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 

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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.. )

Taste and feel, don’t think and do

This is the motto of winemaker PJ Barton, with whom I shared a fabulous 2 weeks at Barton Estate in Bot River, about an hour from Cape Town.  PJ has many, many ideas (most of them, he would say, a bit crazy) about winemaking, and happily shared his wealth of information throughout the time I stayed with him.  I worked with him a bit in the cellar, went with him to marketing lunches, consultation visits, and a meeting of the Bot River Association of Winemakers.  We had many intriguing conversations over many bottles of wine, his insights helping to fill out my knowledge and our conversations helping me to articulate some of the conclusions I’m beginning to draw from my experiences this year.

PJ is all about making wine from the heart.  When we went through the cellar to taste each tank and barrel, he asked me to leave my notebook behind so we could just talk about how each wine played on our palate, filled out our mouths, and, my personal favorite, personify the wines a bit.  PJ frequently would describe wines and winemaking processes in human terms, such as when he explained his feeling that a barrel is a doctor for a ‘problem wine’, and that the best thing to do with wine you’re having trouble with is to stick it in a barrel and wait, as the mediated flow of oxygen and the unique cylindrical shape of the barrel will bring the wine back into balance.  He often talks about wines in such terms, intuitive rather than scientific.  But to be honest, maybe this is a more informative way to think about wine.  The system is so complex that science can only understand one aspect at a time, breaking it down into simpler, controllable parts.  And for this reason I think it is important to have an alternative manner for thinking about the system.  Not that we should abandon the science, by any means, as it provides an incredibly valuable perspective as well, but consider the analogy of medicine and biology.  The human body is, also, an incredibly complex system, and science and western medicine represent one way of approaching it – breaking down the body into individual systems, trying to understand biology from a micro-scale and treating these individual components when there is a problem.  Contrast this with something like Chinese medicine, which we don’t have the capacity to “scientifically” understand in the western sense of the word, because science isn’t set up to answer those types of questions.  Chinese medicine represents a completely different approach, looking at the whole system rather than breaking it down into smaller parts.  I think that PJ’s approach to winemaking is in many ways analogous to this holistic approach, and it works.  I can’t say it is better or worse than a more ‘scientific’ approach, but it does have a lot of historical precedent in the old world, where people have been making wine from the heart, without access to scientific tools, for centuries.

As a contrast to PJ’s ‘from the heart’ approach, consider the case of winemaker  Rudy ?? at Bilton Estate in Stellenbosch.  PJ and I went to see him and tour his winery, and he showed us some of the ‘experimental’ wines he is working on.  The most intellectually intriguing (though I didn’t taste it so I can’t speak to that side of things) wine he had was one he refers to as 500% oaked.  This means that he put the wine in a new French oak barrel after fermentation, ages it there for one year, then moves it to a fresh barrel for a year, repeating this process for a total of 5 years.  He claims (though again, I didn’t taste it so I can’t say from experience) that it is not overly tannic, and when I asked why he thinks this would be, he offered an explanation based on tannin saturation.  Using an analogy of basketballs (tannins) and golf balls, tennis balls, and marbles (smaller molecules in the wine), he explained his theory that the wine will become saturated relatively quickly with tannins, as they are bigger, but there will remain plenty of nooks and crannies between the ‘basketballs’ in which can fit the smaller molecules – flavor and aroma compounds, etc, which will continue to be extracted from each new barrel.  I’m not sure if I agree with this explanation from a chemical perspective, as most of the small molecules in oak should actually be easier to extract than the tannins, but that isn’t my point, which is to demonstrate a very, very different approach to thinking about the wine.  Rudy has invested time and energy to research and postulate a theory explaining what he sees in his wine from a molecular perspective, while PJ would never do something like this.  His approach, rather, is to do what makes sense intuitively, based on his many years of experience making wine.  Though arguably a less ‘rigorous’ approach, I strongly believe that is has at least as much validity as any other, because like it or not, wine has this element of mystery, of surprise and unpredictability, and that is precisely what keeps it interesting.