What’s the Fuss About Biodynamics?

By Margaret Elderfield

I’m frequently asked how often I can tell whether a wine is made from organically grown grapes or not. The answer is more or less never. But the same is not true of wines from biodynamically grown vineyards. I do find that the latter often have an extra dimension of vitality.” – Jancis Robinson (jancisrobinson.com)

With Olivier Humbrecht joining us for a winemaker dinner later this month, it’s a great moment to focus on biodynamics, the movement Olivier embraced in the mid 1990s.

What is it?

Biodynamics is a farming philosophy that dates back to the early 1920s. 

It was introduced by an Austrian chap called Rudolph Steiner, who set out a grand vision for boosting the health of crops and livestock in a series of lectures. Steiner advocated a natural, holistic approach to farming. He saw the farm as a living, self-sustaining organism. By using natural preparations instead of chemicals, working in harmony with the cycles of the moon and the planets, and maintaining the right diversity of plants and animals, soil health would be enriched and revitalised. In turn, the crops depending on that soil would thrive, and so would the animals eating those crops.

His philosophy also incorporated mystical and spiritual elements. In Steiner’s vision,  biodynamics could harness the cosmic energy of the universe into self-sustaining farms that were teeming with vital life essences.

Zind-Humbrecht, Biodynamics, Alsace, Wine

Horse-drawn ploughing at biodynamic estate Zind-Humbrecht

Biodynamics and Fine Wine

So how did Steiner’s teachings make their way into the fine wine world?  

Fast forward to the 1980s. Only a handful of winemakers had started to use biodynamics (led by Francois Bouchet and Nicolas Joly in the Loire).

A microbiologist working for the French government named Claude Bourguignon grabbed the headlines.  He complained that the soil of the great domains in Burgundy – after years of spraying the vineyards with herbicides – now had less microbial life “than sand in the Sahara desert”.  He freely admitted to winemakers that he didn’t understand exactly how biodynamics worked, but he’d seen that biodynamic vineyards had soils rich in microbial life, and vines with deeper, stronger root systems.

His ideas resonated with some of the top producers in Burgundy, including the great Anne-Claude Leflaive. In an effort to improve wine quality, she began experimenting with organic and biodynamic methods at Domaine Leflaive, and giving blind tastings to professionals in the industry.  When taster after taster preferred the biodynamic wine, she had all the evidence she needed to set about converting the entire domain to biodynamic methods.

Anne Claude Leflaive, Burgundy, Winemaker

Anne-Claude Leflaive

Over time, the methodology spread, and momentum has been building since the 1990s.   Many top flight winemakers throughout the world have converted to biodynamic. And nowadays there are two well-known institutes (Demeter and Biodyvin) who inspect and certify biodynamic wine estates.

So Does it Really Work?

Most of the scientific community is skeptical – they see biodynamics as more of a “religion” than a scientifically proven way to improve crops.

But it’s impossible to ignore the incredible quality of wines from domains like Chateau Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Domaines Leflaive and Leroy in Burgundy, Jacques Selosse in Champagne and Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace. 

Is it mystical forces at work?  Or is it because these winegrowers have to work harder to keep the vines healthy without resorting to chemical sprays?  Either way, it’s worth getting to know these wines.

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Think Pink

Well done to all who managed to stick to your dry January resolutions. Only one of our team at Clos & Cru attempted it this year, and she very nearly made it. (Charlie, your willpower is awe inspiring for having ‘slipped’ on merely one occasion!)

As February rolls around (and Valentine’s Day nears), our own thoughts are rolling around to rose champagne, as they do every year at this time. Honestly, what’s not to like? Flavours range from the merest hint of elegant raspberry to pastry and sweet spice. Not to mention the gorgeous range of colours – pale salmon to deepest rose.

But how do winemakers achieve that pink colour?

There are 2 main ways.

Assemblage

A.k.a. Blending. By far the most widely used method in Champagne. The winemaker produces a ‘blanc’ champagne in the normal way. Then, before the second fermentation in bottle, they blend in a portion of still red wine (anywhere from 5% to 20%) until they achieve the right colour and flavour profile.

The trick here is getting a still red wine of high quality. And in enough quantity. The Champagne is a northerly region, and the red grape varietals – Pinot Noir and Meunier – don’t always ripen to perfection. They’re also more prone to rot in humid weather than Chardonnay, the region’s white grape.

Pinot Grapes Champagne Roederer

Healthy Pinot grapes   © Louis Roederer

Charles Heidsieck’s non-vintage Rose Reserve – winner of a Gold medal at the Sommelier Wine Awards for 2016 – is a great place to start for anyone wanting to try an assemblage rose champagne.

Saignee

A.k.a. Bleeding. In this method, the winemaker allows the skins from the red grapes to macerate with the juice for a short period before pressing. Just long enough to “bleed” some pink colour into the juice from the skins, but not so long as to make a red wine. Once the saignee is complete, the winemaker makes the champagne as normal.

The challenge is having the knowledge and experience to judge exactly how long to bleed the colour before the wine is even made. Contact with skins doesn’t just bring colour, it brings other aromas, flavours and textures. Too little contact, and the house style might not be achieved. A fraction too long, and vegetal or bitter notes could creep into the finished champagne.

Cristal Rose, the prestige vintage cuvee from Louis Roederer, is made with this method, and is a favourite of top champagne critic Richard Juhlin. The 1979 vintage still features on his list of all-time favourite champagnes ever tasted – at 99 pts out of 100.

Tasting with Dominique Demarville

By Margaret Elderfield

Ask any chef. The right seasoning is essential to creating a great dish.  And according to Dominique Demarville, the cellar master at Veuve Clicquot, winemakers need their own ‘seasoning’ to assemble great wines.

Dominique was in London last week for the launch of Veuve Clicquot’s 2008 Vintage. In between sharing the latest news from Champagne and presenting the wines, he explained his rationale for reintroducing oak into the vintage wine.

Veuve Clicquot, Champagne, Dominique Demarville

Dominique Demarville

For some time, he had been wanting to expand the range of vins clairs going into the vintage – to have more types of “seasoning” to use “like a chef”. When he is making the non-vintage, he can select from a broad array of reserve wines dating back years. Adding small doses of these complex, characterful wines can bring amazing complexity to the final blend. But to produce the vintage, he is limited to the raw materials from that year alone.

Reintroduction of oak

So starting in 2007, they purchased a range of oak foudres, large casks of 55-75hl in size, with capacity for temperature control. The oak is sourced from French forests in the Vosges, Alliers, Fontainebleau and the centre of France.

Being able to chose from tank-fermented and cask-fermented wines has given Dominique a wider palette of flavours and textures to choose from, with greater complexity in the final wine.

Dominique stressed that the use of oak is minimal (only around 5% of the 2008 vintage wine saw any oak, rising to around 12% for 2012), and he will only consider oak fermentation for the grapes “with the biggest shoulders”, i.e. fruit that can take well to oak without being dominated by it.  In practice, this includes the very ripest grapes, typically harvested early in the vintage and often from the older vines.

To illustrate his point, he poured us several vins clairs from 2015 – Chardonnay from Cramant, Meunier from Villedommange and Pinot Noir from Bouzy. For each village, we tasted tank- and cask-fermented wines side by side. In each case, the cask-fermented wines had subtle but recognisable touches from the oak – slightly more roundness and breadth in the middle palate, and a bit more aromatic complexity. Dominique also likes the greater fruit length from cask fermentation.

Veuve Clicquot, Champagne, vintage

He has no plans to introduce oak for the Grande Dame at the moment. According to Dominique, La Grande Dame is all about the pursuit of freshness and silkiness. He selects grapes with a very different fruit profile than the Vintage.  With the Vintage, he is aiming to achieve power and complexity, as well as freshness and silkiness.

Veuve Clicquot 2008 Vintage wines

The 2008 Vintage overall has given wines of crisp acidity with great delicacy of structure. Dominique believes it will be a superb vintage for ageing potential.

Weather-wise, the early season in 2008 was cool and rainy in the spring.  From flowering onwards there were good weather conditions, with hot days reaching 24-25C, and cool nights of less than 10C.  The harvest at Veuve Clicquot took place from 14th September to 10th October – a very long harvest due to the very favourable weather conditions, so they could pick at the best moment.  In bad years they will be forced to pick fairly early to avoid botrytis, but this was not the case in 2008.  On average, the grapes came in at 9.8 degrees of potential alcohol, 8.6 total acidity, with pH of 2.96.

Vintage Rose is a very important and growing category for Veuve Clicquot, accounting for 30% of all vintage sales (compared with 8-9% for non-vintage).  Dominique even has two full-time winemakers making only red wines. They share a winemaking facility dedicated to reds in the Cote des Bar with Moet.

Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008 – from bottle
61% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay, 5% Meunier.
Nose: Fresh, with some development. Nutty, biscuity, white peach.
Palate: Lovely texture and mouthfeel. Apple, fruity, yeasty, creamy dairy. Saline minerality. A honeyed quality to the fruit. Complexity and intensity. Drinking well now, sufficiently open. 95 pts.

Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008 – from magnum
Nose: Very closed in comparison. Apple, lemon, some yeasty notes, but less overt than bottle sample.
Palate: Fruity, some citrus fresh lemon and ripe grapefruit, some more tropical fruit notes, with hint of spice.  Seems too young, not open yet. 93 pts.

Veuve Clicquot Vintage Rose 2008 vintage – from bottle
61% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay, 5% Meunier. Contains 14% still red wine from Bouzy.
Medium salmon pink in colour.
Nose is fruity and autolytic, apple and light red fruits, some apricot. Nutty and bready also, opening to dairy.
Palate: Dominant portion of pinot noir immediately evident. Steely base note, cherries, lemon, apricot. Crisp, mineral with some creaminess. Balanced. Gentle bitterness on the back palate, typical of Bouzy reds.  One to have with food ideally. 93 pts.

Next Vintages and a Superb Cave Privee

Dominique confirmed that 2012 and 2015 will be the next Veuve Clicquot vintages.  He said that although they typically have enough quality grapes to produce more vintage wines, there are no plans to raise the current average of around 3 vintages per decade. This is because they want sufficient quantity of reserve wines to maintain the style of the non-vintage.

To finish, we were treated to a glass of Veuve Clicquot 1989 Cave Privee from jeroboam, disgorged in January 2014. This delicious wine is drinking perfectly now.  It was made by former cellar master Pierre Peters, who confided to Dominique that it was a personal favourite.

1989 Veuve Clicquot Cave Privee – from jeroboam
Disgorged January 2014.
Medium gold.
Mature honeyed nose, with smoky and coffee notes, bruised apple.
Palate beautifully complex and powerful. Honeyed and silky.  Apple peel with tangerine acidity. Finely textured with excellent length of fruit. Lovely bitter twist on the finish. Mature. Autolytic character strong but well integrated. 98 pts.

Veuve Clicquot 1989 Cave Privee with canapes

Thanks to Dominique for sharing so much of his time and his winemaking wisdom. And to all the team at Veuve Clicquot for the delicious Cave Privee and canapes!

The Art of Assemblage at Charles Heidsieck

By Martyn Zemavicius

Regular readers will know how much we at Clos & Cru love Maison Charles Heidsieck (see My Top 3 Estate Visits).

So I was excited to attend their recent masterclass in London focusing on the art of blending, known by the French term assemblage.  Held in a lovely light-filled room at the English National Opera, the class was presented by Stephen Leroux, executive director of Charles Heidsieck. Stephen comes from a long line of champenois, going back generations. (His great-grandfather – a champagne negociant in Aube – was an organiser in the Champagne Riots in the early 20th century.)

The Vins Clairs

The creation of champagne begins with the raw material known as vins clairs. These are still wines from the latest vintage made from single varieties and parcels. They can be very high in acid, as they contain no dosage and have not yet undergone their second fermentation and maturation in bottle. Stephen joked that cellar masters consider their vins clairs like children. They want to watch them grow and develop, and are always reluctant to part with them.

The mature vins clairs are called ‘reserve wines’. Adding them judiciously to a blend, the winemaker can add nuance and complexity, just as a chef uses herbs and spices to season a dish.  Some of the reserve wines available for blending would have been made by a previous cellar master from years ago, and there may be very little left.  To use up the last of a particularly rare reserve wine can be a bit of an emotional separation for the chef de cave.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve

Samples of Vins Clairs

We began the class by tasting single-cru vins clairs from the 2015 vintage.  The Chardonnay from Oger was very mineral, yet also fruit-driven.  The Meunier from Verneuil had a beautiful floral, rose petal quality, with notes of apricot.  

Then we tasted three different vins clairs from Pinot Noir.  The first sample, from Ambonnay, had an opulent raspberry earthy nose and an elegant grapefruity palate that could easily have been mistaken for Chardonnay. The second sample, from Ay, was powerfully fragrant, with a luscious red fruit juice character and some discernible tannin.  The final sample of Pinot Noir came from Verzy. Beneath its aromas of earthy dark fruit, it had a steely minerality.

Next we tasted a mature reserve wine, a 1996 Chardonnay from Cramant.  This was stunning for its length and its aromatic freshness, almost muscat-like but with grapefruit notes. It illustrated the complexity that can come with ageing a great vin clair in tank for a decade.

That was followed by our first blend of the day – the final blend vin clair of the Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve.  The blend consisted of roughly equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, with 60% from the 2015 vintage, and 40% reserve wines from 1996-2009.  The nose was stunning, with plum and floral aromatics.  And the complex flavours on the palate included grapefruit, plummy cherries, and an earthy minerality.

The Finished Champagnes

We ended the class by tasting finished champagnes from across the range (full tasting notes & scores below), including a vinotheque release of the 1985 Blanc des Millenaires that can only be described as heavenly.  

One bit of news we can share for fans of Maison Charles.  Stephen confirmed that the house is preparing to relaunch its vinotheque range of champagnes.  The relaunch is scheduled for late this year or early next year, with new packaging and branding. Coinciding with the launch will be a big auction of vinotheque champagne at Christie’s – an event that collectors will certainly want to look out for.

Charles Heidsieck Rose Reserve NV (2008 base)
Roughly equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier from the base year, with 20% reserve wines and 5% still red wine, of which 95% comes from Les Riceys. Disgorged in 2015.
On the nose elegant raspberry, floral violets and chocolate notes.
Palate is elegant, so delicious, powerful but with finesse at the same time. Long finish, amazing. 93 pts

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV (2008 base)
Roughly equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier from the base year, with 40% reserve wines. Disgorged 2014.
Nose: lemon tart, almonds, brioche, earthy chanterelle mushrooms.
Palate is amazingly complex, lemon tart, brioche, rich texture, long finish. 93+ pts

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Rose Millenaires

Charles Heidsieck Millesime 2005
60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay.  11 village crus were used to make the final blend for 2005 (including Mailly and Ambonnay for Pinot Noir; and Oger, Avize, Vertus and Cramant for Chardonnay).
Nose: Salty caramel, bruised apple, freshly cut field mushrooms and lemon tart.
Palate has a pleasant and creamy texture, ripe sicilian lemons. Something a touch artificial, but in a nice way. 90 pts

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1995
100% Chardonnay from 4 Grand Cru villages (Avize, Oger, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cramant) and 1 Premier Cru (Vertus).  Disgorged 2014
Complex nose with honey, mineral notes, gunpowder, apricots, orange blossom, jasmine, apple, pear. Mind-blowing nose!
Palate is pure, elegant, fruity, honey, nutty with almonds. So long. 95+ pts

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1985 (Vinotheque)
Disgorged in late 1998 or early 1999 for the millennium. The 1985 vintage had a terrible winter, with temperatures of -15C for a month. 20% of the vines were killed, leading to a very small harvest.
Nose: Incredible depth of aromas, with honey, nuts, brioche, forest mushrooms, rye bread with sunflower seeds.
Creamy texture on the palate, and very complex: walnuts, sultanas, dry apples and amazingly long. Champagne sent from heaven! 98 pts

Charles Heidsieck Champagne Stephen Leroux

Martyn with Stephen Leroux

Our Thanks

Thanks again to Stephen and his team for liberating those samples of vin clair from the cellar! A most informative tasting. Only a generous soul could have shared that heavenly Blanc des Millenaires 1985.

A Visit from Mark Haisma

By Rostislav Petrov
 We were happy to have a visit at the Clos & Cru offices yesterday from Mark Haisma. He is an Australian making wonderful wines in Burgundy. He started going to the region in 2007, and has been based there full time since 2009. Rather than buying land himself, which is extraordinarily expensive in Burgundy, Mark works with growers and buys their grapes to produce his wines. He even likes to put name of the grower on the label (if they give him permission), which is rather unusual.
Burgundy Cornas Mark Haisma 2013

Mark Haisma

His wines are very fruit forward, but also terroir-driven. We tasted several 2013s with him, and they were great – despite the challenge of difficult weather conditions.
Mark also produces some Cornas, using the winemaking facilities of the up-and-coming Cornas star, Vincent Paris.
Thanks, Mark, for sharing your delicious wines.
Burgundy Cornas Mark Haisma 2013

The 2013s of Mark Haisma

Birthplace of the Rarest of Ports

By Margaret Elderfield

Standing in the shade of a 200 year old cedar tree on the terrace, high above Pinhao, it’s easy to imagine that nothing has changed here for over a century.  TerrQuinta do Noval Port Douroaced vineyards hug the curving landscape as far as the eye can see, and it’s only the metal roof of the temperature-controlled storage facility further down the hill that gives a hint we are living in the modern world.

I’ve come to Quinta do Noval, the birthplace of the rarest of ports – the Nacional – a monopole vintage port made entirely from ungrafted vines that grow in a single vineyard adjacent to the quinta. It is produced in tiny quantities, only 200 to 250 cases for an entire Nacional vintage, and released only in the best years.

The quintas of the Douro were traditionally self-supporting farms as well as wine estates.  And at Noval they like to preserve tradition.  They still keep geese, pigs and chickens to feed the workers on the estate.  On the day of my visit, a communal lunch of grilled fish for the workers is being prepared in the courtyard, as I follow Ana Carvalho, my guide for the day, past the chapel and the old dormitory rooms, towards the special plot of vines.

A Viticultural Mystery

The Nacional monopole consists of 2 hectares of vines planted over 5 terraces, all ungrafted.  The name ‘Nacional’ was chosen because these vines are entirely Portuguese.  They are not grafted onto American rootstock, yet in this small vineyard they have managed to survive the scourge of the phylloxera louse, which decimated European viticulture in the 19th century.

As is traditional in the Douro, the vineyard is planted as a field blend, consisting of 15 varieties inter-mixed.  The most prevalent varieties are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao and Sousao. The average age of the vines is around 35 years old at present.

There are a few European vineyards where ungrafted vines can survive, and these are typically in sandy soils, which phylloxera cannot tolerate.  Surprisingly in the case of Nacional, there is no sand. The soil is Douro schist with a high proportion of clay.  

So how to explain the mystery? They simply do not know why the vines here have developed an immunity. They have tried planting ungrafted vines elsewhere on the estate, but the experiments have never worked.  The vines begin to show tumors on the leaf, and then typically die within 1-2 years.

Needless to say, Noval are scrupulous in their cultivation of this vineyard.  They never bring in plant material from outside the plot, and have been treating the vines organically.  They hire in a donkey for a week at a time when necessary for ploughing (Ana jokingly calls him their “consultant”).

Respecting Tradition

Vinification is very traditional, and begins with foot treading in open stone lagares. The human foot is the ideal instrument for getting the necessary extraction from the skins without crushing the pips, which would result in excessive bitterness. Typically the workers link arms and begin with 3 hours of military-style “marching”, working forwards and back systematically in a line.  Then comes a few hours of “freestyle” treading, accompanied by music and even dancing in the lagares.

The grapes macerate for just 2-3 days, with pigeage 3-4 times a day.  One-half of the fortifying brandy is added just as the fermenting juice is being drained from the lagares, to arrest fermentation and preserve sweetness in the wine.  The other half of the brandy is added in vat. This facilitates the integration of the spirit.   

Wood maturation takes place for up to two years more in a mix of old vats, made of oak, but also cherry and chestnut.   

But as with all of the best vintage ports, the Nacional benefits from extended bottle ageing in cellar. The complex and powerful bouquet of a mature vintage port, decanted at its peak, is an incomparable experience every wine lover should have at least once in their lifetime.

The Whims of a Great Terroir

The Nacional vineyard has its own whims, distinct from the rest of the estate.  For that reason, Noval do not always declare a Nacional Vintage in the same years as the estate vintage.  For example, 1996 was not a declared Vintage year, but the Nacional was so outstanding that Quinta do Noval decided to declare a Vintage Nacional.  By contrast, 2007 was a great year for the Noval estate vintage port, but the Nacional simply did not sing, so it was not released.  

Tasting

Allocations of Nacional are tiny.  For example, the whole of Belgium gets only 12 bottles, and Canada gets only 6.  (Fortunately for those of us in Britain, the UK gets the largest overseas allocation!)

This wine is so rare, that our own Rytis Jurkenas has only ever been lucky enough to taste the Nacional once in his lifetime, when he sampled the 1980 (and awarded it an Excellent 93 pts).

Regardless of the rarity, the exceptional quality of the Nacional is not in doubt.

In the 2011 vintage – that year when growing conditions in the Douro were nigh-on perfect for producing great port – the wine was showered with critical acclaim, achieving 100-pt scores from James Suckling, Robert Parker, Wine & Spirits magazine and Wine Enthusiast.

To quote Neil Martin: “This is the kind of elixir that leaves you speechless.”  – 100pts  (The Wine Advocate, Issue No. 212)

Tasting Our Way Through Piedmont – Day Three

By Martyn Zemavicius

Cantina Bartolo Mascarello

Cantina Bartolo Mascarello is absolutely one of our favourite producers in Barolo. As Maria-Theresa, Mascarello’s daughter, was working in vineyards that day we were met by Alan Manley, one of only five employees of the estate. He is so knowledgeable and articulate about the winery, and indeed the entire region, that it was easy to imagine he had been born and raised on the estate himself.

The estate was founded in 1919, and they own 5 ha of vines across four parcels in Cannubi, San Lorenzo, Rue, and Rocche del Annunziata in La Morra. Nebbiolo accounts for 3 ha, and there is around one hectare each of Barbera and Dolcetto, with a smattering of Freisa. They produce only one Barolo, with fruit blended and co-fermented from the individual sites.

Harvesting typically occurs over 10-12 days, with the focus on making a big selection in the vineyard. Fermentation is conducted in cement and wooden cuves, with no need of temperature control or yeast inoculation. They allow for anywhere from 14 days maceration (for the 2014) to as long as 56 days (for the 2010).  Their Dolcetto is the only wine to undergo some light filtration, the rest are unfined and unfiltered.

Maturation takes place in large oak casks, using demijohns to top up as necessary (they typically lose around one litre a week – think of those lucky angels!)

Not only was Mascarello one of the first estates in the region to start bottling their own wines, they were pioneers of using hand-drawn labels. In the last eight years of his life, when Bartolo Mascarello was confined to a wheelchair, he drew over 500 pictures, which are used on labels.

Magnums are produced in good vintages, and 200 are added to the family’s own collection.  Around 900 magnums of the 2010 will be released commercially. From 2011, they moved away from Bordeaux magnums to Piemonte albeisa magnums, due to the darker glass.

Of course, the high quality of these wines is not a secret, and their entire production (around 32,000 bottles) is quickly snapped up each year, by wine lovers from all over the world.

Tasting Highlights

Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto d’Alba DOC 2013

Grown on Barolo land.

On the nose, black fruits, sweet spice, depth and concentration. Round and silky, with dark fruit and spice on the palate. Powerful. 87 pts

Bartolo Mascarello Langhe Nebbiolo DOC 2013

Rose, subtle red fruit, lovely aromas, sweet spice. Absolutely stunning nose. Big, firm fruit tannin, juicy texture, tea leaves, and red cherry on the palate. Lovely fruit definition, the tannin just needs to settle down. 89+ pts

Bartolo Mascarello Barolo DOCG 2011

Subtle nose, with raspberry, spice and earth. Such a beautiful aroma, with floral depth. So complex on the palate, with grainy tannin, raspberry, fresh sour acidity. Long finish with a firm backbone. Stunning wine! 94+ pts

P1060113


G.D. Vajra

Of all the wonderful, generous locals we met on our trip, we had probably the warmest welcome of all at Vajra. The family also happens to be making some of the best, and best priced, Barolo around.

P1060131We were greeted by brothers Giuseppe and Isidoro, who showed us around their incredible new winery.  At Vajra, they were true pioneers of organic viticulture, and the estate was certified organic back in 1971 (the first wine producer, and only the third agricultural business, in Piedmont to be awarded organic certification). They maintained the certification until 1993.

They own around 40 hectares of vines, including Barolo parcels in Fossati, La Volta and Coste di Vergne. They also own 6 hectares of the prized Bricco vineyard, where the oldest Nebbiolo vines date back 65 years.

In pursuit of quality, they sort the grapes three times by hand, and then finish with berry selection in the winery.  Fermentation occurs in custom-made tanks with wide openings, which helps to reduce alcohol by around 0.5%. Maceration takes anywhere from 20-50 days, depending on the vintage.

Small oak barriques account for around 5-10% of the harvest, with the rest in large oak casks.  The exact percentage depends on the vintage conditions, with harder vintages in barriques.  They bottle 15 wines, assembled from around 150-160 cuvees.

P1060132In addition to the typical regional varietals, they also grow Riesling, from vines first planted in 1984.

After our tasting at the estate, their sister Francesca took us to one of the family’s favourite restaurants, owned by a famous truffle hunter who has hosted everyone from politicians to movie stars. The meal itself would have been worth a special trip to Piedmont, and the owner managed to find a couple of summer truffles especially for our lunch. The delicious food was accompanied by a vertical of Barolo Luigi Baudana, a ‘garagiste’ estate also owned by the Vajra family.

Tasting Highlights

G.D. Vajra Barbera d’Alba DOC Superiore 2012

12-14 months in large cask, with 35 days maceration, from 65 year-old vines.

Powerful aromas of dark berries, spice. Fantastic fruit concentration, juicy, silky, long finish. Absolutely stunning 90+ pts

G.D. Vajra Barolo DOCG Bricco delle Viole 2011

‘Viole’ refers to violets. Only the oldest Bricco vines are used.

Violets, flowers, red currant and spice on the nose. So beautiful. So floral on the palate, with notes of blueberry and rose petals. Stunning. 93+ pts

Luigi Baudana Barolo DOCG Baudana 2011

Baudana is the historical family name of the cru. Only 1000 bottles of this Barolo Baudana cuvee are made each year.

Concentrated nose, with spice, intensity and dark fruit depth. Silky smooth, juicy texture, flavours of spice, blueberries. Amazing! 94 pts

Luigi Baudana Barolo DOCG Baudana 2007

Such subtle aromatics, forest fruit concentration, with floral, cedar notes. Almost creamy texture, red berries and blueberries, so long and amazing! 95 pts

Luigi Baudana Barolo DOCG Baudana 2005

So aromatic with rose petals. Depth of aromas, spice, herbal. So powerful, beautiful and elegant, silky smooth and floral, alcohol jumping out just a little bit. 94 pts

P1060134


Borgogno

One of the oldest names Piedmont winemaking, with production dating back all the way to 1761. This was a visit we deliberately left until last, because they have probably the largest library of old vintages in Piedmont. Some of these old vintages are still available to buy.

Following our tour of the winery – which included a glimpse of the largest cask in Piedmont, not to mention one of most stylishly retro delivery trucks in all Italy – we tasted an incredible vertical of Barolo Riserva going back to 1967. All the while, delicious cuts of meat and cheese kept coming. Ah, the memories…

Tasting Highlights

These are traditionally made Barolos, with 40-60 days’ maceration. Around 45,000 bottles of the Riserva are made annually.  Traditionally, 20,000 bottles are set aside in the great Barolo vintages, to be aged for at least 10 years.  

2010 Borgono Barolo DOCG Cannubi

Earthy, cigar, forest floor, dark berries on the nose. Traditional, elegant, restrained, not so much of fruit, even it has but more of earthy, mineral and herbal notes. Old school. 92 pts

2008 Borgogno Barolo DOCG Riserva

Comprised of fruit from three single vineyards, Cannubi 30%, Fossati 30% and Liste 40%. Aged six years in wood, one year in bottle before release.

What power and fruit concentration. Focussed, amazing nose. Silky smooth on the palate, what elegance, red fruit, lavender 94 pts

2006 Borgogno Barolo DOCG Riserva

Muscular, dark fruit, earth, tobacco leaf aromas. Intensely powerful, with eucalyptus, spice, concentration. Long. 95 pts

1982 Borgogno Barolo DOCG Riserva

Aromas of dried roses, balsamic, juniper, dry cranberry, chocolate, prunes, raisins, smokey, cigar box. Elegant, dry palate with raisins, prunes, tobacco, smoky notes, bressola. Top level, balanced and so long. 95 pts

1967 Borgogno Barolo DOCG Riserva

Animal notes, tobacco, cedar, leather, dry aronia, balsamic, medicine box, dry cranberry on the nose. Tannin drying, prunes, tobacco, earthy leather on the palate. Backbone, structure are firmer than the 1982. Very long. 96 pts

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It was incredible trip. Such a warm welcome from all the people we visited, and the food was delicious too. The friends and clients who joined in were already thinking of their next trip to Piedmont. Truffle season, anyone?

We love the wines of Piedmont wines for their high quality, their value and for the greatness of aroma and nuance they share with our beloved Burgundy.

Our special big thanks go out to Carosso family and to Liberty Wines, for helping arrange the visits. Without them the trip could not have been so special.

 

Tasting our Way Through Piedmont – Day Two

The second day of our tour was dedicated to Barbaresco, and we had the good fortune to begin in one of the best Barbaresco crus – Rabaja – where we visited two neighbouring estates, Bruno Rocca and Giuseppe Cortese.

Bruno Rocca

Here we met all the Rocca family: Bruno Rocca himself, his daughter Luisa and his son Francesco. He regaled us with entertaining stories. In one tale, he confessed about the single vineyard Barbaresco wine that he made in secret, because his father didn’t believe the project was worthwhile. When he worked up the nerve to serve the wine to his father blind, his father was impressed and asked him what he was tasting. When Bruno proudly revealed what he had made, his father was completely won over.P1050868

They have been producing Barbaresco from the celebrated Rabaja cru, of which they own 4 hectares, planted by clonal selection.  The Rabaja vineyard was purchased by Bruno’s father in the 1950s, and they are one of four different producers of this cru. Originally they were growers, and the first vintage they produced was in 1978. Until the 2013 vintage, the wine was blended with some cabernet, but they stopped in order to focus on single varietals. They mark their vines with red ribbons, and are farming organically, aiming for certification by 2017.

Typically, the wines are vinified in stainless steel for 2-3 weeks, before being matured in French oak.  Their oak cask cellar is 15 meters deep and humidity is kept at 90%, with water sprayed to keep the barrels moist.

They produce a range of wines in addition to their celebrated cru Barbarescos, ranging from a P1050899Langhe Rosso to a Barbera d’Asti DOCG, and including one white – a Langhe Chardonnay “Cadet”, grown in the village of Neive.

We ended our visit with a simply but deliciously prepared lunch at the winery, and Bruno treated us to a sample of his Barbaresco “Maria Adelaide” DOCG, which was originally made in honour of Bruno’s mother.

Tasting Highlights

Bruno Rocca Barbaresco DOCG 2012

Produced from a blend of several vineyards around Neive.

Ripe aromas, fruit driven, spice and red cherry. Round, elegant palate, with soft red cherry fruits. Yummy.  91 pts

Bruno Rocca Barbaresco DOCG Rabaja 2012

The soil is clay, marl and limestone. The average age of the vines is around 50-60 years.

Nose of spice, strawberry, raspberry and floral notes, amazing depth of aroma. Stunning. Soft entry with a mineral, firm backbone on the palate. Red berries, strong spice notes, very long. 93 pts

Bruno Rocca Barbaresco DOCG Rabaja 2006

Aromas of dark fruit, plums, dark cherries, pepper, dark spice. Amazing. Firm and earthy on the palate, with spice, dark fruit and eucalyptus. 95 pts

Bruno Rocca Barbaresco DOCG “Maria Adelaide” 2011

Approximately 2500 bottles produced.

On the nose, wild strawberry jam, sweet spice and earth. On the palate, firm and ripe dark fruit, dried flowers, long finish. 93 pts

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Giuseppe Cortese

For our second visit of the day, we walked over to the neighbouring estate of Giuseppe Cortese.  The family own 8 hectares of vineyards, and began producing their own wines in 1971.  Currently, they produce around 50,000 bottles annually.

Their picturesque Rabaja holdings are laid out just below the winery, over a natural amphitheatre running between 260-315 metres above sea level. Exposure to light is excellent here, with south and south-western exposure, and it is in these old vineyards where they grow their celebrated Nebbiolo.  The family also have a large holding in the Trifolera vineyard, with west and south-west exposure, where they grow their Chardonnay, Dolcetto and Barbera.

 

They laid on a wonderful vertical of Barbaresco Rabaja for us to taste, going back to 1998. They have some of the largest holdings of this cru, around 4 hectares. This was all about getting to know the Rabaja terroir, and how it is expressed in the hands of a very good producer in different vintages.

Tasting Highlights

Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco DOCG Rabaja 2012

Matured for around 22 months in Slavonian oak.

Subtle aromatics of spice, earth, deep red fruits. Elegant and subtle red fruit on the palate, fresh and delicious. 90 pts

Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco DOCG Rabaja 1998

Tobacco, earthy, eucalyptus aromas, with gunpowder and dried cranberry. Earthy on the palate, with hints of mushroom, dried berry fruits. Firm tannins, drying. 89 pts

Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco DOCG Rabaja Riserva 2008

Spices and dark berries on the nose, earthy depth of aromas, smoky. On the palate, intense dark fruits, powerful, smoky and complex, long finish. 91 pts

Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco DOCG Rabaja Riserva 2006

Still so restrained, but with a depth of aromas of dark forest berries, sweet spice, fresh cigars. Wonderful nose. Ripe dark berries on the palate with balanced acidity and oak spice. Very long. 93 pts

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Castello di Neive

Our evening festivities were held at the estate of Castello di Neive, where a tasting and dinner were arranged in the castle, purchased by the Stupino family in the 1960s. The original castle was erected in the 12th century, but it was destroyed before being rebuilt in 1530.

P1060039Our visit was organised by Claudio Roggero, the winemaker and director. We were welcomed with a chilled glass of the estate’s 2011 spumante – a brut nature made from 100% Pinot Noir, and produced in the traditional method with a second fermentation in bottle, with 30 months on the lees and then riddled by hand. Even for us champagne connoisseurs, it was a very enjoyable bottle indeed, and accompanied by delicious canapes. Before dinner, we had a chance to tour around the castle, which boasts its own chapel as well as a long history of winemaking.

We finished with a delicious dinner, which Claudio had arranged to be delivered from a local Michelin starred restaurant, where his aunt works.  Needless to say, the pasta was to die for! We were fortunate that Italo Stupino could join us in  tasting a vertical of their best wine, the Barbaresco Riserva from the single vineyard of Santo Stefano. This vineyard has been owned solely by the family since 2009. Their holdings total 8.5 hectares, of which 7 ha are planted with Nebbiolo, and 1.5 ha are planted with Barbera. We finished with a 1959 Dom Perignon – after all, it was our friend’s birthday that day.

Tasting Highlights

Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva DOCG 2004

On the nose, wonderful depth and concentration of red fruit and earthy notes, rose petals, cherries. Remarkable concentration, freshness, power and elegance at the same time. Fruit, with a touch of tobacco. Stunning. 94 pts

Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva DOCG 1999

Only 20,000 bottles made.

Ripe cherries, lavender, earthy, what a concentration, tobacco, wonderful. Palate a little a bit on the rustic side, with red fruit, earthy notes. Silky, juicy texture, long finish. 94 pts  

Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva DOCG 1985

Earthy, tobacco, cedar, dry lavender, dry pine forest floor. Elegant, earthy, silky smooth on the palate. Long and so very pretty. 95  pts

Dom Perignon 1959

So fruity at first on the nose, with apricots and honey. Then earthy, and eventually showing tobacco, nuts, chocolate and sultanas. Silky smooth on the palate, creamy with honey. Focused, and ever changing. Ripe, apricot jam. So complex and long. 98 pts

 

To be continued …

 

Tasting Our Way Through Piedmont – Day One

By Martyn Zemavicius

We started our trip to Piedmont by climbing Gran Paradiso, the highest peak in Italy at 4061m, in the jovial company of friends and clients. It was a magnificent, but tough, 12-hour climb. More than enough justification to reward ourselves with three days of tasting the great wines of the region and sampling the delicious local fare.

 

Poderi Aldo Conterno

We kicked off our wine itinerary with a visit to one of the most famous producers in the region, Poderi Aldo Conterno. We were welcomed by Giacomo Conterno, one of Aldo’s three sons who have looked after the winery since their father’s passing. Giacomo’s hospitality was generous and warm in equal measure, and he treated us to samples of all the wines they produce, including their top wine Granbussia.

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Poderi Aldo Conterno

Poderi Aldo Conterno was established in 1969, but the Conterno family have been making wine since the 1700s.  Traditionally minded visitors to the winery will delight in seeing the fantastic old bits of equipment they have used to produce Barolo wines over the years.

But the family are not slaves to tradition, and there is plenty to evidence the pursuit of high quality.  Since 2001 they have cut yields, and the number of bottles produced has dropped from 200,000 to 80,000.  They have also drastically reduced their use of pesticides, so much so that the family are happy for their children to run around playing throughout the estate.

P1050828They currently farm 26ha of vines (including 12ha of Nebbiolo) in Bussia, in the village of Monforte d’Alba.  The picturesque vineyards are situated at around 400m above sea level, on some of the best south- and southwest-facing slopes in the area. These include the three celebrated ‘single cru’ vineyards of Romirasco, Cicala and Colonnello.

The winemaking style at Aldo Conterno can be expressed as traditionalist, but with a modern twist to make the wines more approachable to today’s wine lovers.


Tasting Highlights

Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo DOCG Granbussia Riserva 2006

100% Nebbiolo fruit from the highest hills and the oldest vines on the estate (40-55 years old). Vinification included 60 days’ skin contact. 32 months of maturation in large Slavonian oak casks.  Minimum of 8 years in the cellar before release. 4000 bottles produced.

Aromas of forest floor, mushroom, dark fruit and lavender perfume. Stunning depth. Elegance and power, silky smooth texture on the palate.  Wonderfully long finish. 96  pts

Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo DOCG Romirasco 2011

100% Nebbiolo fruit from 50-55 year-old vines in the Romirasco single vineyard (3.8ha). 30 days’ skin contact, and 30 months’ ageing in large Slavonian oak casks. 4,960 bottles produced.

Amazingly intense nose, with notes of cherry and rose. Wonderful balance in evidence. Delicious, cherry-floral depth. Wow!  95 pts

Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo DOCG Cicala 2011

100% Nebbiolo from 40-45 year-old vines in this single vineyard (3.2ha). Skin contact for 30 days. Matured for 29 months in large Slavonian oak. 5100 bottles produced. This is the only one cru selected to produce magnums.

Less floral, more earthy.  Blood orange, lavender, earthy blackcurrant aromas.
On the palate earth, pomegranate, touch of herbs, dark forest berries. Amazing and with big potential. 94 pts

Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo DOCG Colonnello 2011

100% Nebbiolo fruit from 40-45 year-old vines in this single cru vineyard (less than 2ha). Aged for 28 months in large Slavonian oak casks.

Concentrated aromas of blueberry, lavender and pomegranate. Earthy red fruit on the palate. Elegant and round. 93 pts

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To Be Continued…