Articles in Viticulture

Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.

Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.

In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.

The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.

AUTHOR


Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

Limoncello, anise liqueur

Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.

Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.

The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.

Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.

“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”

Go natural

The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)

Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).

The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.

Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.

Tips from the experts

Advice for creating your own liqueur:

  1.  Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
  2.  Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
  3.  Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
  4.  Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
  5.  In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.

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From left, Andrea Heinisch, Nicola Daraio and Pietro Terreni discuss the art of infusing flavor into alcohol.

Cream of Wild Fennel Liqueur

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
  • Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
  • 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
  • 1 ⅔ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
  2. Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
  3. Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

Lemon-Saffron Liqueur

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts

Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.

Ingredients

3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron

For the simple syrup:

1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water

Directions

  1. Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
  2. Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
  3. Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
  4. Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
  5. After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
  6. Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

 

Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.

Ingredients

3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the simple syrup:

3½ cups water
3 cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
  2. After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
  3. Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.

Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

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A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.

The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.

As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.

After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.

After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.

Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.

Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.

“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”

Biale family has humble origins

An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.

“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”

A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.

“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.

Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.

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Clementina Biale with her son, Bob Biale, on the terrace of her house overlooking the 6-acre vineyard in Napa. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.

They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.

In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.

Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”

As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.

Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.

“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.

“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.

Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.

“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”

Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.

That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.

Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Craggy Range's Gimblett Gravels vineyard.

The speed of change in New Zealand never fails to amaze me. These days Craggy Range is generally considered to be one of the leading producers of Hawke’s Bay and the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, yet its first vintage was only in 1997.

Craggy Range was developed by Terry Peabody, a successful Australian businessman who had the acumen to select Steve Smith as the person who would put Craggy Range on the international wine map. Smith, generally considered to be New Zealand’s leading viticulturalist, oversees the winemaking for Craggy Range in the regions of Hawke’s Bay, Martinborough and Marlborough.  He is a down-to-earth New Zealander who is not prone to exaggeration, so his declaration that 2013 is the vintage of a generation deserves to be taken seriously. It is, after all, distinctly more modest than the usual bordelais claim of the vintage of the century.

Smith was in London recently to substantiate his claim, which he did quite effectively. He explained that 2013 had enjoyed low cropping levels, as a repercussion of the cool 2012 vintage. A naturally low crop produces much better results than a similar crop level achieved with a green harvest. And the weather was just right, with warm but not excessively hot weather in the critical weeks after flowering, followed by a cooler period that helped retain the aromatics in the grapes. “The stars aligned!” he said.

Age of vines influence vintage quality

Another factor in the quality of the vintage is the age of the vines. Older vines give a much better expression of place. Craggy Range has Riesling vines that are 28 years old and Sauvignon vines that are 20 years old, which give quite different results than younger vines. Older vines also need less management, and they produce lower alcohol levels. This is something that is not yet fully understood but Craggy Range has observed that the grapes are ripe at a lower alcohol level, which translates into more elegant wine in the glass.

Steve Smith of Craggy Range

Steve Smith, winemaker at Craggy Range.
Credit: Courtesy of Craggy Range

To illustrate his point, Smith started the tasting with Riesling from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough. This comes from a 2-hectare vineyard on old rocky soil, with a volcanic influence. In the past, New Zealand has planted German clones, but it now has access to Riesling clones from Alsace, which are giving even better results.

The Sauvignon, too, comes from Martinborough, and for a New Zealand Sauvignon was nicely understated, with mineral characters, firm fruit and a restrained finish.

The final white wine was a Chardonnay from Kidnapper’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay. Smith observed that if you put Chardonnay in a dramatic vineyard, it takes on the character of the place. He didn’t want this Chardonnay to be overtly fruity, but was looking for a sense of the ocean, a Chablis style. To this end he uses large oak barrels and indigenous yeast, and the wine certainly exhibited some of the oyster-shell character that you can find in good Chablis.

Next up were barrel samples, components of Craggy Range’s flagship Bordeaux blend from Gimblett Gravels. Gimblett Gravels is an 800-hectare plot of stony, gravelly soil from a riverbed that changed its course about 150 years ago. At a time when the value of agricultural land was measured by the number of sheep you could graze on it, Gimblett Gravels was deemed pretty worthless. But pioneers Alan Limner from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask saw its potential for exceptional vineyard land, and planted the first crop in 1999. The drainage is excellent, which is an asset after heavy rainfall, but as Smith observed, getting enough water is the greatest challenge. The area enjoys a certain amount of humidity, thanks to the oceanic influence, and it is rare to get seriously warm days.

The various grape varieties showed their characteristics. The Merlot was rich and fleshy, with plummy fruit.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was more restrained. Cabernet Franc was fresher, and Smith observed that there was a lot of clonal variation on Cabernet Franc. His Cabernet Sauvignon came from cuttings from Kim Goldwater’s estate on Waiheke Island. Petit Verdot, which accounts for 2% of the final blend, is “tricky to manage”: “It’s the oddest grape variety I have ever grown and it can look like a wild scientist!”  This vat sample was rich and powerful, with acidity and tannin.

We finished with a sample of Sophia, a projected blend of the different components. Each variety would be matured separately until October, before blending and finally taken out of wood just before Christmas and bottled in February 2015. The proposed blend was rich and intense with blackcurrant fruit and some spicy oak and, despite its youth, was beautifully balanced, harmonious and complete. There was no doubt that it was more than the sum of the preceding parts, adding up to what might indeed be the vintage of a generation.

Main photo: Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard.  Courtesy of Craggy Range

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2013 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières

I discovered this under-$20 French red wine on a recent visit to Burgundy, though it wasn’t  from that famous, fashionable region. Legendary wine broker Becky Wasserman poured the deliciously light and fruity 2012 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières at a family-style staff lunch of creamy asparagus risotto and a pork casserole, both cooked by her husband, Russell Hone, at their homey offices in the center of Beaune. The domaine is one of the 100-odd fine producers that their company, Le Serbet, represents.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week


2012 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières
Price: $18
Region: Loire Valley, France
Grape: 90% Gamay, 10% Pinot Noir
Alcohol: 13 %
Serve with: Asparagus or mushroom risotto, roast pork, grilled chicken

Saint-Pourçain appellation

The appellation Saint-Pourçain was new to me, though it’s actually one of the oldest viticultural regions in France, its wines prized by royalty in the Middle Ages and served at the coronations of kings. The group of 19 villages surrounds the small, dull market town of Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule in the cool, gently hilly landscape of the Auvergne region in central France, west of the Maconnais. Though it’s generally regarded as a Loire Valley satellite, the connection is pretty tangential — the vineyards are on a significant tributary of the Loire river, but closer to the Macon. Sort of a lost appellation of Burgundy, Saint-Pourçain is better known for whites made from Chardonnay and local grape Tressallier than for reds, and only started attracting interest in 2009, when it was upgraded to an Appellation Contrôlée wine region.

The domaine’s owners, Odile and Olivier Teissèdre, originally bought an old seven-acre walled vineyard named Clos des Bérioles in 1989, and over the years gradually acquired another 10  acres. One-third of their vineyards are devoted to red grapes Gamay and Pinot Noir.

The dominant red variety is Gamay, planted on granitic soils, as it is in the northern part of Beaujolais where the region’s best wines originate. The Teissèdre’s son, Jean, took over running the estate in 2011 after studying enology and working in Sancerre, the Maconnais, and Beaujolais. He makes five wines. The Les Grandes Brières is not aged in oak, which preserves its fruitiness.

With its bright flavors and hint of spice and minerals in the finish, this vivacious blend of mostly Gamay with a dash of pinot noir is just the kind of red I like to drink in the summer. It’s crisp and refreshing, has expansive aromas of red fruit and rose petals, and still tastes good when very slightly chilled, all of which means it pairs well with an amazing variety of summer foods.

Main photo: 2012 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières. 

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Vince Cable, U.K. business secretary, center, gets a tour of the Rathfinny Estate from Mark and Sarah Driver. Credit: Adam Lechmere

The evolution of English sparkling wine over the last decade has been remarkable. Ten years ago few outside what was a dynamic but very domestic cottage industry took it seriously. But with investment, huge improvements in technology and vineyard management, and — most important — a clutch of major awards, the best English sparkling is internationally recognized.

Nyetimber, which recently released its first single-vineyard cuvée, the $126 (75 pounds) Tillington, and Ridgeview, which beat Champagnes including Taittinger and Charles Heidsieck to Decanter’s International Sparkling Trophy in 2010, are just two of a clutch of English wines that are taken very seriously indeed.

There are very good white wines too, made from a variety of northern European hybrids such as Bacchus and Ortega. Quality is patchy, though, as temperatures and sunlight are often sufficient only to ripen grapes for sparkling wine. English red wine seldom passes muster. But sparkling wine is now an important industry, producing about 3 million bottles a year. That sounds a lot until you compare it with the amount consumed in the United Kingdom alone: last year 13.3 million bottles of Champagne and 43 million bottles of sparkling were guzzled. “The biggest problem with English sparkling is, there isn’t enough of it,” Mark Driver, a hedgefund manager-turned-vigneron says.

Changing misperceptions at Rathfinny

Driver, the owner of Rathfinny, a $16.8-million (10 million pounds) vineyard in Sussex, intends to go some way to meeting demand. With 160 acres (64 hectares) planted, and  250 acres (100 hectacres) more  to come, it’s on course to be England’s biggest single estate. There’s a gravity-fed, purpose-built, million-bottle-capacity winery; guesthouses set among rolling fields of young vines (all planted since 2012); and a wastewater treatment plant, all the trappings of the modern, wealth-created winery. I was prepared to find the exorbitant dream of a rich man, complete with luxury hotel and manicured lawns.

How wrong I was. “That’s going to be the hostel over there,” said Georgia Mallinson, the events and hospitality manager, as she pointed to a red-roofed barn in the distance. Ah, the luxury guesthouse, though “hostel” seemed an odd way of describing it. “It’s going to be used for seasonal workers, and the rest of the time it’ll be for visitors, walkers, school groups.” How much will a room be? “Youth hostel prices,” she said.

Youth hostels are for those who like their accommodation cheap, cheerful and sparse. The handsome winery — its curving grass-covered roof echoing the buxom green slopes of the Sussex hills around it — was full of guests. Among them were Vince Cable, the U.K.’s business secretary, and David Dimbleby, host of the BBC’s flagship current affairs panel “Question Time.” In green Rathfinny polo shirts were vineyard manager Cameron Boucher — a New Zealander whose last job was in Hawke’s Bay, supplying grapes to the renowned Craggy Range among others — and winemaker Jonathan Médard, a Frenchman from Epernay, fresh from a stint in the United States and Australia that included such internationally recognized names as Napa’s Newton Vineyard and Margaret River’s Voyager Estate.

Cable is Mark and Sarah Driver’s local representative in Parliament (they live in Twickenham, in west London), and when, early on, they became mired in planning bureaucracy, they sought his advice. “The local council was very obstructive, so I intervened,” Cable told me, concisely. He stepped in, he said, because he believed in what the Drivers were doing.

Finding promise from ‘the depths of the recession’

“The groundwork was done in the depths of recession, and it required courage and imagination to stick with such a project,” he said, praising the couple for the jobs they are bringing to an area of Sussex, with its depressed coastal towns, that has “serious pockets” of unemployment. “This is a real creative, imaginative industry,” Cable said, “and it’s also a successful export industry.” Rathfinny lies in the same band of chalk that forms the Paris Basin, which runs up through Champagne and northern France to form the North and South Downs. Southern England is only two degrees latitude north of Champagne — the only difference between the regions is the summer nighttime temperature, which can be 10 degrees centigrade (18 F) colder here. But there’s a microclimate here, Driver says. A substantial ridge, Cradle Hill, protects Rathfinny from the cooling breezes from the sea, six miles to the south. “It can be minus 6 degrees centigrade (21 F) a few miles away, and plus 6 (43 F) here.”

First vintage due in 2017

There’s no wine yet. The first sparkling vintage, from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is expected in 2017. Driver doesn’t expect to turn a profit until 2020. He intends to export at least 50%, mostly to the U.S., Japan and Hong Kong. The Drivers are popular, not only for the work they are bringing to the area, but for the money they have put into the restoration of the Gun Room, an 18th century building in the town. “The best thing that ever happened to Alfriston,” June Goodfield, an 87-year-old local historian said. “It’s so nice to have something that isn’t a golf course.”

They also have sponsored a wine research center at nearby Plumpton College, where Driver studied viticulture after making his millions in the world of high finance. The beautiful countryside shimmered in bright spring sun as the guests happily quaffed Plumpton’s non-vintage sparkling (a trifle too acidic for my taste). Cable said his goodbyes and stepped into his ministerial car — into the driving seat, that is, of a nondescript, somewhat grubby 10-year-old Vauxhall — and engaged the gears. It had been a peculiarly English day.

Main photo: Vince Cable, U.K. business secretary,  center, gets a tour of the Rathfinny Estate from Mark and Sarah Driver. Credit: Adam Lechmere

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey. Credit: David Latt

Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.

The Valais’ microclimate

Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains,  I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a  French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.

Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.

In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.

During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.

The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.

Cornalin, the new kid on the block

Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.

In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.

Rouge du Pays

Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.

latt-cornalin2

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.

Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.

A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins

On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.

In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.

A temperamental grape

In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.

Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.

Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.

Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey.  Credit: David Latt

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

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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From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

It is quite a special experience to taste every single vintage of a wine, but that is what I did the other day, when I was invited to a vertical tasting in London of AD The Aviator from Alpha Domus, one of the leading estates of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.

Alpha Domus was founded by the Ham family, which originally came from the Netherlands. Alpha includes the initials of the five members of the family — the parents and three sons — who established the estate, and domus means home in Latin. They bought land in Hawke’s Bay, in an area that is now recognized as a sub-region, the Bridge Pa triangle, and planted the grape varieties that do best in Hawke’s Bay: the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The soil is red metal, alluvial soil, on an old riverbed, over gravel, a variation on the much better known Gimblett Gravels of Hawke’s Bay. It is warm and free draining but with sufficient water holding capacity not to need irrigation.

They made their first wine in 1996. AD The Aviator, their flagship wine, is a blend of the year’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Its proportions varying from year to year, and some years it is not even made. The unpredictable aspect is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can sometimes be difficult to ripen in Hawke’s Bay. Merlot is easier, but it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that provides the backbone and aging potential. The producers want a long ripening period, and aim for low yields, paying great attention to canopy management.  Nor do they pick too early. As Paul Ham observed, “It is a battle of nerves over the potential rain at harvest time.”

The name The Aviator is a tribute to the many pilots who played their part in New Zealand’s aviation history and trained on de Havilland Tiger Moth planes from the Bridge Pa airfield. So, appropriately, the London tasting took place in the Royal Air Force Club on Piccadilly. And the Tigermoth biplane features as a logo on most of their labels.

Over the years Alpha Domus has employed three winemakers. Grant Edmonds, who now makes the wine at Sileni, and his own wine at Redmetal Vineyards, was their first; he was followed by a Dutchman, Evert Nijink; and now Kate Galloway makes the wine, building on the work of Grant and Evert, benefiting from older vines and fine-tuning the winemaking process.

The winemaking process for AD The Aviator has become established over the years. There is an initial cold soak for the grapes, followed by some hand-plunging and pigeage during fermentation, and then a period of aging in new and used French oak barrels. Finally, the very best of the individual barrels is selected for blending, with the winemaker looking “for perfume and aroma, with soft tannins,” Paul Ham says. “And it must be food-friendly.” At its best, this is a wine that can rival Bordeaux.

Sunset at the Alpha Domus estate in New Zealand. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

Sunset at the Alpha Domus estate in New Zealand. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

Tasting notes

We tasted from young to old, beginning with:

2010:  40% Cabernet Sauvignon,  24% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec

Deep young color; ripe rounded cassis nose, with some vanilla and fruit.  Paul Ham explained that they want New World fruit, with Old World complexity, and that is what they have achieved in this wine. The palate was still quite firm and youthful, but with underlying elegance balancing some ripe fruit, with a rounded finish.

2009: 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Franc

Medium color. A light, rather restrained nose. Closed and understated on the palate, with a little sweet cassis and vanilla. Quite elegant fruit on the finish. And generally less expressive than 2010.

2007: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27%  Cabernet Franc,  23% Merlot, 13% Malbec

Medium color. An elegant smoky cedary nose. A medium weight palate, with some acidity and also some tannin. A youthful edge to the wine, with some lovely fruit. An elegant concentration of flavor, and still plenty of aging potential.

2002: Kate’s first vintage. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec

Quite a deep color. Rounded ripe and smoky on the nose. Quite a tight palate, with a firm finish. Still youthful with some cedary minty notes. Some length.

2000: Made by Evert. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Malbec

Medium color. Elegant smoky nose. Quite a firm cedary palate. An edge of tannin with some acidity. A satisfying glass of wine, with balanced fruit and concentration, with length and elegance.

1999: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27%  Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec

A lighter year; they very nearly didn’t make it.  Medium color, with a little age. Soft cedary vanilla nose. Quite an elegant dry palate, with some supple tannins. Elegant cedary notes. And a long finish.

1998: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec.

A hot dry year, which posed difficulties for some winemakers in Hawke’s Bay. Medium color, and still quite youthful. An elegant nose, with some cedary fruit, and on the palate, quite structured, with elegant fruit, structure and depth. Nicely intense, with a hint of menthol from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Did the gum trees nearby have an impact? Satisfying length and depth.

1996: This first vintage was made by Grant Edmonds and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec were not yet in production. Medium colour. Soft cedary notes on the nose and palate. A softer palate than the others, with some elegant cedary fruit. Maybe just beginning to slither off its plateau, or maybe not? Whatever, it was soft and sweet and still very elegant. A great note on which to finish a tasting of New Zealand’s history, with a wine that also amply illustrates Hawke’s Bay’s ability to rival Bordeaux.

Top photo: From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

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