Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy's Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.

Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
Naples book
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.

Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.

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Food World Can’t Ignore MAD Event’s Silence Image

“What is cooking?” This was the central question being asked — and answered — at the latest edition of one of the world’s most stimulating food events, the MAD Food Symposium. Now in its fourth edition, the two-day event is held in a circus tent pitched on the outer reaches of Copenhagen’s harbor and attracts the brightest stars of modern cuisine, young and old. MAD draws speakers in all aspects of food culture: chefs who have made lasting contributions to the art, scientists and historians with specialized knowledge, and activists trying to change the way food is produced, sold or eaten.

Organized by René Redzepi, the Danish chef at the helm of Noma – No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — MAD was this year co-curated by Alex Atala, the highest ranking chef in South America. The event aims to broaden the gastronomic horizons of young chefs from around the world. The 400-strong audience also included local farmers, scientists, thinkers and a smattering of journalists.

“Our business has changed in the last 30 years,” Atala said as he introduced the symposium. “Restaurants are no longer the model of excess they were back then. MAD4 examines different aspects of what’s happening, away from the glamour of the limelight. What’s working? Food is about expressing ourselves, about reflection, and above all, food is about getting together. Food is life.”

If last year’s theme, “Guts,” provoked strong, sometimes visceral reactions from its list of speakers, this year’s mood inspired reflection. It began in silence. The audience watched transfixed as Japanese udon master Tatsuru Rai set about creating his iconic noodles: mixing, kneading and rolling the dough before folding, slicing, cooking and serving a few symbolic portions of the dish. The seemingly simple act of combining flour and water, choreographed over time, took on ritual significance.

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

 

“We didn’t want to repeat the high drama of last year’s theme, but instead to shout silently about the importance of craft, gesture, economy and offering in cooking,” Redzepi said. “We also want to tackle problems that take away from the pleasures of the table.”

MAD about wasted food

One of the most inspiring of the activists was Isabel Soares, a 30-something environmental engineer from Portugal. Incensed that half of the food produced in the world is thrown away, Soares has found an innovative way to fight that waste. In 2013, she founded Fruta Feia, meaning “Ugly Fruit,” a nonprofit, farm-to-table cooperative. “Each year 1.3 billion tons of food are discarded, an ethical problem with a huge environmental impact on climate change,” she began. “In Europe, 30% of fresh produce is left to rot in the fields just because the fruit or vegetables’ size does not conform to the European Union’s ‘aesthetic’ regulations.” Thirty farmers sell produce that the supermarkets would reject because of size or blemishes to 420 consumers, at a fair price. The cooperative’s role is to collect the food from the farms, sort it into mixed boxes twice weekly and offer a collection point. In its first year, Fruta Feia reports it saved 41 tons of food in Portugal from being wasted. Soares says she plans to expand to other cities.

Urban guerrilla gardens

Ron Finley, a self-styled “eco-lutionary game changer provocateur” from Los Angeles, launched right into his presentation. “Gardening is the most defiant thing you can do in South Central — plus you get strawberries,” he proclaimed. “Change your food, change your life.” His reaction to living in a food desert was to plant his own garden, on the abandoned sidewalk strips around his home. Initially, the city of L.A. wagged a citation at him and demanded he remove the unpermitted plants, but since then Finley’s story has helped compel the city to change its parkway ordinance. After a TED talk that went viral, Finley is creating urban garden projects in L.A.

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Evolution as seen by Ron Finley. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Brazil’s jails turn to the kitchen

Atala introduced several healing food projects from Brazil. Working with Atala on one were Jayme Santos Junior, a criminal court judge in Sao Paulo, and chef David Hertz, who runs a cooking project in some of Brazil’s most notorious jails. “Cooking can be an effective tool to change the dynamics of the prison system and facilitate social reintegration,” the judge said. “By becoming members of a group in the kitchen, prisoners feel less isolated and learn life-affirming skills.” Hertz started the nonprofit Gastromotiva to help young people who are vulnerable or on the margins of society. Another of Atala’s projects through his foundation, Instituto ATÀ, involves distributing portable water filters for use in the Amazon and other rural areas where clean drinking water is not available.

LOCO’L takes on fast-food industry

Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi, and Los Angeles chef and activist Roy Choi used MAD4 to officially announce their ambitious new food venture, LOCO’L, which will start in 2015. “We’re going to go toe to toe with the fast food industry in the U.S., to challenge the status quo,” said Choi, who cooked an impressive “food truck” lunch at MAD for the audience. Patterson explained: “We have an eating problem in the States. It’s taken one generation to lose healthy eating habits, and it will take one generation to fix that.”

All 24 talks will be available to watch on MAD’s site in the coming months, including those by veteran master chefs Alain Senderens (on wine and food pairing); Olivier Roellinger (on biodiversity and giving back his 3 Michelin stars); Fulvio Pierangelini (on humble ingredients and the travails of being a chef); and Pierre Koffmann (on how to make an omelet). The conference closed with chef Albert Adrià — formerly of elBulli — who owns four restaurants in Barcelona. His disarming admission that it is fear, as much as talent, that drives his creativity was an inspiration to everyone present.

Main photo: Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO’L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Vermentino Is Mediterranean Summer In A Glass Image

“White Vermentino is the quintessential Mediterranean grape: It loves the sun, the sea and and the wind, and it marries perfectly with fish and seafood pastas,” says Giampaolo Gravina, one of Italy’s senior wine experts. If Vermentino is sometimes grown in coastal areas of Liguria (where it is known as Pigato) and Tuscany, it is most often linked with Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, situated south of Corsica and west of Naples.

“The region of Gallura, in Sardinia’s northeastern corner, is Vermentino’s natural home,” Gravina explains. Here, in the province of Olbia-Tempio, the best grapes are made into Vermentino di Gallura DOCG wines, one of Italy’s most prestigious wine appellations. (Any wine bearing the DOCG label must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict production regulations). As is so often the case with native varieties, Vermentino has found its ideal habitat over time: It is thought to have been cultivated in Gallura since the 14th century. The vines have adapted well to Gallura’s extreme growing conditions, he says: very poor, rocky soils of granite and sand, constant winds coming off the nearby sea, and forceful sun throughout the year.

Gallura’s stunning coastline, with its pristine fjord-like bays and sandy beaches, is never far from the vine-growing slopes. In 1961, Karim Aga Khan, one of the world’s richest men, decided to create a luxury tourist complex here in an area of coast about 20 kilometers (12 miles) long that would allow for some development while preserving the area’s natural beauty. He named it La Costa Smeralda (“the emerald coast”) and built a smattering of the world’s most exclusive hotels and villas along the shore around Porto Cervo. In midsummer, hotels such as the luxurious Cala di Volpe boast prices only moguls can afford, with multi-tiered yachts anchored at its secluded marina.

D.H. Lawrence wrote that Sardinia was “left outside time and history.” The island’s traditional gastronomic and cultural heritage is still very much alive, particularly in the areas inland from the sea. Sardinia’s interior is rough and mountainous, with much of the land suited only for grazing sheep, and is dotted with small stone villages in which time seems to have stood still. Meeting and visiting wine producers is a great way to access that culture. The annual Porto Cervo Wine Festival, held in May, is open to the public and offers a perfect introduction to Sardinia’s exciting wine world. Wine tourism is on the increase on the island and well-appointed cellars make perfect destinations for day trips from the coast.

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Capichera vineyards. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Gallura’s wineries are situated inland on higher ground, some 20 minutes’ drive from the glamorous hotels of the Costa Smeralda. Many vineyards have been reclaimed from the ever-encroaching macchia mediterranea, the mix of indigenous plants — including broom, euphorbia, holm-oak, buckthorn and myrtle — that results in impenetrable, evergreen scrub. These are plants that can survive the parched Sardinian summer.

“Gallura is not an easy place to grow vines or other crops,” says Emanuele Ragnedda, who runs Capichera winery near Arzachena with his father, Mario, and uncle, Fabrizio. “The terrain is uneven and rocky, with hillsides covered thickly by the macchia.” Vermentino vines can do without much water, too, but growers are permitted to irrigate occasionally in the hottest months to prevent the vines suffering from too much stress.

“Despite this climate, Vermentino is capable of maintaining considerable freshness and acidity,” Ragnedda says. “It is often marked, too, with an attractive saline quality that comes from the Mediterranean‘s salty terrain and sea breezes.”

Capichera’s top wine, Santigaini, is named for a single vineyard planted with six traditional clones of Vermentino whose diversity add complexity to the finished wine. It is partly cellared in French oak barrels and its older vintages are proof that Vermentino can age well into wines whose body and character are reminiscent of red wines.

“My family has been in Sardinia for 300 years, and was the first to make single-varietal whites of Vermentino in 1980 on farmland my mother inherited,” says Ragnedda as we walk through the leafy rows, surrounded by magnificent granite mountains. “We believe Vermentino is unusually flexible for a white grape, and can be adapted to different vinification methods.”

Vermentino is usually vinified in stainless steel vats without the use of barrels, and drunk within the first year or two: a perfect summer wine. Its attractive citrus and floral notes – often with hints of ginestra, the local yellow broom flowers – and lively minerality keep it refreshing and dry.

Vigne Surrau, a few miles north of Arzachena, is one of the most impressive wineries to visit, with well-designed modern buildings, a varied program of events, and artisanal cheese and salumi to enjoy along with the wine.

A cultural blend for Vermentino

“We wanted to create a place in which the culture of wine can meet the cultures of art, cinema and food,” says the estate’s owner, Tino Demuro. Here, too, Vermentino is at the forefront of the company’s wine production, with five versions that include a sparkling Metodo Classico Brut, three fine dry wines and a sweet passito, for which the ripe grapes are picked and dried for a month on racks to concentrate their sugars before pressing.

For those who enjoy seeing spectacularly situated vineyards, another recent wine estate, Siddùra, is a short drive west under the mountains towards Luogosanto. Here a new project has seen 19 hectares (46 acres) of macchia transformed into thriving young vineyards, most of which are planted to Vermentino. This ambitious enterprise is the result of a collaboration between German fashion businessman Nathan Gottesdiener and local Sardinian building engineer Massimo Ruggero. They’ve created a state-of-the-art cellar surrounded by vineyards that are now coming into full production, and that bode well for the island’s enological future.

 Main photo: Mario, left, and Emanuele Ragnedda run Capichera winery. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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A Light On The New Peruvian Cuisine Of Chef Emilio Macias Image

Chef’s Table: As the Latin-American food movement continues to gather pace, and cities such as Lima, Peru, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, are joining the world’s hottest foodie destinations, it’s time to ask what contributions Latin America is making to modern cuisine.

“I would say unique ingredients and flavors,” says Emilio Macías, one of Peru’s rising stars. “Many young chefs from South America have traveled and worked in kitchens the world over learning about techniques and modern trends, and now they’re back cooking in their native countries. We’re cooking to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers.”

Chef's Table

The first in an occasional series about the food and ideas of today's most influential chefs.


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Macías was born in Mexico but trained in Japan and Europe (including at Mugaritz and Santi Santamaria in Spain). He was drawn back to Latin America by the successes of the Peruvian leaders of the movement, Gastòn Acurio and Virgilio Martínez Véliz — both ranked in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Macías opened his own restaurant before taking a leading position in 2012 at Acurio’s award-winning Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastòn, in the gastronomic and development kitchens. He recently flew to Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to cook two meals at Postrivoro.

“Postrivoro is not a pop-up restaurant but a nonprofit association that creates occasional ‘itineraries for gastro-pilgrims’ by inviting talented young international chefs to cook for just 20 paying guests seated at a communal table,” says Enrico Vignoli, its co-founder, who works in Modena with 3-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura. “The chefs are usually employed in the kitchens of trend-setting restaurants or are in the process of starting their own. We want to tell stories through food and share gastronomic experiences.” For each of Postrivoro’s six events per year, the chef is paired with a sommelier or drinks specialist and an artist to decorate the space.

Macías’ dinner and lunch were held in the crumbling medieval cloister of Faenza’s Chiesa della Commenda. Each course was matched with a drink created by bartender Oscar Quagliarini, who is famous for his imaginative cocktails. The Goth-styled “mixologist” seems more like an alchemist than a barman. He spices his drinks with exotic but home-made ingredients such as yellow sandalwood syrup, or seaweed, eucalyptus and ylang ylang tinctures. The décor was by Fototeca Manfrediana, a cooperative of young photographers shooting on film.

 

The crispbreads with purslane (green), cuy (orange) and mole (beige). Credit: Carla Capalbo

The crispbreads with purslane (green), cuy (orange) and mole (beige). Credit: Carla Capalbo

An inspiring lunch with Emilio Macías begins

Macías brought many of his principal ingredients and seasonings from Peru in his luggage. He complemented them with seasonal foods from Emilia-Romagna. Sunday’s inspiring lunch began with three irregular crispbreads arranged like natural elements on a plate of branches and leaves. Each was topped with the chef’s interpretation of a Latin American speciality, from a fiery mole con pollo (Mexican chicken with a sauce of 100 ingredients, including chocolate), to verdolagas y tuetano (purslane and bone marrow with Mexican salsa verde), to shredded cuy pibil (slow-roasted Peruvian guinea pig) accented with pink pickled onions. Cuy is popular in Peru for its tender, nutritious meat. “I wanted to bring one very special ingredient from Peru, as well as a little transgression,” says Macías.

Macías’ elegant Peruvian ceviche of tiny raw oysters, Adriatic scallops and cactus followed, in a refreshingly sour leche de tigre: a cool fish broth lifted by lime, ginger and chilies, topped with fresh acacia blossoms and cinquefoil (or potentilla) leaves. In esparrago y hoyas de mais, crisp local asparagus, grilled on one side only, gave focus to herbaceous poblano pepper couscous sprinkled with dark Peruvian Sacha Inchi nuts and spooned into a charred corn husk, its smokiness reminiscent of fire-roasted corn.

Memory featured in the dish called Papa Genovese too. This came from Astrid & Gaston’s recent tasting menu, “The voyage from Liguria to El Callao, 100 years of flavor,” which focused on the gastronomic influences brought by the thousands of Italian immigrants to Peru in the early 20th century. The dish was a visual and cultural play on pasta al pesto. In the original Ligurian version, diced potato often accompanies the pasta in the green basil sauce. Here, spaghetti-like strands of potato starred with toasted pine nuts in a pure-flavored extract of basil and spinach chlorophyll. They produced a new, but equally soulful, version of the classic dish.

“We tried to imagine how Italian immigrants felt about Peruvian food before they made their long journeys in the 1900s,” Macìas says. “Were they afraid of what they might have to eat there? Our dishes stir emotions as well as appetites.”

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Asparagus with couscous and corn husk. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Other courses featured langoustine smoked a la Veracruzana and slow-roasted Mexican pork neck in salsa roja. The meal ended with a delicate, chilled peach stew strewn with elderflowers, raw bitter almonds and rose petals, and a crisp chocolate ball stuffed with the makings of a tiramisù scented with charred guajillo chilies, mescal and sal de gusano de maguey: ground agave worms spiced with salt and chilies.

“Gastòn Acurio has been inspirational in the Latin American movement, moving private and government people to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers,” says Macìas.

Macías' oyster and scallop ceviche. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Macías’ oyster and scallop ceviche. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Concentrating on local products

“The result is that we now can go straight to the fishermen, requesting, for example, only large-size fish. They release anything smaller back into the ocean. They’re paid well for the adult fish and simultaneously safeguard fish stocks.”

How does this apply to farmers? “Potatoes are a big staple in Peru: There are 3,000 known species with more being found all the time. Some only grow above 3,000 meters of altitude, far from the cities, with short seasons and limited yields. Demand from restaurants and enthusiasts can create fair distribution and markets while teaching people in the cities about the value of these ingredients.” Other foods being developed this way are quinoa, amaranth and some corn varieties.

“Peruvian food events such as Mistura, now in its seventh year, where farmers and chefs meet and exchange ingredients and information are helping spread the word about our continent’s gastronomic riches.”

So are memorable meals such as this.

Main photo: Chef Emilio Macías in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo 

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What’s Behind Noma’s Return To No. 1 Among Restaurants Image

The result took everyone by surprise. When the countdown of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards reached the top two names, the audience of 650 chefs, journalists and food professionals assembled in London’s Guildhall held their breaths. Would Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca hold onto the first-place position it had snatched from Copenhagen’s Noma last year, or could the unthinkable happen? Could René Redzepi’s revolutionary Nordic restaurant reconquer top place? Not even Ferran Adrià — whose iconic El Bulli had been No. 1 for five years before Noma beat it in 2010 — had been able to achieve that.

“In second place, it’s the Roca brothers …” The event’s presenter, Mark Durden Smith, could barely finish his announcement before the audience went crazy. Noma had done it. The 40-seater located in a quayside warehouse in Copenhagen that has championed local, foraged and imaginative natural cuisine had recaptured the crown it had previously held for three years.

A standing ovation greeted the startled and elated team of young chefs from the Copenhagen restaurant as they crowded onto the stage to receive their trophy from San Pellegrino, the awards’ main sponsor. The event is organized by Restaurant magazine, and other sponsors include Lavazza coffee, Gaggenau kitchens and Les Concierges.

An emotional Redzepi paused and smiled before reading excerpts from the acceptance speech he had prepared in 2010 — but had been too overwhelmed to use — when his restaurant first won the prize. He thanked the audience for their continuing support. “You can’t imagine how much you’ve done for our little restaurant and for our region. We did it with the combined efforts of our whole team. We were the geeks in a class of fine linens and expensive wines, and look where we are now, several years later: celebrated for all the experiments. Wood sorrel conquered caviar!”

Noma’s exploration of Scandinavia’s natural biodiversity and its shunning of non-native ingredients (the restaurant doesn’t cook with lemons or cocoa) have become templates for chefs in regions as diverse as the Amazon jungle and the Australian outback. “There are still so many discoveries out there, knowledge to be found and recipes to be written,” Redzepi continued. “The road is not paved in front of us: we want to be the ones laying the bricks.”

The classification is created by combining the votes of a jury of 900 food professionals in the Diners Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy. For its purpose, the world is divided into 26 regions, each with 36 members; each juror proposes seven restaurants in which they have recently eaten that represent their best dining experiences. At least 10 panelists from each region are changed annually.

At the lively post-event party held at the Clove Club, a hip restaurant in East London, Redzepi still seemed dazed. “How did this happen?” he asked. “We had absolutely no idea it was coming.”

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Chefs Margot and Fergus Henderson before the event. Credit: Carla Capalbo

One answer might be that the MAD Food Symposium, the annual event Redzepi created three years ago to inspire young chefs about current food issues, may have played a significant role in raising Noma’s profile even higher. The two-day conference encourages aspiring chefs to look beyond their kitchens to today’s most urgent food issues, including sustainability, school food, land grabbing, genetic modification and obesity. Speakers at the symposium have included activists Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan, chefs Barbara Lynch and Alex Atala, and glaciologist Jason Box.

“MAD’s message has also raised awareness about the exciting food work being done in Copenhagen, not least at Noma,” said one journalist at the party. “That may have encouraged more jurors to vote for it.”

Redzepi knows what winning entails. At a pre-award breakfast hosted by last year’s winners at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the Roca brothers described the avalanche of interest from public and press their win had triggered. “When the news broke, we received 2.5 million visits to our website in 24 hours, 63,000 emails, and 58,000 calls for reservations,” Joan Roca explained, shaking his head in disbelief. “There were also 1,230 press visits to Girona in this year.”

The 50 Best list includes many newsworthy results. London’s Fergus Henderson won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his nose-to-tail approach at St.  John Restaurant. Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana held onto its third-place position for the second year. “Italy needs all the positive help it can get at the moment,” Bottura said. With a cuisine that is popular worldwide, some question why only three Italian restaurants made it into the 50 Best list this year. Is it because many foreigners prefer Italy’s rustic home cooking to its fine-dining restaurants?

The profile of female chefs was raised thanks to the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef Award. This year it went to Helena Rizzo from Manì in São Paulo, Brazil. At a tea party at Ametsa restaurant hosted by the French champagne house and overseen by former winner Elena Arzak, of Arzak, San Sebastian, Veuve Clicquot‘s Aymeric Sancerre explained how the award is inspired by the formidable Widow Clicquot. “In 1805, when Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin took over from her late husband, a woman could only run a business if she was a widow. Mme. Clicquot built the company into an empire and remains a role model for women in business.”

“I don’t come from a family of restaurateurs, but both female and male cooks influence me as a chef,” said Rizzo, who apprenticed briefly with the Roca brothers. “My grandparents were not rich, but loved food and were attentive to the specific temperatures needed to cook vegetables. I inherited their attention to detail at a young age. Great food creates bonds between people and fosters happy memories. I love helping to make these memories every day.”

Also present was Lanshu Chen, winner of the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in Asia Award earlier this year. “My restaurant in Taiwan, Le Moût, features French cuisine created in our Taiwanese terroir,” she explained. “The spirit of this list should highlight a memorable dining experience that is both unusual and unique.”

Main photo: René Redzepi giving his winner’s speech at London’s Guildhall. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Where To Find Surprises Amid Bordeaux’s Troubled 2013 Image

This spring, as they do every year, the most prestigious Bordeaux Grand Cru châteaux gave wine buyers and critics the chance to sample the new season’s wines en primeur, ahead of being finished. The wines — from famous areas such as Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Graves and Sauternes — are not yet bottled; many require at least one year of aging before they’ll be released. But in Bordeaux, top wines — from legendary châteaux like Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux and Cheval Blanc — are in a special category. They’re traded like futures, for their aging and investment potential.

The primeurs give experts a way to taste and pre-order the wines while still in the barrel, and to assess the vintage. All they have to do is turn up. But this spring many stayed away. The 2013 vintage was notoriously troublesome: heavy rainfall in spring and autumn, and an erratic summer caused the red grapes to ripen slowly and, in many areas, suffer from rot. Some of the most influential critics, whose scores are important for selling and pricing the wines, didn’t bother to make the trip to Bordeaux to sample the wines. They gave up on it without even a taste. (Dry white wines from Graves and Pessac-Léognan fared better than the region’s reds, while sweet Sauternes had a very good year.)

For those who did travel to southwest France for the week, there was a surprisingly upbeat atmosphere.

“If you’re not expecting much, you can be pleasantly surprised,” said Fabian Cobb, editor of Fine Wine Magazine, an online publication focusing on wine investment. “The châteaux who had the means and the best terroirs, who were not hit by hail or too many downpours have produced some terrific wines. They may not be wines to keep for decades, but they’ll make for wonderful drinking in the next five  to 10 years.”

Generally, the Left Bank of the Gironde Estuary (Médoc, Graves and Sauternes) fared better than the Right (Pomerol and Saint-Émilion), where the Merlot was hard hit and harder still to harvest in perfect condition. Botrytis (the “noble” rot that is generally undesirable in red grapes) struck many vineyards, and it was difficult to separate the good berries from the bad after the bunches had been picked.

The price of adapting in Bordeaux

Bordeaux châteaux have so much at stake, they spend fortunes each year selecting the best berries. In good vintages, discolored or unripe berries are manually eliminated on sorting tables. This year, even optical sorting machines developed for separating recycled waste and successfully adapted to berry selection were unable to spot the difference between heavy, ripe berries and light, under-mature or rotten berries. Those who could afford it used the Tribaie, a density-measuring machine that submerges the berries for a few seconds in a mixture of water and sugar, discarding any that float.

“The good berries are then quickly shaken dry before being turned into the vinification tanks,” explained Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone. “That’s what helped us make a decent wine this year.”

Pomerol

In 2013, vineyard location also made a crucial difference. Pomerol, the exclusive appellation next to Saint-Émilion, produced some outstanding wines from small but prestigious properties like Vieux Château Certan and Château Lafleur. At Lafleur, winemaker and owner Julie Grésiak talked of her confidence in the 70-year-old Cabernet Franc vines that make up part of her family’s 4.5-hectare (11-acre) estate.

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Julie Grésiak of Château Lafleur, in Pomerol. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“These individuals have found their balance in this terrain; we were confident they would ripen well, so we waited patiently for them,” she says. The wine, of 55% Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot, is aged in second-year barriques (unlike almost every other top estate, Lafleur uses no new barrels for its premium wine). Lafleur 2013 was my favorite wine of the vintage: it has elegance, verve and emotion.

Saint-Émilion

By comparison, many Saint-Émilion wines seemed unbalanced: New barrels couldn’t mask the lack of healthy, well-structured Merlot. Château Tertre Roteboeuf was an exception. Indeed, this year a number of small, organic estates that have long focused on helping their old vines maintain an equilibrium with the soil showed that even in difficult years these vines can produce fine fruit.

“We practice an ancient method of pruning that enables our vines to produce well-spaced, aerated bunches, and that helped defend them against the vagaries of this year’s weather,” says François Mitjavile, the estates’ owner. His 2013 was pure, long and elegant, with the characteristic “fraicheur” — or freshness — that makes Merlot in Bordeaux so attractive.

Médoc

In the Médoc, the flat ear of land north of Bordeaux city, terroir also made a difference. Château Palmer is next door to Château Margaux, but whereas Margaux’s Merlots — grown on clay — were devastated by the wet weather, Palmer’s — planted on deep gravel — fared better.

“We run 60% of Palmer’s 55 hectares [135 acres] of vineyards biodynamically,” says Thomas Duroux, the estates’ winemaker. “This most challenging vintage has made us determined to convert the rest to biodynamic methods too. It has shown us how, when the soils are alive and the vines well-adapted, they can produce characterful fruit in all seasons.”

Further north, another of the vintage’s best wines was made at Château Montrose, in Saint-Estèphe. Like the other top Médoc wines this year — including Cos d’Estournel, Mouton-Rothschild, and Pontet-Canet — Château Montrose has not pushed for too much tannic extraction or depth of colour.

“What counts is finesse, with the purity of aromas and flavour that will guarantee the pleasure of those who will drink them,” says Hervé Berland, who recently joined Montrose as CEO after 35 years running Château Mouton-Rothschild. “We were spared the devastating downpour of Oct. 4 that hit so many châteaux during the harvest,” Berland says. “Vintages such as 2013 are always very interesting. Nature has thrown everything at us, but I’m convinced that with experience — but without panic — we can always make fine wines from these great terroirs.”

Main photo: Horses plough the vineyards at Château Lafleur in Pomerol. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Upheaval In The Categories Of Chianti Classico Wines Image

Chianti Classico DOCG is one of Tuscany’s most prestigious wine appellations: Any wine bearing that name must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict regulations about its making. So when the Consortium of Chianti Classico producers announced a change to its categories, wine critics and appassionati took notice.

Chianti Classico’s consortium recently launched a “Gran Selezione” category: a group of wines touted as the pinnacle of the area’s wine pyramid. The Gran Selezione will account for about 10% of Chianti Classico’s annual production of 35 million bottles, for a value of 70 to 100 million euros.

The launch may have taken place, with much ado, in the spectacular frescoed Renaissance hall of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but the reaction — in Tuscany and beyond — has been mixed. Although 35 of the area’s top wineries have so far bottled a wine in the new category, many others are giving the “Selezione” a wide berth — for now, at least. To understand the reasons for this, it’s worth taking an overview of Chianti Classico.

The delineated area known as Chianti Classico is located in the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena, and has long been recognized as one of the region’s best for wine production: It was first shaped in 1716 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Modern Chianti Classico gained elevated DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) in 1984 with the “Black Rooster” wines; its consortium now represents more than 600 members.

The overall area for Chianti production is much larger, however. It stretches farther into the provinces of Siena and Firenze, and into those of Pisa, Arezzo and Pistoia. This is confusing for consumers: Although Chianti Classico and appellations such as Chianti Rufina DOCG are recognized for their premium wines, simple, inexpensive — and often not great — “Chianti” wines abound from these other parts of the region.

In Chianti Classico DOCG wines, the primary grape is red Sangiovese. Each wine must contain 80% to 100% Sangiovese, with the remaining percentage made up from other specified red grapes, including “international” varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Until recently, these wines fell into just two groups: Chianti Classico Annata (the “normal” vintage) and Chianti Classico Riserva (aged for at least 24 months), which were considered the appellation’s best wines. (Some producers, however, choose to make their top wines outside of the DOCG rules. These wines are bottled under the IGT appellation, and are the so-called Super Tuscans). Now a third group has been added.

To be admitted into this Gran Selezione, a wine must pass an additional taste test and be aged for a minimum of 30 months, of which three are in the bottle. (Note that “gran” is a shortened version of “grande,” and here means top, not grandmother.) It must also be made from the grapes of a single vineyard or from a selection of an estate’s best grapes. “The idea of this top tier is to help consumers identify an estate’s best wine,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the Chianti Classico Consortium’s president.

There’s the rub. Objectors note that the Riserva system was already in place to do that, and that the new Selezione may increase confusion in the cluttered Tuscan wine map. The Gran Selezione has stimulated a lively debate among the Italian wine world — in Tuscany and beyond — about the pros and cons of the new classification, and about alternative ideas for a change in the appellation’s structure. (Changes must be ratified by law, as the Gran Selezione’s have).

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, left, and Filippo Mazzei of Fonterutoli, Chianti producers and joint vice presidents of the Consortium, at the Gran Selezione news conference. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, left, and Filippo Mazzei of Fonterutoli, Chianti producers and joint vice presidents of the Consortium, at the Gran Selezione news conference. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“During the recent economic crisis, the production of Chianti Riserva wines has increased, and they’re competing with Chianti Classico’s higher-level Riservas,” says Leonardo Bellaccini, the winemaker at San Felice, a leading Chianti Classico estate. Its well-known Riserva, Il Grigio, recently passed the tests to become a Gran Selezione. “We hope that once the Gran Selezione branding is recognized, it will stop the confusion between these two types of Riservas.”

Many cutting-edge wines here come from small estates with forward-thinking winemakers at their helm. Paolo De Marchi, of Isole e Olena, is one. His award-winning, pure Sangiovese Super Tuscan, Cepparello, would qualify for the Gran Selezione, but he’s reluctant to change its status.

“I don’t agree with the Consortium’s vision on this,” he says. “For me, great wines are made by their location and vineyards, not by the hands of men. I’d much rather see us differentiate between the sub-zones within Chianti Classico as a way of emphasizing the diversity of our terroirs.”

The concept of “villages” as used in Burgundy — which would allow the wines’ labels to cite the township within which they are made, such as Gaiole, Castellina or Greve in Chianti — is a hot issue among premium estates wanting to differentiate growing areas within Chianti Classico’s 7,000 hectares (about 17,300 acres) of vineyards.

“The Consortium is beginning to take steps in that direction, but it may be several years in the coming,” says Robert Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono. “The diversity of Chianti Classico’s terroirs is one of its strengths.”

Some producers and wine experts believe the Consortium has missed a precious opportunity to requalify Chianti Classico by limiting its grape varieties to Sangiovese and other native Tuscan grapes such as Colorino and Canaiolo.

“A Gran Selezione of just Tuscan grapes would have made sense by emphasizing the link between these varieties and this specific area,” says Bellaccini. That “first tier” would have been clearly understood by everyone.

Will Gran Selezione wines cost more? “That will be up to the individual estates,” says Consortium Vice President Filippo Mazzei. “We have not imposed price hikes for these wines, though they are of course the estates’ top bracket wines.” The Consortium hopes producers of other high-flying Super Tuscans will be encouraged to reclassify them as Gran Selezione wines, and that the word will spread positively about its latest category.

Top photo: Gran Selezione wines sit on a higher podium than the rest of the Chianti Classico wines at the media tasting in Florence. Credit: Carla Capalbo 

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