Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Black Death of Olives!

As the grape harvest is over, it's now time for harvesting olives in Tuscany. Unfortunately, the weather conditions that were bad for the grapes were even worse for the olives :(
This, of course, is only generally speaking. A few areas have saved themselves and are producing some relatively decent oils with low acidity (like our Olivoglio which is 0.15 & and peroxides at 2,45meo/k - so a high quality but with bigger prices this year because the yield is less than 9%).

This year's huge challenge has been a combination of a very wet and humid summer and a repetitive attack on the olives by several generations of the olive fly. Basically, any organic operation has been totally helpless against this and even the conventional olive oil makers are overwhelmed and have had little time to arm themselves against this very unpredictable situation. Very few olive oil makers in very fortunate areas will have saved themselves...

As the harvest isn't over yet (in reality it should just have started) we don't know the exact consequence of the conditions yet. Some say that we'll only have 50% of the usual amount harvested and made into olive oil in Tuscany this year. This opens doors for fraud, unfortunately, as Tuscany's oil is already a rare produce (making up only 3% of the total amount of oil made in Italy) and in these days local newspapers are reporting how the police is trying to monitor the arrival of olives and oil from other regions or countries at the olive oil mills in Tuscany.

Learn more about your oil by monitoring the following:
- Label. The origin of the olives must be on the label, so whether Italian, from the EU or from outside the EU. The latter two are usual put in very small writing, as it's not a point of pride. The "vintage" is not obligatory information, but actually quite crucial to the quality. So if you see a vintage - so produce of 2014 in this case - it means the producer is quite serious and wants to ensure the consumers that the oil is fresh. "Best before" is only an indication of when the oil was bottled (which in theory could be quite a while after making). Law is that the oil is good to sell up to 18 months after bottling.
- Price. The price of a great olive oil is high. The yield is low in a good extra virgin olive (around 10-15 % in a normal vintage). If the price of the oil you're buying is suspect, so too low, you can be quite sure that it's a oil mixed with olives or oils from different cheap locations, and the quality of it is dubious.
- Imagery. If the label displays well-known Tuscan localities or symbols or other imagery that associates the consumer to Tuscany, beware that often it's to drive us to buy without noticing where the olives or oil derives from. So look beyond the pretty picture!
- Quality. If the bottle displays an official designation of quality, such as IGP or DOP you're guaranteed of the origin of the product. It can no longer be a blend of olives or oils coming from all over. So there's more chance of getting a higher quality product as the oil has to come from olives from a specific area and the oil has to be made within the same geographical area. The vintage in the case of IGP or DOP is obligatory information on the label. If you don't have access to IGPs or DOPs, get to know the producer and the product in some other way (taste it, read about it on the net, etc.)

The olive fly is one of the most damaging elements to the production of high quality oil.

It digs a whole for its eggs to hatch

A larva will eat the olive. This will oxidise the olive and the acidity in the oil will increase. It can even give a taste of larva. Yuck!

It's possible to either spray insecticides against the fly (even if this year it would have been hard as the olive fly just kept regenerating itself) - or traps also exist to capture them.

Here the olives have shrivelled up completely, like little olive mummies. Not a good look! In fact, next thing they'll fall to the ground. These could be affected by lebbra, a fungus disease that translates to leprosy (for olives, of course).

Just a reminder of how the olives look when they are completely healthy and ready to be picked for oil (this picture is not from this year though, whereas all the others are from last week!)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vin Santo – wine of the saints

This time of year is a pure pleasure to visit the wineries. Most have finished picking their grapes and are more relaxed now because the most uncontrollable part of their job is done, for the good or for the bad the grapes are in the cellars. Now there’s a lot of activity going on inside the cellars, pumping over wine, and then separating the grape skins from the wine. It smells heavenly of fresh wine all over.

It’s especially magic to visit wineries who make a Vin Santo because the grapes have been picked and are now drying in ventilated rooms, hanging from the ceiling or simply laid on straw mats with windows wide open.

The grape varietals called for to make this wine is typically Trebbiano, Malvasia and Grecchetto. This latter grape also goes by the name Pulcinculo which charmingly means "lice in the rear end" referring to the characteristic dot that may be found on it's skin (see picture below). Different DOC appellations may require different rules for the blending of grapes, and for min alcohol levels.
Also red varietals could be used such as Sangiovese. In fact it's possible to make a specific red version of vin santo called "Occhio di Pernice" (eye of the partridge bird) if at least 50% Sangiovese is used.

Vin Santo is an age-old tradition in Tuscany. Other areas of Italy also used the drying method to make dessert wines but the wine is (with a few exceptions) referred to with other names or the common denominator "passito" which could be translated to raisin wine.

The way Vin Santo is made testifies to its ancient origins. Unlike wines labelled late harvest, grapes for Vin Santo are picked when the acidity inside the grapes is still quite high and will then be placed on bamboo mats or hung up to dry for the next 3-6 months. The longer the drying, the higher the concentration of sugars as more water will have been allowed to evaporate.

At the end of the drying period the grapes will be pressed and the sweet and super concentrated juice will be let to ferment. Some use a starter which is called madre (mother - in glass in picture below) referring to the addition of a bit of an older and finished Vin Santo with the idea that it will help the fermentation and give complexity to the next batch of Vin Santo - a bit like the choice of using sour dough for baking...
Fermentation will be or less successful according to the strength of the yeasts. In fact, alcohol level in Vin Santo can vary greatly between 11.5 and 17 percent and of course the style of wine obtained vary from sweet to bone dry.

The usual minimum requirement for Vin Santo is 3 yrs in barrels, but it is commonly aged anywhere between 5-10 yrs. Traditionally porous chestnut wood was used to age the wine and typically the barrels were not full to the top, allowing the wine to oxidise. The reduction over the years makes the wine more concentrated but also more susceptible to flavours perceived as defaults. So today often oak is used as less porous, yet the angel's share still allows for oxidised characteristics. 

The flavours present are usually reminiscent of honey, dried fruits, caramel, maple sirup and nutty - walnut is present all depending on the level of oxidation of the Vin Santo, like for example in Sherry made in Spain. The use is typically after dinner, originally to dip Cantuccini biscuits in. But great Vin Santos could deserve to be paired with a piece of blue cheese, or simply enjoyed on their own.

The alcohol reported on a Vin Santo DOC always refers to a natural alcohol content, so you can't really compare it to Port, Madeira or Marsala. Speaking of which, some people will serve "vin santo style wines" (no longer can be labelled as Vin Santo) that are wines fortified with Grape Spirit during fermentation. These wines must be labelled as "Vino Liquoroso" (liquor wine) and are by no means as complex and loveable as the true Vin Santos are, but often used as a substitute because much cheaper to make.

Let's talk about money. It's hard to say how much it costs to make a Vin Santo. In fact, it's never made on a large scale, and the reduction of volume is considerable. Wineries who do bother with this process usually do it because of tradition and out of passion for this wine. Often (but not always) bottled in half a litre or half bottles the prices range from around 25 euro a bottle to more than 250 (as in the case of Avignonesi's Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo DOC that ages around 10 yrs - picture above). 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tuscan harvest 2014

So we're right in the midst of harvest now. Finally, after an agonising summer (at least for grape farmers here) of relatively cool weather and more than a fair amount of rain (and storms in some places), the weather gods have given us a few days of truce to allow us to enter the vineyards and start harvesting.

Harvest by hand allows for selection - very much needed this year where some grapes may be damaged.

 It's a tiresome job in the vineyard with wasps ready to sting and possible encounters with snakes...

The weather of 2014 was characterised by a cooler summer with more rain than usual and hence less sun hours. This increases the risk of mould, damaged grapes (especially if hail hit), deluded grapes, and unripe grapes.

But harvest time is still beautiful...

 2014 is going to be a challenging vintage for vintners. This is when the wine-making becomes fundamental to the result in the wines. It is said that in great vintages it is easy to make good wine and difficult to mess it up, whereas in difficult vintages the great wine makers will stand out as it is much more of a challenge to make something good.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nice is a nice place, too!

To choose another place than Tuscany to be a favorite place is a tough thing to do. In fact, it often is a bit disappointing to visit other places around because not as stunning in beauty, historically, culturally, where we live.
But our other favorite place is Provence, in particular Nice - a city that offers a bit of all things that are nice (sea views, mountains, city life) and is a great place to be based to visit the rest of Provence.

Nice is full of open spaces like parks or piazzas where you can hang out and daze under the sun, or entertain younger kids with games and water fountains (some will even cool you down during the summer). Speaking of the weather, it is always nice in Nice! So many sun days and fresh sea air to keep just the right temperature.

The typical cuisine is inspired by the products of Provence and the vicinity of the sea. Rosé is the wine to go with, especially for the Aperitif and is usually accompanied by locally grown olives.
Socca is another curious speciality of Nice - a humongous chickpea pie cooked like pizza in a wood-fired oven and served warm and crispy.

Fancy a stay in Nice? Check out our apartment, situated right next to the Port and with all the comforts you would need:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

From vineyard art to real art!!!

This will be one of my shortest posts just to celebrate that one of the pics I've already shared with you and that I myself considered a beautiful piece of artwork from nature has been immortalised in painting by Laura Thompson. Maybe I'm biased but I think it's magically beautiful and that she captured the light just right - this needs to be shared with you!

Really really well done, isn't it?!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Enotria - Land of Wine

The Etruscans were a fascinating civilisation that inhabited central Italy before the Roman Empire. They were probably the first to grow vineyards in Tuscany and to make wine on our territory, making them the pioneers of Tuscan wines. Wine became so important in their culture that they named their country "Enotria" (land of wine) and had a God for this divine drink called Fufluns.

Etruscan wine didn't just stay locally but was traded and exported on vessels around the Mediterranean as findings on a sunk ship outside Antibes, France have found. 

The vineyards looked a bit different than they do today - probably something like this where the vine is growing up "alberello style" around an elm tree or similar.

Surely wines were made in terracotta Amfora and stored in them, as well. Perhaps adding olive oil on top to ensure the storage? Sulphites surely didn't exist so the wine could not have been very long lasting and was probably of an oxidised character. 
These are modern day Amforas used for wine also - perhaps the Etruscan ones looked similar?

The following pictures are from the Etruscan Museum in Castellina in Chianti showing the local findings proving the production of wine

Wine was typically deluded before drinking with two thirds water, adding a bit of grated cheese (!!), honey and spices.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Natural Vineyard Art

I can't paint or draw, unfortunately, but I love to look at art around me either by the hand of a talented artist or in form of what mother nature gives us so generously. I've always been a small camera enthusiast lately with a very nice camera (with all sorts of buttons I know little about). When it comes to taking photos in vineyards of people or vats or vines, I get very very excited :)
I think that one of the facts that fascinates us all about wine regions is their incredible beauty that most of us enjoy from a distance driving past wineries and vineyards, but sometimes it's also worth it to stop up and look at the details...
I especially love the colours of the vine, of its leaves and its grapes and have always enjoyed taking endless (and a bit useless) pictures of them for my own enjoyment. But hopefully some of you could enjoy these pictures with me, so here you get my top 12! (wanted to do a top 5, but just couldn't discard any)

Which photo is your favorite?

(Castello di Brolio, Chianti Classico, Italy)

(Bellet, Nice France)

(Vecchie Terre di Montefili, Chianti Classico, Italy)

(Vecchie Terre di Montefili, Chianti Classico, Italy)

(Vecchie Terre di Montefili, Chianti Classico, Italy)

(Bellet, Nice France)

(Vecchie Terre di Montefili, Chianti Classico, Italy)

(Montemaggio, Chianti Classico, Italy)

(San Polino, Montalcino, Italy)

(Cappella Sant'Andrea, San Gimignano, Italy)

(Anonymous beautiful fall vineyard, Tuscany, Italy)

(Anonymous beautiful fall vineyard, Tuscany, Italy)

Do you want to take photos in the vineyards, too? Join us in Nice, France or in Tuscany, Italy - best months for vineyard photos are from August to November.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Green harvest - quantity versus quality

August in Tuscany's vineyards is the time for some to do the"green harvest", so pruning of the vines to limit the quantity of grapes on each vine to the ideal estimated quantity for that specific vintage. This estimation is done considering 1) limits given by each DOCG regulation (min yields start from around 7 tons a hectare) 2) considering the conditions of weather. This crop thinning is done to ensure ripening and intensity in the remaining grape clusters.
Each vine has its own story and all elements around it have to equal it's future quality of wine - it's simply a question of balance. It needs just the right amount of leaves to ripen it's grapes - if there are too many grapes they may not ripen - it needs the right amount of moisture - and in Europe we deal a lot with dry farming so this may also be a measure the farmer has to take into consideration. Should it be a cool year, thinning out the grapes is also a measure to ensure more aeration around the clusters, so thinning tends to be more severe in cooler years.
When it comes to how to prune, it's a selection of the thinnest. The clusters that are the furthest away from the trunk usually get sacrificed as they have less chance of ripening.
In the olden days in Tuscany this was not an operation that was known to farmers. In the past the only value which was appreciated was the quantity of wine made. Crop-thinning was a practice started in Bordeaux in the mid 70'ies and has been adopted in all quality wine region around the World.
Today, quality is the main focus of our DOCG regions in Italy and the operation is today done whenever necessary - and always in July/August before the grapes mature completely as not to waste too much of the plants' energy.
The cut grapes are sour and unripe and can't be used for much so they are left on the ground to compost.

(these pictures were taken yesterday during a wine tour in the Chianti Classico region - 2014 has been a cool year so far so the pruning is quite drastic in some vineyards).
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