Is Japanese wine overpriced?

Making wine in Japan is not easy: land costs much, labour is not cheap (with the immigration still limited and the cost of life at First World levels) and the weather is unforgiving. The rain falls at the worst moments of the year for grapegrowing: in June, during flowering, and from the first half of September, just at harvest time. And we are not talking about some light rain, but days after days of typhoons leaving a fierce humidity, oscillating between 75 and 90% for most of the Summer. Grapes (and humans) suffer this weather: much care must be employed to avoid fungal diseases and the frequent cloud cover during the last week of August and all September is not beneficial for ripening.

These are some of the reason why you will never find japanese wine in Japan as cheap as, for example, french wine in France or italian wine in Italy. Full bottles under 1000 yen (around 8 euros) are very likely made from imported must fermented inside the Country.

However even an expensive wine could it be acceptable if the quality is good. So is Japanese wine worth its price? This is what I will try to find in a series of posts where I’ll compare two wines, one from Japan and one from a different Country. The wines will have more or less the same price, they will be of the same colour and possibly they won’t be too different in style. They will be tasted “semi-blind”, i.e. I will know the wines, but not in which glass they are poured.

For the first comparison I chose the following wines:

  • Château Mercian Ensemble Moegi 2015 (Chardonnay and Koshu blend)
  • Kaltern Alto Adige Chardonnay 2015

Both are sold at a retail price of 1800 yen (w/o tax) for both (around 16 american dollars or 15 euros).

Notice that I didn’t know anything about these wines except their price, cépage and the information you can get by reading the front label (producer, vintage, region).

The tasting notes:

  1. The first wine is pale lemon in colour, with aromas of medium intensity. The nose is fresh and reminds lemon, lime, fresh stone fruits, with hints of herbs and flowers (chamomile).
    Dry in the mouth, with crispy persistent acidity and an overall medium intensity and weight.
  2. The second wine is pale lemon as well, but distinctly riper. Aroma is more intense than the first with ripe scents of ripe stone fruit (peach) and crunchy yellow apple with nutty, vanilla aromas probably from oak ageing and hints of cheese and yogurt from MLF.
    The palate is dry, still with good acidity, though not as fresh as the first. The ripe fruit and savoury oak derived flavours mirrors the aromatic profile. Good length, but light bitterness from the oak in the aftertaste.

In the end they were similar, but the different winemaking processes resulted in different flavour profiles. They were both good, but if I have to take into account intensity and complexity, wine number two was slightly better, even with the aftertaste bitterness from the oak. A decent oaked-but-not-too-oaky wine for a relatively low price. To be honest it reminded me of Trentino Chardonnay from Bollini (including the bitterness) and thus I presumed the first wine to be the Japanese one and the second to be the Chardonnay from Kaltarn.

I was wrong: to my surprise the wine I scored slightly better (number two) was the Château Mercian. It seems that Moegi undergoes fermentation and ageing partly in stainless steel and partly in oak, though the producer site does not specify how much of the wood is new.

Now we could question terroir expressiveness: does Moegi show a specificity, a peculiarity linking it to the place where it has been made? The answer is no. The grapes are fetched from three different prefectures (Nagano, Yamanashi and Fukushima -yup, that one-) far apart, thus it may be treated like a Southeastern Australia GI. This choice makes much sense: as quality grape growing is difficult in Japan, blending grapes from various areas is a smart way of improving final quality. But we cannot really identify a terroir here.

The Alto Adige Kaltarn is still not very descriptive of its origin, but at least it matches with the cool climate image of this region and offers a (very broad) reference.

Conclusion

The first experiment ended with an interesting discovery, as oak aged wines cheaper than 2000 yen are not that easy to find in this market (Chile being an important exception). While it does feel a bit “manufactured” (= made by blending grapes from different area to meet the expectations of the consumers at a reasonable price), it nonetheless does its honest job. Since not everyone is interested in terroir, I can imagine it to be served by the glass in a casual setting.

Of course I cannot say if Japanese wine is overpriced or not with this simple experiment, but what I can say about Château Mercian Moegi is that at least no more overpriced than a similarly priced Kaltarn Chardonnay from Alto Adige.

 

Taille chablis: an explanation

There is not much on the internet about this pruning system, but since it is known to come out on the WSET Unit 5 exam, I thought I could summarize some of the findings and try to explain it in the simplest way possible. Since I am no viticulturist take this post with a grain of salt.

First, the picture:

taillechablis1

Another image (this has also labels):

Taille Chablis

My explanation:

Developed in Chablis, it is now mostly used in Champagne, particularly for Chardonnay (over 90% of the plantings).

Taille chablis is a bush vine system with a low stump from where the arms of the vine depart in a kind of fan shape. The first arm is called rachet and is a short spur with two buds which will not bear fruit in the current season, but will grow sprigs to use in the next one. The second is called lancement and is the development of last year rachet, a fruitful shoot bearing five buds. Then we have one to four older branches composed by two parts: a lower part called charpent (originally a lancement), made by wood more than one year old, and a higher fruitful part called prolongement with five buds. The following year the prologement will be more than one year old and become part of the charpent. The branches must be at least 30cm apart from each other.

When the charpent becomes too long, “invading” the space of the neighbouring plant, it is cut altogether.

Advantages:

  • It retains a good percentage of old wood, but at the same time the cordons are always relatively young. This allows on one hand the storage of reserve carbohydrates for the plant, on the other it guarantees more resistance to frost. Furthermore the constant replacement of the older wood may prevent infections and diseases to become established.
  • It is particularly good for Chardonnay: it is common for this variety to have the first two buds on the shoots unfruitful, thus the remaining three assures an adequate harvest.

Disadvantages

  • It requires a certain degree of skill and experience for pruning.
  • More time consuming than guyot.

Sources:

http://veni-vidi-viti.trefadog.com/2012/02/chablis-pruning-in-uk.html?m=1

http://www.vigneron-champagne.com/2005/12/24/taille-chablis-champagne-pruning/

http://www.peterliem.com/2008/03/training-vines-in-champagne-chardonnay.html?m=1

Louis Oudart, the French oenologist who invented Barolo. Or did he?

The “Oudart thesis”

There is a widespread belief that Barolo (by which term I mean the modern style, a red dry wine made from Nebbiolo grape in the surroundings of the town bearing the same name) has been invented by a French oenologist from Champagne, Louis Oudart. The story is reported by many reliable sites like Diwine Taste (here in English) or AIS Lombardia (the Lombard division of the Italian Sommelier Association) and even the recent “History of Wine in 100 Bottles” by Oz Clarke crowns Oudart as the inventor of this iconic wine (I still don’t understand how it is possible to write a book on wine history without any bibliography or references, but that’s another story).

This theory, taken as fact by many, was popularized by Manescalchi and Dalmasso’s “Storia della vite e del vino in Italia” (History of the vine and the wine in Italy), first published in 1937. I could not examine the original book or one of its later editions, but the story goes more or less like this.

Just before the half of the XIX century (around 1843) the famous Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, aiming to improve the quality of his wines, called Oudart to his estate in Grinzane. The count had a deep interest in agricolture and saw the technical improvement in this field as functional to support the kingdom’s finances. He was also Minister of Agriculture and Commerce for the Kingdom of Sardinia from 1850 to 1852.

Camillo Benso, count of Cavour

Camillo Benso, count of Cavour

Juliette Colbert of Maulévrier was one of his acquaintance: a noble woman born not far from Nantes, she was married to Carlo Ippolito Ernesto Tancredi Maria Falletti di Barolo (also known as Tancredi Falletti, marquis of Barolo). The two were a very good couple and though they never had any child they loved each other dearly. Juliette (Giulia Falletti di Barolo after marriage) also liked a good glass of wine, but the one produced in the Barolo area had too much residual sugar and was probably fizzy: Nebbiolo is a late ripening grape and the must fermentation probably stopped in winter to restart in spring, rarely coming to its end. Italy had still to achieve greatness in this field and its wines could not rival the french nectar that Juliette longed for.
She then consulted with his friend Camillo Benso asking for advice and the count introduced her to Louis Oudart, his french enologist. Louis Oudart examined the Falletti estates (in the area of Barolo) and corrected the wine making process by giving a number of advices, recommending to control the fermentation temperature in order to avoid residual sugar in the final wine. The Marquise was so satisfied by the result that she started promoting it passionately. Thanks to her the wine entered the court of Carlo Alberto of Savoy, king of Sardinia and prince of Piedmont, conquering the monarch and pushing him to acquire an estate in Verduno to start his own production.

When I first read this story I was very intrigued: as I wrote in the first post of this blog, many people wrongly perceive the history of italian wine as a long and uninterrupted line linking the Roman Empire with what we drink today. Too many Italians ignore the debit our wine has towards France. What would have been better to highlight this than crediting two French, Oudart and Juliette, for the invention of Barolo itself?
I started searching for sources and found a fantastic book from Anna Riccardi Candiani, “Louis Oudart e vini nobili del Piemonte” (Louis Oudart and the noble wines of Piedmont). My intention was too write a simple post re-telling the story and presenting some evidence, but the reality was a bit more complicated.

To tell the life of Louis Oudart the author has made deep researches, consulting archives and original documents from the civil registry of Reims, Bordeaux, Genova, the archives of the Royal Academy of Agricolture of Turin and others.
Louis Oudart was not just an enologist moved by academic interest, he was a wine merchant based in Genova leading the Maison Oudart et Bruché. In Burgundy we would call him a négociant, buying grapes or wine in the Ligurian and Piedmontese backcountry, bottling it and selling the final product. He had came to Italy with his cousin Jacques Philippe Bruché and had started his activity in Genova because of its healthy and flourishing french community. He was of course competent in his job and knew much about grape growing, but did not receive any special call by Cavour or Juliette Colbert.

At page 47 Candiani presents her shocking revelation (my translation):

Since many years the vox populi identifies Oudart as the inventor of Barolo wine. He would have been supposedly called by Giulia Colbert in Falletti, french like him, to work in the cellars of Barolo. Even though I made extensive research in archives and libraries, I did not find any document crediting a link between the enologist and Barolo. I am sorry to disappoint the supporters of this rumor and I must declare that the story has no basis.

The book is short (126 pages), but very informative and entertaining. If you can read italian I heartily recommend it.
Candiani tells us that Louis Oudart corresponded for some time with the Royal House and negotiated for the grapes produced in the estate of Pollenzo (personal resort of king Carlo Alberto). His 1844 Pollenzo featured in an international fair of London in 1862 with excellent results, but the parts could not reach an agreement over the price of grapes and the collaboration didn’t go further.
The enologist seems much more involved in the production of  Nebbiolo from Neive, today in the Barbaresco area, where he worked as an advisor for the count Camillo Bongiovanni di Castelborgo. The dry 1858 Nebbiolo from the maison Oudart and Bruché was particularly appreciated at the 1861 national exposition of Firenze and at the London International Exhibition of 1862: it had been made from grapes made into must and fermented until completion. An innovative technique, though it is difficult to establish if Louis Oudart has been the first to introduce it.

The “Staglieno thesis”

So if Oudart is not the inventor of Barolo, who is the father of this wine? One of the main suspects is Paolo Francesco Staglieno, a retired general who worked as enologist in the Pollenzo estate (the same with which Oudart had negotiated unsuccessfully the price of the grapes) and Grinzane, where he was called by Camillo Benso of Cavour in 1836 (and stayed until 1840). (1)

Supporters of the “Oudart thesis” often cite Staglieno by claiming that, although he was active in the same period in the area, his style of Barolo was “abboccato” (medium sweet), as opposed to the alleged dry Barolo of Oudart. This is much strange (and probably wrong) because Staglieno in his “Istruzione intorno al miglior modo di fare e conservare i vini in Piemonte” (Instructions on the best way to make and preserve wines in Piedmont, 1837) clearly states at page 68 that the best wine is made by fermenting the must to completion, without leaving any residual sugar. If he put, as it is very likely, his theories into practice and provided that he used 100% Nebbiolo, he could legitimately be called the inventor or at least one of the earliest vintners of modern Barolo. (2)
I could not find any documentation attesting the use of Nebbiolo in Grinzane, but writing about the estate of Pollenzo Staglieno confirms that the majority of the grapes grown there were in fact Nebbiolo and adds that wines made from this variety must age at least for four years before becoming enjoyable to the palate. (3) Pollenzo is in Bra, outside the area of modern Barolo production, but Staglieno shows appreciation for the grape and he may have employed it in Grinzane.

Conclusion

I started my research with the intention of making a simple post on Oudart, Juliette Colbert and Barolo, but in the end I could not find an answer to the question “Who invented Barolo?”.
Was it Staglieno? Maybe, though we cannot exclude the presence of someone else, unrecorded by history, making a dry red wine from Nebbiolo in the Langhe before him. Probably it is like trying to find the inventor of the méthode champenois: was he an english merchant, a monk from Limoux or what else? Impossible to say.
What we can say is that the XIX century was a very exciting period, one which really shaped the wine we drink today. Knowledge on how to make good wine was being passed all over Europe (and beyond), reaching the rolling hills of central Piedmont where people slowly started to improve their product by lengthening fermentations, giving more care to winery hygiene and choosing more suitable grape varieties. The disaster (oidium, phylloxera, peronospora) was behind the corner, but the seeds were being planted and the fruit is inside our glasses every day.

(1) Here a fantastic source on Staglieno. His presence in Grinzane is attested in a letter by the count of Cavour from September 22nd, 1836.

(2) Notice that today Grinzane is legally inside the Barolo wine area.

(3) The aforementioned resource on Staglieno at page 130 reports the extract, sourcing it from the Archivio di Stato di Torino (AST, Casa di S.M., M. 2591/1. Verduno 16 december 1839).

 

Facts and opinions on Alsace Grand Cru system

This is another piece I wrote for my WSET studies. It is not that deep, but I hope it can be useful.

The Alsatian Grand Cru is a set of 51 AOCs providing for particular rules stricter than the basic Alsace AOC and applying to limited areas recognized as particularly suitable for viticulture and capable of producing superior wines.

The system started as a single AOC in 1975 with the concession of the status to the Schlossberg lieu-dit and was further expanded in 1983, 1992 and 2007. In 2011 each Grand Cru became a single AOC. The higher quality should be guaranteed on one part by the vineyards, ideally placed in favourable locations, both from a climatic and a geological point of view, and on another part from the more rigorous rules governing grape growing and winemaking: yields are normally lower, with a maximum limit of 55 hl/ha, the density of plantation is at least 4500 vines/ha and various dispositions control (between the others) canopy proportions, pruning limits and minimum sugar levels. Chaptalization and acidification are not permitted. Only four grapes (so called “noble”) are admitted in Alsace Grand Cru and they must compose 100% of the blend: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. However there are exceptions (Altenberg de Bergheim, Kaefferkopf, Zotzenberg).

Though the system is widespread in the region, there has been a good amount of criticism towards it. Some growers and some cooperatives are accused of producing wines of mediocre quality, just cashing on the “Grand Cru” title, but the biggest issue lies in the appellations themselves. In a very interesting article, Olivier Humbrecht MW writes that “At the time of the classification process, many Alsace producers didn’t perhaps understood fully the concept of terroir as precisely as it was done for example in Burgundy.”. For Hugel, one of the most famous wineries to have boycotted the system, the Grand Crus are too much and their boundaries inadequate: in an interview featured in the June 2015 issue of Decanter Marc Hugel states that “If the classification had been honest it would have taken one minute, because everyone knew where the boundaries should have been.” He is echoed by his nephew Jean Frédéric, for whom “There should probably be 20 Grand Crus, and the rest should be Premier Crus.” Indeed some AOCs are really enormous: Schlossberg reaches 80 ha, but vineyards of 60 or 70 ha are not rare. Such a large area may host a very wide range of meso-climates, thus rendering the “single vineyard” title almost meaningless. Furthermore some plots are only of moderate quality and truly shine only when planted with one or two varieties. Of course wines of quality are produced, but much depends on the attitude of the single grower.

Maybe in an attempt to resolve these problems, a 2001 decree has been issued giving more power to the locale syndicates to improve quality of their respective lieu-dits (the so called “gestion locale”). The basic limits are fixed by law, but producers may decide for example to increase the minimum ripeness level, lower yields, increase vine density and even introduce new grape varieties for Grand Cru status (limited to the vineyard in question). Thus a Pinot Noir “Grand Cru” is theoretically possible.

Indeed the absence of this red variety from the Grand Cru varieties roster is puzzling: why such a noble grape, capable of producing the most fine wines of the world, should not considered “noble” in Alsace? The legislation is probably outdated, a legacy of a time before global warming had become an evident issue and when the optimum ripening level of Pinot Noir grapes was still below the Alsace region. A human factor may also be pointed out: for Marcel Orford Williams, buyer at The Wine Society, Alsatians lost the skills for top red winemaking due to the cyclical long wars that devastated the area. The low reputation of Alsace Pinot Noir when the regulation was outlined may have persuaded law-makers to exclude it from the “noble varieties”. However this situation persists, despite the fact that unofficially Pinot Noir Grand Cru wines already exist, they simply can’t be labelled as such: Albert Mann Pinot Noir Grand H or Paul Blanck Pinot Noir F are two examples, respectively from Hengst and Furstentum Grand Crus.

There is much need for a review of the rules in Alsace Grand Cru AOCs. The “gestion locale” seems to be a good tool to adapt the rules to the evolving reality of the world of wine, but since its inception criticism has not faded (and 14 years have already passed). Revision of the vineyards boundaries, the yields, the allowed varieties, maybe introduction of a multiple levels system: there is much for the Alsatians winemakers to consider. If they care.

Leone De Castris, king of Salento markets shelves

I spent the last six days in the Salento peninsula, the heel of Italy’s boot, in Apulia region. I was on vacation, visiting relatives and the land of my ancestors. I more or less make a trip there once a year, but normally I content myself with the daily wines of my grandfather, rustic reds made of Negramaro and Malvasia Nera with a decent structure, but showing peculiar aromas of barnyard and countryside whom probably many modern tasters would not appreciate.
This time I decided to explore the big names, aiming at relatively expensive wines I would not normally consume in Japan. Nothing too fancy, bottles that you can find at your average supermarket, but above the basic stuff.
In Salento any grocery store will showcase its own selection of Leone De Castris wines. This company was founded in 1925, when Piero Francesco Leone married Anna Luisa Filippa De Castris and is located in Salice Salentino, north-west of Lecce. Today it produces a wealth of different wines, all in Apulia and especially in the Salento area. These wines are so ubiquitous in the shops of Lecce province, and so different in style, that I really don’t understand why I never saw them in Japan. I know that Nihon Liquor imports some, but my only encounter with Leone De Castris in Japan was when I ordered a terrible Locorotondo 2012, a very disappointing green, stalky, tart white wine and a complete waste of money. It seemed fair to give this company another chance and I was happy I did so: I could not taste every bottling, but the selection is very diverse and the price reasonable. Some of them could be valid alternatives to New World warm climate wines, others are more peculiar. I think that they should have more space on japanese market shelves

The official site is under construction, but I recommend this very informative producer profile on Diwine Taste.

Now on with the tasting notes.

2010 Leone de Castris Salice Salentino Riserva 89

Red, made from Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera.
Blackberry, black cherry, some spice and toast with earthy hints.
Good structure on the palate, medium plus body and tannin (which are quite ripe and do not stand in the way) and medium acidity.
The earthy character may not please everyone, but I find it interesting.

2010 Leone de Castris Donna Lisa Salento IGT 94

White, made from Malvasia Bianca.
Yummy and delicious. The medium gold colour announces intensity and ripeness and indeed the wine is plumpy: very ripe (almost jammy) apricot, peach, exotic fruits (mango) with hints of flowers, hazelnuts and honey after some time in the glass. Medium plus intensity both on the nose and on the palate, medium acidity and medium plus body. Good length and aftertaste of vanilla. It somehow reminded me of Huber Weissburgunder, but more fatty and tropical. Very nice in its genre, it could be a valid alternative also to warm climate Chardonnay.

2011 Leone de Castris il lemos Salento IGT  95

Red, Syrah 100%. 20 euros at the supermarket (in Apulia, where it is made), I think it could fetch the double in Japan.
This is a very soft and seducing style which somehow reminded me of Domaine Serene Rockblock Sono. Red cherry and red plum on the nose, with hints of cloves, toast and chocolate. Velvety in the mouth, full body with medium acid and medium plus ripe tannins. Long finish reminding again chocolate and vanilla.

This is undoubtly a New World style wine: technically perfect, it may be a little too “international”. Excellent nonetheless.

2014 Leone de Castris Messapia Salento IGT 87

White, made from Verdeca.
Aromas of jasmine, mint, green apple and pear and unripe pineapple. Medium plus acidity and medium body, some fresh herbal bitterness in the aftertaste.
Pleasant and fresh, not bland, it shows some personality and offers a set of enjoyable flavours.

2013 Leone de Castris Primitivo di Manduria Villa Santera 87

Red, from Primitivo.
Probably made from overripe grapes. It shows aromas of red plum jam, raisin and a bit of cinnamon and cacao.
In the mouth it has a perceivable sweetness, with medium plus body and medium acidity. Tannins are medium and very soft.
Sirupy wine, but it lacks some tannic structure. Very juicy.