Do the Garnachas of Sierra de Gredos live up to the hype?

The Garnachas of the Sierra de Gredos, a mountain range in Central Spain, have been getting a lot of love in recent years from wine critics, such as Jancis Robinson, Eric Asimov and Luis Guttiérez. My main encounters with Grenache, as the grape is called in France, are with the wines of the Southern Rhône. And although I have drunk wines from that region that I appreciated, most had the typical heat and alcohol that Grenache is often associated with, and that I don’t like in wine. The Garnachas of the Sierra de Gredos, however, are hailed as “Burgundian”, meaning wines that are light, fresh, and delicate. This description piqued my curiosity very much, so I decided to find out for myself what all the excitement is about.

The Sierra de Gredos is located less than a hour’s drive west of Madrid and the vineyards start from 600m altitude, avoiding excessive heat. The grapes often come from old vines that are planted mostly on granite soil. In fact, while Sierra the Gredos is used as a common denominator for these wine, it is not a Denominación de Origen, the official DOs being Mentrida, Madrid and Cebreros. As the latter only exists since 2017, the wines there were classified before as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León.

I purchased a selection of Garnachas of some of the top producers in the Sierra de Gredos : Comando G, Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi, and Bernabeleva. I was also able to find some older vintages of Bodega Jiménez-Landi, the family estate where Daniel Jiménez-Landi was working before he decided to start on his own. The wines of that estate are from 2007 and 2008, a period during which Daniel was still working there. So that makes for an interesting comparison.

American wine merchants K&L describe the wines from the Sierra the Gredos as “Garnacha for Grenache haters”. Since I am not a big fan of Grenache, that was basically my starting point for these wines : do they  convince me in terms of freshness? And are they really “Burgundian”?

Comando G

This is probably one of the best known wine projects in Spain nowadays. Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi, Fernando García (who also makes wine for Bodega Marañones), and originally also Marc Isart of Bodegas Bernabeleva, started in 2008 with old vine Garnacha to make wine in a Burgundian way, what for them means focussing on terroir. Their wines have received critical acclaim and their top wines nowadays fetch prices that are also very Burgundian.

La Bruja de Rozas 2017, DO Vinos de Madrid

IMG_5661This is their entry-level wine that can be found around 15€ in European webshops. The nose is really beautiful, starting with earthy aromas that evolve to a more flowery bouquet and raspberries. There is also a touch of iron and green herbs. Nebbiolo comes to mind.

On the palate the wine is somewhat rounder than expected. There is no immediate heat to speak of, but the acidity is not prominent either. The tannins are fine and give aging potential. The wine ends on a slightly bitter note that will not please all palates.

After a glass or two the wine becomes heavier and there is a bit of heat that starts to become noticeable in the end. This wine is definitely not without interest, but I wonder how this wine is in a cooler vintage like 2016.

Rozas 1er Cru 2016, DO Vinos de Madrid

One step higher, this is the self-declared “premier cru” of Comando G, which retails at around 30€. The wine starts very timidly and only opens up modestly after a while with roses, redcurrant, white pepper and rosehip. Despite the fact that the tannins are finely grained, they take up a rather prominent place and make this wine somewhat austere at this point. While the vintage suggests a cooler wine, the acidity is not playing first fiddle, and again there is a slight bitterness in the end.

This is a wine that is lauded by many wine critics, but I had expected more freshness. Maybe I also caught the wine in a difficult moment right now? I would like to try a few other wines of Comando G before making up my mind, but their top wine Rumbo al Norte 2017 sold out at around 250€, having become more than twice as expensive in two years time…

Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi

Las Iruelas 2014, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León

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This is a vino de parcela, or a single vineyard wine. Very reductive just after opening, but luckily this blows off quite quickly. Redcurrant, a green herbal touch, rosehip and a hint of white pepper. While the aromas are rather delicate, this wine is fuller and rounder than the nose suggests. The acidity is good, not prominent, but just right. From the second glass the tannins start to be more obvious, but they are finely grained. The wine ends on a bitter note. 

This is a wine with interest, but it is somewhat shy and fails to really attract. Not unimportant at a 50€+ pricetag. The 2017, by the way, is sold at almost 100€. 

Cantos del Diablo 2015, DO Mentrida 

Also a vino de parcela. Beautiful ethereal aromas of peony, rosehip and redcurrant. The structure of the wine is the main feature here with again a rather round mouthfeel, good supporting acidity and high quality tannins that tickle your tong like black pepper. There is a bitter touch in the end, but it’s refrained and adds to the 3D feel of this wine. 

This Cantos del Diablo is in every aspect the better wine in comparison with the Iruelas. While the latter failed to convince completely, this one hits the bullseye and justifies its 50€+ pricetag. Again a price hike, however, of +50% for the 2017 vintage.

Bodega Jiménez-Landi

This is the winery of the family of Daniel Jiménez-Landi. The wines I was fortunate to lay my hands on are from the 2007 and 2008 vintages. Interestingly enough, Daniel was still working at the winery at that time. He split ways with his family because he wanted to pursue his own vision of wine making, so these wines are very interesting to compare the old-style Daniel with the new-style Daniel.

El Reventón 2008, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León

Nicely integrated bouquet with a subtle touch of liquorice, flowery aromas in the background, well absorbed wood, white pepper and a hint of smoke. Aromas of underbrush start to come through, signalling the evolution in this wine.

The start is very fresh with tart cherries and racy acidity. The fruit is smooth and so are the tannins. The acidity, however, is really quite dominant and defines the wine from beginning until end. After an hour or so the wine starts to come more into its own with more balance and a fruit profile that is somewhat reminiscent of an Italian Sangiovese. 

Interesting wine with a huge fresh-ripe contrast. Very different ballgame than the current wines of Daniel Jiménez-Landi. 

El Reventón 2007, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León

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Smokey nose with ripe cherries and blueberries. Very obvious wood aromas with cocoa butter and chocolate spread. There is a bit of heat noticeable as well. On the palate the style is very similar to the 2008 with loads of silky fruit and again that hefty acidity that races through the wine.

Despite the acidity the heat also comes through on the palate, making this wine less digest. This is by no means a Burgundian Garnacha, but a style that is closer to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. More balance on day two, however, so still quite a few years left for this wine.

Cantos del Diablo 2008, DO Mentrida

Very intense, aromatic nose with black chocolate, ripe cherries and obvious wood. The first impression is reminiscent of modern interpretations of Hermitage, such as the one of Domaine Ferraton. The nose changes quite fast, however, and becomes very evolved with dead leaves, underbrush and a hint of cheese. A bit of red fruit peeps through as well after swirling the glass.

The hallmark acidity is very obvious again, but it is more integrated than in the other wines and it actually carries the finish beautifully. The tannins are an attractive feature in this wine, as they are very ripe and provide great texture.

The 2008s are obviously subtler than the 2007 here. Still, all three wines are a far cry from what Daniel Jiménez-Landi makes today. 

Bodegas Bernabeleva

Another winery that receives much critical acclaim for their Garnachas. Head winemaker Marc Isart was briefly part of the Comando G project, but now also runs his own little side project called La Maldición, funnily enough focused on Tempranillo, not Garnacha.

Navaherreros 2017, DO Madrid

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A little shy just after opening, but the wine opens up quickly and then the aromas start flying out of the glass. The nose is dominated by cotton candy aromas. Luckily there is a more ethereal touch underneath that provides a bit more subtlety. The balance is nice  with an acidic lift that makes the cherry fruit really juicy and fresh. The tannins give just enough structure to avoid that this wine goes down all too easily.

This is a great summer quaffer at less than 15€. Really nice to enjoy slightly chilled on a summer’s day. Nothing Burgundian about it, however. If a comparison needs to be made, Beaujolais would be a much more suitable one. The website of Bernabeleva does not mention anything about carbonic maceration, but the website of American wine merchants K&L mentions partly carbonic maceration for an older vintage of their Arroyo del Tortolas. The cotton candy in this Navaherreros strongly points in the same direction.

Carril del Rey 2016, DO Madrid

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Much lighter in color than the Navaherreros. While there is no cotton candy here, there is strawberry jam, cherries and again that nice ethereal touch. On the palate there is more substance than the nose and color suggest, with red juicy fruit, kept nicely fresh by the acidity. Hardly tannins to speak of and the end is rather short.

That lip-smacking, juicy fruit and freshness again make this wine very attractive and dangerously easy to drink. At double the price of the Navaherreros, however, there was perhaps a little more complexity to be expected. 

Conclusion

It is clear why so many people are excited about these Garnachas from the Sierra de Gredos. They are indeed very different from most other Garnachas/Grenaches I’ve tasted before.

Of the wines in this line-up Comando G and Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi are clearly the ones who pushed things furthest with their very light-colored and delicately fragrant wines. While it is obvious that they search for a very pure expression of Garnacha, not everything I tasted was entirely convincing. In fact, the Cantos del Diablo was the only wine that really made me tick like Burgundy can.

It is not difficult to see why their wines are constantly called “Burgundian”, with their lighter color, lighter body and red fruit here and there. But there are also very clear differences. If Comando G and Daniel Jiménez-Landi make the most “Burgundian” wines, the acidity is moderate rather than lively, and their wines have a relatively round mouthfeel rather than Burgundian tension. Ironically, the wines of Bodega Jiménez-Landi, and to a lesser extent the wines of Bodegas Bernabeleva, had more freshness and  higher acidity, but were not anything like Burgundian Pinot Noir.

Impossible to say whether this selection of wines is representative of all Garnachas in the Sierra de Gredos, so I will not draw binding conclusions. It is clear, however, that there were quite big differences between the four wineries in the selection. A review of wines from the Sierra de Gredos by Ferran Centelles does not immediately change that impression of diversity, with descriptions ranging from floral and toasty/oaky to extremely ripe and port-like aromas.

As is often the case the image of a region is mainly influenced by its frontrunners. In this case Comando G and Daniel Jiménez-Landi are the ones who are covered profusely by the  international wine press and who undoubtedly contribute to the image of “Burgundian” Garnachas. Since their own success is still relatively recent it remains to be seen whether other wineries will be able to surf the same wave and if that will result in similarly styled Garnachas. Fow now the choice outside Spain is relatively limited. More choice, and more competition, would not be a bad thing, as the prices of Comando G and Daniel Jiménez-Landi are skyrocketing. At least that is something that is clearly Burgundian.

 

 

 

 

Review : Cantina Tollo’s new sustainable range of Abruzzo wines. And why sustainable is more than organic.

Cantina Tollo launched a new line of sustainable wines for the on-trade in April. In this article I review those wines, but I also elaborate on what sustainable means for Cantina Tollo. And that is more than the environmental part of it.

Cantina Tollo is a co-operative from the Abruzzo region in Central Italy. If you are keen on cycling you may remember Cantina Tollo as shirt sponsor (1996-2002) of the team which included Mario Cipollini, Danilo di Luca and other well known cyclists.

They are also known, however, as a producer of consistently good wines with a good price-quality ratio. My first acquaintance with Cantina Tollo was in 2016 when I tasted their MO Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2011, which I liked very much. It was very smooth and elegant, perfectly balanced. A real pleaser, and sold at just over 10€. This wine keeps piling up the awards and has received five consecutive Tre Bicchiere of the Gambero Rosso wine guide since the 2011 vintage. The last MO I had was the 2015, which confirmed all the goodness I remember from the 2011. Luscious black and red fruit, noticeable but well-dosed wood, and refreshing acidity. An attractive and harmonious wine, and at a democratic price.

So I was very excited to taste the samples I received from Cantina Tollo of their newly released line of sustainable wines for the on-trade. These wines are certified organic and vegan, which means no animal-derived products were used, such as cow manure or fining agents based on animal proteins. Moreover, efforts were made to make the packaging sustainable with the use of recycled cardboard, recycled paper for the labels, and capsules without pvc.

You may think that they are a bit late to jump on the bandwagon of organic wines, but in fact they have been making organic wine since the 1980s. The difference of the new line with the other organic wines is that the new wines have undergone a stricter selection, and the best quality grapes go into this line.  

The thing I like the best, however, about these new wines, is that sustainability goes beyond the environmental aspect and includes a socio-economic part as well. The odd 50 members of the co-operative who farm organically are offered a price for their grapes that reaches almost double the price of non-organic grapes. Cantina Tollo also offers them a contract that protects them from unforeseen circumstances. So even if yields were low because of bad weather or diseases, for example, the growers will still get a good price. In a region such as Abruzzo, which is still a big producer of bulk wines that are sold at bottom prices, this is a very welcome incentive not only to work organically but also not to convert to other crops, or simply not to move away from the region.

In terms of appearance much attention was given to the styling of the bottles. Cantina Tollo chose a format that represents the bottles that were used in the end of the 19th century by producers to bottle their own wine. While they certainly catch the eye, the downside of this type of bottle is that they are relatively heavy (ca. 500g). This is an issue that was given a fair bit of attention recently by well-known wine critics, such as Jancis Robinson, so this is something Cantina Tollo will have to address. As Commercial and Marketing Director of Cantina Tollo, Andrea Di Fabio, explains, however, they are aware of the issue and intend to look for solutions for future vintages.

In terms of the wines there are 5 different offerings, all singly variety, and all made of local grapes.

Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2019

Very expressive, lemony nose with a hint of almond. While the mouthfeel is quite round, the acidity makes this is a refreshing wine. This is definitely not a thin Trebbiano, of which there are still many unfortunately. There is real substance here and considerable length with a pleasant lemon zest bitterness that lingers for a while.

This is a not a very complex wine, but really well made as the kind of wine you want to have in an ice bucket next to you when you have a fritto misto or a warm goat cheese salad.

Passerina 2019, IGP Terre di Chieti

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Subtle nose with white peach and a green herbal note. This Passerina is not as aromatic as the Trebbiano but the nose is delicately perfumed. No fruit bomb but rather driven by its mild and well integrated acidity. This wine is fresh, dry and structured in a way that reminds me somewhat of a Verdicchio. In a previous article I lauded the gastronomic qualities of Verdicchio because of those characteristics, and this Passerina seems to have the same quality of being an subtle and elegant wine that will accomodate many dishes. White fish dishes will do well, but also Oriental food is a good match. The soy and fish sauce flavors of the ramen soup we had with it paired beautifully with the Passerina.

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Pecorino 2019, IGP Terre di Chieti

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Very delicate and shy nose with green herbs and a bit of aneth. On the palate this is again nicely balanced with good freshness against a round backdrop. This is definitely not the type of Pecorino that is made in the style of a Sauvignon Blanc, as those exist as well. The character of this one is more in line with the Passerina, dry and fresh, and will therefore be a versatile food companion. Sea fruit, oysters and mussels will all make a good match.

Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2019

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Bright and aromatic, the freshly cut red fruit and minerality jump out of the glass. This invites very much for a sip. Absolutely not a characterless rosé like there are so many, but a wine with a fresh core and subtle red fruit, a combination that is difficult to resist. The mesmerizing, dark pink color completes the picture of the perfect wine for a sun-drenched lunch that lasts until it’s time to have dinner. Lovely! 

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2019

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Fresh cherries with a herbal, peppery element. Lovely fruitiness, with mild acidity that keeps everything nicely fresh. The tannins are a bit grippy but ripe. The wine was aged in cement tanks, so this is a pure rendition of the grape. Don’t let this fool you in thinking that this is a light, fruity wine, because there is considerable structure here. Cantina Tollo managed to combine accessibility with character. Not always easy to find that balance.

This wine will be a great match with grilled meat. The match with our (attempt of) homemade pizza was decent, but this wine can, and wants to, handle more than that.

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When asked whether the decision to go for cement tanks was a conscious choice in terms of the style of the new line, Andrea di Fabio explained that Cantina Tolla was never big on wood. A recent tasting of their top wine, the Cagiòlo 2012 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, confirms this. Whereas Montepulciano is a grape that tends to get heavy oak treatment, the wood in this one was very discriminate with beautiful cedar tones. Also the Cagiòlo is a very well-made and balanced wine that will seduce many palates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright side of planet Valpolicella

The red wines of Valpolicella, Italy, are very diverse. From very light to more dense and even big and bold, not to forget sweet, Valpolicella has something to offer to almost every palate. And yet, when quality is considered, most people turn to Amarone della Valpolicella, the famous wines made of partly dried grapes, and to Valpolicella Ripasso, often called “baby Amarone”, made of “basic” Valpolicella and then put on the lees of the Amarone in order to give more body and concentration. The production of Ripasso has exceeded the production of normal Valpolicella already by 50%. And that while Ripasso only got formal DOC recognition 10 years ago.

It is easy to understand why : these big and bold wines, especially the Amarones, boast high alcohol levels, full body, and sturdy tannins and have a slightly sweet undertone. This is a style that appears to be very popular in Asia, and despite signs that the market there may be slowing down somewhat, the global demand for Amarone and Ripasso keeps going strong, boosting the production, and consequently, the planting of new vineyards. According to data of the Consorzio Valpolicella, the number of hectares in Valpolicella has been rising ever since 1997 from 4902 ha to 7596 ha in 2015.

The popularity of Amarone and Ripasso has cast a shadow on the lighter Valpolicellas in a way that enthusiasts of elegant, fresh and juicy wines rarely consider Valpolicella. The reputation that some may still know of Valpolicella as a cheap pizza wine does not particularly help either. That is why this article is a hommage to those unashamedly light and juicy Valpolicellas and the more concentrated and even complex Valpolicellas Superiore that would surprise many, if given a chance. That other side of planet Valpolicella is translucent red and totally worth being explored.

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The bright side of planet Valpolicella

Valpolicella (Classico)

“Basic” Valpolicella (Classico if made in the Classico heartland) could hardly be more different than Amarone. It boasts fragrant, fresh red fruit, redcurrant, strawberries, cherries, and often has a slight herbaceous touch as well as a bit of pepper here and there. These wines are the epitome of Spring and Summer. The freshly cut red fruit of a Valpolicella deserves a slight chill to emphasize the vibrant acidity, as it is the main element to give texture. Tannins rarely make a meaningful appearance here.

Valpolicella sometimes gets cited amongst wines that are compared to Pinot Noir. That comparison probably stems from the fact that Valpolicella is light, tranparent, fresh and boasts red fruit. Despite those similarities there are very few of the list of wines below that actually echo Burgundian Pinot Noir. If a comparison is needed, Beaujolais is a more apt one. While comparisons with Pinot Noir are well intentioned, they also create expectations that Valpolicella cannot and should not live up to. If Pinot Noir is about complex layers of aromas, depth and length, then Valpolicella is all about delving right into it and indulging in the fresh fruit that bursts out of the glass. If Pinot Noir was a rose, then Valpolicella would be a daffodil.

Valpolicella (Classico) Superiore

Valpolicella and Valpolicella Superiore are often considered as one style. While the DOC regulations do not impose big differences, in practice the Superiores tend to be a bit fuller and more concentrated. It is also in the Superiore category that you can find wines with real ambition. In the list of recommended wines below, the Superiores of Marion and Roccolo Grassi are good examples of wines that are absolutely unfit for the “fun wine” label that Valpolicella often gets. So the tiered system of Valpolicella really makes sense.

There where Valpolicella is made either with fresh grapes or with grapes that were dried for a week or so, the Superiores sometimes already undergo a few weeks of drying to concentrate the juice. Also wood aging is not uncommon at the Superiore level. As is often the case, many of these choices depend on the winery and the style of wine they wish to make. One thing that is sure, however, is that the comparison with Pinot Noir no longer goes here. While the comparison with Beaujolais still holds for some of the Superiores, others will be more complex and structured. Again others will echo some of the characteristics of an Amarone,  boasting maraschino cherries and a warmer mouthfeel. The variety amongst the Superiores is rather big, but they will invariably be fuller and more concentrated than the normal Valpolicellas. That may sound evident, but in many wine regions “Superiore”, or “Supérieur” in France, does not necessarily mean much in terms of taste or style.

Below you will find a list of recommended wines. The ones with the title in red are particularly worth looking out for.

Valpolicella (Classico)

Valpolicella Classico 2017, Montecariano

Very light color. The nose has the whole range of red fruit on offer with redcurrant, raspberries and red cherries. This wine did not age on wood, but there is a certain smokiness that adds complexity. Also the fruit is layered from fresh to ripe, creating depth. This is really lovely. While most of the Valpolicellas in this list are attractive, this one is more than that, it is complex.

On the palate it has more volume than you would expect based on the nose. There is good, refreshing acidity here and the tannins are kept in the background. This juice is really enjoyable.

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Rêverie 2017, Valpolicella, Zymè

Slightly lactic upon opening, but this blows off fast. There’s loads of ripe cherries and some raspberry as well. Not the most complex nose, but the fruit is very attractive and inviting.

The ripe/fresh contrast makes this wine very playful and exciting. Again a Valpolicella with an extremely light color, but don’t let this fool you, as there is good substance here. Only 12% alcohol by the way. Slight bitterness in the end.

This is the kind of wine that makes a creamy Camembert sandwich a feast!

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Valpolicella Classico 2018, Bonacosta

Slightly lactic just after opening. The wine needs a bit to open up, but after a short while you are treated to floral aromas and even a whiff of raspberry. In the background there’s a bit of thyme as well.

This wine is very smooth and creamy, and full of fruit. It is perhaps a little fuller and rounder than some of the other Valpolicellas in this list, but the acidity makes this wine very digestible. Everything comes together very nicely already at this young age. No need to wait, this is instant pleasure. If you like Beaujolais, you will want to try this as well. And at 8,50€, this is a no-brainer.

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Valpolicella Classico 2018, Rubinelli Vajol

The color gives away that this is not a blockbuster. If this Valpolicella were to stand next to a Tavel rosé, it would be difficult to tell them apart. A bit of reduction after opening, but this fades away with a couple of swirls. The dominant aroma is redcurrant but there is a nice green, herby touch here that spices things up in a way that nutmeg does with potato mash.

The wine is very fresh with frivolous red fruit and well integrated acidity. While tannins are normally very light or even absent in these light Valpolicellas, the powdery, but ripe tannins here give your taste buds a friendly pat on the back. Slightly chilled, this wine goes down dangerously fast. This is a such a fun and easy-drinking wine.

Valpolicella Classico 2018, Allegrini

Very fruit-forward nose with candied red fruit, but also violets and black pepper. In the same way as Bonacosta’s Valpolicella the style is very reminiscent of a Beaujolais.

The wine is kept very fresh with vibrant red fruit and a nice acidic lift. The tannins are ripe and well integrated. This is such a pleaser! Frivolous, light on its feet, and highly quaffable.

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Ca’ Fiui 2017, Valpolicella, Corte Sant’Alda (biodynamic)

Fairly intense and rectilinear nose of sour cherries. This is not a wine that will keep you searching for all the different aromas, but the precision and finesse of the nose is attractive.

The acidity that was suggested in the nose manifests itself clearly on the palate and creates the backbone for the cherry fruit. While this wine is dangerously easy to drink, there is a more serious side to this wine. The substance suggests aging potential, which is rather unusual for this category of Valpolicellas. Would be nice to try again in a couple of years.

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Valpolicella Classico 2016, Villa Spinosa

This is the odd one out. There where Valpolicella tends to boast red fruit, the Villa Spinosa had a very surprising nose with blackcurrant and even liquorice. There is some red fruit, but rather in the background, and a “wild” touch that’s hard to pin down. The hallmark acidity of Valpolicella contrasts nicely with the dark fruit. Tannins are hardly noticeable. Simple, but perfectly enjoyable with a selection of soft cheeses.

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Novarè Corvina 2017, IGT Verona, Bertani

This is technically speaking not a Valpolicella as it is made exclusively of Corvina, while this grape is only allowed up to 95% of the blend (with a minimum of 45%). But in terms of style, it fits right in here with the rest. Red fruit and florality in the nose, and a lovely mineral undertone. This is very light, juicy and fresh, the tannins staying discretely in the background. Uncomplicated, but very enjoyable on a summer afternoon. Impossible to keep the glass full.

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Valpolicella (Classico) Superiore

Valpolicella Superiore 2015, Marion

Very surprisingly rich wine, full of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and also cherries and strawberries. The nose is complex and has enough to keep you sniffing for a while.

The wine is rich and juicy but does not lack freshness. The balance is just right and there’s good length as well. This is obviously a different register than the Valpolicellas described above. Unfortunately, also the price tag is from another level (available around 30€ in Europe). Given the quality of the wine, however, the price is defensible.

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Verjago 2016, Valpolicella Superiore, Domini Veneti

Immediately after opening this is a real pleaser with cherries, a touch of wood, and fresh, red fruit. This is almost like a synthesis of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire and Northern Rhone. The fruit is ripe, but there is great tension in this wine, with a beautiful combination of creaminess and vibrant acidity. The wood influence decreases the longer the wine is in the glass, to make place for a whiff of minerality. There is a sense of restraint that contributes to the elegance of this wine. Also the fact that there is a certain degree of concentration that does not hinder the airiness is really exceptional. Especially considering the price tag (under 15€). You need to drink this to believe it.

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Valpolicella Superiore 2014, Roccolo Grassi

Quite ambitious nose, with cedar wood reminiscent of a Bordeaux. Very dense and edgy tannins. Difficult to enjoy. On day two, however, a much more balanced picture with pepper, cherries, iron, and a hint of mint. On the palate there is also red fruit coming through, and in general the wine is nicely fresh and mildly structured with ripe tannins. The Bordeaux connection is not completely gone yet, but it’s on the Cabernet Franc side of things. Serious wine that still needs a few years to reach its peak, but its performance on day 2 makes it hard to be patient.

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Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2015, Le Calendre

Ripe red fruit, thyme, and a whiff of leather. There’s considerable depth and complexity here. The fruit is ripe, but the acidity keeps it well in balance. There is clearly enough substance to cellar this wine for a couple more years, but there is no reason not to open this wine either. The style is somewhat reminiscent of the Valpolicella Superiore of Marion. Maybe without the wow-factor, but also without the price tag, as it is available at less than half the price.

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Valpolicella Superiore 2015, La Bandina

From the first whiff it is clear that this is not a summer quaffer. Abundant dark cherry, accompanied by liquorice and leather. There is a nice smoky touch here and some pepper and clove in the background.

If the nose suggests an opulent wine, the first sip leaves no doubt that the contrary is true. The acidity is beautiful and is part of the picture that is constructed around a tight backbone of ripe tannins, the cherries being rather in the background. There’s a subtle touch of wood that adds to the attraction of this wine. Also no sign of the 14,5% alcohol. Still tight-knit, the wine will benefit from a few years of cellaring. But the wait will be rewarding.

Pruviniano 2017, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Domini Veneti 

Pure cherries and very high acidity just after opening. Half an hour later the wine has opened up nicely with a mineral undertone to the cherries. There’s also a bit of cinnamon and redcurrant in the background.

The start is very fresh with vibrant acidity, underlying minerality, and a hint of bell pepper, not unlike a Loire Cabernet Franc. The tannins are present but they are soft and mostly in the background. The salinity in the finish is really interesting and underscores the freshness of this wine. This is a rather subtle style of Superiore that makes you want to sniff your glass again and again. At just above 10€ (in Europe) this is an absolute steal.

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Trying Orange and non-Orange Wine with Jamie’s kinda Niçoise Salad #winePW

Today I join the Wine Pairing Weekend bloggers in their dive into skin-contact white wines, aka orange wines. These are wines that are made from juice that macerated on the grape skins, resulting in a darker hue, more volume, and noticeable tannins in the wine. The wineries who make this style of wines often swear by minimal intervention, and their wines are called “natural”. If you’re a regular on social media, you will undoubtedly have witnessed fascinating debates (I admit it is with some irony that I say this) on what constitutes a natural wine, or whether natural wine should be certified, and so on. Rather than participating in the controversy, I find it more interesting to highlight the fact that this makes for a highly original style, which in my experience often stands out because of the freshness and the purity of fruit. That is if they do not reek of barn, and other funky smells that unfortunately still occur in some of these wines. Orange wines in particular are often said to be versatile when it comes to food pairing. So, not having extensive experience with orange wines, I got very excited about this Wine Pairing Weekend theme and decided to step in with a little experiment…

I found an Italian winery that actually makes both styles, traditional and orange, of the same grapes. At Draga winery, situated in the north-east of Italy near the border with Slovenia, they have a Ribolla Gialla that is made in the traditional way, while there is also an orange Ribolla Gialla, released under the named Miklus, the name of the family who owns the winery. On his website The Morning Claret, Simon J Woolf talks to Mitja Miklus, who is currently holding the reins at Draga. Miklus describes the orange wines as “his” wines, the style he wants to make, and apparently they are very popular in Japan in China. The Draga series is produced for the Italian market, as there is more demand for the traditional style in Italy according to Miklus.

I chose both the Ribolla Gialla “Natural Art” 2014 and the traditional Ribolla Gialla 2018 to pair with Jamie Oliver’s Griddled Tuna kinda Niçoise Salad because of the meaty structure of the tuna, capable of absorbing tannins, and the very fresh dressing based on basil. I chose both wines, firstly to fully appreciate the difference between the wines, and then of course also to judge which one would fit best with the tuna. Honestly, though, I expected this to be a walkover for the orange wine. Little did I know at that point…

But first a closer look at the wines :

Miklus Ribolla Gialla Natural Art 2014, IGT Venezia Giulia

First impressions just after opening and coming straight out of the fridge : ouff, what’s this?! There’s a lot of vinegar-like and oxidative aromas coming out of the glass. The first suggests volatile acidity, which is an aroma that can come from an oxidative style of wine making, creating an environment in which the lactic acid bacteria who are responsible for these off aromas, can develop. There is also a very pronounced curry aroma, which makes me think of a vin jaune, an oxidative style of white wine from the Jura, France.

After half an hour the wine fortunately opens up with a more pleasant bouquet of exotic fruit, curry, honey and cedar wood. There’s no obvious trace anymore of the volatile acidity, but the nose is still “lifted” with a touch of freshness. With the temperature now only just below room temperature the full-bodiedness of the wine becomes very clear. This wine has great volume, is bone-dry and has pleasant tannins. The acidity is lively and well integrated. The wood is more prominent than I had expected and carries the very long and satisfying finish. I find this definitely an interesting wine, with a good deal of complexity. But it’s not an easy one. Something they obviously realize at Draga’s as well as the website clearly states: “This wine requires a lot of experience”…

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Draga Ribolla Gialla 2018, DOC Collio

If there was one word I had to choose to describe this wine, it is “shy”. There is a little bit of (browned) apple in the nose, a hint of florality perhaps. Again very dry, and the acidity is rather mild. Apart from a slight almond bitter the finish is very short. A very light and rather neutral wine.

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Would anyone at this point expect the second wine to be the better match with the grilled tuna? You wouldn’t, would you?

Jamie’s Griddled Tuna kinda Niçoise Salad

Jamie Oliver’s take on the famous Salade Niçoise is a very loose one, with fresh, grilled tuna and a dressing with basil giving a fresh lift to the dish. Fresh tuna is already very chunky, but grilling gives it even a more meaty feel.

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The pairing

I thought the powerful and outspoken tastes of the orange wine and the tuna would keep each other in balance, but alas. Instead of a beautiful marriage, the two behaved like wrestlers in a ring where there is only place for one to come out victorious. The strong, spicy character of the Miklus did not work at all with the charred and salty flavors of the tuna. And the cedar wood cursed with the lemony fresh basil dressing. While one and one can sometimes be three, this pair went for a fight to the death.

I didn’t see that one coming!

As if that wasn’t enough, the traditional Ribolla Gialla started singing like a nightingale. What I first perceived as mild acidity, became a vibrant and zingy backdrop for the tuna salad in a way that reminded my of my experiences with Verdicchio. Although I regard Verdicchio as a higher quality grape, it behaves in the same way as this Ribolla, namely as a great food partner, not very expressive but capable of accompanying many dishes and supporting them with a fresh backbone. The palate-cleansing quality of the Draga Ribolla worked wonders in comparison to the overpowering orange Ribolla.

Normally the experiment would have ended here in a quod erat demonstrandum kind of way. What had to be proven, was proven. But since it wasn’t, I was piqued and felt an urge to re-try the orange Ribolla with a different dish. By coincidence I was offered a second chance the next day when we had a improvised stir-fry beef dish. The slices of beef were marinated in yakitori dressing and the chillies gave a nice heat to the dish.

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We tried the rest of the orange Ribolla with it, and this time it was bullseye! The wine beautifully echoed the spicy and hot character of the stir-fried beef. Instead of a ring fight, this combination felt very natural and balanced.

No wonder they like this Miklus Ribolla Gialla in Japan and China.

Wine Pairing Weekend Posts

Have a look below to see what other bloggers pair with their orange wines.

  • Camilla of Culinary Adventures With Camilla is “Diving into the Skin Fermented Wine Pool of Two Shepherds Winery”
  • Wendy of A Day in the Life on the Farm presents Donkey and Goat Skin Fermented Roussanne; A Baaaaad Ass Wine”
  • Andrea of The Quirky Cork takes up “Turkish Amber Wines and Fast Food”
  • Lori of Exploring The Wine Glass asks “Orange you glad I have wine?”
  • Jeff of FoodWineClick offers “Wine 201: Orange Wine Primer”
  • Jill of L’Occasion has us “Thinking Wine: The Engaging World of Orange Wine”
  • Linda of My Full Wine Glass is “Revisiting NY Finger Lakes Skin-Contact White Wines”
  • David of Cooking Chat proffers “Cauliflower Bacon Spread with Orange Wine from Georgia”.
  • Gwendolyn at Wine Predator is featuring “Orange Wines from CA and Italy by Accident and on Purpose Paired with Shrimp curry #WinePW
  • Lauren at The Swirling Dervish shares “He Said, She Said: Ryme Cellars and the Tale of Two Vermentinos”
  • Susannah of Avvinare serves up “Orange wine from Slovenia’s Movia Paired with Homemade Sushi”
  • Katrina Rene of The Corkscrew Concierge wonders “Is Orange (Wine) the New Everything Wine?”
  • Nicole at Somm’s Table is “Cooking to the Wine: Kabaj Rebula and Chicken w/Mushroom Escabeche and Lentils”
  • Rupal, the Syrah Queen advises us that “Radikon Orange Wine – Not Just For Hipsters”
  • Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog, is serving up “A Cadre Of California Skin-Contact Wines Paired With Ethnic Fare”

Twitter Chat (#winePW)

You can join a Twitter chat on Saturday, May 9th 8:00 am PST/11:00 am EST/5:00 pm CEST (Brussels time) as we explore skin-contact white wines and food pairings. Just follow the hashtag #winePW.

 

 

 

 

 

INAMA : showing the potential of Soave

It is with melancholy that I think of our holidays in Italy last year. In these times of confinement things that seemed to be for granted before, now appear to be the stuff of dreams. Being able to travel freely, visit wineries, walk in the vineyards, talk to wine producers, and of course taste local wines. Like Joni Mitchell said : “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”.

The feeling we had during our stay in Verona is for sure gone : sheer bliss, relaxation and indulgence. I very much like Italy in general, but I particularly like Verona and its surroundings. The gentle rolling slopes, the nearby Garda lake with its picturesque towns and airy breeze, and the utterly drinkable wines that are produced in the greater region, such as the light and fun Bardolinos, the fruity and fresh Valpolicellas, and the zippily refreshing Soaves in white. After a hot ice-cream-laden day, a light and fresh Soave is the perfect start of a relaxed dinner in one of the bustling restaurants of Verona.

As is often the case, though, when you are in such surroundings, everything seems to be perfect as long as you are in that intoxicated holidaymaker state of mind. Unfortunately, it is a little bit like that with many Soave wines : when you open a bottle of that spritzy and playful wine, it often doesn’t have the same appeal anymore when you open it an urban environment on a bleak and rainy day.

And yet, Garganega, the grape Soave is mostly made of, is often mentioned as one of the best grapes for white wine in Italy. Curious about the potential of this grape, I decided to try the Soave wines of top producer Inama. Their vineyards are situated in the Soave Classico area, which mainly consists of hillsides with volcanic rock (basalt) or limestone soils.

heuvels Soave

heuvels en vlakte Soave

basalt rock in soave

Basalt rock in Soave (Picture copyright Charley Fazio)

On the pictures you clearly see the difference between the hills of the Soave Classico area and the plains (in the background on the second picture), where the DOC Soave wines are made. Apart from the difference in terroir, most producers in the DOC Soave go for high yields to produce cheap, easy-drinking Soave.

So what does Inama have on offer? They have four different Soaves, all made of grapes coming from vineyards that are situated on basalt.

Vin Soave 2018

Very expressive, with candied lemon, exotic fruit, and in the background a hint of minerality and even green herbs and a touch of almond. This wine is really round and full-bodied. This has absolutely nothing to do with the light and crisp Soaves that you often come across. The acidity is well integrated and supports the body of the wine, making sure it stays nicely balanced. There is a slight lemon pith bitter in the end that nicely closes the loop with the almond in the nose. If this is an entry-level wine, then I’m curious what the rest will bring, because there is already great character and concentration here!

Vigneti di Carbonare 2016

This is a recent addition to the portfolio of Inama. The wine is made of grapes coming from the località (local area) Carbonare, and more specifically from an east-facing cooler vineyard. 2016 is the first vintage of this wine.

The nose is very fresh with loads of citrus, minerality and again a hint of almond. This wine is driven by its freshness, but not the kind of light and zippy freshness of a simple Soave. There is also concentration here and substance, giving the wine extra character. Even if this is the lightest of Inama’s four Soaves, calling it “light” is not giving this wine enough credit. It is the balance here and the freshness that make this wine really outstanding.

Vigneti di Foscarino 2016

This wine is made of grapes from the famous Monte Foscarino, a site that is considered to be one of the top spots for Soave. It is fermented in used barriques.

The nose offers minerality, citrus and apricot. The texture of the wine is very rich and again there is great substance. The fruit is ripe and abundant. If you are used to light Soave, then this wine will come as a big surprise, as it is luscious and almost literally a weighty wine.

Vigneto du Lot 2016

A single-vineyard wine and also the top Soave of Inama, made of grapes coming from Monte Foscarino. It is fermented in 30% new barriques and the rest used, followed by 6 months on the lees.

Great minerality in the nose, and a bit of smokiness. There is also vanilla and a hint of honey. Beautiful and enticing nose! The start is fresh with the acidity being perfectly proportioned and integrated. A touch of honey creates a very attractive ripe/fresh contrast. The vanilla resurfaces towards the end extending the finale considerably. This is a wine that makes a great impression. Not just a great Soave, but simply a great wine by any standard.

Conclusion

Inama has an extraordinary range of Soaves. They perfectly illustrate that Soave can be so much more than an easy summer drink. Each and every one of these Soaves has impressive character, and each has its very own identity. What really strikes me is how different Inama’s wines are in terms of substance and concentration.

In his book “Amarone, and the fine wines of Verona”, Michael Garner explains this feature as a result of the basalt terroir in the Soave Classico area : “The palate will typically appear richer and with a more luscious texture and the lingering aftertaste more reminiscent of ripe and mature fruits rather than floral tones.”

A description that fits the wines of Inama very well.

 

 

Food and wine pairing does matter

I always thought of food and wine pairing as something that’s fun. I enjoy thinking about how to combine both. If you hit the nail on the head, you can transcend the individual level of the wine and the dish and reach something that’s more than the sum of the parts. On my blog I have a category that’s called “one and one is three”, where I talk about food and wine pairings that make me especially happy. Because the combination of the flavors create something special, or because one really pushes the other to a higher level, or just simply because they create that kind of feeling where I think : life is good.

American wine writer Alder Yarrow doesn’t think much of food and wine pairing. On his website Vinography he published a blog post calling food and wine pairing “junk science”. Or “the source of panic attacks and the fodder for hundreds of books and scores of useless smartphone apps”. I won’t disagree with the fact that there are many books that are not particularly useful. Many just give very specific combinations of a particular dish with a particular wine. What if you tweak your recipe with a few additional ingredients, or change the sauce? Or more likely, what if that particular wine is not available in your local shop? Not so helpful indeed. But as Mr Yarrow explicitly states that one plus one does not equal three, I felt compelled to write down my own opinion on food and wine pairing.

According to Mr Yarrow the rules of food and wine pairing are “bullshit” and you’re better off forgetting about food and wine pairing altogether as “it only leads to disappointment”. I hear much frustration there. In more than 25 years of eating in top restaurants he can count the experiences  where the sum was greater than the parts on one hand. The good thing I read in that is that at least he had such experiences after all. But apparently very few.

The issue at hand here might be expectation management. If you expect a sommelier to always come with a wine that “will make the choir sing”, then you need to think twice of how restaurants work. Especially the ones who want to be innovative, who experiment with dishes and flavor combinations, and on the top of that change their menu very regularly in order to constantly offer something new to the demanding customer. For a sommelier to find a wine that will fit with a new dish on the menu, there are many things to consider : what is the defining flavor? There might be more than one. And they can interact in a way that does not allow for an extra component, the wine, to interfere. What is the texture of the dish? Does the wine have to support this or contrast with it? Do you want to go for complementarity or make a bold move and aim for contrast? Not to forget a very practical question : what does the sommelier have on the wine list? He/she has to work with what is available and what is ready to drink. If you have a thousand of references to work with, that might ease the job, but such restaurants are exceptions. On top of that, the time and possibilities the sommelier will be given to experiment with the food and wine pairing will be limited. So there are a lot of “ifs” here. That is why I don’t necessarily expect the choir to sing in terms of food and wine pairing when I go to a top restaurant. I know this may sound strange to some, but I don’t. If one plus one equals two, then I will be happy. If the dish is a winner, and so is the wine, without either negatively influencing the other, then also that is a successful food and wine pairing!

Alder Yarrow also talks about the rules of food and wine pairing. As if there was a bible of what to drink with what. Food and wine pairing is not a science. If I were to regard it as such, I would probably also come to the conclusion that food and wine pairing rules are bullshit. But it’s not. Again, if you take top gastronomy as a starting point, there simply are no rules. That is the definition of innovation and experimentation : you do something new. So the wine pairing will inevitably be a trial, and yes, sometimes also be an error.

Bad experiences in such settings is not a reason to conclude that food and wine pairing is bound to be disappointing. Mr Yarrow suggests that wine should be something “universally simple and essential”. So why not look at established combinations that have been tried millions of times and that work. A sauvignon blanc will work wonders with a simple goat cheese. Just as a Muscadet or a Chablis will be a great marriage with fresh oysters. Or a lamb shank from the oven with a spicy, herby Languedoc. These are classic, straightforward dishes that do not need top wines to still be a great match with their liquid partner. There is a much bigger potential for the food and wine to lift each other up if you start with simple things than vice versa. That’s where I see the biggest added value ànd chances of success in food and wine pairings.

Mr Yarrow seems to realise that : “Our expectations need to be re-set. The bar needs to be lowered. We should absolutely be choosing wine to go with our meals, but our goals should center on enjoyment of both and the idea of “mistakes” should be banished.” I can’t think of a better way of saying it actually. So why conclude then that we should forget about food and wine pairings? There will be times that the food and wine pairing does not give the effect we wanted or hoped for, but we can also have great experiences and discover unexpected pairings. You can only do that if you’re open for it, if you see it as fun to experiment, ànd if your state of mind is rather to welcome anything good that comes out of it rather than to be disappointed if the result is anything less than stunning.

Let me give one example of a great discovery I did myself recently. One of our favorite dishes to prepare when we want comfort food is keema matar, an Indian/Pakistani curry with ground meat and green peas, topped with coriander leaves. As you can imagine, it is a very rich and relatively spicy dish. In Mr Yarrow’s opinion you should drink what you like with your food. I quite like red Burgundy, but I wouldn’t dream of drinking that with keema matar. It’d be an absolute waste of the wine. In the past I had already paired this dish with a very rich and opulent Negroamaro, an Italian wine with very ripe black fruit. The reason why that worked very well was because there was a certain sweetness from the ripe fruit that worked with the spiciness of the curry. Recently, however, I decided to take it up a notch with an Amarone, the Campo Inferi 2013 of Brunelli.

This is, for my standards, the embodiment of a “big” wine. Very rich, bold and smooth at the same time, and with a whopping 16,5% alcohol. This is a wine that is defined by ripe black cherries, milk chocolate, butter scotch and cinnamon. Big and ripe tannins, and a supporting acidity that keeps the alcohol in check. Again there is a sense of sweetness here that works very well to counterbalance the spiciness, and the smoothness and ripeness of the wine complement the structure of the curry. A good food and wine pairing, without any doubt. But what really made me tick in this combination was the combination of the ripe cherries, chocolate and cinnamon with the coriander leaves. A match made in heaven! Yes, this was definitely where I felt that one plus one equals three, where everything blended in so well together that the choir sang a little hallelujah.

The effect of the coriander with the Amarone is an example of how food and wine pairing is not a science, but something that you can discover and that will give great satisfaction once you do. Maybe not everyone will appreciate this combination the same way as I did, but others might. And by the looks of the numbers of people who post their food and wine pairings on social media, there seem to be many people who enjoy looking for that combination that adds an extra dimension. These are people who do not think in terms of potential disappointment, but in terms of discovery.

 

Wine education during lockdown

While the world is evolving towards a complete lockdown due to the Covid-19 virus, people are looking for ways to continue working and having social contacts. Online tools for webinars and videocalls are flourishing and some people are very creative in finding solutions to reach out to other people. But how do you do that in the case of wine classes? Wine education is still very much based on tasting wine together and discussing it. Is it possible to learn about wine without actually tasting it?  Can you imagine how a wine smells and tastes just from the description of it?

Those questions became very real to me after I had accepted to do a temporary replacement at a school for adults, teaching about wine. The timing hardly could have been worse : after my first week, during which I taught two wine classes, the government decided to close down schools as part of the measures to fight the spread of Covid-19. Right! Very unfortunate, I thought, but not much that could be done about that. Until I started seeing how people were organising themselves to do webinars, have online discussions, do video calls and what not. Adam Knoerzer of Burghundy.com is one of those fast movers to have started with online wine classes. Being a certified sommelier based in Pittsburgh, USA, he already gave traditional wine classes. With plans to give online classes already in the back of his mind, however, things sped up considerably with the break out of the corona virus.

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Seeing how many others were getting to grips fast in a very different reality, I decided to give it a try myself and get prepared to give an online class. The perfect way for me to see how things work out for people at the other end was to participate in a class myself, so I enrolled for a class by Adam on Pinotage. The online tool he uses is BlueJeans, which allows you to do video calls, but also share your screen. The latter is a very useful feature for teaching as it allows you to give a slide presentation, just as you probably would in normal circumstances. Since learning about wine still involves a theoretical part, it’s really difficult not to use a visual support, so the screen sharing feature was very useful to visualize maps, but also show pictures of landscapes, vineyards, and wineries.

Joining the session did not work out immediately. There are different ways to join a session : through the app, via the browser or via phone. My attempt to join via the app failed, but I was able to join using the browser. I was pretty impressed by the quality of the sound and the video was more than sharp enough to be able to see everything clearly on the maps that Adam showed. The presentation was really smooth, and especially, not too long. While a traditional wine class can easily take several hours, Adam chose to limit his session to one hour, questions included. I thought that was a wise decision, as it forces the wine educator to focus on essentials, while not keeping people in front of their screens for too long. Listening to someone online for several hours would indeed be overkill, especially without having the actual wines in front on you. What also helped to keep things dynamic was the chat function that allowed people to type in their questions or to comment on something. There is also the option to allow people to comment using their microphone, but since there were 20 participants, things would have been pretty chaotic if everyone came in whenever they felt like it, so Adam put everyone on mute, asking people to use the chat function. And that was fine. So all in all this was a very smooth experience.

Since Adam had made things look very easy, I decided to use BlueJeans as well for my class on Champagne. I am happy, however, that I took ample time to prepare and get familiar with the tool, because things were not as easy as they looked. I tested the tool several times and ran into problems more than once with getting participants to connect.  A question I asked via the online help desk never got answered, and the help desk guy I chatted with after that came back to me with a solution more than a day after the chat. So take that into account if you spontaneously decide to set up a videocall, as you might run into issues you didn’t expect. Luckily Adam was so kind to provide me with a couple of hacks. In fact the organizer cannot see the chat when sharing the slides with the participants. You have to exit the screen sharing mode to see the chat, which is of course very annoying. One way of dealing with this is to join the session with a second device (tablet of smart phone) to monitor the chat ànd to connect headphones to that device. If you don’t do the latter, you will have terrible resonance. It seems that Zoom, a similar tool, does allow you to see the chat function while presenting slides, so you might want to experiment with different tools.

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So how did the class work out? Interestingly, of the two groups to whom I proposed doing an online class, only one was enthusiastic enough to go along with it. The other was the beginners’ class, where it is important to really sample wines together to find out about aromas and tastes. So it wasn’t a complete surprise that people preferred waiting until the normal classes resumed. Other important feedback I got was that many people already spend a whole day in front of a computer at home during lockdown, and that more of that was just not how they wanted to finish the day. And that’s completely understandable of course.

The group that decided to try it out had a class on Champagne. To make things a bit more fun and to stimulate interaction, I invited people to open a bottle of Champagne at home, either during the weekend in the run-up to the class or during the class itself. Several people happily had a glass of Champagne while I presented a short slide show. They also received a few questions in advance with things they could focus on : is it a blend? is it a non-vintage or a vintage? what’s the sweetness level? After the theoretical part I invited people who were having a glass to discuss their Champagne and to talk about the things I asked to focus on. These are of course not very dynamic discussions as it’s difficult to interact without having online chaos, but at least people could come in and share their experience. Several people also posted questions on the chat.

In general I felt people were happy with the alternative that was offered. And probably just as important : it allows to connect with other people during difficult times of confinement and social distancing. Or as Adam put it : “it’s also about creating a sense of community right now”.

So based on my experience, here’s a few tips if you plan something similar :

  • Get to know your tool! Modern technology is supposed to be easy and user-friendly, but you’re better off not taking that too much for granted. You will need time to choose your tool, get familiar with it, test it, and troubleshoot issues. In the worst case you may have to decide that the tool you chose does not deliver, and move to something else.
  • Learn from people with experience. If you’re not familiar with new technologies, you will have to invest time to get to know new tools. Companies do a good job nowadays to post videos and all kinds of manuals, guidance, FAQ, etc. But you will notice that the one thing you absolutely need to know… is not in there. So connect with people who know. Thank you, Adam, for helping me out!
  • Adapt your content to the format. In a normal wine class you can get all geeky and elaborate about all the details you can imagine. But if you’re online, you need to focus on just a few messages. No one wants to spend three hours in front of their screen listening to wine theory. Make it concise and keep it simple.
  • Create opportunities for interaction. Despite the inevitable limitations of online solutions, it is important to leave room for interaction. In a small group you can open up the floor for discussion, even though you will want to moderate the discussion (meaning unmuting people one per one) if you don’t want things to derail. In larger groups the chat function is a perfect way for people to ask questions or post comments.
  • Plan your session in function of your audience. With the technology there for you to connect with almost everyone in the world, you may get excited about all the opportunities that loom on the horizon. Just don’t forget that people on the other side of the world sleep when you’re awake (under normal circumstances). So if you want to reach another audience than the one in your own time zone, you will have to schedule carefully, or plan several sessions at different times catering for people in different places of the world.

The remaining question to all this is : will these online formats continue to exist once the dust has settled (hoping that it will, sooner rather than later) ? Adam definitely plans to continue the online classes and will expand his offer, adding new sessions for people in other time zones (Europe and Africa). Personally, I’m also convinced that there is a future for online wine education. I do think, however, that subjects that target a more “advanced” audience will be more successful as beginner classes require more interaction and of course more tasting together. But I might be wrong. The least that can be said is that despite the human tragedy of Covid-19, the circumstances oblige us to change our ways. It will be very interesting to see how much of all this will stay with us in the future.

 

 

Experimenting with the blind tasting order

If you have organized a blind tasting before, chances are high that you will have prepared wines from white to rosé ro red, and from light to heavy. To start with white before red makes perfect sense of course. Although you might come across wineries in Bourgogne who will present their reds before the whites, in Meursault for example. And I have experienced myself that to have a white, rosé or sparkling wine after a series of reds can be nice and useful to “cleanse” your palate, especially if the reds are quite powerful and tannic. But in general white goes before red.

When you come to the order of the reds , things can get slightly more difficult. The basic idea is to start with light and move gradually to more powerful and structured reds. The reason for this this is pretty obvious : if you have a young, structured Bordeaux before a Burgundy, you might miss some of the nuances of the latter. Especially the build up of tannins in your mouth makes it difficult to appreciate the structure and the quality of the tannins of a lighter wine. Chewing on bread and drinking water in between wines will help, but in general you will try and build up from light to powerful.

One issue, however, that I have come across regularly in tastings, is the contrast between ripe and fresh in red wines. What do I mean with that? Let’s take the example of Burgundy again : if you follow the basic guidelines, you will want to start with the Burgundy (so a pinot noir) before you move to wines with more body/alcohol or wines with more tannins. My experience is that it works, as long as you stay in the same category of “freshness”. If you move from a Burgundy to a Loire Cabernet Franc and then to a Bordeaux, for example, that will perfectly work out. It’s more difficult when you move from a fresh, cool-climate style of wine to something riper. The last time I experienced that was when I had a glass of Valpolicella Superiore after I came home from a tasting of Loire Cabernet Franc. The Valpolicella came across as sweet, something I had not experienced when I drank that wine before. Normally I would perceive the fruit of the Valpolicella as ripe, but in balance with the acidity. When I had it after the Loire Cabernet Franc, I perceived it as sweet, round, and lacking tension. We’re talking about the same wine!

So when I had a blind tasting at my place last week with two Burgundy lovers, I decided to experiment a bit with the order. I reckoned that if I put the riper wines before the  fresher, more elegant wines, the riper wines would show well and there would not be a negative effect on the fresher wines that followed.

These are the red wines I gave :

  1. The Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2016 of Stefano Mancinelli. (in my previous blog post you can read that these are very aromatic wines, with loads of ripe fruit)
  2. The Valpolicella Superiore 2014 of Roccolo Grassi, also relatively ripe, but very nicely balanced.
  3. The Barolo Ascheri 2015 of Reverdito, a very typical Barolo with ripe red fruit, and strong tannins.
  4. The Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 of Charlopin, the most elegant in the line-up with nice strawberries, relatively ripe though for a Burgundy.

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I gave the wines in this order. And as I had hoped for, the Italian wines were appreciated at their true value and were even lauded for their freshness. My two companions being absolute Burgundy lovers, I knew it was not obvious that they would like the Italian wines, especially the Valpolicella, which was the same wine that I found sweet after a Loire Cabernet Franc. So the experiment was successful! Almost…

If I could re-do the tasting, I would probably change one thing. I would put the Barolo last instead of the Gevrey-Chambertin. You can probably guess why : the tannins. The Gevrey was ready to drink and did not have very strong tannins. The Barolo, however, had tightened up a couple of hours after opening. The wine was actually very balanced and accessible just after opening the bottle. A few hours later the tannins had become quite prominent, very much typical Barolo tannins. And that made the transition to the Gevrey less smooth than I had wished.

That goes to show that reversing the order will not always work. I would not start with a very structured Australian Shiraz to finish with a fragile Burgundy. But you can play with the order of a couple of red wines in your line-up. If both wines have a tannin level that is more or less equivalent, and one has riper fruit than the other, then try putting the riper one first. And let me now if that worked!

 

 

 

 

Lacrima : why you should get to know this unique grape

Obscure and forgotten grapes, they have something that appeals to me. Probably because of my curiosity and my constant urge to explore and discover new things. Or maybe also because of my sympathy for the underdog vs the big star. Unfortunately, many obscure grapes are obscure for a reason : because the acidity is too high, the wines too tannic, or the grape prone to disease. But here and there, there are hidden gems that can add a new tune to your song book. I believe that Lacrima, a blue grape from the Marche region in Italy, is such a grape worth being discovered.

If you find it, that is. Lacrima is made in the region around the village of Morro d’Alba, hence the name of the denominazione : DOC Lacrima di Morro d’Alba. The fact that it has its own DOC classification might suggest that there is a substantial production. In fact, the DOC Lacrima di Morro d’Alba only counts 6 villages, and there are only a few dozen producers who make wine from this grape. On top of that there are several things that can lead to confusion. The most obvious mistake is to confuse with the village of Alba in Piemonte, where Barbera d’Alba is made. Sometimes Lacrima is also mixed up with Lacryma Christi, the name of red and white wines in Campania, further south in Italy, made from completely different grapes. So from a marketing perspective, not the easiest sell!

So why is it worth looking out for Lacrima? Its unique selling proposition is its special aroma profile with aromas such as roses, violets, dark cherries, and cinnamon. While there are of course other grapes with one or two of these aromas, it’s the combination of all these aromas that make it really quite unique.

In terms of structure and mouthfeel, there is alot going on. If the ripe fruit is the main driver of these wines, there is almost invariably a strong acidity that cleaves through the fruit. And more often than not you will also find ripe tannins that provide a firm backbone to the wine. The frivolous fruit that you get from the first sip can easily mislead you in thinking that Lacrima is a simple fruit-driven type of wine. The better Lacrimas, however, have a certain level of complexity and ageing potential. It is difficult to make a comparison with other grapes, but some aspects, the floral aromas for example, might remind you of a Cabernet Franc or even a Gamay « on speed ». But comparing with other grapes does not really honor the rather unique profile of Lacrima.

It is also a grape that is not easy to work with. Lorenzo Marotti-Campi of the eponymous winery said in Monty Waldin’s Italian Wine Podcast that “you need to be a bit of masochist to work with Lacrima“. His tenacity pays off, however, as he was rewarded with “Tre Bicchieri”, the highest rating of Italy’s wine guide Gambero Rosso, for his Orgiolo 2016, the first Lacrima ever to receive the highest score : “We noticed the desire of some districts to set in motion a ‘virtuous cycle’. […] And it’s in this light that readers should interpret the first Tre Bicchieri for a Lacrima di Morro d’Alba“. During the summer I had the pleasure to visit the Marotti-Campi winery and I can attest that the Orgiolo is indeed of a very high level. But I also had other Lacrimas that were on a par with the Orgiolo. So if this illustrates that ‘virtuous cycle’ that Gambero Rosso was mentioning, I can only conclude there was probably never a better time to look out for Lacrima! The moderate price tag of these wines should definitely not stand in your way either.

Here’s a few Lacrimas I can wholeheartedly recommend :

9 (Nove) 2015, Luigi Giusti

This is a Lacrima without added sulfites. No wild aromas, but a very beautiful nose with sour cherries and roses. There is plenty of red fruit here with red currant and cherries, and a very refreshing acidity. There is a purity here that is really attractive, and which gives this wine a very high drinkability factor.

Orgiolo 2017, Marotti-Campi

Some Lacrimas can be very expressive. The Rubico, the entry-level Lacrima of Marotti-Campi, is such a fruit bomb. The Orgiolo, however, is more refrained and subtle, with black cherries and a subtle smokiness. There is really a nice level of complexity here. Everything is beautifully balanced and composed.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2015, Quota 33

Not the most known producer, but the Superiore deserves its place in this list. The entry-level wine is already a good deal as well with a very ethereal nose but somewhat rustic tannins. The Superiore is more refrained, with cherries, pine trees, forest fruit and cinnamon. Very fruit-driven in the beginning, but then come the acidity and the tannins that make this wine very much a 3D-experience. This is definitely not a wine for the faint-hearted and it can easily spend another 5 years tucked away in a dark corner.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2014, Stefano Mancinelli

This wine perfectly illustrates the unique profile of Lacrima : cotton candy, rose-hip, black cherry. Fruit-driven start with ripe tannins and the acidity that come up in the mid-palate. Everything comes perfectly together here. This is an elegant and balanced wine.

Verdicchio : what to make of it?

Italy is a producer of some of the world’s most sought-after wines. Barolo, Brunello, Amarone, Bolgheri and Taurasi are just some examples of wines that make many people dream. They all have one thing in common : they are red wines. It is clear that Italy’s whites have a much harder time to attract people’s attention. What is the reason for that? Are Italy’s white grapes not good enough to produce high-quality wines? Or are they not appreciated at their true value?

The three white Italian grapes that get the most praise internationally are Fiano, Garganega and Verdicchio. Italian wine expert Ian d’Agata calls the latter “Italy’s greatest native white grape variety” in his widely acclaimed “Native Wine Grapes of Italy”. Despite the fact that Verdicchio gets positive press from wine critics, it rarely features on wine lists, it is not widely available in wine shops, and the Marche region, where Verdicchio is home, is never the subject of international vintage reports, as are Tuscany and Piemont.

I was in the Marche on holidays last summer, where I visited a few wineries, and I spent the last couple of months exploring the grape in order to better understand it. Is Verdicchio actually only a second rank grape, or is it a hidden gem?

I mainly tried Verdicchios from the Castelli di Jesi DOCG and a few from the Matelica DOCG, both in the Marche region on the Adriatic Coast. Verdicchio is also found as Trebbiano di Soave in the Veneto and as Turbiana in Lugana, but I decided to focus on the Marche at this stage, and in fact mostly on wines from the Jesi region because this is by far the biggest area, Matelica only consisting of about 300ha (roughly one tenth of the Jesi region), which means I found very few Matelica Verdicchios in the shops in my area.

Tasting my way through a series of wines,  I found that Verdicchio has in fact many faces. Apart from sweet wines and sparkling wines, I distinguished four types of Verdicchios. Firstly there is what I call the “pure” rendition of the grape, then there is a later harvested version of Verdicchio as well as an oak-aged version, and finally there is the easy-drinking, fruit-forward Verdicchio. I briefly described them so you know what you can expect and look for.

1. The “pure” version of Verdicchio

Many wine critics and wine makers consider Verdicchio to be at its best when it reflects the pure characteristics of the grape. There are a few hallmark traits that are high acidity and an almond finish. If there is a white grape that can translate the idea of structure, it is verdicchio. The acidity and the slightly bitter twist in the end are important contributors to that, but there is more to it. Verdicchio is not an aromatic grape. The absence of strong and typical aromas and flavors, such as freshly cut grass or boxwood in Sauvignon blanc, enhances the relative importance of structure  in Verdicchio. In wines that have more fruit, the acidity is an element that creates a contrast, or supports the fruit. In Verdicchio, however, acidity is the main feature.

It would not be entirely fair to say that the fruit is completely absent in Verdicchio. There is often a bit of peach, citrus fruit or pear, and there can also be floral aromas.  More often, however, you will find lovely mineral aromas in the nose, that emphasize the fresh character of Verdicchio. Another aroma that consistently occurs, is a certain herbaceousness, or a vegetal note, somewhat reminiscent of fennel or dried herbs.

All these elements together make of Verdicchio a very dry, perhaps somewhat austere wine. Not everyone likes high acidity in a wine, or can appreciate it in its pure form without fruit to counter it. Also the almond in the end may be a hard nut to crack for some.

It is clear that in its “pure” form, Verdicchio is hardly a crowd pleaser. It lacks aromatic power to impress people from the first whiff, and the focus on structure rather than fruit is not something that helps to convince occasional wine drinkers either. While certain wineries in the Marche swear by this “pure” form of Verdicchio, it is not at all unlogical that others try to find ways to make Verdicchio more approachable.

2. Later-harvest Verdicchio

One way of doing that is working on the aromatic side and harvest Verdicchio at a later stage, when the grape is riper. This brings along stronger aromas of exotic fruit, summery flowers and sometimes even a touch of honey. These wines are not sweet, hence the later-harvest as opposed to proper late-harvest. But it is clear that a later harvest has a consequence for the structure of these wines : the acidity is definitely not as high and there is more fruit, which makes for a different, rounder wine. There where it gains in aromatic diversity and perhaps even complexity, it also loses somewhat in freshness and structure. It is fair to say it also loses a bit of its varietal typicity, but this style of wine will probably appeal to a larger group of wine drinkers.

3. Oak-aged Verdicchio

While aging Verdicchio in oak barrels is cursing in church for some, for others it is another way to soften the character of the wine and add a layer of complexity. Verdicchio not having heaps of fruit, it is clear that oak can easily smother the freshness and purity of the wine. In the oak-aged wines I have tasted, however, I did not come across vanilla-heavy wines, or other cases of excessive use of wood. The wines rather displayed some extra complexity, adding delicate smokey aromas for example. I have a tendency to believe that oak-aging can work for Verdicchio. When done properly, of course, but that goes for all wines.

4. Fresh, easy-drinking Verdicchio

This is probably the best-known type of Verdicchio, symbolized by the amphora-shaped bottles, introduced by Fazi Battaglia in the 1950s. These wines are more perfumed, have an attractively crisp acidity and lack the almond bitter in the end. More often than not these wines are looked down on in the wine press, and are cornered as “simple summer quaffers”. It is true that these wines are highly interchangeable with other summer-proof wines, but some of these entry-level Verdicchios are ridiculously cheap, give drinking-pleasure, have good balance and attractive fruit. The Moncaro Verdicchio, for example, cost under five euro and offered a pleasant glass of wine.

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Conclusion

So what do I make of Verdicchio? I certainly do not think it is a second rank grape. As a matter of fact, I did not come across even one wine that I would call bad, not even under 5€. There are few grapes that can claim such a consistent performance in each price category like Verdicchio. On the other hand, the lack of aromatic power makes it hard for Verdicchio to compete with the likes of riesling or sauvignon blanc.

I have to add a caveat to that as it seems that aged Verdicchio is a completely different matter. The aging potential of Verdicchio is said to be enormous and wines of 10 years+ are described as much more complex than younger wines. Unfortunately it is impossible to find aged Verdicchios, so I cannot say much about the quality of older Verdicchios. One thing I do believe is that the people who are willing to store Verdicchio for more than 10 years are a very small niche of wine drinkers.

Of the styles that are developed to make Verdicchio more approachable, I find the attempts to age it on wood the most interesting. If done cautiously, and with the necessary sublety, these wines can exist in their own right and attract a new public. Even if oak-aging is still somewhat controversial for Verdicchio, it does offer opportunities that are worth exploring.

Does this mean I do not like the “pure” version of Verdicchio? Absolutely not. In fact, these wines have a great selling proposition that should be used much more to market Verdicchio : the food-pairing potential.

Verdicchio : your food friend!

Verdicchio is probably one the most versatile and food-friendly white wines I know and believe every sommelier should have it on his/her wine list. Since Verdicchio is all about structure, it leaves ample space for many different kinds of flavors and it keeps its ground with all sorts of exotic combinations that are typical of today’s fusion kitchen. While chefs go crazy inventing new and exciting dishes with a range of flavors you would never dream of combining, sommeliers (or clients when there is no somm) need to find a wine that pairs with all this. Verdicchio is a definitely an option to consider in many of those cases. It has the extraordinary feature that it does not impose itself on the dish, while not letting itself be easily overpowered either.

Verdicchio is a no-brainer with fish and sea-fruit, but it pairs wonderfully well with richer dishes as well. I had the Tralivio of Sartarelli (a “pure” Verdicchio) with a cheese fondue and the acidity was a welcome refreshener at the table. Or what to drink with penne with mushrooms, chestnut, balsamico vinegar, rucola and candied lemon?

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Verdicchio is able to absorb all these flavors and still keep its own identity. And the most difficult match of all : bitterness in food, such as brussels sprouts or Belgian endives. The almond bitter finish of Verdicchio actually echoes these flavors beautifully. When in doubt, drink Verdicchio.

Recommended wines

Here are a few Verdicchios I liked very much and that are worth seeking out :

Luzano 2018, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore – Marotti Campi

I visited this winery during the summer and got a personal tour of the estate by Giovanni Marotti, who is the founder of the current winery, when he heard I was from Belgium. It turned out that he had worked in Belgium as a young man… He was very proud to show the estate, and I have to say that the view from his winery was indeed astonishing.

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The Luzano Verdicchio is very Verdicchio. The strong almond bitter in the finish was already preceded by almond aromas in the nose. But this is one of the rare unoaked, “pure” Verdicchios that also had a nice fruit component with lush peaches, and the inevitable vegetal note. Great acidity as well. We had this with grilled cauliflower and chickpeas, with a dressing of tahini, lemon and cayenne pepper. Another good match. The Salmariano, which is oak-aged, is also worth seeking out.

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Il Priore 2017, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore – Sparapani

Another winery I visited last year. “Winery” does not do Sparapani justice, as they actually also run a gas station and a restaurant.IMG_4005

The Priore 2017 displayed ripe pear, green herbs, and a remarkable salinity. The wine is nicely balanced, and the bitter twist in the end is actually more like a grapefruit bitter, rather than an almond bitter, which made it a bit more approachable. Elegant wine.

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Podium 2016, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico – Garofoli

Garofoli is one of the prominent wineries of the Marche and the Podium Verdicchio is a wine that consistently gets good press. I also decided to list it here, but rather on the basis of its performance on day two.

On day one this wine was definitely good, but perhaps a bit middle of the road, with the Verdicchio characteristics present, but in a very mild way. It was only on day two that this wine really developed real character, with more freshness, structure and the almond finish. A wine that needs time to further develop.

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Verdicchio di Matelica 2016 – Monacesca

Monacesca is one of the leading wineries in Matelica and the Mirum is the wine that often gets the best press. This is a Verdicchio that is harvested later to develop more ripeness and more fruit. The pineapple, honey and herbal notes that I had in the 2015 were indeed attractive, but the acidity was more on the background. This wine worked well with Belgian endives in ham rolls with cheese sauce.

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It is, however, the “regular” Verdicchio that I liked most, with its very cool aromas, full of minerality and herbs. This is a hallmark Verdicchio, built around the acidity and the dryness of the wine. The finish was remarkable, fresh and long, with a caramel note that came several seconds later, despite the fact that this wine did not age on wood. I really liked this.

Donna Cloe 2016, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva Classico – Sparapani

At Sparapani’s they also do a Verdicchio that is oak-aged, and it is lovely! The nose is subtle, almost etheric, with great minerality and something that made me think of iodine, suggesting salinity. The use of oak did not push the acidity to the back at all. The acidity is an important driver of this wine, but the wood does not go unnoticed either. The impression is one of old wood, however, like you can have in Burgundy aged in old casks. There is something that reminds me of very good Chablis here!

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The wine evolved quite a bit, and later in the day became more “pure” Verdicchio, in a sense that the herbal notes and the almond bitter became more prominent. This is a wine that stands its ground. It even accompanied a chicken tikka masala without many problems.

Does anyone need convincing that Verdicchio should really be your food friend?