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

How Do You Get Justice

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I’ve been very quiet on the blog because it’s been a hard couple of months for me.

I was back in Paris a week ago to testify in court against a very well-known figure in the wine industry. Because the verdict will not be pronounced until early July, I cannot make any of the details around the case public.

One of the hardest things about last Friday’s hearing and of the five year procedure as a whole is the gut-wrenching, all-consuming desire for justice to be done.

The hurt you endure when victim of a crime – the tears, the breakdowns, the hopelessness – while no longer raw, is carried around like a shadow that you cannot shift until you have the verdict.

The endless statements at the police station, the questionings. “We’re counting on you to be strong,” an officer said to the teary-eyed, curly-haired ball, crouched on the Haussmannian street, hugging her knees outside the commissariat, during a pause in the confrontation in 2013.

Now that the pain is no longer so acute, the main agony is actually due to the act of putting your faith in an unknown entity. You hope that he will be found guilty and therefore be made to suffer even just a fraction of what you went through. The anguish comes from it being completely out of your control; you don’t know who the judges will be and if they will be in any way understanding to your cause. Has the district attorney (procureur, in French) done enough? At the hearing, you just have a couple of hours to show who you are, convince them as best you can, and then wait to see what the result will be. Everything lies in the balance.

“But what does your boyfriend think about it?” an Italian friend recently asked. “If it were me, mine would have already flown to Paris and bashed the guy’s head in!”

Despite there being as many lawyers in Milano as in the whole of France, the system here seems different. Lawyers trade firmly worded letters as frequently as little yellow balls pass over the net at Wimbledon. Issues are more often solved out of court than in the presence of a judge.

Within the viticultural sector in Italy, the stakes are even higher. The levels of jealousy, revenge and cruelty have shocked me in their ugliness. For having crossed someone, maybe having cut down a tree on a territorial boundary, sold wine to the wrong person or at the wrong price, matters will be taken into their own hands.

In December 2016, a producer in Oltrepo Pavese’s property was broken into and the burglars opened the taps in the cellar, meaning that the equivalent of 400,000 bottles was poured down the gutter.

It’s not just a one off, in 2012, a producer in Montalcino suffered an even larger loss – 60,000 litres of Brunello di Montalcino, which had an estimated worth of 13 million euros.

I’ve spoken to a producer in Alto-Adige who was in the middle of harvest. He left his harvested grapes in a trailer in one side of the field while he went to pick the grapes on the other side… and during that small window of time, another person came up and poured petrol into the trailer-load of freshly picked grapes!

It’s not unheard of for another farmer to come with a chainsaw in the middle of the night and destroy part of your vineyard, just over a small debate. Valuable cars have gone missing in Valipolicella in what the police believe is an inside job.

Now, I know that militant groups in the south of France have done similar acts… but in the years I lived in France, I didn’t ever hear of it being so widespread as the stories I’m hearing now I’m in Italy, or if it were, it was for commercial gain rather than pure malevolence.

Is Italy alone in this or are there other countries and wine-making regions in which this is an issue?


P.S. This piece is no way intended to be an incitement to violence – I hope that is clear and will not be used against me in any future legal proceedings. It is just a reflection on contemporary society and cultural differences.

“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

#YoungtoYoung17: The Next Generation Will Be Female!

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I was expecting to see ​Francesca Binacchi, from Poggio al Mandorlo at Young to Young this year but she had unfortunately been taken ill.

As it happens, I met her father instead and a very interesting discussion ensued….

He and his wife set up a winery in 2001. Originally from Lombardy, they fell in love with this area of Tuscany, 12 kilometres from Montalcino, near the Val d’Orcia, on the extinct volcano Amiata.


Their local denominazione is that of “Montecucco” and if you don’t know of it yet, you ought to! I often find the sangiovese of Chianti difficult to digest – the tannins and wood barrels tough and chewy bedfellows. Montecucco’s expression of Sangiovese is that of freshness, elegance and very integrated tannins. 
Anyway, back to Francesca. She’s 20 years old and studying sciences at university. Passionate about wine and oenology, and importantly, the only daughter, she looks likely to inherit the winery when her parents retire.

What I particularly liked, talking to her parents, was their conviction that a girl has the potential to take over a winery. It is far too common for a son to be the ‘chosen’ one to manage the estate – especially in such a traditional country as Italy. 

The right to be taken as seriously as a man is something I myself fight for all the time. 

They very much hope that Francesca will take forward their work.

The Poggio al Mandorlo have 12 hectares of vineyards from which they make 40,000 – 50,000 bottles per year. (To put this into perspective, it’s a very small winery for the area.) Half of their production is what they call “territory wines” – i.e. made with sangiovese grapes; the other half are international blends of merlot and cab sauv. 

We tried Le Querce 2011. It was a very interesting wine. Wonderful red garnet colour, an enchanting nose of redcurrant jelly and wild herbs. The beautifully balanced mouth, remarkably fresh is full of prunes and pomegranates. The acidity is very typical of sangiovese with rounded tannins and an impressive salinity at the end, hailing from the mineral soils of the extinct volcano.   

As I mentioned before, sangiovese is not my variety of predilection but this particular expression I liked very much. I look forward to following Francesca’s progress over the coming years.

Poggio al Mandorlo, Montecucco, Tuscany

Tasted at Young to Young 2017, during Vinitaly.

In The Vineyards With: Isabelle & Jean-Yves Vantey (Les Rouges Queues, Maranges, Burgundy)

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It was on one distinctly grey and damp afternoon in late January that our car wound its way through the vineyards of Burgundy, up towards the small area of Maranges, just south of Beaune.

I was with two of the Maule brothers (producers of natural wine in the Veneto) accompanying them as a translator and willing drinking companion on a short road trip through France.

Maranges is one of the lesser known appellations in Burgundy. Strictly speaking, it’s a Village Appellation in the southernmost point of the Côte de Beaune, and within it are 7 Premier Crus. (These 7 climats are: Clos de la Boutière, Clos de la Fussière, La Fussière, Le Clos des Loyères, Le Clos des Rois, Le Croix Moines, Les Clos Roussots.) Continue reading

Backstage at the Soavino Wine Tasting

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Earlier this week, Soavino held their annual tasting at the Villa Gritti, near Soave. Not having a restaurant, wine bar or off-licence, I shouldn’t really have been allowed in but I am a regular client of their enoteca (also near Soave) and I also happen to be friends with several of the exhibiting winemakers who put me on the guest list.

In the wine world, we sometimes get so caught up in tasting notes and comparing vintages that we forget about what is happening backstage, on a human level….

mel_danielaChampagne’s most recent power couple!

You may remember that I spent the afternoon with Melanie Tarlant at their winery near Épernay last year. Well, there’s news, hot off the press:

She met Daniel Romano quite by chance, while she was presenting her family’s Champagnes at the Villa Favorita tasting in Italy in April 2016. Daniel, an accomplished sommelier specialised in natural wines, stopped by the stand to taste… and Cupid shot them both with his arrow! Daniel moved to France at the end of 2016 in order to be closer to Melanie. Best of luck to both of them!


Going back to basics with Olivier Varichon

olivier_varichona

The quality of the cork closure is fundamentally important for a winemaker. A bad cork can ruin a year’s worth of work in an instant.

We commonly talk about TCA (cork taint) affecting a wine, by making it “corked”, but a bad cork can actually spoil a wine in other ways… turning it bitter, flat or dusty.

When winemakers get together, one of the questions that I hear the most is: where do you get your corks? Amongst old world winemakers, the most highly respected regions are Portugual and Sardinia.

At the Soavino tasting, I got chatting to Olivier from Domaine Vinci, in the Roussillon (south-west France.) He explains that his corks are from the French part of the Basque country and are completely untreated. A cork manufacturer may add wax to fill in the holes and give a more appetising tan colour to the final product. Olivier’s, on the other hand, are distinctly knobbly and have a bleached white colour.


axellea

The talented Axelle Machard de Gramont whose 2014 Nuits-Saint-Georges are showing beautifully.


In case you were wondering what the featured photo was in the header of this blog post…. it was taken during a brief pause on the André Beaufort stand. The Italians love Champagne and André Beaufort’s are one of the biggest sellers at the Soavino shop. Unsurprisingly, they got through a ton of bottles at this tasting.

Many of the Beaufort Brut Champagnes have a fairly high level of added sugar (dosage, in French.) The exact level ranges between 5 and 10 grams/litre.

Having a little extra sugar helps in markets like the USA, Canada and other “newbie” consumers for whom completely bone-dry Champagnes tend to be too sharp.

Réol (pictured below) is the 6th of the eight Beaufort children. He explains that this style of Champagne is very much to his father’s liking, especially because he has found that dosage helps with the ageing process of the wines.

He comes over to talk with us later and reveals that his personal style is rather more towards having a lower dosage, maybe around 2g/l. Obviously, having such a large family – most of whom are in some way involved in the family business – you can’t always get what you want… but, once again, the passing from one generation to the next is not easy.

Réol Beaufort

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.)