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.

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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

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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?

Reviewing a wine like it was a videogame

The wine we have today is a recent release from a very big producer: we are talking about the Beaujolais-Village from Louis Jadot and precisely the Combe Aux Jacques cuvées 2015.

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Louis Jadot is a bit everywhere when talking about Burgundy (they are even in Oregon, with Resonance Vineyards) and Beaujolais makes no exception. I have heard people despising it for being too “commercial”, but I am not a wine snob.
As we could well expect the wine is 100% from Gamay from granite, clay and calcareous soils. A portion of the grapes are grown in Reignié, a portion is grown in the south of Beaujolais in owned vineyards and a portion is bought from contract growers. They are vinified with semi-carbonic maceration, as it’s custom for this kind of wines.

System requirements are very reasonable: a palate equipped with a tongue, a nose and possibly one or (better) two eyes to appreciate the color. But you could go also blind. Price is also quite low, a true budget wine (game).

After pulling the cork we are left without any tutorial, but this hardly matters: the action unfolds quickly and the controls are easy to understand and responsive. The goal, as always, is to finish the bottle and gain the maximum pleasure from it.

Basically we are talking about a platform style game: as a matter of fact you jump over raspberries and strawberries, striking your enemies with balsamic drops or a very useful vine stalk. No oak vessels to drive, no vanilla shoot ‘em up levels.
Graphics are nice, effused in ruby red colors with violet rim and good depth, although nothing really revolutionary. At least they are 3D, you could even get wet or stain your clothes if you are not careful. Take this augmented reality!
Controls are responsive and this Beaujolais is very easy to play. Of course you would not find extreme depth or complexity, but here is a medium weight game with a lively pace. Play it on warm spring days or on a fresh summer evening.
As for longevity well, this is better enjoyed in the short-medium term: in 2 or 3 years you will be better leave it on the shelf and turn to the next version (vintage). Longevity of the opened bottle is short as well, but this is a good thing: you will finish it in a couple of days in single player or even in one sitting in co-op.

As all the other wines out there this game supports multiplayer and it is indeed recommended to play with someone else. You can decide either Co-op (enjoying it together) or Vs Mode (“I bet that I can finish the bottle much faster than YOU!”). In both cases please be aware that playing too much may lead to various unpleasant consequences, in the form of dizziness, lowered inhibitions (this might be good) and hangovers. Anyway you will have to drink at least a couple of bottles to come to this point).

Conclusion: an easy challenge for the trained gamer ehr drinker. A casual wine without too much pretenses, but capable of entertaining you for some time. The low price and good drinkability makes it a good choice as a party wine.

Ad maiora

And thus it ends. I finally am a proud holder of the WSET Diploma, after two long years of studying (since January 2015). It has been a hell of a ride, even life changing. At least it made me understand the value of time.

Would I recommend it to someone interested in learning wine? Of course, but only if very motivated. At first (the first two or three exams) you have enthusiasm, you have energy, but as you proceed patience, perseverance and pacing become crucial. Someone with a day job and a family (like me) really needs to believe there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to keep fighting.

I took my lessons at the online classroom, while sitting the exams in Tokyo. I learned a lot, but inevitably I missed the warmth of a true class and the interaction with other people, especially during tastings. On the other hand I was there every day, motivated to keep the pace of the lessons. The teachers were good, but some were better, and followed the students more closely.

What I would really love from the WSET would be a proper textbook for each Diploma Unit. I know, the extent of the topics covered makes it quite difficult, but for example instead of guessing the major spirit or sparkling wine producers that could come up at the exam I would have really liked to have a list for reference. I mean they can’t be changing so fast.

My strongest memory of an exam is the question about Smirnoff for Unit 4. Well more than a question it was just a word: “Smirnoff”. And know write about it for ten minutes like there is no tomorrow!
When I saw it my first reaction was probably the same of many other: “Oh shit!”
But then I remembered that I had read a book about the story of this company. It was for personal pleasure (the book is really entertaining), but it also served me well.

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Fantastic book, much recommended.

So did I receive some superpower after passing the last exam? Do I know everything about wine, its production, its regions, its business? Sadly no. However something remains, a base on which starting to build again, to deepen my knowledge of the topic. Better things wait for me, I hope.

Rome was not built in a day.

Of barrels and impressive Japanese wines

On March 15th I went to a tasting organized by Sapporo at the Hankyu International Hotel of Osaka. I was there particularly for the seminar by Juan Munoz Oca of Columbia Crest about the different uses of oak in wine and the different resulting flavour profiles.

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It has been a very interesting seminar, quite unique: I had the chance to taste four wine made from exactly the same grape (Chardonnay), all four of them 100% MLF, but fermented in different containers, stainless steel, French oak, American Oak and 2-3 years old oak.

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The two other wines to the right were the Grand Estates Chardonnay and the H3 Chardonnay.

The difference was very clear: American oak flavour is much more towards toasted coconut, vanilla, burnt sugar, while French oak is more delicate, with more cinnamon, white flowers, spice and a lighter vanilla tone. The neutral oak differed from the unoaked sample especially in the texture (smoother and richer) while the aromas were less bright, but not really “oaky”.

Of course there are many reason why wines fermented or aged in different barrels may taste different: the size of the container, its age, the age of the tree from which it was made, the degree of toasting, the type of oak. Even the way the staves are bend (by using fire, steam or hot water) has an impact.

But why a French oak would be different from and American oak? The fact is that American oak (Quercus Alba) grows faster than French oak (be it Quercus Robur or Quercus Petraea) and this means that its grains are larger. When used to make barrel larger grained wood will imply an higher oxygen transfer rate to the liquid it contains, resulting in different flavours compared to tighter grained French oak.

After the seminar I joined the Sapporo wine tasting on the same floor.

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Between the others I could taste the 2014 Grande Polaire Pinot Noir from Yoichi, Hokkaido and I must say I finally remained impressed by a Japanese red wine. Compared to the rest of Japan, Hokkaido has a relatively low humidity, an average annual temperature of 8.1℃ and virtually no tsuyu (the rainy season between June and July). Typhoons may struck the island, but being far to the north their strength is often moderate, as they unleash their power before arriving there. The biggest problem may be in finding sufficiently exposed spots because much of it is flat and the cold temperatures require careful screening of the mesoclimate. The present vintage is made with the fruit from a contractor grower, Hirotsu Vineyard, managed by the Hirotsu family. My note on cellartracker:

Actually this is a surprisingly good wine, the best Japanese red I have had so far and worth its 4,000 yen (around 40 dollars).

Pinot Noir 100% from Hokkaido, aged for 12 months in oak (50%). Style is clearly New World, with bright fruit, crushed red berries and vanilla from the oak. Intense both on the nose and in the mouth, it also shows soft tannins and solid body, but it does not lack acidity (after all Hokkaido is not really a warm place).

It is the first time I find such concentration in a Japanese wine (the same applies to the Merlot from the same producer, though Pinot Noir is slightly more balanced). Finally something I can really recommend.

The merlot from the same series, this one from Azuminoikeda vineyard in Yamanashi, was equally good, although slightly less balanced. On the other hand the Sauvignon Blanc did not seemed to justify its price.

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Stocks are low, especially for the Pinot Noir, but if you have the chance this is one that should be tried.