I came across a young couple yesterday whilst on a run in Wanstead Flats. They were resting on a damp log, swaddled up to the hilt to keep out the cold, her head nestled in his lap. This log, the remnant of a felled oak, sits behind an artificial lake surrounded by dingy thickets that harbour rats the size of juvenile polar bears. They play chicken with you, scampering close to your feet as you pass by the busy road which groans and sighs with empty buses heading towards the cemetery. Urbanised, gluten-fatigued swans sidle past empty bottles and faded crisp packets. In other words, there are nicer spots nearby. More uplifting spots. Spots you would choose if you didn’t mind being seen together. If you were allowed to be seen together.
The man – mid, possibly even late twenties – followed me with his eyes as I ran past, his head remaining perfectly still. This is romance in 2021, forcing the behaviour of desperate teenagers upon fully-grown humans. What was in their hands? Bottles of Budweiser. Will I see these two again on February 14th, on the same log, with a bottle of Bollinger Rosé in hand?
If we had been in a better place, perhaps the Government would have allayed the disappointment of Christmas with a relaxation of the rules at Valentine’s Day – spend a night in someone else’s home! Or perhaps the defunct NHS Track and Trace system could be re-purposed as some kind of Covid-friendly Tinder, notifying singletons if someone nearby has antibodies and enjoys long walks by the sea? Alas, we are where we are, and Valentines Day 2021 is really only for those of us that already live with the people we love. It’s a bit like celebrating the impeachment of an already-departed President – technically worthwhile, but prone to remind us of things we ought to have done earlier.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and absence is in short supply. Not only that, but the respective durations tend to match; a day at work, a day at school, a day of fondness. A trip to the bathroom or the recycling bin might only be repaid in seconds. I don’t want to sound glib in front of those that are living alone, but solitude is not something us cohabiters can possibly feel qualified to comment on any more. We have forgotten what it is, and we lack the opportunity to do any research.
What I do know is that my wife and I have agreed, for the first time ever, to celebrate Valentines Day. We will head out to the most romantic place I can conceive of; a place where lovers meet, where nature thrives, where all of life, from start to finish, can be taken in during the course of one deep breath. There must be something good about that log, after all. We will bring with us a three year old boy, a bag of crisps and a bottle of pink champagne, and we will take all of them back home afterwards. I think we will have a grand time.
If a characteristic can be applied to any wine, no matter where it is from or what it is made of, how do we value it? Are generic flavours ever interesting or worthwhile?
This is a particularly thought-provoking question for those of us interested in Traditional Method Sparkling Wine, which deliberately adds flavour through induced, repeatable processes. Robert Walters, the author of Grower Champagne manual Bursting Bubbles, doesn’t think that the Maillard reaction, for example – toasted and caramelised flavours that he links to the sugar addition at dosage – is worth much. He quotes his friend wine consultant Dominique Denis:
‘Sugar is like the fourth musketeer of Champagne: there’s only supposed to be three: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. Then you read the book and find out, to your surprise, that there is in fact a fourth musketeer and, even more surprisingly, that he plays a major role in the story!’
Walters has learnt to recognise a flavour of process, and now finds it intrusive. Is this fair? Or can we be triggered into forming opinions by generic flavours that we pluck out of context?
This is an area where personal taste matters. I know I have mine, and I also know that I have to keep re-assessing whether my reactions are reasonably fair and balanced. None of these flavours have hard boundaries, and we only really interpret them as combinations with other elements. Wine is more than the sum of any of these parts, but it is still useful to to take it apart and use this knowledge to reflect on our own reactions.
This is particularly true if we are trying to judge its quality. Is this wine really flawed/superb or does it just display a character I associate with other flawed/superb wines? When I return to a wine with the feeling that I misjudged it the first time, this is usually the culprit.
A Very Personal Run-Down
There’s a lot of ‘I’, here, but when it comes to flavour it makes sense to talk in the first person.
New oak is an obvious flavour. It is also delicious. We bemoan its dominance in wines, but it would be a hard heart that always recoiled at the slightest whiff. An observation; people that complain about overt oakiness in still wines sometimes don’t notice it in sparkling wines! Perhaps we mistake it for Maillard flavours? Or because we don’t think to look for it?
I usually find high levels of sweet new oak (and even new-ish oak) distracting in champagne and sparkling wine. It also doesn’t tend to integrate over time in the same way that we think of in still wine. But those arguments are for another time…
Verdict: Gets a pass if used as part of a genuinely long-lived style. Otherwise, flashy.
Volatile Sulphur Compounds (VSCs) and ‘reductive’ aromas –
Winemakers have broadly understood how to hone and cultivate some of these flavours for a while now. The classic example is the ‘matchstick’ or ‘gunflint’ aroma, which is found in more and more moderately-priced still wines. It can provide some distraction, although it can seem a bit ‘bling’ in basic wines, to me at least. Great wines manage to incorporate reductive qualities with more elegance.
Sparkling wines cannot be made without the reductive environment of lees-ageing, but this does not mean that they always show reductive characters. These are still usually cultivated, to some extent. I would argue that there is a generic reductive ‘signature’ in sparkling wine, found especially in long-aged blanc de blancs and magnums. It doesn’t seem ‘tacked on’ in the best Traditional Method wines; it sits comfortably in the complex crowd of flavours that arise through bottle fermentation, autolysis and disgorgement. Even the SO2 addition at disgorgement can add to it!
Verdict : it’s about how you wear it, darling
I’m staying clear of the M world – minerality – but I will say a word about ‘saltiness’. It often strikes me as a generic term that people use to describe wines that show some combination of mild oxidation, phenolic grip, and…well, the buzz around the water cooler is all about succinic acid at the moment. Yeast behaviours are responsible for the formation of this weak, bitter and slightly salty-tasting compound. Whatever it is, it can be an interesting element to a wine, but I’d stop short of automatically declaring a great terroir whenever I taste it. How interesting it is depends on how interesting the rest of the wine is.
There are kinds of stoniness, chalkiness, flavours that seem carbonic…things that a bit more mysterious, ethereal almost. The lines are blurry. But as I drink a very cool, acclaimed Grüner Veltliner that appears dull and pudgy at heart despite being dressed up in this sort of lightly-oxidative, salty coating, I wonder if it is easy to get seduced. I saw someone write the words saline acidity recently. What does that mean? Perhaps this will soon be one of those words that goes out of fashion.
Verdict: Part of some great wines, yes. A sign of a great wine? Probably not.
These are straight from hell, where Satan is almost certainly sucking on peardrops. The product of cool fermentation, especially with certain yeast strains, these banal, confected fruit flavours are seen in poor Prosecco and rushed or cynical Traditional Method sparkling wines. They are perhaps a necessary evil in cheap wines, where ‘fruitiness’ has to be added in the cellar if lacking in the grape material itself. Disappointing to find in high-end wines.
Sometimes oxidation can seem quite exciting. The toughness, nuttiness and bitterness it brings is heavy, though, so it needs fuel to propel it. Sugar and/or alcohol usually work, together with lowish acidity (i.e. tawny port, amontillado sherry). Wines can be made with oxidative processes that nevertheless avoid flavours of oxidation by the time they are in bottle.
I have a theory: some people to oxidation as a marker of seriousness. It triggers them, in quite a guttural, instinctive way (I wonder whether there is some kind of physiological reasoning behind this!?). Those of us that are wary of oxidation need to take this into account. I almost always find oxidation frustrating in sparkling wine, which has neither enough sugar, alcohol or flavour intensity to ride out the sort of gnarly, heavy energy it brings. Oxidative flavours just seem, to me, to jar with very dry, high-acid styles.
Verdict: Marmite. Divisive, but not worth losing friends over
Now here’s an interesting one. Anyone can age their wines on lees. Red, white, sparkling, whatever. So is it a boring flavour? No. I don’t think so. It is subtle, textural and, in the case of sparkling wine, a breeding ground for compounds that will do interesting things later in life.
Can you overdo it? I think so. Most of the sparkling wines that feature heavy-handed autolytic characters seem to be those that have seen a lot of action before bottling – perhaps long ageing on primary lees with bâtonnage. If autolytic characters get too broad in sparkling wines, winemakers either disgorge the bottles or turn them on their heads to reduce the surface area in contact with the lees (ageing sur pointe).
Verdict : Yeast, in death as in life, are always fascinating
Caramelised flavours. These are largely – but not exclusively – developed after disgorgement (edit – thanks Tom Stevenson for pointing to ongoing research in this complex area. Something I hope to report more on!).
How we get on with these flavours comes down to personal taste. Some producers aim for a very biscuity, caramelised style and work to achieve this from the beginning. Other wines seem to take forever to develop these characters.
I agree with Walters that some wines use them to mask deficiencies elsewhere. I don’t agree, however, that finding rich, toasty characteristics is always boring. In good wines these are part of the whole picture: filters through which other flavours are sent, mirrors on which other flavours are reflected. They are only maquillage – make up – when there’s something to hide.
Verdict : Delicious enough to arouse suspicion.
Where do we stop?
Is it even possible to assign some flavours as ‘natural’ and others as ‘unnatural’? The waters get murky when we start talking about the effects of yeast strain, malolactic fermentation and perhaps even Noble Rot formation on grapes for dessert wines. Those of us with unhealthy interests in wine flavour can learn to spot these characters without being blinded by them. Open-mindedness always rests on a tiny speck of naivety, even if we have to suspend some of our knowledge to maintain it.
Unless, of course, we get a glassful of peardrops and almond essence. In which case the sink is the only way out.
Franciacorta, sitting below Lago d’Iseo in Italy’s Lombardia, is one of the few Traditional Method sparkling wines outside France to have developed a tightly-regulated identity tied to a restricted production zone. Total output is around 18 million bottles per year, making it similar to South Africa’s Cap Classique and about one tenth the size of Champagne. Visit a bar or restaurant in Italy and you’ll be just as likely to see it on a wine list as Champagne; the Italians drank 89% of the entire production in 2019, leaving those of us elsewhere facing a difficult job tracking some of the wines down.
A few key facts:
Franciacorta is tightly regulated, adapted from Champagne with similarly-mandated lees-ageing times (18 months for non-vintage, 24 months for Satèn, 30 months for vintage and 60 months for the lesser-seen Riserva category).
Chardonnay is in charge with 81% of plantings. Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco are used sparingly. Some producers are experimenting with the native grape Erbamat, which is the only non-Champagne grape variety allowed in the wines.
Lago d’Iseo, which sits to the North of the vineyard area, moderates temperatures. Nevertheless this is one of the warmer areas in the world for top Traditional Method sparkling wine. With some harvests beginning in July over the last decade, Franciacorta’s battle is to lengthen the season and preserve acidity and elegance in the wines. Some believe Erbamat, which ripens almost a month later than Chardonnay, might provide the answer.
Below is a collection of notes from the last few months.
The formalisation of this style is unique to Franciacorta. An inventive twist on the Italian for silken, Satèn wines are 100% Chardonnay (although 50% Pinot Bianco is allowed), produced to a final pressure of no more than five atmospheres. Satèn is all about taming the bubbliness of full-pressure sparklers in favour of the silkier, gentler mousse that comes with lower pressure.
When it works, the Satèn style cleverly carries Franciacorta’s sunny, ripe nature with a cool, calm texture that emphasises elegance rather than weight. Some of these wines would jar with a big, lively mousse – the sunny style of Chardonnay can be a little closer to a still wine than some, so it does make sense.
Of the wines tasted below, the Bellavista was (perhaps unsurprisingly) my pick. Winemaker Mattia Vezzola did invent it in 1984, after all. The model in this case is suave and sweet-natured, but aligned with enough zip and energy to keep you dipping back in for another glass. Flavour is not in short supply in Franciacorta; the magic comes teasing out front-end ripeness into something long, fine and refreshing.
100% Chardonnay, 65 % oak fermentation. Disgorged Autumn 2019. I love the hedonistic style here, with lots of candied lemon, lime and yellow tropical fruits, wrapped up in white chocolate and hazelnut wafers. Just puts a smile on your face.
But there’s detail and nuance too, from interesting florals to heady vanilla/tonka. Some real grace in how the palate plays out too, even when it is wrapped in silky-sweet pasticceria goodness. Cin cin!
NV, disgorged in 2019. This such an assured wine, perfect for anyone trying to get to grips with what Franciacorta Chardonnay is all about.
The fruit is so clear and transparent, sunny but controlled with fragrant peaches, ripe pear and a nice juicy grapefruit bite keeping it keen. 2 years on lees just rounds it out – it doesn’t need more as the body and freshness is right where it should be. It’s not toasty or developed in style. Just pure fruit, perfect for a sunny aperitif. Great value.
Mosnel’s 2015 Satèn is a real charmer. Disgorged October 2019. All estate fruit from Carmignone. Dried yellow apples and pear tart, lovely candied yellow grapefruit and this subtle perfumed note that reminds me of jasmine and Turkish delight.
You’re hit with a lovely peachy/juicy pear ripeness up front, but there is enough transparency and interest – flower, pepper, chalk, even a nicely pitched reductive streak – to stop the sweet-natured fruit running away with the whole show. It would be ungainly, jarring even with a big, zippy, insistent mousse. Silk is where it’s at for this style. Approachable.
100% Chardonnay, steel and oak with 24 months on lees minimum. Dosage 6.5g/l
Peach yoghurt and a slightly funky jackfruit aroma on opening, then some interesting aromatics – a snap of chicory and charred lime peel veer towards herbaceousness, but talc and something lavendar-like add some intrigue. Pineapple sweets. A decent mousse, plateauing with herbal sage and lime flirting round the edges. Not totally harmonious but full of interest. Orange oil on the finish.
This is a little clunky, feeling both over and under-ripe in ways. Pineapple and almond, with sourdough crackers a little yeasty richness but also some tough phenolics and not as much elegance as the other wines here. 15
Blends and Rosé
Chardonnay still tends to dominate, with Pinot Nero is a natural second-in-command (and Pinot Bianco third). The two Ca’ Del Bosco wines below are hard to beat; this producer does have a unique way of injecting energy and direction into their wines. Annamaria Clementi is mightily impressive, but the Vintage Collection wines are superb too (and much more affordable). I did end up wondering whether Annamaria Clementi would edge even a tiny bit higher if they re-introduced just a smidgen of dosage, but you can see why they have taken it in this direction.
I was also impressed by the style of the Antinori wine, which takes a few leaves from Bellavista in its suave coffee-morning confidence. The Guido Berlucchi wines also tend to impress, although the Rosé was not up to the Brut and Satèn this time.
55% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Bianco, 20% Pinot Nero. 18 vineyards in Erbusco, Adro, Corte Franca, Iseo and Passirano. Notable for the high percentage of Pinot Bianco, otherwise declining in importance in Franciacorta. Whole bunch pressed to 39% extraction – coeur de cuvée style. 100% fermented in small oak barrels (minimum 3 yrs old), on which the base wines remain for 6 months. Full malolactic. Disgorged Autumn 2019 with no dosage or sulphite addition.
2010 opens up with explosive charred grapefruit, ripe yellow apples and blossom honey. It manages to tone down anything too peachy or tropical, trading off delicious verbena/bergamot perfume and a gorgeous spicing from white pepper, cinnamon and basil. Shifting in its seat, it gives you a different view every 5 minutes. Proper complexity from blending here.
It’s also pretty remarkable for a 100% oak-aged wine, letting the wood play brilliantly off reductive smoke and frangipane sweetness without smudging the fruit in butter or toffee. Golden crystal fruits just march steadily, evenly, towards more charred grapefruit and spice as it closes out. Lingering almond skin sends you back in. Wonderfully addictive.
It does offer that little squeeze though the mid-palate you get with some zero dosage wines (and a touch of powdery, rocky grip), but here it is refreshing and light, not hollow or abrupt. There’s intensity, but it’s delivered with a cool, steady hand. Will it maintain this poise with age? Who knows! I wouldn’t bet against it.
Fermentation in small barrels for about 5 months. Chardonnay dominant, with a splash of Pinot Blanc and around 30% Pinot Nero.
Cut a slice of ripe grapefruit and beautiful Mediterranean lemon, drizzle it with Demerara and pepper then roast it until just charring..grind up some hazelnuts (you left a bit of coffee in there), then smash it up over a fresh almond croissant. Finish it off with a teeny bit of woodland savour..scrunchy leaves, a little haunting of Pinot…delicious!
It manages to shape that lovely Franciacorta fruit into something with real direction and length. The sweet nature is there, but it is honed, channelled.
78% Chardonnay, 12% Pinot Nero, 10% Pinot Bianco. All steel.
Sweet apple purée on opening, with some pretty raspberry tart and dried peach. It does move up a gear, though, with chocolate croissants and charred clementines completing an alluring, swish kind of nose. It hits with a little fruity paunch up front, with candied fruits and peachy sweetness coloured with smoky charred citrus marmalade. A one act show, but it’s a good one.
85% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Nero, Steel and some small oak.
This took a while to open. Initially it just showed a fruity duo of white peach and slightly chewy citrus, but it opened up to some nice candied ginger, golden apple and fragrant tropicals. A bit butch on the palate on first impressions, seeming young and undeveloped, but there is some elegance and clarity lurking. Fairly priced.
Sweet crabapple, fruit a little muted at first but opening up very slowly with some bitter herbs and grapefruit. The fruit sweetness – nectarine, raspberry – arrives after a while, tagged with a little autolytic and cut with fine phenolic details. Seems a touch charmless and anodyne compared to the others in this range at the moment. Difficult base vintage?
Somehow, I have managed to taste almost three hundred English Sparkling Wines and base wines over the last fifteen months. If you’re expecting the next sentence to read, “…and so I have a clear, informed picture of what’s coming from where”, then I’m afraid what follows may disappoint. There are certainly traits that connect producers. Sometimes these hint at geographical/geological paths, and sometimes they don’t.
For now, the easiest division to make has to do with ripeness; do the wines show attractive fruit, balance and completeness or unbalanced acidity, leanness and green, herbal flavours? Some, with enough lees time and careful blending, can incorporate a little herbaceousness into their wines fairly successfully. Nevertheless, true ripeness, which comes from warmth, light and good viticulture, means bypassing these flavours. Practically all of the top producers now manage this.
Are there whole regions of Southern England that have more trouble ripening than others? This is surely so, although people get it right – and wrong – fairly widely. The effects of crop load (connected to shelter, warmth, clone and viticulture) and vigour (connected to rootstock, soil type, pruning, nutrition and vineyard design) can be very noticeable, delaying ripening and reducing chances of beating greenness even on what appear to be good sites.
Grape handling can impact the perception of ripeness too; sometimes wines emerge from smaller wineries tasting a little herbal or abrasive where they might have come through unscathed from a winery with more sophisticated facilities. Tricky vintages, such as 2015, favour the well-resourced. Add in oak, oxygen management, malolactic fermentation (MLF), lees ageing times and choices at disgorgement and suddenly flavours of style can be mistaken for flavours of origin. Rewind to the dramatic effects of vintage variation and you might find the onion running out of layers to remove.
There are certain resonances, though. Not dead ringers, but wines you might suggest if asked the question “I liked this, what else should I try?”. Wiston’s top wines and Langham’s wines, both off chalk, both daring oppositions of brightness, oak, energy and evolution. Gusbourne’s and Harrow & Hope’s wines, geographically distant but both leaning towards generosity. Rathfinny’s textural polish, approaching Nyetimber’s (although the wines are quite different) but with a cleanliness like Exton Park’s. Black Chalk and its Hampshire neighbours Raimes and Hattingley (especially on the Rosé front). Oxney’s pretty English-ness recalling Breaky Bottom, Bluebell maybe. Hambledon and Coates and Seely, daring, dry, invigorating Hampshire chalk again.
If you do want to taste individual sites in any sort of transparent way, you have to taste base wines made by the same winemaker. With this in mind I went to see Emma Rice at Hattingley Valley, who press grapes from their own vineyards, ‘partner’ vineyards who grow for them, contract winemaking clients and producers on ‘swap deals’ (providing grapes in return for winemaking services). From Essex to Somerset, clay to chalk, the variety is unrivalled.
In response to the idea that the East of England ripens faster than the West, Rice pointed out that both the earliest and the latest fruit she saw in 2020 came from Kent. First in, starting mid-September, was one of Hattingley’s partner vineyards in the Weald on Tonbridge Wells sandstone (on a site that even slopes gently Northwards in places). This included some textured, pink grapefruit-tinged Pinot Noir (with MLF blocked, as Rice often chooses) as well as some particularly good Chardonnay. With natural alcohol of 12%, this was earmarked for still wine. The latest, coming in Mid-October from a young chalk site further East, was tighter, verging on austere.
Essex is a new frontier, and the wines from Hattingley’s new partner vineyards showed abundant, ripe fruit, with the Chardonnay especially strong. These were more settled and less tense than the others on show, even with MLF blocked. Still wine is on the agenda for much of it, although you can certainly taste the potential that these sunnier, expressive wines have for sparkling wine too.
It was also evident what a strong suit of Hampshire wines Hattingley hold. There is a certain style on the chalk here; elegant, fine, clean. There will certainly be some good Hampshire sparkling wines from 2020. As well as some juicy Pinot Meunier from Hattingley’s own vineyards, vineyards at Raimes and the Grange Estate provided some delicate, pure almond/green apple Chardonnay and bright, refined Pinot Noir that was likely to end up in the excellent sparkling Rosé. There was also a delightful rhubarb, cream and cherry-scented red from Pinot Noir clone 115 on chalk that was destined for the sparkling Rosé addition. Whilst the Hampshire grapes came in towards the back end of harvest in mid-October, Rice pointed out that ‘late’ in the UK has traditionally meant the end of October, or even November. Vintages since 2017 have certainly been easier than cool years like 2013 and 2015 for those that come in later.
From here, via small vineyards in Somerset and Berkshire, we took a tour of the barrel hall. Oak is mostly in the background at Hattingley (apart from the King’s Cuvée), and this will remain the case for the still wines. Older oak is also used for tailles here, especially where quantities are small. From an intense, tropical fruit and barley Essex Chardonnay destined for still wine to a delicious tangy apricot-and-quince Pinot Meunier from Hattingley’s own chalk, Rice has an enviable palette of colours to play with.
In a way, Hattingley’s winery is a microcosm of the industry as a whole, still very much at a ‘data-gathering’ stage. This process not only takes decades, it takes successes being duplicated and mistakes being lived, owned and learnt from. The flip-side of a relatively un-regulated industry is that useful information can be secreted away – a site that yields uneconomically but produces a few award-winning wines, bankrolled by another income stream, might prompt someone else into planting a similar site only to find they can’t pay the bills.
Whilst all this is going on, those that are spreading their nets wide across county lines might be sitting the most comfortably. Some single sites are exceptional, yes. What will help to sell the millions of bottles currently in the pipeline, though, is the sort of consistent quality and balance that comes from blending with an open mind – and, for those that have the ability, an open map.