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.

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.

How We Talk (And Write) About Wine

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I spend about an hour most mornings reading. It could be the news, some left-wing opinion columns or just a few blogs. If you didn’t know better, you would call me a slug-a-bed because I have nothing to show as a result of this “wasted” time.

However, I find this habit deeply inspiring. Not always for the right reasons: there are some moments (like this) when I find the subject matter so infuriating and the words form so quickly that sparks fly off the keyboard.

On other occasions, I agree so wholeheartedly with the content that a simple retweet wouldn’t do it justice. It just so happens that this morning was one of those moments. It was this wonderful feeling of clarity when you just go “Yes. This. Word.”

It’s a piece in Punch by Jon Bonné called “Why It’s Time to Stop Fetishizing Wine Expertise” and carries the sub-line: “Our current fascination with wine expertise—and, often, the wine experts themselves—has actually made it harder to enjoy wine.”


As an aside, for a glimpse into “The Parker Effect”, I highly recommend this 10 minute podcast with Jancis Robinson on the BBC. Having only started in the wine industry in 2010, to hear about the moment that the most influential US wine expert Robert Parker locked horns with UK goddess Jancis in 2004 was very interesting to me. 


Anyway, back to Bonné’s article, I’m going to take a few excerpts with which I couldn’t agree more passionately.

“But the old ways of wine are fading into the distance. A new generation of drinkers has arrived, one with little interest in the fear and pomposity of the past. The blossoming sphere of natural wine has complicated old discussions about quality. And both wine journalism and wine discourse have been transformed—although not entirely for the better. We’ve thankfully lost a fair amount of imperiousness and talking-down. But we’ve also unearthed a lot of faux-egalitarian BS and first-person preening.”

Truth!

Next up – how being a so-called “wine expert” actually means creating an elitist language which only fellow wine experts can understand. (I’d actually just written something similar last month – here.)

“The more I thought about it, the more I had to acknowledge that our current fascination with expertise has actually made it harder to enjoy wine. Wine needs experts, of course, like any other pursuit. But rather than democratize wine, we’ve traded out reductivism for an infatuation with the mechanics and mystique of expertise.

We’re dazzled by tales of blind-tasting La Tâche and sabering Champagne, because they’re good clickbait and they sex up what otherwise could be a dowdy topic. But they’re parlor games, as is the obsessive memorization that some experts swear by. It all merely enhances a myth of expertise—namely that to understand wine, you must engage in a furtive, Masonic quest for truth.”

We move onto Bonné’s conclusions. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t printed them out and pinned them to the wall behind my computer in order to remind myself of these home truths every day.

“You discover that wine isn’t a thing to be fetishized. Its cultural value comes from the traditions surrounding its long history, and the improvements upon those traditions. Its prices have more to do with rarity, and ego, than innate quality.”

And finally…

“Frankly, we can embrace this complex world and still appreciate experts, without putting them on pedestals. For those of us who are experts, we might all be well-served to work on injecting a bit more humility into our work. Talking to everyone, not just our peers, like they’re grownups. A bit less Insta-bragging. A bit more acknowledging our relatively boring lives, and the many ho-hum wines that occupy them. This can only help to humanize wine, and that in turn will help to build a strong, diverse wine culture for the future.”

True dat.


Read the whole article on Punch by following this link.

In The Vineyards With: Laura Rizzoto (Balestri Valda, Soave)

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“I’m the wild child in the family,” claims Laura Rizzotto.

Balestri Valda is a relatively-recent, family-run winery, with vineyards and the cellar perched just above the town of Soave, in the Veneto of Italy.

I say relatively-recent but it is worth mentioning that the family are far from being newcomers. They are well-known locally and made their name as contractors specialising in sparkling wines. (i.e. if you wanted to make a wine in autoclave (prosecco-style) but didn’t have the means to do so yourself, you take your still wine to them and they’ll transform it.)

Laura and her father, Guido, work together on the Balestri Valda winery, while her brother and grandfather are still actively making bubbles for other local producers in Soave and the surrounding area.

The Balestri Valda cellar was clearly a huge investment; it is large and spotlessly clean. Currently 65,000 bottles of wine are made per year and it’s predominantly Soave Classico DOC.

The Balestri Valda cellar

At the end of 2016, Laura finished university and moved back to Soave. She’s taking an increasingly important role at the winery and she’s a huge believer of biodiversity.

“My father waits for me to go on holiday and the first thing he does is cut the grass!! It’s not good for the bees. They need longer grass.”

Photo (c) Laura Rizzotto

Yes, did I mention that Balestri Valda make their own mille-fleurs/millefiori honey?

 

Laura is bringing in several important changes to the Balestri Valda winery: firstly, that they are in the process of obtaining official organic certification.

Secondly, their new wine “Libertate” – is Laura’s pet project. It is made from Trebbiano di Soave only – a far call from the traditional Soave (from garganega grapes or a blend) – and vinified in amphora and stainless steel. They’re not quite natural wines yet – I’m used to wines with a little less SO2 – but if Laura gets her way, Balestri Valda is heading very much in the right direction! A winery to watch!



Balestri Valda website and Facebook