The Domaine by Lidewij Van Wilgen, pt.3
At the height of her career, Lidewij Van Wilgen gave up her job at Saatchi in Amsterdam to start a new life in the French countryside and become a wine maker, producing the beautiful Mas des Dames. She wrote a book about her experience, Het Domein (The Domaine), which became a best seller in The Netherlands. Read excerpt one: First Impressions and excerpt two: Where I'm From now. Chapters 6 and 7: First Weeks at Mas des Dames The winery is like an island. We’re all alone in this sea of green fields. Every once in a while, out in the distance I see a farmer on an old tractor looking in our direction. I follow his gaze, see our brand new machinery glinting in the sun in front of the cellar, and wonder what he makes of it all. In the shade of the almond tree in front of the wine cellar, Siebe, our vintner, is talking to Bruno, our main worker. I stare at the white jerry cans on the ground with their death heads and choking fish symbols. I kneel down to read one of the labels: très nocif pour le milieu aquatique - highly toxic to aquatic organisms. I think of the small stream down below and the little fish swimming in it. ‘Is it really necessary to do so much spraying?’ I ask. Bruno frowns at me. Suddenly, I see myself as if from a distance, the city girl in her trendy skirt. What would I know about weed killers and pesticides? Four days later, Adrien and I drive two anxious little girls to school. As we park our sleek blue Land Rover between two old Peugeots, I feel ill at ease – it’s shocking to see just how out of tune we are with our surroundings. At the school gate several small groups of women are chatting idly. Adrien's jovial 'Bonjour!' is acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, but is followed quickly by a resounding silence. These people all know each other; we are complete outsiders. Intruders almost. When we walk outside Adrien puts his arm around me. His attempts at reassuring me are quickly smothered by a scene in my mind’s eye that is so overpowering it leaves me gasping: Marijn, sitting on the floor in a beam of sunlight at her Montessori school back in Haarlem. I feel the tears welling up as I picture the jigsaw puzzles spread around her, the children's artwork hanging on the walls, all her little friends. What on earth are we doing here? --- 'Hey, that’s a perfect job for me!’ I say a few days later when Siebe is about to send Mia back into the vineyards to test the grapes for ripeness. Siebe fires me an admonishing look. ‘No, no,’ he says, gesturing at me to sit down. ‘Look, for this kind of work you have to be systematic. You can't just pick one hundred individual grapes at random; you have to have a system. ‘Fine,’ I say, ‘then I'll choose a couple of different rows in each section, and I'll make sure to pick at different heights.’ I stand up to go but Siebe doesn’t move, so I sit down again. He sighs and says: ‘No, Lidewij, I can't let you do this, no way. We’ve been using Mia's system right from the start. The results wouldn't be consistent if I suddenly let someone else pick the samples. It’s just not possible, sorry.’ ‘Are we going to harvest the grapes soon?’ I ask Siebe when he stops by that afternoon. ‘Harvest? Us?’ He regards me with something approaching pity, the silly child who's asked yet another stupid question. ‘Lidewij,’ he says wearily, ‘you have to understand that our quality criteria are a lot different from those of a cooperative. They have to gather the grapes on time from a host of different coopérateurs. So they have to start early. But we can wait until that precise moment of optimal ripeness.’ He takes a grape from one of the bags on the kitchen counter. ‘Here, take a look at the seed.’ He pops a grape into his mouth and then shows me the seed on the end of his index finger. ‘See the tip of the seed? It's still green. A grape isn't ripe until the seed has gone completely brown.’ I put a grape into my own mouth and take out the seed. He’s right; the top of it is still green - not yet ripe. ‘You can taste the seed as well,’ he goes on. ‘A ripe one has a roasted-almond flavour, not that sour, greenish taste.’ He takes another grape and bites it in half. ‘Look at this one. Do you see that? The seed is still stuck to the flesh. In a grape that is ripe the seed comes away real easy.’ I have just learned three extremely useful empirical criteria, with the result that I end up eating a lot more grapes over the next few days than is strictly necessary. I get a kick out of being able to follow the grapes' maturation process myself now using this simple, timeworn method. It comes as no surprise to me a week later when Siebe announces that the grenache blanc grapes are ready for harvesting. I had already come to the exact same conclusion myself. As Mas des Dames' UK importer, we're publishing a series of excerpts from Lidewij's book. Read excerpt one: First Impressions and excerpt two: Where I'm From now - and check back soon for the next part.
Three Things to Love About Urban Wineries
The Urban Winery Revolution With the capital’s third urban winery set to open later this year, London is on the verge of an exciting artisanal winemaking revolution. Londoners are embracing a winemaking phenomenon that started stateside over ten years ago and has now spread across the world, from Sweden to Japan. The notion is simple: wine is made in a city setting using fruit sourced from indigenous – or international – vineyards. Innovations in technology and logistics have meant that grapes can be transported relatively quickly from rural vineyards to a production site many miles away, and remain in excellent condition. The idea took off in the USA in the early millennium with Seattle-based winemakers creating wine from Washington State grapes. Americans fell in love with the concept and city wineries began to spring up all over, with a huge scene developing in San Francisco, as well as Portland, Oregon. Now, many of the world’s major urban hubs boast a city-dwelling winery including Paris, New York, Stockholm, Sydney and Hong Kong. With the term’s recent inclusion in wine lover’s bible ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine’ and our very own London Cru turning four this September, we thought it was high time to celebrate three of the things we love about urban wineries. 1. Access Traditionally, wine aficionados had to travel to remote areas to learn about winemaking or see a producer’s winery. With more and more wineries based in cities, it’s easier than ever to see how wine is actually produced, and to keep up to date with the winemaking process and latest releases. You can enjoy the fun of visiting a winery without leaving the personality of your city behind. Many urban wineries offer the space for hire, or host interesting wine events alongside their winemaking activities. With no need to drive miles into the countryside, you can relax, and enjoy a glass (or three) of wine among the tanks and barrels in which it was made. What’s more, there’s often an opportunity to get involved in the process. Whether it’s help pressing grapes or assisting with getting the wines through the bottling line, there’s always a chance to learn and develop your wine knowledge in a hands-on way. This leads to city-based wineries having a real community-feel, with local people mucking in and taking part. 2. Flexibility Vintage variation has always been somewhat of a problem in the wine industry, especially in Europe. A lack of sunshine, lots of rain or even a big hail storm can have a devastating effect on yield. Urban wineries don’t tend to be tied to a particular vineyard, and by their very nature are located a fair distance away. This gives the winery huge flexibility when it comes to choosing grapes for the year ahead. For example, most years London Cru makes a wine from English grapes (usually a variety called Bacchus). However, in 2015 there weren’t many good quality Bacchus grapes around, so they made a fantastic Albariño from Spain’s Rías Baixas region instead. This flexibility means urban wineries never have to make do with the grapes they have – they can constantly seek out the best of every year, to make the best possible wine they can. 3. Innovation The wine industry is still somewhat shackled to a traditional fuddy-duddy reputation of dusty bottles, huge châteaux and thick, complicated wine lists. Urban wineries are leading the charge to banish this image, showing that you don’t need a huge estate to make great wine. Winemaking regions across the world have strict guidelines about what you can and can’t do. These regulations are intended to protect the reputation of the region’s traditional wine style, but sometimes force producers to make inferior wines. For example, regulations in Tuscany long forced winemakers to add poor quality white grapes to their red Chianti wines. Being city-based allows urban wineries to rip up the rulebook, experimenting and innovating to their heart’s content. Want to find out more about our city winery London Cru? Following refurbishment in September 2017, London Cru will re-open with a regular calender of events and tastings.
What is Terroir?
In this three part series - The Grape Story - we’ll be weighing in on subjects which are the topic of some of the fiercest debates in grape growing and winemaking. Read Part 1 - What is a Grape Variety? - now The Grape Story Part 2 - What is Terroir? A dozen growers will give a dozen different definitions for terroir. Theoretically, it’s the idea of grapes coming from a region or vineyard with a specific sense of place, which couldn’t be replicated. There are several factors which constitute terroir, and many literary pieces and educational materials have been devoted to the elaboration of the idea. However, fundamentally, there are 5 key concepts which must be considered when defining terroir. Climate The climate of a site refers to its annual weather patterns over a significant period of time. Weather patterns change year-on-year, but the overall climate remains relatively unchanged. A famous (unconfirmed) Mark Twain quote reads: “climate is what we expect; weather is what we get.” Parameters by which climates are assessed include – average rainfall, length of the growing season (the number of days between bud burst and harvest), and continentality (the difference between the average temperature of the hottest and coldest month). The climate of a given site or region will largely influence the grape varieties which can be successfully ripened, and the styles of wines produced. There are several different climatic categories, of which only three or four are of interest to the modern viticulturist. A Continental climate is characterised by bitterly cold winters and hot summers, with a short to medium growing season. Winter runs well into February and harvests usually begin at the end of September. Rainfall is usually moderate (500-650mm), most of which occurs outside the growing season. Burgundy, Canada’s Niagara Peninsular and Tasmania all fall within this category, which is known for crisp whites and lean reds from varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. Maritime climates are characterised by mild winters and warm summers, with a medium to long growing season. Their temperatures are usually moderated by large bodies of moving water, such as the Gironde River in Bordeaux. The high rainfall (900mm+) usually occurs in and around the autumn period, bringing with it an increased risk of fungal disease. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc typically dominate this class – think Bordeaux varietals. Mediterranean climates are characterised by very hot summers, mild winters and low rainfall (below 500mm). Most of California’s Central Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and parts of Tuscany fall within this category, which is most suitable to heat loving varieties such as Zinfandel, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Weather With the climate of a region or site being known, the weather refers to the actual daily, weekly and monthly conditions. We know to expect cold winters from continental climates and high rainfall from maritime climates, but what actually pans out is what makes up the weather. The weather conditions of a given year determine the actual quality of the fruit grown and wine made. This is why certain vintages are more prized than others, Bordeaux 2009 for example. A hot and relatively dry year in a maritime climate can produce some truly stunning wines, while a cool and wet autumn in a continental climate will produce some overly acidic wines as grapes struggle to reach adequate ripeness levels. Altitude Altitude refers to location with respect to sea-level. For every altitude increase of 100m there is a 0.5-0.6°C reduction in temperature. This is often a key consideration for Mediterranean climates, where cooler sites are prized for their ability to slow down the ripening process, thus aiding in the development of complex flavours, and for their acid retention capabilities. Some of Argentina’s best wines come from regions such as Tupungato, which sits at 3250ft (999m) altitude – which roughly translates to a 5-6°C drop in temperature compared to the valley floors. Aspect Aspect simply refers to the angle of the slope – both the gradient of inclination and the direction of the slope are of interest to the grower. The sun rises from the east and sets in the west, therefore east facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere are particularly prized, as they capture most of the morning sun. While this is advantageous in a continental climate where sunlight and warmth is met with a toast to Dionysus, it might prove problematic in a Mediterranean climate where cooler growing conditions are preferred, as they slow down the ripening process and help control the tendency for high grape sugar content ergo, highly alcoholic wines. The angle of the slope not only determines how well the site drains, but also the extent to which mechanisation might be possible. While many growers wax lyrical about the significant benefits of hand harvesting, the reality is that this can be up to 10 times more expensive than mechanical harvesting. However, slopes with a gradient in excess of 35-40% generally prove to be problematic for vineyard machinery. Soil Soils vary in texture, composition, moisture content, nutrient levels and water retention capacity. Gravel soils are generally lauded for their free draining and heat retention capabilities. These free-draining soils force the vines to grow deep roots, which is beneficial to their longevity and ability to cope with adverse growing conditions. Gravel soils also dry up quicker after precipitation, thereby minimising the risk of fungal diseases which can arise from damp growing conditions. Chalky subsoil can also be beneficial as chalk can soak up excess rain, acting as an underground water reserve for the vines. The concept of terroir isn’t simply the climate, weather, rainfall, aspect or type of soil which a region or site possesses, but how these individual components advantageously work together to produce better quality grapes and ultimately, better wine. The hill of Corton in Beaune offers a unique terroir, in that it is located in the heart of a continental climate region (Burgundy), with mainly clay and limestone soils, and the south facing aspect of the slope is able to capture most of the morning sun which aids ripening. However, at 200-350m altitude, the ripening processes are slow and meticulous, allowing for the formation of complex flavours and aromas. Combined with favourable weather conditions over a given growing season, this terroir can produce truly exceptional and distinctive wines.
The Domaine by Lidewij Van Wilgen, pt.2
At the height of her career, Lidewij Van Wilgen gave up her job at Saatchi in Amsterdam to start a new life in the French countryside and become a wine maker, producing the beautiful Mas des Dames. She wrote a book about her experience, Het Domein (The Domaine), which became a best seller in The Netherlands. In this excerpt from Chapter Two, Where I'm From, Lidewij discusses her growing sense of dissatisfaction with her pre-Mas des Dames life in Amsterdam. Read chapter one, First Impressions, now. Two years previously: I am sitting at a large glass desk complete with arty aluminium lamp and mandatory stack of files. I am thirty-two years old, a director of strategy at an advertising agency in Amsterdam, and with eight years of experience almost a veteran in my chosen field. At twenty-five I got married to Adrien, a young copywriter. For our honeymoon Adrien and I decide to hire a yacht in Greece. We set sail from Athens for the island of Hydra and in the days that follow we drop anchor at islands where the only inhabitants are families that look after the local lighthouse or who scrape a living from the sea in their small fishing boats. We navigate our way through fierce storms and fall into bed every night thoroughly exhausted but also with a feeling of intense satisfaction. Every evening we manage to find a ramshackle restaurant where we can eat with our feet in the sand. The menu is the same everywhere. Greek salad. Chicken. Sardines. Swordfish. We drink retsina in the blissful awareness that this is all we will ever need and are ridiculously happy. The shock is enormous when we return to the Netherlands. Was it really this busy when we left? --- Marijn is born in our bedroom on the Westerhout Park and takes her place in our world without fuss or complaint. She has not yet turned two when our second child arrives: Fiene. Effortlessly, I find another bottomless well of love from which to draw and Fiene expends equally little effort in finding her place next to Marijn. I am now a member of the colourful brigade that fills the narrow streets of Haarlem: the army of Trendy Young Mothers. Can life be too perfect? Maslow's hierarchy of needs: when the essentials are fulfilled you will inevitably move on to the next set of needs. Suddenly, there it is again, the restlessness we felt when we came back from our honeymoon. It's like having a ticking clock in the room. You can go for hours without noticing it, but once the sound gets into your head there's simply no getting rid of it. I make friends with a few of the women in the area. They are all very nice but I can't help thinking how alike we all are. We all have a university education, work in the creative industry, have two or three children and drive a Volvo. We drink cappuccino and rosé and discuss our work, our children, our spouses and families – the world is our oyster, and we intend to eat it. A mere two years later I will find myself desperate to have just one of these women living near to me. But right now one thought in particular occupies my mind: my life is not something I have created myself but rather a perfect replica of the lives of everyone else around me. Back in the office I read through my latest assignment for the fourth time. I start planning the campaign. How many strategies can I come up with? Ten? Twelve? I know them all inside out by now and could commit them to paper in my sleep. I find that I am unmoved these days when I receive a compliment at the end of a presentation. It wasn't that difficult, after all. In the meantime, Adrien is having to deal with his own problems at work. In the evenings, when the children are in bed, we draw some small comfort from engaging in conversations along the lines of: ‘What if we decided to do something completely different?’ ‘Like what?’ ‘I don't know. Move abroad or something, find some space, follow the sun.’ It feels good to entertain these fantasies every now and then. Lots of our friends do the very same thing. It's a kind of hobby for young and spoiled people like us. As Mas des Dames' UK importer, we're publishing a series of excerpts from Lidewij's book. Read chapter three: First Weeks at Mas des Dames now.
What is a Grape Variety?
In this three part series - The Grape Story - we’ll be weighing in on subjects which are the topic of some of the fiercest debates in grape growing and winemaking. The Grape Story Part 1 - What is a Grape Variety? The grape varieties we see on a daily basis are only a small fraction of a much larger and complex family. Biologically, they belong to the Vitaceae Family, of the Genus Vitis, Sub-genus Euvites (the other genus being Muscadinia), Species Vinifera (there are several other species within the same sub-genus). To give some context, there are 79 different accepted species within the Euvites sub-genus and, within the Vitis Vinifera species, exist over 1000 different grape varieties. While this gives the grower plenty of choice when deciding which variety to plant, it can be extremely complicated for many wine drinkers to understand. To make things even more exciting, as with other plants and animals, the grape vine throws up natural mutations over time. These mutations could be subtle, such as tighter bunched grapes, fatter grapes, or smaller, more concentrated grapes, or enormous, as is the case when a red variety suddenly produces a bunch containing white grapes (grapes with no skin pigments). If cuttings were taken from this arm and planted out, a new variety which shares a similar DNA profile with the parent (red) grape, but shows different physiological traits, could begin life. This is indeed how varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris (known as Pinot Grigio in Italy) began life, from a Pinot Noir mutation. Within Pinot Noir itself there are several dozen clones available. A clone is made by taking cuttings from a single original plant; therefore, the clone is genetically identical to its parent plant. For example, the Pinot Noir AM 10/5 clone, which was largely planted out in New Zealand in the 1970’s, was taken from the 5th vine in the 10th row of Anton Meier’s original vineyard in Switzerland. Today, clonal research is carried out by dedicated Universities and research centres, whose name is often given to the clone - Dijon clone 777, 116, 117, and UC Davis Clone 6 and 7, are a few examples. Grape Crosses Research into grape varieties has been going on for as long as man has grown grapes commercially. Riesling has been a German darling for centuries, but it is a notoriously late ripening variety in Germany. However, varieties such as Silvaner ripen relatively early. Could it be that by crossing Silvaner and Riesling, one could produce a variety with Riesling-like characteristics, which ripened earlier like Silvaner? This question gave rise to a whole load of German crosses (a crossing is variety spawn by breeding varieties within the same species). Varieties such as Bacchus (Riesling X Silvaner X Muller-Thurgau) and Muller-Thurgau (Riesling X Madeliene Royale) are both very successful crossings. However, crossings aren’t always successful; just because your mother is athletic and your father is academic, doesn’t mean you’ll grow up to be an athletic-academic. Crossing also certainly happened naturally and DNA profiling has helped to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of the ancestry of some ancient varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon for example, has been shown to be an offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, while Chardonnay has been shown to be a descendant of Gouais Blanc. Grape Hybrids Once research into crossings was on its way, it was only a short step to producing hybrids. If a crossing is the product of two varieties belonging to the same species, a hybrid is the product of varieties belonging to two different species. While hybrids generally have an unfairly poor reputation, a successful hybrid such as Vidal Blanc (Ugni Blanc X Seibel 4986) is responsible for some of Canada’s most delicious Ice Wines. All quality wine produced in the E.U must be made from 100% Vitis Vinifera varieties, or from varieties with a special exception. These varieties need to be tested to determine if they have enough Vitis Vinifera in their parentage and have to pass a tasting test; hence hybrid varieties such as Rondo and Regent, which are permitted for making quality wine in England. Other Grape Species On the face of it, other Vitis species such as Berlandieri, Riparia, and Rupestris might seem purposeless, but this couldn’t be further from the truth and modern grape growing wouldn’t be what it is today without these unsung heroes. It is common knowledge that soils differ from region to region and, sometimes, even within the same region. The limestone rich soils of Champagne can prove problematic for grape growing and Champagne vines often suffer from Chlorosis (a yellowing of the leaves due to lack of nutrients - in this case iron, which is locked in the soils due to the high calcium carbonate content). However, Vitis Berlandieri roots can tolerate soils with high lime content and are invaluable for growers in such regions. The Champagne governing body – CIVC – states that 81% of Champagne vines are planted on 41B rootstocks, which are a Berlandieri descendant. The question then is, with such a wide range available, why then is there such a limit to the grape varieties to which we are exposed? I challenge you to name even 20 white grape varieties! Climate, appellation rules and the global wine market all play a part in determining which grape varieties get a slice of the pie. For example, a grower in Marlborough, New Zealand, is more than likely going to be planting some Sauvignon Blanc, because not only are the weather and climate suitable to this variety, but the current market also has an unquenchable thirst for New Zealand Sauvignon. A grower in Bordeaux couldn’t suddenly start planting Pinot Noir (or other, more unusual varieties) as the appellation rules do not permit the use of non-traditional Bordeaux grapes, even for the most basic Bordeaux category – Bordeaux A.C. In the wake of Phylloxera, the vine disease which swept through Europe in the 19th century, the Italians estimate that several hundred different indigenous grape varieties were lost as growers switched to higher yielding cultivars. In conclusion, the grape family is a complex and fascinating one, with enough twists, turns, revelations and intrigues to make even George R.R. Martin hang his head in disbelief. Here are a few unusual grape varieties for the adventurous: Whites: Assyrtiko Grüner Veltliner Moschofilero Savagnin Reds: Callet Trousseau Valdiguié Xinomavro Zweigelt Read part 2 of the series: what is terroir?
IWC Wine Merchant of the Year Awards Dinner
Simon gives his take on the IWC Wine Merchant of the Year Awards dinner: Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to the 2017 IWC Wine Merchant of the Year awards at London’s Hilton, Park Lane. With multiple awards won at both the IWC and Decanter Wine Awards over the last decade, many Roberson staff members are old hands at the wine award-winning business. But I, as a comparative newbie, was excited to be attending my first wine industry awards show – especially since my team was up for one of the major awards of the night – Online Retailer of the Year. The first challenge of attending was getting properly dressed; my attendance of functions requiring black tie has been pretty minimal since a rash of 21st birthday parties several decades ago. I wasn’t overly confident that my dinner suit, acquired around the same time for $35 US Dollars and constructed overnight of the finest nylon in Hoi An, Vietnam, would still be up to the job. Luckily, my wife had the foresight to persuade me to pick up a new dinner suit at the same time as buying a suit for my wedding a few years ago – and, after a bit of a dry clean, it proved to be in more than serviceable condition. So, appropriately attired and looking forward to getting a little moist around the collar on the Piccadilly Line, we set off to Park Lane, arriving just in time to glug a refreshing glass of Champagne and watch the first raft of specialist merchant awards being announced. Roberson Wine had won the IWC Specialist Merchant of the Year USA award for the previous 4 years. While we were nominated again this year, it was felt that the IWC might give someone else the nod, just to spread it around a little. As it turned out, this fear was unrealised, as the eminent judges of the International Wine Challenge sagely saw fit to give us the award again this year – for the fifth year in a row – and up onto the stage we went to collect our winnings. Once the applause died down and I had the chance to catch my breath, I was able to have a bit more of a look around the event – and, as well as bumping into London Cru winemaker Gavin Monery, I was extremely impressed by the size and slick organisation of the show. With a multitude of bars pouring a host of this year’s IWC Platinum Award-winning wines, a seated dinner for about 500 and a spectacular stage and screen awards presentation, it wasn’t hard to see why the gent sitting next to me at dinner described the event as “the biggest night of the year.” Finally the big moment for me personally arrived – the Online Retailer of the Year award, in which we were nominated for the first time, but up against two massively larger rivals. To cut a long story short, we didn’t win – but out of the 43 award categories, we were one of only 6 entries to be given a “Highly Commended” trophy, so we felt some justification in feeling rather pleased with ourselves. All in all, a fantastic evening – and looking forward to finding as many ways as possible to make our online service even better over the course of the next year – and picking up first prize next time.
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