Harvest 2018 – A Bumper Crop

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Harvest 2018 is well underway and it’s looking like one of the very best years in recent memory for winemakers across most of Italy and France.

Despite a worrying amount of rain in the springtime and outbreaks of mildew/peronospora, the summer was hot, constant and mercifully allowed the grapes to come to maturity.

Largely because of last year’s frost but also because of this year’s gentle flowering season, the vines have produced a much larger quantity of grapes than usual.

So much so that winemakers have more grapes than they know what to do with! My boyfriend’s phone keeps ringing with nearby growers trying to sell him grapes because their cellar is already full. Theirs is full to the brim too!

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Stamping down on the grapes in order to fit them all into the press!

Today, Monday 24th September, the cantina sociale of Gambellara (a small town near Soave) didn’t open its doors to its members because it needed a day of downtime to sort and make space. It has been completely overloaded and it’s not the only one.

It’s not hard to imagine how busy the cooperatives are when you watch the video below showing the street leading to one of the Prosecco coops. A traffic jam of tractors!!

There’s another video which has gone viral because it shows a man machine-harvesting his grapes but leaving them on the ground. “You realise this is a sacrilege,” the guy filming says to the driver of the tractor. Better than seeing them rot on the plant, is the unsaid message.

One of the consequences of having so many grapes on the plant is that the sugar levels remain relatively or unacceptably (depending on your point of view) low.

We’ve heard of prosecco vineyards near us which were harvested two weeks ago (i.e. early September) but which only yielded a sugar level of between 9 and 12 babo. That means between 6 and 9% potential alcohol. Insane.

What can you do? Well, like many quality winemakers, in the summer, you do what is called green harvesting. In some of Angiolino Maule’s vineyards, he removes 50% of his grape bunches in late June/July when he’s got an idea of how the year is going. Crop thinning allows you to manage the yields better; you lose quantity but you gain quality, sugar and complexity in both the grapes and in the resulting wine.

Alternatively, you can do what we know some conventional producers in Soave are doing this year: reverse osmosis.* In this case, you keep as many grapes on the plant as possible but once the grapes have been brought into the cellar and are being vinified, you pass the must through a membrane which separates some of the water content and allows you to concentrate the sugar. All the quantity and now a wine which you can bottle at an acceptable 12% ABV.

Where I am (in the Veneto, Italy) we’ve just about finished 40% of our harvest…. and we’ve been harvesting since the last few days of August. It’ll be at least another (long) three weeks until we’ve brought the last of the grapes into the cellar.


* n.b. I know that reverse osmosis is more commonly used for reducing alcohol content, but unless I’m mistaken, it can also be used for increasing the ABV.

 

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R.I.P. Stefano Bellotti

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If you haven’t already heard, Stefano Bellotti, winemaker and biodynamic guru from Novi Ligure in Piedmont, sadly passed away last week. What he suspected to be a dodgy oyster turned out to be pancreatic cancer and it was to prove fatal. 

Stefano was a hugely important figure to me, as he was to many other people in the industry. (Read the Kevin McKenna and Jules Dressner’s touching blog post here.) If you’ll allow me to indulge in a touch of nostalgia, I’ll explain how I met Stefano and how he changed, irrefutably, the path of my career.

I first met Stefano in 2012. We were at a small “Triple A” wine tasting in Paris, pouring from behind adjacent tables.

I don’t remember precisely if it was the first time I tried his wines (it was almost certainly the first time I tried the more complex cuvées, not just Semplicemente Vino) but I do remember that I didn’t understand these wines. There was something edgy, different and uncompromising about them.

Stefano and his wines are much alike. If you stick your nose in too quickly and ask too many questions, both the man and the wine close up. If you allow them time, gain familiarity, and return repeatedly, you start to not just understand but also warm to them. 

We met each year at the Renaissance tastings in the Loire until on one occasion which will remain engraved in my mind forever, I tell Stefano that I’m going freelance. It’s because of his “je te prends tout de suite” that I also met Dettori, and through them that I met Filippi, and through that connection that I’m where I am today.

At the Paris launch of “Natural Resistance.” Photo: Bertrand Celce / Wine Terroirs, 2014.

Over the next four years, I stayed at the Cascina degli Ulivi many times and helped in the fields, whilst following him through life’s ups and downs. From Jonathan Nossiter’s film “Natural Resistance” and the planting of a new Timorasso vineyard high in the hills to the various problems in the Cascina and the different deceptions that he bore personally. I wrote about it at the very beginning but it remained true until the end:

Stefano himself is a sweetheart. He has such a kind, generous character and (but don’t tell him I have written this) he’s also very sensitive. A pioneer of biodynamics, he has long been questioned and attacked for beliefs that were against the norm but which for him are so inherent that it’s as if it’s woven into his flesh. Sure, I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Stefano but I respect him massively for who he is and what he’s done. (2014 blog post.)

From Stanko Radikon (of whom I will forever have the image of him beaming in sheer joy, because of the novelty of sitting in the passenger seat of my English car), to Beppe Rinaldi, over to Ernesto Cattel, and now Stefano, this has been a rough year for us earth-dwellers but there’s definitely one massive party happening in the after-life.

RIP Stefano. I just hope there’s enough soil and biodiversity in heaven for you not to get bored.

Shock, Horror and a Golden Lining

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My alarm clock seemed louder than ever this morning. I got back from Paris late last night and having enjoyed every baguette crumb, every bite of cheese and every drop of wine, I was running a high sleep deficit.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am. Half an hour later, I was standing at the top of a vineyard, secateurs in hand, admiring the view down the Val d’Alpone and over to the Soave hills.

We were picking garganega grapes for our recioto today. The Recioto di Gambellara is a traditional dessert wine made in my adoptive town by letting the grape bunches dry out over a period of about 4 months. Gambellara’s Recioto is not like other passito or straw-wines, because we hang our grapes on vertical nets…… which is exactly what we then spent the afternoon doing!

Brutal as my wake-up call was this morning, it is nothing compared to the shock, 3 days ago, when the De Bartoli family in Sicily discovered that someone broken into their winery during the night and stolen 600kg of passito grapes.

Screenshot of their Facebook post. Click for full-screen.

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Who Will Take Forward The Costadilà Winery ?

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For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Isaac Newton’s third law remains as true today as it was when it was first written 300 years ago.

Because it’s very easy to get distracted by all the Prosecco merchandising on Pinterest and Facebook, you might have missed the underground resistance movement which is Prosecco col fondo.

Only a handful of winemakers held out against the advances in technology and the ease of producing good (but generic) wine that the arrival of Charmat (tank) method permitted. Instead, they continued to allow the wine to referment in its bottle and didn’t degorge or decant – col fondo.

The Costadilà winery started in 2006 as a wine-child of a group of friends, who wanted to protect and propagate this col fondo tradition.

Their philosophy – single vineyards at varied elevations, indigenous yeasts, no added sulfur – was an instant success. They were sold through the most reputable of natural wine distributors (Velier in Italy, LMDW in France and Louis Dressner in the USA) and I saw personally how their wines took Paris’ most pioneering restaurants and wine bars by storm.

It was THE col fondo Prosecco in Paris and the Costadilà wines opened the door to other atypical wines in these second-wave bistronomy establishments.

That I hadn’t written about the Costadilà winery on this blog before was a deliberate omission. I had a visit scheduled with Ernesto Cattel (the man behind these enigmatic wines) in March 2015, to meet in a café just off the Vittorio Veneto Autostrada but I waited an hour just to realise that I’d been stood up. 

This morning, like most mornings, I scroll through Facebook to see what’s been going on and woefully, I learn that Ernesto, after a battle with cancer, has died. 

I mentioned before that the Costadilà brand (the real company name is actually Ederlezi) is made up of a group of similarly-minded wine folk. At the beginning, they all had full-time jobs and this was just a side-project. Ernesto was the one to give up his day job and throw all the hours in the day into making and selling these bubbles.

But, with Ernesto’s sad quietus, will one of the other partners step forward to take the winery forward? Or will they bring in someone from outside and how would that affect the company’s dynamic? The loss of Ernesto means one less proponent of a style of wine that I’ve come to love.

Other producers of prosecco grapes vinified in the col fondo way include:

Ca’ dei Zago

Casa Belfi

Casa Coste Piane

Coletti Wines

In The Vineyards With: Uros Klabjan (Istria, Slovenia)

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“I don’t know what this year has been like with you but 2018 is even worse than 2014 for me.” It’s with that bold admission that Uros Klabjan greets us when we pull up in his winery. “Every single day, it rains.”

Once he’s shown us round the vineyards and the cellar, he takes us to his mother’s trattoria. She’d set aside a large table outside, under an ancient pergola vine. We sit down, open a bottle of wine and, eh voilà, the heavens open. We make a mad dash for shelter and, such was the violence of this sudden downpour, that we grab the bottle and a couple of wine glasses. “Don’t worry about the napkins or the cutlery,” Uros calls out. “Don’t worry about the dog bowl,” I echo.

This particular valley – the Osp, only a few kilometres from Trieste and the Istrian coastline – has a Mediterranean microclimate but gets particularly battered by the competing winds: the easterly/north-easterly Bora and the strong north-westernly Mistral.

The soil type is also a battlefield between the limestone in the dramatic Karst Plateau on the northern edge and the white marl from the more gentle hills to the east. Despite the humidity, it’s clearly a fertile area if the number of vegetable patches dotted around the village are anything to go by.

My dog photo-bombing Uros in the vineyards

Uros doesn’t count by hectares (although, later we calculated 10) but by number of vines in his possession (around 60,000) mainly of refosco d’Istria and Istrian malvasia with some moscato giallo (from local Hrastovlje biotype), pinot grigio and merlot.

In the wine cellar, thanks to the small size of the barrels and tanks, each parcel is vinified separately but the varietal blends (from the same fields) are often co-fermented. Fermentation takes place for a short time on the skins, with native yeasts and no added sulphites. The maturation stage is allowed to continue for as long as needed, Uros sticks firmly to his hands-off, no-intervention policy. The wines decant naturally and remain unfiltered, even at bottling.

Labels with a white background indicate younger vines (between a respectable 25 and 40 years old) and aged in stainless steel tanks for everyday drinking. Black-coloured labels means a more structured, powerful wine from the old-vine parcels (over 50 years ago) and aged in old Slovenian oak barrels.

Klabjan’s cellar under the family house

Whilst we’re tasting barrel samples in the miniscule cellar, I probe further into how 40-year-old Uros got to this point.

It turns out that his passion for wine and natural winemaking stems directly from his grandfather. The vineyards have been in the family for generations but it was only when Uros’ father started making wine with modern technology and conventional oenology (it was his father who purchased the steel tanks and vinified with selected yeasts) that Uros became convinced of the road he wanted to follow when his turn came to take the reins.

As a result, he’s a welcoming, positive, energetic man, whose wines reflect that magnetism and vivacity. They are honest, authentic reflections of this unique place and the man who made them. If you happen to see these wines out-and-about or to be passing through the area, they’re some of the best coming out of Slovenia. Seek them out!

Intense old-vine malvasija – my coup de coeur!

Visit: 11th July 2018

There’s little online presence in English for the winery, but The Morning Claret wrote about a visit in 2015 and Chateau Monty has a detailed profile.

Uros can be contacted via email: uros.klabjan@siol.net

In The Vineyards With: Olek Bondonio (Barbaresco, Piedmont)

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When you go to visit winemakers in Barbaresco and Barolo, you probably expect established stately families, snobbish talk and high prices to justify the extensive and inaccessible wine cellars.

Olek Bondonio is the antithesis of all that. Despite being “the guy next to Gaia,” he’s a straight-talking, down-to-earth man who just happens to make wine and incidentally has a passion for snowboarding.

Olek currently lives and works in a house (La Bercialla) that dates back to the 1800s when his ancestors made wine. As a child, though, he grew up in Torino, only coming to the farmhouse during the summer months. Before taking the reins in 2005, he travelled extensively to France (one year as an exchange student in Bordeaux) and to Australia and New Zealand for harvest. Starting with the two hectares of the land in the photo below, Olek now works six hectares of vineyards organically.

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The beautiful, south-facing Roncagliette vineyards. Photo credit: Emma Bentley, 2018.

The six hectares are split over three different plots: Roncagliette (in the Barbaresco DOC), Starderi (also in Barbaresco) and Altavilla (where he has planted barbera and dolcetto.)

His Roncagliette vineyards (the initial two hectares) actually border those of Gaia. Olek has only good things to say of his more famous neighbour. “Angelo Gaia would be in the vineyards at 4 or 5 am, one hour before his team started, walking through assessing the vineyards. Many producers today outsource everything and they don’t even know where their vineyards are!”

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Yeah, that’s my dog casually gatecrashing (literally!) to get in the pic.

Olek makes down-to-earth, honest wines. As a general rule, the fermentation takes place in large cement tanks, maceration normally takes place for about a month and the nascent wine will subsequently be aged in large wooden barrels (as in the photo above) until they’re ready for bottling. Along the way, there’s minimum intervention and very little sulphur; no chemical or oenological “make-up” going on in this wine cellar.

We tasted several barrel samples of the 2016 vintage. By calling them simple, honest and down-to-earth doesn’t quite do them justice; they’re wholesome, vibrant and expressive.

P.S. Top Tip: the Langhe Nebbiolo wine is great value-for-money. Unlike the vast majority of producers in the area who make a selection based on the quality of grapes, Olek’s Langhe Nebbiolo wine comes from high-quality nebbiolo grapes in the famed Barbaresco vineyards, but is bottled just a year or so too early to qualify as Barbaresco.

There’s no official website but you can find Olek’s wines in the UK through Tutto Wines and Berry Bros Rudd.

Visit: 8th March 2018

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.