Winter Means Whisky: Hedonism

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The clocks went back last Sunday. Unlike British Summer Time which extends the evenings and thus increases the consumption of Aperol Spritz and Prosecco proportionally, the fact that it now gets dark at 5pm makes me want to spend my evenings sitting by the fire, under a warm blanket and with the dog at my feet. (I’m 30-something going on 80-something, in case you hadn’t already realised.)

There are certain drinks which make the cut in these situations and delicate white wines (like the Sauvignon Blanc that I had at lunch today) or vodka-based cocktails, which just don’t.

Wonderful racy minerality… but doesn’t pair well with a violent thunderstorm.

Fortunately, I happen to have a decent stash of whisky at home and in my opinion, it’s the perfect fireside, after-dark tipple. It’s widely acknowledged that a huge part of the tasting experience is influenced by your surroundings at the time. Hearing the wind whistle around the house and the rain lash against the windowpane makes me yearn for pu er tea until it’s an appropriate time to pour a snifter.

Hedonism is a blended grain Scotch whisky, from expert blenders, Compass Box. It’s 43% ABV, non-chill filtered and no added colourings, aged in American oak barrels.

Grain whisky has a completely different profile from malt. There’s far more gourmandise, to borrow a word from the French. This drop in particular has a very pronounced vanilla flavour. Pure vanilla essence, on the nose as in the mouth. Whilst my drinking partner is picking up fainter notes of Victoria sponge cake, for me it’s more like a Black Forest Gateau because there’s the vanilla cream and the smell of boozy dark cherries. It’s smooth, creamy and warming, without burning, and it suits its name “Hedonism” down to a tee.

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Harvest 2018 – A Bumper Crop

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Harvest 2018 is well underway and it’s looking like one of the very best years in recent memory for winemakers across most of Italy and France.

Despite a worrying amount of rain in the springtime and outbreaks of mildew/peronospora, the summer was hot, constant and mercifully allowed the grapes to come to maturity.

Largely because of last year’s frost but also because of this year’s gentle flowering season, the vines have produced a much larger quantity of grapes than usual.

So much so that winemakers have more grapes than they know what to do with! My boyfriend’s phone keeps ringing with nearby growers trying to sell him grapes because their cellar is already full. Theirs is full to the brim too!

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Stamping down on the grapes in order to fit them all into the press!

Today, Monday 24th September, the cantina sociale of Gambellara (a small town near Soave) didn’t open its doors to its members because it needed a day of downtime to sort and make space. It has been completely overloaded and it’s not the only one.

It’s not hard to imagine how busy the cooperatives are when you watch the video below showing the street leading to one of the Prosecco coops. A traffic jam of tractors!!

There’s another video which has gone viral because it shows a man machine-harvesting his grapes but leaving them on the ground. “You realise this is a sacrilege,” the guy filming says to the driver of the tractor. Better than seeing them rot on the plant, is the unsaid message.

One of the consequences of having so many grapes on the plant is that the sugar levels remain relatively or unacceptably (depending on your point of view) low.

We’ve heard of prosecco vineyards near us which were harvested two weeks ago (i.e. early September) but which only yielded a sugar level of between 9 and 12 babo. That means between 6 and 9% potential alcohol. Insane.

What can you do? Well, like many quality winemakers, in the summer, you do what is called green harvesting. In some of Angiolino Maule’s vineyards, he removes 50% of his grape bunches in late June/July when he’s got an idea of how the year is going. Crop thinning allows you to manage the yields better; you lose quantity but you gain quality, sugar and complexity in both the grapes and in the resulting wine.

Alternatively, you can do what we know some conventional producers in Soave are doing this year: reverse osmosis.* In this case, you keep as many grapes on the plant as possible but once the grapes have been brought into the cellar and are being vinified, you pass the must through a membrane which separates some of the water content and allows you to concentrate the sugar. All the quantity and now a wine which you can bottle at an acceptable 12% ABV.

Where I am (in the Veneto, Italy) we’ve just about finished 40% of our harvest…. and we’ve been harvesting since the last few days of August. It’ll be at least another (long) three weeks until we’ve brought the last of the grapes into the cellar.


* n.b. I know that reverse osmosis is more commonly used for reducing alcohol content, but unless I’m mistaken, it can also be used for increasing the ABV.

 

R.I.P. Stefano Bellotti

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If you haven’t already heard, Stefano Bellotti, winemaker and biodynamic guru from Novi Ligure in Piedmont, sadly passed away last week. What he suspected to be a dodgy oyster turned out to be pancreatic cancer and it was to prove fatal. 

Stefano was a hugely important figure to me, as he was to many other people in the industry. (Read the Kevin McKenna and Jules Dressner’s touching blog post here.) If you’ll allow me to indulge in a touch of nostalgia, I’ll explain how I met Stefano and how he changed, irrefutably, the path of my career.

I first met Stefano in 2012. We were at a small “Triple A” wine tasting in Paris, pouring from behind adjacent tables.

I don’t remember precisely if it was the first time I tried his wines (it was almost certainly the first time I tried the more complex cuvées, not just Semplicemente Vino) but I do remember that I didn’t understand these wines. There was something edgy, different and uncompromising about them.

Stefano and his wines are much alike. If you stick your nose in too quickly and ask too many questions, both the man and the wine close up. If you allow them time, gain familiarity, and return repeatedly, you start to not just understand but also warm to them. 

We met each year at the Renaissance tastings in the Loire until on one occasion which will remain engraved in my mind forever, I tell Stefano that I’m going freelance. It’s because of his “je te prends tout de suite” that I also met Dettori, and through them that I met Filippi, and through that connection that I’m where I am today.

At the Paris launch of “Natural Resistance.” Photo: Bertrand Celce / Wine Terroirs, 2014.

Over the next four years, I stayed at the Cascina degli Ulivi many times and helped in the fields, whilst following him through life’s ups and downs. From Jonathan Nossiter’s film “Natural Resistance” and the planting of a new Timorasso vineyard high in the hills to the various problems in the Cascina and the different deceptions that he bore personally. I wrote about it at the very beginning but it remained true until the end:

Stefano himself is a sweetheart. He has such a kind, generous character and (but don’t tell him I have written this) he’s also very sensitive. A pioneer of biodynamics, he has long been questioned and attacked for beliefs that were against the norm but which for him are so inherent that it’s as if it’s woven into his flesh. Sure, I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Stefano but I respect him massively for who he is and what he’s done. (2014 blog post.)

From Stanko Radikon (of whom I will forever have the image of him beaming in sheer joy, because of the novelty of sitting in the passenger seat of my English car), to Beppe Rinaldi, over to Ernesto Cattel, and now Stefano, this has been a rough year for us earth-dwellers but there’s definitely one massive party happening in the after-life.

RIP Stefano. I just hope there’s enough soil and biodiversity in heaven for you not to get bored.

Shock, Horror and a Golden Lining

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My alarm clock seemed louder than ever this morning. I got back from Paris late last night and having enjoyed every baguette crumb, every bite of cheese and every drop of wine, I was running a high sleep deficit.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am. Half an hour later, I was standing at the top of a vineyard, secateurs in hand, admiring the view down the Val d’Alpone and over to the Soave hills.

We were picking garganega grapes for our recioto today. The Recioto di Gambellara is a traditional dessert wine made in my adoptive town by letting the grape bunches dry out over a period of about 4 months. Gambellara’s Recioto is not like other passito or straw-wines, because we hang our grapes on vertical nets…… which is exactly what we then spent the afternoon doing!

Brutal as my wake-up call was this morning, it is nothing compared to the shock, 3 days ago, when the De Bartoli family in Sicily discovered that someone broken into their winery during the night and stolen 600kg of passito grapes.

Screenshot of their Facebook post. Click for full-screen.

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Who Will Take Forward The Costadilà Winery ?

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For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Isaac Newton’s third law remains as true today as it was when it was first written 300 years ago.

Because it’s very easy to get distracted by all the Prosecco merchandising on Pinterest and Facebook, you might have missed the underground resistance movement which is Prosecco col fondo.

Only a handful of winemakers held out against the advances in technology and the ease of producing good (but generic) wine that the arrival of Charmat (tank) method permitted. Instead, they continued to allow the wine to referment in its bottle and didn’t degorge or decant – col fondo.

The Costadilà winery started in 2006 as a wine-child of a group of friends, who wanted to protect and propagate this col fondo tradition.

Their philosophy – single vineyards at varied elevations, indigenous yeasts, no added sulfur – was an instant success. They were sold through the most reputable of natural wine distributors (Velier in Italy, LMDW in France and Louis Dressner in the USA) and I saw personally how their wines took Paris’ most pioneering restaurants and wine bars by storm.

It was THE col fondo Prosecco in Paris and the Costadilà wines opened the door to other atypical wines in these second-wave bistronomy establishments.

That I hadn’t written about the Costadilà winery on this blog before was a deliberate omission. I had a visit scheduled with Ernesto Cattel (the man behind these enigmatic wines) in March 2015, to meet in a café just off the Vittorio Veneto Autostrada but I waited an hour just to realise that I’d been stood up. 

This morning, like most mornings, I scroll through Facebook to see what’s been going on and woefully, I learn that Ernesto, after a battle with cancer, has died. 

I mentioned before that the Costadilà brand (the real company name is actually Ederlezi) is made up of a group of similarly-minded wine folk. At the beginning, they all had full-time jobs and this was just a side-project. Ernesto was the one to give up his day job and throw all the hours in the day into making and selling these bubbles.

But, with Ernesto’s sad quietus, will one of the other partners step forward to take the winery forward? Or will they bring in someone from outside and how would that affect the company’s dynamic? The loss of Ernesto means one less proponent of a style of wine that I’ve come to love.

Other producers of prosecco grapes vinified in the col fondo way include:

Ca’ dei Zago

Casa Belfi

Casa Coste Piane

Coletti Wines

In The Vineyards With: Uros Klabjan (Istria, Slovenia)

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“I don’t know what this year has been like with you but 2018 is even worse than 2014 for me.” It’s with that bold admission that Uros Klabjan greets us when we pull up in his winery. “Every single day, it rains.”

Once he’s shown us round the vineyards and the cellar, he takes us to his mother’s trattoria. She’d set aside a large table outside, under an ancient pergola vine. We sit down, open a bottle of wine and, eh voilà, the heavens open. We make a mad dash for shelter and, such was the violence of this sudden downpour, that we grab the bottle and a couple of wine glasses. “Don’t worry about the napkins or the cutlery,” Uros calls out. “Don’t worry about the dog bowl,” I echo.

This particular valley – the Osp, only a few kilometres from Trieste and the Istrian coastline – has a Mediterranean microclimate but gets particularly battered by the competing winds: the easterly/north-easterly Bora and the strong north-westernly Mistral.

The soil type is also a battlefield between the limestone in the dramatic Karst Plateau on the northern edge and the white marl from the more gentle hills to the east. Despite the humidity, it’s clearly a fertile area if the number of vegetable patches dotted around the village are anything to go by.

My dog photo-bombing Uros in the vineyards

Uros doesn’t count by hectares (although, later we calculated 10) but by number of vines in his possession (around 60,000) mainly of refosco d’Istria and Istrian malvasia with some moscato giallo (from local Hrastovlje biotype), pinot grigio and merlot.

In the wine cellar, thanks to the small size of the barrels and tanks, each parcel is vinified separately but the varietal blends (from the same fields) are often co-fermented. Fermentation takes place for a short time on the skins, with native yeasts and no added sulphites. The maturation stage is allowed to continue for as long as needed, Uros sticks firmly to his hands-off, no-intervention policy. The wines decant naturally and remain unfiltered, even at bottling.

Labels with a white background indicate younger vines (between a respectable 25 and 40 years old) and aged in stainless steel tanks for everyday drinking. Black-coloured labels means a more structured, powerful wine from the old-vine parcels (over 50 years ago) and aged in old Slovenian oak barrels.

Klabjan’s cellar under the family house

Whilst we’re tasting barrel samples in the miniscule cellar, I probe further into how 40-year-old Uros got to this point.

It turns out that his passion for wine and natural winemaking stems directly from his grandfather. The vineyards have been in the family for generations but it was only when Uros’ father started making wine with modern technology and conventional oenology (it was his father who purchased the steel tanks and vinified with selected yeasts) that Uros became convinced of the road he wanted to follow when his turn came to take the reins.

As a result, he’s a welcoming, positive, energetic man, whose wines reflect that magnetism and vivacity. They are honest, authentic reflections of this unique place and the man who made them. If you happen to see these wines out-and-about or to be passing through the area, they’re some of the best coming out of Slovenia. Seek them out!

Intense old-vine malvasija – my coup de coeur!

Visit: 11th July 2018

There’s little online presence in English for the winery, but The Morning Claret wrote about a visit in 2015 and Chateau Monty has a detailed profile.

Uros can be contacted via email: uros.klabjan@siol.net

“Maresa” 2016 from Masseria Starnali. Orange or Not?

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I’ve spent the last few days with Simon Woolf, a personable and knowledgable wine writer with a particular passion for orange wines.

Now, we all know that orange wines can be rather divisive and you won’t be disappointed to know that there were plenty of in-depth discussions but also lots of friendly jibes on the subject.

Knowing that many drinkers don’t find massively tannic, powerful macerated wines to be their cup of tea, some winemakers have started maintaining “but I don’t make orange wine” even though their grapes are kept on the skins for at least part of the alcoholic fermentation.

We’ve ended up in a situation – at least here in Italy – where there’s an ‘is it or isn’t it?’ grey area and where ultimately whatever is said is based on an arbitrary decision rather than widely recognised consensus or actual facts.

As with so many other things however, time has proven itself to be a great healer because as the category becomes more established, an expert will emerge and a particular definition will prevail.

Simon’s definition (and I’m hope I’m not revealing too many secrets from his upcoming book Amber Revolution) is that you should think of an orange wine as another technique in a winemaker’s armoury.

Rather than widely accepted three, we should think of four categories.

Red wines are the result of red-skinned grapes with lengthy skin-contact maceration. Rosé wines are red-skinned grapes with barely any time on the skins. Whites are white grapes but the grapes’ skin never comes into play. Orange wines are made with white grapes and their skins were used (for an indeterminate length of time) during winemaking. Each of these different “colours” can lead to different styles of wine – some oxydised, others clean.


As it happens, I have a ton of open bottles of wine underneath my computer table this evening. (It’s one of the unavoidable consequences of organising a tasting of 215 wines!)

I was thumbing through the bottles, much as most people flick through a recipe book wondering what to make tonight, when I came across “Maresa”, a wine from Masseria Starnali in Campania.

It’s 100% Falanghina – a local white wine grape – aged only in stainless steel tanks and bottled with very few added sulfites.

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The colour, well, I would describe it as golden. It’s not a shade of amber which would scare off the uninitiated but the hue is just deep enough to raise suspicions.

Because I’ve drunk this wine with Maria Teresa and her son Luigi several times, I know that this wine has been made with a couple of days of skin-contact maceration.

Let it be said, this is a superbly elegant wine. There’s fruit – ripe bergamot, citron, and plums; and there’s salt and sapidity – surely coming from the volcanic soils and the proximity to the sea. But there’s another layer too: the maceration, albeit brief, gives structure and soul to what could have been just another crisp, mineral Italian white wine. The maceration gives a chewiness and a fullness to the mouthfeel which coats your taste buds and leaves you begging for more.

It’s also a perfect example of how a technique which doesn’t originate from that region (at least, I hope that’s not the twist in the tail of Simon’s book!) can be implemented succesfully in a place without the history.

If this is orange wine, I’m 100% on board!