Epiphany wines

The concept of “epiphany wine”, the one bottle that first sparked your interest for this beverage, really fascinates me.

I always find interesting that someone can actually remember that bottle. To me it seems a very “anglo-saxon” thing, something that you can experience because in anglo-saxon societies drinking wine is deeply related with becoming an adult.
People in these societies start drinking wine when they are deeply aware of what they are doing, maybe they had some cheap plonk before that they hated (it could have been a “delicious” California Burgundy or an Australian Port) and at some point they found something different, something that opened their eyes, and they do not want to forget it.

I am also somehow envious of this memory, because I have none. It would be great to say that my interest for wine stemmed from tasting a Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino, a Vietti Barolo or a Berlucchi Franciacorta, but it was nothing like that.
There was no epiphany, I always knew that I somehow liked wine: the Verdicchio and Lacrima di Morro d’Alba that my father used (and uses) to drink at table have always been pretty decent and at university, before being stirred towards beer by my girlfriend of the time, I often ordered wine with my pizza.

My career in wine was more the result of a process, starting in 2009, when I finally had to take my life in my hands and I had to consider what I wanted to do with it. It was not simple and involved analyzing what I was, where I was and how I wanted to live.
There is this competition on jancisrobinson.com that really tickles me, I have even written my piece, but I don’t know if I am going to send it because there was neither a single wine nor a single experience in my history. There was a series of circumstances, some of them very personal and others involving friends and acquaintances.

I remember some of the wines that marked my life though: the Cordon Negro Cava that I successfully paired with Japanese natto, the Tunisian Pinot Noir (Reine Didon) that I used to like back when I was single, the Painter Bridge Zinfandel that I was having when my wife told me that she was pregnant, the Henkell Sekt that I drank at my daughter first birthday, the Livio Felluga Friulano I brought on a memorable evening with friends.
There also are those whose name I don’t remember anymore, but that lingers like half-forgotten dreams in my memory, like my first Shiraz back in 2009 or that unnamed but delicious white frizzantino I ordered for my wedding.

So, I had no “epiphany wine”, that’s true, but I had many “small epiphanies” constructing and deconstructing my memories, my taste and my drinking philosophy.
The great thing is that I don’t know when the next one will be. Doesn’t this make life a bit worthier living?


Wines of Portugal

On 9th July I went to this unusual tasting of Portuguese wines, organised by “Wines of Portugal” in Tokyo. I say unusual because it is quite rare to have such a big tasting for this Country: there were 50 stands, hosting both importers and producers in search of an importer, you could really lose yourself in that abundance.


Wines from everywhere, Douro, Minho, Dão, Madeira, Algarve, Setùbal, Tejo, Alentejo!
I was there almost as a neophyte, I mean I know something about Portuguese wine, but they tend to make all these complicated blends of obscure grape varieties, so for me it was kind of an “explorative” tasting, just to get the feeling and go back home with some new knoweldge.

That’s why I used the first 10 minutes to give a thorough scan of the booklet I had been provided at the reception. I just couldn’t throw myself on the wines, I had to choose some targets.

Here are some of the useful things that I learned this time

Castelão: the portuguese answer to Pinot Noir?

The first stand I visited was the one hosting the wines of Pegos Claros, with director José Gomes Aires standing there energetically promoting his products. Between all the blends it was interesting to see five wines made from just one grape variety, Castelão, grown in the Penìnsula de Setùbal.
I had a white “blanc de noirs”, a rosé and three reds (two already on the market, one still “experimental” and not for sale). Mr. Aires defined the grape as the Pinot Noir and Portugal and I can get his point, as they were quite elegant, even though there is a bit more concentration and “darkness” in this variety. White and rosé were nice and fresh, the reds were really great and well balanced.

Crispy sparkling wines from the Douro

Another very nice surprise was discovering the good sparkling wines from Vértice. Son of winemaker Celso Pereira (sorry, I don’t remember the name, although his face reminded me a bit of Gerard Piqué) was there and poured me their four cuvées (Rosé 2014, Millésime 2011, Gouveio 2008 and Vertice Cuvée NV, not tasted in this order), all made in the champenois method.
I discovered that Vértice has been the first producer of sparkling wine in the Douro. Schramsberg (yes, that one) gave the idea to Celso Pereira in 1989 when they came to the region to produce bubbles. They left in the meantime, but Celso Pereira went on and still goes on to this day.
Isn’t it too hot to make this kind of wines in the Douro? Not in their vineyards it seems, where the climate is moderate enough to have some good sparklers thanks to the altitude.

Educational Vinho Verde

Nuno Barros was standing at the tasting for Aveleda (12 million bottles a year, a giant in its category). The wines very nice, especially in the oppressing heat of the japanese summer.
The single cuvées from Loureiro and Alvarinho were great, but from an “educational” point of view I found Casal Garcia series interesting as well. The basic Vinho Verde in particular (the most widely sold Vinho Verde in the world it seems) was a very typical example of this kind of wine, so typical in fact that it could be very easy to use during a lesson. The Rosé and the red were also nice.

Dão vs Setùbal

Camilo Leite was there for Boas Quintas, another producer in search of importers. The wines really deserve recognition and I hope that he found some good contact on his trip. I also liked Camilo himself, he seemed a bit reserved at first, but then started opening up like a premium wine and gave me many interesting information.
Since he has wines both from Dão and Setùbal I was curious to know the differences between the two regions. Dão is more continental climate, with high diurnal variation, while Setùbal is very near to the sea on sandy soil and the plants need irrigation or they would die.
Then I asked him where he prefers to make, if in Dão or in Setùbal. He said that making wine in Setùbal is easier, because in Dão you have more disease. However he likes the wines of Dão better. And they were great in fact: the three “seriours” red cuvées (Fonte de Ouro Red, Fonte de Ouro Touriga Nacional and Fonte de Ouro Reserva) are especially good, although the second one is still quite young and “shy” (2015 vintage). The Fonte de Ouro Encruzado is also interesting, though the oak is really evident (I am still not sure if I liked it or not).

A final mention for another good producer, Quinta do Convento do Paraìso, which made me discover the good wines from Algarve and especially an Alvarinho (Euphoria 2016) which is light years away from that of Minho.
My note on the red Convento do Paraìso 2015 reads: “great; ready, but can age”. Also the label have been drawn by the children of the owner, every vintage a different one, and they were very cute.


New World wines, as seen by Italians in 1895

Even now, the average Italian is not very aware of New World wines. Many casual consumers probably did not even tried one in their life and I can’t say I blame them: with such wealth of wines, both local and national, fit to every palate, there are not may reason to watch abroad, let alone to the other side of the World.

Of course the press talks about them from time to time, though it is not exactly the highest topic in the news.

But what did Italian wine experts thought about American wine more than 120 years ago? Giornale Vinicolo vol. 21, collecting the issues from 1895 draws an interesting and contrasting picture toward the issue. The entire text (in Italian) can be found here.

Number 4 of the year starts with a special issue by director Edoardo Ottavi: “Will America compete against us in wine as well?”
Considering the USA, the author acknowledges its enormous potential for quantitative production, due to the extent of land available for grape growing. The most promising states would be California (of course), Georgia, Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Massachusetts.
However at the end of the 19th century a definitive solution to phylloxera was still to be found. For this reason Ottavi also adds that no European vine can grow in North America, and that the only possible wine to be made here is the one from local hybrid, not fit for quality production. Furthermore American market is so big that local wines will never be able to “satiate” its thirst.
He concludes that “There will be no possible competition from North America to european wines, thus the issue won’t be further considered”. Ah the ingenuity! And to think that Cesare Mondavi will emigrate to America only 11 years later!

Then South America wines are considered: here the phylloxera was still to be seen (and in some area never arrived), so the author shows much more concern.(1) We discover that the power of Chile is not a modern development: the Country was already the most productive in South America in 1895, with vineyards covering 100,000 ha (more fragmented in the south around Bio Bio, with the biggest producers located in central Chile) and already exporting its produce. The wines have good quality and are made advanced techniques, the best from French varieties. The biggest problem was the logistics: the Andes barrier was at the time still a big obstacle and even with the development of a trans-Andean railway the length and difficulty of the trip will reverberate their cost to the final price. For this reason the author, with admirable foresight, states that “for now and for not just a few years, this American viticultural region does not need to worry us.”

The issue on American wines continues in Number 6, dated February 10th 1895. Other South American Countries are considerered: Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Argentina surface under vine is estimated at 22,500 hectares, with a production of 600,000 hectoliters a year. We notice that the main production areas has remain unchanged for more than 120 year: Mendoza (9,000 ha), San Juan (7,500 ha) and Catamarca. La Rioja and Salta were minor regions at this time, still less planted than Buenos Aires and Entre Rios (near the Uruguay Border, not much heard today).
The author concedes a good potential to this Country thanks to propitious climate and soil, but he adds that the road is long and the industry needs to focus on instruction and rationalization both in the vineyard and in the winery. Furthermore, here too vignerons were battling against phylloxera.
In 1895 local wine only satisfied 1/5 of the total demand, so there was not much to worry about. On the contrary fake european wines and imitations were widespread and that was a more serious concern.

For now they tend to replace european wine with liquid that is wine in name only, and that is produced in Buenos Aires.

Few words are spent for Uruguay: the Country is very small and had only 2,595 ha of vines in the departments of Montevideo and Paysandu, some of them still not in production. Phylloxera had landed here as well, thus all considered Uruguay would have remained and importer of european wines for a long time.

Paraguayan and Brazilian wines are a niche even today. The article reports some attempts in Paraguay, but winemaking is practically non-existent and the market very small (13-15,000 hl). Consumption is much higher in Brazil, but viticulture here is still in an embryonic phase. Bolivia, Venezuela and the other South American Countries do not grow grapes for wine.

Edoardo Ottavi concludes that Chile is the most advanced Country for wine production in the area, but even it can’t satisfy the demand of its neighbours. South America would have remained a profitable market for european wines for many decades to come, the only concern being that of falsification and imitations.

The author states that fake wines are the only way these Countries can compete with the Old World. Of course he was wrong, maybe he could not have imagined the technical advancements that would have take place decades after and the “defeat” of phylloxera which would have allowed Argentinian wine as well to become a serious competitor in the world of wine. Now USA, Chile and Argentina makes nice wines and export much, in Europe and in the rest of the World as well.
Anyway he was right in considering these three countries the most promising for wine production, to this I pay tribute.

What about the World of wine in 120 years? Will we see the rise of Asia, maybe Chinese or Japanese wines? For now it seems very difficult, but so it seemed to Edoardo Ottavi the success of American wines back in his days.

(1) Notice Edoardo Ottavi only possesses second hand sources, the words of a friend who visited Chile and the relation of Buenos Aires based Pompeo Trentin for the government.

Tasting events: are they useful?

I often go to tasting events organized by importers: it is a great way to taste wines that you could not normally have, for lack of time or money. You may meet customers and producers, people you know or new acquaintances, and strengthen your network. Finally, tasting events can also be a great way to intoxicate yourself for free (be aware of who is watching though).

The last is especially true: you need to have a clear plan and the will to stick to it or even the most well intentioned taster risks wasting his composure and his time.

I envy those professional who can taste dozens and dozens of wine (en primeur even) and maintain their mind clear and their palate ready. I know that there are strategies and I try to use them, but the truth is that after 20 wines or, even spitting all the time, my lucidity drops abruptly.

Second, there are wines which perform better during tasting events: some are partly developed, some have a more expressive character, some are peculiar. These are easier to appreciate.

Other wines need more care. In the past I had some unconvincing bottles which suddenly turned to gold the day after, like 2011 Cristom Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvée or 2009 Georg Breuer Spätburgunder. Should I have based my judgement on the first glass I would have completely missed their quality.

This is why when I attend these events, staring at that legion of available wines, I always wonder if I am really understanding what the wine has to say, if I am tasting it at the right conditions. It’s like I am speed dating the wines: yeah that girl was prettier, I got her number, but she was nuts. The shy, introverted one would have been better, but alas we’ll never know.

Seminars are way better: having 5-10 wines before you and a producer, importer or ambassador explaining you what has been done to the wine while you taste it is a great way to learn how production choices impact final flavour.

So are tasting events useless? Of course not. As I said, meeting customers, importers and producers is important, but you really need to be focused on what you are doing and why.
At present I am studying the Wine Scholar Guild Masterclass on Burgundy, so I’ll give precedence to Burgundy wines, bearing in mind that my judgement will get less and less reliable. If you are employed in a wine shop take note of what you need, which price band you want to fill, which Countries. Be also aware of overperforming and underperforming bottles, since often you don’t even know what time they have been opened. If you can participate in a seminar, with a limited selection of wines, it is even better.

And if you just want to drink, enjoy. Just please do not throw on the carpet – there are your customers watching.

Is identity important for cane based spirits?

While Rum may be the result of a blend of spirit from different islands or even countries (see for example 5 Island Rum by Banks Rum originates in Trinidad Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Indonesia), there are trends in style and customs in production underlining that geographical origin plays a role in the making of this distillate.


Different styles in different places

In the case of Martinique the law itself sanctions geographical origin: AOC Rhum Martinique has a strict set of rules stating in what delimited areas of the island the sugarcane must be grown, how cultivation must be made (yields and irrigation limits, harvest time definition, forbidding of fertilizers) and how the spirit itself must be produced. The juice (no molasses allowed) used for fermentation needs to have adequate levels of sugar content (minimum 14° brix) and PH (minimum 4.7); the rhum is made in a continuous column still and the spirit can be distilled only once.
According to the ageing the result will be labelled differently: “blanc” if only rested three months, “elevé sous bois” if aged in oak for 12 months inside the production area, “vieux” if aged at least three years in 650L oak casks or smaller inside the production area. The alcoholic strength must be over 40%.
This is the most evident case of the link between rum and region of origin.

All these rules have an impact on style: rhum agricole, being made from the juice of the plant and not the processed molasses, has a grassy, earthy profile, it is pungent and reminds of cane, green leaf, grass, unripe banana, anise, violet with dry fruits and vanilla coming from the ageing process.
Every year’s crop will have a slightly different flavour character.

Generalizations may also be made on the rum style of different countries.
Jamaican rums are very aromatic and their classification sanctions this character by grouping them in four different categories according to the ester content of pot still rums: “Common cleans”, delicate and the least aromatics (between 80 and 150 esters), “Plummers”, with a light tropical character (150-200 esters), “Wedderburn”, fuller and more pungent (over 200 esters) and “Continental flavoured” also known as “high esters”, showing when diluted pineapple and banana character (500-1700 esters).

Guyana is associated with Demerara rum, produced from sugar canes grown along the bank of the omonimous river by the last rum producing company, Demerara Distillers Ltd.
Demerara rums are complex and vary according to the type of still used during production and the selected marks, but they tend to be rich and have a smoky, earthy, savoury character.
The flavour is influenced by the greenheart wooden stills where part of the material is distilled: the wooden staves are gradually changed over the course of 20 years and they will absorb some of the distillate and giving back some character to the next batch.

On the contrary Puerto Rico, Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago rums are commonly made in column stills, highly rectified and tend to have a light, clean flavour, with flavours complexity reached through ageing and blending.

Disputes over rum identity

No other country regulate the production of rum as France in Martinique, however there have been in the past disputes over the use of geographical terms on labels, stressing the importance of origin at least in the marketing of the product.

One of these took place in Italy, where the Milan court judged the use of “Spirit of Cuba” by Dominican rum producer Mathusalem as false advertising: the defendants would have illegitimately exploited the mental associations made by the public with the rum of Cuba to sell their product.
An even fiercer battle is being fought between Bacardi and Pernod Ricard over the use of “Havana Club” brand for their rum, though here the importance lies maybe more on the use of a well known trademark than on the reference to a geographical indication.

Another example of geographical based marketing is Pampero rum.
Years ago there was a very successful series of commercials in Italy that advertised it as “The most drunk rum in the worst bars of Caracas” where the term “worst” indicating not the quality of the service or the food, but the spirit genuinity: Pampero thus becomes the true rum consumed by the true people of Venezuela and who better then them can know what a good rum is?
Clearly the association between the rum and its origin was considered important enough to become the center of an advertising campaign.

Finally there is Cachaca: here the Country of origin is, at least for the Brazilians, so important that the government is fighting to make it recognized as a different spirit category than rum.
The move is guided by marketing reasons to differentiate the product from other countries rums, but Cachaca has some peculiarities: first it is made from sugar cane, not molasses, and it is bottled between 38% and 48% abv. It is generally unaged, but some will partly (50% of the blend minimum) spend at least one year in 700L barrels or smaller and gain to right to be labelled “aged”. Wood is both local or American/European oak and it is used to give a smoother profile. Another mean of doing this is by adding sugar (up to 6 g/L is legally permitted, while between 6 and 30g/L we have “sweetened cachaca”).
Given the huge volumes involved (output is higher than the total world production of vodka), cachaca is much varied in terms of used stills, type of fermenters, final strength, yeast strains, but the Brazilians are very careful in stressing the difference between their cachaca and foreign rum (sugar cane origin, as opposed to molasses, is one of the most highlighted aspects): a decree from 2001 define cachaca as the only possible name for Brazil made cane alcohol and negotiations are still open with the EU to make the name a geographical indication of origin. At present however only the US have recognized cachaca has a Brazilian drink and defined it as Brazilian rum, in exchange of the recognition and legal protection of “Tennessee Whisky” and “Bourbon Whisky”.

Beaujolais Nouveau vs Vino Novello


Some days ago I received a newsletter from the importer on how the 2017 Beaujolais vintage is faring. So I thought “Uh, it’s already that time of the year”.
As some of you may already know, Beaujolais Nouveau is still extremely popular in Japan (the second market after France). I drank some in the past and I am ok with it, but the logistics inevitably impact the price (it has to be transported by plane), so I always feel that I could buy something better for the same money.

Italian Vino Novello on the contrary is much more a niche market: some importers have it, some restaurants serve it and some people drink it, but it is seen more as a curiosity.

What is the difference between these two wines?

In terms of geography Beaujolais Nouveau AOC comes from the eponymous region, while Vino Novello is a category and enters a number of different Italian denominations: Bardolino Novello, Castel del Monte Novello, Monferrato Rosso Novello, Colli Tortonesi Novello, Marche Novello (this one an IGT) and the list goes on and on.
In this sense they are more akin to French Vins Primeurs, which includes not only Beaujolais, but also Languedoc Primeur, Anjou Gamay Nouveau or Ventoux Primeur just to name a few.

But there is another important difference: Beaujolais Nouveau is entirely made by carbonic maceration, the process where, in short, we take the grapes, we put them in a tank uncrushed and we fill the tank with CO2 to stimulate an intracellular fermentation. This gives us the characteristic aromatic compounds and mouthfeel of Beaujolais Nouveau. Semi-carbonic maceration is also practiced: here when we fill the tank the grapes on the bottom are crushed by the weight on those on the top, beginning to ferment normally. This fermentation produces also CO2 which, being heavier than the air, accumulates in the vessel. The grapes above, still uncrushed, end up in a CO2 rich environment, undergoing carbonic maceration.

With Vino Novello this process is used as well, but only 40% of the grape have to be made this way, the remaining 60% can undergo traditional vinification.
Here probably lies the biggest problem of this kind of wine: Vino Novello lacks a strong identity, it is difficult to market. There is no driving denomination, like Beaujolais Nouveau for Vins Nouveaux; most of Vino Novellos are quite obscure and even the famous denominations (Castel del Monte, Bardolino) are not generally associated with this kind of wine. The process lacks peculiarity: yes you can make some of it by carbonic maceration, but only a part of it is mandatory. At least the grapes have to come from the same vintage, no reserve wine allowed. In the end you rely on producers you trust, but why buying their Novello when you can have their other wines?

These are the reason why Vino Novello is living through a very difficult phase lately: in 2016 only 2 million bottles were produced, the lowest volume ever (only Beaujolais Nouveau makes more than 30 million bottles, even more in the 80s). Keeping anticipating the release date (now 30 October), to capitalize on the thirst for new wine, is not having any notable effect. Third thursday of November is sort of a tradition for Nouveau loving people. If the date keeps changing consumers will be confused and lose affection. As it stands it is more profitable to use the grapes for traditional wines.

This is a sad end for a wine boasting illustrious inventors: the firsts to make Vino Novello were none other than Angelo Gaja (Vinot) and Antinori (S. Giocondo), in the 1970s.

They have stopped a long time ago. Their “novello legacy” lives on, but until when?