruney, meaty wine with a lot more chocolatey richness and a hint of coffee on the finish. The 2011 Brunello di Montalcino was still a little closed at this stage but with big, rich, powerful fruit, eliciting a few oohs and ahhs from the team!

Francesco talking us through the trials and tribulations of making wine in extreme years like 2012Francesco talking us through the trials and tribulations of making wine in extreme years like 2012

2012 – an extreme vintage
Next came the 2012 vintage, described as ‘extreme’ by Francesco…’nothing was normal; everything was irregular!’ The winter was warm with no days below 0?C (they usually get around 30 days below zero), then in the middle of February they had lots of snow. They were concerned they might lose their olive trees. Then there were five months without rain and they thought they’d lose everything. Vines went into survival mode, all the energy going into the plant rather than the grapes. At the end of August came a couple days of rain which woke up the vines, then September was perfect. Phew!

Francesco said that 70% of the quality of a vintage is made in September, so there were sighs of relief all round.

So what was the final result of this crazy vintage? Francesco said that as a young winemaker (his first vintage was 2007), there was no precedent for these kind of conditions. With the help of the winery’s consultant they managed to make a good wine which, though a rather tough at first, is now opening out and showing great balance. It was an important lesson and a vintage that they will learn from as there are likely to be more extreme vintages in the future.

The 2012 Brunello di Montalcino had the aroma of a hot vintage but the balance of a more even year on the palate; ripe, full-on fruit with a savoury character and spicy finish showing just a hint of liquorice, it was showing well.

The 2016 vintage – early insights
Before leaving and a quick tour of the cellar, Francesco rushed off to get a sample of the still fermenting 2016 wine, still on its skins 18 days after picking. I was impressed with the members’ enthusiasm to try wine in its early raw state… this lot were keen! Francesco advised not swallowing as fermenting wine can give you an upset tummy and we were only on our first visit of the day!

And how was the 2016 vintage? Well, obviously, these are early days, but Francesco, like many of the winemakers we were to chat to over the coming days, was pretty pleased with the wine. It isn’t going to be the block-buster that 2015 was, and quantities are reduced a little, but all seemed pretty happy with the outcome.

Gianni Brunelli – a local hero
Onwards and upwards. We wound our way up to the hilltop town of Montalcino and on to the charmingly positioned property of Gianni Brunelli on a ridge looking out towards Monte Amiata in the south.

Laura Brunelli and cousin and winemaker, Adriano, pleased to see Sebastian againLaura Brunelli and cousin and winemaker, Adriano, pleased to see Sebastian again

There are two vineyards: the original one is on the north side of Montalcino (where we’d just come from) at Le Chuise di Sotto. This plot of land was once owned by Gianni Brunelli’s father a share-cropper who was forced to leave his land and find work in the city of Siena in post-war times of hardship. Whenever he could, Gianni’s father, Dino, would come home to tend his vines, but when he died, Gianni’s mother was forced to sell the land. Gianni vowed that one day he’d buy back his father’s couple of hectares of vines. This he and his Sardinian wife, Laura managed to do in 1987.

A tale of passion and determination
Gianni and Laura had met in Siena, she was studying at the university and he worked for Ignis. His dream, though, was to open an old-fashioned inn. He was evidently quite a charismatic man persuading two old shop-keepers on via del Porrione in Siena to let him give it a go in their empty premises just of the main square. With his mother in the kitchen and Laura at his side, the Osteria delle Logge took off and was such a success that the couple were able to fulfil the dream of buying back the family plot in Montalcino. Later they bought the property the second property at Il Podernovone, with its four vineyards, Olmo, Oliva, Quercia and Gelso, all with very different aspects and soils, and with a tumble-down farmhouse which they repaired and made into a charming place to receive visitors.

An idyllic spot, even to the untrained eye and even in the cold and rain!An idyllic spot, even to the untrained eye and even in the cold and rain!

Sadly, in 2008, Gianni died, leaving Laura heartbroken but determined to carry on realising their shared dream, something she has done with enormous zeal and passion, recently constructing a new winery at Podernovono, built tastefully and sympathetically into the hillside.

When we arrive at the farmhouse, Laura and her winemaker, Adriano, a cousin of Gianni, meet us. Ignoring the now distinctly British-style drizzle, they walk us over to the edge of the ridge to get the lie of the land and view the vines. Even if you knew nothing about winemaking, you’d be able to tell that this is a special spot. But lovely though it is, we were quite pleased to get out of the cold and into the cellar – toasty warm with the heat of the fermenting wine!

Laura’s trusty Labrador, Orso, wanted to come too, but was shooed away and watched us with doleful eyes through the floor-to-ceiling glass which gives a wonderful view over the valley.Laura’s trusty Labrador, Orso, wanted to come too, but was shooed away and watched us with doleful eyes through the floor-to-ceiling glass which gives a wonderful view over the valley.

Adriano and two young interns took us from vat to barrel to taste the new 2016 wine and then last year’s wines, still in the huge wooden barrels (botti) – it was fascinating to try the wines from the separate vineyards and have the subtle differences pointed out to us, then to taste the young Brunellos made from a blend of these constituent parts. (We have just shipped the 2015 Rosso di Montalcino, Gianni Brunelli, which is superb, by the way!).

Tasting from vat and barrel and learning about the differences that each site brings to the blendTasting from vat and barrel and learning about the differences that each site brings to the blend

Now with our understanding of Brunello di Montalcino firmly established it was time to head back to Laura’s house for a light lunch Italian-style, prepared by Laura’s octogenarian Sardinian mother and friend. Plates of local cured meats and cheeses with wonderful salads of beans and tomatoes, all beautifully enhanced by the estate’s olive oil, were handed around by Laura and Adriano. We were made to feel completely at home and thoroughly spoiled and Laura clearly enjoyed sharing her wine and food with an appreciative, and by now, slightly noisy, crowd – once a restaurateur, always a restaurateur!

Laura Brunelli and Sebastian Payne in animated conversation after our ‘light’ lunch!Laura Brunelli and Sebastian Payne in animated conversation after our ‘light’ lunch!

Before we left, Laura was keen to know what we’d thought of her new venture – the wine cellar that we’d ogled the night before. It is quite an investment for her, but she explained that she wanted the restaurant to become a venue known not just for its great food and local wines but a place where you could enjoy some of the finest bottles from around the world. Something appreciated by many local winemakers we were to find out, who regularly visit and meet up there.

Fèlsina Berardenga – Chianti on the edge
Our last port of call for the day took us back over the Chianti Classico border; just.

Fèslina’s vineyards lie at the edge of the Chianti Classico border with the Chianti Colli SenesiFèslina’s vineyards lie at the edge of the Chianti Classico border with the Chianti Colli Senesi

Fèlsina is located in the most southerly part of the Chianti Classico region: a geological ‘frontier land’, situated between the last hills of Chianti Classico and the Crete Senesi. Some of the vineyards here (this is a big estate – 600 hectares, 95 under vine) don’t even fall into the Chianti appellation. But there’s a huge mix of soil types and the southerly position is crucial to the character of the wines which are big, full and rich. Such is the variety of soils and aspects here that the estate bottles a number of single-vineyard wines as part of its portfolio.

We were greeted by Giuseppe Mazzocolin who has been in charge of the family property since the 1970s. Sebastian hadn’t expected to see him, thinking that he may have stepped back from duties, but both men were clearly delighted to see each other, which was rather touching. Giuseppe was once a teacher of Latin and history, he is softly spoken, inherently wise and everything he says is delivered like a line of poetry or philosophy. We were all smitten by the end of our tour!

Jumping back into our coach, we took to the hills, quite literally, climbing up the steep vineyard track so that Giuseppe could give us both a history and geography lesson (or, with hindsight, perhaps it was more like a philosophy lesson!) Fèlsina is an ancient property and Giuseppe wanted to explain its past and how it fits in with the story of this area.

The ancient Rancia farmhouse which gives its name to one of Fèslina’s single-vineyard ChiantisThe ancient Rancia farmhouse which gives its name to one of Fèslina’s single-vineyard Chiantis

While the heart of Chianti Classico is a wild, forested landscape, here, Giuseppe explained, you see the start of the Crete di Senesi – the low-lying clay hills better known for rolling fields of wheat and a truffles, rather than wine. He said that up here too you get the sea breezes and feel more of a connection with Montalcino than Chianti.

As well as being able to feel the sea breezes, Giuseppe said that he could also feel nature working around him up here: ‘the vines are not passive, I can feel them ‘working’ around me, interacting with the sun and the wind, and all the other elements that surround them…..’

Next we were taken into the historic Rancia farmhouse, which gives its name to the neighbouring vineyard and the wine made from it. Giuseppe explained how the building had once been a Benedictine monastery and that it was sited on an old Franciscan road, a path trodden by pilgrims in the middle ages on their way to Jerusalem or Santiago di Compostela. At one time, as often was the case with monasteries, the building became not just a hostel but a hospital – according to ancient documents, one of the first in Europe.

Giuseppe explained how Rancia is derived from the same word as ‘grange’ with its associations with both granaries and Granges (places to stay). But also, this land was traditionally share-cropped and agricultural land was organised into different ‘grangia’ or units. This was the way the land was worked for centuries up until comparatively recently.

Indeed, the war and post-war periods of poverty hit rural communities hard, but it was the terrible frosts of 1957 which killed off the olive groves that was the final nail in the coffin. At the time, olive oil was more important commercially than wine, in fact wine wasn’t commercialised as such but was produced for home consumption. Even without the devastating frosts, olive oil could not sustain the communities so this was a period of mass emigration both to the cities and abroad.

In 1966 Giuseppe’s father-in-law Domenico Poggiali took the brave step of buying the estate in a period when agriculture was really struggling. Domenico had made his money in logging and sheep-farming, but this new project was by no means one of vanity, he was determined to make great wine and olive oil with a focus on quality from the start. He employed a young team and later, some of the country’s top oenological consultants and his son-in-law, Giuseppe would come at the weekends before giving up teaching Latin and Greek to move here permanently in the late 1970s.

He spent time talking to some of the old farmers that were still around, learning his craft and finding out about the land from the people who had worked it for centuries.

Lessons in life from Guiseppe MazzocolinLessons in life from Giuseppe Mazzocolin

One of the most important things they recognised was the rich diversity of different clones of sangiovese they had across their vineyards. They set about preserving these, identifying the best for propagating using massale selection and establishing the best sites for each type of plant. The work carries on; the attention to detail and respect for the land shines through in the wines as we would see later.

Pioneers of olive oil production
Making our way back down to Fèlsina’s ancient cellars we passed through an avenue of olive trees. Giuseppe explained that the property has more than 8,000 trees and that they were one of the first to identify different varieties and to bottle these separately. Since 2002 they have worked hard to establish the best sites for each variety (Italy has more than 600 different varieties!).

If Giuseppe had been passionate about wine and the vineyards, when he started to talk about olive oil he became even more animated, declaring that this was going to be his focus from now on. ‘There is still so much work to be done here,’ he declared, ‘we’ve barely scratched the surface; olive oil is what connects us to our past, it has been produced for millennia.’

We asked when they would be harvesting the olives, noticing that some of the fruit was black and some still green. Giuseppe explained that the best time to pick the olives is when they are just changing colour, ‘this is when the polyphenols are at their highest, making a product that tastes great and is also good you.’

But he went on to say that the most crucial aspect of olive oil production is getting the olives to the mill immediately, saying that ‘the best olive oil is on the tree!’

Old meets new: the modern art installation in Fèlsina’s cantina was a striking contrastOld meets new: the modern art installation in Fèlsina’s cantina was a striking contrast

We had a quick tour of the ancient winery and ageing cellar (it was built around the middle ages, but they don’t know exactly when – there’s no documentation about it) with its rather incongruous modern art installation (not sure Giuseppe approved!) and steeply sloping floor down which to roll the barrels. Then we were a little relieved to go indoors out of the drizzle to taste, not just the wine, but the amazing olive oil too.

Single-varietal olive oils
This was a first for us all and Giuseppe guided us through the best way to taste the oils, each laid out in tiny polystyrene lidded cups before us. He told us to lift the lid, poke our noses in and inhale deeply to get the aromas before finally tasting (I found this easier when bread appeared to dip into the oils).

Pendolino – one of the most widely planted varieties in Italy, this is one of the most delicate too. Gentle, slightly sweetish flavour and delicate nutty character – good with fish or white meat, Guisseppe told us.
Leccino – also widely grown and quite delicate with more herbal notes, this too is ideal with chicken or veal dishes but also great on salads and with poached fish dishes.
Moraiolo – very common in Tuscany, this is quite a peppery olive oil; the classic choice for drizzling over a plate of mixed Tuscan starters or grilled meat.
Raggiolo – this ancient Tuscan variety has a fiery kick – a little like biting into rocket leaves and would be lovely drizzled over grilled vegetables, meat or fish or as an accompaniment to typically Mediterranean cooking.

As the first company to bottle single varietal olive oils, Fèlsina are certainly at the vanguard of top-quality olive oil production, but Giuseppe thinks there is still vast untapped potential in this area and now wants to dedicate the rest of his days to realising this. If this is a foretaste of what’s to come, it is going to be very exciting to see what he can achieve.

Getting to grips with the Fèlsina Berardenga wines and olive oils: it’s a tough job, but the team pulled through!Getting to grips with the Fèlsina Berardenga wines and olive oils: it’s a tough job, but the team pulled through!

The Fèlsina wines
Next we were on to the wines, starting with the estate’s IGT Toscana chardonnay, I Sistri, in the 2014 vintage. This, their only white, is made from French clones of chardonnay fermented in barrel and given batonnage (lees stiring) and bottle age before release. It’s creamy apricot and melon flavours are topped off with a lick of lime and tangy, salty finish. It went down well with the team.

When one of us asked Giuseppe about the name, he said that he said that the Sistri were ancient instruments dedicated to the Isis, goddess of agriculture, fertility and rebirth, but also that it was a nod to a line of poetry by Giovanni Pascoli where he describes the sound of the wind blowing through a field of wheat; something which seem particularly apt for this vineyard which is surrounded by wheat fields.

Next came the estate’s Chianti Classico Fèlsina Berardenga 2014 DOCG (we currently list the 2013). Despite the tricky weather in 2014, the wine showed really well, demonstrating admirably some true Chianti characteristics; aromas of roses and redcurrants with a slight herbaceous edge.

We followed this with the single-vineyard Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva 2013 DOCG. The fruit for this wine had come from the vineyard we had driven up to earlier and was a notable step up from the straight Chianti and from a riper vintage too. Full, powerful with silky tannins and a long finish, it put smiles on our faces!

Fontalloro 2013 IGP Toscana came next and is from vineyards straddling the Chianti Classico and the Chianti Colli Senesi denomination and as such is highly representative of what it is that makes the Fèlsina wines distinctive; sangiovese ‘on the edge’! It displayed earthy, truffley flavours and spice on the finish – a wine to cellar and enjoy with rich dishes.

The next wine was the estate’s Gran Selezione Chianti Classico Colonia 2013. Having spent 30 months in new oak, this is smooth yet full-bodied with full-throttle delicious red cherry fruit. We were starting to get hungry!

Before we left, Giuseppe pulled out a 2005 Rancia Chianti Classico to show us how these wines develop. It was a real revelation and a great demonstration to the members who hadn’t tried Chianti with age before – smoky, meaty with hints of star anise and black pepper, it was a real treat.

Taking our leaveTaking our leave

Totally besotted with the poetic and lyrical Giuseppe and the equally evocative Fèlsina wines and olive oils, we took our leave and headed back to the coach, Siena-bound. After all this wine tasting we had worked up quite an appetite. We were all looking forward to walking into town for our dinner.

The Piazza del Campo: impressive even on a wet October nightThe Piazza del Campo: impressive even on a wet October night

Tomorrow is another day and for us it would entail heading into the heart of Chianti Classico, to visit Castello di Brolio, where modern-day Chianti was born, Isole e Olena and the always fascinating Paolo de Marchi and Fontodi, who we had learned were still picking!

Joanna Goodman
News & Content Editor

Part two will follow soon. In the meantime, if you enjoy finding out what goes on behind the scenes on our wine buyers’ visits to our winemakers, visit the Travels in Wine™ pages on our website.

Categories : Italy
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Tue 27 Sep 2016

Travellers’ Tales From South Africa

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Never work with children or animals, they say, but Joanna Locke MW and colleague Steve Farrow were obviously quite taken with the latest addition to the Paul Cluver clan and almost as much by Niels Verburg’s inquisitive four-legged friends.

And that’s to say nothing of the wines!

The below is just an extract from the fascinating write-up in our online Travels in Wine™ feature. There is much more to read about in Steve Farrow’s report on his and buyer Jo Locke’s recent trip to the Cape, with insights into our growers, tempting tales of wines tasted and stories by the barrel-load.

Paul Cluver Wines
‘…we met celebrated winemaker Catherine Marshall to taste her wine. It was a very happy meeting. Quite apart from the warm welcome and the cheery banter between the ebullient Paul Cluver IV, his brother-in-law and winemaker Andries Burger, Catherine and Jo Locke, there was the presence of Paul’s baby son Maximilian (so not Paul then?) who won the hearts of everybody. What a smiler! No wonder doting daddy Paul, clearly and beautifully besotted with his son, was cooing and baby-talking with the littl’un throughout, and up and down to check on him when he was put to bed in another room. It seems inconceivable that he won’t find his own niche in this most familial of family-owned companies.

Cathy Marshall and Maximilian CluverCathy Marshall and Maximilian Cluver

…Sadly it was time to take our leave, but not before Jo got to hold the baby. Her beaming smile as she held young Maximilian was a highlight of the trip.’

Luddite Wines
‘Niels Verburg farms close to the Bot River, just outside the town of the same name, where prized grazing land has also shown itself a prime site for vineyards too.

As we pulled up at Niels’ house we were met by several inquisitive dogs, including the irrepressible Doris, a welcoming Jack Russell who we were warned against accidentally taking away with us as she loves to climb into visitor’ cars. Apparently, she will follow anyone who passes by on the road too, and knowing this Niels was well prepared when a fun run was to pass by the gates. He took a washable marker pen and wrote his mobile phone number on Doris’ flank and was unsurprised to find that she was gone at the first sight of runners going by. Sometime later he received a phone call from someone at a stadium several miles away saying that Doris had finished the race and was safe with them. Apparently she made the local news. I got her autograph.’

Soil test pit and curious Doris!Soil test pit and curious Doris!

Read the full report here

Categories : South Africa
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Thu 08 Sep 2016

Italy: The People, The Places, The Prosecco

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I was thrilled to be asked to accompany Sebastian Payne MW on his trip to Italy earlier this year.

In the early days of my career at The Wine Society I used to travel abroad with our buyers quite often, sharing driving, taking photos, note taking and gathering information which may be of use later… recipes from the region, maps, leaflets printed by our growers.

I always felt there was such a wealth of information and rich experience to share with members that it was a shame we didn’t have more outlets in which to do this. Sure, such trips helped build up information for tasting notes, Newsletter articles, our printed offers, and later, this blog, but I have always been passionate about being able to bring our growers closer to our members; something I have endeavoured to do through Societynews and in the Wine World & News pages of our website and occasional blog posts.

So when we launched Travels in Wine, I thought this was an inspired way to bring members closer to the coal face of wine buying.

Travels In Wine

So, given the green light to go out and get the most out of five days in the field with Sebastian to come back and share the experience with members, set me thinking.

What do members want to know? What will they find interesting? There’s so much to take in – which aspects should I focus on to tell people about?

To a certain extent, you can’t predict what will emerge from these visits and it’s often the unexpected stories that you stumble across that have the most value. But for me, the interest has always been the people behind the wines. So that had to be my starting point.

Though I have visited Italy a couple of times under my own steam, I calculated that it had been almost 20 years since I had last been with Sebastian in a professional capacity. A lot has changed in the interim period. Indeed, one of the main purposes of this trip was to taste the new 2015 vintage and put together the blends of several of our Society and Exhibition wines – many of which either didn’t exist 20 years ago or came from different sources.

We would be calling in on some of the same people I had visited with Sebastian 20 years ago, but now it would be the next generation we would be seeing; the same kids who were at college or just leaving school are now at the helm of their family businesses. It is important to find out what makes them tick and build relationships with them.

Something that certainly hadn’t featured at all in any of our lives 20 or so years ago was Prosecco. Who would have predicted back then what a global success story it would be today? So this was certainly something I was keen to find out more about.

The pointy hills of Valdobbiadene DOCG where the good Prosecco comes fromThe pointy hills of Valdobbiadene DOCG where the good Prosecco comes from

How had the Prosecco phenomenon come about? What are the key factors behind producing good-quality Prosecco, as opposed to the vast quantities of indifferent and insipid bubbles that the market is awash with?

As well as visiting our Society’s Prosecco producers, the Adami family, we were also going to see producers of some of the region’s top-quality Prosecco, Nino Franco, so I was very interested to find out what differences there were between the two.

We would be going to the beautiful walled town of Soave, somewhere that had featured on the last tour when we had visited the Pieropans. This time we would be visiting their neighbours, the Coffele family, the other star turns of the denominazione. I was interested to understand the differences in style of these two houses and meet the family, of course.

Alberto Coffele proudly shows us around the family vineyardsAlberto Coffele proudly shows us around the family vineyards

Soave, like Prosecco, is another wine which is rather a victim of its own success. Cheap wines from the plains having done nothing for its image and are a world away from those made in the Classico district. While it is obvious to state that ‘the good wines come from the good vineyards’ I wanted to find out more about the key factors that influence the top-quality wines.

I have always had a soft spot for The Society’s Verdicchio but confess that I know little about its provenance. Perhaps this is because, unlike many of the wines under our label, this comes from a large (admittedly family-owned) outfit who are part of a global olive oil press manufacturing company.

In this kind of situation it’s just as important to keep up with those in charge. People come and go, winemakers change, priorities may shift. Happily for us, our man, David Orru has been in situ for many years now and is a great fan of The Wine Society. We had heard though that there was a new winemaker in post and that a consultant was involved in things, so we were keen to find out more about this.

I don’t quite remember when we first listed The Society’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but I do remember we were ahead of the curve of popularity with this wine and that members were quick to spot a good thing when they tasted it too. Way before the pizza chains started listing rather pale imitations of the style!

Rocco Pasetti was thrilled with the 2015 vintage and experimented with different types of fermentation, particularly for his redsRocco Pasetti was thrilled with the 2015 vintage and experimented with different types of fermentation, particularly for his reds

There’s a human tale behind this wine, too – perhaps not what you’d expect from a wine sourced from a cantina sociable – so, with my inquisitive hat on, I wanted to get to the bottom of this story which involves one of Italy’s best winemakers along with the fortunes of current star of the Abruzzo, Rocco Pasetti.

Do visit our Travels in Wine pages to read about the first leg of our Giro d’Italia, and let us know what you think.

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor

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Thu 30 Jun 2016

Who On Earth Drinks Off-Dry Orvieto?

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I have a confession to make. I for one have never ordered a bottle of Orvieto ClOrvieto Amabileassico Amabile from the Barberani family.

It has been on The Society’s wine List for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t a wine that I could ever imagine drinking.

Not until recently, that is.

I was lucky enough to accompany Sebastian Payne MW, our buyer of Italian wine, to Orvieto earlier this year and prior to our visit to the Barberanis, we talked about who bought this off-dry version of an Italian classic.

Sebastian informed me that the wine enjoys a modest, loyal following among members. We assumed, perhaps wrongly, that it is a wine that members buy to offer to friends that just can’t take dryer styles of whites.

I was curious about the wine and how it is enjoyed in Italy, so put this question to brothers Niccolò and Bernardo and their father, Luigi (I didn’t admit that I had never tasted this wine before!).

They informed me that the amabile style is actually what people used to drink locally and that it has a long tradition in the area. The grapes – grechetto and trebbiano procanico – are left a little longer on the vine and fermentation is stopped before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol.

The resulting wine, produced from meticulously tended vineyards and pristine cellars, is whistle clean, delicately fruity, fresh and with moderate alcohol (12%).

Winemaker Bernardo with his father Luigi and brother Niccolò, proudly holding up their properly sweet dessert wine Calcaia which we shall offer later this yearWinemaker Bernardo with his father Luigi and brother Niccolò, proudly holding up their properly sweet dessert wine Calcaia which we shall offer later this year

We give it a 4 (out of 9) sweetness code, which I always imagine is definitively medium-sweet, but I was pleasantly surprised by the wine; round and gentle, but with a lovely interplay of acidity and sugar, I could really see its appeal.

But how do they serve it? I wanted to know.

The Barberanis seemed a bit bemused by my incessant questioning. ‘Well, we serve it as an aperitif,’ they said, ‘it works well with cheese or even shellfish… sometimes we have it at the end of a meal, perhaps with fruit or even mid-afternoon on its own!’

Sadly, our gastronomic traditions rarely match up to those of our Italian friends, so as I tasted the wine, I thought about how I might enjoy it back home in Blighty.

It wasn’t that I was looking for excuses, I was genuinely so pleasantly surprised and delighted to find that I really liked a style of wine that I had blindly written off (without tasting), that I wanted to try it out at home.

Starters - Italian styleStarters – Italian style

There’s just a little hint of spice to the gently fruity flavour that made me think that this Orvieto Amabile would work well with subtly spiced dishes – indeed, I have now bought some of the wine and tried it out with a mild Asian-style salmon curry dish and a traditional creamy fish pie.

I am pleased to say that my hunch paid off and that (in my view at least) – the matches worked well.

I should also learn to be less prejudiced about things I haven’t tried before!

The Barberanis’ Orvieto Classico Amabile 2015, was recently on offer in our Great Savings for Summer offer at the special price of £75 a dozen instead of £83, which we have extended (for this wine only) until Tuesday 12th July, 2016.

So, if you haven’t tried it yet, now might be a good time to give it a go and join that other group of members who are already in the know!

Oh, and do let us know how you serve it too!

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor

Categories : Italy
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Wine Society members cordially invited to attend a night of jazz and bubbles at Sparkling Saumur producer Gratien & Meyer’s headquarters in Saumur on Saturday 2nd July, 2016.

In the March edition of Societynews, Olivier Dupré, CEO of Gratien & Meyer in Saumur and Champagne Alfred Gratien in Epernay, mentioned in our interview with him that the company puts on a programme of summer events every year which are proving very popular.

Olivier generously offered to waive the entrance fee of 8€ for Wine Society members (take along a copy of Societynews or your List as proof of membership), in recognition of the long-standing relationship that exists between our two companies.

Gratien & Meyer

What more of a pleasant way to start your summer than with a glass of sparkling Saumur sipped slowly on Gratien & Meyer’s balcony overlooking the Saumur river, listening to some jazzy melodies from the exciting live acts set to perform?

The evening starts at 4pm and goes on until 9pm and this year’s programme looks as though it will be just as popular as previous years, with artists like the Rachel Ratsizafy Quartet, Three for Swing and the Patricia Ouvrard Quartet playing during the course of the evening.

The bands:
Rachel Ratsizafy is French of Madagascan heritage and her music is heavily influenced by the traditional Madagascan songs or ‘Kalo fahiny’ of her youth. She is supported by a talented backing band and guest vocalist Marc Thomas.

Three for Swing are well-known among jazz lovers and were formed to revive the swing music made famous by the Nat King Cole trio. In order to do justice to such a jazz legend requires musicians with immense talent and personality, not to mention a singer with a voice like liquid gold!

Patricia Ouvrard is a singer with an extraordinary talent for improvisation; she’s also that rare thing amongst female vocalists, a scat-singer. Supported by her trio of equally talented musicians, she will treat the audience to some jazz standards given a sensitive rendition by the purity of her voice.

If you like the sound of an evening of jazz and sparkling Saumur wines enjoyed on the terrace of our longest-standing suppliers, Gratien & Meyer, and you will be in the region next month, take a look at the event website for more details.

Santé!

Event details:

Jazz_bulles_Gratien et Meyer_2016

Jazz-Bulles
Saturday 2nd July 2016 from 4.00pm to 9pm
Caves Gratien & Meyer à Saumur.

Tarif 8€ per person, or free for Wine Society members

Address
Gratien & Meyer
Route de Montsoreau
49400 Saumur
Tel. 02 41 83 13 32

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor

Categories : France, Loire
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Our French colleagues at The Society’s showroom in Montreuil-sur-Mer tell us that as well as advising on wine, they are also frequently asked by our members for recommendations of places to visit in the area.

Clément Schmautz, Julien Gwizdziel & Marc Petit from our Montreuil ShowroomClément Schmautz, Julien Gwizdziel & Marc Petit from our Montreuil Showroom

So, as the holiday season starts to hot up, we asked Marc, Clément and Julien to pick their top tips for visitors to the town…

…oh and while they were at it, we also asked them to name their current favourite bottle!

Marc PetitMarc Petit
One thing that I always think should be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list is a trip to the unmissable and almost mythical Caseus cheese shop. As well as local specialities, you can find just about any French cheese for sale here.
If you are looking for a stop for afternoon tea, in my opinion you can’t beat Salon Rodière – the patisserie are amazing, but they also do really good cooked meals too.

Fromagerie Caseus: 28 place du Général de Gaulle 62170 Montreuil-sur-Mer
Salon Rodière: 81, rue Pierre Ledent, 62170, Montreuil-sur-Mer

Marc’s vin du jour
MacManis Family Petite Sirah

Clément SchmautzClément Schmautz
I would recommend a meal in one of the most picturesque streets in Montreuil, Rue du Clape en Bas, at the small, family-run Le Pot du Clape where you’ll get generous meals cooked over an authentic wood-fired oven.
Le pot du Clape: rue du Clape en Bas, 62170 Montreuil-sur-Mer.
Closed on Mondays.Service from 11am to 10pm.
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 05 46 35
Website

Clément’s vin du jour
Dourthe No 1 Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux

Julien GwizdzielJulien Gwizdziel
Why not take a little walk (or bike ride – electric mountain bikes available for hire in Montreuil) around the base of the ramparts, following in the footsteps of Victor Hugo when he was looking for inspiration for his novel Les Misérables? This stroll could also be lengthened by a tour of the marshes around La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil where our local hero, chef Alexandre Gauthier has his roots and digs around for his culinary inspiration. Between the town, river and marshes, discover a page of history set in greenery (see below).

Montreuil route.jpeg

Julien’s vin du jour
Castillo de Viña Crianza, Rioja 2012 which would go perfectly with a Spanish tapas starter followed by marinated and barbecued spare ribs.

For more information on visiting Montreuil, visit our website.

Join us in Montreuil
In May and July, we’ll be hosting two special dining events with Gault et Millau’s Chef of the Year, Alexandre Gauthier, offering the perfect opportunity to visit. More information.

Categories : France, Montreuil
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Fri 20 May 2016

Uruguay, its Wine and its Birds

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…and for those of a puerile disposition, I’m most definitely talking about the feathered variety!

Last year when Santiago Deicas of Familia Deicas (who own Uruguay’s largest wine company, Juanicó) visited our offices in Stevenage I realised that there was so much I didn’t know about this small South American country.

Santiago is used to this level of general ignorance when it comes to knowledge about his homeland and travels the globe telling people like me where his country is and how it is unlike the rest of South America before even getting started on discussions about wine.

Read about Santiago’s family’s wines on our website

One thing I was aware of was Uruguay’s connection with birds… and during our chat with Santiago, we did talk quite a lot about birds. In fact, I think this was the longest conversation I have ever had on the subject! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the name Uruguay means ‘River of the Painted Birds’.

The label of the just-shipped Juanicó Benteveo Chardonnay 2015 shows Uruguay's connection with its feathered friendsThe label of the just-shipped Juanicó Benteveo Chardonnay 2015 shows Uruguay’s connection with its feathered friends

The Southern Lapwing
Santiago also told me about the Southern Lapwing, or téro, the country’s national bird. This pugnacious little wader is also the mascot of the national rugby team, Los Téros. ‘It’s a very beautiful bird, but it’s fierce,’ Santiago tells me. Aggressive and highly territorial, the téro has a spike on the edge of its wing case and rather than nesting in trees, apparently it makes a hole in the ground, ‘So you never know if you are going to approach one,’ Santiago says, ‘suddenly they fly up and attack you… they really hurt… some people say they go for your eyes!’

The Southern Lapwing, Uruguay's national birdThe Southern Lapwing, Uruguay’s national bird

The way that Santiago talks about his national bird, you can’t help but get the feeling he has a sneaking respect for this little fighter. Well, I suppose that is also only to expected as Santiago used to play rugby for the national team himself, once upon a time.

Back to the vineyards
While the lapwing might be a threat to vineyard workers, the vines are also at the mercy of birds, it seems: ‘We have a big problem with birds,’ Santiago says. ‘Losing your whole harvest is a real threat.’

So what action can they take to protect their crop? ‘We have a couple of options,’ Santiago goes on to explain. ‘We don’t want to poison the birds; we can make loud noises to scare them off or put down repellents. In the old days we used falcons, but they didn’t work at weekends!’

So they have taken to putting down hail nets. ‘We have to put them above the vines and below to stop them getting in… they are really clever at finding a way in and always get the best grapes!’ But after trialling the hail nets they have found the system really works. ‘It makes a huge difference. It’s really expensive at first to put them up, but we are putting them into more and more vineyards,’ Santiago informs me.

One of the issues with the hail nets is that once they are in place it is no longer possible to work on the vines, to carry out canopy management, for example, but it also helps to protect against the wind, which I learned is also a common feature of the Uruguayan climate.

More curious nesters
Another unusual avian visitor to Uruguayan vineyards is the Rufous Hornero, or oven bird (the national bird of neighbouring Argentina), so called because of the shape of its nest which resembles a wood-fired clay oven.

These curious birds are not uncommon but not an awful lot is known about them except that they are largely terrestrial, spending much of their time strutting about the ground and that they laboriously build a new nest every year. The beautifully constructed nest gets taken over by other, presumably grateful but more lazy birds.

The beautifully constructed nest of the rufous horneroThe beautifully constructed nest of the rufous hornero

A more attractive visitor to the vineyards is the pretty kiskadees or Bentevéo as it is called in Uruguay (literally, ‘I see you well’ – because of its exuberant call!). It’s up to 30cm in length and feeds mainly on insects but can be quite aggressive too, seeing off much larger birds by calling harshly to its mates and mobbing them mid-air!

Given Uruguay’s rich bird life, it’s not surprising then that birds feature on some of Juanicó’s labels and it’s the pretty Bentevéo bird that’s on the newly shipped 2015 chardonnay (£7.25) which Santiago says is their best vintage yet.

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor


Find out more about the the Deicas family and winemaking in Uruguay as well as an introductory offer on a new petit verdot under the Atlanticó Sur label.

Categories : Rest of the World
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Head of Buying Tim Sykes has recently taken on the buying of Bordeaux wines for The Society. I caught up with him recently to ask him about how it has been going so far, and about his love of this great region’s wines.

Tim SykesTim Sykes
Why Bordeaux?
Because I love the wines! It’s a vast area with real diversity of styles, and is less straightforward to buy from than you might think. It regularly throws up some really, really interesting wines.

Bordeaux’s reputation was forged by a small number of the top châteaux and as a consequence, much gets overlooked. If you get under the skin there are some terrific wines lower down the price ladder. In terms of value for money Bordeaux holds its own against any other region. In the sub-£10 category, I struggle to think of many places outside of Bordeaux that offer the same consistency of quality and value for money year in year out.

Is Bordeaux a region you buy from for your own personal enjoyment?
Since coming to work at The Wine Society [in 2012] I have been drinking a lot more Bordeaux than I had done previously. Bordeaux wasn’t such an important region in my previous job because the restaurant trade sadly doesn’t have such a demand these days

Why do you think Bordeaux offers such value and variety?
There are thousands of châteaux and people making different styles of wine. This is not news to Wine Society members: we have been following many of the leading lights – people like the Dubourdieus and Despagnes – whose wines have stood the test of time. We have been working with them for a long time now. There’s a lot of history there: Jo Locke MW and Sebastian Payne MW did a fantastic job building up relationships with the people that matter.

Will you want to put your own stamp on the region?
Yes, of course, that is my job, and it’s also the challenge and what makes it enjoyable. It will involve lots of prospecting to find the new exciting producers.

What interests me most is the smaller family-owned properties – many of whom actually struggle to make a go of it – contrary to the image most people have of Bordeaux. Growers in some of the ‘satellite’ appellations, and those producing generic claret have often struggled in recent years – prices haven’t changed much for these wines in the last 10 years! Take The Society’s Claret – we buy at pretty much the same cost price as 10 years ago and the wine is getting better and better in quality terms.

Château Canada is an example of a good petit château that we buy from in most years. Good properties like this, the ones we deal with, are generally doing ok, but those that rely on selling in bulk struggle to make ends meet.

On the ground in Bordeaux: Tim with Château Branaire-Ducru's Jean-Dominique VideauOn the ground in Bordeaux: Tim with Château Branaire-Ducru’s Jean-Dominique Videau
You have been involved in sourcing wines for our en primeur offer since you started at The Society; do you cellar Bordeaux for your own enjoyment?
Yes, I like to cellar and drink the grander names too, of course. But in some ways the well-known names are less satisfying to buy as a professional buyer – they’re widely available on the ‘Bordeaux Place’ through local merchants – it’s not like buying from individual properties and finding things for yourself.

Where is the excitement then?
It’s the ‘truffle-snuffling’ element that gets us going as buyers. That’s the exciting thing. We read up on properties and regions… talk to people… prospect.

What have been your impressions as you take over responsibility for Bordeaux?
Of all the regions that I have visited since joining the Society, and in Bordeaux especially, there is enormous respect for The Wine Society. It’s a question of trust, something that has been built up over many, many years. Château owners often comment on how delighted they are to work with us and how much they enjoy meeting our members when they attend tastings.

Why do you think this is?
I think it has to do with loyalty and integrity. The Wine Society is a reliable organisation with a rich tradition. They respect the fact that there are no sharp practices when it comes to dealing with us. We make a point of showing our faces and visit a lot more than most merchants.

Are you getting the impression that there’s a new generation coming to the fore now in Bordeaux?
Yes, to a certain extent…we are seeing the likes of Fabrice and Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu stepping up to take more of a leading role within their family estates, then there’s Edouard Moueix whose father Christian is taking more of a back-seat role, for example.

Are families important in Bordeaux?
When it’s a family concern it is usually a lot more interesting. When you visit the big châteaux for example, you’re rarely shown around by the owner, even if it is family-owned property. It’s usually the director or manager – not the people who make the wine. That’s what’s so nice about the satellite appellations of Bordeaux – Bourg, Blaye, Fronsac – it’s generally more about family properties, much more like the rest of France in that respect.

There are exceptions, of course, people like the Bartons of Châteaux Léoville and Langoa Barton and the Borie family who own Ducru-Beaucaillou and Grand-Puy-Lacoste who are always charming and still retain the family feel.

What are your favourite clarets?
Impossible question to answer! Like many of our members, if I’m looking for everyday drinking wines in the sub-£10 bracket, I would head to somewhere like the Côtes de Bordeaux. Right bank wines based on the merlot grape are more supple and easier to drink younger.

At the more senior level I’d tend to towards the left bank more I love Château Batailley and Grand-Puy-Lacoste – both Pauillacs – on the left bank for example, as well as Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan.

Fri 12 Feb 2016

Wirra Wirra & The Battle Of The Bells

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It is some years now since McLaren Vale producer Wirra Wirra was forced to rename its flagship cabernet sauvignon when the ‘international naming police’ ruled that it was too similar to that of a leading Bordeaux château.

The 3/4-tonne Angelus bell that sits atop Wirra Wirra’s cellars had been retrieved from a wreckers’ yard after its former life calling the faithful to prayer at the Jesuit church in Norwood, South Australia. Traditionally rung at the start and end of each vintage and to mark special occasions, it seemed fitting that its name be used for the property’s top cuvée of cabernet.

The Angelus Bell at Wirra WirraThe Angelus Bell at Wirra Wirra

When forced to change the label, the late Greg Trott, with typical wry humour, chose to call the wine ‘Dead Ringer’. In case there was any doubt, the back label of the first wine to be sold under the new nomenclature read:

Dead Ringer: Colloquial for “resemble exactly.”

…the wine formerly known as The Angelus is now The Dead Ringer. It is indeed a dead ringer for The Angelus – being a blend of 80% McLaren Vale and 20% Coonawarra cabernet, and matured in French oak barriques for 20 months. Whatever the name, this wine is quite simply the best cabernet sauvignon we can make from each vintage.

Members can now try the wine for themselves in the form of the 2013 and 2012 vintages, and a mixed case including the 2005, 2009 and 2012, in the ‘Wirra Wirra: The Name Rings A Bell’ section of our current Fine Wine List.

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor

Categories : Australia
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