Category Archives: View From The Vineyard

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!

A Brave New World…

Sometimes we all need the tried, tested and familiar around us, whether that it is our choice of food, drink, fashion or general lifestyle. But sometimes – and social media is a great inspiration here – we need to think outside of our comfort zone. Wine is no exception.

Here at Hallgarten & Novum we are proud of our eclectic offering in terms of wines, whether that be new grape varieties or unfamiliar countries (when it comes to winemaking.)

And it is often the “Old World” which is leading the way.

I remember the first time that Steve Daniel introduced me to our new wines from Armenia; I was so impressed by the lovely perfume of the Karmrahyut grape, vibrantly redolent of rosemary and lavender. Our new range from Vachnadziani is a wake-up call, with refreshing mineral laden whites from those hard to pronounce varieties such as Rkatsiteli, Krakhuna and Mtsvane putting me in mind of good Chablis.

Grape varieties such as Santorini’s Assyrtiko have established themselves in our UK market as go-to wines, and are now spreading their influence to other countries. We have examples of this grape from the Lebanon from Oumsiyat and Australia’s Clare Valley from Jim Barry, all showing the lovely freshness and salinity which has made the grape so popular.

Winemakers are rediscovering old techniques such as fermentation in amphora. Look out for the amphora wines from Rocim from the Alentejo region in Portugal where traditional vinification in ‘tahla’ meets modern winery techniques.

With global warming, some regions are now being forced to rethink the varieties that have traditionally been the mainstay of their vineyards as producers are faced with higher temperatures, less water availability and more weather extremes.  Bordeaux, for example, is looking at different varieties such as Alvarinho, Marselan and Touriga Nacional which are more mildew resistant and can cope with the warmer temperatures which are driving up the alcohol levels of Merlot in particular leading to a change of style compared to 20 years ago.  The traditional wines of Bordeaux may look very different in the future!

With 40 years in the wine trade and 24 years as an MW behind me, one of the pleasures that I continue to have is to discover grape varieties and wines hitherto unknown to me and then to share this enthusiasm and encourage consumers to explore these wines for themselves in this Brave New World of wine.

Great Wines, That Don’t Cost the Earth

As consumers, we all want to do the right thing for our health and the health of the planet, and buy organic and sustainable. Until very recently this meant paying more and in many cases radically changing our buying habits.

Historically organic wines were quite rare and we would have to pay a significant premium for them, and sustainably produced wines were rarely mentioned. I remember having conversations with consumers about organic and sustainably produced wines, and they were just not interested. I also remember having conversations with wine producers who were farming organically and sustainably and asking them why they were not shouting about this; their response was no one is interested, and in fact, some consumers think organic wines won’t taste good!

How times have changed. I think most people in the supply chain are acutely aware of the impact us humans have on the planet.

Winemakers and grape growers have worked relentlessly in the last 30 years to increase quality at every price level. Initially the biggest and quickest increases came from investment in winemaking equipment, technology and expertise and it became possible to make very drinkable wine, at very attractive prices. There were massive investments in the wineries and winemakers. But technology is only a part of the equation.

The more forward-thinking producers soon realised that their biggest and most precious asset is their vineyards – it’s also the most fragile. If a piece of machinery breaks you can repair or replace it. If your winemaker leaves you can find another. It’s just a question of a little time and money.  A vineyard is a living thing. It is a whole ecosystem and if you abuse it you can irreversibly damage it and jeopardise your unique asset. If you break it, you cannot just throw money at it. You have to work out the best way to treat your vineyard to allow it to produce good fruit for the longest time. You also need to protect those living things that work in your vineyard, including your work force! This is a long term investment in time, money and working practice.  Invariably this means adopting a sustainable holistic approach.

This is something that the artisanal small domains have known for a long time; the wines they produce are outstanding and you pay a premium for them. The fact that many larger producers have now adopted the same principles means that you can now get organic, sustainably and ethically produced wines at everyday prices. You no longer have to go massively out of your way or pay a huge premium to get great tasting wines that won’t cost the earth.

We are very proud to represent many forward thinking producers of all sizes. Below is just a selection of producers that are ticking the sustainable boxes and producing amazing wines.

Colomba Bianca, Sicily

Sicily and Italy’s largest certified organic producer with over 2,000 hectares of organically farmed vineyards. Try their fantastic ‘Vitese’ Grillo.

Perez Cruz, Chile

One of the pioneering wineries of the sustainable movement in Chile. They have been farming sustainably since 2005 and are one of the first boutique producers in Chile. Their Cabernet must be one of the best value for money red wines in the world, using fruit only from their estate-owned Alto Maipo vineyard.

Piattelli, Argentina

An wonderful family-run winery that operate vineyards in Mendoza and Cafayate, farmed sustainably and organically. The Alto Molino Malbec is a great introduction to the wines of Cafayate.

Echeverria, Chile

A family-run winery from Molina. One of the pioneers of modern winemaking in Chile, they farm organically and are certified Sustainable. Their No es Pituko “Natural Wine” range are must tries – give the Chardonnay a whirl.

Lake Chalice, New Zealand

A boutique, fully sustainable producer, making stunning food friendly wines. The Nest Sauvignon Blanc is a stand-out great value Marlborough Sauvignon.

Prapian Estate, Italy

The pride and glory of the Sacchetto family. A beautiful new winery and an amazing organically farmed vineyard, creating an sublime single-vineyard Prosecco. A real step up in quality from regular Prosecco. Try the Brut Organico Valdobbiadene.

Peninsula, Spain

Modern winemaking, major investment and a sustainable and organic approach in the vineyards. All the wines are technically brilliant. Try the Tempranillo which is a Gold Medal winning wine in SWA 2020.

Undurraga, Chile

Sustainable historic winery, making cutting-edge wines from some of the best vineyard sites in Chile. Try the ground-breaking TH range – the Chardonnay from Limari is spectacular.

Gérard Bertrand, France

Gérard is one of the pioneers of Biodynamic wine production in the Languedoc-Roussillon and the largest “Bio” producer in France. His Naturalys range is exceptional value and the Naturalys Merlot stands out above the rest.

Matias Riccitelli, Argentina

Matias is one of the superstars of Argentinian wine. He supports low intervention winemaking and organic grape growing. His wines truly represent the outstanding vineyards he works with. You must try Not Another Lovely Malbec – artisanal winemaking at a great price.

Herdade Do Rocim, Portugal

This is an amazing project in the Alentejo.  Fully signed up to Sustainable farming,  the grapes are all farmed organically – 70% are certified the rest in conversion. Minimum intervention in the winery and only natural yeasts are used. The wines are produced in the renowned Vidigueira area of the Alentejo the resulting wines have a freshness not often associated with the Alentejo. Try the Mariana Red.

Olifantsberg, South Africa

These are incredible handcrafted wines. The vineyards are farmed organically and heading towards Biodynamic. They believe in sustainable vine growing and winemaking and their style is very hands-off, with only natural yeast and use of large seasoned oak barrels and concrete eggs. These are beautiful handmade wines from one of the superstar producers of the future. Buy while you still can afford them! Try the amazing entry-level Chenin Blanc.

Finca Bacara, Spain

100% Monastell (Mourvedre) wines from high altitude vineyards in Jumilla. All the wines are made from organically farmed vineyards in a very modern fruit-forward style with eye-catching packaging. Try the Time Waits for No one White Skulls.

Bodegas San Alejandro, Spain

The Garnacha specialists of Spain. Working with high altitude vineyards in the Calatayud region, all their vineyards are farmed organically and are in conversion from 2019. They make great wines at all price points and consistently rate as some of the very best Garnachas coming out of Spain. Try the beautifully silky smooth and elegant Evodia.

 

Sustainability: We have no other choice

The problem is: it doesn’t sound very sexy. Sustainability.

Key word, at the moment, along with, say, Organic, or Biodynamic, or Natural. But an awkward word, too.

With Organic you get a wistful Tom and Barbara Good Life self-sufficiency schmaltz, you venerate weird carrots, and supplicate yourself – oh Lord! – to the soil, and perhaps (best of all!) subconsciously conjoin the word to a similar one which is very exciting.

Biodynamic, too, has its moments, with its odd combination of Rudolf Steiner argot, the bewilderment of physics, and a boyhood memory of Steve Austin, the world’s first Bionic Six Million Dollar Man.

And Natural is the best of the lot, redolent of Alpine yoghurt, the notion of innate talent, an appreciation of something not messed up by blokes, and, in the background, Aretha’s soaring You Make Me Feel….

But Sustainability – the yoke which brings those three together? Not many rock songs with that in the title. Inspiring nothing more than great spreadsheets, perhaps. Alice Feiring wrote that being sustainable is like being a little bit pregnant¹.

To be fair, in terms of wine, there is much much more to sustainability than solely how the wine is produced. The concept looks into every aspect of the journey from vine to consumer, including bottling, commercialisation, marketing, and human resources, and raises questions about energy usage, waste, social impact, carbon footprint and climate change.

But there is not one global definition or set of standards to which all producers can adhere – and therein lies an ambiguity.

Organic

Although consumers might assume that wine production has little impact on the natural world – in contrast to large-scale intensive agriculture – the reality is sadly different. Unfortunately, Vitis vinifera is a notoriously fragile plant. And most vineyards are monocultures that rely heavily on preventive spraying of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides to keep disease and pests at bay. “Awareness of the damage caused by overuse of chemical treatments has spread since French soil biologist Claude Bourguignon famously declared in 1988 that the soil of Burgundy’s vineyards was ‘dead’”³. Although it is simplistic, the growth of organic winemaking (which basically bans most chemicals from the vineyard and states that all additives need to be organic) is as a result of these concerns. It is rare today to find a French vigneron who does not espouse lutte raisonnée (literally ‘the reasoned fight’, meaning the measured use of sprays).

Biodynamic

Famously outlined by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in a series of lectures in 1924, biodynamics is a holistic approach which focuses on maintaining soil health and linking soil management to lunar cycles, earth rhythms, and astrology – to guarantee happy vines. Some of the practices in biodynamics appear strange, such as using nine plant-derived “preparations” in crop management, and burying a cow’s horn full of manure into the soil, but advocates are convinced that the processes result in improved soil quality and overall vineyard health.

Natural

This is where it gets tricky. Basically, this takes the organic and biodynamic principles, but goes further in the winemaking processes, requiring that nothing be added or removed. The Naturalistes’ bête noire is sulphur dioxide (SO2). While sulphites are a natural side-effect of fermentation and are present in virtually all wine (“contains sulphites” must appear on the label if the wine has more than 10mg/l), the Naturalistes say that adding to this (EU rules allow for 160mg/l for red, 210 mg/l for white) changes the character of the wine, lobotomizes it and masks inferior quality grapes. And may give you a headache. Other key themes are using only wild yeasts, rather than inoculated, no fining, no filtration, and limited use of oak. The problem is that, unlike organic winemaking, which has strict certifications in every country of origin, no-one has codified the rules of natural winemaking.

One issue is that while the Organic/Biodynamic/Natural movements have definitely had an impact, they are still a little too much on the fringe to make a huge difference with general consumers. Which is why, despite its lack of cool, the doctrines of sustainability are so important:

  • Vineyard management does not just involve proscribing agrochemicals and cultivating other plants to encourage biodiversity, but also embodies the efficient use of energy, the reduction of gas emissions and the reduction and reuse of water.
  • In the winery, the use of renewable energy (solar panels, for example), and the reduction, recycling and reuse of waste are fundamental.
  • Wine packaging has been the subject of particular focus. Of all the carbon used in the manufacture of a wine bottle, 85% comes from the glass, 9% from the cardboard box of the packaging, 4% from the cork stopper, 1% from the paper label, and 1% from the plastic capsule: hence the call for lighter bottles.
  • Transporting the wine has come under scrutiny. Aircraft, trucks and ships are big emitters of CO2. The most common and environmentally-friendly route is by sea, five times less harmful than by land, and eleven times better than by air.
  • While all of these areas demonstrate direct causation, there are numerous secondary themes. Sustainability can cover the implementation of security, health, well-being, education and training programmes; it means encouraging an inclusive culture, with ethical standards of conduct, in which employees feel committed to the company’s philosophy.

Remember: this involves all aspects of the supply chain. Here at Hallgarten we are proud to have achieved ISO-14001 certification; gaining it has benefited not only our working environment but also our whole approach.

But there is also one other important driver, the game-changer: promoting a green image makes economic and common sense. There are unquestionable marketing advantages for producers to portray their wines as pure products, unsullied by chemicals. Which is why sustainable has become big business.

And which is why the number of sustainability certifications in the wine industry has proliferated in the last few years. They include:

  • The French government’s Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE). The target is for 50% of wine-growers to be certified HVE by 2025, with a 50% reduction in chemical sprays.
  • In New Zealand, 98% of producers have the Sustainable Winegrowing NZ certification, which requires adherence to standards in biodiversity, soil health, water usage, air quality, energy and chemical use.
  • 75% of Chile’s producers are certified sustainable. Producers have to meet the three “E’s” of sustainability – economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social equity.
  • Sustainable Australia Winegrowing is one of three certification programs of Australia’s EntWine program (whose goal is to foster environmental custodianship and continuous improvement).
  • In 2013, Bodegas de Argentina launched a sustainability protocol, modelled after the Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery (CCSW) system, and modified to fit Argentina’s unique climate and growing conditions.

Making this transition to more sustainable methods is tough. There are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions: biocontrols that attract beneficial insects in one place may attract pests in another; vineyards in humid regions depend more on fungicides than dry regions. Sustainable methods tend to be more labour-intensive and yields lower than for conventional viticulture, so wine prices are higher.

But ultimately, we may have no other choice.

Natural Wines: Is there a rule book?

Oh dear! The airwaves have recently been alive with invective concerning Natural Wines. Some columnists apparently don’t know what they’re talking about… Eek! In publishing this blog, I am there to be shot at! So on with the tin hat and here goes…

The most arresting paragraph I have read when looking at natural wine comes from Isabelle Legeron MW: “We live in a society where it is fashionable to wear farmer’s boots, and chit-chat at the local butcher’s resolves around how long your meat has been hung. Micro-breweries and espresso bars populate our urban landscapes, and yet, even against this new agro-chic backdrop, we still wash down our outdoor-reared sausages with the vinous equivalent of a battery chicken.”¹

Legeron goes on to say: “Most of the industry has become so mechanized and detached from its roots in the pursuit of intensification or textbook farming that most wine today has never seen a human hand.”²

I first became aware of natural wines in the early nineties through Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route – the most enjoyable wine book I’ve ever read. I had only just entered the trade then, and Lynch’s recollections of meeting Jules Chauvet didn’t really resonate. It has taken me until now… Fast learner, you might say, but actually I’m ahead of the curve if you agree with Alice Feiring’s observation on natural wine: “An overnight sensation that took about 40 years.”³

I recently read (or re-read) these fine books when looking to provide a bit of background information for some of our newer members of staff. In the end I came up with this six-point primer:

  1. What are we talking about?

Natural wines are made from grapes that are farmed organically or biodynamically but differ from thereon, in that the grape juice is then transformed into wine without adding or removing anything during the process.

  1. Great – so where can I find the rulebook?

There isn’t one. That’s the problem. Unlike Organic winemaking, which has strict certifications in every country of origin, no-one has codified the rules of natural winemaking.

  1. But it does sound similar to organic winemaking, doesn’t it?

Sort of, it’s just that natural winemakers go further than organic winemakers. After all, even organic winemaking allows for up to 50 additive and processing aids (though this is still much lower than in conventional winemaking). But probably the biggest thing which underpins natural winemakers is their opposition to sulphur dioxide (SO2). Sulphur is the kiss of death for them.

  1. So natural wine does not contain any sulphur?

Er, not quite. This is where it gets tricky. Sulphites are a natural side-effect of fermentation and are present in almost every wine. Legally, the message “contains sulphites” must appear on the label if the wine has more than 10mg/l of sulphites. So even natural wines may contain sulphites – but 10mg/l is a tiny amount.

  1. What’s the issue with sulphur, then?

The problem isn’t with that sulphite; the problem is with the other type: sulphur dioxide (SO2). In conventional winemaking this is often added by the winemaker as an anti-oxidant or preservative, either when the grapes have just been picked, or just before bottling, and the EU rules allow for 160mg/l for red, 210 mg/l for white. Natural winemakers will tell you that the SO2 changes the character of the wine, lobotomizes it, and masks inferior quality grapes. And may also give you a headache. But just to illustrate how tricky this debate is, Isabelle Legeron allows 70mg/l for wines included in her RAW tastings (so allowing for small additions.)

  1. Got it! So the key for natural wines is No Added Sulphur or extremely Low Sulphur?

Those are definitely the buzz phrases. But also remember that natural winemakers also love the slogan nothing added, nothing taken away. Key themes are:

  • Use only natural yeast, and not purchased (or inoculated) yeast. Nursery-purchased yeast (which has only been available during the last 60 years) can affect the wine by speeding up fermentation and homogenising the wine. One of the most famous is Yeast 71B, which used to be widely used in Beaujolais and produced the famous banana flavour. Using natural yeast – which is naturally present in the grape must and has come from the vineyard and the winery environment – allows the use of the phrase “wild ferment”.
  • No fining – by any of the methods, such as using isinglass, bentonite etc. But you run the risk of leaving impurities in the wine; some winemakers get round this by extra racking – and some equally argue that to use a traditional method like organic egg whites does not make their wines any less natural.
  • No filtration – as this “strips” the wine of character – but it may leave the wine cloudy.
  • Many naturalistas will only ferment and age in neutral containers i.e. no new oak, as that imparts its own flavour upon the wine.

Remember, this is for relative newbies to the trade.

A little history. Although some say that natural wines have been made for centuries in qvevri vessels in Georgia, the movement really began in the mid-1980s in France, partly in opposition to technology. Pesticides became widespread after World War II; commercial yeasts entered the market in the sixties. As Stephen Buranyi points out: “The modern winemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast, to antimicrobials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Wine is regularly passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with various gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.”⁴

But while a kind of antediluvian meme promulgated the movement, it was also inspired to combat what some saw as an insidious wine fashion. Robert Parker’s 100-point wine rating of initially largely French wines affected wine sales, and, some say, incited winemakers across the world to manipulate their product to fit his full-flavoured taste. Had wine lost its way?

The Godfather of this ‘80s natural winemaking movement (although he would never have described himself as such) was Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais producer (see Kermit Lynch above), who joined forces with another legendary figure, Marcel Lapierre, to make wines sans soufre. They were thought to be a bit bonkers; making wine without adding sulphur, the wine world’s equivalent of penicillin?

But during the 1990s, as word of their research spread, a number of wine bars sprung up in Paris specialising in these natural wines. They gained wider fame due to the writings of Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron, whose first RAW tasting took place in 2012. “What had once been the passion of a hard core group of eccentric winemakers in eastern France had, somehow, become cool.” (Stephen Buranyi)

And where was I? When modal challenged trad? When modernists dissed the enlightenment? Where was I during wine’s version of Derrida’s deconstruction? Well, I was working for a wine retailer, getting married, working for a wine importer, washing the dishes, moving house, becoming a wine buyer, going to the dentist, going to this funeral and that christening, selling wine to the supermarkets, moving house again, watching England get knocked out on penalties, selling wine to the sommeliers, reading about Basra and Helmand, Turkey Twizzlers and E numbers, cheering same sex marriage, talking about margins and marginal gains, taking two weeks in the Med, discussing screwcap against cork, heavy glass/light glass, watching us score nul points in Eurovision (why can’t we leave that instead?), marketing wine and drooling over data, always, always, always vaguely aware of this natural wine thingummy behaving like an irritating cousin, and yet avoiding it (or doing the responsible thing, depending on your point of view), until one morning I drew back the curtains expecting to see J.M.W. Turner and instead saw Banksy and thought: Oh.

Where was I? Not paying enough attention, perhaps? Guilty, M’Lud. Bang to rights.

This counterculture crusade, the equivalent of Rough Trade taking on EMI, accelerated in tandem with the likes of Slow Food, the Greens, Think Globally – Act Locally, Carbon Zero, Fridays for Future, Craft Beer, Artisanal Gin and the Occupy movement, along with an indie penchant for dissident or whacky labels. We might be getting ahead of ourselves here, but Legeron is keen to promote the principles of the movement. “There is so much more collaboration and communication amongst natural winemakers both in the same country and around the world, as it is still at such an early stage and everyone can learn from each other.” She reports a large and growing consumer base, with 80% of the audience at her Raw Wine fairs around the world being aged between 25 and 44. “We’re gaining critical mass, it’s not a fashion anymore. There’s a huge opportunity. Also by championing natural wine, we can have an impact on the environment.”⁵

But in the marketplace, the lack of definition is worrying. Time and again our sales teams tell me that the lack of “rules” is a real issue for them. And I know what they are taking about. Recently I visited some acheingly trendy London wine bars, all of them shouting their natural wine credentials, all of them reactionary by nature (excuse the pun). When questioned, each one of them had a different definition of natural, ranging from the fanatical “I won’t drink anything with more than 20g/l of sulphur” to the casual: “Oh I know the winemaker and he’s really careful so I call his wines natural.”

But Eric Asimov of The New York Times once countered: “This lack of definition, repeated in many other ways, seems to profoundly disturb the critics, yet perhaps it is one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans. In the same way that the Occupy Wall Street insurgency resists enumerating goals or anointing official representatives, natural-wine partisans refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument. That frustrates those who fear they will become targets if they do not subscribe to what they see as natural-wine dogma; hence the shrillness of their criticism.”⁶

Such as from Robert Parker: “We all know the type – saving the world from drinking good wine in the name of “vinofreakism.”⁷

Does he have a point? Well, there are some who will simply never get it (“Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all, the long and the short and the tall…”) In our tasting room we taste countless natural wines. First up, some of them are simply horrid. Acidic, foul-smelling, fizzy, the split second that you hold them in your mouth is a split second too long. Sometimes the nose is so awful that we simply throw them down the sink – and then apologise to the sink. Sorry, sink. One particular sample was so bad that the collective groans of the three of us brought people running to the room to see if we were okay. It is difficult to know what to make of these. Most are from potential new producers, and you have to wonder whether these are simply poor winemakers who are jumping on the bandwagon and using natural as their angle. We are also always mindful that some of these are tank samples (not that that should make as big a difference in a natural wine) and they may have been stored for a couple of weeks. And of course there are many conventional wines that make us equally wince, too. But still!

(And yet I still wonder whether an evangelist would say: “Ah, but this is terroir! This is exactly how it should be!”)

Others are simply a bit weird. Some seem to lack acidity, some a bit of depth (that may be the absence of oak) and some seem a bit one-dimensional. All of them without exception smell differently to their conventional equivalents. But hold on: what is an equivalent? And are they really weird? Or is it us? Or are we subconsciously thinking of the price point – which is usually higher than for conventional wines? Perhaps worried about storage? And what is conventional?

Then there are wines from our current producers which may or may not be natural. I always prefer to call them minimal intervention wines so as not to offend anyone. The likes of Larry Cherubino, Ocean Eight (Australia); Riccitelli, Zorzal (Argentina); Antoine Olivier, Naigeon, Gouffier (France); Ancilla Lugana, Roccolo Grassi (Italy); Lismore Estate (South Africa); Bodegas Viñátigo, Xosé Lois Sebio (Spain). We have many more. All of them share a philosophy based around allowing the vines to do their natural thing. But it may be that one of their vineyards is not biodynamic, that although they practice organic growing they are not yet certified, and that they may add in a touch of sulphur if they are shipping to the other side of the world. Or it may be that they simply do not want us to label their wines as natural (or organic) for fear of ending up in the Weird section. As Antoine Olivier said to us on our last visit to his cave in Santenay: “My father is a Christian, my mother is Jewish, so I cannot stand dogma. I adhere to organic rules but I don’t want to be certified. If I have mildew I want the ability to protect my vines.”

A bit of a plea for less extremism, perhaps? After all, not all conventional wines are bad, and, as Tim Atkin said (some time ago): “Blossom Hill and Château Lafite are both conventionally produced wines, but they don’t have a lot in common.”⁸

And yet.

To the right of me I have a bottle of 2018 Château de Grand Pré Morgon, made by a true natural zealot, Romain Zordan. We sampled the new vintage in our tasting room in beautiful downtown Luton three days ago. I brought the half-full bottle home and have had a glass with dinner over the last three nights. It tastes as good now as it did when first opened (not uncommon in natural wines.) I taste it again. It has a fresh nose of damson and raspberries. Young fruit, ripped straight off the bush. It has a kind of purity and vivacity; how can this be after three days? There is no trace of the banana yeast. In the mouth it has a simply amazing palate of crushed fruit, but running through it is a kind of steeliness that refreshes. Again and again.

This may be the freshest and most fruit-driven where did that come from? wine I have tasted in the last six months.

But.

It is cloudy.

And that is what will put some people off. Oh, it’s a natural wine.

But I am steadfast.

You see, to the left of me I have an award-winning Australian Shiraz. Conventionally made. Traditionally made. Call it what you like. Great producer. Full and rich in the mouth. Voluptuous and velvety. A touch of delicious sweetness on the finish. God this is good! When I first came into the trade, oak was everything. I judged a wine by that surge of sweetness, by that coating of toast, by that sweeping, Turandot-like roundness. Great with cheese ‘n onion crisps. A bottle for the first half and one for the second, with maybe another for extra time.

But that was then and this is now. And you know what, this Shiraz, while being gobsmackingly good, is not the one I want to drink. It seems to lack nerve, it seems to lack verve, it seems to lack steel. It satisfies but does not intrigue. It doesn’t haunt me. It doesn’t stop me in my tracks. When Brian Jones first took Keith Richards to his crash pad and put on some music, Richards said: “Crikey, who’s that?” “Robert Johnson,” said Jones. “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?” A stupefied Richards took some convincing that Johnson was doing it all by himself. Is this my Robert Johnson/Keith Richards What the… moment?

But here’s the thing. I now sometimes tire of Robert Johnson. He was my God not long ago. But I find myself agreeing with Roger Daltrey, who said in his recent biography (I’m paraphrasing here) that while the blues are great, after a while they can be a bit samey.⁹ Will I find these natural wines a bit samey? Will I tire of this steeliness, the haunting melody? Will I crave a sweetness fix as I kick off the top bend into the finishing straight? Or will my taste buds accept natural as being…natural. Will my tastes integrate or mature? (Though how mature do you want?)

Where do we go from here? In common with a lot of environmentally-inspired movements, the natural wine movement will continue to grow and may, I suppose, at some point be codified. Would that presage its decline? Would it no longer be seen as cutting edge, but mainstream? Johnny Rotten turning into Perry Como? Is it at a crossroads now, with the fashionistas in danger of over-running the evangelists? Actually, it’s almost certainly gone beyond that now, thank goodness. And in any case, the big gain for me is that natural winemakers appear to be influencing conventional winemakers, who may not be able to abandon all their methods, but who are slowly moving the needle along in that direction.

My Crossroads moment.

 

READING LIST

¹ Isabelle Legeron MW, Natural Wine, e-version, p13

² Isabelle Legeron MW, Natural Wine e-version, p18

³ Alice Feiring, Natural Wine for the People, e-version, p12

⁴ Stephen Buranyi, The Guardian, 15/5/2018

⁵ Richard Siddle, The Buyer, 10/7/2019

⁶ Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 24/1/2012

⁷ Alice Feiring, Naked Wine, e-version, p25

⁸ Tim Atkin website, 19/2/2011

⁹ Roger Daltrey, Thanks a lot Mr Kibblewhite

Kermit Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon in the Troodos Mountains

The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon, also known as the Frequency Illusion, is a cognitive bias which describes a tendency to keep seeing things, names or ideas, very soon after we have first met them. It was coined in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board.

Having just heard about the Baader-Meinhoff German terrorist group, he started to see Baader-Meinhoff everywhere. The experience is caused by two psychological processes. The first, selective attention, kicks in when you’re struck by something new; after that, you subconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result find it surprisingly often. The second process, confirmation bias, reassures you that each sighting is further proof that the thing has gained omnipresence.

And right now, standing in the vineyards of the Kyperounda winery in the heart of Cyprus, I am experiencing it.

It’s not so much a name or an idea. Rather, it is a year.

1969.

My only connection to Cyprus goes back to that year. I had a photograph. It was of my newly-married aunty Eileen and her husband, Dougie. He was in the RAF and had been posted to Cyprus. They had left home for the island only a few weeks before. The photograph shows them at dinner at a restaurant. On the back my aunty had scribbled a few sentences about how much she was loving Cyprus, but how much she was missing home. I think it made me cry a little. But what beguiled me was that they were eating outdoors. To an eight year-old growing up in Jarrow this was as exotic and as continental as it could possibly be. My aunty had joined the jet set and turned into Brigitte Bardot overnight. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the remains of the meal on their plates. What was this? It didn’t look like the kind of meat and potato dinners we ate at home. No, it looked … glamorous. (I now think it was langoustines). When the height of sophistication was two weeks in a concrete outrage on the Costa Brava, and when something weird called a croissant was making its first appearance in the relatively new phenomena of supermarkets, here was my aunty eating exotic food on a sun-kissed island in something called The Med. I took the photograph into school to impress. Left it lying around. “My aunty,” I would say to any kid who asked. No other comment was necessary, my eight-year-old mind felt.

The memory of that 1969 photograph is triggered by our host, Kyperounda winemaker Minas Mina, pointing to the top of Mount Troodos. “Over there is where the British barracks are,” he said. We pause only briefly (and I have my flashback), before Minas leads the charge back into the vineyards.

The thing about Kyperounda is that it has the highest vineyards in Europe at 1,400 metres; only Argentina has higher-sited vineyards in our portfolio, and I am so grateful for the cool of the altitude, as the sun is blazing. We are scrambling up and down hillsides thick with thorny vegetation, in which vines appear to be randomly mixed in with other green plants. “We use cover crops in the vineyard to encourage biomass and to keep things as natural as possible,” says Minas. We come across a vine so big it is almost a tree. I’ve never seen anything even resembling this before, and I christen it Hemingway’s Vine.

This is wild and earthy agriculture. There is little delineation between vineyard properties. Crops seem to merge into each other. I look through the binoculars to what look like peculiar lemon dots a few hundred yards away. Through the glasses I realise these are the bright yellow baskets into which Vietnamese grape-pickers, barely visible amidst the vegetation, are gathering the vintage. Definitely no machine harvesting in this vineyard.

Minas points to a slightly more uniform vineyard. The EPOS Chardonnay we had at dinner last night came from this vineyard, but sadly they lost the entire production this year because of hailstones. I marvel at the expense of working in such conditions. We climb back into the four wheel drive and as Minas drives back to the winery, he points to various plots of land and explains that he spends most of his winters scouring the land for vineyards he can purchase, but getting local farmers to sell is a very difficult job, even when they are not getting much money for their cops.

Sitting in the back seat, I hang on as Minas throws the vehicle around steep bends. My rucksack falls open and a paperback, which I bought to read on the plane, falls out. First Man is the biography of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on to the moon.

In 1969.

It is one of my first television memories. Shadowy, grainy, black and white pictures, radio static, repetitive bleeping of the transmitter; hypnotic. And even the eight year old could recognise the import of the eternally famous words: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was only much later that I realised that, famously, that is not what Armstrong said. He forgot to use the indefinite article; “a man…” became “man…” which is grammatically incoherent. At least that’s what I’d always thought. But the book is not clear on this. In it, Armstrong seems to be saying he might have said it: “Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn’t get picked up by the voice mike.”

I put the book back into my rucksack as we arrive back at the winery. Minas gives us a quick tour. Stylish and modern, the winery is built on three levels in order to take advantage of gravity to move the grape juice in the gentlest possible way. Kyperounda grows the usual western varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, but Steve and I are more interested in the native grapes. We are here to have a vertical tasting of the wonderful white wine we import, Petritis, made from Xynisteri, and to put together two single varietal wines using Maratheftiko and Lefkada, two red grapes which are almost always blended.

In the tank room we taste a few Xynesteris. One is absolutely fabulous and its zinging acidity leaps out of the glass. Minas tells us it will obtain its complexity only after sitting for six months on the lees. With a glint in his eye, he then gives us some light coloured juice and are asked what it is. Steve and I both wonder about fermenting Chardonnay, and are put out when we realise it is Lefkada which is being made into rose.

Upstairs, we get started on the Petritis, a wine which works really well for us. A 2018 is a little closed, but with attractive stone fruit, a touch of beeswax, lovely mouthfeel; a 2017 is quite exotic – honey and banana, a touch of oxidation – but quite attractive, adding to the character; a 2015 is sadly oxidised; a 2014 is very good: again, a touch of semi oxidative character, reminding me of some Adriatic whites; a 2010 is well developed and showing a bit of age, but has masses of character – again I get a beeswax and honey aroma and quite sweet finish. It reminds me of an aged Grüner Veltliner; finally, a 2007 is the colour of Sauternes: toffee, rich and honeyed in the mouth, marzipan and fruitcake. Amazing!

As Minas sets up the red blending sessions, I wander out to the terrace and take in the spectacular view. You can see all the way down to the fleshpots of Limassol, some 25 miles away.

The other book I read on the plane on the way over to Larnaka was Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. On 26th September 1969 the Beatles released Abbey Road. Reading Penman’s wonderful book, I came across his thoughts on Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight. I had to put the book down and run the song through my mind. It is the delicious climax of the epic second side, and what always gets me is the change from A-minor to D-minor on Sleep pretty darling, do not cry… McCartney pitches it perfectly and whenever I hear it, wherever I hear it, I have to stop and pause. Imagine being able to create something so beautiful.

Minas signals for me to come back inside. Steve is rubbing his hands as we begin our tasting.

First up, a selection of Maratheftiko vintages:

A 2018 is fresh, vibrant, fruit pastille, lightish; a 2017 is oaky and just a touch volatile; a second 2017 is a little bretty and definitely not as stylish as the first two; another 2007 is a completely different animal – a big brute, quite tannic, huge finish. We think for a while. What does this need? Then we try a 2018 Syrah. Yes, this might do the trick, with its immediate white pepper appeal.

The first blend Steve puts together comprises 90% of the first and fourth Maratheftiko samples and 10% of the Syrah. Doesn’t work: the Syrah is too dominant. For the second blend he removes 5% of the Syrah. It tastes like a good wine but after a while we conclude that it is losing its character. Steve tries a third blend, this time with 80% Maratheftiko and 20% of Syrah. Mistake. It has lost all of its character. We scratch our heads for a while, and then Steve remembers that he has tried a Cabernet Sauvignon on previous visits. Luckily, Minas has quite a lot of back vintages, so we happily work our way through a vertical tasting. A 2004 has a slightly “sour” nose and is too aggressive; a 2005 is fresher and fruitier, well balanced with a lovely fruity finish; a 2007 is very different to the others – very fresh and very herby with a high phenolic content. So we take 85% of the Maratheftiko blend, 10% of the Syrah and add 5% of the 2005 Cabernet. Bingo! This retains the vivacity and character of the Maratheftiko on the nose, but has also got structure and a touch of tannin on the finish. A lovely, lovely wine. High fives all round.

Minas clears up the debris of the tasting and now Steve and I both I go out to the terrace to take an espresso.

It was a few years after its release before I got round to Abbey Road. No, the cultural event of 1969 for me was Where Eagles Dare (although it had been released on 4th December of the previous year.) I must have seen this about eight times. For many years I was one of those saddos who would use “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” as a faux greeting, before Geoff Dyer used the phrase as the title of his quirky book about the film. The memory came to me when I was standing on Mount Troodos earlier. Kyperounda ticks all the boxes, I thought: minerality, indigenous grapes, island locale, altitude – and it was the latter which jolted me back to 1969. Our forthcoming Q3 promotional theme is to be called Altitude! (“…and we must keep the exclamation mark…” I told our Head of Marketing). Standing on Mount Troodos, shivering, I thought that a still from the film’s opening sequence, showing the British commandoes flying over the Alps, would make a great background picture, and I gleefully texted head office. (But such are the lies that memory plays on you. Later at my hotel, when I downloaded the introduction from YouTube, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I’d remembered, and the photography was compromised by those odd Hammer House of Horror titles. Now I would have to go back to the Head of Marketing with my tail between my legs.)

I am jolted out of my memories by Steve. “Back to work,” he says.

Lefkada, then. We has less to play with here. A 2018 is fresh, minty, herby, with good acidity. A 2007, by contrast, is an absolute monster, very dark and oaky and blackcurranty. Steve asks Minas to blend 85% of the 2017 with 15% of the 2018. This is far too heavily balanced towards the heavy 2017, and I much prefer the 2018 wine. Steve agrees, so we then take 80% of the 2017, add 10% of the 2018, and then 10% of our favourite 2005 Cabernet. Nailed it! Really good balance.

Before we leave, we taste some examples of Commandaria, possibly the oldest type of wine still in production. During the Third Crusade, Commandaria was served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre. Traditionally, this has been made as a fortified wine, but Kyperounda’s is an exceptional example of an unfortified Commandaria, made from 85% Xynisteri and 15% Mavro. Grapes are dried in the sun for twelve days (Minas had earlier shown us the ageing tables downstairs in the winery.) This shrivels them and concentrates sugars, flavour compounds and acids. A slow, cool fermentation follows in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then matured in used 225 litre French oak barrels for six years. The wines we taste, from 2005 and  2006, are unctuous and sweet, with lovely toffee apple character and masses of raisiny fruit.

I finger my rucksack as we drive to our hotel and I can’t help rifling through the Armstrong book again. Maybe it’s because it is the 50th anniversary, but I find myself fascinated by the issue of the missing “a.” I had read somewhere that despite his initial claim that the mike may simply not have picked up the word, Armstrong had acknowledged since that he couldn’t hear himself utter the word in the audio recording of the transmission.

In my room, waiting to go to dinner, I do a quick trawl of the internet. Almost immediately I have the answer. In 2006, I read on one of the many Armstrong/Moonwalk sites, a computer programmer called Peter Shann Ford downloaded the audio recording and analysed the statement with software that allows disabled people to communicate via computers using their nerve impulses. In a graphical representation of sound waves of the famous sentence, Ford said he found evidence that the missing “a” had been spoken after all: It was a 35-millisecond-long bump of sound between “for” and “man” that would have been too brief for human ears to hear.

So Armstrong did get the phrase right!

This somehow seems to energize me and I gush out this information to Steve in the bar over a beer. He obviously thinks I’ve lost the plot and suggests I drink something stronger. I scan the shelves and see a bottle of Commandaria. How time changes over a 50-year period. Commandaria may be facing a difficult future, as it is a style of wine which has gone out of fashion and Minas told us that not many new winemakers wish to take up the good fight. The future of the island – the future of Kyperounda – may lie in the beautiful crisp white wines they make, such as our Petritis or indeed the red blends of grapes which a curious world is waiting to discover. Commandaria is of a different era. It reminds me a bit (and unfairly) of Emva Cream and Bristol Cream, those staples of British Christmas households in the sixties which seemed to me then to define exoticism – until I saw that picture of my auntie Eileen.

But unbelievably this 1969 thing will not go away. In the restaurant they’re playing Riders on the Storm, which seems a bit incongruous. This is Steve’s and my era and we chat about those old rock stars. “Remember him… remember her… wow, he was good…” But their hedonistic lifestyles, while we wouldn’t have minded some of it, also came with occasional tragic consequences. We reminisce on how many of the died before their time. Surfeit of excess. Brian Jones, he was the starting point wasn’t he? In 1969. And then there was Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1970, and Jim Morrison himself in 1971.

Amazing. A different era. Doesn’t happen these days.

And yet.

Amy.

Who died within the last decade and joined Jones, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison as a member of the 27 Club: the age at which they passed away.

We raise a glass.

It brings a tear to the eye.

A different era.

Sleep pretty darling, do not cry…

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.

A voyage (in a parachute)

“But where’s the music?” I ask.

 

Rafael Urrejola looks at me quizzically.

 

I put down my glass. “I read in Tim Atkin’s recent report that you have one of the great Spotify accounts and that you always have music in the background.”

 

He laughs out loud. He has an open and friendly face and the grin is infectious. “I will get it.”

 

He leaves the spotless tasting room and returns a few minutes later with a Bluetooth speaker which he hooks up to his mobile. Second later Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger are belting out “(You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back” and I am doing a kind of jig while tasting a lovely Chardonnay. When I was a kid in the seventies and this song was on the radio we would all shout “BING BANG BONG” at the end of every “I’m gonna walk an don’t look back…”

(Throughout the tasting, if any wine hits the highest of heights – a ten-pointer – it gets a BBB for Bing Bang Bong in my notebook.)

 

I am in the tasting room of Undurraga, brought here in part by a longing to taste through the Terroir Hunter range with Rafael, named as one of South America’s top ten winemakers in Tim’s Decanter report a couple of weeks previously. Terroir Hunter must be the most accoladed wine range in Chile, I thought, as I drove down to the Talagante winery, before ducking past the tourists to meet with Rafael.

 

Leyda is where he made his mark and Undurraga were early pioneers – “It’s great that we have our own estate in Leyda as grapes there are not cheap” – but he is now keen to talk about other, more recent discoveries in Cauquenes and Itata. He also mentions Limari; only Tabali has more experience here, he thinks.

We go through the Undurraga U range which he oversees. All the wines are sourced from either their own vineyards or from long-term contracted partner growers. They are all pristine and do exactly what they say on the tin. I check the prices; they are also remarkably good value-for-money.

 

Undurraga is undergoing a renaissance after various ownership issues and this is my first in-depth tasting for quite some time. What have I been missing? The Aliwen and Sibaris ranges are full of lovely lovely wines.

 

Aliwen range
  • Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah 2018: this has some guts. The Syrah seems very upfront – “from Cauquenes,” says Rafael.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2018: fabulous nose. Tannins firm but not overpowering.

 

Sibaris range
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Leyda: epic nose, amazing length. Still a bit closed (just bottled). A combination of clones (Clone Davis 1, known for its very minerally flavours and Clone 242 (French clone) which ensures complexity. Grassy. “Leyda is giving the saltiness and minerality and salinity from the Humboldt current,” Raffa explains. This is a Bing Bang Bong wine.
  • Black Edition Cinsault 2018: a heady wine, curranty, liquorice, lime and tar. Very long finish. Red fruit. Pear, very herbal, has lots of acidity. Minty.

Now we come to the Terroir Hunter range. I’ve been waiting for this!

 

“With TH I am not looking for the mainstream market. I want this to be a “proposal” wine,” says Rafael. “Edgy but not radical, a discussion wine.”

 

All these wines are made in small 300- to 500-case lots from diverse grapes and areas. Tim Atkin calls TH “a range of brilliant, site-specific wines. Nor is this entirely down to the quality of the grapes; Urrejola’s winemaking touch is gentle and unobtrusive, yet still apparent.”

 

“TH is all about drinkability and minerality,” says Rafael. “I call this the “One-More-Glass” range.”

 

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Leyda: the first Leyda wine they produced. From granite, not chalk. Of the 140 hectares they have in Leyda, around 5½ are on limestone. “We always search for this soil in the vineyard.”
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Limari: bigger and a touch sweeter than Leyda.
  • Chardonnay 2016, West Limari: alluvial soil in the Quebrada Seca, sometimes referred to as the Chilean Montrachet. Concrete eggs. Native yeast. Open and serious nose. Flinty and fruity, a great combination from the lees, but bold in its acidity. Rafael thinks Limari is THE place for Chardonnay in Chile.
  • Pinot Noir 2016, Leyda: alluvial soil. Three blocks of granite. French clones, southerly exposure. Windy, so cooler. Whole bunch fermentation. Has wonderful tension on the palate and crunchy berries on the palate.
  • Syrah 2015, Leyda: WHA!!!!!!!!!! Dry farmed. Black olives, huge mouthful of fruit. Staggering complexity, masses of ripe fruit, acidity, tannins. Bing Bang Bong.
  • Carmenere 2016, Peumo: the best Carmenere vineyard in Chile, according to Rafael. Deep red soils, long ripening season which is exactly what Carmenere needs. Rafael thinks that everyone will change their mind about Carmenere. “Eventually they will see that it is a grape with huge minerality and fruitiness, rather than the old- fashioned coffee/mocha flavours.” Bing Bang Bong.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Alto Maipo: typical. This is the coolest vineyard in Maipo. 30 year-old Cabernet, alluvial soil, 800m altitude. Red fruit and graphite. The tension and grip keeps the wine in check and stops it from becoming overpowering.
  • Cabernet Franc 2015, Maipo: much cleaner and more elegant than most Cab Francs. I might not recognise it as Cab Franc! Rafael: “This is more Maipo than Cabernet Franc. You get great structure but you don’t necessarily get that Loire acidity. But do you need it?”
  • Rarities Garnacha Carinena Monastrell 2015, Cauquenes: 500 dozen made. Grafted on to 100-year-old Pais to get the benefits of really deep roots. Fabulous salinity and saltiness.

I am reeling, but there’s no time to stop because we move on to the Founders Collection, for decades the more traditional range in Undurraga. The Carmenere 2016 from 40 year-old vines in Colchagua has amazing sweet fruit, with a touch more richness and body and less minerality. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 from 35 year-old vines is about as typical a Maipo as you can get. Big fruit. Rafael explains that this is the most traditional of all their wines.

 

The Trama Pinot Noir 2015 shows big and old fashioned Leyda fruit. Two hectares on limestone. Very herbal and salty notes. Neutral oak. Eggs. Has the sweetness of the New World. In a previous tasting at Prowein Steve Daniel had raved about this. The Vigno 2015, a blend of Carignan and Cinsault, has an amazing nose. Minerality and fruit. Black olives. Almost painful to hold. From dry farmed Cauquenes wines. Whole cluster fermentation.

 

We finish with the Altazor, for which the great Alvaro Espinoza still consults. Sourced from the best part of Pirque, this Cabernet Sauvignon has lovely soft fruit. Very soft. Earthy, but not bloodthirsty. The name was inspired by Vicente Huidobro, the only Chilean poet other than Pablo Neruda that I’ve heard of, whose most famous poem translated means Voyage in a Parachute.

 

I’ve not been in a parachute but I’ve been on quite a voyage!

The Beauty of San Marzano Wines

Driving home from Gatwick airport I’m feeling an element of what some might refer to as the “holiday blues”. Yet I’m returning from an important, three day work trip to our Puglian wine supplier, San Marzano, where we hosted some of our Brighton-based customers; The Coal Shed, The Salt Room, 64 Degrees, Murmur and Chilli Pickle.

 

The tiredness, grey skies and torrential rain certainly doesn’t help matters when you land and I remember a comment made by San Marzano’s Export Manager, Angelo Cotugno the night before; “I’m not sure how you can live in the UK, I will never leave Puglia”. Having now visited this sun drenched part of the world I can understand what he means.

 

Day one

On arrival in Bari, Puglia’s capital city, its importance as an economic hub is very apparent. We drive past large, colourful warehouses one after the other, after the other.  The vast land stretches out; there are none of the rolling hills which I’ve become accustomed to seeing in other winemaking areas of Italy. Olive trees and grape vines are in abundance (as are the crazy drivers).

 

The sun is shining fiercely and we’re already talking about what wine we fancy drinking with lunch – the crisp and aromatic ‘Talo’ Verdeca or the fruity ‘Tramari’ Primitivo Rosé are both popular contenders but for Chilli Pickle owner, Alun Sperring, who prefers a red, a glass of ‘Il Pumo’ Negroamaro is high on his agenda. The beauty of Negroamaro, one of Italy’s oldest grape varieties, is that its acidity keeps it elegant and refreshing, even on the hottest days.

 

We are all surprised at just how flat the land is and we discover that only three out of our group of 12 have visited this region. Despite several of us holding some level of wine certification, our knowledge of Puglia and its sub-regions seem limited. 10 years ago Puglia took up just a few lines within the diploma syllabus – being the largest wine producing region of Italy it was famed for bulk, blending wine, as opposed to the quality DOC/DOP wines that the likes of our supplier, San Marzano are leading the way with.

After a few hours experiencing the incredible Puglian culture at Canneto beach club where we could enjoy all of San Marzano’s wines , we make our way to dinner at the 4 Seasons restaurant in a beautiful town called Martina Franca – one of the highest towns in Puglia where the native grape variety Verdeca is grown. The flat roofed houses, each have Pumos decorating their balconies – these urn like ceramic ornaments from which San Marzano’s ‘Il Pumo’ range of wines are named after, are a sign of prosperity and luck.

 

We are treated to array of local dishes; plenty of Burrata, orecchiette pasta and sweet, local tomatoes for which the area is so famed for. The cellar here is full of aging Negroamaro – a reminder that this area can produce amazing, age-worthy wine at usually half the price of some more traditional Italian fine wines.

 

To end the night we receive a heartfelt speech from our Business Development Director, Joe Wadhams, thanking our customers and San Marzano for a spectacular first day – their Puglian hospitality certainly exceeds our expectations.

 

Day two

After a night’s sleep in the beautiful Relais Histò hotel in Taranto we set off early to experience some more Puglian culture. This time we board a private catamaran bound for the Salento Peninsula to discover the beautiful coastline around the heel of the Italian boot. The proximity to the sea is a constant reminder of how San Marzano can successfully produce wines of such elegance in this hot, flat setting. The constant cool sea breeze helps to retain the acidity in the grapes while the sunny conditions ensure plenty of fruit and ripe tannin – a perfect combination for age worthy wines.

As we board the boat, we are handed a glass of San Marzano’s ‘Tramari’ Rose – made from 100% Primitivo grown in the premium Salento sub-region of Puglia, this is the perfect early afternoon aperitif and pairs well with the octopus salad and seafood paella for lunch.

 

As we sail out further, we pass several ancient watch towers; Puglia’s strategic position and fertile soils made it an appealing target for colonization with numerous invasions from different parts of the world.

 

In the evening we travel to the small town of Grotagllie where we have dinner on the rooftop terrace of the Monun Hotel. This time the dishes are a modern take of the traditional fare – tomatoes stuffed with ricotta, raw sea bass with peach, seared Tuna steak and chilli infused ice cream. This fusion of new and old reminds me of San Marzano’s philosophy: “every day tradition and modernity”.

 

San Marzano was formed in 1962 by 19 local growers from the village San Marzano di San Giuseppe who had been growing vines for generations. The winery now deals with over 1,300 growers whose vineyards often cover no more than one hectare. The winegrowing here goes back centuries, yet the winemaking and approach is modern and forward-thinking.

 

Day three

On our final day we went to San Marzano‘s winery in the heart of the region. In many ways, we questioned if we needed to go, as we tasted virtually the whole range over the previous two days and once you’ve visited one winery you’ve seen them all, right? Well, we were wrong! The winery was an extremely interesting place to visit – first of all 70% of it is built underground; this is to maintain a constant cool temperature of 18C year round. In the cool cellar, 300 year old amphoras can be seen tucked away at the end of each row, alongside a couple of modern, concrete versions.

The rest of the cellar is full of oak barriques, a mixture of French, American and Russian oak depending on the wine inside. Back on ground-level, we walk amongst various sized stainless steel tanks and horizontal rotating fermenters – the majority of wineries use vertical  versions of these but the horizontal fermenters ensure a more even skin maceration during fermentation which is important for colour and complexity in red wines.

 

Before moving into the tasting room we’re introduced to San Marzano‘s Presidente, Francesco Cavallo, who has been at the forefront of the company’s success, continuing the passion and spirit of its founders since he was appointed in 1982. San Marzano‘s flagship wine, Sessantanni, which we taste shortly after is made in honour of these founders. The grapes for this 100% Primitivo are picked from 60 year old vines growing in the renowned Primitivo di Manduria DOP region. It’s full of lush black forest fruit, with underlying notes of fennel and herbs, and an extremely long finish.

 

Before we leave, Angelo mentions the new project that San Marzano are working on – Masseria Samia, a sustainable vineyard where they have lovingly restored its 16th century farmhouse which will eventually be open to friends and guests visiting the winery.

 

The atmosphere at San Marzano isn’t that of a large scale 15 million bottle operation. Their ethos and approach has an inclusive family feel, and their wines, just something special to share.

Argentina: Who cares if I miss the plane?

When you get to the last day of a two-week buying trip on the other side of the world, you just want to get home. You’re thinking of getting this last appointment out of the way and getting to the airport.

 

Well, banish the thought – we are here to visit Riccitelli!

 

I always knew that working with Matias would be an interesting gig; during my time representing Bodega Norton I worked with his slightly bonkers dad, Jorge, one of the funniest men in the wine trade. Today, as Matias is slumming it in Brazil, I have an appointment with a third member of the family, the vivacious Veronica.

 

“Jeem!” she shouts and rushes towards me with eyes that could melt an igloo. She gives me a conspiratorial smile and lugs me into a winery which is compact and modern and clean. But you don’t really notice any of this. Instead, your senses are caressed by the sounds of laughter – real belly laughter – and loud Latino jazz-funk which dances through the open plan space that is at once a staff room and a tasting room. There is a lovely chaos here. They are having a staff meeting to the sound of Cumbia Colombia in a room adorned with pop art by the local artist Federico Calandria. You think to yourself: This is exactly where I would like to work. This is a place of hugs and kisses rather than handshakes. Day-glow Mendoza-style. And very loud shirts.

The winery is located in Las Compuertas, the highest part of Lujan de Cuyo at about 1100 meters above sea level. To the south is the Rio Mendoza, to the east is Vistalba and to the north is Chacras de Coria. They also work with partners in the Uco Valley who have plots of land in Gualtallary, Chacayes (very trendy right now), Altamira and La Carrera.

 

But for all the modernity you have to remember that they have some history here. The Malbec vines surrounding the vineyard were planted in 1927. Because of their success (the winery has a capacity of 250,000 litres but they are producing 400,000 bottles per year), they have to first harvest and ferment the whites and rosés, then move them out and use the tanks for the reds. Veronica shows me the stainless steel square-shaped open top fermenters that Matias himself designed (to save space, as round tanks take up more room – but also to allow the workers to jump in and tread the grapes.) But they really need to increase capacity. Whatever they do, you know they will do it with a sense of elan and fun.

 

I won’t repeat all of my tasting notes, because they would seem a bit toadying. But here are some highlights:

 

Hey Rosé! Malbec 2019 is looking fresh and lively, with a smidgeon of lavender shimmying through the soft strawberries.

 

Take a look at the De La Casa labels: you’d think there’s a bit of Quentin Tarantino in there, but they were designed by local artists. The Blanco de la Casa 2018 is a blend of 40% Sauvignon Blanc (Gualtallary, calcareous soils at 1400 metres), 40% Semillon (La Consulta, sandy soil) and 20% Chardonnay (La Carrera at 1700 metres). It is a rapacious mouthful, a touch, nay, a hint of pineapple, but with lively bounce-of-the-wall acidity. And they call this their house wine, for Heaven’s sake.

 

They have renamed the Riccitelli Vineyard Selection range as the Riccitelli Viñedos de Montaña range which makes sense. The Chardonnay 2018, from 50% used oak and 50% concrete tank, is so fragrant and elevated that you might be in Puligny territory. There is a touch of (very expensive) ice cream sundae, but the overall impression is one of raciness and verve (and it reminds me of another of our wines, Ocean Eight’s Verve Chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsular.)

 

I am already in danger of deliberately missing my plane home. That would be a terrible shame. Yup, a terrible shame.

 

The Patagonia Old Vines Semillon 2018, from 75-year-old vines in the Rio Negro, is utterly compelling, full and rich, but in no way overpowering; it leaves you pleading for more.

 

I taste a Sauvignon Blanc 2018, their first harvest of this wine, destined for an amazingly-designed range called Vinos de Finca. Goodness me – you what? From Mendoza vineyards, this leaps out if the glass with a stunning intensity that is almost painful but at the same time heavenly to taste. Blimey, how many more ranges is he going to invent?

 

Veronica keeps giggling at my reaction, like she’s saying: Yeah, I know, ridiculous isn’t it!”

 

But surely she is going to bring something up which doesn’t hit the mark, falls a bit short, promises more than it delivers. Could this be the one that breaks the sequence? But, no, this one is brilliant, too. What about that one? Nope, that’s brilliant as well. Crikey, surely something’s going to disappoint…

 

On to the reds. We start with a couple of the new Riccitelli Viñedos de Montaña (ex-Vineyard Selection) wines.

 

The Viñedos de Montaña Malbec 2017, from Gualtallary fruit, is classic Malbec, dark and brooding, a hint of the earth, dark plums.

 

Then we come to a mind-bender: the Viñedos de Montaña Cabernet Franc 2015 which we have stocked for some years but which I haven’t tasted for a few months. This pulls out all the stops, with a heavenly, subtle nose of brioche, oak and currants. It lasts forever, a lingering flavour of herbs. Now I know what they mean when they tell me Cabernet Franc is the grape of region, with this being sourced 50% from Chacayes and 50% from Campo de Los Andes.

 

This is a Thursday afternoon in a winery by the foothills of the Andes and the sun is shining. The wine is flowing and the music is contagious. I will ask for their Spotify Playlist – but will it sound the same in Romford?

 

Now comes a new wine, a Vinos de Finca Malbec 2016. This is a more lighter(ish) style of Malbec, in contest to the Viñedos de Montaña version. This needs food, but its beautiful acidity would go really well with any kind of meat. We want more more more of this. “That’s the idea,” says Veronica. With a certain insouciance.

 

We now have an interesting contract between the Apple Doesn’t Fall… Bonarda 2017 and a more pricey Vinos de Finca Bonarda 2017, from Vistalba fruit. We stock the Apple and this shows lovely red and black cherries and good acidity. It is an easy drink to understand. The Vistalba, however, is a different animal altogether. From 114-year old vines, this has lovely anise wrapping itself around cherry red. There is a hint of mint, too. This is hugely complex with a touch of garrigue. But would we sell more of this at a higher price than we would the Apple?

I ask for Veronica to pose with the bottles and rather sheepishly she does so. The labels scream come-and-get-me and are so brilliantly gorgeous you want to drink all of their contents.

 

The Republica Malbec 2016 is the star of the show. From fruit drawn entirely from around the winery at Las Compuertas, this is like walking across a carpet of violets; so incredibly floral with soft sweet tannins. “Soft, soft, very soft,” says the admiring Veronica. “People say the Uco Valley is the future for Malbec. And we agree that parts of the valley do make very good wine. But we have to stand up for our own vineyards. We are Mendozinians and we must shout about it.” The multi flagged label is a tribute to the town’s forefathers: French, Spanish and, particularly for the Riccitelli’s, Italian. “This is our homage to our heritage.”

 

I am almost sated but there is one more to go; the Riccitelli & Father 2015, which consists of 80% Malbec from 1927 ungrafted vines in Las Compuertas and 20% Cabernet Franc from Chacayes in the Uco Valley. This is redcurrants mostly, a big gushing waterfall of them, and with a lovely soft coating of anise on the finish.

 

And, sadly, now I really do have to dash to the airport and leave behind this fabulous and exuberant city. Veronica has proved a wonderfully vibrant host. Now imagine if Matias had also been here with her: I’d never have left!

 

Sitting in the departure lounge, it’s easy to remember the warmth of the visit and the slightly giddy atmosphere and the sheer jollity of Riccitelli. But actually that would miss the point. Because underneath the bonhomie is an acute mind at work. Matias Riccitelli lives and dreams his work. And in case you want to evidence about how much he immerses himself in every aspect of his wines, take a look at the video about the making of the labels for the De La Casa range: that’s him in the red and black checked shirt. The winemaker.

For more information on any wines from Matias Riccitelli, please speak to your account manager.

Argentina: Bittersweet Symphony

Doña Paula is at the forefront of wine and soil research in Argentina.

 

Over the years they have conducted trials in 700 soil pits in various fields.

  • What does each type of soil give to each grape, to each wine?
  • Is soil the biggest factor in a wine’s tannic structure?
  • Do the most restrictive soils, whether they are less deep or have a higher stone content or have a layer of calcium carbonate limiting the root’s growth, produce a bigger concentration in the wine?

 

I am standing beside one of the soil pits with Marcos Fernandez, Chief Winemaker at Doña Paula. We are in the middle of their famous Alluvia vineyard in Gualtallary. “Alluvia is rocky and with a high chalk content. This gives excellent acidity and very good tannin structure.” He crumbles the soil while I snap away with the Nikon.

Climbing out of the pit, Marcos picks up a stick and draws a very rough map in the soil. “Gualtallary is shaped like a cone, see. And this vineyard is right in the middle.” On my previous travels through Tupungato other winemakers had sometimes pointed out the vineyard to me as we passed. “That’s Doña Paula’s Alluvia Vineyard,” they would say in hushed tones.

 

But even within the vineyards there are differences. We jump in the four wheel drive and we career around the vineyard. In the southernmost part Marcos shows me Malbec bush vines in stony calcium carbonate soil. Then, after a few minutes of bumpy riding, we get to the northern extremity. Here the vines are Guyot-trained. “Here we have less stony soil and a touch more clay and sand.”

Back to the four-wheel. “We pick by spots and not by rows, using GPS. We are trying to identify every little spot. Here, this is Block 10. We only realised in 2015 how good this was, so we started vinifying it on its own. Previously it had gone into the Estate wines.”

 

We look at some of the vines. “We are removing some Chardonnay and replacing with Cabernet Franc.” (More testimony of how well-regarded that grape is in these parts!)

 

On the drive up to their home vineyard at Ugarteche, Marcos explains: “We are picking earlier, getting less extraction, toning down the oak.” He pauses, strokes his chin. “At some point in Argentina we lost the ability to do different things. But we are now arriving at the first point in the history of fine winemaking in Argentina. Right now.”

When we arrive at Finca El Alto in Ugarteche it is already dark. In the tasting room, set up in the middle of the vineyards, we are joined by Eduardo Alemparte, the group’s Viticulture Director.

 

It is a huge tasting. We start with the Paula range, going through a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. All are tasting spot-on, especially the Chardonnay. Marcos explains that many of their export countries prefer some oak, especially China and some mid-European countries, but he keeps this to a minimum for our market and the USA. The Malbec is also looking very good. This undergoes a low temperature fermentation at 22 degrees, compared to the 28 degrees for the Estate Malbec. It has masses of yellow plums and what Marcos refers to as “high intensity” aromas.

 

Of the estate wines, a 2017 Estate Chardonnay has a lovely rich flavour; this has more than a nod towards the Napa.

 

Marcos tells me he is very happy with a 2018 Estate Riesling, which has lovely primary fruit characteristics and none of the off-putting aromas I occasionally get with this grape. There is a lovely touch of honey on the finish.

 

The 2018 Estate Malbec from Gualtallary sees 12 months in French oak and is memorably described by Marcos as tasting “like those juices you get at the end of a really good asado.”

 

The 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Luyan du Cuyo, as Gualtallary is too cold. It has voluptuous fruit and a touch of tar.

 

We now come to an interesting tasting of two wines, the Blue Edition and the Black, both from 2017. Both have over 50% of Malbec, but the blue is then blended with Pinot Noir and Bonarda, whereas the Black has Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot added in. I prefer the Blue Edition, as I did when I first tasted these in London 18 months ago. It has more elegance and panache than the slightly chunkier Black.

 

We pause for a few minutes to clean the glasses. I look out at the night. It looks eerie and our little haven would feel quite romantic were it not for the fact that I am spitting and slurping with two blokes.

Marcos sets up the stylish Altitude wines, all named after the altitude of the vineyards: 969, 1100 and 1300. This is a fascinating tasting. The 2018 969 (55% Petit Verdot, 40% Bonarda, 5% Tannat) is sourced from the vineyard in which we sit. It has a beautiful mulberry nose, wonderful texture with a certain grippiness, and mouth-watering acidity. The 2017 1100 (60% Malbec, 30% Syrah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) is sourced from three blocks of the Los Indios Estate, in Altamira in the southern part of the Uco Valley. This has gorgeous mocha and chocolate flavours, with a hint of vanilla. It is more rounded than the 969. The 2017 1350 (50% Cabernet Franc, 45% Malbec, 5% Casavecchia – a native of Campania) is a more tannic and bigger beast. Dark flavours of tar and liquorice abound. We all think this needs a bit more time.

 

I keep going back to the 969, which is my favourite wine of the tasting. (Later I decide it is my favourite wine of the entire trip.) Goodness, the acidity running through this gives it a wonderful saline quality. Time and again I keep going back. How apt that on the day that Jagger and Richards end their lawsuit with the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft over Bittersweet Symphony, I get the same bittersweet tastes from this amazing wine. The bitter comes via the acidity of the grapes from their altitude and soil, and the sweetness comes from grapes which were picked at exactly the right minute of the right hour of the right day, and then handed over to a master craftsman. This is Fernandez’s masterpiece.

 

Now we come to the parcels of Malbec from individual plots:

 

The 2014 El Alto comes from this, their home vineyard, and is made from 42 year-old vines. Like the other two parcel wines, this is in French oak for 22 months. Curiously, it reminds me of a very good Chianti, with that odd boot polish smell I sometimes find in the Tuscan classics.  The 2014 Los Indios comes from Altamira in the Uco Valley and seems a touch more elegant, with redcurrants to the fore. Finally, the 2014 Alluvia comes from the last vineyard we visited, in Gualtallary. Wow, this has a gorgeous nose. Strawberries and a touch of umami. Lovely.

What a tasting this has been! Now, almost exhausted, we turn to the flagship Selección de Bodega Malbec from the 2016 vintage. 100% of the grapes are sourced from the Alluvia vineyard; 60% guyot-trained block 10 and 40 % bush vines. Lovely aromas of damson, violets and crushed strawberries tempts me to keep nosing. On the palate it is beautifully smooth and rounded. It’s easy to see why Tim Atkin gave this 95 points a month earlier. Marcos and Eduardo purr longingly. I nod in agreement. But I keep going back to that 969.

 

And then I go back again.

 

PS. If anyone is interested in reading about Doña Paula extensive vineyard research they can find more information at http://donapaula.com/terroir-in-focus/.

 

For more information on any wines from Doña Paula, please speak to your account manager.

Argentina: A poetic Pasionado

I have often thought that winemakers have a touch of the poet about them: working late into the night, fashioning lyrical liquid from the heart of the land, depicting their wines with expressive passion and a touch of romance. But the Andeluna winemaker, Manuel González, really is a poet. His words adorn the labels on the great Pasionado range, and he has had books published. I am in awe!

 

Andeluna was conceived in 2003 and was the brainchild of Ward Lay, the heir to Frito-Lay business. With an expert team on hand, including Michel Rolland, Lay decided to invest in the best winelands in Argentina: the Uco-Gualtallary Valley.

The project is now in the hands of the Barale family, the Brazilian-based energy giants. They run the winery on the principles of its founder: with a respect for people, ideas and the environment. Hans Vinding-Diers is the consultant who works with Manuel.

 

The day is bright and the view towards the Andes from the winery is breathtaking.

 

As the softly spoken Manuel guides me round the impeccably clean and stylish winery, you get the impression the project is in safe hands. A thoughtful, quiet man, he deliberates before each sentence and clearly gives a lot of thought to any major decision. He is doing experiments with egg, but is concerned about the cleaning process; some wineries are now using epoxy which may or may not negate some of the advantages of using concrete.

 

In the barrel room I take a photo of the humidity fans kicking in which makes for a quietly dramatic scene, and then we get down to taste. A Malbec which is the result of micro-oxygenation and which now sits in a ceramic tank has a lovely fresh and vibrant nose and has beautiful fruit, with violets to the fore. Manuel says he has been searching for five years for the perfect plot of land in which to fashion THE Andeluna wine. “I search and I search. I find the soil and, ahhh, then I find the climate and, ahhh…”

The poet has kicked in. “I’ll write this down, Manuel,” I say, and he blushes.

 

As we move into the tasting room and we are joined by Alicia Casale, the beautiful lady who takes care of Hallgarten & Novum Wines, Manuel tell me: “I want to show you just how good Cabernet Franc is in Tupungato.”

 

We work our way through the 1300 and Altitud ranges; these are all showing as good as ever and confirm what a great winery this is. But then I begin to be intrigued as we turn to some wines which are new to me.

A new Semillon, only 300 dozen produced, a blend of one third each fermented in stainless steel, ceramic and French second-year oak and which will be bottled in one month, has a lovely purity of fruit and a touch of that citrusy flavour that you get from this grape. It is still closed but has lots of vibrancy. We don’t have many Semillons from Argentina, so this could be just the job.

 

A new blend of 65% Chardonnay, 25% Torrontes and 10% Sauvignon Blanc is a lovely mouthful, crisp and refreshing. We mess around with different blends and come up with a 55% Chardonnay, 30% Torrontes and 15% Sauvignon Blanc; this is more vibrant but perhaps lacks the class of the first. We shall look at the two blends again back at Hallgarten HQ.

 

Then Manual brings out a little masterpiece: a Blanc de Franc 2019. I’d spotted this earlier in the tank room and had been puzzled then. This is an absolute peach of a wine, with a pale colour but a full and startlingly rich mouthful with hints of rhubarb. Manuel says it was inspired by a visit he made to the Loire, but for me this knocks most Loire rosés into a cocked hat. I tell him to reserve as much as he can for us.

We finish with the great wines from Andeluna – the Pasionado range. The 2015 Malbec is big and alcoholic, warm and inviting. An uncompromising food wine, but on the finish there is an acidity which keeps everything in check. The 2015 Cuatro Cepas, a blend dominated by Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a chunk of Cabernet Franc and a dollop of Merlot, is sturdy, with delicious integration of fruit and spritzy spicy raisins. The Cabernet Franc, this time from 2016, is beautiful and smooth, well balanced with luscious firm tannins balancing the rhubarb palate.

 

It has been a great tasting and is followed by a sumptuous lunch in the bodega’s stylish restaurant prepared by chef Pablo Marigliano. He seeks to match the food to the wine and we eat from the Autumn menu: Caramelized Onion Soup, Sourdough Crouton, Olive Oil Ice-Cream (accompanied by 1300 Merlot); Creamy Cauliflower, Dehydrated Quinoa, Corn Spheres with Blue Cheese Notes (accompanied by Altitud Chardonnay); Smoked Boar, Sweet Potatoes, Raisin and Blueberry “Tropezones” (accompanied by Altitud Malbec); Sirloin Strip Steak and Leek Textures (accompanied by Cuatro Cepas.)

 

And then dessert. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

 

Finally, the ultimate: As I am leaving, Manuel presents me with a copy of one of his book of poems, Alma de Jarilla. I feel a bit humbled. I rashly promise to translate one of his poems in English.

 

I hope he doesn’t have to wait too long.

For more information on any wines from Andeluna, please speak to your account manager.