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)

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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.


Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Last week I was kindly invited to visit Hamilton Russell Vineyards in Hermanus, along with a group of students from Wharton Business School’s Lauder program.  Anthony Hamilton Russell, the owner of the wine farm, is an alum of Wharton and invited these students to learn about the business side of winemaking.

(Hamilton Russell is also using ceramic vessels to ferment and mature their wines, much like De Martino in Chile and Pyramid Valley in New Zealand)

The winery is famous for producing Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are ‘the most Burgundian outside of France,’ which Mr. Hamilton Russell attributes to the clay soils on which he’s planted these vines.  Francophile that I am, normally I’m quite skeptical when someone asserts that their wines stand up to those of France, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir, but after a vertical tasting of the 2010, 2009, 2008 Pinots and the 2009, 2010, and 2011 Chardonnays, I am a believer.  I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that they perfectly replicate the Burgundian style, but I thought they were incredibly elegant but earthy, fruity but restrained, balanced Pinot Noirs, which is exactly the style I love.

After the tasting the Hamilton Russells invited us up to their home at the top of the farm, pictured above, for an extravagant afternoon of wine, lunch, and amazing views (the only downside was when their pet tortoise tried to ram himself into me).

A Sip of Chile’s Finest

During my last week in Chile I had the opportunity to visit three great wineries – Viña Montes and Lapostolle in  Apalta (part of the Colchagua valley) and De Martino in the Maipo valley, outside of Santiago.  These wineries produce some of the best wines in Chile, and are definitely not to be missed on a wine tour of the country, so I am very fortunate that I had the chance to visit and be shown around by winemakers at each of them!

(Viña Montes)

(The feng shui-focused winery building)

(View of the snow-capped Andes mountains from the top of the Apalta vineyards at Montes)

(Lapostolle is owned by the family who founded Grand Marnier in France, and is committed to making French-style — read: food-friendly, gastronomic– wines in Chile) 

(View from the top of the gorgeous, gravity-flow designed Clos Apalta winery)

(Lapostolle vineyards in Apalta – showing the shadow that comes over much of the vines in the evening light)

(One of Lapostolle’s barrel rooms, centered around a gorgeous tasting table through the top of which you can look down into the owner’s private wine cellar, located below the winery)

(De Martino’s giant wooden foudres, in which they began to vinify their Single Vineyard line in 2011.  This marks an important part of a drastic change in their approach, away from bold, ‘Pamela Anderson’ style wines to more elegant, refined ‘Gwyneth Paltrow’ style wines–**these incredibly descriptive analogies were taken from winemaker Eduardo Jordan’s presentation)

(Another project at De Martino is to ferment and mature wines, particularly of Cinsault grapes grown in the Itata Valley in the south of Chile, in ceramic tinajas – pictured here with Jaime and I – that have been used to make wine in southern Chile for over one-hundred years.  This wine, called Viejas Tinajas, has absolutely nothing added to it during vinification – no sulfur, no enzymes, no yeasts, nothing, which makes for a unique, rustic (but not too rustic), earthy but at the same time fresh and fruity wine).

Visiting these three wineries provided a great little overview of the Chilean industry – where it has been historically and some different perspectives on where it is, and where it should be, going.  I am incredibly grateful to everyone that made these visits possible, as well as everyone who made my time in Chile absolutely fantastic, and look forward to returning in the near future!

But for now… its on to South Africa!!

La Belle Salive

On Friday I was lucky enough to tag along with Drs Roland Harrison and Phil Tonkin on a visit to Pyramid Valley Vineyards in Wakari, just northwest of Waipara.  We spent several hours tasting and chatting with owner Mike Weersing, an American expat who trained in France and elsewhere before coming to New Zealand to work at Neudorf and then eventually starting his own, fully biodynamic, vineyard.  The purpose of the visit was to have a bit of a dialogue about the effects of soil type on wine, and Mike presented us with some wines to demonstrate his views on the subject.  He stressed that he feels that soil exerts its most profound effects on the ‘architecture’ of the wine in the mouth – how it feels and is structured (something that, coincidentally or not, for better or for worse, would likely be challenge to pin down and analyze scientifically).  (Soil profile display in the Pyramid Valley tasting room)

Particularly interesting was the way that Mike described the effects of soil acidity.  He explained that the French refer to certain wines as inciting “la belle salive” a particular way of salivating that feels as though it is coming from the back of the mouth, at the back/bottom jaw line.  They are particularly fond of this sensation, he said, because it is similar to the way we salivate when we are hungry, thus wines that cause la belle salive are good to drink with food because they keep you eating.  And apparently, la belle salive results from wines that are grown on more basic soils – like the calcareous or active limestone soils that the French are so fond of.  He had us taste two wines, one made from grapes grown in a block containing much more active limestone (active here just refers to the availability of the calcium carbonate – the more crushed up the rocks are, the more surface area, and the more points in the crystaline structure where ions are exposed and therefore able to interact with the surroundings), and one from a block with less. I could definitely notice the distinction, but he had also just told me what to expect, so I still feel the need to do some blind tasting to test the theory for myself.  But it is certainly interesting, nonetheless! (Try it out and let me know what you find!)

Mike told me about a tasting of Waipara wines that he organized where wines of the same varietal, one grown on clay and one grown on gravel, were compared blind.  He introduced the tasting by describing what Europeans would expect to find in each of the wines (the wines grown on clay would be expected to have a more ‘slippery’ feel in the mouth), and found that people were overwhelmingly able to identify the soil type for each wine.  It is the empirical evidence such as this, that is so frequently cited and pervasive in the wine world, that keeps me interested in this issue despite all of the debate and lack of evidence in the scientific community.  And certainly a major difference point of contention that drives a wedge somewhere in the industry.

(Limestone outcroppings visible in the Pyramid Valley)

I am happy to finally see somewhere where art and science are not coexisting harmoniously, side-by-side, especially in this instance where there is division, but ‘art’ and ‘science’ aren’t necessarily the two sides of the issue.  Mike threw another wrench into the neat little picture of art and science existing harmoniously.  When I first described my project to him, he responded in a manner different from anyone I’ve met so far.  He insisted that wine is, in fact, not an ‘art,’ per se, because such a label implies some inborn talent on the part of the winemaker.  He prefers the term ‘craft’ as it better encapsulates the idea that winemaking is something that can be learned through lots and lots of experience.