2016 has without a doubt been the year for sparkling wines in the wine industry. A trend that we have seen growing and growing, with the UK seeing a huge 80% rise in sparkling wine sales over the past five years – according to HMRC figures.
Italian sparkling wine has become the dominant force in this arena; recent Mintel figures reveal that 28% of all consumers have purchased Prosecco in the past six months, compared to just 18% that had bought Champagne and 18% that had bought Cava.
We predict this demand for Italian sparkling wine continuing well into 2017 with Prosecco being joined as the market leader by its co-patriots; Lambrusco and Pignoletto (pronounced peen-yo-let-o).
Originating from North-East Italy, Lambrusco, a red sparkling wine, is the name for both the grape and the designated growing areas in which it is produced. The wine’s bright acidity, subtle fizz and dark tannic fruit lends itself perfectly to foods synonymous to Italy, such as fatty charcuterie and hearty pasta sauces.
Pignoletto, is an ancient grape variety originally grown in the hills outside Bologna in Emilia-Romagna, North-East Italy, not far from where Prosecco is produced. Like Prosecco, Pignoletto is made using the charmat method (second fermentation in steel tanks) which produces a crisp, refreshing and fruity wine – a great alternative to Prosecco!
Natural, organic, biodynamic and sustainability:
Natural, organic, biodynamic and sustainability are the current buzz words in the wine industry and are set to become front of mind for the customer in 2017. These styles have become commonplace on wine lists and the shelves of independent retailers in recent months, with consumers keen to explore wines which have greener credentials and have been produced with minimal intervention or impact on the environment.
In 2017 the popularity of wines from emerging regions will continue as customers are keen to try more exotic and interesting varietals. Two Eastern Mediterranean nations in particular are set to take off – Turkey and Greece. Not only has the quality of Turkish wines improved dramatically over the last 5 years, but Turkish influenced restaurants have also become increasingly popular thanks to the rise in eastern Mediterranean cuisine and the Mangal theme (think new openings such as Neil Rankin’s Temper and Yosma).
Also set to grow is the demand of Greek wine. The whites in particular stand out from the crowd with their striking elegance and finesse, and aromatic qualities that offer the consumer an excellent and cheaper alternative to old world favourites, as well as providing the opportunity to taste something different and exciting.
The trend of quality over quantity is one we will see develop further in 2017 as consumers are becoming more likely to opt for a more premium wine that is memorable. This is partly due to an increase in wine knowledge with today’s consumer becoming more discerning, and party due to overall a decline in overall alcohol consumption.
Whatever 2017 holds, we are sure to see both the on and off trade branch out and experiment with new and interesting wines to feed their customers imaginations.
Five-fifteen in the morning; a freezing black December day; Gatwick Airport. And, honestly, it’s like Piccadilly Circus. Where are all these people going?
For us, groggy and caffeine-craving, this is the incongruous launching pad for our visit to some of the finest estates in Tuscany: to the rarefied air of Pomino; to the grandeur of Castello Nipozzano; to Montespertoli’s Tenuta Castiglione, where it all began; and finally, to the fortress of Castelgiocondi in the deep south. The common theme, of course, is that they are all owned by the Frescobaldi family. Which guarantees that they benefit from unparalleled investment, care, and the collected wisdom of 700 years of experience. For some, that would be enough. But the Frescobaldi’s do not want to rely on the past, glorious though it is. The diversity of their estates (the greatest under one ownership), each representing a pinnacle of terroir fulfilment, and the restless search for excellence; these are the axioms of their yearning.
A couple of hours later, Giuseppe Pariani, Frescobaldi’s affable Export Director, is gunning the car through Pontassieve. Robin Knapp, our Director of Regional Sales and I are hanging on. The road is winding and vertiginous. “Lamberto Frescobaldi always jokes that you need a passport to visit Pomino,” says Giuseppe.
And it is a long way up. “We are now at around seven hundred metres, so it’s quite cold,” says Giuseppe. Cold but beautiful, we reflect, as a blanket of fog caresses the lower inclines of the Arno Valley, while a milky winter sun adds a gorgeous gloss to the sequoias, firs and chestnut trees of the higher slopes.
Francesca Pratesi, the winemaker (under Lamberto’s guidance), shows us around this beguiling estate. In his famous declaration of 1716, Cosimo de’ Medici identified Pomino as one of the four most highly prized territories of Tuscany for the production of wines, along with Chianti, Carmignano and Val d’Arno. Frescobaldi virtually own the denomination, with 98% of the production.
We spend most of our time in the drying room for Vin Santo – “the Rolls Royce of Pomino” – Leonardo Frescobaldi will later tell us. Francesca explains what she considers is the difference between a small barrique and a large cask: “The barrique is like an organ, a cask is like a drum.”
The Pomino Bianco (2015) is always one of my favourite wines, easy to appreciate, the Pinot Bianco evident, although it is the junior partner to Chardonnay. The real standout of the tasting, however, is the Benefizio 2015. I’ve often thought that the oak influence is a little top-heavy with this wine, but today it is beautifully balanced, the oak still evident (it will be better in one year) but with the layered and textured fruit developing nicely. A very good competitor to Meursault.
Burton Anderson wrote: “The wines of Chianti Rufina, the smallest zone in the hills above the Sieve river, produce some of the most grandiose Chianti. Rufina’s vineyards lie at a relatively high altitude which can be sensed in the rarefied bouquet and lingering elegance of well-aged wines, notably Selvapiana and Montesodi.”
Well, it is only a short ride down to Rufina and the castle of Nipozzano and on the way we stop to look at the Montesodi vineyards. Nipozzano commands a stunning position on the mountain slope overlooking the Arno valley. Built in the year 1000, this is the most celebrated and historic property of the Frescobaldi’s. During the Renaissance, Donatello and Michelozzo Michelozzi regularly purchased wine from the estate. It is said that an ancestor of the Frescobaldi family invested 1,000 florins in 1855 to begin the cultivation of varieties previously unknown in Tuscany such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Those magnificent vines now make Mormoreto, the wine which in many ways defines the estate.
Eleonora Marconi, the ebullient winemaker, proudly shows us round, in between overseeing exacting preparations for the Frescobaldi Christmas party (no pressure, then!) “Chianti from here in the Rufina area is characterised by complexity and elegance. The vineyard soils of the area are mostly marl and chalk and we are very high up.”
We taste the flagship wine, the Nipozzano Riserva (2014). Textbook Chianti: bitter cherry and plum, then pepper and dark chocolate. A hint of acidity gives away the elevation. Then we move on to a newish innovation, the Nipozzano Riserva Vecchie Viti. This is an important introduction for the Frescobaldi’s; it is an attempt to showcase a Chianti made the way it would have been made 50 years ago. It is sourced from 50 year old vines and made using methods which were common 50 years ago, such as being matured in large oak casks, rather than barrique.
Marquis Leonardo de’ Frescobaldi, dressed impeccably in what looks like Scottish tweed, joins us for lunch and explains their aims. “We want to remove the vanilla influence from the barriques by going back to our ancestors, going back to highlight more the wine’s personality. We want the delicacy and freshness to be more pronounced.”
He then goes on to describe another innovation: the 2013 vintage of Mormoreto will be the first to include Sangiovese, joining the other more international varieties. He proudly pours it for us. It is complex and dense, but lively, too. Coffee beans, blackberry and raspberry are evident. In the mouth it is persistent and well balanced and very long, with a touch of tobacco and cedar on the finish.
Making changes to a venerable wine is unusual, but as Leonardo explains: “There is a difference between tradition and habit. Tradition means you build on the experience you have inherited and try to develop that within your time. Habit means you simply do what has always been done. We are for tradition; we are not for habit.”
The philosophy is borne out with Leonardo himself. Now in his seventies, he has adopted three titles, two official and one unofficial. As Honorary President, his chief duty is to provide advice and be a figurehead. He is also now family ambassador for the top Crus – Montesodi, Mormoreto, Pomino Benefizio, and Castiglione’s Giramonte. (I mishear his announcement and think for a minute he has been appointed Ambassador for Cool!)
Unofficially, however, he has given himself the title of Defender of Sangiovese. “At my age I have decided to defend my home grape. This is funny, because for many years within the family I was known as the great advocate for foreign varietals such a Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet franc. So now I am returning to my roots.
“While I am a great supporter of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, in the Kingdom of Nipozzano, Sangiovese is King. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the Kings in Castiglioni. Cabernet Franc will be the King in Bolgheri.”
I cannot help but be amused at this lovely man. A septuagenarian returning to his roots. Well, the search for excellence was never achieved by the pursuit of mediocrity.
But now we are running late for our appointment at Castiglione, so after lunch Giuseppe throws us round the Florence ring road. Robin and I hang on.
The property of the family since the 11th century, Castiglioni is the point of origin of wine production for the Frescobaldi’s. Documentation indicates that wines were being produced here as early as 1300. The estate extends along the ancient Via di Castiglioni, built by the Romans to unify northern Tuscany and Rome. The clayey soil means that Merlot predominates, but an important fact is that there are 80 different clones of Sangiovese being cultivated here. No doubt Leonardo is pleased.
The Tenuta Frescobaldi di Castiglioni 2014 – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese – is soft, oak-ish and rich, with a coffee beans, cocoa and blackberry nose. Tannins are firm but not harsh. Satisfying.
Then we come to the masterpiece. First introduced in 1999, Giramonte is a wine of great richness and intensity The 2012 is serious, dark and broody and shows notes of blueberries and plums. In the mouth it is dense, textured and powerful. This will be an epic wine.
We struggle back through the Florentine rush hour traffic, before eating at the Frescobaldi restaurant just opposite the Uffizi. Florence feels eerily quiet, considering it is two weeks before Christmas, and there is a haunting, soft mist hanging over the Arno. I cannot get it out of my head that Hannibal Lecter once lived in a palazzo here in Florence!
The next day Robin and I drive down to Montalcino. Except that, acting as navigator, I get lost and then Robin has to fling the car around some seriously steep slopes of the Val d’Orcia. I hang on.
The village of Castelgiocondo, southwest of Montalcino, overlooks the historic estate, which was one of the first four to begin producing Brunello di Montalcino in 1800. In actual fact, we will taste two different wines here. The first will be those of Castelgiocondo, but then we will also taste the wines of Luce della Vite.
To recap: Luce was launched in the early 1990s between Vittorio Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi. Their common goal was to offer the world a truly exceptional wine, grown in Montalcino. Their sons, Lamberto and Tim, made the first vintages, blends of Sangiovese and Merlot, and the wine that was given the name Luce, as tribute to an element essential for the flourishing of every new being. The first two vintages, 1993 and 1994, were released together, in 1997, and with the 2004 vintage, the direction of Luce was entrusted solely to Lamberto Frescobaldi.
Teresa Giannelli, based at Castelgiocondo, shows us round. She explains that the new Luce winery will be completed in 2017. Meanwhile, of the 1,000 hectares that the family owns, 77 hectares are devoted to Luce and 242 hectares to Castelgiocondo. Lying at elevations ranging from 350 to 420 metres, the vineyards are some of the highest in Montalcino. The higher sections of the estate display galestro-rich, well-drained soils with little organic matter, ideal conditions for growing Sangiovese, while in the lower areas the soil exhibits more clay and sand, in which Merlot flourishes. The long, dry, sun-filled summers characteristic of this area, plus the vineyards’ south-facing exposure, guarantee the grapes a gradual and consistent ripening, which in turn yields wines of superb concentration and vigour.
Vineyard management practices follow the canons of sustainable agriculture, which favours organic practices that ensure the vine’s health and balance. “We do not wish to assault the customer with Organic credentials just for the sake of it. They simply need to know that we are involved in the honest toiling of the soil,” she explains.
We taste an epic selection of wines during a lunch of broccoli flan, spinach lasagne and wild boar.
Although we do not taste the Ripe al Convento Brunello, sourced from a single vineyard lying at 350-450 metres’ elevation, Teresa explains that from the 2015 vintage this will be biodynamic.
We then turn to the Luce wines, with Teresa telling us that demand for the old vintages is really booming.
The Lucente 2015 has a luscious, silky feel, with masses of sweet fruit and a hint of desiccated coconut. Hugely attractive.
Then onto the last wine before we dash for the plane, the Luce 2013. Immediate thoughts: God, this is a serious wine! Structured, complex, lots of different nuances – raspberries, dark cherries, floral notes. On the palate it has magnificent balance and great acidity. It is serious but not overpowering. A beautiful wine, in keeping with its heritage.
Unfortunately, after this seduction of the senses, it is a mad dash over to Grosseto and then along the E80 up to Pisa. We just make the plane, thanks to my incompetence.
Sitting on the runway, I think about the visit and about the Frescobaldi’s, especially Leonardo, my new Kind of Cool. Yes, it is important that we emphasise their continuing commitment to producing wines which best express the terroir from their extraordinarily-sited vineyards. But there is no denying that another factor comes into play here, which is this: when you buy one of these great wines, you gain access to an exclusive club, one which has stood the test of time for seven centuries; you become a keeper of the flame, an involuntary ambassador, an endorser of a cultural import and social obligation that remains as strong now since it did in the time of the Renaissance.
The landscape changes as you drive south along the A61 from Toulouse, the plains of the Acquitaine giving way to the craggy and jagged Occitainie. The first distant view of Mont Tauch to your right is a thrilling one.
Due east of La Livinière, you leave the road and drive onto a winding dirt track. Enclosed within a small stone wall is a patchwork quilt of vineyards. You park the car and start to walk up a steep hill. Some of the vines are 60 years old, gnarled and majestic.
It is a small estate – nine hectares – and it doesn’t take long to reach the top of the hill. You stop here, turn around and survey the steep slope behind you. Below are the vineyards of Minervois, then on the other side of the valley, Corbières. Further away are the Pyrenees and, to the left, the Mediterranean. Mourvèdre has to see the sea, as the saying goes. You walk further and crest the hill and here the view is of the Black Mountains and, beyond, the Cévennes, stretching towards the Massif Central. A farm labourer and his donkey – she is called Victoria – are working the vineyard. You feel an almost imperceptible change in the temperature. Nestled in the vines, is the small, stylish but unobtrusive winery.
Nineteen years ago Gérard Bertrand stood on this very spot, facing south towards the sea, just like the Mourvèdre. Was he thinking of his father, who helped found the appellation of Boutenac over the highway in Corbières? This, he decided, was his destiny. This is where he opted to make his masterpiece. And to do so using biodynamic methods.
This is Clos d’Ora.
It is exposed to two different climates, the maritime and the mountain which produces a wide diurnal difference, and straddles a geographical fault, a meeting of two plates. The ground is clay and marl on the maritime side, favouring Carignan and Mourvèdre – wild concentrators of fruit – and sandstone and limestone on the other side of the hill, where Syrah and Grenache flourish.
Olivier, one of Bertrand’s winemakers, shows us around the small winery. There are nine tanks (one for each hectare) all spotlessly clean, all gravity fed. They use only indigenous yeasts.
“The problem is that people “get” organic winemaking,” we say, “but they struggle with biodynamic winemaking. How do you explain it?” And we – the importers – launch into a discussion amongst ourselves about the definitions of biodynamism, with the shifting of the moon’s moods, the tides, the burying of the bull’s horn and the astronomic calendar with its root days and fruit days. But what does it do to the wine? And we begin to tie each other in knots. Olivier is so patient with us. He gives a small cough. “Well, what it comes down to, is that it adds freshness and acidity.”
Which stops us in our tracks. Freshness and acidity.
“In our estate at Cigalus, when we converted to biodynamic winemaking, we did it slowly, with five hectares, then ten hectares and so on. And each year we could tell the difference between those batches and the rest. So then we converted everything.”
But, we say, we need a new name for “biodynamic”. “Natural” has already been taken by one set of winemakers. “Pure” is good, that might do it. But again, Olivier trumps us. “You should just say… because it tastes better.”
Because it tastes better.
Two weeks ago during another buying trip to the Languedoc, one of the winemakers in Argeliers lamented: “This region needs new leaders. It is going nowhere. We need an ambassador for the paysan.”
But the answer is there. They already have their ambassador. Gérard Bertrand, whose challenge is to find new terroir, revealing it through the development of biodynamic winemaking (his words), is already changing the way the Languedoc is perceived. He would be a demanding man to work for, you’d think, as you stand on the same spot he did. But as one of his workers told us: “Where would I move from here? Any move would be a downwards one.” Such are the demands of excellence. But, thinking of a different sport to Bertrand’s, are Conte, Mourinho, Klopp any different? Do players choose to work with them, or choose to leave? And what about us as importers? What do we choose to do?
We have chosen excellence.
There will be some who crib Clos d’Ora, some who knock it, others who say it’s too young to release (the 2012 and 2013 are already on sale), others who compare its price to those of the Grand Crus (which is exactly the point!) But there are certainly others who wish to be at the birth of something new, something special, something that will be talked about in a hundred years. There are those who look to the past and those who look to the future
The award, presented on 24 November in Adelaide, is the second time Lake Breeze has come out triumphant after winning in 2010, with its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Arthur’s Reserve is a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Petit Verdot (9 per cent) and Malbec (5 per cent) picked from 40-50 year old vines from the Follett family’s own vineyards on the Langhorne Creek flood plain.
Small open fermenters were used with maceration times varying from 8 to 12 days, before the wine is aged in French Oak for 21 months.
The resultant wine shows classic blackcurrant aromas with violets, mint and savoury characters. The palate has great depth and silkiness and shows wonderful intensity and length of flavour.
Speaking to The Lead, South Australia, Lake Breeze Winemaker, Greg Follett said: “The good news is that the 2013 has already won a trophy in Sydney for the best blend of the show so it’s proving to be a consistent wine from year to year”
“It’s one of our better performed wines and certainly the 2012 vintage was hugely successful for us for Cabernet in particular.
“The result is fantastic for us. There’s not too many wine awards these days where the phone starts ringing and you get an automatic boost in sales but having said that, we’ve already fielded a few inquiries and we don’t have a huge amount of stock.”
Follett said the award was also recognition of the Langhorne Creek region 65km southeast of Adelaide, which was sometimes overlooked in favour of its higher-profile neighbours, McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley.
“Within the industry it’s fairly well-known and regarded but to the general public we fly under the radar a bit because we’re spoilt for wine regions here in South Australia,” he said.
“We’ve certainly been punching above our weight in the wine shows for years, so the quality has always been here.”
Each year Winestate evaluates around 10,000 wines in 12 categories from all regions in Australia and New Zealand using an audited and independent judging process.
Winestate Publisher, Peter Simic, commented: “To be the overall winner the wine has to be head and shoulders above its peers in that category compared with the winning wines in other categories. In this case the Lake Breeze Lake Breeze Arthur’s Reserve 2012 stood above all others.”