Lugana wines tied to the soil, culture and heritage

April 11, 2014 1 comment

DECENZANO DEL GARDA, BS, Italy – The grand expanse of Lake Garda, all 51.6 kilometers (about 32 miles) of it, laps gently at its southern end where it surrounds on three sides the peninsula of Sirmione, a finger of land just east of Decenzano del Garda.


Luca Formentini of Podere Selva Capuzze in Brescia shows a visitor how difficult to work are the clay-rich soils in the region at the south end of Lake Garda.

Formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age, the lake not only moderates the Mediterranean climate of the region but also provides a near-constant breeze, warming in winter and cooling in summer, which makes a key difference if you’re one of the 120 or so members of the Consorzio of Lugana winemakers.

“Look around and see, we are 110 meters above the lake,” said Luca Formentini, whose father bought the farm that now is Podere Selva Capuzza 40 kilometers south of the lake. “”We get the benefit of the wind, which is good when it’s warm and rainy and not so good when it is hot and rainy.

“But last year, when it was so rainy, we spent only seven days (fighting mold and mildew) in the vineyards while my neighbors spent 14.”

The Lugana white wine, by DOC rules made of 100 percent Terbiana (an “invented” name to differentiate Trebbiano of Lugana from Trebbiano of Soave, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and the other 78 Italian DOCs in which Trebbiano is vinified) is mild and pleasant, with lemon and traipical fruit and a bit of bitter almond on the finish. It also had good acidity and a surprising ability to improve with age.

I recently had the 2002 from Podere Selva and found it rich, with layers of white peach and apricot and that almond-like finish, bright acidity and the wine’s characteristic minerality and what they call sapidity and we’d call salinity.

The distinctive salinity and minerality comes from the earth, Luca said, formed when the glacial seas retreated and left the Lugana area layered in clay-rich soils.

“Look at this, he said, kneeling along one of the rows in the 50 hectares (123 acres) of vines the family grows. “When it’s dry, it’s almost unbreakable and when it’s wet, you can’t walk on it. But there are many minerals here, left by the sea and the vineyards take them up.”

Later that night, while sitting at dinner next to Cesare Materossi, the fourth generation winemaker at Az. Agr. Monte Cocigna, he told me the minerality, which usually signifies a stony soil, comes from ancient salts dissolved by the glacial seas.

“Those give the wine a bright edge and it’s ability to age,” he said. “Lugana is tied to the place it comes from. It’s more than the winery, it’s a sign of the culture and the heritage.”




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Eleven generations and going strong

The photo of young (23) Franz Haas may be a bit blurred but it’s not just the light; this eighth-generation Franz Haas is running to keep up with his famous father, winemaker par excellence Franz Haas (VII).Franz Haas the 8th small
Since 1896 a Franz Haas has been making wines commercially in the Sudtirol, that part of Italy’s Alto Adige where German and Italian blend into one. And there were three generations making family wines prior.

Like the land, Franz Haas VIII is a man of many cultures.
“My mother is Italian and my father is German,” said the personable Franz the 8th in his well-spoken English ( he also is fluent in Spanish). “Until I was 5, I spoke Italian to my mother and German to my father.”

He laughed unassumingly when he told a visitor to “Put a ‘V’ in there, then the III.”
It wasn’t so hard being a two-language family, he offered to a curious visitor.
“When you are young, it’s much easier to learn different languages, and speaking two languages was natural for me.”
I met these multi-generational winemakers on the final day of VinItaly 2014, a day when the crowds are lighter and it’s speed-tasting at booths you missed earlier in the week.

My friend and winemaker Susanna Crociani urged to visit the Franz Haas, assuring me I’d regret not tasting thier wines.
Franz Haas may be best known for his Pinot Nero, and he makes a light-bodied wine with deep red fruit flavors and the smooth acidity of a  well-balanced version of Pinot Noir in the Alsatian style, although he suredly would say it’s really the Sudtirol style.

The winery had 13 wines at VinItaly, many of them from grapes considered very difficult to grow but none perhaps as difficult as Pinot Nero.They also offer a delightful Pinot Nero dry Rosé and a Moscato Rosa, with a breath-taking 136 grams of RS but the sweetness is tightly balanced by the wine’s high acidity.



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Finding the right medicine in the vineyard

VERONA, Italy – One of the better habits one picks up at the massive wine fair that is VinItaly is learning to look past the many big producers and their show-stopping, two-story booths with starlets and politicians and exclusively formal atmosphere.

Claudio Monci

Claudio and Sylvia Monaci of Cantina Piancornello in Tuscany, producers of Brunello di Montalcino.

They’re not wrong, and for them it’s the right presentation. But there always is something more right around the corner.

And that’s where I found Claudio and Sylvia Monaci, sitting quietly, patiently waiting for whatever or whomever came next to their little booth, tucked away in the immense Tuscany pavilion, which is about double the size of the other pavilions.

The Monacis own and operate Cantina Piancornello, due south of Florence and 45 kilometers from the climate-controlling Mediteranean Sea, which they founded in 1991 after deciding they really wanted to be winemakers and bought an an existing vineyard.

Any life-changing experience can be traumatic but Claudio knew it would be more traumatic to ignore his heart’s calling.

“I was studying to be a doctor but I knew I wanted to make wine,” he said. Now, his Brunello di Montalcino consistently get high marks from customers and critics and he’s quite happy to be away from medicine and making a minimal-intervention wine.

“I’m trying to do something good for my family and good for the grapes,” he said. Actually, Sylvia said this, as she was translating Claudio’s words for the sake of a visitor.

They were pouring their latest vintages – 2008 and 2009 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, 2012 Rosso di Montalcino, 2013 Campo della Macchia and the 2011 Podere del Visciolo  – and when asked, started talking about aging wines. More accurately, about how many people do not age their wines.

“This one,” said Claudio, holding the 2008 Brunello di Montalcino, “is drinking very nicely but still a baby. It may last for 15-20 years. But no one wants to wait that long.”

For the impatient, the Monacis produce their Rosso di Montalcino and their Campo della Macchia IGT, wines ready to drink almost as soon as it’s relesed.

“But please, wait, maybe at least an hour, after opening it,” said Claudio. “It will be much better.”

Sylvia laughed and noted how different were even the 2008 and 2009 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG.

“It’s very different, what can come from the same vineyard,” she mused. “Like children from the same parents.These are our children, and they are very different.”




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The opening salvo – Rain to lemons in Italy

CAMPEGINE, RE, Italy –  Maybe this should carry the dateline Nocetolo because that’s where I stayed the first two days of my visit to northern Italy but, hey, you’ll have trouble enough finding Campegine on the map, much less Nocetolo, a commune of a half-dozen farmhouses and at least one raucous rooster a few kilometers to the north.

The rain thhis week kept buyers, and sellers away from the outdoor market in Parma.

The rain this week kept buyers, and sellers away from the outdoor market in Parma.

I stopped here, about midway between Milan and Bologna, for two days prior to VinItaly, the immense wine fair in Verona April 6-9. I was staying a La Rocca B-n-B and, following the advice of my generous and gracious hostess Giovana Cavalca, I discovered Il Piccolo Oceano, a restaurant in Campegine specializing in seafood. It’s a popular place, as much for the selection of fresh seafood (the Adriatic Ocean is only 100 or so kilometers to the east) but because it’s also the best to eat place in town.

Spring in this part of Reggio Emilia is wet and cool, reflective of the Mediterannean climate across much of Italy. It’s not quite green but the early blossoms, including apricots and cherries, are ablaze right now. It’s very remindful of western Colorado, ‘cept it rains here on a regular basis.

And speaking of the rain, that’s what it did all Thursday, which I spent slogging around Parma (photo above) visiting the museums where the extensive archaeological history of the region is on display, including a human mummy and a cat mummy.

I was soaked at the end of the day but I learned a new word. It’s “inzuppato,”  which means soaked, and the Italian word for soup is “zuppa,” and to me that makes perfect sense.

Lemon trees grow in large pots in the courtyard of Cason Hirschprunn

Lemon trees grow in large pots in the courtyard of Cason Hirschprunn

So Mediterranean is the climate that winemaker Alois Lageder of Magré, a hamlet right at the “pie” in the piemonte of the Italy-Austria Alps, grows lemons, along with his white wines – including Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay – and smattering of Pinot Noir, Lagrein and Merlot.

I dried everything in time to attend Day One of Summa 2014, a wine and food-tasting event hosted by Lageder at his Magré Renaisance-era palace and winemaking facility, Cason Hirshprunn. Don’t think of Guinevere when I say “castle.” This is a castle in the raw, so to speak, with foot-thick walls of native stone and and brick, immense beams doorways built for defense, not elegance.

It truly is a a living museum and one source says the building dates back to 1363, when the name ‘Hirschbrunn’ appeared in the records of the region of Trento.

Last year Summa 2013 attracted around 2,000 visitors during the two-day event and the 20 Euro entrance fee raised about 36,000 Euros for humanitarian projects in Burma, which still is recovering from the 2008 cyclone.

This year there were 150 or so winemakers, the great percentage from Italy and Germany but also some from France, Europe and even one from the U.S. The big draw, or one of them, anyway, was the opportunity to taste a couple of hundred biodynamic wines from progressive winemakers willing to take the chance on what’s good for them, their families, their wines and their land.

There’s a bit of concern on the part of many Italian winemakers because of the decline in wine consumption in Italy. Depending on who you ask and what you read, the reasons range from the weak economy to the fact younger Italians are drinking more birra and soft drinks instead of wine.

According to the Italian winemaking association Assoenologi, Italians were expected to drink 40 liters per person in 2013, down from 45 liters before the financial crisis hit in 2007.

“Wine has become a hedonistic product, which is not part of Italians’ basic diet anymore, leaving it more exposed to short-term fluctuations in economic conditions,” Michele Fino, a professor at the University of Gastronomic Studies in Pollenzo, was quoted in the Huffington Post.

“The recession was like the flu that arrives when one’s defenses are already low,” Fino added.

But Mariano, one of the three brothers owning and operating Il Piccolo Oceano in Campegine (this is how all this began, remember?) blames the country’s restrictive crackdown on DUIs for the drop in wine drinking, especially away from home.

“You can have one, maybe two glasses and that’s it,” he said. “No one buys a bottle because they know there will be a policeman on the way home.”

He shrugged. “In some ways, it’s good,” he acknowledged. He looked around his restaurant, at the crowded tables, where only a few wine bottles were in sight. “But here, I could use the sales.”

(I’m struggling with the WordPress photo file and the ability to size the photos to fit. Maybe it’s because I’m halfway around the world. I’ll add photos when I figure out the problem, me or the system.)








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Valpolicella a bright welcome for spring

March 21, 2014 Leave a comment

The burst of spring across the landscape means a shift from traipsing around in heavy coats and boots to the lighter clothing and footwear that comes with warmer weather.


Streams cut through the hills of the Valpolicella region of northeast Italy. It’s from these geographical features this region received its historical name. Courtesy Google maps.

My wine drinking is going through similar changes, and with VinItaly only 10 days away away, I’m looking toward Italy, especially the lighter reds of Valpolicella, for refreshment.

The Valpolicella area is east of Lake Garda, in the Veneto region of northeast Italy. It’s a mix of flat agricultural lands and rolling hills, cut with permanent streams flowing north to south where they meet the Fiume Adige (Adige River).

The wine was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, and it gained notice after he made his protagonist in the 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees a Valpolicella fan who describes the wine as “better when it is newer. It is not a grand vin and bottling it and putting years on it only adds sediment.”

The medium-bodied, bright-cherry fruited wine made a big splash in the1960s and 1970s with American wine drinkers, an occurrence which brought it not only attention but almost its downfall as well.

As demand for the wine grew, winemakers shifted their attention from the hard-to-farm hills to large estates on the flatter lands and as production increased, overall quality went down.


Aaron Epstein of the wine consulting business Uva Buena Fine Wines developed the comprehensive wine pyramid reproduced here to help wine drinkers better understand the world of Valpolicella wines. Click for link.

By the 1980s, the Valpolicella found in Italian restaurants across the U.S. was a weak shadow of what it once was. But the same revolution, and the changing tastes of consumers, that saved many Italian wines also played its part in saving Valpolicella.

Some of the credit goes to the late Giuseppe (Bepi) Quintarelli, a demanding winemaker who knew the wine could produce better wine and better prices.

And there was Sandro Boscaini of Masi, who was among the winemakers offering a middle-level Valpolicella style called ripasso, where regular Valpolicella is refermented on skins and seed remaining from the partly dried grapes used in the Amarone process developed by Quintarelli.

The result is a wine with higher alcohol and more heft and body, midway between the lighter Valpolicella and the mouthful that is Amarone.

Valpolicella DOC regulations allow the use of several grape varieties, mainly corvina (up to 70 percent), along with rondinella (20-40 percent), and molinara (5-25 percent). There also can be up to 15 percent of other grapes such as barbera, sangiovese and negrara.

I recently tried several Valpolicellas made in the traditional style, with bright cherry fruit, floral aromas and enough acidity to stand up to many foods. And Valpolicellas, especially the Superiore and Classico Superiore, won’t break your budget.

I found my favorite of this tasting, a 2012 Folonari Valpolicella for $7.63 at Tri R Liquors in Hotchkiss and I should have bought two. In the glass it was bright garnet with edges fading to red/purple, with a nose of cherry and dusty roses. Bright cherry with soft tannins filled the mouth.

I also had a 2011 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore ($11), a bit heavier in weight than the Folonari but still with plenty of red fruit and bright flavors, and the 2011 Sartori Valpolicella Classic Superiore ($13), biggest of the three but well-balanced with lots of dark cherry flavors and aromas of violets and roses.

As a side note, many writers fall for the story that “Valpolicella” has its roots in the Greek word for “land of many cellars,” a false cognate if there ever was one.

I prefer the explanation offered by the well-spoken Jeremy Parzen in his blog Do Bianchi, where he says the name refers to “the valley of sand deposits, from the Latin pulla, a term used in classical Latin to denote to dark soil and then later to denote alluvial deposits.”

Parzen, a linguist of note, goes on to say, “In fact, Valpolicella is not a valley but rather a series of “wrinkles” defined by the Marano, Negrar, Fumane, and Nòvare torrents (streams).”

The accompanying map shows the complexity of the Valpolicella geography.


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Big Three companies dominate the wine market

March 14, 2014 Leave a comment

If you ever feel overwhelmed while walking the aisles in your favorite wine store, here’s why:

Wine Business Monthly reports in its February edition that in 2013, the TTB approved 96,539 Certificates of Label Approval, which a winery needs prior to bottling a wine.

In 2012, that number was even higher, at 105,828.

That’s a boatload of potential new wines to crowd the shelves and daze the casual (or not so casual) wine drinker looking for something for dinner.

Some of these labels are short-timers conceived several years ago when wineries were making what WBM writer Cyril Penn termed “lifestyle brands.”


Stacks of barrels in an E&J Gallo store room hold some of the 80 million cases of wine the company produces each year.

Penn quotes Ted Baseler, president and CEO of St. Michelle Wine Estates, as saying wineries have started to pull-back from the “silly, goofy double entendre stuff.”

“It seems like there’s a return to more traditional packages and names,” Baseler said. “That’s stunning in 12 months. It’s gone from the latest catchy gimmick to more of the traditional quality, thoughtful brands.”

The same issue reveals what we already know: Large wine companies dominate the consumer market.

According to the figures in WBM, of the 7,762 wineries in the U.S., 30 companies sell nearly 90 percent of the wine produced in the U.S.

Three companies – E&J Gallo, The Wine Group and Constellation Brands – accounted for more than half (187.5 million cases) out of the 370 million cases (4.4 billion bottles, at the typical 12 bottles per case) of domestic wine produced last year.

And, the top six  – add to the above three Bronco Wine Co., Trinchero Family Estates and Treasury – and you have almost 2/3 of the wine produced.

Some gleanings from the Wine Business Monthly report:

–    Gallo, at No. 1 with 80 million cases, sold more than the bottom 26 wineries combined.

–    I million cases ain’t so big. Precept Wine, which you might not recognize unless you’re reading the backs of bottles, made 1.1 million cases and ranked only 18th in the top 30.

–    Purple Wine Co. of Graton, Cal., was the smallest of the top 30 at only 400,000 cases last year. But the company also produces another 400,000 cases of private and control label wines (wines under a certain name or label bought by a store or restaurant in large enough quantities that retailer can control the entire allotment of wine).

In comparison, in 2013 Colorado produced 140,900 cases, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

While some industry followers have expressed concern about the iron clutch of Big Wine around the pocketbook of the American consumer, the wine industry is keyed to scale.

Which means Big Wine can make wine affordable, which leads to  one more statistic – Last year, the U.S. reached 100 million wine drinkers.

Which is good for all wine, big and small.


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Jon Bonne’s book and his thoughts on the American wine palate

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

California long has been the crucible for much of American winemaking, and while there certainly are reasons why not every winemaking region in the U.S. (and elsewhere) can or should emulate that state’s wine industry, there still are lessons to learned from the Golden State.Image

That’s a round-about way of saying that Jon Bonné, wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, covers more than simply the upheaval he sees occurring in California in his recently published book, “The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.”

His insightful (and perhaps inciteful) book has been received some mixed reviews (hey, it’s about California, for starters) but mostly his work has been received well.

In one of many accolades, Eric Asimov of the New York Times, himself no slouch when it comes to promoting nuanced, well-made wines, says Bonné writes about the current “mental liberation among winemakers and consumers freed from a stultifying, dominant style that Mr. Bonné labels “Big Flavor.’”

Bonné, for his part, asserts there is an “aesthetic” revolution happening in California wines, those made by “people who remained committed to restrained, compelling wines that spoke clearly of their origins — and who shared my frustration with California’s modern style.”

Still, he also asserts there is no danger of “steakhouse Cabernet going away tomorrow.”

Wine writer David White has a fascinating and lengthy interview with Bonné here.

This post is a review, not of Bonné’s eminently readable book, but of that interview which I, being from a nascent wine-making state, found particularly interesting.

Many of the topics covered by Bonné and White are immensely applicable to the Colorado and other young wine industries and to the wine industry in general, as to be expected of something from the wide-ranging Bonné.

The prior and the following quotes are from the interview mentioned above.

Bonné points out the roles played now and in the future by winemaking regions lumped together as the “other 47” in developing a true American wine palate.

“I think the prospect of having small, local wineries making a quality product – maybe not the great wines of the world, but a quality wine– makes wine a local business,” Bonné said. “It could be Virginia… It could be Colorado…And ultimately, it’s what the Europeans have grown accustomed to, which is that wine is an industry that surrounds you, rather than being something far off.”

That sounds quite a bit like the Drink Local Wine movement of Dave McIntyre and Jeff (the wine curmudgeon) Siegel.

Simply, or as simply as I can put it, it’s knowing that wine is a local business and not simply a shelf-talker in a liquor store, of knowing you can go out to a local winery and enjoy a bottle of locally made (and, in our case, of locally grown) wine.

The next step, which too many fail to do, is making the connection between something amorphously “agriculture” and something that is “the next great step in the maturing of American wine culture,” Bonné puts it.

As young wine industries mature, they attract people who aren’t interested solely in the novelty of a Colorado or Virginia or (fill in the blank) wine but intrigued by the quality of it, as well.

“I think there will be more states that do mature in their wine industries — and I think that’s essential to actually getting more people to drink wine,” Bonné said.

It’s also obvious the drivers in that maturity are the young adults of today and tomorrow. They’re curious, inquisitive and eager to try something new.

They aren’t strangers to wine, as was my Baby Boom generation which at time struggled to find decent wines, but instead have grown up with wine on the table.

One last thing, although there are so many great topics Bonné and White covered.

It’s what Bonné calls “the Whole Foods gap,” explained by White as “the same people who want free-range chicken and organic, locally sourced spinach are happy to pick up a $5 bottle of who knows what when they purchase wine.”

A recent survey showed the average bottle of wine in the U.S. sells for $6-$9.

In contrast, the average bottle of Colorado wine costs $16.68, according to Colorado State University.
“Americans like to drink cheap,” White pointed out.

But Bonné said there’s “a virtue” in making people aware of the spending gap.

“There is a purpose in buying a wine made by a relatively small winery or a small business that’s interested in making a specific wine that doesn’t lean on industrial scale,” he said.

“And that’s where the Whole Foods gap comes in — people who are willing to pay a premium for whatever it is, say tomato sauce made by a small company rather than Ragu, are going to need to extend those values into wine over time.”.

There already are people, Bonné said, “all over the country who … want to drink American wine, who very much believe in it…They simply haven’t found wines that speak to them.”



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