Have you tried the wines of Valle d’Aosta?

Valle d’Aosta, courtesy Wine Scholar Guild

Last night I kicked off the inaugural Italian Wine Scholar class run by my Vermont Wine School. We started with the foundation of Italy – history, geography, wine laws, etc. and then covered and tasted wines from two regions: Valle d’Aosta and Liguria. I’ll save Liguria for another post. Last night the wines of Valle d’Aosta were the hit of the session. We only tasted three wines from the region (there are only about 5 wines from Valle d’Aosta that are stocked in Vermont) but those wines were eye-opening for every student and myself. They were delicious. Only one of the 8 in the class, besides myself, had tasted wines from the region before so I thought I would help spread the word and introduce this wonderful part of Italy to others.

Valle d’Aosta is an alpine region, tucked in the northwestern part of the country in the Italian Alps. To the north is Switzerland. France forms the western border and Piemonte is south and east of the region. It’s mountainous here, with over 60% of the land lying above 6,000 feet. Monte Bianco (Mount Blanc), the highest peak of the Alps, is on its’ western border with France. Snow is present for half the year in most of the region.

Valle d’Aosta is last when it comes to population and wine production of Italy’s 20 regions. Due to Frankish domination throughout its’ history it is the only French-speaking area of Italy. The region is bilingual. Both Italian and French are official languages. Italian and French terms appear on wine labels and you’ll even see the French Vallee d’Aoste instead of the Italian Valle d’Aosta.

As everywhere in Italy, wine is an important part of the economy. Most of the wine is consumed in the region by the many tourists who flock here to take advantage of the wonderful skiing and hiking. Unfortunately for us, only a fraction of the wine produced ever make it out of the region.

This is not an easy place to grow grapes and make wine which makes last night’s tasting even more remarkable. In an alpine region such as this, one needs to take advantage of the landscape to ripen grapes. Fortunately, there are natural features that lend themselves to exploitation.

The Aosta Valley, where the region takes its’ name, winds some 50 miles through the heart of the region on the banks of the Dora Baltea river. The Dora Baltea begins on Monte Bianco and traverses the region from west to east and then south into Piemonte. Rivers are good when the climate is cool or cold. They keep air moving, reflect sun back into the vineyards and moderate the temperature a bit. They also provide slopes where vines can be planted.

The vast majority of the vineyards lie on the slopes of the river. Most of these are on the northern banks to take advantage of the south-facing aspect to capture the most possible sunlight. Only in the warmer, southeastern part of the valley are vineyards planted on both sides of river.

Terraced vineyards in Valle d’Aosta, courtesy Wine Scholar Guild

But the vines are not just planted on the slopes. They are planted on terraces built into the slopes. These terraces are hard to construct and hard to maintain. In the western and central part of the valley they are built of stones. Here, the vines are trained on pergolas about 3 feet off the ground. The stones retain heat from the sun and radiate this back into the vineyard in the evening to help with ripening. The vineyards are small and steep. Workers not only have to climb vertically but also horizontally to get to their vines. This is not easy work!

The general wine style for both red and white wines is lighter in body, high in acidity with vibrant fruit. They are mostly easy drinking, single varietal wines meant for early consumption. Of course, there are exceptions. Still white, red and rose wines are produces as well as traditionally made sparkling wines and sweet wines made from late harvested grapes or grapes that have been allowed to dry and shrivel. Valle d’Aosta is also one of the few places where small quantities of ice wine is made.

Although many indigenous and international grape varieties are grown here, there are two major white grapes and three major red grapes. The whites are Prie Blanc and Petite Arvine. The reds are Petit Rouge, Fumin and Picotendro (Nebbiolo).

There is only one appellation or DOC in the region, Valle d’Aosta DOC, which produces about 80% of the wine. The rest is table wine. This DOC has 7 sub-zones that can appear on labels. The name of the grapes can also appear on the label as long as 85% of said grape is in the bottle.

I highly recommend you seek out these alpine wines. They are perfect as we enter into warmer weather and they are great food wines. Here are three to look for, all from the 2014 vintage. Notice the labels? The Maison Agricole D&D wines have the French Vallee d’Aoste and the Chateau Feuillet has the Italian Valle d’Aosta.:

Maison Agricole D&D is located in the central valley just outside the town of Aosta. They practice sustainable farming and make vibrant aromatic wines. Petit Arvine originated in Switzerland and is considered a traditional grape of the Valle d’Aosta. It is very aromatic with notes of lemon, lime, ripe pear some tropical fruit and white flowers. It had a beautiful golden hue and great texture on the palate with bright acid and ripe fruit. $24

Torrette is one of the 7 sub-zones of the Valle d’Aosta DOC. It is located in the central part of the valley and produces only red wine from a minimum of 70% of Petit Rouge, locally known as Picciourouzo. This particular bottling has 80% Petit Rouge with 20% Fumin and Cornalin. This was a medium ruby with a hint of garnet at the rim and showed nice aromatics with ripe red fruits and spice. This was easy on the palate with soft tannins and a lingering finish. This wine could easily take a slight chill. $20

Maurizio Fiorano, of Chateau Feuillet, grew up outside Turin and moved to Milan for his studies, but his life took an unexpected turn when he married and moved with his wife to her hometown of Saint-Pierre in the Valle d’Aosta. He continued his work as a surveyor, but the long commute became difficult when they started a family. Maruizio eventually left his job for good and moved to the region full-time. His wife had an inn they were running and she had inherited vineyards from her family, about 9 acres. They decided to make wine to serve in the inn’s restaurant. Maurizio headed into their small holdings and started to work the vines and make wine. Production was very small at first but he was proud. So proud that he decided to show his wines at the largest wine show in the world, VinItaly. Little did he know that the four bottles he brought would be lapped up in mere minutes! Production is still tiny and this is one of the producers that makes sure to export a portion of their wines.

The vines are on shallow soils over a granite bedrock with perfect aspect for catching the suns rays. Combine this with the cool climate, high altitude, and drastic diurnal temperature and you get extremely long hours of gentle sunlight. In fact, the vineyards here capture the sun so perfectly that the almond trees scattered over the slope blossom at the same time as those in Sicily, over 550 miles farther south! This gives the grapes an exceptionally long, slow ripening season that in turn offers very unusual red wines with great aromatics, ripe fruits and wines with some heft but are still refreshing and light on their feet. And that is exactly what this wine is.

Chateau Feuillet’s Valle d’Aosta Fumin is made from 90% Fumin with 10% Syrah. Surprisingly, the color was an almost opaque purple that stained the glass. Ripe red and black cherry, blackberry, menthol and black pepper burst from the glass. This is on the verge of full-bodied but still quite refreshing with ripe, soft tannins and bright acidity. This has great length and some time ahead of it. Definitely a favorite of everyone. $26

 

 

 

Don’t forget about Grenache!

Grenache, or as they say in Spain, Garnache (probably where the grape originated) sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s rarely mentioned next to the big grapes like Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir or Syrah. But I think many people would be surprised to find that Grenache makes up a portion, and sometimes a large portion, of some of the most recognizable and famous wines in the world. Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Tavel, Banyuls, Maury, Priorat, Cannonau di Sardegna all have pretty heavy doses of Grenache in them and some are made entirely from Grenache. There are also countless ‘table’ wines from France and Spain made entirely from Grenache that are soft and easy to drink and are usually quite inexpensive. Then there are the Rhone Rangers in California growing Grenache in the central coast and the GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre) blends of Australia. They all take advantage of what Grenache has to offer to blends.

At roughly 500,000 acres, Grenache is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world. In fact, at the end of the last century only the white grape Airen was more widely planted. The largest plantings are in Spain, followed by France and then Italy. This century has seen a decline in acreage in favor of more popular varieties such as Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot.

It ripens late, so it needs hot, dry conditions. Spain, the south of France, Italy and parts of California are several places where the grape benefits from its tolerance to heat and drought. The aroma and flavor profile for Grenache is wide-ranging depending on where it is grown. Expect to find candied red berry fruits and cinnamon spice from higher-yielding wines and a bit more dark fruit, white pepper spice from lower-yielding vineyards. From old-world regions such as the Rhone and Sardinia you might find pleasant herbaceous notes. As these wines age they pick up notes of leather and meat.

The grape has thin skins which makes it perfect for light-colored read and rose production. The thin skins also mean lower tannins and a smoother mouthfeel. What the grape lacks in tannins and structure it makes up for in alcohol which is often high, in the 14% range. Wines made from high-yielding Grenache vines tend to produce fruity but simple wines (Cotes du Rhone, Languedoc, Calatayud) while those from older, lower yielding vines produce wines of power and concentration (Priorat, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Roussillon). When added to blends Grenache generally lends a softness and fruitiness along with an extra degree or two of alcohol.

2013 Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone ‘Les Abeilles’ (The Bees)                 12.99

Jean-Luc Colombo was studying Pharmacology at the University of Montpellier where he gained an interest in wine. He wound up graduating with degrees in both Pharmacology and Enology. Shortly after graduation he and his wife started a wine consulting firm in 1984. His outspoken views on the future of the French wine industry, winemaking, particularly about maceration times, organic viticulture and other topics rankled some of the traditionalist of the Rhone particularly in Cornas where he had purchased a small vineyard. He saw the potential of this under-appreciated appellation in the northern Rhone and was determined to make outstanding wines from his own estate. The rest is history. He is today considered to be one of the pioneers in the revitalization of the Cornas appellation. He has a thriving consulting business with well over 100 clients and now makes outstanding wines in the northern and southern Rhone, the Languedoc and Provence.

This wine is a blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. The grapes are grown sustainably around the towns of Cairrane and Gigondas. They are hand-harvested, lightly crushed and then fermented in stainless steel where the wine will stay for 10 months. This is a perfect example of what a simple Cotes du Rhone should be. Fruit forward and soft with dark red fruits and a touch of spice on the finish. This is perfect for the barbecue, salads or pizza.

Les Abeilles translates as “The Bees” after the creatures that inhabit the vineyards where this Côtes du Rhône is produced. Jean-Luc Colombo’s appreciation for the natural environment of living creatures creates an atmosphere in which insects, animals and grape vines co-exist and flourish. This can only be accomplished with sustainable vineyard practices where no harsh pesticides are used. Honeybees pollinate more than 90% of flowering crops – including many of the fruit and food items we eat – so they play a vital role in our food supply. In many places around the world, however, bee colonies are in severe jeopardy. “Colony Collapse Disorder” is a mysterious 5-year-old crisis – and it’s worsening at an alarming rate! The cause is unknown, and it has currently spread to over half of the United States, with similar collapses reported in Brazil, Canada and parts of Europe. BEE HELPFUL is a program started by Jean-Luc Colombo to help fight this bee crisis. A donation will be made to UC Davis Department of Entomology for Honey Bee Research. The UC Davis Department of Entomology is ranked No. 1 in the country by the Chronicle of Higher Education. They have several programs and studies dedicated to the bee crisis. For each consumer purchase of Les Abeilles, a percentage of the suggested retail price will go to research to save the bees with a pledged minimum donation of $10,000 per year.

2011 Alvaro Palacios Gratallops, Priorat, Spain $49

Avalaro Palacios was one of a handful of producers who saved the Priorat region from wine obscurity back in the 1980’s and 90’s. Today, his wines are some of the most sought-after wines coming out of Spain. He makes wines that are true expressions of where the grapes are grown.

Priorat, in northeastern Spain, is an unforgiving place with lots of sun and heat but very little water. Garnacha does very well here. Because the vines are so old the wines are intense, perfumed and complex. This is a ‘village’ wine. The grapes came from vineyards planted in schist in and around the village of Gratallops; the first village to be recognized in the appellation.

Mostly Garnacha with some Carignena (Carignan) this is an intensely perfumed wine with red and black fruits intertwined with leather, smoke, dried herbs and game. The tannins are just now calming down leading to a very pleasant texture to round out the full body of the wine. There is a long finish marked by some peppery spice and a saline, mineral note at the very end. Delicious and should keep for another 5-10 years or so.

Why you should be drinking Bordeaux and 3 wines to try.

St. Emilion

Bordeaux is one of, if not the most, well-known wine region in the world. But it’s suffering from an identity crisis as of late. The region has fallen out of favor with a large swath of the wine drinking public for many reasons. First and foremost is its’ image as a stuffy wine region with its’ grand Chateaus and hefty price tags. Not only that, we’re told that we have to wait a decade or so to truly understand and appreciate the wines. There’s also so much wine out there that is both easier to understand and just as good. Some say it’s also too confusing with all of its appellations and talk of Right Bank vs Left Bank. Oh, and they don’t put the name of the grape on the label. It used to be that if you wanted to drink good wine you only had a few choices: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa, etc. Not so anymore. We have access to great wines from all over the world.  These days, sommelier’s are always on the look out for the new and different; something that will ‘wow’ the customer. So, Bordeaux has become pedestrian in a lot of somm’s eyes. That’s a shame because these are still some of the most exciting wines on the planet. Let’s take a look at Bordeaux and see if we can dispel some of these generalizations.

First off, most Bordeaux is actually very reasonably priced. By this, I mean that there is a lot of really good wine in the $12-$20 range (The Grande Mottes and Malleret fall into this range). There’s even some really good wine under $12 (Philao) but you have to look hard. How can this be when all we read about is the greedy Chateau owners raising prices year after year? Yes this is a fact. There are greedy Chateau owners who raise prices, even in not so good vintages. But these are just a small fraction of the 10,000 or so in the region. You read that correctly, 10,000 producers, give or take a few hundred. Only the top Chateau in the Classifications can get away with raising prices every year. They do so because they are fairly certain that their wines will sell as the demand is usually greater than the supply for the top wines. There’s also the way in which the top Chateau sell their wines that buoys prices. It’s called ‘en primeur’ and it’s taken a big hit lately with some Chateau dropping out altogether. Only the top couple of hundred Chateau participate in en primeur. The rest sell their wines through the classic distribution channels and the supply far out strips the demand for these properties. In fact, every year more and more of the lesser Chateau are on the verge of bankruptcy because there is just too much wine flowing out of Bordeaux and they can’t charge enough to cover their costs.

Why are Bordeaux wines shunned these days? Classic things, like cars, planes, boats and wine are called classic because, well, they’re classic. They’ve stood the test of time. The classics have put their time in and others are compared to them, not the other way around. Bordeaux is a classic wine region as is Burgundy, Barolo, Chianti, Champagne and others. Wine fads will come and go but the classics will remain. There is no shame in professing your love for Bordeaux regardless of what others think. And there is just something great about opening a bottle of these Cabernet and Merlot blends with their dark black fruits, cedar, tobacco and a touch of oak along with firm tannins on its medium bodied frame. Bordeaux is rarely as extracted as Napa Cabs and their weight makes you want to take another sip. They are also great food wines. And, no, you do not have to wait years to enjoy them. Look to the larger appellations on the label such as Bordeaux, Medoc, Haut-Medoc and Graves for wines that are ready upon release. Sure, the top wines reward cellaring but most Chateau also make a second and sometimes a third wine from the younger vines or the not so good blocks. These are often wines meant for immediate consumption or can be cellared for a few years. They are also great bargains.

Finally, Bordeaux does not have to be confusing. As long as you know your banks. The wines of Bordeaux are almost always blends of different grapes with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominating. The Right Bank of the Gironde Estuary is home to Merlot dominated wines such as Pomerol, St. Emilion and Fronsac. The Left Bank is home to Cabernet based wines such as Medoc, Graves, St. Julien and Margaux. These are the names you’ll see on the labels. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules when it comes to grape variety and blend. If you have a wine that is labeled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur, chances are it is Merlot based and comes from the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux. Another labelling term to look for is Cru Bourgeois. These are some of the best value wines in the region and most are consistently good year after year. The whites of the region are now usually Sauvignon Blanc mostly with some Semillon added for complexity.

Vintage is very important in Bordeaux. A big reason is the region’s proximity to the Atlantic. It gets wet here. The season can be bookended by frost, summer storms are a problem and there is lots of cloud cover which tends to interrupt photosynthesis. Once upon a time in Bordeaux each decade would have 3 great vintages, 3 bad vintages and 4 average vintages. Now, if you believe the Chateau owners, almost every year is the next vintage of the century. Some of the recent vintages to look for are 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007 (considered not so great but they are drinking really well), 2009 and the fantastic 2010. All of the wines below come from the 2010 vintage, a truly stellar vintage in Bordeaux. These wines don’t need cellaring to be enjoyed and probably would not benefit from it (with the exception of the Malleret). If you like these you may want to look into purchasing some of the commune wines from 2010 for your cellar. There are still some out there at fairly reasonable prices. All of the wines below will benefit from being enjoyed with food. Anything from some soft or hard cheese to a burger or pizza and more elaborate dishes with earthy flavors. Enjoy the wines!

 2010 Chateau Philao ‘La Gravelle’, Bordeaux

A straight up Bordeaux Appellation wine. This 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon blend is round and supple with ripe black fruits and soft tannins. No need to wait here. Pop the cork and enjoy.

 

2010 Chateau Les Grandes Mottes, Cotes de Bordeaux-Blaye, Bordeaux Superieur

This comes from the Right Bank but is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% Merlot. See, I said there were exceptions to the rules. It also come from what they call the ‘Cotes’. There are a series of appellations with the word ‘Cotes’ in them because they are all on the banks of the rivers. They are great values and often overlooked here in the US. This is drinking really well right now with fully-ripened raspberries, cassis and cherry. Just a touch of oak to go along with mineral notes and dried eucalyptus. This is smooth and still fairly youthful. Don’t wait too long for this one.

2010 Chateau de Malleret Le Baron de Malleret, Haut-Medoc, Cru Bourgeois

This quintessential Bordeaux Chateau, with its large, magnificent buildings, was founded in 1597 by Pierre de Malleret and has been home to one of Europe’s most famous horse stables, hence the label. The property covers just over 130 acres of sandy, gravelly soil in the commune of Pian-Medoc which is situated just northwest of the city of Bordeaux. Sustainable pest management control is practiced as well as the least amount of intervention as the region allows due to weather. This wine is actually the 2nd wine of the Chateau. The blend is 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc and 21% Merlot. All of the grapes are harvested by parcel and fermented separately before the final blend is determined. The wine sees 6 months in oak. There is great structure to this with firm tannins and bright acidity to go with the bold black fruit aromas and flavors with just a hint of vanilla and cedar. This can be drunk now with a good decanting or laid down for another 3 years or so.

 

 

2013 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast

California is blessed with almost perfect growing conditions for grapes. This is a good thing. But sometimes it can be too much of a good thing. Over-ripeness and large-scale winemaking have been obliterating the fruit for the past 40 years. Many of the wines have become so ripe, over-extracted and in your face that they’ve lost all sense of terroir. I’m not saying that all California wines are like this but lots are, especially the large, branded wines. There are some wines on the market today, very popular wines by the way, that are so far removed from the grape they’re made from it’s almost funny. Pinot Noirs that taste like Aussi Shiraz and Chardonnays that are all butter, caramel and sugar line the shelves of supermarkets and box retailers. Enough is enough.

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a movement in California being led by young, dynamic winemakers across the state that are eschewing these in your face wines and getting back to the land. They are crafting wines with little to no manipulation. They want the wines to taste like the grape and place they are made from.  Their mission is to get back to balanced, elegant wines that transmit terroir. They think it’s time to make wines taste like they did before prohibition and in the 1970’s when elegance trumped power. This is a far departure from some of the large wine conglomerates who are being forced to take notice.

But it’s not just about new, young wine makers. There are some producers who’ve been crafting balanced, elegant wines for decades. They’ve resisted the temptation to follow the herd and have kept true to their principles and style. Some producers to look for are Au Bon Climat, Ridge, Littorai and Calera.

2013 Pinot Noir from Calera

2013 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast

Jim Jensen went to Oxford University for a master’s degree and wound up in France working in a cellar in Burgundy. He knew then that he was destined to make wine in a style as close to Burgundy as he could but in California. When he returned home to California he spent years traveling around the central coast looking for soils similar to those in Burgundy. He even went so far as pouring hydrochloric acid on the soil in the hopes of finding limestone, the calcium-rich soils he fell in love with in France. In 1974 he finally found some in a former lime quarry in the mountains above San Benito County east of Monterey. He purchased 324 acres (almost impossible today!) and got to work. Many thought he was crazy. But Mr. Limestone, as he is called, new exactly what he was doing.

Jim was way ahead of his time. When everyone else was starting to chase ripeness, big wines and big scores he held steady to his elegant, Burgundian style of wine making. It only took about 35 years for everyone else to come around to his way of thinking. His Central Coast wines, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are some of the best values and most consistently good wines coming out of the state. He sources grapes from about a dozen vineyards up and down the coast, ferments with indigenous yeasts, uses mostly whole clusters to make balanced wines of precision.

The 2013 Central Coast Pinot Noir was sourced from 10 vineyards. Each lot was fermented separately in open-top fermenters. The wine was then moved to French oak barrels, 10% new, for eleven months before being blended and bottled. This was a bit closed at first but it really opened up after a few minutes in the glass. There is a core of red cherry fruit underneath some earth, underbrush and violet. It’s silky smooth with bright acidity and great texture. Plenty of fruit and spice with a long finish. At under $20 you can’t beat this for the price.

2015 Viberti Giovanni Dolcetto D’Alba Superiore

It’s been a while since I’ve had a Dolcetto. I won’t be waiting long again. Especially if I can find ones that are this good. Unfortunately, this is not in the state just yet. But I think the distributor will be bringing this in fairly soon.

Dolcetto is a traditional grape of the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy. At one point it was the most widely planted red grape of the region. Dolcetto has been mentioned in records dating back to the mid 1500’s and many believe it originated in or near Dogliani but this has not been proven. The name means ‘little sweet one’. This is not because the wine is sweet but because the grapes tend to be very sweet around harvest time.

Although Dolcetto is no longer the most widely planted red grape of the region it is still highly prized by producers. Dolcetto ripens earlier and in higher, cooler spots than either Nebbiolo or Barbera. The wines made by Dolcetto mature sooner allowing for an earlier release of the wines giving producers some cash flow while the Nebbiolo and Barbera based wines mature.

Dolcetto is mostly planted in the Langhe and Monferatto hills and around Acqui Terme, Ovada and Tortona. In Piemonte there are 7 appellations devoted to the grape. The wines produced from Dolcetto are typically soft with a tannic grip and low acidity. The aromas are of dark red and black fruits, violets, licorice and prune. The wines have a very pleasant, slightly bitter finish from the tannins. They are often a deeply colored ruby, almost purple. Dolcetto is the wine that starts the meal being consumed with the antipasti.

The Viberti Giovanni cellars. Courtesy Viberti Giovanni

The Dolcetto D’Alba DOC is the largest of the 7 appellations devoted to the grape. Due to the shear size and production it is also the most well-known. It also has the most variable wines produced in a number of styles. The wines range from simple and fruity to fuller-bodied, structured and complex. Because the DOC overlaps the famous Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG’s, many producers of these wines also produce very good Dolcettos. The Superiore designation demands longer ageing and a slightly higher minimum alcohol.

Tajarin with truffles at Buon Padre, courtesy of Viberti Giovanni

I have a soft spot for the wines of Viberti Giovanni. I visited the winery 6 years ago (with the same distributor). It was a fantastic experience. Claudio, the young winemaker, took us through the vineyards and winery and gave us a great education on the geography and wine making techniques of the region. They also have a restaurant, Buon Padre, that is outstanding. We were treated to a private lunch by Claudio’s mother. Soft eggs with truffles, tajarin with truffles, anglotti del plin, beef braised in Barolo and about 4 other courses. Needless to say there were some good wines to wash down all of this traditional Piemontese cuisine. It still stands out as a top-ten dining experience. I highly recommend a meal if you are in the Barolo area.

I tasted this yesterday. It is absolutely delicious. It’s exactly what a classic Dolcetto D’Alba should be. All of the grapes are sourced within the commune of Barolo from several different vineyards. Fermentation and ageing is in stainless steel with additional time in bottle before release. The wine is deeply colored, opaque. The nose is bursting with red berry fruits, black cherry, licorice, violet and rose petal. It’s medium bodied with firm tannins and that signature pleasant bitter finish. This could be kept for a year or two but you won’t want to do that. Buy this by the case if you can find it. About $19.

Burgundy simplified.

 

Grand Cru Chablis from the Moutonne climat of the Grand Cru

Burgundy is one of the most famous wine regions in the world and one that confuses a lot of folks. There are many reasons for this: the number of appellations (100 but over 600 if you count all of the Premier Cru Vineyards separately); vineyard names on labels; village names on labels that look very similar to vineyard names; and the classification of the vineyards and the appellations. But it doesn’t have to be so confusing. After all, there are really only 2 grapes used for wine. If you are drinking white, then it’s Chardonnay (most of the time). If you are drinking red, then it’s Pinot Noir (most of the time). That’s the easy part. Once you understand a few simple facts about the region it all makes sense. Burgundy is not confusing, just complex.

The biggest reason for the confusion is the number of different appellations the region has. An appellation is a place-name and is how European wines are named. It tells you where the wine is from. Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy) and Vouvray are all places in France that make wine. They are also appellations.

Old Vine (Vieilles Vigne) Chardonnay regional wine.

Appellation laws must be followed by the winemaker in order for him or her to use the appellation name. These rules include the grape(s) one can use, where they can grow them, how much they can grow, how much wine can be made, how long the wine needs to be aged and in what vessel and many other things. This is all done to preserve typicity and promote terroir.

An example of an appellation in Burgundy would be a wine labeled Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin. This is a red wine made by me, from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits sub-region of Burgundy. I must source all of the grapes from the village boundaries and follow the rules of winemaking and aging in order to put Gevrey-Chambertin on the label. Simple enough, yes? But here is where Burgundy gets complex.

Burgundy has 100 of these appellations and they are based on the vineyards. This was started in monastic times when the monks were in charge of viticulture. They noticed that wine made from the same grape but from different plots, some only yards apart, were different. Some were better than others and some were drastically better than others. They named the plots and often put up stone walls around them (clos). Over time all of the vineyard plots were named. The wines from certain vineyards such as Montrachet, Corton, Musigny, Chambertin and several others were highly sought after and commanded higher prices than other vineyards. This led to a ranking of the vineyards from best to not so best.

The best vineyards are called Grand Cru. There are only 33 of these scattered throughout Burgundy. The name of the vineyard stands alone on the label. Chambertin, Musigny and Montrachet are examples of Grand Cru vineyards/wines. The word Grand Cru may or may not appear on the label. The next best are the Premier Cru. There are over 600 of these vineyards in Burgundy. The name of the vineyard will appear on the label after the name of the village that it belongs to. You will also see 1er Cru or Premier Cru on the label. Below the Premier Cru are the village wines. There are 44 villages that will appear on labels. Examples are Nuits-St-George, Saint-Romain, Beaune and Volnay. And then there are the regional vineyards and wines. There are 23 regional and sub-regional wines. These come from the least favorable vineyards. Although least in this case is still either good or really good in most cases. Examples are Bourgogne, Macon and Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Beaune.

Notice that as you go down the quality ladder the area the wines are from gets larger. Regional and sub-regional wines are made from grapes sourced from large areas within Burgundy. A Bourgogne can be made from grapes grown anywhere within the Burgundy region. Grand Cru wines must come from a single vineyard, some of which are very small.

Here are some examples of these different appellations:

Domaine Cleary Bourgogne Pinot Noir – I source the grapes from all over the region. This is a Regional Appellation. At this level the grape name is allowed on the label. $19

Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin – All of my grapes must come from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. This is a Village Appellation. $35

Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Les Crais’ – These grapes must come from the single-vineyard Les Crais. This is not a Premier Cru wine. This is a Village Appellation with a named vineyard on the label. The vineyard is not a Premier Cru vineyard but good enough I want you to know that all the grapes came from it. $45

Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Premier Cru Champonnet’ – The grapes must come from the single-vineyard ‘Champonnet’, a Premier Cru Vineyard. This is a Premier Cru Appellation. $80

Domaine Cleary Chambertin – All of the grapes must come from the single-vineyard Chambertin, a Grand Cru Vineyard. This is a Grand Cru Appellation. $195

Village wine from Volnay.

The above wines are all red and made from Pinot Noir. Did you notice the prices went up as the quality went up? These wines are all very good (of course!). The regional wine is a fruit driven wine with some tannic grip but simple. It’s a wine for lighter dishes or to be enjoyed among friends. As we progress to the village wine and then the single-vineyard, premier cru and on to grand cru the wines will gain more intensity, power, structure and depth. They will show more typicity of where the grapes are from and the terroir will shine through. The only wines for long-term cellaring would be the premier cru and grand cru. That being said, they can all be enjoyed in their youth.

What’s up with Chambertin being in a lot of the wines names? Until the mid-1800’s the town was known as Gevrey-en-Montagne. But a royal decree by King Louis-Philippe let towns in Burgundy add the name of the most prestigious vineyard to their name to help sell the village wines. So, the village of Gevrey-en-Montagne became Gevrey-Chambertin as this was the best vineyard in the town at the time. Some other examples are Puligny-Montrachet and Aloxe-Corton. This is why it’s confusing to some. It would be easy to confuse a village wine, Gevrey-Chambertin, with a Grand Cru wine, Chambertin. Except for the price. Chambertin is one of only 33 Grand Cru vineyards (There are 8 other Grand Cru Vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin, all with Chambertin as part of their name!). It’s small and not a lot of it is made and demand is extremely high so the price is high. Even at the regional level the prices tend to be on the high side as it’s all about supply and demand.

Village wine from the Village of Saint-Romain

So, Burgundy does not have to be all that confusing as long as you know a little about the appellation system. Remember that as you go up the hierarchy of appellations the wines will get more complex, age-worthy and expensive. They should also be better quality and more of an ‘experience’ than just a bottle of wine. There is more to Burgundy than the appellations. There are the negociants, the brokers, winemaking traditions and some other issues but I think this is a good introduction. If you want to learn more you can visit http://www.bourgogne-wines.com/ it’s a great resource that also has an educational aspect to it.

Cheers!

 

 

Whole Bunch Fermentation

Whole-bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration are both associated with the Beaujolais region. And rightly so. The Gamay grape lends itself to the practice and the process is perfect for the production of Beaujolais Nouveau. But this region is certainly not the only region that employs the process. In Spain and France winemakers use the process on particularly tannic and rough varieties like Carignan to soften the characteristics. And there are other regions across the globe that do the same thing. In fact, whole-bunch, or whole-cluster, fermentation seems to be a buzz word right now and people are curious as to what it is and does.

In class the other night we were discussing fermentation and I was asked about whole-bunch fermentation. What is it? Why is it used? What does it do? Although the topic of whole-bunch, or whole cluster, fermentation was a bit out of the realm of this particular class, I briefly described the process. Today I came across these two articles in Decanter  magazine that does a great job of letting us know exactly what the process is and what it does. You can read them here and here.

 

 

 

What is a Super-Tuscan?

A selection of some of my favorite Super-Tuscans, L-R: Masseto, Le Pergola Torte, Ornellaia, Le Pergole Torte, Le Serre Nuove ell Ornellaia, Gabro, Isola e Elena Cepparello

I get asked this question a lot when the subject of Italian wines comes up. Someone always comes up to me and asks, “So, what’s the deal with Super-Tuscans?”. It’s not as easy to answer this question as you may think. First let’s look at how wines are categorized in Italy and then we’ll see where Super-Tuscans fit in.

Italy adopted the appellation system for wines from France in the 1960’s, about 30 years after France initiated theirs and which all other appellation systems are based on. In France it is called the Appellation d’Origine Controlee or AOC. It is used not only for wines but for cheese, butter and other agricultural products all based on the idea of terroir or place. The origins of the modern French AOC system date back to the early 1400’s when Roquefort cheese was regulated by parliament to protect the name. In essence an AOC is a controlled place-name. In Italy the equivalent is called Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

In order for wines to qualify for the DOC(G) designation the producer must grow, or source, the grapes from the designated geographic region, make the wines in the region and follow strict rules regarding grape variety or varieties, yields, production methods, aging requirements which may include the size and type of vessel, and other things. In addition the wines must pass a blind tasting and chemical analysis before being awarded a seal of approval for the neck of the bottle. Some of these DOC(G)’s are very rigorous and demanding for the producer. This is all done to protect the name and reputation of the DOC(G) and give a wine that shows typicity of the place where it is produced (terroir).

An example wine would be Chianti and Chianti Classico, both DOCG’s. In order for the wine to be called Chianti it must come from the geographic area designated as Chianti, in the heart of Tuscany. This area has been expanded over the years to accommodate increased production and is now very large. Chianti Classico on the other hand is a smaller, better DOCG which is in the historic heart of the Chianti region. It lies in the hills between Florence and Siena. Both wines must contain Sangiovese. Chianti must contain a minimum of 70% Sangiovese and the balance can be made up of traditional and international red grapes and a 10% maximum of white grapes. The wine can be 100% Sangiovese. Chianti Classico must be made from a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The producer can then round out the wine with traditional and international red grapes. White grapes are no longer allowed in Chianti Classico and the wine can be 100% Sangiovese. Producers must then follow all of the other rules pertaining to yields, alcohol levels, aging, etc. These are just 2 of the over 300 DOC(G) wines in Italy today.

So, what if you are a producer in Tuscany who doesn’t want to follow all the rules and regulations of the DOC(G)? Maybe you are a producer in the Chianti zone but want to make a wine using only international grapes like Cabernet and Merlot. That’s perfectly legal but you cannot call your wine Chianti. It does not adhere to the rules of the DOCG. Or, maybe back in the 1960’s and 70’s, you are on the coast of Tuscany, in no-man’s land, and want to produce a Bordeaux blend. That was, and still is, legal but what did you call your wine? There were no DOC or DOCG wines that these would fall under so your wine was just a table wine or Vino da Tavola. This is where the Super-Tuscan’s come in.

Super-Tuscans came about in the 1960’s and 70’s. They were high-priced, high-quality red wines that did not fit into any of the new official categories or DOC(G)’s. The wines were something not seen before in Italy. They were made with international grapes or non-traditional blends and aged in small, new French oak barrels. The bottles had fancy labels with fantasy or proprietary names. Since these wines did not fit into the DOC(G) system they had to be labeled as lowly table wines or Vino da Tavola. This was considered scandalous due to the high prices these wines were fetching. How could a lowly table wine cost more than a classic DOC(G) wine?!

Sassicaia

The first of the Super-Tuscans was Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia produced in the town of Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. Tenuta San Guido was established by marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. The wine  was first produced in 1948 from Cabernet Sauvignon and intended for the family’s consumption only. In 1968 the machese’s son Nicolò and nephew Piero Antinori convinced him to release it commercially. The first vintage was in 1971. Demand soon skyrocketed and the marchese hired the famous consulting enologist Giacomo Tachis to further refine the wine while production increased. Today the wine is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc. It is extremely expensive and in very high demand.

The idea behind Sassicaia was to produce a wine that would rival that of Bordeaux from an area that was relatively unknown but had great potential with Bordeaux grapes. Others followed. Since this was a part of Tuscany not covered by any of the newly formed appellations or DOC(G)’s, the wines were labeled as simple Vino da Tavola. But Sassicaia and the other coastal wines were just the beginning. In the early 1970’s a revolution was about to begin in the Chianti Classico region that would turn the appellation on its’ head and change it forever.

At this point in time Chianti was synonymous with mass-produced, watered down versions of the original. Many producers were dissatisfied with the tired, old rules and regulations of the appellation. Back then white grapes were mandatory not only in Chianti but Chianti Classico. The inclusion of international grapes was forbidden as was making a wine solely from Sangiovese. Some producers took matters into their own hands and started to make the wines they wanted to make. Antinori introduced Tignanello and Solaia and others were not far behind. These were all wines based on Bordeaux varieties with or without the addition of Sangiovese. But it wasn’t all about Bordeaux varieties.

In 1981 Sergio Manetti of the Montevertine estate, in the middle of the Chianti Classico region, was fed up. He felt that not only the mandatory addition of white grapes (white grapes are no longer allowed in Chianti Classico) but the addition of international grapes to make a more broadly appealing wine was doing a disservice to the noble Sangiovese. He was to become the champion of Sangiovese. So much so that in 1981 he produced his last vintage of Chianti Classico vowing to never again include any other grapes with his beloved Sangiovese. He produced the first 100% Sangiovese Super-Tuscan under the name Le Pergole Torte from the Montevertine estate 6 miles south of Radda in Chianti. This wine, like the other Super-Tuscans of the day fell out of the DOCG regulations and was labeled a Vino da Tavola. But Sergio didn’t care. Even after Chianti Classico changed the rules to allow a 100% Sangiovese based wine he refused to join the appellation.

The success of the original Super-Tuscans eventually led to major changes in the Chianti and Chianti Classico DOCG’s. No longer were white grapes permitted in Chianti Classico, international grapes were now allowed in limited quantities and a 100% Sangiovese wine was now permitted. It also led to a new category of wine being approved in 1992, Indicazione Geographica Tipica or IGT. This is a category that is less strict than DOC(G). It is the equivalent of France’s Vin de Pays. It provides the winemaker more choice in terms of grapes and production methods. Sassicaia would eventually be awarded its’ own DOC (Sasscicaia Bolgheri) in 1994 and other DOC’s for Super-Tuscans would follow.

Today the term Super-Tuscan is a bit overused and misunderstood. To some, a Super-Tuscan is any wine produced in Tuscany that is not DOC(G). But, as we have seen, some Super-Tuscans are now DOC wines! Super-Tuscans also used to be very expensive but today not all are. There are some that are quite reasonable.

I think what those original Super-Tuscans did was to shake up the establishment and force the governing bodies and producers to take a hard look at the what was going on at the time. Quality was suffering and experimentation was stifled by outdated rules and regulations. Not all of these new wines were good and many were criticized for not being typical of Italy. Some producers even abandoned using international grapes and winemaking and returned to more traditional practices. But these ground breaking wines were instrumental in moving Italian wine from quantity to quality based and today Italy is making better wines than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2007 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte

The Montevertine estate is comprised of about 50 acres at an elevation of 425 meters in the town of Radda in Chianti. The vineyards are 90% Sangiovese and they make 3 wines with Le Pergole Torte being the flagship. The oldest vines, from 1968, are used for this wine exclusively. The grapes are hand-harvested and fermentation takes place in cement cuves for at least 25 days. The wine is then racked into large, Slovenian oak for about 12 months before being transferred to small French oak for another 12 months. The wine is never filtered and sees an additional 6 months in bottle. Everything at the winery is done by gravity with no mechanical pumping of the wine.

Wow! This was a stunning wine. It’s starting to show its’ age in the glass with a pale ruby/garnet color and pronounced, watery rim with some brickish highlights. The nose was phenomenal though. Still fresh and vibrant with red cherry, red fruits, game, dried rose petal, savory herbs, underbrush and a touch of cedar. This is soft and appealing on the palate. It has a velvety texture that is fuller than you might expect. The tannins sneak up on you but are ripe and well-balanced with bright acidity that keeps everything fresh. This has another 5-10 years at least.

 

Why you should be trying sweet wines.

I just started teaching a WSET Level 2 Award in Wine & Spirits class the other night. I love the first day of a new class. It’s exciting not only for the students but for me as well. On the first night we taste a variety of wines to get the students used to using the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting. We taste 6 wines each with a different attribute to calibrate the students’ palates. The last wine tasted is always a sweet wine and I always choose a good Sauternes.

Believe or not, even in a WSET Level 2 course, there are many people who have never tasted a sweet wine. Yes, they’ve tried a white zinfandel or a moscato but not a truly sweet wine. When they do, it’s a revelation for them. Almost every single person is absolutely blown away by how good they are. A well-made sweet wine is ethereal and can be a life-changing experience.  So, why don’t we drink more of these?

Before we start discussing the various types of sweets lets look at the wine making process and what part sugar plays.

In order to make wine there needs to be two things present. These are sugar in the grape juice and yeasts that can occur naturally or be added to the juice. The yeasts eat the sugar and produce alcohol along with some other byproducts we won’t concern ourselves with now. After fermentation is complete there is, usually, very little sugar left in the wine. This is what we would call a dry or off-dry wine. The perception of sweetness is non-existent or barely perceptible. Most wines we drink fall into this category. So how do we make the wine sweet?

Adding a sweet component to the finished wine.

This is the easiest, and least desirable, way to make a wine sweet. This process involves adding sugar or a sweet concentrate to the finished wine after fermentation is complete. In most regions this is considered cheating and is illegal. (With the exception of Champagne where it is considered part of the process). The wines usually taste very sweet like candy and are a bit cloying or thick on the palate. These are usually very cheap, mass-produced products.

Addition of Sulfur to kill the yeasts

This is not illegal but not the best method to use. There are some German Rieslings that are made this way. Sulfur is added to wine that is fermenting in order to kill off the yeasts when the desired sweetness level is reached. The wine is then filtered and bottled usually at a low alcohol level like 9%. The winemaker must be very careful to ensure all of the yeasts are filtered out or there is a risk of a refermentation in the bottle causing some bubbles in the wine. During the filtering process some desirable components may also be lost. Some of these wines from good producers can be quite good if handled with care.

Fortification

Fortification is the process of adding a neutral grape spirit (brandy) to wine that has not finished fermentation. The spirit kills the yeasts leaving sugar in the wine. The wines are noticeably sweet and high in alcohol, usually 18% and up. Fortified wines are very popular in Spain, Portugal and Southern France. Some examples of fortified wines are Port, Madeira and Banyuls and Muscats from southern France.

Fortified wines can be very complex. In the case of Port the aging process will determine the style and whether or not the wine is suitable for aging. Vintage Ports can, and should, age for decades. Madeira can age indefinitely. The flavors of fortifieds range from fruity and fresh to oxidised, nutty and chocolate.

One note. Not all fortified wines are sweet. Sherry is a fortified wine that is dry. The brandy is added after the fermentation is complete giving us a dry, fortified wine. In order to make a sweet Sherry, a sweet wine is added to the dry Sherry at the time of bottling. This is called a Cream Sherry.

Grapes affected by Noble Rot. Courtesy WSET.

Concentrating the sugars in the grapes.

This is the best but most difficult way to make a sweet wine. There are several different methods one can use to get extremely sweet grapes. You first must start with healthy, very ripe grapes. All of the methods concentrate the sugars in the grapes giving very sweet juice. There is so much sugar in the juice that the yeasts die before they have the chance to convert them all into alcohol. We are left with a very sweet, complex wine at about 15% alcohol.

Noble Rot or Botrytis Cinerea

Botrytis is a fungus that attacks healthy, ripe grapes. This results in two types of infections. In damp, humid conditions the fungus turns to grey rot and the bunches will have to be discarded. But under the right conditions magic happens. In some places such as Sauternes, Tokaij and parts of Germany and Austria, the conditions are just right for the formation of Noble Rot. Cool, humid mornings are followed by sunny, dry afternoons.  The mold dessicates the grapes drawing out moisture causing them to shrivel. This leaves a very thick, sweet juice. The mold also adds complexity through the interaction with the grape.

The individual grapes are harvested by hand during multiple passes through the vineyard. They are then pressed and made into wine. Eventually all of the lots or vats of wine will be blended to make the final product. This is a very labor intensive process which adds to the final price of the wine.

These are special wines that are very complex. They have flavors of honey, dried apricot, orange marmalade, caraway seed, orange zest, quince, mango, pineapple, almonds and hazlenut. They are also very long-lived due to the high acidity of the grapes used. This high acid also keeps the wines fresh and vibrant and not sticky and syrupy on the palate. Look for Sauternes, Tokaji, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese on labels.

Grapes drying on racks for Amarone, Courtesy WSET

Drying grapes

A second method of concentrating the sugars is to dry the grapes after they have been harvested. This is how many of  the famous sweet wines of Italy are made. The process is called passito.

Healthy, ripe grapes are harvested by hand and then laid out in a single layer on mats to dry. They are left either in the sun or under cover. The conditions must be dry so as the grapes do not rot. In some cases where there is humidity Noble Rot may form adding complexity to the finished wine.

These wines are similar to those produced with Noble Rot. The are very concentrated in flavors and are long-lived. Some names to look for are Recioto della Valpolicella, Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, Sciachetrà from the Cinque Terre east of Genoa and Erbaluce di Caluso Passito.

Harvesting Ice Wine, Courtesy WSET

Ice Wine

Ice wine is made from frozen grapes. The grapes must be healthy and ripe and then must freeze on the vine. Only the water in the juice freezes leaving the sugar and other solids. This allows a more concentrated, sweet must to be pulled from the pressed grapes. The resulting wine is very sweet. These wines are not as complex as the wines above. What Ice Wine gives us is the pure expression of the grape in very concentrated form. Look for Ice Wines from Canada, Vermont, Germany, Austria.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on sweet wines and that it inspires you to go out and grab a bottle to try. Remember that when pairing sweet wines you should eat something sweet, most of the time. There are savory pairings as well. A classic pairing is Sauternes with Foie Gras. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Christophe Buisson 2014 St. Romain Blanc

Christophe Buisson, photo courtesy of Kermit Lynch website

As I sit here in Vermont there is a Nor’easter raging outside. Well, not raging but it’s pretty nasty out there. We got a lot of ice and then snow on top of that and then more ice. As I’m holed up in the house I thought a glass or two of wine was in order. I should be reaching for a big, bold red but instead I found myself in the mood for a white. Chardonnay is what I felt like. White Burgundy to be more specific. I looked in the cellar and found a wine from a very good producer from a lessor-known, to most, appellation. The 2014 Christophe Buisson St. Romain Blanc.

There are a lot of big names in Burgundy. These are the producers that command high-prices for their, often, extraordinary wines. Unfortunately, most of us can’t afford them. But then there are a lot of producers who fly under the radar. Sort of under the radar. It’s hard not to get noticed if you are making great wine in Burgundy, no matter the appellation. And that brings us to Christophe. If you are a fan of Burgundy he should be on your radar.

Christophe is meticulous in both the vineyard and winery. His dedication and passion are evident in his wines. He can coax ripeness from his vineyards virtually every year and does not use chapitalization (the addition of sugar before fermentation to boost the alcohol level of the finished wine). He ferments in cement, ages in medium-aged barrels, racks minimally and does not fine or filter his reds. His wines, both red and white, show a consistent depth of fruit and concentration. There is always a streak of minerality, particularly in the whites. His wines have a great texture and show consistent balance and intensity. They are incredible values.

St. Romain is an under-appreciated appellation tucked behind Auxey-Duresse and the famous village of Meursault. The vineyards here are higher, at 300-400 meters, than the average for the Cote de Beaune. There is also more diversity in terms of aspect compared to the rest of the Cote as vineyards are planted to south-southeast and north-northeast aspects. In cooler years it is more difficult to get proper ripeness which makes Christophe’s wines even more appreciated.

St. Romain is one of the first places where Celts cultivated the vine in Burgundy. The amphitheater like stony slopes with limestone outcroppings overlook a wide stretch of the Cote de Beaune. There are no Grand or Premier Cru in St. Romain but there are 16 climat or superior vineyard plots that may appear on labels. Christophe owns land in some of the best of these.

2014 was a very good but challenging vintage in Burgundy. In late June a hailstorm tore through the Cote de Beaune. Particularly hard hit were the towns of Volnay, Beaune and Meursault where huge amounts of damage were reported. St. Romain was spared.

The St. Romain Blanc is Christophes entry-level bottling made from 18 year-old vines from a tiny plot in the village. The wine is fermented in cement. 70% is aged in used French oak barrels and the remaining 30% in stainless steel. The nose has lemon and ripe apple, just a touch of oak with some yeasty notes. The palate is rich and generous with ripe fruits, lemon curd, and that fresh lees that’s on the nose. A streak of minerality that manifests itself as an exciting energy in the mouth brings it all together. The finish is clean and long. This is a very good value village Burgundy at $39.