Reviewing James Suckling’s The Miracle of Alto Adige

On 22th of March, the Miracle of Alto Adige was released, a documentary produced by James Suckling and his son Jack about this wine region in the north of Italy. On 29th it was released for the general public on his website. I was pretty excited about this documentary and eager to see it. I’m a big fan of audiovisual productions about wine. Probably because I’m not the most avid reader there is, but also because the treshold is lower than reading a thick book. After a long day at work, I find it quite relaxing to watch a documentary or listen to a podcast. On the train for example, since I spend at least two hours per day commuting.

One of the series I really enjoyed watching, already quite a few years ago, was Jancis Robinson’s wine course. When I started getting interested in wine that was the perfect introduction for me to the subject. It was very educative and had a good mix of factual information, beautiful images of the world’s best known wine regions, and interviews with key winemakers. When I heard about James Suckling’s documentary about Alto Adige, I expected something similar. I was particularly happy to see that someone like James Suckling chose a fairly unknown region like Alto Adige. I might be wrong, but I think of him as a critic who has a preference for “big” wines, while I know Alto Adige as a wine region that’s especially known for somewhat lighter and fresh wines. Anyhow, it’s a region that doesn’t get a lot of attention, even among lovers of Italian wines, Tuscany and Piedmont still being the go to regions for many.

The documentary starts off with very impressive footage of the mountainous area. The images, shot by drones and helicopters, are really breathtaking, immediately driving home the point of the “miracle” of Alto Adige. That probably should not come as a surprise, the director of the documentary being James Orr, known for popular Hollywood movies such as Three Men and a Baby, and Sister Act 2. The scenery is the perfect introduction to the winemakers of the region, including top winemakers such as Alois Lageder and Elena Walch, but I was happy to see also a few cooperatives such a Cantina Tramin. They only get a few minutes each to talk about their experiences with wine making in the region. After all, the documentary is only 23 minutes long and that seriously limits the possibilities of what you can show. If you want to showcase 6 wineries, well then there’s not an awful lot of time left to show or tell anything else.

Unfortunately this means that you don’t get to know much about the region in general : where is it situated? what kind of wines are made there? and which grapes are used? Particularly the last question is of interest, I find, because Alto Adige is home to a few indigenous grapes such as the well-known gewürztraminer, but also less well-known, but not less interesting, grapes such as schiava and lagrein. Especially lagrein is a grape that I find interesting. It produces medium-bodied, sometimes floral, but mainly spicy, peppery red wines,  reminiscent of syrah. Alas, no word about lagrein or any wine of the region for that matter. It makes you wonder a bit about the point of this documentary. Perhaps James Suckling has a personal preference for the wines coming from Alto Adige? Well, again, you won’t find out by watching this documentary! James Suckling is not to be seen anywhere. You only hear him saying a few lines at the beginning of the documentary.

I won’t hide that I find this documentary a bit of a missed opportunity. James Suckling uses his popularity to draw the attention to a less-known wine region, such as Alto-Adige, and that’s great. But he does not use his knowledge or tasting experience to share his insights, or to let us in on a few talented but yet undiscovered wine makers for example. Nor do we really learn anything about Alto Adige. Pity…

Well, let me give you at least one lagrein to look out for then! It’s the Staves, a Lagrein Riserva of Weingut Kornell. This is a wine that is defined by its pureness, its elegance and yes, the black pepper that could lead you to northern rhone syrah. In its youth the wood can still dominate the fruit a bit, but I drank the 2012 and the wood is perfectly integrated now. I found this wine just under 30€, so quality also has its price in Alto Adige, but what you get in your glass is definitely worth the money.

IMG_1302

So, if you watch The Miracle of Alto Adige, then treat yourself with a nice peppery lagrein or a flowery schiava. They go well with the beautiful scenery.

A few Taste Bud-worthy Barberas

Barbera is probably not the sexiest grape to write about. It’s not the kind of trophy wine you see on top of wine tasting lists. And yet, it’s one of Italy’s most-planted native grapes. You can find it in many regions but it’s in Piedmont that it shines. Or should I say, tries to shine? I suppose nebbiolo will probably always be the first grape that springs to mind when you think of Piedmont. But nebbiolo and barbera are two very different grapes and produce very different wines. Nebbiolo is late ripening, while barbera is earlier ripening (still later than dolcetto though). Barbera wines are often very dark, while nebbiolo is very transparent. And barbera is low in tannins, while nebbiolo tends to produce very robust and tannic wines. The only thing they have in common is the high acidity. So all in all, despite the fact they are grown in the same area, there is very little common ground.

The reason why I find barbera interesting, however, is because it occupies a place where you don’t find many other grapes. Just think of the usual suspects in red : cabernet sauvignon or franc, merlot, syrah, grenache. Or popular Italian grapes, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, and montepulciano. None of them really has the same characteristics as barbera. Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young. The acidity of the grape is also a grateful partner for tomato based sauces. Think bolognese or puttanesca sauces with pasta. For me that’s comfort food with comfort wine. Perfect for those evenings when you want to treat yourself with a nice meal without having to spend hours in the kitchen…

I focused a bit on barbera in the past few months to explore the grape. In general I found that I prefer the Barbera d’Asti over the Barbera d’Alba. In Alba we are in Barolo territory, so it’s nebbiolo that is in the spotlight here. It’s therefore no wonder that wineries choose to use their best vineyards for nebbiolo, as Barolo can be sold at much higher prices than any barbera. In Asti things are different, because barbera does not have to share the attention with nebbiolo. In general I found that Barbera d’Asti is a bit more full-bodied and with more pronounced acidity than Barbera d’Alba, the latter being a bit warmer, rounder. Of course it’s difficult to generalise not having tasted dozens of barberas from Alba, but the Albas I had were not from obscure unknown wineries, so I suppose they were representive for Alba.

The second conclusion I draw from my experience is that barbera is a winemaker’s grape. Despite my feeling that barberas are best when they are juicy and fresh, some were very modern, with very strong wood aromas, obviously more geared towards an international palate. Those are not bad wines per se, but they loose their unique selling proposition. However, the grape allows it, contrary to  terroir grapes such as nebbiolo or pinot noir, which need very cautious extraction and use of wood.

So here’s a few barbera’s I can recommend…

If you’re looking for good, textbook barbera :

Tre Roveri 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Pico Maccario

IMG_1261

The nose is loaded with ripe dark cherries, yet at the same time it has a spicy freshness. The fruit is evolving towards dried fruit, showing a bit of evolution. The wine is rather full-bodied, but has the typical barbera acidity that keeps this wine fresh, nicely covering the 14% alcohol. Actually, this wine was best on day two, showing more elegance and perfect balance. So no hurry here.

If you want to show off :

Vigna Scarrone 2012 Barbera d’Alba, Vietti

Beautiful, well integrated nose with cherries and a whiff of  chocolate. Elegant and complex, with multiple layers and very long finale! No doubt that barbera transcends its peers here, but it also costs more than 30€. That’s a price point where the competition with premium wines from other grapes starts getting really tough. I know that that is comparing apples and oranges. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone does? Nevertheless, great effort.

Nizza 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, Dacapo

dacapo

Picture courtesy of the Associazione dei Produttori del Nizza

This is a barbera from the subzone of Nizza which was in 2011 still a part of the denominazione of Barbera d’Asti, but exists separately as DOCG Nizza since 2014. Before that barbera could still be complemented by 10% other grapes. Now it is 100% barbera.

The wine is a bit evolved and the nose has become a nice bouquet where everything has blended beautifully together. The morello cherries stand out, together with a bit of coffee. The ripe fruit is balanced by a razorsharp acidity that might be over the top for some, but I like it. I had it with ragu alla bolognese and that went very well. But mind you, this is more than just a simple spaghetti wine!

If you’re looking for a good price quality ratio :

Soliter 2016, Barbera d’Asti, Pescaja

IMG_0457

This is a barbera that can be found around 10€ and it gives very good value for money. It’s a modern barbera, the wood is still very noticeable, but then again it’s also a very young wine. Beautiful ripe cherries as well and a hint of black pepper. This is a very smooth wine that makes you grab the bottle as soon as your glass is empty. Dangerous stuff!

Piova 2014, Barbera d’Asti, La Montagnetta

Another pleasant easy-drinking barbera at around 10€. Graphite, black cherries, chocolate, and a hint of rose. Quite ripe and round, and the wood is very present. Good and lively acidity that give this wine freshness. Very modern style, but pleasant wine.

So these a couple of barberas that I liked. I did not post all the barberas I tasted here in order to avoid a too lenghthy post, but I started using Vivino to post my tasting notes there, so if you’re interested in the other barberas I tried, you can find them there if you go to my profile.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

Riesling with Asian food – an all-time favorite

It’s classic stuff… Riesling with Asian food. If you’re a bit of a foodie, then you surely know that Riesling is an often recommended companion for Asian dishes that are built around sweet and sour contrasts. Riesling basically has very similar characteristics : often you’ll find pine apple, candied lemon, peach, and honey if it’s sweet or evolved. And of course that magnificent acidity that makes that Riesling hardly ever comes across as flat or plump, no matter how sweet the wine is… When the dish has more spicy flavours coming from cardamom, cloves, cumin,… then muscat or gewürztraminer will also be a very good match.

Today I prepared Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian version of a Chinese classic dish : Black pepper tofu. This is one of our favorites here. But mind you, this is an extreme dish, in every possible way! In his recipe, Ottolenghi uses 8 chillies, 12 garlic cloves, three table spoons of ginger, and 5 (!) table spoons of crushed black pepper. It made me laugh when I read his version is already a milder version than the original… I can have a bit of pepper and chili, but I toned things down another notch or two, bringing the quantities down to 4 chillies, 6 garlic cloves and a few whiffs of pepper. Believe me, I found that hot enough.

IMG_1251

There’s a funny anecdote to this dish. You’re supposed to dust the tofu with corn flour to make it a bit crusty when you fry it. I had corn flour, but it was yellow corn flour to make polenta. That’s a much rougher version than the white corn flour, which is so fine you can hardly distinguish a single grain. On the picture above you can clearly see the corn flour I used. Well, this sure gives a crunchy coating! But we actually liked it. By now I’ve prepared this dish quite a few times, and I’ve tried both white corn flour and yellow corn flour. We actually prefer the yellow corn flour as it adds structure to the dish, which is interesting.

The wine we drank with it was a Riesling of Domaine Meyer-Fonné, a winery in the Alsace, France. It was the Pfoeller 2012. That’s a “lieux-dit”, a single vineyard coming from a specific place with the name Pfoeller.  On the website they describe the wine as follows : “The palate has a clean attack, distinguished, and an athletic acidity. As a slowly developing wine this is a riesling without compromise for the enlightened connoisseur.” Well, I can confirm that this wine has an “athletic” acidity (what a nice description, don’t you think?), but as is so often the case with Riesling, the acidity is not disturbing at all. This is a mouthwatering wine, very elegant, racy, complex. I also love the minerality in the nose, and there’s a hint of honey suckle as well. It’s true that this wine is no where near the point that it needs to be drunk. This wine will still develop for many years to come and will still get better, probably developing more mellow flavors alongside the racy acidity.

IMG_1254

The glass is empty and so is the bottle!

The combination worked really well. This black pepper tofu dish was very rich, and the riesling was a refreshing break in between the chili-loaded tofu. If you decide to make this dish and use the original amount of chili and black pepper, then by all means do not hesitate to take a riesling that’s slightly sweet, such as a Mosel Kabinett. It’s wrong to think that such wines are dessert wines. The sweeter versions, think of Spätlese, are indeed good partners for a fruit dessert. But a Kabinett can perfectly be paired with hot dishes and will help not to burn your tongue with the chili and pepper…

If you try this dish out, let me know how that went. Especially if you go for the hot version 🙂

 

 

 

Never waste a good climate change : Part II – Polska!

Polish wine, would you believe it?! Poles consider beer to be lemonade. Something you drink to refresh your mouth in between the shots of vodka. I reckoned they considered wine to be something similar. It actually turns out they produce it! In one of the airport shops in Warsaw they even have a full rack of Polish wine. And of course, I had to try it… I will not deny that I bought the bottles wondering if I really wanted to throw away my money just like that?! But actually, this turned out to be an interesting experience! Here they are : Continue reading “Never waste a good climate change : Part II – Polska!”

Never waste a good climate change – Burgundy

One man’s loss is another man’s gain. Climate change is a challenge in many wine regions, but creating opportunities in others. Take Burgundy, for example. 2015 was hailed as a great year by many critics. Very good weather conditions resulting in high quality grapes and wine. At least if you like very rich pinots with loads of ripe fruit. Many of the 2015s I tasted at the wine fair of independent vignerons recently in Lille, France, were very generous, ripe and had moderate acidity levels. Of course, this is my personal preference, but I look more for Burgundies with freshness, fresh fruit, good acidity, tension and elegance. The contrast was immense when I tasted the wines of Domaine Jacob at the same wine fair. They do not put the wines in barrels for very long and were therefore capable of already bringing the 2016s to the fair. Well, they were vibrant! And that’s how I like them. To be totally honest, you don’t find the cream of the Burgundy crop at this wine fair so it would be unfair to judge the quality of the vintage just on the Burgundies I’ve tasted there. But still, it gave me a general idea. And it strengthened my belief that the great vintages according to the wine press, do not always produce the wines that I like.

All of this made me wonder about the effects of the hot weather on the wines coming from the plateau of the much cooler Hautes-Côtes in Burgundy. These vineyards are located on top of the Côte d’Or escarpment, the east-facing hills where you find all the illustrious vineyards of the Côtes de Nuits and the Côtes de Beaune. The Hautes-Côtes are higher than the Côtes, as the name suggests, and are not protected from the winds coming from the west. The difference in temperature can be a whopping 5°C… No wonder it’s difficult to have ripe grapes here. Except perhaps in warmer vintages such as 2015? Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought the Hautes-Côtes de Beane “Les Perrières” from Denis Carré, a winemaker based in Meloisey, a village in the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. I had tried this wine before but from a cooler vintage (2013) and it failed to convince me then, so I was eager to see what the 2015 had to offer :

The nose offers plenty of typical pinot fruit. “Ça pinote”, like the French say. Cherries are singing the tune, with raspberries doing the backing vocals. There is something in the nose that I would like to call “wild”, perhaps a touch of brett even? But it’s not of the sort that overwhelms. It actually adds an intriguing element to the nose. There’s also some herbs on the background, and a whiff of old barrel. The wine kicks off with the cherries and the raspberries but there’s good acidity here that creates a ripe-sour contrast that I like. It lacks a bit of depth and length, but it definitely gives typical pinot drinking pleasure.

 Not too bad for 14,95€, is it? The hierarchy is obviously respected : no great complexity here. But then again, this is a pleasant wine that pinot lovers will like for its typicity and its pretensionless every day drinking character.

IMG_1193

Conclusion : it’s early days to start putting all your money on the Hautes-Côtes in Burgundy, but if temperatures keep rising, the Hautes-Côtes may have good stuff for us in store. New rendez-vous in 20 years or so…

Transparency in wine

Today’s blog post is not about the color of wine but about more information on what is in your bottle (yes, it’s wine, I know) and how it’s made. This is a subject that’s been on my mind already for a while. But I got triggered by an article on Social Vignerons by Kelly Shepherd. She justly makes the point that wine labels are lacking important information for the consumer, such as the degree of sweetness of the wine and nutrition facts. I totally agree that there could be more information on a wine label so here’s a couple more suggestions of what wine makers could communicate about.

Let’s start with SO2 (sulphur dioxide), yes, the stuff of which you’ve been told it gives you headache. I’m not going to repeat the debate here about whether or not SO2 in wine gives you headache. Personally, I think alcohol is a logical first suspect if you want to find a culprit for your headache, but anyway, SO2 is not a substance that you should consume masses of either. So, wouldn’t it be logical if labels mentioned the amount of SO2 in a bottle? “Contains sulphites” is a mention that doesn’t help us much, because that just means that there is more than 10mg/l in your wine, which is almost always the case. And you need to be a real geek to know that the maximum level of SO2 in red wine, for example, is 150mg/l in Europe (350mg/ in the US!). And besides, knowing the maximum level doesn’t mean there is actually that much in your wine. So all we know is that there is between 10 and 150mg/l in a bottle of wine. Having more precise information is not only interesting for health conscious consumers. People with asthma can actually suffer an attack from too high levels of sulphites. Scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms of what exactly triggers such an attack and if SO2 in wine can directly cause one. But if I had asthma, I would like to know how much SO2 is in my wine, so I could at least be careful. By the way, organic wine does have lower SO2 levels, but there is still a margin between 0 and 100mg/l (for red wine).

IMG_1141

Contains Sulphites – sure, but how much?

Sweetness : like Kelly Shepherd argued, it’s difficult to know how sweet a wine is. Actually, it’s sometimes difficult to know if a wine is sweet at all.  It wouldn’t be the first time that someone gave me a bottle of sweet white wine as a present, thinking it was dry… Take the case of a white Bordeaux Supérieur. In almost all parts of the world the word “supérieur” refers to higher alcohol levels or perhaps longer ageing. In the case of a Bordeaux Supérieur, it means that the wine is sweet… In Jurançon (South-West France) it’s even more complicated : if the label doesn’t explicitly mention that it is dry, then it is sweet… If that’s not confusing?

IMG_1140

If the label doesn’t mention it’s dry, then it’s sweet!

Even for wines that are technically “dry”, it can still be interesting to have an indication of how dry. The sensory threshold of sugar in wine depends a bit on your sensitivity, but in general it’s around 3g/l that you can start to have an impression of roundness in the wine. Not unimportant when you’re drinking red wine from Valpolicella, Italy, for example. Sugar levels of around 5-6g/l are no exceptions there. And believe me, you will taste the difference. For many people 6g/l in red is already too high. They might perhaps not be able to tell you why they don’t like the wine, but if they say that the wine is too round or too jammy. It’s the sugar!

In regions where they make a lot of sweet wine, such as Alsace in France or the Mosel in Germany, it can be notoriously difficult to find out whether your wine will be sweet, medium sweet or dry. Especially in Germany where categories such as “Kabinett” don’t tell you much unless you know your way around German wine. In the Alsace region several producers started using  a scale of sweetness on the label, indicating where the wine is situated on that scale. Domaine Kientzler does a good job here adding the “indice de sucrosité“.

Champagne is another such example of where dry and dry can be two different things. In principle when the bottle mentions “Brut”, it should be dry. But the maximum sugar level for “Brut” being at 12g/l, you can be sure that you will taste the difference between a Champagne that’s at 6g and one that is at 12g… Again, no way of knowing when you’re buying a bottle unless it’s explicitly mentioned on the label.

IMG_1138

An example of good practice by Dhondt-Grellet in Champagne

And while we’re in Champagne, let’s also talk about dégorgement, or the disgorgement. That is the process of taking the lees (dead yeast cells) out of the bottle before the liqueur de tirage is added, to bring the champagne to the desired level of sweetness, and the final cork is put on. As long as the disgorgement did not happen, the wine will continue to evolve. The effect of the time spent on the lees is more complexity and aromas of toasted bread, yeast, patisserie, brioche, those beautiful aromas that are so typical for champagne. In principle, once the champagne is bottled, the wine will not evolve anymore. Some argue that top champagnes still need a couple of years cellaring before you drink it, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. So what does this mean? That you better drink your champagne (or any sparkling wine for that matter) as soon as possible after the disgorgement, especially if you cannot store it in good conditions (dark and cool). The question of course is : how do you know when the champagne was bottled?! Some mention the date of disgorgement on the label, but the vast majority doesn’t. So if you see a bottle of champagne in your local supermarket, there’s really no way of knowing for how long it’s been standing there in the daylight, at room temperature. In the worst case your champagne will taste of brown apples, which means it’s oxidized. Quite unfortunate if you spent 30€ for a bottle, isn’t it?

I could go on about things that are useful and interesting information for us but that are lacking on the label or the technical sheet, but I’ll stop here. My point is that more transparency in wine and how it’s made would be a good thing for the consumer. I’m aware, though, of potential pitfalls : wine makers’ core business is making wine, not communication. Especially small producers will probably shrug their shoulders when you ask them about more information on the label. And then there is also the question of technicality : how to make sure that the information they provide is also understood by the consumer. Valuable points, for sure. But I think that such things evolve. Once everyone expects certain things to be on the label or a technical sheet, then more and more wine makers will start providing that information. And the more information is provided, the more consumers will become aware of the significance of it and why they might want to know all that stuff. If you now see the caloric value of a biscuit on its label, chances are high that you will be able to judge if that is a lot or not in comparison with other food. And then, it’s up to you if you want to eat it or not. Because you can make an informed decision. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the same with a bottle of wine?

Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!

You can never have enough champagne in the house. Seriously! I’m hooked. I’ve come a far way, though. Before I was really into wine, I used to say : “why would you buy an expensive bottle of champagne if you can have cava for 5€? What’s the difference?!” Well, that was a long time ago… With the discovery of a whole new world of wine during my sommelier training, I also came to appreciate champagne. The aromas of apple, chalk, butter, toasted bread, brioche are now aromas that I cherish every time I drink a good champagne.  Continue reading “Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!”