Saving Prosecco – One man, one wine, one vision

September 2, 2014 1 comment

I’m climbing the stairs into the granary, the hand-cut stone building housing the major portion of winemaker Alois Lageder’s Renaissance complex in the Alto Adige hamlet of Magré.

Once I’ve reached the doorway, the first stop is to visit Primo Franco.

It was Day One of Summa 2014, the two-day tasting event last April hosted by Lageder that serves as a well-focused run-up to VinItaly.

This year Summa celebrated its 15th anniversary of featuring several hundred select wineries from around the world and as expected, the maze of rooms and floors are filled with winemakers of every ilk.

But for now, it’s Primo Franco I’m here to see.

Or more rightly, it’s his Prosecco, which Franco has elevated to levels previously unseen in Italian wines.

There are other great Prosecco makers – I immediately think of Bortolomiol, Drusian, Bisol, Bonotto and others who deserve mention – but today it’s Primo Franco I want to visit.

Primo Franco at Summa 2009, with his wife AnnaLisa and daughter Silvia, and a selection of their Prosecco.

Primo Franco with his wife AnnaLisa and daughter Silvia and a selection of their Prosecco.

I met Primo, his wife AnnaLisa and daughter Silvia at Summa 2008 and after missing a few years didn’t expect them to remember me. But Primo, either a very good diplomat or simply very accomodating, greeted me as if he recognized me and immediately shared his wine and his immense insights into the World of Prosecco.

I’m certainly not the first to write of Primo Franco – thanks to recent posts by Susannah, Alfonso, DoBianchi and Charles Scicolone – so anything I can tell you about the Franco family history and winemaking, and the struggle to retain Prosecco’s integrity and identity, is repeat news.

I tasted through his wines, including the Nino Franco Brut (named for his father), the Vigneto della Ria di San Floriano and the Primo Franco and was impressed by them all – bright, fruitful, satisfying wines that sit light on the palate.

I especially liked the Cartizze Superiore, produced from the tiny vineyards in the vertiginous hills of the exclusive Cartizze DOCG hills of Valdobbiadene, where land prices are as steep as the topography.

The Cartizze was more restrained than the other wines, a symphony of green apple, honey and lemon, underscored by the brilliant minerality character of fine Prosecco.

Primo didn’t have much time to chat – this year’s Summa was popular and busy – but he talked briefly about the struggle to retain the purity of Prosecco at a time when nearly everywhere, even Brasil, claims to produce a Prosecco.

The new regulations adopted in 2009 focused the Prosecco DOCG in and around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene and established a penumbra of nine Treviso provinces that would become DOC.

The precipitous hills of the Cartizze DOCG, with Valdobiaddene far below.

The precipitous hills of the Cartizze DOCG, with Valdobiaddene far below.

All the rest, that ocean of lesser sparkling wine taking advantage of the work, the heritage and dedication of such people as Primo Franco, would now be called Glera, after the grape, and all would be IGT.

The laws, Franco said as he eyed the small crowd building behind me, would preserve Prosecco’s identify and integrity.

“People will know that Prosecco, true Prosecco, comes only from” the DOCG/DOC zone, he said. “I owe it to my family, to my history, to the people who live in the (Prosecco) hills and work the land like their fathers did.”

He inclined his head toward Silvia, who seems quite capable of filling some very big shoes. “How could I not?”

He turned to another visitor and I moved on.

Categories: Uncategorized

Hands off: The role of whole-cluster fermentation

August 23, 2014 1 comment

Clusters of pinot noir await harvest. Winemakers using whole-berry fermentation without de-stemming the clusters must wait until the stems are ripe or risk getting unwanted flavors in their wine.

Clusters of pinot noir await harvest. Winemakers using whole-berry fermentation without de-stemming the clusters must wait until the stems are ripe or risk getting unwanted flavors in their wine.

A final note in our discussions of natural wines. One way of pursuing hands-off wine-making is through whole-cluster fermentation, also known as carbonic maceration.

In traditional methods, red winemaking begins with the separation of the berries from the stems, either by hand or mechanically.

The stems are removed since stems have a high tannin content (tannins also come from the skin and the seeds) and when unripe, stems can give the wine a green bell pepper or vegetative flavors.

But whole-berry fermentation entails putting entire clusters of unpressed grapes into the fermentation vessel and allowing the naturally occurring yeasts to ferment inside the whole berries.

The weight of the grapes on top crushes the bottom layers and those go through conventional fermentation (a good explanation here).

The technique certainly isn’t new and is even considered a bit rustic although it’s become more popular recently among makes of Pinot Noir an certain other varieties.

Grape producers have long known that if you store whole grapes in closed container, the weight of the upper grapes crushes the lower grapes and ambient yeasts acting on the juice at the bottom makes wine.

In its simplest form, the resulting wine is fruity with very low tannins, since the tannins are not released by the torture of a mechanical crusher.

These fruity, low-tannin wines can be ready for drinking shortly after fermentation (Beaujolais Nouveau usually hits the market less than six weeks after picking) but aren’t made for long-term aging, which requires tannins to help with the wine’s maturation.

According to winemaker Michael Browne of Kosta Browne Winery in San Sebastopol, Cal., trusting the intrinsic variables of whole-cluster fermentation is “a bit of a wild card depending on site and vintage.”

“When it works, it affects aromatics and flavors, sometimes in an earthy sense, sometimes in a vegetative sense, and sometimes in both way,” Browne said.

Which means – like the little girl with the little curl – when it’s good it’s lovely but when it’s not it can be an unwelcome handful.

“Some of the aromas and flavors I see are clean earth, green tobacco, unlit cigar tobacco, black or white pepper and snap peas,” waxed Browne. “Sometimes even cologne or agave. I tend not to like the snap pea or green profiles.”

San Francisco writer Jordan Mackay, in a post on a discussion about pros and cons of fermenting whole clusters of pinot noir (a varietal particularly favored for this technique), quoted the iconoclastic Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, Cal. as saying, “Stems mature into earth, leaves, forest floor, everything we love about pinot noir.”

Another Pinot Noir maker, Ehren Jordan of Failla (Sonoma Coast), described whole-cluster fermented wine as “a closed fist.”

With wines that were made only from whole berries “you see it all,” said Jordan. “With whole cluster there is more potential.”

And Jamie Kutch of Kutch Wines in Sonoma, Cal., a long-time advocate of stem inclusion, told Mackay the stems add an important texture not found in stemless fermentation.

“There are compounds found in stems that you don’t find in the fruit and seeds,” said Kutch.

Writer Jamie Goode on his site reported Jeremy Seysses at Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac uses between 65 percent and 100 percent whole cluster fermentations depending on the blend.

“We have the feeling that we get greater complexity and silkier tannins with whole cluster fermentation,” Seysses told Goode. “In high acid vintages, it helps round things out, and in high ripeness vintages, it brings a freshness to the wines.”

But because the final results are so variable, many winemakers echo Micheal Browne’s concerns about herbaceous flavors from adding the stems.

This is especially so if the stems are damaged and somehow their green tannins get into the wines.

On the other hand, if the stems are mature and the clusters are never crushed, pumped or damaged in any way to avoid the release of juice from the stems into the wine, the resulting wine can be enhanced by whole cluster inclusion.

In the same article noted above, Australian winemaker Tom Carson of Yabby Lake told Goode that he hasn’t yet decided on his use of whole bunches, his comments reflective of one of the choices winemakers face when deciding on their personal wine-making philosophy.

“I am still experimenting, and I’m reluctant to go in too hard,” Carson said. “When it’s good, whole bunch fermentation gives fragrance and perfume, and adds a bit of strength and firmness to the tannins. But when it’s not good it can dull the fruit, adding mulch and compost character.”


Categories: Uncategorized

Rising to the occasion: A yeast bug in your wine


With the right yeast, and enough of it to complete fermentation, someday there will be a finished wine in these barrels.

With the right yeast, and enough of it to complete fermentation, someday there will be a finished wine in these barrels.

For most wine drinkers, the role of yeast in winemaking can be whittled down to the basics of fermentation: yeast eats the sugars in the grape juice and gives off ethanol alcohol, which is safe to consume in moderate amounts.

‘Nough said, open that bottle.

Last week, when discussing what are called “natural” wines, it was mentioned that some winemakers, in their desire not to add anything to the finished product, depend on naturally occurring yeasts on the grapes or in the winery to ferment their grapes.

Ripe grapes and other fruit have natural yeasts on their skin and as long as the skin isnt broken, fermentation doesn’t happen.

Crushing the grapes at the winery releases the juice, which the yeast eats and fermentation begins. Some anti-additive winemakers seek spontaneous fermentation by simply piling whole berries in the fermentation tank, where the weight of the upper layers squeeze the lower ones.


All ripe grapes have natural yeast on them; the only question is if it's enough to complete fermentation.

All ripe grapes have natural yeast on them; the only question is if it’s enough to complete fermentation.

They are betting there are enough yeasts either on the grapes or in the winery to take the juice all the way to the preferred level of dryness (a wine is completely dry when all the sugar has been converted to alcohol).

There are problems with that, said Stephen Menke, state enologist from Colorado State University and the Orchard Mesa Research Center, because not all yeasts are equal in their ability to start and complete a fermentation.

Menke said many native (or indigenous) yeasts are affected even by small amounts of the alcohol they produce and die before fermentation is finished.

If the yeasts die before all the sugar is consumed to the desired level of dryness, you get what’s called a “stuck” fermentation.

What we call indigenous yeast bacteria are not very alcohol tolerant and may be involved in the earlier part of the fermentation process but not finish it,” Menke said.

As Menke noted, there are reasons other than alcohol levels for a stuck fermentation, including a lack of nitrogen or powdery mildew or even a killer yeast that takes over from the natural bugs but then topples.

If there is enough of the right yeast in the vats or winery to take over, you’re in luck. Many older wineries in Europe, where equipment has been used for generations, can be havens of yeast bugs, and have so much yeast on the walls and in the tanks there rarely are problems with stuck fermentations (that also contributes to a consistency in flavors but that’s for next time).

Not so in the high desert of western Colorado and elsewhere where generally low humidity and relatively new (and clean) equipment don’t foster microbial growth.

But when fermentations stick, winemakers have an ace in the hole.

That ace is our (mostly) alcohol-tolerant and fermentation resistant yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

Archeologists tell us winemakers in Armenia and China may have relied on naturally occurring Saccharomyces cerevisiae at least 6,000 years ago because it has the key attributes needed for fermentation–a tolerance to high sugar, elevated acidity and high alcohol levels.

Writer, wine blogger and scientist Erika Syzmanski, in a March 10, 2013 post on the online wine magazine Palate Press, said, “This is part of why ‘natural wine’ and ‘wild fermentation’ are slippery terms. (W)inemaking practices have been influencing yeast survival for millennia. No yeast that finds its way into a winemaker’s vat, in this age, has been untouched by human domestication.”

Syzmanksi also points out Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the only yeast to be named a state microbe.

Winemakers today have hundreds of commercial Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast options, most of them developed by a lab or a company to achieve specific results in the finished wine.

Finding the right yeast is a step toward finding that elusive balance in flavor and texture, Menke said.

That dynamic balance is very hard to control, it’s always changing, “ he said. “That’s why people play around with blending different grapes or experiment in using different types of oak or how much oak, and the kind of yeast they use.”

Categories: Uncategorized

When the topic of ‘natural’ turns to wine

Iconoclastic Slovenian winemaker Ales Kristancic of Movia is an innovative winemaker renowned for his visionary techniques, which include long aging, no additives and no manipulation.

Iconoclastic Slovenian winemaker Ales Kristancic of Movia is an innovative winemaker renowned for his visionary techniques, which include long aging, no additives and no manipulation.

I was breaking down some boxes for recycle when the lettering on one caught my eye.
“Natural wine,” it read. “No sulfites.”
An interesting claim, if true.
First because the federal government, which regulates winemaking and labeling, has no official definition of a “natural” wine, although many people would like to make and drink them; and second, because you can’t make a wine without sulfites.
You can make a wine without adding sulfites, which is what makers of “natural wines” and organic/biodynamic wines claim to do, but sulfites occur naturally in grapes, so at best what you can have is a low-sulfite wine.
I’m not a winemaker, nor am I a chemist or scientist, but I am a wine drinker and like most wine drinkers I have an interest in what I put in my glass and my body.
I’ve heard the claims about natural wines and also the complaints about so-called red wine headaches, which many people attribute to sulfites.
Probably not true, unless these people are among the 2 percent or less of Americans with a true allergy to sulfites, which occur not only in grapes (white wines often have more sulfites than red wines) but in many fruits and vegetables.
Do you also get an apricot headache?
More likely, according to recent research, a headache is a reaction to the histamines, also naturally occurring, in grapes.
Take an antihistamine before you drink a red wine and see if that helps your headache.
Sulfur/sulfites is a preservative, helping to keep fruit fresh and prevent oxidation.
Take a bit out of an apple, stick the apple on the counter and come back in an hour.
It’s brown, it’s oxidized. And probably doesn’t taste quite as good.
Sulfites, which are a natural byproduct of fermentation, help keep wines from oxidizing, retaining the fruit and helping the wine age (tannins and acids also aid in aging gracefully, at least for wines).
The government requires winemakers (and other food manufacturers and processors) to label their wines “sulfites added” when sulfites exceed 10 parts per million, which is about the upper level you’ll get without adding sulfites.
Small amounts of sulfites are generated by the yeasts used in making wine, but more sulfites usually are added as a preservative — more in white wine than red, because the reds’ tannins help to preserve them.
Sometimes a lot of sulfur is added – the government allows up to 350 ppm sulfites.
One of the complaints about “natural” wines, those with fewer than 10 ppm sulfites, is their short shelf life, which sulfites extend, and the rapid disappearance of the fruity flavors of the wine.
Natural wines tend to be drunk young, very young, within a day or so of opening and within a year or so of bottling.
The difference between organic wines and natural wines is what happens once the grapes reach the winery.
“Because you are an organic winemaker does not mean you are a ‘natural’ winemaker,” Paul Grieco said last month during his seminar on natural wines at the 2014 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. “Being a natural winemaker means what happens when we get into the winery.
“You think wine is just grapes? Well, it ain’t just grapes.”
It may be chemicals, colorings, yeast, egg whites, diatomaceous earth, flavors, a witch’s brew of thing other than grapes.
Organic wines have to be made from organically (or biodynamically) raised and processed grapes.
Natural wines tend to be made from organic or bio grapes but not always, and again, it’s what happens in the winery (where the sulfite, the yeasts for fermentation and other chemicals may be added, at any of various stages of conventional winemaking) that decides if a wine is “natural” or not.
“Here is what I, and it’s just me talking, think a ‘natural’ wine should be,” said Grieco, owner of the Hearth Restaurant and Terroir chain of wine bars in New York and who last year was named the second-most influential wine person in New York City, behind Eric Asimov, wine columnist for the New York Times. “The fruit in the vineyard should be at least organic, the harvest must be manual to give you pristine fruit, only indigenous yeast – that occurring on the grapes or in the winery – can be used, no cultured yeast at all, no fancy equipment is used in the winery, no flash pasteurization, no reverse osmosis or all the other (stuff) that’s going on.
“And nothing is added, maybe (allow a threshold of) up to 30 parts per million sulfur, and finally it’s bottled unfined and unfiltered.”
It’s not impossible, but it isn’t easy.

Categories: Uncategorized

Taking one for the (Riesling) team at the Food & Wine Classic

ASPEN – I’m not sure John and Jan Stenmark traveled from Jackson,, Miss., to the 2014 Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen to get a Riesling tattoo, but that’s how their second day at the Classic began.
Sitting quietly, waiting for Paul Grieco of Hearth and Terroir restaurants in New York to begin his seminar on Rieslings, and before they could react, there was Grieco with a devilish grin, wet towel and handful of stick-on tattoos.
“We sure don’t have anything like this back home,” said John, a self-described “retired but not retiring” fan of Riesling and the F&W Classic. But a listener wasn’t sure if his remark referred to Grieco’s unexpected offer or just the F&W Classic in general.
Jan looked at the bold black letters running up her right forearm and smiled. a bit weak, perhaps, but still a smile.
“Do you think it will come off?” she asked quietly, and mentioned something about grandchildren seeing her come home with a tattoo.
Such was Day 2 of this year’s Aspen Classic, a day in which Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder assured his audience that in the world of winemaking, “Nature always bats last”; wine writer Ray Isle offered his audience the chance to blind-taste wines of different prices and ponder, “Why do we pay what we pay for wine?” and Mark Oldman helped answer Isle’s question by hosting a seminar titled “Wines for IPO Millionaires,” which featured a 2004 Dom Perignon Champagne and an 1872 Madeira.
And that was just part of the wine segment; there was an whole ‘nother world of food seminars and cooking demos.
In one of the cooking tents, chefs John Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal restaurant in Los Angeles defended the use of foie gras in their seminar “You want me to Eat What? Nose-to-Tail Meets Uncharted Waters.”
“We believe in foie gras,” said Shook of the controversial dish made from the liver of specially fattened ducks or geese.
And nearby, cheese expert Lauren Werlin was pairing her favorite cheese with sparkling wines while in the cooking tent cookbook author and Chef Micheal Chiarello was sharing his “Meatball Master Class.”
It was another busy day at the Classic, which winds up Sunday with the ever-popular Classic Cook-off, more seminars and the always entertaining Grand Cochon finals, the culmination of a 10-city tour where local chefs are tasked with using as much as possible from an entire Heritage Hog.
No day at the Food & Wine Classic is a typical day, for there always are new wines, new foods and even new tattoos to keep you entertained and exhausted.


Categories: Uncategorized

Summer Camp for Foodies – Day One at 2014 Food & Wine Classic

It’s Day One of the 2014 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the start of the annual Summer Camp for Foodies.
Just like the summer camp you remember, this weekend is the time you greet friends from years past and make new friends for the future years. You won’t spend much time at this camp doing arts and crafts, unless trying new wines and sampling the best of the F&W’s Best New Chefs will count.

What a way to start the 2014 Food&Wine Classic in Aspen: A party at Casa José, where you were served "Tacos José"of Fermin jamon and Beluga caviar.

What a way to start the 2014 Food&Wine Classic in Aspen: A party at Casa José, where you were served “Tacos José”of Fermin jamon and Beluga caviar.

Everyone rolled into town yesterday (Thursday), and it seemed as if all 5,000 of the expected attendees spent the evening at Casa Jose Andres,where the renowned Spanish chef holds his annual barbecue and wine tasting.
But to call it a ‘barbecue’ isn’t quite enough, since there are whole pigs roasting over open fires, wines red and white from every region of Spain and seemingly every chef in Andres’ international chain of restaurants serving such delights as Tacos Jose, a deceptive name for tapas which are nothing less than thin-sliced Fermin jamon wrapped around Beluga caviar.
The setting alone, an immense, stone-and-wood private home just off Brush Creek near Snowmass Ski Resort, was enough to wow the guests, and by the time the limousines were lined up for the ride home, there was a giddiness in the air even the finest Spanish wines couldn’t match.
The seminars, Grand Tastings and cooking demos begin today, with another round of invite-only events tonight and well into the morning.
It’s a hilarious, invigorating and body- and soul-inspiring weekend. All that and the chance of hangover or two.
Let’s get started.

Categories: Aspen Food & Wine

Testing the waters in northern Italy


Falzarego Pass in the province of Belluno in north Italy connects Andráz and Cortina d’Ampezzo and is characteristic of the high mountain birthplace of Italy’s crystalline spring water.

It’s the water.
Readers of a certain age will recall a famous beer commercial with those words extolling a then-popular malted beverage.
The theory being, of course, that having a superior water source somehow made for a superior beer.
I’m not sure how that works, since I never tasted the water at its source (although I had some limited experience with the final product).
However, I can attest that drinking water without chemical additives for purification, without high levels of distorting minerals or the teeth-numbing metallicity that comes from running through rusty pipes, can be a mind-opening experience.
Most Americans (by which I mean in the U.S.) drink plain tap water, of which in most cases there is nothing wrong. You can even get charged for tap water in some “gougé” restaurants, but that’s your fault.
 Other countries, however, more often drink bottled water, either by choice or necessity. I asked a friend, a lovely chef from Parma, why Italians predominately drink bottled water even when the tap water is safe (except on trains).

The ever-flowing spring at Alois Lageder's Cassón Hirschprunn in Margé, Italy.

The ever-flowing spring at Alois Lageder’s Cassón Hirschprunn in Margé, Italy.

She looked at me as if not understanding the question.
“It’s because we have so many great springs,” she said at last. “Why drink treated   water?” 
Why, indeed?
Every place you go people are opening bottled water; particularly in northern Italy, close by the Alps and the Dolomites, where natural springs bubble nearly everywhere and are tapped wherever there is room to install a bottling plant.
It’s said even Roma has good water, since it’s taps are filled by water piped from the north.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the recent Summa 2014, a gathering of winemakers held last month at the 17th-century palazzo of Alois Lageder in Magré, Italy.
As in way north Italy, where the Alto Adige (or All’ Adige, if you are local enough) snuggles against the Dolomites and pure spring water is abundant as fresh air and eye-popping scenery.
One of the first things you see upon entering Lageder’s stone-walled courtyard is the eye-catching spring filling a trough the size of a small Fiat.
The Lageder family history is intertwined with the natural water; the family summer home, Villa Lageder in the South Tyrolean mountain village of Sarentino/Sarnthein, also has a historical spring.
The wines shared at Summa reflect that freshness and purity found in the water and Lageder’s own philosophy of  “respect for nature, appreciation of the surrounding environment, and responsibility to future generations.,” as his website notes.
As I wandered the two-day event, talking to wine-makers and tasting their wines,  I asked them how much their wine philosophy was inspired by their personal terroir.
Many of them echoed the words of renowned Prosecco maker Primo Franco, who effused about how your mouth and palate are pampered and developed by drinking clean water.
“No question a person’s palate is better when it isn’t maltreated,” he said.
That coddling of the palate is evident throughout Summa, where Lageder’s constant spring proved an ideal way to start anew each session in the tasting rooms.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.