Grapevine Archive for 2016
My Corsican trip is always a bit of an adventure and giving it time is always a bit tricky. It comes at a busy time for any buyer of northern hemisphere wines.
How soon can a buyer taste a new vintage? Of course there is no real answer. After all during the vintage, there is a certain satisfaction from tasting grape juice, or even the grapes themselves. Young wine on the other hand goes through stages when it doesn’t taste that well. That’s often when it’s just been racked or moved around, or indeed when it is still full of solid matter. Early smells and tastes can be misleading; young wines need time to settle a little and become more like the finished article.
So I asked my good friend Etienne: how about early December? Fine came the answer and so it was.
I haven’t fully explored all the travel options yet though I’ve tried a few. There are direct flights in the summer but out of season one has to change, at least once. For the time being my favourite option is to start from Saint Pancras which is conveniently close to home. And yes, it allows me to fantasise about some of the great trains of the past: the Mistral and Blue Train.
There’s an early train to Paris and a quick jaunt on the metro and a fast train to Marseille. The journey itself was relatively uneventful. No murders or vanishing ladies. Vanishing power maybe, as the train came to a halt outside Ashford and remained there for half an hour.
I like Marseille station (I quite like Marseille as well). It’s a station that looks different, definitely imbued with a feel of the orient. There are trees within the station, making it look like a rather large orangery. There’s a friendly intimacy about it and people seem remarkably unrushed. There’s a good place for a coffee and a croissant where people have time to talk.
The two women behind the counter may be busy, drawing one coffee after the other but still have time to exchange smiles and small talk with customers. There’s a tramp seated not far away with his coffee and a sandwich. A heavily armed Gendarme greets a passenger with a kiss. This is all such a contrast with Paris which, by comparison seems cold, fearful and furtive.
Marseille airport is like any other airport and in common with all airports, there are building works and road works; yet it too seems a little laid back. People have time for each other. Even at the security gates, there is an air of friendliness. Not that any of this affected security, which was as tight as anywhere.
Corsica has four airports which is good going for an island with a population of around 350,000.
But Corsica is more than just an island. It is a sort of mini continent with lots of quite different bits and these are separated by mountains making communication on the island slow and difficult.
Politics play a big part here too. City mayors are powerful beasts whose reach has to extend to Paris. Corsica punches well above its weight in most matters. And so there are four airports.
I still have only explored a tiny bit of the island. There is vineyard everywhere, but it is probably true that some of the top and most forward thinking growers are in the north. And so that stretch that separates the towns of Calvi and Bastia, has become Wine Society territory!
Calvi is where Lord Nelson lost an eye in 1794. It amuses people much that Corsica might have ended up a British possession. Indeed for a couple of years George III was king of an Anglo-Corsican kingdom.
Back to wine!
Clos Culombu is not far from Calvi airport, barely 15 minutes’ drive away. It was dark when I got there. The samples of rosé from the new vintage were all lined up on the counter.
Etienne Suzzoni was there, all six-and-a-half feet of him (or more!), and his son Paul-Antoine who as it turned was largely responsible for making the 2016 vintage. Father Etienne is these preoccupied with other ventures; he is after all Mayor of his local town, Lumio.
2016 is a good vintage here. It was explained that it was hot and dry but that crucially that it had rained just enough so that drought was never really a problem. We tasted from a round 20 different tanks, all representing specific parts of the vineyard and different grape varieties, and different ages of vine too. Some of the samples were already blends with two varieties present. For instance, the first tank was of sciaccarrellu with a little syrah, and very good it was too.
Before continuing maybe a few words are needed about varieties. Corsica has a rich and varied ampelography taking in influences from France, Genoa, Tuscany and even Catalonia. Many varieties were lost during the phylloxera epidemic though some have since been rediscovered, growing wild.
In the north, niellucciu is the main red grape variety and is in fact identical to the Tuscan sangiovese. It produces full-flavoured, full-bodied and often tannic wines. Sciaccarellu is a native Corsican variety, grown nowhere else. It tends to make wines that are fragrant, fruity with plenty of grip and is the majority variety further south such as in Ajaccio. Local wisdom says that it is the choice variety for making rosé. Grenache is also indigenous and probably came from Aragon or Sardinia. Syrah and cinsault are more recent imports. Last year, the blend for our Corsican Rosé was mostly niellucciu with a little sciaccarellu and grenache.
Silence tends to reign during these tastings, considerable levels of concentration being required. Each sample is tasted, one after the other. Each could have something to say in a blend. One sample might have low pH which could be a good thing while another might have high pH, less desirable. Likewise excessive alcohol might not be a great idea. And so I write down a comment or two beside each wine, by the time the last wine has been tasted I have an idea which samples to retain for the blend.
And then starts the fun with test tubes and calculators at the ready. The sciaccarellu wines are all very good and yet, on its own, something is missing.
There are several false leads until finally a blend sticks. Jean Dépagneux, for many years in charge of a business in Beaujolais and Mâcon, always used to tell me that three elements in a blend are better than two.
And then I found it. There was a tank of pure cinsault which didn’t seem much and was easily overlooked. Just 10% was enough to bring the niellucciu and sciaccarellu together. And so the 2016 vintage was born.
The following day the three elements, 60% niellucciu, 30% sciaccarellu and 10% cinsault, were blended together.
What happens now?
The wine now rests; it will remain untouched over the winter and will be bottled after a filtration in the spring.
The first shipment to Stevenage will be in April and I for one am looking forward to trying it!
Corsica is a big place and 36 hours doesn’t allow for much exploration. After Calvi, my route took me east to the other fortress town of Nelsonian fame, Bastia. A high point was the entering the forbidding-sounding Désert des Agriates. North of the main road, there is just a startlingly beautiful emptiness.
I had to meet Marie-Brigitte Paoli who picked me up in her incredibly large land cruiser. The next four or five miles were not easy driving on a deeply rutted track but eventually we arrived at her estate. Hers is called Clos Teddi while her husband’s, next door is Clos Alivu. One cellar serves both and there is one winemaker, a Parisian who came to Corsica as a student to do a vintage and never left!
There are lovely wines here in all three colours and complemented to perfection the lunch which was brought out on a windswept terrace. There was charcuterie, figatellu sausage, spare ribs, an eyewateringly strong cheese, Fiadone cheese cake and garden-picked clementines, a sole guardian of sensible eating!
The wines of Corsica are fascinating and though I’ve spent much of the time on rosé, the whites and reds are also worth exploring. More Italianate then Gallic, they are at their best at the heart of a meal.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
News & Content Editor
Many thanks to the estates who hosted us and to Peter Cox for some great photos.
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.
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.
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!
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’…
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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!
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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
20 years is a short time in the wine world. Just enough for your first vines to have become fully mature and to be providing great fruit.
Couple that with one of the best ever summers for grapes on England’s South Downs and expect some delicious wines to come from the 2016 vintage.
The first Ridgeview vines were planted in 1994 by Mike Roberts MBE and his wife Chris. Sadly Mike passed away in November 2014, but the baton has been picked up by the second generation, namely winemaker Simon and his wife Mardi and CEO Tamara and her husband Simon They are continuing the family vision of creating world class sparkling wines in the South Downs. You can check out this short video to hear Mike, Simon, Tamara and others talk of their involvement in the business.
Ridgeview has been supplying The Society since the 2001 vintage, and I have been enjoying their wines since I started at The Society in 2004. Every year I enjoy them more as the vines get more established and as the experience of the Roberts family grows.
The proof of the ever-improving pudding came when they started making our chardonnay-dominant Society’s Exhibition English Sparkling Wine. We have just this week moved on to the 2014 vintage after selling out of the maiden 2013.
When Mardi Roberts invited me down to the estate at Ditchling Common in East Sussex for a day’s picking and pressing I didn’t need to be asked twice.
On arrival I talked with head winemaker Simon, vineyard manager Matt Strugnell and vineyard assistant Luke Spalding. They were visibly excited about the quality of this year’s harvest, agreeing that it is of the best quality they have ever had at Ridgeview, although rain at flowering time has meant that pinot noir quantities are down.
Walking around the winery and meeting chief operation officer Robin, production manager Olly, winemaking assistants Rob and Inma and others, it was clear that they were energised by the quality of the grapes and by the job they had to do to ensure that we will be enjoying the fruits of their labours for years to come.The winery and vineyards were abuzz with activity when I got there: the brilliant, efficient and hard-working Romanian and Portuguese pickers were in the vines, and the winemaking team was weighing the freshly picked chardonnay grapes on their way to the press.
There are seven hectares (17 acres) of vines on the Ridgeview site, but they work with growers on a further six sites on the South Downs (five in Sussex, one in Hampshire). The viticultural management of everything they grow or contract out is fascinating. There are four experimental rows of vines nearest the winery. Here they try various techniques to improve the yields and quality of the grapes.
These include canopy management (taking away / leaving leaves on the vines), cover crop planting (which crops are best for the soil quality), frost protection measures (currently trialling a warming electric cable along the trellis that is switched on when there is a risk of frost) and other experiments. Once a method has been deemed practical, it is rolled out into their own vineyard, and from there across the vineyards of the contracted growers.
I spent some time with Mardi in the vines harvesting chardonnay. The grapes themselves were delicious – well, it would have been rude not to taste! There was a lovely acidity, a sweetness and a fine texture already in the mouth. Things bode well for the 2016 vintage, with the bunches from row 13 particularly well snipped, IMHO!
Once the grapes have been picked, the bins are brought to the winery and put into the press. The unfermented chardonnay juice was very drinkable and, after tasting it, Simon and Luke were having their habitual daily bet on what the sugar level was (75-76? Oechsle seemed to be the consensus). The sugar level is of course a good guide to the eventual alcohol content of the finished wine. In the case of the 2016 chardonnay, this will be around 12%, with no chaptalisation (the adding of sugar to the grape juice to increase the potential alcohol of the wine) necessary.
The whole team is dedicated to the cause, and doing a fine job. The genuine smiling faces all around were a pleasure to behold, and it is clear to me that our Exhibition English Sparkling Wine couldn’t be in better hands.
Today I’d like to share these wonderful photos from Viña Zorzal in Navarra, Spain, which give a flavour of how things are going at this forward-thinking bodega.
The Sanz family has 70 hectares of vines, some of which – including the graciano and garnacha used for the Zorzal range we buy – are over 35 years old. Brothers Xabi and Iñaki, who oversee sales and winemaking respectively, have injected a new lease of life into Zorzal. Xabi was in touch with me this week- he says the 2016 fruit is excellent quality.
I’ll report back once I’ve tasted the wines in 2017.
One of the Loire regions hardest hit by frost this spring (the worst since 1991, with some growers cropping as little as 5-10 hl/ha, a fraction of an increasingly rare ‘normal’ crop) the Nantais concluded its harvest in fine conditions after a growing season full of challenges to stretch every grower.
A wet spring and extended cold, damp flowering period compounded the in-some-cases gloomy start to the season. Heat and drought ensued in a summer that even challenged holiday makers with more than one period of exceptionally high temperatures. The only good news in this, other than sun tans all round, was that earlier disease pressure in the vineyards was stopped in its tracks, and there will not be much need to chaptalise this year either.
A fine late season, with a little rain at just the right time to revive the vines and restart maturation, and dry, sunny, often windy days and chilly nights allowed growers to bring in a healthy, if often cruelly small crop.
On my recent visit at the tail end of the harvest I saw – and tasted – healthy fruit, talked with sanguine (mighty relieved) growers and heard some pretty tragic stories that may see more Muscadet vignerons throwing in the towel.
And the wines? There will not be a consistent picture (it was a particularly tricky year for organic producers for example), but the best results will produce a richer style of Muscadet, perhaps somewhere between 2015 and 2003 in style.
Jo Locke MW
Once upon a time, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel were the only two named ‘crus’ of the southern Rhône.
But of course it is the ambition of every village to aspire to cru status.
Making it happen can be a long process and has to involve a Paris-based body called INAO which stands for the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine. It alone can decree that Brie de Meaux can be called Brie de Meaux or that Chambertin can be called Chambertin.
In the case of Cairanne, that process seemed interminable.
The case for Cru Cairanne began when the appellations were first created back in the 1930s. Growers then were far-seeing, and even then had begun by insisting on low yields and that only a certain number of grape varieties could be used.
There were geological surveys, an infinite number of tastings and meetings, and plenty of politics and negotiations to determine which could be crus and which vineyards couldn’t.
What makes a good Cairanne?
With a majority of grenache in the blend, Cairanne is never going to be anything less than a full-bodied, generous wine with a certain fruity charm and tannins that should always be well integrated and soft.
The upshot is that Cairanne is now the 17th cru of the Côtes-du-Rhône, joining the likes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage; and it applies to both red and white wine though red is by far the more important.
As far as we are concerned, it means that from the 2015 vintage just ‘Cairanne’ need appear on the label. Goodbye ‘Côtes-du-Rhône Villages’!
Quality won’t change that much as most growers have been making such brilliant wine anyway. Yields are a little lower which will mean that the wines should have more substance and greater concentration.
Cairanne itself is a delightful place to visit. It’s an old village, typically laid out, Provence style, on a hill with a church at the top, lots of winding lanes and plenty of character.
These days there are some good places to eat with the choice possibly headed by the Tourne au Verre. This is very central and has an excellent wine list with most if not all Cairanne producers represented. The food is good and simple, and one can eat outside in the summer.
The 2015 vintage is looking very promising, and some of the wines will soon be in bottle.
As for the 2016 vintage, flowering is still a little way off but so far so good…
So, roll on Cairanne, the Rhône’s newest cru!