Hangover-less wine (and other stories)

There’s a rumour going round in the outré world of artisanal alcohol consumption that natural wine won’t give you a hangover – presuming of course that you drink a hangover’s worth of the wine in the first place.

I have to tell you that it’s just not true.

It is not true because it contains alcohol, a toxin, which if ingested in sufficient quantities dehydrates the body and consequently impairs its proper functioning.

That said, natural wine may just give you more of a fighting chance of recovery on those dreadful Dixonian days than a bog-standard supermarket bottle would.

Why so? Because of its relative absence of sulphur dioxide.

What is sulphur dioxide?

Sulphur dioxide is a chemical compound. It is widely used as a preservative in the food and drinks industry. It’s used in the preservation of dried fruits; it’s even used to keep fresh fruit looking fresh. Those little packs of sliced apple in the supermarket – have you ever wondered how they stay white rather than oxidising and going all orangey-brown?

Sulphur dioxide (as in ‘contains sulphites’) is also used in winemaking. It has been for centuries. As long ago as the Roman era winemakers would burn sulphur candles in their amphorae wine vessels before filling them with wine; although they didn’t know how it stopped the wine from spoiling, they knew it did. The practice was then adopted by 16th century English and Dutch importers who did the same with their oak barrels.

Nowadays it’s usually added in synthetic, powdered form at various stages of the winemaking process – just after the grapes have been crushed, after fermentation, or just before bottling. These are the stages when the wine is most likely to oxidise and spoil.

Less scrupulous or more risk-averse winemakers will add it at all three stages. Natural winemakers distinguish themselves by adding only a minimal amount of sulphur during the whole operation, usually at bottling.

Some diehards use no sulphur at all. From a commercial point of view this is tantamount to madness. From a natural winemaking point of view, it is almost the Holy Grail.

How does this relate to the bastard behind my eyes?

Experiments have shown that sulphur dioxide messes with the action of a compound called glutathione. When the body processes booze, one set of enzymes converts alcohol to acetaldehyde. Glutathione then kicks in to convert acetaldehyde into acetate, which the body find easier to excrete.

Sulphur dioxide inhibits glutathione, which means acetaldehyde hangs around, which is not what you want: it’s up to 30 times more toxic than alcohol, hence the bastard behind the eyes, the nausea, the insuperable sense that your family and friends “are leagued in a barely contained conspiracy of silence about what a shit you are”, as Kingsley Amis puts it.

So, all other things being equal, if you want to keep the risk of the unpleasantness outlined above to a minimum, you will assuredly fare better with wine that is ‘natural’, rather than ‘conventional’.

One place you can do this in the very near future (assuming that you’re reading this before December 3), is at the William Morris Gallery Late event co-hosted by the Vine Collective:

 

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This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Winter edition of Root + Bone.

Like a Kid in a Sweetshop at RAW

Two things resounded for me from the 2015 RAW fair: 1) the generally high standard of natural wines now on offer and 2) the alarming number of young blokes wearing the same blue workman’s blazer – so many that it almost came as a surprise when I looked down and saw that I wasn’t wearing one.

RAW is truly the hipster’s wine fair, housed within the whitewashed warehouse walls of the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, it teems with egregious facial hair, tight trousers and tattoos, and lording it through it all is what you might call the wine hipster’s deity, the Sicilian amphora winemaker Gabrio Bini, unmissable with his silky, snow-white locks and moustache, lilac-tinted glasses and psychedelic shirt.

Bini is no mere fashion icon, though. His wines, which were guzzled up long before the wines of the rest of the 100+ winemakers at the fair (similar story for the wines of Frank Cornelissen and Elisabetta Foradori), are extraordinary creations: long skin-maceration in amphora which are buried in the soil for several months at a stretch. The resulting wines have a structure and spicy exoticism that is rarely found anywhere else. They aren’t cheap, but demand for the wines of this flamboyant silver fox clearly outstrips supply.

RAW definitely seems to be creating more of a buzz among young wine drinkers with every passing year. It’s been my favourite fair from the very first time I attended; I can still remember how bedazzled I was by the variety of flavours and aromas in these wines.

These are experiences that can shape a passion for wine, so the growing popularity of the RAW fair is something the organisers should be proud of. Thanks and congratulations to Isabelle Legeron and her team.

Here are my highlights from this year, based on the usual, inevitably selective, sampling. I wonder, in passing, if there’s something delirium-inducing about tasting for three hours under that hothouse roof. Maybe it was just the wine…

Seresin pinot noirs (all of them): Seresin is a biodynamic estate in Marlborough, NZ. I’m not at all keen on their sauvignon, but their pinots have a poise and elegance and fruit-oak balance that’s quite special. (Available through Armit Wines)

Ezibusisweni Chenin Blanc 2012: Angus Mcintosh is a cattle farmer in Stellenbosch. He makes amazing biltong. He also has some chenin blanc vines, from which he makes a very limited supply of this outstanding wine:

20150518_141749This is biodynamically farmed chenin, very small-scale. The grapes are basket-pressed and barrel-fermented and then aged for up to two years. Wild yeast, no additives, no racking, no topping up, no fining or filtering. I tried the 2012-14 – all very lovely but the 2012 was definitely the best: apricoty, bready, even caramely, yet still fruity and fresh. The straw wine on the left of the picture is from 2009 and is also absolutely wonderful. We’re going to have to go to Stellenbosch to enjoy it though because, so far, no one imports it. Damn shame.

Om Oliver Moragues Possessió D’Om 2014: A Mallorcan red made from indigenous manto negro grapes grown on clay-limestone soil. Similar to a pinot in fruit profile but with a bit more tannic structure. Lovely bright fruit and a mineral streak. They make a couple with oak as well but I think they mask the fruit too much. Not yet imported.

Vignaioli Contra Soarda Marzemino. These are Contra Soarda‘s wines:

20150518_152830 (1)They’re made from grapes grown on volcanic soil on a hillside just outside Bassano del Grappa, where vines and olive trees have been grown for centuries. They use mainly indigenous grapes (marzemino nero, plus the white vespaiolo), grapes are gravity-fed into the winery, wild yeasts are used for fermentation and there is no filtering. This red has such bright fruit and mineral tension. I love it. I love all their wines, actually – their merlot included. (Available from The Winemakers Club)

Cà del Vent Franciacorta Brut Blanc de Blanc Pas Operé 2011: Every year I seek out the Cà del Vent table to taste their gorgeous franciacorta.

20150518_181822

This stuff isn’t cheap, but I’d rather drink it than most champagnes I can think of. So fresh and vital, yet with depth and complexity. Stunning sparkling wine. (Available from The Winemakers Club)

Cupano: Lionel Cousin is a charming whitebearded Frenchman who makes wine in Montalcino, Tuscany. His 2006 Brunello reminded me of a 20 or 30-year-old Pomerol. Amazing stuff. His 2008 and 2009 were also memorable: so earthy and complex. He also makes some wonderful Supertuscans. (Available from Swig)

Le Clos de la Meslerie Vouvray: Peter Hahn is an American romantic making Vouvray chenin blanc. His first vintage, in 2008, was picked out by the standard-setting Revue du Vin de France as one of the country’s best 100 wines and he’s been going from strength to strength since then. (Available from dynamicvines.com)
Domaine Jean-Philippe Padié Fleur de Cailloux 2014:
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This is an outstanding white, a blend of grenache blanc, grenache gris and macabeu – but nothing like the intense, boozy whites I am used to from Roussillon. This has a lightness and minerality that puts me more in mind of the cooler climes of the Loire. I could drink this all day, as indeed, one of these days, I will. (Available from Swig)

The Finest Wines Available to Humanity, Part I: Ognostro

In a recent post, Bronze-Age Booze: It’s the Future, I mentioned a couple of Italian wines that stood out as my big favourites from last year: the COS Pithos Rosso and Marco Tinessa’s Ognostro.

Happily Marco Tinessa picked up on that post and got in touch, so I had the chance to find out more about his wine. Ognostro, to remind you, is a 100% aglianico made in the Taurasi region of southern Italy (Taurasi DOCG is known as the ‘Barolo of the South’).

This is the one:

Ognostro

I do like that label (Francis Bacon? Ralph Steadman? The Shining?)

Josko Gravner —> Frank Cornelissen —> Marco Tinessa
It turns out that Marco has produced this wine under the tutelage of one of the most idolised winemakers working anywhere in the world today – namely Frank Cornelissen, who makes extraordinary, totally natural (more on this below) wines on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Wines like this one:
Magma2

Frank Cornelissen Magma, 100% nerello mascalese from the high slopes of Etna

Marco met Frank about 10 years ago. His wife is from Sicily and as a wine lover he would often visit winemakers in the region. Gradually Marco and Frank became friends, and Marco suggested the idea of making a wine in his own region of Taurasi. After a couple of years they found the right vineyard (see main picture) and started their project.

Frank Cornelissen, in his turn, was inspired by possibly the key figure of modern amphora winemakingJosko Gravner. Gravner, an Italian of Slovenian parentage, is often cited as the first modern European winemaker to use such vessels, adopting the proto-technology from winemakers in Georgia, who have being quietly making wine this way for about 8,000 years, since viticultural year dot.

So the pedigree for Ognostro is good.

Although Marco made his first vintage in 2007, this is the first year that his Ognostro is going to be sold in the UK. London-based wine lovers will be able to find it in Terroirs wine bar and Sager + Wilde (that’s a little scoop for you). But you’ll have to be quick on the draw: he only makes about 1,000 bottles of the stuff each vintage.

In the winemaker’s own words…

Here’s what Marco was good enough to share with me about his wine:

“O’gnostro is a local term for wine in the Neapolitan dialect and means ‘ink’. The concept at the heart of my O’gnostro is the quest for bottling the uniqueness of a ‘terroir’.

 “The wine is from a 25-year-old vineyard located in Montemarano (AV). Montemarano is, in my view, the best area of the Taurasi denomination.

“Aglianico is a varietal that ripens very late (early November), when weather conditions start to be challenging. So what I try to do is to work with low yield in order to get a ripe fruit. Acidity is not a big problem as aglianico is a grape that’s rich in acidity, which gives a nice effect when balanced with ripeness of fruit.

“After the harvesting the grapes are left for a day or two in a refrigerated room, then vinification will start. We de-stem/press and put in clay amphorae. I don’t like the taste of small barrels (barriques) on the aglianico, and my production is too small to have big barrels (I produce roughly 1,000 bottles per year).

“The skins are left with the must for as long as needed and then we separate skins from must and leave the fermentation and the ageing process for as long as needed (normally around a couple of years).

“What is important is that nothing is added during the whole fermentation/vinification process: no selected [cultured] yeasts, no sulphites, no enzymes – NOTHING. A bit of sulphur dioxide is added during the bottling process if needed.

“The aim is to have a full reflection of the varietal (and the vintage) in the glass.”

Wine is a living thing… yes, a living thing
Marco’s Ognostro, in common with the wines of Josko Gravner, Frank Cornelissen and the kvevri wines of Georgia, is a living wine. Or, rather, there is bacterial life in them. That’s because they aren’t pasteurised or centrifuged or filtered beyond recognition, as many mass-produced bottles are in order to minimise the risk of spoilage (the end result is usually a bland wine).

Ognostro is this way because it is a minimal-intervention wine. Minimal intervention means, for one, spontaneous fermentation – using ambient yeasts instead of cultured ones – which gives a subtle difference to the character of the wine. Cultured yeasts are know for creating certain specific flavour compounds during fermentation with certain grapes; if ambient/wild yeasts from the specific environment of a winery are used, the effects will be less predictable, and generally more interesting.

Minimal intervention also means minimal use of sulphur dioxide, a compound almost always necessary to prevent the wine from turning into vinegar (though someone like Frank Cornelissen would disagree; note that the soil he grows his grapes on is volcanic…) It also means no fining or filtering. Heavy sulphuring inhibits the bacterial growth that has been proven to enhance the flavour of a wine (so long as its the right sort of bacteria). Fining and filtering has much the same effect.

This minimal-intervention approach to perfectly ripe, unadulterated aglianico grapes, combined with a winemaker’s care and patience (note how Marco says he leaves the ageing process for “as long as needed, usually about two years”) is what helps to make wines like Ognostro irresistible; so irresistible, in fact, that just smelling it makes you salivate.

If you’re looking for a tip for a beautiful, textured, limpidly fruity and vibrant red wine, a glass of Ognostro is your only man*.

*As Brian O’Nolan almost said.

Bronze-Age Booze – It’s the Future

Reflecting on this wine love/wine obsession/thinly disguised alcoholism – call it what you will – of mine, I realise I tried some pretty amazing stuff in 2014: the 1990 Château Margaux, ’55 Latour, and ’42 Castillo Ygay I tried at The Sampler over Christmas stand out as howlingly good. Same goes for that birthday bottle of ’96 Château Armailhac…

These superstars were eclipsed, however, by the discovery of this extraordinary bottle:

The COS Pithos Rosso, a Sicilian red blend of rich, juicy nero d’avola and light, faintly herbal frappato. What distinguishes this wine – apart from a mouthwatering fruity freshness, scintillating clarity and a subtle, expansive textural richness – is that it is made in amphorae.

What are amphorae? These are amphorae:

Amphorae1

They are clay vessels, of ancient design, made for carrying liquids like oil and wine. Standard amphorae are relatively small-volume and have handles for carrying them around, but they also come in the shape you see above. This type of amphorae has been used for making wine for approximately 8,000 years – since the Bronze Age.

The home of amphora winemaking is Eurasia – specifically the Republic of Georgia. Here, in 1965, archaeologists discovered an ancient settlement at Shulaveri Hill, 50km south of Tblisi. They unearthed grape pips of vitis vinifera sativa DC (the forbear of modern cultivated grapes) that dated back to 5,000-7,000 BC, giving Georgia the distinction of being the cradle of wine… at least until they dig something else up somewhere else.

In Georgia, where the clay vessels are known as kvevri, the winemaking process is as natural as can be: crushed bunches of grapes are packed inside the kvevri (skin, pips and stems – the lot), which are then sealed and buried underground (a sort of Bronze Age temperature control) for several months during which time natural fermentation, filtration and maturation happen.

What’s totally headflipping is that this is still the way most wine is made in Georgia – that’s a continuous 8,000-year-old winemaking tradition. This tradition has inspired many modern winemakers who aim to produce 1) wine that is as far as possible natural (most modern-day amphora winemakers use organic or biodynamic methods), and 2) wine that preserves as well as possible the typicity of the grapes they are using, the ‘purity of fruit’ that has become the thing I love most about the wines I drink (as it has for a few wine obsessives I know).

That purity of fruit is increasingly seen as the holy grail by wine professionals, and clay amphorae are increasingly seen as the right way to achieve it, as a sort of ‘third way’ beyond oak ageing and steel vat ageing.

This may need some explaining…

Ageing wine in oak barrels is good because wood is permeable, which allows a bit of oxygen in (the technical term here is micro-oxygenation), which the wine often needs to help it soften and develop. It’s bad because it distorts the fruit element by imparting sweetly spicy, smoky and vanilla flavours.

Ageing in steel vats is good because it does not distort the flavour at all. It’s bad because the steel is impermeable, which poses a risk of something called reduction. This is basically the opposite of oxidation, an oxygenless state which can trigger certain reactions that generate off-flavours and aromas.

Amphorae combine the flavour neutrality of steel and the permeability of wood – with neither of the drawbacks.

What I’ve found over the past year or so is that these amphora wines can be of incredible quality. I prefer the reds to the whites. With the whites, because the juice goes into the amphora with the skins, you get a lot of extraction, a lot of tannin. This can be lovely, but also be a bit weird – and turn certain amphora whites into a drink reminiscent of flat Lucozade.

With the reds, though… well, put it this way, I have never had an amphora red that was anything short of stellar – and the COS Pithos has been the brightest star in the firmament.