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 Ros├ęs 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......