28 July 2008

Boca, resurrected

[logo]Christoph Künzli of Le Piane doesn’t sound like an Italian winemaker. In one sense, he isn’t – he’s from Switzerland – but in the more important sense, he is. Some forty minutes north of Milan’s Malpensa airport, Künzli makes wines from an appellation only the most dedicated oenophiles have heard of (Colline Novaresi), and one that’s even less-known to anyone who doesn’t live there: Boca.

No, it’s not a retirement community in Florida.

One among a string of nearly-forgotten appellations along the northern limits of Piedmontese viticulture (the best-known of which – barely – is Gattinara, but that also includes Lessona and Bramaterra), Boca is a nebbiolo-dominated area that was both famous and one of Italy’s largest in the 19th century, but has since fallen into oblivion as the region’s workers left wine for the factories of Torino.

A chance meeting with an old local winemaker led to Künzli taking over an acre of land, which took three years to work into shape (machines doesn’t work on Boca’s difficult terrain, and many of Künzli’s older vineyards are still planted with the maggiorina training method, making hand-harvesting a necessity). Since then, other plots have been added. Some are old vineyards in need of similar resurrection, while others are new plantings on old, abandoned sites. In the end, around fifty plots (many of them small) were sold, and now form the core of Le Piane’s vineyards, though many of them are quite a few years from being able to supply grapes.

The soil is volcanic rock, over which there’s a layer of gravel, and while the subsoils abound with the sort of complex minerals that vines love, there’s no chalk (which is common elsewhere in the Piedmont, especially where nebbiolo is grown).

Commercial yeasts are used for the Colline Novaresi wines (“vespolina goes volatile with indigenous yeasts,” insists Künzli).

Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi “la maggiorina” (Piedmont) – Old vines, 50% nebbiolo, 35% croatina, uva rara, and vespolina, in stainless steel. Mineral-driven to such an extent that I feel like I’m drinking a red riesling. Very dry. Full of dark fruit dust and tart acidity. Very masculine and hard, with a long finish. A striking wine. (3/08)

Le Piane 2003 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – From 100-year old pre-phylloxera vines, and a blend of 70% croatina and 30% nebbiolo. Lush orange blossom and stone fruit, balanced except for the vintage’s signature tannin, but dried out on the finish by that same tannin. (3/08)

Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – Showing (or perhaps revealing) more dirt than the 2003, with a little bit of well-ridden horse, but not what anyone but the most averse would call bretty; the overall impression is more like that of iron-rich blood. Very interesting floral aromatics, with great balance and a longer finish finely delineated by acidity. Very promising. (3/08)

[bottles]Le Piane’s Boca wines are around 85% nebbiolo and 15% vespolina, grown between 1200 and 1500 feet (the highest nebbiolo vines in the already altitudinous Piedmont). Yeasts are indigenous, though why the volatility noted in the Colline Novaresi wines doesn’t affect the vespolina in Boca goes unexplained. Thirty days of skin maceration in open tanks, with hand punchdowns, are followed by three years in Slavonian oak (none of it new), then another eight months in bottle.

There are nine parcels under production in Boca, mostly young vines, with another ten acres on the way. Vines are propagated by a mixture of massale, selection from Künzli’s own vineyards, and some clones from the university. Künzli is hesitant about some of the older clones from his oldest vineyards (though he does get some older material from Valtellina), believing that his new vine material is superior, meaning that it’s “the qualitative equivalent” to the old vines despite a lack of maturity.

Le Piane 2000 Boca (Piedmont) – Beautifully aromatic, with flowers (rose-dominated) and a pretty finish. Just starting to soften, but there’s plenty of life ahead. (3/08)

Le Piane 2001 Boca (Piedmont) – Tighter than the 2000, with its floral aspects glimpsed through the gauze of a semi-closed stage. Tart cherries and massive minerality form the foundation and core of this wine, with graphite-textured tannin. Really terrific, and promising many, many years until maturity. (3/08)

Le Piane 2003 Boca (Piedmont) – The fruit of the ’00 and ’01 takes on a sweeter, more strawberry-like character here, with big tannin and a dense, somewhat shortened finish. I don’t think this will live up to the promise of more balanced vintages, but it might have an earlier appeal. (3/08)

For now, Künzli is pretty much a one-man show in Boca, at least in terms of non-local attention, though he expects this to change in the future. Though the vineyards employed by Sella (in Lessona and Bramaterra) never fell so out of favor as those of Boca, the projects strike me as having some similarities: one dedicated producer out to rebuild the reputation of forgotten land on the strength of their unique expressions of some of the world’s most aromatically and structurally fascinating grapes.

The wines are represented by Adonna Imports of Waltham, Massachusetts. Prices range from the low teens for “la maggiorina,” to around $40 for the Colline Novaresi and $50+ for the Boca.

Disclosure: wines provided by producer and importer, some food provided by importer (who also owns the restaurant in which this tasting occurred).

21 July 2008

Doux date

[vineyard]North of Bize-Minervois, the rocks scattered throughout the seemingly endless vineyards that carpet this region turn white, glinting in the relentless downpour of the southern French sun. This, according to oenophile cartography, is where Minervois turns into St-Jean-de-Minervois, and the deep, powerful reds of the former become the perfumed, rich, muscats of the latter.

Continued here, and including a tasting at Domaine de Barroubio.

19 July 2008

Olive me

[mapua bay sunset]The Nelson area has a lot of eateries, including one frequently-lauded establishment a few steps from our front door. But the locals I’d consulted had arrived at near-universal agreement: Flax (Mapua Wharf, Mapua) is the best of the bunch. And so, we choose it for our final restaurant meal in New Zealand.

Some choices one might like back.

…continued here.

09 July 2008

Screw it

[cork]In some quarters, the long-running closure debate rages on. It shouldn’t. It’s almost over.

How can I make this claim? Do I have access to some new research that no one else has seen? No. Here’s the deal: the screwcap is almost universally acknowledged to work flawlessly (or very, very nearly so) over the short term. Most wine is produced for, and consumed in, the short term. Thus, there is no logical reason for any wine made for near-term consumption to be closed with anything but a screwcap. The only resistance remains adherence to tradition (though this must include the wonderful “tradition” of a taint rate that runs between 2 and 8%, depending on the sample) and fear of the market, especially in Europe. Both understandable reasons, despite the science, but the tide is turning even on Old World shores, and more and more short-term wines are being shipped under screwcap, especially for export markets.

Thus, the entirety of the unanswered question rests on the shoulders of long-aging wines. And here, one can forgive any producer for being confused. There’s an ever-growing body of evidence (most of it from Australia, though that’s changing) that white wines age beautifully under screwcap. And, in fact, where one sees adoption of the technology in the Old World, it’s mostly for longer-aging whites: rieslings, white Burgundies, etc. (One wonders if the market-killing premature-oxidation problem among white Burgundies might be solved in a stroke by the adoption of a different closure. It certainly couldn’t hurt, at this point.) For red wines, the anecdotal evidence is thinner, and certainly more long-term studies would be extremely valuable.

But there’s also a pair of unanswered questions: how much oxygen does a wine need to age, and when does it need it? (It’s useful to define our term here: “age” would, to most people, mean “age in a way similar to that of the best cork-finished wines to which we’re accustomed.” If screwcaps allow 10-year wines to go 40 years before they achieve a similar end-state, that’s to the credit of the closure, but less useful to the consumer without a multi-generational cellar from which to draw.) The problem for winemakers is that the research on this point is cloudy and contradictory.

It has long been believed, by some, that corks allow a gradual transfer of oxygen. “Not so,” said cork manufacturers in the past, when they wanted to assure people of the efficacy of their products despite persistently unmanageable cork taint. And “not so,” said the inventors of synthetic corks, who – after research – determined that the “perfect” seal was what they wanted to emulate (though it’s worth noting that all synthetic corks fail over the short- or medium-term, breaking their seal and allowing oxygen to enter the bottle). More recently, a groundbreaking Australian study came up with an answer of “not exactly,” demonstrating that while some corks did indeed prevent the transfer of oxygen, others allowed it at greatly varying rates. And most recently, a study in Bordeaux found that corks do allow oxygen ingress, at a much less variable rate than found in the Australian study.

The Bordeaux study was funded by a cork producer, and thus its conclusions need to be viewed with mistrust until verified by independent study. The safe conclusion is that there’s no actual conclusion, as yet, from the research. But I think we can do better than that by simple thought experiments, while we wait for the research to achieve surety.

We absolutely know one thing about oxygen: a lot of it is very bad for a wine. Open a bottle, pour half of it into a wide-bottomed decanter, and let it sit. How does it taste after a day? A week? A year? Twenty years? That’s a bottled wine in the presence of a lot of oxygen.

And we know one more thing about oxygen: very little of it does very little. “Do you want to open the bottle and let it breathe?” is, as most wine folk know, a useless question: the dime-shaped portion of wine exposed to air in the neck of an uncorked bottle does nothing to change the wine in the times usually under consideration. This is why young wines are sometimes decanted: to accelerate the effect of oxygenation.

Or consider old bottles. Which are, at auction, the most valuable, controlling for vintage, producer, and cellaring conditions? The ones with the least ullage (the space between the bottom of the cork and the top of the wine). It is believed, and supported by nearly all the tasting evidence available to us over the decades, that low-ullage bottles (that is, those that are closest to their original fill) are the best-preserved; there are occasional exceptions, but they’re rare. High-end producers, though not with closures on their mind, support this notion during their periodic forays into bottle reconditioning, wherein an old wine is quickly uncorked, refilled with a quantity of that wine from their cellar or other bottles of the same wine (or, in some cases, a younger wine), and then sealed with a fresh cork. What purpose to this practice other than to reduce the nefarious influence of excess oxygen, and to replace a closure with a high rate of physical failure before that failure becomes catastrophic?

Moreover, if there’s ullage in a bottle, then something is getting out. And not just oxygen. This is physical evidence that some corks are massively permeable (or allow transfer between their surface and the interior of the bottle; an important difference if you’re a cork producer, but a completely unimportant difference if you’re the producer or owner of the bottle in question; either way, the closure has failed to preserve the wine).

[disassembled screwcap]So we know a lot of oxygen is bad, and a tiny bit of oxygen is meaningless over the short term. The questions, then, are: what about a tiny bit of oxygen over the long term, and what about no oxygen at all?

Some wine chemists have long argued that aging is an anaerobic process, that wine doesn’t need oxygen to do most of what it’s going to do. Newer thinking on this question is a little less certain, and suggests that the tiny amount of oxygen trapped in three places: 1) the wine, post-bottling, 2) the headspace (the gap between the wine and the bottom of the closure) [edit: it's worth noting that this oxygen is usually forced out; a process known as sparging], and 3) the cells of the cork itself, might be all the oxygen a wine needs to age. In practice, steps are taken to remove much of this oxygen in question at bottling, but some remains. However, if the cork is shedding oxygen into the bottle, then a cork really doesn’t provide a barrier against oxygen; if oxygen can move across (say) 35% percent of the cork, what’s to stop it from moving across 100% of the cork, other than the vagaries of the cork’s cellular structure? (I don’t want to dismiss this last point too easily. Cork is from a tree, not a lab, and as such will always exhibit variation; the “natural” quality touted by producers is also the principal source of its physical variability.)

But what about no oxygen at all? Can wine age in a hermetically-sealed container? How about one in which an amount of oxygen similar to that of a cork-finished wine is provided? We just don’t know yet, but early evidence suggests not. We do have some evidence that closures that permit absolutely no oxygen transfer (screwcaps with certain types of liners, for example) can lead to reductive wines, the eventual fate of which we don’t yet know. This problem seems to be preventable by changing a few minor aspects of bottling chemistry (that is to say…and with no little irony…modifying techniques that were designed to protect a newly-bottled wine from the effects of excess oxygen). But this can happen to cork-finished wines as well, and that it doesn’t do so 100% of the time is yet more evidence that corks are variable in their ability to move oxygen around.

We also know that, despite the claims of the Bordeaux study, corks can vary a lot in their ability to let stuff in and out, based again on the evidence of variable ullage in old bottles. Whether or not that study was funded by cork producers and tainted (no pun intended) as a result, the simple fact of the matter is that it only covered three, not thirty or more, years of aging. Minor variations in oxygen transfer can and, sometimes, do become major ones over long periods of time. And as I’ve already noted, the effectiveness and qualitative supremacy of screwcaps over the short term is well-established, so it’s really only these long-aging wines about which we’re currently concerned.

So if we don’t know, but suspect, that an absence of oxygen is no good, at least we do know that as little oxygen as possible seems to be ideal…based, as noted before, on the ullage in old bottles. The choice before us is this: a little oxygen at bottling plus a little oxygen over a long period, or a little oxygen at bottling plus no oxygen at all over a long period.

Given this, isn’t the only question the one asked earlier? How much oxygen does a wine need to age, and when does it need it? Once this is known, and given the continued existence of both cork taint and physical cork failure and/or variability, what reason – other than tradition and fear – is there to continue to use “natural” cork? For – and this is a major point – screwcap liners can be selected for permeability. Once we know “the number” (which may be different for different types of wine), we can tailor closures for that result; something that we’re unlikely to be able to do with corks, unless they cease to be a natural product.

There’s no blame to be assigned to a winery who wants to wait for the evidence before making a switch. Were I making a pricey wine with a reputation to preserve, I’d probably do the same, despite the large number of New World producer’s who’ve made the change already, and are betting their futures on the screwcap. But the evidence will eventually come, despite a several-decade interim period…a period in which we will continue to suffer cork taint, physical cork failure, and cork variability. At some point, this question will be decided, and the screwcap – though by that stage it could just as easily be another alternative closure with similar properties – will emerge the scientific victor.

Cork & screwcap photos used under the terms of a Wikimedia Commons license.

06 July 2008

Fanfare for the Cormòns man

[prosecco vines]There’s a woman at the front desk. She looks surprised to see me. Very surprised. She doesn’t speak any English, so I proceed in my halting Italian. It turns out that my reservation is complete mystery to her. I produce a confirmation email. She stares at it, no doubt convinced it must be fake, or that some detail must be wrong. Except that her name is at the bottom of the email, which makes denying its existence or accuracy somewhat difficult. As the silence lengthens, I begin to have one of those classic traveler stress experiences, in which the possibility of being without lodging starts to sink in. Given the complete lack of other apparent guests, I wouldn’t normally worry…except that strewn across the counter are pamphlets for what appears to be a very major jazz festival. Said festival is this week, and the hotel appears to be the place where all the bands are staying.

The woman disappears into a back office, apparently checking her computer for electronic evidence that I haven’t faked this email, perhaps in concert with Slovenian border guards or something. Then she returns for what must be her tenth fruitless scan of the reservation book. Finally, I can’t take the silence anymore. In Italian: “do you have a room for me or not?”

…continued here.