To celebrate the Monterosso Val d’Arda DOC, the producers of this region held a festival last weekend in Castell’Arquato, about 30 minutes from Piacenza. The program, slightly altered because of the inclement weather, consisted of several formal tastings led by a sommelier and the producer, as well as a salon with a couple dozen local producers who presented around four wines each. Coupled with the sociability of the winemakers in this region, even this small salon made for a busy afternoon of tasting.
We started with a guided tasting of wines from Tollara, including a Spumante (Méthode Champagnoise) and their “I l Giorgione”, which is made from surmature grapes of the Bonarda variety, along with a generous plate of local charcuterie.
A sampling of some other wines we tasted and particularly enjoyed :
Nontiscordarimé (“forget-me-not”) – Il Rintocco (DOC Monterosso Val d’Arda)
Colli Piacentii – La Boca (DOC Monterosso Val d’Arda)
Ortugo – Azienta Vitivinicola Pusterla (DOC Colli Piacentini Ortugo)
Antiquum – Cantine Campana – (DOC Colli Piacentini Gutturnio Classico Riserva)
The Master Vintage has moved to Italy! The class arrived 2 weeks ago to Piacenza, to start our viticulture unit at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. During our first three weeks we only have Italian language courses, and have been utilizing our down time to explore the viticultural region around Piacenza.
Many of the wines in this region, both whites and reds, are “frizzante”, or lightly sparkling, but many “vini firmi” are also produced, typically bearing a slightly bigger price tag. I’m still tasting my way through the local appellations, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), but a few that I’ve discovered so far include Colli Piacentini, Gutturnio, Guttornio Superiore, Ortugo, and Monterosso Val d’Arda. Some of the common varietals used in the region include Malvasia, Ortugo, Moscato Bianco, Trebbiano Ramagnola, Sauvignon, Bonarda, Barbera, and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others.
We visited a producer just down the road from our house, Bongiorni Agostino, who explained to us (*full disclosure – the informal visit, which lasted around 2 hours, was conducted entirely in Italian on the fourth day of our Italian course… thus the information was pieced together from the understanding of us 5 students who speak 3 different languages between us) the process used in making his wines. The the fermentation is begun as usual, and at a certain point in the fermentation process the wines are ‘racked’ (transferred), to a special type of tank called an “autochiave” which can be sealed to maintain the pressure inside as the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation collects in the sealed vessel. He can control the pressure inside the tank, and therefore can maintain the carbon dioxide naturally produced by fermentation in the wines. Some of the wines are “dolce”, or slightly sweet, and for these the fermentation is stopped when there is some sugar remaining, either naturally (the yeast are poisoned naturally by their own production of alcohol), or by centrifugation, where he is able to eliminate all solids from the fermenting wine, including the yeast.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.”
(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!)
(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)
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.
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).