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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaujolais Nouveau : has it changed?

The first time I consciously drunk Beaujolais Nouveau was in 1998. I was in Angers in the Loire region as an Erasmus student (the EU exchange program for students). A few French guys responsible for helping foreign students to integrate took us to a local bar on the 3rd Thursday of November, the day the new Beaujolais comes out. I wasn’t into wine yet at that stage, but already then I noticed the very specific candy and banana aromas that come with the “nouveau” style, the very young wines that are made with “macération carbonique” or carbonic maceration. I will leave out the technical details of how these wines are made, but the “nouveau” wines are meant to be fruit-forward, easy-to-drink and they are made to be put on the market as soon as they are ready. Ironically, the heavy marketing campaigns of the past for this style of Beaujolais cast a shadow on the rest of the wines made in Beaujolais, and very much gave the whole region a bad name. I remember I wasn’t impressed in 1998, and never picked up a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau again.

Until today… It’s that moment again : the 3rd Thursday of the month, just 21 years later. I happened to be in Paris and entered a local wine shop. There were several Beaujolais Nouveaux on sale, and there was one that caught my attention : Le p’tit nouveau 2019 of Antony Perol, a new kid on the block according to the French press. His Beaujolais Nouveau 2018 received raving reviews in French wine magazines, Bourgogne Aujourd’hui giving it 17,5/20. In addition to that, it’s an organic wine and it contains as good as no sulfites (0,02g/l). If you could expect something different and more interesting from anyone, it would be from a wine maker like Anthony Perol, young and ambitious, and working very differently than traditional wine makers.

The color of the wine was amazing, it was just as purple as the capsule on the bottle! The first sniff was very disappointing : bonbon anglais, as the French say very gracefully. Pure candy, basically. This did not last, however, as the wine evolved into something more metallic, not particularly attractive either, to settle eventually in dominantly green aromas. The wine has a certain freshness, which is pleasant. Nothing too heady or sugary here, and there’s even a bit of tannin, not typical for “nouveau” wines. The herbaceousness, however, is very persistent and makes it difficult to enjoy this. Finally, there is a hint of barnyard in the finish. I can appreciate a bit of “funky” aromas as long as they are not overpowering, but when it stays on the back of your tongue, I simply cannot have it.

Conclusion : I went for a radically different type of Beaujolais Nouveau, and radically different is what I got. Unfortunately, I cannot say I find this better. Next appointment with Beaujolais Nouveau in another two decades. Perhaps.

 

HVE : a complementary label to organic and bio-dynamic

I wrote an article for Meininger’s Wine Business International on the French label “Haute Valeur Environnementale” (HVE). Farmers who have the HVE certified label, pledge to keep the use of pesticides and fungicides to a strict minimum.

You can read it here : https://www.drinks-today.com/wine/news-analysis/france-tries-alternative-organic

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Is France on its way to ban pesticides?

If you thought Brexit was the only source of entertainment with yelling people, bickering politicians and social media exploding with discussions between people who don’t listen to each other, you’re wrong! France experienced a very heated summer, and climate change for once has nothing to do with it. The subject that heated people’s tempers more than the tropical temperatures was the introduction of so-called non-treatment zones for farmers, proscribing them to spray pesticides within a certain distance of neighboring homes and schools. 

On September 9, 2019 the French government launched a 3-week national consultation on a proposal to ban the use of pesticides in a 5 metre zone from housing for low crops and in a 10 metre zone for high crops, including vines. France is the first country to launch non-treatment zones to protect the population’s health, the proposal being a joint effort between the three ministers of agriculture, health and ecological transition. Debates on the use of pesticides are obviously not new, but a very symbolical and highly mediatised case accelerated things substantially in 2014 when school children in Villeneuve, a town in Bordeaux’ Blaye region, became nauseous due to the spraying of fungicides in next-door vineyards.

Several attempts were undertaken since then to introduce non-treatment zones and other measures, that were subsequently withdrawn by court rulings after protest of agricultural lobby groups. French farmers and their representative bodies vehemently oppose government plans to curb the use of pesticides, arguing that they will lose thousands of hectares. They also point to the fact that spraying procedures have evolved already and that they follow strict rules on the use of pesticides, based on scientific research. Factors such as the speed of wind, the amount of pressure, and the type of spraying device used, are indeed taken into account before deciding how, when and where to spray. These arguments, however, did not placate civil society groups and environmental organizations, who find the farmers’ efforts and the government’s current proposal too little too late.

Enter a whole new dimension in the debate, as organic and natural wine enthusiasts started asking why it was necessary to use pesticides in the first place. However appealing this thought may seem, conventional farmers were quick to point out that copper, accepted in organic agriculture, is a fungicide, and not particularly good for people’s health either. The 2014 Villeneuve case aptly demonstrated their point, as one of the two vineyard owners who were charged, was an organic wine maker.

Daniel Cueff, mayor in the Breton town of Langouët, decided to take the law in his own hands and banned the use of pesticides and herbicides within 150 metres of housing. Needless to say that this caused quite a stir, some farmers arguing they would lose entire plots if this became a national measure. Unfortunately for Mr Cueff his decision was overruled in court, the judge arguing that decisions on the use of phytosanitary products are the mandate of the minister of agriculture. The latter, Didier Guillaume, was also quick to declare that non-treatment zones of 150 metres would be “madness for the consumer”.

There is, however, an alternative for the government’s one-size-fits-all regulation, and that’s curiously an alternative that Didier Guillaume favors in the first place : local charters. The idea is that local citizens and farmers get together and work out a compromise that suits them. Only in the absence of a local charter will the national rules be applied. This solution is also largely favored by the farmer organizations, who would hate to see “Paris” imposing rules on them. While the local charters leave room for flexibility and compromise, it is, however, no option not to have non-treatment zones at all. They may be reduced to 5 metres instead of 10 “if more performing spraying devices can be used”. If the idea of locally negotiated charters seems a good idea to some, it may prove challenging in areas where the powers that be are also in the business of wine making. Again, the 2014 Bordeaux case was telling, as the local mayor at that time was actually one of the two vineyard owners who were charged for spraying in the presence of school children.

At the date of publication of this article, the number of comments on the ministry of agriculture’s website grew to a whopping 27,000. While other consultations mostly fail to attract any attention at all, this one clearly shows that the heated summer is very likely to extend in a heated fall. With France topping the Food Sustainability Index, which also looks at sustainable agriculture, for three consecutive years, it comes as no surprise that it is the first country putting non-treatment zones on the political agenda. While it will be interesting to see what the final outcome will be in France, it’s equally intriguing to see how little debate there is in other countries. Will France’s regulation provoke similar initiatives in other EU countries? The French chest-beating that comes with the acknowledgement of their efforts on sustainability might just trigger new dynamics elsewhere. Or then again, it also might not.