31 May 2012

A pleasant surprise (Rhone Valley, France – Day Six)

There are few who would argue that the most important grape variety by far in Australia is syrah, or as we call it shiraz. The range of styles produce from this grape, or a blend including this grape, is pretty big. The wines can range from jammy fruit bombs, to tannic oak monsters, to intense fine and peppery, and in many cases somewhere in between. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of mediocre shiraz made in Australia, which is not surprising as it is the most planted variety and you would struggle to find a region that doesn’t have at least some shiraz. There is a reason why Australian shiraz is so strong both domestically and overseas, and it is partly because of the quality and partly because of the value. Considering this, I find it very surprising that wines from the Rhone Valley, particularly those from the Northern Rhone aren’t the most popular imported wines. It may have something to with the fact that for many years the majority of wines produced here are too expensive for most Australians, but didn’t have the acclaim of Champagne, Bordeaux or Burgundy. With the increased value of the Australian dollar against the Euro, now is an ideal time to be investing in the Rhone Valley as you can still find some absolute bargains in every appellation and price category. Just don’t expect it to be like most Australian shiraz. The two producers I visited in the very Northern Rhone Valley on Day Six are both at the pinnacle of syrah production, but have slightly different approaches.

Cote-Rotie vineyards

Rising cream (Rhone Valley, France - Day Four)

Cooperative wineries are something that is pretty unique to Europe, and is possibly a little hard to understand for producers from New-World producing countries. The notion of hundreds or thousands of different growers all providing their fruit to a collaborative facility that has the responsibility of vinifying and either selling or bottling the collective wine produced is a very historic one, and it has only been the last 50 years that has seen more individual producers establish their own wineries, either from their own vineyards or purchased fruit. It must be a little bit scary trusting someone else to handle a year of your life, and also a little sad to know that it will be blended into many other wines and somewhat lost in the multitude. At the same time it must be relieving to know that you are going to get some money for your fruit regardless, rather than being completely at the mercy of the vintage and the market. In the Rhone Valley there are negociant producers who purchase wine (and in some cases fruit) to mature, blend and bottle under their own label. This model is much more familiar in the new world, as the largest producers in every country would neeed to buy fruit from growers often in different regions, to feed the increasing demand globally for their branded wines. This of course is in addition to their hundreds or thousands of hectares of vineyards, which is often the same size as entire appelations in Europe which many have hundreds of separate vineyard owners. Like Guigal, my appointment on Day Four was a producer based in the Northern Rhone that owns vineyards in several appelations, but relies on wine purchased from the Southern Rhone to provide the bulk of their sales.

Saint Joseph vineyards

30 May 2012

Only a Northern Song (Rhone Valley, France – Day Five)

You can’t imagine how good it felt to return to Lyon, which is still by far my favourite city in France, having made it part of my trip in 2010. I actually spent July 14th (Bastille Day outside of France) in Lyon with a friend, and had enjoyed the fireworks display that launches from the Basilique on top of the hill above old town. Lyon is the third most populated city in France, but has the second largest metropolis. It has a long history dating back to the Roman era, and since this time has always been an important point between different parts of Europe. This made it a very strong trading point, which in my opinion is the reason that arguably the best food can be found in Lyon, ask any French person. You can also find the best and most diverse French wine here, partly because of the vibrant cuisine and bar scene, but also because Lyon is located right in the middle of four of the best regions in France; Rhone Valley to the south, Loire Valley to the north-west, Burgundy to the north, and Jura to the east. Lyon has been growing a lot recently, due to increase in business activity and also many students coming to the universities, many of them international. I’m not sure why it isn’t on more tourists route in France, but I highly recommend it for history, culture and cuisine. It was here that I spend five nights in, and took day trips down into the Northern Rhone Valley, the first day of which I visited Jean-Luc Colombo in Cornas.

Syrah has such a beautiful leaf

All things considered (Rhone Valley, France – Day Three)

The Rhone Valley is arguably one of the most diverse regions in France, if not Europe. Covering over 200km from north to south it is one of the longest regions, and with the difference in climate and soil conditions provides many opportunities for viticulture. The region is split from Valence, about 100km north of Avignon and 100km south of Lyon. North of Valence has a much more continental climate, cooler and well protected from winds and rain. South of Valence is more Mediterranean in climate, warmer with more wind influence. This is probably the most important difference between the north and south. Throughout the entire region, there are a multitude of producers of different size and style. Growers who may not make or bottle their own wine may be part of a cooperative that vinifies the fruit, and either sells the wine in bulk or bottle. There are more artisan producers who only produce wine from their own estates, whether in a single appellation or several. Then there are those in between, who produce wine from their own estates, and also purchase fruit and/or wine from growers to produce/bottle under their own label. It is very common for producers in the Northern Rhone Valley to operate in this model, as in the north there are not enough vineyards and they are also very expensive to purchase and manage, and so they compensate by bottling wine from the south were fruit is less expensive and in much larger supply. In several cases a Cotes-du-Rhone Rouge wine may account for 50% of the bottles sold each year. The first appointment for my third day epitomises this model (Guigal), the second has only just started to move into this realm (Chateau Font de Michelle), and the third only produces wine from their own estates across three appelations/vineyards (Domaine de la Renjarde/Le Prieure de Montezargues).

Only days away from capfall and flowers developing

Are you Rhonesome, tonight? (Rhone Valley, France - Day Two)

There are so many differences between the Northern and Southern Rhone Valleys that they should almost be called completely different names. Almost the only thing in common as I mentioned in my last post, is the fact that the four varieties grown in the north are also grown in the south. The Northern Rhone is a much more narrow and elevated valley than in the south, which opens up into wide plains with rolling hills rather than steep cliffs. This type of land actually reminds me of the way the Adige River flows south from Austria through the Italian Alto Adige and Trentino regions into Veneto. Secondly the amount of vineyards in the Northern Rhone is 3,000 hectares, which is the same amount as Chateauneuf-du-Pape alone, one single appellation of almost ten in the Southern Rhone. Thirdly the general approach for the Southern Rhone is for volume rather than quality, particularly for the Cotes-du-Rhone appellation, and there are only a few which go for quality above all else. In the Northern Rhone there is really only one appellation of eight that is more geared towards volume and compared to the Southern Rhone would be considered one of the quality appelations. In the Southern Rhone there is significantly more wine blended between areas than in the Northern Rhone, not to mention a great many more varieties blended, whereas in the north they really only use four and never blend more than two together. Probably the biggest difference is the amount of wine produced by cooperatives, much of which is sold to negociants within the Rhone Valley or outside of it and then bottled by someone else. Very rarely does wine get sold in bulk in the north; it is either sold as grapes or bottled wine. The first appointment I had for today was a negociant producer owning no vineyards (Tardieu-Laurent), and the other was the opposite, only producing wine from their vineyards in the Southern Rhone Valley (Vieux-Telegraphe).

Different sizes of barrels used to mature wine

28 May 2012

I'm feeling Rhonery (Rhone Valley, France - Day One)

I spent a nice weekend checking out some of the sights in Marseille and Avignon, two very important and historic cities in Provence, before heading to the next region on my trip. I was actually returning to another region I visited in France when I was here in 2010, but much like Alsace I could only spend one day in the Rhone Valley when I last visited. Whilst this was long enough to fall in love with the region, it wasn't enough to truly learn about the different appelations and wine styles, so I was very excited to return. My plan was to spend a few days in the Southern Rhone, and a few more in the Northern Rhone, because the Valley is a few hundred kilometres long which I discovered in 2010 when I drove from Lyon to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and back in one day. From north to south they are completely different in many ways, and therefore should never be considered as one region, much like Provence. Whilst all the varieties that are grown in the Northern Rhone are found in the Southern Rhone, the opposite is not true, and the wines are very different. The appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape itself, covering 3,000 hectares of vineyards making it one of the largest single appelations in France, can use up to 13 varieties. Whilst the Northern Rhone has very steep vineyards with very different terroirs and only four varieties, the Southern Rhone has generally flatter vineyards and more varieties to work with and blend.

One of the most iconic items in French wine

20 May 2012

One region? I think not (Provence, France – Day Two)

Provence is yet another of those regions that is often thought of in one general way and also associated with a particular type of wine; rosé. Like so many other regions it is impossible to think of this region as one thing, because it is not only very large (one of the largest in France), but extremely diverse in terms of micro-climates, soil types, aspects and altitudes. Wine styles can differ, as can philosophies about the making of the wine. Many of the vineyards of Provence are individual growers who are part of a cooperative, which at the moment is churning out very simple, thin and watery rosé which is fuelling a very large global market for refreshing aperitif wine that can be served very cold, sometimes with an ice cube. Whilst this type of wine may be reflective of the market in general, and a reflection of the warm weather enjoyed in this part of Europe, it is not necessarily reflective of the many parts of Provence. From the coast to the forest-covered mountains, Provence has the potential to produce a great range of wines, from as many different varieties. A number of smaller producers are committed to this, and several appelations have sprung up in the last 50 years, two of which I visited today to learn more.

Gnarly vines at Domaine de Triennes

19 May 2012

The best rosé in the world? (Provence, France – Day One)

Some places on the planet have been blessed with immortality as tourism hotspots, and are so popular you wonder what all the fuss is about. These are the kinds of places that hard-core travellers avoid, for some obvious and not so obvious reasons. The obvious reasons are they tend to be tourist traps, where you are commonly charged exorbitant prices for mediocre quality and service. These places are also filled with tourists, who can be loud and obnoxious, and cause you to wait in lines to see some of the highlight attractions. There must be however, a reason why these places became so popular, whether it be culture, history, beauty or all of the above. One place I have been to where it is almost not worth the effort is Venice, a place where no-one really lives and works apart from feeding the insatiable tourism industry. Many of these places are so charming and beautiful that you are willing to forego the prices hikes and crowds, such as Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro. The Cote d’Azur or the Provencal cost has been one of the most popular places for tourism in France for centuries, and is certainly well deserving of this honour. The coast itself is simply stunning, sometimes with mountains sitting merely metres away from the shore. When I first visited France in July 2010, I remember driving up the motorway back to Lyon after visiting Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and seeing the bumper-to-bumper traffic heading south. Now I understand what all these people were willing to undertake, as even a few days here has a rejuvenatory effect on you. Luckily the region also makes some stunning wines, and is the home of an entire style of wine; rosé. To put it into perspective how important this wine style is to Provence, they produce more rosé than Australia produces wine.

What will these little gems become?

15 May 2012

Impressions of Italy; wine, food, people & culture

Eight weeks is the longest I have spent in one country continuously on my trip. The closest was spending five weeks in Germany which included one week in Alsace and the three days of Prowein. I spent about six weeks in the USA but that was broken up by two weeks in Canada. I will be spending a total of nine weeks in France, but this is in five separate incursions. Up to three months in Germany will be spent just working for some wineries in two different regions, but this won’t give me much if any time to travel. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to visit a few wineries in the same region. As you can imagine, spending eight weeks straight in one country, particularly when it is Italy, it is difficult to think about anything else as you are totally immersed in the culture and scenery. I found myself forgetting about all the places I had been already, and also about all the places I have yet to visit in the remaining 8 ½ months. All I was focused on was making the most of my time in Italy, trying to learn as much as possible about Italian wine, and how it forms part of life in Italy and the world.

With Elena Walch in Alto Adige

14 May 2012

Heart & Soul (Sicily, Italy - Day Four)

To say that Sicily is diverse is an understatement. There is a very good reason why Sicily has the longest harvests in the world, often taking 90 days. For this reason it is impossible and pointless to think of Sicily as one region, which makes me question the logic of creating a new DOC for all of Sicily. In other large and diverse Italian regions like Tuscany, Piedmont and Puglia there are only IGT classifications for the entire region, no DOC which is usually an indicator of quality. A DOC just for Sicily would merely serve the large wineries to continue blending fruit from anywhere on the island, and charge higher prices for it. My suggestion would be to continue highlighting the sub-regional diversity of Sicily by creating a number of DOC and/or DOCG classifications for many of the best areas, to add to the small amount of DOC classifications, and only one DOCG (Cerasuolo di Vittoria). I have absolutely no issue with wineries using fruit from different parts of the region, much like they do in Tuscany or Veneto, but to imply that Sicily is one homogenous region is a fallacy and should be designated merely as IGT as it already is. One of the wineries that would possibly agree with me is one that I visited earlier in the week and returned to on my final day to one of their other estates. This winery is Planeta.
The walls of the Planeta Ulmo Estate

“Marsala and coke, good choice!” (Sicily, Italy – Day Three)

When I think of Marsala, usually the first thing that comes to mind is the quote used as the title of this post, from the Australian film Chopper starring Eric Bana. The quote comes from a scene in a nightclub where Chopper’s girlfriend orders a marsala and coke, to which the character Neville Bartos congratulates her on the wise decision. It wasn’t until I learnt what marsala actually was that I realised the cultural significance of this seemingly innocent exchange. Marsala is a wine coming from the town of the same name in the south-western corner of Sicily, made usually from white grape varieties (partly explaining why there are more vineyards planted to white than red on the island), and fortified similar to sherry. The wine was discovered by an Englishmen, much like port and sherry were, and were fortified and sweetened to appeal to the English market and allow them to survive the transportation. Marsala at one point was a very famous wine, and many houses were established in the 19th century, some of them English. As demand and production increased, the quality went down and marsala began to not be taken very seriously, much like other fortified wines. Unlike port and sherry the reaction was not to increase quality, but to introduce new flavours like egg and almond, and it was about this time that in Australia marsala was used in one of two ways. It was either used as a mixer in bars, purely for its alcoholic function, or in cooking. Now it is only really used for the latter, and the market is tiny. There are still dedicated houses that produce reasonable volumes of commercial marsalas with a little premium sometimes aged wines, and there are very small and passionate producers fighting an uphill battle to return the Marsala name to its former glory. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any marsala producers to welcome me, so I got to see the town by the seaside and catch up with an Italian wine blogger and journalist I had met in Vittoria for dinner. I also visited one of the most famous modern Sicilian wine brands, Donnafugata

Donnafugata winery in Marsala

These things happpen (Sicily, Italy - Day Two)

Well I guess it’s to be expected that when you spend about 13 months driving around the world, with already at least 50,000km driven across three continents, there are going to be complications with cars. In a rental car in the Salta region of Argentina I had a navigator that wouldn’t charge, and driving on an unsealed national highway I got a puncture without realising, damaged the wheel and had to pay $200 for a new one. In Germany I attempted to buy a used car far too cheaply, that turned out to be a lemon and lasted only 4,000km. Thus I was forced to rent a car in Milan that I would return in Palermo (Sicily), driving for 32 days across 11 regions, then fly back north for the next leg in the South of France. I accidentally booked the return date a week too early, and had to have it amended over the phone. I didn’t realise they changed the terms, so that rather than having unlimited km I was restricted to 4,800km, and was charged for an additional 332km. With only three days remaining, the Fiat 500 broke down on the southern coast of Sicily, had to be towed back to Gela where I had to stay in a hotel for the night, then get a taxi to a town an hour away to collect a replacement rental car. So I lost a night and half a day of wasted time, and was charged significantly extra for a completely different contract, additional fuel and kilometres. I also wasn’t reimbursed in either office in Sicily as promised, so am out almost 200 euro, which I now have to try and get back from customer service. The lesson learnt from both rental car experiences is never trust Europcar, as they were the company in both cases. I should have known better. It was definitely worth the drive to Agrigento before my appointment, as the Ancient Greek ruins are breathtaking as the photo below will support. The province of Agrigento is very warm, dry and relatively flat, so ideal for viticulture where the majority of fruit comes from in Sicily.
The Valley of Temples in Agrigento

9 May 2012

Isle be there (Sicily, Italy - Day One)

Thus I have arrived to my eighth and final week in Italy (for now), ad I am doing so in quite possibly the most diverse and misunderstood region in the country; Sicily. After spending the weekend in the chaotic city of pizza, Napoli, I boarded the overnight ferry to Palermo. The ride was uneventful, apart from some terrible service for overpriced pizza, but I am glad I paid a little extra for a berth in a cabin, as trying to sleep out in the halls would have been challenging. The ferry arrived an hour earlier than indicated, so when I disembarked in Palermo it was 7:00am and of course nothing was open, so I hit the road. My goal was Faro, a region very close to Messina, where I had an appointment with a very small producer. Unfortunately the address I had failed to get me to the winery and the contact number had similar problems. Therefore after several hours I was forced to abandon this plan with great disappointment, and head south through the Etna region where I unfortunately had no appointments. It was fascinating to see fossilised volcanic lava on the sides of the mountain, and hard to believe that vineyards are planted metres away from this lava. It was a shame that I didn’t visit any producers here, as it would have been interesting to learn more about the specific viticulture and interactions of the varieties with the environment. I look forward to the chance to taste some wines from this part of the island, and hopefully I will be able to visit again. From what I have seen so far, Sicily is most definitely different to mainland Italy, but then again, each region is different from each other. Like in other parts of Italy it is not so easy to get around; the roads are not in great condition, there is often traffic, rarely is there a direct route between places that you don’t have to pay for, and the landscape being hilly also makes for slow-going. But I made it to Vittoria, for three sensational visits on my second but first day in Sicily.

Me at Mount Etna

6 May 2012

The new wave (Puglia, Italy – Day Three)

Probably the most exciting thing to discover about Italy is the new movement sweeping the wine industry. Wine production in every region has well and truly moved into the 21st century of wine production in various ways. The wine industry has well and truly moved out of the past, where there were many growers and vineyards mostly providing their high yield fruit to cooperatives to produce high volume simple wines to mass markets. Hygiene and technology has been well established in the vast majority of wineries to produce clean, stable and wines that are approachable and pleasant to a much wider range of tastes and markets. Taking inspiration from the French influence on the rest of the world, Italian growers have a much better understanding of their terroir than ever before. More importantly they now know much more about how their indigenous cultivars perform in their environments and sites, and how new practices in the vineyard can improve the quality of these unique varieties. The new wave is about making terroir wines that are made from one or more varieties that are the best reflection of their origin. We are I a golden age of Italian wine, and now is the best time to get involved with them as a consumer because as the quality continues to improve and the demand around the world increases, the prices won’t always be this affordable. The final tow producers I visited in Puglia are part of this new wave movement, working very closely with growers in the region to provide them with the best fruit possible to make their wines in a modern yet respectful and traditional way.
Basilicata di Santa Croche

5 May 2012

Another world (Puglia, Italy - Day Two)

The title of this post says it all; the Puglia region may as well be an entirely different country compared to most of the regions that I have visited in the last six weeks. It is a wide-open, fertile yet relatively dry region that has no problem growing a wide variety of crops, including enough grapes for it to rank in the top three largest producers. From north to south it is less than 100km wide, but is over 400km long, which makes it diverse not only geographically and climactically, but also culturally as well. There are dozens of indigenous grapes, some barely grown any more, and many others making a comeback. At the highest points the elevation only reaches approximately 400m above sea level, and the aspects of any hills are very gentle compared to their neighbours to the north. The soil types are commonly rich red and brown soils, often including calcareous and limestone based deposits. To try and summarise Puglia in one short paragraph does it a disservice, and it would take many weeks or months to better understand it. Unfortunately I only had three days, and regretfully had a low success rate in arranging appointments. So it was with a little disappointment but also interest that I continued south from Lucera towards Salento, but stopping along the way at Rivera, located in the middle of the region.
Castel del Monte

3 May 2012

What’s your flavour? (Puglia, Italy – Day One)

Something quite interesting has happened to my tastes over the past six weeks in Italy; I think I have become anti-oak. I think this has been in reaction to tasting so many new wines made from unfamiliar varieties, and my desire to see the subtleties and nuances of each variety without the interference of oak treatment. In general the wines where the oak has worked for it have been made from or included more familiar French varieties, which perhaps suggests I am merely unfamiliar with how oak reacts with these unfamiliar varieties. The wines in Italy have been exceptional, and have got me really excited for the future of Italian wines, as by all accounts the quality of the wines and the understanding of the varieties and terroir have only been happening over the past 20 or so years. In no way am I suggesting that the distracting use of oak is prevalent in Italy, in fact it is quite uncommon. My assumption is that because of the excitement I have felt tasting more ‘traditional’ wines made from indigenous varieties where little to no oak is used, I have been uninspired by wines that use too much new oak for too long that give them a more ‘modern’ and ‘international’ flavour that whilst not necessarily bad are boring and like many others. Too often I see aromas of chocolate and banana (a tad strange, but unmistakeable) which immediately turn me off, and then on the palate comes the vanilla and coconut. This makes it difficult for me to assess and come to terms with such unique varieties as montepulciano, lagrein, sagrantino and nero di troia. Whilst I totally agree that I must become more familiar with these varieties and regions before passing judgement, the predilection for over-use of oak is unmistakeable and in my opinion unforgiveable. Allow the flavours to shine through, speaking for themselves and seducing new consumers all over the world, as nature is the champion rather than the winemaker in my opinion.

A friendly observer on the way to Puglia

People power (Abruzzo, Italy – Day Two)

In my humble opinion, it takes three things and only three to make great wine; all other elements merely support the others. The first is of course the environment, which includes both the climate/weather and the actual earth & surrounding vegetation. The second element is the vine itself, and ensuring that the right variety is planted in the right location. The third element is people, because everything each person does towards a wine leaves an impact. What elements you use to produce the wine is somewhat irrelevant, and is completely up to the producer. At the end of the day, wine is made using the same process of fermentation, regardless of where you are in the world. People may enter the business of wine from many different backgrounds, be they agricultural, business, marketing, sales, or any other unique origin. Many people are lovers of great wine, many enter the business to make money, some may inherit or take after their parents, and still more may desire a complete change of scenery. In many cases people may produce wine around their day-to-day profession, growing grapes and/or making wine as a hobby. Eventually they may leave their other profession to focus solely on the wine, and others may employ people to handle the production of the wine. Regardless of peoples backgrounds or motives, the ultimate prerequisite to work with great wine is passion and commitment, as wine is not a short-term investment, nor are you likely to achieve overnight success. In my quest I have met so many different people who have all left their mark, regardless of their level of involvement or responsibilities. My final visit for Abruzzo was with a family of noble origins, not the first and probably not the last of my trip.

Barone diValforte vineyards

Express yourself (Abruzzo, Italy – Day One)

One of the things I have noticed on my trip visiting wine regions is that the best wines come from vineyards planted on a slope. There are exceptions to this of course, but these wines are generally not necessarily of elegance, nor do they come from cool climate regions. All of the regions I have visited in Italy so far, including Tuscany and Valpolicella, have steep and/or terraced vineyards where the best fruit tends to come from. In every case the fruit grown in vineyards on valley floors or flat lands provide volume and approachability. What varies of course is the steepness, elevation, exposition and depth of the soils and this in turn reacts with the particular variety and micro-climates. The fascinating thing about Italy which I didn’t realise is that the entire length of the mainland has a mountain range through it, known as the Appenino Mountains. These mountains are quite wild and imposing between Lazio and Abruzzo/Le Marche, a fact I discovered quite well when I drove from the Adriatic Coast to Rome and back for the weekend. Much like the Great Dividing Range up the east coast of Australia, or the Rockies/Andes Mountains that travels the entire west coast of the Americas, this allows viticulture to be quite diverse and high quality along them. Even in Meditteranean climates like in Abruzzo, you can easily produce red and white wines of elegance and structure, but plenty of fruit and tannin. How one expresses the climate, soils and native varieties is ultimately up to the producer, as I was to discover on my first day in the Abruzzo region.

Me in the 11th century tower on the Torre Raone estate in Abruzzo