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.


In The Vineyards With: Sauro Maule (Il Cavallino, Veneto)


It’s hard to find a “young” man as enthusiastic, knowledgeable and determined as Sauro Maule.

Sauro comes from a strong agricultural lineage. His father, Lino, a distinguished and considered man, raised cattle for more than 30 years.

In 2010, aged 25, Sauro made the decision turn the company into one which grows grapes and makes wine. Admirably, he knew that he wanted chemical, herbicide and pesticide-free vineyards, and even ripped up existing vineyards which had been worked industrially in order to start afresh.

2011 was his first year to make wine… which he did in Angiolino Maule‘s cellar. Angiolino played an important role, guiding, teaching and inspiring Sauro. (n.b. despite bearing the same surname, the two Maules are not related.)

This year, 2017, will be his first year making wine in his own winery – situated in the old family property near San Germano dei Berici, in the little-known Colli Berici. The cattle shed has now become a pristine wine cellar.

Sauro’s vineyards are essentially split in two: his white wines, loosely speaking, come from Selva di Montebello and Gambellara (on predominantly volcanic basalt soils) and the red wines on the Colli Berici (where it is heavily limestone.)

Pure rock in the Colli Berici

In terms of the grape varieties at his disposal, Sauro works with garganega, durella, pinot grigio, chardonnay, sauvignon, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and tocai rosso. He makes five different wines: two whites, two reds and a sparkling.

The video above was taken in October 2016 and it shows a truckload of manure arriving to fertilise the soils for a new plantation of tocai rosso. Don’t focus too much on the manure – think instead how lush and unspoilt the area is!

The new tocai rosso vineyard – 8 months old.

Some of Sauro’s vineyards (especially those in Selva) were badly hit by the late frost this spring and as a result, Sauro’s production this year will be lower than usual.

That said, I am sure that he will continue to make the same great, fresh, unfiltered wines that he always has. They are fruit-forward (how I hate that term!) and juicy, with only minimal levels of sulfur dioxide added. Check them out!

Sauro Maule website and Facebook

Visit: 24th August 2017

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

How Do You Get Justice


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”


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!


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)


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