Fulvio Bressan – Taking the long-term view

Fulvio Bressan

“Better that you have wine in your heart and soul, or you change business.”  Fulvio Bressan, June 2012

Winemaking has developed significantly in the last few decades. Winemakers now routinely draw on a vast canon of research, learning and technology to help ensure that they produce consistent wines and harvest fruit in prime condition, year in, year out. Vintage variation, of the sort that wrote off most early 90’s Bordeaux, is almost a thing of the past.

Modern viticulture (growing the grapes) tends to focus on getting a good return-on-investment, a defined yield (which could be high or low depending on the ambitions of the winemaker), and physiological ripeness – in other words, the point where every component of the grape, from tannins, to pips, skins and flesh, is ripe and not green or bitter tasting.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing though – our supermarkets and wine merchants have shelves lined with fault-free wines, but there is ever-increasing homogenity, with “correct” but bland wines dominating sales. What if the winemaker wants to attain uniqueness, excitement and daring in their products? Perhaps there’s a need to look back to more traditional practices.

Fulvio Bressan is a ninth-generation winemaker from Friuli Isonzo who does precisely that. Not that he has any lack of up-to-date winemaking knowledge. Trained in Bordeaux, Bressan has been making wine at his family’s property since the mid-1990s. But his approach is rather different to accepted practice.

Farming methods

Fulvio is passionate about nurturing the land that his family have inhabited for centuries. That means organic or biodynamic farming methods (Bressan was certified organic until 2001, but in the face of almost wholly absent inspectors could not see any value in renewing his certification). No fertilisers or synthetic products are used, with copper being reserved as a last resort.

130 year old Schioppettino vines

130 year old Schioppettino vines

Fulvio and his wife Jelena (herself an inexhaustible font of knowledge on the family’s winemaking methods) tend their vines (20ha spread across Friuli Isonzo and Collio), with a view to future generations – not just the next decade. For the Bressans, it is important to limit the vigour of their vines not just to keep yields low (and they are very low, at around 3.5 tons per hectare), but also so that the plants are not worn out after 30 years. Fulvio wants his vines to be capable of producing for a century or more. As living proof, they have a prized plot of 130-year-old Schioppettino in Corona, which contributes much of the complexity and depth to the Bressan Schioppettino blend.

Interestingly, the Bressans do not green harvest. Fulvio’s view is that mature vines are self-regulating, at least if they are tended with respect. Green harvesting as a modern practice has become so synonymous with quality, that it is now required under the Friuli DOC laws. Fulvio’s solution is simply to bottle his wines under the broader, supposedly less prestigious Friuli-Venezia-Gorizia IGT category.

Fulvio staunchly believes that grapes should not be grown in locations where irrigation is required – he never irrigates, instead ensuring that his vines send down deep roots to search for water themselves. He does not grow grass between the rows, as this would provide too much competition for the vines, and potentially require weedkiller – instead the stony soil is left bare.

Local varieties

Dark skinned Schioppettino, also known as Ribolla Nera, is one of three treasured indigenous varieties (Pignol and Verduzzo Friulano are the others) which are pretty much the Bressan raison d’etre.  Although the family has historical plots of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and Pinot Grigio, it is likely that these varieties will be grubbed up as they reach the end of their useful lives.

Most revered of all is Pignol or “Pignolo” in the local dialect. “Look at the power of these vines”, Fulvio commented as we strode down the rows of these rather angular, commanding plants. This is not an easy variety to cultivate – yields are notoriously unreliable, and inconsistent, even from one bunch of grapes to another on the same vine. It’s worth the effort though, as the Pignol wine is extraordinary in its power, longevity and complexity.

Winemaking

Fulvio’s strongly held views on the use of cultured yeast to ferment wine are famous – “It is the same thing as getting your wife to sleep with another man, to have your son. Then that is not your son”.  The subject cropped up several times in our conversation, and Fulvio reminded me “If you bring cultured yeasts to my winery, you (will) not arrive back at the home – except in a wheelbarrow.”

During my visit, the winery was being totally overhauled with a new floor and wooden roof. We talked about the traditional lime mortar, and the mixture of 25 different herbs used to seal the wood, to ensure that viable wild yeast cultures could develop easily in the winery.

A combination of stainless steel and concrete vats are used, together with 2000 litre Slovenian “botti”, and old barriques for the Pignol. No new oak or anything else which might unduly flavour the wines is used. A limited amount of temperature control is practised. The aim is to let the grape varieties, and the “terroir” speak for themselves. For Fulvio though, it is also important that the wine communicates something about him, his family, his philosophy – he talks of emotion in wine.

The wines

Jelena opening the Cabernet

Jelena opening the Cabernet

Fulvio’s wines are not for the faint of heart. They are bold and uncompromising, like the man himself. They grab hold of you, and shake you up and down, before you get the measure of their considerable panache. The reds in particular can be incredibly concentrated – that makes sense when you consider the very low yields, and dry-farming in a sub-Mediterranean climate. The Bressan vines have to work hard to produce their precious crop.

Concentration is not a synonym for overripe, jammy or overbearing. Interestingly, alcohol levels chez Bressan are much more restrained than many of their Friulian neighbours. It’s depressingly easy to find Malvasias from Friuli Collio with 14.5% alcohol and above. Yet Fulvio’s wines are typically around 13 – 13.5%. This is due to a combination of the restraint exercised in the vineyards, and the natural yeast strains, which do not maximise alcohol levels as readily as cultured yeasts. It is an important factor in ensuring balance and freshness.

The Bressan wines buck the current trend for easy-drinking young wine. Typically released when they are 5-6 years old, these wines need time to show their best. This point was really hammered home to me, when I tasted some older vintages at a nearby Osteria (see below).

Seek these wines out wherever you can find them – they are rare treasures (the estate makes only around 50,000 bottles a year), created by a winemaking family that care deeply about the integrity of their output, and the long term future of their estate. This passion is very ably transmitted in their wines.

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Tasted over lunch

Pinot Nero vines near the house

Pinot Nero vines near the house

Carat 2006

Just bottled, and very much an orange wine – a traditional blend of Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia and Friulano, with creamy fruit, and aromas of red onion marmalade. Quite seriously tannic (not surprising as the wine stayed on the skins for four weeks), and I have to admit I would want to leave this for a year before cracking open another bottle. Terrific length, driving acidity and a bright future.

Ego 2003

A 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc and Schioppettino, with the latter contributing that utterly distinctive green pepper nose, and the former providing freshness. Elegant and poised.

Pinot Nero 2006

A super-concentrated, spicy Pinot which is starting to calm down and show its more elegant side as it matures (Now noticeably more well-mannered than it was in October 2011). This should be quite special given another few years on the clock – and will effortlessly survive for a further decade.

Schioppettino 2006

I have a love-hate relationship with the 2006 Schioppettino. Sometimes it seems to have an almost green (unripe) note, however there is plenty of brambley, leathery fruit, and a lemon-fresh finish.

 

Schioppettino to the left, Pignol to the right

Schioppettino to the left, Pignol to the right

Tasted in the winery

Verduzzo Friulano 2007

Late harvested, dry but with a wonderful honeyed character, complex palate and beautiful amber colour. Very long, this also has to be one of Fulvio’s most accessible wines.

Pinot Grigio 2006 (Tank sample)

Fulvio describes this as “a silly wine”. He has every intention of grubbing up his Pinot Grigio, once the vines reach an age where he can justify it. I think he’s being harsh – it may lack a little acidity, but there’s an attractive bitter orange note, and full, fat texture.

Cabernet Crown Domains 2003

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, I found the exaggerated herbaceous nose got in the way with this wine. There is terrific structure and staying power, but less individual character than many of the other Bressan wines.

No. 3 2003

Definitely more than the sum of its parts – those parts being Schioppettino, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Nero. A distinctive peppery nose gives way to a silky pinot texture, with red fruits and an attractive saline quality. Elegant, complex and exciting (Or as Fulvio would say – just like him!)

Pignol 1997 (Barrel sample)

Taking a barrel sample of the Pignol '97

Taking a barrel sample of the Pignol ’97

Surely this is Fulvio’s personal favourite. He excitedly told me several times “Now this is wine, Simon”. And I would have to agree. Further proof that the Bressan wines need serious amounts of time to show their best. Aromas of leather and mushrooms give way to sweet blackberry, prune and dried apricot fruit, and a lively lemon candy freshness. Although there’s only 3gr of residual sugar, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was more. Fulvio told me it’s actually the tannins providing all the sweetness. And what structured, refined tannins they are.

This wine could surely live for decades – I guessed it was rather unapproachable in its youth. “If you taste this at one year old, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week” was Fulvio’s response. After 15 years mellowing in old barriques, it still has vitality and freshness, yet so much more besides. Asked when they might finally bottle this giant of a wine, Fulvio shrugged “Maybe next year”.

Tasted at Osteria L’alchimista, Gorizia.

Schioppettino 2005

The only wine the Bressans made in a terrible vintage. And luckily Stefano, the proprietor at the Bressan’s favourite local Enoteca, had a bottle he was willing to open. I really liked the freshness of this wine, the “high definition” raspberry fruit and the slightly lighter texture. It developed wonderfully after nearly two hours of being open, with the nose becoming more integrated and less overtly peppery.

Carat 2003

Compared to the slightly unapproachable 2006, what a treat to try this more mature sibling. Still structured, dry and complex with flavours spanning green tea, herbs, butterscotch, plum and dried apricot. And all underpinned by a supple “come hither” texture.

 

 

Nereo Bressan - winemaker, butcher, prosciutto maker

Nereo Bressan – winemaker, butcher, prosciutto maker

Fulvio and Jelena, standing in front of Schioppettino vines

Fulvio and Jelena, standing in front of Schioppettino vines

Romance in the vineyards

Romance in the vineyards – Bressan style

Fulvio and artist Pablo Figar, with new work for the winery

Fulvio and artist Pablo Figar, with new work for the winery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cannot thank Fulvio, Jelena, Nereo and Paolina enough for their boundless hospitality and generosity during my visit. A debt of gratitude also to Stefano Mestroni at Osteria L’alchimista, for sharing some older vintages with us. And for ensuring that I did not get to bed at an even remotely sensible hour.

Finally many thanks to Pierpaolo Penco, director of the Friuli Isonzo Consorzio, for the lift – and healthy discourse along the way!

 

Bressan wines are distributed in the UK and Italy by Les Caves de Pyrene. Terroirs is a good place to sample them in London.

 

 

Molto passione vino

Sandi Skerk

This week, my favourite mild-mannered winemaking genius Sandi Skerk  was in London, at a stellar tasting organised by Italian specialist importer Passione Vino. I’d previously tasted many of the Skerk wines at the vineyard as barrel samples, so it was great to compare that with the final bottlings – in this case all from the 2009 vintage. The Vitovska has a richness that I associate with the long period spent macerating on the skins. It’s got lively acidity, appealing nutty/apricot hints and an almost briney consistency that’s much more appealing than it might sound.

The Malvasia had a particularly wild aroma of rubber tyres, something I’d normally associate with aged Rieslings. Again, this is a rich, long and fascinating wine, with a panopoly of floral and nutty flavours sitting happily in the mix.

“Ograde” is probably Skerk’s magnum opus: A white blend of Malvasia, Vitovska, Sauvignon blanc and Pinot Grigio. The 2009 appears to be dryer and more savoury than its individual component wines, enormously complex, and with an appealing grapefruit hint presumably contributed by the Sauvignon. This wine can sometimes be rather funky on the nose, but today it was pure and focused all the way.

I have often been less than enamoured by examples of Terrano from Friuli Carso, but I hadn’t tried Sandi Skerk’s 2009 bottling (I did try an experimental bottle-fermented version back in October 2011). It still suffers from a slight hollowness – a lack of heft if you will – but I have to say this convinced me far more than any other examples I’ve had to date. It’s a nervy wine, with racing acidity, attractive candied peel and dried fruit characters. As a light bodied wine, it’s refreshing, but still somehow feels complex and whole.

Eugenio Rosi

Sometimes just one sip of a wine seems enough to transmit the winemaker’s entire philosophy and passion. This is how I felt when I tasted Eugenio Rosi’s “Anisos” Vallagarina IGT white blend (Pinot Bianco, Nosiola, Chardonnay). As we didn’t share a language, I started tasting without assumptions, and wow, what a wine. There is a bready, unctous texture underpinning all kinds of citrus fruit, acacia blossom and nutty flavours, and a palate-cleansing bitter finish. This wine is alive, full of personality and originality. I wasn’t surprised at all to discover that Rosi’s regime is to macerate on the skins, use natural yeasts, organic farming methods and no sulphur (apart from a minute dose at bottling). These are techniques which in the right hands seem to allow the grapes to “sing” in the glass (As Alice Feiring might put it).

Eugenio is not comfortable with the “natural wine” moniker – a not uncommon situation. He remarked that it should merely be called “normal winemaking – because this is the traditional way, where you don’t do anything else, and you intervene as little as possible”. I understand his frustration – that because industrial methods of wine making have become the new “norm”, this can force the traditional methods into a ghetto – or worse, attribute them to the vagaries of fashion.

Rosi is not afraid to experiment, and many of the wine-making techniques are individual to say the least – the “Poiema” Vallagarina IGT, made from Rosi’s cherished local Marzemino variety, is aged not in oak, but cherry and chestnut barrels. This gives a subtler influence, more in tune with the cherry-fruit character that’s already present in Marzemino. The “7 Otto 9″ is a blend of Cabernet Franc across three vintages (’07, ’08 and ’09). The result is a rich, balanced and gorgeously mineral wine. Thank goodness for the Italian IGT category, which is flexible enough to allow all of these innovations.

Thank goodness also for wine importers like Luca Dusi, whose impressive list is entirely made up of small, “artisanal” wine producers like Sandi Skerk and Eugenio Rosi. These are craftsmen who consistently disarm and change our whole notion of what can be achieved with dedication and skill in wine making.

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All the wines mentioned in this post can be ordered direct from Passione Vino in the UK.
Tel: 0203 487 0600
Email: orders@passionevino.co.uk

 

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Rock the Carso (Friuli Part 1)

carso vineyards

Typical vistas in Carso

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is Italy’s most North-Easterly region. Like many European border areas, Friuli has a composite identity made up of Italian, Slovenian and Teutonic cultures. Those borders, which can seem so trivial now (on our visit, we drifted into Slovenia and back, with nary a battered sign to remind us), have been hard fought over during the past century. Everything from churches to vines was desecrated during the first world war, although there is little clue from the beauty and tranquility that now pervades the hills. The landscapes are frequently jaw dropping, with dramatic rolling hills, glimpses of the Adriatic and primeval bands of limestone extruded from the ground.

It’s rare for wines outside the two “big ticket” DOCs (Friuli Collio and Colli Orientali) to make it to the UK. There is much to say about these fine sub-regions, but let us detour instead to Friuli Carso DOC. This hidden gem is located in the South-East corner of Friuli, on the Istrian peninsula bordering Slovenia.  Carso (“Karst” or “Kras” in Slavic dialects) is the calcareous limestone rock.

kante cellars + art

Edi Kante's artwork amidst Karst and Oak

It’s not easy to grow grapes here – the rocky outcrop has a scant covering of earth, and most producers have historically shipped in red iron-enriched soil from closer to Trieste, building high terraces upon their land. The vicious Bora wind is apt to whip through the vineyards, removing anything that’s not strapped down, and chilling anything that is to the bone (or branch). But having said that, there are many hours of sun, and a moderating maritime influence from the nearby Adriatic.

Kante

Carso is home to some 40 small and often uncompromising producers. We visited three pivotal wineries, all within walking distance of each other: Edi Kante is unquestionably the reason that Friuli Carso is enjoying a renaissance today – in the 1980s, Edi began the drive towards quality. Fast forward and his wines are now available all over the world, including the UK and the US. Edi was in the States during our visit, but his nephew Goran related how techniques such as Guyot vine-training (the classic method used in Bordeaux and Burgundy) and Green Harvesting (stripping excess fruit from the vines, to reduce yields and increase quality) were introduced in the 1980s and 90s. Apparently Edi’s father was practically in tears during the first few green harvests, unable to understand how throwing away 25% of the crop was going to help the Kante business.

kante old bottle mould

Kante KK maturing in the cellars

The Kante winery is something to behold, with three sizable underground cellars, one below the other, hollowed out of the rock. Edi is also an artist, and his modernist canvases are littered in every corner and crevice of the winery – and on the bottles themselves. The Kante philosphy is very much about freshness and fruit purity, something that was evident as we tasted the white wines. The 2009 Vitovska has attractive green melon notes, while the 2009 Malvasija has more florality, an almost salty savouriness plus a fine almond finish. The “KK” traditional method sparkler (A blend of Chardonnay and Malvasija) is very elegant, with some toasty depth and a mineral finish. Finally, we tasted an impressive 2001 Chardonnay (“La Bora di Kante”), its weighty spiced apple and vanilla character reflecting rather tasteful oak treatment.

Edi Kante is innovating with a variety of non-standard bottle and cork sizes, in an attempt to solve two issues: first, that the standard 75ml bottle is a little too large for two to share over a meal (hence the introduction of a 50ml bottle for some of the wines), and second, that the proportions of the magnum (rather than the size) are what results in superior maturation of the wine – so a 75ml bottle with a smaller neck and cork should produce the same result, but without the unwieldy size.

sandi skerk

Sandi Skerk, clutching his "unfinished" Terrano

Skerk

Sandi Skerk, president of the local Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio e Carso, is a softly spoken yet clearly passionate winemaker. Sandi and his father Boris farm biodynamically, and their wines are made with a very light hand – there are no cultured yeasts, filtering or fining chez Skerk. We tasted fascinating barrel samples of the Skerk whites – Malvasija Istriana, Vitovska (of which more later), Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. These are wild wines in every sense, with long periods of skin contact lending them unusual hues. The scents and tastes are exotic and complex – none more so than the Pinot Grigio, a sludge-pink colour, almost tannic with a vast range of ripe stone fruit, wet stone and bready flavours.

We also tried Skerk’s youthful Terrano, bottled mid-fermentation as an experiment. I didn’t take to the relatively high residual sugar, but liked the attractive prickle and almost chewy red-fruit texture.

skerk pinot grigio barrel sample

Pinot Grigio after a few weeks on the skins

Sandi has organically certified the family’s vineyards, but not the final product, as he remains unhappy with the lax standards that the certification permits in the winery. I admire his commitment – many are the vineyard owners who claim that they farm organically or biodynamically, but have all manner of excuses up their sleeves if the tricky matter of certification is raised. Skerk understands that in order to improve standards, it is essential to work within a system rather than throwing rocks at it.

Zidarich

Like Skerk, the Zidarich modus operandi is very much on the natural winemaking tip – farming is largely biodynamic, white grapes mostly spend some time on the skins, and fermentation is in open-topped vats with indigenous yeasts.

Benjamin Zidarich’s winery and cellars were built in 1996, entirely from local “found” materials, and are impressive to say the least. Benjamin based the cellar around a natural grotto buried deep in the Carso, and like the other wineries we visited, temperature control is achieved elementally rather than with technology.

Over lunch in Zidarich’s gorgeously aspected and airy tasting room, we enjoyed a wide selection of wines from all three producers. Both Skerk and Zidarich produce signature white blends. Zidarich’s Prulke 2009

Benjamin Zidarich (or - further evidence that Italian is 90% hand movements)

Benjamin Zidarich and some very Italian hand movements

(60% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Malvasija and 20% Vitovska) opens with grapefruit marmalade, giving way to a full, creamy texture and an array of stone fruit and floral notes. It’s rather marvellous. Skerk’s orange Ograde 2009 (Vitovska 50%, Malvasia 20%, Sauvignon 20% and Pinot Grigio 10%) is yet more single minded, with (on this showing at least) an overtly funky and rather reductive nose which leads to a complex, opulent and peachy palate. Zidarich’s varietal Vitovska 2009 was also outstanding, with nervy acidity and a profound apricot character.

benjamin zidarich pours the terrano

Ben pours a glass or 12 of the terrano

Terrano

I’ll admit I was largely disappointed by the Terrano-based reds – The Zidarich 2009 Terrano (a clone of Refosk/Refosco) had good morello cherry fruit and structure, yet seemed somewhat lean. Edi Kante’s 1991 Terranum was even leaner – this had promising barnyard/animal hints at first smell, but although there was some bright red fruit, I felt that Terranum had become almost terminal, with acetic overdose just around the corner.

Vitovska

Vines at Skerk, showing the now preferred training method

Vines at Skerk, showing the now preferred Alberello training method

Like any self-respecting Italian region, Friuli Carso has one grape which is pretty much unique to the area. Vitovska turns out to be a cross of  Prosecco Tondo and Malvasia Bianca Lunga, and probably originated in Slovenia (where it is also known as Vitouska or Vitovska Garganja). It’s characterised by thick skins, and thus an ability to withstand the Bora wind, powerful acidity, floral notes and considerable versatility depending on the treatment in the winery. Vitovska has been saved from near-extinction by winemarkers like Sandi Skerk, Edi Kante and Benjamin Zidarich.

Conclusion

The Carso is truly fascinating – respect for tradition and the environment mixes effortlessly with a desire to innovate and push the boundaries. The wine-making here is ambitious, daring and yet utterly rooted in the “terroir”.  I urge readers to seek out these wines (especially the whites). Here are some UK links:

http://www.vivinum.co.uk/italien/friaul/kante.html

http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/skerk/1/uk

http://www.slurp.co.uk/search/?search=Zidarich

There appear to be a number Italian distributors who will ship Europe-wide as well.