Wednesday, 16 July 2014


Established in the early 1960s, Franciacorta is the premium area in Italy for sparkling wine; deliberately modelled on the wines of Champagne, the wines are made in a similar fashion, from the same grapes, and sold at similarly high prices. The challenge for Franciacorta is both to take advantage of, and rise above, the popularity of cheap, friendly Prosecco and convince consumers that it is worth buying instead of, or as well as, Champagne.

I attended a tasting a couple of weeks ago, led by Peter McCombie MW, who argued valiantly in favour of the quality of Franciacorta, while recognising the difficulty of persuading customers to pay the prices the wines demand. The eight wines we tasted demonstrated the consistently high standard of Franciacorta wines, but I am still not sure that the area can compete with Champagne in terms of quality at such prices - a problem English sparkling wine also faces.

where is it?

Franciacorta is in the north of Italy, in the middle of the Italian lakes. The nearest lake is Iseo, which has a cooling influence. The area also has the Alps to the north and other surrounding hills to provide protection from the warm air blowing from the south. Franciacorta, an undulating valley, was formed by glaciers, and as a result the region has glacial moraine soil, an important factor on the styles of wine produced. The more superficial soils produce floral wines, while the deeper soils on the slopes provide dried fruits and vegetal, nutty, complex aromas.

what is it?

Franciacorta is a small, tight-knit community all dedicated to producing high-quality wines. The wines of Franciacorta are always sparkling, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, and, less commonly, Pinot Bianco. (There is a separate DOC for still wines, Corta Francia, using the same grapes.) The method used is the same as Champagne - a first fermentation to produce a still wine, followed by a second fermentation in the bottle which generates yeasty, bready aromas as well as the bubbles. Ageing requirements vary, but are generally stricter and higher than any sparkling wine appellation other than Champagne. A major difference between Franciacorta and Champagne is that the wines don't have Champagne's searingly high acidity, making the wines softer and more approachable.


Montenisa Dosaggio Zero NV

"Dosaggio Zero" means that the wine has received no dosage - the traditional top-up of sugar and wine at the last phase of a sparkling wine's life, which gives the wine some sweetness. A wine without the dosage is bone dry, which I think takes away the point of the best sparkling wine; it's a very fashionable style at the moment, however, reflecting the historically increasing dryness of Champagne. In partnership with the super-Tuscan producers Antinori, this wine is 100% Chardonnay, with thirty months ageing on its lees. There are subtle, biscuity notes of autolysis (the yeasty aromas that come from the second fermentation in the bottle), with apples and lemons. The wine is dry, fresh, with an acidity less sharp than a Champagne equivalent, and a gripping cinnamon finish.

Contadi Castaldi Dosaggio Zero 2009

A different exampe of the non dosage style from the first wine: vintage, with some malolactic fermentation, longer on its lees (36-40 months), and 50% Chardonnay and Pinot Nero. From a hot vintage, these variants produce a much toastier wine, richer and more powerful, with inviting autoylsis aromas and buttery flavours from the MLF.

Ronco Calino Brut NV

Part of the fun of tasting sparkling wine is guessing which grapes are in the mix. Quite a few of the guests at the tasting were convinced Pinot Bianco was in the blend, because it's a grape that provides fuller flavours than Chardonnay - but also because Pinot Bianco is allowed in Franciacorta, unlike Champagne. Not a single one of the wines we tasted had any Pinot Bianco, and the stone and tropical fruits (peach, banana, pineapple) and vanilla came from the warmer climate and use of barriques in fermentation, rather than Pinot Bianco - this wine is 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Nero.

La Montina Brut 2007

A very unusual wine - more like a still white wine that had some bubbles than a sparkling wine. Fermented in oak, with 38 months on its lees, there were vanilla and spices from the oak, with a long, spicy finish, and funky nose. A very good wine, but not what people are looking for from bubbles.

Villa Crespia - Muratori Satèn

Satèn could well be the style of wine that gets people hooked on Franciacorta. 100% Chardonnay and slightly less sparkling, it's a delicate, inviting style of wine and the best examples of Franciacorta I'd previously tasted have been Satèn - the word means satin, which is a good description of the style. This wine was a bit disappointing, however, perhaps trying too hard to be a little different. There is spontaneous, partially completed malolactic fermentation; the use of selected yeasts for, apparently, both first and second fermentations; and some oak. The result is a wine that's very biscuity and buttery with citrus fruits, but finishes short after that.

Villa Franciacorta Satèn 2009

This was the first wine of the tasting that made me sit up and take note. The winemaking is "natural" - that is, with as little interference from the winemaker as possible. An elegant, delicate wine, with balanced bready, yeasty, doughy aromas, with a fresh, apple finish. This is what I want from a 100% Chardonnay sparkling wine: restrained, fine, yet long and complex.

Il Mosnel Rosé 2008

Sparkling rosé is, at its best, some of the greatest wine to be had, and this is a fine example. Rosé in Franciacorta is made differently from Champagne: there is a brief maceration on the skins to give the wine its colour, whereas in Champagne the colour comes from added red wine. This wine has a pale salmon, Provençal colour, with a combination of finesse and complexity: toast, savoury, cranberry, dry, refeshing, with a high yet not dominant acidity. I felt this was the best example of what Franciacorta, with its lower, softer acidity, has to offer.

Berlucchi Guido Rosé NV

The tasting ended where Franciacorta started. One of the three big producers, Berlucchi was the first to produce and market sparkling wine. This wine is 70% Pinot Nero - called "rosé of one night," to describe the length of skin contact - with 15g/L of residual sugar. It's a rich, fruity, slightly sweet wine that's very satisfying and would be great with spicy food, but one I would find difficult to have more than one glass of.

Franciacorta is a region to follow: of the eight wines we tasted, two were excellent and the other six were all of a high standard. I still think the region has a lot to learn, but that's not surprising given it's so young. What's important to remember is that the area has more in common with Champagne than fellow Italian sparkling wine regions Asti and Prosecco. This makes it a difficult area to market, but it's one well worth experimenting with if you like sparkling wine.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

World Cup of Wine Final

The World Cup was contested by two heavyweights, both in terms of football and wine. Argentina contested the first World Cup Final in 1930 and have won the competition twice, while Germany were appearing in their eighth final. It seemed only right, then, that two high-quality wines were pitted against one another.

Germany v Argentina

Germany has been making wine since vines were introduced by the Romans in the third century and the arrival of Christianity saw the craft of winemaking continued by Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries. Modern viticulture began in the eighteenth century, after a century of war had ravaged the landscape and the economy. It was during this century that Riesling became the dominant grape on the steep slopes of the rivers Rhine and Mosel, and many of the villages we still associate with Riesling gained their reputation from that time.

The great German Rieslings are identified by their sweetness, a feature which originates from the late picking of rotting grapes in cool October. It was in the eighteenth century that the current classifications of Auslese and Spätlese were introduced; improved selection of healthy and rotten grapes led to the further classifications of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese in the nineteenth century, followed by the Eiswein category for grapes picked when frozen.

German wine labels, using terms developed centuries ago, are incredibly confusing. In general, if you see these terms, then they will have the following characteristics.

Trocken a dry wine; grapes picked as normal during harvest
Kabinett dry to medium sweet; light in style, with the sweeter wines having very low alcohol (8%). The term comes from the traditional use of the English word "cabinet" for quality wines.
Spätlese dry to medium sweet; the grapes are picked at the end of the harvest when they are beginning to rot, increasing the level of residual sugar. A dry Spätlese can be particularly rich in style.
Auslese dry to medium sweet; the grapes are selected for their amount of rot. More likely to have some sweetness, but a dry Auslese will have high alcohol.
Beerenauslese sweet; overripe grapes are individually picked to create a rich, golden wine
Trockenbeerenauslese lusciously sweet; the grapes picked are shrivelled by noble rot, producing a golden-orange wine. The painstaking selection of the grapes, as well as the quality of the wines, means that these are some of the most expensive wines in the world.
Eiswein lusciously sweet; the grapes are picked in the middle of the night when the grapes are frozen and the temperature must be below -8°C.

In contrast, the development of modern German football is relatively recent. Its amateur system was only disbanded in the 1960s, giving way to the current, professional Bundesliga. The unexpected 1954 World Cup victory, only the country's second appearance at the tournament, was the moment when West Germany felt able to move on from the Second World War and see itself as a nation again. Since then, the national team has become one of the dominant forces of international football, winning the World Cup again in 1974 and 90 and reaching the final in 1966, 82, 86, and 2002.

the German commentator was famously quite excited by the 1954 winning goal

Clemens Busch Rothenpfad 2011 (c. £50)

the steep slopes of Pündericher Marienburg

The Mosel, a river that winds from Koblenz in western Germany into Luxembourg and France, is one of the most difficult areas in the world to grow vines. It's a cool climate, the vineyards are on steeply sloped terraces rising from the river, the grapes have to be picked by hand, and the soil is rocky - all this means, however, that the vines have to work hard to flower and the harder a vine works the greater the wine.

Clemens Busch is a small producer, holding just 13ha, who makes working the land on the Mosel even harder by only farming biodynamically (for instance, he climbs the slopes throughout the growing season to spray herbal tea on the vines). Most of his land is in the Pündericher Marienburg vineyard, which he divides into five different patches to mark the different soils which will influence the finished wines in individual ways.

Rothenpfad, meaning "red path," is one of those patches, just over a hectare in size. It had fallen into neglect, but Busch replanted it as well as maintaining seventy-year-old vines still living. The soils are red slate, which gives the wine delicate spicy flavours. The wine is a beautiful, expressive Riesling, but because it comes from a small patch of land on which the vines have had to work very hard, it's a difficult, particular wine. I imagine it may take a few years for this wine to express fully its dry, mineral, spice aromas and lose some of its intense concentration, but it will be well worth the wait.

Argentina: Argentinian wine has been shaped by colonialism and immigration: vines planted by Jesuit missionaries in the 1500s and modernised techniques introduced by Italian immigrants in the nineteenth century. The Jesuits established vineyards at the foothills of the Andes, where the Argentinian wine industry is still centred. The Andes are key for two reasons: water flows down from the snow-capped mountains to irrigate the vineyards and altitude allows a much longer ripening season which the area's heat would otherwise prevent.  

Despite this long history, it's only the last twenty years which have seen the production of quality wine; up until that point, wine was made in large quantities for local consumption. The radical shift in focus by confident, ambitious producers has seen Argentina become the seventh-largest exporter of wine in the world, bolstered mainly by Malbec. There is still a lot for the wine industry to discover about itself, however, such as expanding production to the cooler south to enable a greater variety of wine the country produces.

In contrast, Argentinian football has had a rich history right from the beginning. The country played its first international fixture in 1901, competed in the first South American Championship in 1916, and reached the first World Cup Final in 1930. One of the first great international stars was the late Alfredo di Stefano, subject of a political tug-of-war between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the 1950s, which led to the clubs agreeing to play him alternate seasons (it didn't happen - Real Madrid got him the first season, he initially struggled to fit in, and Barcelona gave up their rights to his contract).

In English eyes, at least, Argentinian football has always had an edge of venom and controversy: the "animals" of 1966, the alleged match-fixing under the generals in 1978, the "hand of God" of 1986, the first player to be sent off in a World Cup Final in 1990 (and, for good measure, they had a second player dismissed too). However, their two victories, in 1978, under the floating ticker tape, and 1986, with the genius of Maradona, are two of the most memorable in World Cup history.

Zaha Malbec 2011 (c. £25)

The Malbecs coming from Argentina are becoming increasingly serious. Initially powerful, heavy, high-alcohol wines, with instant appeal for the casual drinker, the wines now have a more balanced and intelligent use of oak, made from a greater understanding of the vineyards and their different expressions. The popularity of Malbec has enabled producers to gradually up the ante: such is the grape's appeal, consumers are willing to pay a bit more for the wines than they may for others.

Malbec originates from south-west France, where it was once grown in Bordeaux (and it's beginning to be taken notice of again in areas such as Bourg), as well as Cahors, the only appellation in France dedicated to the grape. The wines of Cahors, which used to be called "the black wine" by the English, can reach levels of greatness, but they don't have the soft, attractive fruitiness of the wines of Mendoza, qualities which come from the long growing season high in the Andes. In the Andes, the temperatures are hot during the day, speeding the ripening up, but cold at night, slowing the ripening down. It's these diurnal temperature ranges that allow Malbec to ripen in a way that gives the wine soft yet substantial black fruits.

This Malbec comes from the Altamira area of Mendoza, 1,000m above sea level. That altitude stretches out that long ripening season, giving the wine floral, perfumed aromatics, with an added grainy texture from the sand and limestone soils. The characteristic flavours of damsons and mulberries give this wine a powerful structure, alongside the spicy oakiness on the finish. A big, but balanced, wine.

wine result an intense competition between two very different wines which are proud to showcase the individual characteristics of the grape and area. The Riesling wins for its complex potential for ageing and as an expression of centuries of winemaking tradition, while the Malbec is more of an exciting sign of what Argentina is capable of in the future. Germany 3-2 Argentina

actual result an involving, but not always, exciting game of football that looked like it was petering out to penalties, before Mario Götze's stunning late goal snatched victory for a German team that had been building ten years for this moment. Germany 1-0 Argentina

Friday, 11 July 2014

World Cup of Wine Semi-Final

The two semi-finals produced one of the most memorable games of all time and one of the most forgettable, which sums up the up and down nature of this World Cup. Thankfully, we're focusing on the former game, although on two spirits rather than wines.

Brazil v Germany

Brazil: the national drink of this large, diverse country is cachaça, more of which is sold in Brazil than vodka is around the world. Cachaça is (usually) a white rum; although Brazil has long been campaigning to have cachaça recognised as a distinct category (only the US has so far proven sympathetic), the only significant difference between it and rum is that it's always made from sugar cane rather than molasses. Brazil is the largest producer of sugar cane in the world, so it's natural that the crop is used for its national drink, as it is for rhum agricole in the Caribbean. The use of sugar cane gives the rum a green, vegetal character, differing it from the cleaner rums of the other Caribbean islands. Internationally, it's most famous for its use in Caipirinha, a refreshing cocktail made from cachaça, sugar, and lime, and with crushed ice.

Abelha Silver Organic (c.£25)
Although cachaça production is dominated by five firms, as ever it's worth seeking out the smaller, more individual producers. Abelha make their spirits organically, which means little or no chemical interference. This is a great example of cachaça, with a characteristically aromatic, fruity nose of underripe bananas and slightly sweet on the palate. They also make an aged cachaça, Abelha Gold, which is highly unusual.

Germany: promoting a drink on the basis that it's so bad it has to be necked to avoid experiencing the drink's flavours doesn't to me seem a good thing: tequila, one of the world's greatest spirits, suffers from this misconception and only has its own industry to blame. Likewise with Jägermeister, a complex drink that's become exculsively associated with Jägerbombs, a horrific mixture of Jägermeister and Red Bull whose sole purpose is to get the drinker as drunk as quickly as possible.

Jägermeister (c.£20)
Jägermeister means "master hunter"
Bitters, or amaro in Italy where they are especially popular, are very dry digestifs made from herbs, plants, or fruits. Jägermeister is a bitter made from 56 different herbs, including ginger, star anise, liquorice, citrus peel, and saffron. It has a long history dating back to the 1870s and, although its perception has been distorted by Jägerbombs, Jägermeister is a fine example of the style of herbal bitters found throughout central Europe. The company is still family-owned and is promoting the drink to younger consumers as served cold on ice, but really Jägermeister is a dry palate-cleanser for after a meal.

spirits result a brave performance from Jägermeister, demonstrating its class away from the stereotype, but a Caipirinha on a summer's day can't be beaten. Brazil 2-1 Germany

actual result after unconvincing victories over Chile and Colombia, Brazil were rather fortunate to find themselves in the semi-final and got found out badly against a ruthless German performance in one of the most astonishing games in footballing history. Brazil 1-7 Germany

the World Cup final is a great wine match-up - see how Argentina and Germany fare in the next blog

Monday, 7 July 2014

World Cup of Wine Quarter-Finals

The quarter-finals of the World Cup are where the action really hots up and the quality of the teams becomes apparent, at least in theory. The games themselves were actually quite disappointing, with just five goals and enlivened mostly by the decision of the Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, to bring on a different goalkeeper for the penalty shoot-out, much to the surprise of the first-choice keeper. No disappointment with the two wines below, however.

France v Germany

France: it is very tempting to dismiss French wine as snobbish, elitist, and out of touch with the rest of the world. Tempting, because there is some truth to it. The best French wine is far too expensive for even the wealthier drinker, though that's in part due to foreign investors, while the cheapest French wine can taste even cheaper than it actually is - as if French winemakers don't think wine at that price matters. It does, as entry-level wine can give an overall impression of a producer's or region's wine to a consumer.

However, there are a couple of things to remember. Whenever I hear a customer say they prefer New World wine to Old World, I want to ask them, What are the grapes in that New World Wine? (Answer: almost always French.) Why is the wine a blend of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot? (Answer: because that's what the French do.) If the wine's been aged in oak, where does that oak come from? (Answer: very often France.) France is still the model for most winemakers around the world, including Europe, and, along with Italy and Spain, the largest producer of wine in world.

Secondly, French wine can mean anything you want. France projects itself as a uniform, homeogeneous country, but it's as varied - culturally, geographically, linguistically - as any in Europe: Celtic Brittany, Atlantic Bordeaux, the Basque south west, Catalan Roussillon, subversive Languedoc, Mediterranean Rhone, isolated Provence, Alpine Savoie, Germanic Alsace, Flemish Flanders. This is a country heavily influenced by its neighbours, and that's reflected in the wines too.

Albert Mann Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling 2011 (c.£35)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Alsace was an area greatly contested by Germany and France, and it is still a heavily Germanic area - to imagine Alsace and its Franco-Germanic culture, listen to Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who's fluent in both languages, speak. The grapes of Alsace are also found in both countries: Gewurztraminer (Gewürztraminer in Germany), Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Sylvaner (Silvaner), Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), and Riesling. The Rieslings of Alsace traditionally tend to be drier than their German counterparts, though German winemakers are producing more dry Rieslings nowadays.

The Alsace in question here is stunning: off-dry (surprisingly), with zesty lemon and lime aromas, and a developing nuttiness, with stone fruits as well, and delicate floral notes. There's a full-bodied richness, which comes from the granite soils of the Schlossberg vineyard. This is still a young wine, which is going to improve and improve, developing petrol and further nutty aromas.

Germany: pity Germany, if you can. One of the greatest wine countries, yet so little regarded by many wine drinkers; consistently producing some of the most distinctive wine in the world, yet, ironically for the producers of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, so bad at marketing that wine; and a wine industry overshadowed by the marketing success in the 1980s of Blue Nun and Black Tower. Those wines were cloyingly sweet and mass produced, bought by consumers because they (rightly) thought German wine was supposed to be good, but rejected, to the detriment of German wine and Riesling, because in those cases it actually wasn't.

When it comes to sweet wines, the most important aspect is the acidity: a wine with some sweetness will seem fat and cloying if the acidity is too low. This was the problem with the high-volume German wines of the 1980s: Blue Nun, which still sells 2m bottles a year in the UK alone, is now sweeter than it was in the 80s - it just happens to have a higher acidity, making the sweetness much more balanced.

As for those wines of the 80s, which damaged the reputation of Riesling, they were made from Müller-Thurgau, a nondescript, easy-to-grow grape.

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücker Riesling Spätlese 2010, Nahe (c.£35)

Does a word of that name make any sense, apart from the name of the grape? This is the huge problem quality German wine has: German wine labels are as complicated and confusing as any in the world. In this instance, Dönnhoff refers to the producer, Oberhäuser Brücker to the village and vineyard, Riesling is the grape, Spätlese means the grapes have been picked after they've fully ripened, and Nahe is the region. 

The wine is medium sweet, with developing petrol aromas which are characteristic of Riesling, low alcohol (8% - the lower the alcohol in a German Riesling, the sweeter it will be), a honeyed sweetness, with juicy stone fruits. The sweet flavours dominate throughout, but they're all balanced by a naturally high acidity.

wine result a fantastically high contest, as one would expect from two great, neighbouring wine regions. Both are complex, ageworthy wines, with the sweetness being the major difference rather than quality. France 3-3 Germany, with Germany winning on penalties

actual result expectations before the game were of a repeat of the 1982 semi-final, one of the all-time great and controversial games: if the game had been anything like the wines, then it would have lived up to expectations. Instead, it was a drab affair where France forgot they had to actually try to win. France 0-1 Germany 

Is this the last wine match up? Will we have to resort to drinking Jägermeister for the semi-finals? Read the next blog to find out! 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Rias Baixas

Rías Baixas is perhaps the mostly highly-rated Spanish region for white wine, producing fragrant, zingy, and very dry wines from the Albariño grape. A tasting in Manchester, mainly from the recent 2013 vintage, gave me a chance to explore the styles of this popular and well-regarded region.

Rías Baixas on a rainy July Manchester afternoon

where is it?

Rías Baixas is in Galicia, a wet, green region in north-west Spain, bordering northern Portugal, with a climate dominated by the Atlantic Ocean. The name Rías Baixas itself refers to the rocky bays that jut into the land and give the area its distinct identity. It's split into five separate sub-zones: Ribeira do Ulla, the furthest north near the pilgrim town of Santiago de Compostela; coastal Vol do Salnés; tiny Soutomaior; O Rosal, which heads inland from the coast on the Portuguese border; and Condado do Tea, further inland from O Rosal. In the tasting, I was most consistently impressed by the wines from Salnés and O Rosal, where the floral, stone fruit aromas are finished off with a saline minerality.

what's the grape?

Almost all Rías Baixas is made from Albariño, known as Alvarinho in neighbouring Portugal. It's at its best without oak, producing fresh, crisp wines which can be floral and fruity and, at their best, with a dry mineral finish. It's considered a wine best drunk young, though some producers are experimenting with more ageworthy wines.

what did I like?

Valmiñor 2013 (Salnés, £15)

A fragrant, floral nose with melons and apricots and a dry mineral finish.

Fillaboa Seléccion Finca, Monte Alto 2012 (Condado do Tea, £20)

From a well-known producer, this wine has a very giving nose, with engaging floral and stone fruit aromas. The palate becomes much more complex, the sweetness of the fruits giving way to a long dry finish. This has seen some ageing - nine months on its lees in stainless steel tasks - which adds to the wine's complexity, without taking away from the grape's flavours.

Santiago Ruiz 2013 (O Rosal, £11)

My favourite label of the day, which was backed up by the wine inside the bottle. This wine was very stony in its dry minerality and stone fruits, where it felt like tasting the stones of the fruits rather the juice. Like many of the wines on show, this would be a perfect accompaniment to a seafood dish and would improve drunk alongside food.

Maior de Mendoza 3 Crianzas 2011 (Salnés, £12.50)

A wine trying something a bit different: aged on its lees for nine months, a further five months in stainless steel, and a final five in the bottle before release, hence its name 3 Crianzas (aged three different ways). The lees give the wine a richness that could be mistaken for oak, as well as a nutty yeastiness. The ageing process has not interfered with the expression of the grape, however: there is still a floral fruitiness to the wine and a dry, balanced finish.

Pazo Señoráns Seléccion de Añada 2006 (Salnés, £35)

Without a shadow of doubt, the wine of the tasting but also the least typical of the area. Aged for two and a half years on its lees with another year in the bottle, and now over seven years old, this has a rich, creamy, yeasty, nutty aroma and texture, with a long tasty mouthfeel. A superb, complex wine.