Category Archives: View From The Vineyard

The three pillars of sustainability

People – Planet – Profit. 

Sustainability. A hard and complex thing to define, as it covers so many different aspects but it does seem to be the current buzzword as we are all increasingly becoming more aware of our health, well-being and the environmental issues around us.

I recently attended a webinar on sustainability where it was mentioned that 25% of all greenhouse gases come from agriculture and animals, and the care of vines is no exception. The concept of ‘regenerative farming’ is central to an increasing number of wine producers who believe in the importance of biodiversity and the harmony of nature in the vineyard.

As a vineyard is in essence a monoculture of a perennial plant, disturbance to the soil should be kept to an absolute minimum to ensure that the natural micro-organisms in the soil are encouraged and maintained. Cover crops can be grown to capture carbon and to minimise water use, particularly where water used for farming is expensive to buy and may be short supply at certain times. Sheep are sometimes encouraged to graze in the vineyard on grass, and cover crops to encourage plant growth and biodiversity. Selected rootstocks may also be used to restrict the vine’s vigour, requiring less control. All of these different processes will encourage vines to use their own resources to work hand in hand with nature.

A good proportion of a winery’s emissions come from the use of diesel vehicles so far-thinking producers are making the investment in electrical vehicles for working their land – as we all will probably need to do in the not too distant future. Or indeed, revert back to the traditional use of a trusty plough horse leads to less compaction of the soil and is also a lovely thing to see!

A few of our producers are installing beehives in their vineyards to promote pollination and obtain honey as a welcome by-product! The composting of pruning and grape pomace for natural fertilisers is also becoming more widespread, rather than sending for distillation as in the past. Using sexual confusion in the vineyard from insect pheromones as an alternative to chemical pest control is becoming increasingly popular with growers as they realise the advantages for the environment.

Many people would automatically think that an organic wine would be sustainable by definition but with the contentious use of copper as a treatment against diseases in the vineyard, which is allowed under organic viticulture, and which can contaminate the soil as a heavy metal if it is used too frequently; the issue is more complex than just acceptance of all organic wines as sustainable.

Biodynamics are a continuation of this theme, where all vineyard practices (and winemaking) are carried out according to the moon phases, using specific treatments for disease prevention as well as natural fertilisers and which are now being recognised as more main stream – previously perhaps dismissed as rather hippy and ‘woo-woo’. I know from tasting wines which are produced using biodynamic and organic techniques that they seem to have more depth of flavour – more ‘soul’ and energy, if I can express it that way. One of our producers, the redoubtable Gérard Bertrand in the South of France is fully embracing this way of working with all of his estates either already certified as biodynamic or in conversion, and the results in the quality of his wines speak for themselves.

While researching the sustainable credentials of our suppliers, I was struck by how many of them have this ethos central to their production values and guides everything they do from vine to bottle. A great many of them have gone the extra mile and gained certification in their country – such HVE (Haute Valeur Environmentale) in France, WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association) in South Africa, Sustainable Wine of Chile, Bodegas de Argentina Certified Sustainability, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, to name a few – all of these regulate the use of insecticides and pesticides as well as fertiliser and water usage with protection of the environment in mind, and to maintain the biodiversity of the local area.

Climate change is also necessitating a rethink by wine growers who have difficult choices to make if their vineyards are affected by the extremes of weather which we currently seem to be experiencing – by rot in the case of excessive humidity or Summer hail damage, whether to irrigate (if even allowed and if the vineyard is set up for it) in case of drought, loss of fruit caused by Spring frosts; the challenging factors are unfortunately endless.

If they are passionate about the environment and their philosophy is to avoid chemical treatments, the choice is stark. Either compromise on their principles and lose their sustainable or organic status or accept the loss of their crop with the accompanying loss of income. I remember talking to one of our organic producers a few years ago who had had to make that choice – and he decided to remain organic and lose the majority of the crop. I felt so sorry for him but admired his tenacity and adherence to his principles. The news coverage of the frost in France’s vineyards in April where the countermeasures taken in the form of burning straw or heaters raised their own issues with complaints about damaging the environment through smoke contamination is another case in point – faced with losing your burgeoning crop or taking these extreme measures, what decision would we make ourselves?

We are probably just at the start of the sustainable journey and I look forward to seeing how viticulture, and winemakers, adapt over the years to come.

The Challenge of Winemaking

Vines love a challenge…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE 2020 Harvest

Well, it’s definitely going to be a vintage to remember – for lots of reasons!

2020 will go down as the year of COVID, a year when authorities paid winemakers millions to turn their wine into hand sanitiser, a year in which finding grape-pickers was more challenging than ever before – and a year when we all had to find different ways of working. And – in some regions at least – it was a year of potentially excellent wines.

Europe’s 2020 wine harvest was underway relatively early following a warm growing season, but in many areas it is also taking place against a backdrop of lost sales – largely due to the economic impact of COVID lockdowns.

The rise and rise of English wine continues apace, helped and hindered by COVID, but for Dermot Sugrue, the “biggest challenge I had was finding pickers. All the big boys (Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Chapel Down etc.) hoovered up all the professional pickers so I was struggling to find enough to pick the Pinots from Mount Harry Vineyard near Lewes, which makes up most of the Sugrue South Downs blend.” However, after he put the call out he got a “terrific response” from Hallgarten staff, who descended on the vineyard to help. “Oh, and it’s going to be a brilliant year with simply exceptional fruit!”

On the other side of the world, a country which fared better than most against the Coronavirus was New Zealand, where wineries were able to complete the grape harvest as “essential businesses.” The total harvest of 457,000 tonnes reflected the near perfect growing conditions. Julie Ibbotson of Saint Clair said: “This vintage was certainly like no other, with the implementation of various stringent guidelines, procedures and protocols, with strict rules surrounding both transport to and from the winery and accommodation arrangements. Social distancing quickly became the norm. But the quality of fruit from Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay has been exceptional.”

Jaime Quendera, winemaker at the top-notch Pegoes Co-Op, near Lisbon, said: We have not had any cases fortunately. We have been working normally, but within the so-called “new normal”: we divided the wine cellar in two, with different shifts and times, with a disinfection between shifts. Our great fear was in the vineyard, but we implemented the same “mirror” plan, prolonged the grape reception for four hours longer, and managed to get everything in. We expect fresh and fruity whites, and very good, ripe and elegant reds. It could be a very good year.”

Meanwhile, over in Tuscany, Antonio Zaccheo, owner of Carpineto, said: “Quantities are a bit lower than average yet the quality is very good with some peaks of real excellence. As for Corona, our activity is outdoors and on a farm, so we’ve been able to follow the paces of Mother Nature without problems. On the sales side, it is another story. All the On premise sales were drastically disrupted and the outlook is definitely cautious.”

Commercially, South Africa had a tough year. Rob McKinlay of the Swartland winery said: “It has not been easy. Interruption to export for six weeks, then local bans on alcohol.  At the winery all the internal protocols had to be renewed in line with the safety of our workers, especially on the production line. And as for cash flow, nightmare, but all the staff have been paid on time and no one working at Swartland will go hungry because of this epidemic.”

Commenting on the harvest, Jean Naude of Groot Constantia said: “Our harvest was nearly completed when the hard lockdown was initiated by our Government. We are also very fortunate that not one of our employees as yet have tested positive for the virus. 2020 produced a big crop, where most varieties exceeded our expectations, notably Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz.”

In France, which expected a harvest at around the 45m-hectolitre mark – roughly in-line with the five-year average – the Government gave €250m to aid the wine sector.

Philippe Goulley, of Domaine Jean Goulley in Chablis, said: “Commercially, it was very hard from mid-March to the end of April. In addition, there were many constraints in the cellar – but Chablis is a very small city so we were able to cope. And the vintage: in my opinion it’s one of the very best vintage of the last 30 years.”

That was echoed by Fabrice Brunel, of Domaine André Brunel in Chateauneuf du Pape. “It will be a great vintage in terms of quality and volume. It should be on par with 2019 in terms of complexity, colour and concentration. We didn’t decrease the investment due to COVID. We lost sales in the on premise, but gained in shops.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the mercurial Andy Quady tells us: “Fortunately we have not lost anyone to that sickness yet but some of our workers had to be quarantined and tested when someone had contact with a person who tested positive. We had a COVID task force which includes: working at home for all office workers; mandatory mask for employees and visitors; mandatory daily temperature checks for employees and visitors; daily sanitizing of work areas; zero company travel except to support winemaking visits to vineyards. But at the same time, we are having a great sales year; we are trying our best to work round this.”

In Spain, two of our suppliers are very optimistic about the vintage. In Navarra, Jose Maria Fraile of Tandem said: “Thanks to our export markets, we are all fine and swimming hard. We started the 2020 harvest on September 16, as usual later than the rest of the region due to our cool Atlantic influence Continental microclimate in any case one week ahead of last year. We can inform you the wines are looking great. The aromas at the winery are sublime.”

In Rias Baixas Inma Pazos of Xose Lois Sebio, tells us: “2020 was a strange year for everyone. We are all concerned how life is changing after this. But Nature is stronger than we think and it will adapt to the new situation. In our winery we had to adapt our methods and as wise people know: in the worst crises come the best opportunities. COVID taught us to a better organization to keep our staff safe and this resulted in a optimize harvest after all: 150.000 kg collected – one of the biggest in my life. The white grapes are very healthy – and the reds are going to be awesome!”

Nature is stronger than we think and we will adapt. Wise words.

In Australia, 2020 was a challenging vintage with wine grape losses due to smoke or fire damage reported in 25% of Australia’s wine regions, but the overall loss was less than 3% of the harvest.

As Matt Herde from Tahbilk informed us in January: “It has been a very tough season in the vineyards right around Australia. It has been very hot, very dry and very windy; we anticipated crops being lower than average, but that is the fickle nature of agriculture in Australia. Rainfall has been below average with the Tahbilk vineyard team kept busy with extra irrigation management; however, overall the vineyards look in excellent condition and we still anticipate a good vintage.”

This was concurred by White Winemaker at Berton Vineyards, Glen Snaidero, who tells us: “What a year full of challenges! Despite having to face a season of drought, bushfires, threat of COVID 19 and multiple rain events in the middle of harvest, remarkably 2020 will be another good vintage in terms of quality for Berton Vineyards. Lower alcohols will be found in some varietals, particularly blends of Semillon, a result of late season rains in February and March but the clean fresh fruit flavours have not been affected.”

In Argentina, Dona Paula’s award winning viticulturist Martin Kaiser said: “The 2020 vintage will be remembered as a special harvest for many factors: It was the warmest vintage of this century, together with the 2009 vintage. And the relatively heavy rainfall fell in a few intense episodes, so dry days predominated, with low relative humidity. These conditions favoured a fast accumulation of sugar in the grapes, so that the harvest was ahead one week in average for the white grapes, and between two to four weeks for the reds. This rapid accumulation of sugars made us fear for the evolution of the polyphenols (tannins). But the good news is that we managed to achieve an optimal polyphenolic maturity, so the wines are of outstanding quality.

Meanwhile, in Chile, Santiago Colvin Izquierdo of Ventolera, told us that “COVID didn’t affect the harvest, because we finished before our authorities took measures. After the harvest we took all the measures in the warehouse to avoid any problem and to take care of the health of our employees. And the vintage looks great.”

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.