Category Archives: Travel

On a Mission

Picture postcard stuff, this: it is a gloriously sunny northern California day, and we are sitting on the veranda of a century-old Hacienda, looking out over the very first parcel of land to produce wine in California, and admiring a Hollywood-type vista of vines and palm trees – and a restored turkey warehouse.

Hard to beat, this wine tasting lark. Heaven on earth. A rose Pinot Noir 2021 is reasonably deep in colour, and has a rich and expressive nose. Others describe it as guava and lime, but I get shedloads of raspberries. It has more body than most roses and has a beautiful firm textured mouthfeel.

But first, some history: in 1858, Emil Dresel, a German son of a wine producer in Weisenheim, emigrated to California in search of his fortune. On 12th March 1849 he purchased 400 acres of land two miles east of Sonoma Square, the spot where, just 10 years before, the Bear Flag Revolt had established California as a state in the American Union.

Emil planted cuttings of Riesling and Sylvaner, brought from his homeland, and possibly the first of those varieties imported to the United States. Emil and his brother Julius went on to become wine industry leaders, fervent Abolitionists, gamblers, land stewards – and intermittent outlaws.

Fast forward to 2007, when fourth-generation California farmers and brothers Andrew and Adam Mariani (of Croatian descent) took over the property, and christened it Scribe. Both had an interest in wine, having spent post-college stints at vineyards in Europe and South Africa. The property was a mess; a dilapidated turkey farm which had served as a brothel and a speakeasy! Over time, the brothers restored its soil, and in the process even unearthed a handful of treasures from its past—Prohibition-era glass and other old china, antique work stools and even opium vials.

“We planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. We also retained a tiny amount of the Sylvaner  – the only two hectares in the whole of the US – and a precious two acres of Mission,” says Adam.

Adam and Andrew sit before us, a sea of denim and a shared enthusiasm for sustainable winemaking that borders on the evangelical. Impossible to dislike these guys.

As we speak, Matt Ahern, the personable head honcho of the Scribe sales team, pours us the 2021 Rose Pet Nat. This is unusual in that it is a Pet Nat that actually tastes nice! It has a gorgeous nose of pink grapefruit and elderflower and – oddly – nettles. Huge mouthfeel, lots of body and – clean! Very moreish. Expect the Unexpected.

Next up, served with a smorgasbord of hors d’oeuvres, is a 2020 estate Chardonnay, harvested from a vineyard on the slope of Arrowhead Mountain in the southern Mayacamas, which has a steely, Chablis-like feel to it. Adam explains that the weight on the palate comes not from wood but from the intensity of fruit. Again, it has lovely texture.

But there is more to this place than wine. You feel as though you could kick off your boots, put your feet up and stay a long long time. Somewhere I read that Scribe is all about appealing to young, social wine lovers who feel that in a digital world, real luxury is good farming, good food and drink, and good people. The only bit I don’t qualify for is “young.”

Andrew explains that they farm as sustainably as possible, but are “pulling away from “Natural”,” feeling it too restraining. “We don’t call this wine “Orange” he says, as we taste a 2021 Chardonnay. “We call it “Skin Contact”.” It is beautifully aromatic, crunchy fruit and bags of salinity. “We look for nuance,” he says.

An estate 2020 Pinot Noir (about to be replaced by the 2021) has lovely soft red fruit, and then gamey nuances, and on the palate has that ravishing acidity that is the hallmark of good Pinot. Extremely soft tannins.

The wines are great, but we are desperate to taste the fabled Mission (Chile’s Pais, of course.) And, boy, it doesn’t disappoint. The nose is of bark and red clay, and on the palate is lovely soft raspberry jam fruit and those strawberry toffees you used to eat as a kid. Adam describes it as being somewhere between a Pinot and a Syrah. One of the highlights of the entire trip.

We finish with a Cabernet Sauvignon, which I hadn’t realised they made. “We’ve always had a foot in the Napa,” says Adam. They make two, from Atlas Peak East and Atlas Peak West; this is the east version. It is so ripe and juice that Steve describes it as “Bordeaux, but with nicer tannins and without the brett.”

I look out at the scene again. Everything seems so understated, so stylish – even the labels. And it would be easy for Andrew and Adam to look just a little self-assured. But in actual fact they are as courteous and humble a twosome as you could ever wish to meet. Matt is made of the same ilk.

And the hacienda does feel like a home. It was redesigned by artisan friends. Extended members of the family work here in what has been described as a perfectly-curated family business; Kelly Mariani, a veteran of Chez Panisse, looks after the kitchen; there are cushions and soft furnishings everywhere and it wouldn’t surprise you to see Joni Mitchell and James Taylor sitting cross-legged and strumming their guitars  – feather canyons everywhere – (which is appropriate because Andrew’s wife is the singer-songwriter Lia Ices); they have a writers’ residency (one of whom was essayist Sloane Crossly); and you expect at any moment they will all hunker down in front of some burning logs with a wood-fired pizza and the music clunked high.

Stylish wines. Stylish place. Stylish people.

A Sense of Place

Sometimes wine has the capacity to delight. Sometimes it has the capacity to surprise.

And sometimes it has the capacity to amaze.

We’re at the Senses Wines vineyard in Sonoma County with owner Christopher Lloyd Strieter. We are surrounded by a Gods-Own country of redwood trees, organically grown vegetables and artisanal breads. But I don’t really register any of that. All I am thinking is: How can something be this good? How can they have come so far so quickly?

The story of “they” is brief. Senses Wines was founded in 2011 by three childhood friends from Occidental: Christopher Lloyd Strieter, Max Thieriot, and Myles Lawrence-Briggs. All were just 22 years old. All either had family ties with the wine industry or at least some related work experience. (Christopher, for instance, had majored in Finance, Economics and Physics, before slogging away in inventory at VinFillment warehouse and working with Williams Selyem and Jess Jackson of Jackson Family Wines.)

Now here’s the first BIG FACT. They had one major advantage: Max’s family had planted and owned a stunning vineyard – the BA Thieriot vineyard, five miles from the Pacific Ocean, and next to the town of Bodega of Hitchcock’s The Birds fame – which at that time sold grapes, but not wine. “Wouldn’t it be cool to turn those grapes into wine, we thought,” says Christopher.

Here comes the second BIG FACT. The three decided not to seek investors, but to pool all of their limited savings into the scheme. To this day they have no investors (and no safety net.) They made 112 cases in 2011 and reinvested everything over the years. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We just concentrated on paying the bills.”

Third BIG FACT coming up: Max Thieriot became a well-known actor, starring in Bates Motel and SEAL Team. So they are guaranteed publicity.

As well as the BA Thieriot vineyard, they began to source Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit from high quality vines throughout the Sonoma Coast and Russian River areas. Quality was always the key. Now they deal with about twelve different vineyards.

But a turning point came with the fourth BIG FACT: ace winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown approached them to make their wines. “He offered to make wine for us if we sold him some of our premium fruit for his other wines.” Brown was once named ‘winemaker of the year’ by Food & Wine Magazine, and has received perfect scores from The Wine Advocate and many others.

Fifth BIG FACT: they decided to sell their wines directly rather than through wholesalers or Cellar Door (they don’t have a cellar door.) “We sell primarily through the mailing list to thousands of people within the U.S.” Today, their business is booming, while the waiting list for their vintages grows.

Senses Wines (on the label the second letter ‘e’ has been substituted with the number ‘3’ representing the three founders and the three wine senses of sight, scent and sip) first became a boutique, and then a cult.

All of this is interesting, of course, but what turns interesting into fascinating is to learn of it while tasting the wines. Because they taste extraordinary.

 Christopher pours a 2020 Russian River Chardonnay. I immediately think: Puligny-Montrachet. It’s a lovely floating-on-air wine, a hint of ice cream sundae with a smidgeon of lime. Firm acidity. Brilliant lightness of touch.

A 2020 Charles Heitz Chardonnay is pure Burgundian, with a honeysuckle and cream nose, balanced by perfect acidity.

But Christopher is keen to state “We shouldn’t ape Burgundy. We are Occidental, Sonoma County, West Sonoma Coast. We don’t want opulent and rich. We want elegance”

A 2020 UV El Diablo Chardonnay has more body to it, a whisper of toast, more creaminess, more Meursault-like (I merrily ignore Christopher’s non-Burgundian plea.)

Finally, their estate 2020 BA Thieriot Chardonnay: I only rarely get to taste Le Montrachet, but I can’t help being reminded of it. A staggering combination of pure fruit and perfect acidity.

As we taste, and then walk the vineyards (with Christopher pointing out where he used to play as a kid) I still can’t get my head round it. “How come you’ve become so successful so quickly?”

He laughs. “We are meticulous about everything and we do it all in-house. I’m the spreadsheet guy and the lucky one to host events around the world. I do the numbers and we keep things very tight. Max does all things branding and gets us air time. Myles is in the vineyard, and helps with production and events.”

Yes, they have had a couple of advantages, but Christopher is keen to stress a couple of things: “We didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas, no history baggage. And we did work hard with our winery friends and always made sure we kept on friendly terms.”

But these wines are so good, and I still don’t get it. But there is one other thing at the back of my mind. Christopher had also told us that they have 50,000 followers on social media. It was always going to be that way, of course, for three young educated hipsters. But not many others wineries have that clout. I was reminded of the success that Barack Obama had had when first running for president with a new form of politicking via social media. A new way. But the point is that no matter how savvy your marketing and selling skills are, the wines have got to match up.

And if the Chardonnays are good, the Pinot Noirs are mind-blowing.

A 2019 Terra de Promissio Pinot Noir has sturdy young fruit, raspberries and rose petal, such lightness of touch!

A 2019 MCM88 Pinot Noir is sturdier and creamier with a lovely plummy finish. This wine hails from the vineyard formerly known as Keefer Ranch, top-of-class Russian River Valley fruit and terroir.

Finally, from their other estate, the 2019 Day One Pinot Noir has beautiful texture and mouth feel. Lovely dark velvety chocolate fruit, tannins firm and sweet. Supreme balance.

So: we end the tasting with me stunned. We stand on the veranda of the small house in the middle of the winery and gaze out over a beautiful landscape. “We’re farmers first and winemakers second,” says Christopher.

What a place in which to farm. What wines! And I still can’t work out how they’ve done it.

Zero Manipulation

So, we drive away from the Hollywood of Napa, via a homely breakfast of eggs over easy at Calistoga’s famous Café Sarafornia, heading to the more rugged Dry Creek area in the northern part of Sonoma County. Serious Zinfandel country.

If edgy Sonoma is Neil Young to Napa’s The Eagles, then Fred Peterson is your archetypal good ‘ole country boy who really couldn’t give a damn. Built like a brick outhouse, profuse and cussed, he looks like he has never seen a tie in his entire life. Curmudgeonly doesn’t even come close.

At 72, Fred now limits himself to mainly viticultural duties, including that of “main grape sampler,” having handed over winemaking to his son Jamie 15 or so years ago.

We are in their homely winery on Dry Creek Road. But Fred is quick to point out: “At my age, if I’m in the winery for more than 12 hours, I become a danger to myself and others.”

You can’t help but grin as you listen to him volunteering his views on the world, all delivered in a booming baritone. Marketing-speak this ain’t. And you think to yourself: it would be easy to underestimate him. But then you remember: this is the guy who was once vineyard manager at Monte Bello and Lytton Springs, of Paul Draper and Ridge fame, and you think: he must bring that expertise into his own wines, surely.

And you’d be right:

The Old School Zin 2017 – very competitively priced – has a beautiful redcurrant nose, a hint of salami, great mouthfeel and a long lingering red fruit finish.

Whereas the Bernier Vineyard Zin 2016 has touches of mint and cigar and is a more mature and bigger wine. Complex and reflective.

And the Bradford Mountain Zin 2016 is a bigger beast altogether, dark and deep, more black fruit than red, with a beautiful soft and supple mouthfeel.

Fred has an old world winemaking philosophy and a Zero Manipulation approach, meaning that he uses the most gentle, traditional low-tech/high touch winemaking practices to maximise the vintage and the vineyard. The result: No Soulless Wines. Tellingly, he tells us that in the domestic market, his wines fare better with distributors who sell more European-style wines.

He drives us up to Bradford Mountain, where he settled in 1983, building his home and planting vineyards, before founding Peterson Wines in 1987. The views from here towards Mount Saint Helena, are spectacular. But there is also lots of evidence of the terrible damage caused by forest fires.

“The advantages we have here are: first, the poor soils mean we don’t have to worry about excessive yields; second, these vineyards are so high you don’t have to worry about pests.”

He points to the vineyard on which he planted Vermentino, Verdelho and Vernaccia, resulting in the 3V White blend, whose 2019 vintage has a lovely soft melon nose and really good acidity. “We pride ourselves in the natural acidity in our wines,” explains Fred.

Two other wines which caught my attention:

The Zero Manipulation Carignan Grenache blend (2017) has amazing blackcurrant bubblegum and sherbet fruit, very well balanced and very very moreish.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Mendo Blendo (Petite Sirah and Syrah) has a lovely open nose of mint chocolate and a touch of anise. Good acidity, great mouthfeel. Great name!

Even after 45 years in the winemaking game, Fred is still searching, and has just returned from a four-week trip to Alsace, the Loire, Corbières and the Rhone to “re-charge the old batteries.”

Which is exactly what you feel after you’ve spend some time with Fred. Your battery has have been definitely recharged.

Going back to the middle.

“I am lucky in that I don’t have to make a house style. I am free to tell the story of the year.”

Most winemakers have an affinity with their vineyards. Most will extol their virtues, pay homage to them. And others go a little further. But Elizabeth Vianna is in love with her vineyards.

She stands before the Ganymede vineyard right outside the winery at Chimney Rock and describes Ganymede and its neighbours including Tomahawk, Clone 4 and the fantastically named Cardiac Hill, in a reverence which borders on poetry.

And the story of Ganymede is an interesting one on that it has a planting regime that I’ve not come across before. Initiated by Elizabeth’s predecessor, Doug Fletcher, Ganymede is planted on an asymmetrical trellising system, named the Fletcher Lyre, in which one side of the trellis is planted a few inches higher than the other side, which ensures fruit from both sides of the vine ripen at the same pace.

Situated on the famed Silverado Trail in Napa Valley’s renowned Stags Leap District, Chimney Rock was established in 1984 with the goal of creating wines that would compete against the best Bordeaux. All the vineyards in the 131-acre site are all within a quarter mile of each other, but each has its own unique terroir which has led to the creation of 28 distinct vineyard blocks on the property.

“So if you look at Tomahawk and Alpine, they are 100 yards from each other but they are chalk and cheese. Yin and Yang, if you may.”

Elizabeth became head winemaker at Chimney Rock in 2005. She has also served as President of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association. Sell effacing, yet obviously a star, she startles us when telling us that her husband was born in Burnley.

“Burnley in England?”

“Yes.”

Which you don’t expect when you are discussing wine on the Silverado Trail. Not only that, but her husband’s father was Frank “Tiger” Hill, who played professional for Arsenal and Scotland. He apparently got his nickname from the way he tackled.

All of which provides a humorous distraction when you are swirling a beautiful Elevage Blanc 2020 round the glass. The wine – 78% Sauvignon Gris, 22% Sauvignon Blanc – has stylish fruit, a touch of spice and cardamom, and beautiful texture in the mouth.

As you might expect, Elizabeth is keen to promote the idea of sustainability. “We do not use technology to bypass Mother Nature.” She is aiming for a net irrigation deficit in the vineyards; the winery is Green Certified by the California Land Stewardship Institute; they are100% solar powered; they have an Integrated pest management; they use cover crops planted between vineyard rows to help improve soil health; they foster predatory bird inhabitants to help with rodent control. (It often amuses me to learn how much of a nuisance in these parts are gophers – friendly looking mole-like chappies.)

You can’t help but chuckle when you listen to Elizabeth describing her babies. The youngest wines are aged in the Nursery barrel room, before being moved to the Teenager barrel room. Wines from the Alpine vineyard are unruly students running off in all directions, whereas Ganymedes are quieter, more reflective students.

We taste the Elevage Rouge 2020: dark, dense, broody kind of fruit. I sense a lot of rhubarb-type Cabernet Franc, but am surprised to learn it contains only 3% (as against of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot and 18% Petite Verdot.

As we move on, Elizabeth explains that she uses only free-run juice in the Chimney Rock-labelled estate wines.

The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 has supple, inviting fruit on the nose. Masses of currants, red and black. Lovely integration of soft oak tannin. Beautifully balanced.

The Alpine 2016 has an epic nose, dark chocolate, black plums, tobacco. Sensuous, silky. Touch of anise on the palate. Delicious.

The Ganymede 2016 is softer, more delicate than the Alpine. Red fruits, lovely balance on the palate, lovely soft aftertaste.

“I’m not a fan of high alcohol wines,” says Elizabeth. “When I started, everyone wanted high alcohol, power, dark inky wines, and ripeness. But how much ripeness do you need? We lost freshness in favour of power. So we’ve been going back to the middle for a long time now.”

I love that expression: going back to the middle.

The Ganymede 2018 is pure Bordeaux, silky smooth tannins, cigar box and blackcurrants. Soft tannins.

The Clone 4 2018 is more extreme, dark heady black fruit, tannins very firm. “Small berries,” explains Elizabeth.

The Estate 2018 is serious fruit, pure black fruit, tobacco and cedar, ripe tannins and very soft.

As we conclude a superlative tasting, we all agree that the wines have supreme balance, a lovely combination of freshness added to the unmistakeable structure of Napa fruit.

What would Frank “Tiger” Hill make of all of this?

Now, here’s a thought, gentlemen…

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA appellation is a mighty area around half an hour south of Monterey which makes some of California’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

We’re here to meet with Tony Franscioni, a fourth generation farmer whose family owns large plantings in the Gabilan Mountains in the eastern part of the Salinas Valley, and who is responsible for the Old Stage brand. The property is right across the valley from the Talbott vineyards and just below Chalone.

After Tony shows us around his estate – during which we shelter from the strong cooling breeze (it’s not called a cool-climate area for nothing!) – we get down to taste the wines with veteran winemaker consultant Dan Karlsen.

Dan tells us that the Franscioni vineyards have the right components to produce great wine. The Chardonnay vineyard is planted on deep sandy soils exposed to the full brunt of the Salinas valley winds, perfect for Chardonnay, preserving fruit character and acidity The Old Stage 2019 has really good no-nonsense fruit, touches of stone fruit, cream and a hint of vanilla. It has excellent balance, the acidity adding a lovely refreshing note.

The Pinot Noir comes from vineyards further up Chualar Canyon, more protected from the wind. Wind toughens up the skins, which is good for Chardonnay and bad for Pinot Noir. The 2019 vintage is a textbook example of the grape; strawberry and raspberry fruit balanced out by that uplifting acidity. Very more-ish.

As we taste, Dan – a hardwired gnarled 41-harvest veteran of Norwegian stock, takes us through his potted history. He has worked as a winemaker at Chalone, Estancia, Domaine Carneros, Talbott and Taittinger among others, retiring once before he got bored. Now he is a consultant, meaning no employees or HR stuff, just winemaking. The fun stuff. As our conversation rambles, a mixture of business and simply chewing the cud, he gives us his views on a wide range of topics and provides us with some fabulous one-lines, which I jot down in between laughing.

On how to be a winemaker: “Grow a good grape. Then don’t screw it up. Simple.”

On the difficulties of winemaking: “Vineyards are like a bell-shaped curve. You get under-ripe grapes, ripe grapes, and over-ripe grapes. And the main problem you have is: homogeneity. How do you ensure that every grape is at the same ripeness? How do you get that in a large vineyard? What I used to try to do to achieve consistency was to pick from the centre of the rows and leave both ends until the end.”

On the influence of oak: “There’s no such thing as an over-oaked wine. There are only under-wined wines.”

On malolactic fermentation: “I only do a partial malolactic fermentation. Malo steals the life-force from the wine.”

But he reserves his strongest views on cork: “Cork is good for Birkenstocks and dartboards. And that’s it.”

He tells us what he used to say to customers who bought wine from him. “I will guarantee that wine in screwcap for 30 years. I will guarantee that wine in cork for 30 feet.”

He finishes by telling us of a great story from a few years back. A bevvy of executives flew over from Portugal to take him to task for not using their cork closures. They gave him all of the statistics, how they had improved the quality of the cork, how things were much better, and he should really try them again. “Then I said to them? “When are you flying back home?” They told me: “Oh, tomorrow evening.” “Well here’s a thought, gentlemen. Would you get on an aircraft if it only had a 5% failure rate?”

Priceless!

The Language of Yes

We’re zipping up 101 to San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley Winery to taste the fruits of a very unusual relationship. Iconoclast extraordinaire Randall Grahm, whom you would think revels in chaos, has joined forces with E&J Gallo, a company for whom efficiency is written into its corporate DNA.

The odd couple.

From Cigars (Flying) to the Rhône Ranger, Grahm has a long history of reimagining the traditions of France in a distinctly personal way. And this is his latest gig. The collaboration has resulted in a range called The Language of Yes. Bear with me; it takes some explaining.

According to Grahm, “The Language of Yes” or La Langue d’Oc, is the term that the medieval people of southern France used to describe who they were by how they spoke. The Language of Yes,” a precursor of modern Provençal, is a window to a particular sensibility – the language of the love poetry of the troubadours. “Great wine can only come from vignerons who love their land deeply, and whose love poetry is the vinous expression of their passion.”

On the collaboration with Gallo, Grahm states: “I am particularly interested in vine and grape research, and Gallo’s research capability is unrivalled. Yes, I know, it’s a bit of a Bambi meets Godzilla scenario, but so far, so good, and there are some really astonishing wines arising therefrom and it has been a great experience.”

Doesn’t even begin to explain what we are about to taste.

We meet with the affable Matt Steel, who bears the title Gallo Director of Wine, Central Coast, but who in real life is a down-to-earth no-shit Aussie. He will take us through three wines.

“Working with Randall is such a privilege and a great challenge. He will come up with something we’ve never heard of and say: “This is what we’re going to do.” And we’d laugh and say: “What?” And he’d reply: “No, really, this is what we’re going to do.””

Matt puts the three wines in front of us.

And I taste one of the most remarkable wines I’ve ever come across – made from a grape I’ve never even heard of.

2020 Pink, “Le Cerisier”

Tibouren is an obscure southern French varietal, found sparsely in Provence, but also showing up in Liguria, where it is called Rossese, producing haunting, lighter-bodied reds reminiscent of Burgundy transposed to a slightly rustic octave. Tibouren, of which there is only one hectare in the whole of the United States,  is a grape perfectly suited to pink wine; fruity and juicy but also expressive of a slightly herbal note, sometimes evoking the garrigue or underbrush of the limestone soils of southern France.

This wine is a blend of 65% Tibouren and 35% Cinsault (which Grahm describes as a “tragically misunderstood variety, which might be the Rodney Dangerfield of grape varieties.”)

Raised on its lees for more than nine months, the wine underwent complete malolactic fermentation and was bottled without filtration.

The colour is very odd. It’s definitely not pink. It might just get under the radar as a rose, but you have to look mighty hard. To all intents it looks like a white wine. On the nose the first impressions are of style and restraint, with a hint of rose petal and then a feral perfume. The fragrance is drawing you in. It’s seductive. On the palate it appears first to have an evocative elegance, but as you hold it in the mouth a certain texture announces itself. What on earth is going on here? It seems almost like a contradiction. But what a contradiction!

Now we come to the two reds – and this is where it gets tricky. According to Grahm: “The effort is to eschew the intrusive effects of gaudy vinous maquillage, and instead use more gentle techniques to coax out complexity. One such technique is the practice of passerillage, or post-harvest drying of the grapes before crushing; we do this by placing the grapes on paper raisin trees in the shade of the vine itself. This practice allows for a slight dehydration and concentration of the grapes and as significantly, a maturation of the stems. When the stems are more or less lignified, they are an excellent source of tannin, supporting the overall structure of a wine; the inclusion of the whole clusters allows for a slow release of grape sugar into the fermenting must, which improves the kinetics of the fermentation, thus creating a much slower and controlled process, less stressful for the yeast and winemaker. “Clean” (non-stressed) fermentations are a particularly helpful complement to the process that we term “reductive élevage,” central to the style of the Language of Yes.

“This reductive élevage protects the “fruit” and freshness of a wine as it ages, as well as allows for the formation of earthy complexing notes. Minimization of oxygen ingress is generally accomplished through substantial lees retention (they’re oxygen scavengers), infrequent (or no) racking, more frequent barrel topping and the utilization of larger and less porous storage vessels.”

Those paragraphs were taken from Grahm’s written thoughts, which Matt now tries to interpret in layman’s terms as we taste.

2020 Grenache, “En Passerillage”

Here we have touches of bramble, but it’s a very subtle nose. Like a great poem or novel, it requires a bit of work. You need to search before it all makes sense. Peach and blueberries. A hint of cream teas. Then: spice, cloves perhaps. Superlative balance, supple tannins.

According to Grahm, “Grenache is said by some to resemble Pinot Noir, in so far as its need for gentle extraction and susceptibility to oxidation; the variety does not have the “density” of more structured varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, thus any edges or flaws (such as astringency or bitterness) tend to stand out in greater relief.”

No way can you put this down and leave it; you need to keep going back to it.

2020 Syrah, “En Passerillage”

A blend of 87% Syrah and 13% Viognier, this has lovely purple colour, black fruits to the Grenache’s red fruits. Balsamic vinegar. Liquorice and flowers, resembling, though not slavishly, the Rhone. Beautiful weight in the mouth. Again, it is so subtle it washes over you like a soft turquoise-coloured wave on a Caribbean beach. Soft and sensuous. And yet there is the power of the thoroughbred there, too.

By the end of just three wines, I am reeling. I can only hope we can secure some of this stock. When I was lucky enough to import Jean-Francois Coche-Dury’s Burgundies into the UK, I always used to get a sense of his wines being elevated or lifted. Like angels sitting on clouds and gazing serenely down at the mortals. I get this impression again. But – and here’s the thing – these wines are so sublime that they are beyond my words. Some wines are great. Some wines are outstanding. Some winds are beyond my comprehension.

What I do know is this: from this day onwards I will be counting down the days until I can taste these masterpieces again

Like something out of Dr. No

Balance is sometimes defined as a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportion. In art, “balance refers to the use of artistic elements such as line, texture, colour, and form in a way that renders visual stability” (Eli Anapur). In motor racing the balance of the car is measured to the milligram. Listen to Hamilton: “Something is wrong. The balance doesn’t feel right.”

I am musing on this as I sip another perfectly balanced Sanford Pinot Noir. A wine is said to have good balance when all the different components – alcohol, acidity, tannin, sweetness – are working in harmony. For me, if a wine tastes beautiful but I cannot really single out any particular element which makes it so, then I will write “perfectly balanced” in my tasting notes. And if I’m feeling a bit artsy then “equilibrium” will also appear.

But to get back to the gig – and those Sanford Pinots. Yup, in terms of wine, we are visiting Californian royalty. Before we reach the winery I ask Steve to pull over so I can photograph the sign: “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.” I stand and stare for a moment. This very spot is where the now world-famous Santa Rita Hills area was “invented” in 1971.

Looking for the best location to perfectly ripen grapes, botanist Michael Benedict, working with his friend Richard Sanford, toured the cool coastal regions of California, eventually deciding on a part of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.  The first vines were planted in 1971, and soon the Pinot Noir from this remote vineyard created a buzz. Others soon followed, and the original Sanford & Benedict Vineyard formed the backbone of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. It has been named one of the five most important and iconic vineyards in California by Wine Enthusiast.

In 1997, La Rinconada Vineyard was planted next door. It was to this vineyard that the affable and gregarious Trey Fletcher, chief winemaker at Sanford, took us when we first arrived. Home to 20 vineyard blocks and 12 clones, La Rinconada is primarily Pinot Noir. Trey jumps out of the jeep and we bend down to look at the soil. The lower portion of La Rinconada is a sandy loam, which transitions to more clay loam mixed with diatomaceous earth and shale on the hills closer to Sanford & Benedict.

We climb towards that vineyard, climbing, climbing. Again, we jump out of the jeep. “Notice the difference,” says Trey. Here, there is more calcium rich clay soils with shale and chert- a result of the sloughing off of the top half of the mountain ten thousand years ago. “Also, look at the vines – they were planted on their own root stock. Phylloxera really has never been an issue here.”

Also in the jeep with us is Chuck Cramer, the guy who represents Sanford in the UK. Looking more and more like a character from an Elmore Leonard movie, Chuck is very Californian. Extremely so. Very much. Never stops. Chuck is such a common American name. Think: Chuck Berry, Chuck Norris, Chuck Connors. But as a northern England lad, Chuck for me will always mean Coronation Street. “Oh, ‘eck, Chuck…” (As a Shakespeare enthusiast I’ve never been able to get my head around Othello’s request to Desdemona: “Pray chuck, come hither.” Where did that come from?)

We climb to the top of the hill, to the original winery barn which looks drop dead gorgeous. It gives amazing views over both vineyards down towards the winery. And everywhere is the breeze. It is the east-west orientation of the Santa Ynez Valley which provides a pathway to the Pacific Ocean and its maritime cooling influence, allowing cool air to be drawn inland. Later we will see the fog which is common in these parts.

Back at the winery we are joined by associate winemaker Laura Roach. Here, Trey shows us something neither Steve nor I have seen in any other winery – a series of “elevators” containing four tanks which are installed on hydraulic lifts within the winery tower. Trey explains that this unique gravity flow system allows him to gently move the wine from tank to barrel or bottle without pumping and agitating the wine. We step into one of the tanks and the lift takes us up to the roof. It is like something out of Dr No.

Back down in the cellar, the tasting is a sublime experience. The 2020 Pinot – just about to land in our warehouse – is a beautiful expression of red and black cherries, so soft and supple.

The 2017 S&B Pinot is a step up in intensity, just a touch more body, just a touch more firmness, just a touch more tannin. But always just a touch.

A 2019 S&B Block 6 has a feel of strawberry liquorice about it, and ever such a hint of salt. Or am I imagining it?

A 2019 Dominio Del Falcon (what a name!) feels as though it has a touch more alcohol. But only a touch. Balanced by just a hint more acidity. It is in perfect balance. There’s that word again.

Pinot Noir is so damned difficult to get right. Over the years it has probably caused me more disappointment and frustration than any other grape. Sometimes it can be thin, but more often the major issue is that the wines can often appear over ripe, even gloopy. But here every one of them is textbook – beautiful examples of what that grape can achieve.

On to the Chardonnays. The 2018 has a lovely ice cream sundae feel to it, lovely balance of fruit and acidity.

A 2019 Long Rows Block Chardonnay has a Meursault-type character to it, a touch of creaminess.

A 2019 Founders Vines Chardonnay has “more satin and less merino wool,” according to Trey. Not gonna argue with that.

Note: “gonna” rather than “going to.” Rubs off on you, this place.

L.A. is a great big freeway

“So. California. Welcome. We’ve been expecting you.”

Back on the road again after two years of COVID lockdown – how exciting is this! – and one of our first trips is a belter. Our California list has not been updated for some time, and Steve and I are here to put that right. Like a couple of schoolkids.

First port of call after negotiating LA’s freeways is with Andrew Murray at his Foxen Canyon Road winery near Los Olivos.

If you were looking at someone who represents the very opposite of the admittedly clichéd and out-of-date notion that California is all about blockbuster Cabernets and heavy Chardonnays, then this is your guy. Andrew fell in love with Rhône varieties like Syrah and Viognier in the late 1980’s while traveling through France. Leaving his UC Berkeley palaeontology studies behind, he pursued his new mistress, Syrah, with an internship in Australia. Returning to the States, he founded his eponymous Santa Ynez winery and vineyard in Santa Barbara County, which reminded him of the Rhône Valley.

His film-set style winery looks almost too gorgeous to be true. He explains it used to be an art gallery and points to the space where an Andy Warhol exhibit was once hung. In the very same space he now produces his own masterpieces.

We taste a Riesling from a series of wines on tap which has proved tremendously popular with the public. God, this is scintillating – my first California wine on this trip and I definitely hadn’t expected this!

But he surprises me with one of his first comments. “Actually, while I really love the reds of the Rhone Valley, I’m often not that keen on their whites.” He finds some of the whites from the Rhone – especially involving Roussanne – a little heavy, and now gravitates towards Chablis and Meursault because “they are so bright.”

And it is that expression which comes back to me time and again as we taste his whites – “so bright.”

“What I do is to try to take white Rhone varietals and put my own stamp on them,” he explains. “I’m a neophyte in that respect.” An Enchanté blend of Roussanne and Grenache from 2020 defines his point. It has the haunting and ethereal character you often get in that type of blend – but it also has a wonderful strip of minerality and zing.

He bring out some of his E11even series of wines, including a 2020 Sauvignon Blanc which is sub-branded Unplugged. I am surprised that he got away with this branding and mention the Unplugged series of albums. “That’s what inspired me to take up guitar playing,” I volunteer. “I can do a version of Layla.” But thankfully Andrew – and Steve – look singularly unimpressed. On the other hand, Steve is impressed with the wine: “It’s not often I say I really like California Sauvignon Banc – but I really like this wine.”

“I’m not looking for typicity; I’m looking for atypicity.” I wonder for a second if Andrew has invented a new word.

He describes one of the flavours in his Esperance Rose 2021 as watermelon rind, which morphs into a nod towards Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar, at which we all nod knowingly, like guys do.

Now we move onto the reds.

An Espérance 2019 (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) has an incredible dandelion and burdock nose and on the palate is an inky mouthful of blackcurrants and blackberries.

An E11even Cabernet Franc 2019 is described by Andrew as “not so much bell pepper as roasted pepper.” Wow! Hints of rhubarb and nettles and sherbert. A cracking wine.

A Tours Les Jours 2018 – coming soon to us! – is ridiculously drinkable. No, absurdly drinkable. No, no, hold on –  insanely drinkable.

A Roasted Slope Syrah 2019 is young and sturdy, full of cereal aromas. “Class,” says Steve.

An Etranger 2019 (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah) is highly perfumed, masses of yellow plums, strident, edgy. Andrew explains the name. “I am a fan of Albert Camus and was a moody existentialist when I was young.”

Thankfully, he appears to have grown out of it, I think, as we finish the tasting.

What a tasting. Too many wines to describe fully here. What a start to our trip.

But then tiredness takes over. It’s great to be back on the road again – but, crikey, we are so out of practice!

 

The Challenge of Winemaking

Vines love a challenge…

If vines were human beings they’d be into extreme sports, wakeboarding on the surf or abseiling down skyscrapers.

You see, give your average vine some nice cosy conditions – great weather, lots of luscious deep juicy soil – and they’ll give you lots of, well, average fruit. All quite worthy, if a bit dull. Then they’ll go down the pub. But give them a challenge; soils which are so barren and rocky that every sensible plant has given up the ghost, or a mountainside so steep that you’re in danger of falling off – and they’re in their element. Bring it on!

Which is just as well. Because every vintage has a story. Every vineyard is on trial.

Only a few weeks ago Bordeaux was hit by one of the worst frosts in decades. Hundreds of hectares were damaged. But while Estelle Roumage, owner of Chateau Lestrille, gazed at the devastation and shed a silent tear, her vines stood defiant. Battered and bruised, their buds lost, crippled but indomitable. “Don’t worry; we’ll be back. We’re vines, you see.”

Mount Etna erupted seventeen times between mid-February and the end of March this year. Imagine waking up and not knowing if your vines have been covered in ash. (Or whether your house is about to be consumed by lava!) Yet that is what our winemakers at Santa Maria La Nave and Al-Cantara face. We – and they – feel those slings and arrows are worth putting up with because of the fabulous complexity of wine which those vines produce.

Chablis lies at the extreme of the great winemaking areas. Philippe Goulley, winemaker at Domaine Jean Goulley, summarised the last vintage for us and included a weather report: “We had spring frost and hailstorms but they weren’t as significant as recent years. Then we had drought and a heat wave in June and July which totally changed the situation. In the end, the quantity was okay but not as good as we’d hoped.” This stoical acceptance of fate happens every year: Chablis suffered tough vintages in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Such is the lot of the winemaker – and the vine.

Weather can be capricious. California is often prey to forest fires – which can destroy vineyards or cause smoke taint. In 2020 the state recorded the hottest August and September on record, during which time thousands of vines were destroyed. We can only salute the fortitude of our winemakers at Far Niente, Raymond Vineyards, Lockwood Vineyard, Oak Ridge Winery and Quady, as well as our newest addition – Sanford.

Australian winemakers face another hazard: drought. They have always had to contend with agricultural risks such as frost, hail and flood. But climate change has made things tougher for growers and winemakers. Wineries rely on natural rainfall for their grapes, but in drought season, irrigation is a must. The amount of water being drawn for the river systems and the underground aquifers may be unattainable in a hotter drier climate. (And that’s before China pulls the plug on Aussie exports!) We’re grateful for wineries such as Berton Vineyards for continuing to produce amazing wines and amazing value-for-money wines in the face of such adversity.

Of course, just as most people prefer the easy life, some people – like vines – love a challenge. Operating out of often impenetrable and inaccessible vineyards within Galicia, winemaker Xosé Lois Sebio has produced a stunning collection of wines as a result of a personal quest: to find wines with unique personality from more risky processing zones and with a very marked identity. He is no respecter of fashions and conventions. His main challenge is to respect and express the soil, variety and area – producing wines with soul and personality.

A different sort of challenge is faced by the winemaking team at Frescobaldi. How to live up the expectations of a Florentine family with thirty generations dedicated to the production of great wines across six Tuscan estates? Well, you do it with a combination of tradition and innovation. With the goal of being the most prestigious Tuscan wine producer, and with over 1,000 hectares of vineyard, Frescobaldi firmly believes in respecting the local land while focusing on the highest quality grapes for its wines. This means different winemakers for each estate, each forging the terroir’s identity, while all living up the quality standards demanded by Lamberto Frescobaldi, chief winemaker. Gambero Rosso awarded Frescobaldi with the prestigious ‘Tre Bicchieri Winery of the Year Award 2020’, in recognition of its uncompromising commitment. Here is one family living up to the challenge!

How to reinvent something? That’s a challenge. For Badiola, a change from a quality hierarchy based on terroir rather than on ageing was a paradigm made possible by the change to the Rioja classifications of 2018. They set out to make wines of place rather than wines of style. The Vino de Pueblo wines are sourced from 300 plots in three villages in the foothills of Sierra de Cantabria in the Rio Alavesa from vines with an average age of around 50 years (many were planted in the 1920s, 30s and 40s). A challenging concept, but thankfully the wines are brilliant.

And then of course there are some winemakers for whom one challenge is not enough. They want to be challenged every day. Take Gérard Bertrand. It would have been easy for him to have rested on his laurels when inheriting his father’s domaine in Corbières. But the drive which saw him play rugby at the highest level saw him purchasing numerous estates, then upgrading them painstakingly. This was followed by his conversion to biodynamic farming, following the principals of Rudolf Steiner.

Now, he presides over some of the most prestigious crus of Languedoc-Roussillon. Formerly the IWC Red Winemaker of the Year and Wine Enthusiast’s European Winery of the Year, his expertise ensures that wines bearing Gérard Bertrand’s signature have a unique style, driven by the values of excellence, authenticity, conviviality and innovation. In 2020, Gérard Bertrand was awarded Green Personality of the Year, by the Drinks Business Green Awards. He is arguably the most dynamic winemaker on the planet. Now there’s a chap who loves a challenge.

Head Start: Part Three, Harvest at Château de Campuget

Now slowly progressing through more parts of the business, Hallgarten’s Head Start Apprentice, Amica Zago, has just returned from working a vintage in the south of France. Château de Campuget borders the Rhone Valley, Provence and Languedoc, marrying traditional elements from all three regions – an ideal opportunity to learn and get hands-on in the winery and the vineyard.

Following on from my fantastic few months spent in the Marketing team, I was able to embark on a once in a lifetime opportunity to work a harvest and gain an insight into the world of winemaking in the South of France. This was to be at the amazing Château de Campuget with Franck-Lin and his wonderful team.

Being able to witness the winemaking process and track the wine from the vineyard, to the tanks to the final product is a chance that Hallgarten has allowed me to undertake as part of the ‘Head Start’ Apprenticeship Scheme, and is an invaluable experience to anyone going into, or already working in the world of wine. Working a harvest gives you a complete understanding and appreciation of the product you are working with. And after a very long train ride, I was about to embark on this winemaking journey.

What you think would be the glorious world of making wine soon jolts you back to reality as the alarm goes off at 3:30am and long shifts are the norm – not that I was complaining!

Starting work in the very early hours of the morning, everyone comes into the winery on time and with a smile on their faces; winemaking is a job you do out of love rather than just as a job! The working day starts with the harvesting machine in the vineyard, picking the grapes and filling the tractors’ trailers, ready to be weighed and then dropped into the crusher – step one of the wine making process is now complete.

Before working a month in a winery, I had only made wine in a garage in Hertfordshire in the simplest form! Going to France and working in the winery with a full team and equipment you realise how much more there is to making incredible wines, than in a suburban garage winery. Every morning when you first start, then again at midday, you have to test the density of the wine in the tanks using a hydrometer also checking the temperature of the wine. The results are then passed back to the oenologist.

What did I learn?

There was so much to learn and I was able to put what I had already learnt from my Degree in Wine Business from Plumpton University into practise. Franck-Lin was keen to answer all my questions about winemaking enabling me to increase my knowledge immensely.

Something I didn’t know was why the grapes are picked in the early hours; this is because the grapes are cooler, reducing the risk of oxidation and also means that the grapes don’t have to be cooled while in the press.

I now understand the benefits of pumping over and the correct techniques required to produce good quality wine consistently. It was interesting to learn that different wines require different pumping over times, some require aeration during the pump over and others (for example zero sulphite wines) are not allowed the aeration.

What was my best part of my harvest experience?

Other than working alongside the most fantastic team in the prettiest of settings, my favourite part was definitely analysing the wines. On a daily basis the wines are analysed (sometimes more than once) on the alcohol percentage, pH level and total acidity. This is so that the oenologist can then work out whether any other ingredients (such as Malic Acid, Tartaric Acid or nutrients) need to be added to the juice. Wine analysis was very interesting to me as you were able to see how by adding certain ingredients balances out the wine. It was fascinating to analyse a wine in the morning, mix the ingredients recommended by the oenologist, adding them to wine while pumping over and then re-analysing and seeing and tasting the difference.

I can’t wait to taste the finished wines from the 2020 Chateau de Campuget vintages which I helped to make!

The Sweet Treat!

Forget the chocolate, forget the cake, a glass of dessert wine is exactly what you need! After the long Easter weekend, Hallgarten Head Start Apprentice, Amica Zago, has put pen to proverbial paper on all things sweet and luscious, as well as reminiscing about a trip to the world-renowned region of Bordeaux.

From I’m not talking about the thick, heavy, super-sweet dessert wines here, I’m talking about the elegant wines with rich and luscious honey characteristics. These are the true sweet treats!

Sweet wine encompasses a wide range of styles; including sparkling, late harvest, noble rot, passito, ice wine and this isn’t even all of them! There are so many countries and regions with numerous grape varieties (both white and red) and winemaking practices being used to produce these stunning wines. Now, I’m not going to talk about all of these because, well, we just don’t have the time! However I would recommend to try as many styles as you can, each one style is unique and all as wonderful as another.

After a trip to Bordeaux, my relationship with sweet wine had done a 180! Before my wine trip, I would have said I hated the style and if I had to taste it I would most definitely always spit! But, going to Bordeaux, the home of Sauternes, and tasting the sweet wine in a small restaurant in the heart of St Emilion, my life had changed forever.

Sauternes wines are great as an after dinner treat (either to replace a sweet or drank with lemon puddings and cheesecakes). The wine can also be drank when the cheese board comes out, the sweetness of the wine combined with the saltiness of the cheese creates a beautiful balance. However, Sauternes extends further than dessert. In France, it is often drank as a wine pairing to many starters, one of the main food pairings is with foie gras which many may not think of as a perfect pairing, but I for sure can tell you, it is one of the best food pairings I’ve ever had!

A Sauternes to indulge in is the Château Suduiraut, Castelnau de Suduiraut which is an excellent example of a great Sauternes with stunning candied fruit character and a hint of minerality. This is the perfect ‘sweet treat’.

Since visiting Bordeaux, I have tasted many different sweet wines from a range of countries and I am always more and more impressed by them. Whether I’m drinking them on their own, with a dessert or with a savoury dish, I am always surprised by how much I love them now after hating them for so many years! I can’t imagine going back to a time where I wouldn’t drink sweet wine.

Heroic Viticulture!

God, this is an untamed landscape. I’ve never stood in a vineyard like this before. It feels more like a small jungle, a mass of unkempt and wild shrubbery, misshapen and twisted, like Triffids. And, dotted everywhere, huge lava outcrops. A Jurassic park of a vineyard.

If you look closely in the undergrowth you will see vines. But they look wild.

Which is the entire point.

Steve Daniel and I are on the impossibly steep slopes of Mount Ilice, an extinguished crater on the south-eastern flank of Mount Etna. From this vineyard of extraordinary beauty comes an extraordinary wine: Calmarossa.

We are visiting Santa Maria La Nave. And we are in awe.

In the hands of the lovely Sonia Spadaro Mulone, Santa Maria is not just a wine producer, but one devoted to the preservation of ancient vine varieties and centuries-old traditions, a kind of Etna natural history preservation society. “I live for and dedicate every day of my life to my indigenous vine varieties and my wines, taking care of them and sharing their beauty with the world,” Sonia has said. “Many of them are taller than me – they are ancient, fierce, and have been there for centuries. My duty is to protect and safeguard this invaluable heritage.”

The vineyard in which we are standing, situated at 800 metres, was finally purchased in 2016 by Sonia and her husband Riccardo following years of negotiations with numerous owners. They had begun managing it many years before, following in the footsteps of a devoted farmer, Don Alfio, who had biodyanamically cultivated the main part of the vineyard for more than fifty years. It had a pre-phylloxera heart (Sonia’s word) and included some varieties that were almost extinct.

But right now there is a fog which is not so much rolling in as sprinting in from the sea and within minutes visibility is down to fifty yards and you get an eerie Lost World feeling. And then we are sprinting for the car as a downpour of tropical proportions thrashes us.

To say that Sonia and her team are passionate about their work would be an understatement of volcanic proportions. Not only are they acting as wine archaeologists, but they are doing so in some of the highest vineyards in Europe. CERVIM, the Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture, which was set up to promote vineyards at altitudes over 500 metres, vines planted on slopes greater than 30% vines on terraces of embankments, and planted on small islands in difficult growing conditions: refers to this kind of winemaking as ‘heroic viticulture.’ Santa Maria La Nave was admitted to CERVIM a few years back.

The history of Santa Maria La Nave goes back to 1954, when farmer Giuseppe “Peppino” Mulone moved to Catania with his family, and became fascinated by the fertility of the volcanic soil, the lushness of the vine varieties and the magnificence of the grapes. Peppino’s passion for Mount Etna’s vines was handed down to his son, Angelo, and then his grandson Riccardo, his wife Sonia, and their workers, winemaker Enzo Calì, viticulturist Vincenzo Avellina and agronomist Andrea Marletta

And now we are heading to Santa Maria’s tiny underground maturation cellar where we make our way down the spiral staircase, wearing disposable polythene footwear to ensure there is no spread of germs. Attention to detail!

Here we taste through the five different barrels of the 2017 vintage which will be blended into Calmarossa. The wine is composed of 85% Nerello Mascalese, the undisputed prince of Etna varietals but one which was abandoned for generations, and 15% Nerello Cappuccio, a grape which produces epic colour, but one which has often not been held in particularly high esteem, something Sonia and her team are slowly changing. “Some brave winemakers have started to enhance the true nature of this vine variety with a bit of innovative craziness,” she states.

The difference in the barrels is amazing. The first has extreme toffee apple flavours, with a hint of saltiness; the second is more restrained with a touch more steeliness; the third is the biggest yet, with huge deep berry flavours and a delicious hint of sweetness on the finish; the fourth is an amazing concoction of baked cherry pie with a blackcurrant lozenge type kick; the fifth is the most reserved, with beautiful firm tannins.

We then go on to try the 2016 vintage from bottle. Masses of herby notes on the nose, silky and moreish on the palate, complex multi-layered and contemplative. Brilliant.

Now we try the Millesulmare Sicilia DOC Bianco, made from Grecanico Dorato, an ancient varietal which was originally thought to be Greek but one which has now been genetically linked to Garganega. It tastes beautifully, redolent of stone fruit, hints of gooseberries and a touch of lanolin. The grapes for this wine are a pie’ franco, grafted onto Richter 110 and Paulsen 1103 rootstock. They are grown in Santa Maria’s other vineyard, Casa Decima, at Contrada Nave, on the other side of Etna, the north-western slope, at an even higher altitude of 1,100 metres, and it is to here that we drive the following morning.

Thankfully, the rain has cleared and we make the ninety minute journey through the higgledy piggledy southern Etna sprawl and emerge at the far more beautiful northern slopes, where Steve and I jump out of the car and take our picture-postcard photographs of the summit.

The Casa Decima vineyard is one of the highest vineyards in Europe (and was once owned by Lord Nelson, no less.) The team began here in 2000, working with an agronomist who was conducting a fifteen-year experiment to find the best vine stock. “We grafted about six thousand plants of Grecanico Dorato and five hundred of the almost extinct Albanello. Many of them were abandoned and covered by brambles,” states Sonia. In 2004 they bought a number of adjoining plots from local farmers: perfect to preserve a precious DNA that was at risk of extinction. “We found a very high number of gaps in our vineyard, mostly caused by wild animals. In spite of the damage they made, we welcomed them, since they are natural inhabitants and they help us to preserve the local ecosystem. We promised ourselves that we would treat this small vineyard as an oasis, whose rhythm should be natural and chosen by the plants, and not by the human obsession to subjugate nature and use it to produce more to make more money.”

Here the views are expansive, the vineyards a little more restrained than those on Mount Ilice, the views breath-taking. “When I saw one of my neighbours spraying his vineyard, I was so distressed that I immediately tried to buy it,” Sonia states.

“We are looking for pure essence of Mount Etna in a glass,” she says. “We only grow local vine varieties. Our wines are the product of an extreme viticulture, performed in demanding and wild areas at high altitude, in precious patches of land which have been safeguarded during the centuries from the devastating volcanic eruptions, or in plots on steep slopes of ancient extinguished craters.”

Heroic indeed!And quite beautiful.