Category Archives: Winemaking

Oh Sherry

The word that would best describe my initial relationship with Sherry is probably incomprehension. It was no love at first sight. On the few occasions that I tasted it, it always struck me as a weird drink. Here I’m talking about dry Sherry, as sweet ones held little interest for me. Sherry has hardly any acidity but is nevertheless super-dry; and it baffles you with strange flavours unfamiliar to drinkers of regular light wines – flavours that I might even say would be considered faults in a light wine. But when I had to taste one Sherry after another in preparation for my fortified wines exam, it started to grow on me. I started to enjoy its nuttiness, its quirky characteristics, its oily texture. And what constantly kept astonishing me was how cheap Sherries were compared to other drinks of a similar calibre.

Sherry comes in so many colours

So I was extremely pleased when I heard about the Sherry masterclass that was taking place under the auspices of the Wines from Spain annual tasting in London. It seems I was not the only one who had a soft spot for Sherry: even though I turned up 15 minutes early, the hall was already full, with standing room only. Not exactly what I’d expected, but I stayed anyway, and I’m glad I did.

I don’t want to go into much detail about how Sherry is made, as that was not the focus of this masterclass. But I will mention some aspects because I learnt some interesting facts from Sherry specialist Beltrán Domecq, who presented us with a fascinating overview of the development of Sherry from a young, neutral base wine into a highly complex, mature drink. So, one of the interesting facts I learned was that the tradition of increasing the alcoholic strength of wines by the addition of spirits (the key act in the production of fortified wines such as Sherry, Madeira and Port) goes back as far as a thousand years. The purpose was not to get you drunk more quickly, but to stabilize the drink. The higher the alcohol content, the less likely the wine was to go off. But it was really only in the 16th-17th centuries that fortified wines enjoyed a boom: witsolera illustrh the discovery and colonization of distant lands and the massive increase in long-haul sea voyages, wines started travelling and when they were fortified they travelled much better. Sherry, it turns out, was the first wine to circumnavigate the world, in the famed voyage of Magellan and his crew that started in 1519. It was apparently 300 years ago that the solera system was introduced, to create uniformity in quality and style.

I also learnt how the word Sherry came about. The place name changed from Xera to Ceret under the Romans, then to Sherish under Muslim rule in the 8th century. It then became Xeres de la Frontera under Alfonso X, who reconquered the land from the Muslims. From Xeres it was only a small step to Xerez in the 16th century, which today is written as Jerez. As many wine merchants, including a lot of Brits, established themselves in the region, the name of the wine became known in its anglicized form as Sherry.

The production of dry Sherry consists, very briefly, in the following basic steps:

  1. produce a dry and neutral base wine relatively low in alcohol
  2. leave this wine uncovered so that a film of natural yeast can develop. This is called flor. flor
  3. classify wine, depending on character and the development of flor, in two main categories: fino (well-developed flor, light-bodied wine), oloroso (fuller body, little or no flor)
  4. fortification: finos to 15% alcohol, olorosos to 17%
  5. maturation in the solera system

Yš

What we did in this tasting, though, concerned only the part that came in and after step 5. With ageing, not only did the wines take on darker and darker shades of gold and then amber; they also developed new characteristics and lost old ones. So the fruity-neutral, pale lemon base wine (Barbadillo 2016) gradually turned into a golden, very dry drink -in our tasting, it was an Ynocente Fino – with flavours of toasted nuts and seeds. The American oak (a rather unconventional solution for Sherry, I would have thought) lent the wine a noticeable woody character. The dryness of Sherry, I learnt, is caused by the disappearance of glycerol from the wine (it gets eaten by the yeasts). The next step up: a darker golden wine in which the nuttiness becomes more prominent and the wood less so (Fino Tradicion by Bodegas Tradicion). Our next wine, an amber-coloured 12-year-old Amontillado of Willams & Humbert was a special treat: the acetaldehyde aromas and flavours so typical of fino Sherry begin to go down at such a mature age. Other flavours are becoming more and more evolved and concentrated: candied, toasty notes on the nose and palate, rich, mouth-filling texture.

The older the wines the more concentrated they become because thanks to the porous texture of oak barrels, water can evaporate through the walls of the barrel but other, larger molecules remain. The first of our last, seriously grand wines was a Fino Imperial Merito Amontillado, aged for 30 years. VORS on its label stands for Very Old Rare Sherry, and old and rare it was, with lots of depth and a complex, rich, medicinal character. To wrap it all up, we tasted a Harveys 30-year-old VORS Palo Cortado. Medium amber, this wine was the first to exhibit a degree of sweetness. It was creamy and beautifully nutty, had a rich fruitcake palate and pretty high alcohol (19.5%), and a toasty, woody finish.

I also learnt from Mr Domecq that Fino and Manzanilla Sherry should not be kept for more than a year after purchase, and that once opened, they should be consumed within a week. Other, more mature Sherries can be kept for up to 3 years. They like to be stored in a standing, upright position, and they should be served chilled: 5-7 C for Fino and Manzanilla, and 14 C for the more mature wines are optimal temperatures. And please serve your Sherry in a proper wine glass!

 

If you’re as enthusiastic about Sherry as I am, you’ll be pleased to know that International Sherry Week is coming up in November 2017. To find out more click here.

If you’d like to learn more about Sherry, I recommend the official Jerez website, http://www.sherry.wine

 

 

MASI – kings of Amarone

MASI is a large wine producer in the Veneto region of northern Italy, near lovely Verona. They specialize in the region’s top appellations Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella. This is the boring factual info. The interesting part is that to get there you will drive around areas like the northern lakes, for instance Lago di Garda, or you can pop into Milan for a Campari, or maybe go a bit further east to check Veneto’s sparkling Proseccos. L1030022

For years Amarone della Valpolicella was the most impressive red wine I could think of. It had everything I found irresistible: rich, big, intense, heavy-going, quite alcoholic, and displaying that adorable cherry-chocolate flavour combination which … which I now think is actually quite hard to get right without making the wine too obvious, too loud. My teacher at wine school told us that Amarone was ‘meditation wine’, made to accompany long and deep conversations. This has stuck with me and so has the memory of the first, romantic encounter with this most romantic of wines. But if I want to be honest, no Amarone has seemed all that amazing since that tasting class back in school. But to come back to the present. I am standing outside the gates of MASI, one of the biggest producers in the region, and understandably I’m full of anticipation. They apparently produce five different Amarones!

A young woman shows me around the winery. Her name is Micaela and she tells me all about the MASI story. The winery has been going for six generations now as a family-owned business. They started in 1772 and were named after their first vineyard called Vaio dei masi meaning ‘little valley’. Today they collaborate with another family, the Alighieri, who are direct descendants of Dante. I guess that’s kind of normal in Italy.

The part that interests me the most is the drying room. Amarone is a dried-grape wine, which means that after harvest the grape bunches are laid out to dry in single layers on bamboo trays stacked on top of each other.L1030024 They look a bit like very low, multi-tiered bunk beds. The drying rooms are fairly dark and temperature-controlled. The drying goes on for nearly five months, from harvest to 1 February. Amarone, like many other old-world wines, is a blend of different grape varieties: Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara, and today a fourth, recently rediscovered old variety, Oseleta is added by MASI’s winemakers. Each variety contributes something else: colour, tannins, unique flavours or acidity. L1030025The drying at the MASI headquarters is computer-controlled but the company also have drying facilities in the hills, where it’s still the traditional combination of people and nature carrying out the work.

When the drying period is over, the grapes, which are now semi-dry, are pressed. You can imagine how little juice they will produce compared to fresh grapes, which explains why Amarone, which is made from 100% semi-dried grapes, is relatively expensive. But blends of regular and semi-dried grape wines are also made here.

StL1030029ylishly, this cherry-chocolate wine is first aged in locally produced cherry barrels. These barrels are very porous, which makes a quick oxygenation, i.e. quick ageing, possible. In one year, Micaela tells me, these wines age two years. Then they are moved to 600-litre barrels called fusto Veronese for further maturation. Amarone has a long life: 30-40 years easily. It’s a dry but very rich and intense red wine with high alcohol levels.

To my great disappointment, there is no chance to taste on this occasion, so comparing their five different Amarones remains a fantasy for now… but here’s hoping I can return before my tastes change and I become a fan of subtle Burgundies.  L1030052

Champion of Purity

Isabelle Legeron: Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally

Cico Books 2014, hb, 224pp, £16.99

Book review

Cover Natural_wine

There is a Jewish concept we learn from the Torah, called shmita. The commandment of shmita (the sabbatical year) instructs you to stop working the land every seven years; let it lie fallow, let nature take over and do its work without you trying to be in control. Don’t plant, don’t cultivate, don’t harvest. Re-wild. Step back, let it rest – and share. Take down the fences and let everyone, animals and humans, come and partake of whatever grows in your field.

Reading Isabelle Legeron’s recently published, beautifully produced book, I realized that she and fellow members of the natural wine faith advocate a very similar idea to that found in the Bible. They claim Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. Instead of interfering with her work, we should allow her savage ways to rule our land, and leave her room to produce whatever wine she fancies producing.

The first observation Legeron makes is, while it’s the ‘in’ thing to be a foodie and care so much about where and how our ingredients were sourced, how come we don’t care a bit about how our wine was made? It is true; what she terms the ‘agro-chic’ trend indeed seems to be much more interested in all food products but wine. Why indeed?

I have an explanation, based on my own kitchen-related activities. I buy organic veg whenever I can. I also want to make sure my eggs come from happy chicken. Do I buy organic wine? No. Why? Because with wine my considerations lie elsewhere. Wine is a work of art. Unlike an egg or an onion, it is complex, individual. How its components are produced is secondary from my consumer perspective to how it tastes – at least that was my attitude before reading Legeron. Furthermore, any supermarket will sell happy eggs and organic leek, but only the odd specialist wine shop will have a selection of organic or natural wine of decent quality. To go to a wine shop is a shlep as it is. To go to one that sells ‘happy’ wine is just too much of an effort. So a lot of it is a matter of convenience, I’d think. But also, I have found in my personal comings and goings that a lot of smaller winemakers, even if they’re not certified organic or natural, care an awful lot about how they make their wine and what they put into it, starting with the quality of the grapes. And up until now that’s been good enough for me.

Legeron states that her book is a tribute to those winemakers who ‘remain natural against all odds’, defying modern winemaking practices. The question immediately arises: what is wrong with modern winemaking practices? And this is wherein I feel the weakness of this otherwise attractive and carefully edited book lies. We fail to get a convincing argument as to why natural, traditional, and old-school are better than contemporary, high-tech, progressive. Sure, I agree that just as you should discourage your friends from eating junk food, you should talk them out of drinking mass-produced, industrial junk wine. But staying away from junk doesn’t mean I have to go natural and SO2 free. Who said that winemaking techniques of the past produced better wine than those of today? I would have argued to the contrary. Historians I’ve read seem to agree that most wine produced in the past was probably foul, for a number of reasons; whereas today, unless you’re really unlucky, you’ll find that even the cheapest glug will be clean, wine-like (as opposed to vinegar-like) and inoffensive, though admittedly soulless.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: do I want my wine to be ‘healthy’ or do I want it to taste like I expect it to taste? This is where the interesting twist comes in: Legeron claims that we are too accustomed to our expectations. She doesn’t for a minute try to argue that natural wine is just like ordinary wine. It looks, smells and tastes different. (I felt she could have dedicated a lot more space to this point, actually; to explain to us novices in much greater detail how natural wine should be appreciated.) But she states that this difference is good, even if it’s unusual, even if we are first surprised or even shocked by it. To me this seems to be the crux of the whole natural wine debate: are you prepared to call something good that doesn’t live up to conventional expectations? Something completely outside the box? I don’t know if I am, but the book has certainly made me think.

Legeron with wine glassLegeron is of course right about many things, and I wholeheartedly agree that exploitation of the land, overuse of chemicals, or stripping the wine of its natural substances by filtration or other intervention are all bad things, not to mention outright adulteration. Of course diversity, naturalness are great and to be cherished. And yes, perhaps we are too set in our taste ways when it comes to wine, and aren’t prepared to open our horizons to new flavour or texture experiences. This may well be, but the fact remains that I have tasted very few strictly natural wines – ‘strictly’ meaning without any added SO2 – that I enjoyed. Most were smelly, unpleasant, hazy liquids tasting of rotten fruit or solvent or other undesirable things. I know that smelly cheese also takes a while to get used to. But smelly cheeses have a tradition of their own. Smelly wines, with the odd exception, do not, as far as I know.

‘Wine started life everywhere as a simple drink’

Certainly. And the same applies to many human achievements. Music also started as a simple thing, and so did architecture. But these things developed into an art form and their finest examples soon became elements of what we consider high culture. Not all wine and not all buildings have to be sophisticated or ‘manufactured’, for sure. Whether you ride a buggy or an Aston Martin convertible is your choice, and either may suit you at different times. But it doesn’t mean we should go back to using buggies only, does it? I know, it would be much better for the environment, but it would be kind of naïve to imagine this could realistically happen. So, as much as I enjoyed and even admired Natural Wine, I’m still not convinced why going back to the old ways would be desirable.

But, as Legeron states, the purpose of her book is to start a conversation, and this she undoubtedly achieves with her respectable, edifying, engaging and positive content. I even like the fact that she is such an unashamed idealist. People who feel strongly about something are so much more convincing than the wishy-washy middle-of-the-roaders. Even if you don’t agree with them.

 

Red – White – Red: Wines of Austria

Even to look around properly was going to take me two days, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board tasting last month was so huge. It wasn’t the best choice for a venue – the size of the rooms unfortunately did not match the number of visitors and there were some very crowded moments. But apart from that, a splendid event and a fantastic showcase of what’s going on in Austrian wine-making. There were over eighty producers, presenting hundreds and hundreds of wines.

Austria is known mainly for its white wine, although it also produces a significant amount of reds. The wine regions lie in the east of the country, along the Austrian-Hungarian border going north–south. There are four main regions: Niederosterreich (Lower Austria), Vienna, Burgenland, and Steiermark (Styria). Within these there are a number of appellations, marked DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, in Latin – but why?). Instead of discussing climate and soil in great detail, I’ll just briefly say that Austria has favourable conditions for growing wine grapes and there are many interesting varieties as well as achievements of the highest standard.

Two examples that quickly spring to mind are Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. Riesling shows fantastically under the responsible care of Austrian wine-makers, and its specimen at the tasting came from all over the country, from Vienna to Kamptal to Sudsteiermark in the south, bordering Italy. They were all well made and offer a very reliable alternative to German Rieslings.

Gruner Veltliner is an Austrian speciality and I enjoyed finding out more about it. It is a medium-bodied, acidic wine with a vertical, nervy structure. Its flavours vary from citrus to pears and apricots to honeyed notes, but it tends to have a unique underlying grassiness or prickliness that I find particularly attractive. The older wines may show some vegetable, herbal character, but typically this is not a wine to be aged. It should be appreciated for its youthful, fruitful zestiness.

The precision-winemaking which seems to characterize Austrian producers really suits these varieties, where, to my mind, transparency and clear definition in aromas and flavours, body and acidity, are essential. So the resulting wines, though differing in style, all rang clear, like a well-articulated sentence. But everything else I tasted, whites and reds, were good, honest wines, made for drinking and not for showing off. Commendable!

To find out more about the wines of Austria, visit http://www.austrianwine.com

Making James at Seahorse

When I first applied for a summer internship at Seahorse winery, proprietor-winemaker Ze’ev Dunie replied in his email: ‘but be prepared: this place is a jungle. Nothing in our vineyard is like you’ve learnt in books.’ I immediately knew he was my man. If nothing was the way I’d read in books, I’d feel at home – and I did. Ze’ev is a filmmaker-turned-winemaker who produces a wide range of wines, mainly from Mediterranean red grape varieties: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. He names his wines after his personal heroes: John Lennon, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Roman Polanski… His flagship wine, though, is the white called James (as in James Dean), made from Chenin Blanc, and it was in the production of this wine that I assisted last summer. This year I returned to Seahorse to taste the wine. It didn’t disappoint.

DSCF2114James 2012 (100% Chenin Blanc)

Pale lemon wine with a youthful, friendly nose driven by sweet, fresh fruit. Good acidity on the palate, coupled with stone fruit, perhaps some tropical hints as well. A clean, pleasurable, medium-bodied wine with a smooth palate and a fruity, mineral finish. There’s something romantic and lyrical about James. Delightful and refreshing in the summer – and very few people make Chenin Blanc in Israel, so this is a truly special treat!

And here is how James was made

We picked the grapes early in the morning and carefully selected, by hand, the bunches we wanted to use. The grapes were destemmed and crushed mechanically and transferred by a pump into a gentle pneumatic press. After the juice was pressed, we pumped it over into stainless steel tanks where it would be cooled and left to settle for a couple of days. Since the main feature of this wine is its youthful, fruity freshness, it is important that the lees make little impact – therefore the juice had to be as clear as possible when it was pumped over into the barrels where the fermentation was to take place. So the sediment at the bottom of the tanks was left alone. When the cool, clean juice was sitting in the barrels, we added yeast, and within 24 hours fermentation began. This is what Ze’ev calls the music in the cellar.

baby James - the freshly pressed juice

baby James – the freshly pressed juice

And it is indeed music to the ears of those who have worked on making the wine, as it is a sign that everything is going according to plan. Fermentation sometimes takes a lazy start and sometimes doesn’t begin at all. But last year we were lucky and all the barrels were making beautiful bubbling music. When fermentation is over, the wine is left to mature in the barrels at a low temperature so that malolactic fermentation doesn’t set in. (Malolactic is a second fermentation where malic acid in the juice is transformed into lactic acid; this process is desirable in most red wines and certain whites such as Chardonnay as it provides body, fatness, creaminess to the wine and adds layers of complexity to the simple fruit. In a wine like our James, however, all the above would have been undesirable, and so malo was to be avoided.) The wine is finally filtered before bottling, again to ensure no further fermentation.