Celebrate the present

Etrusco-Roman_temple,_first_built_around_the_late_4th_century_BC,_destroyed_by_fire_in_the_1st_century_BC_and_rebuilt_by_the_Romans_under_Augustus,_Roman_Faesulae,_Fiesole,_Italy_(196674

There is an extremely annoying trend in the “narration” of wine: when someone talks about tradition, when someone talks about the quality of this or that wine, chances are that they will feel compelled to trace back the roots of their excellence to the Ancient Romans (sometimes the Ancient Greeks as well). This happens especially in Italy and results in a false narrative whereby a direct line is traced between the 753 BC and the 2018 AD.
This connection between Roman Empire and present stems from a deep ingrained nostalgia for Antiquity, an age which is usually conceived as “white”, “clean”, “glorious” and “more just”.

I would like to point out a few things.

Ancient Romans were not Italians, Italians are not Ancient Romans. That is why they are called differently. Here and there may be some genetic connections, but in the course of History Italy has been invaded by so many people that the link may be weaker than it is commonly thought. “Ancient Romans” is also a very broad term, since there existed a plethora of pre-Roman tribes throughout Italy which were “romanized” during hundreds of years.

Linking the quality of your wine now to one that existed 2000 years ago in the same area is silly. The modern Italian register of grape varieties has many inaccuracies – and it is (hopefully) compiled using the best scientific knowledge in our possession. Therefore, identifying the Pucinum as Prosecco, the Reticum as Valpolicella, the Mamertinum as the modern Mamertino DOC, as many like to do, is impossible. Moreover, how much did these wines change during their history? Was the Falernian made in the first century before Christ the same that was made 200 years after? There was no denomination system in the ancient world, thus we will never know, as we will never know their real taste.

As I have written about this topic in the first post of this blog, in the mid 19th century Italian wine was in a state of complete disaster. While you would have already recognized some producers in France (especially in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne) in Italy there was absolutely no drive or motivation to make high quality wines. Vines were grown under the mezzadria system in the center and north, on mixed crop fields, and wines were made under hygienic conditions that were questionable to say the least (this not only in Italy to be honest). Even the most celebrated 1716 edict by Cosimo de’ Medici III was like a swallow in the mid of winter. (1)

In the second half of the 19th century a new generation of winemakers/scientists was finally born; they were men like Carlo Gancia, Antonio Carpenè, Giulio Ferrari, Clemente Santi & Ferruccio Biondi Santi: they did not like the state of things and believed that Italy could produce great wines as well, even greater than those from France. To do that they studied, they learnt, they used science (which in the wine marketing today seems sometimes a bad word). Step by step wine started getting better, although the progress was slow.

They were followed by other giants, especially after the two World Wars. In random order: Antonio Argiolas, Mario Schiopetto, Livio Felluga, Emidio Pepe, Edoardo Valentini, Franco Biondi Santi, Giacomo Tachis, Stanko Radikon, Josko Gravner, Marco de Bortoli, Franco Ziliani, Angelo Gaja, Elio Altare & the Barolo Boys (sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll band from the 1960s), Luigi Antinori, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta and sure I am forgetting someone.
You may have your own opinion on each of them (some can be quite divisive), but their importance in advancing the quality and the image of Italian wine both locally and abroad cannot be denied.

And the best news is that their legacy still vivid, some of them are still alive. Theirs are the stories that should be narrated first, not vague records from a dusty past that we do not know for certain. The second best news is that there is still excellence today: the new generation of winemakers and entrepreneurs are doing a great work and wine is one of the few sectors in Italian economy still looking healthy.

So if you want to thank someone for the good Italian wine that you have in the glass, thank these people, thank Modern Italians – not Ancient Romans.

(1) It must be noticed that the only two regions where there was a limited market for higher quality wines before 20th century were Piemonte and Toscana. Not surprisingly they are today the most famous and recognized sources of Italian fine wines.

Advertisements

All my interviews: #2 Jérôme Bôle of Secondé-Simon

My second interview, this one too from 2016. Secondé-Simon is a quite different reality from Philipponnat, a small producer (just 6 hectares) and récoltant-manipulant which is quite a recent player in the Champagne field (1983).
Jérôme Bôle, who manages both the winery and the vineyard, is also a very different character from Monsieur Charles Philipponnat whom I had interviewed before: where the latter is more talkative, outgoing and clearly used to speak in public, Monsieur Bôle seemed more shy and more a technician than a marketer. It has been a pleasure to have him and his wines.

What is the style of Secondé-Simon?

We make Champagne only with our grapes, from our plots that are treated separately during the process of pressing, in order to have different wines at the end and to make the best Champagne possible.

What is the charm of a récoltant-manipulant, as opposed to a négociant?

For me the récoltant-manipulant tries first to make a champagne that he himself can enjoy and then he hopes to give pleasure to his customers as well. This is a bit different from the big brands which generally study the market and decide the style of their wines accordingly.

What is the charm of the Ambonnay terroir, where you are based?

Ambonnay is very well known for the quality of its Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir in Ambonnay is very full body and the big brands like to make it the backbone of their wines.

What Japanese food would you pair with Cuvée N or Cuvée V?

With the Cuvée N I would say white fish sushi, while Mélodie for example is better with salmon or fish with a more expressive taste.

You also make a millesimé which is 95% Chardonnay, which is quite rare in Montagne de Reims. Why did you make this choice?

Because everyone knows the Chardonnay coming from Côte des Blancs, but that from Ambonnay is not known, so this is way to show to our customers that we have a very good Chardonnay there as well. Chardonnay in Ambonnay is very different from the one in Côte des Blancs, it is very round and gives in our millésime an easy to drink champagne, very round and full, although of course not as full body as the Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir in Italy

grapes-2104075_1280

Between April and September I taught a course on Italian wine, a general review on this Country’s regions, grapes and styles. Each lesson very interesting and unexpected questions came up from the students.

Two of the most engaging were about the state of Pinot Noir in Italy. More specifically I was asked: what are the most employed clones of Pinot Noir in Italy? And how much widespread is whole bunch fermentation for this grape?
That lesson we were having a Nals Margreid Pinot Noir from the Mazzon vineyard, in Alto Adige, but I was really caught off guard.

Let’s start saying that Pinot Noir is not a very big player in the italian wine landscape: around 5,000 hectares over 700,000 ha total surface under vine (to be precise the last 2010 ISTAT census states 5,046 ha), much less than France (31,000 ha), USA (21,000 ha) and Germany (11,800 ha).
In Italy this variety can make interesting still wines, but it is especially employed in the production of sparklers. The bulk of its production comes from the scarcely known (at least outside Italy) Oltrepò Pavese, although high quality examples can be found in Alto Adige as well. Anyway it is allowed in almost any region. However I have never heard much about Pinot Noir in Italy: Italians prefer talking about their native grapes and rightly so, since there are so many.

Clones
I don’t think there is any official statistic about clones and even the producers generally do not specify them.
After long researches the only thing that I could find is this catalog compiled for the “National congress of Pinot Noir”. Here most of the technical sheets list the clone employed. What I understand glancing at the document is that Burgundian clones (115, 114, 777) seem to be the most recurring, thus I suppose also the most widespread in Italy. There are some Italian clones employed (SMA 201, 5V17), but they are quite rare. However it must be also noted that these are not official data, I just parsed the most recurring clones listed for each entry and the various producing regions may not even been adequately represented. Who knows. Josef Seebacher of Nals Margreid kindly answered to my mail stating that the Mazzon contains Pinot Noir clones 777 and 165, again Burgundian.

Whole bunch fermentation
Similarly, whole bunch vs destemmed grapes fermentation is a widely ignored issue in Italy. No data here for Pinot Noir, except for the Nals Margreid Pinot Noir Mazzon, which is totally destemmed.
Interestingly a recent issue of Civiltà del Bere has an article (“Ritorniamo ai raspi?”, Should we go back to stalks?) treating exactly this subject. No statistics are cited, but the author explains the philosophy behind whole bunch fermentation and reports a tasting event dedicated to whole bunch fermented wine. No wine involved was made from Pinot Noir, but at least it testifies a very mild interest toward the topic.
What could be the reason for this general indifference? My guess is that the grape varieties more suited to this process (those with a gentler tannic character, in Italy they could be Pinot Nero itself, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Piedirosso, Malvasia Nera, Schiava and I am not sure about others) are still too much of a niche market to justify the cost of experimenting with stalks on a large scale. You may find single producers willing to do this, but if you like this kind of wines for now you should look somewhere else.

All my interviews: #1 Charles Philipponat

I have done a bunch of wine interviews over the years, in English and Italian (just once for now), with Japanese subtitles.I already published some of them, but they are all scattered so I decided to repost all of them again, once a week, to have everything in one place and chronologically ordered.

It all began with my old employer in Kobe, which has an online shop only for Champagne wine. I started by doing some tasting reviews in 2014 (Jacquesson 737 was the first bottle, I still have the cork) and then we thought that it could be fun to interview producers coming to our place to show us their wines.

Number one is Charles Philipponnat, maybe my favorite Champagne producer, a very funny guy and fluent in Italian (probably also because Italy is Philipponnat first export market). Enjoy!

PS: reposting this videos I am also writing down the interviews in the post. They are very lightly edited to make them more readable.

What is the style of Philipponnat?

The style is very important and all of our wines are made in the same fashion, with the same objective, although they are different.
The idea is to make wines that have some intensity of taste, some aromatic richness, but also with a lot of purity, freshness and crispness. So in way there is a combination of fruit, from the ripeness of the grape, from the origin of the grape and some cleanliness, some purity in the winemaking, avoiding always oxidation, always trying to have a fresh feeling of acidity in the wines.

What can you tell me about the Philipponat red Coteaux Champenois?

The Coteaux Champenois is a still red wine that we make from Champagne vineyards. This one is made from our best vineyard, it’s from one little part of the Clos de Goisses where there is a bit more clay, so it is a bit more proper to make red wine.
Every year we make red wine and rosé wine for our rosé Champagne and when the year is very favourable we put aside some of the red wine that we have concentrated by bleeding the vat. Then we age it in large casks for two years. This is a 2012 Coteaux Champenois that has been bottle only last year [2015 at the time of the interview – ed.].

What food would you pair with it?

A red like this, which is light but has some concentration and good color, could be used like a good Côte de Beaune, a good Burgundy. You could pair with feathered game, like pheasant or quail.

What are the most promising unreleased vintages? [again, as of 2016, when the interview was shot – ed.]

Well, in recent years I think that one of the best vintages was 2008, of which we have already released the Blanc de Noirs, while Clos de Goisses will come later. Another good vintage is the one we are tasting now as Coteaux Champenois, 2012,  very good and even more concentrated. 2008 is very good and has a good crisp acidity, while the 2012 has more power and more fruit.
After 2012 probably the last harvest, 2015, will be very very good, although it is very very early to assess it. It was ripe, it had a very good acidity and summer was very very dry, so there was also some soft tannins that are adding an extra dimension to the wine. This is something that we haven’t seen in quite a few years or even decades. Some people say that it is like 1959 or even 1947, but it is quite an exceptional vintage. Anyway we have to wait, you cannot decide before you start tasting (laughs)

What Philipponnat Champagne do you drink when you relax and what you drink when you celebrate?

When I want to relax I pick the Champagne that my wife wants (laughs). She likes the cuvée 1522 rosé, that’s what she prefers. So when we want to relax together we have a rosé 1522 and when I want to celebrate Clos de Goisses of course.

Should we care about where a wine is bottled?

Bottling_machine_at_Planeta_winery.jpg

The Soave consortium has published a new article on its site, stating that finally Soave DOC and Soave Superiore DOCG will have to be bottled near the “area” of production. This is a bit of a vague statement, since the bottling will possibly take place in all Verona province plus some centers in the province of Vicenza, but anyway.

I was thinking of this issue recently, asking myself why should we care about the bottling place of a wine, as long as it is made according to the rules guaranteeing its typicity and as long as we can be certain of its origin.
Imagine all the advantages of sending in bulk Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino to bottle them in the Country where they are going to be sold!

First, it will be less expensive: producers (especially small ones) would be no more encumbered by the process and they could increase profit. The importers will have still to do the job, but they could use economies of scale to bottle all the wine they are handling locally. They could even bottle “on demand” and decide which size best fit the market in a given moment: haven’t you ever desired to buy a half bottle of a prestigious wine because you are short on money or you are the only drinker in the family (sob)? That could be possible. 187 ml piccolos of Pétrus: sounds good, uh?
Or maybe you are having a lavish party in your garden: why not ordering a 225L cask of St. Emillion Grand Cru for your friends?
Shipping in bulk would also be more environmental friendly: as glass has its own (sometimes quite substantial) weight we could reduce the carbon footprint and employ less energy for the transportation. And did you ever heard of bottle shock? A wine container will be probably more resilient to the variation in weather and temperature during shipping.

So is it really important the place a wine is put into its bottle? Is there something magic, like a “bottling terroir”, that we must respect in order to really appreciate the wine? The glass, the bottling machine, the weather outside the factory?
No, there isn’t: in a perfect world bottling on site would probably be the best option, cheaper and more flexible. Sadly, this is not a perfect world.

As you may know, the goal of denominations of origin is not, strictly speaking, quality. Of course some of them better than others, but still there exist loads of atrocious or meaningless DOCs (or DOs, or AOCs) that no one will take as a guarantee of quality.
No, the goal of a denomination of origin is certifying the authenticity of a wine, the fact that, good or mediocre, what you are drinking is really what is written on the label.
For this reason, bottling in the area of production (or nearby), has a meaning only as far as it makes authenticity easier to verify.

The problem boils down to this: a producer selling in bulk wouldn’t really know how his wine is going to be treated. The risk of mishandling and counterfeiting for a top tier wine shipped this way is enormous, especially in some less regulated markets. Someone receives 1 hectoliter of Pauillac AOC from Bordeaux and all of a sudden they are selling two or three hectoliters. The wine starts tasting nothing like the real one, people notice, they blame you (or the region where the wines come from) and you lose customers.
Thus, mandatory bottling represents a first protection against this risk: you make your wine, you bottle it. Now it is ready to be sold in the exact condition where you left it. No other handling is allowed. As a counter-counterfeiting measure it is very basic, but it is already something and more than enough for the vast majority of what is commonly seen on the shelves.

Finally, some denominations command an ageing period in bottle before release, that is, the community of producers from that denomination have assessed, at some point in time, that their wine really shows its nature only after it has spent some time in the bottle. Again, in a perfect world that could be delegated to the importers, but in the real one we would never know the conditions at which the wine has been stored at the Country of arrival. The Brunello in Brazil would end up being different from the Brunello in Japan that would be different from the one sold in India. And what you would do with traditional method sparkling wines? Using transfer? Too complicated.

So, after much thinking, I have come to my conclusion: local bottling is an essential step for a denomination willing to present itself in an organic and consistent way to the public. Except for those wines not caring of counterfeiting, it is probably never going to disappear. And that’s for the better.

The meaning of Crémant

I love my job because it gives me so much chances of learning new stuff.
While preparing the new lesson on Italian sparkling wines I came by this label.

tenuta_elisabet_cruas.png

Despite its “French” sound, this is a rosé sparkling wine made primarily from Pinot Noir in the Oltrepò Pavese area, south Lombardy. Cruasé is a collective brand for this kind of wines and it indicates a traditional method rosé sparkler made under the Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG rules. To be fair the term still struggles to take off as a marketing tool, but it is often employed by local producers.
My attention was drawn by the word “Crémant” on the bottom. Curious, I thought when I first saw it, isn’t the term reserved just for French sparklers outside Champagne? Wine labelling is heavily regulated in Europe, you don’t put “Crémant” on the label and just go away with it. Why is there?

The Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG disciplinare (regulation) specifies that the term is allowed on the conditions specified by the existing law. It doesn’t tell us what these are, so I decided to look into the issue and made a short research.

I discovered a Commission Regulation by the European Community (No. 607/2009) implementing the Council Regulation (EC) No 479/2008 which states the rules to make the “Crémant” term appear on the label.
A bit surprisingly, being from France is not necessary: the wine must be a traditional method sparkling white or rosé from a geographic indication or a denomination of origin (which must be clearly specified on the label), so it can’t be generic. Furthermore harvest must be manual and the grape yield into wine during pressing cannot exceed 100 litres for 150 kg of grapes (a bit higher than Champagne which is 102 litres for 160 kg). Finally, the maximum residual sugar allowed is 50 g/l (demi-sec), thus no doux sparkling wine can bear this term.

Basically your “crémant” can hail from everywhere in Europe, as long as it respects the conditions above. Of course specific DOC/DOCG/AOC regulations can prevent the use of the name, like Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico, which reserves it only for its rosés.

My opinion: what were they trying to accomplish when they laid down these rules? Was EU trying to promote a sort of collective sparkling wine brand outside Champagne? In this case the attempt was basically a failure, as the single Countries seem more eager to promote their own terms (Sekt, Franciacorta, Prosecco) than to use a confusing French word for their wines. Oltrepò Pavese producers applies it sometimes, but I never really saw it anywhere else. That said, it could be useful for “new” EU Countries like Romania, Hungary or Czech Republic to boost their marketing presence on the shelves, especially on export markets.

A final remark: oddly enough Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG allows the use of Crémant on the label, but forbids the word “spumante”. Is the Italian word that bad?

Italian Masters of Wine: zero and counting

Gioco_morra_Bartolomeo_Pinelli

A few days ago, when the new Masters of Wine have been announced, as usual a part of the Italian wine press has lamented the absence of an Italian Master of Wine.
The linked article titles: “Italy is still waiting its first Master of Wine, maybe we are not suited for the UK course?”

Civiltà del Bere director Alessandro Torcoli (a current MW student himself) has given a very lucid and comprehensive reply here: in brief, becoming a Master of Wine is a long and elaborate process and it takes long years of study and dedication to reach this goal. Italy was late to appreciate the value of this certification. Now the “first crop” is growing, but a Master of Wine cannot pop out of nothing, thus it has no sense to lament each and every time the absence of Italian professionals in the Institute. We are not waiting for the new Messiah, we have to be patient. Then Torcoli contests WineNews statement: why should not we be suited for the MW? They have MWs in Spain, France, Greece, all Countries with similar wine background, why just us? The question is rhetorical, as of course there is no reason why there should not be an Italian MW.

Or is it? Italians are not dumber than anyone else, especially when it comes to wine, so I was annoyed by the WineNews article as well.
However in my humble opinion there are some very specific reasons for the lack of Italian MWs.

First, the plethora of grape varieties, wine regions and wine styles of the Bel Paese may lead the Italians to just concentrate on their (our) own Country, ignoring everything else.
In many fields we Italians have a BIG inferiority complex, as we often believe that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Corruption, immigration policies, bureaucracy, trains, public services, you name it. As a consequence, when we do know that we are good at something (food, wine, romantic love – maybe -) we often cling to it proclaiming that no one else can teach us anything on that topic.
Try asking some Italian wine enthusiast about American or Australian wine: unless he is very open minded (and possibly living abroad) you will be met with glances of confusion or even mockery. “Come on, how could Americans ever make good wine?” (1)
The Master of Wine Institute is based in UK and this fact already somehow disqualify it in the mind of some people: how can someone from the UK teach us about wine?
While we pat each other on the back on how juicy our grapes are, the world of wine goes on and Italy still doesn’t have an authoritative international voice in it. (2) Many of those with the skill to become Master of Wine just don’t understand all the fuss about it and prefer to invest their time in doing something else (a legitimate decision of course).

And there is another factor: at some point it is also very easy to slack off. Especially if you work abroad and you are proficient in wine, it is very easy to just become “the Italian guy”, carving your own niche where no one will ever disturb you.
After all, you know your share about wine and you are Italian: for what you need you are already quite an authority. Sometimes that is just what the other people expect from you, listening to an Italian talking about Italian wine. You like the role, it is fashionable even and the ladies find you interesting.
Just to be clear: I am not criticising this choice, it is perfectly fine, but still one runs the risk of becoming just the guy who knows about Italian wine and nothing else. This is hardly useful if you are eyeing the MW certification, where an open mind and vast international knowledge are vital.

Finally, I believe that we are quite different from French, Spanish and Greek. When it comes to wine French are probably similar to us, but their long history of quality winemaking and wine export has made them much more pragmatic and open to certification like the MW or the WSET. Besides, their ties with the UK have always been fairly strong, thanks to Bordeaux and Champagne. They have always known the importance of London in the global market and thus they have always been more open to listen.
Spain has a similar history (Sherry & the English; Rioja & the French), more projected to northern Europe. Greece has come late to the ball and so it has approached the world of fine wine with humility.

On the other side Italy has a winemaking tradition stretching for millennia, but due to its history we have always been fairly isolated, region against region, town against town, district again district.
Closed, each one drinking his own wine, while swearing that it is the best you will ever find. Anywhere. Even though they do not know what they drink 300 km away.

(1) Italy has never had its “Judgement of Paris”, meaning a resounding event where New World wines beat Italian wines.
(2) The most influential critics on Italian wines that come to my mind are Ian d’Agata, half Italian and half Canadian, and Antonio Galloni, of Italian descent.