Thursday, February 28, 2013

Part VI -- Fermentation and Aging: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

All four of the wines under consideration obtain the desired bubbles in a two-step process: (i) development of base wines through alcoholic fermentation and (ii) creation of the bubbles in a secondary fermentation process.  Champagne, Franciacorta, and Cava conduct that secondary fermentation in-bottle and that overall process is called the Champagne method (or methode traditionelle) while the large-tank method utilized by Prosecco is called the Charmat method.  I consider these two methods of production in this post beginning with the steps associated with alcoholic fermentation and then looking at the steps associated with secondary fermentation.

Base-Wine Creation


In all the cases, rapid picking and crushing of the grapes are required to preserve freshness.

In the case of Champagne, the starting date for picking the grapes is set by the CIVC (the organization that "coordinates the common interests of wine growers and producers in Champagne") which bases its decision on input from the ripening observation network which was initially established in 1956.  This network allows input variables from 450 control plots to be analyzed and the grapes tracked for ripeness by cru and variety.  Decisions on picking dates, quantities, and alcohol levels are a direct result of this analysis. Over 100,000 pickers are involved in harvesting the ripe grapes and moving them from the field to one of the 1900 pressing stations that are located throughout the region.  The grapes are picked in clusters and then placed gently into waiting plastic bins.  Picking normally begins in the cool of dawn in order to preserve as much of the grapes' freshness as possible.  Chardonnay is generally picked one or two weeks later than Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

In the case of Franciacorta, harvesting begins around the middle of August with picking of grapes around the base of Franciacorta.  Berlucchi, one of the leading Franciacorta producers, hand-harvests on a lot-by-lot basis using over 1000 pickers. Careful harvesting is designed to retain the freshness and flavors of the grapes.  Given the variability of the zones, harvesting can extend over 3 weeks on occasion.  Chardonnay is harvested first followed by Pinot Noir and then Pinot Bianco. The picked grapes are transported to the crushers in 18-kg crates to keep the bunches perfectly intact during transportation to the winery.

The Glera grapes (Prosecco) are handpicked and transported to the winery for further processing. The grapes from the Cartizze area are the last to be harvested as, coming from the steepest hills, they are the most difficult to be accessed. The grape stalks are removed and the grapes crushed after which the must is moved to a press for separation of the juice from the skin and seeds. The grapes are pressed gently in order to ensure that only the most desirable juice makes it into the wine. The remaining material is set aside to be used in the production of grappa.

The Cava harvest runs from mid-August to the end of October and the picked grapes are quickly transported from the vineyards to the cellars either in 25-kg-capacity boxes or in stainless steel trailers.


The Champagne grapes are weighed at the pressing center and relevant information recorded in the pressing logbook.  The grapes are then pressed as whole bunches in a process that is called fractionated winemaking.  In this process, the free-run juice is drawn-off first in three successive pressings.  The product of these pressings is called the cuvée and the middle of the three is called the coeur de  cuvée (heart of the cuvee) and is said to possess an ideal balance of purity and structure. The maximum amount of juice that can be harvested during the cuvée pressing is 20.5 hl. The second component of this fractionated winemaking is the heavier press called the taille.  In this stage the juice is harvested in two or three high-force presses that occur subsequent to the removal of the cuvée.  The juice collected at this point is darker due to the impurities extracted from the grape skins.  A total of 5 hl of juice can be legally harvested at this stage. The cuvée and taille have similar levels of sugar but the cuvée has higher levels of malic and tartaric acids while the taille has higher levels of oxidants, minerals, and pigments.  A total of 25.5 hl of juice can be legally harvested from a 4000-kg marc of fruit.

After harvesting, the Franciacorta grapes are placed into special presses for a soft, gradual crushing. The first-press must is used for alcoholic fermentation.

Unlike the Champagne case, only free-run juice is used in the production of Prosecco and the allowed yield is 70 liters of wine from 100 kilogram of grapes, almost 10% greater than the yield allowed in Champagne.

Once harvested, Cava grapes are subjected to quality inspections and then transported rapidly to the winery to ensure freshness retention. Must is extracted with gentle pressing in order to obtain highest quality juice.

Coquard presses at Berlucchi in Franciacorta

Addition of Sulphites

The fruit extracted during the press of the Champagne grapes flows into open tanks which are separated by cru, variety, and pressing (If the intent is to make Rosé Champagne via maceration, then the juice stays in contact with destemmed black-skinned grapes  for 24 to 72 hours until the desired color is obtained.).  Sulphites are added to the juice at between 6 and 10 g/hl in order to combat mold and bacteria and reduce the risk of flavor-killing oxidation.


Impurities are removed from the Champagne must in a process called débourbage where the solids fall to the bottom of the tanks while the clear juice is drawn off from the top.

In the case of Prosecco, the cloudy must is chilled to 5 - 10℃ and kept in stainless steel tanks for 10 to 12 hours during which time the solids settle to the bottom. The Cava must is also clarified prior to alcoholic fermentation.

Alcoholic Fermentation

The resulting clear juice is transported to the vat room for alcoholic fermentation.  Today most fermentation is carried out in stainless steel tanks, a change from the prior norm of oak fermentation  (Oak seems to be making a comeback in Champagne).  In Champagne, the juice is chaptalized as necessary to bring it up to 11% potential alcohol after which yeast is added to initiate alcoholic fermentation. Fermentation runs between 10 and 20 days (10 - 14 in Champagne and 15 - 20 in Franciacorta) before all the sugar in solution is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The carbon dioxide produced at this phase is allowed to escape. Malolactic fermentation is initiated if is a part of the house style.

In the case of Berlucchi in Franciacorta, the result of the vinification process is 200 base wines, some of which undergo battonage in order to stir up the lees.

Cold Stabilization and Clarification

The base wine is cold stabilized to prevent tartrate precipitation later in the life of the wine.  The wine is then racked off the solids and clarified further through fining and/or filtering.

Secondary Fermentation


The next step in the process sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines.  In order to produce Champagne that aligns with the House style, the Chef de Cave has to memorize and blend wines from a broad array of crus from the current vintage plus wines from the reserve as necessary.  The other sparkling wines, on the other hand, draw from a smaller number of "crus" and a far smaller number of vintages as the base wines for their blends.  In the case of a vintage sparklers, the blend can only contain wines sourced from grapes that have been harvested and fermented in the vintage year.


For Champagne, Franciacorta, and Cava, the blended wines are placed into Champagne-style bottles to which liqueur de tirage (a solution of wine, sugar, and yeast) is added and then the bottle is capped with a crown cork seal.  This addition precipitates a second fermentation, this time in the bottle.  As the bottle is capped, the carbon dioxide created during fermentation cannot escape and the bubbles formed as a result are absorbed into the liquid.  The process by which these bubbles are formed is called prise de mousse and the longer the period, the more refined the bubbles.

At the conclusion of alcoholic fermentation, the Prosecco base wines are assembled into batches and pumped into large, sealed tanks (autoclaves) for the secondary fermentation. Sugar and yeast are added to the tanks and the consumption of the sugar by the yeast results in the Carbon Dioxide that gives the sparkling characteristic to the finished wine.  This method of sparkling wine production is called the Italian (because it was first demonstrated as industrially viable by an Italian, Martinotti) or Charmat (the name of the Frenchman who refined the process such that it became feasible for large-scale industrial production), or Martinotti-Charmat method.  It is felt that this method preserves the aroma of the grapes yielding fruity, floral wines. This second fermentation can run between 20 days and 3 months after which the wine is bottled.


After the sugar has been exhausted, the yeasts die.  The breakdown of the dead yeast cells by enzymes -- autolysis -- adds complexity to the aroma, flavors, and mouthfeel of the Champagne if residency is maintained.  Aging on lees (Aromas and Flavors: Explanatory Notes,
    • Releases reducing enzymes that inhibit oxidation
    • Absorbs certain essential yeast nutrients (limits potential for refermentation at dosage)
    • Increases amino acids and other nitrogenous matter, precursors to "Champagne character"
    • Produces acetal which possibly adds a biscuity or brandy-like complexity
    • Produces MP32 which reduces tartrate precipitation.
Champagne is legally required to remain on the lees for at least 16 months if a non-vintage and at least 3 years if designated as vintage.  Quality houses normally age their non-vintage wines for 3 to 4 years and their vintage wines for 7 to 8.

Non-vintage Franciacorta wines are aged for a minimum of 25 months with 18 of those months being on the lees in the bottle.  Vintage wines are aged for a minimum of 37 months with 30 of those months being in the bottle on the lees.  Riserva wines are aged for 5 years on the lees.

In order to be called Cava, the sparkling wine made in the region has to be aged a minimum of 9 months before being taken to market.  Many producers age their wines for 2 to 4 years in order to provide wines with more character.  To be classified as Gran Reserva, a Cava has to be aged for at least 30 months.

The Prosecco aging requirement is the shortest for the sparkling wines under consideration in that the wine rests in bottle for between 20 and 40 days before being shipped.


In the next installment of the series I will be examining the styles of wines offered by these brands. For a look back at previous posts in the series, please click on the appropriate link below.

Part I -- Origins
Part II -- Regulatory histories
Part III -- Macro-Level characteristics
Part IV -- Production zones
Part V -- The vineyards

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Italian Merlots: Le Macchiole's Messorio (Bolgheri, Tuscany)

In a January 2001 article on Italian Merlot (New Wave Merlot in Italy, Wine, Franco Zillani notes that the presence of Merlot in Italy was first documented by one Salvatore Mondini who identified the variety as being present "in various regions of the north as well as in Tuscany, Latium, ... and Campania ..." From these beginnings, Merlot, according to Zillani, spread through the northeastern zones of Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Alto Adige but, even though ranked fifth in vines planted in Italy, the variety was never taken seriously in the classic production zones. All of this changed in the 1990s, however, when non-traditional zones began to experience success with Merlot planted in the appropriate terroirs and with tightly managed yields. I continue my examination of Italian Merlots with a look at Azienda Agricole Le Macchiole's Messorio.

Le Macchiole is a 22-ha estate located in Bolgheri DOC just across Bolgheri Road from the famed Tenuta dell'Ornellaia estate and 5 km away from the sea.  According to, the current incarnation has its roots in an estate of the same name founded in 1975 by the father and grandfather of the late Eugenio Campolmi (co-founder, along with his wife Cenzia Merli, of the current estate) when they decided to produce and sell wines from grapes grown in their small vineyards.  These founders utilized contemporary farming and winemaking practices and this, combined with poor vineyard positioning and soil quality, yielded low quantities of poor quality wine. When Eugenio took control of the business in 1981, he moved decisively to change the direction of the estate.  He made the decision that the location was not conducive to success so he purchased 9 ha of land in the current location in 1983. Not being sure of what varieties would grow best in this new location, Eugenio embarked on a path that would become the hallmark of the company -- experimentation to determine the best fit for the environment. For example, Le Macchiole was the first estate in Bolgheri to plant Syrah, the first to adopt high-density planting, and the first to produce a monovarietal Cabernet Franc.

The climate that Le Macchiole contends with is temperate, thanks to its proximity to the sea, but the temperature at its location is higher than anywhere else in Bolgheri. The soil is deep and clayey with significant stone and rock deposits. Vineyards are planted to 10,000 vines/ha, are short-cordon-spur pruned, and have been organic since 2002.

Messorio, a Merlot monovarietal, is the estate's flagship wine. Its initial vintage was 1994 and since then it has received much critical acclaim, including a 100-point score from Wine Spectator for the 2004 vintage. Yields are managed tightly through the use of weak rootstocks and thinning of vines.  The grapes are harvested manually and fermented for 20 days in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged in oak -- 75% new, 25% second passage -- for 16 to 18 months. Annual production averages 8000 bottles.


At a 2009 tasting of the 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2006 vintages of Masseto and Messorio (held at Enoteca Bleve and led by the respective enologists Axel Heinz and Luca D'Attoma), Axel Heinz opined that the wines were set apart by different visions and stylistic interpretations of similar terroir with the result being that Masseto was "more powerful and more concentrated, with extremely 'aristocratic' tannins" while Messorio was "leaner, and almost 'austere'.

I look forward to exploring those differences.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, February 24, 2013

12-Vintage Shafer Hillside Select tasting, 1994 - 2005: A reprise

On Friday of last week I attended the Shafer Vineyards event that was a part of the leadup to the 2013 Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Auction.  The event was truly a blast and showcased the winery, its management and staff, and the surrounding vineyards in a very attractive light.  While there I was fortunate enough to get my copy of the John Shafer story (A Vineyard in Napa, Doug Shafer, University of California Press, 2012) signed by both John and Elias Fernandez, the Shafer winemaker (I am hoping that Doug will add his signature to the collection when I see him on Tuesday of this week.).

One of the highlights of the PNV Shafer event was a six-vintage tasting of Hillside Select that was a mini-version of the highly regarded 12-vintage vertical Shafer Hillside Select tasting held here in Orlando a while ago by, a local on-line wine retailer. I revisit the Orlando tasting in this post.

The event was held at Luma on Park -- a local favorite haunt -- and was led by Master Sommelier Andrew MacNamara. The attendees were a mix of "power drinkers" and wine lovers. Andrew noted that this tasting was truly an extraordinary event in that he had tasted each of these wines at least three of four times but never all together in this fashion.  He had tasted every Shafer Hillside Select vintage going back to the 1983 vintage and felt that the wines were "fantastic" and "extraordinary." Shafer, according to Andrew, is definitively one of the greatest wines made in America today and is his single favorite vineyard in the country.

Andrew has worked with Kevin Zraly in the past and considers him one of the most brilliant wine educators around.   For this tasting he was going to be following Zraly's approach of going through the wines methodically with time taken between each vintage.  This would allow each wine to be shown as it tastes and not comparatively vis a vis the preceding or following wine.  Shafer is a heavily tannic wine and, if rushed through, would yield a mouthful of tannins for the intrepid taster.  Andrew expected that, as the tasting progressed, the group would be able to see the terroir characteristics and how the wine evolves over time. The notes from the tasting follow.

2005 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine had a deep ruby color and presented dark, ripe blackcherries, mocha, coffee bean, cinnamon, anise, charred earth, and graphite on the nose.  The wine showed good weight, acid, tannin and fruit on the palate and had a smooth, long finish.  Andrew indicated that 2005 had been a very good vintage in Napa.  It was slightly cooler than 2004 and had had lower yields.

2004 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine did not present much on the nose initially.  When tasted, tannins were dominant.  The wine was all oak, graphite, and tannin with very little fruit.  There was a definite spiciness, a definitive hallmark, according to Andrew, of Shafer Hillside Select.  This wine was closed and Andrew recommended revisiting it again in five years.  This wine was the product of a warm vintage, a year in which most wineries produced flashy, forward wines designed to be drunk young.  This wine, in Andrew's view, shows that higher-quality wines of this vintage should not be drunk young.

2003 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine was more open on the palate than the two preceding wines.  It was jammy and fruity with tones of graphite, tobacco, and vanilla.  It was less intense and less complex than either the '04 or '05 but had more developed flavors and aromas.  This wine is approachable now and should be drunk before the '04 and '05.

2001 Shafer Hillside Select -- Andrew described the 2001 as an extraordinary vintage.  The wine had a definite floral element with lavender and violet notes.  There were elements of sour fruit and graphite but, beyond that, the wine was not very forthcoming.  On the palate it showed great structure and depth. Andrew said that it was less powerful than when he last tasted it approximately three years ago, evidence of what he called a "mellowing out" of the wine.  He sees the wine as being "in the throes of adolescence" and requiring a lot more development time.
2002 Shafer Hillside Select -- Andrew described this wine as the "most massive wine on the table" and passed it over initially to assess the 2001.  When we returned to this wine, he exhorted us to study it carefully.  The wine exhibited black fruits, licorice, and a round, full mouth feel.  It showed great weight and power without appearing heavy.  Andrew described this as the greatest Shafer Hillside Select ever made and one of the greatest wines ever made in California.  He feels that, of American wines, only the 2001 Harlan approaches the level of balance exhibited by this wine.  The wine is still a baby and will continue to evolve and improve over the next 20 years.
2000 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine showed cedar, tobacco, and other secondary characteristics. This wine is approaching maturity but its structure is still evident.  While 2000 was widely viewed as a bad year for Napa, Andrew feels that Shafer made a good product for this vintage.

At this point in the tasting, Andrew paused for us to reflect on the wines that had gone before and queried the attendees as to their preferences up to that point. The consensus was 2002 followed by 2001.  It was felt that both the 2000 and 2003 could be drunk now while the 2001, 2004, and 2002 should be approached in that order.

We turned to the final six wines and, given the press of time and the extent to which folks were enjoying themselves and their tasting partners, the previously described tasting process was modified. To begin with, we skipped the 1999 and tasted the 1998 and 1997 comparatively.

1998 and 1997 Shafer Hillside Select -- According to Andrew, the 1997 had been an incredibly hyped vintage, one viewed as the vintage of the century in Napa.  All of the wines in the vintage received great scores from the reviewers.  Doug Shafer, according to Andrew, had tried to convince him that the '97 Hillside Select is in a dumb stage but he is moreso convinced after our tasting that the wine is "done."This was a 100-point wine and it is acidic and shows no fruit today.  The problem with this wine was that it was not balanced from the beginning (Andrew does see the Heitz Martha's Vineyard, BV George Latour, and Dominus from this vintage performing admirably.).  The 1998 Hillside Select, on the other hand, was an El Nino vintage, with a low-yield harvest, but is outperforming the 1997.  It has a slightly vegetal note (which he finds alluring), and a definitively longer finish.

1999 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine had been viewed as the second coming of the 1997 Shafer Hillside Select.  It had incredible tannins, flavor, and intensity in its youth.  A dark, rich, extracted wine which exhibits earth, leather, and graphite.  Rather than the 1997, Andrew sees the 1999 as an older parallel of the 2001, with similar structure, fruit profile, and tannins.

1996, 1995, and 1994 Shafer Hillside Select -- By this time the attendees were becoming difficult to control (actually that had been going on for awhile).  They were buzzed; they were enjoying their neighbors; the night had already been a success.  They just wanted to bask in the glow of having participated in an event as spectacular as this.  They did not want to discuss the wine broadly anymore.  They wanted to tell Andrew what a great person he was.  How much they appreciated his parents for bringing him into the world; and suchlike.  Meanwhile, we are sitting with what I knew to be three great Hillside Selects, waiting patiently for us to administer the coup de grace.  Andrew told the group how unique and incredibly special it was to taste all three of these wines together.  The 1996 was an extraordinary vintage, he said, which overshadowed the 1995.  In a previous tasting note I have described the 1994 as manifesting cigarbox, leather, graphite, stewed plums, black olive, tar, espresso, sandalwood, barnyard, and cedar.

I will be hosting Doug Shafer at an Augustan event at my home on Tuesday of this week and expect to taste a few Hillside Selects during the course of the evening.  I will be on the lookout for the evolutionary paths that similarly dated wines have taken since this tasting 

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Part V -- The Vineyards: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

This is the fifth installment in a series designed to compare the attributes and merits of four of the world's leading sparkling wines. This post examines the overarching industry structure for each of tjhe subject wines, the grape varieties utilized in the winemaking, and the vineyard pruning systems utilized.

Industry Structure

The overarching industry structure in Champagne differs significantly from the Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava structures.  Champagne has a multi-layered, multi-responsibility structure while the structures in the other areas are a little more streamlined. The Champagne industry has 15,000 growers (an average of 2 ha per grower), and150 cooperatives, and 300 Champagne Houses.  Growers own 90% of the vineyards but sell most of their production to Champagne Houses.  The Champagne Houses own 10% of the vineyards but account for 69% of Champagne shipments ( Rather than grower-negociant interaction (as is common in Burgundy, for example), the growers sell their grapes to a Cooperative which crushes them and create communal and varietal blends which are delivered to the Champagne Houses (This approach creates two problems.  First, the separation of the grower from the negociant has implications for quality.  The grower knows that his/her grapes will be incorporated into a communal blend anyway so there is no incentive to make an extra effort to ensure that the grapes are breaking any quality barriers.  Second, no vineyard characteristics will be evident in the final blend.). The Champagne House blends, ages, and markets the company offerings.

All of the sparkling wine produced in Franciacorta is estate grown by its 104 producers while there are 165 base wine producers and 254 cuvee producers in the Cava DO. This inequality between the base wine and cuvee producers informs that a number of Cava producers procure value-added base wines as raw material for production of their wines.

Grape Varieties

The dominant grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir (35% of region's plantings), Chardonnay (25%), and Pinot Meunier (40%).  After many years of testing, these grapes have been shown to best provide the needed inputs for quality Champagne: (i) a good balance of sugar and acid; (ii) rich, subtle taste, and (iii) an affinity for bubbles.  In addition to these three, Champagne can also include Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Arbane.  These are rarely used and only in small quantities.  Yields in Champagne range between 13 and 15 tons/ha.

The approved varieties under the Franciacorta DOCG classification are Chardonnay (80%), Pinot Noir (15%), and Pinot Bianco (5%) grapes. Yields are approximately 9.8 tons/ha.

Prosecco is primarily made from the Glera (formerly Prosecco; also known as Prosecco Bianco and Proseko Sciprina) grape variety, a native of northeast Italy which has been used to produce wines since Roman times. In addition to Glera, Prosecco wines can contain as much as 15% of other grape varieties.  The most oft-used supplements are Verdiso, Branchetta, Perera, Glera Lunga, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay. Allowed yields for the various Prosecco zones are as follows: DOC -- 20 tons/ha; DOCG -- 13.5 tons/ha; Rive -- 14.3 tons/ha; and Cartizze -- 12 tons/ha.

The prime varieties used in Cava are Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parelleda but small amounts of Chardonnay, Malvasia, Pinot Noir, Trepat, Red Grenache, or Monastrell can be used in the blend. Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada are grown in both Baix and Central Penedès but the highest-quality Parellada grapes are grown in Penedès Superior.

Pruning Systems

A wide variety of pruning systems have been deployed in the subject vineyards. The allowed vineyard pruning methods specified in the Champagne AOC requirements are Cordon de Royal, Taille Chablis, Guyot, and Valle de Marne.

Franciacorta has three primary pruning systems tied to the phases of vine plantings in the region.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the first vines were planted in a wide-spaced format with densities of 1500 - 2500 vines per ha.  These vines were trained high with espalier or modified pergola systems.  During the 1970s and 80s vines were planted with wide spacing to support mechanization and the training system used was the Miotto style, a modification of the Casarsa style.  In the 1990s and onward the philosophy changed to higher-density planting (4 - 5000 vines/ha) on low-vigor rootstock.  The vine training system employed within that period was the Guyot Cordon system.

Prosecco pruning systems include Double Royat, Guyot, Sorellas Bronca, and Sylvoz while the Cava DO employs Double Guyot, Cordon Royat, and Gobelet, among others.


To view earlier posts in the series, please click below.

Part I -- Origins
Part II -- Regulatory histories
Part III -- Macro-Level characteristics
Part IV -- Production zones

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Italian Merlots: Tua Rita's Redigaffi (Suvereto, Tuscany)

According to Kate Bailey (Italian Merlot Wine,, there have been three waves of Merlot cultivation in Italy: (i) a late-19th-century initiative by vintners in the hillside region of Trento City and in the Vallagarina Valley: (ii) an early-20th-century spread through Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Alto Adige, the northeastern portion of the country; and (iii) a more modern advance in Tuscany, the central part of the country and the former bastion of Chianti.  In this series of posts (and as a precursor to an upcoming tasting), I am exploring the world of Italian Merlots.  I began the series with a profile of Tenuta dell'Ornellaia's Masseto and continue today with Tua Rita's Redigaffi.

Tua Rita is located in Notri in Suvereto, a small village in the southeastern corner of the coastal province of Livorno.  In 1989 the wine region surrounding Suvereto was awarded a DOC (DOC Val di Cornia) and in 2000, based on the distinctiveness of its wines, Suvereto was recognized as a distinct sub-category within the broader zone. In November 2011 Suvereto was elevated to DOCG status with its wines awarded the right to label varietally if the contents were constituted of at least 85% of the named varietal.


The petrified clay soils and the Mediterranean climate of Suvereto provides the perfect environment for fully ripening Merlot grapes.  The Suvereto soils are viewed as being richer in minerals and more structured than its more famous neighbor to the north, Bolgheri. Stefano Casadi, winemaker extraordinaire and proprietor of Azienda Agricola Casa Dei, has compared Suvreto to Sonoma and Bolgheri to Napa Valley in order to make a point.  He sees the best wines as coming out of Sonoma but the more famous wines coming out of Napa and the same parallel holding true for the two Tuscan sub-regions (

The Tua Rita estate, located in Notri in Suvereto, was purchased in 1984 by Rita Tua and Virgilio Bisti. Initially sized at 15 hectares, the estate was blessed with iron- and zinc-rich clayey soils and 100 meters of elevation. Subsequent land purchases have extended the estate size to 32 ha, 20 of which are planted to vine. The estate was initially planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, both used in the production of a Bordeaux-type blend. An extremely hard winter in 1985 led to replantings at high density -- 8 to 10,000 vines/ha -- and all subsequent additions to the estate were similarly planted.  Vines on the estate are spur-cordon trained and are overseen by the viticulturalist and enologist, Dr. Stefano Chioccioli.

The Merlot produced by the estate is a monovarietal that is named -- Redigaffi -- after a stream that courses through the property.  The Merlot got its start when two left over barriques of Merlot were bottled unblended. The grapes for the wine are manually harvested and, after an initial selection in the vineyard, is transported in crates to the winery.  The clusters are placed on a vibrating belt where a second selection is conducted and after which the grapes are destemmed and the individual berries placed into a conical, temperature-controlled vats for fermentation.  Fermentation occurs over 25 - 30 days during which time pumping-over and punch-down activities are performed in order to maintain contact between the must and cap.

After vinification the must is lightly pressed and the juice flows down into barriques that reside in a sub-cellar room.  The wine is aged on its lees for 18 months in 100% new French barriques after which it is bottled and aged for 6 months before being placed on the market.   Annual production of Redigaffi averages 9000 bottles.

Tua Rita's Redigaffi has received early and ongoing acclaim.  It was the wine of the year in 2002 Guide Espresso. Robert Parker called the 1999 vintage "as close to perfection as a wine can get" and then made perfection a reality in the 2000 vintage.  In an more recent posting (#196 August 2011), the Wine Advocate stated that "Redigaffi remains a unique and powerful expression of Merlot from the Tuscan coast."

This is one of the standard bearers in the Italian Merlot march.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Part IV -- Production zones: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

This is the fourth installment in a series designed to compare the attributes and merits of four of the world's leading sparkling wines. Whereas my last post examined the physical characteristics of the individual environments at a global level, this post seeks to become increasingly granular by drilling down through sub-regions, communes, and vineyards.


Both the Champagne and Prosecco zones are further subdivided into sub-zones; Franciacorta and Cava DO are not. Because Champagne is a wine region, its subdivisions are geographic in nature.  Montagne de Reims is a forested plateau south of Reims that is known for rich, full-bodied Champagnes and the dominance of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Vallée de la Marne has Epernay at its center as it hugs the banks of the River Marne. The soil here is a limestone topsoil overlaying layers of Belemnite and Micraster chalk. Chardonnay is dominant here as it is in the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Bar. The soil in the Côte de Bar is Portlandian cap rock overlaying Kimmeridgian soil, a geologic profile that is much closer to Chablis than to the rest of Champagne.


Within the broader Prosecco DOC, there are two sub-zones: DOC Treviso Prosecco and Prosecco di Trieste. These sub-zones cover Prosecco made within these two provinces and wines made therein can so indicate on their labels. Prosecco wines made in other provinces cannot carry the province name on the labels. There are two separate Prosecco DOCG zones, both falling within the borders of the province of Treviso. The first, and having the greatest repute, is Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. This zone is approximately 50 km from Venice and 100 km from the Dolomites. It runs east to west from the plains to the foot of the Alps and incorporates the 15 hill communities that lie between Conegliano and Valdiobbadene. The second DOCG zone is Colli Asolani/Asolo and is located in the Montello e Colli Asolani wine region. It encompasses a 5-mile-long ridge of gently rolling hills running between the towns of Cornuda and Asolo. The best vineyards are found on south-facing slopes where the gentle gradients and loose soil combine for excellent drainage and optimal sunlight exposure.

Vineyards Distribution and Aspect

There are 32,900 hectares of vineyards in Champagne (3.4% of France's vineyard total) distributed across 319 communities (357 after the most recent revisions are adopted). The best Champagne vineyards are planted on slopes at elevations falling between 90 and 200 meters. Such locations situate the vineyard high enough to be clear of the frost and low enough to avoid extreme weather. This siting also places these vineyards smack dab in the middle of the Belemnite formations that are slope-located. The vineyards are predominantly located on south-, east-, and southeast-facing slopes which average 12% but can be as high as 60% in areas. Franciacorta -- located in the "gentle" hills in the area of Brescia -- lies in an amphitheater which was carved out by a falling glacier and encompasses all or part of 19 Brescian municipalities. The zone is approximately 18,000 hectares in size with 2665 hectares under vine. Cava is produced in 159 municipalities spread across Catalonia (Barcelona, 63; Tarragona, 52; Lleida, 12; Gerona, 5), Aragon (2), Alava (3), Navarra (2), Rioja (18), Badajoz (1), and Valencia (1) but fully 95% of that production originates in Catalonia's Penedès, a wine region located about 40 kilometers southwest of Barcelona. Elevation in Penedès range between 0 and 800 meters.

Vineyards Classification

Of the sparklers under consideration, only Champagne and Prosecco have vineyard-classification schemes. Unlike the Burgundy wine region, the Grand/Premier Cru designation for a Champagne vineyard is not necessarily an indication of a vineyard's quality. Rather, the designation -- Échelle des crus (ladder of growths) -- is an index of price based on the quality of grapes from classified vineyards. Grapes from Deuxieme Cru vineyards can be assigned scores of between 80% and 89%, grapes from Premier Cru vineyards can be assigned scores between 90% and 99%, while Grand Cru grapes are assigned scores of 100%. As formulated, the score that a grape-lot is assigned within a specific season is an indication of the price that the Champagne House is willing to pay in relation to the pricing for Grand Cru grapes in the season. The Champagne vineyards with Grand Cru designation are shown in the table below.

Within the Valdobbiadene area, the steep hills around the villages of San Pietro di Barbozza, Santo Stefano, and Saccol were considered the Grand Cru of the DOCG. This 106-ha area, called Cartizze, has a mild microclimate and a varied soil to include moraine, sandstone, and clay components. The vineyards are positioned on south-facing slopes and have excellent drainage. Another cru-style called Rive has been added where 43 localities with steep hills in the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region are allowed to so designate their wines. The requirements for a Rive are : (i) it must be so designated; (ii) production is limited to 14.3 tons/ha; (iii) the grapes must be harvested annually; and (iv) the vintage must be indicated on the label.


The production zones of the subject wines can be thusly summarized:

Click below to read earlier posts in the series.

Part I
Part II
Part III

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Part III -- Macro-Level characteristics: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

What I refer to as macro-level characteristics are critical determinants of wine quality and in this post I detail the relative positions of each of the subject wines vis a vis these elements.


The first major characteristic examined is location. Champagne is located at 49ºN latitude, 160 kilometers to the east of Paris, while Franciacorta (represented by Brescia) and Prosecco DOC (represented by Treviso) are at 45.5ºN  and Barcelona is 600+ miles south of Champagne at 41ºN latitude. The northern location of Champagne (close to the outer limit of accepted viable grape-growing zones) makes it difficult for grapes to ripen, resulting in acidic base wines which require the bubbles of the second fermentation to make them sparkle. Grapes in Franciacorta, for example, have no difficulty ripening and the resultant wines are richer than Champagnes of an equivalent sweetness level.


Climate is the average course of weather in a region over an extended period as measured by temperature, precipitation, and wind speed, among other variables. The climate of a grape-growing region will determine, to a large extent -- and all things being equal -- both the grape varieties that can be grown and the styles of wine that can be produced. That is not to say that these varieties cannot be grown outside of these environments; that is to say, however, that varietal typicity is compromised when these varieties are grown outside of their "zones."  Again, there are key differeneces between the regions.

Located as far north as it is, Champagne has the lowest average temperature of any French wine-growing region and, consequently, grapes do not ripen adequately over the course of a growing season. The northernmost outposts of the region are about 290 kilometers from the English Channel and are subject to oceanic influences. These areas experience regular rainfall but very little variation in temperature from season to season. As the traveler journeys south, however, continental climatic influences come into play to include: winter and spring frosts; summer sunshine coupled with violent thunderstorms; cold, wet weather in June; and hailstorms. Mean rainfall in the region is 700 mm.

Franciacorta is mild in the winter and hot in the summer. The climate is moderated by winds blowing in off Lakes Iseo and Garde which protect the region from the autumnal and hibernial fogs that threaten from the Brescian plains. Rainfall in the region is concentrated in the spring and fall.

Prosecco DOC wines are authorized for production in all of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto (provinces of Treviso, Belluna, Padova, Venezia, and Vicenzia) while the DOCG wines are authorized for production in Treviso.

In general, Friuli-Venezia Giulia has a humid, temperate climate which varies according to the landscape; areas to the north experience an alpine continental climate while those in the south experience a Mediterranean climate. The Alpine system protects the region from icy north winds but air movement from east to west causes low pressure systems which can bring summertime hailstorms and thunderstorms. Being open to the Adriatic, the region experiences Sirocco winds which can bring heavy rainfall. The climate is modified by the presence of the Adriatic Sea and the Alps resulting in warmer winter temperatures and cooler summer temperatures. Mean temperature in the summertime is 22.8℃ (73℉) and mean rainfall is 1524 mm (60 inches). Vineyards to the north and east lie above the level of the fog that flows in occasionally from the Adriatic and this allows the grapes to take advantage of the increased hang time to promote phenolic ripening. The diurnal shift is somewhat mitigated by maritime influences closer to the coast. There is a constant breeze known as "la bora" flowing in from the Adriatic and this provides great air flow in the vineyards as well as serving as a deterrent to fungal outbreaks.

Veneto has two major climatic regions: an alpine region -- characterized by cool summers and snowy winters -- and the mild winters and warm summers that are associated with the hills and plains. The overall region is protected from the severe northern European climate by the Alps, the foothils of which abut the area's northern flank. One of the most well-regarded Prosecco growing areas -- Connegliano-Valdobbiadene -- sits halway between the Alps and the sea and is blessed with a cool climate, bountiful sunshine, and generous rainfall.

Fully 95% of the Cava produced originates in Catalonia's Penedès, a wine region located about 40 kilometers southwest of Barcelona, and, as such, its climate will be the basis for our discussion of the DOs climate. Penedès is surrounded by the Monserrat range which provides a protective barrier from the heat and humidity of the Mediterranean as well as the cold winds -- levanter -- from the north and east. The climate is Mediterranean with annual temperatures averaging 15.5℃ (60℉) across the region but with slightly differing micro-climates within its three sub-zones. In Baix Penedès, the area closest to the coastline, elevation ranges between 0 and 250 meters and the temperature is milder, thanks to its proximity to the sea. In Penedès Superior -- 500 - 800 meters elevation -- there is greater rainfall than in the companion zones and a greater differential between maximum and minimum temperatures. Penedès Central (250 - 500 meters) experiences a mix of the Superior and Baix microclimates.

The grapes grown in Champagne would be expecetd to have higher acidity levels at harvesting than grapes from the other regions resulting in greater freshness in the wine. This increased acidity comes at the cost of less sugar resulting in higher levels of sugar added to the wines in order to attain end-state sweetness levels. Freshness levels would dedcline with movement towards the south.


The soil in Champagne is composed of massive chalk deposits interspersed with rocky outcroppings and covered with a thin layer of topsoil (mix of sand, marl, clay and lignite which requires constant renewal through fertilization. The chalk deposits in Champagne are finer-grained and more porous than other French limestone soils -- and have extremely high concentrations of the mineral marls Belemnite (younger and found higher up on the growing slopes) and Micraster (older and located on the valley floors) -- while the rocky outcroppings are 75% limestone plus chalk and marl. Chalk has excellent drainage as well as water-retention properties in that its micro-pores can absorb water during wet periods and slowly release it during drier periods. In addition chalk will also reflect sunlight and heat thus aiding in the ripening of the grapes. The chalk soil allows the vine roots to dig freely and deeply in search of water and nutrients and also retains a constant temperature year round.  One of the disadvantages of this alkaline lime-rich soil is that it prevents the uptake of minerals -- such as iron, copper, and magnesium -- which are needed for the prevention of chlorosis. The Côte de Bars region of Champagne has a Kimmeridgian soil of the same construct as the soils that underpin the vineyards of Chablis and Sancerre. This ridge of limestone and shellfish is nutrient rich and provides the optimal level of water retention and drainage for the growth of high-quality grapes.

Thanks to exhaustive zoning studies conducted in the Franciacorta region in the late 1990s by the University of Milan, a very clear picture of soil differentials -- and the contributions of each type to the finished product -- has been established. The figure below shows that the combination of landscape units (formations by geologic era) and soil types results in six distinct regional terroirs. The figure illustrates that the soil, vegetative productive, qualitative, and organoleptic characteristics of each terroir has also been identified. The details of those characteristics are contained in the table following.

The Friuli-Venezia landscape can be divided into four major areas: (i) the mountainous region to the north which includes the Carnian and Julian alps with peaks in excess of 2000 meters; (ii) a hilly area that is south of the mountains and along the Slovenian border; (iii) the central plain which is characterized by poor soil which has been made fertile through irrigation; and (iv) the coastal flatlands which is low and sandy to the west of the Isonzo River and rocky to its east. The soil in the region is calcium-rich marl and sandstone in hilly regions and clay, sand, and gravel elsewhere.
According to, Veneto has "silty, sandy soil with influences of clay and calcareous debris."

The soil in the Penedès region is a mix of limestone, sand, and clay with a chalky top layer preceding a layer of clay which in turn overlays a rocky base.

The regions have differing soil types with the Champagne region appearing to have a complexity of composition which is exceptionally beneficial for its grapes.  The thinness of the topsoil, and associated fertilization costs, plus the poor uptake capability regarding minerals are noted.  These have not been gating factors based on the history of the region and its wines.  In a future post in this series we will investigate how much soil matters to sparkling wine given (i) blending across soils in some regions and (ii) the degree of manipulation that is associated with construction of these products.


The table below summarizes the points discussed in the foregoing.

The next post in the series will cover the production environments.  Click below to read earlier posts in the series.

Part I
Part II

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Part II -- Regulatory histories: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

The regulatory histories of Champagne and Prosecco are bound up in brand protection strategies and questions as to the physical boundaries of the brand and who/what would be excluded from the brand inner circle.  The case of Champagne was further complicated by an internecine war between the French Departments of Marne and Aube as to wheteher Aube should be considered a part of Champagne or a part of Burgundy. The regulatory histories of Prosecco and Franciacorta were tame in comparison.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the grape growers in Marne and Aube felt that the Champagne Houses were bringing grapes in from other French regions, blending it with local grapes, and calling the resulting product Champagne.  This was a problem on two levels: (i) It had quality implications in that bad product would reflect directly on the "Champagne" growers and (ii) more importantly, it provided competition for local grapes in an environment where prices were already deathly low. Growers organized themselves into the Fédérations des Syndicats Viticoles de la Champagne and lobbied the government to pass laws that would make it a fraudulent act to sell a wine as Champagne if it was made, wholly or in part, with grapes from "foreign" sources. The Law of August 1, 1905, went a long way to meeting the organization's goal in that it allowed the government to regulate the composition and origin of wine "of general and specific areas" ( and to pursue offenders.

In order to "flesh out" the 1905 Law, a December 1908 Law defined the areas that would be considered as Champagne for wine-production purposes.  The areas designated as such were Marne and selected communes in Aisne to a total of 33,500 hectares.  A subsequent Law passed on the 17 June, 1911 designated Aube as a Champagne-Deuxième Zone, a classification which would prevent Aube-resident growers from selling their grapes into the main Champagne region.  The Aube growers were unhappy with this solution and they took the issue up again after the end of WWI and got relief with the Law of May 6, 1919 which defined the Champagne wine-growing region in terms of size as well as grape varieties.  Marne inhabitants disputed the Law and it was placed in the hands of an arbitrator for final resolution.  His findings, which made their way into the Law of 1927, defined the AOC system for all of France, did away with the Champagne-Deuxième Zone, and included Aube in the Champagne AOC (

Champagne region post the 1927 Law (Map source:

Beginning in 1935, a governing body was put in place to "ensure that wines called Champagne consistently meet definitive quality standards, both inside and outside the region" (Margaret Weeks, A Toast to the Good Life: Exploring the Regulation of Reason, April 2003,  Organizational names have changed over the years but the mission has remained the same. The progression of organizations are as follows: Commission of Chalons -- established by the French Government in 1935; Commission of Chalons dissolved by the Vichy Government during WWII and replaced with the Bureau National de Repartition des Vins de Champagne; and Vichy organization was replaced by the Comite Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the organization that manages the process up to this day.

On Friday March 14, 2008, reported (New Champagne areas defined) the first major changes to the Champagne region since the passage of the 1927 Laws. According to the report, the grape-growing zone was to be expanded from 319 communes to 357, the wine-production zone was to be expanded from 634 communes to 675, and two wine-growing communes were to be struck from the  list of approved growing areas.

The Prosecco DOC was first awarded in 1969 and was restricted to wines produced in the Conegliano-Valdiobbadene region.  Growers felt that the brand was under attack by "imitators" using just the grape variety and moved to isolate those competitors by changing both the rules and the venue of the game.  Prosecco growers agitated for, and gained regulatory acceptance of: (i) extension of the Prosecco DOC to cover all of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and approximately two-thirds of Veneto; (ii) promotion of the original Prosecco DOC to DOCG status; (iii) changing the name of the source grape from Prosecco to Glera; and (iv) restricting the use of the name Prosecco only to Glera sparkling wines produced within the delimited zones.  The growers felt that these actions would serve to protect their territory, the brand, and the quality of Prosecco.  The regulations authorizing these actions came into law in 2009.

Pre-2009 Prosecco regulated zone (Map source:

Post-2009 Prosecco regulated zone (Map source:

As I mentioned previously, there were no perceived existential threats to either the Cava or Franciacorta brands so their regulatory histories were relatively tumult-free. The Trade Regulations for Sparkling and Fizzy Wines was first established in Spain in 1959 and was formalized in the 1969 Order of the Ministry of Agriculture wherein Cava was acknowledged as the term for sparkling wines made with second fermentation in the bottle. The 1972 Minesterial Order established the Regulatory Board of Sparkling Wines -- comprised of vinegrowers, producers, and Community Representatives -- which oversees the growing, production and marketing of Cava. Cava was granted DO designation in 1986 and is considered a quality wine under the EU Laws.

The Franciacorta Consorzio was founded in 1980 and the region obtained DOCG status in 1986.

My next post in the series will focus on the physical characteristics of the regions.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, February 4, 2013

Part I -- Origins: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

I know. This is a rather presumptuous title. But over the course of the past two years I have penned quite a few posts on the individual regions and wines and I will, in this series, attempt to bring those previous writings together in a way that allows the attainment of the promise of the post title. I begin this series with today's post on the origins of these sparklers. Enjoy (I hope).

The Champagne founding myth has been built around Dom Pérignon, a monk and cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, near the city of Reims, and his apocryphal statement "Come quickly ... I am tasting the stars."  This origin story has been called into question by the facts on the ground. According to Don and Petie Kladstrup, in their seminal work on the history of Champagne (Champagne, Harper 2005), "... most of the wine that Dom Pérignon made was red, not white, and definitely not sparkling." Rather, the good monk thought of bubbles as faults and worked assiduously to get rid of them. Further, according to the authors, an inventory of the Abbey's wines taken two years prior to the Dom's passing shows mostly red wines and some whites.  Finally, the type of bottles that were being utilized at the Abbey were not strong enough to withstand the pressures associated with secondary fermentation in the bottle.

It is more likely that the secondary fermentation process -- the hallmark of Champagne -- was invented by Christopher Merret (1614 - 1695), an English Scientist who is credited with being the first person to deliberately add sugar to wine in order to create bubbles. Merret's experiment is documented in a report to the British Royal Society titled "Some Observations Concerning the Order of Wine" (Maurizio de Rosa, On Wine: Who invented sparkling wine? The Epoch Times, 8/30/11; James Tozer, Pardon Messieurs, but Champagne was a BRITISH invention, claims new research,, 9/26/08). Further adding credibility to this origin story is the fact that Merret also worked on the strengthening of glass bottles (Tozer).  At the time English bottles were stronger because they were blown over coal fires (higher temperatures) while the French were restricted to blowing glass over lower-temperature, charcoal-fueled fires.

Franciacorta's origin does not stretch as far back as does Champagne's.  Enologist Franco Ziliani had been engaged by the Berlucchi estate to help with the stabilization of its wines. While undertaking that effort, Ziliani also sought to convince Guido Berlucchi that the area was well suited to the production of a sparkling wine using the methode champenoise.  Berlucchi gave him the go ahead and, after a number of tries, Ziliani successfully produced his first batch of sparkling wine in 1961.

Cava's history begins with the experimental work of Luis Justo Villanueva while he was attached to the Institut Agricola Catalé de Sant Isidro, work that was built on by Francesco Gil and Domingo Sobrano de Reus when they made sparkling wine to be displayed at the 186l Exposition in Paris (Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine made by the Champagne method,  It should be noted that all these early tests utilized Champagne varieties as the source material. In 1872, the first bottles of Cava using the second-fermentation-in-bottle method were made in the town of of Sant Sadurni which eventually became the Cava capital of Spain.  Phylloxera-induced replantings in the late1880s led to the supplanting of the Champagne varieties with the varieties utilized today and the distinctive nature of the wine vis a vis Champagne.

Historical records show a knowledge of Prosecco that stretches back to Roman times; there is some speculation that it may have even been the vinum pucinum praised by Pliny the Elder (,;  The Prosecco that was drunk 150 years ago was, based on the production method, slightly fizzy and sweet. Grapes were pressed and fermentation initiated but winter would kill the yeast and halt fermentation prior to completion.  This partially fermented wine was bottled and, in the spring, would evidence trapped carbon dioxide (probably the result of refermentation initiated by dormant yeast cells). The writing was on the wall for this style of Prosecco with the opening of the Carpené Malvoti winery in 1868 and its practice of making Prosecco in large tanks, implementation of a proto-Charmat method of sparkling wine production.

According to, Maumèné was the fiirst person to consider speeding up the process by fermenting sparkling wine in large containers rather than in bottles.  In 1852 he built a machine called the "afroforo" in which he tested this proposition. Once the sediment had settled out, the wine was siphoned off and bottled.  This application, while demonstrating the workability of the process, was not considered commercially feasible.  The former Director of the Enological Experimentation Institute of Asti, Federico Martinotti, was the next person to move the ball down the field.  In 1895 he patented the use of an autoclave -- a pressurized metal container -- for fermentation of the grape juice.  This advancement served to industrialize the process but did not improve its market acceptability.  Instead it was the improvements -- including the use of lined steel autoclaves -- of Eugene Charmat, a Frenchman, which finally made the Charmat method a commercial success.


The classic method, as implemented in the production of Champagne, is clearly the oldest of the sparkling wine production methods and its success has been a catalyst for the efforts of other regions.  Based on the data presented, it was approximately 200 years after the introduction of Champagne before the commercial efforts at modern sparkling wines were undertaken in the Cava and Prosecco initiatives.  Prosecco and Cava development activities were co-incident.  While the consensus is that it is more economical to produce sparkling wines using the Charmat method, three of the four sparkling wines described herein, opt for the traditional method.

My next post will cover the regulatory history of these regions.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, February 1, 2013

Massolino: "Family-Style" Barolos

Sunday October 14th was the last day of the Decanter Piedmont Reader Weekend; and we were not happy about that. We had had a great time to date visiting wineries, speaking to proprietors, eating great food, and drinking great wine; and we did not want it to end.  Well, pouting would not help.  We had a full day of activities still ahead of us, beginning with a morning winery tour and tasting with Massolino estate in 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.

When we arrived at the Massolino Cantina after our trip from the hotel, we were greeted in the courtyard by a smiling Franco Massolino who proceeded, during the course of an introductory "seminar" in the courtyard, and continuing dialogue during the course of our walking tour, to detail the estate's philosophy and practices.

The Massolino winery was created by Giovanni Massolino in 1896 and all through the years it has been operated as a family enterprise with brothers Franco and Roberto, enologists both, managing the current incarnation.  The style of wine espoused by the family is a pure expression of Nebbiolo which demonstrates a balance between power and excellence.  Franco refers to this style as "classic" and sees aging in large barrels as a key enabler of that style because the barrels respect and protect the classic bouquet of Nebbiolo.  There was an idea in the market, according to Franco, that consumers would like a wine that was dark in color and some winemakers began to use barriques for aging in order to acquire this darkening effect.  That is not classic Nebbiolo and the decision was made by the estate in 2006 to return to its roots and only age Barolo in large bottes.

Massolino is focused on the production of the highest quality wines possible and, towards that end, grows all of its own grapes. The principal estate vineyards are detailed in the table below.

The grape varieties planted at Massolino vineyards include Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Moscato, and Chardonnay.  The estate began making Chardonnay wines in 1991 based largely on a sense that the variety would thrive in the region's chalky soil.

Fermentation is carried out in resin-lined cement tanks or stainless-steel tanks.  Cement tanks are desirable for their ability to maintain purity of fruit and freshness, according to Franco.  He also mentioned that 10 to 15 years ago, consultants had been recommending deserting cement tanks for stainless steel.  Massolino had not gone down that path and now cement is back in vogue.  Their choice is to use cement vats and when those are not available then use stainless.

Large Slovenian oak casks are used for aging all the wines with the exception of the Chardonnay and Barbera which are aged in barriques.

After our walk-through of the winery, we repaired to the tasting room to sample some of the estate's offerings:
  • 2011 Chardonnay -- The grapes were picked a little early in the cycle.  Some of the fruit was aged in cement and some in oak and then blended. Golden yellow color. Sweet white flower and vanilla nose.  A rich creaminess resulting from 9 months of battonage.  Chalky minerality and spiciness.  Persistent finish.
  • 2011 Dolcetto -- Stainless steel and cement in search of a pure expression of fruit.  Cherries.  Good body. Spicy. Fresh. Soft tannins. Long finish.  Franco felt that this wine would be great with appetizers but felt that the freshness and tannins would allow it to be drunk with the entire meal.
  • 2011 Barbera -- Fermented in stainless steel and cement. Turpentine and petrol on the noseRed pepper and rust on the palate.  Tight and short on the finish.
  • 2010 Barbera -- 5000-bottle production.  Aged for 18 months in barrique.  Extracted color and more appealing nose.  Strawberry and spice.  RIch with good acidity.
  • 2010 Langhe Nebbiolo -- Violet, green flower, dill, marine, spiciness.  Freshness and purity of fruit.  Non-corrosive tannins.
  • 2010 Barolo Classico -- Translucent. Sweet tar, tobacco, and hint of violets.  Molasses on the palate along with weightiness, texture, and balance.
  • 2007 Margheria -- Perfumed nose.  Fresh, pure fruit. Elegant with a long finish.
  • 2007 Parafada -- Closed.
  • 2007 Parussi -- Tar. Green bean. Non-complex.Chalky minerality. Long finish.
  • 2005 Riserva Vigna Rosada -- Complex. Bean. Stale beer. Elegance.Late-arriving tannin. Great acidity with a long mineral finish.

This winery's focus on quality was evident in Franco's conversation as well as the look and feel of the surroundings.  This is an estate that knows the type of wines that it wants to produce and is doing so to the tune of 120,000 bottles annually.  The winery has explored what modernity has to offer and have adopted the things that have improved the quality of the operations but have discarded those which have led away from what they perceive to be the traditional style (the family style) of Barolo.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme