Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blind leading the blind....

Before moving on to the 2009 red Burgundies, a brief interval to highlight a “humble” wine punching well above its weight.

Every month or two Sarah and Davide of the very excellent Sage Restaurant ( hold a food and wine evening – the last few came under the heading “Autumn Feasts” – plenty of good food, good wine, good fun – and a good fixed price. We rummage through the cellar for the wines and between us all, we try and come up with a different theme for each get-together. They are normally sold out in advance, so there’s a good fun, slightly wild atmosphere on the night!

A few weeks back we had a special Christmas evening. Sarah and Davide had just been informed of a very prestigious award – which they can’t say anything about until January – so we all decided to make a pretty special evening of it. Davide rustled up a menu of four amazing courses and we decided to try a rather unusual twist on the red wines. We selected 24 different red wines that would range in price from €20 to €85 on a restaurant list and then ran out and bought as much tin foil as possible – big demand just before Christmas for tin foil – and wrapped each of the bottles to hide their identity. Each pair of guests then chose a number from 1 – 24 and this corresponded to their “mystery” wine that was then put on the table for them to enjoy. Of course, if the next table’s wine seemed to be nicer, then the challenge for the guests was to try and convince them to swap. If a guest really objected to the wine they had received, then they could request a random replacement bottle – but again unaware as to what it might be.

During the meal, we wandered around (and of course ate and drank!) and asked guests to guess three general things about the wine they had: country, age and price they would be happy to pay in a restaurant.

As the various dishes were served, bottles were passed over heads and opinions exchanged. Semi-controlled mayhem (if there is such a thing!) ensued. Mature Aussies, Chateauneufs, Bordeaux and Burgundies all did the rounds. Two bottles from the initial bunch were rejected by their original recipients – only to find love from different diners! At the end of the evening, the “results” of the blind bottles were announced – to a raucous reception. In general, most wines were pegged around their potential list prices. A couple of the more expensive wines didn't fare so well, with one diner describing an €85 Beaune 1er Cru as “dogs pee” - he’s a vet, so he should know!

The star of the night turned out to be a wine of more humble origin – a very popular “House” red we import from Palo Masi in Tuscany that normally lists for around €20 in restaurants - Poggerissi Rosso. One guest – who had rejected an earlier bottle and would happily describe themselves as a wine aficionado, confidently pegged the Poggerissi as a French red that they would happily pay €65 for! Another said they would pay €45, and a third (there were only 3 bottles of it included) said €30. Not bad!

Just shows that blind tasting can be very levelling – and fun!

Domaine Buisson-Charles 2009

Next it was off to meet with Patrick Essa at his father-in-law’s Domaine of Buisson-Charles. Patrick has been making the wines here since 1981 and has his own very clear ideas about the style he seeks to achieve. He eschews maceration, harvests relatively early (started on 12th September for the 2009’s), never seeks more than 13 per cent alcohol and uses 30% new oak. They are also very reasonably priced.

I had tasted here a few years previously and the wines had both interested and, to be honest, confused me slightly. The barrel samples tended to exhibit pretty firm acidity and were what I would describe as a “very traditional” style – and yet any older bottles opened displayed wonderful freshness and great complexity – almost (and I know, it does sound strange) with aged Chenin Blanc-like complexity.

And so it was also this time. I was back in translation mode, so balancing a notebook, glass and dividing the brain between olfactory and translatory senses. Easy! As we tasted the barrel samples, the ripeness of the 2009 vintage was quite evident, although backed by pretty firm acidity. There was some “heat” in a couple of them – but the challenge (based on previous experiences) was trying to determine how they might evolve. The Meursault “Tessons” and the 1er Cru “le Cras” were both impressive and my favourites of the various samples tasted.

Patrick also produces some very tasty reds – a lovely rich and yet floral Pommard villages and then a 1er Cru “Santenots” from Volnay. My preference was for the Pommard.

To finish off, Patrick offered to open an older “mystery” bottle of Meursault Villages for us to guess the vintage. Unfortunately the first bottle he tried had a soft cork which disappeared back into the bottle, but undeterred he headed off into the dark cellar to return with one more. I guessed around the 2001 mark – about 10 years old. To all of our surprise it turned out to be a 1981 – almost 30 years old. It had amazing freshness and was very impressive. Patrick was on a roll at this stage, so next up was a 2005 Meursault 1er Cru Charmes – except that it had already been open for 10 days! Again, very impressive.

And therein lies the challenge with wines like these. The tasting re-confirmed my original opinion that these wines can be challenging in their youth – I hesitate to use the phrase “old fashioned” as I don’t think Patrick’s approach is in any way outdated. But he makes wines for the long haul – and again I use the example of an aged Chenin-blanc – that can take a few years to shed their austerity – but undoubtedly blossom into beautiful examples of wonderful Meursaults.

Pierre-Yves Colin Morey 2009

This must be the most drawn-out Burgundy report ever. Since the last report on Didier and Genevieve’s wines about four weeks ago, we’ve had the IMF bail-out, a Budget, the country skidding to a halt, and X-Factor winner and now the country running out of water….not bad for four weeks!

But back in the recent mists of time, Miro, Samo, Sinead and I were trundling towards Chassagne Montrachet. Prior to departing Ireland I had contacted a couple of new producers about visits to taste with a view to working with them. Unfortunately DRC said no (in fairness, Aubert de Villaine was away), but Pierre-Yves and I had exchanged emails and an appointment had been set. I had come across his name a number of times and the feedback was always universally positive. It was shaping up to be a good tasting.

The first thing to remember is that there are lots of Colins around Chassagne and nearby St. Aubin. Pierre-Yves is the son of the well known Marc Colin and his wife, Caroline, is the daughter of the local Chassagne Producer, Jean-Marc Morey. Pierre-Yves worked with his father from 2001 to 2005 – having previously done stints with other producers including Chalk Hill (California), Wolf Blass (Australia), Vacheron (Sancerre) & Ferraton in the Rhone Valley. However in 2005 he wanted more flexibility to start implementing his own ideas about viticulture and vinification and his father split the Domaine into four equal parts. Pierre-Yves acquired 4 hectares of various vineyards and 2006 was his first truly independent vintage under the Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey label.

Since then his star has risen rapidly. Although friendships don’t necessarily guarantee good wines, being able to call on Jean-Francois Coche Dury certainly isn’t a hindrance and Roulot is a pretty good role model to follow! Today he produces between 60,000 and 70,000 bottles annually and supplements his own vineyard holdings by buying in about 30% of his annual production in grapes – paying top prices for top quality material. He doesn’t differentiate between the two in terms of labelling – all are given the same careful elevage – and many of the different cuvees are only made in tiny quantities – for example only around 60 cases of Meursault Perrieres each year. The range is extensive – from a delicious St. Aubin “le Blanc” all the way to Corton-Charlemagne and both Batard and Chevalier-Montrachet. A nice cellar to spend a bit of time in!

Of course, we started by calling to the wrong address – it was a Colin, but not the right one! With the sleepy hamlet of Chassagne watching us four stragglers wandering around in the rain, we made our way to the correct address where Pierre-Yves welcomed us. The first bit of good news is that he has excellent English – so I could take a break from my translation duties and I could give full attention to the wines. And they certainly deserved attention.

From the very first taste of the 2009 St. Aubin les Creaux it was clear that this was going to be a great tasting. The common theme among all the wines was that of freshness combined with a wonderful precision. And the acidity? Well, for the first time this trip, the acidities seemed in perfect balance with the fruit. This set off an interesting discussion about the differences between “ripe” acidity and “unripe” acidity. Interestingly, Pierre-Yves tends to harvest a little earlier than others – and according to him, some others would say that this leads to an elevated sense of acidity in his wines. Certainly not to us – and that was the paradox – a slightly earlier harvest for purer, fresher fruit with good sugars produced a much more elegant wine than one with later harvested grapes at higher sugars that had then possibly been compromised by a different producer having to acidify. The St. Aubin les Combes was a little more precise and defined than the Creaux with nice minerality. It is on the Chassagne side of St. Aubin and certainly exhibits similar characteristics. Making our way through the St. Aubin 1er Crus of Chattenieres (very flinty, smoky and richer on the palate) and Remilly (on Puligny side and quite closed and reserved) we came across the St. Aubin 1er Cru of Champlots. Also on the Puligny side, this had amazing minerality intertwined with ripe, intense citrus fruits and that holy grail of natural “ripe” acidity.

In fact, all of the wines were outstanding examples of balanced and harmonious wines. It’s easy to make a “flashy” wine, but these were the opposite and therefore tended to catch us unawares with their elegant intensity and pure fruits. In the vineyards there is no stripping away of excess foliage during the growing season and no green harvest. It’s all down to the work put in at pruning in early Spring – only 4-5 buds per speron giving low (but not too low) yields that the vine can mature and ripen effectively without undue stress. All the St. Aubins are bottled after one year to maximise freshness, and the Premier and Grand Crus after 18 months. In recent years, Pierre-Yves has become a convert to the larger 350 litre barrels – the larger capacity reduces the overall wine-to-oak ratio and only 25% of them are new. Again, this subtlety is fully reflected in the purity of the wines. He does no battonage (stirring the juice whilst on its lees) – another “technique” that manifests itself in very precise wines.

We enjoyed a stunning (and relatively speaking “lowly”) Village Chassagne-Montrachet from the lieu-dit “Ancienierres” – lots of ripe lime fruits from 85 year old vines, and wonderfully balanced acidity on the finish. The Chassagne “Caillerets” was richer and more creamy – and will need more time to evolve. The Meursault 1er Cru Perrieres continued the theme with slightly denser fruit structure typical of Meursault and amazing length. Finally the Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru provided all sorts of wonderful contradictions as often a Grand Cru does – reserved on the nose, but searing intensity and rich complexity on the palate rounded (and quite literally “rounded”) out with the, by now familiar, ripe acids!

All in all, a hugely impressive range of barrel samples and a very reassuring tasting in the context of concerns about the general ripeness of the 2009 vintage for the whites. We have been lucky enough to secure an allocation of the 2009’s and will be offering them in our Burgundy 2009 Pre-Arrival offer next February.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Domaine Darviot-Perrin 2009

We were three and a half minutes late for Didier and Genevieve Darviot. This is not a good thing as Didier is a very precise man. It was probably because I’d decided to switch the satnav into Slovenian for a bit of fun. Bad move.

Didier’s attention to detail extends from his vines and vinification procedures to the whole environment in which they are gently nurtured through their various stages in his cellar. No spitting on the floor here – and one of the few places where we have seen a specific small tank set aside for topping up barrels. No heating on here either – his cellars are legendary for their coldness and his wines evolve at a glacial pace – malolactic fermentations usually (rather than unusually) taking up to a year to complete. His meticulous attention to detail even extends to preparing a whole range of samples in small half bottles with hand written tags – no pipettes or attacking random barrels.

This fastidiousness can also be frustrating! For his 2007 vintage, Didier took even longer than usual to bottle his wines – and we received them in May 2010! He took the phone off the hook, disconnected the computer and just waited until he felt happy to put them in bottle.

But they are worth the wait. The same precision is evident in the wines – these are finely chiselled – almost subtle, yet very precise – examples of terroir-driven winemaking. Pure fruit is the hallmark here, with well-judged use of varying degrees of oak throughout the range.

For the recently completed 2010 harvest, Didier seemed relatively happy. They started on September 23rd – later than normal (and a common hallmark of the vintage) and yields were down – a low as 25 hl/ha for the whites (based on 10,000 vines per hectare) and less than 20 hl/ha for the reds!

In the vineyards, careful attention is paid to the pruning to achieve maximum concentration whilst not over-stressing the vine. No green harvest or de-leafing for the whites – just some stripping of the foliage for the reds. Following alcoholic fermentation, he does gentle battonage (stirring the wine on its lees) every week until malolactic fermentation. Bottling – as we know – can take a long time. Didier often allows a little residual CO2 to build up in the assembled wines prior to bottling, giving them a nice “prickle” but if this goes too high whilst the wines are waiting in tank, then you need to wait for it to dissipate before bottling. Oak – in varying amounts – is used for all the wines.

We tasted through both the recently bottled 2008’s and the still resting 2009’s. To me, the 2009’s had riper fruit – but firmer acidity. It was a paradox that we were to encounter at a few more addresses – almost as if producers had let the fruit hang a little too long and then had tried to “adjust” the wines slightly. This would result in slightly “unripe” acidity (i.e. added) rather than “ripe” acidity (i.e. natural). Again, I didn’t ask Didier specifically, but he’s a pretty non-interventionist type of character, so I’d guess his acidity was natural.

Overall, his wines have a really nice tangy, ripe lime character – and I like this style as it’s backed by minerality and structure. His 2009 Bourgogne Blanc Vieilles Vignes (of which there are only 4 barrels) is a wonderful bargain – packed full of lemon and lime fruit. The 2009 Meursault “Tessons” had riper fruit character – he practises whole bunch pressing – and veered towards a possible struggle between ripe lime fruit and firm acidity. The 2009 Chassagne Montrachet “Bergerie” – from 100 year old vines – was more restrained on the nose with and more lactic-style (creamy) acid. It had amazing persistence and I preferred it over the Meursault Tessons. Of the Meursualt 1er Crus, his 2009 “Perrieres” is year-in, year-out wonderful. There is much more stony minerality and complex, restrained fruit and a definite finish of wet pebbles – pepped up by a prickle of CO2. The 2009 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru “Blanchots Dessus” – from a tiny parcel that literally adjoins the Grand Cru vineyard Le Montrachet, and of which there are also only 4 barrels – was also really minerally. In addition to lime, it also had hints of orange peel and very persistent (but ripe) acidity. More CO2 to pep up your day!

Much to his frustration, Didier produces some very under-rated reds that are often overlooked – in fact I think he produces more red that white in terms of volume. Of course, we’re in the Cotes de Beaune here, so the reds are generally “crunchy” with dark cherry characteristics, rather than the spices and black fruits of the Cotes de Nuits. His 2009 Beaune 1er Cru Bellisands was delicious already – our first taste this year of a 2009 red. The tannins were smooth and the fruit was almost like sweet cherries – but there was also a nice chalkiness to keep it from being too jammy. Lovely.

The 2008’s, by contrast, were all more restrained. The whites tended to be “tighter” and more focussed – with the 2008 Chassagne Bergerie again getting my nod – and the reds were fresher and more nervy than their 2009 counterparts – but also very appealing.

As for when Didier’s 2009’s will actually be in bottle and available….probably some time around the end of 2011, but you never know…..

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Domaine Philippe Chavy 2009

After collecting the car and buying our baguette provisions for the day, the four of us squeezed into the Nissan something-or-other and headed off to Philippe’s place in Puligny - a good place to start three days of tasting. The ever youthful looking Philippe was in characteristically good form.

He seemed quite happy with the recently completed 2010 harvest – overall volume was down, but the general quality was good and there was no need to chaptalise (adding sugar prior to alcoholic fermentation to increase the finished alcohol - more common that you'd think in Burgundy!). He was slightly less enthusiastic about the recently bottled 2009’s we were about to taste. Philippe can always be relied upon to give an honest assessment of his own wines. He feels the ‘09’s are lacking a bit in acidity and prefers the fresher style of the 2008’s. He tends to bottle early (normally around 12 months after harvest) to maximise freshness and his wines exhibit a nice, open fruit-forward style.

I was beginning to understand (no pun intended) the complexities of conversing with a producer in French and then translating to English with the odd word in Slovenian thrown in! One of the first topics that came up was acidity – and it was to be a recurring theme. To Miro and Samo, the acidities seemed very high and a discussion ensued as to what the wines might taste like if they didn’t have the influence of oak – and was oak necessary to tame the acidity somewhat? It was ironic therefore that Philippe feels his 2009’s lack that extra zip of acidity! I regret not asking Philippe if he normally acidifies – next time.

As for the wines themselves, they were certainly stamped with the flavour of new oak, but the fruit structure was good in most cases and the wines were very pleasurable – if not overly complex. The Meursault “Narvaux” 2009 and the Puligny Villages 2009 were both textbook examples of the two communes. He does two very good lieu dits from Puligny as well – the “Corvees des Vignes” was a bit riper and more concentrated with a bit of heat on the finish whilst the “rue Rousseau” seemed to be a tiny bit reductive but has a nice linear and precise style.

As for pricing – it was the first stop of many where it would seem prices will rise by about 10% for the 2009’s.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Beaune Headed

Time for our annual trip to Burgundy to taste, chat, learn and eat more baguettes in three days than the WHO recommends in a year! This time last year we were tasting our way through some very awkward 2008’s (some still hadn’t finished malolactic fermentations a year after harvest!) and a few early samples of rather “jammy” 2009 reds.

What a difference a year makes. The 2008 reds have softened out really well and are very nicely defined – the whites are precise, crisp and edgy. The majority of the 2009 reds have also shaped up very well, displaying nice balance without excessive ripeness or alcohol, but the whites were a little disappointing with some seeming to display the signs of some manipulation to counter ripe fruit and low acidities – with a few notable exceptions. More to follow with individual producer visits.

This year we decided to do things a little differently. Firstly we were joined by two Slovenian winemakers (and good friends) Miro and Samo. It was to be a great opportunity not only to taste plenty of interesting wines, but also to engage in some very interesting discussions that ranged from different winemaking techniques to marketing and promotion of a region as a whole.

The four of us met up in Paris for the TGV journey to Beaune. Given that all the seats are reserved in advance, what are the chances of bumping into another person in the business? Well, much to our surprise, we ended up seated beside Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate. Poor man was trying to write up a report on Madeira and was accosted by two Irish and two Slovenians! Now I commuted from Dublin to Westport for 2 years, 3 times a week and I used to live in absolute fear of meeting people and talking to them for the three hour journey. It got so bad that I purchased Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s book on “Meat” and used to carry all 10kgs of it around with me. If an unsuspecting person looked like they were thinking of passing the next 3 hours chatting to me, I’d open the book at the section on slaughtering cattle and sheep (complete with photos). Worked every time. No more chat.

So we promised poor old Neal that we’d only talk for a few minutes – but about an hour and a half later we were still at it! It turned out that we would have a few appointments in common so we swapped opinions and also had a brief masterclass in Tweeting – Neal and Mick Hucknall had been tweeting each other. I also discovered that he (Neal – not Mick Hucknall) is still writing “outside” the Parker empire at

For some reason, when I returned from a quick visit to the toilet, Neal had gone back to writing his Madeira article. Funny that… anyway, we bade farewell at Dijon and headed onwards to Beaune – devoid of conversation!

Ahead of us, three days of back-to-back tasting beckoned – complete with tasty roadside baguettes for lunches, mutli-language translation sessions (Engligh, French and Slovenian), a few disappointments, some real highs and a lot of laughs.

A copy of “Meat” is on its way to Neal!

DeNiro takes up Wine Reviewing

We don't have Sky Television (by choice) so apologies if this has already been spotted - it was probably shown at 04:00 some Monday morning on Sky Movies 99.

Interesting comment on Robert Parker!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Just back from Burgundy – more to follow on that. In the meantime, it would seem that Gay and I are equally useless at keeping notes –
I managed to leave my notes tucked into the car door in the Long Term Car Park at Dublin Airport!

Anyway, my middle name is Boyd – a bit scary, but better than “Santa” which is what I wanted to donate as a middle name to our first born. I’m not sure where the Boyd came from, but it’s also a very handy acronym for a great excuse to get together around a few old bottles – “Bring Out Your Dead”. This was the third outing – and I think I managed to annoy poor old Hugo and John by being very pedantic – "was it an opportunity to bring along a dodgy old bottle that could be great – or a great bottle that could be dodgy….?"

You decide…

Chateau Tahbilk Marsanne 1992 & 1993 – my preference was the 1992 which had lovely honeyed richness and was very elegant after all these years.
Tim Adams Semillon 1998 – much waxier with bitter aftertaste and not as complex
Ridge Santa Cruz Chardonnay 2003 – the first of two Cali Chards that made me re-visit my (unfounded obviously) prejudices about Californian Chardonnay. This was lovely – complex – hint of mushrooms (!) and well balanced acidity.
Kistler McRae Wood Chardonnay 2000 – very impressive – elegant, full rich palate without being dominated by oak. Delicious now.
Quote Clockey Chardonnay 1996 – not sure if the name is right – old and oxidised
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1998 – tighter on palate – crisp with bittersweet finish from oak. OK – but prefer Kistler.
Dominique Lafon Volnay Santenots 1988 – Corked. I think John gallantly opened another bottle much later in the evening and it disappeared, so it must have been OK.
Drouhin Chambolle Musigy 1er Cru Amoureuses 1987 – light in colour, cherries and raspberries. Nice length – medium bodied and fully mature.
Shingle Park Pinot Noir 1998, Martinborough – more volatile nose, creamy oak – almost like acidic strawberries on the palate – slightly disjointed.
Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 1997 – nice nose, still quite primary – hint of mustiness on palate. Going over the hill…
Paradigma Preisinger 2007 – very primary and excruciatingly young – oaky, with chewy tannins, but there’s a deep, dark core of fruit in there.
Joiser Kirschgarten Umathum 2006 – very like Cabernet Franc, not sure how to place this.
Sonoma Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 – tawny colour, classic Cabernet nose – dying in front of me and dead by the time it reaches my palate!
Christian Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 – yes, that’s what it said on the label. More alive than the Sonoma – half a heartbeat. Not going to recover though.
Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste 1982 – nice blackberry, sweet fruit nose. Drying tannins on palate – nicely rustic in a fusty sort of way. Could be better.
Ridge Geyserville 1991 – wonderful. Rich, almost sweet on the nose – you can feel the alcohol a bit, with firm acidity – but showing well.
Mystery Cote Rotie 1988 – Corked and dead as a dodo - destined tor remain a mystery for ever…
Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva 1994 – closed nose but lovely elegant fruit on palate. Very good.
Poliziano Rosso (Magnum) 2001 – hint of nail varnish on nose, some tannins with a little bitter fruit – but classic Sangiovese. Amazingly youthful – Very Good.
Drew Noon Eclipse 1998 – still nose of menthol and cough mixture. A sipping wine – chewy, but hides the 15.7% alcohol well!
Bressan Schioppettino 2001 – more Cabernet Franc style nose. Nice light and fresh palate.
Brundlmayer Langenloser Berg-Vogelsang Spatlase 1983 – ripe and floral on nose, with nice acidity deftly firming up the background. Lovely.
Leon Beyer Gewurztraminer VT 1983 – burnt dried bacon on the nose – and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Spices and toast on the palate – nice, but a little strange.

And so we all worked out way through the wines – with X-Factor in the background putting up a pretty good resistance to all our wine waffle. My favourites were the Kistler Chardonnay, Selvapiana Chianti and Brundlmayer Spatlase.

We all sat then sat down to a wonderful cassoulet and grabbed our favourite wines. Funny thing was that as the evening wore on, we seemed to become less discerning about which our favourites were. After a while, anything with some liquid in it seemed to be OK…..

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Time for a quick Commercial Break

Made it back from Slovenia in one piece – having survived a rather interesting journey across France. They certainly know how to protest. Whilst trying to find petrol (a scarce commodity there) I parked the car on side street, only to return to find it on the middle of a parade of about 20,000 protestors with flares, drums, whistles and every other tool that the professional protestor needs. Exciting stuff!

We have lots of new arrivals inbound over the coming weeks in advance of Christmas (yikes!) so we’ve decided to have a little Sale. Until October 31st only, we’ll effectively pay your Vat on any purchase of the Fine and Rare List – saving you a massive 21%. You can choose from a 6 Litre bottle of 1990 Yquem, to bottles of delicious 1999 Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva, to the unique Trevor Jones Liqueur Muscat – or over 500 different wines in between. All in stock and ready for immediate delivery. But only until October 31st and only for private customers in Ireland. You can see the full list here:

Also, we have our Pre-Arrival Offer running for the 2008 vintage wines from Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg. The Domaine is considered amongst the very best in Vosne Romanee (and the Cotes de Nuits) and we get a tiny allocation each year. We have a full report collating background information on the vintage and reports from various critics at:

Friday, October 15, 2010


The musts in the tanks are bubbling away and the yeasts are working their magic – and will do so for the next 8-10 days. Unfortunately no more picking, crushing, pressing, stirring, slurping, burping and calculating for me – I’m back into a tin can on roller-skates for the journey home. I have to get back and sell some wine!

Ivan will have all the fun with the bubbles – as will Miro, Samo, Lela, Danilo, Bozidar and the many other winemakers whose harvests and wineries became my playground for the past week. It’s a truly great thing to leave a place realising you know less about something than when you arrived – and be happy about it!

There’s plenty more to write about that I just haven’t caught up with yet – somewhere inside me is a big diatribe about the case for a Socialist Approach to Winemaking – and all sorts of other muddled stuff. But hanging onto the steering wheel for the next 2 days as I career along Europe’s motorways (via a quick stop in the Champagne region!) won’t be the place to do it.

Plenty of time to think though……

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Birds - A Hitchcock Horror Story

It’s difficult to see from the photo above, but if you look closely you can see some back spots in the sky above the vines. These are birds – thousands and thousands of them – starlings - that gather and circle the vineyards in the late afternoon. Every so often they descend on the vines and, unless disturbed, proceed to help themselves to whatever juicy, ripe, sweet grapes they can find. They have been known to strip a vineyard bare in under 20 minutes. To keep them on their toes, there is the regular “thud” of a bird-scaring apparatus down in the valley – think big Halloween banger, or something similar (I guess) to what they use at an airport.

Of course, the whole irony of the sugar issue this year is that this region is originally made its name with sweet wines. Late Harvested – small amounts of grapes are left on the vines to shrivel, wither and develop the most amazing concentration and then harvested sometimes as late as Christmas Day or even January,

One of the most famous producers, Stanko Curin, is about 500M up the road from us. His Sipon Ice Wine won consecutive Decanter World Wine Awards as best Sweet Wine in the World – beating a pretty serious line-up of Tokaji wines among others. Stanko, now old and a little frail, started bottling his own wines back in the 1970’s – something pretty scandalous in the former Yugoslav regime of President Tito.

Today Curin’s sweet wines are still produced, along with those from many other producers. Volumes are small, from even tinier yields (often just 100ml per vine) and there are some eye watering prices to match – over €150 a bottle. Dry wines have also made an appearance in recent years on the Curin (now known as Pra-Vino) List, much to the initial apprehension of Stanko.

Most producers still make a little sweet wine – although the predominant style is now dry. This year their challenge will be even bigger than normal. Not so much due to low sugar levels – they should eventually get there if you wait long enough – but more to do with the rampant rot that set in following the heavy rains that decimated the volume of grapes available to be set aside - most producers took what they could for their dry wines, leaving very little.

The few grapes deliberately left on the vines to battle it out with the elements over the next 2-3 months will be watched carefully and coaxed towards an icy harvest. So long as, of course, the pesky bids don’t get them first.

Important Reports - well maybe not..

Brilliant. Bloody Brilliant. After all the angst of feeling defensive (see below), I was shuffling around the Internet, doing some reading. The American Association of Wine Economists is a fairly serious operation and produces some pretty comprehensive and voluminous reports. Part statistical and part opinion, the reports are genuinely interesting and normally well worth reading. Current papers include:

- Red, White and “Green”: the Cost of Carbon in the Global Wine Trade
- The Impact of Gurus: Parker Grades and En-Primeur Wine Prices
- What Future for the Champagne Industry?
- Does Drinking Impair College Performance? Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Approach.

And so on. Some are a little more tenuous in terms of an International arena – for example:
- The Impact of the Wine Industry of Hotels and Restaurants in Walla Walla

But buried deep in their list of current papers is every schoolboy’s dream report. 100% True. Paper 36 is:
- Can People Distinguish Paté from Dog Food?

Wonderful. I love it. You can download it here:

Here's a taster - every pun possible intended:
Considering the similarity of its ingredients, canned dog food could be a suitable and inexpensive substitute for pâté or processed blended meat products such as Spam or liverwurst. However, the social stigma associated with the human consumption of pet food makes an unbiased comparison challenging. To prevent bias, Newman's Own dog food was prepared with a food processor to have the texture and appearance of a liver mousse. In a double-blind test, subjects were presented with five unlabeled blended meat products, one of which was the prepared dog food. After ranking the samples on the basis of taste, subjects were challenged to identify which of the five was dog food.

Of course, every Irish college student with a couple of pints of Guinness and a blindfold to hand has already undertaken this important research!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why I feel a little defensive....

Well, I think I feel a little defensive, but maybe it’s misplaced....... It’s all this sugar and chaptalisation business. Maybe it would have been better not to mention it at all – maybe just pretend everything was wonderful, the sun shines all the time and perfectly ripe grapes pick themselves and jump into the vats. But that’s not how it happens. I think I’m feeling defensive because of my naivety – not naivety about winemaking techniques (I’m well aware of the good, bad and indifferent styles) – but naivety about the fact that we thought we might be possible to do it differently. That somehow we could bypass all the challenges that Nature throws at you and pull off some winemaking magic that everyone else who had been doing it for much longer than us had somehow missed – the equivalent of reinventing the wheel. More like misplaced arrogance.

So before I go on, let’s get some of the initial defensiveness out of the way: the last time they chaptalised the wines in this region was 1995 – so it’s not exactly a regular occurrence and only a necessity when triggered by a freak of nature. And I really like the wines and their winemakers - and happily fly the flag for this region as a source of excellent white wines.

But for some reason, many winemakers (worldwide) have an inbuilt defence system when it comes to talking about what they do with their wines. I remember, a few years back, tasting in the cellars of one of the top producers of red Burgundy. We had just tasted their 2005 Richebourg (so that narrows down the options on who it was!) from barrel when the producer noticed something in the background and made a few discreet hand signals to one of the cellar workers. A small weighing scales and a bag of white powder sitting on top of a barrel were quietly whisked away. Now, they were either all doing lines of cocaine down in the cellar, or they were acidifying the wines. The latter is more likely. But why were they acidifying what should have been perfect wines? The 2005 vintage delivered Burgundian winemakers a mythical vintage, but for some reason (maybe they messed it up somewhere) they felt the need to acidify. But they also felt the necessity to try and hide this fact. The general public don’t like to believe their wines have been meddled with. But the reality – to varying degrees – is very different.

So while I was sitting here today – waiting for fermentations to start – I began to try and define my own understanding of a “natural” wine.

So is it a wine that hasn’t had any human intervention? But what about pruning and training the vines? A “wild” vine grows close to the ground. What about controlling fruit yields by pruning, or by green harvesting where the fruit is cut off half way through the growing period? Is that natural? What about canopy management and deliberately stripping off the leaves to expose the bunches to sunlight? What about temperature control? Cold stabilisation of white wines is very common – yet it deliberately postpones the onset of fermentation so that the must has a chance to settle and clear.

So maybe then it’s a wine that hasn’t had any chemical intervention? But what about spraying? Of course, there are different types of sprays, and undoubtedly organic is preferable, but even the use of copper sulphites is controversial as it leads to deposits building up in the soil over time. And not to spray at all is sticking your head in the sand. Anyone who has grown potatoes and not sprayed for blight will understand. And that’s without all the stuff floating around from the neighbour’s vines. What about sulphur? It’s a bad word among wine consumers, but a realistic necessity among winemakers. Making wine without sulphur is very risky and difficult - if not effectively impossible. Anyway, to those that claim to have totally sulphur-free wines – it’s technically not possible. Sulphur is also a by-product of the fermentation process. The key to sulphur is the amount involved – and coming from the most allergic family on the planet, I’m very susceptible to excess sulphur and the associated asthmatic effects. Also, there’s probably more sulphur in most food products on the shop shelves – just look for preservative E220 on food labelling. What about acidification? What about chaptalisation? What about yeasts – wild versus cultured? What if the wild yeasts don’t ferment your wine to dry, if they die off at a low alcohol level? Or if they create “off” flavours? Or if you get a “stuck” fermentation?

Well, OK, then maybe a “natural” wine is a wine without any mechanical intervention? But what about mechanical harvesters? Ok, to me, that’s an easy one as the problem with them is that they don’t differentiate between good and bad grapes. But then what about filtering? Or racking the wines by pumping? Or some techniques that are more the preserve of producers with deep pockets: reverse osmosis to lower excess alcohol levels, spinning cones for the same thing, micro-bullage during fermentation to accelerate it and “soften” the wine. What about oak barrels? What about battonage?

Where does it stop? The reality is that most of the above are used in some form or another by most winemakers. I’m not talking about big corporations that deliberately produce a homogenous, terroir-neutered, "safe" product year in, year out by all sorts of manipulation not even mentioned above (try Googling "Mega Purple" for example). I’m talking about the average, small producer who strives to produce a wine that has typicity and regional identity. I don’t agree with all the techniques I mentioned – but they are a reality in many cases.

So why are we all so hung up about talking about these things? I had to laugh this morning – I spent most of it mixing sugar into grape must and then adding it to tanks that were just beginning their fermentation. The funny thing is that there is no special “wine sugars” – it’s just regular white sugar. All the local shops have sold out – they have sold more sugar in the last week than they sold in the last twelve months. If you walk through the door in a pair of wellies and a boiler suit, they look at you pitifully and shrug their shoulders. I drove around all this morning looking for sugar. Now, if they did this every year, you’d think they’d be prepared!

And there I was with a producer who prunes immaculately, sprays carefully, picks selectively, crushes gently, stabilises intelligently and ferments with wild yeasts – stirring in sugar with an enormous egg whisk! Will the wines be any less natural for it? I don’t think so. The producer is doing it because it’s necessary – and they are doing it with the understanding of how best to ensure that the finished product is a well balanced and integrated wine. The same producer also will also lower the acidity by gentle battonage, rather than chemical intervention.

So my (current) definition of “natural” winemaking is simple: it’s intelligent winemaking. It’s the ability to understand all of the aspects that have produced the raw product that you are about to work with, and to try to maintain that authenticity through the vinification process to the best of your ability so that an individualistic and natural wine, authentic to its terroir can be produced. You understand what you’re working with, you understand why things happen, you understand what impact your changes have on what you’re doing and you strive to achieve an equilibrium by gentle tweaking, by gentle manipulation, to get to an end product that you believe best represents the ingredients that you started with. David Bird (I think – from memory) describes the challenge: from the moment the grape is picked, it starts to decay, and the challenge for the winemaker is to manage that decay and gently nudge the grape towards a finished wine.

The processes that I exclude from the above are anything that is done to reverse a previously deliberate choice. For example, if you deliberately leave your grapes to reach maximum ripeness for fruit impact, but also know that the consequence is high alcohol, which you plan to then plan to remove by reverse osmosis, spinning cone or just adding water – then that’s too manipulative for me.

The unknown variable each year is Nature. Last year, 50% of our crop was destroyed in just 20 minutes by a huge hailstorm (I wish I’d had a camera). No intervention was required during the vinification – but only half the volume was produced. This year Nature gave us torrential rain – and no choice but to intelligently adapt techniques to produce a reasonable wine.

To be honest, when we started this process this year, the last thing I imagined I’d be doing was stirring sugar into grape musts. It was just so far away from my idealistic vision of winemaking it wasn’t even on the radar. But I’m really glad I have done it – and understand it. At least, if you understand what you’re doing (or you think you do!), that’s a good start….

And as for defensive? Well, how about this from someone else…
“If I hear one more wet behind the ears newbie go off about natural wine I am going to vomit on him.
When the grapes learn to plant themselves, pick themselves and run the bottling line then talk to me about natural wine.”

I have a very long way to go, and much to learn, but I’m not that defensive!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Numbers, numbers, numbers

Making wine is a funny old thing. Of course there’s plenty to do in the vineyard during the year, plenty at harvest and you can pretty much guess what you need – secateurs, buckets, tanks etc. etc. But the one thing that I would have given my right arm for over the past 24 hours was a calculator! Now, mobile phones may be wonderful at communicating, taking photos, making tea and organising your life – but they’re still not great calculators! So there we were last night, stubbing furiously at our respective phones, calculating endless permutations about alcohol levels, comparing figures and generally getting confused. At least, I was…

But it was well compensated by sitting around a table with some good friends, eating freshly roasted chestnuts and enjoying a very nice bottle of Kolaric Sipon 2007 and then a bottle of Simon Maye Syrah 2004 – a pretty impressive Swiss wine.

All the talk is about numbers… what sugar levels, how much sulphur, what yield, how much are you paying for grapes, how much are you getting paid? The exchange of information is part and parcel of the harvest and essential for getting an overall perspective of the vintage. But none of it is helped by the various methods of expressing things – are we talking Oechsle, Brix, potential alcohol….. what did we start with and what do we want to end up with..?

For anyone interested in the figures, here goes… 1.7kg of sugar added to 100L of must will give another 1% of alcohol. If you’re measuring sugar in Oechsle (which we are), your ideal target is actually about 89-95. Our Sipon was around 80-85 (so potential for about 11% alcohol). Therefore we needed about 2kg of sugar per 100L of wine to bring the potential alcohol to around 12%-12.5%. Of course, this is a rough guide and assumes absolutely all the sugar is fermented – but normally about 2-3g per Litre is left. It also depends on the yeasts and how they “process” the sugar. And then of course, your overall volume increases if you chaptalise – 1kg of dissolved sugar has a volume of 0.63 Litres. So you can see why the calculators were out!

Initially when I arrived, I was very worried by the stories about the quality of the grapes. Having been here and seen many vineyards, I think there is some pretty good stuff out there. In many ways, I have learnt much, much more by being involved in a very challenging vintage. Of course, things like chaptalisation aren’t ideal – but they are occasionally necessary – and in this particular vintage a universal necessity, not just a “lazy” backroom technique - and it’s better to find out about them now and how to do them sensitively and properly.

As an aside – and an interesting view on the “natural” wine debate – you should look at Paul Draper’s views (Ridge winery) on Alice Feiring’s Blog:

And of course, there are some interesting side effects to a challenging vintage. Less sulphur was required this year as the temperatures are lower and therefore it isn’t as necessary to “protect” the grapes as much. In fact we ended up only using the 10ppm that Paul Draper refers to.

Finally, I received an email from an Italian producer who manages to put a positive spin on their vintage wonderfully:

"A summer rainier than usual and an ideal even if fickle September led us through this harvest. Wines will have more acidity and less alcohol with a solid aromatic base. They will be well balanced and their development will bring pleasant surprises in the future."

Stablisation and fermentation tomorrow – hopefully no calculators required.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

10-10-10 The Sequel

Ok, all the grapes pressed now.

Small, but beautiful. 1,600 litres of Riesling and 900 litres of Sipon.

"All things considered" (or the equivalent in Slovenian) is definitely the phrase of the vintage. All things considered.... good quality, good size, relatively good sugar. Have heard some stories about people only reaching 59 Oechsle as they had no choice but to harvest or lose everything - now that's not a lot of natural sugar.

Of course, sugar isn't everything and acidity will most likely be something to watch once fermentations are complete, but for the moment it's a job well done.

Tomorrow is another day....


Harvest morning and the mist lies peacefully in the valley. All bodes well for the day. At 09:00 we descend down the vineyard to start the harvest in the mist – I’m more used to going up into mist!

Ivan, our mentor and boss, arranges everything and marshals the pickers. The overall quality of the grapes is good relative to what I have seen over the past 24 hours. Some of that is down to luck, some is down to terroir and some is down to the hard work put in during the Summer. Less leaf cover certainly helped keep some of the rot at bay as the air was able to circulate more freely around the bunches.

Overall though I’d estimate about 25% of the fruit is damaged by rot. Not too bad, but frustrating given the potential that the sunny days at the end of August held.

The big obstacle is the ripeness of the grapes we’re harvesting. Ideally the sugar levels should be higher, and although we’ve had some decent weather in the past week, for many of the grapes, the rot has caught hold and waiting any longer to harvest will only spoil more of the crop. Better to harvest now with as much “clean” fruit as possible.

For Sipon we’re getting 75 – 80 Oechsle from the free run juice, and for Riesling around 70 – 75. The press juice will be slightly lower as more bitter elements come into play. The ideal target in a good year is normally around 85 for a dry wine with about 12 degrees of alcohol, so realistically some chaptalisation will be necessary – but not as much as we feared.

As I write this, the press is working away outside……. time to go back and check……..

Pictures of sexy grapes!

Hmm - not sure about the Title, but just wanted to see how it would impact on referrals from Google!

Actually, the grapes look pretty good!

Picked just prior to harvest, on the left is Riesling, centre is Muscat and on the right is Sipon. Not perfect, but given all the rain etc., not bad!

You can compare with here:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Harvest News

Everyone is out harvesting today – it’s probably the last “big” harvest weekend of the season. There are groups of cars parked up among the vines as you wind your way along the roads and the vineyards are full of people picking, eating, talking, drinking and gesticulating.

At this stage, most people have harvested their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc grapes and are working on either Riesling or Sipon. The heavy rains in September have undoubtedly caused problems and there is rot in vary degrees almost everywhere. But there is also some positivity among the winemakers – although one friend pointed out that this could be because everyone has become accustomed to how bad the rot is, that what would normally be considered bad, is actually now OK!

This morning I was over at a neighbour’s harvest picking Riesling. In general the grapes weren’t in too bad condition – the problems really do seem to vary from vineyard to vineyard.

Everything kicks off in the early morning mist with a hearty breakfast. If you can get a few rounds of bread, some cold meats, warm and tasty klobasa (huge sausages), a few spritzers and the odd schnapps into you prior to starting, then you’re well set up for the morning!

Everything in the region is picked by hand, so you get one of two jobs: either picking the grapes, or transporting them back to the press by way of big buckets on your back. This morning it was picking for me – and it was a great opportunity to see the grapes up close. At first glance, the rot looks devastating, but there are definitely degrees of spoilage. A certain amount of “bloom” and shrivelling is not too much of a problem providing the grape was ripe in the first place. The ones to watch out for are either totally dried “raisined” grapes with no juice (and therefore very little to add except “off” flavours) or those that have actually split and begun to ferment whilst still on the bunch. To me these are the worst and if they finish fermentation whilst still on the vine they actually smell like very stinky French cheese – almost like Epoisses – desirable with wine, but not in wine!

Of course as you work your way slowly up the hill refreshments in the form of a mobile spritzer team are always on hand. The odd spritzer definitely keeps you going, but recent medical studies have shown that the amount of spritzers consumer whilst harvesting is directly linked to the number of fingers lost by accidentally snipping them off. Luckily I lost none this morning, so still a full 10 for tomorrow (or as my kids keep pointing out: 8 fingers and 2 thumbs).

A finish at noon was followed by a (not so) light lunch – meat, potatoes, bread, soup, rice, salad – more hearty stuff.

Already I think it’s possible, in my limited experience, to form an early opinion on the vintage. There are certainly some very good grapes, and many potentially very good wines – but it’s a question of how, or if, the good grapes will be mixed with the very bad stuff at harvest time. Sorting isn’t a universal procedure and many of the wines are produced to be sold as “open” wine with only a percentage of them being bottled to be sold both domestically and internationally. But it’s the huge potential of the region that has always fascinated us, and the belief that in time more and more producers will move to bottling their own wines. However in a vintage like this, the economic challenges of quantity over quality are still tempting to some.

The question of ripeness is also an issue. Whilst Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay will probably be OK, getting fully ripe Sipon has been a challenge. The harvest is a full week ahead of last year (through necessity) and sugar levels are not quite there yet – so the local controlling body has authorized chaptalisation. Without added sugars prior to fermentation, the alcohol levels would be working out around 9 degrees alcohol, with very high acidity.

Again, the stark reality of winemaking is very much in evidence. It’s all very well to eulogise about natural wines – but what do you do when you have the choice of either producing an unripe wine, or a rotten one? If your income depends on it, then something has to give and chaptalisation has to be considered as an option.

Tomorrow it’s our own harvest.

No spritzers.

Well, maybe one or two…..

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Natural" Wine

Off in the Iron Chicken to Slovenia tomorrow morning for an earlier than expected harvest due to some pretty dismal weather recently - detailed in a different post below.

No doubt plenty of interest in the days ahead - and an opportunity to see at first hand how many of the winemakers manage their own harvests. Bearing that in mind, I stumbled across the following:

To me there is already enough confusion about Organic wines (i.e. in the vineyard, but not necessarily winery) and I have to be honest, the following excerpt sums up the problem neatly for me:

"Yet when you strip away all the rhetoric and dogma about "natural wines," what you are left with is essentially just a slogan, used by a group of people to champion some wines that happen to please their taste buds and/or sensibilities. It is a highly charged phrase, as numerous chat-room brawls have demonstrated, because it clearly implies that other wines are somehow "unnatural" and therefore inferior."

Jancis Robinson also tackled the issue recently on her site, along with a good few tasting notes of various Natural wines.

There's no substitute for passion and full understanding of a wine's origin when selling wine - irrespective of what the label says. Of course, it is certainly made more difficult by the number of links a bottle of wine goes through to make it on to a shop shelf, website or restaurant list for the eventual consumer to choose - and in many instances it's very much on its own at that point.

But to me, a "catch-all" or ("catch a good bit" at least) descriptor doesn't help.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spot the Difference...

One is the Clos Petite Bellane Cotes du Rhone Rouge that featured as one of last week’s Wines of the Week in the Irish Times, and the other is…… well, exactly the same wine!

It’s been a while since I have opened a bag-in-box wine. My previous experiences were circa 1986, attending concerts in Dalymount Park in Dublin. Bottles and cans were prohibited, so bag-in-box wines were very popular as they could be “stuffed” up jumpers, into bags etc. All very innocent on a sunny afternoon… but that’s where my relationship with them ended.

Fast forward some 24 years and our discovery of Clos Petite Bellane and their wonderful Rhone wines. One day they mentioned about the possibility of getting their regular Cotes du Rhone in Bag-In-Box – and we thought why not? It’s a 10L box at a much cheaper price than 13-ish equivalent individual bottles – and it’s exactly the same wine as in the bottle. We’ve even subjected it to blind tasting tests!

So are we ready for the return of Bag-In-Box wines? Well, here’s my planned sales pitch to a no doubt sceptical restaurant and hotel trade….
  • It’s cheaper – significantly
  • It’s exactly the same wine – proven quality
  • It’s more environmentally friendly – wine has a huge carbon footprint between the actual glass bottles themselves and the shipping of the wines. This is a more efficient way to package and distribute the wine
  • It saves on space – I actually had to double check there were 10 litres in there – but there are!
  • It stays fresh for 8-10 days – so if you’re using a case of wine a week, it’s perfect. Or having a party…
More importantly than the restaurants and hotels themselves – are their customers ready for the return of Bag-In-Box for wines served by the glass or carafe?

We shall see…..


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sranje, sranje, sranje....

Spent the past few days talking to various winemakers in Eastern Slovenia. Not good news at all. Between 17th and 19th September some 180mm of rain fell, flooding large areas of the country – mainly in the centre and West. The Dept. of Agriculture estimates that between 20% and 100% (depending on location) of crops have been damaged covering 18,000 hectares of land.

Of course, the majority of the vineyards are on hills or higher land, so they escaped most of the actual flooding. But a huge amount of rain fell. What was looking like a very good to excellent vintage is now in great danger of being a washout – no pun intended.

The problem is that the vines start to soak up the water very quickly and the abundant crop of grapes literally start to rupture as they swell with the excess liquid. If it stays cool for the next week or so, there is some hope. If it gets warmer, rot will set in very quickly.

My little “problems” and whinges about Prosecco, or worrying about drinking Cristal pale into insignificance when faced with decisions like: “Do I harvest unripe grapes now – too high acidity, but no rot? Or do I wait another 10-14 days and see if sugars will rise a bit – and rot holds off?” Some decision. One winemaker has a friend who managed to salvage 50% of their Sauvignon Blanc (traditionally earlier ripening) and sold it to the local co-op. When I called they were pressing the other, literally rotten, 50% to try and make some wine for themselves – possibly to sell. Making wine with rotten grapes isn’t great at any time, but when it’s a question of losing 50% of your income, you might as well give it a go.

So it looks like they might just have “saved” the Sauvignon Blancs - almost enough sugar and reduced acidities, but Sipon will be a problem. The grapes tend to be larger anyway and it normally ripens later – the harvest is usually in October. There is certainly some great fruit still hanging on the vines, and the outside possibility of a very small, yet high quality vintage. But the big question is whether or not the grapes will last until then?

Who knows. I’m over there on the 8th to start our harvest and then spend a week working with other producers. I’m sure I’ll learn a huge amount very quickly – but looking back to when we left in the warm August sunshine, this wasn’t the type of learning we had anticipated.

Sranje, or as they say in Ireland…..

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Prosecco Perils

Italy is a treasure-trove of wines of all styles and varieties – one of the most exciting countries in the world to embark on a grape-stained adventure. And great price / quality ratio as well. So I’m 100% a fan of Italian wines.

But it’s also an unmitigated disaster when it comes to wine regulations, labelling, controls and the genetically inbuilt propensity to stretch, or even flaunt, the regulations wherever possible. Very Irish in fact! The recent “Brunellogate” scandal was just one example where it seems some rather murky blending procedures were going on.

Over in Prosecco-land, or the Veneto, they have recently introduced some legislative changes to the classification of Proseccos – and all sorts of mayhem has been the result. I’m not even sure if I can put forward a sensible explanation of the situation, but I’m going to try and explain the madness. Ok… deep breath….

So we have our fun and friendly Prosecco from the Valdobbiadene region of the Veneto in North Eastern Italy. Over the past 10 years Prosecco gets more popular, and more people want to make it. There’s immediately a problem in that the grape used to make Prosecco is also called Prosecco – at least it used to be until producers tried to encourage the use of the ‘proper’ grape name, Glera. So it was possible to have a Prosecco (the grape) from Prosecco (the effective region) – but of course it was also possible to have a Prosecco (the grape) from nowhere near the region Prosecco – but it could still be labelled “Prosecco”. Hence the arrival of a wide variety of styles and prices on the retail shelves.

Needless to say, the producers in Valdobbiadene started to get a bit angsty about all these other “Proseccos” and they formulated a plan whereby the regulators would create a new DOCG (Italy’s top-level classification) that could only be applied to wines produced in the Valdobbiadene region. Outside that (at a supposedly lower level) would be DOC Prosecco di Treviso – a more general designation.

OK so far? Here in Ireland our friends in Customs and Excise come into the picture. There are of course two main types of Prosecco (irrespective of where it’s from or whether it’s the grape) – Frizzante and Spumante – the main difference from an Excise perspective being the lower atmospheric pressure in the Frizzante. This allows it to be classified as a Still Wine. So Frizzante Prosecco is not only fun and friendly, but also inexpensive. You can even have a mushroom Champagne-style cork in a Frizzante version which is a very important consideration as it adds to the sense of celebration when opening it.

So one day we have a Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Frizzante with a mushroom cork that we are happily importing. Then, in come the new regulations and everything changes – or so we think. There are now two choices:
  • Prosecco di Treviso Frizzante DOC, but no mushroom cork allowed under new Italian law. Screwcap OK – but no fun making a “pop” anymore.
  • Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Frizzante DOCG and mushroom corks allowed
 OK, we think – at least our producer has always been in the Valdobbiadene region, so we’ll get the DOCG version. Except that they then tell us that they are going to increase the price by 25% - overnight. They now have a new classification and the price magically increases – for the same juice, grapes, fermentation system etc. etc. So we are of course not impressed, but reluctantly enquire about the Prosecco di Treviso DOC option (with the same bloody juice in it as the DOCG as all the vineyards are actually within the DOCG) – and we’re told that it has also increased in price – this time by about 5%!

There’s much huffing and puffing and all sorts of vague explanations about yields being reduced, having to purchase new equipment, needing longer summer holidays, the price of cheese, aliens taking the gapes at night etc. We of course have our own set of excuses for not wanting to pay more – a €400bn Bank Guarantee, economy down the toilet, not much to celebrate etc. etc.

But the Italians, being of course Italian, stick to their guns – exactly the same product that costs one price one day, now costs more the next day. It’s like the Euro conversion all over again – the great Prosecco rip-off.

So we resign ourselves to telling our customers that we have to change to Stelvin closures (they’ll no doubt be over the moon – not) when we stumble across a “Prosecco di Treviso DOC” from a different producer with a MUSHROOM cork in a shop in Dublin! The ever-ready camera phone is put into action and a triumphant email dispatched to our own Prosecco producer – “Ha – you got it wrong – give us the mushroom cork please.”

Not such a good idea apparently. Next thing our own producer reports the other producer to the local Consorzio and the fur starts to fly. Reports are being drawn up, letters are being issued, warnings are being given – oops. We won’t be rushing back to that shop quickly – sorry.

Whilst we hide out back here in Westport before a certain Dublin retailer finds us, two other Prosecco producers have now confirmed to us that they can provide us with Prosecco di Treviso DOC bottles sealed with a Champagne cork!

Regulations – they’re just there to liven up your day! Implement them at your peril –and ignore them at your pleasure!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Penine Istenic

Before leaving Slovenia, Sinead and I went into a bit of a blind panic trying to taste with as many producers as possible. It had been very easy to just focus on our own local region – and forget about some of the other well known areas and producers.

Janez Istenic is justifiably regarded as Slovenia’s leading producer of method traditionelle Sparkling wines. Since 1968 he has been turning them out in Bizeljsko in the Posavje wine region (about and hour South East of Ljubljana). To date he has accumulated 8 Champion titles, 54 Gold Medals and 35 Silver Medals to date. Not bad!

We locked the kids in the car with a DVD player and went to taste…Interestingly, he produces as many semi-sweet sparking wines as dry ones. Semi-sweet would still be a relatively popular style in Slovenia although he acknowledges that the drier style is becoming more prevalent. He also makes two sparkling Rosés and a red sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir and Modrja Frankinja. Given our (well, Sinead’s anyway) obsession for red sparkling wines, we were obviously going to enjoy ourselves!

The conversation was fascinating as well. The average maximum yield is 75 hl/ha which is about a third of what it is in Champagne. Janez isn’t happy about that – he’d prefer a much higher yield so that he can achieve greater freshness and acidity. Interestingly he’s also an advocate of sulphuring the wines (carefully) to avoid any malolactic fermentation – whereas many in Champagne encourage malolactic fermentation. Janez knows his stuff – why wouldn’t he after 40 years – and pointed out that there are some 1,400 different substances in sparkling wines – he didn’t quite name them all, but seemed quite prepared to if we questioned the veracity of this.

Not to be outdone, Sinead then started on her crusade about “what happens to the acidity?” A few weeks previously we had been talking about ripening grapes and the well worn knowledge that as sugars rise, acids drop. “But where does the acidity actually go...?” she asked. Turns out, none of us were really sure – including a number of winemakers. Yes, some of it is “diluted” by the rising sugar, some is converted by “respiration”, but this wasn’t enough for Mrs. C. So after much searching, she found the answer from David Bird’s book about winemaking. Mr. Bird, being a Chemist states that some of the malic acidity is actually converted into sugars – one of the more unusual biological conversions in nature.

So fast-forward to our civilised afternoon tasting with Janez, and Sinead drops this piece of wisdom into the conversation – like an underwater explosion, it took a little time for the impact to be felt. But Janez was having none of it – and a spirited conversation, aided by some very fine tasting bubbles, ensued. As I was driving, I was also the one who had to promise the scan various pages of the book and email them post-haste to Janez for inspection. Oops – that’s something I’ve just realised I need to do….

Back to the wines though. The Presitge Brut Nature is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, aged for 6 years prior to release. It’s one of the top Cuvees – and stunning. The Cuvee No. 1 sits in the middle tier and has a slightly richer (and possibly more friendly) style with 10-12g of well concealed sugar and is rounded out by 3-4 years of cellaring prior to release. The Cuvee Miha is the sparkling red – very rich and broad on the palate with only a hint of tannins – delicious.

Considering the cost of Champagnes in general – and the likes of Cristal (see earlier post) – these are amazing values. The Cuvee No. 1 is about 50% of the ex-cellars price of a regular Champagne. Would they sell? The professional answer is that “they would be a good challenge”! A few years back we used to import the wonderful sparkling wines made by Italy’s leading producer, Bellavista. They were also every bit as good as most Champagnes, but just didn’t sell. At that price point, people always chose Champagne – primarily as most “regular” Champagne is bought as a gift so people are wary of something that doesn’t carry an identifiable image or price-tag.

But a good challenge also makes life interesting. You never know…..

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Problem with Cristal....

There are many potential problems with Cristal champagne – price, quality and perceived availability – all issues to a lesser or greater degree. But the biggest problem with Cristal at the moment is image. When’s the last time you read a tasting note for Cristal – either on a blog or from a professional critic? It now seems to symbolise the heady days of a time when rappers ruled the world and our only cares were whether we’d have enough time to slow down and take in all the materialistic stimulation we were being exposed to.

On Saturday we had some friends over for dinner and I was rummaging though some bottles in the cellar. I stumbled across a bottle of 1999 Cristal that I didn’t know we had (yippee!) – but that was supposed to be a 1996 (aw shite!). So we thought, why not open it? But then minor panic set in. What would the friends think? They obviously know we work in the business, but opening Cristal on a Saturday night isn’t exactly a weekly event in our house. And then it struck us: how do you go about opening a bottle of Cristal in these economically challenged times without looking like a complete eejit? Of course there are far worse everyday real life problems to have than worrying about opening a bottle of Cristal – but on a micro-economic scale, the potential for a social faux-pas is enormous. People will politely say nice things about the glass of Prosecco you offer them – “much better value than Champagne” etc. – but a bloody bottle of Cristal – how do you get away with that?

Anyway, damn the begrudgers! We cracked it open - to a response of curiosity and a certain element of petrification that at any moment the begrudger police would break through the back door and catch us all sipping Cristal. Oh, the shame….

Was is good? Yes, actually it was. Not quite “one of the finest Champagnes I have brought to my lips” according to the review in the Wine Advocate – but certainly very good. Very refined, with great definition and precision and still very young. And in the overall context of wine, quality and prices – far from the worst deal on the planet.

But the problem is the image. Certainly for the medium term, it’s destined to be consumed among small groups of friends behind closed curtains.

After recovering from the Cristal, we had to calm ourselves with a few other bottles! The Domaine Leflaive Puligny 1er Cru Pucelles 2007 was an infant – but what a wine-in-waiting. It was all about finesse and has incredible delineation in terms of fruit, acidity and raw structure. Lovely. Then on to two bottles from my unashamed favourite red Burgundy producers – the Mugneret Ladies. Their 2002 Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Feusselottes was divine and it was followed by a bottle of their Gevrey Chambertin 2002. This actually comes from a replanted plot in the section of Ruchottes Chambertin they farm – but as it was fruit from very young vines (2002 was the first year the vinified fruit) it has a “humble” Gevrey Chambertin designation. Actually, there’s an emerging school of belief that maintains that vines actually produce better fruit in their first 2-5 years that at later stages – the conventional wisdom is that young fruit is less complex due to higher yields and a less developed root system to hoover up the terroir. Certainly this was an impressive showing – delicious and some really nice tertiary characteristics developing – and no sign of any “simplicity” from being produced from young vines.

We rounded them off with a bottle of Fonsalette Cotes du Rhone 2001. This was a perfect book-end to the Cristal start. A “basic” Cotes du Rhone that was truly delicious – perfectly evolved and drinking magnificently – with a wonderful story and great winemaker.

It just shows you, the label isn’t everything….!

Monday, September 13, 2010

I Want One of Those

An Egg Fermenter. Nothing to do with chickens and apparently all the rage in Bordeaux. How does it actually work? God only knows, but it looks great doesn't it?

I want one of those.......

Friday, September 10, 2010

Back... Just About...

Back in Ireland two weeks already. Seems like we were never away. Reports are that the vines are all doing well and harvest will be mid-October. Plenty going on here - easiest to copy and email I sent to a friend earlier today.....

"I just seem to have been running around in a blind panic for the past fortnight since we got home - and looking back on it I'm not sure if I actually achieved anything. We did manage to get the kids off to school - eldest into secondary school for the first time and youngest into national school on the same day! At one stage it felt like we were about to send them off to school with bottles of wine in their bags - meanwhile dropping some sandwich samples into local restaurants - but we managed to get it all sorted in the end. Our fortnight of mayhem came to an end yesterday when the arrival of some new hens brought some sanity, and calm, to the whole place - although disappointingly the "Thursday Man" had no ducklings which we were also counting on - but they may yet appear.

As for all things food and wine related, the West seems to have had a pretty good Summer. Obviously we were working from Slovenia, with me shuttling backwards and forwards and in contact with customers, but even so, there does definitely seem to be a quiet air of relieved satisfaction that the Summer turned out to be better than expected. In fairness, everyone is crediting the hotels for bringing people into the towns by doing amazing deals - and this in turn spreads some money around the restaurants and shops - and amazingly since people can now see how beneficial eachothers businesses are, they are starting to talk about working together to maximise opportunities - great what a recession can do for group therapy! The West was definitely a beneficiary of people holidaying at home - I don't think things were so rosy in Dublin and on the East coast.

The big challenge though is to make sure that "good value" doesn't become a synonym for lowest common denominator in terms of delivering an interesting offering. In terms of wines, "House Wines" is where it's at with big pressure on margins, but also the potential for big volumes. But that can squeeze out the smaller, quirkier producers - very few hoteliers and restaurateurs want to take risks and the danger is that we (collectively) become a nation of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers - not that there is anything wrong individually with each - but we all do need a bit of variety. Our challenge now is to try and walk the tightrope between a commercially viable portfolio - and one that also includes nuggets of wine individuality. But it's not just about having them for the sake of looking good - we all need something interesting to sell, something to be passionate about, something new, something that we believe in whilst others might laugh (well hopefully not too loud!) - something unique. We have a few new suitable candidates up our sleeves, including a viable Modra Frankinja that we helped do the blend for and is being bottled this week - so no pressure at all on us then!

I'm actually quite positive though about the opportunities for the smaller, quirkier, individualistic approach. Much as everyone is focussed on margins and playing safe (and who can blame them), they also want something a little different. We're finding more and more that as prices drop and consumers have a broad range of choice at similar prices - what they want is individuality. The recession is a great opportunity for the smaller, adaptable, passionate supplier.

Anyway, that's my manifesto for the next few months! We were sad to leaves the vines behind - we learnt so much this year, in the vineyard, but also in the local community. There is so much information you can pick up without realising you're learning it - it was hard to leave, but also easy to return here. We will make a short dash back in the middle of October for the harvest - and try not too lose too many fingers as we harvest the fruit."

In the meantime, plenty to be busy with here......

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fungi delights

We’re due to head back to Ireland in the next few days – and all very hectic trying to finish everything off – next time we return it will be harvest time in mid-October.

Aside from the grapes looking pretty good at this stage, lots of other things (very frustratingly) are just reaching optimum ripeness. We’ve already had plenty of blackberries and now plums, pears and peaches are all over the place – literally falling off the trees all around us.

The other really special wild treasure are mushrooms in the forest – all shapes and sizes. About 60% of Slovenia is covered by trees, so mushroom hunting is very much a local pastime - and speciality. Truffles are also apparently around, but hunting for them is forbidden so they don’t really feature in the local cuisine.

However there are a multitude of fungi of all shapes and sizes. I only wish we knew more about them – something to read about over the Winter. Many of them look vaguely familiar – but not familiar enough to try!

I did however find something I have never seem before – a mushroom that looks like it would be more at home it the sea as a red starfish! Picture quality isn't great as it was taken with a phone camera in a dark forest. I have no idea what it is – any ideas?