Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Visit to Tarara Winery (Leesburg, VA): Environment and vineyards

I have recently begun a long-horizon study of the wines of Virginia and to date have reported on Linden Vineyards (estate and wines), RdV Vineyards, and Barboursville Vineyards (estate, wines, and filtration practices). Continuing this effort, I visited Loudon County's Tarara Winery on December 8th, 2017.

Tarara Winery occupies 56 acres of a 475-acre estate running along the Potomac River.

Location of Tarara Winery on the Virginia landscape
The estate was purchased by Whitie Hubert -- a retired commercial developer -- in 1985 and a block of Chardonnay was planted in 1987 in the section that is today called the Hill Block of the Nevaeh Vineyard.

It was cold and blustery on the day of our visit with the weather effects exacerbated by the lengthy walk from the lower-elevation parking lot up to the winery/tasting room. We were happy to close the door to the tasting room behind us as we were welcomed by Jordan Harris, the estate's Winemaker and General Manager.

Jordan had laid out a number of wines for us to taste but we began with a discussion of the viticultural and winemaking environments in order to establish the necessary context.

The sources for the Tarara wines are the Nevaeh and Tranquility Vineyards.

Tarara sits on the eastern side of the Catoctin foothills and its climate is modified by the range as well as by the Potomac and the nearby Shadow Lake. First, rainfall comes in from the west but the moisture-bearing winds lose their contents on the west side of the mountains, leaving the eastern foothills with lower levels of rainfall than areas not protected by this rain-shadow effect.

Second, the Potomac River Valley is somewhat of a wind tunnel and this serves to keep the vineyard cooler than its surrounds during the summer. The fast-flowing water does not freeze in the winter -- a similar situation for the lake, due to its depth -- and the wind coming off these waters warms the surrounding land.

The Neveah soils change quickly as one moves away from the river. The vineyard blocks and characteristics are shown on the map below.

Tranquility, shown below, a 7-acre estate located in Purcellville, is owned by Al and Mary Taylor and managed by Ben Renshaw. Beginning with the 2011 vintage, all of this vineyards fruit is sourced to Tarara.

Jordan arrived at Tarara 11 years ago, lured by the prospect of making Viognier wine and the owner's desire to convert the estate into a premium brand, The estate had been up and running for a full 20 years by that time but, according to Jordan, the wines were mediocre na d the winery was infected with cellar taint. He began the transformation by dumping many of the estate's top sellers, redoing the cellar, and changing the cultivar mix.

Tarara today is, according to Jordan, a focused winery. They attempt to showcase site by producing single-vineyard wines focused on Viognier, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc. The vineyard goals are to:
  • Create an ecosystem
    • Plant wildflowers to bring in ladybugs
    • Build bat houses to bring in bats
  • Ensure greater health of vines and people
    • No herbicides or pesticides
    • Spray with fungicides if needed.
Jordan does a lot of tilling and subsoiling -- every other row every other year -- in order to aerate the soil and encourage the roots to go deeper. The roots are not incentivized to go deep because of the easy accessibility of rain-deposited water.

In terms of the vines, Neveah's are cane-pruned VSP with 60% of the rows running east to west. Planting density of the older vines are 950 vines/acre while the newer plantings are done at 2200 vines/acre. Tranquility vines are also VSP but are spur-pruned. Six of its 7 acres are planted north to south. Vineyard yields range between 2.25 and 2.5 tons/acre.

I will cover the winemaking and wines in a subsequent post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Methode Ancestrale sparkling wines of France

Sparkling wine production in France can be placed into four broad categories:
  1. Champagne -- King of the hill. Reserved for sparkling wines produced within the delimited area of the Champagne wine region.
  2. Crémant -- sparkling wine made using the méthode traditionelle. Wines in this category include Crémant de Loire, Crémant d'Alsace,  Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Die, and the recently minted Crémant de Savoie. These wines adhere to the following restrictions:
    1. Harvested by hand within set production quotas
    2. Whole-bunch pressed
    3. Sulfur dioxide use limited
    4. > 9 months on lees
    5. About half the carbon of Champagne
    6. Submitted to a QC tasting panel for approval.
  3. Méthode Ancestrale -- wines are generally bottled with residual sugar. Effervescence gained via refermentation (or continued fermentation) in the bottle.
  4. All others -- sparkling wines made in any of the available sparkling wine production methods to the exclusion of the Méthode Ancestrale.
The figure below shows the scope of sparkling wine production in France with the designated Methode Ancestrale areas circled in red. I explore the four designated Methode Ancestrale areas in this post.

Blanquette de Limoux Methode Ancestrale
Limoux AOC has the distinction of being one of only two AOCs (the other is Die) to produce a sparkling wine in each of the available categories (keeping in mind that Champagne production is impossible for producers outside of the region). Limoux AOC sparkling wine production encompasses Crémant de Limoux, Blanquette de Limoux, and Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale (The term Blanquette stems from the Mauzac variety developing a white down on its leaves.). I have written previously of the terroir of the region and will discuss the wines in the remainder of this post.

The Méthode Ancestrale sparkling wine -- awarded AOC status in 1938 -- is produced from 100% Mauzac grapes whose partially fermented juice is bottled on a full moon in March. Fermentation concludes in the bottle, producing a wine that is higher in residual sugar, lower in alcohol, and less effervescent than its compatriots. Alcohol levels for this wine is around 7%. Aroma and flavors include apricot, acacia, hawthorne, peach, and apple. Production levels are 4000 hl annually.

Clairette de Die
The Drôme River is a tributary of the Rhône which, conveniently, serves as the dividing line between the wines of the north and south. Die, and its wines, are located in this river valley. Die produces both sparkling and still wines (Chatillon-en-Diois for reds and rosés, Coteaux de Die for whites) but it is in the sparkling wines that our interest lies.

Used with the permission of Syndicat de
la Clairette de Die et des vins du Diois 

Clairette de Die is the appellation for a naturally sparkling wine made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (75% minimum) and Clairette. This wine has a long history with AO status granted in 1910, AOC designation in 1942, and designation as "ancestral dioise process" in 1971.

Clairette de Die grapes are sourced from the same vineyards as are grapes for Cremant de Die. There are a total of 300 farmers involved in grape production, 250 of whom are associated with the Cave de Die Jaillance coop and the remainder either being part of smaller cooperatives or functioning as family farms.

The Clairette de Die production process stands in stark contrast to that of the Cremant de Die. The grapes are rapidly pressed and placed into vats where they are allowed to ferment at low temperatures. After 1 to 2 months, the fermentation is stopped -- the must still contains residual sugar -- and the proceeds bottled. This partially fermented wine is kept in bottle, at temperatures of approximately 12℃, for about 4 months during which time fermentation of the residual sugar continues. The carbon dioxide released during this fermentation is secreted in the wines and will provide the bubbles upon opening. Unlike the traditional method, there are no additives along the way.

Fermentation ceases naturally when the wine is about 7% to 9% abv and, at this time, the wine is ready for drinking. As there is no opportunity to manipulate the sugar content of the wine, it is only available in a Brut style.

Bugey Cerdon AOC
One of the least known of the identified AOCs is Bugey, a small wine region within the Ain départment which, though encumbered by anonymity, has the distinction of being one of four regions (the others being Die, Gaillac, and Limoux) which produce sparkling wines using both the method Champenoise and the Method Ancestrale.

Bugey is sometimes mentioned as being part of the Savoie region but, as shown in the map below, that is far from the truth. The wine region, a VDQS prior to gaining AOC status in 2009, covers 500 ha in 65 villages sited alongside the Rhone as it wends its way south in Savoie and then northwest in Bugey.

Expanded view of Bugey. Source: wineandvinesearch.com

The existing Bugey soil is a result of both the formation of the French pre-Alps as well as the terminal activity of Ice Age glaciers. While fairly heterogeneous, the soils fall into one of two broad camps: (i) clay and limestone (white clay, mountain scree) or (ii) silica and limestone molasse (terminal deposits). The almost-hidden patches of vineyards which comprise this region face southeast or southwest and are, on average, 5 ha in size.

This wine is produced in a Rosé style only using Gamay and Poulsard grapes as the source material. The grapes for this wine  are grown on 136.4 ha of vineyards located on clay-calcareous soils that top the steep hillsides of the 10 villages that comprise the Cerdon cru. The wine is made using the Methode Ancestrale which, in this case, is comprised of the following steps:
  1. Grapes are hand-picked
  2. Then pressed
  3. Partial fermentation at low temperature (preserves the softness, aromas, and colors of the grape; allows retention of some live yeasts) to approximately 6% abv
  4. Light filtration
  5. Bottling
  6. Second fermentation in bottle. At conclusion, 7.5 - 8% abv plus fair amount of sugar
  7. Filter wine
  8. Re-bottle.
This process yields a crisp, tart, sweet wine with a grapey aroma and red fruit flavors. Annual production is at 9620 hl, 30% of the volume of all wine produced in Bugey.

Gaillac Methode Ancestrale
Gaillac is a part of Wines of Southwest France, the region covering wine-producing areas south and inland of Bordeaux.

Gaillac is located 50 km east of Toulouse in the northern part of the Tarn region.

According to Wines of Gaillac, a combination of heat from the Mediterranean and the ocean humidity of Bordeaux provides perfect growing conditions for the region. These conditions are further enhanced by the Autan, a warm, dry wind that blows in from the warm region of East Central Africa.

Gaillac has a varied terroir, as shown in the chart below.

Gaillac's winemaking history stretches back to Roman times but a number of disasters through the years has limited its current production levels to 155,000 hL annually. Sixty percent of said production is red, 30% white, and the remaining 10% Rosé. The white production levels include dry, sweet, a lightly sparkling specialty called Perle, and the Methode Ancestrale sparkler (Andrew Jefford, Enigmatic Variation, Decanter, 2/20/17).

Gaillac's Methode Ancestrale, also called Methode Gaillacoise, goes back to the 1500s and has been an AOC since 1937. The Mauzac variety is generally its source material. Bibendum.com.au uses the wine from Plageoles to illustrate the production of this wine:
  • 40-year-old vines situated in Cahuzac-sur-Vere
  • Naturally fermented base wines chilled to stop fermentation when there is 25 - 30 g/l residual sugar remaining
  • Juice manually fed through an antique filter utilizing coarse cotton sacks (allows some natural yeasts to remain in contact with the juice)
  • The wine is bottled the following spring and fermentation continues producing the bubbles.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The best Tuscan Merlots

In a January 2001 article on Italian Merlot (New Wave Merlot in Italy, Wine Business.com), 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 with tightly managed yields.

Kate Bailey (Italian Merlot Wine, wine.lovetoknow.com) agrees with Zillani's narrative, characterizing the "Merlot march" across Italy as having occurred in three distinct waves: (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 former bastion of Chianti.

And it is with this "more modern advance" that we are concerned.

The Merlots of note in Tuscany are centered around Bolgheri and Suvereto in the Province of Livorno, Chianti Classico (Provinces of Florence and Siena), and Bucine (Province of Arezzo). A number of small-production, mono-varietals reared in this region have begun to gain critical acclaim. Names such as Masseto (Wine Spectator 100 points in 2001), Redigaffi (Wine Spectator 100 points in 1997 and 2000), and Messorio (Wine Spectator 100 points, 2004), among others, have grabbed the attention of critics and wine collectors alike and, in so doing, have led to steady value appreciation for those lucky enough to own these wines. The figure below shows the distribution of these wines-of-note across the Tuscan landscape.

Click to enlarge

Even though in pursuit of a common goal -- production of high-quality Merlot wines -- the conditions and approaches faced/applied by the relevant producers are, in many cases, markedly different. For example, locational differences mean that Chianti-based producers operate in a continental climate and with galestro and albarese soil while their coastal counterparts operate in temperate climates with stone- and rock-imbued clay soils.

Outside of this zone, we find the Palazzi Merlot of Vini Franchetti made with grapes grown in Val d'Orcia, hard up against the Umbrian border.

This wine started out as vineyard within the Ornellaia estate but the owners have opted to build out a separate infrastructure to support this wine as a separate entity.

The Masseto vineyard lies on soil comprised of thin silty clay and broken rock fragments. There is some confusion as to the planting date of the vines with the Masseto website stating the year 1984 as the planting date and other sources (see hermitagewine.com/masseto) using 1981 as the planting date. The older date seems to be more reasonable as the first vintage of the wine is identified as being offered on the market in 1986.

The Masseto vineyard is sub-divided into three distinct sections based on soil characteristics and resultant wines.  The lowest section of the vineyard is called Masseto Junior and its soils are characteristically a clay-sand mix.  According to the winery the wines produced frrom grapes grown in this section are lighter and serve to smooth out the tannic roughness associated with the wines from the other sections as well as contributing to the overall delicacy of the final product.  The middle portion of the vineyard is called Masseto Centrale and has the highest levels of Pliocene clays.  Wines produced from these grapes are powerful, concentrated, and tannic.  The top portion of the vineyard is located 120 meters above sea level and the soil here consists of loose clays and sand along with pebbles.  The soil here is the shallowest in the overall vineyard and the grapes tend to ripen earliest. The wines produced from this section of the vineyard are dense and linear.

Grapes are hand-harvested and subjected to a three-part selection process which ensures that only the best berries make it to the fermentation tanks. Suspect grapes are selected-out in the vineyard and before and after de-stemming.

Fermentation is conducted in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and oak vats with each block fermented separately.  Blocks are aged in wooden barriques for one year prior to being blended into the final wine by the winemaker.  The barriques of choice are procured from the Massif Central area in France and have a medium toast.  After blending, the wines are returned to the barriques for an additional year of aging.  Specific lots of wines may be clarified prior to bottling depending on their characteristics.  The wines are aged for an additional year in bottle before being released to the market.

Source: masseto.com
Annual production of Masseto averages around 30,000 bottles and the wine sells for around $550 upon release.  Recent vintages that are especially well regarded by the critics include the 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2008. Axel Heinz, the winemaker, in a Decanter interview (Ornellaia, May 2013) said "When young, Masseto can seem monolithic, but it often shows much more complexity with age."

Masseto has the distinction of being the first Italian wine to be sold through the Place de Bordeaux, a marketplace ttraditionally reserved for First Growths and a small number of foreign icon wines. Other foreign wines sold through this marketplace include Opus One and Almaviva, both estates associated with Baron Rothschild (decanter.com 11/18/08).  The first Masseto vintage offered through this marketplace was the 2006.

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.

Source: abctuscany.com

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 (swig.co.uk).

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 Merlot produced by the estate is a monovarietal that is named -- Redigaffi -- after a stream that courses through the property. 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 de-stemmed 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."

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 enotecaitalia.biz, the late Eugenio Campolmi (co-founder, along with his wife Cenzia Merli, of the current estate) purchased 9 ha of land in the current location in 1983 and 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.

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.

Source: lemacchiole.it

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'.

Quercegobbe is a product of the Petra estate in Suvereto.

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 the region provides the perfect environment for fully ripening Merlot grapes and the soils are viewed as being richer in minerals, and more structured, than its more famous neighbor to the north, Bolgheri.

Petra -- translates to "stone" -- was founded in 1997 by the father-daughter team of Francesca and Morette Vittorio who had established their winery "chops" on the Bellavista (1977) and Contade Castaldi (1987) estates in Franciacorta. The estate, located in San Lorenzo Alton in Suvereto, is 300 ha in size, with 100 ha dedicated to vineyards and the remainder to olive groves and woods.

Quercegobbe is the estate's 100% Merlot offering. The grapes for the wine are grown on 35 ha in the old part of the property around the winery at 120 meters elevation. The oldest of these vines date back to 1997. The grapes are vinified in 620 hl oak barrels and aged in new French barriques for 18 months. An additional 18 months is spent in bottle in the cellar before the wine is deemed market-ready.

Alfonse Cevola (On the Wine Trail in Italy) remarking in a comment on one of my posts that Petra was just down the road from Masseto  and was "an interesting winery making very dramatic wines." Serena Sutcliffe (Tunnel Vision, Sotheby's Preview, 11/2008) referred to the 2005 vintage of this wine as "pure layered chocolate and balsamico."

Castello di Ama's L'Apparita
Ama is a small hamlet which sits at 500 meters (1500 feet) elevation in Gaiole in Chianti in the Province of Siena.  During the 1970s, the Roman families Sebasti, Cavanna, Carini, and Tradico formed a partnership and bought property in the hamlet with the express purpose of producing world-class wines. The property they acquired was a rounded hilltop -- with primarily southern exposure and a clayey calcareous soil -- 240 ha in size, 90 ha of which is, today, devoted to grape-growing and 40 to olive groves.

Location of Castelo di Ama (Source:www.casadonatello.com)

The wine L'Apparita is a 100% Merlot which is made from grapes grown on 3.844 ha (9.495 acres) of land constituting parcels 23 to 25 of the Bellavista vineyard. These parcels were initially planted to Canaiola and Malvasia Blanca but were regrafted to Merlot clone 342 between 1982 and 1985. The soil is clay rich and the vine training method is open lyre.

In its review of the 2006 edition of this wine, Wine Enthusiast glowed "L'Apparita is a divine and delicate expression of Merlot with rich layers of black cherry, blackberry, spice, mocha, cedar, exotic spice and polished stone that are seamlessly woven together." Closer to home, Gambero Rosso has awarded the wine numerous Tre Bichieris (acknowledgement of the best wines in Italy in a given year) beginning with the 1990 vintage and continuing through 1992 and, more recently, the 2000, 2001, and 2004 vintages.

San Giusto a Rentennano's La Ricolma
As is the case for Castello di Ama, San Giusto a Rentennano is located in the village of Gaiole in Chianti but is east and south of its compatriot in a position overlooking the upper course of the Arbia River.

The estate's vineyards sit at 270 meters on steep hillsides with southeastern exposure and is rich in sand, clay, lime, volcanic ash, and calcium. The vineyard -- certified organic since the 2008 vintage -- falls under the stewardship of Ruggero Mazzilli with Attilio Pagli as the consulting oenologist.

La Ricolma -- appellation IGT Toscana -- is a 100% Merlot sourced from grapes grown on 1.5 ha of vineyards that sit on marl, limestone, and clay soils. The grapes are hand-harvested at full maturity and, in the 2009 vintage, was limited to yields of 50 quintals/ha. Yield is managed via green harvesting where between 30% and 50% of the fruit is dropped in July and August.

Annual production averages 5000 bottles.

Galloni, writing about La Ricolma in the Wine Advocate (in 2012), said "San Giusto's Ricolma is differentiated from most other Tuscan Merlots for its firm sense of structure and generous tannin, both of which place it closer to Sangiovese than Merlot stylistically. There are more famous (and more expensive) Merlots being made in Tuscany but few that consistently reach this level of excellence."

Petrolo Galatrona
The 272-ha Petrolo estate is located in Bucine (province of Arezzo) and falls within Colli Aretini, one of the eight Chianti sub-regions (to include Chianti Classico), where its vineyards are strategically positioned along the slopes of the hills bordering the Chianti region.

Tuscan wine region map with Colli Aretini colored dark green

Originally part of the medieval fiefdom called Galatrona, the estate was bought by the Bazzocchi family in the 1940s and is currently owned by Lucia Bazzocchi Sanjust and managed by her son Luca. The lands are allocated to vineyards (31 ha, 26 of which is currently in production), olive groves (19 ha), and woods and arable land (222 ha).

Galatrona, the estate's 100% Merlot offering, was first brought to market in 1994 as a Tuscan IGT wine and has retained that classification ever since. The Merlot vines were first planted by Lucia in 1990 and today numbers 30,000. Annual Merlot production is 13,500 bottles.

The wine is well regarded and much heralded. It has been compared to Pomerol's Le Pin and Petrus and has been a consistent recipient of Gambero Rossi's Tre Bichieri award as well as being consistently assigned 90+ scores by Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.

Frescobaldi's Lamoine
There are few Italian wine family names that are as storied or as pedigreed as Frescobaldi, a Florentine name that stretches back 30 generations to the 1300 start in wine production at Tenuta di Castiglioni in Val di Pesa. Today Marchesi Frescobaldi is one of the most significant wine producers in Italy with nine estates and over 1000 ha devoted to that task.

Castelgiocondo, situated on the southwestern slopes of Montalcino, was acquired by the Frescobaldis in 1989. The estate, originally built in 1100 to protect the road between Siena and the sea, is 815 ha in size (230 ha of which is dedeicated to vines) and sits at elevations ranging between 180 and 400 meters.

Castelgiocondo's Merlot is a mono-varietal sourced from a 12-ha vineyard on the estate called Lamaione, also the name of the resulting wine. The Lamaione vineyard is 300 meters above sea level and has a southeast exposure and clayey soil that is rich in limestone. The vines are trained low spur pruned cordon and are planted to a density of 5500 vines /ha. The grapes undergo 12+ days of fermentation and 4 weeks of maceration. Malolactic fermentation occurs in barrique followed by 24 months of barrel aging in new French oak. The wine spends 1 year in bottle before release to the market.

Querciabella's Palafreno
Palafreno is produced by Querciabella, an estate founded in 1974 and which currently owns 74 ha (183 acres) of vineyards in Chianti Classico (Greve, Panzano, Raddo, and Gaiole in Chianti) and 32 ha (79 acres) in Maremma (Albarese in the province of Grossetto). The estate has farmed its vineyards organically since 1988 and biodynamically since 2000. The full range of its wines are presented in the table below.

Palafreno, the estate's Merlot offering, is a mono-varietal which was first produced in 2000. Grapes for the wine are sourced from the estate's Cipresso and Marrone vineyards (less than 1 ha in total according to a Twitter conversation with the estate) in Ruffoli (Greve in Chianti) which are sited at 350 m altitude on loose, schistous, skeletal soils with southwest exposures.

Palfreno is only produced in favorable vintages and, as such, the label was not produced in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2009. Production in 2010 was below normal levels due to "voracious bears and deer" (Twitter conversation with the estate). The wine, which has been described by Nicholas Belfrage MW as "... deep yet silky, fruit-driven yet with the perfect touch of toasty oak, enhancing rather than overwhelming ...," has received much critical acclaim including the coveted Gambero Rossi Tre Bicchieri (2004 for the 2000 vintage) and scores of 95 (2007 vintage), 92 (2008 vintage), and 94 (2010 vintage) from Antonio Galloni.

Vini Franchetti's Palazzi
According to Carlo Franchetti, the area of Val d'Orcia in which Tenuta di Trinoro is located had been almost abandoned between 1960 and 1980 with the primary activity being sharecropping. Sheep-breeding came with the Sardinians when they emigrated here between 1960 and 1970. The houses in the area were primarily second homes for the wealthy.

Andrea Franchetti had been a wine broker and imported French and Italian wines to the US between 1982 and 1986. He wanted to come back to Italy but, before doing so, went to Bordeaux and spent some time learning winemaking from his friends Jean Luc Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud and Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus.  Armed with Bordeaux philosophy, practices, and cuttings, Andrea went to the Tuscan hinterlands, to land that was to him reminiscent of the left- and right-bank Bordeaux soils, and bought the 200-ha property that is Tenuta di Trinoro.

There are a total of 22 ha of the estate devoted to vineyards, distributed between 36 separate vineyard plots. As shown on the map below, the vineyard is planted solely with Bordeaux cultivars to include 17 Cabernet Franc and 13 Merlot plots. There are three cru vineyards which lend their names to 100% Cab Franc wines made with the grapes sourced therefrom.

Source: vinifranchetti.com

Palazzi, the estate's 100% Merlot offering, is made in the image of a right-bank Merlot. This wine was produced from 1997 to 1999 when it was discontinued. The fruit was so good in 2009 that Andrea resurrected the Palazzi as a wine in that vintage. We tasted both the 2009 Palazzi (100% Merlot) and the 2009 Tenuta di Trinoro (42% Cabernet Franc, 42% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Petit Verdot) but both were too cold to reveal themselves fully. The Palazzi showed mushrooms, a savoriness, and a hint of green. Mineral finish. The Tenuta di Trinoro did not reveal much on the nose and opened up just enough to give a hint of layered complexity.

At a recent tasting of this wine, it showed ripe dark fruit, licorice, spice and chocolate. Balanced. High note resulting from pleasing acid levels. A creamy finish.

While wonderful tasting wines, these Tuscan Merlots do not, for the most part, compare favorably when drunk directly against right-bank Merlots. At a blind comparative tasting which I organized, the tasters consistently referenced the balsamic notes of the Italian Merlots (It should be noted that the Palazzi and Palafreno wines were not included in this tasting.).

Two exceptions to this drumbeat were the 2004 Galatrona and the 1993 Masseto. The Galatrona was described as having the coffee smell of the Right Bank and was riper than its counterpart (the 2006 Bellevue Mondotte) but with a limited finish. The room was split on this pairing with some panelists finding the Galatrona more complex than its flight partner. The finish on the Bellevue was held to be longer. After the reveal, panelists said that Galatrona was a wine that they would be buying in the future. The Masseto was paired with the 1996 La Mondotte and everyone agreed that this was a very strong pairing. Panelists had difficulty picking out the Bordeaux in this pairing and could not wait to see which Italian Merlot was standing toe-to-toe with a Right-banker and not giving any ground. This wine is one of my favorite wines period and I was extremely pleased with its performance.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Nebbiolo: A grape by many other names

Nebbiolo, the variety undergirding the Langhe's famed Barolo and Barbaresco wines, is considered Italy's most noble grape, primarily based on its performance in that region. The cultivar is, however, grown -- and referred to by other names -- in areas beyond the home of the "King of Wines." The table below shows the names by which the variety is known outside the Langhe-Roero regions and the associated planting sizes.

RegionSub-RegionVariety NomenclaturePlanting Size (ha)



Alta PiemonteGattinara, Ghemme +Spanna

Val d’OssolaPrunentN/A
Valle d’AostaDonnaz, Arnand-MontjovetPicotendro25***
Compiled from Tong #16. *Author's estimate; ** author's estimate based on relative production; ***2004 data.

The Nebbiolo experience in these regions are summarized in the sections and are covered in greater details in the indicated links.

Valtellina and Chiavennasca
Nebbiolo shines elsewhere in the Italian north, in an area where it is called Chiavennasca. In a vertigo-inducing wine region called Valtellina, a 25-mile-long, east-west valley in the Rhaetian Alps hard by the border with Switzerland. Fernando Batata MS (fernandobatata.com) indicates that written records of the word nebiol can be traced back to articles in Torino in 1268 while the word Chiavennasca is not encountered in Valtellina until 1595. DNA results indicate that the variety could have either originated in Valtellina or Piemonte but that the variety is so old that its parents are probably extinct.


Valtellina (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For more information on Valtellina and Chiavennesca, please click here.

Valle d'Aosta and Picotendro
In Valle d'Aosta, Nebbiolo is called Picotendro.

Valle d'Aosta (Vallée d"Aoste in French), is a semi-autonomous region in northwest Italy which is bounded to the north, west, and south by the Alps and shares borders with both France and Switzerland. Reflecting its location, and its cultural history and linkages, it is officially bi-lingual. It was inhabited by an ancient people called the Salassi before it was annexed by the Romans in 25 BC. In more recent times, it was helmed  by the French House of Savoy before joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Valle d'Aosta (Source: travelling italy.info)

Picotendro is produced in the Donnaz and Arnand-Montjovet sub-zones. The Donnaz Picotendro has a higher percentage of the core varietal, and fewer potential blending partners, than does the other. Picotendro is grown close to the border with Piemonte and is not dissimilar to Chiavennasca (Valtellina) in that it is light, delicate, and aromatic with minimal structure and tannin.

For more information on Valle d'Aosta and Picotendro, please click here.

Alto Piemonte and Spanna
In the Vercelli-Novara region of Alto Piemonte (shown in the red circle in the map below)  the Nebbiolo grape-- called Spanna therein -- is viewed fondly by "native" winemakers, notwithstanding the fact that its wines differ markedly from that of its better-known brethren to the south.

Figure1. Selected Alto Piemonte provinces
(Source:fassinomobilaire.com map; author modification)
The Vercelli-Novara region is home to nine wine zones, seven of which are exclusively red. These zones are illustrated graphically in the upper portion of Figure 2 and are fleshed out with selected facts in Table 1.

Figure 2. Piemonte wine regions with Vercelli-Novara red-wine
regions at the top.

The most well-regarded of the wines are from Gattinara, Ghemme, and Boca. The wines from Gattinara are lighter than Barolos and Barbarescos but with pronounced tannins and acidity. Ghemme wines have similar characteristics to Gattinara wines but with higher tannin levels. The wines of Boca are "firm-bodied and structured with violets, sweet spices and notes of pomegranates on the finish." Similar to the other wines of the region, it displays high levels of acidity.

To learn more of the Alto Piemonte and Spanna, please click here.

Val d'Ossola and Prunent
The Nebbiolo plantings in Valle d'Aosta and Valtellina are grown under challenging conditions but these pale in comparison to the conditions experienced by the hardy growers who ply that trade in the Val d'Ossola.

Val d'Ossola is the mid to upper portion of the northernmost Piemonte province, Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, and consists of a main valley and a number of tributaries branching from its 83-km length. Verbano lies along the left bank of Lake Maggiore while Cusio is to its west and south. The 33 municipalities that comprise Val d'Ossola sit at average elevations of 1290 m (3870 ft).

Map of Piemonte with Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province
circled in red (Base map from wineandvinesearch.com)

Verbano-Cusio-Ossola in more detail

The climate of Val d'Ossola is Alpine but is mitigated somewhat by Lake Maggiore to its southeast.

A total of 45 ha in the region is dedicated to grapegrowing. The vineyards (map of the Val d'Ossola vineyards) are small terraced plots clinging to the steep southern slopes of the valley walls at elevations ranging between 300 and 500 m. The vineyards are located on the slopes of the valleys associated with the River Toce and its tributaries Anza, Ovesca, Metizzo, Isorno, and Diveria.

A total of 60 hardy growers farm the land with an average plot being 0.75 ha in size. Vines are trained on pergolas supported by old stone columns hacked out of local granite quarries. This training system is called "toppia" locally. All work in the vineyards is done manually and this heroic viticulture rarely yields in excess of 60 quintals/ha, half of which is consumed locally.

Nebbiolo is the most widely planted grape in the region. One the more interesting plantings in the region is Prünent, an ancient Nebbiolo biotype that is planted on 5 ha distributed between the River Toca (1 plot) and the tributaries Metizzo (4 plots) and Isorno (1 plot). These Prünent vines are very old (in excess of 100 years) and have only recently been revitalized having suffered the double whammy of phylloxera and industrialization. The wines are 100% Prünent fermented on skins for 7 days, aged in barrel for 12 to 13 months, and then for another 12 months in bottle.

Langhe, Roero, and Caremma: Nebbiolo
The Langhe region may not have been the origin point of the Nebbiolo grape but it has become its spiritual, emotional, and financial home and Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG provide the reference points against which all Nebbiolo wines are measured. A detailed discussion of these regions is presented here.

Roero DOCG
Roero is a small DOCG (DOC 1985, DOCG 2004) located on the north bank of the Tanaro River and running along said bank for approximately 24.1 km (15 miles) between Bra and Govone. The zone is approximately 878 ha (2169 acres) in size with 2014 production of approximately 436,000 cases. The relative positioning of Roero DOCG is illustrated in the map below.

Source: vinotravelsitaly.com

Nebbiolo d'Alba DOC and Alba DOC
Nebbiolo DOC was founded in 1970 and covers production in 25 communes on both sides of the Tanaro River. The production zone extends over 536 ha (1370 acres) and is used as a fallback appellation by producers whose wines do not meet the stringent standards of the Roero, Barolo, and Barbaresco DOCGs. Nebbiolo d'Alba DOC wines are 100% Nebbiolo and are aged for 1 year prior to market. Alcohol level has to be 12% at a minimum. The wine can be made as dolce and spumante.

Alba DOC was established in 2010. It has a vineyard area of 2 ha (5 acres) and produces 630 cases annually. The red wine is 70 - 85% Nebbiolo, 15 - 30% Barbera, and 5% max other authorized varieties and is aged for 17 months, nine of which are in barrel. The Riserva has a similar varietal requirement but is aged for 23 months, 12 of which are in barrel. The minimum alcohol level is 12%.

Carema DOC
Carema is the last Piemontese village before you cross over into Valle d'Aosta. The vine-growing region is 12 ha (32 acres) in size and elevation can range as high as 762 m (2500 feet). Annual production is fewer than 10,000 cases. The DOC was established in 1967 and requires a minimum of 85% Nebbiolo plus other authorized grapes. The resulting wine is light-to-medium body; exudes aromas of tar, licorice, camphor, and strawberry; and is both tannic and more acidic than the reference Nebbiolos.

I organized a tasting event at my home in order to taste the wines from these regions at a single sitting. A listing of the wines and the tasting notes can be found here.

Used with permission

I was pleasantly surprised by a number of the wines. The Valtellina Superiore and Gattinara especially impressed me and are wines that I have added to my buying list.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Champagne's Côte des Blancs (After Peter Liem)

In Champagne, Peter Liem states that the 20 or so subregions into which the Comité Champagne divides the appellation "... is useful but perhaps a little too granular for most people's needs." He reduces this granularity to the seven subregions that I graphically illustrated in my most recent post. In that post I promised to delve into Liem's subregions and begin here with a look at the Côte des Blancs.

The Unions des Maisons de Champagne (UMC) divides its Côte des Blancs subregion into a further five sub-subregions:
  • Côte des Blancs
  • Montgueux
  • Sézannais
  • Val du Petit Morin
  • Vitryat.
In his subregion classification, Liem retains Côte des Blancs as a subregion and combines the remaining UMC sub-subregions into a single subregion: The Coteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat, and Montgueux.

A top-level view of the Côte des Blancs and the associated villages (as identified by Liem) are presented below. The characteristics of the subregion are shown on the right side of the chart.

The villages are divided into northern and southern because, according to Peter, the
... wines from the northern part of the Côte des Blancs tend to be richer and marked by a certain girth, while farther south the wines become more piercingly saline and tense. Part of this relates to soil, since the northern areas tend to have a higher clay content and sometimes a deeper layer of topsoil. 
The characteristics of selected northern and southern villages are shown below.

A look at the UMC plantings data begins to give a sense as to why Peter limited his Côte des Blancs subregion to the escarpment south of Epernay, While, based on UMC data, Chardonnay plantings were 97.11% of the plantings in Liem's Côte des Blancs, only the Vitryat sub-subregion, with 97.49%, was in the same ballpark. Montgueux (90.25%), Sézannais (74.85%), and Val du Petit Morin (51.78%) all had more marked exposures to red grape varieties.

NOTE: In a subsequent post, I have called into question Peter Liem's removal of Val du Petit Morin, Côte de Sézannais, Vitryat, and Mongueux from the Côte des Blancs sub-region and made the case that these zones rightly belong here. In my future naakyses and writings I will treat these zones accordingly.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Peter Liem's unconventional Champagne sub-region schema

In the Preface of his best-selling book Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region, Peter Liem states that "The contemporary movement in Champagne ... is, rather simply, the acknowledgment of champagne as a wine like any other." According to Liem:
It is still not yet possible to write a comprehensive analysis of Champagne terroirs, given the lack of tools and information available compared with other historic regions. However, it is my hope that this book can in some small way help to push the dialogue further toward acknowledging champagne as a terroir-expressive wine, and to provide a foundation for envisioning that."
And push us forward is what he did with a new and unconventional schema that he has proposed for the Champagne sub-regions. In this post I examine the broad contours of this new schema and, in subsequent posts, will dig into the details of each sub-region.

The conventional approach shows Champagne's vineyards extending over 4 districts (shown in the map below) and 319 villages.  The districts are Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, and Côte des Bar.  Montagne de Reims is a forested plateau south of Reims that is known for rich, full-bodied Champagnes and the dominance of Pinot Noir with some Chardonnay plantings in Trepail and Villers-Marmery.  Vallée de la Marne has Epernay as its core as it hugs the banks of the River Marne. This area is best known for Pinot Meunier but Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow well here also. The soil here is comprised of a limestone topsoil overlaying layers of Belemnite and Micraster chalk.  Chardonnay is dominant in the Côte des Blancs and Pinot Noir in the Côte des Bar.  The soil in the Côte des Bar is Portlandian cap rock overlaying Kimmeridgian soil, a geologic profile that is much closer to Chablis than to the rest of Champagne.

Source: champagne.fr

The soil in Champagne is, for the most part, comprised 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.

Champagne soil (Source: Fatcork via drinks.seriouseats.com)

The slow sagging of the Paris Basin caused an upthrusting of ancient geologic formations at the outer perimeter with each formation exhibiting as a concentric, outward-facing escarpment. One such escarpment was the Kimmeridgian chain of Jurassic soils discussed previously. In the case of Champagne, the escarpment is comprised of sands, marls, and lignitic clays of the Tertiary period capping chalk from the upper Cretaceous and, below Chalons, clays and sands of the lower Cretaceous. It is the marriage of the Tertiary and upper Cretaceous strata that "is the parentage of the unique soils of Champagne."

The components of the Tertiary strata function as follows (Wilson):
  • Sands -- provide coarse ingredients which help in building good soil structure
  • Clays, marls, weathered chalk -- bond with particles to give good body to the soil
  • Lignite -- a soft, low-grade coal which "seasons" the soil. Rapid burial resulted in concentration with iron, sulfur, and zinc from plant material.
Chalk, according to Wilson, is composed of calcareous algae (a form of seaweed) and shells of tiny organisms that settled in a uniform manner at the bottom of the Cretaceous seas. 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). 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. Chalk weathers to a fine dust which is easily dispersed. In the case of Champagne, the Tertiary slope wash collects in the belly of the concave hills serving a binding function as well as providing mineral content. The chalk provides excellent drainage and water retention, which, when combined with the Tertiary soils, results in one of the best vine-growing soils in France.

The soils in the defined Champagne region is not monolithic, however. The Côte de Bars region of Champagne has Kimmeridgian soil of the same construct as the soils that underpin the vineyards of Chablis and Sancerre. In the Aisne region the upper Cretaceous has dipped into the Paris Basin  and the soil is comprised entirely of Tertiary clays and sands. In the area below Chalone -- referred to as wet Champagne -- the poor-permeability clays and sands of the lower Cretaceous period are dominant.

The Champagne soils distribution is illustrated graphically below.

The unconventional nature of Liem's schema is twofold: (i) He has expanded the number of subregions from four to seven. The new schema: divides the Vallée de la Marne into the Grand Vallée and the Vallée de la Marne; adds the Coteaux Sud d'Épernay; and combines the disparate zones between the heart of Champagne and Côte de Bar into a single sub-zone. The construct of this schema is illustrated in the map below.

(ii) The second area of unconventionality drives from the last point in that the soil combination of Cote de Sezanne differs markedly from the other zones with which it has been combined. In the Champagne region soils map above, the Cote de Sezanne is shown as comprised of tertiary and upper cretaceous deposits while the other partners are sited on lower cretaceous sands and clays.

In his study of these sub-zones, Liem delves into village-level characteristics. I will dig into his work in order to tease out the rationale for his proposed scheme.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme