Why A Bit of Wood Gets Our Knickers In A Twist


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.


“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


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

Harvest 2016: preparing the Pied de Cuve


“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.


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.

A Forgotten Wine: The Sweet Recioto di Soave DOCG


When you think of Soave, you probably think of a tall, thin bottle of non-descript white wine in a cheap Italian restaurant. If you know your stuff, you’ll think of the market-leading producers: Pieropan, Gini and Coffele.

You’re very unlikely to think of the Recioto di Soave wine, a traditional passito wine which has been made in this area for well over a millennium.

Recioto di Soave was the first wine in the Veneto region to be awarded the prestigious DOCG title (Controlled AND Guaranteed.) That was back in 1998.

Nowadays, a miniscule 0.33% of the total Soave production is of the Recioto di Soave. (Statistic from i-winereview.) One third of one percent. Yep. Nada.

As a result, this is a wine that when you see it, you should jump at the occasion to try it. Continue reading

What Are The Different Styles of Madeira Wine?


Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

Part Two: How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?

Part Three: What Makes Madeira Wine Special?

Part Three talked about the unique way in which Madeira wine is aged. However, the labels don’t tend to mention these methods of ageing (estufagem and canteiro) … probably because if you’re not Portuguese, you have no idea how the two words should be pronounced!

Instead, you commonly find these terms:


This is the highest quality of Madeira wine. Made from just one grape variety in one particular year, it has been aged for a minimum of 20 years in an oak barrel via the canteiro method. As you can imagine, the production of this kind of wine is extremely limited (normally just 700-800 bottles per producer per year) and therefore most are sold en primeur. It really is something pretty special.


Also one grape variety and one harvest but a Colheita can be bottled after just 5 years, not 20. Consequently, it is not as rare nor as complex as a Frasqueira but it is fortunately less expensive and still utterly delicious!

Whenever you see a vintage marked on the bottle, this is an indication that it is either a Frasqueira or Colheita.




Then there are the blends. These are just blends of different vintages, NOT of grape varieties. (As we said in Part Two, Madeira wines are thankfully single-variety.)

You find the following ages: 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 and now (but only since Jan 2015) 200+ years.

You may have started to nod your head, at this point. However, it’s not that simple. Unlike port, rum or whisky, a 10 year blend of Madeira doesn’t mean that the wine blended in that particular bottle is over ten years old. Nor does it mean that it might be 50% composed of a 8-year-old wine and 50% of a 12-year-old. No, that would be too easy!

Instead, the word “blend” refers to a specific style.

For Madeira wine, there’s a special process. Before bottling, a producer submits a sample of the blend to an independent tasting committee. The committee then asks themselves: “Is this what we expect of a ten year blend?” And this of a 20 year blend?” The answer is a straightforward “yes” or “no“.

“Yes” means the proposed multi-vintage blend can be bottled. “No” means back to the drawing board.

Because this is a little too complicated to explain to the average punter, wineries tend to play up the “aged for five years” card, although this is not strictly correct.

This complicated blending process shows how important it is for each Madeira house to have an excellent master-blender. Not only do the wines have to exhibit a style to please the tasting committee, but they also have to show a distinctive identity for that particular winery.

Think of it how you might analyse developmental characteristics in children… You look for certain traits. How is their hand-eye coordination? Their communication skills? A three year old child behaves differently to a ten year old and very differently from a twenty year old. Now imagine if you have fifty different variables (or in this case, barrels) to pick from in order to compose your style…

Advanced Level Reading

Here are some other terms that you frequently find on Madeira labels, especially in export markets:

Rainwater – a light blended Madeira, made from Tinta Negra, exhibiting a young 3 year old style.

Seleccionado / Selection / Finest –  the definition for this is “showing an exceptional quality for its age” … which basically means “marketing blurb.”

Reserve / Reserva – a 5 year old style blend.

Special Reserve / Reserva Especial – a 10 year old style blend, most likely made from one of the more noble grape varieties (i.e. not Tinta Negra) and possibly heated by the canteiro method.

Extra Reserve – a 15 year old style blend, very likely to be a noble grape variety and heated by the canteiro method.

Solera – Before Portugal entered the EU in 1986, it was permitted to produce a Madeira wine with fractional blending (i.e. solera) during the canteiro method. You can still find some old bottles, laid down before the change in legislation took place. Now, although some topping-up is allowed for the Colheita and Frasqueiro, at least 85% has to come from the vintage on the label.

Part Five : coming soon – common mistakes and curious facts about Madeira wine.

What Makes Madeira Wine So Special?


Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

Part Two: How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?

I said that the two most important features of Madeira wine are the fortification and the ageing. Part Two dealt with the fortification part so that brings us onto ageing.

If you know anything about wine, you know to keep your bottle of wine in a cool, dry place and that once you’ve popped the cork, you should finish bottle in the next few days. However, with Madeira wine, it’s completely the opposite – they heat it up and expose it to oxygen!

Legend says that the 17th century traders discovered that the wine made on the island of Madeira was actually better after a long time at sea. The story goes that one barrel of Madeira had been forgotten during a long journey across the Equator and was only discovered once the ship arrived back at port. They then realised that the wine was of far better quality, despite having been under the hot sun for many months, than it was when it was first loaded onto the boat! This type of wine is called a Vinho da Roda but it has now become very much a rarity.

photo-1414073875831-b47709631146Sending barrels out to sea is a hugely time-consuming and laborious process, so nowadays there are two ways in which they recreate the same effect: estufagem and canteiro.

Estufagem is the most common method, mainly used for the young blends. Basically, you put your fortified wine in a stainless steel tank. This tank will be equipped with a “radiator” of hot water below. During 3 or 4 months, the wine will be heated to around 50-55 degrees C. (The exact temperature depends on the producer and they like to keep these things secret!) Afterwards, this fortified-and-heated wine will spend a minimum of 3 years in wooden barrels.

Canteiro is the more laborious approach. The wine is put in large, old barrels on the top floor of a three storey building, directly under south-facing windows. There’s no artifical heating, just the warmth of the sun. After a year or so, they move the barrel down to the middle level, and then finally (and we’re talking many years later) down to ground floor. Why is this so special? Because the level of evaporation (what we call the angel’s share) when made this way is enormous… and you end up with a deliciously concentrated and complex wine.)

Generally speaking, a canteiro aged wine will be far more expensive, but also of better quality than a wine aged via estufagem.

As you will no doubt understand, this idea of heating a wine is completely unique to Madeira and it is one of the major contributing factors why Madeira wine is so special.

It also means that a bottle of Madeira can be opened and left for a month, two months, six months, even a year without going bad!

I don’t know of any other wine for which this is possible!

Part Four: The Different Styles of Madeira Wine.

How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?


Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

If you have read Part One, you’ll understand how unforgiving the environment is on Madeira for growing vines. In the same way that Champagne (for a long time Europe’s most northerly wine-producing region) has its own style of making its base wine palatable (think bubbles!) Madeira also needed to develop something.

It can be simply broken down into two parts: fortification and ageing.

If you are not familiar with the concept of fortification, it can explained as: the addition of a strong neutral alcohol at some point during the fermentation process. This instantaneously kills the yeasts and as a result, you can end up with some sugar left in your grapes – think port or vin doux naturel.

Most fortified wines are sweet. What is special about Madeira (but also what complicates it significantly) is that you can choose when that neutral alcohol (normally it’s 96% ABV!) is added.

If you add it early in the fermentation process, you have a lot of sugar left over.

If you add it at the end, once all the sugars have been transformed by the yeasts, you can have a dry wine.

There are four different levels of sweetness for Madeira wine… and we’ll come to that later.


Ceci n’est pas un crachoir.

There are five main grape varieties used in Madeira wine production. These are:

  1. Sercial – pronounced “ser-seal
  2. Verdelho – pronounced “verd-ell-o
  3. Boal or Bual – pronounced “boo-al
  4. Malvasia or Malmsey – pronounced “malm-see
  5. Tinta Negra (the only red-skinned grape in this list)

Why all these different styles?

After 5 centuries of winemaking, techniques have evolved to create optimal wines. Think of it as natural selection. They have learnt that sercial is best when allowed to fully ferment and made into a dry wine.
Interestingly, sercial was once upon a time grown at an altitude of 800m. Now all the plantations are between 150-200m because they realised that it was better when grown right next to the sea.

Don’t worry! This is where it gets easier…. those first four grape varieties also refer to the level of sweetness.

Sercial is always dry. This is strictly reglemented.
Verdelho is always medium dry.
Boal / Bual is always medium sweet.
Malvasia / Malmsey is always sweet.

The only tricky personality is Tinta Negra because it can be any level of sweetness and unfortunately Tinta Negra represents 83% of the total production.

Fortunately, Madeira wines are (nearly) always 100% varietal wines, meaning that if ever you see a bottle of Madeira wine with the word Sercial on the label, I can guarantee you that it will be bone dry. Same with Malvasia / Malmsey, it will be sweet.

If none of those four styles are mentioned, it will be a Tinta Negra (but the law changed in January 2015 and you will start seeing Tinta Negra more often) so you need to check on the back label.

Just a quick aside because there are two other grape varieties on the island:

Terrantez (also known as Cascal) – a white grape accounting for 3 hectares in surface area but only 500 kilos of grapes in harvest 2014.

Bastardo (also known as Trousseau in France) – it’s a red grape and not even one bottle of 100% bastardo is made on Madeira.

If you happen to stumble across either of these two varieties, it will be marked on the label. However, because of their ridiculously low yields, Madeira wine growers have no interest in growing either of these varieties and they have practically become extinct.

Part Three: What Makes Madeira Wine Special?