Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Truffle hunting in wine country: Decanter's Great Piemonte Readers' Weekend

This was going to be a high-intensity weekend so there was no time to be messing around.  We were launching the weekend with a lunch at Tra Arte e Quercie (between art and oak trees) in Monchiero with Giuseppe Vaira (of G.D. Vajra) followed quickly by a truffle hunt in a private preserve owned by the restaurant's proprietor.  Decanter had sent us reams of information on truffle hunts (what to wear, psychological and physical preparation prior to the hunt, in-hunt demeanor (end-zone celebrations were prohibited), and the proper way to handle the potato in the event of a "kill") so we were ready for the event.  I felt a twinge of sympathy for the truffles in our target zone because I knew that they were overmatched.  But I will get back to that later.  First let us take a look at exactly what we were hunting.

The white truffle of Alba (tartufo bianco; or trifola d'Alba in the Piemontese dialect) is a mycorrhizal fungi which lives in a symbiotic relationship with a host tree wherein it acquires minerals from the soil and passes them on to the plant and utilizes plant-provided carbon for its own growth and reproduction.  The truffle is generally found in the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato regions of Piemonte in humid, north-facing internal hill slopes with elevations not exceeding 700 meters and with pH values ranging between 6.6 and 8.5 (  The truffle has an affinity for the trees such as oak, willow, poplar, linden, lime, sweet chestnut, and hazelnut.

The truffle has a distinct aroma (earth, tree roots, and old cheese according to and is famous for said aroma as well as the taste and perceived aphrodisiac qualities. The desirable qualities of the white truffle, plus declining harvest levels, combine to make this an extremely expensive delicacy with prices ranging to $2000/lb and beyond.  The truffles are harvested by truffle hunters (trifulaus) and their dogs (previously pigs but they are rather unruly) during the "season" which stretches from early October to early December.  The dogs are trained by first being able to find hidden cheese, then cheese hidden in association with truffles, then the truffle only.  The dogs are rewarded for each find with some type of treat.  In the field the dog is more easily dissuaded from destroying the truffle than is a pig.

Back to the hunt.  Ezio is our trifulau.  According to Giuseppe (and the restaurant literature) he is a great truffle hunter who has been pursuing this passion (initially a job) since he was a boy.  He has his own truffle "range" located down the hillside from the elevated position of the restaurant.  Did I mention that Ezio was also the proprietor of Tra Arte e Quercie?  Well he is and after managing the production and serving of our meals, he changed into his great-white-truffle-hunter garb, picked up his divining rod (waist-high shepherd's crook with a metal tip), collected his trusty companion (looked like a golden mutt), gave us all hiking sticks, and strode off into the "jungle."  We were on our way.

As we started down the hill, we were talking loudly and laughing.  Nerves I thought.  We were venturing into the unknown.  Would we prove ourselves equal to the challenge? How would we react when we came face to face with the prey?  Would we stand firm? Or cut and run?  Ezio looked back at us with a disapproving glare and whispered something to Giuseppe.  We were obviouly not hunters.  We would most likely scare the prey away. But no, that was not his biggest concern.  No, you see, secrecy is the thing that is valued most among the trifulau.  If you find a truffle at a particular spot, you will continue to find more truffles at that spot in the future.  If you reveal that spot (inadvertently or otherwise), other hunters will harvest in your stead.  Truffle hunters keep going back to the well. Silently.

Suddenly Ezio stopped and placed his finger to his lips.  He signaled for us to stop walking and talking. I rolled my eyes.  I had been to Disney.  This was going to be the contrived drama scene with some rustling in the underbrush and then we would move on.  But no. It was not that way.  We heard some voices approaching.  How could this be?  We were on private land.  Surely Ezio would jump out and confront these people as they passed about thirty feet below us on a hunt of their own.  But he did not.  As they passed on he indicated that they were poachers and it was best to not let them know that we were there.  He did not want them potentially doubling back and spying on his hunting operation.

After that crisis passed, we continued on our walk to the area where Ezio was going to show us his magic.  In anticipation of our arrival, he had not harvested in this area for two days.  He wanted to improve the chances of our coming out of this hunt with success. When he got to this slightly flatter area, he stretched out his staff in the manner of Moses reaching out to part the Red Sea and the dog went bounding off with her nose close to the ground.  She was nuzzling around in the underbrush in an area defined by the outstretched divining rod.

Suddenly she stopped running around and started urgently nosing a particular spot. Quick as a flash Ezio was kneeling beside her, guiding her head with his hands, exerting a gentle pressure as he sought to ensure that the truffle was not close enough to the surface for the dog to damage it.  He then moved her back from the site, reached into an heretofore unnoticed slit in the back of his jacket, and pulled out a metal claw with a wooden, elongated handle.  He began to clear the underbrush and dig gently into the soil with this implement.  Just prior, he had reached into the pocket of this jacket and retrieved a reward treat which he gave to the dog.  We were silent as we watched the operation. Then Ezio reached into the soil and held up a small dark object between his thumb and forefinger.  He muttered something and then passed the object on to Guiseppe.  Small black truffle, said Giuseppe.  And we all touched it.  And smelled it.  This was our first time.  And it did smell like truffle oil.

And so we continued for another hour or so and our trove grew.  Small black truffles. Small white truffles.  Large white truffles.  I was busy calculating what my take was going to be from this afternoon's book of work.  When Ezio signalled that our work here was done, we jauntily walked back up the hill.  We were in high spirits.  We had confronted the truffle in the wild and had emerged victorious.  And we had Ezio's trophy bag full of victims to prove the point.  As we got to the top of the hill, we stopped at the gate of Ezio's residence.  His daughter-in-law was standing there holding his grandson.  The grandson struggled to be placed on the ground so that he could run over to his grandfather.  The two embraced lovingly and Ezio reached into his pouch, retrieved one of the large, valuable, white truffles and gave it to his grandson.  This 2-year-old kid looked at the truffle intently and then brought it up to his nose and smelt it.  He then passed it back to his granddad.  The cycle renews.

By the way, our reward for the day's work was the opportunity we had to see a master ply his craft. Oh well.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Langhe (Piemonte, Italy) wine region

The third annual Decanter Reader trip (Great Piemonte Reader Weekend) placed a small band of intrepid wine enthusiasts deep into the wilds of the Langhe region to test their resolve and ability to survive an avalanche of information, food, and wines of the region.  This post is intended to provide the lens through which all future posts on the topic should be viewed.

Piemonte is one of the most highly regarded Italian wine regions, a reputation due, in large part, to the stellar wines produced in its Langhe sub-region. The Langhe (tongues of land) is separated from the Roero sub-region by the Tanaro River and is characterized by long, steep-sided hill slopes that are separated one from the other by a series of narrow valleys.

The climate in the Langhe is continental with warm Mediterranean air from the Ligurian Sea moderating somewhat the effects of cold air coming off the Alps to the north.  Weather varies from year to year resulting in appreciable vintage variation.  Hailstorms are an appreciable risk with the potential for associated crop loss.

When the Padano Sea retreated from what is today's Langhe, it left behind layers of clay, calcareous marl, blue marl, tufa, sand, and sulfur-bearing chalk.  This soil is credited with bestowing structure and finesse on the areas full-bodied reds.

The primary grape varieties grown in Langhe are shown in the table below. 

Nebbiolo, the variety used in the region's famed Barolo and Barbaresco wines, is considered Italy's most noble grape.  Its name is thought to derive from the Italian word for fog, a condition which is common in Barolo during the September-October maturation period of the variety. The grape requires the warmest sites in order to ensure full ripening. There is significantly more Barbera planted in Langhe than Nebbiolo. This variety is vigorous, high in acid, and resistant to fungal disease and its retiring aroma (plus acidity) renders it an excellent blending wine. When cropped for quality this grape can show aromas of red fruits, currants, and blackberries.  Dolcetto -- the little sweet one -- is an early ripening variety which is low in acid but high in tannins.  It is however, considered much more approachable than its rich cousins and serves as the everyday drinking wine of the Piedmontese.  This variety is characterized by aromas of ripe blackberries and plums.  Moscato Bianco is a white grape that is the fourth most planted variety in Italy.  Known by a number of names, the resulting wines tend to be fizzy or sparkling and produce aromas of lychee and rose petals.

Barolo DOCG Soils
Barolo wines are produced from Nebbiolo grapes grown on the hillsides to the southwest of Alba in five key communes and parts of five sub-zones.  The substrates of the hills are marine sedimentary deposits that formed in the Miocene epoch (23 - 5 million years ago). These deposits are composed primarily of white- to blue-colored compacted marl and calcareous clay and are more- or less-resistant to water penetration depending on the sand-to-clay ratio.

The Barolo zone is divided into two soil subzones based on the age of the deposits. To the west, the soils around the towns of Barolo and La Morra are composed of a calcareous (limestone-rich) marl with high levels of sand -- referred to as Tortonian (11 - 7 million years ago) -- that yields aromatic, elegant, medium-bodied wines which evolve in the bottle earlier than their counterparts.  The wines from the Barolo commune are thought to be more complex, and broader in texture, than the more perfumed and graceful La Morra wines. 

The Langhian (until the 1960s, Helvetian) soil around the communes of Serralunga d'Alba, Monforte d'Alba, and Castiglione Falletto was deposited between 16 and 13 million years ago. The soils of this zone are mostly calcareous clay marls with little sand content and produces a wine that is more structured and requires longer aging.

Serralunga d'Alba

Serralunga d'Alba is a small, medieval village in the Langhe region of Piedmont that is 7100 meters long, 1800 meters wide at its widest point, sits on a hill 414 meters above sea level, and serves as the eastern flank of the Barolo wine production zone.  According to, Serralunga d'Alba is one of only three of the 11 Barolo communes that are contained in their entirety within the production zone (the remaining two are Barolo and Castiglione Falletto).

According to Gambero Rosso (Serralunga Barolo: The unrushable wine;, Serralunga d'Alba has "compact, sandstone-based soils dating from the Helvetian period."  These soils are high in sand, limestone, iron, phosphorous, and potassium and, as a result, produce wines that are intense and structured and that need time to mature.

Click here for a detailed map of the Barolo wine-growing region.

Barbaresco DOCG

Barbaresco wines are produced from grapes grown on the steep, pre-alpine hillsides of four small villages located to the northeast of Alba.  The grapes are grown on limestone rich marl soils on south-facing exposures with elevation in excess of 200 meters.  The climate in the Barbaresco growing area is warmer and drier than in Barolo, allowing the grapes to ripen earlier and the resulting wines to be less tannic and more approachable.  Barbaresco wines are known for their rich, spicy flavors and perfumed sweetness.

A summary of the DOCG and DOC wines produced in Langhe is provided in the table below.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Langhe exposed: Decanter's Great Piedmont Reader Weekend

Decanter’s Great Piedmont Reader Weekend, held in Langhe (Piedmont) from Friday, October 12, to Sunday October 14, was the third in a series of trips designed to take advantage of the company’s position in the industry to expose a small group of its readers to leading proprietors/managers of a selected wine region.  The prior two events were held in Bordeaux and the Duero, respectively, and were both exceptional in their own right.  My prior experiences with Decanter, plus no prior experience with the Piedmont region, convinced me to sign up for this trip.

The scheduled activities for the weekend were: visits to Vajra, Gaja, Poderi Aldo Conterno, and Massolino wineries where we would be led in tastings by the proprietors; lunches and dinners in area restaurants, some hosted by winery proprietors; and a truffle hunt.  Our base of operations was to be the Il Boscareto Resort and Spa.  The Decanter personnel along for the trip were Sarah Kemp, Publishing Director, Emma Jones, Events Manager, and Peter McCombie MW.  I will cover the individual elements of the trip in subsequent posts but my initial, high-level impressions are covered herein.

The weather for the duration of our trip was picture perfect (contrary to pre-trip weather forecasts), with chilly morning mists yielding to bright, sunny days and with temperatures in the low-to-mid 60s.  These clear, bright days afforded clear views of the vineyard-clad slopes of the area; slopes that are bisected by winding mountain roads connecting turreted-hilltop town to turreted-hilltop town.  And, through it all, vineyards claiming various aspects of the multitudes of slopes in their mad dash from hilltop prominence to the valleys below.  The pleasant temperatures were also a boon during outdoor activities such as truffle hunting, vineyard walks, and winery facility tours (extensive in the Gaja case).

Beyond my gratitude for the weather, and the beauty of the Langhe scenery, I would also like to acknowledge the kindness and generosity of each of the proprietors whom we visited.  Our visit coincided with harvest in the Langhe yet these individuals set the time aside (between 3 and 5 hours): to explain the region and their winemaking philosophies and practices; to lead us in tutored tastings of their estate offerings; to host us at lunches (Gaja and Vajra); and to answer any and all questions completely and with an honesty and forthrightness that was truly refreshing.

Giuseppe Vaira
Plus Mom and Dad
Angelo Gaja holding court in the courtyard
Gaja and Gaia
Giacomo Conterno
Franco Massolino
As an example of this generosity, let us take the case of the Gaja visit which occurred on Saturday, October 13th.  First off, the winery does not accept visitors in the normal course of events and, secondly, is closed on the weekend.  Yet both Angelo, family patriarch, and Gaia, his accomplished daughter, were both present to lead us through the day’s activities.  After an architectural tour of the facilities (designed to show how the winery had evolved), and a lesson on the history of the company, Angelo turned the reins over to Gaia to lead us through a tasting of vintage Gaja wines from magnums.  Absolutely phenomenal.  After the tasting, the Gajas hosted us for a lunch wherein a different set of magnums were opened to accompany the meal.  At the conclusion of the lunch we were each given a set of documentation and a magnum of 2004 Gaja Sperss enclosed in a patterned wooden box.  A stunning, unexpected gift that was humbly accepted by each recipient.  Floored us it did.

A feature of the previous Decanter trips had been extended access to leading regional estate proprietors/managers.  This trip did not disappoint in that regard.  We spent 2+ hours with Giuseppe Vaira at a tasting lunch on the first day, followed by a 45-minute truffle hunt (on which he accompanied us), followed by a visit and tour of the Vajra operations during crush – and at which time access was expanded to include his mother, father, sister, and brother – and, finally, capped by an hour-long tasting of the company’s offerings that had not been experienced at lunch.  The Gaja name is one of the most recognized in Italian wine circles and Angelo Gaja has been a tireless advocate of his family’s wines and his region.  We spent an extended period with him and Gaia and I had the distinct privilege of sitting next to him at lunch and to benefit, at a personal level, from his quick wit, sharp mind, and ever-present humor.  He is a storyteller. Giacomo Conterno walked us through an educational tasting of the Aldo Conterno wines (he poured each and every glass) and through the vineyards arrayed in the hills above the winery.  Franco Massolino did much the same, in terms of the tasting, while regaling us with stories regarding the prowess of his aunt at both the bottling and labeling stations in the winery.  The opportunity to listen and learn from practitioners of this art for such extended periods in a concentrated period of time was a very attractive proposition for me.

The team for the Piemonte experience numbered 12 individuals, six of whom had been on at least one of the previous Decanter trips.  It was a fun group that gelled immediately and was, in addition, very respectful of each other’s time, the proprietors’ contributions, and Decanter’s efforts.  The group dynamics and interaction contributed significantly to the success of the trip.
This trip was immaculate in both its conception and execution, with no hitches or hiccups along the way.  I credit Decanter for assembling such a high-powered roster of wineries and enlisting the proprietors in the conspiracy to provide its readers with a host of memorable experiences. Emma (Jones now) was her usual “model-of-efficiency self and excelled at the task of herding cats.  Sarah Kemp descended on us from on high post the lunch on Friday and from then on functioned effectively as the bridge between the team and the proprietors (with all of whom she appeared to have extremely good relations) as well as serving as the fulcrum for many in-team discourses about wine-industry-related issues.

In closing, I must say that this trip was a rip-roaring success.  Decanter once again married its readers’ loyalty, love of wine, and sense of adventure with the food, wines, fabulous accommodations, and people of a leading wine region with the result being a spectacular experience for lucky readers.  I am ready for the next trip to a region that is unencumbered by the weight of our previous passage.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rising stars from historic estates: Alessia Antinori and Fiorano

On Monday, October 1, I attended a Winemaker's Dinner hosted by Italian Wine Merchants (IWM) and featuring the wines of Bodegas Chacra (Piero Incisa della Rochetta, winemaker) and Fiorano (Alessio Antinori, winemaker).  I discussed the tasting of the Bodegas Chacra offerings in a previous post and will provide the same treatment for the Fiorano offerings in the current.

The Estate

Fiorano, according to Eric Asimov (as cited in IWM Literature and Sergio Esposito's Passion of the Vine), is an estate located on the ancient Via Appia on the outskirts of the city of Rome and in what is today the Latium (Lazio) wine region of Italy.  The estate had been owned and farmed organically by a somewhat reclusive prince named Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi who produced wheat, milk, cheese, and wine on the property.  The estate's wine production was initially limited to regional varietials but, in 1946, the prince ripped out the local varieties and replaced them with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillon, and Malvasia Candia, varieties which were non-native and unfashionable in Italian wine-production circles.

Upon the death of the Prince, the estate was caught up in legal wrangling but was eventually inherited by his three granddaughters -- who are also the daughters of Marchese Piero Antinori, head of the famed Florentian wine-producing family -- and they have endeavored to restore it in a manner that reflects operations as they were in the Prince's time.  The goal is to ressurect an organic farm that will produce wine, goats, sheep, and bread.  To date a tank has been built in the former stables and construction has begun on a house.  The current vine inventory stands at four rows each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

The Winemaker

Prince Ludovisi managed the vines of the estate to low yields which, in turn, allowed him to produce small quantities of concentrated, intense wines.  These wines were vinified and aged in large, numbered barrels and bottled unfiltered when a customer made a purchase (Alessia relayed to us that buyers were taken into a room where they paid for the wines that they wanted.  They were locked in that room while the money was taken elsewhere and counted.  Upon the Prince's satisfaction, the customer was then taken to another room where the wines that had been bought changed hands.).  The cellar and its contents were covered in a fine white mold which, the proprietor was convinced, contributed to the quality and uniqueness of the wine.  The Prince's consultant in his efforts was the noted traditionalist -- and famed winemaker in his own right -- Tancredi Biondi-Santi.

Alessia is the youngest of the three Antinori daughters.  In her youth she worked harvests at both the Chianti Classico (Santa Christena) and Umbria (Castello dela Sala) Antinori estates and graduated from the University of Milan in 1998 with a degree in oenology and viticulture.  She worked as an oenologist in the family business upon graduation.  Alessio is currently focused on expanding the reach of Antinori's branded products, with especial emphasis on Asia.  The Antinori daughters are working with Renzo Cotarello -- the Antinori wine director -- on the elaboration of the wine-related aspects of the estate, with a goal of eventually producing 5000 bottles each of primary red and white wines and a second-label red wine.

The Wines

The Fiorano Rosso 1988 Botte #30 and the Fiorano Rosso 2010 were paired with a Braised Lamb stuffed Agnolotti with Porcini Velouté.  The 1988 was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and, according to Alessia, there are only a few more bottles of this wine remaining.  The most striking characteristic of the wine was its youth on the palate when contrasted with the age on the label.  This full-bodied wine exhibited a certain rusticity and red fruits on the nose which was confirmed on the palate to accompany youthfulness and great depth.  'Tis a shame that I probably will not have the opportunity to experience this wine when it develops a few flecks of gray in its whiskers.

Alessia referred to the Rosso 2010  -- a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot blend -- as an experiment.  The grapes are grown on 1/5th of an acre at Fiorano and only 250 bottles were made.  Alessia felt that while the wine has the structure of a Fiorano, it lacks its personality.  I felt that the wine was disaggregated and that the elements did not mesh well.  Alessia felt that when this wine comes into its own, it may be the estate's second wine.

The white wines -- Fiorano 1995 #45 Bianco and Fiorano #48 Semillon -- were paired with a selection of cheeses.  These wines had been vinified and aged in large, old casks and bottled upon demand.  They all have oxidative characteristics, both in terms of color and taste, which, according to Alessia, makes them well suited to accompany cheeses.  The wines had a certain earthiness and will be well-suited to the enthusiast who is partial to character-driven wines.

As I said in my previous post, a fulsome night, one that I would have been disappointed to miss.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, October 5, 2012

Rising stars from historic estates: Piero Incisa della Rochetta and Bodega Chacra

On Monday of this week I attended a Winemaker's Dinner hosted by Italian Wine Merchants (IWM) and featuring the wines of Bodegas Chacra (Piero Incisa della Rochetta, winemaker) and Fiorano (Alessio Antinori, winemaker).  The material on offer at the event was extensive so, in order to do them justice, I will treat the winemakers and their offerings in two separate posts beginning today with Bodega Chacra.

The Winemaker

Piero Incisa della Rochetta is the grandson of Mario Incisa della Rochetta, the creator and proprietor of Tenuta San Guido, the estate that is home to Sassicaia, the most iconic of the Super Tuscan wines.  Piero's uncle, Niccolo'Incisa della Rochetta, currently manages the family's wine business while Piero serves as US Brand Ambassador for the flagship product.

Piero has un undergraduate economics degree from Pepperdine University and a Masters from NYU.  His winemaking skills were garnered and honed during the years spent growing up on the family's estate in Maremma as well as managing day-to-day operations of two of his mother's Umbrian properties, Titigano and Salviano.

According to an interview he did with Lesley Trites (reported in, Piero became interested in Patagonia after tasting a Pinot from the region while in New York. The wine impressed him as very Burgundian and led to him taking a plane down to Patagonia to determine the region's potential.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Estate

The upshot of his trip to Patagonia was the 2004 purchase of the first of the Bodega Chacra vineyards, an existing, but abandoned, vineyard which had been planted in the Rio Negro Valley in 1932 by Italian immigrants (Piero describes this part of Patagonia as "essentially a desert with a river running through it").  The gnarled, head-trained Pinot vines were planted on their own rootstocks in an old riverbed of sand and clay soil peppered with high-limestone-content alluvial pebbles. Piero has grown the estate's potential by the subsequent acquisition of vineyards initially planted in 1955 and 1967 and planting of an additional 10 acres of vineyards on the original 1932 property.

Bodega Chacra is farmed organically and biodynamically (Demeter-certified).  For example, a horse is used for motive power in order to prevent soil compaction and they create their own compost using grape skins.  The vineyards are irrigated five times during the growing cycle and a single copper sulfate treatment is applied over that same period.

The estate's winemaking objective is to have the oak, fruit, and soil characteristics marry seamlessly such that the effects of the wood are not readily apparent and that the "vine and terroir are expressed to their fullest."  The Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir winemaking process is illustrated below.

The Event and the Wines

The wines were presented within the context of an IWM dinner.  Upon stepping into the IWM facility, the attendee was welcomed and registered and then given a glass of Montenisa NV Brut Rose Franciacorta.  A Full Monty of the wines to be tasted that night was on display at a sideboard.

The actual sit-down dinner was preceded by an "Antipasti hour" which featured house-cured Salumi, regional Italian cheeses, assorted Antipasti, and fresh bread.  During the Antipasti hour, we were exposed to the 2009 Merlot Mainqué, the first of the Bodega Chacra wines.  This "affable, rustic Merlot" is the third vintage of this label and is sourced from biodynamically farmed vines that are planted alongside the 1955 vineyard. Winemaking in the case of the Mainqué is more traditional with maceration ( 5 days), and "plunging down" all a part of the process.  Malolactic fermentation and lees stirring occur in 50% new French oak barrels over a two-month period.  The wines are matured in barrel for 23 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. A total of 5000 bottles are produced.

This wine had good color intensity with blackberry, plum, vanilla, and chocolate on the nose.  Great acidity on the palate to accompany a good body and a long, drying finish which softens up over time.  I expressed my love for this wine by buying a case.

Upon completion of the Antipasti hour, we were directed to IWMs event area which has an excellent, fully furnished, fully staffed kitchen along the western wall and two long dining tables located in sequence to the east of the kitchen.  The dining tables were appropriately adorned for a high-end wine dinner and seating was arrayed on both sides of each table.  Seating was pre-arranged with name cards informing each guest where he/she was located.  I was pleased to see that I was sitting obliquely opposite Alessia Antinori, in good position to interact extensively with her over the course of the evening (Midway through the dinner, Alessia and Piero switched places so that I had excellent access to both of them.).

After everyone was seated, Chris Deas, VP at IWM, welcomed us and said a few words about the event and the winemakers.  He happened to mention that (i) Piero was the Brand Ambassador for Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia, (ii) that Fiorano was famous for its white wines, and (iii) that we would be tasting some of the newest Chacra vintages.  Upon completion of his remarks, Chris turned the floor over to Piero who introduced his wines. And then on to the dinner.

The Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir Cincuenta y Cinco 2010 and 2011 were accompanied by Wild Salmon with Pancetta and Leeks.  The presentation on this meal was immaculate with the concentric circles on the plate working in towards a small bowl in the center which seemed just barely large enough to accomodate the fare.  The dish was heavenly and paired extremely well with the wines.

The wines for this course were sourced from the estate's 1955 vineyard and represents the estate's attempt at a more "feminine" expression of Pinot Noir.  The 2010 is seen by the estate as proof that concentration can be achieved without over-extraction and high alcohol levels (11.4% abv) while the 2011 exhibits riper fruit, the result of a warmer vintage.  The alcohol in the 2011 vintage is 13%.

I found these wines to exhibit ripe red fruit on both the nose and the palate with great engagement on the attack and the mid-palate.  The roundness of mouthfeel may become more evident as the wine is allowed to evolve in the glass.

The final Bodega Chacra offerings of the evening were three vintages (2008, 2009, 2010) of the Treinta y Dos to accompany a Pan-Seared Duck in Duck Jus over Autumn Root Vegetables.

This was another immaculately prepared and presented dish and was shown off to good measure by the accompanying wines.  This is the flagship wine of the Chacra stable and its "masculinity" and "angularity" will reward the patient drinker with classic Burgundian characteristics.  I found these wines to be variations on a theme of ripe red fruits (strawberries, cherries) on the nose with red fruits, good acidity, and spiciness on the palate adding to an overall perception of complexity.  Definitely more power than exhibited by the Cincuenta y Cinco.

Overall this was a great event.  It presented the winemaker and his wines in a favorable environment populated with great food and enthusiastic, committed vinophiles.  I enjoyed this event and will be following the fortunes of this estate closely as it continues to make great wines at the bottom of the world.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Patagonia (Argentina) wine region

On Monday of this week I attended a Winemaker's Dinner hosted at its facilities by Italian Wine Merchants and featuring the wines of Bodegas Chacra (Piero Incisa della Rochetta, winemaker) and Fiorano (Alessio Antinori, winemaker).  Bodegas Chacra is located in Patagonia, Argentina, and, as this region may be unfamiliar to my readers, I will provide an overview in this post prior to reporting on the actual tasting.

Patagonia, the southernmost portion of the South American continent, encompasses territory falling on both the Argentinian and Chilean sides of the Andes Mountains.  The climate is continental with lots of sunshine and significant differentials between daytime and nighttime temperatures.  A feature of the region is a 25-mph, warm, dry, pest-dispensing wind (La Zonda) which is generated by the topography and flows down the hillsides.  While providing warmth to the some of the higher altitudes, and also cleansing the area of potential vine disease, the wind has the potential to damage vines by dint of its strength.


The wine growing area of Patagonia is divided into two sub-regions: Rio Negro and Neuquén.

Patagonia wine region (Source:

Rio Negro

Lying at latitude 38 degrees south, Rio Negro is the most southerly of the two regions.  Like the broader Patagonia, its climate is continental with temperatures that approach 68℉ in the summertime. Relatively moderate daytime temperatures, coupled with significant day/night temperature differentials, allow the grapes to ripen slowly.  Rainfall averages 7 inches per year.

Approximately 3000 ha of vineyard are planted on the region's chalky soil and slow ripening plus the soil characteristics endow the wines with intense color and flavor to go along with great balance between ripeness and acidity.  Vineyards are sited at elevations that range between 1300 and 1500 feet.

Grape varieties planted in the region include Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon for whites and Merlot, Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds.  An average of 7500 tons of grape are produced annually and the resulting 10.8 million bottles produced from this harvest is split 86:14 between domestic consumption and exports.


This, the youngest of the Argentine wine regions, has been literally carved out of the desert.  The region is surrounded by the Limay and Neuquén Rivers, with most of the vineyards located in an area 50 miles west of Rio Negro's High Valley called San Patricio del Chañar.  This arid area is rendered agriculture-ready thanks to a canal which brings water from the Neuquén River to a 6500-km network of irrigation pipes that are arrayed across the region.

The climate is continental with summertime temperatures ranging between 53 and 59℉ and diurnal temperature variation of as much as 35℉.  The vineyards are located on chalky soils at elevations ranging between 1300 and 1500 feet.

The primary varieties grown in this region are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Merlot.  The wines are viewed as being of very good quality with bright acidity and excellent color.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, October 1, 2012

Grapevine energy production as seen through the lens of a Generalized Supply Chain model

A supply chain identifies the key steps in the process within which a set of raw materials is transformed into products that are acquired by an end customer.  The supply chain normally extends into the practices of suppliers and into the habits of the end customer.  A representative supply chain is illustrated below.

Generalized Supply Chain Model (Source:

I propose that the production of energy in the grapevine can be viewed through the lens of a supply-chain schema and that, within this model, viticultural science takes on the mantle of supply chain management.  In this model, the core product is energy, in both its refined and raw form, and the core manufacturing process is photosynthesis.  I will elaborate on this proposal in two posts with this initial post focusing on the alignment of the grapevine energy supply chain with a generalized supply chain model.

Logistics is an integral part of the supply chain and is associated with the movement of raw materials, intermediate assemblies, and final products into and out of the manufacturing process. In some cases the demand is immediate and the product is moved directly to the customer where it is either consumed by the end user or used as a value-added input in a final assembly.  In other cases, production is shipped directly to a warehouse for allocation to the appropriate channel when the need arises.
Key logistics processes in the grapevine energy supply chain are transpiration and translocation.

Raw Materials
Inputs into the core production process of the supply chain are termed raw materials.  As indicated in my most recent post, the raw material inputs for photosynthesis are light, carbon dioxide, water, and nutrients.  The light energy is sourced from the sun and the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Water is sourced from the soil (function of water accessibility, soil composition, soil drainage, and water retention) and is drawn up into the vine from the roots in a process called transpiration. Nutrients are brought into the roots by a combination of bulk flow, transpiration, and fungal action.

Photosynthates are produced in photosynthesis, a complex, two-stage process which produces the energy to fuel its own metabolic needs while also producing the raw, unprocessed energy elements that will be utilized by the vine to fuel its growth, development, and reproductive processes.  A detailed technical description of photosynthesis is beyond the scope of this blog (and the capability of the author) but a few framing remarks are in order.

Photosynthesis is a two-part process wherein (i) the green parts of the vine uses light energy to create chemical energy and (ii) uses that energy to convert low-energy carbon into high-energy carbon compounds.  Photosynthesis is carried out in organelles (chloroplasts) which contain light-absorbing pigments called chlorophyll, the substance which gives the green color to leaves, stems, and inflorescences.  In the first step, chlorophyll absorbs photons and utilizes the captured energy to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATF), the chemical energy which is used by cells to power metabolic activity.
The second phase is light-independent and utilizes the energy and molecules from the first phase for carbon fixation and the production of photosynthates (sucrose, fructose, glucose, organic acids, proteins, fats, etc.).

Vine leaves, having the largest surface area, are the highest volume photosynthate producers.  The youngest (and most photosynthetically active) leaves can be found in the middle and upper parts of the shoot and on the laterals (Kuljancic et al.).

The photosynthates are either utilized immediately or warehoused for later use depending on the state of vine development.  Photosynthates are allocated to “sources” and “sinks” based on time of season and needs of the vine and are moved between these poles in a process called translocation.  Most of the photosynthates produced post-harvest are translocated to the roots and trunk to be stored as carbohydrates for next season’s vine growth.  According to Lebon et al., starch is the most important part of the sugar reserves for all grapevine varieties and, during winter dormancy, can be as much as 1/3 of the root’s dry weight. 

The analog for customers in the grapevine energy supply chain are the totality of cells with metabolic needs.  Net consumers of photosynthates are shoot tips, root tips, and developing fruit during the growing season and the woody parts of the vine post-harvest.  When soil temperature reaches 10-12 degrees centigrade, metabolism is activated and carbohydrates from the woody parts of the vine are mobilized to support annual growth.

Regardless of whether it is sourced from stored carbohydrates, or from photosynthates fresh off the assembly line, the energy within these foods are released by a process called aerobic respiration.  The process is driven by cell-resident organelles called mitochondria which generate chemical energy (ATP) by “metabolizing sugars, fats, and other chemical fuels with the assistance of molecular oxygen sourced from the atmosphere and the soil.” 
Respiration is a continuous process in which critical vinous products such as proteins, enzymes, colors, aromas, and flavors are produced.


In this post I mapped the grapevine energy supply chain to a generalized supply chain model.  In a follow-up post I will show how modern viticultural science can be viewed through supply chain management lens.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme