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Soave is a victim of its own success. It’s one of the best known Italian white wines, a familiar name that features on every wine list and consequently is often taken for granted, without any real appreciation of its true quality. However, the best Soave is a wine of great character and individuality, whose quality has improved enormously over the past decade or so.
The village of Soave is a delight to visit. You fly into Verona, the magical city of Romeo and Juliet, and Soave is a short drive away. It is dominated by the ruins of a medieval castle and its old walls remain intact, with a gate on each side. There are cheerful cafes and restaurants and an enoteca with an extensive selection of bottles from the best wine growers. The vineyards, which lie to the north of the village, come almost up to its walls. They rise dramatically to some 400 meters (1,312 feet) on hillsides of limestone or basalt, on a row of extinct volcanoes.
The best vineyards are recognized as Soave Classico, and form the heart of the DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata, or controlled designation of origin), which was created in 1968. However, about 10 years ago, local bureaucracy decided that Soave would benefit from lower yields and higher alcohol levels, and the DOCG (which is “guaranteed” as well as controlled) of Soave Superiore was created, but it did not necessarily come from the Classico vineyards. This move caused friction among the wine growers, and confusion amongst wine drinkers, and these days Soave Superiore as a category is very much less significant than Soave Classico, despite being a DOCG.
The principal, and in most cases, only grape variety is Garganega, an intriguing variety that is related to Cataratto and Albana. It is not especially aromatic; it ripens late and can be quite temperamental in the vineyard, but it likes the cooler nights of higher altitude vineyards, which help retain the freshness in the grapes. And in the cellar, it responds well to variations in vinification techniques. Simple Soave enjoys a straightforward cool fermentation, but in the search for more depth of flavor for Soave Classico and the growing number of crus, or recognized single vineyards within Soave, the wine growers have experimented. The wines benefit from some skin contact, and some aging on the lees, with bâtonnage, the process of stirring up the lees. Further options include fermentation in wood and aging in oak, in small barrels or larger botti. The use of oak needs great care; Soave does not have the weight and body for the use of new oak in any quantity, but the subtle use of old oak certainly adds an extra dimension to the wine.
Garganega may be blended with up to 20% of other grape varieties, most commonly Trebbiano di Soave. This grape variety has nothing at all to do with the generally uninspiring Trebbiano di Toscana, but is akin to Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Lugana, with some attractive floral flavours.
Proliferation of crus
The other qualitative move has been the recognition of numerous crus or individual vineyards, which can feature on a label. Inspired by the use of crus in Burgundy, the very first appeared in the 1980s and these days there are well over 50 crus, which demonstrate the very best of Soave. Look for wines like Cà Visco from Coffele, Le Rive and Monte Carbonare from Suavia, Runcata from Dal Cero, Motto Piane from Fattori, and Il Casale from Vicentini, to name but a handful.
The versatility of Garganega also extends to its ability to create delicious sweet wines, in the form of Recioto di Soave. Italians are masters supreme of the art of appassimento, whereby ripe, healthy grapes are dried for several weeks, if not months, in a barn or warehouse where air flow and humidity are carefully controlled. The grapes are picked at the beginning of the harvest while they still retain a good level of acidity and are pressed in January or February, by which time they have lost 40% of their original weight. A slow fermentation, usually in an oak barrel, follows, and the result is a deliciously ripe and unctuous wine — but always with a refreshing streak of acidity, to avoid a cloying finish.
One of the problems of Soave for the consumer is the considerable range of price and quality. You can find Soave in an Italian supermarket for 2 euros ($2.60), while some of the finest Soave will reach 25 euros ($32) or more. And there is a world of difference between the two. The best Soave comes from the Classico heart of the region, from one of the crus, and from a reputable wine grower. The name on the label is the key to quality. And drinkability is a key characteristic. Often the best wines are refreshingly light in alcohol, rarely passing 13%. They have a firm acidity, with a striking volcanic minerality, fully justifying their reputation as among Italy’s best known and most enjoyable wines.
Top photo: Vineyards in Soave, Italy. Credit: jkk at nl.wikipedia
An invitation to taste Jacquart Champagne over lunch at Chrysan, which opened last summer and is rapidly establishing itself as one of London’s leading Japanese restaurants, was pretty irresistible. But we did have to work for our lunch, which was preceded by a very comprehensive tasting, illustrating above all that the quality and style of a Champagne depends upon the talent of the winemaker for blending.
The winemaker at Jacquart is Floriane Eznack, who first took us through five vins clairs. These are the still wines that form the Champagne’s blend before the production of bubbles. Tasting vins clairs is an intriguing and demanding exercise, and it certainly makes you realize just how bubbles can soften what would otherwise be rather severe flavors.
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We had five examples, all from the 2012 vintage. It was not an easy year: There were numerous climatic problems, including severe temperatures in February and prolonged flowering that dragged on for three weeks rather than the usual one, which in turn affected the length of the harvest. Until the end of July, things were not looking good, with mildew and rot, but then hot weather arrived in August and everything came right in September. As we were able to taste, the results in the glass are very satisfactory.
The nuances were intriguing and subtle. There was a Pinot Meunier from the village of Villedommange, a premier cru village on the Montagne de Reims, with a ripe nose and a fruity and rounded palate.
A Pinot Noir from Ville-sur-Arce in the southern Côte des Bar was more structured on the palate. Next came a Pinot Noir from Mailly, on the Montagne de Reims. Eznack talked about the austerity of Mailly as it is a north-facing village, with vineyards protected by the woods on the summit of the hill. There was a touch of pink in the color, with some rounded fruit and quite a full long finish. I did not actually find it that austere.
We finished with a pair of contrasting Chardonnay wines, one from Villers-Marmery, one of the two Chardonnay villages on the Montagne de Reims, with some stony lemony fruit on the palate. Chardonnay from Chouilly on the Côtes des Blancs, was fuller, and more floral.
And then we moved onto Champagne itself, with a vertical tasting of the Blanc de Blancs. Wine from the villages of Villers-Marmery and Chouilly forms the backbone of this wine, as well as Avize and Vertus. Jacquart uses no oak for any of their wines, and so it was fascinating to see how the flavors had developed, with what could almost be described as hint of oaky richness in the more mature wines. I sometimes find the same effect in Chablis as well.
Jacquart Champagne tasting notes
2005: Light golden color. It had quite a rounded nose, quite broad and rich, and on the palate quite ripe and honeyed. The vintage was influenced by some rain in August and September.
2004: I initially liked this a lot, as it was tighter and more structured, with some elegant yeast autolysis. However, Eznack observed a note of reductiveness, and indeed the wine failed to evolve in the glass as the other wines did. Nonetheless it had a dry, nutty palate, but with a tighter structure.
2002: This came from Chouilly and Vertus, as well as Sézanne, a village south of the Côte des Blancs. Light golden. It had a broader richer nose, with ripe brioche on the palate. It also possessed a fuller bodied with a long note of maturity. This was a nicely rounded palate, but with elegance and length.
1999: This was my favorite as it was light golden and had quite a broad, mature nutty nose. There was a beautifully mature palate. It was rounded and nutty, with a concentrated finish, with understated richness. 1999 was the warmest vintage of the four.
Lunch was accompanied by a flight of Jacquart Vintage Brut, a blend of 45% Chardonnay with 55% Pinot Noir. It can be quite challenging tasting wines with a meal. I find myself getting distracted by other flavors, and that was certainly true of the delicious sashimi selection that was our first course.
Our meal included salmon with wasabi tosajyoyo jelly, yellowtail with mooli and horseradish, tuna with egg yolk soy and ginger, Mediterranean shrimp with ponzu jelly, sea bream marinated with sun-dried tomato, and Parmesan and scallop with shaved black truffle. Some of the subtle Japanese flavors were quite new to me, and the Champagnes set them off to perfection.
We enjoyed a 2005 vintage that was quite golden in color, quite rich and honey on the nose, with texture and depth on the palate, and a honeyed finish. You certainly could see the vintage similarity between the 2005s, although the Pinot Noir added structure to the wine.
And with the 2004 we were treated to quite the best sushi that I have ever eaten, namely tuna with saffron and wakame sushi rice, kinoko rolls with mushroom, chestnuts, edamame, inari rice, with beetroot paper, a salmon cake on saffron and beetroot rice, and an Ebi 10 roll, prawn tempura and wakame rice wrapped in carrot paper. The flavors were fabulously subtle and tasty, and suited the 2204 Vintage Jacquart.
The 2004 vintage was similar to the Blanc de Blancs, for this was quite closed with a firm nose and quite a tight structured palate, and still very youthful,
The 2002 was quite rich and nutty and on the palate with some delicious yeast autolysis and brioche notes. This was my favorite of the three.
And then came the 1999 Vintage Rosé. By this time I was running late for my next appointment, so I tasted it without the dessert it was intended to accompany. I think it would have gone well with something sweet, as it was quite a deep pink, with rather a heavy nose, and on the palate, quite rich and sweet, with ripe raspberry fruit.
Top photo: Jacquart Champagne. Credit: Alex Layton
Turkey is a sleeping giant of untapped potential. It is one of the world’s largest growers of grapes, but only about 2% of the total grape production is actually used for wine and 96% of that production is drunk in Turkey. Although the history of winemaking in Turkey dates several millennia (archaeological remains prove that Turkey was one of the places where wine was first produced), production came to a halt during the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Things eased up once Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established a secular state in the 1920s, but you sense that it is only in the last 10 years or so that the industry has begun to blossom once more, with an influx of winemakers from very different backgrounds.
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And this injection of new life into the wine industry has given the older established wineries such as Doluca, Kavaklidere and Pamukkale the impetus to improve and renovate. The young winemaker, Semril Zorlu, at Kavaklidere’s Pendore vineyards has trained in Montpellier and Bordeaux, including a stage at Château Margaux, working on experiments with organic and biodynamic viticulture. And she is not alone; several of the winemakers have studied abroad, and the newer wineries are employing foreign consultants.
Taste of ‘throat gripper’ in Turkish wine
Turkey has many wonderfully distinctive indigenous grape varieties. We had the opportunity to taste white Emir and Narince, as well as Sultaniye, which is more commonly known as Thompson Seedless, and also grown for table grapes and dried sultanas (a.k.a. raisins), not to mention the popular alcoholic drink raki. The red varieties have exotic names, such as Kalecik Karasi, Őkűzgözű and Boğazkere. Őkűzgözű translates literally as “bull’s eye,” and the grapes are fat and juicy. Boğazkere means “throat gripper,” for its firm tannic streak, while Kalecik Karasi is more elegant and sometimes compared with Nerello Mascalese or Nebbiolo. The flavors are fresh and exciting, and these undoubtedly represented the discovery of the visit.
But the Turks themselves much prefer to drink international grape varieties, so you will also find some very convincing examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, pure or blended with the indigenous varieties. My problem is that I am always much more interested by the unusual, but the international varieties were good.
There is interest, too, in Italian varieties. Federico Curtaz who has a vineyard on Etna and consults for Villa Estet, where the soil is volcanic, is planting Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. I also encountered Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola. And for southern French grape varieties, there was a Roussanne-Marsanne blend from Suvla winery, as well as Grenache and Carignan, in addition to Shiraz or Syrah.
I returned to London bubbling with enthusiasm after a wonderful journey of discovery. You could not help but be carried away with the passion and dedication of the Turkish winemakers. There is a sense of adventure, and the feeling that the Turkish wine industry has a serious future, with both indigenous and international flavours, and that Turkey is full of untapped potential. So if you come across a bottle, do give it a try. You may well be very pleasantly surprised.
Photo: A Turkish vineyard. Credit: Rosemary George
Chablis is unique. Or as one winegrower, Julien Brocard, put it: It is the only Chardonnay à l’état pure, that does not require the help of an oak barrel to express its true personality.
Chardonnay wine from just about anywhere else in the world with serious quality pretensions is fermented and aged in an oak barrel, but not Chablis, which is made only with Chardonnay grapes in the Chablis region of Burgundy, France. And furthermore, with bottle age, Chablis has the intriguing ability to make you think that it has been aged in oak, when in fact it has not been near a stave of wood.
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But what makes it so individual? Chablis’ Chardonnay vines grow in a mixture of limestone and clay, Kimmeridgian or Portlandian. There is clay that is badly drained, but there are also lime-rich muds, packed with fossil shells of a small oyster, exogyra virgula, so that the vineyards sit on what is virtually an oyster fossil bank. It is this combination that gives Chablis its benchmark minerality.
Climate also plays a part. Essentially, it is semi-continental, without any maritime influences. The winters can be long and hard; the summers are usually fairly hot.
With all the wine coming from just one grape variety, with a similarity of soil and climate in a relative compact area, you could be forgiven for thinking that there would not be much variation in the flavor, but you would be quite wrong. There are more than 300 wine estates in Chablis, as well as the highly competent cooperative la Chablisienne, which accounts for about one-quarter of the appellation. The human element plays a vital role, with each winegrower giving something of themselves to their wine that makes it different from their neighbor’s Chablis. Some do favor the use of oak for fermentation and élevage (ageing), while others are purists and use only stainless tanks, and between those two extremes there are umpteen nuances.
Tasting the latest in Chablis
The annual fête du vin, held on the last weekend of October, provides a great opportunity to taste the latest vintage and catch up with any new developments. And there may be new young growers showing their wines for the first time. One of the main streets of the town is closed to traffic and each wine grower has an upturned barrel from which to pour their bottles. It is a wonderfully animated occasion, except if it rains. This year the weather was bright, but cold, and I concentrated on tasting 2011s, a riper, slightly softer vintage than the very firm and mineral 2010. And everyone was enthusing about 2012 — a vintage saved at the last minute when warm weather finally arrived in August, after a poor spring and early summer.
It is the younger generation that is responsible for the continual rejuvenation of the vineyard. A change of generation can often make a difference to the fortunes of an estate. The younger generation has traveled further afield than their parents and will have probably studied, rather than simply following their father in the cellar. Pierrick Laroche at Domaine des Hâtes, after a sojourn in New Zealand, has taken his family’s vines out of the cooperative and made his first vintage in 2010. And very good it is, too, with some firm, fresh minerality. Olivier Alexandre’s family had concentrated more on agriculture, rearing cattle and growing wheat, but realized that wine would be more remunerative, as well as more personally rewarding to make. Charly Nicolle, after four years of oenology studies in Beaune, took the decision to develop the family vineyards beyond his parents’ more modest ambitions. Chablis may be a long-established appellation, but you sense an underlying dynamism fueled by the new generation who are either developing their own vineyards, or giving a new injection of energy to their parents’ work. And all are aiming for that essential minerality that is the hallmark of fine Chablis.
After 40 years of working in the wine field, there are few major regions that I have not visited. Italy’s Piedmont was one exception. That omission was finally rectified last month, with a week’s walking holiday in the hills of Barolo. We tramped through vineyards during the day and savoured Barolo wine in the evening.
I had always read that Nebbiolo, the principal grape variety of Piedmont, takes its name from the nebbia, the autumnal mists that cover the Langhe hills during the harvest. And that was just how it was. We stayed in hilltop villages such as Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d’Alba, and woke each morning to see a gentle mist covering the valley. By midday, the sun had burnt its way through the haze. In early October, the harvest was in full swing and the vines were beginning to change color to mellow reds and yellows. This was some of the most beautiful vineyard scenery that I had ever seen. It is not dramatic like the Douro or wild like the Languedoc, but has an appeal all of its own. The rows of vines follow the contours along hillsides that twist and turn, forming a series of amphitheaters.
And we visited just one wine estate, Paolo Scavino in Castiglione Falletto, where Elisa Scavino gave us a brilliant introduction to the wines of the region. Paolo Scavino, her grandfather, founded the family business in 1921. Today, they have a total of 21 hectares in 18 different plots in six villages.
Barbera, a grape which is characterized by less tannins and more acidity, was the perfect introduction to the Nebbiolo. The tannins were supple and harmonious, again with some fresh fruit, but a more structured palate.
The first Nebbiolo was a simple 2010 Langhe, what you might call a baby Barolo, made from the grapes of younger vines, and aged in old barrels for six months. It was beautifully elegant, with the hallmark notes of fruit cake and perfume that typify Nebbiolo. And then we moved on to serious things: a range of six different Barolos.
First came the entry-level wine, 2008 Barolo, a blend of seven vineyards in the village of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Barolo itself. The wine was elegant and long, with youthful fruit and silky tannins, with nuances of perfume and flavor.
Barolo Carobric is a blend of three different crus: Rocche di Castiglione, Cannubi and Bric del Fiasc. The blend remains constant, unlike the first wine which changes with the vintage. There were rich cherries on the palate, with depth and length and supple tannins.
The absolute opposite of Burgundy
And then it was time for the crus. Elisa observed that Barolo is the absolute opposite of Burgundy. Both are a myriad of different vineyards, but Barolo started out as a blend, so the crus are a recent phenomenon, and were really only developed later in the 1980s. Her father, Enrico, was one of the pioneers when he bottled Bric del Fiasc in 1978. And surprisingly, for a country where officialdom is obsessed with regulations, there are no bureaucratic hurdles to leap through before deciding to bottle a single vineyard. It is the wine grower’s own decision to put the vineyard or cru name on the label. If you look at the terrain, you can immediately understand the need to identify the different vineyard sites — they are very different, and the nuances are immediately apparent in the glass.
Bricco d’Ambrogio is in Roddi where the vineyard faces south on limestone slopes, and its wine was first made in 2002. It had an elegant palate with perfumed fruit, acidity, tannin and depth. Elisa noted that Nebbiolo can be very challenging in its youth. I could tell what she meant, but I was finding it more harmonious than Sangiovese, the other great red variety of Italy.
Monvigliero is in Verduno and is limestone and chalk, which give more minerality. Its first vintage, 2007, had youthful cherry fruit, and was tight-knit and elegant.
Cannubi came next. This name was recognized even before the name of Barolo, with documents dating back to 1752. There was some spice on the nose and it was richer, more fleshy and voluptuous than the preceding wines, but with structure.
And finally we enjoyed Bric del Fiasc, which is on sand and marl, which gives more muscle to the wine. It was also tight-knit and structured, with enormous potential. More reserved, Elisa said, more piemontese. It was a great finale to the tasting.
But Piedmont is not just Barolo and Nebbiolo; there is also Barbaresco, just northeast of Turin, and a range of other lesser known grape varieties. We enjoyed peppery Pelaverga from Verduno, some intriguing white Timorasso from the hills around Tortona; Favorita, which is a variation of Vermentino; and Nascetta, which is produced by just a handful of wine growers. There was a blended white wine from the Langhe that combined the pithy minerality of Sauvignon with the body and weight of the Chardonnay. Dolcetto d’Alba, with cherry fruit and a refreshing finish, has its place in the Piedmontese repertoire for immediate easy drinking.
And early October is the season for white truffles, deemed by the cognoscenti to be far superior to black truffles. Quite by chance we found ourselves in Alba for the first day of the annual truffle fair. We had a memorable lunch of fried eggs liberally smothered with shavings of white truffle and accompanied by Dolcetto, and then we wandered round the fair, savoring the aromas of truffle and porcini. I may have written two books on Tuscany and Sangiovese, but I have been quite seduced by the charms of Nebbiolo and Piedmont.
Photo: The hills of Barolo, in Piedmont, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George
The appellation of Faugères celebrated its 30th birthday earlier this year. That may not seem much of a milestone, but it makes it one of the oldest table wine appellations in the Languedoc, along with St. Chinian. Yet these days, some of Faugères’ most exciting wine is being made by newcomers to the area.
Faugères is a relatively small appellation, covering 2,100 hectares (about 8 square miles), with vineyards around the village of Faugères and six other little villages and hamlets in Languedoc, a region in the south of France. This is the Languedoc scenery at its finest, with the backdrop of the mountains of the Espinouse, and hillsides covered with garrigues, the shrubs and herbs of the Mediterranean.
The grape varieties of Faugères are the classic varieties of the Languedoc, namely Syrah, Grenache Noir, Carignan and maybe Mourvèdre, while Cinsaut tends to be used for the small amount of Rosé. There is also a tiny amount of white wine, from varieties such as Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermentino and Grenache Blanc. White wine only became part of the appellation in 2004. And the soil of Faugères is schist, which makes for fresh wines, with spicy fruit and tannin.
The production of Faugères is dominated by its cooperative, but much more exciting wine comes from the growing number of independent producers, currently totaling 54. Twelve of those are complete outsiders, coming from places as diverse as England, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Champagne and Bordeaux. For comparison’s sake, at the end of the last century there were three cooperatives and 35 independent producers, with hardly anyone from outside the region.
So what is the attraction of Faugères? Australian Paul Gordon, who started Domaine la Sarabande with his Irish wife, Isla, summed it up very nicely: “Faugères ticked all the boxes: It is close to the mountains, close to the sea, has good soil and great wines, nice villages, and it is not too busy.” Also significant is the fact that you can still find land to buy, or rent, and at an affordable price.
Another rising star among the newcomers is Domaine des Trinités. Simon Coulshaw is British, and his wife, Monika, comes from Barcelona. Simon worked in IT until 2004 when it was time for a career change. He elected to do a two-year wine-making course at Plumpton in East Sussex. He thought about buying land in Sussex, but southern reds are his real passion, and so he began the search for vineyards and a cellar in the Mediterranean, looking in Spain as well as in the Midi.
Finding unrealized potential of Languedoc wine
The Rhône valley was out of his budget, but in the Languedoc good vineyard land was still affordable. However, he had very precise ideas as to what he wanted. Above all, he wanted an interesting terroir, not vineyard land on the plain. He also was looking for unrealized potential; if you buy an estate that is already doing well, there is nowhere to take it. He found what he was looking for in the 107th property he visited, in the village of Roquessels. He was so excited that he completely forgot, to Monika’s dismay, to look at the house which came with the cellar.
The vineyards comprise 15 hectares of Faugères, around the village of Roquessels, and nine hectares of the newer cru of the Languedoc, Pézenas, around the village of Montesquieu. The previous owner had produced much more bulk than bottled wine, so there was enormous scope for development. The cellar was already well-equipped, with stainless steel vats and a very efficient basket press from 1928!
You might expect a clash between the old and the new producers, but that is not the case. The newcomers may come with ideas and experience from elsewhere, and have contributed to the energy of the appellation. But the appellation is also maintained by the longer-established estates, such as Domaine Ollier-Taillefer and Domaine Jean-Michel Alquier, which are now run by the children of the people who created the original appellation.
Jean-Michel is the son of Gilbert Alquier, who was the first to plant Syrah in the area and the first to age his wines in small barrels, rather than the traditional large casks of the Midi. Today, with wines such as La Maison Jaune and Les Bastides, he is considered to be one of the best wine growers of Faugères.
Most wine growers will make two or even three different red wines. Take the estate of Domaine Ollier-Taillefer, in the pretty village of Fos, now run by Luc and Francoise Ollier. Their father was one of the very first Faugères producers to put his wine in bottle back in 1975. Their entry-level wine, Les Collines, a blend of Grenache and Syrah aged in vat for several months, is ripe and supple.
Next comes la Grande Réserve. From a selection of the best vineyard plots, with lower yields, and again aged in vat, it is more concentrated with more aging potential. Finally, there is the oak-aged Castel Fosibus, with more structure and weight, and firm streak of tannin. Essentially, good Faugères is Midi sunshine in a glass, a lovely warm spicy wine, with a streak of tannin, and the scent and flavor of the garrigues that surround the vineyards.
Top photo: A vineyard in southern France. Credit: Rosemary George