In this extract from his new book, published on 4 September, David Way looks at how winemaking and wine regulations have changed in Barolo and Barbaresco in the last 40 years, and explains the effects this has had on wine quality, the popularity of these wines and the prices paid for them.
Approaches to Nebbiolo winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco
When it comes to approaches to winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco, the late 1970s saw the beginnings of what was to become a heady mix of challenging traditional practices, importing new ideas and the launching of a hugely successful if informal marketing initiative. Traditional Barolo was said to be made with uncontrolled fermentation temperatures and with very long maceration on the skins (several months) extracting all Nebbiolo’s abundant tannins. In turn, these wines had to be aged for years or even a decade in large traditional oak botti to make the wines drinkable. The result, it was said, was pale, often oxidized wines with high volatile acidity, little fruit and drying tannins. Producers and locals drank Dolcetto and Barbera while they waited for their Nebbiolo to become drinkable.
A younger generation, led by Elio Altare and Enrico Scavino in Barolo and Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco sought to make deeper coloured, fruitier wines with lower tannin levels, typically aged in French oak barriques which they had seen on visits to Burgundy. The wines could be ready to drink shortly after release. The way to get the full extraction of colour with moderate tannins was the rotofermenter, which produced a fast extraction by moving the wine within the tank. This genuinely modern device, it was said, could provide a better extraction of Nebbiolo in three to five days than the traditional long maceration. Scrupulous attention to hygiene in the winery created clean, fruit-expressive wines. The young wines were then aged in French oak barriques, which fixed the colour and added layers of vanilla spice to the aromas. However, the criticism of these wines was that the oak aromas overwhelmed the delicate perfume of the Nebbiolo variety, one of its most important characteristics. The wines were said to taste like any other modern high quality red wine and they lost their connection with the Langhe. By the turn of the century, the wine critics felt that they did not improve in the bottle as traditional Nebbiolo does.
Needless to say, the reality was more complicated than this. Slavonian oak botti can be excellent for the slow development of wine but dirty, leaky, badly-maintained botti only detracted from quality. The younger generation not only brought new techniques into the winery, they were also prepared to withstand the wrath of the older generation by lowering yields and carrying out green harvest so that the remaining fruit would ripen fully. Many winemakers today still tell stories about how this was deemed to be rejecting the generosity of nature or even its creator. The work of green harvest had to be done on a Sunday and the discarded bunches hidden to avoid scandal. Equally, the young generation were prepared to experiment with temperature control, the timely racking of young wine and trialling ageing in barriques to encourage the micro-oxygenation that fixed colour and made the wines ready to drink young.
As well as the changes in the vineyard and winery, Nebbiolo wines began to be promoted in foreign markets. Angelo Gaja was famous for his willingness to drive to Germany or fly to the USA to promote his wines to small and large groups. The Barolo Boys, the term for the 12 young producers (including Chiara Boschis, the one Barolo girl), worked with Marco de Grazia and went in person to the USA to promote the wines. Nebbiolo was no longer only revered in its home territory. Robert Parker also sparked considerable interest with the high scores he gave to Nebbiolo wines in the 1990s. All these factors helped to create the USA market which ever since has been the major destination for Barolo and Barbaresco.
Today, the so-called Barolo wars have long since been consigned to history; the traditionalist versus modernist dichotomy has largely been rendered meaningless. Nobody today regards hygiene in the winery as optional. Realistic lower yields are enshrined in the DOCG regulations. Temperature control is almost ubiquitous. The warming of the climate means that fruit is nearly always ripe, though tannin quality, fruit concentration and overall balance continues to vary. While vintage variation is still important, it is so within a much smaller range of good to outstanding. The cool and damp 2014 in Barolo resulted in wines that initially were criticized. A decade later they are drinking well. And, mercifully, wine critics and drinkers have come to understand that Nebbiolo wines are naturally pale and quickly tend to garnet in colour; the obsession of the 1990s with deeply coloured wines has passed.
Further, it is not the technology that defines the style, it is how it is used. In high volume winemaking around the world, rotofermenters are used for the rapid processing of inexpensive wines. They save time, labour and cost. However, for making high quality Nebbiolo wines, it is perfectly possible to use them to extract gently by reducing the speed of rotation that encourages the release of colour and tannin molecules. Nobody would regard Chiara Boschis’s wines, made in rotofermenters, as being clumsy or over-extracted.
Similarly, the use of oak containers has become much more nuanced. The general trend in this century has been a revival of large format botti, 10–30 hectolitres, but made from very high-quality oak, including Slavonian, French or Austrian wood. The producers who do use French oak barriques for their wines mostly do so for perhaps a year and then continue the ageing in a botte. There are very, very few producers using 100 per cent new French oak barriques for the entirety of the ageing period. It is more typical for 20–30 per cent to be new. As a result, the new oak flavours do not overwhelm the delicate Nebbiolo aromas. In short, top producers today are more likely to want to show off their Stockinger botti than their French oak barriques.
For decades now wine writers have criticized the use of the terms ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ to describe the winemaking approaches adopted by those making great Nebbiolo wines in the Langhe. Michael Garner and Paul Merritt did so as early as 1990. They called the practice self-deluding as no two winemakers do the same things. However, like everyone else, they continued to use the terms, because they have a certain limited value. Mauro Mascarello’s wines are clearly traditional in style, with their wonderful combination of outstanding fruit expression and the effects of a long, mildly oxidative ageing process in old botti. Rocche dei Manzoni wines just as evidently show the aromas of new oak. But the vast majority of wines sit on a spectrum somewhere in between these two. Today, it is better to ask how long maceration times are (and how the cap is worked) and how the wine is aged (the type of wood, how much is new, for how long).
Multi-vineyard classico blends, MGA, vigna
The biggest development in Barolo and Barbaresco in the last forty years is the importance of what are now known as MGA wines, wines from grapes grown in a defined subzone, explained further below. This contrasted with the older tradition of making a single Barolo from several different vineyards or subzones. Wines made by blending across several sites was standard practice, whether the wine was made by a merchant (buying grapes or wines from many growers, overwhelmingly the most common practice until after the Second World War) or by family wineries. Of course, this practice was driven mainly by pragmatic concerns: the small size of vineyard plots and the small volumes produced by most family wineries. It was much more practical to blend and age a single wine than to keep the wines of distinct vineyards separately. Further, Barolo did not reach the super premium prices of today nor, believe it or not, was there demand for it. In the late 1980s, Michael Garner and Paul Merritt continually lamented that there was just too much Barolo! As a result of all these factors, there was no financial incentive to have more than one Barolo in your cellar. With the boom in MGA wines, these Barolo blends are commonly called Barolo classico, a helpful if slightly unusual use of the term. Elsewhere in Italian wine regions, classico refers to the geographical area at the heart of a historic wine region, which does not apply here.
The trend for ‘zoning’ projects came about through several influences. Undoubtedly, the model of Burgundy with its famous villages and single vineyards and its conviction about terroir-expressive wines was hugely influential. This was particularly the case in the Langhe, where growers had long been aware that a few metres of difference in the vineyard could bring about a noticeable difference to the wine in the glass. And Burgundy seemed much like home with the tiny parcels of land that growers owned. Further, in the past, the merchants ruled the roost, buying grapes and wines from growers and blending and selling the wine. But this left the growers feeling that the quality of their wine was unrecognized and that they did not get a proper reward for their work. The alternative was to bottle your own wine and do the hard work of promoting and selling it. Once a market for Barolo and Barbaresco was established from the 1970s, the situation changed completely. The quality of the wines was recognized and it became a case of how to develop that market. Rather than just having one quality Nebbiolo to offer, a producer could offer a classico and several MGA wines, the latter often at a higher price.
Some vineyards in Barolo and Barbaresco have demonstrated over decades and even centuries that the grapes from them produces wines of the highest quality. This was famously encapsulated in Renato Ratti’s map of historic vineyards of 1971. He was inspired by his visits to France and its tradition of crus and of classifying wines. Ratti, with his winemaker, Massimo Martinelli, researched and selected what he considered to be the historic vineyards of the denomination. Later, in 1985, he also classified them to the extent that 10 were deemed to be the best (1° Categoria), 17 to be subzones with particular characteristics and 16 to be simply historic. At much the same time, in the late 1960s, Beppe Colla at Prunotto, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and Elvio Cogno (then at Cogno-Marcarini) bottled their first single-vineyard wines. This has now turned into a major trend. After a wild west period when producers could label their single-vineyard bottles as they liked (and even invent names for the vineyards), the region put in place a process to agree official subzones and rules about their names. This produced the MGA plus vigna system we have today, with all its strengths and weaknesses. Barbaresco, smaller and less litigious, finalized its list of 66 MGAs in 2007 and Barolo followed in 2010 with its 181. Legal challenges to the ruling on the extension of Cannubi in Barolo DOCG went on until 2016, when the original 2010 rules were finally upheld. Roero DOCG joined in, defining its 135 subzones in 2017.
To complicate matters further, in Barolo DOCG each comune was given the freedom to decide on the size and number of its MGAs. Entirely predictably, they took different approaches. Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga d’Alba chose the route of smaller sites which can encapsulate genuine differences in aspect, elevation and soil type. By contrast, Monforte d’Alba has been widely criticized for the size of its MGAs. It managed to create the largest and second largest in Bricco San Pietro (380 hectares) and Bussia (300 hectares). With regard to Bussia, it included areas that would have been logical MGAs in their own right with historic reputations for quality, Bussia Soprano, Mondoca or Pianpolvere, to give just some examples. One of the criticisms of the creation of the MGAs is precisely that it led to the removing of historic names when they were subsumed within a larger unit. Similarly, the expansion of Cannubi was hotly contested in the court. The final judgement to allow any MGA which includes ‘Cannubi’ (Cannubi Muscatel, Cannubi Valletta, etc.) to be labelled simply Cannubi really does not help the wine buyer, nor does it reflect the continuing quality of the historic central part of Cannubi.
The other oddity is that Barolo and Roero decided to have MGAs for each comune, in addition to named subzones, while Barbaresco did not. In this case, Barolo made the better decision as a wine from the comune of Serralunga d’Alba is likely to taste different from one made from the comune of La Morra. And given the sheer number and obscurity of many subzone MGAs, in many cases it would help the consumer if producers used the comune name instead of the individual MGA. Unfortunately, producers are not allowed to put both comune name and the MGA name on the label as only one MGA name is allowed on any label. But, unless you have memorized all 170 subzone names in Barolo, it would help locate a wine if producers could write, for example, ‘Prapò, Serralunga d’Alba’ on the label.
In addition, registered vineyard names (Vigna X) can be added on the label as long as the MGA name is also used. This is helpful if long winded if the producer uses the full name. But (and there always seems to be a ‘but’), it is also legal to use a trademarked name, a nome di fantasia as they are often referred to in Italian. Kerin O’Keefe points out that Gaja was particularly active here, creating made-up names for what are in reality single-vineyard wines, trademarking them and thereby excluding others from using the name. Others, for example, Aldo Conterno, trademarked the names of famous vineyards whose names had disappeared within a larger MGA and continued to use them.
To what extent have these zoning exercises helped the final buyer of the wine? For the casual buyer of wine, not at all, except perhaps helping to spur the producers on to produce wines that reflect their terroir. For the lover of the great Nebbiolo wines of the Langhe and Roero, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. The latter amount to the sheer number of MGAs/UGAs, adding to the complexity of the region, plus the missteps in the implementation of the system as detailed above. But the gains have been real. The MGAs in Barolo and Barbaresco really do highlight the importance of terroir in these denominations. The nature of the soils and subsoils, elevation, aspect, wind direction and more make a difference to the wine in the glass. Most MGAs encapsulate these differences. Further, it has really helped subzones that were not famous in the past, such as Ravera or Monvigliero, to get the recognition they deserve. Neither of these important sites were mentioned on Ratti’s map of 1971. Rabajà and Asili in Barbaresco have similarly benefited and contributed to the general recognition of the quality of the wines of the Langhe. Finally, it has allowed lovers of these wines to compare and contrast different MGA/UGA wines. It is inconceivable now that we would only enjoy generic Burgundy wines, not the villages and crus, and the same is the case with the Nebbiolo wines of the Langhe and Roero.
Extract from The wines of Piemonte © David Way (Infinite Ideas, 2023). To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library shop.
Nearly every Madeira wine worshipper has come to it after having had a Damascene moment. I recall my own quite vividly. I had only been in the wine trade for two years when I attended a pre-sale tasting in October 1986 at Christie’s in London for an auction held to commemorate the six-hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Windsor. Having been told how to spot Madeira in a blind tasting by my elders in the trade (the buzz-word in those days was a rather unattractive ‘synthetic cheese ball’ character), I suddenly found that there was a great deal more excitement to be found in older Madeiras. I was an immediate convert, but the experience left me mystified and struggling for the correct vocabulary to describe the wines. Some of the spellbindingly complex Madeira wines that I taste today still leave me lost for words.
A large part of the appreciation of any great wine lies in its depth and mystery, and there are few wines as magical or mysterious as old Madeira. Madeira’s vintages are not nearly as well documented as Port vintages. Until recently, few records of climatic conditions were kept and even fewer of the insightful socio-economic observations that pepper the vintage reports and visitors’ books of the Port shippers. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, unlike Port, there is little or no consensus among shippers as to what constitutes, in Port terminology, a ‘declared’ vintage. In any one year there is a wide variation of aspect and altitude to consider as well as the performance of individual grape varieties grown on tiny plots. One shipper may hit on a great Verdelho; another may not. Although terse and succinct, the notes left by the late Noel Cossart and published in his book Madeira, The Island Vineyard reflect this. His notes on individual vintages go back to 1774 but they are no more than one-line entries with remarks like ‘Sercial fine’ or the occasional ‘Cama de Lobos and São Martinho good’.
It has to be said that modern records are much more detailed (and the main shippers now file quite detailed vintage reports) but when it comes to older vintages much of the information has been lost in the mists of time. At the Madeira Wine Company, for example, there is a whole room full of archives dating back over 200 years. The Blandys have employed an archivist to work through them but it will be many years before they are able to piece together the history and pedigree of many of their historic wines. (Indeed some of their archives were accidentally destroyed so there will be wines that remain a mystery to them as well.) Without the sequential pattern and weight of the unanimous or majority declaration of vintage Port, great vintage Madeira is much more sporadic and random in nature. In short, it is much more difficult to generalise about vintage Madeira than it is, say, for Port or Bordeaux. This, in my opinion, adds greatly to the magic and occasional sense of awe about individual wines.
With Madeira’s inbuilt longevity, some remarkable wines are still available in limited quantities today. Small stocks are still held by Madeira families and are drip-fed onto the market. Others appear from country house cellars elsewhere in the world and come to auction, usually in good condition given Madeira’s near indestructibility. Some shippers on the island also hold substantial stocks of older wine which they release from time to time, often to coincide with significant anniversaries.
Name and identity
The means of naming and identifying a bottle of Madeira has evolved throughout its history. Consequently the titles affixed to some of the famous old wines defy convention and the rules laid down today. Where the shipper and/or grape variety is unknown, the wine may be designated by its geographic origin (e.g. São Martinho, or very occasionally the quinta), the name of a ship on which it was transported (e.g. Hurricane, Southern Cross), the country to which the wine was sent (e.g. East India Madeira) or sometimes the name of the customer or collector. Some customers amassed significant collections that have become famous in their own right and which are profiled throughout this chapter.
Madeira is a small island and the same surnames often crop up in different contexts with bewildering frequency. Alongside the historic family brand names that have made Madeira (the islands and the wines) internationally famous, families like Abudarham, Acciaioli, Araújo, Borges, Favila, Ferraz, Freitas, Henriques and Lomelino continually crop up in the history of Madeira wine. Many of these families were traders and stockholders in their own right, and their wines were absorbed by larger shippers through mergers and acquisitions and then frequently rebranded.
One of the frustrations about tasting older Madeira is that there is rarely an accurate record of the bottling date. It is quite possible, indeed probable, for the same wine to have been bottled on a number of different occasions throughout its history. Most shippers now display the date of bottling but this has only been mandatory since 2015. This still leaves generations of older wines without any indication whatsoever of the date of bottling. This gives the prospect of two bottles of ostensibly the same wine being very different, one having been bottled, say, twenty years later than the other. Again I look on this absence of information as part of the mystery and academic fascination of Madeira!
Soleras are another challenge. Until 1998 there was no enforceable definition of what constituted a solera Madeira. In his book, Madeira, the Island Vineyard, Noel Cossart devotes an entire chapter to historic soleras and explains at the outset that these are based on the lote system rather than the system of fractional blending that is used to such great effect in Jerez. Cossart dates Madeira’s soleras to the mid-nineteenth century when shippers, facing acute shortages due to oidium and phylloxera, were forced into blending wines from different years (rather in the same way that the Port shippers were forced to blend wines from different quintas to make a house vintage Port). There are, however, a number of soleras which pre-date this. Noel Cossart goes on to offer a logical definition of how a dated solera in Madeira used to work: ‘The date indicates the year in which the original wine was actually vintaged. This is called the vinho madre or matriz (mother wine). When the decision is made to turn a vintage into a solera, as it becomes ullaged, the matriz is topped up from a back-up lote of old wine of the same style, and in turn the back-up is replenished with a blend to suit the style. Usually the solera is topped up either when ten per cent down or annually, which ever occurs first, but the figure varies from ten per cent to twenty five per cent.’ No doubt this is how a solera should work, but there have been many disreputable soleras and Cossart singles out those sold pre-war to unsuspecting passengers on liners from bambotes, the so-called ‘bum-boats’ that used to be rowed out to ships in Funchal Bay. I suspect these were not the only ones and a number of shippers also pushed the boundaries of credibility. But the fact remains that a good solera, no matter how it is put together, is often a wonderful wine with balance and poise like no other. With shippers no longer supporting the redefined solera category, an increasing number of wines are bottled with an indication of age (up to ‘more than fifty-year-old’).
Fakes: buyer beware
With the steep increase in the price of old wines in recent years there has been a worrying increase in the amount of counterfeit Madeira coming to the market. It pays to buy old Madeira wines from a reputable source, be it at auction or through a knowledgeable private merchant. You need to be absolutely certain about the provenance of a wine, just as you would if you were buying a valuable work of art. The extent to which fraudsters will go was brought home to me at a recent tasting where a wine purporting to be an 1869 Sercial from one of the major shippers was nothing of the sort. The wine was cloudy, stewed, thin and flat. Close inspection found the bottle to be relatively new, the label had been copied and under the capsule were the remains of a relatively new paper seal of origin. It was almost certainly a five- or ten-year-old dry Madeira from the 1960s or 1970s. The bottle had been bought off eBay!
Corks and recorking
It is a frustrating fact of life that most Madeiras were bottled with short corks, often of poor quality. Due to the shortage of cork on the island (cork trees do not grow on Madeira), many of these were recycled. Francisco Albuquerque, winemaker at the Madeira Wine Company, remembers boiling up previously used corks to sterilise them as a child. Given the prolonged ageing for Madeira in cask and demijohn, the cork was thought to be of little significance serving merely as a barrier to foreign objects in the outside world. As Madeira is stored with the bottles standing upright, the corks dry out quickly and usually crumble as soon as they are penetrated by a corkscrew. Any bottle of venerable Madeira being cellared for any length of time should therefore be recorked roughly every twenty to thirty years. In the case of a few well-cellared wines, the date of recorking is recorded on the bottle (e.g. 1870 São Martinho, bottled 1893, recorked 1953, recorked 1960, rebottled and recorked July 1996). This, however, is the exception rather than the rule. When a wine is recorked I always wonder if there is a temptation to taste a little of the original wine and replace or refresh it with something younger. It may be my suspicious mind at work but, again, perhaps this is just part of the mystery of uncorking an old bottle of Madeira. Since 1990, vintage wines from the Madeira Wine Company tend to have longer, top quality corks.
Serving and tasting old Madeira: a personal perspective
All older Madeiras benefit from decanting well in advance of serving. A glass bottle, stoppered with a cork (albeit often a poor one) is a reductive environment for wine to age in. So-called ‘bottle stink’ can develop, which takes time to dissipate. Noel Cossart recommends decanting four to eight hours before serving, but from experience I take the view that to enjoy it to the full, an old Madeira should be decanted at least a day before drinking. Cossart adds the sensible caveat that ‘the period for allowing an old wine to breathe cannot be overdone in the case of Madeira’. It is likely that there will be a certain amount of sediment at the bottom of the bottle, so pour the wine slowly and carefully into a decanter, separate the sediment back, rinse out the bottle and pour the clean wine back in again. Don’t dispose of the murky wine or sediment – hold it back for cooking! Even once a wine has been decanted, it is striking how it can change in the glass. At the Blandy’s bicentennial tasting held in London in 2011, the wines were decanted off their natural deposit three months previously and rebottled. Served immediately prior to the start of the tasting, they changed and improved noticeably over a period of two to three hours. One wine (Blandy’s 1954 Malmsey) which had been showing quite badly at an earlier tasting in San Francisco was much better in London and scored my highest mark. The extended decanting process had helped to rid the wine of the bottle stink that marred the nose in San Francisco three months earlier.
The question of length of time that you can leave a bottle of old Madeira opened and on ullage for is one that I have never really satisfactorily answered for myself. I regularly uncork old bottles, serve perhaps half at a dinner then put them back in the cellar to help myself to a glass when I feel like it. The bottles sometimes sit there for years, seemingly to no ill effect. Cossart offers no advice on this but Francisco Albuquerque, winemaker for the Madeira Wine Company, believes that ‘you can keep a bottle of Madeira open for five years if you store it in the dark’. This will give heart to Madeira wine drinkers the world over, myself included: you can uncork one of these rare (and expensive) bottles and come back to experience its unique qualities many times over. That is something you just can’t do with fine (and equally expensive) claret, Burgundy or vintage Port!
Madeira wine requires a completely different tasting vocabulary from that used to describe other wines. Volatile (vinegary) and oxidative characteristics, which would be described as faults in most other wines, are positive facets in Madeira provided they are in proportion and under control.
There is a three-stage procedure in appreciating any wine, starting with its appearance. In a well-lit room, tilt the glass back against a white background. A menu card or napkin will do. Madeira should be clear and bright with a range of colours from straw yellow for a young dry wine made from white grapes through gold, orange and amber to chestnut brown and deep mahogany for the oldest and richest of wines. In some cases an abnormally deep brown colour (especially in a younger wine) may denote the addition of caramel. Wines made from the Tinta Negra grape may show a glint of red that tends to subside with age. It is not uncommon for older wines, purporting to be one of the traditional white varietals, to have a red glint. Here you just have to suspend your disbelief! Older Madeiras display an olive-green hue which is most evident on the rim. I don’t take a great deal of notice of so-called ‘legs’ in a glass of wine but the viscosity of the wine can be seen from the ‘legs’, ‘tears’ or ‘arches’ that the wine forms on the side of the glass.
The second stage in appreciating a wine is to swirl the glass around gently in order to release the aromas. The range of aromas found in Madeira is vast and generally gains in breadth, depth, complexity and pungency with the age of the wine. Do not expect the primary fruit character of a young red or white wine. Most of Madeira’s characteristics are secondary or tertiary, resulting from either estufagem and/or ageing in canteiro. Rather than being fresh or ‘primary’ the fruit character in a young Madeira tends to be dried, candied or crystallised in style: apricots, dates, figs, raisins, lime, orange peel or marmalade. On top of this there may be a savoury, toasty or nutty character from the ageing process in cask. However, sometimes this can be an earthy, fungus or mushroom-like aroma, either due to dirty wood or bottle stink where a wine has been inadequately decanted. Because of the heating process (either natural or artificial), expect to find a slightly singed element, but to my mind a good wine should not smell burnt, cooked, stewed or soupy. In some Madeiras the spirit can be evident, especially in three-year-old wines when the alcohol may not have had time to meld into the blend. The volatile element in a Madeira helps to lift the aromas from the glass and terms like ‘lifted’ and ‘high-toned’ (the latter a favourite expression of the late Michael Broadbent) are commonplace in my notes. Floral aromas, resin and occasionally varnish or carpenter’s shop or furniture polish can be found, especially in older wines. This is not necessarily a pejorative expression if the wine is stable and in balance.
Tasting the wine on the palate is the third stage, which usually serves to confirm much of the information gleaned from the appearance and aroma. Take a sip rather than a gulp, taking in a little air at the same time. Leave the wine in your mouth for a few seconds to appreciate the texture (mouthfeel) as well as the flavour. After swallowing (or spitting at a professional tasting), breathe out gently through the nose. One of the defining characteristics of nearly all Madeira is the high level of natural acidity. It is this that gives Madeira its freshness and provides the counterpoint to the natural richness in the wine. Some dry wines can appear lean and overwhelmingly acidic but, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a rich or sweet Madeira should never be flat or cloying. A wine made from one of the classic white grapes (Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia, Terrantez) should reflect generally the variety from which it is made (although any varietal fruit may be very well hidden). The variety normally manifests itself in terms of sweetness (although it is possible to find a relatively sweet Verdelho or a dry Malvasia) as well as in terms of the integrity and individuality of the grape itself. The longer a wine has spent in wood before bottling, the more powerful and concentrated it becomes. This manifests itself on the palate in terms of mouthfeel/texture and length of flavour. The older and more distinguished the wine the greater the intensity of flavour, which will continue on the palate long after the wine has been consumed. It is not uncommon to be able to taste the vestige of a great Madeira a day after having drunk the last drop!
As with all wine, a truly great Madeira is denoted by its balance: between alcohol, acidity, concentration and richness. This can sometimes be summed up in one word: poise. There is much more to a great Madeira wine than this, some of which is quite impossible to describe. I tend to keep my notes concise and to the point, without lapsing into the purple prose to which wine writers are prone. But there are wines that occasionally leave me speechless.
Qvevri: the vessel of dreams
Qvevri are the clay vessels used for making wines according to the traditional Georgian winemaking method. (In western Georgia they are called churi.) They are found in the marani, more wine storage shed than cellar in some cases, but it can be a perfectly designed cellar. Whether attached to the house or nearby in the yard, the marani is akin to a sacred temple; indeed, it was often the site of surreptitious baptisms and other Christian rites during Georgia’s tumultuous history.
What are qvevri about, how are they made, and what makes them so special? For an object with a history that goes back thousands of years, the literature is remarkably sparse. For generations, qvevri-making and qvevri wine production were oral traditions handed down from father to son. It was only under Georgia’s ‘Golden Age’ in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, and again under Soviet rule, that the empirical, technical and scientific aspects of the ‘Kakhetian Technique’ began to be broken down, analysed and taught. While they might have been in the library, these materials were made available primarily to wine science students and professional winemakers who already had learned the fundamentals of conventional winemaking. Home winemakers would not have sought out this information; their winemaking was based entirely on tradition.
At the same time, many nuances and personal experiences were never recorded. Even today, too few producers keep daily logs or detailed journals as to production procedures, treatments, rackings and so forth to inform future decisions and identify long-term trends. Only in recent years have researchers embarked on scientific study of qvevri and qvevri wines; much more needs to be learned. This part of the book explores the qvevri’s origins, method of production, use and maintenance, along with variations among Georgia’s provinces.
The exact origin of the qvevri/churi is unknown, but it is the centrepiece to all of Georgian winemaking historically. The earliest qvevri most similar in shape to those used in Georgia today were found in an Iron Age settlement near the town of Rustavi in eastern Georgia. This qvevri had a flat bottom, a stone lid, and was not buried.
It took some time for the qvevri to reach their current standard shape, as initially they were wide in the middle and tapered at the base and not buried. The shape of the ‘modern’ vessel continued to evolve from the third millennium BCE, as the bottom became increasingly pinched; it is theorized that this is when producers began to bury them in the earth, first to their ‘shoulders’ and, by the fourth century CE, up to the neck. The word ‘qvevri’ is thought to be derived from ‘kveuri’, meaning ‘something dug deep in the ground’. At some point before the Common Era, beeswax began to be applied to the interior. At a later date, a cement lining was added to protect the qvevri when they were delivered to their marani or as added protection in case of earthquakes or tremors.
Until very recently, what has been ‘known’ about qvevri was based on empirical evidence, although some preferred to invoke myths, legends and romantic stories. Two recent studies have endeavoured to develop a scientific understanding of qvevri production and use. The first was sponsored by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), evaluating the practices of a group of small producers; the second, a doctoral dissertation to examine the clay minerals and their effect on wine. This section will describe the traditional method of building qvevri and the implications of specific practices and choices.
The mineral content of the clay used for qvevri varies among the different quarries from which it is mined. This includes carbon and any organic matter, which must be burnt out; aluminium, silicon, quartz and feldspar are present in various proportions.
In the past, qvevri were produced all over Georgia, but today they primarily are made in Kakheti (Vardisubani and Shilda), Imereti (Tkemlovana, Makatubani (Satsable), Shrosha) and Guria (Aketi and Atsana). They differ in shape depending on the origin. In Kakheti, they have a bigger middle bulge; in Imereti, they are narrower; in Guria, the exterior is ribbed.
The quarried clay is moistened and allowed to rest for one day to absorb the water, and only clean water from a running source, not spring or standing water, is used. The moistened clay is uneven, so it is put into a large grinder to grind, mix and homogenize the particles. Then the clay is shaped into logs.
Qvevris are ‘built up’ from the bottom nipple. There is no potter’s wheel; the tapered base is shaped and set on a wooden tripod. The clay logs (each about 10 centimetres in diameter) are layered, shaped and smoothed to build the sides. After each log is shaped and smoothed, it must dry for two days before the next is placed on top and smoothed into place. In inclement weather, it may be a three to four day wait for each new log. While each layer sets, the top is covered with paper to keep it moist while it waits for the next layer to be fixed. Several qvevri are built simultaneously. The qvevri maker has no measuring instruments, he simply eyeballs the growing vessel as he shapes it. ‘It’s a sensual, mystical, meditative experience,’ says Zaza Kbilashvili, a fourth-generation qvevri ‘master’ (his son will be the fifth). ‘You have a relationship with each one.’ It takes about two weeks to build up a thousand-litre qvevri. Once shaped, the qvevri sits for three to four weeks to set before it is fired. This is seasonal work, lasting only from March to November.
The kiln in which the qvevri is fired is a three-sided brick structure with openings about three-quarters up the back wall. The largest qvevri are inserted into the kiln in rows, with smaller ones fitted in between to fill the space. The fourth brick wall is then constructed; an opening at the bottom is left to insert the firewood. The fire burns around the clock and the temperature is judged by experience – Kbilashvili’s father knew it was time to take down the wall by the colour and nature of the emerging smoke. Kbilashvili peers in and judges by the change in qvevri colour – there is an evolution of four shades from brown to the final orange terracotta. The firing process lasts five or six days.
One of the challenges in qvevri production is that they were made according to tradition – without temperature gauges. The lower the temperature, the more porous the vessel and the greater likelihood of leakage. The Gamtkitsulashvili study found that vessels that are baked at 800 to 850°C impart a salty, wet clay flavour to the wine, negatively affecting wine quality. The rate at which the kiln heats up is significant; the GIZ study suggests first heating the kiln to 700°C, maintaining this temperature for at least one day to avoid cracks and fissures.
Over the next several days the temperature should increase to a minimum of 1,000 to 1,100°C and be maintained for at least six hours. If a qvevri cracks during the firing process, some masters may patch the crack. This may mask it, but it is not a permanent fix. In time (one to three years) the crack will reappear, the qvevri will leak, and the crack become a home for nesting bacteria and spoilage organisms, which negatively affects the wine for the unsuspecting winemaker. The qvevri is then useless for winemaking. Thus, producers are increasingly requiring contracts from qvevri masters guaranteeing replacement qvevri should problems arise after three years’ use.
Analysing the clay from three quarries, the GIZ study noted that the sintering process starts at around 820°C for the clay, and above 1,100°C or 1,150°C for the quartz and feldspar components, depending on the quarry. Thus, to obtain a homogeneously constructed vessel, the burning temperature must exceed 1,100°C (or 1,150°C for Tkemlovana qvevri). GIZ also recommends using natural gas to heat the oven as it can reach and maintain the high temperatures reliably. After cooling for three days, the kiln can be opened.
After the qvevri is removed from the kiln, beeswax is brushed on if the customer wishes; 1.5 to 2.0 kilos of wax is needed for a 1,000 to 1,500-litre qvevri. The main advantage of the beeswax is to smooth out the interior, making it easier for the skins, stems and juice to circulate during fermentation. Properly maintained qvevri need not be re-waxed. Problem qvevri may have their wax melted off and removed before the vessel is heat-treated to destroy harmful micro-organisms; the qvevri is then re-waxed. The wax penetrates the vessel walls, filling the pores, thereby minimizing the vessel’s porosity and preventing leaks. The wax-filled pores may cause a hermetic closure of the qvevri and prevent the ingress of oxygen into the wine (to the degree it happens at all). It also forges a barrier between the clay and wine, thereby inhibiting mineral leaching. The wax arguably also is more hygienic: the smoother walls are easier to clean, and the wax-filled pores are not available as nesting places for harmful bacteria.
Opponents of waxing contend that the beeswax has the potential for trapping and disguising bacteria within the qvevri pores; in time these bacteria may multiply and infect the wine. Research in this area continues.
In eastern Georgia, the qvevri are housed inside a stone structure. In the west, the qvevri (churi) traditionally were out in the open, surrounded by tall broadleaf trees for shade; though in Imereti, the churi were outside but often sheltered by a wooden structure such as a small shed or a roof held up by posts. Hygiene is more difficult when the qvevri are outside, as is temperature control. Hence, some western producers recently have moved their qvevri inside or are building structures enclosing them.
Qvevri are ‘planted’ into the ground in a marani or wine cellar. The wine cellar is dug out, the qvevri manoeuvred in, and the earth filled in around them. How they are planted is crucial as it is difficult to change or extract them afterwards. Some winemakers put approximately 1 metre of gravel as a top layer. This will prevent dirt from getting into the qvevri or, if cold water is poured around the outside of the qvevri walls, prevent overheating. Many, however, tile or cement the marani floor so that it can be washed. Bastien Warskotte has the necks of his qvevri several centimetres above the floor surface so that when he washes the floors of his marani, no dirty water or cleaning fluid can drip into them. Not all are so fastidious.
Modern qvevri range from 100 to 3,500 litres. As with any sort of fermentation vessel, smaller qvevri can be used for experimentation or when there is insufficient fruit available to fill a larger one. It is believed that 1,000 to 1,200 litres is the sweet spot for fermentation: smaller sizes may have difficulty maintaining the proper temperatures for fermentation; in the larger qvevri, there is a greater danger of the fermentation becoming too hot too quickly, thereby burning off some delicate aromatic qualities, perhaps shocking or killing the natural yeasts. Most producers will have qvevri in a range of sizes.
Peak fermentation for white wines is typically at 28°C in the larger qvevris; in 500-litre vessels, it often remains below 20°C. In classic Kakhetian white winemaking – with skins and some percentage of stems, depending on ripeness – the grapes and skins float to the surface of the qvevri due to the captured carbon dioxide; a few producers use a variation of a submerged cap but most punch down. Some may leave all of the solids in contact with the wine for as long as seven months. The fermentation typically lasts a week to twelve days.
While the malolactic conversion may occur simultaneously with the alcoholic fermentation, this is not encouraged for Kakhetian amber wines, which already have lower acidity levels. In Imereti, the lower pH levels and cooler temperatures naturally inhibit the malolactic fermentation. If the malolactic conversion is desired (as with red wines), some producers, before racking the wine off skins, may warm the receiving qvevri with a heating element.
Many small winemakers judge that the alcoholic fermentation is complete when the wine is no longer bubbling (there are both visible and audible cues); larger, professional producers perform laboratory analyses. Once fermentation has completed, the qvevris are then sealed.
Sealing the qvevri
In eastern Georgia, traditionally the qvevri were sealed by covering them with slate or other types of rock. Clay, mixed with a small amount of dry sulphur, is prepared to seal the lid. A sulphur wick would be lit just inside the neck, the lid affixed and weighted down; the sulphur smoke inside cools and forms a vacuum – the clay dries to form a hermetic seal. The stone is then covered with earth and dampened periodically to maintain the seal.
In western Georgia, the lid (called by a variety of names, including orgo, badimi, lagvinari) was wooden, made from chestnut, linden or oak trees. The lids would be soaked in water to remove bitter and coarse substances. A hole in the centre allowed carbon dioxide to escape during fermentation. The lids were placed directly on the qvevri, then covered with a thick covering of a yellow soil, packed down and moistened to create a thick clay. A tight complete seal is imperative to prevent oxygen ingress.
Just as producers differ as to their fermentation practices, so do they differ (sometimes vehemently!) as to their qvevri cleaning practices. There is no established cleaning protocol. Hygiene continues to be one of the greatest challenges in Georgia, not least because qvevri are notoriously hard to clean, given the porous nature of the clay construction and the qvevri’s immovable underground location. New producers may make an acceptable (or better) wine their first time, but are insufficiently vigilant about cleaning their qvevri, equipment and marani; later vintages show problems that accelerate over time. Part of the challenge is that cleaning is hard physical labour and also requires hypervigilant attention to detail.
Traditionally, first all solids would be removed, whether scooped out or vacuumed. Then a cleaner climbs into the qvevri and scrubs the walls to scrape off any particles that might be stuck. Various brushes, made from natural substances with antiseptic qualities, would facilitate the scraping. Hot water washing (without a person jumping into the qvevri) was also the practice in some areas and in big wineries during the twentieth century.
After scrubbing, the qvevri is rinsed several times with an alkaline solution. Producers vary as to whether they prefer the traditional ‘ash-wash’ (wood ashes mixed with water) or slaked lime (CaOH) solution. Caustic soda and sodium bicarbonate also may be used. Some might burn elemental sulphur to eliminate microbial activity, but producers differ as to whether this is ‘traditional’, even though it was available and used in Georgia before 1900. The next step is to neutralize the surface with acidified water, usually a citric acid solution.
It was long thought that empty qvevris were best stored clean and dry in a well-ventilated area to prevent mould. If this is not possible (especially as much of Georgia is humid), a soda ash or lime coating may be painted on the walls and neck of the vessel. Some producers are vehemently opposed to this practice, as the lime has the potential of raising the pH of wines that already have relatively lower acidities. Two modern alternatives include filling the qvevri with a sulphur/citric acid solution, checking it biweekly to ensure its condition and/or refresh it, or filling the qvevri with inert gas, then sealing it hermetically until it needs to be prepared for the new vintage.
Before the harvest, water is sprayed into the qvevri and the lime or ash coating is scraped out (this usually takes several hours for each one). The qvevri is then rinsed multiple times until the coating is removed and the rinsing water is fully clear, and then the next year’s grapes can be loaded in. And those grapes must be sorted, eliminating damaged or rotten grapes and any extraneous material, before being put into the qvevri.
Even trained winemakers admit that every year they may have fermentations that go awry: ‘You can think a qvevri is clean, but it’s not, and the next thing you know, the wine is ruined and you’ve lost [literally] a ton of fruit.’
Challenges to traditional winemaking in qvevri
Winemaking in qvevri is challenging and laborious – all the more so when one is committed to minimal intervention. The challenges often converge and cascade to produce wine that is muddled and not reflective of terroir. First, the fruit must be pristine, sorting out any damaged, rotten grapes and extraneous material; too many producers say they have no control over their fruit or say they do not have time to sort their fruit. Second, Georgia’s warm climate and the lack of temperature control in many wineries, plus the comparatively lower acidities, make the grapes and wines more prone to oxidation. While some oxidation may be a deliberate stylistic choice, oxidation nonetheless can abet microbial contamination and spoilage when winery conditions are more rudimentary. Third, the equipment necessary to facilitate cleaning and to ensure that the qvevri are perfectly clean is another capital expenditure that can be difficult for small producers without economies of scale. Nevertheless, it is crucial that the winemaker be hyper-vigilant about winery and equipment hygiene to ensure that the native yeasts drive the fermentations and spoilage bacteria remain at bay.
Extract from The wines of Georgia © Lisa Granik (Infinite Ideas, 2020)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library shop.
Principal vineyards of the Côte de Nuits
For many people, their mind’s eye picture of the Côte d’Or stretches from Gevrey-Chambertin, the first commune that is home to grand cru vineyards, to the last, Chassagne-Montrachet. Until recently this was a safe mental attenuation, lopping off the northern and southern country cousins and not paying much heed either to some others in between, such as Prémeaux-Prissey or Saint-Romain. Not a lot was lost in the process and memory space could be reserved for the wines that really mattered. Such an exercise today would be ludicrous, ruling out a host of yet to be celebrated vineyards at the northern and southern extremities of the côte as well as others in between.
A brief overview of the vineyards, running from north to south, begins in the outskirts of Dijon, whose urban sprawl has engulfed land that was previously home to the vine. The first vineyards are in Chenôve, though it is at Marsannay-la-Côte that the shopping centres and light-industrial zones segue into unbroken vineyard. The slopes are gentle here and, as yet, there are no premiers crus, a situation that may change in the future if current efforts to get a proportion of vineyards upgraded are successful. Some producers already use lieu-dit names such as Longeroies, probably Marsannay’s best site, Clos du Roy, which lies in the Chenôve commune, and Es Chézots, which is noted as much for how it should be spelt (Les Echézeaux, Echézots) as for the quality of its wine. Other communes seeking to have vineyards upgraded include Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard and Saint-Romain, but however strong their claims I believe Marsannay’s is strongest.
Continuing south through Couchey, which is included in the Marsannay appellation, we come to Fixin, whose handful of premiers crus are the highest in the commune, all lying above 300 metres and abutting the forest. In total they amount to about 20 hectares and the remaining 100-plus hectares qualify for the Fixin or Côte de Nuits-Villages appellations. The best known of the premiers crus is Les Hervelets, a climat that includes the lieux-dits of Le Meix-Bas and, confusingly, Les Arvelets. The latter may be made as a separate wine but this is seldom done; Hervelets is the name to look for.
Sandwiched between Fixin and Gevrey-Chambertin is Brochon, whose band of southerly vineyards is included in the Gevrey appellation. The best known are Les Evocelles and Les Jeunes Rois, the former high on the slope and easily spotted thanks to the Domaine de la Vougeraie section being planted en foule, meaning in a crowd, at a density of 30,000 vines per hectare. Students of orthography will note that the corner of Evocelles that crosses the commune boundary into Gevrey changes its spelling to Evosselles; others will scratch their heads in bafflement.
The paucity of highly ranked vineyards encountered thus far is amply rectified in Gevrey-Chambertin, home to nine grands crus and a slew of premiers crus. In each category there are vineyards that fully justify their status, none more so than Chambertin and Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, a pair of the Côte d’Or’s most esteemed vineyards. The latter may be labelled simply as ‘Chambertin’ but the reverse is not allowed. At their best these neighbours yield wines of majesty and substance, capable of long ageing, the Chambertin perhaps sturdier and stronger than the slightly lighter footed Clos de Bèze. Together they form an oblong block of some 28 hectares, about 300 metres wide and less than a kilometre long. The Route des Grands Crus forms their eastern boundary and travelling along its north–south axis the slope is barely perceptible; a walk up towards the forest and back is needed to notice the roughly 25-metre rise from bottom to top.
The seven other grands crus are Chambertin satellites and all appropriate its exalted name to gain recognition by way of reflected glory, as with Montrachet in the Côte de Beaune, though the Chambertin ‘clan’ is more scattered and numerous. They claim ‘Chambertin’ by virtue of being contiguous with it or Clos de Bèze, though Ruchottes’ connection is fingertip slim and calls to mind Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The seven are Chapelle-Chambertin, Charmes-Chambertin, Griotte-Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, Mazis-Chambertin, Mazoyères-Chambertin (usually labelled as Charmes) and Ruchottes-Chambertin. Mazis borders Clos de Bèze to the north with Ruchottes above it, reaching up to the tree line above 300 metres, while Latricières is Chambertin’s southern neighbour. The western flank of all these vineyards, with the exception of Mazis and part of Clos de Bèze, is cheek by jowl with the forest, meaning that the vines there go into the shade of the trees much earlier in the day than those to the east. As such, the siting of these grands crus doesn’t accord with the oft-repeated tenet that they lie in mid-slope, cushioned above and below by lesser crus. The remaining quartet – Chapelle, Charmes, Griotte and Mazoyères – lie on the other side of the route and in the case of the latter reach right down to the D974 main road, where there is virtually no slope, a hardly ideal situation that risks devaluing the Chambertin name. The wines from the satellite seven can be excellent even if they never surpass the heights achieved by the first pair.
Some two-dozen premiers crus cover over 80 hectares and include at least one – Clos Saint-Jacques – that is worthy of grand cru status. It sits above the village with a perfect south-east exposure, plumb in the centre of a crescent of premiers crus that girds the hillside. So obvious is its de facto grand cru standing that nobody bothers to agitate for its elevation. Supposedly, it was overlooked when the grand cru gongs were being handed out because it was not contiguous with Chambertin, though a more colourful suggestion blames a cussed previous owner who so irritated the authorities that they were never going to confer top-rank status on his vineyard. The Côte de Nuits stretches to its widest at Gevrey. From its western extreme at the pinpoint of La Bossière it is over 4 kilometres across to the 18-hectare La Justice vineyard which is located on the ‘wrong’ side of the D974. Though flat, it can produce vigorous wines well worthy of their appellation.
After the glamour of the Chambertin name it is understandable that Morey-Saint-Denis carries less cachet, less immediate recognition. It is a compact commune, not 2 kilometres from north to south, and is home to four-and-a-sliver grands crus, the sliver being Bonnes Mares, which is generally treated as if it resided wholly in next-door Chambolle-Musigny. The four divide easily into two pairs: Clos de la Roche and Clos Saint Denis to the north, and Clos des Lambrays and Clos de Tart to the south.
Unlike Gevrey’s grands crus these do sit at mid-slope and straddle the commune in linear succession. Though all four are ‘clos’, it is Clos de Tart that does justice to that designation, being enclosed by walls in a fashion that is largely absent in, for instance, Clos de la Roche where you can park your car besides the Route des Grands Crus and stroll into the vineyard. The northern pair are Morey’s standard bearers, with Roche generally regarded as the better of the two, though its greater consumer visibility is down to its size – at a shade under 17 hectares it is nearly three times the size of Clos Saint-Denis. Between them they encompass a dozen lieux-dits, including the evocatively named Maison Brûlée that abuts the village dwellings. The name probably derives from the sacking of the region in 1636 by Austrian troops of the Emperor Ferdinand II, with whom France was at war.
While Clos des Lambrays and Clos de Tart are roughly equal in size (8.8 and 7.5 hectares respectively) their shapes differ markedly, the latter’s neat rectangle making the former’s boundaries look ragged by comparison. In the past it didn’t help Morey’s standing that this pair seldom lived up to their potential, and despite significant improvements in recent years it could still be argued that their reputations are not as high Clos de la Roche and Clos Saint-Denis. Morey’s premiers crus cluster mainly downslope of the grands crus though some of the best such as Monts Luisants lie above, between 300 and 350 metres. It is best known as a premier cru for red wine and also for Domaine Ponsot’s famed Aligoté, proof that marvellous wine can be made from this overlooked grape. At village level Clos Solon, adjacent to the D974, yields a memorable wine in the hands of Jean-Marie Fourrier.
Chambolle-Musigny is noted for wines of grace and elegance yet its pair of grands crus can hardly be considered as two sides of the same coin; they are more differentiated than that. Bonnes Mares and Musigny are the opposite poles of Chambolle, separated by the village itself and a swathe of premiers crus that runs between them. Travelling from Morey, Bonnes Mares is the first vineyard you encounter, a substantial rectangle of 15 hectares that crosses the commune boundary, with about 90 per cent of it in Chambolle. It is difficult to generalize about Bonnes Mares because there is a radical difference between the soils in the upper and lower sections of the vineyard. What can be asserted is that by comparison with Musigny it produces a heartier wine, with more spice and something of a sauvage character. If it lacks something of the perfumed grace of Musigny its impact is more immediate; visceral to Musigny’s sensual.
Musigny overlaps the top corner of Clos de Vougeot and comprises three lieux-dits: Les Musigny, Les Petits Musigny and La Combe d’Orveau. Its eastern boundary is completely formed by the Route des Grands Crus – or so it appears until a close examination of the map reveals a shred of vineyard that lies across the road from the main body of the vineyard. It sits on a step of ground at the top of Bertagna’s monopole Clos de la Perrière and is home to a couple of hundred individually staked vines. It is so small that it is hardly worthy of mention but because it belongs to one of the côte’s most celebrated of all grands crus it is worth cultivating. A final quirk that distinguishes Musigny from all other Côte de Nuits grands crus is that it is permitted to plant Chardonnay there, though de Vogüé is the only producer to make a Musigny blanc.
It’s a hackneyed assertion that Musigny is the Côte d’Or’s queen while Chambertin is the king, a memorable, if hardly profound, observation that can be dismissed as an old nugget of faux wisdom. Yet it stands up to scrutiny. The power and concentration of Chambertin is absent in Musigny, replaced by more moderate qualities of elegance and poise. There is strength, but it is the finessed strength of the ballet dancer not the overt weightlifter’s version. Its qualities have been the cause of much superlative frenzy over the centuries thanks to the extraordinary intensity of complex scents and unfolding, layered fruit flavours.
Of Chambolle’s premiers crus Les Amoureuses, downslope from Musigny, stands apart and is accorded putative grand cru status, much like Clos Saint-Jacques in Gevrey. Thanks to quarrying in previous times, Amoureuses presents a more jumbled appearance than its neighbours and the derivation of its name is fertile ground for speculation. Perhaps it was a venue for torrid trysts; more prosaically it is suggested that the soil when wet clings to footwear with a lover’s grip.
Though Musigny and Clos de Vougeot share the same vineyard classification and indeed share a boundary for a couple of hundred metres, along which they are separated by a literal stone’s throw, a huge gulf in renown divides them. Where superlatives rule the roost with Musigny it is hard to write about Clos de Vougeot without slipping into cliché, trotting out the rote statistics used for generations to illustrate its shortcomings. It is a roughly square, 50-hectare block of vineyard, a little longer on the diagonal that runs from the south-east corner up past the château to Musigny. The Côte d’Or’s usual clutter of tiny, variously shaped vineyards, threaded with roads, tracks and dry stone walls, is absent here, where the vines seem to stretch to the horizon. If it was in Bordeaux it would have one owner and produce two, perhaps three wines; here it has more than eighty, many of whom lay claim to slivers of land so thin that in places the ownership map looks like a barcode. It did once have a single owner – the Cistercian order – but the Revolution saw them dispossessed and their flagship vineyard sold off as a bien national. Fragmentation was slow at first but accelerated through the twentieth century to the point where today’s ownership mosaic is a cartographer’s delight, or not. The best wines rank with the best of the Côte d’Or, carrying the conviction and energy that should be present in a grand cru, but they also serve to highlight the deficiencies of the others. In some respects the clos is the Côte d’Or in microcosm; knowing where the vines lie is useful but who farms them and makes the wine is critical, here more so than in any other grand cru, save for Vougeot’s southern twin, Corton, another behemoth that would be improved by some trimming.
Clos de Vougeot contains sixteen lieux-dits that are not officially recognized and so are seldom seen, apart from Le Grand Maupertuis, used by Anne Gros, and the clever use of Musigni by Gros Frère et Soeur. It seems surprising that almost no other producers use them to create a semi-separate identity although it is doubtful if adding names such as Quartier des Marei Haut or Montiotes Basses would add lustre to the Vougeot name – probably the reverse. At premier cru level Vougeot continues to confound, for the most prestigious, in this red-wine heartland, is the white Le Clos Blanc, a monopole of Domaine de la Vougeraie.
An oft-cited criticism of Clos de Vougeot is that it runs right down to the main road, with a negligible slope in its lower section, while above it and better sited lie the two grands crus of Flagey-Echézeaux: Les Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux. To all intents and purposes they are considered part of the next commune, Vosne-Romanée, home to the most celebrated vineyards in the world: La Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée Saint-Vivant and La Grande Rue. Taken together this half-dozen amount to about 28 hectares, not much more than half the area of Clos de Vougeot
It is not possible to overstate the renown in which these grands crus are held, particularly the two monopoles owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The eponymous vineyard is a rough square of 1.8 hectares and is marked by a gaunt cross, making it easy to find as you travel up from the village on the small road that runs through Romanée Saint-Vivant. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is a place of pilgrimage for wine lovers from across the globe and, conveniently, there is space for a few cars to park next to the vineyard, with clear sight of the sign on the low surrounding wall asking visitors not to walk through it, a request heeded by some: ‘Many people come to visit this site and we understand. We ask you nevertheless to remain on the road and request that under no condition you enter the vineyard.’ La Tâche is separated from it by the monopole sliver that is La Grande Rue and a fourth monopole, La Romanée, is contiguous on the west side and there has been speculation that it was once part of Romanée-Conti.
Of the remaining grands crus, Richebourg is the star, yielding a wine of flesh and substance, structure and depth, variously described as ‘sumptuous’, ‘opulent’ and ‘voluptuous’, qualities reflected in the plangent ring of its name. There’s ballast in Richebourg. It neighbours Romanée-Conti to the north, and the lieu-dit at its northern end, Les Verroilles, turns slightly north of east, causing the grapes to ripen a little later than the rest of the vineyard. Romanée Saint-Vivant lies below Richebourg, close to the village, and takes its name from the nearby abbey of Saint-Vivant at Curtil-Vergy, the remains of which have recently been secured against further decline. The wine is scented, graceful and elegant, a violin to Richebourg’s cello.
Les Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux don’t enjoy the same renown, which is hardly surprising in the case of the latter, given that it includes eleven lieux-dits comprising a cumbersome 38 hectares. Much the same criticisms that are levelled at Clos de Vougeot apply here – the paramount consideration when searching for quality must be the name of the producer. It is a dictum that applies everywhere in the Côte d’Or, but with heavy emphasis in places like this. Grands Echézeaux, on a barely perceptible slope, is separated from Clos de Vougeot by a narrow road and, with deeper soil delivering more weight in the wine, is generally considered superior to Echézeaux.
After the surfeit of grands crus in Vosne-Romanée the next commune south, Nuits-Saint-Georges, is home to none and must settle for the distinction of lending its name to the Côte de Nuits. Because of its size and memorable name it is probably as well known as Vosne, if not nearly as highly regarded. The town in turn takes its name from its most prestigious vineyard Les Saints-Georges, at the southern limit of the commune and reputedly the first plot to be planted in Nuits, in 1000. Efforts to get it upgraded to grand cru are ongoing. It is probably the only one of Nuits’ premiers to warrant promotion, though a case could be made for Aux Boudots right at the other end of the commune, abutting Vosne. The Nuits appellation continues south into Prémeaux-Prissey, home to the large monopoles Clos de l’Arlot and Clos de la Maréchale.
Thereafter the côte is pinched narrow by rock at Comblanchien and Corgoloin, where vineyards give way to the quarries that form the stony sinew connecting the Côte de Nuits with the Côte de Beaune. The final vineyard contains a little flourish in the shape of Domaine d’Ardhuy, whose impressive building is set back from the road and surrounded by the vines of its monopole Clos des Langres.
Extract from Côte d’Or © Raymond Blake (Infinite Ideas, 2017)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library shop.
The production of sparkling wine in Britain – although not from home-grown grapes – is verifiably over 350 years old, and we know from the two papers read at the newly founded Royal Society in December 1662 that sugar added to a fermented product and sealed in a bottle with a tightly bound stopper produced a ‘brisk and sparkling’ product. The Reverend John Beale’s ‘Aphorisms on Cider’, read to the Royal Society on 10 December 1662, says that ‘bottling is the next best improver’ for cider and that ‘two to three raisins into every bottle’ plus ‘a walnut of sugar’ – a recipe guaranteed to produce a secondary fermentation – works wonders on the cider. A week later, on 17 December, it was the turn of the now famous Dr Christopher Merrett to read his paper, ‘Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines’, and describe how Britain’s seventeenth-century ‘wine coopers’ were making their wines ‘brisk and sparkling’ by the addition of sugar. This practice was certainly happening before 1662 and followed the development of the strong verre Anglais bottles which Sir Kenelm Digby had been perfecting since the 1630s.
Exactly when the first sparkling wine made from English grapes was produced is open to debate. Certainly wines being made in England in the 1750s were considered comparable to Champagne and as has been mentioned earlier, the wines produced at Painshill Place between 1741 and 1779 were often described as such. Of course, Champagne in those days was not always the sparkling wine that we know today. I have a wine list from the Magasin de Vins Fins Chez Terral from Pontac, a village just outside Bordeaux, dated 1760, which lists Champagne mousseux and Champagne non-mousseux both at the same price.
The first recorded production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines – made from British-grown grapes – is probably that carried out by Raymond Barrington Brock at his Oxted Viticultural Research Station in the 1950s. The Daily Mirror of 17 August 1950 carried an article entitled ‘A bottle of Maidstone ’49’ which praised the work of Brock and that other viticultural pioneer, Edward Hyams and ended by saying: ‘perhaps ten years hence you’ll be raising a glass of sparkling Canterbury in honour of the men who made an English wine industry possible’. In September 1959 Brock welcomed members of the wine trade to a tasting and offered a number of different wines, including sparkling wines, to them. I have a letter dated 11 September 1959 sent to Brock by John Clevely, then a young Master of Wine, in which he thanks Brock for the visit and tasting and ends with a postscript saying: ‘Moët must look to their laurels if you really start going “commercial” with that sparkling wine. I thought it was wonderful.’ Praise indeed. Some of these sparkling wines survived undisturbed in the Station’s cellars until the 1980s.
Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones at Hambledon, whose initial (1953) plantings included 20 Chardonnay vines, experimented with the production of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine, and in 1969 Bill Carcary, his vineyard manager, produced a batch of 60 bottles. Salisbury-Jones expanded the plantings of Chardonnay in 1970 with a further 1,000 vines but whether to make still or sparkling wine is not known. In 1979 his winemaking consultant Anton Massel helped produce a batch with apparently favourable results and as Salisbury-Jones also grew Auxerrois and Meunier, which ripened more easily, these became the basis of their sparkling wine cuvée. However, Sir Guy considered that the production costs were too high and the length of time the wine needed to mature was too long to make the product commercially viable and production ceased.
The first producers to make commercial quantities of bottle-fermented sparkling wines were Nigel (de Marsac) Godden at Pilton Manor in Somerset – first planted in 1966 – and Graham Barrett at Felsted Vineyards in Essex – first planted in 1967. As was quite usual at that time, the main varieties grown were Müller-Thurgau and Seyval Blanc and it is probable that it was these that were used. Their wines – never produced in large volumes – were certainly interesting, maybe even worth drinking and in the 1979 English Wine of the Year Competition (EWOTYC) the 1976 Felstar Méthode Champenoise won a silver medal and the NV Pilton Manor De Marsac Brut Méthode Champenoise won a bronze. These early successes, however, didn’t seem to help sales much and their production faded out.
The next appearance of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the EWOTYC (ignoring the carbonated 1983 Barton Manor Sparkling Rosé that won a gold medal in the 1984 competition – delicious though it was) was in 1987, when the first Carr Taylor sparkling wine won a medal. David and Linda Carr Taylor first planted vines at their vineyard in Westfield, near Hastings, East Sussex, in 1973 and until 1983 their grapes were sent to Lamberhurst Vineyards for winemaking. From their huge 1983 vintage, however, when Reichensteiner cropped at 15 tonnes per acre and their total output came to 186,000 bottles, they decided to start making bottle-fermented sparkling wines. They engaged Clement Nowak, a Champagne-based Polish-French consultant winemaker, whose name at one stage actually appeared on the neck-label. For a few years Carr Taylor became the major producer – in fact almost the only producer – of bottle-fermented sparkling wines in Britain and achieved considerable success. Their Vintage Sparkling won a gold medal in the 1988 EWOTYC and their Non-Vintage Sparkling won the Jack Ward Trophy (best large volume wine) in the 1989 EWOTYC. In 1993 they won the IWSC English Wine Trophy with their 1987 Vintage Sparkling. They also entered their wines into overseas competitions – a rarity in those days – and did surprisingly well. Their 1988 Vintage Sparkling Wine was awarded a gold medal at the prestigious Concours European des Grands Vins beating 1,800 Champagnes and other bottle-fermented sparkling wines from around the world, and in 1999, in the same competition, their 1996 vintage was awarded a gold medal, this time out of 4,300 entrants. A fact that tends to get forgotten in these days of Britain’s mega-vineyards planted with Champagne varieties is that the Carr Taylors were certainly the first to make serious commercial quantities of bottle-fermented sparkling wines. They did, however, only ever use what might be termed ‘native’ varieties for Britain: Reichensteiner, Schönburger, Kerner and Huxelrebe being the most important ones. This reliance on non-classic varieties, whilst it gave their wines a point of difference from other Chardonnay- and Pinot-based wines, also gave the wines a character more akin to Sekt or Asti than Champagne, something not all critics and commentators liked.
The next on Britain’s sparkling wine scene was David Cowderoy who, working at his father’s winery at Rock Lodge, produced the 1989 Rock Lodge Impresario which won the IWSC English Wine Trophy in 1991. When David joined forces with others to create Chapel Down Wines (in 1992) one of their first wines, the non-vintage Epoch Brut, made from a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc, was in fact a re-badged Rock Lodge wine. The fact that Chapel Down was not using the classic Champagne varieties (which, with the exception of New Hall Vineyards, were not being grown in enough quantity for them to buy) gave them something of a marketing advantage and enabled their prices to remain reasonable – under £10 – although at the time this was at least twice that of still wines. In the end though, once Chardonnay- and Pinot-based wines started to appear in 1997–98, this marketing edge disappeared and their Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc based wines, although very good and well-priced, were always playing second fiddle to the Champagne lookalikes in quality (and quality perception) terms. At much the same time, John Worontschak, winemaker at Thames Valley Vineyard (today’s Stanlake Park) made a sparkling wine using Pinot Noir from Ascot Vineyard, a 1-hectare (2.47-acre) vineyard planted in 1979 on Crown land near Sunninghill Park and owned by Colonel Robby Robertson. Called Ascot Brut NV, it was released in 1992 and won a silver medal in the 1994 EWOTYC. Worontschak produced a number of Ascot sparkling wines from both Pinot Noir and (unusually) Gamay Noir, winning several silvers and bronzes between 1994 and 2004.
The production of sparkling wines using the three classic varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier – started in the mid-1980s when growers like Piers Greenwood (see above), Martin Oldaker at Surrenden Vineyard, near Ashford (planted between 1984 and 1986) and Karen Ostborn and Alan Smalley at Throwley, near Faversham (planted in 1986), both in Kent, all started growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with the encouragement of Christopher (Kit) Lindlar. After leaving the Merrydown Wine Company, based in Horam, East Sussex, where he had been one of the winemakers since 1976, Lindlar set up as a contract winemaker, firstly at Biddenden Vineyards, and then, in 1986, at his own High Weald Winery at Grafty Green, near Ashford, Kent. Lindlar, who also supplied vines, persuaded the two Kent vineyards above to experiment with these varieties, which had until then been very unsuccessful in Britain. Brock had grown Chardonnay in his collection at Oxted but could never get it to ripen properly. Ian and Andrew Paget at Chilsdown Vineyard planted Chardonnay and also had no luck getting it to ripen. In 1981, a very dismal year for British vinegrowers, the acidity (in grams per litre) in their Chardonnay was higher than the degrees Oechsle. Ouch. Extreme unripeness was a common finding among those early growers who persevered with it, although most decided to give up and removed the offending variety. Only in really hot years would Chardonnay produce anything like ripe grapes and tolerable wine. Pinot Noir, like many of the black varieties then being grown, suffered from terrible botrytis and was very difficult to ripen without huge losses. It is only since the arrival of better anti-botrytis sprays – initially Rovral and Ronilan, but more recently Scala, Switch and Teldor – that growing fungus-sensitive varieties like Pinot Noir has been possible. Meunier, in the guise of Wrotham Pinot, had always been grown in small amounts, but never used for anything other than blending with other, riper, reds. Lindlar’s biggest, and subsequently best-known clients, were Stuart and Sandy Moss who decided, in 1988, to plant a vineyard at Nyetimber near Pulborough in West Sussex.
The Mosses had, by all accounts, been looking at various locations to plant a vineyard – California was at one time the front runner – but it was Sandy’s love of (and business in) early English oak furniture that persuaded them that England was the place. In 1985 Hambledon Vineyards was up for sale and the Mosses viewed it and made a bid for it, but lost out to another bidder, John Patterson, who owned it until 1994. Bill Carcary, who had been at Hambledon since 1966, got to know the Mosses quite well at the time and when they then bought the 49-hectare Nyetimber estate in 1986, they asked Carcary to come and work for them as estate manager and eventually as winemaker and got so far with this idea as to refurbish a cottage for him and offer him a contract of employment. In his discussions with them about planting a vineyard on the land at Nyetimber, Carcary remembers it being his idea that they should plant the Champagne varieties for sparkling wine production, something he had long wanted to do at Hambledon, but which, as has been stated above, Salisbury-Jones had ruled out on cost grounds. In the end, Carcary decided for family reasons not to leave Hambledon and stayed, working for the new owner. Whoever actually came up with the idea to produce bottle-fermented sparkling wines on this (for the time) very large scale is uncertain, but the Mosses went ahead and planted the classic Champagne varieties, something which at the time was revolutionary – some said bonkers.
The vines for the Nyetimber plantings between 1988 and 1991 were sourced from France and it was to Lindlar’s High Weald Winery that the first commercial vintage, the 1992, was taken for processing under the watchful eye of consultant Jean-Manuel Jacquinot. As Lindlar modestly says, ‘while they did hire Jacquinot, the winemaking buck stopped with me; that is to say, had those early vintages flopped it would definitely have been down to me.’ Given the importance of the Mosses’ enterprise, which when all was said and done was still something of an experiment, one has to give praise to Lindlar where it is due. After Nyetimber’s first release, the 1992 Blanc de Blancs Première Cuvée, won the English Wine Trophy in 1997, and subsequent releases went on to garner further awards (see. p. 56), the English wine world started to take notice.
A few years after the Mosses planted, another Lindlar client, Mike Roberts, also decided to establish a dedicated classic-variety, bottle-fermented sparkling wine business at Ditchling in East Sussex. Ridgeview Winery was established in 1995 with thirteen clones of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier and today it covers 6.48 hectares (16 acres), although it has access to grapes from a much larger area. A modern winery, with underground storage cellar, was built and equipped with the contents of the High Weald Winery, which was acquired when Lindlar closed the winery. In order to kick-start Ridgeview’s production line, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes were bought from other growers, including Surrenden, and the 1996 Cuveé Merret Bloomsbury was produced. This wine won the 2000 EWOTYC Gore-Browne Trophy, awarded for wine of the year. Since that first release, Ridgeview has produced a range of wines, all named after London squares or areas – Belgravia, Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Grosvenor, Knightsbridge and Pimlico – and the tally of awards has been impressive. They won the Gore-Browne Trophy in 2000, 2002, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and regularly win gold and silver medals in the major wine competitions. Their most notable success was probably winning the Decanter World Wine Awards International Sparkling Wine Trophy (beating four very prestigious Champagnes in the process) with their 2006 Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs.
When first Nyetimber and later Ridgeview started selling wines and achieving the sort of prices that many in the wine business in Britain had thought impossible, the way forward for home-grown sparkling wines started to look a lot different. Following their significant commercial and competition success, plantings of the three classic Champagne varieties in Britain increased year on year and since the very warm year of 2003, several significant vineyards have been planted. Nyetimber changed hands twice and under its current ownership has expanded on various sites from its original 15.8 hectares to a whopping 258 hectares (638 acres) and growing. Owner Eric Heerema told me he was looking for another 200 hectares (500 acres). Other large sparkling wine producers include the largest, Chapel Down, with access to 300 hectares of Champagne variety vineyards; Gusbourne with 93 hectares; Ridgeview with 90 hectares; and Hambledon with 90 hectares. Other major sparkling players include Bluebell Estates, Bolney, Camel Valley, Coates and Seely, Laithwaite’s, Langham Estate, Exton Park, Furleigh, Greyfriars, Hambledon, Hundred Hills, Hush Heath, Rathfinny, Simpsons, Southern Wines, Squerryes and Tinwood. Together, there are around 30 British producers who control 50 per cent of Britain’s vineyard area and probably nearer 65 per cent of its sparkling wine production. The two French-controlled producers, Domaine Evremond (Taittinger) and what is currently called Pinglestone Estate (Vranken-Pommery) will be added to this list in time.
Extract from The wines of Great Britain © Stephen Skelton (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library shop.
Rioja: a world within a world
What’s the best way to arrive in Rioja? For me, it’s coming from Bilbao, taking the road through the mountains and watching Rioja as it unfolds before you. The mountains are majestic, and in between is undulating countryside with rivers running through and hilltop towns spread about. There’s a lot to be said for arriving by rail, too. Take the train from Zaragoza. The last section, Logroño–Haro, meanders past the Ebro and vineyards. For the people who lived here in previous centuries Rioja must have seemed a blessed enclave. Any time is good to come: autumn is particularly beautiful; winter brings snow (and sometimes problems driving); in spring there’s blossom on the trees and in the summer it’s hot, but with plenty of cool places to enjoy wine in the evening. Too many wine regions can be flat monocultures of vines. Come to Rioja, it’s altogether more human.
Haro and the station quarter
When phylloxera came to France, the producers cast around for vine-growing land. Spain was conveniently close and with the opening of the railway line from Logroño to Bilbao via Haro in 1880, Rioja was an ideal source. Thus it was that Haro’s Barrio de la Estación came into being, with wineries clustered around the railway. The first to arrive was R. López de Heredía y Landeta in 1877, followed by CVNE in 1879, Duque de Montezuma and J. Gómez Cruzado in 1890, La Rioja Alta in 1890 and Bodegas Bilbaínas in 1901. (To complete the contemporary set, Muga moved from Haro town in 1970, and in 1987 came RODA.) In those early years the bodegas jostled with factories making brandies, soaps and fertilizers. While some of the Haro bodegas may seem today the epitome of classical wines, Haro was cutting-edge in its day – the first town in Spain to have electric street lighting.
Phylloxera came to Rioja, inevitably, in 1899. The first outbreak was in a vineyard in Sajazarra. The region recovered reasonably quickly as by then the wine world had discovered that the solution was to graft vines onto much more resistant American labrusca rootstocks.
For a number of years Rioja continued to define itself like so many parts of the world in terms of French wines, for instance by selling ‘cepa Borgoña’ (intended to mean ‘Burgundy style’) wines. The really significant change, after Spain’s entrance to Europe, was Rioja’s elevation to DOCa status, denominación de origen calificada, a first in Spain in 1991. While regulation can be criticized for too much policing and of the wrong kind, it has to be noted that a DOCa should never be about selling any wine at bargain basement prices. The very nature of being a DOCa should protect it from that unsustainable marketing. Yet when the DOCa was introduced it was a generic blanket for all Rioja wines to satisfy all interested parties: grower, small producer, cooperative and multinational. Hence Rioja can be sold too cheaply. Surely the wine world has changed? One size (or type of classification) need not fit all.
The naming of Rioja
Before we go any further, this is the place to run through the ever-growing list of possibilities behind the naming of the region. There is a River Oja, which surely must be the reason for Rioja’s name. But this is a little trickle compared to the grandeur of the Ebro, and its dominance in the landscape. Then there’s a possibility it refers to a local tribe called in Latin, Ruccones. Another source suggests that the source is Erriotxa or a similar spelling, which means ‘bread country’ in Basque. The US writer Ana Fabiano suggests that it might come from Rialia, describing a collection of small tributaries in Rioja Alta around the River Oja. She also speculates that it could come from the Basque Arrioixa, or ‘land of rocks’. And thus, the debate continues.
Defining the landscape
Those who like to define Rioja in terms of Burgundy, will note that in geographical terms there are similarities. Imagine Rioja turned upright, clockwise through 45 degrees, and there you have Burgundy. It is approximately 40 kilometres wide by 100 kilometres long, running from north-east to south-west, tucked in between mountain ranges. Administratively it is composed of three provinces: La Rioja (43,885 hectares of vineyards, 118 municipalities), Álava, the southern tip of the Basque country (12,934 hectares, 18 municipalities), and to the east, Navarra (6,774 hectares, 8 municipalities). There is also one bodega to the far west of Rioja that is in Castilla y León. Climatically there are strong differences. Nothing is straightforward about the soils, either, a complex blend of chalky clay, ferrous clay and alluvial types. Add to this the differing aspects and elevations – up to 700 metres, and in a few cases up to 900 metres. Blend in the grape varieties. To finish, there are the decisions of the producers, each serving diverse customer tastes.
The River Ebro, which decants to the Mediterranean, winds through Rioja and into it flow seven significant small rivers – significant in terroir terms, that is, each offering different aspects and soils. All of these come down from the Iberian system of mountains to the south. Starting in the west, the River Oja rises to the south of Rioja in the San Lorenzo mountains and flows down to Haro. The snows and cold of the Sierra Demanda above the river valley have a strong influence on the higher altitude vineyards. Next comes the Najerilla river valley. Again, it rises in the San Lorenzo mountains and comes down to the Ebro with many terraces of vineyards on both sides. The Iregua valley to the east of it flows down to Logroño, creating fertile conditions for plenty of market garden produce and olives. The River Leza joins the Jubera before arriving at Agoncillo by the Ebro, and is distinctive for its cliffs and canyons. Great for walkers, both rivers are distinctive for the difference from the elegant beauty of some of the Rioja Alta landscapes. Finally, the Cidacos valley winds at length down past the Monte Yerga, and the high Garnacha-dominant vineyards of Quel and Arnedo till it comes to the Ebro just after Calahorra.
Rioja’s story is all about diversity. As Ana Fabiano notes, Rioja contains 36 per cent of all the plant biodiversity in Spain. Furthermore when vineyard sites range from 300 to 700 metres, the climate really varies, and that’s before one takes in considerations of slope, aspect and soil. That’s why the vintage assessments beloved of fine wine retailers and auction houses are so difficult. Take the terrible frosts of April 2017. They wiped out 100 per cent of some vineyards, but others escaped completely. In terms of climatic influences, at the north-west end, Rioja is little more than 100 kilometres from the Atlantic, which gives the producers of Rioja Alta a good reason to describe their cooler vintages as Atlantic. The Sierra Cantabria is some protection from the Atlantic extremes. To the south the frequently snow-capped Sierra de la Demanda and the Sierra de Cameros protect the valleys of Rioja from strong winds from the south-west.
To blend or not to blend?
There are now so many styles of Rioja – modern, vino de autor, single vineyard, carbonic maceration and more – and so many strongly held opinions that it is easy to lose sight of one important quality in many fine Riojas. Namely, that they are blends. There are historical reasons for this. Many producers did not own their own vineyards, and there are commercial brands which still don’t. They rely on the growers for supply, growers from right across Rioja. Then there are also producers who wanted to make classical blends of two or more varieties, of Tempranillo with Graciano or Mazuelo, for instance, who own vineyards or buy their grapes from the best places, but not necessarily close to the winery. Rioja Alta producers sourced and still source their Garnacha grapes from Tudelilla in Rioja Baja. This was never an issue, until the debate promoting single vineyard wines became so excessively heated.
There are many kinds of Rioja. Which is better: a cross-DOCa blend of the best grapes, or a single vineyard where perhaps only one variety flourishes? This is the same debate over the merits of Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace in Australia. One is a multi-regional blend, the other a historic single vineyard. Different styles, different consumers, equal pleasure. Everyone has different views: my current notebook is filled with diagrams of Burgundian-style pyramids (Bierzo proposals), interlocking circles (neighbouring village proposals) and criss-crossing rectangles (the CRDOCa vision). Speaking at RODA, director general and all-round viticultural expert Agustín Santolaya pleaded: ‘Don’t Burgundify Rioja’. RODA is the newbie in the Barrio de la Estación, having only been founded in 1989. Santolaya’s mission is to make the best wine from a blend of the best vineyards; the traditional approach, though perhaps in a modern way. Look back at history, he says: ‘Traditionally Rioja blended its wines from great vineyards; there were practically no single vineyard wines made.’
White Rioja reborn
A decade ago, perhaps less, white Rioja had a really terrible reputation. The general view was that it was made from only one variety – Viura – and that Viura was flabby and boring. Yet in just a few years white Rioja has returned to favour. It may still only account for some 6–7 per cent of Rioja production but from that low base its market share has been increasing by some 20 per cent year on year. There are a number of reasons for this. They include: climate change, improved distribution, the requirements of export markets and the creativity of individual winemakers, while maintaining respect for the old ways and the classics. The launch of the latest Castillo Ygay 1986 white from Marqués de Murrieta with some 30 years of age hit the fine wine headlines and helped to bolster the profile of white Rioja as something exceptional. Of course, like the Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva white, it is a one-off, an original. In general, today’s white Riojas are – many of them – beautifully balanced, with subtle oak, and complex. They could not be further from the oxidized, tired wines of the past.
White Rioja is not just made from Viura – though it remains the dominant variety. Malvasía de Rioja (know in Catalunya as Subirat Parent), with its distinctive reddish, yellowish bunches, plays a small but significant part. Garnacha Blanca again amounts for a tiny percentage of the vineyard, but is making some finely textured wines. The Consejo Regulador wobbled a little when it permitted the introduction of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to an already fine line-up of varieties. An understandable step, an attempt to give their wines an international appeal, but the future for a DOCa lies in making great terroir wines with local varieties.
New varieties are appearing. Tempranillo Blanco made the headlines first. This is a genetic mutation; a single plant with white grapes was found in 1988 in Rioja, in Murillo del Río Leza. It’s a late budding variety, but like the red Tempranillo it ripens early. It can show citrus and floral notes and has been popular because of its relationship to Tempranillo itself. Another of the ‘new’ varieties is in fact an old variety, rescued and revived. Maturana Blanca is the oldest known grape variety in Rioja, and may have been referred to in 1622. The fact that it is sensitive to botrytis will have helped it fall out of favour. In character it has bright acidity, a tendency to warm alcohol, and a hint of bitterness on the finish. Another ‘new’ variety is Turruntés de Rioja, no relative of the Galician Turruntés or the Argentine Torrontes. Instead it is similar to Albillo Mayor, found in Castilla y León. It is low in alcohol, with a welcome high acidity, offering crisp apple notes. For a taste of these traditional and new white varieties, look to Abel Mendoza, and to Juan Carlos Sancha, the university lecturer and bodeguero, who has also fostered these rarities.
Extract from The wines of northern Spain © Sarah Jane Evans (Infinite Ideas, 2018)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library shop.