According to the calendar, we’re nearly at the end of March but I have no idea where the time has gone. A quarter of the year has already passed and yet, what do we have to show for it? Pratically nothing, in my case.
Normally at this time, we’ve got back from a week in the Loire, slurping oysters and devouring as much salted butter as humanly possible, and we’re gearing up for Vinitaly and the spin-off natural wine tastings. Not this year and we don’t really know when we will again. The continued inability to plan ahead is increasingly tiresome.
We’re still at home (a new lockdown in Italy started 10 days ago) and if you turn on the TV, the headlines haven’t changed much. Do you remember the days not so long ago really when we knew nothing about viruses and vaccines?
The only difference is that over the last couple of weeks, the baby has turned into a fully-fledged toddler – along with all the tantrums that this adorable phase brings.
At the winery, the vineyard maintenance work is coming to an end and our attention is turning to the bottling of the 2020 vintage which will start next month. The upside of this entire situation is that the 2020s are turning out to be quite special. Who would of thought it! What a cruel twist of fate that the year most of us will want to forget – our annus horribilis – may become the year that we look for on a label.
Meanwhile, we haven’t drunk anything noteworthy recently. Quite possibily a side-effect of this daily ennui but the wines we have opened lack their sparkle.
That said, I have discovered a new cocktail on David Lebovitz’s website that has become my go-to aperitif in the evenings. The Jasmine.
Here’s my twist on it (for two people): put 3 oz gin + 1.5oz fresh lemon juice + 1 oz Triple Sec / Cointreau + 1 oz Campari in a shaker. Add ice. Shake. Pour. Garnish with a wide strip of lemon zest and top up with a splash of tonic water. (Or not, depending on how your day has gone!) Sit back and enjoy. Repeat this process tomorrow. And the next day… and the next…
The discussion continued, tamely enough, between various people talking about grape varieties that can yield overly-fragrant, perfumed wines… until we reach this point:
I spent a good hour this afternoon doing some repetitive maintenance work in the vineyards so I had time to mull this concept over further.
When I talk about wine, I tend to follow the standard formula of talking about what there *is* – i.e. the aromas, flavours, finish. If I mention what there *isn’t*, it is normally a thinly-veilled criticism – i.e. “X was lacking in acidity.” The notion that some wines have “open space” turns everything on its head.
The reason this concept had such an effet on me is because it was exactly my experience of drinking Laura Aschero’s Rossese 2018 almost a year ago. “Fruity, fragrant… so light bodied it’s over half way to becoming a rosé… it works perfectly on this warm, sunny day.” (You can read the full post here.)
When assessing a wine, I am often guilty of falling into the trap of focussing on the vinification. I ask myself: is this Merlot an important wine which was fully ripe and did 3 weeks on the skins before a year or two in barrel… or is this a grappes entières carbo bomb?
If I’m hungry, my stomach overrides my brain and I tend to think about the potential food pairings: i.e. would I pair this Merlot with a cote de boeuf or with a mixed charcuterie plate? Is this wine the main course or is it just the aperitif?
What I don’t do enough – and it’s where Randall has opened my eyes – is to think more philosophically about wine. A simple, light-bodied wine could be just that, and often they are… but occasionally I come across wines which are light but exquisitely crafted. (There are a couple of Tai Rosso wines from the Colli Berici that spring to mind, for example.) It is during these moments that I will endeavour to look more holistically, in the way that Randall described, for the “palatal open space.”
“It’s not always absence but rather potentiality.”
Once you start to scratch the surface, wine is so much more than a drink. Of course, there is what you see on a shop shelf as your eye has been caught by a flashy label and you pause to think about varietals and food pairings… but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
You may think I’m talking about winemaking – that non-stop rollercoaster ride of sugars, yeasts, bacteria, acids, oxidation and reduction… but even though there are still some things we don’t understand, it has been covered time and time again by people far more knowledgeable than myself and it’s not what I’m going to talk about today.
There’s another aspect to wine which fascinates me, probably because even from a very early age I’ve always loved history. Wine is the vehicle for being able to talk to winemakers and ask questions about their land – not necessarily the age and density of the vines – but the history of the place. Who lived there. What they did. Who they loved. Why.
I have found the Italians to be more open about these things than the French. I suppose it’s because Italians really do live up to that old stereotype of strong family ties and plenty of tradition. I was a 20-something girl who spoke little-to-no Italian when I visited Elena at La Stoppa, Giovanna at Pacina and Emilio at La Busattina. They had no real idea who I was but in each case, a mid-morning visit to the winery turned into lunch together with the family, cousins, etc… Probing into family histories is not to be attempted while tasting tank samples in a damp, frigid cellar but once you reach the end of a leisurely lunch and a waft of freshly brewed coffee reaches your nose, I’ve found that you can tentatively ask your host to tell you something about their ancestors.
Some of the stories that I’ve heard are still too sensitive and private for me to be able to recount here but that does not mean that the stories have been in any way forgotten. In many cases, I’m still filled with gratitude that they confided in me.
April 25th is Liberation Day in Italy, celebrating the fall of the nazi-fascist regime at the hands of the Allied troops and the local resistance. Today I went for a walk through another part of the vineyards (you may remember my walk the other week to see the two castles) to go and revisit a partisan hide-out that I know of on the hillside.
That pile of stones pales into insignificance compared to the grotto that is hidden at the Filippi winery across the valley near Soave.
I wish I could go and visit to take photos but we’re still in lockdown here so I’ll just describe it to you. There’s a path that runs through the dense woodland just below the Vigne della Brà vineyard. After a couple of hundred metres, look out for two sticks placed “haphazardly” on the left. It’s Filippo’s telltale sign to turn off the path and head even deeper into the forest. After another 40 or so metres, you’ll discover a large grotto carved out by hand by workers wanting the soft limestone rocks to build the house and the entrance arch.
The grotto is about 40 metres long, 2 to 3 metres high and 4 or 5 metres deep in places. There is very little natural light as barely any sunshine can penetrate the thick woodland canopy. As a result, it’s an eerily mystical place. When it has been raining heavily, the lower half of the grotto will be underwater and the dogs go there to drink. It was a very important place for the resistance fighters as their local knowledge of the area meant that they could go there for shelter.
Today feels like a fitting day to recount my in-laws’ family link to the partisan resistance. Now the lineage is rather convoluted but the story is centred around my grand-uncle-in-law (that is: my father-in-law’s father’s brother.) At the outbreak of the ear, he was young, determined and not afraid to stand up for his beliefs. Like many others of his generation, he refused to accept the fascist regime and became part of the local resistance.
What makes this particular story more remarkable is that his girlfriend at the time decided to join him in the resistance! There were very few active female fighters in these parts and so because they were the only couple active in the hills near Verona, they were given the code names Romeo and Juliet. They cut off all contact with their families and eeked out an existence on the hills for years, in hideouts like those I’ve seen and described. The story becomes a little less romantic because Romeo’s brother – my grandfather-in-law – was arrested frequently and each time interrogated harshly by the local authorities who wanted to find the location of the two lovebirds but he never yielded.
Whilst wine has allowed me to discover these stories, it feels horribly limited and superficial at times. The majority of people only care about the taste on their tongue and the buzz afterwards. Is there a wine which would be a fitting tribute to the Romeo and Juliets, to honour those who walked back alone from the other side of the Mediterranean after they found out second-hand that the war had ended, to remember those who fell in love with the wrong person at the most inopportune of times? Or is it enough to spend a few minutes thinking about them and about how, for all we complain about our current situation, 75 years ago it was far, far worse?
There’s a beautiful walk to be done from our house. You cut through the old vineyard, leaving the vegetable patch and the beehives to your left and the chicken coop and the row of hops to your right. In the springtime, this vineyard is in constant motion as butterflies and other insects flutter from one flower to another.
Once you read the end of the vineyard, you find yourself on an old shepherds’ path. It skirts another of our vineyards before heading up the hill into the woodland. Admire the makeshift wall of volcanic rocks as you go. No-one but us walks up this path anymore so brambles may be an issue occasionally. Just 20 years ago, as many as one hundred sheep and goats that were led to pasture up on these hills would have cut them back for us. The owner of the vineyards, however, my father-in-law, is pleased that there are no sheep or goats anymore; they didn’t always stick to munching on brambles.
Stop for a second to smell the flowers on the quince trees which have only just opened up. They were still tight buds just a couple of days ago but now they are in full bloom and the fragrance is glorious.
Before the baby arrived and my daily routine changed beyond recognition, I did this walk everyday. It takes about 10 minutes, depending on how actively you take on the slopes. It’s a good work out because in some places, there’s a 40% gradient.
Arriving at the top, the effort is justified. Any beads of sweat (quite common in the summer) get brushed away and forgotten once you set your eyes on the two magnificent castles in front of you.
They are the original Romeo and Juliet castles, dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, which inspired an injured soldier turned novel writer named Luigi Da Porto to write a story, which was later plagiarised by the copycat William Shakespeare.
I like the idea that Luigi da Porto was able to construe something which became as significant as the story of Romeo and Juliet from the confines of his chair. Who knows what could be created during this period of enforced isolation?
On days with good visbility, beyond the castles, you’ll spot the snowcapped peak of Monte Grappa. Standing at 1775m high, this mountain is the main focal point on the skyline for miles around and it looms menancingly above the castle ruins, itself a reminder of war and struggle.
During the First World War, Monte Grappa was the main point of conflict between the invading Austro-Hungarians and the Italians protecting the Venetian plain. Being such a strategic place, many lives were lost.
I don’t know if that was still playing on my mind when I chose which wine to open last night because it was “Muscat Freyheit” 2017 from the Austrian winery Heinrich.
Composed of muscat (70%) with a small part (25%) of pinot blanc and even smaller amount (5%) of chardonnay, the back label also reveals some secrets of the vinification: 14 days skin contact, aged in oak barrels and bottled with no SO2. I was wary of the cement bottle from this biodynamic winery because previous experience has taught me to watch for hot-ass reduction. In this case, I needn’t have worried; it’s perfect.
It has a wonderful suggestive and exotic nose, which conjures up images of faraway places, warm evenings and heady spices. There’s preserved lemon, camomile tea, cardamom and lime cordial. Mouth is very slightly off-dry (there’s a hint of the syrup that comes with a tin of peaches) but finishes with a whisk of salinity which works perfectly with the spread of food that’s on the table this particular evening. We drink glass after glass of this wine, enjoying its abundance of texture and character. To some people wine is superfluous and extravagant but to us, at this particularly strange time, we’re appreciating the good things in life and savouring every sip.
To read more about the Heinrich winery, Valerie Kathawala recently wrote a very comprehensive overview on Grape Collective.
It’s been a long-standing joke amongst my friends that in the case of nuclear war, my house would be the bunker in which we’d see it out. I am – and have always been – a hoarder. My pantry is always stocked with beans, lentils, grains and, this being an Italian household, there’s no chance of a pasta shortage here! Nor is there a run on jars of tomato sauce because last year’s crop was so abundant that we’ll be good for many more months.
Whilst I’m pleased that World War 3 hasn’t broken out, I honestly hadn’t thought that I would ever need to break into that great stockpile of groceries but now with all of Italy in lockdown, it has become a reality. The one thing that hadn’t featured into my plans was a 6 month old baby. We adults might be able to get by with a little improvisation here and there but there’s no getting around the absolute need for powdered milk and nappies… fingers crossed the shops don’t run out! The one upside of having a baby is that those little bottles of hand sanitiser, which are now worth their weight in gold, were already lurking in each and every handbag.
I guess the other reason that friends earmarked my house is because maybe they hoped I’d also be forced to reach into the dusty section of the wine cellar or spirits cabinet and open something that had been saved for “a special occasion.”
As it so happened, the bottle that I chose last night was Lun’Antica 2014, a refermented vermentino from Terra della Luna in Liguria. It’s a small winery, making natural wines, located just south of the Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean coast.
One of the signs that I haven’t yet become completely Italian-ised (besides my deep suspicion of the existence of a colpo d’aria!) is that I love a slight oxidation on a white wine. That nuttiness. The exhilaration that comes from combining salted pistachio with flint stone. The 2007 Filagnotti from Stefano Bellotti had that same quality when I still had some of it back in 2014-2015 and it’s stupendous!
They say that oxidised wines lose their fruitiness… but in this case, whilst the initial headiness of the wine’s youthfulness has indeed faded, it hasn’t gone flabby in any other way. In fact I’d even go as far as saying that the fact that this has been on the lees for these past 6 years has only helped the maturation of the wine. It has a dark gold, honeyed colour and a muscly mouthfeel. I love how vermentino so often and ably carries the salinity of the Mediterranean. This is no exception, and the power and elegance tantalises your gums.
“But what is this wine?” asks my long-suffering husband. “Is it sparkling? Is it not? Was the refermentation intentional?”
VinNatur Genova, Genova Wine Festival, Live Wine… That’s just the start of the wine fairs in Italy which have been cancelled because of this dasted virus.
I’m writing this on Monday afternoon when I should have been in full swing at VinNatur Genova. Unfortunately, at 8pm last night, we got a phone call saying that we wouldn’t be allowed to open to the public today because the authorities were imposing a lockdown. It then provoked a chain reaction: informing exhibitors, cancelling orders for the next day, and replying to those who wanted a refund on their now obsolete tickets.
The next victim was the Genova Wine Week – the long-awaited week of tastings and winemaker dinners, which was supposed to finish with the Genova Wine Festival. All cancelled.
Next up on any winelover’s calendar is Live Wine (1-2 March) in Milan, which was supposed to have Alice Feiring as a special guest. That’s bitten the dust too.
As we drive back, the elephant sitting in the car with us is what happens about Vinitaly (19-23 April.) It’s too early to say because two months are an eternity when radio bulletins are providing us with unwanted updates every 15 minutes. Maybe by that point, the restrictions on public and private events will be lifted, but who’s going to come? It’s now when the buyers and journalists are purchasing their tickets and reserving hotels. Given the international audience Vinitaly attracts, the damage will already have been done.
Gosh, this blog has taken a hit. It’s well-documented that the arrival of a baby can have a disastrous impact on social life, personal hygiene and the like, and I suppose it was always going to be inevitable that I’d have to put the blog on the back burner for a while. The thing is, not only has time been reduced to 3 minute fragments and my drinking been reduced to one small glass with dinner but I’ve also been suffering from a psychological block.
Which wines do I talk about? In the past I’ve always abided by the policy of not writing about wines from wineries with whom I work – unless there’s something really, really noteworthy about them. But in the last year or so, I’ve also been working for the VinNatur association… and the problem is VinNatur is made up of over 200 wineries. Do I not write about any of them?! Ok then, I only write about wines I buy myself? Not a bad solution but consequentially, that probably means writing off the wines I taste at fairs and I love tasting wines at fairs. What about wine other people give me? Hell no, that’s even worse. What about wine that is given to me by people who are not producers or PR pros? Well, that would be ok, I guess…
I’ve found a burst of inspiration to dust off the keyboard because the wine I’m writing about today was given to me by Aaron Ayscough, an English-speaking, French-based wine writer who was road-tripping through Italy last summer.
The first part of his road trip took him to Liguria where he picked up a bottle of Rossese 2018 from a winery called Laura Aschero. Beyond that, and the words “Rossese di Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC” written on the label, I know nothing about this wine and it turns out that not having much context is strangely liberating.
So that brings me to the present; sitting outside on the patio, congratulating myself on the fact that I’ve managed to do most of the household chores AND also put the baby to sleep for long enough that I can sit down and enjoy a glass of wine!
It’s February 7th today and it’s the first day warm enough this year that I’ve been able to sit outside and it’s wonderful feeling the warm sun on my face. The dog is basking in the sunshine too. I can hear the boys working in the vineyard nearby and see a truck with PU plates indicating that the Croatian agronomists have arrived to take away a bundle of prunings for some experiment of theirs.
Rossese is a new variety for me. I haven’t spent much time in Liguria and, as we know, Italy has a myriad of native varieties that are nigh on impossible to find outside the immediate area. I consult Ian D’Agata’s book to learn that there are just 280 hectares planted with Rossese but that despite the low number, it is by far the most dominant red grape in that part of Liguria, by which I mean the western part, around the town of Imperia.
“In Italy, the list of native grapes that strongly mark the territory they are grown in is almost endless, but few do so to the extent of Rossesse. There are no other red varieties of similar relevance in its whole production area, and so for locals Rossesse is a family member of sorts.” (Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian D’Agata 2014.)
The most striking thing, at least initially, is the colour; a beautiful, clear, bright, ruby red. It’s exactly the colour that you think red wine is until you realise that actually most red wines are a deep purple hue.
It has a light, fruity nose – wild strawberries – which is charmingly fragrant. It’s so light bodied it’s over half way to becoming a rosé; there are practically no tannins. Ian D’Agata once again comes to the rescue explaining that the Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC wines are less intense and lighter bodied than its Dolceacqua DOC counterpart.
That certainly seems to be true in this instance. The mouthfeel is thin but elegant. Clearly filtered, but that’s the style and it works perfectly on this warm, sunny day. I feel I’ve stumbled across the Italian equivalent of a good Rosé de Provence.
I unfortunately don’t have a photo of the bottle because as I got to this stage of my tasting notes the baby woke up, causing me also to stir from my reverie. As we all know, you can never take your eyes off a 6 month baby, not even for a minute and so my daaarling husband (can you hear the sarcasm?) was able to pour the last fond de bouteille down the drain and whisk the bottle away, down to the recycling centre before I noticed!
It’s not the first time that’s happened either….. see what happened to a bottle of Rocca Rondinaria‘s Spessari 2014 here!
A year ago, besides the vintage, I didn’t bat an eyelid at any number on a wine label. Seeing a shiny medal with the words “98 Points from Uncle Bob” on a bottle rarely happens in the company I keep but if it had any effect, it would only be to spur my eyes towards the next wine on the shelf. (Yes, I’m one of those people who actively snub guides and medals. “A millenial,” you might say.) I also paid absolutely no attention to the number preceding the percentage sign on the label. I’m ashamed to admit that I would sometimes silently judge customers who came into the shop, pick up a bottle from the shelf only to put it down again in a hurry and turn away, all whilst exhaling, “oh no, no, I can’t, it’s 13%.”
For that reason, it was a surprise to catch myself picking out the following wine from all the others that were staring back at me *because of* it’s low-alcohol level.
Admittedly, it’s one the more minor consequences of having a baby but nine months off the sauce have hit both my tolérance and my taste buds. I went out with a couple of girlfriends last week and realised what a cheap date I’ve become: two drinks and it was time for carriages!
So, as I was fumbling around in the cellar the other day, I came across this bottle and the “10%” written on the label drew me to it. I don’t know much about the winery – but Google tells me that Nittnaus is a family-run winery with 11 hectares of vineyards in the Neusiedlersee region, near Gols in Austria. That’s a good sign because this is one of Austria’s most exciting regions for natural wine, with a new crop of emerging passionate and dynamic winemakers. (Judith Beck, Claus Preisinger, Paul Achs and Heinrich, to name a few.)
With all to play for and no time to lose, I reached for the corkscrew and plunged my nose in the glass. Beautiful deep violet colour, aromatic nose of cassis, cherry and orchard fruits. A hint of reduction at the very beginning but it disappeared after a minute in the glass. The aromas are of only medium intensity but they are present. There’s a whiff of parma violet sweets too. Moving on, the mouth is harmonious, youthful and tending towards the spices of cinnamon and cloves. Light bodied but surprisingly elegant for its low alcohol. There’s relatively low acidity and no sign of garishly under-ripe grapes that I was afraid of. Tannins are easy and fine-grained. The main body slips away but a pleasant after-taste lingers on.
Sankt Laurent is a sibling of Pinot Noir but don’t be fooled: this wine bears no resemblance to a Burgundy and only a passing one to a new world Pinot Noir. There’s none of the French austerity and even after the bottle has been open for two days, it remains intact and lively. It’s a refreshing, simple but satisfying wine and if they’re all like this, I’ll be more likely to pick one out again in the future.
I discovered Judith Beck’s wines at the Live Wine fair in Milano over a year ago. On such an occasion, especially when you are power-tasting as many producers as possible, your palate goes into overdrive but every so often you come across a wine which stands out and screams to be taken seriously. This is one such wine.
Impossible to refuse its call, I bought a bottle to bring home and taste at a moment when I’d be sitting at my kitchen table with enough time to really spend listening to the wine.
Whilst being light, pinot noir is rarely carefree, easy drinking. A consequence of my time living in France is that those two words P & N together tend to trigger a mental checklist of what can only be honestly described as an instant mood-killer: appellations, climats, vintages, etc.
I think this is part of the reason why I found this wine so refreshing – both for the brain and for the taste buds. It is neither earthy like many Burgundies, nor austere like Alsace can be, but instead has its own childlike personality.
It is juicy and vibrant with ton of fresh strawberry fruit and some darker undertones of blackberries, cassis and bramble. It is light to medium bodied, with soft, ephemeral tannins that make their presence known only in the after-taste.
I’ve been getting more and more into Austrian natural wines recently; they tend to have a playfulness that I very much enjoy, especially when accentuated by the absence of SO2. I’m definitely going to be looking out for Judith and her wines in the future.
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.)
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.
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.”