Category Archives: Winemaking

The Loire Attitude

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Small and special seem to be the key words in the Loire wineries I visited on a recent trip. The winemakers are without exception matter-of-fact, hard-working people, not ideologues – even those romantics who have taken this path as a lifestyle choice at a later stage in their lives. The visitor is given facts, not fancy stories, family legends, and the like. And facts often include those that you wouldn’t expect winemakers to talk about: failures, difficulties, imperfections. They talk about these so casually as if they had no image to build or preserve. I find this modesty, even humility, fascinating. I admire their down-to-earth professionalism, the passion and commitment – not to an ideology but to making good wine while respecting the land and the traditions. The wineries I visited are all organic, and several are biodynamic. The owners believe in low intervention and in allowing the wines to reflect terroir, vintage, and grape variety as best they can. So all the values that are shared by today’s natural wine movement are there, but somehow it’s all done in a so much more palatable way. In a truly natural way. Being organic is a means, not an end. No agenda, no drums to beat. They get on with the work, and produce, on their small plots of land, small quantities of expensive but exquisite wines. From nervy brut sparkling méthode traditionelle to luscious sweet temptresses. The grapes, of course, Chenin.

PeterI was struck by the way the vineyards form an organic part of the living space of the winemakers. In the Loire this seems to be the norm, at least among small producers. When American-born Peter Hahn (Le Clos de la Meslerie) walks us out of his house and across the courtyard, the cellar is just to the right, and in front of us are the vines. So compact, so simple, so organic – in both senses of the word. When we sit down to taste, it’s in his own family kitchen. I love the fact that the winemaker and his story are not products for sale, and I am not treated as a customer. Rather, he lets me step into his world and become part of his life. The interconnectedness of soil, fruit, climate, and people feels very real here. Peter is a delightful person – so relaxed and friendly, as if the fact that we called him barely an hour earlier to arrange a meeting were the most natural thing in the world. He moved to a small estate near Vouvray and took up winemaking in a decision to change career and lifestyle. A genuine man with genuine, pure wines, all of which are Chenin Blanc, Vouvray appellation. IMG_6954

He produces about 10,000 bottles on 4 hectares of land, all surrounding the house. And his young daughter helps with the pruning! He has been exploring non-interventionist winemaking, and a traditional approach, such as horse-work, indigenous yeasts, and no lab analysis. The latter leads to the production of very different wines each year, Peter explains. ‘We don’t analyse; it’s more just looking at what’s happening outside and making decisions on that basis.’ This leads to lots of what he calls inconsistency in his wines – or shall we say diversity?

 

Recommended:

Le Clos de la Meslerie 2017: dry, bitter, and saline, with bouncy acidity, lime and green apple notes

Le Clos de la Meslerie 2016: a drier, sunnier year and a later harvest, which resulted in creamier, more buttery wines, higher sugar content

 

Eric Morgat

Eric Morgat (Domaine Eric Morgat) built his own winery in Savennières, a pleasing mix of modern and traditional. His wines are greatly influenced by the schist soil and the oceanic climate, which still predominates here, whereas further east the climate changes quite rapidly to continental. He talks about the difficulty of finding grape bunches with homogenous maturity. In 2018, he tells us, the grapes matured early, which meant early harvest, but even so he feels they were a bit too ripe, which shows in the wine.

Eric’s wines reflect his accuracy and attention to aesthetic detail. They are certified organic but he doesn’t put this on his labels. ‘I am not interested in making organic wines. I am interested in making the greatest wine possible.’

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Recommended:

Fidès 2014: intense and complex – creamy/buttery and vegetal, great acidity, fairly high alcohol, long floral-fruity finish

 

 

Vincent Carème’s family winery (Tania & Vincent Carème, Vouvray) is literally in the cellar. And the cellar is in the rocks, carved out like many structures around here – this is called Troglodyte.IMG_6978

Organic farming, indigenous yeasts, 400 l barrels form part of the methodology. And so do the children, who come every year to make their own wine under the supervision of Vincent. Never too early to start!

The winery produces about 80,000 bottles per year, which puts them somewhere in the middle in terms of size in the region.

Recommended:

L’Ancestrale 2016, petillant naturel: this sparkling wine is made from grapes coming from older vines, which results in more concentration, a beautiful, harmonious wine

Première Trie 2015: deep gold sweet wine with 80g residual sugar, from a very hot year. Oxidized, savoury, nutty aromas on nose; palate has an almost cheesy character, mature, oxidative notes, and very intense nutty finish

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Other recommended tasting from the region

Domaine Huet Vouvray

Le Haut Lieu 2016: difficult year with spring frost that left few grapes, but those had higher concentration. The result is a complex, intense, very attractive wine

Clos de Bourg 2009: amazing intensity and concentration, charm, balance, lovely flavours, and extremely long finish

François Chidaine, Brut nature 2017: one of my favourite sparklers on this tour, restrained and balanced

Wild Wines

RAW wine fair, New York, October 2019

About two thousand years ago, there was an interesting place called Qumran in the Judaean Desert. In this tiny settlement just off the Dead Sea lived a Jewish sect whose identity remains unknown, but thanks to the writings they had left behind, we have some idea about their beliefs. One of these was that they were the sons of light, at war with the sons of darkness. They represented truth, having recognized the correct path, and everyone else was deluded, if not downright evil.

Walking around this year’s RAW wine fair in New York, I was reminded of the Qumran community. RAW is an independent fair celebrating low-intervention (natural, organic, biodynamic etc.) wines; we may perhaps even call it a movement today. The central message of RAW fairs, to bring ‘authentic’ wine to the consumer, seems to me a strong value judgement: what we offer is wine – everything else is a fake, unnatural, or, even worse, toxic. We know where the truth lies and whoever is not with us is misguided. According to the picture presented by RAW (go to their website for more details), there are two kinds of winemaker: the large, industrial undertakings that fabricate artificial, heavily manipulated drinks which reflect neither the character of the land nor that of the grape variety. Opposed to them are the small, independent, ethically minded winemakers who, unlike the big corporations, care about nature, tradition and origin. While this depiction may not in itself be untrue, it fails to present the full picture. The people left out of this division are precisely those who I think work hardest: all the serious and devoted winemakers who are equally lovers of land and fruit but are at the same time committed to excellence and aesthetics.

RAw NY

What I have found at RAW fairs is that many of the ‘natural’ winemakers are far more interested in ideology than in making excellent wine. They are there to demonstrate and propagate a world-view: no need for intervention, let mother nature create the wine she fancies, and look how excellent it is! Well, often it isn’t. Far from it, in fact. Many of the natural wines I have tasted are unclean, unintegrated, messy and imprecise. This doesn’t seem to matter much, though, because the faithful seem very happy with the hazy liquid in their glass, the symbol of their conviction. Advocates of natural wine often use the term ‘alive’ to describe these drinks, suggesting that all other wine is dead – has, perhaps, been murdered. This view too is questionable. What makes a wine alive is not the fact that it’s packed with microorganisms, and dynamism is not the same as unfinished fermentation.

RAW seems to be popular and has been expanding. It started in London a few years ago; today Berlin and several North American cities have been added to the list of venues. My hunch is that many people are attracted to the community feel these events create. RAW, like other contemporary alternative movements, offers a platform where opponents of industrial production and mass consumption can find themselves a like-minded crowd to hang out with. The vibe of counter-culture surrounding RAW’s events is quite exhilarating actually, and I agree with the way the organizers, producers, and participants make a stand against consumer culture and mass-produced anything. The revolution started by Isabelle Legeron is without doubt drawing attention to important issues. At the same time, I am troubled by the cult-like, sectarian undercurrents of RAW. The fact that natural wine is small-scale, grassroots, and radical doesn’t necessarily make it good. To me, winemaking is about one thing: creating the best possible wine. The excellent Loire winemaker Eric Morgat told me, ‘I have an organic certification but I don’t put it on my label – because I do wine, not “organic”.’ Morgat wants people to buy his wines for their excellence, not for the ideology.

Exhibitors at the New York event came from all over the world, but the vast majority were from the Old World regions, mainly Italy and France. It was among the French winemakers that I found the most consistency and quality. I was impressed by their professionalism and the high level of craftsmanship. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines of Domaine Landron (Loire), for example, showed high precision and individual character. The reds of the Vacqueyras producer Clos de Caveau (Rhône) were intense, complex, and packed with fruit. Another Loire winery whose Chenin Blancs and Cabernet Francs I enjoyed was Clos de Quarterons.

Clos de Caveau

For any serious winemaking, effort is required. From the moment the vines are planted, the winemaker is constantly making decisions that will influence natural processes. Intervention is a must: without it, the grape juice would turn into vinegar not wine. As many examples at the New York RAW fair proved, very good wines can be made using sustainable methods (hooray hooray!), but an intrepid spirit in itself is not enough. What I would like to see is for RAW to move in the direction of culture rather than cult, where tradition and quality, not radical views, take centre place.

Tokaj tourist

Some friends and I got together for a short trip: mini-break, wine-tasting, cultural and historical exploration. The drive to Mád is about three hours from Budapest. Why Mád? Because of a very attractive, brand new boutique hotel by the name of Botrytis – what could be more stylish in the middle of the Tokaj region, whose famed aszú wines live and breathe botrytis? But also the local Jewish history, the lovely Baroque synagogue. The peace and quiet, the undiscoveredness of the place. Even in the middle of summer, no rush of tourists. This may not be great news for the proprietors of businesses, but it was for us visitors. Wherever we went, we got the special treatment, and never had to queue.

Mad landscape

Mád feels small, intimate, very rural and traditional. People are friendly, the grass is green, the wine is white. And mainly Furmint-based of course – we are in the heart of the Tokaj region!

When you visit, you absolutely must walk up to the beautifully refurbished Baroque synagogue, not far from the centre of the village. Right next to it is what used to be rabbi’s house and study hall (yeshiva); the building has been turned into a lovely little museum of local Jewish history. The very reasonably priced ticket includes a film screening and a guided tour of the museum and synagogue. The rabbi’s house also offers accommodation for individuals and larger groups. North-east Hungary was famed for its hasidic Jewish communities and miracle-working rabbis, so there’s a lot of history to discover. Visit Footsteps of the Wonder Rabbis for detailed information.

But to return to the primary purpose of our visit: wine-tasting!

We started with the wines of Szent Tamás Pincészet, named after one of the top vineyards of the region. The winery is in the process of being merged with Mád Wine, and while the wines bearing the latter name are entry-level, easy-drinking fare, the Szent Tamás label represents their top wines made with their own grapes, selected from single vineyards. These vineyards (Kővágó, Úrágya, Szent Tamás, Nyúlászó etc.) have been known since the 16th century, and there is a strong sense of history and tradition throughout the region. Szent Tamás aims to produce a brand that is recognizable and consistent rather than reflecting a winemaker’s individual vision and preferences.

Mád Furmint 2016

A fresh wine fermented and matured in stainless steel tanks. Pretty, fruity, with lively acidity and a long finish.

_Nyulaszo_20153Nyúlászó 2016 Furmint and Hárslevelű

Limited production, under 5,000 bottles made; fermented and aged in Hungarian oak

tropical fruit, apricots and sweet candy blend with an intense oaky character on the nose; after the sweetness of fragrance the dry palate is quite a surprise. Some of the sweet notes linger but the character is mainly dry and driven by firm acidity. With time it shows a pleasant creaminess and smokey character. Apricots and pebbles on long, intense finish.

Mád Late Harvest 2016 Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muskotály

This intense green-gold wine was fermented and matured in stainless steel; amazing, intense nose of honey and fruit and caramel. Orange/tangerine flavours, with lovely acidity complementing the intense fruitiness.

 

szt_tamas_szamorodniSzent Tamás 2014, 100% Furmint

Limited production of about 2,500 bottles

A very refined and beautifully integrated wine. Restrained, elegant, coherent. Character reflects the cool year it was produced in. Intense, linear nose, apricot and creamy vanilla on palate, long mineral finish. Smooth and balanced. Excellent.

Szent Tamás Sweet Szamorodni 2013

Fermented and matured in oak. Colour deep yellow-gold, nose has a very attractive smokey, meaty savoury character beneath the standard fruit and honey notes. Oily, creamy texture, perhaps could do with a bit more acidity.

Tallya vineyard

Another winery we visited was Zsadányi, a relatively new family winery based in Tállya, an equally ancient commune in the Tokaj region whose vineyards have recently been rediscovered for their outstanding potential. Here is a sample of the best wines we tasted.

Zsadanyi szamorodniSzamorodni dry 2014 

Rich gold, intense nose with honey, jasmine and lime flowers, apricots. Vanilla oak and fruit on palate. Shortish though beautifully floral finish. The wine is fermented and aged in locally produced oak barrels.

Dongó Furmint 2015

High acidity, mineral character – typical of the Dongó vineyard. Hint of mint and eucalyptus oil on palate, intense, harmonious, rounded, loveable. Long finish.

Tökösmál Furmint 2018

A new addition to the Zsadányi top range; not bottled yet, tasted from tank. Very interesting savoury character with cabbage and vegetables. Silky texture, smooth vanilla and butterscotch notes. Look forward to tasting again after bottling!

 

 

 

 

Luxembourg Surprises

Who would have thought that good wines were being made in the tiny country of Luxembourg? To be sure, I was aware, from my student days, of the presence of some wine industry there – but stuck between the famed wine regions of northern France and west Germany, Luxembourg has received little of the limelight, even though wine production there is as old as in neighbouring Mosel.

Moselle L

The wine industry in Luxembourg is centred around three groups of producers: co-operatives, grower-merchants, who have their own federation, and independent winemakers, of whom there are at present 52. After England, Luxembourg is the smallest wine producer in the EU; but not being sizeist, I went along to a tasting of its wines and was very pleasantly surprised. The tasting focused on the wines of independent grower Abi Duhr (Château Pauqué), and I came away a fan.

Duhr created Château Pauqué exactly 30 years ago, with the aim of producing high-quality wines that would raise the profile of the wines of the Moselle. Quantities are small – with a production of 30,000 bottles we’re talking about a boutique winery. The two main styles are classic Luxembourg whites produced in the traditional manner (e.g. Riesling and Pinot Gris) and Burgundy-style wines fermented and aged in oak.

The grape varieties in Luxembourg are more or less the same as in Germany and Alsace: lots of white – including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Elbling and Pinot Blanc – and a little red, Pinot Noir. Typically we find single varietal wines, which means wines are produced from a single grape variety and are labelled as such, but there are some blends around, including some of Duhr’s wines I’ve tasted. The wine region (and appellation) is called Moselle Luxembourgeoise, and Grevenmacher, where Duhr’s winery is based, is referred to as the ‘metropolis’ of the region. The townlet lies on the bank of the river Moselle, right on the German border.

The wines listed below all bear the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation.

abi-duhr-bromelt-2015Rivaner and Elbling are the most common local varieties, used for mass-produced, mediocre wines. But both in his Jungle 2015 (Rivaner) and in his Bromelt 2015 (Elbling), Duhr has done well above mediocre, producing delightful, fresh, pure, fragrant wines. The Jungle has a sweeter, toffee and caramel character and a flinty finish, while the Bromelt is austere, bone dry, and slightly vegetal, reminding me of a spring shower and wet grass. Both are excellent choices for an apéritif wine.

Pinot Gris is, again, not one of those grapes that get wine connoisseurs really excited – and yet Duhr’s Pinot Gris Paradais 2016 has character and charm: sweet candy and caramel on the nose, lovely and fragrant, and a bit of CO2. His Riesling Paradais Vielles Vignes 2015 is also full of youth and floral perfume, but combined with oily texture, the rubbery character of Riesling, a darker gold hue, and a quite spicy, vegetal palate.

fossiles 2005 abi duhr

We were shown two vintages of Duhr’s blend, Fossiles – one from 2015 and one from 2005. Made from Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Chardonnay, Fossiles is an interesting wine to age, though I’m not sure for how long. The 2005 vintage showed a lot of quirky character, which I enjoyed; its pungent nose and cooked cabbage palate mix with lees flavours and a smokey toasty finish. The one shortcoming seemed to be a lack of acidity, which won’t help increase life expectancy.

A fantastic contrast was seen between the young and the aged Chardonnay. We tasted the 2014 Chateau Pauqué against the 2004 vintage, and it was a wow moment. While the young wine is reserved and discreet, despite its youthful fruity charm, the 2004 vintage seduced already with the nose: such depth, as if smells could have dimensions – and it seems they can! I found an intense, honeyed sweetness on the nose, which was totally contradicted by an utterly dry palate full of mature, vegetal flavours, combined in an unusual harmony with lees and oak characteristics.

Duhr’s Clos du Paradis Auxerrois is also one to recommend. We tasted the 2014 against the 2004 vintage, and the wine goes from zesty, citrusy and slightly fizzy refreshment to a toasty, savoury, rich wine, with oily texture and to me very enjoyable flavours from butterscotch to cooked cabbage. The acidity here is still great, and the finish long and flinty.

Chateau Pauqué wines are produced in small quantities so they won’t be that easy to find, and they won’t be that cheap either – around £ 20-25 a bottle – but if you’re keen to try something new and different, they are definitely recommended!

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.