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?