Naturae et Purae Conference – The Future of Viticulture


I had a change of scenery yesterday, spending the day in the stunning Castel Trauttmansdorff in South Tyrol, at the Naturae et Purae conference, discussing the future of natural wine and the potential place for biotechnology and genetically modified vines.

It’s not the first conference of this kind that I’ve attended this year but it is the most interesting. This piece may run on a little but I do encourage you to take a couple of minutes to read it.

The speakers: (L-R) Attilio Scienza, Werner Morandell, Giorgio Grai, Luca D’Attoma, Helmuth Koecher, Carlo Nesler, Angiolino Maule, Hayo Loacker, Angelo Carillo.

After the welcoming speeches from Angelo Carillo and then Helmuth Koecher, owner of the best eyebrows in the business and organiser of the Merano Wine Festival, we get underway!

We start on a pessimistic note with a speech from Giorgio Grai, a respected oenologue now well into his 80s. He sets out the current situation of our environment: the state of our air pollution and the prevalence of fine particles, that  64% of the world’s water is polluted and we have unprecedented levels of heavy metals in our alimentary channels. “How can you have an organic vineyard situated right next to a motorway with all the exhaust fumes?” he asks. The effort needed to clean up our environment is huge. We’re not starting at 0, we’re currently at -100. 

Next up is Luca d’Attoma, an oenologue in his 50s, who explains his belief that “organics is a form of respect between man and his environment.” He quotes some statistics about the rise of organic agriculture in Italy: an increase of 24% between 2015-2016 of certified organic vineyards and a 51% increase in the mass retail sector between 2015-16 in sales of organic produce. Unlike Giorgio before him, he beliefs that organic and biodynamic wines are “more original, authentic and therefore richer” than wines made from conventionally farmed grapes. That said, he acknowledges that the restrictions on organic vinification are too light. For example, 150mg/l of SO2 is allowed in conventional red wines and 100mg/l for organic red wines. He highlights problems with the controllers who certify if a farmer or winemaker is working to organic principles. There are too few controls and far too much disparity in the quality of these controls between the north and south of Italy.

Following is Hayo Loacker. The Loacker family own three wineries but the flagship is the Tenuta Schwarhof in Alto Adige. They were the pioneers in the area for organic then biodynamic agriculture (starting in 1978) and in the 90s and 00s the inspiration for many other local wineries (e.g. Lageder) to convert. What is interesting is that despite their homeopathic approach to viticulture, they have planted hybrid grape varieties as well as the traditional and autochthonous varieties; essentially incorporating modernity with the past teachings of Steiner.

After that came Angiolino Maule, guns blazing. Whilst it’s a positive step that the big players are now working their vineyards organically (Angelo Gaja, Bellavista, Ca del Bosco), how does a small guy survive? Increased knowledge and transparency is the answer. He talks about how VinNatur is carrying out scientific experiments to take natural viticulture forward. Essentially, they are conducting detailed research of determined microbial indices in the vineyard and using sophisticated algorithms to create mathematical models of what ideal soil fertility looks like. (Won’t go further as I’m stepping into work territory but email me if you would like more information on this.)

Angiolino puts forward a little-known nutritional argument for natural wines quoting a study by Dr Laura Di Renzo (Univ. of Tor Vergata) in which it was found that conventional wines only had negative side effects on the human body (pesticides, alcohol, sulfites.) Organic wine had some anti-oxidants which compensated the alcohol but was pretty nutritional-neutral. Unfiltered, low-sulphur natural wine, however, had so many positive benefits that it far outweighed the alcohol on balance. Responding to Luca D’Attoma’s comment, Angiolino tells the room how VinNatur’s own members have told the controllers how to conduct the tests and what to look for.

Werner Morandell

Next up is Werner Morandell from the organic Lieselehof Winery. His detailed speech explains what are called PIWI grape varieties (vines with new genotypes, resulting from the crossbreeding of fungi-resistant vine varieties.) Some of the newly-created varieties quoted (Bronner, Souvignier Gris and Merlot Khorus) are resistant to powdery and downy mildew, and the cold, allowing him to plant at high altitudes and bring the plant to full maturity whilst only doing 1 treatment even in bad years.

Attilio Scienza is next to take the stage. He’s an animated speaker and he comes alive during his presentation, which admittedly would have more suited to a university philosophy lecture. He puts forward the case for genetically modified foods and particularly cis-genetic vines, fortunately without going far into the scientific nitty-gritty.

Knowing that there was resistance to GMO in the audience, he starts by breaking down our preconceptions. Picking up on Giorgio’s gloomy state of affairs (the first speech), it’s natural that we want to save ourselves from the end of the world, he argues rather arrogantly, and understandable that we ignorant Muggles are clinging to organics and biodynamics as the solution. Why are we against genetics? It’s just science and we shouldn’t be afraid of science. It’s progress, the future.

Society is increasingly opposed to science, he continues, mentioning the increasingly common opposition to vaccines and the frequency that experts are being poopoo-ed in the media. After dipping into Greek mythology for a few choice quotes and metaphors, he gets to the point: we should accept that GM foods are already here. Strawberries, apples and tomatoes are all crossbreeds. Grains have been genetically engineered and improved. Nature does this itself, he argues, bringing up the complicated genetic lineage, with all the mutations, of the traminer variety. 

The moment, though, that a member of the audience asks a question – about repercussions and secondary effects – the response is that anyone who doesn’t believe in GM is ignorant and backward.

Last but not least, Carlo Nesler, talking about fermentation. He’s admits being specialised in food rather than wine but his insight comes at a particularly poignant moment after Attilio Scienza. He recounts how primitive human-beings and even primates knew how to ferment food and wittingly or unwittingly, it would have been an important part of their diet.

And yet, despite at least 3000 years of history, microbiotics (bifidus digestivum, kombucha and the like) have only recently been “discovered” by scientists as being essential elements for our well-being. We should always work with nature, is his conclusion, not against it.

My question was the last of the day. A simple yes-no in response to: is there a place in the future of natural/organic wine for genetically modified vines?

I didn’t really need to have asked the question. The most telling thing about the day’s conference was how it finished.

On one side of the room is Angiolino Maule, Luca D’Attoma and Carlo Nesler, closely huddled together. In the middle, distanced from the ‘Naturalists’ but seated diplomatically in his assigned spot is Werner Morandell. Loacker has already retreated to the back of the audience, which leaves us with futurist Attilio Scienza, arms-folded, seated as far apart as possible on the other side of the room.

It was startlingly obvious that we had just heard from two different worlds which seem to be mutually incompatible. That chasm was the elephant in the room.

It’s time to wrap up but Angiolino has the final say: terroir.

A picture is worth a thousand words



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.