Valley of many cellars… both technological and traditional

In a fascinating visit to the Valpolicella region of Italy, home to Valpolicella and Amarone wines, organized by Bolla Winery, I learned about this history of the area, tasted a range of wines coming from here, and got into deep philosophical discussions about technology, marketing, New World versus Old World approaches, limitations, and freedoms, and much, much more with Elio Novello, technical director of the winery.  Valpolicella means ‘valley of many cellars,’ but the history of the region is full of more than just great wine.

(‘Map’ of my discussion with Mr. Novello)

  (Pergola trellis system typical of this region)

(Guyot trellis system, largely adopted in Valpolicello around 20 years ago and now believed to produce lower quality grapes than the pergola system)

At Bolla, the emphasis is on the use of technology, but not at the expense of the natural.  The winery has a huge production, between 12 and 20 million bottles annually, so technology is applied intelligently as a means of reducing labor needs, and potential risk involved in human labor, to produce wine in the same way that it would be traditionally made.  For example, the winery employs a cross flow filtration system, which is a large, high-tech, expensive machine, but in fact uses no filtration material, instead relying on the natural sediments in the wine to, essentially, filter itself.  Another example is the use of an innovative method for pumping over, where they have specially designed tanks that use the pressure of the carbon dioxide naturally produced through fermentation to push down the cap of skins inside of the tank, submerging it in the fermenting must in order to extract compounds from the skins exactly as in a traditional pumpover, but without the need for pumps!

(Bottling lines at Bolla fill an entire room and pump out tens of thousands of bottles per day)

(Cross-flow filtration system – left – and electrodialysis machine for tartaric stabilization – right.  Both are fully controlled by a computer to reduce potential for human error)

I tasted their Soave Classico, a smooth, simple, highly drinkable white wine made from garganega and trebbiano (distinct from the Tuscan trebbiano) grapes, from the appropriately named town of Soave (though the name comes from Swedish heritage in the town, not the Italian word for smooth/sweet/gentle/soft, which actually is quite fitting for this particular wine).  I also tried four red wines all comprised of essentially the same grape varietals – corvina and corvenone with some other local varietals in the mix), but completely distinct as a result of terroir and/or production method.  The first was the Bardolino, a very simple, drinkable, low tannin, fresh red wine.  Then there was the Valpolicella, very different in style but only because of the different growing zone.  This wine had a bit more structure and body, owing to a bit of oak but also differences in terroir, and can hold up to a bit more aging than the Bardolino.  Next was the Ripasso, a particular style of wine made by refermenting normal valpolicella wine on the skins of Amarone wine.  This approach gives the wine a significant degree of complexity and body, though this particular specimine could use a few more months to integrate in the bottle, as the beautiful nose was not quite matched in the mouth.  Finally was the Amarone, a particular wine made after harvesting and drying the grapes in special conditions that allow for the development of botrytis inside (but not outside!!) the berries, dehydrating and changing their composition to the perfect degree, over a period of 1-3 months (but could be up to as many as 6!) before they are put into the tank for fermentation.  This yields a particular, complex, rich wine that is very special in this region.

(Bins for drying Amarone in a special warehouse on top of the hill where there is no fog and a consistent breeze, all prepped and waiting for harvest to begin)

(Dehydrated grapes as are used for Amarone production)

This type of winemaking approach, waiting at the whims of nature of the dehydration of grapes, may seem a stark contrast to the technologically advanced Bolla winery, but in fact lies at the heart of their philosophy, it seems.  The company is committed both to research and technology, but also, first and foremost, to creating a quality product for the consumer.  Something that can stand the test of time, not conforming to one fad or another, but rather a simple, straightforward, people-friendly wine that is, most importantly, enjoyable to consume.

(Wooden cask from 1884, the year after the winery was founded.  These casks =, in a nod to tradition, are still used today as the inside can be shaved every few years to expose fresh oak)

(Ancient Roman Monastery – one of the many relics of a rich, varied history in Valpolicella)

 

** Here’s a NYTimes article published today (Aug 17) about Soave, the white wine from the Valpolicella region 

Italy’s Sparkling Star

(Contadi Castaldi Satèn in traditional Franciacorta flute)

Franciacorta, much like France’s Champagne and Spain’s Cava, is Italy’s home to bottle refermented sparkling wines.  The region began to gain importance around the 1960s, being granted DOC status in 1967 (and DOCG status in 1995), though there is evidence of sparkling wine production in the area long before.  The area is geographically protected by Lake Iseo to the north and Mount Orfano to the south, giving the region a comparably cool climate good for the production of chardonnay, pinot nero (pinot noir), and pinot blanc grapes to be used for Franciacorta wine (*nb that the name Franciacorta implies this sparkling, methode champenoise wine).

(Lake Iseo, so important to Franciacorta’s unique climactic zone)

I spent the day at Contadi Castaldi, Franciacorta’s third largest producer, famous for its Satèn – a blanc de blancs (made only from chardonnay and/or pinot blanc grapes) variety of Franciacorta that must be smoother, more silky and elegant, with a maximum of 4 atm, rather than 6 atm for standard Franciacorta, of pressure, meaning that the bubbles are also softer and gentler.

Contadi Castaldi produces six Franciacorta wines.  A non-vintage brut, and non-vintage rose, both intended to be readily drinkable, approachable wines, and both certainly achieve this goal.  Next up in the line is their vintage satèn – again a softer, smoother, blanc de blancs, and then a vintage rose, a bit more complex and structured than the nonvintage rose, as this one is produced from 65% pinot noir and 35% chardonnay, rather than the inverse for the nonvintage.  They also produce Zero, a dryer Franciacorta with no residual sugar added in the dosage (for a refresher on the terms and processes used in this method of sparkling wine production, see my earlier post on champagne production), resulting in a slightly edgier wine, better to drink with food than some of the sweeter bruts.  Finally, their top tier wine is the gorgeous Soul satèn, produced in the same manner as the vintage satèn, but with particularly selected, highest quality grapes.  This is indeed a gorgeous wine, as external relations director Claudia Spada put it, a “wine of meditation.”

(Bottles of Franciacorta aging on the lees – note the crown caps that are used during this phase of production)

(The waste left over after disgorging – crown caps with the plastic ‘thimbles’ which catch the lees after remuage or riddling moves them into the top of the bottle – I wish I could have captured the potent odor of old yeast that accompanied this scene!)

(Scene from the labeling line)

(Samples of each lot of bottled wine during secondary fermentation with manometers that measure the amount of pressure inside in order to monitor   COproduction in the bottle)

(After disgorging of demi bottles of Franciacorta Zero)

(Gyropalatte – the machine used for mechanical remuage, turning, shifting, and moving the bottles in a particular pattern every few hours so that the lees are completely moved into the cap after only a few days, rather than several weeks for remuage by hand)

Barolo Wine Museum

Last weekend, while I was at the Collisioni festival in Barolo, Piemonte, I visited Barolo’s Wine Museum, housed in the sumptuous Falletti Castle overlooking the vineyards of Barolo.  

Interestingly enough, for me at least, the museum prides itself on the way in which its designer and curator François Confino “has designed a stimulating voyage that combines scientific content and poetry.”

 

The curation of the museum was fascinating, as it uses very simple displays to portray its vision.  Unlike many wine museums, it is sparse in its use of language, rather relying on imagery and sensory experience to send a message to visitors.  This approach serves to educate the visitor, but in a subtle way, preferring to suggest than to inform.

My personal favorite exhibition was one dedicated to the hands that produce Barolo wine.  The walls were lined with gorgeous black and white photographs of hands working in all aspects of wine production, all in a room containing only a player piano, meant to elicit an appreciation for the hands that are integral but invisible.  I thought this was a beautiful and simple concept, and paired with the stunning photographs left a lasting impression.

There was also, to my pleasure, an entire floor of the museum dedicated to wine in culture – art, cinema, food, and literature, which, I think, encourages visitors to appreciate the impact that wine has had in all facets of culture, due to its importance and interrelatedness with history, to which the museum also devotes considerable space.

 

Chianti Classico

Back in Europe again, I spent a few days last week at Le Miccine, in Gaiole, the heart of the Chianti Classico region.  It was a great experience, I tasted a lot of Chianti wines, and learned to appreciate this high acid, robust yet elegant red wine, as well as some whites from the absolutely gorgeous region!

The black rooster, symbol of Chianti Classico.


The incredible Enoteca in Greve (Le Cantine de Greve), where you can taste over 140 wines from Chianti and beyond (I got through 15 for my personal Italian wine  crash course, in hopes of deciding where else to go on this little whirlwind tour).

(Appropriately science-y themed shirt.. )

A lesson in Argentinian viticulture

As the core of Argentina’s wine industry, Mendoza, located at the foothills of the Andes, a 16 hour bus ride west of Buenos Aires, is particularly known for Malbec.  I spent a day visiting vineyards across the different areas of Mendoza with Nicolas Cordoba Micarelli, who is in charge of the vineyards for Kaiken Wines in Mendoza.

I learned a lot visiting a bunch of their different vineyards with Nicolas, travelling all over Mendoza, to vineyards with a range of different climates, altitudes, and soil types.

At a few vineyards we took samples of berries (important to take berries from different rows, different vines, different bunches, different sides of bunches, etc. to be sure to get as much representative a sample as possible.  These samples will be analyzed for the acid and sugar content in order to assess their ripeness and determine when to harvest.

But because we had so much ground to cover in one day, Nicolas assessed several of the vineyards Nicolas just by looking at them, or in some cases by tasting the berries.  He taught me some of the key things to look for at this time of year.  For example, the canopy isn’t overgrown, as that would indicate that the vine is sending its energy to the leaves instead of focusing on ripening the fruit.  Dying leaves toward the bottom of the vine are indicative of water deprivation, but they have to cut off the irrigation as harvest draws near to prevent too much vigor in the canopy, so this is a bit of a delicate balance.

Nicolas also gave me his take on what to look for when tasting grapes in the vineyard.

1.  How easy is it to separate the pulp from the seed? (this gets easier with increasing ripeness, as I was also taught at Pinord Priorat)

2. Spit out the seed and look at the color – it changes from green to brown with ripeness.

3. Taste the flavor of the grape of course – checking the balance between acidity and sugar.

4. Always chew the skin the same number of times, to be able to accurately compare the tannins between different berries.  How hard/green/soft/etc. are they?

5.  Spit out the skin and assess its color as well.

Amazing how much a systematic approach like this helps you get much more out of tasting! It definitely helped to taste differences between berries, though much more experience is required before I’ll be able to know how those differences would translate into a finished wine!!

And finally, a billboard in Mendoza city.  Not sure quite how to feel about this…

The taste of passion

(What clearer sign of wine passion can you ask for?)

It’s official – there’s a lot of passion going around in New Zealand.  And not just the passionfruit flavor in NZ’s all-important Sauvignon Blanc.  The intense passion so poignant in the Old World winemakers I met in Europe is rampant in New Zealand as well.  I started to notice it when I met Tim Finn, owner of Neudorf Vineyards (sorry – no photos of Neudorf because of the torrential rain, but I promise it’s gorgeous!) near Nelson.  We sat down to chat over a glass of Chardonnay (and then a glass of Riesling… and Pinot noir… and Viognier… yes, it’s hard work but someone has to do it!), and had quite a frank discussion about terroir.  Tim told me that he notices that his oldest vines show a more ‘authentic’ expression of their terroir, and posited that maybe this is due to the time they’ve had to establish a comprehensive network of microflora (namely, mycorrhizal fungus which develops a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and can help vines obtain nutrients – especially phosphorous, but others are under investigation – from parts of the soil that the roots otherwise wouldn’t be able to access).  We agreed that there are a lot of ‘conclusions’ out there that are just based on associations, but that there is great value in doing the work to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship, if one exists.  This is a huge issue in the world of terroir, as there are so many ideas derived from centuries of tradition that it can be difficult to tease them apart and determine those that actually have logical bases.  But Tim told me that he feels the best wine comes from people who are actually out in their vineyards watching what is happening all of the time.  He really stressed this, and to me, it is an interesting embodiment of art and science in wine.  Because really what this is all about is keen observation – and that is a trait that is often attributed to both scientists and to artists.  For both, the closer they keep an eye on the world around them, the better they can do their job – for the scientist, it’s a way of finding answers, and for the artist, a way of finding inspiration.  And if you’re making wine, both rational answers and creative inspiration are of the utmost importance.

(Woolaston Estates Vineyards)

While in the Nelson area I also met Cam Trott, Cellar Hand at Woolaston Estates, a gorgeous gravity-flow winery that was built with Pinot Noir in mind (Woolaston’s owners brought in Larry Ferar, a winery architect from Oregon to design the building).  The idea behind gravity-flow is that each step of the winemaking process occurs at a level lower than the previous so that musts and wines can be transferred using the power of gravity rather than pumps, which can be damaging to the wine, particularly when dealing with grapes as delicate as Pinot Noir.

(Top floor of Woolaston’s gravity-flow winery)

Cam and I talked about a lot of things (particularly about minerality, as that is kind of my pet project at the moment, and what I’ve been spending a whole lot of time thinking about with Chris Oze at University of Canterbury), but he was particularly excited to talk about biodynamics, as he had just spent a week doing some work at Seresin in Marlborough.  Though they’re not biodynamic at Woolaston (they are fully organic though – and Neudorf is moving in that direction), Cam appreciates the biodynamic treatment of the vineyard as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity – really, as its own organism (though in regards to the cosmic aspects of biodynamics he said “I’m not quite there yet” – a perspective that reflects many I’ve heard, even from fairly strong supporters of the methodology).  The key here, for Cam, is working with the land and harnessing all it can do for the vines.  He said that there are people who work with the land because they believe in it, and people who just use ‘sustainable,’ ‘organic,’ ‘biodynamic’ etc. because they see it as a good marketing tool, and that the latter are the ones who run into trouble.  And though I’d be the first to admit that there’s plenty to debate about whether or not you can taste the minerals in the soil, I must say that I’m pretty convinced you can taste passion in a wine.  And it’s delicious.