Articles in Winemaker

A woman uses the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Le Marche is an unspoiled, green and beautiful region in central Italy bordering the Apennines and the Adriatic with which even many Italians are unfamiliar. Although there have been attempts to designate the region as the “new Tuscany” or call the excellent wines SuperMarche (dropped because, hey, who wants to call a top-flight bottle supermarket?), Le Marche speaks for itself. And, what it says is good food and wine, medieval villages, ancient abbeys, silvery olive groves, golden fields of wheat and vineyards as straight as arrows streaking across the rolling hills.

As Federico Bomba, director of the innovative Bioculture app project, says, the landscape reflects man’s attempt to impose order and precision on a naturally unruly terroir. The recently launched app offers an English-language walking guide through the inland region of Le Marche that brings together digital technology, contemporary art and green lifestyle. Where a traveler once depended on Baedeker or Fodor’s, all they need now are a cellphone or tablet and a charger.

Using the app

Federico Bomba, founder of www.bioculture.it, demonstrates one of the original art videos on the app. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Federico Bomba, founder of www.bioculture.it, demonstrates one of the original art videos on the app. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Wine? Check. Art? Check. Walking shoes? Check. Mobile digital device? Check. Did I mention wine? Using the well-constructed app is easy, even for technophobes. Click on the location you are in either before or during the visit to map your route, read about the main points of cultural interest from medieval frescoes to chocolate box opera houses to esoteric museums, view original art works and videos that connect to the locale, listen to stories and contemporary sound compositions, and head for local organic vineyards, restaurants and agritourism farms.

Go on a cultural pilgrimage

Artist Giacomo Giovannetti explains the concept of the www.bioculture.it app against the backdrop of the ancient hilltop village of Elcito, about 2,600 feet (800 meters) above sea level. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Artist Giacomo Giovannetti explains the concept of the www.bioculture.it app against the backdrop of the ancient hilltop village of Elcito, about 2,600 feet (800 meters) above sea level. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The app follows the walking journey — a kind of contemporary cultural pilgrimage — undertaken by six young multimedia artists to discover the landscapes, traditions, organic food and wines of the region. As native-born Giacomo Giovannetti explained, the aim was not just to reference the past but to “use a contemporary language and our experience of working around the world to tell the story of our land. Le Marche is little and unknown, but big in inspiration.” To video artist Fabrizio Carotti, the landscape brings peace and concentration by allowing artists time to expand and breathe. Carotti makes an interesting point, “Italy is too often bowed down by its historic past, it makes it hard for us to look to the future. Sometimes, we have to go abroad to have a view of what is contemporary, but we want to tell our own stories in that way. Modern art can be a route to rediscover our old art by giving it another point of view.”

Sample the local foods

Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The entire trip takes three weeks, but the visitor can dip in and out of the route as they wish, sampling local food specialties on the way. It is a  sophisticated yet accessible concept of “culture” that goes far beyond the mainstream.

One of the most memorable features of the app are the videos made by Carotti and Simona Sala that reference the interaction between locals and visitors in a witty, dramatic and often moving way.

Local artisans

Organic beekeeping near Matellica. The acacia honey is particularly good. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Organic beekeeping near Matellica. The acacia honey is particularly good. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Rachel Rose Reid, the only non-Italian artist among those on the app, is a gifted storyteller who took inspiration from the people and places she encountered. It is a moment of pure Marche magic to listen to her honied tale while sitting on a sunny hillside overlooking the famous Verdicchio vines and contemplating an artisan of The Mountain Beekeepers Cooperative at his work.

Organic traditions

The organic Aurora vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The organic Aurora vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Organic food and wine production in Le Marche is amongst the most extensive in Italy. It is an instinctive harmony with the untouched, verdant landscape combined with pride in local traditions and concern for the future. The rugged, mysterious Sibillini mountains are broken with stretches of lush farmland spread out like geometric mosaics; there are breathtaking vistas, villages clinging to the top of precipitous hilltops, forests, farmhouses and pure white roads. Change comes slowly here and local traditions vary widely from village to village: There are more than 200 dialects in Le Marche alone, a reflection of the varied influences on the region for many centuries.

Aurora, the oldest organic winery in Italy, was started by a group of libertarian students in the 1970s who quit their jobs to return to working the land with eco-conscious respect for a sustainable future. Their aim was to create an independent and self-sufficient community in which they could convert social and economic ideals into concrete actions and projects.  They were instrumental in founding Terroir Marche two years ago, an association of small organic and biodynamic wine producers committed to producing good, healthy wines at reasonable prices. As they say, “Each member has their own style, but we share certain principles: No one over-crops, for example, or makes thin, poor wines. We can’t reach perfection, but we’re trying. The key is to know your plants.”

Notable wines

Offida Rosso DOC Baccofino wine from Paolini e Stanford winery, a member of the Terroir Marche organic wine producers group. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Offida Rosso DOC Baccofino wine from Paolini e Stanford winery, a member of the Terroir Marche organic wine producers group. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica put Le Marche on the wine map years ago, although not always in a good way, thanks to the distinctive green amphora-shaped bottles. Since then, however, it has reclaimed its good name and become one of Italy’s most distinctive whites. It is far, however, from being the only fine DOC on the block. It is worth seeking out, for example, Falerio dei Colli Ascolani, as well as Offida Rosso, Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno. Pecorino has also seen a great rise in popularity, made with 100% of the eponymous varietal (no one seems sure which came first, the grape or the cheese).

The app feeds the body as well as the soul and directs the traveler to organic agritourism inns, wineries and country restaurants where you can sample the superb white wines of the region as well as the gutsy, forthright reds that are a fine match for the robust food fortified with rosemary, tomato, wild fennel and garlic. At La Pietra Maula, a gem of an agritourism restaurant located in a hamlet of 16 inhabitants, oenologist Alessandra Venanzoni’s welcoming family aspires to run a “zero kilometers” restaurant using home-produced meat, salamis, fruit and vegetables as well as their own Verdicchio wine.

Meals, family style

The www.bioculture.it artists of Le Marche share a homemade country meal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The www.bioculture.it artists of Le Marche share a homemade country meal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The wine of Le Marche, as the app demonstrates so well, does not just encourage exploration of the flavors of local varieties but also the taste of local food, which is as immediately likable and unfussy as the people. Meals in Le Marche are always leisurely, convivial affairs.

End of a journey

Sunset from the hilltop town of Maiolati Spontini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Sunset from the hilltop town of Maiolati Spontini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

My journey to the interior via the Bioculture app was a discovery of green Le Marche; blue Le Marche lies eastward, toward the Adriatic Sea. The region is a dichotomy between sea and land that defines the two separate personalities. Both beg to be explored further with wine, food, art and walks.

Main photo: Using the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Faugères is one of the smaller appellations of the Languedoc, and yet it punches above its weight for the diversity of the origins of its wine growers and the quality of their wines. Among the 50 or so growers you will find people from Australia, Ireland, England, Catalonia, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, not to mention other parts of France, such as Normandy, Champagne, Bordeaux and Alsace.

For the 2014 vintages, there were four new wine estates. Only one of the newcomers is from outside the region, but all four have taken quite different paths to reach Faugères and all bring individuality to their wine making. So far they have only made one vintage in Faugères, but the first tastings bode well for the future. It may be too early to know much about their wines, but their passion and energy — and some early tastings — hint at good things ahead.

Nicolas Maury: Branching off from the cooperative

Winemaker Nicolas Maury of Mas Nicolas. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Nicolas Maury

Winemaker Nicolas Maury of Mas Nicolas. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Nicolas Maury

Let’s take Nicolas Maury. His father, Philippe, is president of the cooperative of Faugères, as was his grandfather, but Nicolas felt that it would be more rewarding to make his own wine. His father agreed to rent him 4.5 hectares that could easily be released from the cooperative contract. I jokingly suggested that they might be the family’s best vineyards, but Nicolas shrewdly observed that as all their grapes went into the cooperative vats and were blended with other growers’ grapes, they actually had no accurate idea of the taste of the wine from their own vineyards.

He discovered their flavor for the first time in 2014, with a lightly peachy white wine based on Viognier and two reds, one kept in vat and intended for early drinking, and the other aged in barrel, from 100-year-old Carignan vines as well as some Syrah. They provide a satisfying contrast; the first has some appealing fresh spicy fruit while the oak aged wine is inevitably more structured with firm peppery flavors. Nicolas’ label is illustrated with a quince flower as the name of his father’s estate is Domaine de Coudigno, and coudou in Occitan, the local language of the Languedoc, means a quince, while Coudigno is a place where quinces grow.

Jérôme Vialla: An adopted heir

Jérôme Vialla of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright Rosemary George

Jérôme Vialla of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright Rosemary George

Jérôme Vialla is a winegrower’s son, but without any family vineyards. His grandparents had vines on the coastal plain, but they were sold to divide the proceeds among their heirs, and his father now runs Domaine Valensac in nearly Florensac. Jérôme has worked for another coastal estate, Domaine de Pommière, which he described as a factory. He wanted to find more interesting vineyards up in the hills away from the plain. Chance took him to the Faugères village of Fos, where he met his neighbor, an elderly wine grower, who was retiring with no children to follow, so Vialla stepped in and now has 20 hectares planted with the usual five grape varieties of Faugères, namely Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

When I met Vialla in May 2014, his cellar consisted of several holes in the ground, but as yet no bricks and mortar. He achieved a miracle in completing the cellar just in time for the harvest. In 2014 he made five wines: a fresh, herbal white from Carignan Blanc, a crisp rosé and three qualities of red wine. Two are kept in vat, one with lightly spicy fruit, and the second more substantial; the third wine, a blend of Syrah and Grenache Noir, is aged in barrel, making for some red fruit and a tannic streak. The name of Vialla’s estate, Domaine Epidaure, relates to his wife’s career as a pharmacist, as the city of Epidaurus was an important center of ancient Greek medicine.

Sébastien Louge: A Languedoc outsider

Sébastien Louge of Domaine de l’Arbussèle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Sébastien Louge of Domaine de l’Arbussèle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Sébastien Louge does not come from the Languedoc, but from Tarbes in the Hautes-Pyrénées. He studied in Toulouse and Bordeaux and has had a varied career as a winemaker, including a year at Cross Keys in Virginia, as well as working in Madiran and Châteauneuf-du-Pape before coming to the Languedoc, to Domaine de la Grange in Gabian, a village that adjoins the appellation of Faugères. But he wanted to do his own thing, and like Jérôme Vialla, met an elderly winegrower who was looking for somebody to take over his vines. Louge now has 10 hectares and in 2014 made four wines under the label of Domaine de l’Arbussèle.

There is a rosé, but no white, and three reds. Envol Rouge is the entry level, with easy fruit; Authentique comes mainly from old Carignan, and the name is a reference to the fact that Carignan was the original variety of Faugères. The wine is quite firm and structured, balanced with some spicy fruit. The oak-aged cuvée, Revelation, is based on old Grenache Noir, with a streak of tannin balanced by ripe liqueur cherry fruit.

Olivier Gil: Love and wine making

Adèle Arnaud and Olivier Gil of Mas Lou. Credit: Courtesy of Mas Lou

Adèle Arnaud and Olivier Gil of Mas Lou. Credit: Courtesy of Mas Lou

Olivier Gil has local roots — not in Faugères, but in the nearby village of Tourbes. His father is a member of the cooperative there, producing mainly white grapes for vin de pays. Oliver, however, wanted to make red wine and an appellation, so he looked for vines in Faugères and bought a tiny cellar in the center of the village. He learned his wine making at Montpellier, where he met and fell in love with his partner, Adèle Arnaud, who was also studying wine making. (She comes from the Gers in southwest France and has no other history with wine.) They traveled in South America and worked in Collioure before settling in Faugères. I met them the day before they bottled their first wines, under the label Mas Lou.

The names of their various cuvées all recall their South American experience, with Selva, the rosé, for the Amazonian forest. Angaco, the first red, is where they stayed and worked; Aksou refers to special Bolivian weaving; and Tio, for the oak-aged wine, is the god of the potassium mines. Olivier said that he looked for elegance and concentration in his wines, and for supple tannins, and that is certainly what he has achieved with his first vintage.

Main photo: The wines of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

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Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in The Aeneid. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.

Once upon a wine

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia's wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia’s wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.

Terroir, terroir, terroir

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.

If the soil is productive, it’s due less to topography than to the stewardship of the terrain over centuries. For millennia, the Pugliese have supplied the lion’s share of Italy’s three principal staples: wine, wheat and olive oil. They still do, and grow enough table grapes, olives, almonds, cereals and vegetables to feed the rest of Italy and export abroad.

In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”

Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”

Food of the ancients

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.

Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.

Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.

Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.

Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.

Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!

Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Total time: About 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.

Ingredients

1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness

Extra virgin olive oil

1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly

Fine sea salt

Freshly milled black pepper

16 thin slices of pancetta

2 tablespoons  fresh minced parsley leaves

3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks

Toothpicks for serving

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.

2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.

4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.

Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 

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In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.

You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.

Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.

Expert ampelographer

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.

Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.

Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”

Mistaken identity

In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.

In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.

Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.

Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.

Anatomy of a grape leaf

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It's also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:

Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.

Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.

Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.

It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.

In the vineyard

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.

Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.

Defining characteristics

Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.

Merlot

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.

Malbec

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.

Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Late-harvest grapes at Luna Vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

California’s Napa Valley is home to some of America’s best wineries. The valley is also well-known as an incubator of female winemakers. Shawna Miller is one of a group of talented women who have pursued a wine-making career in the valley.

Growing up in a small Virginia town along the Appalachian Trail, Miller spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and helping her grandmother tend the large garden that fed the family. In the summer they ate what they grew and canned the rest. During the wet, cold winters they happily supplemented their meals with the food they put up in the pantry, including jars of huckleberry and blackberry jam, tomatoes and green beans.

She never thought about grapes or wine.

Studying forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, she graduated with a degree in forestry, which was a natural fit for a woman who had grown up trekking the Appalachian Trail. That’s also where she met and married Zak, who shared her love of biology. To see the world and build their resumes, they picked up jobs wherever they could. After a stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, a friend invited them to work a harvest in New Zealand. That work-vacation changed their lives.

Learning wine making around the world

Winemaker Shawna Miller in the Luna Vineyards with late-harvest vines. Credit: Copyright David Latt

Winemaker Shawna Miller in the Luna Vineyards with late-harvest vines. Credit: Copyright David Latt

Near Margaret River in Western Australia, they worked at the Cape Mentelle Winery where she learned that each grape had a different temperament. Each had to be picked at exactly the right moment. Pick too soon or wait too long and the grapes would yield inferior wine.

She and Zak were hooked. They pursued harvests in California, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. They experienced firsthand how soil and climate — terroir — created different wines. The Indian Ocean breezes that swept across the grapes at the Cape Mentelle Winery yielded wines very different from the ones she came to love in hot, dry Napa.

Taking classes at the University of California, Davis Extension, Miller wanted to learn the science behind raising grapes and making wine. But there wasn’t time to get a degree in enology.

Her graduate work would be done in the fields and in the labs where her background in science got her jobs measuring fermentation levels.

Mastering the art and science of wine

A bottle of Luna Vineyards Reserve 2012 Sangiovese, Napa Valley. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

A bottle of Luna Vineyards Reserve 2012 Sangiovese, Napa Valley. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

To become a winemaker, she had to master more than chemistry. Wine making is part science, part art.

Even if a wine is made entirely from one varietal, the grapes grown in one part of a vineyard can be markedly different from those harvested from another area. Blending those different flavors is an art that must be developed by a winemaker.

Today as the winemaker at Luna Vineyards, she oversees the production of a collection of well-regarded, affordable wines.

Luna Vineyards

Vineyard irrigation at Luna Vineyards, Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

Vineyard irrigation at Luna Vineyards, Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

What distinguished Luna Vineyards in its early days was the choice to produce Italian-style wines. When Michael Moone founded the vineyard in the mid-1990s, he wanted to make wine modeled on the Italian wines he loved. He planted Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) grapes and blended the wines in a way that set them apart from the largely French style wines produced in the valley’s other vineyards.

At times in their marriage, Miller’s husband Zak has worked half a world away at a winery in Chile. But now with Zaira, their little girl, to raise, Zak stays closer to home as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Carneros.

As harvest time approaches, they put the call out to their parents. When the grapes are ready to be picked, Shawna and Zak will be in the fields from before dawn until well into the night. Someone needs to be home with Zaira.

In the days before the harvest begins, Miller walks through the vineyard. The fat clusters of grapes hang heavily on the row upon row of well-tended vines. If the weather cooperates and no pests damage the grapes, she could have a very good year. She is always hoping that with luck and hard work, this year’s vintage could be one of the winery’s best.

Harvest — exciting and nerve-racking

Oak barrels ready to be cleaned at Luna Vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

Oak barrels ready to be cleaned at Luna Vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

With a last look at the refractometer that measures the sugar level of the grapes, Miller makes the call to the vineyard manager, “OK, let’s take it.” And that’s when the real drama begins.

The grapes are ready. Miller is ready. But during harvest time there is more work than workers available. Sometimes when she calls she is told there isn’t a crew available. The grapes won’t be picked for days.

During that waiting time she is at the mercy of the weather. If it gets too hot or if it rains, the grapes will be pushed past their prime and a vintage that could have been great will be less so.

At moments like this, all Miller can do is watch and wait. She busies herself, making sure the lab is ready and the fermentation tanks are clean. Finally, when the crew is available, then it’s all hands on deck. Time for their parents to babysit Zaira.

Fermenting and then blending

What makes one wine different from another? Of course the quality of the grapes matters, but so too does the palate and skill of the winemaker.

Depending on the style, the maturing wine spends time in stainless steel vats or in oak barrels. When Miller believes the wine is ready, she begins a series of trial blends that are like rough drafts. Making several blends, she and her team will sample and rate each, comparing that year’s wine with ones they liked from years before. Like the best chef, she will mix and combine until she has the flavor she loves. At that moment, she will call in the bottling crew.

During the year there are moments when Miller can take a break to spend time with her family. As all-consuming and as hard as the work can be, having time with Zak and Zaira is absolutely essential.

And then it’s time to start the process all over again. In spring the leaf buds poke through the dark wood. In the heat of the summer, the vines need to be tended, the grape clusters are thinned and the plants monitored for pests. And in the fall there is the harvest when so many moving parts have to work together to give Miller what she needs to make great wine.

At the end of the day, even with all those stresses, Miller counts herself lucky to have found a career she loves, in a valley that produces beautiful wines.

Main photo: Late-harvest grapes at Luna Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

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Pinot Posse members Ed Kurtzman, left. and David O'Reilly during an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen

In 2005, a group of seven Pinot Noir specialists from the West Coast banded together at the behest of their importer/distributor in Colorado to do a promotional tour of the state. The events they hosted under the irreverent banner of the Pinot Posse — motto: “No stinkin’ badges and no Cabs” — were such a smash the tour has become an annual tradition.

Granted, their success may have gotten a boost from a little movie called “Sideways,” released nationwide in 2005. Before it, mainstream America knew little about domestic production of the Burgundian grape; today Pacific Pinot Noir needs no introduction. But that doesn’t mean even savvy wine drinkers know everything there is to know.

After a dinner at Denver’s Table 6, I asked some of the producers to explain what they think consumers should understand about their signature grape.

How did you come to recognize the potential for Pinot Noir in your area?

Dan Kosta, Kosta Browne, Sonoma County, California: I’ve been drinking Burgundy since I was 5 years old, so Pinot Noir has always played a big part in my life. However, in the late 1980s, I really started discovering the potential of Russian River Pinots, particularly in the wines made by Joseph Swan, Dehlinger, Rochioli, Williams Selyem and others. These were not the lean, soulless wines that many California producers were making at the time. There was complexity and elegance, and they inspired us to focus on Sonoma County Pinot.

Peter Cargasacchi, Cargasacchi and Point Concepción, Santa Barbara County, California: Since the late 1980s, I’d been drinking Pinots from Sanford Winery here in the Sta. Rita Hills. Richard Sanford was a neighbor, and over a period of 10 years, he convinced me that my high-pH, calcareous soils were similar to the great sites in Burgundy. So in 1998 I started planting Pinot Noir for him, Siduri and Babcock.

Ed Kurtzman, August West, Russian River Valley, California: When I started making Pinot Noir, in 1994, I was working with well-established vineyards: Bien Nacido, planted in 1973, and Chalone, planted in 1946. So I kind of walked into Pinot as it was already in motion. Then I began working with Santa Lucia Highlands in 1999, when it was still a young appellation with first-crop vineyards. Same thing with the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast: So many of the vineyards there were planted between 1997 and 2004. It has been interesting to have worked with both old vines and young vines. I wasn’t someone who recognized the potential for Pinot Noir so much as someone who gladly participated in its popularity.

Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, Bonaccorsi Wine Co., Santa Barbara County, California: When my late husband, Michael, and I started making wine in 1999, our goal was always to go to the Russian River. But we had to keep our day jobs, and the closest wine region was Santa Barbara. We planned to learn there and move on at some point. Then we tasted some of Greg Brewer’s wines. They were phenomenal, and we could not figure out how this region was so overlooked. We made a very specific choice to stay. Of course, back then, Cabernet was king, and Pinot Noir was not very popular. We had to really talk restaurants and wine stores into purchasing it.

What don’t a lot of American drinkers know or understand about Pinot Noir that you wish they did? 

Jim Prosser, J.K. Carriere, Willamette Valley, Oregon: I wish more people understood it from a classic, historical perspective: It’s basically a connoisseur’s wine due to its subtlety, complexity and movement. It’s the antithesis of an in-your-face wine; it’s more come hither, more about enticement, and its acid combines with, rather than overwhelms, food.

Kurtzman: That color is only important when it comes to high points from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator. Pinot Noir is naturally a thin-skinned, light-colored red wine. People will hold one of my Pinots up to the light, in their glass, and they’ll say, “Hey, what a light wine.” All they have to do is taste it — it’s full of aromas and flavors.

Bonaccorsi: I think we as Americans drink wine too young, especially Pinot. People understand about aging varietals like Cabernet, but they tend to drink American Pinots upon release. They may not need to be aged as long as Burgundies, but they can definitely benefit from a few years. At this point, my 2010 Pinot and 2009 Syrah are tasting well.

Pinot Posse members David O'Reilly (from left), Jim Prosser, Ed Kurtzman and Dan Kosta at an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen

Pinot Posse members David O’Reilly, from left, Jim Prosser, Ed Kurtzman and Dan Kosta at an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen

What’s your personal favorite food to serve with Pinot Noir and why?

Kosta: This, of course, depends on seasonality, but I tend to lean toward lighter meats and earthy vegetables. In the spring, rack of lamb with morel mushrooms is perfect. Chicken, salmon and pork dishes usually work great. One hint that I offer in the kitchen is to pay attention to the quantity and quality of salt — don’t be afraid to use it! Good salt can really bring out great flavors in Pinot Noir.

Kurtzman: Anything made with duck goes well with Pinot: duck breast, duck confit, duck burritos, duck with scrambled eggs, duck-bacon pizza.

Prosser: Maybe it’s because I’m from Oregon, but charcoal-grilled Columbia River salmon and Pinot is ridiculously good.

Bonaccorsi: The idea of white wine with fish and red wine with meat is very tired; food has changed in leaps and bounds since the days of beef Wellington, and the same is true of pairings. With that said, there is nothing better than a grilled steak and a glass of Pinot Noir.

What are domestic Pinot’s most distinctive qualities — what sensory clues should a wine drinker look for? How best to serve it to show off those qualities?

David O’Reilly, Owen Roe, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Yakima Valley, Washington: In evaluating American Pinot Noir, I tend first to note the deeper ruby color. It is also more intensely aromatic and flavored than Burgundy, with a lovely, silky richness. The expression of domestic Pinot Noir varies along with the diverse growing areas: wines from the cooler Russian River sites, Santa Rita Hills and Oregon tend to be more fresh-fruited, while wines from the warmer Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma will have more power and richness.

However, one defining feature of all is immediate approachability, so I tend not to decant younger domestic Pinots. Only after some cellaring, when the wine is throwing a little sediment, do I decant. The perfect serving temperature is the same as for Old World Pinots: 55 to 60 F.

Craig Strehlow, Camlow Cellars, Russian River Valley, California:

Most domestic Pinots are very fruit-forward, with good acidity and softer tannins. Look for bright red fruit like cherry and raspberry and darker fruit such as currant and plum, as well as some spiciness and a cola finish. The use of new oak is judicious, to keep the wine in balance. Here in California, we don’t need to worry about ripeness, so the winemaker can pick at the time that’s ideal for them to get the flavor profile they ultimately want.

I believe that decanting all wines is a good idea. If they are young, this will open them up and encourage them to evolve in the decanter. For me the ideal drinking temperature is between 65 and 70 F.

What can consumers expect with respect to the wines you’re releasing this year?

Cargasacchi: Our wines will be ripe and dark, balanced by acidity, and will increase people’s vocabulary and singing ability!

Prosser: Well, from J.K. Carriere, you can always expect higher-acid, classic wines that are made for food and built for age. The wines from the 2012 vintage that are out now are gorgeous and will cellar as well as or better than any domestic Pinot. But I don’t make much, so it tends to move pretty fast!

Kurtzman: The 2013s from August West will be on the riper side, similar to the 2009s.  Right now, they’re a little closed down, since they’re so young — but as the year progresses, they’ll open up to reveal the incredible growing season that was 2013.

Kosta: The 2013 wines are complex and luscious. Our Pinot Noirs are fruit-driven, with depth and structure that remind me of the intensity of 2005 and 2007. Hold them for a year, if possible.

Main photo: Pinot Posse members Ed Kurtzman, left, and David O’Reilly during an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen

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Stephane Riffault’s Pinot Noir comes from a parcel called La Noue which gives its name to his rosé and his red Sancerre. Credit: Copyright Denis Bomer

Sancerre’s greatest secret is its red wines made from Pinot Noir.

At the eastern border of France’s Loire Valley, Sancerre is known for its benchmark Sauvignon Blancs, but this was not always the case. Pinot Noir historically covered Sancerre’s hillsides until phylloxera began its devastation of the region’s vines sometime around 1865. (Indeed, it is said the Champenois came here in search of raw material.)

Among the many varieties planted to reconstitute the vineyards, it was Sauvignon Blanc that proved perfectly adapted to the climate and the soils of Sancerre and today accounts for roughly 80% of the volume. Pinot Noir — for either rosé or rouge — makes up the balance.

Until recently most producers treated their reds pretty much as an afterthought. Now Pinot Noir is getting serious attention. The wines may not yet plumb the depths of, say, Vôsne-Romanée, but the best ought to make Burgundy take notice. Sancerre rouge is getting better every day.

For the most part, these are seductive, light- to medium-bodied reds with vibrant flavors of cherry, plum and strawberry. Bottlings from older vines or prime parcels may be more structured, with hints of sweet spices, black tea and orange zests. They are supremely satisfying and absolute charmers. Most should be drunk slightly chilled.

Listed here are three of my favorite producers. Their grapes grow on one of Sancerre’s three soil types: “white soils,” composed of clay and limestone, also known as Kimmeridgian marl (the same soils as Chablis) on the westernmost hillsides of the zone; pebbly compact limestone, on the slopes and low hills; and flinty clay, or Silex, on the hills at the eastern limits of the appellation. All three vintners harvest by hand, keep yields low, and age their reds, at least in part, in oak barrels.

Domaine Claude & Stéphane Riffault

Thirtysomething Stéphane Riffault is one of my favorite discoveries. After studying viticulture and enology in Beaune, Riffault worked with Olivier Leflaive (Burgundy) and at Chateau Angelus (Saint Emilion) before returning to Sancerre, where he is in the process of converting the family property to organic viticulture. His reds are bottled without filtration.

Riffault’s Pinot Noir comes from a parcel called La Noue which gives its name to his rosé and his red Sancerre. Lovely balance and juicy red fruit characterized the (still too) young 2013. The 2008, however, was cool, silken and fine of grain. Wonderfully fresh, pure and fluid, it had deep flavors of cherry and black tea. (A second bottling, Les Chailloux, is not sold in the United States.)

Domaine Lucien Crochet

Lucien’s son Gilles, a Dijon-trained enologist, has long been one of Sancerre’s best ambassadors, making fine-tuned, concentrated, eco-friendly Sancerres, among them, two Sancerre rouges.

The basic bottling is La Croix du Roy. The 2011 was pale (vintage oblige) with lovely, mingled scents of small red berries. Cool, harmonious and lightly oaky, with a distinctly salty thread, it should be drinking beautifully when it arrives in the United States this fall. The 2010 is limpid and airborne, seasoned with oak, at once delicate and forceful.

Crochet’s Cuvée Prestige rouge is made from the Crochet’s oldest Pinot Noir vines and is produced only in the best vintages, most recently in 2005, 2009 and 2012 (the last won’t be released for another year or two).

The fragrant 2009 was pellucid and firm, a smooth, fresh gourmandise. The vivacious 2005 was similarly delicate but dignified, with rose petal accents, emerging flavors of oak and an appetizing bitter note in the finish.

Domaine Vincent Gaudry

Gaudry’s wines are sui generis … and downright fascinating. Gaudry says he works with his energy and his emotions and is guided by an old vigneron who “speaks the language of energy.” His mentor also provided him with great grapes, to wit, Pinot Fin, a pre-phylloxeric, pre-clonal version of today’s Pinot Noir that the old vintner planted 50 years ago by Selection Massale.

The grapes now make Gaudry’s “Les Garennes,” an unfiltered red, the 2013 of which was utterly seductive, silky, delicate and infinitely nuanced.

With the coarser, ruddier “Pinot Noir” we know today, Gaudry makes Vincengetorix, also unfiltered. The 2009 was dense, pure, cool, and lightly tannic, with flavors of spice and black tea — full of character and mesmerizing.

There are so many wonderful Sancerre rouges and so little space. Herewith, wholehearted recommendations for the following Domaines:

• Francois Crochet
• Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy
• Bailly-Reverdy
• Pierre Morin
• Dominique Roger
• Roblin, Vacheron
• Serge Laloue

Prices range from $22 to $40, and up to $66 for deluxe bottlings. And in case you’re wondering, all these winemakers also make terrific white Sancerres.

For more information about French wines, read “Earthly Delights From The Garden Of France: Wines Of The Loire,” by Jacqueline Friedrich.

Main photo: Harvest time at La Noue vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Denis Bomer

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Wines from Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

On my recent visit to Chablis, France, I asked to see new producers and was slightly taken aback to find the name Michel Laroche at the top of the list. Laroche has been making wine, and then running a thriving business, ever since his very first harvest back in the terrible vintage of 1963. Over the years he has been at the forefront of innovation in Chablis, with horizons stretching far beyond the narrow valley of the river Serein. And now he has reinvented himself as a true vigneron, cultivating the grapes for the wine that he makes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when expansion of the Chablis vineyards was at its height, Laroche was responsible for the development of a large négociant business, buying the grapes or juice for wine, and the growth of the family estate to some 100 hectares (about 247 acres). Not content with Chablis, he developed a wine estate in the Languedoc, Mas la Chevalière, outside Béziers for vins de pays (country wine), because he wanted to try his hand at red wine. In 2005, he bought a wine estate in South Africa, l’Avenir; there was also a venture in Chile. He was a fervent promoter of screw caps at a time when the French market deemed them an anathema. And making use of his wife Gwénaël’s talent for interior design, he opened an elegant hotel and wine bar in Chablis itself. Then in 2010, he sold out to Advini, a company run by the Languedoc family, Jeanjean, which incorporates several wine estates in the key vineyard areas of France.

Laroche can always be relied upon for a perceptive overview of the Chablis market. A former manager of the town’s main bank described him as un grand homme du marketing (a great marketeer) — and she should know, as she doubtless saw the business plans of most of the vignerons of the appellation. After the fusion with Advini, Laroche stayed on for a two-year transition period, consulting on marketing, but now has returned to his roots and become a vigneron, based on his father’s original vines. Appropriately, Laroche’s new venture is called Le Domaine d’Henri after his father, and the label features a charming photograph of his parents enjoying a harvest meal in their vineyard. Laroche has four children, and his two daughters, Céline and Margaux, work with him. Although his sons have taken different career paths, Laroche insists that it is a family business for them all.

The core of the estate is 14 hectares (34.6 acres) of vineyards that belonged to his father and he has bought 8 more hectares (19.8 acres). They are mostly on the right bank of the Serein and include several plots of Fourchaume. There is a new cellar on the outskirts of the town. The vineyards are run organically, but the label does not say so because Laroche wishes to reserve the right to use a conventional spray if the climate demands it, as it did in 2013. His winemaker is Thibaud Baudin, who has worked in the Côte d’Or and in New Zealand, and then most recently for Advini at Domaine Laroche.

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

However, these days Laroche is very much involved with wine making and vineyard work in a way that the scale of Domaine Laroche had not allowed him for several years – and he is in his element. You can sense his enjoyment at serving wines in which he has played a vital role. As he put it, “le jeu, the game, is to produce quality. It is like a new profession, with a new perspective.” And these days he can spend as much time as he likes in his vineyards, so that he feels so much closer to the product. “I’ve returned to its source.”

As well as simple Chablis from vineyards in the hills above the village of Maligny, Laroche has created a range of three premier crus from the prestigious Fourchaume region. Here you sense his marketing expertise. The first small vintage of Domaine d’Henri was in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste the wines.

The basic Fourchaume, if a premier cru can be basic, is a blend of several plots. Just 11% of it is fermented and aged in wood, and then blended with the vat-aged wine in the June following the harvest. The year 2012 was a fine vintage in Chablis, so no chaptalization was necessary, and the wine is firm and has great minerality. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes comes from older wines that were planted in 1970. Here the percentage of oak aging is 21% and the taste is firmer and steelier, with a taut finish. And the third Fourchaume, Cuvée Heritage, comes from vines that were planted in 1937, from a vineyard that Henri bought rather than planted himself. There is just one new barrel out of five, with 37% of the cuvée fermented and aged in oak. The higher percentage of oak makes for a more oxidative style, with more structure and richer flavors. In 2012 they made just 4,000 bottles of Cuvée Heritage, including some magnums and jeroboams.

When I asked Laroche what he considered to be the biggest change in Chablis over the years, he replied without hesitation, “The very positive development of the awareness that we are an appellation with a great potential.”

Back in 1963, most people considered themselves farmers, merely scraping a living from their vines with the aim of quantity, not quality. These days it is the quality of Chablis that provides the excitement, and that is Laroche’s aim as a new vigneron.

Main photo: Wines from Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

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