28 Apr 2012

Are you serious? (Marche, Italy – Day Two)

After six weeks in Italian wine regions I have reached a crossroads, and have developed some interesting theories and anomalies. One of these theories is about what the best wines in Italy are. What these wines should not be is purely statement wines, as this is not France. They should not be designed like something else, they should be themselves and proud of it. They should be made with indigenous grapes, particular to that area as often as possible. The wines don’t necessarily need to be a single variety, but the blend should make sense and express the origin. Some of the best wines I have tasted have had little to no oak treatment, avoiding the temptation to be matured for long periods of time in brand new medium toasted French barriques. I am by no means suggesting that this process is not good; I just feel it is not true to the wines here. The red wines should not be heavily extracted, but ultimately they should be balanced in fruit, alcohol and tannin. The white wines similarly shouldn’t be too rich and complex in malolactic, using oak only when necessary and again achieving balance. The wines should respect the traditions and origins of the variety and area, but utilise technology to merely observe and coax, rather than to intervene and dictate. Most importantly the wine should be approachable but not simple. The best wines are seriously made, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, wine is intended to be enjoyed with people and food, and too much emphasis placed on wines inevitably leads to disappointment and increased prices. Hopefully Italian wine won’t continue to lose its sense of place and personality, as the world needs the wines of Italy to demystify wine, and make it clear that not every wine has to be an ethereal experience. Variety is the spice of life, which drives the winery I visited today.

Porto Nova beach

Roses are red, violets are blue (Marche, Italy - Day One)

Coming from Australia and being a wine drinker has its perks but also its disadvantages. As a wine producing country we make more than enough wine to consumer ourselves. In actual fact, we produce so much that more Australian wine is exported than consumed within the country. Most of the wine is fairly basic approachable wine, a lot of which gets exported and has subsequently led to Australian wine being assumed to be all the same. This is of course not the case, as Australia is an extremely large country with a very wide variety of climates and regions. Thus Australia is quite possibly the most diverse producer of wine in the world, and Australian consumers now have access to an endless number of varieties and styles from over 100 regions. Like many other New World wine producers the vast majority of the wine is made from varieties of French origin, but unlike others we now grow a range of Italian, Spanish, Portugese and even more obscure Eastern European varieties. Because of the accessibility and quality of the wines produced locally, Australia is not a large importer of wine, apart for that from New Zealand. The wines we do import are generally those we can’t produce ourselves, and are of a much higher quality. Thus in the past most of the wine was from the best regions in France, some from Italy and Germany, and less from Spain and Portugal. This has meant that many varieties and regions from around Europe are largely unheard of in Australia that may be better known elsewhere. This leads me to my point that it was necessary for me to actually come to the regions that are unfamiliar, to learn about these varieties and styles, because as the quality of wine improves new wines will become more available around the world.

Newly forming bunches pre-capfall

25 Apr 2012

My house in Umbria (Umbria, Italy - Day Two)

According to my host the previous day, Orvieto is not traditionally considered part of Umbria, as it is closer to Lazio and Tuscany with an Etruscan heritage. Central Umbria had a much more rustic history, being very simple farmers. This part of Umbria has garnered a lot more attention recently thanks to their red wines, most notably in the Montefalco area where the sagrantino grape is king. In the past Sagrantino di Montefalco was a passito sweet wine that was consumed as a table wine with food. It was traditionally the wine that would be drunk with breakfast on Easter Sunday each year, as the first wine drunk after lent. The breakfast was naturally very hearty, including slow-roasted lamb, cured meats and egg, and would last several hours. Back in the 1970s they began to introduce viticultural practise from other parts of Europe in Umbria, and this changed grape and wine production in the region. With the former trellising systems there were high volumes of grapes produced, which meant to achieve the ripeness necessary for the sweet wines in particular, the harvest was usually not until late October. With new pruning practices introduced and more intense plantings, yields were reduced and ripening occurred earlier, with harvests beginning in September. Thus began the serious production of dry red wines from one of the most tannic red varieties possible. Sagrantino is tough to grow, but is quite malleable in terms of ripeness levels and vinification practices, and from what I tasted there is no defined style as yet, it is up to the producer. As the understanding of the variety and the terroir improves so will the quality of the wines.
Bush-trained sagrantino vines

You’d never know (Umbria, Italy – Day One)

When you think about the most impressive and unique wine towns in the world, there are some that immediately spring to mind. Not necessarily for the quality of the wines, that goes without saying for many, but for a combination of other factors. Chateauneuf-du-Pape and St. Emilion for example are gorgeous old villages that sit on top of hills with vineyards surrounding them. Montalicino sits in the midst of forests and vineyards, with spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside thanks to the altitude. Villages in Alba like Serralunga d’Alba and Castiglione Falleto seem to be perched on the side of hills about to fall off. Traben-Trarbach and Bernkastel-Kues sit on opposite sides of the Mosel River, connected by historic bridges. Cafayate in the Salta region of Argentina is so isolated and small you would never know it was there, and feels like a Wild West town. Nothing could prepare me for Orvieto in south western Umbria, near the border of Tuscany and Lazio. The geological origins of the area are a combination of volcanic and inland sea, and sit on the famous Tiber River. The village itself sits on top of prehistoric rock, and was once a medieval castle. Inhabitants have not only built homes amongst the narrow cobblestone streets, but they also used the rock like a natural city wall and carved passages and cellars into it. The population exceeded the village long ago, and residential areas have spilled out into the surrounds underneath. In the past the region was famous for the quality of the white wines, but became associated with very simple fruit driven wines many years ago. Small producers are attempting to return the region to its former glory, and one such producer is Palazzone who I visited to learn more about the region.

The majestic village of Orvieto

23 Apr 2012

A slightly different model (Tuscany, Italy - Day Five)

Looking back over the past few weeks in Italy there were certain trends that I have identified in hindsight. One of these trends was who I was hosted by in wineries depending on the region. In Alto Adige, Romagna and Valpolicella my hosts varied, in the latter two regions I was only there for a short time. In all of the other regions – or more specifically sub-regions – I was commonly hosted by a person of similar position. For example when I was in Friuli many of my hosts were one of the children of the owner/founder of the winery, who are now heavily involved with different elements of the business. When I was in Piedmont, more often than not I was hosted by either the winemaker or the owner/winemaker. In both of these cases the host is able to provide first-hand insights into the specifics of the winery, and are well prepared to answer any of my probing questions. As you could imagine, Tuscany is the most visited region in Italy by tourists, particularly English speaking tourists, and as such there are dedicated individuals to welcome these guests. In many instances this week I was hosted by these individuals, sometimes privately and sometimes with others. Because I have not only experience with wine education of this nature and also will continue to make this an important part of career, I don’t really mind listening in to different approaches to wine communication. Being somewhat selfish however, it is difficult to take a lot away from these experiences as most of the information provided I already know, and I don’t want to intervene too much on the tour. If I am honest I would think that wineries would take me a little more seriously than this, as I am not a tourist and am going to great expense to visit the region and winery. I don’t feel it is appropriate to ask for specific hosts as any invitation to visit is welcome, but I would hope that wineries I request to visit treat it as an opportunity. Montalcino is possibly the most beautiful part of Tuscany I visited, and the wines are out of this world, but unfortunately I didn’t learn a lot about this complicated wine and was a little disappointed at not being taken more seriously.

The fort of Montalcino

Who is Kaiser Soze? (Tuscany, Italy - Day Four)

When you hear names of regions and places for wines, many things may come to mind. Very rarely are you able to associate a specific wine or style with a specific place, but some famous examples are Champagne, Burgundy, Mosel, Rioja, Barolo and Chianti. It is not difficult to see why this phenomenon is common in the vast majority of regions outside of Europe, as the focus on producing regionally distinct wines from specific regions has only been a recent occurrence. In many cases entire countries that may have a huge variety of climates are associated with a particular variety, such as Australia with shiraz, New Zealand with sauvignon blanc, Chile with merlot, Argentina with malbec, and South Africa with pinotage. Anyone from these countries will happily tell you that this doesn’t reflect the entire production, as they produce many more varieties and many more styles even with the same variety. This phenomenon is also common in Europe for a range of reasons. This may be because a range of different varieties are grown but no one or two are considered the best, it may be because the law allows much leeway for blending other varieties, or perhaps the wines are simply not good enough. In many countries this is further compounded by the setbacks in the first half of the 20th century, with most regions rediscovering the right variety for the best sites, and re-establishing many of the winemaking traditions. With so many regions in Europe, with some much bigger and more diverse than others, it is easy to get lost. Thus it is important to establish regional identity and distinction, rather than produce the same wines as everywhere else. Montepulciano is one such region that lacks clear regional identity, in spite of the fact that the most common grape grown is sangiovese.

New shoots on old vines in Montepulciano

Chianti to coast (Tuscany, Italy - Day Three)

So far on my journey it’s been a wonderful experience meeting people from each winery and discovering their similar but also different philosophies. Peoples’ philosophies may relate to the management of their vineyards, such as whether they use sustainable practices, are organic or biodynamic. In the winery they may change how they use equipment and additives, what their maturation program is, and how they have designed the layout of their facility. Wineries have different approaches to how they brand and communicate their wines, and also how they welcome visitors to their wineries. The thing to remember is that no one philosophy is the best or right one, as every country, region, producer and audience/market is different. What is most important is to select the right approach for that winery and place, and this is how I have determined to assess whether the philosophy has been successful. Within the space of one day I visited four wineries that had similar but different philosophies, but were all successful in themselves and offer something different. Between the first and last winery I had covered a fair amount of ground, leaving very early and finishing late.

The Black Rooster greets every day in Chianti Classico

21 Apr 2012

Drawing blood from a stone (Tuscany, Italy - Day Two)

It becomes necessary to attempt to remove all expectations and pre-conceived notions when arriving into a new region and new producers. There is always going to be some flow-through from the previous region, we naturally compare an experience to the most recent one. Thus on my journey I am constantly having to readjust to each new place I visit and make no assumptions nor judgements about such things as production volumes, estate sizes, yields, varieties or practices. What the important (and difficult) thing to ascertain is whether or not the philosophies and subsequent practices are right for that particular place. Whilst the nebbiolo grape is ideal for the elevated and cool hills of Piedmont, it is the sangiovese grape which performs exceptionally in the undulating and warmer landscape of Tuscany. Further to this, nebbiolo is a grape that necessitates small yields and small volumes to produce great wine, as it is notoriously difficult to handle both in the vineyards and in the cellar. Sangiovese needs a careful eye to be sure as it has very high yielding potential, but similar to the syrah grape is quite adaptable to site and you can easily make great wine in more generous volumes. The fact that I am visiting wineries that annually produce approaching one million bottles should therefore not mean they are not great wineries; they just couldn’t be great in Piedmont. After a very restful night and a couple of café lattes with breakfast, I adjourned to the winery of my hosts for the previous night.
Budburst has most definitely begun

20 Apr 2012

The heart of Italy (Tuscany, Italy - Day One)

One of the things that I have realised since arriving in Italy is that it is so difficult to categorise it in a certain way, and no single image does it justice. One of the most indelible images that spring to most people’s minds when they think of Italy is the classic image of gently rolling hills covered in grape vines, olive trees and villas. Tuscany perfectly lives up to this cliché. As I drove south from Florence (which is simply stunning, but is kind of a sinkhole when it comes to money), I became more excited at a place that seems so familiar, as you see it on travel and cooking shows, on calendars, promotional material of Italy, you name it. Tuscany has a number of unfair advantages over every other region in Italy. The first is its location close to the centre of Italy, where the weather is neither too hot nor too cold. It has some of the most beautiful and diverse natural scenery in Italy, from the hills all the way to the coast. The diversity also helps with viticulture, and they have the ability to produce a wide range of wines. It is a very large province, and also has a very long history, with families going back over 1,000 years. Tuscany is very wealthy, and is arguably the most visited province in the country. The food is great, the people are great. If this were the USA, Tuscany would be California. And like cabernet sauvignon is the most important grape (but far from the only one) in California, the king of varieties in Tuscany is sangiovese, and I am spending five days here to become more familiar with it.

Dante Alighieri once owned these cellars

18 Apr 2012

Cream of the crop (Langhe, Italy - Day Four)

The Langhe region was without question the best region I have visited so far, for several reasons. The first was the same reason it was one of the most anticipated places for my trip, and I had been looking forward to it for the first six months. This is the fact that the wines produced here, in particular Barolo and barbaresco, are some of the finest and most sought after wines in the world. On the few opportunities I had to taste them back at home, I had been blown away by them, as they are amazingly unique, but I needed to understand them better because of this. To have the chance to try so many wines that back at home would cost over $150 is fantastic. The second reason that the region was so amazing is its beauty. It’s not a region a lot of non-Italian people visit, which is a shame because of the gorgeous rolling hills, varieties of forest and agriculture, hilltop villages and hidden valleys. Even though the weather wasn’t great for most of the week, this didn’t take anything away from the scenery. The final reason is the people are some of the most wonderful I have met; humble, honest, generous, patient and funny. On my final day in the region, I had the chance to meet two modern icons in Luciano Sandrone and Roberto Voerzio, and a winemaker whose wines had a profound impact on me, in Chiara Boschis.

Me with the famous Luciano Sandrone

14 Apr 2012

Nice day for it (Langhe, Italy – Day Three)

I had to pinch myself many times this week to make sure this is all real, as I feel like I’m in a dream. It is hard enough to get the opportunity to taste some of these wines back at home, but to be able to not only taste but also experience the wines one after another is amazing, and I feel truly blessed. The weather was gorgeous for my third day in this magical region, a clear blue sky greeted me and made the view from above Monforte d’Alba that much more spectacular. One of my realised dreams continues, as many of my wonderful hosts continue to introduce me to some of the regional cuisine. The previous day I enjoyed lunch with Giovanni from Massolino, where I had carne crudo (raw meat), which is simply minced beef with olive oil, garlic and pepper, and some freshly prepared ravioli with oil and thyme, and tagliatelle with a meat and tomato sauce. For lunch on this day I tried some thinly sliced cold cuts of beef with a mayonnaise, egg and tuna sauce, along with steamed turkey with a hazelnut nauce and steamed vegetables. My lovely host at the B&B invited me to enjoy dinner with them in the evening; chicken soup with rice, prosciutto crudo and roasted finnochio, and a castgna cake to finish. All washed down with some Moscato d’Asti. A gastronomical delight all around.

Turkey with hazelnut sauce and steamed vegetables

13 Apr 2012

Barolo brain! (Langhe, Italy - Day Two)

Anyone from Melbourne is familiar with the concept of "four seasons in one day". I don't think I've ever experienced this phenomenon as profoundly as my second day in Alba. It was raining very lightly all afternoon the previous day, and kept raining all night. In the higher parts of the Langhe,  however it snowed. The view from my first appointment in Serralunga d'Alba was magical, as by the time I got up there it had started to clear and you could see the white-capped hills. By the time I got out from lunch, the sun was shining and it felt like Autumn, but it was still a little windy and chilly. Between my second and third appointment, it had got up past 20 degrees, and was almost feeling like Summer. Then by the time I got back to my hotel it had started to cool down to Spring conditions here in the Langhe. It makes me a little homesick, and also glad that I have a zippy little Fiat 500 to take the sharp corners in the wet. Today I ventured deeper into Alba, visiting three producers entrenched in what is considered the 'masculine' part of Barolo; Serralunga d'Alba, Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d'Alba.

Quite a view, on top of the world

10 Apr 2012

It's getting serious (Langhe, Italy - Day One)

If you are passionate about wine, there are a few places in the world that give you goosebumps at the mere mention of their name. Places like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Mosel, Rioja, Tuscany, Napa Valley, Margaret River, Mendoza, Willamette, Wachau. One of the most important places is Piedmont, and more specifically the Langhe, where some of the greatest red wines in Italy are produced. If you haven't heard of the nebbiolo grape, then you have possible heard of Alba, it's official home. Alba is to Italy what Burgundy is to France; cool climate, rolling hills, centuries of tradition, identified sites. The nebbiolo grape has many similarities to the pinot noir grape as well, and it has been suggested that very old burgundy is almost indistinguishable from very old barolo. Compared to burgundy, barolo and barbaresco is great value, but it can still take a dent out of your hip-pocket (if that makes sense). The there's always Nebbiolo d'Alba, or Langhe Nebbiolo. And if this is still a bit steep, there are numerous other varieties you can imbibe, both red and white, still and sparkling, sweet or dry, from this wonderful part of Italy that would take several months to do properly. As it is, I only have four days on this trip, and have restricted myself mostly to Alba.

Old spumante equipment

7 Apr 2012

Changing plans (Friuli, Italy - Day Three)

It seems that no matter how much planning you do, fate has another plan in mind and thus you must stay flexible. In these situations I think it is important to remain philosophical and not allow things to drag you down, as this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I should try to get the most out of it. So for the fifth time since arriving in Europe I returned to the Dusseldorf area in the hopes of finally collecting my residency card/working holiday visa, that would not only allow me to continue travelling in Europe beyond my 90 day tourist visa (which expires on Sunday), but also have the opportunity to join two of the best wineries in Germany for the harvest later in the year. I had to do some shifting of my days, and had to leave Friuli early to make my flight from Milan, but at least now I can head back to Italy sooner and not miss any time in my next region. As long as I can get some appointments after Easter. For my final day in Friuli I only had one brief appointment, at Venica & Venica.

Venica & Venica in Friuli

6 Apr 2012

Once in a lifetime (Friuli, Italy – Day Two)

One of the guiding principles of my trip is to attempt to enjoy regional cuisine along with the regional wines as often as possible. My theory is that the cuisine of the region organically developed to match with the wines of the region (up until about 40 years ago), and if I can understand the food of the region I may better understand the wines, and the experience will strengthen the memory. The major difficulty I have with this principle is the restrictions of my budget, which is important I adhere to if I want to travel for as long as I intend. This isn’t much of a problem, except that the food I can afford is not always the best. For this reason I always relish any invitation I have for lunch or dinner with one of my winery hosts, not only because it is a free meal. The occasion has increased since arriving to Europe, particularly Italy where I have enjoyed lunch and dinner on numerous occasions. The food experience I had on my second day in Friuli however, was one of the most surreal and amazing, and will stay with me forever, as you will read below.

Does it get any better than this?

5 Apr 2012

You’re welcome (Friuli, Italy – Day One)

If you close your eyes, ears, nose and brain, you can almost imagine what Venice must have been like centuries ago when it ruled a vast merchant empire the envy of the world, enough to inspire Shakespeare to set his famous “The Merchant of Venice” in. Shutting off the senses is vital, as the tightly packed streets are filled with either tourists from around the world, or those working to support the tourism industry. Venice is hardly a city that people live in, and for this reason after two days I was pretty sick of it. I shudder to think what it is like in summer, but if it is anything like Paris then it’s almost not worth it. Everything is a little bit more expensive and far from authentic. Thank goodness they at least have one youth hostel, which had possibly the worst breakfast so far on my trip, but in Venice 23 Euro is nothing to sneeze at. After a weekend wandering the allies and canals I drove up into the other great white wine region of Italy, Friuli. It is similar in some ways to Alto Adige, in the sense that it shares history and culture with its neighbouring countries Austria and Slovenia, it is predominantly white wine focused and there are a range of both indigenous and introduced varieties. What it doesn’t have in common is the micro-climates, as Friuli is a much more Mediterranean climate where they get a lot more rain and warmth, and thus the varieties and styles differ. In spite of the slight difference in culture (and language), the warmth and generosity is the same.

Yours truly with the Rosazzo Abbey behind me

Provincial life (Romagna, Italy)

You would think that after Vinitaly things would slow down, and producers would get an opportunity to recover. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, as often they are hosting guests around the timing of the fair, and also getting started on all the business they made (or missed) for the week. I myself gave myself half a day to recover and also get some emails out to producers I had met, before heading south of Veneto through Emilia-Romagna. The region itself is very large, and almost stretches from one coast to the other. It is generally separated into two areas; Emilia which is very flat and hot, and where Lambrusco comes from; and Romagna, closer to the coast and also more mountainous, known for the quality of its sangiovese wines. It is a shame that the region is not better regarded next to its neighbour Tuscany, but the region wasn’t as rich historically and has only been focussing on quality for the past 20-30 years. Not a lot of the wine is exported, but that is changing as quality is improving and there is better understanding about the wines produced from this particular part of Italy.

It's always nice to have some company in the vineyards

3 Apr 2012

Vinitaly 2012

Having visited one of the largest wine trade fairs in the world only three weeks before, it is hard to imagine anything I would want to do less than attend the largest (if you want to know why feel free to read my entry on Prowein 2012). But I was in the same situation I was before, where I wouldn’t be able to arrange any visits to wineries as everyone would be at the fair, and it was also a good opportunity to meet a large number of producers whose regions I would be visiting. Having the experience of Prowein was a huge help as I had some idea what to expect. Without that experience I would have been even more overwhelmed than I was at Prowein. Secondly I knew a lot more Italian regions and producers than I did for Germany and Austria, having specialised in Italian wines and varieties at the store I worked in. Finally I was meeting up with the two most important Italian wine importers in Australia – Arquilla and Trembath & Taylor – to join them for some of their appointments, so it was great to have some structure to the four days.

Verona Fiere - where the magic of Vinitaly happens

2 Apr 2012

Pitstop (Valpolicella, Italy - Day Two)

Wandering around Verona for a day, I truly felt like I had arrived to Italy, and also I had walked onto a living breathing Shakespeare set. The city is beautiful, and has all the elements of a classic Italian city; Roman ruins, cobbled (pedestrian) streets, piazzas, trattorias, fashion stores, and lots of stylish attractive people. The city was full of people, partly taking advantage of the great weather, but also a combination of tourists and visitors for the Vintitaly fair which started on the Sunday. The fair itself is away from the centre of town, and so doesn't interfere with daily life in Verona too much. But I'll talk more about Vinitaly in a separate post.

Me above Valpolicella

1 Apr 2012

This Is ITALIA!! (Valpolicella, Italy – Day One)

Driving south through the Adige Valley is quite a spiritual experience, as the Dolomites jut out of the earth in a very rugged and wild way, and houses and vineyards seem to sit precariously on the edges of cliffs. As Alto Adige becomes Trentino, one of the first things you notice is the difference in vineyards. Whereas in the north it is more common to have guyot trellising systems, in Trentino it is more common to have pergola-based vineyards, as Trentino tends to be a little bit more focused on volume. There are a number of great small producers who are focused on quality, and also on more traditional viticultural and winemaking techniques in harmony with nature. One of these is Elizabetta Foradori who I caught up with at Vinitaly, producing wines using biodynamics and using such techniques as amphora fermentations on skins. For white wines no less. It is a shame that I didn’t have enough time to spend in Trentino as I drove through, but Verona and Vinitaly beckoned. As did Valpolicella, less than 30 minutes from the city.

Valpolicella Rosso = pergola trellising