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The Illegal Grapes of Northern Italy

If I asked you about the wines made near Verona you might mention Valpolicella and Soave.  If I asked you about the grapes planted there, and you know a bit about wine, perhaps you’d note corvina and garganega – maybe even pinot grigio.  Yet it’s unlikely that you would talk about clinton.  As it happens it is American in origin – but nothing to do with the former president.  Nevertheless, it appears in a few villages around the city, and further afield, towards Vicenza and Padua.

When the phylloxera bug arrived in southern France around 1863 and started to eat its way through the continent’s vineyards, grapegrowers needed to find a way to protect their vines against it.  As most readers will know, planting on rootstocks from North American grape species was the widely adopted solution, but another solution was to plant some of the varieties of those American grape vines themselves, and use their grapes to make wine.  These are still planted in the eastern USA and Canada – concord is one of the best known varieties.  The trouble with these wines is that they are, at best, sickly-jelly in character, and at worst ‘foxy’.  I haven’t actually ever smelt a fox close up, but this is description for the dirty animal character the wines can have.

So what does this have to do with Verona?  Well, at some point in the last 120 years or so, in the wake of phylloxera, clinton washed up around the old city and some growers started to plant it.  Its big advantage was cost.  To plant vines on rootstocks they have to be grafted in nurseries – and that costs from 4-6€ for a good quality variety in some parts of the world currently; the cost of planting 3000, 5000 even 10000 vines per hectare would be impossible.  However, if you have an American vine you can propagate it by layering – taking a cane, burying part of it and letting it root in the soil then cutting it off from the mother plant; this is at no cost, because the American vine is resistant the predations of phylloxera!  If you are an impoverished peasant who uses wine as part of the daily diet this is much better than paying to replant grafted wines.  So it tastes worse than rondinella or trebbiano?  Well, who cares?  This wine is for energy not for aesthetic pleasure and this grape makes for very cheap wine.

In the move to make more ‘quality’ wine France banned planting these from the middle of the last century.  The argument was that they produce too much methanol – the most toxic form of alcohol – rather than the safer ethanol (though there is a cultural anti-American bias also at play).  By 1956 existing vineyards had to be uprooted in France.  Subsequently, with the development of the European Economic Community (which became the EU) these rules spread to the rest of Europe, with Italy finally outlawing them in the early 1980s.  However, this being Italy the authorities turn a blind eye when consumption is for personal use.  Consequently they live on here (as they do – actually – in parts of France still).

So much for the history; there is a cultural dimension as well.  These grapes become a symbol of being what the French would call a paysan.  The literal translation is peasant; but that doesn’t get it quite right; an English peasant is uncouth, uneducated, with few economic resources and very probably dirty as well.  A paysan is certainly not an intellectual, but may be clever (or at least street-wise), owns some land, knows it well and works it hard.  He (or the paysanne if it’s a she) is honest, says what she thinks and is genuine.  The same is true in Italy; so, to drink clinton is to identify as one of these people: unpretentious, straightforward, industrious yet willing to make do with the simpler things in life.  More than that, to drink clinton is to say that you aren’t inauthentic, arrogant, snobbish, shallow or untrustworthy – like the people who insist on buying those DOCG wines from Valpolicella or Soave: these latter are in fact made from grapes which have a much longer history in the region (and are therefore more ‘authentic’) but the view from the field is that they are also made by companies who charge stupid prices and thus cheat honest drinkers by forcing them to pay too much.  In this way wines made from clinton become a badge of identity locally.  So much so that villages where it is still grown may have festivals to celebrate this year’s harvest.  The wine becomes more than a marker for individual identity; it is also about community identity.  ‘Our (maybe marginalised) village in the valley against all those upstart villages in the hills making amarone or recioto’. I worked hard to get some bottles of these wines – and my colleague Lara Agnoli, who comes from the region, kindly sought out friends of friends of friends who would be willing to pass on a couple of bottles from their illegal stock, so that I could try them.  I wasn’t expecting anything wonderful and my low expectations were not disappointed.  You can read my review of the wine here. But to complain about the quality misses the point of the wine. It is about who you are, not about traditional good taste.

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Meanwhile, here is a postscript for the grape variety nerds amongst my readers.  Some of the clinton wines are blended with another American grape, called fragolino.  This is so little known that it doesn’t even make it into the bible of grapes – Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (although they do use fragola as synonym for Isabella and it is probably the same grape).  Fragolino has a less sauvage (wild) flavour than clinton.  Like many grapes from North America it has a very sweet, confected, jelly-like, nose, a bit reminiscent of strawberry dessert made with artificial flavouring.  My colleague Lara also brought me some of the fragolino grapes to taste, provided by one producer who has stopped making the wine ‘because its high tannins are dangerous for health’; this view may be based on old rumours circulated when the grape became ‘illegal’; perhaps health was a pretext to stop people continuing to make an unacceptable drink).  They were tannic, with high acid, but also a distinct, aromatic soft red fruit character. For those who want to try it I have found a single distributor online (operating in Germany and Ukraine) who sell wines made from the grape. Ignore the garish advertising – and I suspect it isn’t very expensive.

Taste and synaesthesia – a post-script

As a post-script to my last post (pun intended!) Zheyi, who produces the synaesthetic wine-art, has drawn my attention to a sommelier who also sees colours with wine (although as I read it he doesn’t turn this into art). You can read about this here. Given the response I’ve had I suspect that this is more common than we may realise.  What Zheyi felt was particularly interesting with this is that the sommelier has some similar colour responses to her – notably the association of yellow through to orange with high acidity in wine.  There is probably an interesting research project on this, to establish if particular structural elements of wine produce common synaesthetic responses, or if the association is merely haphazard.

Taste and synaesthesia revisited.

Last July I posted on a discussion with one of my former students, Zheyi Mai, who, when she tastes wine has very strong visual responses, particularly focused on colour and texture. I concluded that article by saying that I’d given her three wines which I asked her to taste and then paint.  Just before Christmas we caught up, and she showed me the pictures she has done.  The three wines were the following, each with their associated visual interpretation:

She presented three pictures.  These are based on:

  1. A white burgundy: Dme Chapuis Chorey-les-Beaune 2018
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2. A red burgundy: Dme Remoriquet Nuits-St-Georges ‘les Allots’ 2015

3. A champagne: Marc Chauvet Brut Sélection nv

To recap, Zheyi paints using her feelings about the wines.  The process is neither primarily representative nor pictorial (although see below – there may be links between specific colours and specific aspects of a wine, as with brown in the representation of the champagne). 

The wine’s structure is key to what she is doing initially, much more than aromatic character.  Colour and shapes represent her feelings; she sees them but they need time to come together.  As a result the pictures are not painted instantly and she will taste and retaste the wines over three to five days.  She tastes the opened wine immediately for an instant reaction and then carries on over subsequent days.  Consequently the picture is in part a response to the evolution of the wine in contact with the air.  Zheyi has been trained to taste systematically (using the Wine and Spirit Education Trust approach) but in painting she is not representing a structured, logical, professional analysis of the wine so much as a personal, subjective response.  Thus, for Zheyi, the champagne shows abundance, fruitfulness and early autumn harvests – not acidity, mousse, sugar and the like. 

Each picture has its own physical starting point on the canvas.  The place on the canvas where she begins is part of the vision – but she can offer no logic about why it commences there – it’s just the feeling.  The sections of the painting then evolve, and the response to the wine becomes more and more subtle.  Note that the texture of paint, added on later and thickened, is part of the response.  It doesn’t come across in the photos I’ve included so much, but the pictures often have dense layers of nuanced colour.

Zheyi says that when she starts it is as if she has the ingredients for a meal; this is how you begin cooking but how do they fit together?  She is not cooking by a recipe but by intuition.  What we see is the final dish.  A third to a half of the process is in the ingredients – the sensory information from the wine – and about a half to two-thirds is the creative response.  Ultimately she is trying to capture the beauty of the wine.

Only after she has finished does she a carry out a more formal tasting analysis; this is to enable her to communicate about the wine, which she accepts that she has to do, to convey how her vision relates to the physical presence of the drink.  However, for Zheyi the verbal analysis doesn’t express the wine as a living being – it doesn’t tell the story.  In one sense, I suggest, this is like those winemakers who say that they ‘allow the wine to tell its own story’ and she agrees.  Later, even if she forgets her formal tasting analysis of the wine she can remember what it was like by looking at the painting.  It tells her what she drank – and she can convey that to us.

This is a confrontation between methodical and subjective responses.  Zheyi may not agree with this but it seems to me that, ultimately, this process unconsciously synthesises the intuitive and analytical sides of tasting; even if it is not a structured tasting in the WSET format it is still both a cognitive and intuitive/subjective reaction.  At the same time Zheyi stresses that ‘subjective’ for her does not mean ‘emotional’; she tries not to be too emotional about the wines she is depicting – rather she wants to understand their story.  This seems to me almost to be using synaesthesia to develop a phenomenology of wine, as if the drink was being explored by an anthropologist of physical taste. 

The colour of the pictures is nuanced and you have to pick out different things; there are different flecks and shades.  Zheyi says that these evolve with time: it is a process of the discovery of these subtleties.  Likewise, almost hidden, there are the golden highlights on the dark colours of the Remoriquet painting.  When you first look there are one or two obvious things – but with time the image reveals more.  It is identical to tasting as we might do it – a process of the discovery of nuance; again this brings together the intuitive and the analytical side of tasting.

It is all about colour and paint texture.  She questions whether it is true synaesthesia.  It is not like the instant link of a colour with a single musical note or a word, rather it is something which takes time to evolve.  Perhaps, also, it is more representative than true synaesthesia.  Maybe, therefore, this is quasi-synaesthesia.  Yet I would argue that a note or a word and a colour are two single, simple stimuli; a wine (or a meal or a tune) is more complex.  Thus her colour synaesthesia may be more complex and take longer to come together. You can look at what Zheyi is doing on Instagram. Interestingly Zheyi is not the only person doing this; Caroline Brun, a wine lover and artist living in Champagne is offering a similar way of understanding that region’s wines – see her website here.

So, finally, here is how Zheyi verbally analysed the paintings of the wines.

1.   Dme Chapuis Chorey-les-Beaune 2018

This is a light, airy picture although when she first opened the bottle she found little life in the wine; she began at the bottom with the pink-grey which represented this.  A day later it opened up and she moved up to the middle part.  This is buttery and cooked pear and a touch floral (which gives pink hues to the colours).  It is not a heavy wine – but also static rather than dynamic.  A wine to drink now – the painting says ‘here it is’.

2.   Dme Remoriquet Nuits-St-Georges ‘les Allots’ 2015

This wine is grounded; there is weight at the bottom of the painting as there is at the ‘bottom’ of the wine.  There is something alluring which leads you on.  It began with purple, blue, black, and liquorice, in the third quarter down.  It also has lots of layers – nevertheless, remember that the colours don’t represent the wine in concrete terms but her feelings about it.

The wine is vibrant; it has potential, it is the dawn before a sunrise.  Note the gold flecks even on the darkest colours.  The picture is greyish at the top and this came later; there is less presence and purity at this stage but that is part of the lifecycle of the opened wine.

3.   Champagne Marc Chauvet Brut Selection NV.

The champagne shows abundance, early autumn harvests – not acid, mousse, sugar etc.  A cosy, warming, wine, with a big block of central ‘orange’ colour.  There is pear and golden apple and abundance – the taste of ripe pear feels like sunshine.  There are browns and olive greens.  These aren’t dominant; they are just there (she often feels brown in champagne – she links it to the influence of lees contact).  Nevertheless, this wine has a great deal of vibrancy, so that colour is limited her.

There is a large central block of colour – yet this is not in fact one single tone.  It is nuanced and you have to pick out different things; there are different flecks and shades around yellows, ochres and oranges.  These evolve with time: it is a process of the discovery of these nuances.  Yet although this is one large block it is also very dynamic; there is more movement to it.

A Happy Culturally-Vinous New Year

I want to take this opportunity to wish all my readers well for 2022.  I hope it brings you health and safety, so good wines – and also a chance to reflect further on what wine means for all of us.

An extra celebration for me at the end of 2021 in my professional role.  Just before Christmas I submitted the final proofed copy to the publishers Routledge of a ‘Handbook of Wine and Culture’.  This is an edited work that I have been the co-ordinating editor of, working alongside six friends and colleagues, which explores the relationship of wine (consumption, production and intermediation) from a range of perspectives.  With my co-editors we cover the disciplines of Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, History, Economics, Business and Literature and Text.  It’s been a huge undertaking, with 44 chapters and 57 authors – and will weigh in at more than 500 pages.  It should appear this spring. It won’t be for the faint-hearted, and certainly not easy bedtime reading, but it’s a comprehensive and fascinating study for those who are really keen on the subject.

In any event, best wishes to all…

Steve

The Culture of Pink Wines

A recent online comment from the UK trade magazine, The Drinks Business, attracted my attention. The article explored the idea of ageing pink wines, and noted the cultural resistance that exists to the idea.  Generally, rosé wines are quite popular with all segments of wine consumers.  Even a French connoisseur is happy to have a chilled bottle of Provence pink with a summer lunch.  Only in America do many of the more highly involved (in this case ‘stuffy’) drinkers dismiss pink wines – but then their experience is shaped by the ubiquitous, cheaper, white zinfandel made in a diffuse style with the sugar hiding the lack of flavour.

So, rosés are generally accepted – yet no one ages them.  When I was a wine student the accepted wisdom, rarely voiced as it was so self-evidently correct, was that the wines can’t age well.  Yet we age some white wines (and good rieslings or chenin blancs can age longer than many red wines).  So why not rosés as well?  They can have acidity, even a bit of tannin for protection against oxygen, and often complex flavours.  There seems to be a generalised cultural resistance to the idea.

On the other hand, there was a sense in the press article that the push to promote aged pink wines was just self-serving.  Keith Isaac MW, from Castlenau Wine Agencies was quoted:

People are only offering aged rosés as they have stock that is getting older due to the pandemic, and they wish it wasn’t.

Certainly, older rosés change colour – and they may be less fresh and vibrant.  The cultural association of pink wines with summer and (especially in France) the holidays, may lead to a need to have a light wine which can be chilled and seems so youthful; we all become younger and less serious on our holidays.  Nevertheless, should we give in to this over-simple cultural assumption?  It took me back to an article I wrote a long time ago for the Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine on pink wines, some of which I’d like to reprint here.  I described it as a frivolous style…

…so it can’t be high quality and it can’t age, can it?  A simple wine, designed for drinking young, without much thought.  That’s what I used to think too – until a visit to Champagne in 1998.  Whilst we were there, we were taken down to les Riceys – a small town with ancient houses above winding streets, and a tiny Appellation Contrôlée for the production of still, pink wine, made from pinot noir.  We started with a tour of the cellars of Christophe Defrance’s 17th century house, and on the way he pointed out his prized bottles of the local 1990 rosé, maturing ready for the millennium celebrations.  I ventured a surprised, ‘but rosé doesn’t really age well, does it?’, and he shrugged and smiled.

Later, in the winery, we got a chance to try his wines.  The 1996 rosé was all you could hope it would be; dry, perfumed, crisp, though with a deceptively full body, sweet strawberry fruit, and long.  The 1990 proved my scepticism misplaced; attractive copper-pink, with quince aromas, fresh and classic pinot noir characters on the palate, a soft strawberry fruit and great length.  The 1982 was likewise still fresh, developed on the nose, a bit simple, but with intense red fruits.  Its perfume filled the whole room.  The 1976 was astonishing; a quince and cedar bouquet, still delicate with complex, smoky-sour quince, and again long.  As for the 1964, it seemed so youthful that I thought it was from the early 1980s.  It was a touch phenolic but, as Christophe remarked, they were more rustic then, and the wine still showed good balance.

These were fascinating wines.  If not great, they were very good and extremely enjoyable.  And they aged, and gained some complexity.  Christophe is committed to his work, but is one of just three producers of the wine remaining (the 1976 and 1982 wines were made by his father, the 1964 by his grandfather).  No doubt it will all have died out in forty years’ time under the great onslaught of chardonnay – but I’m glad I’ve had a chance to see it, and to have some of my assumptions about pink wines smashed.  Generalisations are a dangerous thing in the wine business.

Perhaps, also, we could challenge an even stronger cultural assumption: that these wines are only for summer – and not for winter.  Why not sit around the fire with a cool but complex pink Rioja, or Tavel?  Certainly these styles could make a great partner for Turkey.

And to finish, a brief plug for the real expert on pink wines, Liz Gabay MW who has written the classic and encyclopedic study of the style.  Everything you could want to know about them is contained in Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution (published by Infinite Ideas).  And if you turn to p. 45 you’ll see that she too has experienced good, older Rosé des Riceys. 

The Jews of Tokaj

I had to visit Tokaj recently – primarily for a work-related visit with the University at Sarospatak – but while I was there my hosts arranged some interesting visits to wine producers.  One of these was Chateau Dereszla, which was particularly from the socio-historical point of view.  I’m grateful to the manager there, Laszlo Kalocsai, for much of the information which follows.

Dereszla is in the village of Bodrogkerestur.  The domaine was founded in 1406 by the Hungarian Court as a place to store wines and tithes; wine was provided to the court and the church; later it passed down through various Franco-Austrian-Hungarian aristocratic families. There is a 19th century cellar – and there is also an 18th century vinoteka. As the picture below shows, this comes with a cannonball embedded in its wall, dating from the 1848 revolution of Hungarians against Austrian domination; the battle during which it was shot actually took place in early 1849, was a Hungarian victory.  As a result the cannon ball is now highlighted in the Hungarian national colours.

What interested me most, however, was a separate wine cellar adjacent to the main site, just up the hill from the vinoteka.  This is known as the ‘Jewish cellar’ as it was owned by the Klaber family, Jewish wine merchants based in the town of Sopron, way in the western part of Hungary, who dug it out at the start of the 19th century.  They used it to source and store local wines before selling them elsewhere.

Jews were important in the Tokaj region, arriving around the beginning of the 18th century,  particularly Hasidic Jews from eastern Poland.  In the town of Bodrogkerestur there was a synagogue and, during the 19th century a rabbi who could perform miracles, attracting many visitors to his home, and becoming the most influential Jewish religious leader in the region (indeed, one tourist website suggests that during this period Tokaj was perhaps the most influential centre for the Hasidic Jews outside Ukraine).  Rabbi Shaya’la died in 1925 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery on the hillside up about Dereszla.  This remains a place of Jewish (mainly Hasidic) pilgrimage to this day.  Apparently there were about 40,000 pilgrims per annum in pre-COVID times – making them a substantial part of the tourism business of the region.  Some tours even sell themselves with a double focus on the wines and Jewish heritage. 

Meanwhile, according to Laszlo, the Jews were very involved with wine in the region starting from the end of the 18th century. They were generally forbidden to grow grapes and own vineyards, but they had a major role in the oenology and commerce of the area and he said it was a ‘catastrophe’ when, in the space of a few months from April 1944, they were all forcibly removed. The Klaber family cellar was seized by the Hungarian state, and appropriated later by the Hungarian regime. Later it was taken on by Dereszla, with a connecting tunnel linking it directly to their other cellars.

Since the Holocaust the Jews of Bodrogkerestur have recreated their synagogue. The village is also home to three churches: Roman Catholic, Luther and Greek Catholic. The link between wine and religion is often strong, and it’s important to remember that it is not just significant for Christian worship, but in Jewish ritual as well, with four cups drunk during the Seder – the Passover meal.

As you can see from the picture, the Jewish cellar now houses a fascinating Dereszla dry szamorodni, which ages there for 18 months. I’ve posted recently about this as an interesting wine.

Volcanic Wines II: Wine and Minerality

Everyone I met in Sicily who was trying to sell me wine, in restaurants and drinks stores, told me that my glass of white wine is ‘minerally’ because it’s produced from grapes grown on the slopes of Etna – and that (either explicitly or by implication) volcanic grit, ash and lava puts minerals into the wines which you can taste when you drink them.  It’s a great story (or a great marketing theme – depending on your particular perspective) but it’s arrant nonsense.  With very few exceptions (sodium chloride – common salt – is the main one, but even that isn’t a rock) minerals don’t get taken up into grapes and then processed into wine.  Your lovely bottle of Contrada Caldera carricante, grown on basalt, decomposed lava and the odd bit of pumice doesn’t taste of those rocks – although at least one online wine store suggests that is the case!  Even the smell of ‘wet stones’ which many people find on good chablis is nothing to do with minerals; to the extent that stones have an aroma it’s due to the microflora attached to them.  For those of you who want more on the science behind this then there’s a great book called Vineyards, Rocks and Minerals: A Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology by Alex Maltman, a professor of geology at Aberystwyth University.  Meanwhile a great deal of research has been carried out into what drinkers actually perceive as minerality in wine, including colleagues of mine such as Jordi Ballester in Dijon, Wendy Parr in New Zealand and Sally Easton MW in the UK.  Some key factors which may give rise to a sensation of ‘minerality’ include reduction in the wine (which may reduce the intensity of fruitiness), various acids, bitterness, and the results of compounds produced by fermentation (especially some including sulphur).  However, it is also clear that there is a cultural dimension: research suggests that acid is linked to perceptions of minerality in some places but is negatively associated in others and that expertise in tasting also influences this response.

So why is everyone trying to sell me a wine which tastes of minerals?  One of my students in Burgundy did an interesting research project on volcanic wines.  Marine Delmon explored the perspectives of producers of these wines in France, Italy (including Sicily) and the USA.  The people she talked to felt that volcanic wine is a special category of wine, and it does offer a network of special places; yet at the same time they used it in their marketing less than might be expected – and some even played down the volcanic aspect (this was less evident in France than Sicily).  One or two producers even noted that they had ‘never thought of their wines as ‘volcanic wines’ until it become so trendy’.  However, on the subject of minerality, some discussed how their wines had a minerally character – yet again it was the French who promoted this idea most, with a few Italians as well.  Sometimes they linked the minerality of the wine to a saline character.

The use of the term ‘minerality’ for wine has only become significant in the last 20 years or so.  Why has it become important in this time?  The answer to this is clearly not because scientists can now show that geological minerals move from the soil to the grape (the opposite is true); rather it is a cultural shift.  I think there are two reasons.  The first is producer-led, and has to do with marketing.  This is a crude analysis, but if you go back 30 years, essentially the wines which came from New World countries (especially, I feel, Australia and Chile) were intensely fruity.  European wines (especially Italian but also Spanish and even French) were much less obviously fruity.  There are cultural reasons for this difference which I’ll save for another post, but as more and more wines began to eat into a market traditionally reserved for Europe, traditional producers responded by promoting the more subtle nuances and the sophisticated complexities of their wines.  ‘Minerality’ was one of the ways of describing these subtle complexities.

This was mirrored by another cultural shift that began (in the English-speaking world) about ten years before the rise of ‘minerality’: the use of the term ‘terroir’.  This will also have to be developed in a future post, but essentially Anglophone wine lovers barely used the term before about 1990; then it suddenly became a key buzzword for quality in the production of wine.  Terroir means ‘earth’ doesn’t it?  Well, actually it doesn’t – it refers to the whole ecosystem of a vine and the cultural approach of people making the wine in that place, but the similarity of the word to the French word for soil (terre) made people feel that tasting terroir in wine was about tasting the ground – tasting the geology.  From there it is a short leap to start thinking that in tasting terroir you taste the rock which means that you taste the minerals.  Eureka!  Good wine has a taste of minerality.  If I say that is nonsense it doesn’t mean that I think all wines should just be fruity.  I like subtlety, nuance and even a sense of austerity in my wine.  But we need to be honest, and not attribute that to the rocks on which the vines survive; complexity in wine is much more complex than that and owes at least as much to the cellar as it does to the vineyard.

The rocky minerality of an Etna vineyard.

However, it’s one thing to have sommeliers in Sicily selling me a wine because of its ‘minerality’; what did the producers on the island themselves think about the concept?  I paid particular attention when I visited a few on the ‘wine terrace’ of northern Etna.  I didn’t raise the subject initially – I wanted to see what they had to say about it voluntarily and it was very interesting.  When they did mention minerality it was about the environment of the vine, and how it gives it specific conditions in which to flourish, (especially in the context of their beloved contrade) but it was never with an implication that the wines actually tasted of the minerals.  Patricia Papotto at Cottanera, for instance, noted that ‘minerality gives a footprint to the terroir’. So far, so scientific – and the picture above emphasises the inescapability of that comment.  Later in discussions I would ask specifically about the taste of minerality in the wine.  No-one I spoke to felt that it is important to talk about this; the minerality is in the vineyard.  Christian Liistro at Terre Nere said that minerality ‘is a state of mind’; thus it is about what they feel they are doing with the grapes and the wine rather than a precise explanation of the way the wine tastes.  A touch more metaphorical than Patricia’s definition perhaps, but a very evocative way of describing their philosophy and the experience of their wines and wine production.  This was not a ‘statistically significant’ sample of producers there – but based on my experience ‘minerality’ on Etna is used much more as a reference to the soil and the vineyard environment and their identity than to characteristics of the wine.

Volcanic Wines I: Wineries on the Edge.

Etna has been spewing out small grains of black sand since February.  If you leave furniture outdoors there is a sprinkling of black grains the next morning.  The less well-used roads get covered in a layer, with only tyre paths through the middle showing their true surface.  Then the volcano starts smoking, and you wonder if it is a sign of more natural violence to come. 

Black sand on road.

The vineyards around Etna have to be at a reasonably high altitude in order to avoid excessive heat – up to 800 metres on the northern slopes of the mountain.  When I talk to one producer, Cottanera, they point out that this gives a high  day-night temperature variation which is excellent for retaining acidity and freshness in the grapes.  The altitude means, however, that the best are planted on volcanic soils, a well-drained rocky-sandy environment.  Yet there is no one volcanic soil.  Lava flows have accumulated over time and each eruption gives a patchwork of rock-types and in many places ash is also significant.  Older elitico soils (dating back to an eruption 60 000 years ago) are pointed out which can sustain vines; alongside them we see the remnants of a 1981 lava flow which is still just large, dense boulders.  Only with time will they erode to give a workable and very fertile soil for vines or olives (the other crop which can survive in the harshest parts of the moonscape-like environment). 

The 1981 lava flow looking across to the San Lorenzo vineyard.

When I visit another of the producers here, Terre Nere (the name translates as ‘black lands or soils’), Domenico, our guide, suggests that ‘we don’t plant on soil, but on what Etna has thrown out’.  The vineyards are not what have always existed, but the innards of our planet vomited up for the wine producers to find and turn into something unique.  This leads him to suggest that what creates the wine here is not just static place, but temporality, that which has changed with time over many thousands of years, yet which is still changing.  At Cottanera they say that they like the black sand which is being blown out from the mountain at present because it allows the terroir to evolve.

This patchwork of volcanic deposit leads the producers on Etna to focus very closely on the different vineyard sites that they have.  For some time they have defined a number of contrade (singular contrada); when they discuss them they may call them crus, but the word in Italian means a district, even the quarter of a city.  It’s a place, but – at least as used in Sicily as a whole – maybe more a territory than a terroir, a community than a cru.  On Etna the contrade certainly have specific relationships to geological formation; the local producers have talked about them for many years but they could only put the word on a label as a designation of the wine’s origin from 2011 – many adopted it instantly – like Cottanera who use it for five of their wines which come from grapes.

So why is this of interest culturally?  The first point to note is this idea of temporality.  We’re used to seeing terroir as a static notion – it exists now in time.  However, for the producers on Etna it stretches back and also varies with the future.  That’s actually quite accurate.  The viticultural consultant Claude Bourguignon has said that after 1800 years of viticulture some parts of the vineyards in Burgundy are more sterile than the Sahara.  Those same vineyards were pumped full of fertilisers containing potassium from the 1950s onwards which dramatically changed their composition and raised pH levels in the wines.  These changes are the results of human intervention rather than the natural world, but, while often barely noticed, still change the vineyards over a period.

The next thing I take from this is the profound need we have for ‘making special’; in the context if wine, it is that our place is unique (including the deep time which has reshaped it repeatedly), and the sense therefore that the wines which come from it are both unique and significant.  This is good; it allows producers to take pride in their product and it that happens then good – and unique – wine may result.  The understanding of what makes the wine special may not always be accurate (you need to see my next blog post for more on this) and the reasons given may be contradictory from place to place, but it’s a recurring refrain.’  Thus, I am told by Domenico that Etna wine is not Sicilian, it is an exception (just like every wine region) an island between two rivers.  It has 40% more rain than the rest of Sicily.  Crucially it has a soil and bedrock unlike most other places on Earth.  What they are saying is ‘we are not like all the rest, we are special’.  Certainly, on Etna they are special in terms of the specific geomorphological challenges they have to deal with.

The other point of interest here is to see a wine region which is living on the edge.  Many regions claim ‘volcanic wine’ but most are based in areas of what is now extinct volcanic activity.  They have the soil, but not the danger, and not the threat of a constantly changing landscape, nor even of the chance that your vineyards will be destroyed in a lava flow.  Perhaps the producers of lacryma christi on Vesuvius and a few in Washington and Oregon states in the US share this sense of risk, the added frisson which comes from knowing that this vintage could be your last, if the Greek god Hephaestus, who has his forge under the mountain, gets so angry with his fellow gods that he decides to explode again.  This has always been a hard place to grow grapes and phylloxera and rural depopulation have probably caused more social harm over the last century than the volcano.  Nevertheless, we’re told, the people welcome the risk, because it is the result unexpected which has also given them their livelihood. 

Smoke coming out of Etna.

Since I wrote this Etna has begun erupting again.  The smoke you see in the picture above is just a precursor to the real thing.  Maybe that will again restructure the landscape of the vineyards and provide some new soils in the future.  If not now, then perhaps in 4, or 17 or 32 years?  Who knows when, but it’s likely to happen.

A foodie postscript: the main vineyard areas on the north of Etna cluster around a village called Castiglione di Sicilia.  It’s a typical Italian hilltop settlement, but rather down-at-heel at present.  However, it’s worth a visit and if any reader happens to go there then I strongly recommend a visit to a restaurant called ‘Vitis’.  Actually – and the name gives it away – it is more of a wine bar with food.  However, the wines are amazing in a bar in a side street in a Sicilian village of around 3000 people – empty bottles cluster down the alley: many good local wines of course, but also great Italian reds from Tuscany and Barolo – then German riesling, a Fixin from Meo Camuzet in Burgundy, good Spanish wine, and champagne.  The owner and his sommelier are trying to bring the world of wine to this small corner of Etna (and I hope many of the local wine producers are making use of it to expand their knowledge of the world of wine).  I went into the temperature-controlled cellar which measured about one metre square and had bottles ranged up the walls, bottoms facing out with only a price on them; apparently the sommelier knows what each one is even though the labels may not be accessible!  Yet more than that, the food is interesting: our waitress explained that they can’t and won’t compete with the ‘normal’ trattoria so they were offering linguine with fermented black garlic, another pasta with local herbs and toasted breadcrumbs, as well as – our choice – cous cous (it is actually a Sicilian speciality) with potato, capsicum and chickpeas.  Well worth a visit.

Marsala: Bringing back a wine from the dead.

Marsala is a drink which is barely remembered today, even by those who drink fortified wines regularly.  Its major market is as a product sold cheaply for cooking with, mainly in Italy and France, often flavoured with other products like vanilla or eggs – or worse.  As an ingredient it adds richness to a sauce, maybe some nutty, torrified sweetness.  There is nothing wrong with chefs using it; but there is – or at least was – much more to the wine than that.

Marsala was developed by an English merchant, John Woodhouse, in 1773.   I avoid saying that he invented it because wine – rich, strong, wine – was already being made in this part of Sicily before Woodhouse arrived there; those old wines might merely have been made from grapes left to concentrate sugars late on the vine, or may be strengthened with mosto cotto – boiled (thus concentrated) grape juice making a kind of caramelised juice which could be added to the wine to sweeten it and add flavour.  What Woodhouse did was see how it could be marketed on the back of sherry, port and Madeira and – like those wines – be produced to a consistent style and standard, by careful fortification.  The Marsalese talk of their wine as being similar to Madeira, though to me the link to sherry is perhaps more useful. 

The fortification meant that the wine was able to travel to all corners of the British empire in rickety sailing ships without turning to vinegar.  By the end of the 19th century, on the back of both British merchants and some enterprising local producers the wine had become as well known as the other fortified wines.  Yet as recognition of its use as a cooking aid expanded, so its reputation declined.  Production was concentrated in larger companies with less connection to local viticultural traditions who mass produced cheap wines which were sold providing profits coming from volume sales with thin margins.  Most producers went out of business and the market for quality Marsala has dropped dramatically over the last century, to the point where it is almost an extinct wine.

Almost, but not quite.  A few still want to make a wine which continues to reflect its old reputation.  Some of these have a foot in both camps – the volume and the quality.  A small number are still the standard bearers for the latter, trying to keep the body alive before it dies, or maybe resuscitate it so that it can live again.

One of the most well-known of these ‘resuscitators’ is the firm Marco de Bartoli.  The eponymous founder had his roots in the marsala establishment, but decided, in 1980, that he wanted to rediscover the old styles of the wine, made to be drunk rather than just used as a condiment in the kitchen.  It was a difficult process, which produced a great deal of local opposition.  I don’t want here to go into that history (interested readers can explore the story in Nick Belfrage’s book Brunello to Zibbibo); what I am interested in is how, today, the company is producing great wines which challenge the long-term decline of the Marsala denominazione and whether or not this means the wine can be brought back to life.

When Marco de Bartoli decided to set up in wine production, he chose to leave the town of Marsala, where the main companies are based, to escape the claustrophobic emphasis on ‘cooking wine’, and created his winery in locality of Samperi, about 12 kilometres away.  Rather than focus just on production, he wanted to start with the vineyard.  It’s a chalky soil (much like that for sherry grapes), with deep sub-soil, ideal for water retention in the hot, dry summers.  He chose only to work with the grillo grape, rather than the higher-yielding and less interesting cataratto.  He also decided only to use his own grapes, rather than buy in from lots of local growers (this enables careful quality control).  All their grapes are grown around the winery, except for their red table wines, which need a different soil, and a passito from Pantalleria.  The key here is the attention to detail and commitment to quality, and a focus on place rather than a wine style, which they claim to be alone in the region to have.  Grillo, so Sebastiano de Bartoli says, is essential for conveying that sense of Samperi – ‘it’s talking about the territory’.  Territory is a word that Sebastiano, one of Marco’s sons, keeps returning to with emphasis when we talk and encompasses not just the terroir, but also the traditional variety and the traditions of making the wine.

Chalky soils

Marco de Bartoli also had a vision to renew the wine styles.  He wanted to return to the original ‘madeira from Marsala’ (as the wine was first known), sold by Woodhouse to Horatio Nelson when his fleet was in this part of the world.  Even more than that – as we’ll see – the vision was to see if the styles of wine made before Woodhouse could also be recreated.  Wines that were already distinctive and of high quality.  As part of his drive for improving quality, when he established the cellar in the 1980s he bought up a lot of stock of old wines from other small producers who were selling up and leaving the business – even one butt of wine from 1903, which they still use as blending material for some of their top wines.

The cellar at De Bartoli

The production of marsala is complicated, and the profusion of styles makes even sherry look as simple as a child’s six piece jigsaw (for those who are interested and can access Jancis Robinson’s website there is a great article about it by Tim Jackson MW here).  Crucially there are two distinctive styles: a wine which is fermented dry then fortified to about 19% alcohol and aged for five years or more, called vergine, and similar to an oloroso sherry; the second is a wine fortified to 17-19% with alcoholic grape juice or mosto cotto added to sweeten it to one of three different sweetness levels – plus three different colours and three different periods of ageing.  The permutations are enormous, especially when you add on at least six other official terms which can be applied to the wine.  However, I’m just interested in the vergine and the best sweet(ish) wines (superiore riserva) as these are the most significant qualitatively and historically.

Nevertheless, Marco de Bartoli’s attempt to recreate the older wine styles went further than just finding a special place and making good wine.  He wanted to take the vergine wine back to its pre-Woodhouse roots; an unfortified but high alcohol, oxidatively aged, wine.  He has done this with Vecchio Samperi, a great, complex wine with intensity, length and beautiful balance; it’s also aged in a solera, again mirroring sherry.  You could argue that this is a desire to make an older form of authenticity: the Sicilian marsala, of elegance and power, that preceded the arrival of the British.  There’s just one problem though.  The specification for the PDO of marsala requires contemporary vergine wines to be fortified to 18% alcohol at least – and the de Bartoli version is an unfortified wine.  It may reflect the Sicilian vergine of over 250 years ago, but it can’t call itself that.

Vecchio Samperi Solera at De Bartoli

Just once did Marco make a ‘legal’ vergine – in 1988 – just really to show that he could.  It’s similar to the Vecchio Samperi, very complex, though – inevitably – with more evident alcohol.  For what it’s worth I prefer the non-fortified equivalent.  However, it’s never to be repeated; Sebastiano told me they haven’t made another since and when the supplies of this wine run out that will be it.  You need to get it soon if you want to try it (though be prepared to pay upwards of 100€ a bottle for the pleasure).  Again, we have a disappearing wine.

As well as this dry style, wines with the designation ‘marsala’ are still made by the company.  These are fortified, and are sweeter, also having a great emphasis on poise and balance (showing a distinctive hint of curry aromas, which are often typical of good marsala); these, however, are fortified in accordance with the regulations.  Even here, though, they are making the wine as they believe the first Woodhouse marsalas were made, using fortified grape juice to sweeten, and not the mosto cotto which they consider gives simpler, less fine wines, with the cooked character masking the vinous nature of the drink.

For all that the company doesn’t live in the past.  They have been at the forefront of developing red and white table wines in the region – and the acidity in grillo allows some very fresh, direct white wines to be made.  Sebastiano also showed me the wines they are making with skin contact and ageing in amphorae, as well as an ancestral method bottle fermented sparkling wine.  All very trendy – while carefully made; each a good example of the style.

Is this enough to save the marsala?  I’m a sucker for oxidatively aged wines and find what they offer is brilliant, and good value.  The Vecchio Samperi is gorgeous and has less alcohol than a typical amontillado or oloroso sherry, so I’ll go on drinking it.  However, I’m hardly the typical wine drinker and my few bottles won’t save the industry; a drinker who prefers New Zealand Sauvignon blanc or Gevrey Chambertin may find them a bit strange.  Even Italians don’t seem to know about it, and certainly don’t seem to drink it, which is a shame given their commitment to other ancient styles of wine like amarone and vin santo.  The wines deserve a wider audience, but is there enough momentum now?  As Sebastiano says, as his parting shot, ‘port is a big nation, sherry and madeira are large regions.  Marsala is just a small town’, and perhaps it’s on the way to being a dead town.  Yet I also suspect the family don’t worry about that so much; they are there to perpetuate a tradition and respect the wines of the past, to ‘make a speciality’ as he says.  Whatever happens beyond them isn’t so significant then.

Other good marsalas are available: Rallo have a long tradition with the style.  There are also Carlo Pellegrino (who are putting a lot of effort into marketing cheaper but still carefully-made wines) and Duca du Salaparuta; both produce some good wines, though these are much larger company with a range of offerings to distract them.  I’d love the wine to continue, but at present I’m not sure that it will.  The fact that you have to get to the end of Italy, almost the southernmost tip of Europe, to see the wines doesn’t really help the revival.  It becomes a pilgrimage, rather than part of a tourist destination.  

A forgotten corner of Champagne

Most champagne lovers know that while the majority of the grapes for the wine they drink come from the north of the region, around Reims and Epernay, over one-fifth come from the south – a region often called the Côte des Bars, in the Aube département.  These vineyards are 30 kilometres or more to the southeast of the city of Troyes and home to some very good producers.  The best known, perhaps, is Drappier (a favourite of Charles de Gaulle) and also a very good cooperative which produces the wine known as Veuve Devaux.

Troyes is an interesting town.  Its centre is beautiful, redolent with half-timbered renaissance buildings, it has an excellent cathedral, and in the Middle Ages surpassed Reims to be the capital of the county of Champagne.  It was a major trading centre with renowned fairs for the trading of cloth and home to Rashi, one of the most celebrated medieval Jewish thinkers.  It also has, if you view it from the air, a centre carved out by roads and a stream which mirrors the shape of a champagne cork when it has been expelled from the bottle.  Yet for all this, contemporary Troyes is not so much a champagne (wine) centre.  The vineyards of the Côte des Bars are a little too far away, so it has rather turned its back on the most prestigious product of the region; what many locals first remark about it is that it is home to a large McArthur Glen outlet retail park!

Yet wine isn’t entirely absent.  Just ten kilometres to the west is the commune of Montgueux – a single village which has a bit over 200 hectares of vineyards and the right to make the wine.  Although it is administratively in the Aube département, it doesn’t share the same geology as the vineyards to its east; rather it is essentially an extension of the chalky hills of Sézanne, further to its north.  These chalk-rich soils (with a noticeable flint content), and the south-eastern facing slopes, make it ideal for the chardonnay grape and overwhelmingly that is what is planted there.  I’ve entitled this piece ‘a forgotten corner…’ but that is not entirely true.  Champagne lovers have registered some good producers there, led by Champagne Jacques Lassaigne; nevertheless, the small size of the planted area at its distance from the other main parts of the wine region still mean that it is substantially overlooked.

Even more, champagne in Montgueux might not exist today if it wasn’t for the persistence of one man.  When I visited the village recently I met Hélène Beaugrand, the fourth generation winemaker of Champagne Beaugrand.  She has an interesting background, having worked as a winemaker overseas (including Australia and South Africa) in the 1990s.  The domaine was founded by her great-grandfather, Léon Beaugrand and has been selling wine since 1930 (very early for a vigneron in Champagne). 

Records suggest that vines were cultivated in Montgueux back in the 12th century.  Until the 1890s many villages had some vines, with somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 hectares across the region.  Then phylloxera hit and it became too expensive to replant and not profitable enough when more money was made from wheat or sugar beet – and to be a farmer was better than being a vigneron, who were treated as the lowest of the low.  When the appellation was finalised in 1927 it was limited to 34 000 hectares, as most places no longer had any desire to make the wine (including all the villages around Montgueux).  In practice, by 1950, only 11,000 hectares were planted. 

So why are their vines still in Montgueux?  Léon Beaugrand was a grower in the village from about 1900 on – so had faith in the place in the post-phylloxera era.  He had been a négociant from the south of France, selling to Troyes; he liked the village and planted vines there against the trend.  At this time, although the grapes were sold to the large champagne Houses in Reims and Epernay, the wines of the region were considered ‘second class’.  From 1911 to 1927 were major arguments over whether or not the Aube could be included in the appellation, and it was only finally accepted that they should be in 1927.  Léon Beaugrand fought for the right to have Montgueux in the appellation, and tried to get the growers in surrounding villages to join with him – but they weren’t interested, nor were most of his neighbours.  Nevertheless, Léon was persistent, and against the odds, and the reluctance of the institutional powers of champagne, succeeded.  Even so, it was not until the 1950s that vines began to be more widely planted (Veuve Clicquot came to the village to buy grapes) and only in the 1970s did other récoltants-manipulants – the growers who would sell wine to the public as well as just grapes to the négociants – begin to emerge.  There are now 19 of them there.

Meanwhile, the domaine has to evolve.  French succession laws mean that the vineyard land is being split up and Hélène is only retaining part of it.  The wines will evolve and change.  Yet, based on the wines she has been making for the family over the last 15 years, this won’t be a problem for her – and she has plans for how the domaine will evolve.  If you ever get to find the wines they are worth trying, and show the ability of chardonnay, with its elevated level of acidity, to give champagne the backbone to age gracefully and develop real complexity; the cuvée reserve is a good example of this, a blend but based on 2009 and 2010 base wine, very complex and very gastronomic.  They are also made from old vines (dating back to the 1960s and earlier) which is unusual with champagne, where replanting to increase yields normally starts at about 40 years.

The point of this blog post?  To show that one determined individual with a vision can still shape the direction of a wine region or of a wine brand – whatever the challenges they face.  It’s not all just down to impersonal forces or the larger actors to determine events and craft success.