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…..