Terre di Pietra’s “Stelar” Valpolicella Classico 2017

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Last week was a busy week in Verona because the who’s who in the wine world came to Romeo and Juliet’s historic city for the Anteprima Amarone.

As you may have deduced, Anteprima is a sneak peak at the just-released vintage, which this year for Amarone is 2014. But…. and this is a big but…. 2014 was a disasterous year in this part of the world and many quality producers chose not to make an Amarone.

The brave souls who came from all four corners of the world were secretly asked “but you’re not really going to drink and actually rate that, are you?” by the local wine trade.

Despite there being a bad year here or there, Amarone doesn’t need any help to be sold. Exports to Germany (its biggest market) are up 30%, + 15% to China and Japan, + 10% to the USA. Nomisma Wine Monitor reckons that the total value of Amarone sales in 2017 was an eyewatering 355 million euros (as reported in the local newspaper, link here.) Today, I wanted to stay in the Valpolicella region but to talk about something a little different: the most recent vintage from Terre di Pietra.


This might be a rather strange thing to say out loud but I prefer tasting entry level wines. A winery’s entry level gives me a better idea of the personality and the spirit of its other wines. High-end wines tend to be rather monotonous – mostly fruit forward, barrel aged, full bodied – but a base wine is more revealing and more telling. Also, if you are capable of making a good base wine, now we’re talking!


TERRE DE PIETRA “Stelar” Valpolicella Classico barrel sample 2017 (Corvina 40%, Corvinone 30%, Rondinella 20%, Molinara 10%)

Terre di Pietra is a relatively recent winery, based in the eastern section of the Valpolicella region. It started off in 2005 when a talented, passionate woman, Laura Albertini, just 25 years old, was given a bit of garage space at her father-in-law’s house in which she could make wine. Her own father had pushed her into a degree in chartered accounting and wanted her to lead a ‘conventional’ life. She, however, had her own mind.

It took 5 years to convince her father but finally, in 2010, construction started on a fully equipped winery. The first vintage at this new magnificent winery in Marcellise was in 2011. She was widely touted as one of Valpolicella’s upcoming winemakers to watch.

This story has a tragic twist because Laura died suddenly in March 2017. In the past year, her widow, Cristiano Saletti, has had to wrangle with the loss of his wife whilst also making important decisions about the future of the winery.

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I managed to get my hand on a couple of barrel samples from 2017. This, therefore, is the first vintage of Cristiano calling all the shots. but it should be said that he was given a helping hand by reputed oenologue, Franco Giacosa. I wanted to get a taste of the direction that the winery was heading.

Initially, the most striking thing is its colour: a beautiful dark pink, reminiscent of wild raspberries or the ideal tint for a trusty, go-to lipstick. Aromas are vinous, spicy and inviting. Lots of morello cherry.

One sip becomes two and two sips become three. I catch myself reaching for the bottle and refilling my glass. Of the barrel samples that I tried (and there were several) this is my favourite. There’s nothing pretentious or out of place about it: very light, bone dry, easy-drinking, and despite having been such a hot, parshed year, it retains an amazing amount of freshness and minerality.

It is so light that it would probably be overwhelmed by most food pairings but it will excel on a hot day on its own or with a a slice of salami or a bit of cheese (like the local cheese Monte Veronese.)

Based on the previous vintages, I get the feeling that Cristiano will be continuing along the natural path that Laura started and maybe taking it even further. Time will tell.

I imagine the wine will be released for sale in the springtime. It’s wonderfully juicy and definitely up there on the drinkability level with the Poulsard that I wrote about last week.  Served slightly chilled, it would make for perfect summertime drinking. Retails for around 10-14 euros.

Tasted 7th February 2018.

Terre di Pietra official website and Facebook

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Two Wines from Domaine de la Renardière (Jura, France)

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I’ve written about it already (here) but the Jura is a region which continues to entice me. It has its own very distinct culinary traditions (vin jaune, comté cheese and poulet de Bresse), some of the friendliest people and it makes damn great wine.

Last week, at home, I tasted a couple of bottles from Domaine de la Renardière. The winery is located in Pupillin, towards the northern end of the Jurassic stretch, in the highly reputed Arbois appellation. The bottles had already been open for four days before I started writing these tasting notes.


DOMAINE DE LA RENARDIÈRE (Arbois Pupillin) “Jurassique” 2016 Chardonnay (13%) 

At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about this wine: it’s clear (most likely filtered) with a pale gold colour. Despite the fact that these bottles had been open for a few days, there were no tell-tale signs to suggest that they had in any way suffered. The nose is discreet but enticing – white flowers, honey and medicinal plants. No oxydation.

But stop just there. The mouth is off the charts! There’s lots of fresh juicy fruit (apricots and mango) but the beauty of this wine lies in its minerality. It has such zip and zing and that’s why my love affair with the Jura has endured so well. I hope you haven’t been led down the wrong path by my talk of honey and apricots because it’s bone dry, with a mouth-smacking acidity and a tablespoon of salt!

Minerality is one of those terms that’s very hard to define and I hesitate every time I need to use it. Angiolino Maule and I have had many conversations recently on what it is, how to tease it out, why some wines do and some just don’t. We still haven’t reached a consensus but I like to think of it in the following way: similarly to how oranges have Vitamin C, grapes have certain metallic compounds and minerals which come from the soil. These don’t have a particular flavour but they do generate a sensation in the wine – that desirable, highly addictive mouthfeel.

I really enjoyed this wine. There’s nothing that would offend those used to conventional wines, but there’s low enough sulphur and more than enough character to appeal to natural wine buffs too.

Tasted: 19th January 2018

Price: unknown

Rating: ****


I have to confess that I didn’t know much about this winery. It was not one that I had time to fit in during my trip in June 2017 but, as chance would have it, I got to meet and chat with Jean-Michel Petit, the owner and winemaker, at the VinNatur wine tasting in Genova last weekend.

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Jean-Michel Petit at VinNatur Genova 2018

DOMAINE DE LA RENARDIÈRE (Arbois Pupillin) Ploussard 2016 Poulsard (12.5%)

In a tussle between light-bodied red grape varieties, Poulsard beats Gamay hands down every time, in my opinion. Actually, it is definitely up there with the final contenders for being my favourite grape variety. Lightly-coloured, its tendency to go into reduction gives it a rather bad boy character.

Poulsard, or Ploussard as it is also known locally, is so delicately light that it certainly won’t stand a chance against any New World full-bodied reds. It’s also a style of wine that should be proffered with a certain amount of caution at the dinner table – food pairings are not its strong point. Instead, think of it as an alternative for rosé: a wine for long, sunny afternoons with folk who rejected uptight Côtes de Provence long ago. If L’Anglore’s Tavel isn’t anywhere to be had, reach for this instead.

Love it or hate it, semicarbonic maceration accounts for the first part of this Ploussard’s vinification. In the glass, there are lashings of red fruit characters – particularly raspberry, and morello cherry. It’s just juice. The tannins are grippy and refreshing even if they are few. This wine has the same exquisite drinkability as the Jurassique Chardonnay. Glou glou glou!

Tasted: 19th January 2018

Price: unknown

Rating: **** (but only in the right company)


Domaine de la Renardière doesn’t have a website but there is no better resource for wines from the Jura than Wink Lorch. This is her blog entry.

Wine Writers: The Formidable Pamela Vandyke Price

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A friend of my parents recently downsized into a new house. Her husband was deceased and, as you might expect, she wanted away with many old possessions that were no longer relevant and didn’t belong in the new place. I therefore became the willing custodian of her vast selection of wine books.

Some of them were duplicates or previous editions of the current contents of my bookshelf – and in the case of Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine, I believe it’s the fourth of its kind! Many of them, however, were titles and tomes of which I had never heard and was looking forward to discovering. There was one book – a small and discreet hardback – which particularly stood out. Lest you take me for someone who could be swayed by a cover, no no, it was because of the musty smell that overwhelmed my nostrils. Even from a distance, the smell was strong to the point of being garish. Unable to ignore it any longer, I pick it up and look closer: “Dictionary of Wines and Spirits, 2280 Alphabetical Entries” by Pamela Vandyke Price.

If you’re not familiar with the name, Pamela Vandyke Price was an English wine writer, who was born in 1923 and died in 2014. Jancis Robinson has described her as “the first woman to write seriously about wine in Britain and who did more than most to popularise wines after World War Two.”

I really knew very little about this lady before finding this book and searching around on Google. She was at her peak before I was born. Her first book was published in 1966 and being, by all accounts, an utterly formidable woman, she went on to publish thirty more. I am delighted to have this most odorous of books in my collection, because just when I was starting to question what it means to be a woman in the wine industry, what future it could hold, and tracing the paths taken by women before me, these musty pages have fallen in my lap and reached out across the generational divide.

I’ll be sharing some of her writing on here in the hope that it entertains, interests and inspires the online wine community in this day and age. Until then, I love the closing lines of her obituary in the Guardian:

“Vandyke Price will be remembered by many as a difficult, prickly character, whose put-downs were deadly and who raged more than was needful at the mutability of circumstance in a writer’s life. By way of contrast, she was fiercely loyal in her friendships and she really loved her subject. Her nose and her palate – though always better on reds than on whites – were impressive to the end.

“Ah, the ladies have come! Now we shall not be able to taste anything – all your scents and smells,” remarked an old buffer in Bordeaux as Pamela swung into the tasting room at Sichel on the Quai de Bacalan. “I can smell the preparation you use on your hair,” she rejoined, “the cleaning fluid that has been used on your suit, your boot polish – and you have a pipe in your pocket.” What’s more, she could, and he did.”

A Self-Imposed Time Out

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You may have noticed that I’ve taken a bit of a break from the blog. I’ve actually taken a break from most social media platforms because I’ve needed to turn off and disconnect in order to avoid being triggered by certain people, places or labels.

It’s been more than 6 months since the judges found Marc Sibard guilty of harassment and sexual assault and more than five years since I handed in my resignation but I still have nightmares and recurring dreams. Just last night I found myself justifying to some imaginary character why I moved away from France. 

It’s not only inanimate objects that trigger my subconscious; even real people in real life will call me a storyteller or a money-hungry witch to my face.

“Why did you make it all up?” they ask.
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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.

Naturae et Purae Conference – The Future of Viticulture

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I had a change of scenery yesterday, spending the day in the stunning Castel Trauttmansdorff in South Tyrol, at the Naturae et Purae conference, discussing the future of natural wine and the potential place for biotechnology and genetically modified vines.

It’s not the first conference of this kind that I’ve attended this year but it is the most interesting. This piece may run on a little but I do encourage you to take a couple of minutes to read it.

The speakers: (L-R) Attilio Scienza, Werner Morandell, Giorgio Grai, Luca D’Attoma, Helmuth Koecher, Carlo Nesler, Angiolino Maule, Hayo Loacker, Angelo Carillo.

After the welcoming speeches from Angelo Carillo and then Helmuth Koecher, owner of the best eyebrows in the business and organiser of the Merano Wine Festival, we get underway!

We start on a pessimistic note with a speech from Giorgio Grai, a respected oenologue now well into his 80s. He sets out the current situation of our environment: the state of our air pollution and the prevalence of fine particles, that  64% of the world’s water is polluted and we have unprecedented levels of heavy metals in our alimentary channels. “How can you have an organic vineyard situated right next to a motorway with all the exhaust fumes?” he asks. The effort needed to clean up our environment is huge. We’re not starting at 0, we’re currently at -100. 

Next up is Luca d’Attoma, an oenologue in his 50s, who explains his belief that “organics is a form of respect between man and his environment.” He quotes some statistics about the rise of organic agriculture in Italy: an increase of 24% between 2015-2016 of certified organic vineyards and a 51% increase in the mass retail sector between 2015-16 in sales of organic produce. Unlike Giorgio before him, he beliefs that organic and biodynamic wines are “more original, authentic and therefore richer” than wines made from conventionally farmed grapes. That said, he acknowledges that the restrictions on organic vinification are too light. For example, 150mg/l of SO2 is allowed in conventional red wines and 100mg/l for organic red wines. He highlights problems with the controllers who certify if a farmer or winemaker is working to organic principles. There are too few controls and far too much disparity in the quality of these controls between the north and south of Italy.

Following is Hayo Loacker. The Loacker family own three wineries but the flagship is the Tenuta Schwarhof in Alto Adige. They were the pioneers in the area for organic then biodynamic agriculture (starting in 1978) and in the 90s and 00s the inspiration for many other local wineries (e.g. Lageder) to convert. What is interesting is that despite their homeopathic approach to viticulture, they have planted hybrid grape varieties as well as the traditional and autochthonous varieties; essentially incorporating modernity with the past teachings of Steiner.

After that came Angiolino Maule, guns blazing. Whilst it’s a positive step that the big players are now working their vineyards organically (Angelo Gaja, Bellavista, Ca del Bosco), how does a small guy survive? Increased knowledge and transparency is the answer. He talks about how VinNatur is carrying out scientific experiments to take natural viticulture forward. Essentially, they are conducting detailed research of determined microbial indices in the vineyard and using sophisticated algorithms to create mathematical models of what ideal soil fertility looks like. (Won’t go further as I’m stepping into work territory but email me if you would like more information on this.)

Angiolino puts forward a little-known nutritional argument for natural wines quoting a study by Dr Laura Di Renzo (Univ. of Tor Vergata) in which it was found that conventional wines only had negative side effects on the human body (pesticides, alcohol, sulfites.) Organic wine had some anti-oxidants which compensated the alcohol but was pretty nutritional-neutral. Unfiltered, low-sulphur natural wine, however, had so many positive benefits that it far outweighed the alcohol on balance. Responding to Luca D’Attoma’s comment, Angiolino tells the room how VinNatur’s own members have told the controllers how to conduct the tests and what to look for.

Werner Morandell

Next up is Werner Morandell from the organic Lieselehof Winery. His detailed speech explains what are called PIWI grape varieties (vines with new genotypes, resulting from the crossbreeding of fungi-resistant vine varieties.) Some of the newly-created varieties quoted (Bronner, Souvignier Gris and Merlot Khorus) are resistant to powdery and downy mildew, and the cold, allowing him to plant at high altitudes and bring the plant to full maturity whilst only doing 1 treatment even in bad years.

Attilio Scienza is next to take the stage. He’s an animated speaker and he comes alive during his presentation, which admittedly would have more suited to a university philosophy lecture. He puts forward the case for genetically modified foods and particularly cis-genetic vines, fortunately without going far into the scientific nitty-gritty.

Knowing that there was resistance to GMO in the audience, he starts by breaking down our preconceptions. Picking up on Giorgio’s gloomy state of affairs (the first speech), it’s natural that we want to save ourselves from the end of the world, he argues rather arrogantly, and understandable that we ignorant Muggles are clinging to organics and biodynamics as the solution. Why are we against genetics? It’s just science and we shouldn’t be afraid of science. It’s progress, the future.

Society is increasingly opposed to science, he continues, mentioning the increasingly common opposition to vaccines and the frequency that experts are being poopoo-ed in the media. After dipping into Greek mythology for a few choice quotes and metaphors, he gets to the point: we should accept that GM foods are already here. Strawberries, apples and tomatoes are all crossbreeds. Grains have been genetically engineered and improved. Nature does this itself, he argues, bringing up the complicated genetic lineage, with all the mutations, of the traminer variety. 

The moment, though, that a member of the audience asks a question – about repercussions and secondary effects – the response is that anyone who doesn’t believe in GM is ignorant and backward.

Last but not least, Carlo Nesler, talking about fermentation. He’s admits being specialised in food rather than wine but his insight comes at a particularly poignant moment after Attilio Scienza. He recounts how primitive human-beings and even primates knew how to ferment food and wittingly or unwittingly, it would have been an important part of their diet.

And yet, despite at least 3000 years of history, microbiotics (bifidus digestivum, kombucha and the like) have only recently been “discovered” by scientists as being essential elements for our well-being. We should always work with nature, is his conclusion, not against it.


My question was the last of the day. A simple yes-no in response to: is there a place in the future of natural/organic wine for genetically modified vines?

I didn’t really need to have asked the question. The most telling thing about the day’s conference was how it finished.

On one side of the room is Angiolino Maule, Luca D’Attoma and Carlo Nesler, closely huddled together. In the middle, distanced from the ‘Naturalists’ but seated diplomatically in his assigned spot is Werner Morandell. Loacker has already retreated to the back of the audience, which leaves us with futurist Attilio Scienza, arms-folded, seated as far apart as possible on the other side of the room.

It was startlingly obvious that we had just heard from two different worlds which seem to be mutually incompatible. That chasm was the elephant in the room.

It’s time to wrap up but Angiolino has the final say: terroir.

A picture is worth a thousand words

 

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.