For Students Of Bubbles And Lovers Of Italy: Franciacorta

I suppose you could call me a student of bubbles. When it comes to sparkling wine, there’s so much to think about, and try to understand: the conditions for ripeness; the balance created by acidity; lees influence; reduction vs. oxidation; pressure levels; soil types and grape varieties; disgorgement dates–the list goes on! But that’s why it’s so fascinating. It’s like being stuck in an endless PhD program, where the crappy stipend is palliated by sip after sip of occasionally quite stunning juice. There are ways in which bubbles, when made really well, can reveal things about a place in a way that a still wine cannot, I think. There are emotional experiences to be had with beautiful bubbles. And when the dosage is kept low, and vinosity is emphasized over powerful bubbles, these wines can pair so well with food.

the biodynamically farmed vineyard at 1701 Franciacorta

This being my obsession, I gladly accepted an invitation to visit Franciacorta. This northern Italian DOCG, located just northwest of Brescia in Lombardia, probably best known for the dramatically beautiful Lake Iseo, prides itself on making high quality méthode traditionelle wines that are uniquely Italian. As in, they are not just an “alternative” to Champagne. Of course, the same grapes are involved: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc. It’s a young region, relatively–the DOC was founded exactly 50 years ago with the goal of becoming Italy’s bubble kingdom, beyond the Charmat-method, populist Prosecco, and it became a DOCG in 1995.

From one perspective, this is a marketing challenge and a big business risk that I’m not sure I would have wagered, given both Prosecco’s and Champagne’s popularity and successful branding. But the climate of Lombardia does seem good for this kind of wine, and anyway, who says that if you decide to make sparkling wine, it needs to be about competing with other regions? Franciacorta may never be as prominent as Champagne; it may never be as beloved and saleable as Prosecco. But it’s interesting in its own right, in many ways.

Franciacorta may be a new DOCG, but this being Italy, of course, it has deep history. There are mentions of a region called “Cortes Francae” as far back as 1277, and in 1570 a physician named Dr. Conforti makes note of sparkling wine in the area, calling it “mordacious” (stinging) wine. Anyone who loves Italian food and wine and culture (MEEE!!) should be learning to appreciate Franciacorta and its small group of producers, who very widely in style, size, and terrain–it’s a region with five soil types, according to the locals. There are very large, industrial producers in Franciacorta; there are also medium-sized, organically farmed estates; there are small, slightly idiosyncratic, even biodynamic producers; and there’s at least one fiercely natural producer who, unsurprisingly, is kept outside the DOCG–that’s Cà del Vént, who, unfortunately, I was unable to visit.

One thing that sets Franciacorta apart from any sparkling wine region is that nearly every producer is adamant about using little or zero dosage at disgorgement. There is a lot of Extra Brut or Brut Nature/Zero Dosaggio Franciacorta out there to choose from, and unlike in Champagne, it’s not necessarily the most prized/expensive cuvée of the estate. It’s just what Franciacorta winemakers prefer. “Sugar for me is like a mask: a bit fake,” is how Sabrina Gozio, the hospitality manager at Castello di Gussago, phrased it. “It changes the balance of the wines” when you add too much dosage. Also unique in Franciacorta: the wines are effectively always made as single-vintage cuvées, rather than incorporating reserve wine as in Champagne.

Another idiosyncrasy about Franciacorta is this style of wine they have called “Satèn.” Essentially meant as an aperitivo wine, it’s a blanc de blancs–Chardonnnay and Pinot Blanc are both permitted–made with slightly lower pressure (5 bars is the maximum). Saten also has longer time on the lees–24 months versus 18, per DOCG rules.

Erbamat in the Barone Pizzini vineyard

A recent point of excitement in the DOCG is that an indigenous grape called Erbamat has recently been allowed into the list of permitted varieties. This is probably because some of the larger, more influential producers, like Barone Pizzini, see it as an important historical grape in the region, and want to experiment with it. Silvano Brescianini, General Manager and VP of Barone Pizzini, where 3- and 4-year old Erbamat vines are growing, says that, in early experiments, the grape appears “aromatic and high in acidity” to some tasters. Erbamat has low polyphenols and a clear/light color, he says. They’ve had some challenges getting the Erbamat vines to produce grapes consistently in their otherwise healthy, organic estate; Brescianini thinks the next step is to “find the good clone.” I look forward to returning for some taste trials!

Organic viticulture is practiced, one could say, fairly widely in Franciacorta–I met and heard of over a dozen viticulturalists and growers who had recently converted their estates, or were in the process of doing so. Sabrina at Castello di Gussago said that organic viticulture is important because families, including her own, are “living near the vineyards.” As well, it’s a question of quality: her colleague Angelo Divittini, the winery’s agronomist, explained to me that over the years, Franciacorta has experienced a “loss of natural organic substance” in its soils–and he said this was a significant problem in Italian agriculture overall. “Forty years ago, the organic matter was 4 to 5 percent,” said Antonio. “Thanks to synthetic fertilizers, we’ve lost it all.” Organic winegrowing is important because the future is at stake, as well as regional heritage: “This land is our patrimony,” he said.

But there is only a nascent biodynamic movement in the region. 1701 Franciacorta is currently the only Demeter certified estate in the DOCG. I visited the home vineyard and cellar with Marco Benedimi, their oenologist. The project was born in 2012, when Silvia and Federico Stefini, a brother and sister team, purchased the 11-hectare estate and winery from a Count. They converted it to organic first, and received Demeter certification in 2015.

All the 1701 wines, even the “Brut,” are basically zero-dosage or very low-dosage, and they are planning to change the labels soon to reflect this. We tasted mostly wines that consisted of the 2012 vintage, and had been disgorged in March 2017, with the exception of the Satèn, which was a 2013. I liked them all, finding complexity and minerality in each one, but most enjoyed the rosé, made of 100 percent Pinot Noir (like in Champagne, blending is allowed here): the nose had ripe cherries and strawberries; the palate was full of mineral notes and acidity and seemed like it would open up to new flavors with time; I could have pictured it alongside grilled vegetables, pasta dishes, or a cheese plate. I also tried 1701’s still Chardonnay, fermented in amphora, which had a smoky stonefruit nose, and was mineral and light on the palate, with lip-smacking acidity.

In the cellar, we tasted some of the freshly pressed juice, as harvest had just begin. The Chardonnay had lots of acidity and was just beginning fermentation. The Pinot Noir had just been pressed and was juicy and fruity; they were getting ready to add fermented grape must to kickstart the process.

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All sparkling wines at 1701 are hand-riddled–the total production is 5-6000 bottles per year. It’s possible to find them in the UK via Cave de Pyrenes. I don’t think they’re currently in the U.S.

Another great experience was tasting through the wines of Arcari + Danesi, a project of Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi, and one of the first Franciacorta wines I’d tried in New York, imported via Indie Wineries. I met with Arianna and Alex, as Giovanni and Nico were out of town.

The Arcari + Danesi project was born in 2007/8. They are well known for their “Solo Uva” wine, which omits sugar entirely, and which they first made in 2011. “Solo Uva” is a Chardonnay with only grape must to accelerate the secondary fermentation in bottle, rather than using sugar as is the norm worldwide, and with must again at disgorgement, instead of dosing with sugar. As you see above, there are two Solo Uva wines, one Brut and one no-dosage; then there are two standard wines and then there’s a vintage reserve.

I found that the Arcari + Danesi 2013 basic Dosaggio Zero was really singing; it had intense mineral notes, bright acid, and a fruit basket of lemons and peaches. I think it will age very well. It’s 90 percent Chardonnay, 10 percent Pinot Blanc, and spends over 30 months on the lees. The Solo Uva wines spend about 24 months on the lees.

Overall, the Arcari + Danesi wines are bottled at lower pressure, compared to other Franciacorta producers–around 4 or 4.5 atmospheres, versus 5-6. This is simply what they prefer. Generally speaking, it’s what I prefer, as well. Sprkling wines at lower pressure are, in my experience, are more vinous and food friendly.

Although it seems that most Franciacorta producers stick to stainless steel fermentation, one notable exception to the rule is the organic estate Mosnel, where barrel aging in French new oak is the norm. Out of their line-up (see header image), the 2012 Satèn was one stand-out; it wasn’t captivating me at all the wineries but the Mosnel approach, using 100 percent Chardonnay, aging 60 percent in horizontal tanks and 40 percent in barrels, delivered a wine with rich fruit, and strong acidity, offset by 6 grams of dosage. Overall, the wines at Mosnel (imported to the U.S with David Bowler Wines) have chewier textures and more toasty notes than wineries that don’t let the wine ferment or rest in barrels.

Monte Isola

Franciacorta has a lot of potential; although most producers actually export a relatively low percentage of production, the wines can be found at Italian restaurants abroad, and of course you can enjoy the wines in Italy. If you’re in Milan,, it’s a quick day trip to Franciacorta; Lake Iseo is really beautiful and peaceful, with an island in the middle that you can stroll around on a sunny day, and various historical convents scattered around. And the food in the area is excellent. They have a special kind of sardine-like fish that comes from the lake called agone, which you’ll encounter in various pasta dishes around the area.

Pacchieri with agone

Looking forward to embarking on further studies in bubbles to share with you. xRachel

 

 

 

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Nobody Drank Much Water At H20…

I hope that my latest feature on Sprudge Wine will serve as something of a lighthearted mood-lifter (tu te calmes and carry on, is perhaps what Thierry Puzelat might say…?). It’s a write-up of the raucous and extremely well-curated two-day natural wine fair H20 Vegetal, held last month in Catalunya, Spain. You can read it here

xRachel

It’s All Greek To Me, But Only Some Of It Is Worth Drinking

What’s old is new, and what’s new is old, right?

Nowhere does that seem more true than within the culture of natural wine. After all the money spent on science and technology in the late 20th century, with the goal of creating a commercial wine industry, and thousands and thousands of wineries installing temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks for a quick and consistent fermentation, people all over the world are now putting their grapes into clay amphorae, fermenting them without sulfites, and letting wine be just about as wild as it was back in the days of Dionysus. 

Crazy, right? Next thing you know, people will actually be talking to each other in cafés instead of perusing Instagram on their phones. Er, probably not . . .

In Greece, a country with 4000 years of documented viticultural history, modern winemaking dominates, and is strongly influenced by Bordeaux-style oenology. But there are a few people making really interesting, low-intervention or natural wines, and elevating the country’s fascinating indigenous grapes. My article about the producers leading the way for natural wines in Greece is up on Sprudge Wine, read here

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I had the pleasure of tasting many of these wines during a recent visit to the country. What’s important to mention here, too, is that the wines really shine especially with Greek food, which is rich in flavor and features lots of fresh Mediterranean vegetables, like eggplant and tomato, as well as plenty of meat, feta cheese, and dolmas. So, ideally, that would be the way to enjoy the wines; however, I did recently have a fantastic 2013 Xinomavro from a producer named Oenos at a restaurant here in Paris (cute place called Tannat, in the 11ème), and it was perfect with duck. (Although Xinomavro with moussaka, that’s just, like, boom.)

moussaka!!! so good!

If you live in New York, I really recommend the restaurant Molyvos, where I first tasted many of these wines a couple years back with the very knowledgable wine director, Kamal Kouiri; the food is really delicious and classic.

Thanks for reading!

 

Loire Valley Trip Report

I’m writing from Paris, after a week in the Loire Valley and before that, a week in Alsace (which informed last week’s Vine Pair column on Riesling, Gewurtraminer, and Pinot Gris from Alsace; read here).

I’m still coming down from the sleep-deprived, adrenaline-fueled high of visiting producers across the Loire Valley whose wines I first tasted when I was a server at Reynard, then sold when I worked in retail, and then wrote about in various articles. I felt that it was time to see their terroir and their cellars, get to know them in situ, and understand the geography of the Loire Valley. It was a week of long drives guided by GPS, muddy walks in rain-soaked vineyards, discussions of weather patterns, tasting and tasting and tasting, and some very special meals. I’m grateful to the vignerons who took time from their busy schedules (after rain, the vines need a lot of attention) to show me their vineyards and cellars.

The 2016 vintage is difficult, as anyone who is following France’s wine regions will likely know. The Loire Valley did not get hail this spring, but it did have frost on the vines a few months ago, and then it rained this month for two weeks straight. Flowering is just happening now, which is late, and many producers have lost between 50-70 percent of their potential grape production. 2015 was a very warm vintage with a high yield, and 2014 was a “classic” vintage with a balanced, warm growing season.

Here, going to mention just a few highlights; more in-depth coverage will come in the months to follow.

Domaine Vacheron

J-L Vacheron_Clos_RSigner

Jean-Laurent Vacheron and his cousin are the 4th generation of vignerons at this certified biodynamically farmed Sancerre domaine, which today comprises just under 50 hectares. In the early 20th century, the domaine produced both wine and goat’s cheese, and had a restaurant as well, but they specialized in wine in the 60s, and planted vines in the fields where the goats had grazed. The move to organic began here in ’93, and to biodynamic in ’97. The Vacheron approach is very much focused on micro-terroir, or soil types; there is a special cuvee devoted to each unique parcel of land. The very worldly and professionally experienced Jean-Laurent took me out in his truck and showed me the fault line where the compacted, flinty Silex soil begins; this type of limestone from the Eocene era constitutes about 20 percent of all Sancerre vineyard land and lends a flinty taste to the Sauvignon. Jean-Laurent showed me the shed where he makes his biodynamic preparations, and we also stopped by a special, tiny parcel called Le Clos des Ramparts, which has some ungrafted (franc de pied) Sauvignon. A special bonus was tasting through a vertical of the “Belle Dame” Silex soil Pinot Noir going back to ’06; it was amazing to see the vintage variation.

Hervé Villemade

Hervé Villemade_RSigner

Upon arriving to Hervé’s domaine in Cheverny, I found his 92-year-old father working in the garden. Later I asked Hervé whether his father ever took a day off, predicting correctly that the answer would be “no.” The second thing noticed was that the walls of the winery are covered with beautiful, large-format photos of Hervé’s harvest workers (taken by a friend of his). It looks like a very, very fun place to do harvest. Most of the Sauvignon and Romorantin vineyards that form part of 22 hectares total are right near the winery, and we put on boots to tromp through their sand and silex soils. Hervé explained that there is only about 60 hectares left of Romorantin in France, which almost made me cry because I love it so, so much; fortunately he has planted some through a massale selection of vines. As the story goes with nearly all grapes that are nearing extinction, people ripped up much of the Romorantin in the 50s and 60s to plan grapes that produce more and are easier to grow, like Sauvignon. Hervé, along with Thierry Puzelat and Domaine Tessier, is experimenting with making wine in quevri, as well as a concrete egg, although generally he ferments in tanks or large neutral foudres, and then assembles the wine before further elevage. This was a fantastic tasting that revealed the age-worthiness of many of Hervé’s cuvees and the overall craftsmanship of his very precise winemaking. If you see his “Les Ardilles,” a blend of mostly Pinot Noir and some Gamay that displays notes of crushed strawberry, lemongrass, and rose, do not hesitate to buy and drink it. His Cheverny Rouge (Pinot/Gamay) is so wonderful and light, with soft tannins. Perhaps the stunner for me was his “Les Acacias” cuvee, made from a 1962 planting of Romorantin: it is dark golden, with intense aromas of stonefruits and lemon, and a rich texture. The kind of wine you should cellar until you meet someone you desperately want to seduce.

Thierry Puzelat

Thierry Puzelat_Rsigner

I showed up at Thierry Puzelat’s domaine in Montils a few days after he’d celebrated his 50th birthday party with friends from all over the world, and he was in good spirits. Clos de Tue-Boeuf is the family property that Therry inherited, which dates back to the 13th century. The site is located about 2 km from the Loire River, on a gentle slope with southern exposure, and clay-silex soil, and holds many old vines parcels, including a 1976 plot of Pinot Noir that Thierry remembers hand-watering with his parents as a kid. Thierry was not always a natural winemaker. For his training, he worked for a first-growth Bordeaux estate, Clos Fourtet in Saint-Emilion, and then spent four years working for Sopexa (a French wine marketing enterprise) in Montreal. Someone told him about Marcel Lapierre, and in 1991 he went to visit the domaine and met other natural vignerons in the Beaujolais region and eventually, throughout France. He worked at Chateau Saint-Anne in Bandol, which is where he began making sulfur-free wines. In 1995, Thierry began converted Tue-Boeuf to organic. With the exception of an entry-level line of juice, Thierry’s wines are basically all single-parcel bottlings focused on terroir, which means they are often blends because the vineyards are co-planted. The 2015 Pinot Noir bottling from the “Les Gravottes” vineyard was one of my favorites from tasting: it is fermented in barriques, after foot crushing and a 10-day semi-carbonic maceration, and the result is light and fresh, high acid juice with notes of crushed cranberries and raspberries.

Noella Morantin

Noella Moratin_Rsigner

Spent an afternoon in the company of this strong-willed vigneron, who trained with Philippe Pacalet and Domaine Mosse, and worked for four years for Junko Arai, before setting out on her own in the late Aughts. Some of the vineyards she now works with are ones that she cultivated during her tenure for Arai; others were inherited from the vignerons of Clos Roche Blanche. I’ve drunk Noella’s wines on many occasions and always found them to have a special suppleness, roundness, as well as a lithe acidity. Perhaps this is due to the extremely long fermentations her wines undergo (one of her 2015s was still fermenting when we tried it in the cellar) as well as the long elevage in used barriques. Noella farms 6 hectares in the town of Pouillé; she used to have more but actually downsized because she emphatically wants to stay very small so as to work closely with the vines. I’m incredibly fond of the “Chez Charles” Sauvignon. Depending on the vintage, it may show some of those classic pyrazine notes Sauvignon is often known for, but what I love most is the perfect balance of acidity, freshness, and structure in this wine. I would cellar one of these babies if I had a proper cellar.

Domaine de l’Ecu

Fred Niger_Rsigner

Mad scientist at work here! Fred Niger, who became an autodidact vigneron after a previous career as a lawyer, is working with several different kids of amphorae, which he plays with to reveal different aspects of the juice. He has the three main soil types of Muscadet in his biodynamically farmed 25 hectares (of which 16 are Melon de Bourgogne): gneiss, orthogenesis, and granite. Tasting through these three wines, it’s quite interesting to see how the different soil compositions affect the final juice. We also sampled the same wine, a Cabernet Franc that goes into a cuvee called “Mephisto,” from several different amphorae, and one barrique, to observe how it develops differently; the final wine is a blend of all these vinifications. Fred’s Melon de Bourgogne wines are great, but his amphorae wines are the stars here. I fell in love with the “Mephisto” and will be bringing back a bottle that someone very lucky will get to drink with me this fall.

Whew, OK, that’s all I can do for now, plus why am I sitting inside writing when I’m in Paris? A bientôt!

 

The Best Neighborhood For Eating And Drinking Is Bushwick, Plus Other Latest Stories

The Scotch-egg rib-eye burger at Maite
The Scotch-egg rib-eye burger at Maite

Today, Food Republic published my story on the neighborhood of Bushwick, which has in recent months become a destination dining neighborhood thanks to new, cutting-edge restaurants with next-level food and drink.

Read it hereAll of the restaurants discussed are excellent and highly-recommended! I especially suggest cocktails at Syndicated, and the ridiculously good burger at Maite, shown at left.

Earlier this week, my story about improving your palate came out on Vogue.com; I learned a lot in the process of writing it and hope you will find some gems to help you become a better taster! Read here.

On my regular column at Vine Pair, I wrote about some interesting new wine tourism destinations–read here–and shared some expert secrets and hacks for pairing wine with food; read here.

Thanks, as always, for following my work!