This summer, I spent a breezy August day with pioneering natural winemaker Angiolino Maule and his family and friends, exploring the vineyards of Gambellara (nearby a more famous region, that of Soave, in the Veneto, northern Italy); learning the backstory behind his foray into natural winemaking in the early days of the movement; hearing about his natural wine association VinNatur; and talking about skin contact winemaking, a topic that fascinates me endlessly. (“Skin contact” wine is also called “orange wine,” but I prefer the term “skin contact” because it’s more accurate and also because the wine can be a dark golden hue, rather than orange.)
And if you love Italian natural wine, and happen to live in New York, consider swinging by the launch party for Terre, to be held at the fantastic wine bar Have & Meyer in Brooklyn, just before the start of RAW Wine Fair. Winemakers will be in attendance and we’ll be drinking their juice at special prices.
Terre has been printed, and is soon to be shipped out, to arrive your way shortly. (If you didn’t order a copy, see if there’s a stockist near you; I will also be selling copies at RAW in Brooklyn.) I really hope you enjoy the stories, artwork, and photography, and look forward to your feedback! I alsoREALLY look forward to taking a break in December for a few weeks, because these past five months of working on Terre while traveling have been incredibly enriching, but also exhausting.
But don’t worry: as soon as I’ve had a little vacation, I’ll get to work on Terre, Issue 2! Thanks to all of you who have supported the project; it’s still amazing to me that it went from an idea in our heads, to actual reality, something you’ll soon be holding in your hands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking forward to embarking on further studies in bubbles to share with you. xRachel
Recently, an article came out in the New York Times that really upset me; in fact it upset just about everyone I know and respect in the wine world. It was an opinion piece by a writer I know, someone I’m friendly with. My first reaction upon reading it was to feel betrayed. This is someone I’ve had a glass or two of wine with, and who I know attended RAW Wine Fair last fall in Brooklyn–which is partly why I reacted with confusion, rather than vitriol, at first. I wondered: did her agent persuade her to write this piece in order to get attention? (If so, congrats: it’s working, although I’m not sure it’s the kind of attention you want.) Also, do the author’s editors at the Times think they are being cute or smart, because natural wine is a so-called “trend” and it’s so adorable to be contrarian?
I think probably both of the above are true, and they are really disheartening to me. The desperation to sell a book should never lead to this kind of terrible, misguided journalism. And I know that a lot of editors and wine publicists like to call natural wine a “trend”; and flag it as some elitist circle of hipsters, and I have really had it with this attitude. Natural wine is a movement of people who believe in expressing what the earth says through grapes. True, sometimes they have a bit of a hipster swagger. And, yes, there are natural wines out there with tons of volatile acidity and perhaps they could have benefited from just a touch of sulfites. But you know what? Natural wine might be one of the last true hold-outs of free-thinking, libertarian, even slightly anarchistic political culture in the world, and for that it is beautiful. Nobody needs to ask permission to make natural wine the way they want to make it, and nobody is dying for you to like it.
At the same time, the movement does deserve recognition, and it is a good thing that it’s growing and spreading. Because for every single hectare that’s farmed without dangerous herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, the soil is healthier, and the ecosystem is better able to thrive and to resist climate change–and the people who live and work around that vineyard are grateful. I know people like to point out copper’s harmfulness, and I also know that organic is not everything–with or without certification. Some winemakers I respect very much are not 100 percent organically farmed–but it’s not something they celebrate, as if they are proud to use chemicals. It’s the reality of the challenges of farming in certain climates. But I’ve stood in organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, and it’s quite obvious that life is thriving within them: cover crops, butterflies, birds, rich and healthy soils are present, whereas I’ve also stood in a massive plantation of conventionally farmed Chardonnay in Sicily, at an unnamed winery’s estate, and gazed in horror at the cracked, dry, ugly ground. The difference is really just so obvious to see, and you can’t ignore it if you care about nature or the planet. Meanwhile, it’s also important to mention that “organic” or even “biodynamic” doesn’t mean a wine is made naturally; it’s still possible for additives to come into the picture. It also doesn’t mean that a wine is necessarily good.
People who work in mainstream wine PR, or older wine writers who seem befuddled by the natural wine movement, often ask me: “but how do you know it’s natural and that the winemaker isn’t lying to you? Aren’t people so easily fooled by marketing?” Here’s the thing: The natural wine movement is not about audits, or strict rules that determine whether you can be “inside” the club; it’s not even about cute labels only, although it does seem to excel in label design. The world if natural wine is, effectively, governed by relationships. Most naturally-working winemakers are part of a lineage–they worked for other producers who are in this movement. Their importers are constantly visiting them and providing insights from these visits (and I do these visits, too, whenever possible). The winemakers visit New York on a regular basis, to pour their wines and talk about what they do. There is no thick black curtain–meanwhile, corporate wineries do have such a thing, which is probably why they thought they were so clever, allowing Bianca Bosker the wine journalist to take a peek and report back to the public. Well, it’s not cute. It’s goddamn insulting. If people want to drink that shit, fine. I can’t stop anybody from eating disgusting chicken nuggets, or from buying factory-made clothes from China, either. But maybe what I can do is carve out a better space for wine writing that capitalizes on the incredible momentum that the natural wine movement has built. It’s not a trend; it’s hardly even niche any more–look at how many natural wine restaurants we’ve seen pop up around the U.S. in recent years! And they are continuing to open their doors, to much success.
One writer and natural wine importer has penned a great response to the Times opinion piece, which I really encourage you to read if you’re craving a view other than my own; he has written in an extremely approachable and sound way, and I’m grateful for it–check out Marko Kovac’s piece here.
And as some of you may know, I’m working on launching an independent print magazine this year–which will aim to produce really great, detailed, literary journalism about natural wines and terroir-driven foods. Stay tuned for details, and follow us on Instagram here.
Keep calm, carry on drinking great wine made by honest growers, join the ACLU, fuck Trump, and have a great weekend.
When the wines of an exciting, new European producer hit our shores here in New York, we all tend to go a little crazy.
Bat shit crazy, you might even say.
When Michael Völker and Melanie Drese moved to Franconia, Germany, where Michael grew up, to try their hand at making completely natural wine, they heard stories that bat guano had once been a very popular fertilizer. Bat shit, apparently, is in fact very high in nitrogen—about 10 percent. Of course, today most growers tend to use chemical fertilizer, having accepted modern ideas about farming.
But Michael and Melanie were determined to make wine with nothing added, and nothing taken away—starting with the vineyards.
It takes courage to give up a nice, stable salaried job in a fantastic city like London, and move back to the fairly unknown (as in, not famous like Burgundy) wine region you hail from. The family winery that Michael grew up around was almost entirely conventional with respect to agriculture and vinification. His father had converted a vineyard just over 2ha in size to organic, but the effort wasn’t ongoing.
But Michael and Melanie had fallen in love with natural wine, starting in 2012, when their local London retailed turned them onto sulfur-free, organic juice. So, when they decided to leave their publishing jobs in London and return to Franconia, a region in the southern state of Bavaria where Sylvaner and Muller-Thurgau grow predominantly, they were determined to attempt pure, non-interventionist winemaking. This wasn’t really so easy— the area didn’t have a large support base for natural wine as some regions do (with the exception of Stefan Vetter), so there were no mentors to show Michael and Melanie the way.
“How to fix a problem without sulfur or chemicals, nobody can teach you,” said Michael as he poured the 2NaturKinder (Zwei NaturKinder) wines for me at La Dive Bouteille a few weeks back. The winemaker employed by Michael’s father could sometimes lend a hand with certain things—like plowing the vineyards with a tractor, which he does—but in terms of natural winemaking, Michael and Melanie are self-taught. They were lucky—their first vintage, in 2013 turned out fairly well, and their wines are now served at international hotspots like Noma, Septime, and Breda.(And they are set to arrive in the U.S. soon.)
In 2015, Michael and Melanie launched another line, Vather & Sohn, which in part pays homage to the clientele that already existed for the winery—meaning, people who prefer sulfited, more stable, unfunky wines—but is also a really smart business strategy. These wines, essentially, have small amounts of sulfite additions, and Natural wine enthusiasts will be most excited about the 2NaturKinder wines, but the Vater & Son line helps Michael and Melanie run their business, and provides them with the freedom to do what they want with 2NaturKinder.
As to the aforementioned bats: Michael has been using nitrogen-rich bat guano as fertilizer, and he installed bird boxes in his vineyards to encourage their presence. “Bats need orientation points to find their way around, like houses, walls,” he explained to me—which means that in large, monoculture vineyards, they are rarely seen. One of Michael’s vineyards is basically in the middle of town, so bats can navigate quite well there. A small percentage of revenue from this vineyard’s wine (a wine called “Fledermaus”—see here for details) goes toward an organization focused on supporting the rare (and quite adorable) gray big-eared bat species.
The 2NaturKinder wines receive zero sulfite additions, and they are all very dry—those are the two constants, but everything else is variable per each wine. The most well-known here in New York is the “Bat-Nat” pét-nat, made from Schwarzriesling (aka Meunier) grapes grown in the guano-fertilized vineyard. It’s a light red color, fresh with medium acidity and a satisfying red grapefruit note.
Michael and Melanie make two other pét-nats; there’s one they made for the first time in 2016 from the grape Bacchus, a cross between Sylvaner and Riesling. The wine is fruit and fizzy, full of white peaches. I would call it a guzzler, meant for enjoying on a warm afternoon or with snacks as aperitif.
Then there’s a Sylvaner pét-nat that sees 24 hours of skin contact; it’s full of mouth-watering acidity, and very fresh and drinkable.
The 2NaturKinder pét-nats are not disgorged; this is partly to keep the winemaking simple—but it also allows Michael and Melanie to avoid Germany’s sparkling wine tax. They are all completely dry, as well.
Michael and Melanie make a lot of wine and each one is very particular; I’ll direct you to their very useful website for further details. Of the still wines, I found the “Heimat” Sylvaner, which had about two weeks on the skins, to be really interesting—it was salty, citric, with rich mouthfeel. The 2NaturKinder wines (including the Vater & Sohn line, which is worth checking out) are imported into the U.S. via Jenny & Francois, with whom I had the pleasure of galavanting around the Loire during all these natural wine fairs. I found the Bat-Nat at Natural Wine Co in Williamsburg. Go get some!
Oh, and the above professional photos (not my little pic of the Bat-Nat) were taken by the talented Holger Riegel. Check out his website and follow him on IG. Thanks, Holger!