Celebrating Guy Fawkes With A Peated Whisky

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I can’t believe it’s November already. This year has flown by… and whilst I know people say that every year, I was expecting this particular year to pass more slowly than most because I’ve spent nearly the entirety of it sober.

Anyway, the baby is now almost two months old, I’ve lost all sign of the pregnancy belly and I think my taste buds have just about returned to normal, finally! (I didn’t write any tasting notes during the nine months because my palate was all over the place.)

(Photo by Jens Mahnke on Pexels.com)

November 5th is Bonfire Night in the UK. I’ve been trying to persuade the Italians of the appeal of standing in a damp cold field, eating an impossibly hard toffee apple and watching the effigy of a man be consumed by flames… but I think somewhere it’s been lost in translation.

So the closest I’m going to get to recreating those old Guy Fawkes memories this year is sitting down with a tiny drop of peated whisky.


Peat is used during the malting stage of whisky production. More precisely, in order to dry out the barley grains and halt germination, a fire is lit and traditionally, briquettes of peat are included to help with combustion, just like how you and I might use coal.

Peat is decomposed plant matter and it is found in bogs all over Scotland. Peat was used across the entire country and so once upon a time, all Scotch whiskies would have been peated, but the arrival of the railways brought a more convenient heat source and thus the more accessible parts of the country (namely the Lowlands and Speyside) were the first to adopt coal. In remote parts of the country however (islands like Islay and Orkney) peat can still be found used even as domestic fuel.

When peat burns, it releases chemicals called phenols which stick to the barley and even though some are lost during the process of distillation, enough are carried over to give the finished whisky its tell-tale aroma.

Tonight I’m drinking a single malt Scotch whisky called “Don’t Tell The Taxman.” It’s a special bottling from a distillery on Islay whose name needs to be kept secret and an exclusive edition, which as you might have guessed by the name, technically does not exist…

I’ve chosen this one because then the nitty-gritty particularities of the whisky don’t count because you’re not going to find it on the market anyway, so it allows me to talk more generally about the typicity of peated whiskies.

There’s something racy and exciting about the nose. Aromas are earthy, herbaceous and savoury. Much like salt in cooking, peat can accentuate the flavours and it can bring out the umami character. On the palate, the smokiness does not dominate but it just gives a kick to the finish.

Peat is the Marmite of the whisky world: drinkers tend to be polarised at either ends of the spectrum… but there is a middle ground and it lies in the skill of a master distiller and blender. Each distillery will have their own style – both in terms of intensity and character; just because you’ve tried one or two and don’t like it, doesn’t mean you should write off all peated whiskies. Keep trying different expressions and you might find one that speaks to you.


There’s a detailed article about the significance of peat on whisky.com if you want to find out more.

Want to get geeky with phenols? Read “The Professor’s” explanation on quantifying the PPM (Phenol Parts Per Million) but the following soundbite is worth highlighting:

“Phenols are big molecules with a high boiling-point which are only released as vapour towards the end of the distillation cycle. Their capture will therefore depend on the cut points set by the distiller. A good example is the difference between Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Both distilleries use the same malted barley, yet Caol Ila doesn’t only seem less smoky, but has a different set of aromas due to its process: ferment times, still shape, fill level, speed of distillation and cut points. Coming off spirit at an earlier cut point will only capture lighter smokiness, while a later cut will pick up more of the heavier phenols. In addition, many phenols will be always be left behind in the feints and are never retained in new make spirit.”

What’s On Around Vinitaly?

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Spring is right around the corner. The days are getting longer and warmer, the first vegetables in my orto have been sown and my taste buds are turning towards pétillant naturels rather than heavy reds.

I’ve had time to unpack my suitcase and settle back after the Loire fairs earlier this month and so my mind goes to the next big appointment in the wine trade diary: Vinitaly!

I make a point of going every year. You may have spotted that I was interviewed for an episode of Monty Waldin’s “Italian Wine Podcast” recently. It was recorded during a stolen 45 minutes in a fishbowl somewhere in the depths of Veronafiera last April.

Chatting with Monty Waldin, 2018

Every year, you may be thinking…. *yawn*… whilst it sounds clichéed, every year, there’s something new. Here’s the run-down of what to expect if you’re coming to Vinitaly in 2019.

The old-timers know that the proceedings kick off on Friday 5th April with Vini Veri in Cerea (VR.) The list of participants is not yet available but you can be sure to find a smattering of the usual natural wine figures – of which my personal favourites usually present are Colombaia, Feudo d’Ugni and Vodopivec.

The next day (Saturday 6th) heralds the start of VinNatur, which *newsflash* has moved its annual fair from the famous Villa Favorita to the nearby Margraf Showroom, a exhibition and logistics hub for a large, local marble company. We’ll find out if marble and wine are a good combination – but one thing is for sure: easy parking and 17,000 square metres of space to house the 182 producers from 6 different countries.

Summa, up in the Alto Adige, is the most exclusive of the fairs – being reserved to some 2000 participants and 100 winemakers. Organised by Alois Lageder, current president of Demeter Italy, most of the exhibitors farm biodynamically and if you receive an invitation, I’ve heard it’s worth the detour.

That covers the “off” fairs and brings us onto probably the main reason why you come to the Verona area at this time of the year anyway: Vinitaly. I’m pleased to report that in recent years there’s been a substantial increase in how much space, time and attention is given to organic, sustainable and independently-owned wineries. Given that 30% of all the vineyards in Italy are organically farmed, this increase shouldn’t come as much of a surprise but it should be very much welcomed.

In 2019, you’ll find that the entireity of Pavillon 8 has been given over to FIVI (independent wineries) and Vinitalybio (organic producers), whilst VIVIT – which for me was always the big draw – has moved to a new venue, the newly created Organic Hall in “Area F.”

If you happen to be staying in central Verona and you haven’t reached your wine-saturation-point, then there’s one easy solution: Vinitaly and the City. Personally, however, and especially if the weather is good, I would suggest heading out to Bardolino for their evening entertainment at the Villa Carrara Bottagisio, right on Lake Garda from the 5th-7th April. More details in the links below.


VINI VERI: 5 – 7 April 2019 at AreaExp, Cerea VR (website)

VINNATUR: 6 – 8 April 2019 at Margraf, Torre di Confine VI (website)

SUMMA: 6 – 7 April 2019 at Magrè, Alto Adige (website)

VINITALY: 7 – 10 April 2019, Veronafiera (website)

VINITALY AND THE CITY: 5 – 8 April, in central Verona (website) and Bardolino website

In The Vineyards With: Thomas Niedermayr

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Shortly before Christmas, I drove for an hour or so north, from Verona up to the Alto Adige. If you’re familiar with Verona, you almost certainly have seen the river which encircles the historic city, the river Adige. Alto Adige is the mountainous region, where that river originates. This area is also widely known by its German name, South Tyrol, because approximately 60% of the local population are native German speakers, whilst only 20% grew up speaking Italian.

It’s a dramatic and interesting route to drive because once you’ve left the fog of the Verona plains behind, the mountains creep closer and the road you are travelling along becomes dwarfed by the rocky landmasses on either side.

Leaving Verona / Lake Garda behind and heading towards the Austrian border

Head into the foothills above the city of Bozen / Bolzano and you find yourself lost in wine country. The roads are windy and impossibly narrow for oncoming traffic, and the villages have remain untouched since yesteryear.

It’s here, at approximately 500 metres above sea level, that you find Thomas Niedermayr. Thomas manages 5 hectares of vineyards (part owned, part rented) at this family-run winery. His father has been cultivating grapes and making wine, organically and with a strong emphasis on biodiversity, since the late 80s but it was more a side-project than a viable business.

Having decided to pursue winemaking as a career, Thomas, who originally studied carpentry, enrolled at the reputed Laimburg research centre to learn oenology. 2012 was the culmination of those studies and it was to prove a defining year; several months of work experience at a biodynamic farm in Austria and then a placement to learn English in London gave Thomas the drive and direction that is so valuable at the start.

It’s still very much a family effort; when we arrive, Thomas’ dad, Rodolf, is cutting back a hedge and his sister is pruning in the vineyards. Meanwhile, a menagerie of animals cluck, peck, sniff and hop around us.

Ducks, geese, chicken… all foul run loose at Hof Gandberg

It’s cold out so after a brisk walk through the vineyards, Thomas shows us his brand new cellar, which he’s made himself, almost entirely from wood – a doth of the hat to his previous passion for carpentry. In that cellar you find a range of white and red wines; some aged in stainless steel, others in wooden barrels of varying sizes…. but not from the grape varieties that you might expect! The most notable aspect that differentiates Thomas from others is his dedication to PIWI grape varieties.

PIWI varieties are hybrids, made from crossing commonly found European grape varieties with a resistant American counterpart and creating a result which is resistant to downy and powdery mildew. The advantage of PIWI varieties is that they remove the need to treat with copper and sulphur and therefore pollute the environment far less than conventional and even organic agriculture. You can find more information about PIWI varieties on this website.

Varieties that Thomas works with include Solaris, Bronner and Souvignier Gris. Each has its own completely different aromatic profile and my resolution for 2019 is to become more familiar with their typicities.

As we leave the cellar, there’s a small table off to one side which is practically hidden by the quantity of bottles, demi-johns and contraptions which lie atop. It turns out that these are Thomas’ many, many micro-vinifications. His first harvest (picked, vinified and bottled) was in 2013 but he admit that he’s still learning and still experimenting.

“If we don’t experiment, how would we know what works and what doesn’t?” Touché.

Thomas’ experimentation.


Thomas Niedermayr website

Visit: 21st December 2018


Gramenon’s “L’élémentaire” 2016

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I was in Nice a couple of months ago and, because I had the car with me, I stopped by La Part des Anges, a well-known wine shop filled-to-bursting with natural wines, to stock up.

Whilst I love the diversity of wine made in Italy, that same diversity means that it is particularly hard to import wine here because there are so few gaps in the market. Besides Champagne and some of the usual big names, there are many French wines that I can’t find anymore and that I miss. Continue reading

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.

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.