Beaujolais Nouveau Release Day

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The third Thursday in November means the release of the latest Beaujolais Nouveau vintage. Another year and still the craze persists. Italians have Novello wine too… but, like with most things, the French are better organised and therefore more commercially successful. 

Well, commercially successful is a relative term. 

Photo (c) Paco Mora / owner of La Cave d’Ivry (the photo was obviously not taken in his shop!)

That supermarkets are plugging the new wine at 1,99€ a bottle devalues the work of the vineyard labourers, the winemaker and his equipment, and the price of the land and of the grapes.

Beaujolais is hugely successful in generating interest and increasing consumption for a couple of days, yes, but in a year like 2017 with unprecedentedly low yields across the board, shouldn’t we be making consumers pay a little more? 

I was reading a piece (in Italian) by my friend Angelo Peretti this morning in which he talks about his incomprehension of the unwavering support that people give to their favourite football team. He likens it to his bafflement at how the different sides in the wine world (conventional vs natural) also jeer, shout and mock the other. Whilst I most definitely fall on the natural end of the spectrum, I hope I succeed in keeping an open mind. I wholeheartedly agree with Angelo’s conclusion: if a wine is made well, I’ll drink it. (I mean, remember that I am English after all!)

That said, when I’m at home choosing which wine to open, I have very simple criteria: it must be made well, taste good and suit the occasion. There’s so much choice of wine out there today that I don’t understand why we still feel obliged to drink something we don’t enjoy. As some famous person once said: “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” 

Now I know the standard of Beaujolais Nouveau has vastly increased when you think back to the banana years but most of them are not my cup of tea. 

I like the Gamay grape; it has unique qualities that remain largely under-appreciated. Beaujolais was also the first French region for which I learnt all the appellations (Burgundy is impossibly complicated for a beginner, Alsace unpronouncable, but the 13 crus of Beaujolais, perfect!)

The problem lies in the fact that I am not a huge fan of carbonic maceration. I know that light and fruity red wines appeal to a certain sector of the market but there’s no getting over my predeliction for wines where you taste the soil, the roots, the minerals. 

It’s not that Beaujolais Nouveau wines are bad, it’s just that there are better alternatives. If you don’t mind, I’ll be drinking this Beaujolais today at lunch.

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Why A Bit of Wood Gets Our Knickers In A Twist

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Prompted by Forbes’ piece entitled A Heavy-Handed Marriage Of White Wine And Oak Endures, I wanted to take a closer look at the use of oak in winemaking and how “oaky wines” came in and out of fashion.

My main grievance with the article above and on many other occasions is how we simplify the way in which we talk about winemaking. Why is it so difficult to address the fact that it’s not just black or white; not just acidic or oaky? Spend more than a minute with any wine and you’ll realise that it falls somewhere within that spectrum and let it be said, there is a whole range of possibilities in that middle ground.

A corner of the Pacina cellar, in southern Tuscany.

“It’s fantastic, this Barolo, it tastes just like a Marsala,” that’s how a reputed Piedmontese oenologue remembers his grandfather describing their Sunday lunch wine.  Up until World War 2, Barolo wines were commonly put in glass demijohns and left under the roof of the house for a summer to oxidise. 


Let’s not forget that the emergence of the oaky style of wine is a recent phenomenon.  It went hand in hand with the sudden importance of wine experts (see this previous post) and the globalisation of the wine market. It was decided that international buyers wanted vanilla, peppery, buttery wines. They wanted wines which could be easily defined with a few choice words: smooth, honeyed, silky…

To be fair, Barolo has become one of the most renowned and prized wines in the world whilst Marsala and sherry have been left on the shelf.

Wood definitely has its place in a wine cellar – and there’s no denying that it is here to stay – but it does seem that the trend to make wines which taste of oak has fortunately started its decline. In certain circles, it would not be an exaggeration to say that oak has become the devil and amphorae/qvevri/tinajas have been glorified.


OVERHEARD AT A WINE TASTING IN ITALY (2017)

“This is my Rosso di Montalcino….” *winemaker pours a taste into the awaiting glass.*

– “Wonderful flavours; such elegance…”

“So, next, we have my Brunello di Montalcino. This wine was aged for 4 years in French oak barrels.”

– “Oh no,” as the gentleman pours said wine directly into the spitoon without even raising it to his nose or mouth. “I don’t drink anything aged in French oak.”


If I were President, there are many things I would do but one of the first would be to outlaw the oversimplification of things. Adults are able to process more than one piece of information. It’s not as simple as wood is wood and steel is steel.

Just because the wine in front of you has been made in stainless steel tanks doesn’t mean you will be drinking lemon juice. Leave the wine on the fine lees, do a little batonnage, let the malolactic fermentation occur… and you’ll end up with a wine which is neither oaky or (overly) acidic. That’s just one example. There are so many other variables in a winemaker’s armoury. The vessel is just one aspect.

And hey, why does it just have to be about wood, steel or cement? There are other possibilities too. Don’t we realise that wine can also be made in carbon fibre? It’s cheap, easy to clean, and many winemakers when they’re starting off have one or two. Large glass demijohns too. They may not be elegant nor overly sophisticated but they do give you a neutral alternative for ageing wines when you’re working with small quantities.


The barrel room at Isole e Olena, in Chianti Classico.

Our capacity in the English language to express the size of the barrel is severely limited. We’re forced to borrow from the French and that often comes across as snooty and pretentious.

The reason barrel size matters is because the amount of oakiness is largely dependant on two factors: how new the wood is (because when fresh, it will impart a stronger flavour) and the amount of wine in contact with the wood. Therefore a new, small barrel will transfer a lot of its character to the wine.

The flip side of this is that, if the wine was aged large, old oak barrels chances are it won’t taste of vanilla and buttered toast etc. A good winemaker can use wooden barrels without you necessarily being able to detect it in the glass.

Look out for the word foudre in French, or botte grande in Italian. Bonus points if the word “old” is used as a qualifying adjective.


Finally, I opened a bottle of Freisa yesterday. It’s a little-known Italian red grape variety hailing from Piedmont, that I very much enjoy. It tends to make simple, not too tannic, wines, which are wonderful at lunch time. Let’s call it Italy’s equivalent to a Brouilly or Fleurie.

In this case, I’m not familiar with the producer but the label says that this is bottle number 1507 of 2600.

My optimism in this case turns out to have been horribly misplaced. The problem is that Freisa simply does not lend itself to a vinification in dominant wooden barrels. This particular wine tastes horribly astringent – much like how I imagine it to be were I to chew on a stick. This level of tannin is, in my opinion, a defect just as serious as brettanomyces. The wine is undrinkable.

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.

cantina sociale soave portfolio wines

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.

south-downs-national-park

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)