Load of old bull – does biodynamics need to explain itself?

seresin cows horns“When I taste this wine, I imagine I’m walking up the dry river bed next to the Tatou vineyard, just after the rain. The smell of the wet stones is utterly distinctive.”

This is the way that Colin Ross, vineyard manager at Seresin, likes to describe wine – no fruit descriptors, no talk of tannins, structure or pH. During a leisurely tasting at Michael Seresin’s house, Ross positively exuded his passion for the land, soil and vines. The wines were a rare delight.

Seresin needs little introduction in the UK, where it has built a strong brand. Apart from consistently individual and high-achieving wines, the estate’s also famous as one of New Zealand’s first to convert fully to organic farming. Experiments with biodynamic farming techniques began in 2000, with full conversion reached in 2007. Certification followed in 2010.

Esoteric

Many find the detail of biodynamic farming methods a little esoteric or hard to pin down. The headline summary (from the Demeter international site) is not so difficult to get to grips with:

“Biodynamic farming is a holistic approach to agriculture in which vitality has the highest priority… Biodynamic farmers return more to the soil than they remove in the process of cultivating crops and animals; the farm is considered as an organism in which plants, animals and human beings are integrated together.”

however here is the stuff which ignites sceptics into a blazing furore:

“…the Biodynamic method attempts to work with the dynamic energies in nature and not solely with its material needs. One aspect of this is the use of cosmic rhythms, for instance cultivation, sowing and harvesting are scheduled if possible on favourable days.”

Ross’s one day workshop in London left Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl feeling frustrated about “another missed opportunity” for biodynamics to explain itself. I attended a later tasting and discussion, so content and expectations may have been different,  but I personally felt that Ross conveyed a strong message about biodynamic philosophy.

seresin reserve sauvignon 2010 - bottle shotDogma

The challenge with “bio-d” (to adopt the hip vernacular) is that attempts to analyse or rationalise it according to modern scientific methodologies are liable to failure. Krebiehl suggests “biodynamic methods must be examined closely so that they can be fully fathomed and understood”, but I disagree. I’m more aligned with her when she later states “Biodynamics, as every other cause, should be judged by its outcome, not by its good intentions”.

The human experience is littered with the unexplainable, the mysterious and the illogical. Call it mind over matter, call it religion or trance. I don’t believe that every human system has to justify itself according to the narrow parameters dictated by modern science.

Consider the well-documented placebo effect, or homoeopathy – both phenomenons that have been shown to have remarkable efficacy in certain situations, both hard to fathom in pure scientific terms.

michael seresin and colin ross in LondonHolism

But back to Colin and Seresin: What was communicated to me was an intense connection to land and terroir. This is the very heart of biodynamics – the farm (and Seresin truly is a farm, producing olive oil, honey and vegetables as well as wine), animals and employees all functioning in harmony, not in opposition.

Ross stressed the importance of Seresin’s staff many times over. Michael Seresin made the telling comment “if we ever wavered and thought about abandoning biodynamics, I know most of our staff would leave. And the richness of what they bring is extraordinary”.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Ross is not some fey pseud trying to dress everything up in romantic ideals. Rather, a robust Aussie hailing from Margaret River, with years of winemaking experience for both conventional and organic estates.

Many have suggested that the devotion and single-mindedness required for biodynamics is what produces such good results – and who would argue with Romanée-Conti, Chapoutier, Weinbach or Nikolaihof, to name only a few great estates. I’m not sure it matters whether it’s really all down to preparation 501, or just the obsessional care and detail shown by most biodynamic producers.

To me there is nothing worrisome about a system which helps people make or rediscover a fundamental connection with craft and land. We happily accept such systems in other avenues – neuro-linguistic programming, yoga, meditation. Why shouldn’t they be equally valid in the sphere of agriculture?

seresin bottles

The Wines

Some high spots from the tasting – hard to choose only a few!

Marama 2010 (100% Sauvignon Blanc)

This wine has wowed me in every vintage I’ve tasted (the first was a decade ago). It’s exciting, rich, long and gloriously vibrant. Even if you thought barrel fermented Sauvignon wasn’t for you, give this a try. Just stunning.

Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010

A beautiful fruit core, delicate and taut. Almost reserved, compared to the other whites. Long finish.

Home Pinot Noir 2011

Exotic spices, chewy dark fruit, smoky and leathery. None of the overbearing opulence that I associate with new world Pinot.

Rachel Pinot Noir 2011

Superbly elegant, really justifies the term “burgundian” on this basis alone.

Sun and Moon Pinot Noir 2010

Dark and leathery on the nose, but super refined, and the most delicate of all the Pinots.

Seresin wines are widely available in the UK, and distributed by John Armit wines (who also sell direct).

Everything you ever wanted to know about New Zealand wine

Photo courtesy of wines of New Zealand

Photo courtesy of wines of New Zealand

I admit it, I’m not an expert when it comes to New Zealand wine, despite having enjoyed a fair number of bottles over the years.

I love the intensity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, even if the style has become a little clichéd – and I wouldn’t kick the Pinot Noirs of Martinborough or Central Otago out of bed either. Even if, at least for me, they rarely achieve the classicism or elegance that is claimed. Rieslings and other white varietals can also be stunningly good.

But so far, my experience only goes skin deep. This Sunday 23rd March 2014 at 5pm CET is the perfect opportunity to learn more, by talking to a group of 10 wine producers whilst tasting their wines. The tasting is at the trade-only ProWein fair in Düsseldorf, but we want to open up the event to anyone online who’s a fan of kiwi wine, or just wants to know more.

All you have to do is tweet to me (@simonjwoolf) or @nzwine with your question – and tag it with #kiwiwinesunday - or if you don’t like twitter, add a comment to this post and I’ll make sure the question gets raised on Sunday. We will be online between 17:00 – 18:30, responding live to questions and generally broadcasting what we discover – while tasting an excellent selection of what the country has to offer (see the list below).

I’ve been thinking about what questions I want to ask – and here are some of them:

Are you worried about issues of oversupply, as 2014 is looking like such a bumper harvest? (15% up on the already impressive 2013 yields).

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Does everyone still love screwcaps?

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Are you sick of the world thinking NZ is just about Sauvignon Blanc?

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New Zealand winemakers are noticeable by their absence from London’s two “natural” wine fairs (Raw Fair and the Real Wine fair). Is the movement to lower intervention and all things organic/biodynamic/low sulphur not established here?

Wineries

WRV_120_MARLBOROUGH_HUNTERS-WINES-0-548-365-365-ffffff

Photo courtesy of wines of New Zealand

Here’s a list of the confirmed wineries who are participating in the tasting and question & answer session (more TBC):

Giesen Wines (Marlborough)

Ohau Wines (Ohau – “New Zealand’s newset wine region”)

Craggy Range (Hawkes Bay)

Rockburn (Central Otago)

Gladstone Vineyard (Wairarapa)

Seresin (Marlborough – A personal favourite, and one of very few producers who’ve convinced me to love oaked Sauvignon Blanc)

Man O’War (Waiheke Island)

Villa Maria (Marlborough)

Spy Valley (Marlborough)

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More information:

Prowein

New Zealand Wines

 

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.

 

 

Bubbling up in Brescia

Morning in Brescia, over the Duomo roof

Morning in Brescia, over the Duomo roof

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Lombardy is an attractive, stately city, untouched by major tourism and unhyped by the guide books. Brescia is the de facto capital of Franciacorta, a sub-region specialising in the production of sparkling wine. Brescia was also the location for this year’s superb European Wine Bloggers Conference, a friendly and passionate gaggle of enthusiasts, marketeers and wine producers.

Like many of my fellow delegates, I wasn’t previously familiar with Franciacorta wines – exports are growing but still small, and the region was not awarded the prestigious DOCG status until 1995. Permitted grape varieties have a familiar ring about them – Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (AKA Noir) are the major players – but there is a potential USP as Pinot Bianco can contribute up to 50% of the blend. The typical style is dry, with red fruit aromas from the Pinot and good texture and elegance from the Chardonnay.

The Bellavista stand at the EWBC tasting

There are a number of parallels to be drawn to Champagne, and the idea of opulence and grandeur is definitely something the Franciacortans seek to emulate. Immaculately uniformed staff greeted us at every table of the EWBC Franciacorta tasting, and the bottle labels and marketing leaflets abound with classic styling. Most of the 37 Franciacorta producers exhibiting at the EWBC tasting were showcasing a brut, and the Saten (“silk”) style specific to the region. Saten is a chardonnay-dominated, creamy, soft-textured wine with fine mousse and restrained perlage.

The Franciacorta DOCG regulations seem to almost deliberately trump those of areas like Champagne and Cava in a number of areas, and maturation time on the lees (dead yeast cells) is one of them. The average non-vintage champagne is only required to spend 15 months on the lees, but here 36 to 48 months is quite common  – and indeed 24 months is the minimum permitted under the complex DOCG rules. Vintage Franciacortas (“Millesimato” or “Reserva”) are also popular, and have even more stringent requirements from the DOCG (Reservas must spend 60 months on their lees, and a further 7 in bottle before being released to market).

Two bottles of Majolini

Those handsome Majolini sparklers

Standards are high in Franciacorta – yields are kept low and most producers are small and quality-focused. However, trying to differentiate one wine from another isn’t easy. For me, most interest lay in the blends which included Pinot Bianco. This can add elegance, a hint of vanilla spice and a wonderful mineral finish to the bubbles – something which is quite distinctive, unlike the competent but sometimes amorphous champagne-style blends. Other points of interest were those producers showing “pas dosé” wines (ie: with no added sugar, or dosage, after the second fermentation) which allowed a much more interesting character to emerge from the Chardonnay. Majolini stood out, with a 100% Chardonnay Ultra brut (4gr dosage) which approached the austerity and steeliness of a premier cru Chablis – but with bubbles. Of course, the fruit here is much riper, with an attractive floral and green apple character. This relatively lean style relies on that ripeness, and might well produce something akin to battery acid if attempted in the cooler Champagne climate.

Other producers who impressed were Ca’ Del Bosco, with the complex, savoury brut reserva 2003 (“Annamaria Clementi”), and Fratelli Berlucchi with a refined, fresh and mineral Pas Dosé . Brut Rosé is another popular style in the region, with most examples emphasising the raspberry/strawberry fruit character from Pinot Nero and attaining a very pale salmon pink hue from minimal skin contact. Solive’s Rosé, 100% Pinot Nero, is worth mentioning for its notable fruit purity and finesse.

There’s no doubt that Franciacorta has what it takes to become one of the world’s leading sparkling wine regions. Consistency here seems greater than in Cava, and ambitions are definitely some way ahead of most Prosecco producers. But the issue is defining character – what can Franciacorta offer that isn’t already available from a good independent champagne house, or even a Cremant de Bourgogne? These are, after all, not cheap wines. The answer, I think, is to emphasise the exoticism and refinement that Pinot Bianco adds, and to take advantage of the excellent ripening conditions to explore a greater range of drier styles.

Slovenia-les-Beaune?

Tilia estate viparska dolina 2008

A modernist label for an excellent and quite traditional wine

Wine labels can tell you a lot about what’s in the bottle – and by that, I don’t mean alcohol percentages or the grape variety. The visual style of the label often drops a few clues about the target market, the aspirations of the wine maker and even the price point. Budget new world wines often favour bright, bold packaging to signpost bright, bold wines – while pricey classed growth claret or Burgundy tend to feature suitably aristocratic design motifs.

Take a look at the label on the right – to me, this says “modern”, “accessible”, “youthful” and probably somewhere in the mid-budget range. The Tilia Estate Vipavska Dolina 2008 is a Pinot Noir from Slovenia. Not having prior expectations of what that might involve stylistically, I made these initial assumptions before even pulling the cork. However, the liquid inside the bottle confounded almost all of them.

The attractive pale ruby colour, and a slightly stinky nose (in the best possible Pinot manner) transported me straight to Burgundy. Aromas of sweet, ripe red fruits and sandalwood recall the best examples of Savigny-les-Beaune. The palate is surprisingly dry  – certainly not overripe or jammy, indeed it just radiates class. There’s plenty of structure to the Vipavska Dolina, but those tannins are fine-grained and silky smooth. In fact, this is one of the most refined and “classic” expressions of Pinot that I’ve had the pleasure of sampling, outside Burgundy itself. But, to merely compare the Tilia Estate Pinot with its Burgundian cousins would be to miss the point – the ripeness of the fruit, and an appealing vanilla note are important points of difference that add real character.

There’s no need to wait to enjoy this wine, but I bet it will continue to evolve over the next 12-24 months. If you want to test that theory and lay some down, Naked Wines seems to have an exclusive on it at the moment. I surely don’t need to sing their praises again, but I will say that I have had very few (if any) duds from their range over the last six months.