The three keys to wine.
Balance, flavour and mouthfeel are much used wine terms. Understanding what they are, and how they relate to one another, is a somewhat complicated but valuable exercise for anyone who enjoys wine. Let’s go!
Simply put, a wine’s balance and mouthfeel describes how a finished wine demonstrates several key components of a wine - namely alcohol, tannin, acidity, sugar, the grape and the method used to make the wine (ie the winemaking). A well-balanced wine, each of these components will be ‘at peace‘with the others. Balanced wines are symmetrical and tend to age well.
But there are two additional sensory components that turn a well-made wine into a must drink wine.
The first component is flavour. Each variety we work with has a flavour-signature. You can taste it by munching grapes in the vineyard. The salty Vermentino, the rosemary herby Sangiovese, the ‘spicy-cherry Barbera, etc. It is the job of the viticulturalist to deliver these ‘typical’ flavours to the winery.
Then it’s up to the winemaker to elevate the fruit, at least into a ‘well-made wine’ but hopefully into “must-” drink’ territory.
The mouthfeel of a wine - the sensory perceptions experienced in the mouth when a wine is tasted- is key to achieving the migration. There are six components to the mouthfeel of wine:
Alcohol, Sugar and Water
Alcohol is a measure of how much fructose and glucose is converted in the fermentation process; residual sugar is a measure of how much natural wine sugar remains in the wine after fermentation and water is, well, water!
Think about the after-taste of the wine. In mouthfeel language this is called length. Does it disappear quickly or do flavours linger? Which flavours stick around? Length doesn’t depend on the grape variety, the youth of the wine or the use of oak. They come from the slow release of flavour compounds in the wine. Generally, the ‘longer’ the wine, the more attractive.
This leaves us with two components - tannin and acid. These are tricky to define, but it’s the characteristics of each – and the relationship between them – that optimises the balance and overall attractiveness of a wine.
Tannin is a naturally occurring group of compounds (called polyphenols), residing in the skins and seeds of (mostly) red wine grapes. Once the grapes have reached the winery, the way the tannins are extracted has a huge impact on the quality and character of the final wine.
Effective tannin management releases a whole bunch of positive attributes in wine - colour stability, palate structure, producing astringency as a positive mouthfeel in a wine (as opposed to bitterness as a taste), and protect the wine against oxidation.
These are a group of compounds that are vitally important in wine, and more specifically red wines. From this stage on, the key to locking in wine quality is the rate of oxygen flows over the course of treatment.
As different chemical reactions involving oxygen take place, the phenols react to form polymeric species that enhance palate structure and colour stability in the wine., and also work to diminish excessively green, herbaceous characters and reductive aromas in the wine.
Acidity is a necessary structural component that balances sweetness, alcohol and the bitterness of tannins. Too much acidity can make a wine seem tart and light, while too little acidity can make a wine taste cloying and clumsy. Well-balanced acidity is the key to making a smooth, drinkable wine.
There are several different types of acid in wines. Malik (think apples) and citric (lemons) acid provide the mouth watering freshness that we very much favour at di Lusso.
Tartaric acid helps a wine age well. And finally, lactic acid (which is formed in the winery via a process called malolalactic acid fermentation) is that softer one that contributes roundness and richness to the mouthfeel. The most common is tartaric acid which as the name suggests is tart, but it is also a powerful antioxidant which helps a wine age, providing texture, ‘chewiness’ and depth.
The di Lusso Estate il Palio wine is the only red blend in our portfolio. We’ve been producing it since 2002 – our first vintage. To some it’s seemed a bit ‘exotic’ – the use of Cabernet Sauvignon, a French varietal from Bordeaux as the base wine, then blending it with Italian reds, and its relatively rich fruitiness (as opposed the predominantly savouriness of most Italian reds) all made for an unusual point of difference.
DNA evidence determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of a chance mix of Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc, most likely as chance crossing that occurred in the 17th century.
Within a hundred years the variety was widely grown in Italy - winemakers being convinced by its food friendliness, the less ‘sugary’ flavours it rendered to a bigger, richer blend. But also because to winemakers it offered up a ‘doughnut’ effect in the mid palate that encouraged other complementary varieties into the blend to “fill out the mid-palate”.
The style remained rare until the 1970’s, which saw a revolution in Italian winemaking. Following two decades post-war that saw in effect the disintegration of the Italian wine reputation, the government introduced an appellation system similar to that introduced into France in 1935.
Each region and each varietal was carefully defined in every way – density of vines, use of water, use of oak, time before release, etc - to a degree of precision that didn’t appeal at all to a number of Tuscan winemaking ‘heavyweights’.
But the wine writers of the world became aware of the region. I maintain that the most influential of them all – Robert Parker – visited Bolgheri in the mid 1980’s and proclaimed in his Wine Advocate magazine, “These are not only Tuscan wines, they’re Super Tuscan”.
And so a new wine class was born. In 1992 the Italian government established an Appellation specifically for these wines – IGT or “Typical Geographic Indication".
A rather silly title, but a hard-earned one. Today, they are some of the world’s most expensive wines. For example, the top of the range 2011 Masseto would cost $3700 a bottle; not far off the top Bordeaux or Burgundies of France.
Famous Bolgheri/Marremma producers include Antinori, Frescobaldi, and Angelo Gaya from Piedmont.
di Lusso Estate il Palio
At di Lussso Estate, our 2016 Il Palio (named after the Italian tournaments commemorating historical events of the Middle Ages) is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Sangiovese and 10% Barbera, with a cellar door price of $33.
Question: is the Masseto a hundred times better? Unfortunately, wine doesn’t work like that!
As an aside, in the 16th century the villa belonged to the Del Giocondo family. In 1505, Leonard da Vinci was commissioned to paint the wife of Francesco Del Giocondo.
The painting, formerly known as La Giaconda, is actually the famous portrait of The Mona Lisa, now preserved at the Museum of the Louvre in Paris.
The home of famous Bolgheri/Marremma producer Antinori, the Villa Antinori Di Monte Aguglioni.
Italy produces more different kinds of sparkling wine than any other country in the world. In fact, they have been crafting spumantes since Etruscan times – prior to the Romans times, and long before Dom Perignon and his French brethren discovered it by mistake. The range of styles of Italian sparkling wines is enormous - from the light, off-dry Proseccos of the Veneto to the classic Franciacorta (the best of which I think rank alongside the wines of Champagne itself) – as is the number of different grape varieties used in its production.
Franciacorta, of course, translates as ‘Short France’, and ever since Napoleon’s time has been using the methodé champenoise to make their sparkling wines, and still use French terminology to describe it (brut, rose, etc), and French varietals pinot noir and chardonnay as their varietals. This style has its own bottle shape. This is one favoured by Fanciacorta producers (and some of the more upmarket Proseccos).
But nobody seems to be able to tell me what it’s called!
With the exception of the Franciacortas, most Italian sparkling wines – especially Prosecco - are made using the Charmat method. In this method, the wine’s second fermentation occurs in a pressurised stainless-steel tank instead of in the bottle, and the resulting wine is bottled young. There is none of the complexity and time - consuming process of ’real’ champagne. No riddling, no disgorging, no inconsistency in the final product, etc.
These are wines made in a hurry, to feed a market that is thirsty and cost-conscious. The best known of Italian sparkling reds is made from the Lambrusco grape, in an impressive range of styles.
If you like it a bit sweet, pick one that says ‘Semisecco’, ‘Amabile’ or ‘Dolce’ on the label. If you like it dry, look for the words ‘Secco’ on the label (with this style the flavours are more rhubarb or strawberry). Lambrusco di Sorbara and Lambrusco Rosato (rosé) are the two lightest styles, showing strawberry, and very little or no tannin).
A typical prosecco vineyard, near the town of Conegliano in the Veneto. Rugged hills that have been tamed by hand-crafted vineyards.
As of 2019, di Lusso Estate has joined the Italian Sparkling Club.
Our di Lusso Estate Vivacé, made from our own Barbera, grown on the estate has, in its short time on our tastings, become quite popular. We are expecting this wine to be a feature of the upcoming spring and summer, matched with charcuterie or cold duck, and served quite cold.
Our Vivacé is a spumante – sparkling wine – rather than a frizzante (semi-sparkling), The only example I could find in Italy of a bubbly Barbera is the Barbera Frizzante. The only one that I have tasted that I’ve tasted is more raspberry and fennel in flavour, and lighter in bubble as its name implies. (I must say, I prefer ours!).
We send our Barbera to Petersons in the Hunter to apply the ‘sparkle’. This they do using the Charmat method. The process isn’t cheap, but I’m yet to be disappointed in the end-product.
Both the Vivo (made using Vermentino or Arneis) and the Vivacé are both true to their Italian origins and to the summer life of Australia.
Figs in one form or another have been on the planet for at least eighty million years.
Of course, its easy to stick around if there are more than 900 different species of you, which there are... But botanists have ascribed their longevity more to their characteristics than their range of varieties. To botanists, the winning factors are their universally beautiful taste, combined with their ‘accessibility’. No tough skin, for example.
Figs attract the widest range of seed transporting animals in the whole of the plant kingdom. They are ecological linchpins, sustaining more wild birds and mammals than any other fruit tree on earth.
Figs are also the source of more myths and legends than any other fruit (or, more botanically correctly, a ‘false or multiple fruit', as the flowers and seeds grow together to form one gorgeous single ‘mass’).
Figs at di Lusso
We grow five varieties of common fig at di Lusso Estate. All are female parthenocarpic varieties, and do not need pollination to produce fruit. So no need to deal with those little propagating wasps! Every year since 2003, my girls have performed the same ritual.
First, a showing of Black Genoa ripeness tells me it’s the second week of February.
A week later, it’s the turn of the White Adriatics (my favourite flavour, if I’m pushed to name one) to come to ripeness, with a more sustained season of six weeks or so. Meanwhile, my two lesser varieties Preston Prolific and Excel start moving.
Back comes Black Genoa with another season, then the mind-boggling champion of the orchard and juggernaut - Brown Turkey.
This lovely, patient variety is last to move, but more than makes up for this with a massive crop of around 1500 figs a tree that grows to the very top of the fig enclosure (or more than four metres). It is primarily the brown Turkey that keeps producing until the first frosts of May.
di Lusso Fig Products
Steve Pavich, the Estate’s fig man, is out there almost every day, picking up to two thousand figs a day; sorting the crop between cellar door stock and crushed figs for ‘product’.
Product then moves under the control of Marcus Platt (one of several genii I’m blessed with at di Lusso) and who delivers a half dozen different flavours of fig pastes and vinaigrette (amongst much more farm produce) to the farmhouse door for our visitors.
And while all this is happening, the resident di Lusso spiders are ensuring the quality of the crop. I have never had to spray the figs in nearly twenty years, thanks to our golden orb weaver army that descends onto the trees as soon as the annual fig gnat plague begins early February.
These magnificent spider-hunters grow from 5 mm (.2 of an inch) to 5 cm (2 inches) in a season – and end up comprised entirely of exactly what I don’t want to find on the crop. (The only disconcerting feature is their habit of building their nets across the inter-rows of the orchard; meaning that driving the ride-on mower becomes a very interesting, and gastronomic experience!
This variety, native to the hillsides of the Roero near Alba in Piedmont, was a classic white table wine variety at least as long ago as 1350 AD. Over the centuries since, with its characteristic of zero tannin and pleasant perfumed aromatics, it became used more as a blending agent to reduce the notoriously fierce tannins of Nebbiolo…in particular the tannic brooding styles from the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco.
In the last eighty years or so, however, its usefulness as a blending agent to modify the ‘aggression’ of Nebbiolo further declined. Producers started using other methods of bringing the drinkability of Nebbiolo forward by a decade or more – from up to twenty years down to around five or so. Only a couple of producers (including notably Vietti, another favourite of ours) didn’t lose faith in it as a varietal white table wine.
Grapes contain thousands of tannic compounds, known as phenolics. Most of the tannins are in the skins and seeds, and they are extracted during the winemaking process. They are an excellent natural preservative, and give the wine structure. But some are harsh and bitter; and some taste "green" or unripe. Techniques such as micro-oxygenation (for tannins) and malolactic fermentation (for harsh acidity) became standard in the industry in the second half of the twentieth century, and wholesale replacement of Arneis with Barbera and Nebbiolo occurred.
Folklore has it that Arneis retreated to two vineyards, when someone asked the question, “What do think this tastes like as a table wine?” And of course, as they say, the rest is history.
Our favourite Arneis producer, Malvira, has certainly taken advantage of this renewed popularity. Their winery, just a stone’s throw from the village of Barbaresco, produces FIVE different wine styles from the Arneis grape – a ‘regular’ dry white and a premium of the same vintage, a sparkling Arneis, an Arneis rosé and a vin santo style!
The fifty-meter strip of lawn from Malvira’s winery to the vineyard, when we visited there in 2009, was lawn. Today, their website features a luxury boutique hotel – complete with a magnificent swimming pool.
At di Lusso Estate, we planted just over an acre of Arneis on our Brambletyne site. Despite the variety’s reputation as being ‘tricky in the vineyard’, our experience is positive. And equally so in the winery, with a succession of good wines that provide the basis for our Vivo! bubbly.
It didn't start well, did it?
Travelling to Mudgee town for my morning coffee and Sydney Morning Herald in thickening smoke from the first day of the New Year, I consoled myself with the twin thoughts that ‘the fires’ were still a hundred or more kilometres away and surely unlikely to damage the grape crop from that far off, and secondly we were off the mid-March for our annual trip to Europe. Earlier than usual, just in case the rumours of a dangerous virus from China was heading our way later in the year...
Well, we all know what happened. Sneaking out of France a day before all flights were cancelled – thanks to Qatar Airways, after Qantas and others had abandoned us! Straight back into reports that the 2020 grape crop was almost certainly non-existent (we had already lost the 2020 olive harvest due to huge hot winds in November that had literally burnt to death every flower in the grove), entire ‘lock down’ of di Lusso Estate’s commerce, and nobody willing or able to venture a guess as to when things might open up again.
As I write, thanks mostly to our ‘lockable’ borders and judicious crisis management were still in the game – and thanks to the people of New South Wales for discovering in hordes the vineyards of Mudgee, we finished the rest of the year in good shape. Apart from a shortage of wine to sell at cellar door – due not to our tanks being empty, but rather to the very extended supply lines from interstate of bottles, printing ink, mobile bottling facilities etc, we were in business still. And now I can report that, thanks (I’m using that word a lot lately!) to hard work from the team, our shelves are full again!.
We bottled 2019 Pinot Grigio and 2020 Arneis this week (along with a Rosso version of Sangiovese, the excellent 2019 Nebbiolo and Lagrein), the last of the 2016 il Palio blend– for release next week.
Our new Vivo! bubbles arrived from the Hunter last week, too. So, dear Members, di Lusso Estate stands ready to once again be able to offer a ‘Full Portfolio’ (just the Aleatico is missing, and we currently working at filling that gap with a limited range of earlier vintage Aleatico).
Our plan at this stage is to let the new arrivals overcome any initial ‘bottle shock’ they may have, and to offer a Summer Members’ Special sometime in January. In the meantime, the newly bottled wines are ‘in stock’. I’d just suggest waiting a week or two before opening one up!
I’m sure you’ll join me in bidding the ‘challenging’ 2020 farewell, and here’s hoping for a more settled 2021.
Way back in time, on a visit to Rome, Luanne and I wandered through the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum. It was late summer. The grass was flattened and yellow, tourists everywhere. Only three plants were to be seen… an old grape vine, a bedraggled fig tree, and an olive tree with just a couple of olives hanging from it.
It was 1998, and Luanne and I had been considering our options in starting a new venture in Italian varietal wine. Then it hit us! Italian varietal wine, olive oil and figs. Three unmistakably Italian products, all from one tree (symbolically, the farm), and all well suited to Mudgee’s central west tableland.
In the years since then, di Lusso Estate’s wine and fig offerings have forged ahead of olives in dollars and effort and di Lusso olives don’t have much of a profile.
However, in the ‘bigger picture’ of world history, olives are arguably ahead of both wine and figs. This much loved tree, feature of countless biblical and historical stories has been around as possibly the world’s oldest commercially grown plant for 5,000 years at least.
Olive trees and olive groves have been a favourite subject for some of the greatest artists. From the Renaissance painters of the 15th century to the contemporary painters, olives are depicted in various styles and forms, each a tribute to the magic of this tree.
I remember, at one time during the early days of di Lusso, I collected fifteen prints of van Gogh’s olive paintings and hung them around the winery. The obsession faded, and the prints can’t be found. I’m sorry about that, but I can at least quote one of van Gogh’s many thoughts on the subject.
“The effect of daylight and the sky means there are endless subjects to be found in olive trees. For myself I look for the contrasting effects in the foliage, which changes with the tones of the sky. At times, when the tree bares its pale blossoms and big blue flies, emerald fruit beetles and cicadas in great numbers fly about, everything is immersed in pure blue. Then, as the bronzer foliage takes on more mature tones, the sky is radiant and streaked with green and orange, and then again, further into autumn, the leaves take on violet tones something of the colour of a ripe fig, and this violet effect manifests itself most fully with the contrast of the large, whitening sun within its pale halo of light lemon.”
Van Gogh is right, of course. The colours of an olive tree are extraordinary… at times khaki, at others almost emerald. Sometimes the tree is washed in grey.
And the fruit is similarly deceptive. Just when you think there’s nothing there, you can suddenly see a myriad of what look like peppercorns, well-camouflaged. These are the emerging olive flowers.
A week or so later – around mid-November – the canopy explodes in a white cloud of beautiful flowers. This is the time that we pray for windless days, to allow the fruit to set.
But in 2019, the same winds that drove the bush fire smoke towards Mudgee blew through our olive grove as well. And that was that! Flowers shriveled and burnt - practically no crop in 2020.
But there are commercial risks on top of climatic ones. Most stem from mislabeling. Commercially, there are three different grades of olive oil made and marketed, around the world, from the high-quality extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) to medium-quality ordinary virgin olive oil, to low-quality olive-pomace oil (OPO).
EVOO is obtained by direct pressing or centrifugation of the olives. Its acidity can be no greater than 1 percent; if it is processed when the temperature of the olives is below 30°C - it is called cold-pressed. (Cold-pressing olives adds density of flavour and texture.)
Olive oils with between 1 and 3 percent acidity are known as "ordinary virgin" oils, but anything with greater than 3 percent acid and refined is " by accepted chemical solvents”, can also be fairly marketed as "ordinary." The dry or pulpy residue of the olive pressing process is called pomace, from which a liquid (such as juice or oil) has been pressed or extracted.
In Australia, all the supermarket chains seem to turn a blind eye to the mislabeling of ordinary virgin olive oil – in terms of country of origin (for example it is said that many Spanish olive oils are marketed as Italian) and many oils with more than 3% of acid are marketed as EVOO. But perhaps the most common adulterants in mis-labelled virgin olive oils are refined olive oil containing synthetic oil-glycerol products, seed oils (such as sunflower, soy, maize, and grapeseed), and nut oils (such as peanut or hazelnut).
So, if you’re interested in tasting the best, refer to a source such as Choice to decide which supermarket oils are ‘honest’ and put the list in your pocket when going shopping!
Readers of this blog may have experienced – and hopefully enjoyed – a dish or two at a di Lusso Estate Truffle Day. We can only serve the black Perigord truffle – the only available type of truffle outside of the Alba region Piedmont in Italy, le Marche in central Italy and a small slice of the Balkans where the famed white truffle is found – and the experience is pleasant enough, but I must say not a patch on the white truffle that Luanne and I have experienced several times in Alba.
< Truffle country in Piedmont
Ignoring the peasants who associate the truffle with ‘just like toe jam’ (as we called the smell of our locker room youth), and those who claim the smell is that of testosterone (lucky analysts, I guess) the white truffle aroma, produced by soil bacteria trapped inside truffle-fruiting bodies, is best described as intensely musky, with a buttery, garlicky, sweaty intensity.
But the white truffle’s ability to transform the taste of a simple poached egg, bowl of linguini or even just a piece of toast, is extraordinary.
At our usual Barbaresco hotel – the Locanda Rabaya – shaved white truffle is served every evening for four weeks in late September/ October– almost always with pasta washed down with Barbaresco wine from the village itself. Unforgettable!
Recently, we saw the much- heralded Italian documentary Truffle Hunters, which traces the last few years of a community of old hunters and their dogs. There was no commentary; just the real-life conversations between hunters, between these old men and their dogs, interspersed with shots of the very lucrative global food industry that has been built around the white truffle. Poignant and beautifully filmed…. But sad, very sad.
These octogenarians could just not understand how what was happening….what was once a pastime enjoyed by Piemontese in the rugged hills of our favourite part of Italy had changed so dramatically. (We recognised many of the scenes in the documentary from walks we had enjoyed along the banks of the Tanaro, which flows around the town of Barbaresco).
Nowadays, conversations were more likely to be about truffle dogs being poisoned by jealous and unscrupulous competitors, families being separated by greed, men being unable or unwilling to retire even at the age of ninety as they chase the ‘next and final giant truffle’, ways to unfairly manipulate the price of white truffle price in the market headquarters in Alba by subterfuge.
A scene from the documentary….an elderly hunter enjoying dinner with his best friend.
And then I came across an article purporting to ‘capture the commercial essence of the white truffle industry'. It came complete with industry projections of market size (generally smaller each year), forecast downstream demand, SWOT analyses, CAGR market growth estimates, scenario after scenario etc etc etc. I couldn’t help thinking it was a pity that our ‘global economy’ had devalued yet another noble and ancient craft.
PS. The price of white truffles is quite astounding…the bigger the truffle, the higher the price by weight. In a ‘normal’ market, a very large white truffle will sell for well over $10,000 a kilogram.
In 2010, a white truffle weighing less than two kilos sold for US330,000! Needless to say, scientists around the world – led by the French, of course – are trying to grow the white truffle in other parts of our planet. Without success, so far at least!
Our Nebbiolo has origins in the Piedmonte region and is an excellent match for Truffles, or indeed any Italian meal that features mushrooms (Porchini Fungi Risotto, anyone?).
End of the vintage leads one to reflect on the wine of the current and previous seasons. Thinking about winemaking, here’s a little secret …. the best wines make themselves. Yes… that’s right… an excellent wine is one where a winemaker does just the “standard winemaking,” and the result is fantastic. “Great vintages begin in the vineyard”, it’s excellent fruit that makes winemaking easy.
For example, the 2018 vintage was very easy… A long summer, followed by a warm, dry autumn resulted in excellent fruit across the vineyard. And if you’re a lover of Mudgee wines, you’ll be happy to know that the whole region experienced above average levels of quality… but at the cost of a significant drop in yield (which is generally a good thing!). Our favourites wines that year were the Lagrein and the Arneis 2019 was undoubtedly a season of drought, with a dry summer following a dry winter. We took advantage of our very good irrigation setup to replicate a ‘normal’ European winter with weekly waterings through winter, so that during the hot summer the vineyard’s resistance to drought both below ground and in the canopy was higher. Like its predecessor, the 2019 outcome was high fruit quality but with a bigger crop.
Of the 2019 wines, at this stage (bearing in mind not all have been bottled), I particularly like the Sangiovese and the Barbera (including our first ever sparkling Barbera which we call Vivace! The 2019 Nebbiolo sits closely behind. Then along came the 2020 vintage. Were we tested? Yes! Firstly, the third year of drought brought a quite small and inconsistent – and late – flowering and fruit set. So late was fruit-set that the fires that began seriously in September and which brought a pall of smoke that hung over New South Wales for some months from October caused few problems for us. (But the same could not be said for many other growers, particularly those to the east of the town; or for unirrigated organic growers, whose fruit tends to flower earlier). Despite more sampling and tasting than ever before, we could find no fault in either the Arneis or the Vermentino were excellent. Then, a few weeks later, our early-picked Sangiovese (for Vino Rosato) checked out really well.
The 2020 reds required very careful handling. We were very away of the risks attached to ‘standard’ practices of ours. Maceration (that is, the soaking of skins during and after fermentation), oak maturation (we initially only used stainless steel for malolactic fermentation), and very frequent panel-tasting of the red wines before bottling. (None have been bottled yet). So far so good! We’ve not detected any smoke-taint so far in any of our own wines, but continue to be watchful. So, what’s my favourite wine from 2020? At this early stage, I would say the Vino Rosato, followed by Vermentino and Arneis. I’ll reserve my judgement on the reds until just before bottling, but my hopes are high.
Finally, talking about bottling. I aim to have our 2020 Vino Rosato released in June (“due to popular demand”), with the 2020 Vivo! sparkling next – in August. And remember, if you have any questions about the wines, please call or email me. I always look forward to a conversation with wine club members.