Piedmont 2014: pure and precise

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

As we launch our offering of 2014 Baroli and Barbareschi, Italy Buyer Davy Żyw explains how the vintage escaped its fate and defied expectations

The 2014 vintage in Barolo is a treat for the purist. It was a year initially marked by challenging weather, but ultimately redeemed by a wonderful end to the season. The best wines have emerged with precise fruit and real energy, tempered by more traditional structure which will give longevity but, paradoxically, they will also be accessible in youth.

The summer of 2014 was difficult, with above average rainfall and only average levels of sunshine, ending with severe flooding in July. The challenges in the vineyard were extreme and even the most traditional producers had to adapt to coax their crop through the season. In many cases severe grape selection was necessary, the harvest reduced by up to 40 percent. But the vintage was finally defined by the perfect Indian summer, which ran well into the autumn. This was manna from heaven for the late-ripening Nebbiolo, although the earlier-picked Dolcetto and Barbera are not so blessed this year.

The 2014 Piedmont vintage is an individual expression of the region, and a most worthy one. There is a lucidity to the wines which will not be evident in the subsequent years, with all of 2015, 2016 and 2017 offering power and lush ripeness in varying degrees, including some of the best Barbaresco I’ve tasted, as well as wonderful examples of Dolcetto and Barbera, both disenfranchised in 2014. Moreover, where the travails of the year forced the best estates to make radical decisions, there is hardly a poor wine to be found. Many critics’ expectations of 2014 were low, but the tastings have changed all that. These are inspiring, cerebral wines and a wonderful counterpoint to the more voluble vintages in the pipeline.

Our annual spotlight on the wines of Piedmont is now live; browse the range here.

Category: Italian Wine

Advice: Sir Lunchalot

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Our in-house expert Sir Lunchalot is on hand to answer all your wine and spirits questions. This month he advises on the world of decanters – from the perfect method to which shape is best for which bottle

Dear Sir,

My wife and I have recently tied the knot and are now enjoying all the wonderful items from our gift-list being delivered to our brand-new marital home. The only thing is people seem to have gone off-piste and we’ve been sent no less than seven wine decanters in an array of shapes and sizes (we hope our reputation does not precede us!). The thing is, we’re a bit stumped at how to actually use the things. Can you advise?

How lovely! Well, first of all, many congratulations to you and your beloved. I’m sure you have many great bottles ahead. Secondly, what a wonderful problem to have. Most wines, irrespective of colour, age or price will benefit from decanting, so it’s a good habit to get into. The trick is to choose the right vessel and the decanting time ahead of drinking. If you get that nailed, it will give you the best out of every bottle, irrespective of other factors.

Young reds will open up enormously with time in a broad based “ships decanter”; while old and fragile wines often just need to blow off the cobwebs, so a taller, thinner decanter stops them disappearing too quickly. Whites, especially infants, benefit from air too: try decanting young white Burgundy and standing the decanter in ice. Rich, round wines can really open up beautifully.

With older wines and Vintage Port, the practice is for an entirely different purpose. To save a mouthful of sediment, the art of decanting is used to separate liquid from solid. In mahogany-clad boardrooms, it is often performed with much pomp and circumstance – decanting cradles, candles, fancy corkscrews… the sky really is the limit. In truth, all you need is the ability to see when the solid particles pass into the neck of the bottle (a white background is useful for this). Ideally the bottle should be stood up for a day or so before opening, to settle any deposits, then care and attention is the name of the game. Uncork the wine upright, and then slowly pour the wine off its sediment. When you see the particles coming through, stop decanting – it’s better to lose a little bit of wine than let sediment infiltrate your glass.

Enjoy your new collection and enjoy experimenting with decanting times… but most of all enjoy the good times they give you!

Have you got a question for Sir Lunchalot? Please email editor@bbr.com or leave it in the comments selection below.

Category: Miscellaneous

How to make wine: sparkling

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Juice trickles out the press at Ridgeview, Sussex. Photograph: Simon Peel

In the final part of our series exploring how wine is made, Barbara Drew explains the different methods that produce sparkling wine, including Prosecco, Cava or Champagne

What makes a wine go fizz, or a cork go pop? Tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide dissolved in the liquid. The question of how the carbon dioxide gets into the wine, though, is a very important one, as its answer determines the style of wine and the flavours that result.

The first step in making a sparkling wine is to make a base wine – a still wine which can then develop bubbles. A few wines avoid this step – such as the sweet, frothy and delicate Moscato d’Asti – but for most fizzies, a base wine is required. This is invariably white. Bubbles in a wine accentuate tannins – making a red wine seem even more grippy and astringent than it would normally. As a result, those rare red sparkling wines that do exist tend to have a hefty dose of sugar in them to balance out this effect; think syrupy sparkling Shiraz, or refreshingly sweet and sour Lambrusco.

The simplest way of adding bubbles is to take your base wine, add it to a large tank with yeast and sugar, to encourage a second fermentation, and pop the lid on. The carbon dioxide produced during the second fermentation is trapped in the tank. The wine is filtered under pressure and put into heavy sparkling wine bottles. (In theory, a sparkling wine bottle should be able to withstand pressure of 15 atmospheres; most sparkling wine is around five or six atmospheres. Nonetheless, a sharp shock to the bottle can result in them exploding.)

This method of producing sparkling wine is known as the tank or Charmat method and is a great way to produce large volumes of fizz. It is often used for Prosecco as it doesn’t add any additional flavours to the wine, and can preserve the fruity, floral characters of the Prosecco grape (Glera).

In Champagne, a different method is used. Here, after sugar and yeast are added to the base wine, the wine is bottled, before being sealed. The wine then undergoes its second fermentation – leading to an increase in alcohol of 1.5 percent and the production of those carbon dioxide bubbles – in the bottle. Crucially, once the fermentation is complete, the wine then stays in-bottle. The yeasts settle to the bottom of the bottle and remain there, adding flavour and texture to the wine.

Most wines made like this remain resting on their lees – these yeast cells – for at least a year, and in the case of some prestige cuvée Champagnes (the very top wine a Champagne House releases), for up to eight years. During this time, the yeast cells start to break down and add a biscuity, brioche flavour to the wine, as well as a slightly creamy texture. The result is a marvellously complex wine, but one that tastes more of pâtisserie than peaches and pears; this process therefore works very well for slightly less aromatic grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, a popular grape for this style of wine.

Bottles resting on their lees at Ridgeview, Sussex. Photograph: Simon Peel

Though arguably invented in the UK, and perfected in Champagne, this method of making sparkling wine is used around the world, and excellent fizz is produced in this way in California, South Africa, Australia and Spain; all Cava must be made in this way, lending a toasty complexity to this Spanish speciality.

The downside of this méthode traditionelle (as it is known), however, is that, after the wine has aged, the yeast cells still need to be removed from the bottle. In previous centuries, consumers were more forgiving of murky wines, with yeast deposits in the bottle, and while the natural wine movement is trying to reinvigorate this style of wine to a certain extent, most wines need to be sold clear and bright. Therefore the next step in this process is to remove the yeast from the bottle, while keeping the fizz, which is not an easy task. The yeast must first be nudged down to the neck of the bottle, something that can be achieved manually by turning the bottle this way and that over the course of many weeks. Machines called gyropalettes do a similar job, gently shaking the bottles over the course of a couple of days. Once in the neck of the bottle, the yeast is frozen – the neck being dipped into a cold brine solution – before the cap is removed. At this point the pressure inside forces the yeast out of the bottle.

The final step is to adjust the flavour of the wine, and standardise the level in the bottle, with dosage; this is a mixture of sugar and wine, which adds the final gloss to the fizz. For Champagne, which is often extremely acidic, this tiny addition of sugar is just sufficient to add a richness to the wine and balance the tart freshness of the grapes. For making a rosé sparkling wine, the colour can also be tweaked by adding a drop of red wine at this point.

The wine is then closed with a cork and left for a few months, quietly resting in the producer’s cellar, for the flavours to blend and harmonise. Due to the acidity and complexity of wines made in this way, they can often age for many years, developing even more toasty, nutty and finally mushroom flavours. Whether they are drunk young or old, these are some of the most complex and carefully made wines to be found anywhere in the world.

This article was originally sent to members of our Wine Club. You can find out more about the benefits of Wine Club hereYou’ll find the first two parts of this series, looking at still white and red wine, here; or browse our range of sparkling wine here.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine

Who makes the rules?

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Illustration by María Hergueta

As The New Wine Rules hits shelves, we leaf through Jon Bonné’s latest book and talk to the San Francisco-based author declaring a new age of fearless wine-drinking

There is an endless supply of lighter literature aimed at making wine “easy” – pressing, filtering, fining, simplifying and compacting the vinous world to give you 100-or-so pages in which to become an instant expert. As much as I’d like it to be – wine isn’t like that. The very endless complexity that makes it so interesting – and indeed so daunting – can’t be chopped into bitesize Buzzfeed-friendly chunks.

So, when I saw that American wine writer Jon Bonné – one of my very favourite journalists, author of The New California Wine and Senior Contributing Editor at online magazine Punch – was publishing a book called The New Wine Rules, I doubted him. I feared that he had lost his way, potentially led down an alluringly income-lined road to offer coffee-cup wisdom to the masses.

Having now devoured both US and UK versions of his book, it’s clear that I should have kept my faith. The title is perhaps a little misleading. Yes, the book is ordered into 89 “rules”, but really this is a book filled with the titbits every wine lover will – or should – learn during their vinous career. The New Wine Rules wraps them up into one neat little tome – wittily phrased, prettily illustrated and perfectly bound. The declaration on its front cover that it is “a genuinely helpful guide to everything you need to know” doesn’t overstate its utility, but neglects to state the sheer joy of this book.

“The past couple of generations of wine lovers have spent their lives guided by fear – of displaying bad taste or revealing what they don’t know. Screw that. Wine is too great a thing to be limited by fear,” declares Bonné. The New Wine Rules is a manifesto for the modern wine drinker – Jon champions the idea that, in the 21st century, there are no rules; and the one thing we should all do is “drink wine with joy”.

The New Wine Rules by Jon Bonné

Morsels of advice range from “A wine’s price rarely reflects its quality” and a “cool matrix” of regions and grapes, to “Don’t save a great bottle for a rainy day”: there is almost nothing that I don’t heartily agree with.

The introduction – unlike too many wine books – swipes away the potential superiority of the author: “My wine life isn’t that different to yours: I’ve walked into plenty of wine shops and gotten lousy advice, I still struggle through wine lists [… and] I’ve had sommeliers talk down to me more times than I can count.” It is this undercurrent of accessibility, a tone that is conversational rather than preachy, that makes this a book I’d happily give to non-wine friends. And that is the intention.

While the book doesn’t shy away from technical details in places (you can “never go wrong talking up to people,” Jon says), its intended audience is people who are just starting to learn about the subject – people who have an interest, but not yet the knowledge. Jon’s inspiration came when he and his wife ended up – accidentally (and subtly, I’m sure) – eavesdropping on a group of young professional women in a restaurant in San Francisco. They were clearly engaged and keen to drink something good, but they floundered trying to pick a wine. Jon decided there was a place for a modern guide that would help wine-drinkers just like them – too many introductory books in circulation were “living in a world that doesn’t exist anymore”, he told me, explaining the difference between Sauvignon and Chardonnay. And, thank goodness, The New Wine Rules is deliciously, moreishly different.

It might seem with The New California Wine, The New Wine Rules and The New French Wine on the way, Jon Bonné is hooked on what’s “new”. When I ask him why and whether this is something we should be seeking out, he chuckles. “Aside from being a really great sales hook, you mean?” With his background in journalism, he is driven by “what’s emerging, what’s coming, what’s new” to make his writing relevant. He’s also seen many wine critics caught covering the same thing for 20 years – a rut in the road which he is keen to avoid.

From a Christina Aguilera reference and advice on avoiding unnecessary gadgetry, to “Let the term ‘unicorn wine’ die a quiet death” and “Beware the fruit salad”, the book is packed with so many quotable gems that I could go on forever (or at least until I’d copied out all 17,000 words) – so go buy it, read it yourself, give it to friends, and drink every bottle with as much joy as Jon seems to.

The New Wine Rules (Quadrille, £10) is out now.

Category: Miscellaneous