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Kindred Spirits

A decade of collaboration and the evolution of Central Otago Pinot Noir.

When winegrowers in Burgundy found kindred spirits among the winegrowers of Central Otago the resulting collaboration now in its twelfth year has everyone who loves Pinot Noir cheering.

The idea behind the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange was born in 2006 when Sophie Confuron of Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron attended the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration. Confuron, who had been invited to present a talk about how the beliefs and practices of the Cistercians advanced the notion of terroir, suggested to Rippon Estate’s Nick Mills that they start a student exchange between the two regions and the idea was born.  

80 stagiaires later, the success of the Exchange can be defined in several ways but according to Mills, it’s most evident in the approach the returning interns, from both sides, now bring to their craft. The Exchange has been as much about cultural awareness as it is about the practical experiences of making Pinot Noir having fostered reciprocal philanthropic and diplomatic support, art exhibits and a documentary video.

In 2017 a delegation of ten Central Otago producers – Aurum, Domaine Rewa, Domaine -Thomson, Felton Road, Gibbston Valley, Mt. Difficulty, Prophet’s Rock, Rippon, Quartz Reef and Wooing Tree – traveled to Burgundy to mark the 10th anniversary of the program. In doing so they brought a singular and defining celebration of turangawaewae (their place in the world) to the Chambre du Roi at the Hospices de Beaune.

The program which was administered through a winegrower association and agricultural college for each region: the Mosaïque Bourgogne International (MBI) and the CFPPA de Beaune in Burgundy and the Central Otago Winegrowers’ Association (COWA) and the Otago Polytechnic Central Campus is now in its twelfth year.  Although it’s no longer being formally administered, it’s well established and stagiaires continue to work in either region every harvest. One of the most compelling and celebrated examples of sympatico that has developed between the two regions can be found in Cuveé Aux Antipodes, a wine sourced from the Bendigo ‘Home Block’ at Prophet’s Rock.

Easily the region’s newest cult wine, the Prophet’s Rock Cuveé Aux Antipodes 2017 is a collaboration between winemaker Paul Pujol and Francois Millet, winemaker for 30 years at Domaine Comtes Georges de Vogüé and a master of the Chambolle grands crus Bonne Mars and Chambolle-Musigny.

Prophet’s Rock Cuveé Aux Antipodes 2017 easily the region’s newest cult wine.

On the final day of the 2019 Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, Jasper Morris MW led a guided discovery tasting of five Central Otago wines titled “12 Years of the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange – What have we learned?” 

During the course of the tasting, Morris made several observations about the evolution of both winegrowing and winemaking in Central Otago. He noted that producers were now more inclined to “letting the Pinot Noir come to [them].” 

Jasper Morris MW (l) and friend at the 2019 Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration.

“There used to be too much winemaking [in Central Otago] and what it produced were wines capable of aging that may want cellaring for a few years.  We now see wines with a saturation of fruit and seductive herbs that will evolve versus simply aging well.”

Over the last decade, formal tastings at the Celebration have covered many aspects of Burgundian terroir. In addition to Morris, this year’s panelists included Lucie Lawrence from Aurum, Nick Mills and Louis Meunier, a winemaker from Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron, who first came to Central Otago in his early 20s.

Louis Meunier, a winemaker from Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron who participated in the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange.

“Through my time in Central Otago, I’ve come to know another side of Pinot Noir and its transparency of this terroir. Over the last ten years I’ve also seem climate change first hand with early bud beak and increased sugar levels at harvest. It raises many questions: ‘How adaptable is Pinot Noir? Will vines be able to reach old age?’”

The flight of six wines were produced by stagiaires who had participated in the exchange program. A charming Quartz Reef 2016 with lovely focus made by Alex Millot was followed by five wines produced from hallowed Burgundian terroirs including Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites by French winemakers who had participated in the Exchange in Central Otago. They were selected to demonstrate both the technical and philosophical evolution that has closed the gap between the two regions. 

The last time I conducted field research in Central Otago was 2011 at the very beginning of the 3.0 era. Since that time, there’s been an evolution in the overall quality and style of the Pinot Noir wines being produced here. There’s far less extraction and domineering new oak apparent in the wines and significantly more emphasis on transparency of terroir.

That evolution doesn’t smack of emulation, it transmits tūrangawaewae or respect for place. Over the last decade the vines have matured right along with the winemaking allowing Pinot Noir to take center stage.


Central Otago 4.0 Insights from the 14th annual Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration

The three-day 2019 Pinot Noir Celebration held in Queenstown, Central Otago delivered on Chairman Paul Pujol’s welcome promise of examining the region, its producers and their wines with a perspective as fresh as a stiff breeze off Queenstown Bay. 

The evolution of the Central Otago wine region over the last decade – dubbed 4.0 in the region’s timeline – has been both inspiring and, in many ways, climatic. Evidenced by the fact that at least one sub region – Bannockburn with 325 hectares under vine – is now considered fully planted.

In 2016, Bannockburn vineyard owners collaborated to produce a vineyard map of the entire sub region detailing vineyard ownership, varieties planted, topography, row orientation and individual vineyard blocks. The three-year project was spearheaded by Felton Road’s Blair Walter whose tenure as winemaker there began in 1997.

According to Walter, this level of technical vineyard mapping is vital to the evolution of Central Otago as a fine wine region. With the emphasis that’s being placed on bottling single vineyard Pinot Noir which accounts of 78 percent of plantings in Bannockburn, it’s a giant step towards dialing in the terroir of this young, aspirational sub region.

The boundaries of Bannockburn as defined by the map encompass land south of the Kawarau River and east of Walkers Creek (Kawarau Gorge), across to the Clutha Arm of Lake Dunstan. In addition to Pinot Noir, the region is planted to Pinot Gris (8%), Riesling (6%) and Chardonnay (5%) with another seven varieties making up the balance.

The Bannockburn sub region of Central Otago will become a formal GI in the New Zealand Geographical Indications (Wines and Spirits) Registrations Act.

With a recent update to the map completed, vineyard owners are on track to register Bannockburn as a formal GI in the New Zealand Geographical Indications (Wines and Spirits) Registrations Act. “We’ve been progressing the application and now that the 2019 harvest is over, a few of us will be putting the final touches to it,” said Walter. “Hopefully we’ll be ready for filing sometime in June.”

Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter (l) with Melanie Eldridge and Neil Punshon of Trialto .

As New Zealand’s southern-most winegrowing region, the evolution of Central Otago can be defined in four waves: Plantings that took place prior to 1990 establish the timeline at 1.0 (these include Rippon and Gibbston Valley), 2.0, a second wave of vineyards planted between 1991 and 1997 (Felton Road was first planted in 1992 by Stewart Elms), 3.0 includes sites planted between 1998 and 2007 defines the most dynamic period of growth and development for the region, and 4.0 which began when plantings picked up again in 2010.

Central Otago 3.0

The decade spanning 1998 to 2007 was the focus of the Discovery Tasting presented on the first day of the Celebration by a panel composed of winemaker Jen Parr of Valli Wine, Emma Jenkins MW, Mike Winter, viticulturist at Te Kano Estate, Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter and moderator Sarah-Kate Dineen of Maude Wines. Tasked with illustrating the dynamic 3.0 era, they selected six wines that set the stage for the success that has since followed. 

Providing proof of concept with regard to the longevity of Bannockburn, Walter’s Felton Road 2010 Cornish Point Pinot Noir was striking in its youthful intensity showing flickers of smoke and umami on a medium-weight body and lifted finish.

The Felton Road 2017 Bannockburn current release.

It was an auspicious start down the road to a trio of 2015s: Mondillo Bendigo showed bright, ripe red and black cherries from that warmer site for a wine that was balanced and elegant with obvious restraint applied in the cellar. Notes on the Aurum Lowburn Mathilde describe a red and black “fruit explosion” on the mid palate, graphite and a moderate level of extraction. Judge Rock Alexandra was quiet on the nose with char, cranberry and raspberry on a medium body.

The 2016s expressed more primary fruit: Two Degrees Queensberry had earthier black fruit and purity with a flicker of complexing bitterness while the Valli Gibbston Vineyard revealed classic spiciness, pomegranate and pleasingly gritty tannins.

Of the key factors that influenced these wines, gains in quality were attributed to the more vigorous, drought-tolerant rootstocks namely 3309, 1068, 4453 that were introduced during 3.0 and found to be good for organic sites with permanent in-row groundcovers. The introduction of new clonal material including 943, 828 and MV6 which form more open bunches was also noted.  

Central Otago 4.0

There was an abundance of star power during the walk-around tasting hosted at Amisfield winery on Friday morning including actor and vintner Sam Neill whose Two Paddocks wines are produced from organically-certified estate vineyards in three of the region’s main valleys – Gibbston, Cromwell and Alexandra.  

Forty producers were on hand to present two wines, a current release Pinot Noir and a second wine of their choosing. Time didn’t allow for a visit to every station but of the 38 wines tasted, older vintages many of which were Abel clone monovarietal or dominant distinguished themselves that crisp morning.

The Abel clone prior to veraison at Felton Road.

Older vintages by vintage:

  • Mount Michael 2005, fully developed with dried flowers, dusty fruit and forest floor.
  • Mt. Edward Bannockburn 2011, Abel clone with a smoky note that harkened back to the Felton Road 2010 from the Discovery tasting the day before.
  • Ceres 2011, on the weightier end of the style spectrum, a meaty, spicy, smoky example from Bannockburn clay.
  • Peregrin 2012, darkly fruited with generous, gritty tannins.
  • Akitu 2013 which is 70% Abel clone showed dried fennel and sublime balance.
  • Prophet’s Rock Retrospect 2014, chalky, clay soils, restrained with a very silky texture.

Standouts among the current releases from 2016 and 2017 spanned a range of styles from those that showed little use of new oak up to as much as 50% but nothing that warranted descriptors like “woody” or “oak dominant,” a sure fire sign of restraint. 

Ceres Pinot Noir 2017

Current releases alphabetically:

  • Akarua 2017, subject to the “morning bake” on the north-facing crescent overlooking the Cromwell Valley shows black cherries and raspberries, vanilla and resolved tannins. 2016 (tasted a few days earlier with winemaker Andrew Keenleyside) was leaner, focused and refined reflecting the vintage.
  •  Akarua Kolo 2016, earthier with a mineral backbone, generous intensity, umami and complex spice.
  • Aurum Madeleine 2016, with refined cherry, cola and umami notes.
  • Carrick Bannockburn 2016, floral with good red fruit intensity and 10% new oak.
  • Ceres 2017, more extraction, meaty, spicy and smoky.
  • Domaine-Thomson “Surveyor Thompson” 2017, Lowburn, biodynamic estate fruit showing transparency of terroir and silky, resolved tannins.
  • Mount Michael 2017, darker fruit and 50% new oak still integrating.
  • Prophet’s Rock Cuveé Aux Antipodes 2017, distinct red plum, wet earth and spice, transparent and silky.
  • Rockburn 2017, leaner red fruit, umami, tannins with a granular crunchiness.
  • Tarras The Canyon 2016, rich, spicy and elegant with fine, silky tannins.
An assortment of wines made by Andrew Keenleyside at Akarua.

On the final day of the Celebration, Jasper Morris MW led a guided Discovery Tasting of five wines titled “12 Years of the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange – What have we learned?”  Read about the experience here – Kindred Spirits.

Rare Back-to-Back Vintage Declaration for Port

“2016 was precision, 2017 is depth and freshness.”- Dominic Symington

“Years ending in seven have historically been very good for vintage port declarations,” said Rupert Symington, CEO of Symington Family Estates as he recounted vintages as far back as 1897 and 1907 during his opening remarks for the preview tasting of the 2017 vintage port declaration in San Francisco. “These [wines] are the final blends although they may not yet have been bottled. They’ll be coming through to the market in August.”

The flight of 16 vintage ports produced by the Symington Family Estates, The Fladgate Partnership and Quinta do Noval were presented to the trade during the tasting hosted on May 9th at the Nikko Hotel. 

Carlos Agrellos, techincal director of Quinta do Noval, offered general impressions of the 2017 vintage. “2017 is an exceptional vintage but quite different from 2016 in all aspects,” he said. “We experienced a cold, dry winter and a hot, dry spring and summer. It only rained 300 mm in the Douro in 2017 and the soils dried out which is very extraordinary. June was the hottest month on record since 1980 with extreme temperatures of 40 – 44 C. This put us 15 to 20 days early for all phases of vine growth. We began harvest on the 17th of August which meant that holidays were cut short as we rushed back from vacation to begin harvest. We finished the 2017 harvest on the date that we typically begin and although we have lower yields, we still see very fine grapes in extreme years such as this.”

David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens, winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership (l) with
Carlos Agrellos, techincal director of Quinta do Noval, and
Charles Symington, chief winemaker of Symington Family Estates.

The flight began with Cockburn’s 2017 presented by Charles Symington, head winemaker for Symington Family Estates:

The estate vineyards blended to produce Cockburn’s are located in the Douro Superior at Quinta dos Canais. These south facing-sites are the hottest in Douro resulting in wines that are ripe with velvety tannin, high acidity and more evolved raisined fruit with dark chocolate and some astringency on the finish. The original blend focused on Touriga National and we’ve reintroduced 50% Touriga back in to the blend of 30% Touriga Franca, 10% Souzao, 8% Alicante Bouchet and 2% other. Souzao brings the acid and gives the wine length. On the nose there’s esteva followed by cassis, kirsch, black pepper and a dryness that gives it length. The wines are made in lagares and constitute 8% of Cockburn’s production. “There’s viscosity and more tannin that I’ve ever tasted in these wines.” Score: 98

Croft 2017 by David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens, winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership:

2016 had a purity of fruit but there’s a different profile here with more wild fruit and tremendous structure. The blend is based on Cima Corgo and shows resinous herbs, eucalyptus, some passion fruit and tropical notes. It’s quite smooth on the palate, very fresh and vibrant with great potential for agebility. Score: 98

Croft Quinta da Roêda S­­elicos 2017 comments by Adrian Bridge, CEO, The Fladgate Partnership:

This is a new offering for us coming from some very old vines that perform well in drought conditions. There’s evidence of some red fruit and esteva on a lighter body with medium plus acidity.  The Selicos bottling refers to “silken” and these vines were the first plantings in Cima after Phylloxera. The estate is very low yielding producing 200 cases in 2017. Score: 97

Dow’s 2017 by Rupert Symington:

The Symington’s acquired the estate in the early 1900s which originally came from the Warre family. Historically shippers did not own land in the Douro but they began buying after Phylloxera and this started a tradition. Dow’s also bought Bonfim in Cima Corgo (1896) and Senhora da Ribeira (1890) in the Douro Superior. Markers for Bonfim are chocolate and green figs. Aromas here are deep violet and very fresh smelling, with boysenberry and vanilla on a palate that’s quite smooth with some astringency of green tobacco on the finish. “Classic Dow’s is on the drier side and it’s a keeper. Dow’s is a personal favorite of mine for a young vintage.” Score: 98

Fonseca 2017 by David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens:

The most astringent of the flight indicating a wine intended to lay down. “You’ll notice some orange zest which comes from three quintas in Pinhão that are known for their freshness and firm finish.” Score: 93

Graham’s 2017 by Dominic Symington:

Sourced from the eastern mesoclimate of Cima Corgo this is a blend from four quintas. “The wine is an opaque black purple and very floral with violets, esteva, rose water, bergamot, some mint with medium acidity and very good intensity mid palate. It’s a voluptuous wine with very good length.” Score: 100

Graham’s 2017 The Stone Terraces – Charles Symington, chief winemaker of Symington Family Estates:

This is a micro-terroir wine hailing from two sites north and east-facing parcels below the main house of Malvedos. There’s a tropical note that shows in the aromas and on the palate there’s orange blossom and some peach with medium acidity and more resolved tannins. 600 cases were produced which is about 4% of our production. Score: 100

Krohn 2017 – David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens:                

They did not show the 2016 in the U.S. because of a change in distribution of the brand which is now with Kobrand.  Quinta do Retiro Novo is located in the Rio Torto river valley and the wines tend to have more savory notes and higher alcohol. 2017 shows leaner somewhat austere fruit with orange blossom, cassis, grippy tannins and black pepper on a drier finish. Score: 96

Quinta do Noval 2017 by Carlos Agrellos:

There is a lot of variety in the terroir of the estate which ranges from 130 – 250 meters in altitude. They have options beyond the best parcels and lots to choose from resulting in a wine that presents a better representative of the estate. 2017 is more complex, very spicy and floral with medium plus acidity making it very fresh on the palate. Score: 97

Quinta do Noval Nacional 2017 by Carlos Agrellos:

Sourced from a small parcel of ungrafted vines of which 1.6 hectares has survived. The estate was replanted in 1924 and there have been 35 vintages from the site. The vines are quite different and express in a different manner giving wines that are fresh with less viscosity and density and somewhat gritty textures. We also find a bit of cedar, exotic wood and licorice. The wine is foot tread over three days. The site is capable of producing vintages in off years and the wines have their own rhythm. 200 cases of 2017 were made. Score: 99

Quinta de Romaneira 2017 by Carlos Agrellos:

There’s a wild aromatic expression here showing the wine is Touriga Nacional dominant. We find fresh berries, very bright, sweet cassis and not as much secondary. Score: 93

Taylor Fladgate 2017 – David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens:                

They lost some bunches to heat in 2017 but they found records of similar conditions in 1945 and the result was a “typical Taylor” rather austere and precise. The wines have been scored very highly thus far. Score: 96

Taylor Fladgate Vargellas Vinha Velha 2017 – David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens:                

This is the essence of the property, a Taylor on steroids, and the 8th release of the wine since 1985. A field blend of century-old vines that takes four vines to produce a single bottle. This is the most easterly property they own and the north-facing amphitheater vineyard works best in warm years. The wine showed peach skin, stone fruit and more evolved fruit, star anise and cedar, tootsie roll and dark spice. Score: 99

Quinta do Vesuvio 2017 – Rupert Symington:

The quinta is only 30 kilomters from Spain in the Douro Superior with very low yielding vines of just 700 grams per vine. It was originally the crown jewel of Don Antonia Ferreira and planted to olives after being devastated by Phylloxera. Vesuvio was one of the first properties planted to mono varietal blocks and has produced vintage ports since 1989. The wines are made in lagare but destemmed and cooled. 2017 is richly fruited showing blueberries, spearmint, vanilla and dry ginger. Score: 98

Capela do Vesuvio 2017 – Dominic Symington:

The estate was replanted by massal selection from the original vines and includes Alicante Bouchet and Souzao. The result is a gorgeous blend with lovely consistency in the growing cycle. Touriga Franca needs the heat and sun and with the advanced growing cycle in 2017 the gap was narrowed so it could be co-fermented with the old vines and Touriga Nacional. Very aromatic and sublime with black tea leaf and pretty blue fruit, mocha and medium acidity on the palate.  Score: 99

Warre’s 2017 – Charles Symington:

Originally Warre’s was mostly sourced from the Douro Superior and now they’ve gone back to Pinhão for a more feminine style with a high percentage (60%) of old vineyards that yield just 500 grams per vine. The wine shows forward fruit with blueberry, sweet/tart boysenberry and a touch of astringency 3600 cases were produced. Score: 96

Alto Adige’s mountains of earthly delight

Vineyards and apple orchards lie under the soaring peaks that surround Bolzano, the bustling center of Alto Adige, a pristine and autonomous region in northeastern Italy.  Less than a two-hour drive from Innsbruck over the dizzying Brenner Pass, Bolzano is a study in contrasts; a place where Austrian and Italian cultures merge and Old and New World lifestyles converge.   

Guests enjoy the alpine air and wines at Tiefenbrunner.

Restaurateur and Italophile Bobby Stuckey once observed, “There are certain places in Italy that catch Americans off guard because they are not what we expect Italy to be.”  Alto Adige is one such place.  With three official languages – German, Italian, and the ancient Ladin language – plus the addition of English which serves as the common language for visitors, the region is overflowing with culture. 

As evidenced by Otzi, the 5300 year-old Neolithic mummy on display in the Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, the fertile, glacier-carved valleys of Italy’s Alto Adige region have nurtured human civilization for millennia. They region continues to nurture travelers with the pristine air of the Dolomites and the pleasures of the glass and table.

Mediterranean plants including olive trees and artichokes flourish under snow-capped peaks in the gardens of Trauttmansdorff, one of Europe’s top five botanical gardens.

The region’s indigenous Ladin language and culture can be traced to 15 BCE when the people of the Central Alps were absorbed into the Roman province of Rhaetia. Filled with poetry and legends heavily influenced by Germanic myths and peopled by all manner of fairies, dwarfs, witches and heroes, Ladin culture is taught in schools and protected by local laws.

Laimburg Research Center’s Gewurtztraminer “Elyond,” the princess of golden hair, and Barbagol, the magical wizard.

Spring vegetables present unique wine-pairing challenges

My long-time editor David Gadd explores food and wine pairing in this seasonal feature for 805 Living.

Spring on the Central Coast is the time to begin enjoying garden-sourced vegetables, but some, such as artichokes, asparagus, and the brassicas (cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and their relatives) present unique challenges when it comes to finding ideal wine matches.

It seems a Ph.D. in organic chemistry is necessary to fully understand the
issue, but wine science educator Deborah Parker Wong can provide
some insight into what happens when certain vegetables meet the palate.
Take artichokes, for example: “A taste obliterating compound in artichokes
called cynarine blocks most of the taste receptors for acid, bitterness,
and salt, making anything you eat or drink taste vaguely sweet.”

Parker Wong suggests light-bodied red wines to counter that effect. On the other hand, she says, “When pairing wine with brassicas or asparagus, combat their notably high levels of organosulfur compounds and methoxypyrazines with dry, aromatic white wines. Steer clear of wines with overt greenness or pungency, which will only amplify green flavors, and opt for tropical, fruit driven, or perfumed white varietals to
help mask those sulfurous aromas.”

Read his story here –


The Simple Pleasures of Italy’s Native Grapes

Italians like San Francisco restaurateur Francesco Corvucci know that great-tasting food and wine don’t need to break the bank as long as they’re made with quality, authentic ingredients. For great wine value he looks to Sicily and Agrigento-based Fuedo Zitari, a winery that embodies this belief in its approach to winegrowing and yields expressions that are meant to be enjoyed by all.

Standing at the highest point in the vineyards of Feudo Zirtari at 1600 feet, you can see the blue waters of Mediterranean Sea which lies 30 minutes to the south west. The winery and estate vineyards are sited between the communes of Menfi and Sambuca di Sicilia in the province of Agrigento, an area designated for the production of high quality Sicilia DOC and Terre Siciliane IGP wines.

With more than 80 percent of all vineyards on the island found in the western half of Sicily between Agrigento, Palermo and Trapani, the communes of Santa Margherita, Belice, Menfi, Sciacca, Sambuca di Sicilia, Grotte and Campobello di Licata are key areas of production in Agrigento.

The region’s warm Mediterranean climate is quite dry but the Zirtari vineyards and those around them benefit from altitude, the moderating influence of the nearby Lake Arancio “the orange tree lake” and off-shore wind and fog that makes its way from the coast. Ancient marine fossils and sedimentary marl composed of limestone, clay and silt define the soils of the lower elevations and transition to rocky areas at higher elevations.

Flanked on the west by stands of pine, cypress and oak trees of the Risinata Forest, the landscape surrounding Feudo Zirtari is planted to a diverse polyculture of vines, olive groves and almond orchards overlooking Lake Arancio, a 400 hectare-wide reservoir that hosts migratory birds in spring and autumn, and great Grey herons and cormorants during the winter months.

Winegrowing is an ancient practice in Agrigento as evidenced by some of Sicily’s oldest palmenti, the gravity-fed wineries that were carved into the hillsides where the island’s native capers and wild asparagus now grow on rocky outcrops by the ancient Greeks. Although the region’s long history of winegrowing is attributed to the arrival of the Greeks in the eastern part of Sicily in the 8th century BCE, according to native Italian winegrape expert Ian D’Agata, indigenous grape varieties including Inzolia (Ansonica in Tuscany) and Nero D’Avola (Calabrese) are genetic natives.

The happy fate of native grapes

Due in a large part to modern winemaking, the fate of native or autochthonous grapes that tend to be lower in acidity like Inzolia, once primarily used for the production of Marsala, now have a new lease on life. While the variety is grown almost exclusively in Sicily (96%) and found in almost every Sicilian DOC, its resistance to drought means it’s particularly well-suited to cultivation in the Agrigento region. 

Inzolia is a rare example of a naturally tannic white variety; what it might lack in acidity, it makes up for in tannin. Modern viticultural practices and blending with internationally-grown varieties like Chardonnay produce wines that have more structure from extract and citrusy, yellow apple, pear, apricot fruits and nuts nuanced with flavors of spice and a soft, mineral finish.

At Feudo Zirati, the marriage of indigenous varieties and internationally-grown varieties is particularly successful.  The resulting wine style is one that’s contemporary and still tastes authentic to the region.  The Feudo Zirtari Bianco is a 50/50 blend of Inzolia and Chardonnay grown at an elevation of up to 1550 feet on pebbly clay with a good amount of limestone. Chardonnay ripens early here and its affinity for that soil type helps maintain acidity in the grapes and provides a backbone of acidity for the blend.  Inzolia turns golden yellow as it ripens later and the floral and fruit character of both varieties are protected by cool, anaerobic winemaking practices.

The winery’s Rosso is an unoaked 50/50 blend of Syrah and Nero D’Avola, an indigenous variety known as the “little black grape” which is grown on clay soils with some limestone. These deeper soils generate more intensity in Nero D’Avola producing flavors of dark cherries, sweet spices, licorice and cocoa along with the grape’s signature high acidity.  Blended with Syrah the wine is floral with both red and black fruits and a fresh, lean mineral quality.

San Francisco restaurateur Francesco Corvucci, a Calabrian native whose gift for the cuisines of Southern Italy has brought life to several once-iconic North Beach locations, is a proponent of both wines. “My lists are devoted solely to Italian wines and my cuisine to Italian ingredients and dishes. In practice, the success of this wine style is undeniable; it more than satisfies a traditionalist like me and is very accessible for consumers.” 

Corvucci’s desire for accessibility and deliciousness runs second only to his vision of revitalizing San Francisco’s North Beach one folded slice of Neapolitan pizza and glass of Feudo Zirtari at a time. “Over the last fifteen years, the neighborhood had begun to lose traction,” he said. “Some of it was due to generational change and that it was no longer a top destination for younger consumers.”

His focus is on casual, absolutely authentic cuisine most notably the three kinds of mozzarella – freshly-made fior di latte and mozzarella di bufala along with an imported burrata –  has made Il Casaro which occupies the former Steps of Rome a destination since it opened in 2014. Il Casaro is just one of his and partner Peter Fazio’s family of four restaurants: Barbara Pinseria & Cocktail Bar, Express Barbara, Pasta Pop Up and there’s a fifth location in the making.

There’s no denying the simple pleasure of a perfect slice and Corvucci’s motto is, “Pizza is for everyone.” He views wine with the same pragmatic idealism. “I want to serve the domestic wines of Italy, the wines that remind me of what I grew up with.” While there are no expensive wines on his lists, the wines consumers enjoy in his restaurants still play an important role. “Wine is a natural partner with pizza and, like pizza, it needs to be a simple pleasure, one that can be enjoyed by everyone.”

The Not-So-Great Divide

Methyl Anthralinate Exposes Differences in Expert and Consumer Likeability

A recent study conducted at jointly at Penn State University and the University of California Davis illustrates significant differences in what consumers and self-described wine experts find likeable in wine.

The wines in question were six pairs of unoaked Chardonnay that had been doctored with increasing amounts of the compound – methyl anthralinate (MA) – that gives some native American vitis labruscana grape varieties their “grapey-ness.”  

Grapey is the labruscana winegrowers preferred synonym for the more common descriptor “foxy” that is used to characterize the distinct, often pungent aromas associated with certain varieties most notably the Concord grape. In contrast, the descriptor “grapey” is also used when describing the characteristics of vitis vinifera varieties like Riesling and Torrontes and, as such, it isn’t always viewed negatively by experts or consumers.  

According to researcher and Ph.D. student Demetra “Demi” Perry, “We didn’t record if the experts could identify MA. The study is meant to address reasons for the [low market value] of labruscana grapes reflected in price per ton.”

It hypothesized that wines with high concentrations of methyl anthranilate would be largely rejected by wine experts in California who view the compound which is inherent to vitis labruscana and found only in those varieties as a fault. Consumers from California and Pennsylvania which has 30,000 acres of Concord under vine and self-described wine experts from California were asked to rate their preferences against a control wine.

As anticipated, the California-based experts were far more likely to reject the MA-spiked wines. Their rejection threshold (130.3 ng/l) was significantly lower than that of non-experts (1704.9 ng/l). But contrary to the belief that experts disdain labruscana characteristics, neither group wholly rejected the samples that had the highest level of methyl anthranilate.  The study also tested 2-aminoacetophenone (2AAP) but the compound wasn’t rejected by subjects at any intensity.

When consumer subjects were further divided in to low and high-interest groups, no wine was “too grapey” for the low-interest consumers. Acceptance of grapey aromas in wine by consumers in Pennsylvania where Concord jams, jellies and grape juice are commonplace can be attributed to the propensity to like the familiar, a phenomenon known as mere exposure. The more familiar you are with a pleasant odor, the more likely you will rate it as pleasant.

Interestingly enough, not all wines described as “grapey or foxy” exhibit high levels of this compound. MA may be an important aroma constituent in some native varieties but their characteristic grapey flavor isn’t solely attributed to its presence. As an isolated compound MA which is also found in gardenias and jasmine is described as fruity, grape-like, orange blossom and musty with a floral, powdery nuance.  

The perfume industry deconstructs its aroma precisely in percentages of odorants: fruity (37%), citrus (25%), narcotic (22%) which is a heady, intoxicating floral note, linalool (9%), muguet (3%) Lily of the Valley, aliphatic (1%) fatty notes, and vanilla (1%).  Highly pungent oxidized aliphatic notes are also found in fox musk but that association has more to do with ripe grapes being an attractive meal for a fox than smelling like one.

Non-vinifera wines also have higher concentrations of compounds with vegetative and earthy aromas: eugenol (clove), cis-3-hexenol (fresh cut grass, leafy), 1,8-cineole (eucalyptus), and the pyrazines 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine (IBMP), and 3-isopropyl-2-methoxypyrazine (IPMP).  Concentrations of IBMP and IPMP in non-vinifera wines have been measured well above concentrations reported in physiologically-ripe vinifera grapes. The result is seemingly an entourage effect that creates labruscana’s distinct aromatic signature.

If, as the Penn State study hypothesizes, MA is universally viewed by experts as an indicator of lower quality wine and a fault, it’s surprising that the experts in this study failed to reach a complete rejection threshold. While that question wasn’t explored, it’s easy to surmise that even at the highest concentrations tested experts are aware MA is an inherent varietal characteristic and, unless it detracts noticeably from wine quality, its presence wouldn’t constitute a fault. 

Perry is also working on another study with Dr. Gavin Sacks involving de odorizing Concord grape juice in an effort to make it more commercially viable. Their goal is to remove grape-derived odorants, such as MA, while retaining the important base chemistry (e.g., pH, titratable acidity, soluble solids) of the juice and without sacrificing color. “There are similar processing technologies currently utilized in the wine industry for remediation of wine flaws, but most are targeted at processing wine whereas we have taken a step back and decided to target the juice instead,” she said.

Beyond the Bar: Wine country visits that take you beyond the tasting room

Gone are the days when wine tasting was synonymous with standing at a bar. Wineries are now offering tasting experiences that include such activities as hiking with your dog, appreciating a world-class sculpture garden and breathing through a yoga class. If you think a standard wine tasting at a bar sounds more like drudgery than a dream day, these four non-traditional wine tasting experiences are for you.

Imagery Estate Winery is located just outside of Glen Ellen in the heart of Sonoma Valley. Enjoy an hour-long Vinyasa class with a sequence that instructor Jes Williams says will keep you present and centered for the rest of the day. After practice, you’ll enjoy a walking tour of the winery, followed by a tasting in the winery tasting room. Yoga + Wine ($25-$35 per guest) is offered from 10 am to 12 pm every second Sunday through September. 14335 Highway 12, Glen Ellen, 877.550.4278,

Spend the morning hiking with your furry friend through Kunde Winery’s 1,850-acre estate filled with vineyards, oak woodlands and native grasslands that stretch from the Sonoma valley floor up into the Mayacamas Mountain range. This moderately strenuous hike runs from 9 am-1 pm and concludes with a much-deserved outdoor tasting and wine country lunch ($90 per guest). Dogs must be on leash. Kunde donates a portion of the proceeds to Dogwood Animal Rescue Project and Sonoma County Humane Society. 9825 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707.833.5501,

Jeff and Roberta Kunde with their dogs.

Donum’s 200-acre estate is home to 40 contemporary works by such well-known artists as Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois and Keith Haring. Conceived by Danish collector, vintner and co-owner of Donum, Allan Warburg, the Sculpture Park includes site-specific commissions interspersed with 150-year old olive trees, lavender gardens and vineyards. The experience of combining wine, nature and art is, according to Warburg, “far more powerful than if you enjoyed them separately.” Donum is open seven days a week for wine tastings by advanced reservation only.

The private pavilion at Quintessa Winery offers a Zen-like view of Dragon Lake and one of the most elevated tastings found in the Valley. Held in a glass-walled, open-air pavilion nestled among the slopes of Rutherford, this experience takes you far from the maddening crowd. The 90-minute Quintessential Experience begins with a walking tour of the estate winery followed by a seated tasting that includes a vertical tasting, exclusive barrel selections and rare library vintages plus a cheese pairing. The Quintessential Experience ($150 per guest) is offered daily by appointment at 10 am, 12:30 pm and 3 pm. 1601 Silverado Trail S, St. Helena,

Quintessa Winery’s pavilion.

Your guide to the Slow Wine Guide 2019 (free download)

The 2019 Slow Wine Guide arrived in San Francisco on Monday, March 4th, for the Guide’s first stop on a tour of the US that included Portland, Denver, New York and Boston. With more than 100 wineries from Italy and California participating, the tour drew a record number of tasters reflecting the growing interest in wineries whose values and practices are aligned with Slow Wine.

The Slow Wine Guide marks ten years of publication in 2020. This is the second year California wineries have been included with myself as senior editor and Oregon wineries made their debut this year led by Michael Alberty. The addition of urban and negociant wineries to the California and Oregon guides differentiates them from the Italian and Slovenian listings.

Coordinating Editor for North America Jeremy Parzen points out, “Some of the best wines produced in California today are made by progressive winemakers who buy all of the fruit they vinify.” Los Alamos-based A Tribute to Grace winemaker Angela Osborne and San Francisco-based Bryan Harrington of Harrington wines are two prime examples of urban winemakers at the top of their game.

The Guide lists wineries by city, and, in addition to the audit that summarizes vineyard practices, it now includes figures on each estate’s acreage under vine, the total number of bottles produced annually and for each wine tasted, along with a suggested retail price for each wine.

According to Slow Wine Editor Giancarlo Gariglio, “The winery visits [by our field editors] are the key. They’re what sets Slow Wine apart from other guides. We’ve published the Italian guide for almost ten years now and, over the last two years, we’ve applied those best practices to the addition of California and Oregon wineries.”

Slow Wine acknowledges wineries with three different awards: the Snail, Bottle and Coin. Individual wines are designated by tasters with the Slow Wine Prizes of “Great” (highlighted in orange entries) for the top bottles and “Everyday” (highlighted in light blue entries) for excellent value under $30.

To determine the stops for the 2019 tour, Gariglio polled participating producers who asked for Denver and Boston as “good markets to cultivate with strong Slow Food nation communities.” “This is out most ambitious tour to date,” he said. “The US is by far our most important market. Asia knows the larger brands but, for these wineries, Asia is like the US market 30 years ago.”

Download your free copy of the 2019 Slow Wine Guide at this link.

Emilia-Romagna: Exploring Iconic Italian Flavors at Enologica

Best known by Americans for its iconic food products—namely prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Balsamic vinegar, and its effervescent Lambrusco wines—there’s far more to Emilia-Romagna than these familiar tastes. The city of Bologna reputed for being la dotta(the learned), is home to the Western world’s oldest continuously-operating university, the University of Bologna, and is a place full of surprises.

The tapestry of this region, one that bisects central Italy from coast to coast save for a few kilometers devoted to Liguria before you reach the Mediterranean Sea, is defined by the Po River. The terroir of the river valley leaves its mark on everything produced within its fold. Bologna lies about 45 minutes south of the river and is relatively compact—it’s slightly larger than San Francisco with a population of 1 million people in the urban center.

Cultural Immersion

While it’s a mecca for students, Bologna isn’t overrun by tourists and it flourishes with cuisine, art, and music. In 2006 Bologna became a UNESCO City of Music, one of 30 cities globally that are part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. The University which was founded as the “Studium” by students in 1088, was legally declared a place where research could develop independently from any other power, political or ecclesiastic, in 1158.

Enologica, an extraordinary exhibition of the region’s wines and typical food products is hosted by the Enoteca Regionale Emilia Romagna (ERER) and held annually at the beautiful Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna. 

Within the city and surrounding countryside there are 50 museums and galleries, many of which are connected to the University, that house collections both large and small. Delve into Italy’s terroir by visiting the Collezione di Mineralogia “Museo Luigi Bombicci” to pour over the impressive Italian Regional Mineralogical Collection and the University of Bologna Herbarium, one of the oldest in Europe, where you’ll find dried plant collections that date from the 16th century onwards.

The collection of extant garments and some six thousand fabric samples at the Museo Del Tessuto e Della Tappezzeria “Vittorio Zironi,” is also captivating. In what would otherwise be called “a wax museum,” the Collezione Delle Cere Anatomiche “Luidi Cattaneo” preserves marvelous 19th-century anatomical wax models that were created for medical students by the Florentine modeler Clemente Susini and Bolognese wax-modelers Giuseppe Astorri and Cesare Bettini.

A 19th-century anatomical wax model of a hand from the Collezione Delle Cere Anatomiche “Luidi Cattaneo” in Bologna.

Clues to the long history and importance of the region’s wine culture can be seen in the 10,000 everyday life objects used by local farmers between 1750 and 1950 that are displayed at the Museo della Civiltà Contadina (museum of peasant farming culture). It’s with these humble artifacts that modern-day life in Bologna was forged. The beautiful historic grounds include gardens, orchards, hemp fields, a park, and the museum itself.

On a much larger scale just outside the city limits you’ll find Fabbrica Italiana Contandina (FICO) Eataly World. Described as a cultural theme park, FICO covers two hectares of fields and stables housing several hundred animals and 2000 different plant cultivars. On display is food processing at 40 farming factories where you can see firsthand how meat, fish, cheese, salumi, pasta, oil, wine, beer, sweets, and other Italian products are processed and you can taste all of them as well.

Winemaking and wine culture are taught at FICO through vineyard tours and tasting classes that explore Italy’s most important native vines including Albana and Pignoletto, both indigenous to Emilia-Romagna.

A Tale of Two DOCGs

The Colli Bolognesi Classico Pignoletto, one of Emilia-Romagna’s two DOCG wine production areas, lies just west of Bologna. The DOCG Romagna Albana region lies southeast of Bologna bordered on the east by the Adriatic Sea with the towns of Ravenna in the north and Rimini to the south.

The wines of these areas and Emilia-Romagna came in to focus for this taster during Enologica, an extraordinary exhibition of the region’s wines and typical food products that’s been hosted by the Enoteca Regionale Emilia Romagna (ERER) in Bologna for the last seven years. The ERER has been in place since 1970 with the charter of promoting and improving regional wine production.

Author of “The Utimate Guide to Italian Wine,” Daniele Cernilli.

Italy’s First DOCG White Wine

The well-drained foothills of the Apennines are home to vineyards sited on clay and limestone at high elevations. The region’s hot, dry Mediterranean climate is tempered by cooling breezes from the eastern seaboard that provide relief during the summer months.

While it’s been openly contested for its rank as Italy’s first white wine to be awarded DOCG status (in 1987), Albana di Romagna—known since 2011 as Romagna Albana—has demonstrated its prowess over the years. During a presentation at Enologica, led by Daniele Cernilli aka “Dr. Wine,” Cernilli selected a flight of six wines demonstrating a range of styles and the finesse and power that earned Albana its DOCG birthright.

Albana is a thick-skinned, white grape loaded with polyphenols and the catechins that comprise white wine tannins. It’s vinified in four styles—dry, amabile, dolce, and passito/passito reserve styles that can rival Sauternes and Vouvray for their opulence. According to Cernilli, Albana was first planted in southern Italy, but expresses higher levels of tartaric and malic acid when grown in northern climes. Sparkling Albana is successful due to the variety’s elevated acidity but only carries the DOC designation.

Noted for distinctive peach and almond notes, the wines Cernilli poured also exhibited lemon zest, fennel, tropical fruit, quince, saffron, and pear, with the riper passito; the passito reserve had notes of apricot, peach, petrol, honeycomb, and ginger due to the required presence of botrytis.

  • 2016 Caviro Romio—made by the largest co-operative in the region which produces very a high-quality, organic bag-in-box wine with lemony intensity attributed to skin contact, the wine had notes of almond and medium plus acidity.
  • 2016 Poderi dal Nespoli showed high acidity with floral notes, lemon zest, fennel, and unripe pineapple. It’s possible the picking decision was rushed for this particular vintage but time in bottle could improve the finish.
  • 2016 Leone Conti Progetto was rich with almost gritty tannins, almond and saffron and saline mineral notes pointing to the influence of the Adriatic.
  • 2016 Celli “I Croppi”—a broader, fleshier example with varietal flavors of pear and peach described by Cernili as a “traditional style.”
  • 2014 Cantina di Forli “Volo l’Aquila”—a deep, rich, golden amber-colored passito with high-toned, fungal, peachy flavors, and a clean finish.
  • 2013 Fattoria Zerbina “Scacco Matto”—a honeyed, floral passito with petrol, crème brulee, saffron, and ripe peaches in a classic late-harvest style.

Formerly part of the Colli Bolognesi DOC, Colli Bolognesi Classico Pignoletto was established as a separate DOCG in 2010 and expanded in 2014. There has been a forty percent increase in plantings of Pignoletto here over the last few years that many attribute the “bubble wave” to. Pignoletto has the ability to make a diverse range of styles, four are made in the DOCG: classic, classic superiore, frizzante, and spumante with the biggest challenge being timing the picking decision for the intended wine style.

The wines are required to be 95 percent Pignoletto with an exception for older vineyards that may include field blends of other varieties. This aromatic grape once thought to be Grechetto has lively acidity and tart flavors of lime and green apple along with higher tannin levels that contribute texture and weight to the finished wines. Sparkling Pignoletto is comparable to Prosecco and the DOCG has begun fostering more organic production. Several Pignoletto wines were included in the Enologica tastings led by different experts.

  • 2015 Tentuta La Riva—a pét-nat style showing pear, Fuji and golden apple with yeasty, apple cider-like flavors.
  • NV Terra Quilia “Terre Bianche”—frizzante pét-nat style, was dry, tangerine skin, lemon, green plum, green apple, light-bodied, and austere with a savory bitter finish.
  • NV Caviro Terre Forte Frizzante was crisp and delicate, charming with clean, precise varietal flavors.
  • NV ll Monticino had notes of white blossoms, white tree fruits, intensity from dry extract, and elevated tannins on the mid-palate, clean finish.