Fooling the experts again

What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine, an article by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, is another journalistic take on how easy it is to be influenced by extraneous factors (those that have nothing to do with the wine itself) when tasting, and although the word “fool” does figure in the article, it is a lot more nuanced than the typical UK press versions of the same thing, which can be summarised as “ha-ha, all you experts are stupid, and we are all so smart for buying plonk because it is just as good as your expensive stuff.”

The only bits I am uncertain about are those attributed to Galloni, but  I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, as sound-bite quotations are rarely sufficient to express yourself adequately.  Regardless, I think it is important to be aware that the story behind a wine may well be cynically manipulated to make the wine taste good.  If that happens, we should all be ready to take a stand against it.  Be aware too that critics and wine writers are often complicit by retelling the marketer’s stories.  It is likely I also fall into that writers trap from time to time, but I try to avoid it.  Rely on your own common sense.

Having said that, if you want to enjoy wine, it makes no sense to fight against extraneous factors.  We need to learn how to use them to best advantage.  Things like the best wine glasses, the perfect match with food and the ideal decanting time rarely exist, but if everybody around the table believes, the magic will work anyway.

If you want to take the game to a higher level though, and not get caught up in chasing the same expensive wines as everyone else, create your own stories to believe in.  I suppose even the idea held by many, that plonk tastes as good as really expensive stuff, might even come under that category.  But personally I prefer to believe in, and tell, the story that experimenting with unusual wines is fun.

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A tasting of Etna wines

Ben (that’s Benjamin Spencer of Etna Wine Lab) had just shown us around the palmento at our hotel, and ferried us the short distance to the restaurant Da Antonio for this tasting.  It was from one palmento to another.  This restaurant used to be in the town of Randazzo, but had recently moved a few miles out into the country.  The tasting was upstairs in the old treading area of the beautifully restored palmento, where we met Valeria Càrasto, also of Etna Wine Lab, who arranged this tasting for us.  They did receive payment, but in the interests of full disclosure I should add that I very much doubt that what we paid covered the full cost of the event.

etna_tasting

We soon got stuck into the pleasant task of tasting wines from the Etna region, starting with the whites.  I finished up with 20 tasting notes, so a bottle must have arrived after the initial line up shown above.  The tasting table picture was taken with permission from Valeria’s Facebook page and shows, left to right, Ben, my wife and me.  The only thing missing from the picture, but not from the event, was the wonderful finger-food provided by Da Antonio, and the wine producers.

grasso
calcagno

Towards the lunchtime, and I think about halfway through the tasting, producer representatives arrived to say hello to us and meet each other - owners and family members of the smaller producers, and winemakers and marketers from the larger ones.  Left to right above are Mariarita Grasso, and Franco Calcagno with Valeria Càrasto.

falcone
planeta

And here is agronomist Giovanni Marletta with Alberto Falcone holding one of his bottles, and Patricia Tóth, winemaker at Planeta, in thoughtful discussion with Ben.

benanti
scirto

Finally, Ben with Agatino Failla, responsible for export sales at Benanti, and Valeria Franco and Giuseppe Scirto. We also met Antonino Destro, Peter Wiegner, and Irene Badalà, but sadly they will have to remain pictureless, and is as far as I can tell Irene does not have a website.

As ever, please do not take my tasting notes too seriously – they show my impressions on the day, no more no less - I hate to be seen as a judge of wines, but also feel I want to communicate my impressions.  Looking back on my notes I see that there are a lot more high scores than usual, which is measure of how I enjoyed the day, but which I fear might be a bit unfair to wines elsewhere in my blog.   The prices are approximate UK retail, or my best guess in the cases where they are not available over here.

Saxanigra, Vino Spumante, Metodo Classico, Brut, Destro, 2010, 12.0%, £20.00 
This is 100% Nerello Mascalese, with 36 months on lees. Pale greenish straw.  Very persistent surface foam, whose appearance reminded me of Asti. But appearance was the only similarity to Asti.  This was fresh, dry, and had high acidity.  Intense minerality and fruit. I think I would probably drink this now, but it could have aging potential ****

Isolonuda, Etna Bianco DOC, Destro, 2013, 12.5%, £13.00 
Carricante, with some Carraratto. Pale straw. Intense fruit, and with a distinctive spice. Clove perhaps? Medium acidity. Dry, intense, viscous. Excellent length. Drink now ****

Mari, di Ripiddu, Etna Bianco DOC, Filippo Grasso, 2011, 12.5%, £13.00 
Carricante, with some Carraratto, 50% from Milo. Medium gold.  Don’t get a lot on the nose.  Medium acidity. Dry, with citrus fruit. Thought I detected oak, but there is none! Excellent length.  Drink now ****

Eruzione 1614, DOC, Sicilia Planeta, 2013, 14.0%, £14.00 
Carricante and 5% Riesling.  Medium gold.  Again, that spicy note that could be clove.  Medium acidity. A little off-dry I think? Citrus. Excellent length.  Drink now ***

Dayini, Bianco, Etna DOC, Terre di Trente  2012, 12.5%, £18.00
Carricante and Minnelo.  Medium gold. Reductive and farmyard – but in a good way. Medium acid. Dry, elegant, complex and subtle.  Drink now *****

Wiegner, Elisena, Sicilia IGT, 2011, 13.0%, £15.00
Fiano. Medium gold.  Dumb on the nose.  Medium acidity. Dry, elegant, some complexity. Something about this wine that I find difficult to characterise.  Drink now *****

Quantico, Etna Bianco DOP, Giulemi, 2012, 13.5%, £25.00
Carricante and Cateratto. Biodynamic, natural, and I’ve heard they do weird stuff with electromagnetism in the vineyards (which I am sure someone else told me was bad for cosmic energy, but what do I know).  Medium gold.  Nose is complex and had a sweet nature.  Medium high acidity. Definitely dry on the palate. Hugely intense. Apples.  Drink now *****

Eruzione 1614, Nerello Mascelese, Sicilia IGT, Planeta,  2011, 13.5%,  £14.00
Pale ruby garnet.  Slightly reductive red fruit.  Medium low acid. Medium low tannin.  Drink now **

Treterre, Sicilia IGT, Rosso, Wiegner, 2009, 14.0%, £15.00 
Nerello Mascalese.  Medium garnet.  Rasiny red fruit.  Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Raisiny, but fresh. Intense.  Drink now ****

Arcuria, Etna Rosso DOC, Calcagno,  2011, 14.0%, £17.00
Arcuria is the Contrada name.  2010 was the drier vintage in this Contrada, but 2011 is generally better. Medium garnet.  Dumb.  Spicy red fruit.  Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Good sweet intense fruit.  Drink now or keep ****

Arcuria, Etna Rosso DOC, Calcagno, 2010, 13.5%, £17.00
More tawny than the 2011.  More intense, and spicier,  but otherwise quite similar. Good intense fruit.  Drink now or keep *****

Capu, Chiurma, di Ripiddu, Etna Rosso DOC, Calderara Sottano, Filippo Grasso, 2011, 14.0%, £18.00
Intense garnet.  Smoky.  Reductive.  Medium acidity. Medium high tannin. Big, powerful and intense. Sweet fruit. Needs several years *****

Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Agricola Irene Badalà, 2012, 14.5%, £20.00 
From a 3ha vineyard.  The wine is made at Terre Nere. Intense ruby garnet.  Intense sweet perfumed fruit.  Medium high acid. High tannin. As nose.  Very attractive wine.  Needs more time ******

A’Culonna, Scirto, Etna Rosso DOC, 2010, 14.5%, £30.00 
Medium pale garnet.  Fresh red fruit.  Medium acid. Medium tannin. As nose. Delicate and elegant.  Another great wine.  Drink now or keep ******

Nerello Mascalese, Sicilia IGT, Terre di Trente, 2008, 14.0%, £21.00
Medium pale garnet.  Reductive.  Medium acidity. Medium high tannin.  Metallic finish.  Maybe will come round with time, but I find this difficult to like now **

Quantico, Etna Rosso DOP, Giulemi, 2012, 13.0%,  £25.00 
Pale garnet. Gentle nose with blackcurrant.  Medium high acidity. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****

Aitho, Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Falcone , 2012, 13.5%, £15.00 
3ha South-West of Etna, and high altitude vineyard. Medium pale garnet. Reductive, perhaps. Fresh aromatic fruit.  Medium high acid. Medium high tannin.  Needs more time ***

Rosso di Gulfa, Etna Rosso DOC, Feudo di Gulfa, 2011, 14.0%, £25.00 
South-West of Etna. Medium pale ruby garnet.  Intense fresh fruit.  Medium high acid. Medium tannin. A little raisiny, but still refreshing. Excellent length. Spice. Good now, but will improve *****

Serra delle Contessa, Etna Rosso DOC, Benanti, 2004, 14.0%,  £31.00 
Prephylloxera. Nerello Mascelese and approx 20% Nerello Cappuchio. Medium pale garnet. Intense, mature, complex, aromatic. Medium high acid. Medium high tannin. Intense. Great now, but still scope for improvement ******

Pietra Marina, Etna Bianco Superiore DOC,  Benanti, 2009, 12.5%, £31.00
Pale greenish gold.  Complex, and not too intense on the nose.  Medium acidity. Dry. Intense, and complex in ways I find difficult to describe.  Good now, but will keep for several more years ******

For those that know Benanti maybe it is no great surprise that I liked their wines so much, especially considering they had the advantage of a fair amount of bottle age over the others at the tasting.  But I was really impressed by them, even though they were numbers 19 and 20 of a 20 wine tasting.  The white was even tasted “out of order”, after the reds.

My other two favourites (given all the caveats already expressed) were a couple of wines less familiar to UK drinkers.  They are pictured below to help you recognise them should you get a buying opportunity. The Scirto A’Culonna was difficult for me to adequately describe, but had a quiet elegance that I really liked.  While the Irene Badalà was very different, being very astringent and with intense and good quality fruit.  I really didn’t think the Badalà was ready for drinking now, but I took a bottle home with me and look forward to trying it again in several years time.

scirto_wine
badala_wine

After my Etna trip, and this tasting in particular, I certainly understand Etna wines a lot better than before, but I still don’t think I have a great handle on the major grape varieties of Carricante and Nerello Mascelese.  Indeed I am beginning to doubt there is much of a handle to grasp.  I view them both as being like Chardonnay, in the sense that they are good quality, but seem to be able to adopt a broad variety of styles, but do not have easily recognised aromatics. The only style that I have not encountered in Etna wine is over-ripe flabbiness – they all have good structure, even reds with raisiny notes.  Where the comparison with Chardonnay breaks down is in the underlying cause of style variation.  That is, I suspect that the Etna varieties are more similar to Riesling and Pinot Noir in their ability to express terroir, if not the distinctiveness of their aromas. I would be interested to hear other views on that subject. I have certainly seen Nerello Mascelese aromatics compared to Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, but I am personally not convinced.

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Ben and Valeria of Etna Wine Lab.  They are great people, very knowledgeable, and responded very positively and flexibly to my requests for help to become better acquainted with Etna wines.

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A visit to the Etna vineyards Monte Ilice and Carpene

Monte Ilice and Carpene were both owned by Vini Biondi until 2011, at which point Ciro Biondi and his business partner Giuseppe Brancatelli separated.   After the separation, Giuseppe finished up in possession of Monte Ilice and Carpene, and Ciro the vineyards Chianta, San Nicolò, and Cisterna Fuori.  The right to the Biondi company name is now a matter of legal dispute, but it is useful to understand that Giuseppe currently has control of the old Vini Biondi website www.vinibiondi.it, which still seems to reflect the state of the business before the split, while Ciro’s website is www.levignebiondi.it.  I contacted an email address given on www.vinibiondi.it, and so was looked after by Gino Paternò who works with Giuseppe.

We met Gino in Sant’Alfio square in Trecastagni and were land-rovered off to two vineyards, starting with Monte Ilice, shown below, which is significantly higher and steeper than Carpene.  Monte Ilice is very difficult to work. Walking uphill between the vines is very much like climbing a sand dune – your feet constantly slide back in the deep, fine soil.  To make life easier, a cable transportation system was installed for moving goods up and down the hill.

biondi

Note the beauty of the vineyard.  This beauty is not by any means unique on Etna, with many of the good vineyards seemed to including small trees, shrubs and undergrowth, or having them nearby.  See the picture of one of Terre Nere’s for another example. This is not the uniform monoculture of many of the better French vineyards.

To my eye, the soil at Carpene was very similar but, contrary to my expectation, the grapes here ripen later than in Monte Ilice, as the steep slope of Monte Ilice catches the sun, whose warming effect more than compensates for the higher altitude.

Sadly it was not possible to visit the winery or taste the wines, but we were given a present of three wines for later: two Outis whites and one red.  Note that these were both of vintages before Ciro and Giuseppe went their separate ways.   I had already tasted the red last year, and liked it a lot.  Here are notes from that wine and the three gifts, which were all tasted and drunk with a meal.  They probably retail in the UK for between £20 and £25.  You can see that my notes are very different for the same wine.  I never pretend to be a consistent taster, but I do think that in these instances there was some bottle variation.

Etna Rosso DOC, Outis (Nessuno), 2008, 13.5%

I first tasted this in August 2013.  Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense, complex and mature red fruit. Medium high acid. Light. Medium low tannin. A peppermint note. Fruit is vibrant and tangy as well as having some maturity.  Drink now *****

Later on my Etna trip, at La Rocca della Rosa, where we were staying at the time.  Medium garnet.  Fresh mature red fruit.  Medium high acid. Low but detectable tannins. Savoury mature fruit. Sous bois maybe.  Possibly a bit tired ***

Etna Bianco DOC, Outis (Nessuno), 2010, 12.5%

At La Rocca della Rosa. Medium pale gold. Nose difficult in this glass. Medium acidity. Dry. Rich, deep and mature flavours. Orange, apricot. Excellent length. Ginger that is pretty dominant. Other spice too – more obvious as wine warms up.  Drink now ****

Back home, after the trip.   Pale amber gold.  Intense.  Pear maybe.  Very slightly oxidised. Smoky.  Mature.  Medium acidity.  Dry.  Excellent length, with smoky finish
Drink now.  Significantly more oxidation the following day ****

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A visit to Calabretta, Randazzo, Etna

The cantina of Calabretta, despite being on the main road through Randazzo, is easy to miss. We just about managed to locate it the previous day, Sunday, when it looked pretty much like it did in Street View, shown below (click image to go to Google Street View). There may have been a sign to indicate its presence, but we couldn’t find one. The following afternoon however, the shutters were open and the cellar man Salvatore was by the entrance to greet us.

calabretta_outside

It soon became apparent that Salvatore had about as little English as we had Italian, and only a little longer to discover that actually it did not matter.  We could get the drift of most of what he said, and he seemed to understand most of our blend of English and pidgin Italian.  His friendly smiling manner helped no end, and the more technical it got the easier it was.  Fermentazione malolattica?  No problem.  He showed us a list of wines that we were to taste: Carricante 2012,  Nerello Cappuccio 2012,  Nonna Concetta 2012,  Contrada dei Centinari 2012,  Pinot Noir 2012, Pinot Noir 2013,  Etna Rosso 2012, Etna Rosso 2010, Etna Rosso 2007, Etna Rosso 2005.  The non-varietally named wines were basically Nerello Mascalese, the Etna Rosso also having some Nerello Cappuccio.

calabretta

With the list in mind, we set about exploring the cantina to find each of the wines.  As at Terre Nere, this was to be a tasting from barrel and stainless steel tank.  As I remember it, the cantina consisted of the basement, ground floor and first floor of the small block shown in Street View above, plus some out buildings in the yard behind, and it certainly felt like we visited all corners.  It’s amazing how much wine you can store in a small space.  It seemed chaotic, but was clean, and Salvatore knew exactly where to find each wine. My tasting notes are so sketchy as to be meaningless to anyone else, so I will just give some brief more-or-less general impressions here.

Overall I was very impressed, with all my scores being **** or *****.  Supposedly Calabretta make wine in a more traditional manner than most Etna producers, for example favouring large barrel maturation to barrique.  I am not sure I was  (or am now) knowledgeable enough to be able to recognise that traditional quality in the wines, but I will say that they generally had a straightforward fresh honest simplicity about them, which I liked a lot.

The Nonna Concietta 2012 and the Etna Rosso 2012 had a raisiny note, which I also came across in Etna wines of other producers.  Normally I do not like that character, associating it with flabby wines made from over-ripe grapes.  But the raisiny Etna wines also seemed to show good acidity and astringency, which made them very appealing.

A star wine for me was the Pinot Noir 2012, grown at the high altitude of 900m.  This definitely showed varietal character, but was a Pinot Noir unlike any other I have tasted.  In addition to the intense fruit, it had a remarkable focus, and a steely minerality.  We also tasted the 2013, which was a little frizzante and farmyardy – fermentazione malolattica.

Towards the end of the tasting, we had the mini-vertical of Etna Rosso - 2012, 2010, 2007 and 2005.  All were very enjoyable.  The 2012 was still very astringent, but not such that it would stop me drinking it with food, and I thought the 2007 and 2005 were fully mature.

After the tasting I bought a bottle of Etna Rosso 2004 without reflecting on it too much, but was later told that it is Calabretta’s to sell their Etna Rosso only 10 years after the vintage, when it is judged to be ready for drinking – a fine principle that I wish more producers would adopt.  The other two bottles I bought, based on my liking of the barrel sample vintages, were Nonna Concetta 2010 and La Contrada dei Centenari 2011.  The Etna Rosso was a very reasonable 12 Euros at the cellar door, and would be likely to sell for around £20 in the UK, if you can find it at all.  I didn’t see a complete price list, but none of the wines I bought were over 15 Euros.  If you think you might wish to buy several cases, as well you might, take plenty of cash as credit cards are not accepted.

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A visit to Tenuta delle Terre Nere, near Randazzo, Etna

etna_geol_mapWe started our visit to Tenuta delle Terre Nere in the winery office, and met our host Marco Ciancio. The first thing that caught my eye in the office was a large geological relief map of the Etna region. I wanted one, but soon realised that even if I could find one to buy, there was no way to get it home intact on the plane and so abandoned the idea.  Unlike most images here, if you click on it you can see an enlarged version, but sadly there is still not enough detail to read it properly.  The town of Randazzo, and Tenuta delle Terre Nere, lie roughly to the North of Etna’s peak, and must be close to the edge of the orange bit at the top of the map.

We were briefly introduced to Marc de Grazia, the founder of Terre Nere, who had popped into the office briefly despite not feeling well. He explained his vision of how Etna could rival Burgundy in terms of quality wines showing distinct terroir characteristics.  On the face of it, it certainly seemed possible.  The colours on the map indicate geological variations, and superimposed on that there are large topological variations and height differences.  The question remaining in my mind is whether Nerello Mascalese, the local standard bearer grape, is up to the job carried out by Pinot Noir in Burgundy.  But even if Etna wine does not reach the dizzy heights of Burgundy, we can certainly all have a lot of fun discovering Etna’s potential.

terre_nere_vineyard

Before long we were in Marco’s 4×4, heading out to Terre Nere’s various contrade, a term which in wine law is now used to refer to officially defined vineyards areas.   Terre Nere’s vineyards are laid out in a band along Etna’s Northern flank between Solicchiata and Randazzo, at heights between 400 and 900m. We started at the relatively low Calderara Sottana, with the prephylloxera vineyard, and then drove up to the higher contrade of Santo Spirito, Guardiola and Feudo di Mezzo.  The differences between these vineyards were obvious even to the untrained eye.  They were not the famed Burgundian terroir differences that depend on which side of the track, or exactly how far up a gentle slope, you are.  The soils were clearly different in texture, and the altitude differences huge.  The image above shows rotovating in progress between old Nerello Mascalese albarello vines, in Guardiola I believe.

Then back for a quick scamper through the winery.  We paused to taste barrel samples from last year’s vintage, which was to be bottled in 2015.  I am not sure how meaningful tasting notes are at this early stage in the maturing process, but they were already attractive wines and showing clear differences, so some brief impressions are given below.  The wines are all Etna Rosso DOC, and would retail for around £28 in the UK, or £50 for the Prephylloxera.  Cellar door prices were about the same numbers, but in Euros rather than Pounds.

Santo Spiritu – Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Delicate. Feminine ****

Feudo di Mezzo - Slightly reductive. More body than the Santo Spiritu. Medium acid and tannin. Intense raspberry and strawberry *****

Guardiolo - Intense fruit. Some peppermint.  Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Intense and precise *****

Calderara Sottana - Medium acid. Medium tannin. Precise and intense fruit. Similar to Guardiolo, but more fruit  *****

Prephylloxera - Intense spice.  Medium acid. Medium high tannin. Intense.  Good minerality and fruit too. Great length *****

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Two palmentos on Etna

This was our second trip to Sicily, the first one being to the South East, where we stayed at COS, and also visited Valle dell’Acate.  This time we were in the Etna region, and each place we stayed in contained a largely unrestored palmento – the local name for a wine production facility.

We started with a few days at Fuedo Vagliasindi, near Randazzo.  Fuedo Vagliasindi is now a hotel, but used to be the country villa of a powerful noble family.  It is difficult to over-emphasise the scale of the palmento there, and easy to be impressed.  Basically it occupies all of what appears to be the ground floor in the picture below.

feudi_vagliasindi_exterior

One thing I realised on this trip was that the basic pattern seems to change little, irrespective of how grand the palmento is.  If you have a big important palmento, like this one, you simply scale up all the dimensions accordingly.  So instead of the beam of the press having a cross-section of 50cm or so square, this one is closer to a metre square.  And the size of the treading areas, tanks and barrel room are also scaled up accordingly.

The palmento has three levels.  The highest level is where the grapes are received from the fields.  Here there is a staircase on the outside of the building,  to the right as shown above, to enable the grapes to be dumped through windows and into the area where the grapes are trodden.  Below you can see Ben (that’s our knowledgeable guide Benjamin Spencer of The Etna Wine Lab) ready to start treading, and helping indicate how massive the beam of the press really is.  After treading, the must is drained into tanks at a lower level, to the left and back in the picture below, and the press is operated to help extract the liquid from the skins and stalks.

Maybe I have been a bit slow on the uptake, but I always imagined that press worked by one end of the beam being pulled down to the floor by the screw.  Actually, the screw lifts a large stone that is slotted into the floor, so it is the weight of the stone that ultimately determines the force on the beam, and that force will remain constant as long as the stone is suspended.  If the beam end were simply pulled down against the floor, you would have to keep adjusting the position of the beam to maintain a constant force as the mass of skins and stalks compresses.  As Ben put it, using the weight of the stone enables you to set up the press and go to lunch.

feudi_vagliasindi_press

The last area of the palmento is the barrel room.  This is at opposite the end to where the grapes arrive, and another level down, thus allowing the wine to continue to follow its easy gravity-driven course.  Easy after some poor sod has initially lugged the baskets of grapes up the stairs, of course.  Unfortunately, as far as the evidence in the picture goes, the barrels could be almost any size.  Take it from me that they are on a scale appropriate to everything else - huge!

feudi_vagliasindi_botte

Feudo Vagliasindi still has vineyards around the house and produces a wine under its own label.  But that wine is now made just down the road at Tenuta delle Terre Nere, of which there will probably be more in a later post.  The massive area occupied by the palmento is now largely unused, but thankfully still pretty much intact.

After our stay at Feudo Vagliasindi to the North of Etna, we moved round to the South East of the mountain, near Zafferana Etnea, and stayed at La Rocca della Rosa.  While not exactly what I would call small, this farmhouse was on a lot more intimate scale than Feudo Vagliasindi.  The place is still run as a small farm, and it too used to have vines on its property.  The vineyards are no more, but the house still has a palmento, now a bedroom suite for the agriturismo.

The palmento occupies the room behind the two rightmost doors on the balcony shown below (one of the doors being largely hidden by the parasol).  The internal height of the palmento is a little higher than you might think, extending to the bottom of the windows above.  Here, grapes were delivered through a window to the back of the house, but with not so much distance for the vineyard workers to climb as the house is built on a slope.  The barrels were kept on ground floor off to the right of the picture, a space now used as the agriturismo’s dining room.

roca_della_rosa_exterior

The palmento has been converted to a bedroom suite, and I was delighted that we got to stay in it.  The palmento has not been messed around with much in its conversion, and some might like more creature comforts, but it is ideal for the wine geek, or anyone else interested in the history of winemaking on Sicily.  What you see in the picture below is the stairs up to the area where the grapes were trodden, now a double bedroom.  Our bedroom window was where the grapes came in.

roca_della_rosa_stairs_to_treading _area

In the arch was underneath is an area that used to be a stone tank, now a twin bedroom.  To the right  was another area that could be used as a tank, and the press, now mainly used as a storage area.

roca_della_rosa_press

One little detail, which I noticed only after a couple of days intimate contact between my bare feet and the palmento floor, was that the floor’s texture was different in different areas.  Mostly the stone was rough-hewn, but relatively smooth – see below right.  But in the grape-treading area, AKA the area between our bed and the bathroom, the stone surface had been deliberately roughened – below left.

roca_della_rosa_floor

To the sole of my feet, the rougheness felt a little spiky, and not entirely comfortable. Was that to help prevent slipping while treading grapes, I wonder? Or perhaps it reduced the chance of crushing grape pips. I understand that, in the Douro (sorry for the quick change of country), wooden soles had nails hammered in for that purpose. I also wonder if all palmento grape treading area have this textured surface, and wish I had been more observant at Feudo Vagliasindi.

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Georgian kvevri wines of Pheasant’s Tears, Iago and Lagvini

A kvevri is a large (800-3,500 litre) earthenware vessel, and often also transliterated as qvevri – the Georgian word is ქვევრი.  Sometimes you see them described as amphoras in English texts, but strictly speaking those are smaller vessels with handles, and are used for transportation.

They are lined with beeswax and used in Georgia to ferment and age wine, usually buried underground with only the neck visible.  Traditionally, these wines are fermented on their skins irrespective of the colour of the grape, and little or no sulphur dioxide is used as the natural tannins are reckoned to be sufficient for protection against oxygen.

Back in 2006, when the wines of this country were even less well known than they are now, Tom Cannavan travelled to Georgia to judge a wine competition.  Referring largely to kvevri wines I think, he wrote

It soon became clear that calibration was needed not only of palates, but of expectations and cultural sensitivities. Each judge spoke in turn about wine one. Our eastern European judges all award the wine 18 or 19 points; a gold medal. The western judges scored it 12, 12 and 10, noting winemaking faults.

Reading that was the first time I became aware of the importance of cultural norms in defining wine quality, and it made quite a big impact on how I regard wine.  Eight years on, and Georgia is still making these wines.  I would say they are still weird to Western European taste, though the recent rise in popularity of so-called natural wines has perhaps made us more accepting, and they are more readily available in the UK.

I rate wines by personal enjoyment, so I don’t need to worry too much about cultural norms, but I still found these wine challenging to assess.  It is surprisingly difficult to decide how much you like something when the experience is so different to what you normally encounter.  Whether I do or do not finish up drinking a lot of kvevri wines in the future, I am sure of one thing:  the world of wine would be poorer without this style, and I am pleased it exists.  If you have not done so already I suggest you try at least one white and one red – Pheasant’s Tears is probably the most widely brand available in the UK, and seems to be well-regarded by those who judge such things.

Anyway, here are the wines, bought from different shops so the prices are not directly comparable. In addition to the tasting notes, there is brief information largely taken from the back label.

Iago’s Wine, Chardakhi, Chinuri, White dry, Without skin contact,  2010, 11.4%, £13.50

There was no “contains sulphites” text on the label which, if legal, means the sulphite level was very low. Chinuri is the grape variety, and Chardakhi the village.  The vines are over 50 years old.  This wine was “foot pressed” in wooden containers, and underwent fermentation and initial aging in kvevri.

Pale amber gold.  Intense pear. Medium high acidity.  Has a sour note – as in sour milk but not unpleasant. Dry. Decent length.  Pleasant and interesting, but rather simple.  Can’t remember ever having had a wine like this. The following day it was a tad oxidised ***

Lagvini, Rkatsiteli, Vineyards of the Caucasus, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £22.50

This is an orange wine, fermented and aged in kvevri. Organic and natural.  Lagvini is the producer, Rkatsiteli the grape variety, and Kakheti the region.

Medium amber. Intense. Fresh. Phenolic - a little like carbolic soap. And aromas I would normally associate with light red wines, like raspberry I think, and Beaujolais-like notes. Ripe apple, but not the over-ripe apple you associate with oxidation. Difficult to describe. Medium acid. Fresh, pleasant and interesting. A bit flat on the finish. Medium high tannin. Drink now I guess. Score includes a little for interest factor. But it is short, and somehow did not get drunk much with the middle-eastern meal  ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Unfiltered, Saperavi, Living Black Wine, Kakheti Region, 2007, 12.5%, £18.00

Pheasant’s Tears is the producer, and Saperavi the grape variety. This was hand-pressed into bees wax lined amphoras (sic – that’s what the label said). Macerated for several days. Semi-filtered and lightly sulphured, so drink soon after opening.

Medium garnet. Intense. Smokey wood. High-toned.  Medium high acidity. Dry. Medium tannin. Intense, sharp juicy dark fruit. Mouth-watering. Excellent length. On the palate, less of the smokey character that is on the nose, but it is still there. Drink now probably. Interesting, and I like it. Not sure how often I would want to drink it though ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Dry unfiltered red wine, Kakheti , 2011, 12.5%, £13.00

This is really the same as the previous wine, but a different vintage, and with a revamped label and back-label information.   The vines come from the Tinaani sub-region of Kakheti.  The grapes were pressed into bees wax lined amphoras (sic), where they underwent normal and malolactic fermentation with natural yeasts. Long skin maceration.

Medium inky purple ruby. Intense dark fruit. Volatile and bretty.  High acidity. Medium high tannin. Excellent length. As nose. Band-aid brett noticeable in the mouth, in addition to the farmyard brett on the nose. Overall a cough-mixture effect.  Wierd stuff. Hmmm, let’s see… ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Mtsvane, Dry unfiltered amber wine, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £15.00

The grape is Mtsvane, and the vines are from the Kartilian estate.  Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.

Medium greeny amber gold. Intense smoke, and some rose. Some sharp honey-like notes too I think. Intriguing and exotic. Medium low acidity. Dry, but with the sweet aromas of ripe fruit. Highly astringent. Seems more acidic on the finish, which is refreshing. On the palate, more sharp honey and less rose than on the nose.  Intriguing. No idea how this would age. Would it keep the aromas, but soften? Not easy to score ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Shavkapito, Dry unfiltered red wine, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £15.00

Shavkapito is the grape variety, and this came from the Tinaani sub-region of Kakheti. Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.

Medium ruby with some violet. Vague berry perhaps. Little reductive maybe. Not giving much on the nose. Medium low acidity. Dry. Hard edges. Highly astringent. Some soft berry aroms hidden behind the tannin somewhere – maybe – I think. Needs a decade or so ***

Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Dry unfiltered amber wine, Kakheti ,2011, 12.5%, £14.70

Rkatsiteli is the grape variety, and this comes from Bodbiskevi village, East Alazani Valley. Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.

Medium pale greenish amber gold.  Intense, fresh, slightly medicinal. Could be brett, but I think this is typical of skin-contact white wines. Medicinal note is irritating to my nose. Dried apricots maybe. Medium high acidity. Tannin obvious. High astringency. Excellent length. As nose. Astringent finish.  No idea how this will age. Including the interest factor, I give this… ***

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Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 – an awkward age?

vasse_felix

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon, Western Australia, 1999, 14.5%, barrel fermentation and 18 months in French and American oak.

Medium garnet in colour.  Intense on the nose, with eucalyptus and maturing notes of dark fruit.  Medium acid and very low astringency on the palate, where primary blackcurrant fruit seems to dominate. Good length.  It just about scrapes  ***

The combination of intense fruit that still seemed primary on the palate, and the lack of astringency created a weird effect.  It was not unpleasant, but somehow seemed more like alcoholic Vimto than a red wine. I have had better luck in the past with older Australian wines of modest status.  Often the fruit has been more mature and gentle - more in keeping with the tannins.  Give this one more time and it might develop more restrained fruit too, and thus improve. The nose seemed to indicate this maturation process was already underway.  Sadly I will never know as this is my one and only bottle.

At least it made me think.

 

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The Aesthetics of Wine – book review

aestheticsThis is a review of the book The Aesthetics of Wine by Douglas Burnham and Ole Martin Skilleås.

You can currently buy new copies online for around £55.00.  I got a used “as-new” copy for £25-ish via Amazon, which I thought was good value.   It is a slim volume of just over 200 pages, and obviously priced with the expectation of a small  market.  For me personally, a lot of the book’s value will be as a work of reference – to be able to check on various issues I might come across at some point in the future, and to use the references to access the original articles if necessary.

The first chapter sets the scene very nicely.  It defines the key concepts and lays out the basic arguments for wine being an aesthetic object, promising that detail will be explored in later chapters.  But it was in those later chapters that I began to lose the thread of the plot.  It might well be just me and my non-philosophical attitude, but I found it discussing many things I was not so interested in, and failing in what I was most interested: a critical examination of the evidence, rather than opinion and received wisdom.

I now know a lot more about aesthetics than I did before I read the book, but I am afraid I finished up not really caring whether wine was a valid aesthetic object or not.  Life is too short and it is certainly not the most important aspect of wine for me.  If a wine is interesting, tastes good in my opinion, and I can enjoy it with good food and company, that is usually enough.  Like most people who write tasting notes, I use descriptors from the language of aesthetics, but is about as far as it goes with me and the aesthetics of wine.  I am also aware that wine very much an object of commerce, and feel that a lot of aesthetic wine language is actually thinly veiled investment advice and marketing.

If you know me at all, you are probably aware that I very much think that wine appreciation is essentially subjective, right from the most basic perceptions of flavours through to the evaluation of quality.  But I am prepared to allow a degree of inter-subjectivity.  Thus I was very interested to see the topic of inter-subjectivity broached by the authors.  However, I was hoping for more evidence to be presented for inter-subjectivity in wine.  It seemed to be assumed rather than demonstrated.  What is the level of agreement between experts, even within a relatively narrowly defined cultural context?  I am more and more coming round to the view that there is very little.  Certainly experts can be very clever at evaluating the relative merits of different Burgundy vineyards, and Bordeaux châteaux, but their unanimity seems to evaporate when tasting blind.

One of the main reasons for disagreements about wine is, I believe, genetic variation amongst tasters.  This aspect was dismissed far too lightly by the authors.  It was pointed out that 7% of males (that would be a lower percentage of the population as a whole) are colour blind, and that does not cause problems for the idea of aesthetics in the visual arts.  However, they also said that there are dozens of specific anosmias, each one affecting up to 75% of the population.  We know that some of those anosmias involve aromas used as wine descriptors, and I suggest that this high prevalence of complex and difficult-to-detect anosmias represents a big problem for the aesthetics of wine.  It is very different to the situation with the visual arts and colour blindness, which is far less prevalent and more easily detectable.

My overall impression was that the book was written for academic philosophers rather than wine lovers, even wine lovers with an interest in philosophy.  So maybe a lot of my criticism is unfounded, but I expect that it is wine lovers, rather than philosophers, that will be reading here.  Like my tasting notes, there is of course a lot of subjectivity in this book review.

I made a few more detailed comments on the UK Wine Forum.  Do take a look at if you are interested, and feel free to add to the discussion there, or as comments to this blog post.

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Le Nez du Terroir

The trend may have passed you by, but dirt tastings are becoming increasingly popular.  Yes, really!  Punters are invited to smell and taste soil along with the produce of that soil, and the astute taster will spot the ways in which the produce relates to the earth in which it is grown. Here are videos of a couple of dirt tastings to show you what goes on:

To really understand why your Burgundy tastes of farmyard, I am sure you can’t wait to get the soil of your favourite terroirs in your mouth.  Indeed there are an increasing number of producers that will let you do just that, encouraging you to taste their soil. But be careful of those vineyards where nasty chemicals are used.  It is probably best to stick to organic and biodynamic vineyards in which only manure and copper sulphate are used.

Seriously now, please don’t put any soil whatsoever into your mouth – I will not be responsible for any ensuing medical problems.  I suggest you sniff only, and the simplest way is to do it is to use the latest addition to the Nez du Vin range – Terroirs.

nez_du_terroirs

This is one of their smaller collections of aromas, but nevertheless it makes a stirling effort to cover a wide selection of terroirs from around the world. They include both great terroirs and lesser ones, enabling you to understand the influence on wine quality.

1. Bourgogne
2. Romanée-Conti
3. Montrachet
4. Bordeaux
5. Château Latour
6. Château d’Yquem
7. Liebfraumilch
8. Bernkasteler Doctor
9. California
10. Screaming Eagle
11. South Eastern Australia
12. Grange

Nez du Vin do not specify exactly how they transform the soil into a form that can be appreciated on the nose, but I understand that that the Romanée-Conti sample is processed on root days, and stirred with clockwise and anti-clockwise vortices.  A good representative sample of soils is used, which is of particular importance for the larger areas covered.  Thus, just as the wines of South Eastern Australia may be a blend from all over the region, so is the soil in number 11.

Prices vary, so it is worth googling for the best deal, but as with all Nez du Vin kits of this size be prepared to pay around £50 or more. For what is essentially soil extract, is it worth it?  I think you get out of the kit what you put in in terms of effort.  I had to return my loan kit after 7 days, and in that time I couldn’t really distinguish between many soils.  Someone on the left hand video above commented that one soil was “quite subtle”, while another was “very subtle”, and I have to say that pretty much sums up the range of smells I could distinguish.  Having said that, after a lot of practice you could probably learn to recognise each of the 12 soils, and impress any friends you might have left at that point.  It probably helps if you have glasses of Blue Nun and Romanée-Conti to hand while you are sniffing the terroirs.  In fact a good idea for Nez du Vin’s next project would be to sell a set of bottles containing the corresponding wines, so you have all you need in two smart-looking boxes.

Update:  This post was taken seriously by a few people when first posted, so now April Fools’ Day is well gone it is probably only fair to point out that the Nez du Vin part is a JOKE.  However the introductory bit about terroir tasting is (as far as I can tell) completely true.

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