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.

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.

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.

1890: “Beware the newsletters!”

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Ottavio Ottavi

“Giornale Vinicolo” (“Wine journal”) was an italian pioneeristic pubblication started by the enologist Ottavio Ottavi in 1875 and lasted for 57 years. The journal was an invaluable tool for vine growers, winemakers and winesellers, offering advices on how to grow grapes, how to treat illnesses and pests and how to avoid wine faults. Every issue examined the state of italian and foreign wine markets (sometimes focusing on specific countries) and featured reports on conventions and seminars. Its critical and scientific approach makes it a very interesting reading (the famous Antonio Carpene, founder of Carpene-Malvolti, is one of the contributors), even though some technical aspects are by now outdated.

In 1890 phylloxera was ravaging France, but north Italy too was experiencing the first outbreaks of this plague, with downy and powdery mildew posing other problems in the vineyards. The journal warned its readers by giving advice on good grapegrowing practices and reporting researches, surveys and projects aiming to stop the lethal insect. Between these I found an entertaining article titled “The 11th commandment” (N.8-23 February, Year XVI), a good insight on grape growing in the 1800s, but also a way to understand that centuries may pass, but human nature does not change. Here are some extracts I translated. My comments are marked in bold characters.

“[…] Here it is (the 11th commandment): BEWARE THE NEWSLETTERS.
Farmers receive little correspondence and so they will likely read a newsletter: they will refuse an agrarian journal, because there is too much to read; but they will pocket a newsletter, which they will then read after dinner, at the beginning of a regular digestion, in that physical and mental state when even the most unfriendly and suspicious bear becomes, without knowing it, tamer and more open to other people’s thoughts.
The newsletter is always very well made. The author, normally a big shot, completely unheard-of, but full of academic and honorary titles, starts saying that he worked and studied all of his life to relieve the poor farmers’ life. The reader already feels sympathy for this eminent stranger.
He then pities the poor farmer, forced to buy every year sulphur, strange devices, and, God forbid, the copper sulfate, which is – he states – just a palliative treatment. In fact, he continues, “copper sulfate is a slow poison that accelerate the decomposition of the vines.”
At the thought of his vines horribly decomposing, the farmer is terrified. What an horrible sight should be that of your own vines rotting! This benefactor who warned him in time deserves all his gratitude. The grape grower forgets that copper is widely used in Italy, France, Austria, America etc etc. He sees only his decomposing vines. He smells their corpse.
Finally, after having cleared the ground, gained his reader confidence and discredited the copper sulfate, the unknown but illustrious author knows that the time has come to teach his moral lesson.
Last year the moral was the Germinator (remember?), than came the Regenerator, the Duparc liquid, the phyto-pesticide fertilizer, the mineral guano (the author of the article cites various scams of his days, I am not sure of the translation, but it should give an idea of the bizarre expedients devised to make money out of the farmer naivety) and other mysterious mixtures. What is inside? Nobody knows and nobody can look into it because the disciples of the famous Descalonne would give no credit to laboratory results. (I don’t know and couldn’t find anything about this Descalonne, but the skepticism towards official science reminds me of today’s conspirationists). Buy, pay, do not question. Sola fides sufficit (in latin in the original text, “faith alone suffices” or “believing it is enough”).
The most clever ones in this exploitation of credulity (“exploitation” is in english in the original text) stolidly write that their cure will heal vine’s illness . But what illness? The one in the roots, the terrible phylloxera? The one in the leaves? The grape rot? The answer is shrouded in mistery, a cunning mystery. Every farmer uses the remedy in his own case, he buys, he pays.
Dear readers, what about a tonic to heal that disease we commonly call “man”?
So, be kind, add to your decalogue the eleventh commandment: Beware the newsletters, because this is the advice of you friend

ITALO ENOTRIO.”

I translated the original term “circolare” with “newsletter”, but really that was no more than XIX century spam. The author wits is remarkable and the article hilarious, think about the image of the farmer liken to a bear or the irony describing the scammer. The signature in the end, “Italo Enotrio”, is a pen name and a pun: both words means “Italy”, as Enotria was the country ancient name. It could also refer to Italo, ancient King of the Enotri, a pre-roman people who inhabited today’s Calabria (the tip of the “italian boot”).

I will present other articles from “Giornale Vinicolo” in the future. In the last post we saw the poor state of italian winemaking in the 1800s, but the simple fact that this journal existed means either that the situation had greatly improved in the second half of the century or that  Redding and the others were a little bit too rough in their description of italian wines.
We will see.

Reading Redding: the state of Italian wine in XIX century

There’s a popular belief in Italy that Italians basically have thought the world, and especially the French, how to really make wine. This belief is based upon what the Romans did for the spread of grapegrowing and winemaking in all Europe around 2000 years ago.
I am sure that Caesar and Probus had a great influence on ancient people drinking customs, however the wine they drank was much different from ours, sweeter, denser and often mixed with resin, honey or even salt water. Modern wine was born around XVIII century and italians played a very little part in it, at least until the late 1800s.

One of the best insight on the state of italian (and world) wine of this period was given by Redding in his “A History and Description of Modern Wines” (first published in 1833). The tenth chapter, “The wines of Italy and islands”, is a valuable source of informations on the issue.

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Italy, at the time still a divided country, has a great potential, but lacks of motivation and care.

That Italy does produce good wine is undeniable, as well as that she grows a vast deal of what is bad.

This is mainly caused by the commercial barriers between all the tiny states in the peninsula, which leaves no stimulus towards improvement.

The petty sovereignties of Italy are a blight upon her manufactures no less than upon her civilization. Many of these are shut up to themselves, as regards their production and cannot interchange with the neighboring states without a great disadvantage, owing to pernicious duties, high beyond all reasonable limit compared to the value of the article.

Thus consumption remains local and the farmer, focused on quantity over quality, has no reason the change the way he grows his grapes  or makes his wine.
The vine is trained in the high method (the so called “vite alberata” or “maritata”), letting the plant grow with far too much vigor. But there are other problems too: corn, grain and other vegetables are grown between the vines, planted on fertile low plains and never pruned. Today we will consider such vineyards a complete mess.
In the cellar the situation is even worse: the grapes are not sorted and thrown in vats till dirty from the year before, while new harvested fruit is added in the must day after day.

There are some decent wines in the country, but they are not up to their potential. Redding especially praises Naples and Tuscan wines.
Talking about the former he cites the Vino Graeco and Lacryma Christi, both sweet and rich in perfume and flavour (Lacryma Christi is described as a vin de liqueur, probably very different from the one that brings the same name today). The only wine which seems clearly recognizable is somehow unexpected.

A white mousseux wine, having a pleasant sharpness, is made on the Campagna, called Asprino (sic).

We cannot be sure, but Redding is probably talking about the Asprinio di Aversa.
As for Tuscany, its fame is already well established, a legacy that lasts until today. The relatively liberal government stimulated the landowners in improving the land and emulation spread good grape growing practices through all the region. Chianti wine is cited: Bettino Ricasoli had still to invent his famous recipe, but there seemed to be very good examples produced not far from Florence. Other interesting wines can be found in Orvieto, Monte Fiascone (“Est est est”, here called “Est est”), some parts of Sardinia and Elba.

There are very notable absentees in this list.
Sicily, today’s most dynamic wine region in south Italy, sums up well all the problems of italian wines, with just a few decent examples produced near the Etna.

Sicily produces wine in great abundance; but the same remarks which apply to the bad husbandry and vintage of Italy will apply to this island.

Marsala is  quickly dismissed as a second class Madeira at best.

Marsala, when obtained without the admixture of execrable Sicilian brandy, is an agreeable wine, something like Madeira of second class.

But the greatest surprise comes from Piedmont: in the first half of the XIX century there is still nothing comparable to modern Barolo. Juliette Colbert is already living in Piedmont and probably promoting the Langhe Nebbiolo at the Savoy court, but the wine has still to attain the fame it has today. Some decent examples are made in the part of the kingdom which today today belonging France.

Savoy and Piedmont produce red wines of tolerable quality; those of Montmelian and St. Albero, in Savoy, are among the best in the country and come from the slopes of Mont Termino and St. John de la Porte. […] The best vin de liqueur is made upon the Rhone, near Chamberry, from a Cyprus species of vine. An effervescing wine is made at Lasseraz from malvasia grape. Asti, near Marengo, and Biella, produce red wines of tolerable flavour.

No mentions of nebbiolo, barbera or moscato: the success of Piedmont wines will have to wait some decades.

Of course it would be an error to only refer to Redding on the matter: he may had a personal distaste for Italian wines or just a negative experience. But his judgement is preceded by the one from Alexander Henderson in “The history of Ancient and modern wines” (1824) (whom Redding probably used as one of his sources) and confirmed by Thomas George Shaw in “Wine, the vine, and the cellar” (1864). Shaw is a little bit more benevolent towards Marsala wines and his hopes for the future are somewhat brighter: in 1861 Italy had finally become a unite country, commercial barriers were being abolished and italian winemaking was finally waking up from its long sleep.

Conclusion
This brief post was not written to bash italian wines or Italy. On the contrary I think it offers a different perspective on today’s italian excellence in winemaking. What would Redding say now? He would surely be surprised – and pleased -.
Barolo, Barbaresco, Super Tuscans, Amarone, to name the most famous “brands”, the whites from Friuli, Taurasi, the fine sparklers from Franciacorta and Trento, Prosecco, to list another few: even though the grapes they are made of may have roots in ancient times, the form we drink them today was shaped in the second half of the XIX century or later. Chianti may fare back to the XVII or XVIII century, when Cosimo III de’ Medici delimited its production area in 1716, but its composition is unknown and was probably different from today.

Italians don’t need to look back to 2000 years ago to find glory for their wines, they don’t need to recall legends or myths from the classical age.
As Redding states:

The Falernian of Horace and the Shiraz of Hafiz are, it is too truly to be apprehended, both exaggerations (sic), if they could be placed in comparison with the delicate flavour of modern French growths of prime character; besides, who constituted them connoisseurs in wine for any but their own palates? Both wines would no doubt intoxicate and both wines were delicious to the taste of the poets and their friends; but in times when plain truth is most valuable, the probability, however much it may injure early and agreeable associations, is always to be strictly preferred. Writers who follow their predilections are apt, with little regard for other considerations, to imagine modern things deteriorated from those existing in past time. Thus some assert that the wine of the ancients was best, though they are incapable of deciding the question one way or the other. No one is justified in accrediting a fact that rests upon varying and worthless conjecture.

But Italians could at least thank their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who experimented, corrected and improved the poor winemaking and grape growing methods of their ancestors. Of course, to do this they had to learn from who, at the time, knew better than them, that is the French, towards which they have a big debt.

In this troubled times for Italy, in the economic and political uncertainty, the quality of italian wine is one of the few bright lights and one of the greatest hopes for the future. As an italian I want to hope – and I want to drink -.