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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

 

 

 

Advertisements

Tasting With Michael Cruse + Hardy Wallace, The Laurel and Hardy of California Wine

During a brief trip to Sonoma over the summer, I swung by the Cruse Wine Co custom crush facility in Petaluma. It was full-on harvest, so I felt lucky to be able to steal some time from Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy, and Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine and Ultramarine. I’ve admired their respective wines for some time, and it was fascinating to glimpse these very different projects side-by-side.

I’ve written before about how Dirty and Rowdy came to be, and about their devotion to the Mourvèdre grape. Cruse, I was less familiar with until sometime last spring, when I had a Cruse Pinot Gris at Rebelle one night; it wooed me with its boisterous aromas and notes of lemons, white peaches. That wine is no longer be part of the Cruse Wines line-up, as the vineyard changed ownership. But that’s the way things go, for winemakers who purchase fruit; Dirty and Rowdy will no longer make Semillion, one of their most beloved wines, because the vineyard has been sprayed with Round-Up, a poisonous weed killer. Along with the fact that both of these winemakers purchase fruit from various vineyards around Northern and Central California, they also both work in a very natural manner—indigenous fermentations, very low levels of sulfites, no bullshit additions at all. Those are the main unifying factors between them.

cruse-bottles-canon

Despite the fact that Hardy and Michael both buy fruit and both make fantastic natural wine, I had never considered them together, in any way. Their wines are quite different stylistically; as Michael put it: “maybe Hardy’s wines are more of a terroir investigation and mine are more of a, I don’t know, drinking investigation, [but] they’re still two sides of the same coin.” (There’s a bit of humor there, but I think Michael really means that his wines are about drinkability.) Michael emphasizes that his project is to make “wine like California used to make wine,” something he also phrased as making “table wine” when I interviewed him last spring, in New York, over a drink at The Dutch. Michael gives the impression of wanting to represent or emulate a time when California wine was a little more humble, maybe a time when wine in general was more humble—less hyped up by somms, and maybe writers like me, oops.

Meanwhile, the Dirty and Rowdy wines are born of an obsession with dry-farmed, high-elevation, old vines, particularly the Provençal grape variety Mourvèdre. The fact that all of these Mourvèdre wines are made in a relatively similar fashion (100 percent whole cluster, no destemming, old barrels) is a nod to—or even a direct replication of—a fairly Old World style of examining and working with terroir. There are also Dirty and Rowdy blends, of course, and white wines and a pét-nat, but the label is generally known for the rustic, earthy, and complex Mourvèdres.

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-29-25-am

Despite having such different projects, the two have found themselves working side-by-side, as Hardy recently moved into the Cruse winery in Petaluma. The famous slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy met in 1921; six years later they became a team and proceeded to make 107 films together, allowing their approaches to comedy to play off each other. Cruse and this Hardy weren’t exactly kicking each other in the butts and slipping on banana peels during our tasting, but they do have a friendly, spitfire humor going on, amidst a strong conversation about what California wine is and what it could be. I would also bet you that their winemaking styles are going to influence each other over time, if they aren’t already (there is a “DRC” wine in the works—“Dirty, Rowdy, Cruse,” a Furmint from Mendocino, but I didn’t taste it). And I think it goes without saying, but as a writer it’s still my duty to say it here, that Cruse Wine, Ultramarine, and Dirty and Rowdy represent an incredibly thoughtful, almost obsessive effort to discover the ultimate potential of California wine, by sourcing from the most unique sites, and exploring forgotten varieties. In a sense, this post should be about the vineyards these wines come from, rather than the bottlings themselves. But that will have to be my next trip.

I’ll let the tasting notes speak for the rest of the visit.

Cruse, 2012 Ultramarine Blanc de Noir

The Ultramarine wines, which have varied from year-to-year between blanc de noir, blanc de blancs, and rosé, are culty, very limited production traditional method sparkling wines that have become something of an Instagram phenomenon. It’s not without reason. Michael’s approach is inspired by the growers of Champagne, particularly those who have experience working in the oxidative tradition spearheaded by Anselme Selosse; Michael names Alexandre Chartogne and Jerome Prévost as two examples. The idea is that Ultramarine wines are single-vintage, and single-vineyard, single-varietal wines—terroir in bubbles, autremente dit. For our tasting, Michael disgorged his 2012 Ultramarine of Heintz Pinot Noir, of which fewer than 500 cases total were made; it will be riddled and racked this fall, then disgorged, and out to his list over the winter, then distribution in spring. The wine had no sulfur or dosage added; it displayed gorgeous, ripe stonefruits and candied lemon on the nose; the palate was rich and supple, followed by pure acidity. Such a beautiful wine now, it will be incredibly good once it’s been properly disgorged, although I imagine it would be even better were it laid down for at least a year, and there’s no question that cellaring a few bottles of these would be brilliant. (Please share one with me, if you do that.)

Dirty and Rowdy, 2014 Melon de Bourgogne Antle Vineyard:

This is a high elevation site (1700 feet above sea level) in the Chalone appellation, with subterranean limestone, and a rare planting of Melon de Bourgogne. Despite the elevation, Hardy finds that the grapes don’t have high enough acidity, so he aims for minerality in this wine. To achieve this, he leaves the juice macerating on the skins for 40 days in a one-ton bin fermenter; the juice is then moved to barrel, where it stays for about 18 months. The wine showed notes of freshly grated orange zest and delicate white flowers, and had a nice, round texture, followed by soft, wispy tannins. Hardy recommends decanting this wine.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Antle Mourvèdre

Hardy makes eight Mourvèdre wines, and he broke them down for us like this: “Antle, Shake Ridge and Evangelho are at the darker-fruit end of the spectrum. Santa Barbara Highlands, Skinner Oak Flats, Skinner Stony Creek, are on the redder-fruit side of the spectrum.” This Antle Vineyard Mourvèdre is from as slightly higher plot than the Melon—as much as 2000 feet. Hardy always does 100 percent whole cluster with Mourvèdre, lending the wines that brambly, rustic character often ascribed to Bandol. The nose on this wine was a bit reduced at first, then opened up to lush red and blue berries; on the palate, the wine traveled quickly from fruit to intense acidity that made my mouth water, and then to a strong, stony minerality. I was very moved by this wine and thought it was one of the best examples of Dirty and Rowdy that I can remember tasting.

Cruse, 2015 Saint-Laurent pét-nat

Michael is very passionate about pét-nat; he sees is as a “slightly more transparent way to make wine,” he told us, and believes strongly that good pét-nat requires technical expertise. For this reason, he is of the opinion that proper sparkling wines need disgorgement—because it makes the wines more precise and revealing of variety and terroir. “I think pet-nat’s interesting from the point of view that maybe, as we get better at it, because this is just grape juice, because we don’t add any sulfur or sugar or yeast, maybe in the right vineyard with the right variety, this could be a more transparent way to make wine. But if it’s cloudy and foaming and tastes like old saison, I can’t imagine that being the case,” Michael remarked as we tasted his pét-nat. It was completely dry, with a fruity, flowery nose, and a refreshing and savory character that would make it a wonderful food wine.

Cruse, 2015 Monkey Jacket

This is a red blend, made from about 50 percent Valdigué; 40 percent “Mendocino blend”; and 15 percent Tannat from Alder. It has lovely fruit—fresh strawberries and cherries—and great acidity. I would drink this at lunch, any day. The Valdigué is from a 60-year-old block in Calistoga, and Michael explained that Robert Mondavi once believed that this work-horse grape would be the hallmark variety of California; in the early 70s (pre-Judgment of Paris), it was more expensive than Cabernet. To me, Michael’s use of Valdigué is an affirmation of his sense of California history, and a look back to a time before the rise of Napa Valley and its expensive, cult wineries and their big, bold reds.

Cruse, 2015 Heintz Syrah

From a small plot of Syrah in the iconic Heintz Vineyard, a cold site located five miles from the ocean in the Russian River Valley growing region, is this incredible wine. If you ever come across it, drink it without hesitation. The nose provides all the black olives, blue and black fruits that you could hope for from cool-climate Syrah; it’s light and full of fresh, nervy acidity on the palate, and finishes with intense, tingly tannins and still a bit of fruit. I love Syrah in this pure, bright form. Michael makes it with 100 percent whole cluster, adds no sulfur, and ferments in concrete before aging in concrete and large used barrels.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Merlot/Cab blend

This was a barrel sample, showing lots of brambly, blue and black fruit, balanced by excellent freshness, and soft tannins. Hardy is probably blending these two barrels now. A very promising wine that I’m sure will need time in bottle. I can’t wait to drink it.

OK, enough. Go out and drink these fantastic wines, and picture their very different makers guffawing at their own jokes as they foot-stomp Furmint.

 

Picpoul + Limoux, Two Languedoc Appellations To Know

Limoux2_RSCatching up on updating this site with some of my recent coverage!

I wrote about the deliciousness that is Picpoul, a truly underrated grape / appellation, for Food Republic. There are, in my mind, three white wines that are truly knock-out with oysters (excluding the whole sparkling category): Chablis, Muscadet, and Picpoul. And guess what–Picpoul is waaaaaay cheaper than the other two! So, if you’re as broke as me but still like white wine and oysters, you need to read about Picpoul. Plus, the article involves someone aging wine underwater. Read here

And over on Vine Pair, where I have a weekly column, I explored the question of whether that notorious monk Dom Perignon actually cribbed the whole methode champenoise from an appellation in Southern France! Plus, there’s just some good sparkling wine info, which is always helpful since bubbles are somehow way more complicated than they seem. (Every time I think I know all the ways of making sparkling wine, I learn about a new one.) Read here.

Along these same lines (as in, Southern France themed), I sang the praises of dark-hued rosé for Vine Pair. Read here

and soon you’ll be hearing all about mezcal because I just got back from an amazing trip to Oaxaca! I had the pleasure of joining a group of raucous mixologists from around the country for a few days with El Silencio, and then spent time doing independent journalism because even though I believe that balance is importance to telling a good story, and you can’t really get that from visiting one producer only. Hasta pronto!