Hi, Welcome to the Wine Woman Song blog. My name is Juel. I’ve been in the wine industry since 2001. This blog is to provide you with fine wine advice, 100ml travel-sized debates as well as share my personal favourites.
From 1869, up until the end of World War II, there was only one ‘brunello’ in Montalcino and that was Biondi-Santi’s brunello. In the space of 57 years they produced only four vintages (1888, 1891, 1925, 1945). For the lucky ones, life was simple and the choice was made for you. Today, the wine market is complex and more accessible than ever. With so much information at our fingertips, everything has become easier. Everything, that is, except choosing: the number of producers of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG has grown exponentially. In 1960, it was 11 producers; in 2012, it was 258.
Is there a way to help the wine buyer understand a region with so much growth but little organisation? The pros and cons of subzones were recently debated at a Symposium of nine Brunello di Montalcino producers held at 67 Pall Mall in London. Brought together by Walter Speller, who explained to the producers, as much as the audience of trade and press, “These are top class producers, bringing it forward… sometimes you need to rock the boat to find out where you are.”
It was clear the style of Brunello di Montalcino differed greatly according to place. This may seem obvious, but having tasted a couple of hundred individualistic wines in random order at Benvenuto Montalcino, ‘obvious’ is not a bad place to start. As Speller called it, it’s a “jewellery box.” And, at the moment, it is a jewellery box filled with beautiful beads and brooches all tangled together.
Attitude and Altitude
An easy way to think of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is to divide the small wine region into two parts – north and south. In general, one third of the producers are to the north of Montalcino where it is cooler, while two-thirds of vineyards are in the warmer south. Although the effect on altitude has an impact, for example, in Torrenieri to the northeast of Montalcino town, it is lower-lying with the heaviest soil giving wines a fuller-body but, of course, there are higher-altitude hillsides and exceptions.
The area clearly has different soil types, up to ten different soil types, from Galestro clay in the north-west, clay deposits in the north-east, and limestone and sandstone in the south east:
Soil types in Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
Comparing the style of wine from two producers from one area – what part of their wine comes from vitification and what is from vinification? What is down to the sub zone and what was the personality of the winemaker?
This is the question when tasting two producers from Montesoli in the north, such as Baricci and Canalicchio di Sopra. Widely acknowledged as a Grand Cru area, if there were to be a Grand Cru classification. Of course, it is not officially recognised as a Grand Cru. However, if there were a Grand Cru classification… then, this may be it…
This mind loop for conscious consumers is the ‘elephant in the room’. The producers need some sort of classification but did they want it based on quality (and all the politics that go with it)?
To Sub Zone or Not To Sub Zone
Driving up to the medieval town of Montalcino, the first thing you see is the facade of a fort. In a small wine region, it is not always easy to put one’s head above the parapet without being shot down.
From outside the fort, it may not seem controversial to talk about sub-zones in Montalcino. Yet there were hesitations from some producers – would this lead to a French cru classification of wine? Or even, would sub zones become a strait jacket for the winemaker into making a pre-determined style? If a sub-zone was found in a lesser zone, would it be unfairly devalued?
Unlike France, Italy’s appellation system is not based on classifications of quality. Barolo and Barbaresco are the only ones to have officially introduced subzones. Walter Speller proposes not a classification, or a cru system, but to use subzones as “a way in to this complex region.” For a complex and small wine region, without an official detailed map of the vineyards in each area, this could be helpful.
What does the original brunello producer think? His grandson, Tancredi Biondi-Santi opened up the topic, “Sub-zones are a fact, but it is difficult to match the sub-zone to the style of wine, which can give different results in different vintages.”
Arguably, the different vintages are apparent but neither do they betray the Biondi-Santi style. In fact, the current work at Biondi-Santi shows what can be achieved by learning more about place and individual sites. They are focusing on four small plots with different aspects and expositions to understand the impact of soils in the vineyards of Greppo. They vinify each plot separately and work with Garbellotto (barrel-makers) to collaboratively create a new system to analyse how the texture of the wood affects aroma from each plot. They also analyse the vinification of each wine from each soil type to see what the soil is giving to the wine.
The argument has moved on from the modern vs traditional style of winemaking that dominated his parent’s generation. Like many winemakers of the new generation, inspiration is taken from their grandparent’s style. Interestingly, Franco Biondi-Santi (Tancredi’s grandfather) proposed sub-zones in 2013, according to Speller.
Humans have a talent for classifying
Whether Montalcino winemakers can come together to agree on what is needed for the fine wine consumer in the crowded market, the trend for customers to learn more about the producers, sub zones and regions is not going away. To understand more about a wine from a particular area of Montalcino does not take away from it’s individuality (as if an Italian wine could lose its individuality even if it tried). An Italian sommelier commented after the tasting, “This is an opera, and the opera is called Brunello di Montalcino’. And the show must go on.
A symposium of nine Brunello di Montalcino producers hosted by Walter Speller on Monday, 18th June at 67 Pall Mall, “Exploring Brunello di Montalcino Sub Zones – The next generation on how to approach Montalcino’s terroir.”
The roll call of producers: Biondi-Santi, Baricci, Capanna, Canalicchio di Sopra, Casanova di Neri Cortonesi, Le Potazzine, Le Ripi and Talenti.
I have to admit, when I first received this topic from WSET for Diploma Unit 1 – Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade – I had absolutely no idea where to start. It felt quite dry, and there seemed to be a lot of non-wine knowledge needed – tariffs, World Trade Organisation, NTBs – um, what? Give me a sweet question about trellising or wine production methods. The topic could easily have side-tracked into politics (ie. Brexit and Trump, although this must have been the prompt for the question, no doubt. Sign o’ the Times), which had to be resisted, if only because the assignment had a strict word limit.
Funnily enough, like any study, the more I delved into it, the more I enjoyed it. Now the marks have come in, instead of having it languish on my desktop, it might as well be out there – especially as there is so much ‘tariff chat’ on the news at the moment. The footnotes have “dropped” out when I pasted it in to the blog but you will find a bibliography at the end. A word of warning, though – this is written in a traditional academic style rather than a normal blog post.
Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade
1. Introduction and the tools of protectionism
Significant progress had been made since the Second World War in lowering international trade barriers, particularly those associated with tariffs. However, while there has been a decrease in tariff barriers, there has been an increase in non-tariff barriers to international trade, particularly those related to technical standards. In 1994, a multilateral trade agreement was concluded in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which addressed the rise of non-tariff trade barriers, strengthening its positions on non-tariff trade barriers, combined with the establishment in 1995 of new enforcement mechanisms through the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Nevertheless, the increasing global nature of the drinks industry exists within a complex framework of international tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. While there has been tremendous growth in the global trade of drinks, along with considerable tariff reductions, there has also been louder demands for local protectionism, especially to protect local industries, which have seen more non-tariff trade barriers imposed on the global trade of drinks .
The World Trade Organisation defines a tariff as “customs duties on merchandise imports,” which “give a price advantage to locally-produced goods over similar goods which are imported, and they raise revenues for governments.”
In general, there are two types of tariffs: an ad valorem tariff and a specific tariff. An ad valorem tariff is calculated on the fixed percentage of the value of the imported good. A specific tariff would be a set-priced tax regardless of the value of the good. Governments then collect the taxes at the time of customs clearance.
The level of tariffs is constrained by WTO rules: all members are committed to set tariffs at levels which cannot be raised without compensation to other countries (called the “Most Favoured Nation Tariff”). Applied tariffs may be reduced or cleared in the framework of other preferential agreements.
For consumers in the importing countries, as well as exporters, tariffs are the most visible trade barrier as they increase import prices. Yet, the increase in non-tariff trade barriers is now more commonly becoming a trade barrier.
1.2. Non-tariff trade barriers
As the WTO succinctly describes on their website, non-tariff trade barriers (NTB) are noted as “red tape, etc”. Informal barriers can be a result of a conscious decision by governments to favour domestic over international goods, or it can be a by-product of practices and policies that are rooted in domestic institutions .
Deardorff classifies NTB into three broad categories, to which examples have been added:
administrative procedures and unpublished government regulations and policies – includes bureaucratic delays and discretionary licensing (for example, import quotas or export restraints, which may favour domestic producers); rules of origin, antidumping, countervailing duty and other types of government investigation (for example, unfair trade actions may be used to foster a climate of uncertainty for foreign suppliers, such as corrupt and lengthy customs procedures).
market structure – nations may differ in levels of public ownership, monopolization, and the regulation of economic activity (for example, competition or antitrust policies; foreign exchange controls and restrictions; or, domestic subsidies and industry bailouts).
political, social, and cultural institutions – whether the nation operates under a federal system (i.e. United States or India) or practices preferential procurement in some areas; or, governments promote the national interest (“Buy National” policy) or to enhance cultural identity (local content requirements); or, if the country has inadequate infrastructure (for example, needing a certified EU laboratory in the country for testing products before customs clearance); or, embargoes to block trade (such as South Africa during apartheid); or, to protect health and safety or environment standards (for example, licensing, packaging, and labelling requirements; sanitary and phytosanitary rules; food, plant and animal inspections; import bans based on objectionable fishing or agricultural methods).
2. Protectionism in the drinks industry
2.1. Tariff barriers
Following the definitions above, a tariff on wine can be expressed as an ad valorem tariff, with one rate or different rates according to the price level of the product; or, a specific tariff such as volume-based (per litre) or alcohol-based (alcoholic strength); or, a mix of ad valorem and specific rates. In addition, tariffs can differ by type of wine (still or sparkling, bottled or bulk wine).
Specific tariffs based on volume are the most popular in Europe and North America, whereas ad valorem tariffs are more common in the Asia-Pacific region, with the exception of Japan and Malaysia. Overall, tariff protection is quite low in countries which have long been involved in importing wine (North America, European Community, New World producing countries, Japan).
For example, the countries of North America have the lowest protection of their domestic market in comparison to the tariffs applied to their trading partners, as the Wine Institute notes, “virtually all U.S. wine exports to the major markets, other than Canada, face tariffs that are double or triple those rates. For example, the EU import tariff ad valorem equivalent (AVE) is approximately 32% , Japan’s AVE is 22.5% and Switzerland’s AVE is 90% on red wine and 106% on white. By comparison, the U.S. import tariff AVE is 1.4%.”.
In general, EU tariffs for non-EU countries are: €32/100 litres sparkling wine, €13.10 for still wine up to 13% abv, €15.40 for still wine over 13% abv but up to 15% abv. There is currently free trade between the EU member countries, as well as trade agreements with Chile and South Africa (through the South African Development Community) who are completely, or nearly free of tariffs with the EU. In contrast to the US and the EU, the tariff level is high in countries which have recently experience growing wine imports, for example in emerging Asian markets.
For instance, India has notoriously complex duties with varying state policies. Alcohol is one of the most highly taxed products in India and the use of wine is discouraged by Article 47 of the Indian Constitution. In 2007, the European Union challenged India under their free trade agreement and requested WTO consultations on their protectionist policy on wine and spirit tariffs for imported wines, with high federal Basic Customs Duties (of 150% for spirits and 100% for wines) with Additional Duties levelled on top, raising the cumulative federal duty burden up to 264% for wines and 550% for spirits.
When India was challenged it exempted alcoholic beverages from the Additional Duties, and announced it was doing so in lieu of applying state-level excise duties on wine and spirits. The Indian government customs duty on wine import in India has been increased from 100% to the maximum permissible WTO rate of 150% and is 150% for imported spirits .
As India is a growing market for the Scotch Whisky Association, it has been lobbying for India to reduce the 150% tariff on whisky. Despite the high tariff, in the first half of 2016, sales of Scotch Whisky grew in India 41 per cent by volume and 28 per cent by value.
After China acceded to the WTO in 2001, its world wine trade concessions to its main partner countries reduced its tariffs on wine from 65% to 14% in the short space of 3 years. Canada and Chile have also reduced their tariffs to open up to international markets with a fourfold decrease using free trade agreements; Chile has set the highest number of FTA, reducing their effective trade barrier from 10% to 0.64% AVE.
However, as mentioned in the introduction, although the trend for countries is to decrease their tariff rates, some countries have diluted their WTO agreements by increasing technical barriers to free trade.
2.2. Non-tariff trade barriers
Technical barriers to trade (TBT) remain the main non-tariff trade barrier concern for drinks producers and importers. The following four TBTs most concern wine producers in various markets as well as, spirits and wine importers:
2.2.1. Wine Labelling regulations
The lack of consistency on health warnings, ingredients and languages on labels is a considerable cost to wine exporters. In 2014 it was reported, “up to half a million bottles of wine and spirits are stuck in Indian customs, according to importers, because labels are not printed in English or because many drinks, including Scotch whisky, do not list their ingredients.”
2.2.2. Oenological practices
For wines authorised into the EU, the wine must be produced in line with the oenological practices of the EU. This regulation may be based on health and safety, but sometimes the justification is seen as a technical barrier to trade by producers outside of the EU. For instance, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics argued, when ’New World’ producers of wine use new and innovative processes that have not yet been proven to be unsafe on scientific grounds are unrecognised by the European Union.
2.2.3 Maximum residue limits of agrochemicals
Imports of wine products can be restricted where the residues of common agricultural chemicals in wine exceed specified maximum residue levels. These can be normal agricultural chemicals, but in another example, the South Korea restricted imports of French wine when French wine makers used powdered beef blood as a fining agent in wine.
2.2.4. Certification and testing procedures (conformity assessment)
To access markets, a complex sets of certificates are required, which may or may not be justified in protecting public health increasing the amount of time and cost involved. In February 2013, the European Union faced a market access barrier to China when Chinese authorities asked for the results of tests of phthalates in every consignment of wine and spirits from the EU. The EU argued their exported products are compliant with domestic health and safety in Europe. However, China was concerned about the dumping of stock. In turn, the EU claimed the testing to be an imposition of unjustified antidumping and countervailing measures on EU wines.
2.3. Other non-tariff trade barriers
2.3.1. Higher Domestic Taxes on Imported Alcohol
Alcohol and health is a legitimate governmental concern; it is a non-essential good and can be taxed as a useful source of extra revenue for governments. When governments discriminate against imported alcohol by taxing it higher than local products, taxes become an impediment to free trade.
In 2016, the EU challenged Colombia’s differentiation of domestic taxes based on alcohol strength. Alcohol under 35% ABV was taxed at a lower level than higher ABV imported spirits (gin, vodka, Scotch Whisky, etc). The EU challenged this under WTO rules as local aguardiente and rum fell under 35% ABV while imported spirits from the EU did not, and so, it was argued, were unfairly taxed .
2.3.2. State Monopolisation
National alcohol monopolies have existed to restrict the sale of alcohol, such as the Nordic alcohol monopolies: Vinmonopolet in Norway, Systembolaget in Sweden, Vínbúð in Iceland, Rúsan in Faroe Islands, and Alko in Finland. In India, there is TASMAC in Tamil Nadu and the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (with five dry states). In the United States, there are 17 states that have a state monopoly on the wholesale and retailing of alcohol and 200 dry counties where alcohol is prohibited or strictly restricted.
Canada also has an alcohol monopoly in the form of the Provincial Liquor Crown Companies. In 2016, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch was requested by the EU, the United States and six other governments to stop discriminating against imported wine under GATT/WTO rules. The issue involved the British Columbia monopoly, where there was a “store-within-a-store” concept with a separate cash register for imported wines; meanwhile, domestic wines, or local BC wines, were featured on regular grocery shelves .
On the one hand, the EU protects Geographical Indications (GI) as an assurance of quality. On the other, in the United States, GIs are administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and treated as brands and trademarks. Consequently, the United States views EU protection of its registered GIs as a way to monopolise the use of certain wine and spirits terms and a form of trade protectionism. Despite the 2006 U.S.-EU Agreement on Trade in Wine, the United States believes new GIs from the EU lacks transparency, often resulting in substantial bureaucratic delays and adding costs to trade.
Despite the political disagreement on the definition of GIs, there is agreement between EU policy on GIs and some US winemakers. In June 2016, Napa Valley wine growers “expressed their support to EU officials,” and argued “for expanding and protecting the use of GIs in the United States”.
2.3.4. Service Trade Barriers
Restricting the sales, marketing and advertising of spirits and wine is also a trade barrier, as seen recently in Turkey, with its stricter laws introduced by President Erdogan in 2013. The recent government ban covers the advertising of alcohol at point-of-sale, broadcasting and journalism, as well as internet sales, and even consumer wine tastings. Mandatory labelling in Turkey, on every bottle of domestic or foreign wine and spirit, must now clearly state on the back label, “Alcohol is Not Your Friend”. Outright restrictions on alcohol are a barrier to trade wine and spirits, although “rules disciplining this form of protectionism are less clearly articulated.”.
3. Conclusion and personal commentary
Recently, the case for protectionism has been proving popular again on a political and emotional level. Free trade policy aims to increase choice and reduce prices by allowing international products to compete on the domestic market by reducing or removing tariffs; in contrast, protectionism aims to “make local industries more competitive by increasing the price of exports or restricting the quantity of imports entering the country.” Although, whether a protected industry is truly competitive is debatable.
Despite tariffs decreasing since the Second World War, it should be noted that non-tariff barriers have been increasing since the mid-1990s. Recently, fast-growing new wine and spirits importing countries are setting up alcohol regulations which could prove to be non-tariff barriers. Indeed, in some of these countries, such as India, growing interest in domestic wine and spirits production could lead to maintaining (or raising) protectionist policies and stepping up support for local producers.
Scotch Whisky Association head, David Frost argues, the lack of tariffs in the EU for Scotch Whisky, “makes production cheaper, paperwork simpler and competition stronger and hence better for the consumer.” France (in the EU) is the biggest market by value of Scotch Whisky in the world, and despite the potential future growth in emerging markets such as India, Frost argues many discriminatory trade barriers in these markets need to be first “knocked down”.
Some economists argue applying tariffs to an “infant industry” as one of the special exceptions to free trade. Small local industries are given a chance to develop and become efficient producers without pressure from external competition. Using the previous example from Canada, wine from British Columbia may be a ‘unique product’, and according to free trade economics, should give Canadian wine a ‘comparative advantage’ with its trading partners. However, the markets are asymmetrical: Canada is only one of many producer countries in the EU and US, and a small one at that. Nonetheless, they were challenged for promoting B.C. wines over imports in their local supermarkets, which was seen as unfair to foreign wines.
Indeed, protectionism helped to develop the export success story that is today’s Australian still wine industry. Australia developed its domestic market in the 1970s by protecting it from imports, as a University of Adelaide paper notes, “prior to the 1980s wine import tariffs were virtually prohibitive, with imports rarely accounting for more than 1% of domestic consumption”.
However, the protection of an infant industry can “distort the market by raising the domestic price of the imported good above its world level”. When an industry is larger and developed, and export sales develop faster than domestic market sales, as happened to the Australian wine industry, or today’s mature Cava industry, free trade becomes more important than protectionism. It also encourages industry development through new competition. For instance, the impact of high sales of Prosecco after 2010 on Cava’s key export markets (UK, Germany and Belgium), has forced the export-dependent Cava industry to improve its quality image with the new premium classification of Cava del Paraje Calificado.
Apart from infant industries, the opportunity presented by increased technical barriers to trade, and other protectionist policies in the drinks industry, is for government regulators, such as customs and tax officials, or government wine laboratories for conformity assessment, for certification and analyses for wine products, and for sanitary and phytosanitary rules. For example, technical regulations may be important for health and safety reasons, such as the EU regulations applied to non-EU imports, although it was seen as a protectionist tool, as when Chinese authorities decided to assess chemicals in the wine (that are accepted in the EU) to stop what they perceived as dumping of excess EU stock.
There may be short-term benefits of protecting a fledgling local industry from global competition, but for outside drinks producers, or when that infant industry matures and needs to export to grow further, too much protectionism is a burden to trade. In particular, increased technical and non-tariff barriers. All things considered, more tariffs are not the right solution, especially when there is a free market solution: develop the necessary infrastructure for the local drinks industry through trade associations. Trade associations, such as the Scotch Whisky Association or Wine Australia, can help the industry to compete on the global market with marketing, events, advertising, government lobbying and research support for developing the industry.
Overall, there is more opportunity for the drinks industry with free trade rather than protectionist policies, however it is a fine balance: between developing the local diversity of the drinks industry while also removing market inefficiencies to global competition that may hurt the dynamism of the drinks industry, and consumers, in the long term.
Dal Bianco, A.; Boatto, V.L.; Caracciolo F.; Santeramo, F.G.; (2015) “Tariffs and non-tariff frictions in the world wine trade” in European Review of Agricultural Economics, Volume 43, Issue 1, 1 February 2016, Pages 31–57, https://doi.org/10.1093/erae/jbv008 [accessed 12 October, 2017].
Das, D. K. (2003) Quantifying Trade Barriers: Has Protection Declined Substantially in Indian Manufacturing,Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Working Paper No. 5. http://icrier.org/pdf/wp105.pdf [accessed 15 October, 2017].
Deardorff, A. and R. Stern (1997), “Measurement of Non-Tariff Barriers”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 179, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/568705648470 [Accessed 12 October, 2017], chapter 2.
I could never honestly say “it’s been a long time between drinks”, but it certainly has been a long time between blog posts. With most of my days spent in front of a screen lately – for work and study – it felt great to be back amongst the vines. First, there was judging to do at the Concorso Enologico Nazionale “Vermentino” alongside the very talented, Susan Hulme MW. Then a visit to the only DOCG on the island, Vermentino di Gallura DOCG in the north of Sardinia.
About Vermentino di Gallura DOCG
A little bit of background on Vermentino. Vermentino can be grown across Sardinia, but the grapes used for the production of Vermentino di Gallura DOCG must come from the territory of Gallura, which includes the municipalities:
Loiri Porto San Paolo,
S. Antonio di Gallura,
S. Teresa di Gallura,
Trinita d’Agultu, in the Province of Olbia-Tempio, and
Viddalba in the Province of Sassari.
This is quite a list, but not surprisingly as this is Italy and, in particular, the island of Sardinia: the Sardinian people I met had an intense sense of their locality and community. I was pulled aside a couple of times about how they speak not just a dialect, but a completely different language.
Awareness of locality is fantastic for wines, and creating distinct appellations, but it can make it tricky to judge Vermentino from Gallura against other Vermentino from Italy. Even if it was a blind tasting. I had more than one discussion about the different expressions of Vermentino in different parts of Italy, and was told that Sardinian Vermentino was the real Vermentino, and nowhere else knew it. As you can imagine, this can be an issue when judging across regions, especially in Italy. Granted, Vermentino from Sardinia is a benchmark style and the Gallurese have every right to be proud of their vine culture.
A Short History of Sardinian Wine
Vine culture in Sardinia probably dates back to the 8th century BC when groups of Phoenicians, especially Carthaginians, settled in the coastal areas where they founded Coralis, while the Sardinians retreated inside the island. Later, Romans took the trouble of landing in Sardinia by planting their farm-villas, equipped with wine cellars. To find traces of wine in Sardinia after the barbarian invasions and the obscure period of the High Middle Ages, one has to wait for the times of Eleonora d’Arborea, author of the Carta de Logu (1395). Most importantly in the Oristano area, viticulture had a significant boost with laws introduced forbidding poorly-kept vineyards.
In the modern era, having missed the phylloxera epidemic at the end of the nineteenth century, Sardinian viticulture had its biggest increase since the 1960s thanks to the efforts of the private company in Alghero, Sella & Mosca, founded by two Piedmontese pioneers in 1899, and various works done by the Agricultural Development Agency of Sardinia.
What is the style of Vermentino di Gallura DOCG?
There is some confusion in the wider wine world about what makes Vermentino, well, a Vermentino. Some websites explain that Vermentino is an aromatic variety. Outside of its traditional European areas, you may see Vermentino produced in other countries in a fresher style – such as Australia or California – for the grapes have excellent drought-resistance. When it is produced in the new world, it can often be as aromatic as a Sauvignon Blanc (indeed, Vermentino Sauvignon Blanc is a blend seen often in Pays d’Oc); but, this is not necessarily true for Vermentino from Sardinia.
Vermentino from Gallura is fuller-bodied and semi-aromatic. That’s not solely because of the different vinification than in the new world (there’s plenty of steel tanks in Sardinia). The best have a straw yellow colour with greenish reflections, which can be dry through to sweet, with sometimes a slightly bitter aftertaste. The good examples keep the alcohol in check without the flavours becoming too overblown. This is quite a feat in the face of the heat; some vineyards had not had rain since January – nearly 9 months.
Zuppa Montina and Vermentino di Gallura DOCG
The bigger style of Vermentino is perfect with the heavy dishes from Monti, such as Zuppa Montina made as a deliciously soupy cheese, as well as, the fresh fish and calamari dishes from Olbia. It wasn’t until we got to Cagliari and had some free time in the bars in the back streets from the port that I really understood how Vermentino fits in with the night, cheese and food. If you love wine and food, Cagliari is a must-visit once the tourists depart on their cruise ships and the island becomes off-season and quiet again. The little bars up from the harbour are run by people who are passionate about smaller producers in wine and cheese, if they are not moonlighting as one themselves.
This is a refreshing trend to see wines that are not from the larger co-operatives. Although if you have a chance to see a wine called Meigamma at 500 bottles, snap it up. Through instagram, I found some had been exported to Melbourne where I’m sure they will lap it up with their love of “alternative varieties” (as they would call Vermentino in Australia). It may be easier to book a trip to Cagliari than to find a bottle of Meigamma, but thankfully, you will find good Vermentino – and, look for Vermentino di Gallura – in the UK and US, too.
Percorino Sardo and delicious meaty, savoury seadas or sebadas
I visited as a guest and judge of the Concorso Enologico Nazionale “Vermentino” 27th and 28 October in Sardinia.
As we walked up towards the famous Hermannshöhle vineyard in the Nahe, Helmut Donnhoff shouted back to those of us slowing everyone down by taking photos of the spectacularly steep Riesling vines at the Donnhoff vineyards in the Nahe, “Hurry up. There are beers waiting for us a the end!”
He has known this vineyard since he was a child. The Hermannshöhle vineyard was replanted in 1949, the year of his birth. As he showed us the frost damage on the canes from April frost, he explained how strange it was for this vineyard to be affected by frost,
“Cornelius (his son, who is now the winemaker, born in 1980) did not believe that frost could happen here. Now he knows that anything can happen.”
“What is the difference between working in the 2017 and 1971 vintage?”
He thought for a while, slowing right down to glance at vines as if they were children playing by the side of the road,
“The difference is that the weather was very mild… Long periods of gentle sunshine. Not too much rain, not too much heat. There were no extreme (weather) events. That is the difference between the weather now and then.”
“The average temperature has increased by 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius since the 1970s,” he said, and admitted the riper fruit is something he welcomes (in a region at 49.800 degrees North), but overall, it is not a good thing for winemakers in hotter climates, especially in Southern France.
“It wasn’t possible to do 4 grams of residual sugar in the 1950s and 1960s (as it is today for the 2016 Dellchen Riesling Grosses Gewachs).”
Dark storm clouds were gathering over the valley. We got out at the Felsenberg vineyard and climbed though nettles and up the old stone stairs to the castle fort to see the view along the river. Big splotches of rain fell on my camera.
“What do you think has changed the most, in that time – the vineyard or the winery?”
The biggest difference, he said, is in the vineyard… and then, we quickly went back to the van just before it began to downpour. A few minutes later, rivulets of water were flowing down from the vines towards the river.
We drove slowly back to the village of Oberhausen, in sheets of rain along the winding roads down to the town. As we drove, Helmut was gauging how much of the slate and soil would be eroded and have fallen to the bottom of the hill. When we arrived at the restaurant in the village, the rain stopped. Like clockwork. Time for that beer.
Location: Situated in the village of Oberhausen between the villages of Niederhausen and Schlossbockelheim in the rocky landscape of the middle Nahe
History: The Donnhoff family first came to teh Nahe region over 200 years ago. As time went by they turned their modest farm into a wine estate, with the acquisition of top vineyards. Helmut Donnhoff has not only been making wine here since 1971 but also purchased top sites, including Kirschheck, Dellchen and Krotenpfuhl.
Vineyards: 25 ha
Grapes: Riesling 80%, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris 20%
German Pinot Noir 2015 is a guilty pleasure. On the one hand, the fruit from this warm and dry vintage is ripe and delicious. They have come into the world with adorable baby fat. But make no mistake, they are not exactly childish or simple. They have a sophisticated poise, even at this early stage, with just the right amount acidity to balance the ripe fruit.
On the other hand, it is difficult not to think about the wider implications of seeing warmer temperatures at this latitude. If wine grows best between 28th and 50th degree of latitude, the wineries we visited were at the limits: 49.7136 degree North (Fürst in Bürgstadter, Franken) and 50.5133 degrees North (Jean Stodden in Rech, Ahr). Many winemakers we visited on the ABS Masters of Riesling trip observed, from their vantage point at the edges of viticulture, the climate is changing. The silver lining for these stormy times ahead, is that red wines from Germany are having their moment. Arguably, the best yet after a few lean years.
These are strange weather days. Wine is not an exact science, in many ways it’s also an art, and German winemakers are becoming adept at quick problem solving. The unusual weather patterns means vines are growing at different times than normal and met with unusual or early frosts, such as in April this year, and are exposed to more extremes in weather.
As much as I love Burgundy – and there are evidently close friendships between the winemakers in Germany and Burgundy – when Germany has a warmer vintage such as 2015, it really can deliver for Pinot Noir drinkers. These are sophisticated, elegant reds with fascinating regional differences.
The 2015 Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder) Grosse Gewächs release is in September 2017.
Weingut Rudolf Fürst (Franken)
After arriving at Frankfurt airport, we drove to the iron-rich red sandstone region of Franken. After tasting the excellent Grosse Lage wines, including the sublime Centgrafenberg GG, we had a perfectly-matched meal made by the Fürst family of venison and home made pasta (I believe the venison came from the hills around the vineyard).
This is a family affair since 1638, with Paul and Monika’s son, Sebastian Fürst, recently taking over the winemaking. They own 19.2 hectares with an average yield of 20-55 ha. Sebastian explained how they used candles during the unexpected frost in April to warm up the vines and stop them dying in the extreme cold. The candles cost around 10 euros each, so it was a difficult but necessary decision!
Fürst Centgrafenberg GG Spatburgunder 2015 – my favourite red wine of the trip
Spectacular tasting room at Fürst – overlooking Franken
The vineyards of Fürst
Tasting the Fürst Grosse Gewachs
Winery Facts – Furst
Winemaker: Sebastian Furst
The Estate: WEingut Rudolf Furst – VDP member
Location : Burgstadt, Franken
History: Since 1638, the Furst family have been making wine in Burgstadt, Franken. In 1979, Paul and Monika Furst built the new estate in the vineyards of Centgrafenberg.
Vineyards: 19.2 ha
Grapes: 60% Spatburgunder and Fruhburgunder, 15% Riesling, 25% Silvaner Weissburgunder and others
In the tiny region of Ahr, Jean Stodden make deep-coloured Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder) with fine, silky tannins. Walking up the steep slopes behind the winery was thirsty work. Within only 7 hectares of vineyard, the diversity of slate and soil is astonishing – from coloured slate to greywacke and grey slate, loam and loess. The Grand Cru Herrenberg vineyard has slopes at 60 degrees and the vines are hand-picked. French clones of Pinot Noir give the wines a classical feel, but they speak of this unique corner of red-winemaking in Germany.
German Pinot Noir can often have a note of smoky bacon
The Jean Stodden vineyards in Ahr
Vines and slate in Ahr
Winery facts – Jean Stodden
Winemaker: Alexander Stodden
The Estate: Jean Stodden Red Wine Estate – VDP member
Location: The village of Rech in the middle of the Ahr Valley (an hour south of Bonn, Ahr)
History: The family has a long wine-making tradition and has been growing grapes here since 1578. Alexander’s grandfather started vinifying his own Pinot Noir in 1900.
Grapes: Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) 90%, Fruhburgunder and Riesling
Zero Dosage champagne is a dilemma for purists. On the one hand, it shows us an expression of the wine without the mask of added sugar before bottling. On the other, it can sound a bit similar to other marketing re-mixes such as Coke Zero, or perfume houses that put out so-called limited-release versions just before Christmas. Whether the finish of a sparkling wine with a sugar dose – and it is only a pipette – masks or enhances is a matter for debate.
“You either love it or hate it,” our guide at Hambledon Winery in Hampshire, Joe Wadsack explains, “It does take a while to get used to it, like jumping into a cold sea, but that shock is also what you want.”
Experimental zero dosage version of Hambledon – is it up there?
Most people like to think they like “sugar-free” but would they if they were handed a glass at a party? To understand how dosage adds to, or takes away, from a wine, we tasted four different levels of dosage and the differences were quite apparent:
Zero dosage (Brut Nature = No added sugar to under 3 grams/litre residual sugar)
4 g/l(Extra Brut = between 0 and 6 g/litre)
6 g/l (Extra Brut to Brut – less than 12 g/l)
10 g/l – (Brut – less than 12 g/l)
The high acidity found in grapes from Hampshire – cooler for 30 average degree days less than in the Champagne region – are balanced by the right dosage. Dosage is not the same as adding sugar during fermentation (which increases alcohol). Adding a tiny amount of sugar after fermentation is complete, just before bottling, is more like a final finishing touch. The Hambledon Classic Cuvée NV normally has 8 g/l residual sugar, while the Premiere Cuvée is 6 g/l. Out of the four samples, the 6 g/l had the most balance while the sample with the 4 g/l was almost out of kilter, a topsy turvy feeling that was not pleasant. But what about the Zero Dosage?
At the end of the tasting, we could choose our favourite to bottle ourselves. Hambledon Winery does not currently produce a Zero Dosage sparkling wine, so I wanted to make one. Or “not make one”, as there is nothing to add – losing the dosage step, the bottle is straight to the corking and labelling.
Making our own bottle
I have to be honest, one reason I chose the Zero Dosage is because I did not want to wait around to drink the wine; it takes a few months for the dosage to integrate with the wine. A Zero Dosage sparkling can be drunk straight away and will develop like a wine in the bottle.
Apart from my greedy thirst, without the dosage, it is possible to taste what is happening in the vineyards rather than in the winery. If there is one thing everyone knows about English sparkling is the famous chalk soils. Without added sugar, you can almost taste every individual pebble on the ground.
The chalk soils in Hampshire (highlighted in black)
As Joe Wadsack said, “a Zero Dosage is like driving in a Porsche, you can feel the crenulation of the road under the wheel.” It’s thrilling, but not for everyone – people with very sensitive palates will find the acidity too razor-like. For less-experimental drinking, for me, the Première Cuvée at 6 g/l residual sugar is the perfect balance.
A sparkling wine is always about the blend; a good wine is a blend of components that come together like a finely tuned machine. It will be very interesting to take one of England’s best Sparkling wines at zero dosage for a spin over the next couple of months and see how it develops.
You may like to make your own sparkling wine, too. The Première Cuvée Experience is an educational ‘how wine is made’ experience hosted by Joe Wadsack and Ian Kellett at a cost of £200 per head, including disgorging your own bottle to take home. It’s a beautiful part of the world and a short train trip from London Waterloo station.
Heeding a call for “Loire Moments” during London Wine Week, I left my ordinary world of peak-hour crush on the Underground, horizontal rain and broken umbrella to find myself in the foyer of the London EDITION hotel, 10 Berners Street, with a glass of sparkling Monmousseau Touraine Brut in my hand.
Our exquisite hosts, Douglas Blyde and Lindsay Oram, had created a menu matched with six wines from along the Loire River, with four-courses cooked by Chef Phil Carmichael from Jason Atherton’s upstairs Berners Tavern.
That’s about all I can watch nowadays, by the way, after recent horrific events – in fact, my year can be summed up by the bleak New Yorker cartoon, “my desire to be well-informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane”. Thanks to the Monmousseau Brut, I began to leave the outside world behind for the evening and have some fun. It was soon time to leave our glasses and move downstairs to the main event.
Green neon light!
Crossing the threshold of everyday reality into a dark room, we found ourselves somewhere between a disco and an aristocrat’s cave, complete with gold-framed portraits of eccentric relatives.
Once seated, the room was flooded with green neon light. “Loire Moments is to be a full sensory experience,” Douglas Blyde announced. The green light – and gentle nature sounds of birds twittering – signified the mouth of the Loire River, in the Nantais, where our dinner’s journey would begin.
The Loire River is not a gentle river. Shallow with strong currents, it has a mind of its own. From half way along, the river flows north, changing direction with a curve that flows toward the Atlantic Ocean. The last time I was in the Loire, for the Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny, the winemakers took us on a traditional flat-bottom boat adapted over the centuries to navigate the moody tides. I saw first-hand how difficult it was to go from one side to the other.
The ‘Loire Moments’ dinner in London was a gentler affair, despite the sudden change in lighting. I found it amusing but some of the photographers demanded a change back to neutral light. Judging by my photos, perhaps they had a point. But I was quite prepared to go with the flow of the evening. It was a journey down a river, after all.
We had a good time over the last drops of red wine and an extremely good espresso before hitting the reality of the last tube home, then bus, then bus, then bed and then do the daily commute all again in the morning, waking with a lovely memory of a technicolour dream of a river.
GREEN LIGHT with sounds of the Grandlieu nature reserve
Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu, Clos de la Sénaigerie, Domaine des Herbauges 2015
with Dressed Colchester crab, brown crab mayo, apple, coriander
Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu, Clos de la Sénaigerie, Domaine des Herbauges 2015 with Dressed Colchester crab, brown crab mayo, apple, coriander
AQUA BLUE LIGHTING with the bells of Saint Maurice, Angers
Savennières, Thibault Boudignon, Clos de la Hutte 2015