As many growers in the viticultural Veronese will tell you, it’s the wines made from freshly picked fruit that will tell you the most about the area’s unique growing conditions. So it’s time to turn aside from the appassimento frenzy for a moment and consider what’s been happening recently with good old Soave and Valpolicella. Remember them?
The news couldn’t be much better. The warmer summers of the last 20 or so years have led to a succession of early vintages when bringing in a fully-ripe crop of fruit has no longer been the worry it once was. Franco Allegrini for example argues that 2003 was the only vintage since the turn of the millennium in which a harvest did not achieve full phenolic ripeness. Soave and Valpolicella have been transformed as a result.
While a lot of simple Soave DOC is still a price-fighting line for many supermarkets, look a little further beyond these negoziante and co-operative sourced wines, and you’ll see growers like Marco Mosconi, Agostino Vicentini and Tenuta Sant’Antonio (all around Colognola ai Colli) producing delightfully drinkable examples with real style. Further over to the east around Ronca on the slopes of Monte Calvarina, the vineyards are sited on volcanic, basalt-based soils where a number of smaller houses – Franchetto, Corte Giacobbe, Corte Moschina, Sandro De Bruno, Fattori and Gianni Tessari – are forging a new sense of identity for the area with a series of impressively fresh, mineral-toned wines. Lying in between these two areas is Classico, where again, the wines have never been better. Widely available examples of the simple Classico DOC from the big guns – Ca Rugate, Gini, Inama, Pieropan, etc – are as reliable as ever, while some of the smaller, for now lesser-known, estates such as Coffele, Balestri Valda and Le Battistelle for example, are making wines of stunning purity and balance. Best of all is the fact that at this introductory level the wines are ridiculously underpriced for the quality they offer.
Valpolicella is also undergoing a serious makeover. The eastern part of the area (overlapping with Soave) is the source of some lovely, fresh, juicy reds brimming over with red cherry and hedgerow fruit flavours: Marco Mosconi’s Montecurto, Corte Sant’Alda’s Ca Fiui, Ca Rugate’s Rio Albo, Graziano Pra’s Morandina and Marion’s Borgo Marcellise are all fine examples. In Classico, famous names like Allegrini, Masi, Speri and Tedeschi, for example, make highly approachable versions of the simple Classico DOC which do not want for tipicita but here too newer styles are emerging which focus on conveying a real sense of place in an authentic and sometimes uncompromising manner. The Vaona family at Novaia in the Marano valley and Rubinelli Vajol in nearby San Pietro in Cariano are producing vini d’annata (the youthful wine from the most recent vintage) in a pale, aromatic, incisively fresh style which is brilliant with all manner of foods. Meanwhile examples from Villa Spinosa, Lorenzo and Cristoforo Aldrighetti or Secondo Marco (who gives his simple Classico a short period of ageing in botte) offer a fearless interpretation of the new tipicita in a more hardcore style. If a fuller, riper wine is more your thing, then look for the simple Classico from Accordini, Ca Nicolis or Begali. Uniting these varying approaches is a determination to uncover the subtle nuances that distinguish the different growing areas: Viva la differenza!
Next time: the ‘ageworthy and aspirational’ reds and whites of the two denominations
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at different styles of wine produced under the various Soave and Valpolicella denominations. But first, a little background in terms of geography, growing conditions and grape varieties to set the scene. The two areas overlap and are each divided into three distinct subareas. From the west Valpolicella Classico takes in five different communes between Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella and Negrar where, at the valley’s eastern edge, the simple Valpolicella DOC area begins. It surrounds the smaller area of Valpantena (which has its own DOC) and extends as far as Montecchia di Crosara, near the town of Soave. The valleys of Mezzane, Illasi and Tramigna are therefore ‘common ground’ as the Soave territory begins at Mezzane, extending eastwards as far as the ridge which separates the Val d’Alpone from the Val di Chiampo and the neighbouring province of Vicenza. It contains the Classico zone north of the twin towns of Soave itself and Monteforte d’Alpone and also includes the rarely seen DOC of Soave Colli Scaligeri – broadly speaking the hillier areas beyond Classico. The overall territory for Soave and Valpolicella lies just north of Verona, indeed some of the suburbs extend into the lower-lying Valpolicella vineyards.
The vineyards occupy the lower slopes of the ridges and valleys which fan out downwards from the high karst table of Lessinia to meet the northern bank of the river Adige as it runs through the city heading east. Most of the valleys are aligned from north to south, which creates near perfect growing conditions at altitudes between around 100 to 600 metres above sea level. Soils are mainly limestone- and clay-based though pockets of volcanic-based tufa are also found in Valpolicella. In Soave, the eastern boundary of the denomination is formed of a high ridge connecting several volcanic peaks (Calvarina, Crocetta and Duello): dark, basalt-based soils dominate as far as Soave Classico on the opposite slopes of the Val d’Alpone where both main soil types (limestone- and basalt-based) intermingle.
The training system is mainly the classic local pergola (around 80% of the vineyards in both areas). Once maligned as a source of over-production, pergola is currently undergoing a revival, largely owing to the effects of climate change. The overhanging leaf canopy serves to protect the ripening fruit from scorching in summer temperatures which have climbed ever higher over the last couple of decades. This has been accompanied by a more sensible approach towards containing yields; nonetheless some of the more influential personalities (such as Dal Forno in Valpolicella and Anselmi in Soave) continue to insist that Guyot produces better quality fruit.
Grape varieties are almost entirely local (and rarely seen elsewhere). In Valpolicella, Corvina is the most widely-planted and most-prized variety. Its aromas are subtle yet expansive – a mix of cherry and hedgerow fruits (blackberry, damson and sloe) with a telltale twist of black pepper; the palate is medium-bodied with brisk acid and light but fine tannins. Corvina-based wines show excellent ageing potential and remarkably fine balance – locals regard the variety as their Pinot Noir. Corvinone plays a lesser role and needs careful management to contain yields, and the right growing conditions (working best at higher altitudes) to arrive at good quality fruit. A more robust and tannic wine than Corvina, it has interesting tobacco- and herb-like aromas. Rondinella is more of a faithful retainer, reliably productive but rarely distinguished. The recent tendency to produce deeper-coloured and more structured wines, has seen the rise of rare local varieties like Oseleta, a grape with a notably low liquid to solid ratio (it’s all skin and pips) which nonetheless can add colour and plentiful tannins. Sadly though, its arrival has hastened the decline of Molinara which, though pale-coloured, produces wines with surprising fragrance and delightful, salty and minerally flavours.
In Soave Garganega dominates, covering almost 90 per cent of the vineyard area. Like Corvina the variety gives wines with a broad aromatic profile: floral-toned orchard fruits (apple, apricot and pear particularly) with notes of mandarin zest and preserved lemon. The palate has good, often zesty, acidity and is ripely textured with intriguing saline and mineral flavours. The other mainstay of Soave is Trebbiano di Soave (aka Verdicchio) and its presence at up to 30 per cent of the total can make a real difference. Some of the best examples include a relatively high proportion. e.g. Pieropan’s Calvarino where the variety’s steely acidity and zingy, green freshness really lifts the blend.
Coming up next week: I examine the ‘simpler’ styles of Soave and Valpolicella and recommend some of the finest examples.
When I migrated from New Zealand to Canada in the 1960s at the age of 19, both my country of departure and the one I arrived in had embryonic modern wine industries. Much New Zealand wine at that time was fortified, and much of what was not should have been. The same was true of Ontario, where I settled down. Both regions were heavily dependent on hybrid varieties: Müller-Thurgau and Baco Noir in New Zealand, Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch, and Vidal in Ontario – as well as Concord, a native grape that turned out to be brilliant for grape juice and jelly.
At 19, I had already been interested in wine for several years – thanks to a sympathetic wine merchant who agreed that having to wait until I was 21 to taste it was ridiculous. I tasted as widely as I could, and by the time I was 17 I had become the wine steward (now I would be called the sommelier, I suppose) in one of Auckland’s few licensed restaurants, Tiffany’s. I read the likes of André Simon on wine generally and Julian Jeffs on Sherry – and I’m very happy to join him as a Classic Wine Library author, 50 years later!
I also built a small private cellar of about 20 bottles, mainly Australian Shirazes and Cabernets (Australia was ahead in planting Vitis vinifera) and a few friends and I drank them all in the weeks before I left for Canada. We drank my two best bottles, Château La Tour Carnet 1953, with chicken and fries at another Auckland restaurant, Lutèce.
In Canada I began to drink more European wines because the range of imports was much greater than it had been in New Zealand. I did discover a few drinkable Canadian wines made from Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch, but the Canadian offerings in the 1960s were very dreary. Later, during the 1980s, I lived in the Niagara Peninsula – then and still Canada’s largest viticultural region. This was a period of rapid change because in the 1970s hybrid varieties had begun to give way to Vitis vinifera and licences were finally being issued to new wineries – none had been issued between 1927 and 1975.
If a week is a long time in politics, a decade can be a short time in the wine business, and in the 1990s Canadian wine really began to perk up. By 2000 some of British Columbia’s and Ontario’s best-known wineries had been founded, and in the few years since then they have been joined by hundreds more. It’s not just that the number of producers in Canada has burgeoned – more than three-quarters of the wineries have opened since 2000 – but that the quality has risen exponentially.
Canada now produces a wide range of fine wines. Many styles are made throughout the country, but there are some noteworthy concentrations: robust reds from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, cool-climate whites and reds in Ontario, edgy whites in Quebec, and sparkling wines in Nova Scotia. Icewine, the early standard-bearer of Canadian wine, has been pushed aside by quality table wines, but its export sales are more than robust. Canadian wines run the gamut from conventional, through organic, to biodynamic and low-intervention.
Still, Canada’s wine production is well under one per cent of the world’s, and that’s in a good year in Canada. A handful of the 700-or-so wineries export their table wines to Europe, Asia, and Europe, and they tend to be small-production and high-quality wines that are to be found on the lists of high-end restaurants, not on supermarket shelves. Production is so small that that’s not likely to change soon.
I’m fortunate to have lived through a significant phase of the evolution of Canada’s wine industry, from the awful stuff being made in the 1960s to the fine wines produced by many Canadian wineries today. In The Wines of Canada I’ve provided a historical overview that captures some of this story. But the bulk of the book deals with Canadian wine today, in general terms and within the important regions: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic Provinces.
At the same time, this is a critical book. The Canadian wine industry has its blemishes: there’s no national wine law, labelling can be confusing, and there’s a persistent failure to deal properly with blends of foreign and Canadian wines. So The Wines of Canada is not just another celebration of a wine region. It highlights the achievements, discusses the challenges, and points to areas in need of improvement.
The achievements are many and solid, and one of the reasons I wrote The Wines of Canada is to help get the word out that Canadian wines have arrived. Of course there’s a wide range of quality, as there is everywhere, but a little research will lead you to astonishing whites made from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and other varieties, and fine wines from varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Merlot. Nor should hybrids be discounted: look for a few stellar wines from Baco Noir and some terrific sparkling wines made from hybrid varieties. And there are more and more exciting rosés.
If you have trouble finding much Canadian wine where you live, come to Canada and visit the wine regions. Almost all the wineries are so recent that they were built with wine tourism in mind. You’ll find well-marked wine routes that lead you to tasting rooms, wine shops, and winery tours.
Reading is an excellent start. Tasting is the next step
The wines of Canada was published on 21 September 2017, priced £30, available from your favourite book shop. Or click here to buy your copy today.
Glancing behind me as I write this, at shelves loaded with wine books, I can count perhaps a dozen Classic Wine Library titles, from the black-spined Faber & Faber editions, through the less soberly jacketed Mitchell Beazley versions to the elegantly presented and up-to-date publications from Infinite Ideas. I am not sure when I bought my first one, or which it was, probably Julian Jeffs’ Sherry or Anthony Hanson’s Côte d’Or, but I am certain that without the Classic Wine Library my journey of discovery through the world of wine, from keen consumer to Wine Editor of Ireland’s Food & Wine Magazine, would have been more challenging and certainly less enjoyable. The library has been a go-to reference point for longer than I can remember.
I always regarded the Classic Wine Library like a club – not exclusive but inclusive – led by authoritative and informative writers whose knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject shone through on every page. Thus it was with great excitement that I joined the club over a year ago, commissioned to write about the wine region closest to my heart – Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The excitement was not so great as to blind me to the challenge ahead – the labyrinthine complexity of its nomenclature alone intimidates the neophyte – but I could also call on one asset beyond value. A little over 10 years ago my wife and I were fortunate to buy a house in the Côte d’Or and since then we have visited the region dozens of times. Thus I was able to explore at leisure, chasing up the back roads, discovering unexpected delights, as well as more formally, packing in scores of visits to winemakers, from the biggest négociants to the smallest domaines.
I never – ever – tire of the Côte d’Or and I believe it is now at one of the most exciting periods in its history. That history has seen it stamped by innumerable forces, two of which – the French Revolution and the scourge of phylloxera – are largely responsible for its shape today. And perhaps now, as the memory of their trauma fades, the côte is slipping into the grip of another pair: climate change and the extraordinary surge in the prices paid for mere scraps of prestigious vineyard land. How these will shape the côte in the decades to come is still a matter for speculation, but they make every visit challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
Notwithstanding the undeniable influence of these forces, at a micro level the Côte d’Or is probably producing more high quality wine today than at any point in its history and hence it rewards repeated exploration. There is always something new to be seen, to discover, change is ever present – and this in a region that appears unchanging to the casual observer. In Côte d’Or: The wines and winemakers of the heart of Burgundy, I hope I have managed to present an early twenty-first century snapshot of an era that future historians may well come to label as a golden age – for what I consider to be the world’s greatest wine region.
Côte d’Or is published on 8 September 2017, priced £30, available from your favourite book shop. Or click here to buy your copy today.
One of my favourite tasks as editor of the Classic Wine Library is choosing the photos that grace the covers of the books. A great cover is essential in creating the right first impression. Reading the books makes me (and I assume others) want to sample the wines and visit the places talked about, but readers first need to be enticed into picking up the book. A beautiful and interesting cover picture can make all the difference. Picture research can sometimes be quite wearisome, particularly if you are desperately trying to depict some abstract concept in an original way. But the Classic Wine Library, with its series focus on inspiring photos of the landscapes behind the wines under discussion, is different.
It is important to have a reliable and expert supplier when purchasing such photographs. Without having visited many of the places myself how can I be sure that the photo I’m looking at is really of Roussanne vines in southern France and not Chardonnay grapes growing in South Africa? So over the last few years we’ve made this task a lot easier by working with a specialist wine photographic agency, which features a huge selection of wine-related photos from all over the world and is run by Mick Rock, a very knowledgeable and helpful, not to mention world-renowned, photographer.
But there’s more to cover design than finding a beautiful image. The title font used by our designer is called Trajan and was designed by typographer Carol Twombly. Although the font itself is less than thirty years old it is based on the inscription found on Trajan’s column, built by that Roman Emperor around the first century AD. Unlike the column’s inscription the information in these books is not carved in stone, as the world of wine is in a constant process of evolution. However we think that this elegant font, which is only available in capital letters, lends our books a certain authority and timelessness.
Over the last month we have signed up new books on the wines of New Zealand (Rebecca Gibb), Sake and other Japanese wines (Anthony Rose) and the wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova (Caroline Gilby), and I am looking forward to taking virtual journeys through those countries very shortly. So watch this space for new covers. We hope you like them and find the photography as inspirational as we do.
Titles being added to the library this year include The wines of Canada, Côte-d’Or, Rosé, The wines of northern Spain, Amarone and the fine wines of Verona and The wines of Greece. You can find out more here and order published books at 20% discount here.
One of the great things about working in publishing is the conversations you get to have with experts and enthusiasts in a variety of fields. In my time in the world of books I have worked with people writing about medicine, religion, philosophy, self-help and business. But perhaps the most enthusiastic people I have met are the experts in wine with whom I’m involved at the moment.
What is more because their field of expertise lends itself to conviviality some of the conversations we’ve had with authors of books in the Classic Wine Library have taken place over a glass of red or white. It’s not that the authors in those other fields were lacking in social skills but given the choice between meeting an author at the hospital to pore over images of skin diseases or meeting one in a wine bar to talk about the wines of Languedoc, Spain or northern Italy, the decision is pretty easy.
One of our most eminent authors is Julian Jeffs. He is also a generous host and the owner of an impressive wine cellar, some of which Infinite Ideas was privileged to experience over lunch (cooked by his wife) at our first meeting to discuss the most recent edition of his classic book Sherry. And I have encountered several authors who think it quite normal to have a glass of sherry or madeira for elevenses – whereas if I suggested this back at the office (even given that the Infinite Ideas office is a pretty relaxed place) people might start to worry. Apparently having one at eleven is the more sensible of two available alternatives – the other option being to have eleven at one. In any case, inebriation is not the aim here (or so I am led to believe), and any partaking of wine is always accompanied by an evaluation of its merits.
A couple of years ago Infinite Ideas spent a particularly relaxed (by which we don’t mean sozzled) afternoon in the company of Richard Mayson and Julian Jeffs as they discussed the wine trade and wine writing. We were able to sit back and listen to these two experts chat about the subject they know best. One thing that particularly struck me, which I had not considered before, was that writing about wine actually has played an important part in the trade. Once producers realised they and their industry were being written about they had to clean up their acts and practises such as adding sugar to sherry, which were common when Julian began writing on the subject in the 1960s have now disappeared.
Wine writing does continue to influence the trade and help ensure quality; as Julian noted, ‘I think the job is still to keep the standards up and to tell the truth about wine in some detail to serious wine drinkers who want to know it.’ So while Classic Wine Library books will not educate the next generation of heart surgeons, help somebody manage their depression or give them the tools to become the next Bill Gates it’s good to know that they are making a difference to the wine we all enjoy drinking.
Infinite Ideas dropped in on a conversation between Julian Jeffs and Richard Mayson in February 2015. They spoke about changes in the wine world over the last 60 years, especially in the field of fortified wine. You can read the whole conversation here.