Valpolicella—What’s in a Blend?

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Valpolicella is one of the most beloved red wines of Italy. Produced in Veneto, it is renowned for its rich fruit aromas of black cherry and cranberry, its soft tannins, and its woodsy-spice-wild berry-bitter almond flavors.

Valpolicella is also a wine of many faces. It may be produced in normale, ripasso, amarone, and recioto versions; in superiore, riserva, and spumante styles, and in the Classico and Valpantena subzones.  That’s a lot of versions of Valpolicella!

But the good news for we perpetual students of wine is that all of the variations of Valpolicella require the exact same palate of grape varieties, and it’s fairly simple at that.

For starters, there are only two grapes that are required to be used in Valpolicella. They are Corvina and Rondinella. Corvina must be at least of 45% the blend and Rondinella must be present at a minimum of 5%. So that’s the legal baseline. Above and beyond that, 25% of the blend may be made from a long list of different grape varieties (defined as “red grapes suitable for cultivation in Verona”) with the caveat that no single accessory variety may comprise more than 10% of the total blend.

The basic blend of Valpolicella

The basic blend of Valpolicella

The most well-known of these permitted accessory grapes include Corvinone, Malvasia Nera, Refosco, Marzemino, Molilnara, Oseleta, and Croatina. We’ll discuss all of these (plus Corvina and Rondinella) in a bit more detail below:

King Corvina:  Corvina, which I call King Corvina, is considered to be the superior grape in Valpolicella blends, and may comprise anywhere from 45% to 95% of the total. This grape is also known as Corvina Veronese. The name may have come from the word corvo, meaning “crow” (in reference to the color of the berries) or from the local term cruina, meaning “unripe” (and referring to its late maturation). Corvina provides a light sour cherry flavor, fresh acidity, and a hint of bitter almond to the wines of Valpolicella.

Ruby Rondinella: Rondinella, which I call Ruby Rondinella, is included as part of the Valpolicella blend for its bright ruby-red color, and fruity, cherry-esque flavors. It must be at least 5% of the blend (and is permitted to be up to 30% of the total). Rondinella is the offspring of Corvina and is thought to be named for the term rondini (meaning “swallows”), in reference to the color of the berries.

Cousin Corvinone: I call the Corvinone grape Cousin Corvinone because it was previously believed to be a clone or mutation of Corvina (and thus, technically, the same grape). However, in 1993 (God bless DNA profiling) it was proven to be a distinct variety. After it was discovered to be its own grape, the disciplinare of the Valpolicella wines were updated to allow Corvinone to continue to be used in the wines. As such, it is now allowed to be substituted for up to 50% of the total amount of Corvina used in any given blend.

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Minor Molinara: Molinara freaks people out in reference to Valpolicella, and for good reason. It used to be a required part of the blend, and lots and lots of wine reference materials still state it as so. However, the rules were recently changed, and now Molinara is allowed but not required. The grape is now considered to be not-so-high quality, rather pale, and prone to oxidation (thus its demotion). However, some old-vine Molinara is grown in Veneto—specifically at the Masi, Carlo Boscaini, and Villa Bellini estates—and is used to produce some high-quality wines, some of which are bottled as a (very pale, almost rosé-like in appearance) varietal under the IGT Veronese.  There are reportedly only about 3,300 acres (1,350 ha) of Molinara in Veneto, and these days it definitely plays second fiddle to the Crovina/Rondinella team in Valpolicella. For this reason, I call it Minor Molinara —but Molinara is neither gone nor forgotten.

Obscure Oseleta: The Oseleta grape has been found to be very close to Corvina in terms of both DNA profiling and character. As such, it is an allowed grape in the Valpolicella mix, but it very rarely used. It was—once-upon-a-time—very close to extinction. Luckily, it was recovered beginning in the 1970s, primarily around the small village of Fasola-Pigozzo. Even today, Oseleta is grown in very small amounts (50 acres/20 ha) in the Valpolicella zone; as such, my nickname for the grape is Obscure Oseleta.

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Crazy Croatina: Croatina has earned the nickname Crazy Croatina due to its involvement in one of the craziest grape-name schemes in all of viticulture. See if you can follow this: Croatina is also known as Bonarda, but that is not Argentina’s Bonarda (which is actually Douce Noire). Valpolicella’s Coatina is also NOT Piedmont’s Bonarda (that would be Bonarda Piemontese). Croatina is rather the version of Bonarda that is also grown in  Oltrepò Pavese—however…never forget that there are at least six different grape varieties that sometimes go by the name Bonarda. Crazy. Croatina is actually an interesting little grape, grown sparingly but across a wide swath of northern Italy, and often compared to Nebbiolo in terms of color and character. The name of the grape is derived from the term “Croatian girl,” despite the fact that it is believed to be native to Lombardy.

What else is in a blend? Other grapes that are allowed as part of the Valpolicella blend include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Teroldego. For a more complete list, see the website of the Consorzio Valpolicella.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

A Little bit about the Lot

The town of Estaing on the Lot River

The town of Estaing on the Lot River

The Lot River has its source in south-central France, in a small mountain range known as the Cévennes. The Cévennes Range is part of, and sits alongside, the eastern edge of the much-larger Massif Central.

The highest mountain in the Cévennes is Mont Lozère, rising to 5,575 feet (1,700 m) above sea level.  It is here, on the side of Mont Lozère, that the Lot River begins its 300-mile (482 km) journey as a “winding blue ribbon” through the departments of Lozère, Aveyron, Cantal, Lot, and Lot-et-Garonne. Along this path, the Lot River flows through the AOC wine regions of Estaing, Entraygues-Le Fel, and Cahors before joining the Garonne for the final trip to the sea.

From its beginning in the Cévennes, the Lot River flows for about 60 miles alongside a plain known as L’Aubrac—named for the small town of Aubrac located on its western side. This high plateau extends almost 1,000 square miles, and was created by a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred over 6 million years ago. The plateau of L’Aubrac is somewhat defined by the Lot River; the Lot River itself forms the southern boundary, while the Truyère River defines the northern border.

On its journey across the Aubrac Plateau, the Lot River flows through the town of Estaing. Estaing is considered to be one of the most picturesque towns in all of France. Estaing is also the recipient of a rather new AOC, awarded in 2011. The wines of the Estaing AOC are red, white, or rosé, and typically dry (although off-dry styles are permitted).

The Valentre Bridge over the Lot River (Cahors)

The Valentre Bridge over the Lot River (Cahors)

The white wines of the Estaing AOC are based on a minimum of 50% Chenin Blanc and a minimum of 10% Mauzac; the remainder may include up to 25% Saint-Côme (a local grape also known as Rousselou). The red and rosé wines are based on Gamay, with Fer (Fer Servadou) required in the reds, and two accessory varieties (chosen from a long list of allowed, obscure varieties) required in the rosés.

The western boundary of the Aubrac Plateau is about ten miles upriver from Estaing, at the town of Entraygues-sur-Truyère.  Entraygues-sur-Truyère was founded where the Truyère River (a right tributary of the Lot) flows into the Lot River as it continues its journey down the eastern foothills of the Massif Central.

From Entraygues-sur-Truyère, the Lot River twists and turns for about 4 more miles before it reaches the town of Le Fel. Between these two towns you will find the terraced vineyards of the obscure yet delightful Entraygues-Le Fel AOC. This is a tiny AOC, consisting of about 50 acres in total.

Red, white, and rosé wines are produced here; they are mostly dry but off-dry styles are allowed as well. The white wines of the Entraygues-Le Fel AOC are based on a minimum of 90% Chenin Blanc; the remaining 10% may comprise either Mauzac or Saint-Côme. The red and rosé wines are blends, based on Fer, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus small allowed amounts of Mouyssaguès and Négret de Banhars. No single grape may be more than 60% of the blend.

Panoramic view of Cahors, surrounded by the Lot River

Panoramic view of Cahors, surrounded by the Lot River

After leaving the town of Le Fel, the Lot River twists and turns through the hills, limestone plateaus, and valleys for about 70 more miles until it reaches the town of Cahors. Here, the Malbec-dominated vineyards of the Cahors AOC follow the twists and turns of the Lot River for over 25 miles. Cahors is a red wine-only AOC, producing the deep, dark, spicy wines known as the “Black Wine of Cahors.” Cahors AOC is produced using a minimum of 70% Malbec, with Tannat and Merlot allowed for the remainder.

The vineyards of Cahors are planted on two distinct soils; those closest to the river are planted on gravelly slopes, while those farther from the river are planted on the area’s limestone plateaus (known as the Causses). Wines produced using grapes planted on the limestone plateaus are known to be more tannic and austere, while grapes planted closer to the river produce wines that are fruitier and more approachable while young.

After the Lot River leaves the vineyards of Cahors behind, it continues to wind its way for another 60 miles before it reaches the town of Aiguillon. At Aiguillon (a commune of the aptly-named Lot-et-Garonne Department), the Lot River joins the Garonne River for its final journey through the vineyards of Bordeaux, into the Gironde Estuary, and finally out to sea.

Map of the Lot River by Lemen, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Lot River by Lemen, via Wikimedia Commons

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

Marselan from Marseillan

Photo of Marselan Grapes by Vbecart Photography, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Marselan Grapes by Vbecart Photography, via Wikimedia Commons

I first heard of the grape variety Marselan while studying – for the first time – the wines of China. China, as you may have heard, recently became the world’s second-place country in terms of vineyard holdings – coming in on the list right after Spain, and before France. While many of China’s vineyards are dedicated to table grapes, wine grapes, including vinifera varieties, now account for at least 10% of the vines. Of the vinifera varieties grown, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, followed by Carmenère, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Gamay, Grenache, and Marselan.

There it was: Marselan – a grape variety I had never heard of before – so of course I had to investigate…

Marselan is a vinifera cross (Cabernet Sauvignon X Grenache) created in 1961 by French ampelographer Paul Truel. Truel was working in Montpellier, France at the Institut National de la Recherché Agronomique (INRA). His goal was to create a high yielding grape with large berries of at least moderate quality. Marselan produces grape berries of small-to-medium size, so the variety was shelved and not expected to have a future in commercial wine production.

However…by the 1990’s viticultural priorities had shifted, and disease resistance, particularly to threats such as powdery mildew and coulure, brought Marselan out of cold storage. The grape was approved by the French as a commercial variety in 1990 and in 2007 was approved by the TTB (United States) as a varietal wine name.

At its best, Marselan is said to combine the finesse and quality of Cabernet Sauvignon with the heat tolerance and high yield of Grenache. According to Jancis Robinson’s book “Wine Grapes,” varietal Marselan “tends to produce deeply colored and highly aromatic wines that have supple tannins and the potential to age.”

In addition to its plantings in China, Marselan is planted – albeit in small amounts – throughout the south of France. It is allowed to be up to 10% of the blend in the wines of the Côtes du Rhône AOC, and is produced as a varietal wine in the Languedoc. Small plantings may also be found in California, Argentina, Arizona, Spain, Uruguay, and Brazil.

The grape was named “Marselan” by its creator, in homage to the town of Marseillan, France. Marseillan is the home of the phylloxera-free vine collection of Domaine de Vassal, operated by the INRA. Domaine de Vassal provided the parent Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache vines from which the original Marselan was bred.

References:

  • Robinson, Jancis (et al): Wine Grapes. New York, 2012: Harper Collins Publishers
  • Robinson, Jancis and Harding, Julia: The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4rd Edition. Oxford, 2015: The Oxford University Press
  •  http://www.winechina.com/en/

The Diurnal Difference

diurnal 3Simply put, an area’s diurnal temperature variation is the difference between the high temperature and the low temperature of a single day.  That’s easy enough to understand…but as a perpetual wine student, I hear (and use) this term all the time – and wanted to know a bit more about this “diurnal swing” and the factors behind it. Thus began another wild internet search for information!

Here are some of the more interesting things I discovered:

1: Diurnal temperature variation throughout the world varies from a low of approximately 7°F/4°C (experienced in Hong Kong in July) to 100°F/56 °C (the Guinness World Record, set in Browning, Montana in January of 1916). On average, most locations experience a diurnal temperature swing of 20-30°F/12-17°C.

2: To understand the diurnal temperature variation, we need to understand how the portion of the earth that we inhabit warms up and cools down. Basically, there are two sources of heat: the sun (solar radiation) and the ground, which slowly absorbs the sun’s heat over the course of the day. After the sun sets, the ground begins to radiate its stored heat back out, heating the air until it is depleted, which on a hot, humid day usually occurs right around dawn.

3: Diurnal swing generally decreases with proximity to the sea and other large bodies of water, and increases with the impact and amount of solar radiation. Other factors include elevation, humidity, day length, and clouds; as described below.

  • diurnal 4Elevation: High-elevation vineyard regions brag about their large diurnal swings for good reason: as mountain areas are located further from the large expanse of sun-heated ground surface, they receive less heat-radiation energy as the ground cools at night – meaning they cool off faster than do the surrounding valleys.
  • Humidity: Water vapor in the air very efficiently absorbs radiation – both solar radiation and radiation that is released from the ground.  This reduces the amount of heat reaching the ground, keeping daytime temperatures low (although we humans may not always appreciate this), and also reduces the amount of heat released from the ground – keeping the ground warm and nighttime temperatures high. The lack of humidity is one of the main factors that desert areas are known for large diurnal temperature swings.
  • Day length: Longer days understandably make for more heating, which can equate to larger diurnal variations. Day length in terms of daylight hours is determined by season as well as geographic location – high-latitude areas closest to the poles have longer days in summer, and shorter days in winter than those closest to the equator. In locations close to – or on – the equator, day length may vary by a mere 7 minutes over the course of a year!
  • Clouds: The presence of clouds decreases the diurnal swing. During the day, clouds absorb and release sunlight, reflecting heat radiation back out into space – making for less heat overall. On cloudy nights, heat is trapped near the ground, making for warmer nights – and less day-to-night variation.
  • Wind: Winds can cause the warm air radiating off the ground to mix with the cooler air a few feet above; thus mixing the warmer and cooler air and resulting in a decrease in diurnal swing.

We all know that diurnal temperature swings can be conducive to viticulture, by allowing the grapes to develop their sugary ripeness during the warm days, while still allowing the grapes to hold onto high levels of acidity when photosynthesis shuts down at night. Hopefully now – we also know why and how these fluctuations can occur!

References:

Five Fascinating Facets of Flor

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana (producers of La Gitana Manzanilla) in Sanlúcar de Barrameda – photo by Caleteron via Wikimedia Commons

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana (producers of La Gitana Manzanilla) in Sanlúcar de Barrameda – photo by Caleteron via Wikimedia Commons

Ok, I apologize for the gratuitous alliteration, but you have to admit…flor – the indigenous yeast cells that form a “veil” on the surface of certain types of Sherry as it ages – is fascinating. Flor (meaning “flower” in Spanish) is a subject that just seems to get more interesting the closer you look. As a matter of fact, I had a hard time limiting the information I found to just five facets!

#1: Flor is what separates the Finos from the Olorosos. Flor is a film-forming yeast (actually, several related strains of yeast) that is indigenous to the region around the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry DO. Flor is the main factor that causes the myriad types and styles of Sherry to divide roughly into three camps – Fino, Hybrid, and Oloroso – based on the extent of flor influence. Fino Sherries (such as those labeled as Fino or Manzanilla) are aged under the somewhat constant influence of flor. Oloroso Sherries (labeled as Oloroso or sometimes as Cream Sherry) are aged entirely without flor; while hybrids (such as Amontillado and Palo Cortado) are aged partially with flor and partially without.

#2: Flor is that “something in the air” in Jerez. Flor imparts its magic by finding its way from the air to the young base wines being prepared each year. The flor starts to develop in the base wines, and, after the wine is fortified – as long as the maximum level of alcohol remains around 15% by volume or less – and placed in a barrel, the yeast will reproduce and start to form a veil (velo in Spanish) that covers the surface of the wine in the barrel like a blanket.  The veil has been described as a waxy foam, about two centimeters thick; or as a light “cottony” film. The “blanket” formed by flor is sturdiest and palest in spring and autumn and turns rather thin and grey in summer and winter. Talia Baiocchi, in her new book “Sherry: The Wine Industry’s Best-Kept Secret” describes a thick film of flor as resembling a “1970s popcorn ceiling.”

Sherry barrel with transparent front to demonstrate the natural development of flor - Photo by El Pantera via Wikimedia Commons

Sherry barrel with transparent front to demonstrate the natural development of flor – Photo by El Pantera via Wikimedia Commons

#3: Flor protects the wine from oxidation in a variety of ways. The veil that is created via the action of flor protects the wine resting beneath it in a myriad of ways. For one, it simply forms a protective barrier between the wine in the barrel and the oxygen above it. In addition, the flor actually consumes some of the oxygen around it, as well as some of the alcohol, glycerol, and (if present) sugar. Thus, Fino Sherries tend to be pale in color, light in body, and bone-dry.

#4 – The collective effects of flor – referred to as “biological aging” – are amazing. The main benchmark for biological aging is considered to be the wine’s aroma. Simply put, contact with flor (both while it is alive, and after it expires and sinks to the bottom of the barrel as lees) may create up to 1,000 milligrams per liter of acetaldehyde in the wine. That is, according to Ruben Luyten of the blog Sherry Notes, more than twenty times the amount of acetaldehyde found in most table wines.  Acetaldehyde’s aromas have been described, variously, as rancid apple, apple cider, almond, hazelnut, and even straw or hay. The presence of flor will also lead to an increase of in other highly aromatic compounds, such as lactones and terpenes, which may add an array of aromas – from dried herbs to green walnuts, mushrooms, and baking spices – to the wine.

#5: Flor has some definitive preferences as to climate and conditions.  Flor can only survive in wine that has an alcohol level of somewhere below 15% abv – but that’s just the beginning of its ways. Flor also needs a good deal of humidity in the air, which explains why Fino Sherries thrive in certain areas, such as the cooler, coastal areas around Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, while Oloroso Sherries (which are aged without flor) thrive in the hotter, drier, more inland areas around Jerez. It is well-known that solera systems (and the buildings that surround them) are often at ground level (as opposed to an underground cellar) and built with high ceilings or even left partially open to the elements, so as to encourage air flow. It’s also rumored that bungs are left gently in place in Fino Soleras to encourage the movement of the humid air inside the barrels.

Flight of Fino Sherries at London’s Bar Pepito – Photo by Ewan Munro via Wikimedia Commons

Flight of Fino Sherries at London’s Bar Pepito – Photo by Ewan Munro via Wikimedia Commons

While wines produced “under a veil” are somewhat uncommon around the world, there are a few shining examples besides Fino Sherries. These include the Vin Jaune of France’s Côtes du Jura AOC, certain types of Tokaji, a “Vin de Voile” produced by Domaine Plageoles in France’s Gaillac region, and the “Condado Pálido” produced in Spain’s Condado de Huelva DO, among others.  While these wines undergo a similar style of biological aging, it is not certain that they use the same strain(s) of yeast as are found in Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, and, of course, each of these wines is made in its own conditions of climate-atmosphere-terroir. Thus, we can safely say that there’s nothing in the world quite like the flor of Jerez, the protective foam-blanket it creates, and the resulting Fino Sherry.

References:

The Southern Alps, Mount Cook, and the Nor’westers

Mount Hood Hiking Path

Mount Hood Hiking Path

Students of New Zealand wine are familiar with the mountain range known as The Southern Alps. They can probably tell you that the mountain range extends along much of the length of New Zealand’s South Island, forming a rain shadow that keeps a good portion of the eastern side of the island warm and dry. For this reason, the wine regions of Marlborough, Canterbury, and Central Otago are able to grow some of the finest Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir in the world.

The Southern Alps run for about 275 miles, forming a natural dividing range along the entire length of the South Island. New Zealanders often refer to the range as the Main Divide, as it separates the more heavily populated eastern side of the island from the somewhat wilder west coast. A large portion of the mountain range, which includes glaciers, glacial valleys, and lakes, is inaccessible except to the heartiest of mountaineers, and enjoys the protection of the National Park Service.

The highest peak in New Zealand, Mount Cook (also known by the Maori name “Aoraki,” said to mean “Cloud-Piercer”) is part of the Southern Alps.  At 12,218 feet high, Mount Cook is a dangerous but popular challenge for mountain climbers.  Aoraki/Mount Cook consists of three summits – the Low Peak, the Middle Peak, and the High Peak – surrounded by the Tasman Glacier to the east and the Hooker Glacier to the west.  The settlement of Mount Cook Village is a tourist center and serves as a base camp for climbers. For the adventurous, the area offers a wealth of hiking and skiing as well as star-gazing at Mount John Observatory in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – the largest dark sky reserve area in the world.

Nor'west Arch over Canterbury Photo by Jman Matthews

Nor’west Arch over Canterbury Photo by Jman Matthews

The prevailing westerly winds known as the “roaring forties” push in from across the Southern Ocean and the Tasman Sea, bringing along with them a host of moist air, much of it aimed directly at the west coast of New Zealand. When the winds bump up against the mountains of the Southern Alps, they are forced upward, and this force cools the air, and condenses the moisture to rain. The cold air and precipitation are kept on the west side of the island, thus creating the warmer, drier conditions on the eastern side of the island where the majority of the population (and vineyards) live.

The prevailing west winds also create a weather pattern known as the nor’wester. As the ocean breezes rise up the west side of the mountains and drop their rain, the wind turns warm and dry as it descends down the eastern side of the mountains, similar to the Zonda often experienced in Mendoza. These warm, dry winds play a major role in the intermittent droughts experienced by Canterbury and other regions on New Zealand’s eastern coasts.

A more pleasant side effect of the nor’wester winds is a cloud formation unique to the South Island of New Zealand known as a “nor’west arch.” A nor’west arch appears in the sky as an arch of cloud in an otherwise blue sky, and is frequently visible in the summer across Canterbury and North Otago.

If you are interested in learning more about the unique terroir of New Zealand, join me for my SWEbinar on “Greywacke and Gravel “ on Saturday, October 11th at 10:00 am Central Time!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas

Context is Queen: I know this post seems a bit far-fetched for a wine post…but…I’ve found in teaching or studying a subject as complex as wine, it helps to know the context. While a wine student may memorize the fact that the Southern Alps form a rain shadow for parts of New Zealand, taken out of context, that bit of information will remain what students (not so kindly) call a “factoid” and others may call “trivia.” Such things are hard to remember, and even more difficult to understand. However, with a bit of context, especially at the human level (“what can you do there, do I want to go there, that looks cool/scary/weird…”) these facts become much easier to remember, use, and understand. So that’s what this post is all about – content is king, and context is queen!

 

Map Happy

PortugalAs part of my “day” job as the Director of Education for the Society of Wine Educators, I just finished (with a lot of help) a HUGE project revising, renewing, and updating all of SWE’s wine maps.

Here’s a copy of a super-pretty one as a sample, and you can have access to a complete set of 43 different maps – both jpegs and pdf – over at the “map page” on SWE’s website.

Enjoy your studies!