Saturday, August 8, 2020

Piemonte dry white wines: The instances of Favorita and the Malvirà example

My recent experiences with Piemonte dry whites have piqued my curiosity to the extent that I will be exploring the category in greater detail. I explore Favorita-based wines in this post.

Favorita has been shown to be the exact same variety as Vermentino, which is, itself, primarily grown in Sardegna (68%) and Tuscany (14%). Fully 80% of known Favorita plantings are found in Piemonte. The main characteristics of the variety are shown in the chart below.

Favorita wines are made in Piemonte according to the requirements shown in the following chart.

It should be noted that, in addition to Favorita, Colli Tortonesi DOC hosts high-quality white wines from the Timorassa and Cortese varieties.

I secured a bottle of the 2015 Langhe Favorita from Malvirà in order to evaluate this instance of Piemontese white.

Malvirà, located in Canale in Roero, was established in the 1950s by Giuseppe Damante. He subsequently passed the business over to his sons Roberto and Massimo in 1974. The sons transformed the business from a primarily bulk-wine supplier to one focused on quality. Today they plant 42 ha across six cru vineyards. The vineyards are farmed organically with all of the wines being sourced from estate fruit.

The Malvirà Favorita is sourced from three Canale vineyards: Saglieto (south to southeast exposure at 200 m elevation), Trinita (southwest exposure), and Bossola. The soils in these vineyards are calcareous clay and sand and the vines are between 30 and 40 years of age. Yields are at 50 hl/ha.

The wine is made from 100% Favorita grapes. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks for 7 10 days and then aged in tanks for 4 - 8 months.

Floral, initially, with green herbs accompanying rich, intense fruit notes and spice. Full, round fruit intensity on the palate. Bright. Ripe lime with a slate minerality that gives way to a chalky minerality. Persistence of acidity through all phases. Excites the salivary glands in a low-key fashion. Loooong finish.

After a respite, I went back to the wine. I was now getting sweet white fruit, limestone minerality, salinity, and red pepper. On the palate, sweet fruit along with acidity and salinity. Great weight and lengthy finish. 

This wine continues the string of excitement on which I have been tugging in this exploration of Piemonte dry whites. I loved it. 

In terms of pairings, the literature sees this class of wine as perfect as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to fish, a typical Piemonte starter, or Risotto. I can't wait to try examples from the other identified regions.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Benanti Winery: Its "whole-Etna" product strategy and distribution relationship with Wilson Daniels positions it well for the future

From its founding in 1988 as Tenuta di Castiglione, Benanti has exhibited a proclivity for experimentation, innovation, and strategic property acquisition/de-acquisition. And the entity continues in this vein to this day, as illustrated graphically by the timeline below.

Giuseppe Benanti, once he hit on the idea of making quality wine on the mountain, saw experimentation as the key to determining the best varieties and soil that should be utilized in the effort. To aid in the endeavor, he enlisted the assistance of Professor Rocco di Stefano (Experimental Institute for Enology, Asti), Professor Jean Siegrist (Institut National de la Recherch Agronomique, Beaune, Burgundy), Langhe winemakers Gian Domenico Negro and Marco Monchiero, and local winemaker Salvo Foti.

The team conducted over 150 micro-vinifications in the initial trials and, after two experimental harvests, designated the 1990 vintages of Pietra Marina Etna Bianco Superiore and Rovitello Etna Rosso for bottling.

Vinous has, on a number of occasions, paid homage to Benanti and its role in the development of winemaking on Etna. In a December 2016 note Vinous mentioned Benanti as the "... first to believe and insist upon Etna's native grapes at a time when everyone on Sicily was rushing to plant Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot." In another mention, Vinous stated: "Credit must go to Benanti for having created the I Monovitigni series of wines, which showcased to great effect the characteristics and high quality of the likes of monovariety Nerello Cappucchio, Nerello Mascales, and even Minella Bianco, at a time when little was known of these cultivars."

Benanti has shifted its territorial holdings from time to time to comport with its evolving business strategy. For example, Benanti initiated the company in Castiglione di Sicilia, even though the family owned property in Viagrande; property which had been used to grow grapes since the 1800s. When Giusepe felt that a broader Sicilia portfolio was in order, he procured property in Noto and Pantelleria. When he handed management of the business over to his sons Antonio and Salvino, they opted to narrow the focus to selected sites on Etna and sold the Noto and Pantelleria properties, along with some under-performing Etna properties, in order to effect their vision.

And that strategic repositioning continues today as Benanti deploys a "whole-Etna" strategy and streamlines its product portfolio to reflect that direction.

In an InstagramLive Chat with Anotnio earlier this year, I queried him about widespread deployment of Contrada-based winemaking on the mountain. He was emphatic that they were nowhere near knowing, with any degree of confidence, what effects individual contrada had on the wines; but they had that information for the slopes (what I call sub-regions). Shortly after this meeting with Antonio I convened a session with Benjamin North Spencer (The New Wines of Mt. Etna) and he laid out the sub-zone architecture that I subsequently captured in the below figure.

The figure below shows the Benanti property holdings/grape sources at the time of my 2016 visit. 

The figure below shows the current Benanti vineyard architecture and two things should be noted vis a vis the 2017 map: (i) grape sources have declined from six locations to four and (ii) the current locations map closely to the sub-zone architecture which I depicted above.

The product architecture is built around the "whole-Etna" core with the Contrada series of wines but further leverages those sites to provide higher-value Riserva products to the customer base. At the other end of the spectrum, the Traditional wines provide a seamless entry point into these higher-order offerings. 

It should be reiterated here that the Contrada series wines are not intended to showcase/compare contrada-specific qualities. If Benanti wanted highlight contrada differences, that would have been best accomplished by featuring intra-slope, rather than cross-slope, contrade.

The Etna terroir-based framework provides a flexible architecture for future Benanti growth. The northeast slope of the mountain is currently the only gap in the Benanti terroir wall. Beyond that, the company has shown that it can expand its product base by elevating portions of the existing stock. For example, it introduced two Riservas by so designating the upper portions of existing vineyards (Serra della Contessa and Rovitello) and devoting the remaining vines to the production of Contrada wines. 

The company introduced the Rosata (successfully) a little over two years ago; is introducing a new sparkling wine in the near term (and bringing all sparkling wine production in-house); and is introducing the Contrado Rinazzo Etna Bianco Superiore to the market in 2020 (the 2018 vintage).

The true success of this effort will be reflected in how well the products are received on the market. And Benanti has opened a new front in this battle by collaborating with Wilson Daniels to have that organization import and represent its products in the New York tri-state area. Wilson Daniels represents producers such as DRC in that market and numbers the top restaurants and collectors among its clients. This partnership will add cachet to the Benanti line and, for current customers, may signal rising costs for these products over time.

In the short-to-midterm, however, we are all hostage to the whims of Covid-19.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Salvino Benanti on the Benanti estate and the history and future of quality winemaking on Mt Etna: A Wilson Daniels panel conversation

The Benanti grasp of the history of quality winemaking on Mt Etna -- and its role in the birth and evolution of that history -- as well as the requirements for success in that industry on a going-forward basis, was on full display at a recent Wilson Daniels Chat with Salvino Benanti, one of the two brothers currently running the estate.

Wilson Daniels Wholesale, "the prestigious importer and distributor of luxury wines," recently became the official distributor of Benanti wines in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. As a part of its effort to promote the winery, Wilson Daniels recently convened an online panel discussion with Salvino Benanti responding to questions from Mike Papaleo (Wilson Daniels), Hristo Zisovski (Altamarea Group), and Jeremy Noye (Morrell & Co.).

I personally have spent a significant amount of time with Antonio and Salvino (including an InstagramLive Chat with Antonio early in the Coronavirus lockdown) but I learn something new with every interaction. This was no exception. I report on the panel discussion in this post.

On the history of Quality Winemaking on Mt Etna
The opening question to Salvino was about the history of quality winemaking on Mt Etna and his father's role in its formation and evolution. Salvino described how his father's love for wine drove him to pursue making a wine of Burgundian or Northern Italy quality on the moiuntain, while his resources allowed him to experiment and make mistakes along the way, yet live to continue the fight. He recalled accompanying his father to wine fairs as a teenager, and having little or no customer attention at their booth. He described his father being one of a very small band of winemakers (three to be exact) on Mt Etna, versus the 150 or so today.

On Old Vines
Old vines are a treasure that they cherish and protect. The sandy nature of the volcanic soils on Mt Etna has served to keep the phylloxera louse at bay. As a result, there are many old, ungrafted vines on the mountain. In their case, some of the vines in the Viagrande vineyard go back 110 years. Old vine yields continue to decline over time and they need careful tending and protection from pests. Benanti has made the wines from its oldest vines Riservas.

When one of these vines die, they use a grafted clone to replace it. These clones are purchased from a French supplier who has spent a lot of time on the mountain and has selected Nerello Mascarello clones for specific soils as well as rootstock.

Benanti manages the elderly life of these vines in the best possible way, he said with a smile. They are kept in the best possible shape in individual vineyards and are harvested and vinified separately.

They have purchased some new vineyards in recent times and sold others, resulting in an architecture of a core of old vines bolstered by others from the last few decades.

How has Benanti's winemaking changed since Salvo Foti moved on?
Benanti made richer, more concentrated wines in the beginning. When my father started out, he was introduced to Salvo and they worked together to produce a style that was market-relevant. When Antonio and Salvino came on board, they had a different vision as to what the estate's wines should present. They have since moved from smaller to larger barrels, from new to second-passage barrels, and from more oak to less. 

They promoted Salvo's deputy to the position of lead enologist to assist in the realization of the vision. Within the new regime, they seek more purity of fruit, less concentration (he continuously used the word elegance), and more of the underlying grapes. They wanted fresh, leaner, pure, precise wines wherein the customer could taste the grape, the soil, and the vintage.

He taste's Salvo's wines today and sees them as being consistent with the style that was employed during his time at Benanti.

Winemaking on Mt Etna
Mt Etna does not yet have a clear wine style. The region currently supports 150 or so labels but, in his view, consumers should focus in on 25 - 30 producers. He is of the view that there will be a shakeout among the producers, given the economics of producing wine on Etna. You will need to be an organized winery to succeed going forward. The game has become very competitive. 

For example, Benanti uses thick, dark bottles for all of its wines, with the exception of the Rosato (the implication here is that there is a cost associated with that quality initiative and other producers will have to respond in a like fashion to remain on the same competitive tier.). 

They are increasing the competitive pressure. Benanti has invested a lot in cooling equipment. You cannot take the chance that your wine arrives at its destination with less-than-stellar quality. In their view, quality encompasses, the grapes, what is inside the bottle, the bottle, bottle closure, storage, and transportation. They have invested a lot of time and effort in research on corks.

They used to outsource sparkling wine production but have now brought it in-house. 

Salvino thinks the industry will become an oligopoly in the mid-term (I will have to explore this idea with him in greater depth at sometime in the future.).

Mt Etna Environment
Mount Etna has a mountain climate in a southern setting. In general, warm days, cool nights, winter, snow, winds, and sunny days. The steep vineyards grow on well-drained volcanic soils which forces the vines to dig deep in search of nutrients.

Vineyards are planted to high density with a low-yield training system. Labor-intensity is high.

Salvino touched lightly on the characteristics of the broad geographic areas and the wines produced in each. I have supplemented his discourse with the below chart, developed after two conversations with Benjamin North (The New Wines of Mt Etna) bracketing a conversation with Antonio Benanti.

Contrada Cavalieri
Salvino brough two wines from the estate's Contrada Series to be tasted at the seminar: 2018 Contrada Cavaliere Etna Bianco and 2017 Contrada Cavaliere Etna Rosso. Before discussing the wines, let us explore the Contrada concept and this one specifically. describes contrade thusly:
Flowing lava ... eventually stops, spreading and hardening at various altitudes. After cooling for many years, these flatter areas over the centuries become established properties, each one producing a different taste of wine because of the different mineral origin of their soils and, more importantly, because of the grain that the lava had broken into during its cooling process: sand, gravel, powder, or rock. Under the same old names the properties became territorial subdivisions called contrade, and with regards to wine, they represent Etna's own version of a cru.
Salvino described Cavalieri as the most extreme of the contrade in the region. It is very hot and experiences very little rainfall. More details on this contrada is provided in the chart below.

2018 Contrada Cavaliere Etna Bianco and 2017 Contrada Cavaliere Etna Rosso
The Carricante grapes for the Bianco were hand-harvested then de-stemmed and pressed (softly) in the cellar. It was fermented by selected indigenous yeasts for 12 days in stainless steel tanks and matured therein (on the fine lees) for 12 months with periodic stirring. The wine was bottled and aged for another 6 months before being released on the market.

Salvino saw 2018 as a good vintage. This wine is described by the estate as intense, rich, broad, delicate and fruity on the nose with hints of orange blossom and ripe apple. Dry on the palate, mineral, harmonious with a pleasant acidity, aromatic persistence and an aftertaste of anise and almond.

Two thousand and seventeen was a very warm vintage according to Salvino. The Nerello Mascalese grapes were fermented and macerated in stainless steel for 21 days before being placed into French oak tonneaux for 12 months and then into stainless steel once again. The wines were aged in bottle for 10 months prior to market entry.

Salvino tagged this wine as rich, with evident tannins and concentration. Hristo described ripe red fruit, spice and tobacco while Jeremy saw elegance and restraint, with the wine being delicious now but also positioning to be delicious 10 to 20 years down the road.

How is 2020 shaping up?
It is on the warm side; quite dry. He thinks that it will be a vintage similar to 2014 or 2017, but cooler. 2019 was difficult while 2016 was one of the best of recent vintages.

Pietra Marina
Benanti is planning on having this wine spend an additional 1.5 to 2 years in the cellar prior to release. They prefer to release it 5 years after harvest, at the beginning of its evolution. He recommends drinking this wine 8 - 10 years after harvest to catch it at the beginning of its peak.

Jeremy Noye's Perspective on Mt Etna versus Sicilian wine
According to Jeremy, Mt Etna wines have become known and popular in the last 10 - 15 years and have taken over the conversation as to what is Sicilian wine. In the olden days, one's Sicilian portfolio would be loaded with Marsala and Nero d'Avola wines. Today the Morrell Sicilian portfolio is Mt Etna wines and one Marsala.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Barbaglia Winery: Producing wine within the reclamation project that is Alto Piemonte's Boca DOC

Nebbiolo is arguably Italy's noblest grape, renowned for its iconic manifestations in Barolo and Barbaresco, two of the world's best known and most beloved wines.But southern Piemonte, while the home of the best Nebbiolo wines, is not the only Piemonte growing region that has experience with the variety. In the Vercelli-Novara region of Alto Piemonte (shown in the red circle in the map below) the Nebbiolo grape-- called Spanna therein -- is also viewed fondly by "native" winemakers, notwithstanding the fact that its wines differ markedly from that of its better-known brethren to the south.

Figure1. Selected Alto Piemonte provinces
( map; author modification)

Writing in, Kerin O'Keefe stated thusly:
... Alto Piemonte is one of the most fascinating areas in Italy ... the area produces vibrant, fragrant and structured reds known for elegance and longevity. Alto Piemonte's five main denominations -- have higher vineyard altitudes and cooler temperatures than their more famous southern neighbors, Barolo and Barbaresco. But it's the soils that are unique. Lessona has bright-yellow, mineral-rich soil of marine origin, while Boca, Gattinara and Bramaterra have different proportions of porphyritic soils deposited by the eruptions from an ancient, long-extinct supervolcano.
And it is in this region, in the appellation Boca DOC, in the town of Cavallirio, in the province of Novara, that we find Barbaglia Winery, a 6-ha estate that the family (of the same name) continues to reclaim from the surrounding bush and the remnants of a once expansive grape-growing region. I recently chatted with Silvia, daughter to the estate owner, and a key part of the winery infrastructure, about the region, the winery, and the wines. I report on that conversation herein.

This part of Piemonte is comprised of three provinces and seven historical Nebbiolo areas. Silvia pointed out the contrasts in the surrounding environment with rice fields 10 kilometers from where they are located while Monte Rosa is in close proximity.

The area was an intense grape-growing region -- akin to the Langhe, with grape vines everywhere -- prior to the industrialization of the 1950s. Boca was home to 1000 ha of vineyards 100 years ago but industrialization was perceived to be a less-stressful means of earning a living and a large number of farmers left the land to pursue this option. At the lowest point, only 7 ha of grapevines were being tended in Boca. Young people have recently begun moving back into the area to take up the historical trade of their grandfathers, resulting in 30 ha of vine currently being tended.

The seven different historical names of Nebbiolo in Alto Piemonte is because of soil changes, all within a 30-km area. Boca, Bramatera, and Gattinara all fall within the caldera of an ancient supervolcano. According to Silvia, Boca is all about rocks (friable), acidic soils, and minerality (I have gone outside of my conversation with Silvia to secure the information provided below which fleshes out the picture of Boca DOC.).

Silvia's grandfather founded the winery in 1946. When her father was 14 years old, his father registered him in the oenology school at Alba -- a 5-hour trip in the pre-motorway days. Her father took control of the estate when he was 20 years old after his father died in an automobile accident while delivering wine to Val d'Aosta. According to Silvia, her father is very shy so she began helping him in the public-facing tasks when she was 17 years old. She began expansion of the vineyard -- it was 1.5 ha when she launched her reclamation effort in 1999 -- when she was 22 years of age.

Barbaglia has 4.5 of its 6 ha planted to grape-producing vines and the remainder to young plants. The estate is staffed by her father (oenologist and administrative duties), her mother, herself (viticulture and sales), and one other full-time employee.

A lot of rain falls in the area. Silvia talked about 2020 being a rather difficult season up to the time that we had our conversation. They had had rain every day in the past month. This was the most rain that she had ever seen in her years working at the estate. They had even experienced some effects of the hail that had recently pummeled Barolo and Barbaresco. It is not an easy job farming in the area, what with the acidic soils, low yields, and plentiful rain.

It is very important that they pick the grapes at the right maturation. They pick on the basis of sugar content (they want alcohol potential of 13%) and acidity. They also do test-wines with grapes sampled from various areas in the vineyard as part of the input to the decision-making process.

Silvia was tasting a white wine and the Boca DOC during the course of our conversation. The white wine was the Lucino Colline Novaresi DOC, a wine made exclusively from the Erbaluce grape, the variety most well known as the source of the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG wine. This wine is fermented in stainless steel (lengthy fermentation) and then bottled. They retain 4 to 5 grams of sugar in the final wine in order to help offset the brisk acidity. It needs a lot of time before being ready to drink so is not released to the market until one or two years after harvest. Her father, she says, is a white wine drinker in a red wine area; he makes this wine for himself. The one that she was tasting was salty, with mineral and balsamic notes.

Erbaluce has great potential for dry, sparkling and dessert wines. They currently make a brut and a zero-dosage metodo classico sparkling wine from Erbaluce. They also make a Rosé sparkling wine from the Uva Rara grape every two years.

Uva Rara is a red grape which is very good for making young wines. It is lighter in color, same color as Alto Piemonte Nebbiolo, as a matter of fact, and has good tannin and acidity. Those facts, and the contrastingly deep colors of Croatina and Vespolina, informs the decision to use Uva Rara as the source grape for the Rosé sparkling wine. The grape is also used in the estate's Colline Novaresi DOC Uva Rara wine.

Croatina is a spicy red grape which imbues its wines with a healthy dose of tannins. They age it in wood for a year to round out the tannins. Silvia says that it is good with meats as it clears the palate. It is used in the estate's Colline Novaresi DOC Croatina wine.

Vespolina is one of her favorite wines. It is one of the few spicy grapes in Italy and only 10 producers in the area do a 100% Vespolina wine. Vespolina is the other grape used in the Boca DOC wine.

Nebbiolo, called Spanna in this region, is the main contributor to Boca DOC, providing anywhere from 10 - 30% of blend. Nebbiolo is the very reflection of its terroir and, grown in Alto Piemonte, is much lighter in color than its southern counterparts. According to Silvia, while the variety brings fruit notes to the blend, Vespolina brings spiciness and deep color.

As has been happening across Italy and Spain, young people are returning to the lands that their granfathers farmed, bringing new energy, new skills, and a new determination and resurrecting the fortunes of their regions in the process. Matched up with the foregoing is the consumer search for new varieties and regions along with a thirst for authenticity. These trends bode well for the producers in Boca DOC and the broader Alto Piemonte region.

Barbaglia is a small producer but its winemaker is well respected for the quality of its wines. That perception of quality is an important contributor to the resurrection of the region. Silvia is contributing to that resurrection by reclaiming vines from the bush for her family's vineyard, as well as through the work that her viticulture company does to assist the grape-growing efforts of other producers in the area.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Regenerative Agriculture: Biochar for soil health and carbon sequestration

In the Regenerative Organic Alliance's  Regenerative Organic Certification, soil health and carbon sequestration are key activities in the Soil Health and Land Mangement component of the architecture. And, reducing the amount of carbon that is released from the soil -- plus storing additional carbon in said soil -- are key to both improved soil health and the battle against climate change.

I have previously detailed a number of strategies and tactics for the retention/increase of soil carbon levels. In this post I will examine Biochar as an additional and unique method of increasing soil carbon levels.

Biochar -- What Is
Biochar is a charcoal-like substance resulting from burning organic and forestry waste at high temperature (450 - 750 degrees C) in an oxygen-free environment -- a process called pyrolysis. During pyrolysis, the organic material is converted into biochar -- a stable form of carbon that cannot easily escape into the atmosphere -- biofuels (such as bio-oil and synthetic gas), and residual heat (Spears, Six, Chukwuka, et al.). The process is illustrated in the figure below.

The initial phase of the process typically requires more energy than it produces. "In the end, however, pyrolysis is 'exothermic,' meaning that it produces more heat than is required to originate the 10% of the final energy produced making it a rather efficient process particularly in light that it is capturing available carbon at the same time." (Gaunt).

According to Dr. Gaunt,
Biochar has been labeled a "carbon negative" energy source because it has the possibility of sequestering more carbon than is produced. The chief benefit of biochar  .. is the wide variety of feedstocks that it can be made from. Further, it can also produce a variety of energy outputs ... and, of course, biochar... Another flexibility that biochar has is that it can be produced at a wide range of scales from a simple cookstove to mobile farm pyrolizers and all the way up to large-scale "biorefineries."
Biochar History
The soil scientist Wim Sombroek discovered "Terra Preta de Indio" (Black Earth of the Indians) in Amazonia 60 years ago. He postulated that the indigenous peoples had created and maintained these darker soils between 500 and 8000 years ago by continually depositing cooking-derived charcoal, along with charcoal and/or fresh biomass from agricultural waste and forest clearing (Six). The buildup of charcoal biomass overtime acted on the soil in a number of ways: (i) it became very dark in color; (ii) its organic content was extremely high, as was the content of its carbon and nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and calcium); and (iii) it became extremely fertile, in comparison to adjacent, highly weathered soils.

These Terra Preta soils continue to hold high levels of carbon to the present time (Spears). These findings suggested that the application of biochar to soils could enhance its agronomic potential (Cirò).

Physical Characteristics
Increased soil carbon results in the soil retaining more water, resulting in better crop yields during droughts, a reduction in soil erosion, increased plant nutrient retention, and increased biological diversity. Higher soil carbon levels also hold soil particles together so that less erosion occurs. Most soil organic carbon manifests as decompositional material and exudates.

The physical characteristics of biochar are summarized in the rightmost structure in the figure below.

Biochar Applications
As is the case for other initiatives focused on increasing the carbon content in the soils, biochar is seen as having potential in the areas of climate mitigation and soil health. The chart immediately following illustrates how biochar's elemental composition can be a driving force in its role as a climate-effects mitigator.

The figure below shows the porous structure of a biochar nodule. This structure is key to a number of the agronomic biochar benefits (elaborated in the table following the below image).

Image of porous structure of biochar (Source:

Six and Rieger advance cautionary notes as it relates to biochar adoption. According to Six, the technology is:
  • High cost
  • Not widely available
  • Variable due to different sources and types of feedstock and processing
  • In need of more info and studies on its performance and benefits.
Rieger's objections are as follows:
  • In some cases yields may decline because of the sorption of water and nutrients by the biochar
    • Reduces the availability of these resources for the crop
    • Has also been shown to inhibit germination
  • The sorption of pesticides and herbicides by the biochar can reduce their efficiency
  • Some biochar can act as a source of contaminants:
    • Heavy metals
    • Volatile organic compounds
    • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
    • Dissolved organic carbon
  • The reduction in nitrous oxide emissions is not universal and emissions even increase sometimes
  • The fine ash associated with biochar is the perfect source for dust, posing a risk for respiratory diseases
  • Long-term removal of crop residues -- like stems, leaves, and seed pods -- for use in the production of biochar can reduce overall soil health by diminishing the number of soil organisms and disrupting internal nutrient cycling
  • The increase in cation exchange capacity depends on the composition of the soil
    • It is minimal in soils with high clay or organic matter content, especially at realistic rates of biochar addition
  • In light pH soils, an increase in soil pH is not desirable
Biochar-Compost Mix
In a study done for the European Project FERTPLUS, the study team investigated the use of biochar only, compost only, and a biochar-compost mix to "evaluate their potential  for closing the cycle of nutrients in different agro-climatic regions across Europe" (Sanchez-Monedero, et al.).

The rationale/hypotheses behind the compost-biochar mix were as follows:
  1. Composting is a microbial process that requires favorable growing conditions for the micro-organisms involved
  2. The addition of biochar to a composting pile theoretically can modify key physiochemical parameters and provide a more suitable habitat for the micro-organisms involved and promote microbial growth
  3. The changes experienced by the biochar surface during composting also would have benefits in terms of nutrient retention.
Both the biochar-only and compost-only threads returned similar results (improved tilth, increased water-holding capacity, etc.). Unlike biochar, however, compost is quickly broken down by microbial action in soil over months to, at most, decades, depending on the climate. Biochar, on the other hand, lasted at least 10 times longer in most soils.

The study showed important biochar synergistic effects when it was added to compost (Sanchez-Monedero, et al.):
  • The compost is more nutrient-rich, more biologically diverse, more humidified, and more stable
  • The biochar keeps the compost moist and aerated, promoting increased biological activity
  • Nitrogen retention is increased
  • Compost maturity and humic content is improved
  • Plant growth was improved.
Biochar Viticulture Applications
I examined two separate biochar viticultural studies, one conducted by the Biochar Lab Group of the Institute of Biometeorology of Florence and the other reported on in Wine Business Monthly of April 2016. The former was carried out at an Antinori vineyard in Montepulciano beginning in 2009. The latter covered an olive grove in Spain, three vineyards in Italy, arable crop rotation in Belgium, and a greenhouse-grown tomato crop in Spain.

The Antinori Merlot vineyard was amended with 22 t/ha of biochar in 2009, and again in 2010, and showed the following results:
  • Grape production up 68% in the plot treated with biochar when compared to an untreated plot
    • No decrease in quality
  • An increase in plant-soil water retention
  • Long term effect on soil quality
    • Carbon sequestration
    • Improvement in soil chemical and biological parameters.
The result reported herein has led, according to the authors, to other Tuscan estates adopting the approach.

The findings from the Wine Business studies were as follows (Rieger):
  • Results confirmed the potential of biochar to improve soil physical properties and to achieve a long-lasting increase of soil health in all listed agro-climatic regions
  • No negative effects on soil quality or crop yield in pure biochar applications
  • Biochar did not show any detrimental effects on crop performance.
Biochar is attractive on a number of different levels: It has the potential to aid in the municipal waste disposal overhang; the products of pyrolysis both contribute to climate mitigation efforts; and removing unstable carbon from the environment and sequestering it in a way that also contributes to soil health is fairly attractive.

I have pointed out a number of issues associated with the technology but these are problems to be solved rather than being kill-shots. I expect to see biochar soil amendments in vineyards as we move forward into the future.

Chukwuka, et al., Biochar: A Vital Source for Sustainable Agriculture, Intech Open, 2020.
Pimentel and Burgess, Maintaining sustainable and environmentally friendly fresh produce production in the context of climate change, Global Safety of Fresh Produce, 2014.
Giulia Cimò, Characterization of Chemical and Physical Properties of Biochar for Energy Purposes and Environmental Restoration, PhD Thesis, 2013.
Dr. John Gaunt, Low-Temperature slow pyrolysis offers an energetically efficient strategy for bioenergy production,
S. Joseph, et al., The Properties of Fresh and Aged Biochar, Biochar International.
Jeff Rieger, Vineyards Experiment with Biochar as Soil Amendment, April 2016, Wine Business Monthly.
Sanchez-Monedero, et al., Agronomic Evaluation of Biochar, Compost and Biochar Blended Compost across Different Cropping Systems: Perspective for the European Project FERTPLUS.
Johan Six, Biochar: is there a dark side? ETH Zurich, 1/4/14.
Stephanie Spears, What is Biochar? Agriculture, 5/16/18.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Karas Winery: A New-Armenian-Wine Pioneer

Armenia, one of the candidates for the origin of viticulture, has transitioned from its debilitating role as a specialized Soviet wine producer to one of leveraging its terroir, world wine knowledge, and the resources of its diaspora to re-orient its winemaking industry towards the quality sphere.

One of the new wineries pushing Armenia into the broader wine world is Karas Winery of the wine branch of Tierras de Armenia CJSC, an entity owned by Argentinian-Armenian entrepreneur Eduardo Eurnekian. The Director of Operations at Karas is Juliana Del Aguila, Eurnekian's niece. The family has been making wine in Patagonia for over a decade.

Karas Winery owns over 400 ha of vineyards in Armavir, one of the most well-regarded of the Armenia wine regions. Vineyards in this region rest on mineral rich soils at elevations ranging between 800 and 1200 m.

The climate in the vicinity of Karas Winery is dry continental, with rainfall averaging 300 m annually.

The soil is medium-to-heavy, lightly eroded clay formed from basalt. It includes high levels of carbonate and limestone, volcanic tuff, and alluvial stone. It is very rocky and low in organic matter. The latter condition is remedied by the use of natural compost and organic fertilizer.

The Karas vineyards are located at 1000 m and are farmed organically and sustainably. The varieties planted therein are as follows:

Whites Reds
Chardonnay Areni
Viogner Khndokhni
Kangun Syrah




Petit Verdot

Cabernet Franc


The winemaker is Gabriel Rogel from Argentina. He is ably assisted by the famed Michel Rolland in the role of Consulting Winemaker.

We evaluated two of the wines in the Karas portfolio: the 2018 Karas Areni-Khndoghni and the 2015 Karas Reserve.

The 2018 Karas Areni-Khndoghni is a blend of 40% Areni and 60% Khndoghni, the characteristics of which are included in the chart below.

The grapes are hand-harvested into 20 kg boxes and transported to the winery for table selection. The selected grapes are cold-macerated for 5 days prior to a 25-day alcoholic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is conducted in tanks.

Green herbs initially, followed by an explosion of fresh fruit. Berry driven with a brown sugar character. Definite tumeric note. Bone dry with juicy sweet fruit on the palate. Low tannin and high acidity. Mineral. According to the estate, the acidity and structure are contributed by the Areni variety while the dark fruit flavors are delivered by the Khndoghni.

The Karas 2015 Reserva is a blend of 40% Montepulciano, 25% Cabernet Franc, 20% Syrah, and 15% Malbec. The grapes are hand-harvested into 20 kg boxes and transported to the winery for table selection. The selected grapes are cold-macerated for 5 days prior to a 20-day alcoholic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is conducted in tanks after which the wine is aged for 14 months in Armenian* and French oak barrels.

Smoke and chocolate along with roasted bell peppers, an oiliness, cayenne pepper, and sandalwood. Complex and layered. Medium-bodied with high acidity and a bright explosion of fruit. Black olives and tea arrive late. Bitter, creamy finish.

When I initially smelled the Reserva, I immediately said "this is a Michel Rolland wine." It was very expressive on the nose and invited the taster in. The indigenous-variety blend was, comparatively, retiring. It was far less complex than the Reserva and had an unassuming finish. The winemaking team obviously knows how to work the international varieties but are either confronted with less expressive local varieties or are still working to master them. It should be noted that the Areni-Khndoghni had an excellent quality:price ratio.

*Armenian oak barrels impart unique tastes to the wine. The oak is more intense than French oak due to the comparatively lower humidity in its source forests in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is also darker and less porous. It must be properly handled to ensure that tannin levels are controlled. Given its intensity, Armenian oak requires less time to impart its flavors to the wine. It provides intense sweet tones (such as vanilla), spiciness, and a eucalyptus aroma.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The white wines of Piemonte: Gavi (Cortese di Gavi) DOCG

Piemonte is home to two of the world's iconic red-wine regions -- Barolo and Barbaresco -- but its indigenous-variety white wines are also demanding of attention in their own right. I have written previously on the Timorasso, Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG, and Roero Arneis DOCG wines and was extremely pleased with the quality. I continue my exploration with this post on the wines of Gavi DOCG.

Gavi (also called Cortese di Gavi) is a Piemonte region dedicated to the production of wines from the (white) Cortese grape. According to, "The Gavi area, the southern part of Alto Monferrato, rises from the banks of the Tanaro River into the mountains of the Apennines and the water divide between Piedmont and Liguria."

Gavi DOCG indicated by red circle to the bottom-
right of the Piemonte map

The region spools out over the hills of 11 communes in the province of Alesandria. It gained DOC status in 1974 and was promoted to DOCG in 1998. The allowed wines in the appellation are a Bianco, Bianco Riserva, Spumante, and a Spumante Metodo Classico, all made from 100% Cortese.

The Gavi climate is characterized by cold winters and hot, airy summers. Again from "The combination of the Ligurian sea breeze and the Apennine snow make this particular corner of Piedmont so special." In addition to the Apennines, the region is also influenced by the presence of the Alps. The significant day-night temperature variation allows flavor concentration while preserving crisp acidity in the wines.

The mineral-rich soils of the region are purported to contribute to the flavors of the Gavi wine. The complexity of the soilscape is displayed in the chart below.

To summarize the chart, the northern part of the region is dominated by red ferrous soils and gravel mixed with clay from ancient alluvial activity while the central area alternates between soils of marl and sandstone. The south has fossil-rich white soils composed of clay-calcareous marls. credits the region's climate and the soils on the hillside vineyards as being responsible for the complexity of the wines. "Highly reputed for its 'white soils' is the area of Gavi Village, very well known for clear-cut character, amazing freshness, as well as complex wines that here become the Gavi del comune di Gavi docg.

The Cortese cultivar makes its first appearance in the literature in 1659. It is a highly productive, thin-skinned grape that is disease-resistant. It is noted for delivering bone-dry wines that are crisp and flinty with floral and peach aromatics.

I am teaching two of my nephews (Al and Devawn) the two or three things I know about wine so we get together every other Saturday for a theory lesson and a wine tasting. The last time we got together we tasted two Gavi wines: a 2018 Marchesi di Barolo and a 2018 La Scolca Gavi dei Gavi.

I could not find much material on the viticulture or viniculture associated with the Marchesi di Barolo wine beyond the fact that the grapes were grown on medium-bodied marl on slightly sloping hills and that the grapes were slightly pressed before being fermented in stainless steel tanks. I liked the wine though. Parsley on the nose, along with a red pepper spice and expansive minerality. Broad on the palate, with citrus (young lime) and minerality preceding a long spicy finish.

According to La Scolca, the Gavi wine that is the basis of today's appellation was invented at their winery back in the 1950s. Further, the area in which the vines for its Black Label wines are grown -- Rovereto -- can be consideerd the Grand Cru of the DOCG. The company manages about 50 ha of vineyards, with planting density of 4500 vines/ha. The grapes are harvested manually and fermented separately based on vineyard origin. The Black Label wine is sourced from vineyards averaging 60 years of age.

The wine was intense on the nose, with green herbs, lemon and muted honeydew melon. Intense acidity on the palate with a sourdrop character yielding to a cupric mineral finish. Much more acidity than the Marchesi di Barolo wine. This wine screams out for food. Both wines were of excellent quality but the Marchesi is a more all-purpose wine in that it can be drunk on its own while the La Scolca needs a friend.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme