Jura – still so much to be discovered

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I was in the Jura region last month on a quick getaway with my boyfriend and the dog. It was not my first time in the region, but it was my first stay long enough to develop a decent understanding of the land, its people and their wine.

The Jura is in a small pocket of land, between Burgundy and Switzerland. At first, it seems remote and cut-off, but when you realise, whilst standing on a rocky hill planted with chardonnay, that you are looking over towards the hills of Macon and Dijon, it all fits into place.

For everything that Burgundy has, Jura has it too but in a more primitive stage.

Idyllic villages, check.

Rolling hills, check.

Strong culinary identity, check.

From Bistrot de la Tournelle, Arbois

However, whereas Burgundy has the A6 motorway (the main axe linking Paris to the south of France), Jura has the far inferior A39. Burgundy has several major cities (Lyon, Dijon, Beaune, Macon) whilst Jura has, errr, Lons-le-Saulnier.

Whilst of course Burgundy is quaint, picturesque and far from lacking in delicious wines, I often feel that I’m just one small individual, following in the footsteps of many others. Jura, however, retains a wild, undiscovered air. Even though wine folk have been claiming ‘Jura is the next big thing’ for five or ten years, it doesn’t feel like it.

Rue des Sans Culottes, Château-Chalon

Its people, traditionally, were subsistance farmers. They had small farm-holdings, with vegetables, vineyards and fields for grazing cows… for the all-important Comté cheese.

In many cases, ask a winemaker to talk to you about the previous generation of his/her family, and you will hear of this polyculture which – until very recently – was everywhere.

It’s a beautiful region; it alternates between vast open pastoral land and dense forest, with jagged waterfalls dotted throughout. All of which are in different shades of green because Jura has a relatively high level of rainfall.*

(*All over France and Italy, 2017 has been worryingly dry. Jura is no exception.)

Cascade des Tufs, Baume-les-Messieurs

There are two principal grape varieties for white wines: chardonnay and savignan (n.b. there are different versions of savignan: green, yellow and pink.) For red wines, there are three: pinot noir, poulsard and trousseau.

n.b. White wines can either be sous voile (oxydised, maintaining a veil of yeast, in a method similar to that of sherry) or ouillé (meaning topped-up.)

Their most prestigious wine is, without a doubt, the vin jaune – an oxydised Savignan, aged in a barrel, sous voile, for at least 6 years and 3 months.

You also find:

  • crémant du Jura – traditional method sparkling wines, often made from chardonnay grapes.
  • vin de paille – a sweet wine for which the grapes are left on straw for the sugars to become more concentrated.
  • Macvin du Jura – a mixture of sweet grape juice and distilled marc / grappa. An acquired taste.

More coming soon…


Further Reading: Wink Lorch is by far and away the most knowledgeable source of information – Jura Wine

“Vintage 2017 Report” Or “How To Protect Against Frost”

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It’s becoming an all-too-familiar scenario: a beautiful springtime with plenty of warm sunshine but followed by a sudden dip and freezing temperatures.

A cold winter does marvels for the vineyard but once bud-burst has taken place, a cold snap can have catastrophic results.

You may remember that I wrote about this already in 2016.

Vintage 2016: Awful news for winemakers in Burgundy and the Loire

Vintage 2016: Disaster strikes again in Burgundy

In the Loire Valley, “at least 50%” of the 2016 production was lost due to frost. (info-tours.fr)

Unfortunately, 2017 has already hit hard. Loire, Burgundy, Champagne, Beaujolais… areas which are already fragile after successive poor harvests have been struck again.

Nicolas Reau (Anjou) reported this morning (on Facebook) that last night’s frost has caused him to lose 80% of his crop.

Benoit Tarlant (Champagne), similarly, has lost all of his chardonnay in the area around in village of Oeuilly.

They are far from being the only ones affected.  Continue reading

What Is Prosecco?

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For a Brit like myself, Prosecco basically means cheap Champagne. We don’t care how it was made, or that the grape varieties are completely different from Champagne… it’s fizzy and it’s cheap!

However, if you’re reading my blog, it’s already a sign that you’re above hoi polloi and that we should dig deeper.

If you know anything about Prosecco, it may well be that Prosecco is made using the charmat method (in contrast to Champagne and Cava.) “Charmat” means that the secondary fermentation takes place in a tank and the subsequent sparkling wine is filtered and bottled under pressure to maintain the bubbles. The majority of Prosecco that you find in conventional supermarkets is indeed made using charmat. But if you’re into your natural wines, you may have heard of col fondo prosecco, which is very different. (More about that very soon.)


What is Prosecco? Well, it’s also the name of a grape variety. Helpfully enough, the prosecco grape is the dominant variety for making Prosecco wine. Less helpfully, the prosecco grape is also known as glera. *eye roll* Continue reading

The Landscape of Soave

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“Arguably, more than any other Italian wine, Soave is characterized by a pyramid-shaped production philosophy that puts a rigorously limited number of family producers at the apex and large, commercially driven cooperatives at the base. Depending on your point of view, Soave’s class-versus-mass dynamic is either its strongest selling point or its biggest weakness.” (Wine Enthusiast)

It’s hard to explain the realities of “Soave” to a newcomer. I don’t entirely agree with the quote above because it rather over-simplifies the situation. We’ve (fortunately) moved far away from the days of Soave Bolla and of insipid white wines costing next to nothing.

The Soave landscape of today is a complex mosaic of backward growers, established families and a dabbling of small, independent wineries, all of whom co-exist under a pervasive blanket of fog, which is the cantina sociale.

Within the Soave DOC (I’m taking the flatlands together with Soave Classico and Colli Scaligeri) there are close to 3,000 people who own vineyards (yep, three thousand growers).

Of these, 190 are what you would consider winemakers (in the sense that they make wine) and only between 50 and 60 actually bottle and commercialise their production.

That means that over 2500 local villagers (contadini) sell their grapes directly to the cantina sociale. (For the sake of strict accuracy, there are actually several active co-operatives in the area but for sake of this post, I’m only referring to the cantina sociale as a single, abstract entity.)

In 2016, the cantina sociale of Soave set a new record: they vinified over one million quintals of grapes. To put that into layman’s English, this means they turned one hundred million kilos of grapes into wine.

As easy as it is to poo-poo the cantina sociale, they provide a regular livelihood for many in this area. Without it, the region’s key industry would be wiped out overnight.

However, making such an absurd quantity of wine means they sell with very low margins. There is no denying that this extremely competitive price point has directly led to Soave’s reputation as a cheap wine. Personally, I point the finger of blame at their many labels, on which there is not enough transparency for the consumer to easily identify a co-operative wine from independent family wine.

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Screenshot of the Cantina Sociale portfolio. n.b. a large proportion of their production is also red wines. 

Speaking of the families…. don’t be fooled by attempts from the established families to convince you that they are small producers. They may bottle their own wines but they’re far from being small.

Pieropan, for example, makes 700,000 bottles per year. Gini has 55 hectares (135 acres) of vineyards. Their wines are some of the most prestigious in Soave but don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. It’s a commercial operation.

There’s an ugly side to some of these established families too. The head of the Zonin family was, for 20 years, the president of the Banca Popolare di Vicenza and is now under investigation for fraud after allegedly mishandling over a billion euros and swindling four thousand account holders.

It’s not all bad news. There are true, small, independent wineries in Soave, much as those you find commonly in France. Because they don’t have the same resources as the cantina sociale or “the families”, they are not so easy to find… but watch this space, over the coming weeks, I’m going to identify them.

The more I think about it, once you look beyond the picturesque hills of Soave and their endless trellises, the image that the Wine Enthusiast should have used is not one of a pyramid but actually one of two triangles: one inverted over the other, showing the smaller producers being squeezed by the giants and the cantina sociale.


Part Two: The Terroir of Soave (coming soon!)

(All information contained in this article is to the best of my knowledge and in good faith. My sources include: Il Soave, local winemakers and employees of the Cantina Sociale. If there are any errors, please bring them to my attention by email or in the comments below.)

English Sparkling Wine: Much Ado About Nothing

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Much like Shakespeare’s play, the English wine producers are embroiled in a fuss about appearances. If you paid attention at school, you’ll remember that “Nothing” in Elizabethan English is a synonym of “Noting” with the meaning of “Noticing.”

In March 2015, some English wine producers started lobbying for the creation of an appellation – a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – for their heartland.

An appellation is a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown; other types of food often have appellations as well. Restrictions other than geographical boundaries, such as what grapes may be grown, maximum grape yields, alcohol level, and other quality factors, may also apply before an appellation name may legally appear on a wine bottle label. (Wikipedia, source of all information.)

The chain of chalk and greensand which is so interesting for sparkling wine producers (supposedly the same ridge that stretches through Champagne) spans the counties of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Surrey in southern England.

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The area known as the South Downs in southern England ,where most of the English vineyards are located.

Both “English Wine” and “English Quality Sparkling Wine” have already PDO status (since 2007.) The recent divisions have formed because “Sussex” (by which, one would assume the two distinct counties of West Sussex and East Sussex are being bundled together) is looking to obtain its own PDO.

“We believe that Sussex will become synonymous with high-quality sparkling and still wine” (Mark Driver of Rathfinney – the main driving – haha – force behind the proposed creation of ‘Sussex.’)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) signed off on the idea in February 2016 and it now looks set to be accepted by the European Commission within the coming months.

As I see it, there are three major problems with this:

  1.   Surely, if Sussex (which currently represents 25% of England’s total wine production) is given a PDO, the other counties (such as Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Devon and Cornwall…) will follow suit.

I believe that this dilutes the ‘brand’ of English Sparkling Wine on a international level.

2.  If the PDO is a guarantee of quality for the consumer, then ‘Sussex’ does not go far enough. As I understand it, the potential Sussex PDO could be used for still, as well as sparkling, wines. Obviously, it’s fairly evident to a consumer looking at a shelf of wines to determine which is a bottle of fizz… but what if, a few years down the line, Sussex producers start popping up with pét-nats or wines made by the charmat method (i.e. prosecco) or even sweeter wines?

Maybe England’s next PDO should communicate to the consumer how the wine has been made and therefore what style of bubble they will have in their glass.

3.   Let’s, for just a minute, talk about territories. There are many small producers who have their vineyards in one county and their winery in another. Up until now, this has never been a problem but they stand to lose out big-time should the ‘Sussex’ proposal be accepted. The big names (Nyetimber and Chapel Down are the first two to come to mind) don’t need a PDO. Their very names already speak for themselves. However, there is still a lot of contract winemaking happening, as small producers tend to share winemaking facilities. It is these smaller wineries who would not be eligible for this more prestigious title and yet it is precisely these people who we should be protecting and promoting.

If we need something other than English Sparkling Wine, why not a more inclusive geographical area (South Downs, for example) and far more attention to the way in which the wine is made?

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Beautiful Sussex countryside

I’m not the only person in the wine industry who is yet to be convinced that the Sussex vineyards have a je ne sais quoi over the neighbouring counties.

“100% Sussex wines will not differ in style, type, quality, price, etc from English wines – so what’s the point?” (Steven Skelton MW)

“To say something coming out of Sussex in better than Kent is nonsense,” (Guy Tresnon, Chapel Down – well he would say that… Chapel Down is based in Kent)

For my two pence, I believe that the name of a PDO status should not be decided upon based on political boundaries.

In a strange twist of fate, Pouilly-Fumé is now *technically speaking* part of Burgundy. The French jiggled up their regional borders this past year but nobody is going to claim that the famed vineyards are no longer lying along the Loire river.

I’m not denying that the part of power of a Protected Designation of Origin is its ability to immediately conjure up a particular place in the mind of the consumer. Roquefort and Brie de Meaux are two examples of protected foods which bear the name of their town or village. Yet in the case of English wine, which can’t trace its history back to Roman times (Roquefort can!), we’re trying to invent tradition.

I talked about this with Simon Bladon (during my visit to his Jenkyn Place in 2015.) Incidentally, he’s one of the producers whose vineyards are in Hampshire and his winery is in Sussex. He was in favour of a wider, but no less English, term such as: “Albion.”

I’m sure the sparkling wine producers in Champagne and northern Italy would like that! 😉


Further reading

An appellation for Sussex? (Decanter, March 2015)

Chapel Down rejects Sussex appellation (Decanter, March 2015.)

Protected Status Expected for Sussex Wine (Drinks Business, February 2016)

Technical Specifications for the English Wine PDO (Gov.uk, August 2007)

Industry Facts on the United Kingdom Vineyards Association website

A Walk Through The English Vineyards (April 2016)

Harvest 2016: preparing the Pied de Cuve

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“Would you mind popping over, watering the flowers and making sure there’s food for the cat?” is what most people ask their neighbour before they go away. Amongst hipster foodie circles, I’m aware that it’s not unheard of for it not to be a cat that needs feeding, but actually a batch of sourdough or kefir.

However, living on a winery in the run-up to harvest, I’ve been given another type of yeast to keep alive.

Yesterday Filippo picked a few bunches from the vineyard that we’re going to be harvesting from in earnest next week. These grapes were then crushed (by foot) and put in a bucket with a bit of water. Over the next few days, while he’s away, I have to keep stirring to aerate this (very attractive) mixture.

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Just like sourdough, it will start to ferment and eventually become our natural yeast starter next week. The technical term for this is the pied de cuve – literally “foot of the tank.” And yes, I agree that it sounds far better in French.

The advantage of using a pied de cuve starter is that it allows you to have some confidence in your indigenous yeasts. To know that your yeast is active and already fermenting vigorously gives you a kind of peace of mind that you normally only get with selected strains. It (apparently!) can be quite risky to let fermentation to start directly from your pressed grape juice – especially here where the fermentation takes place in stainless steel in a relatively recent cellar.

Discovering The Terroirs of The Loire: Cheverny AOC

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The Loire is one of France’s most diverse winemaking regions. The most well-known terroirs are the schist soils of Anjou (around the city of Angers), the chalk and marl of Sancerre (much further inland) and the south-facing slopes of Vouvray (Touraine.) However, to leave it at that is to ignore the many other jewels which are well worth discovering.

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The old town of Saumur, seen from across the river.

One of these is the Cheverny AOC. Cheverny consists of 574 hectares (roughly 1400 acres) which are home to approximately 40 producers. Half of the Cheverny production is white wine and the other half is made up of red and rosé wines.

Most of the Loire Valley white wines are mono-varietal (meaning that the growers work with just one particular grape variety) but a Cheverny Blanc can be made of three different grapes. These are: Sauvignon Blanc (as with many of the other whites in this area) but also Sauvignon Gris (yes, that exists) and Chardonnay (because it is so versatile and pleasing to work with.)  Continue reading