John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for April 27, 2013

The Dangers of Appassimento; a look at Organic/Biodynamic Wines and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Appassimento: Smart technique or lazy cure-all? My report for April 27 takes a look at the ancient technique of drying grapes, called appassimento in Italian, and how it’s taking hold in Ontario, for better or for worse. Appassimento wines are the main feature for the VINTAGES release, and I select my top ones below. Organic-biodynamic wine is the other theme, and there are some terrific bottles hitting the shelves on the 27th, highlighted herein. By now I’ve gathered so much personal anecdotal evidence that farming organically/biodynamically is not only better for the planet, but also results more often than not in better wine, that it seems a matter of course to find the logo of one of the organic/BD certification bodies on the back label of a bottle that’s just excited me. The Top Ten Smart Buys this week is likewise full of 90+ quality at the $20 mark and under. Welcome to Spring.

The Best of the Organic-Biodynamic Line Up

La Cappuccina Soave 2012Loan Wines Unwooded Special Reserve Semillon 2004Wittmann Riesling Trocken 2011Speaking of electrifying excitement, the 2011 Wittmann Riesling Trocken Rheinhessen ($20.95) is very fine and pure example of dry riesling from this top producer in the Rheinhessen who has farmed biodynamically since 2004. This has outstanding depth and flavour intensity for the price category, with tight acids and plenty of liquid rock flavour next to just-ripe orchard fruit, nectarine, apple and yellow plum. Terrific length, too.

The 2004 Loan Wines Unwooded Special Reserve Semillon, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($15.95) caused a minor sensation in the LCBO tasting room, with most of us left wondering how you can offer a nine year-old wine with so much complexity and depth for under $16. Ahh, the magic of Aussie Semillon. It was also suggested that this is very much a “wine writers’/sommeliers’ wine”, meaning that it’s too far out of the mainstream to appeal to General Q. Public. Bollocks I say to that. Pick up a bottle and see if you aren’t just as riveted and fascinated as all of the experts.

Frog's Leap Chardonnay 2011Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Also smart value is the 2012 La Cappuccina Soave, Veneto, Italy ($14.95). It’s far less quirky than the semillon to be sure, with its pleasant fresh pear and cherry blossom flavours, and will appeal to both demanding winos and casual imbibers – a safer party wine. La Cappuccina has been farming organically since 1985, long before it became fashionable, so you know their motivations are pure.

And rounding out the recommended bio wines are two perennial favorites from the Napa Valley: 2011 Frog’s Leap Chardonnay ($36.95) and 2009 Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($74.95). Each time I taste wines from either of these estates I’m struck by just how original the wines are, how timeless. It’s as though neither winery has a radio, Internet connection, nor subscribes to any form of wine news, and they just go about their business doing what feels right rather than what someone has told them is right.

Highlights From Top Ten Smart Buys

Pretty much all ten wines are worth highlighting this week, but considering the organic theme, I’ll point out the unique and authentic 2010 Lammershoek Roulette Blanc, Swartland, South Africa ($21.95). Lammershoek can by all rights be considered in the organic category – official conversion started in 2010 – but they go even beyond organic, into the realm of natural wine, which could be described as a recent winemaking trend developed some 8,000 years ago. Roulette Blanc is a blend of old, un-irrigated, bush vine chenin blanc, chardonnay, viognier and clairette to which winegrower Craig Hawkins does as a little as possible. The only thing added to wine is S02 at bottling for stabilization; everything else – alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, clarification – etc – happens naturally, the only necessary agent is time. The result is a compelling wine that generates the desire to return for another sip, immediately. Besides, any winery that has hárslevelu planted has to be at least worth a look.

Gaia Thalassitis Assyrtiko 2011Huff Estates Pinot Gris 2011Lammershoek Roulette Blanc 2010Winemaker Frédéric Picard at Huff Estates seems to have nailed down a tidy style for pinot gris with the 2011 Huff Estates Pinot Gris, Ontario ($19.95). It’s a blend of 60% County and 40% Niagara fruit, though it’s the chalky County portion that leads the flavour profile. Picard tells me that the 2013 will be 100% County, something I’m looking forward to.

Long-time readers won’t be surprised to find the 2011 Gaia Thalassitis Assyrtiko, Greece ($21.95) in my smart buys list, my disproportionate love for the volcanic wines of Santorini being by now well documented. If you’re yet to experience the taste of liquid rocks, try this.

Also in the Smart buys this week you’ll find champagne quality at crémant prices, another majestic 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a marvelously savoury and ultra-premium Tuscan red that will set you back less than a parking ticket (and provide infinitely more pleasure), a zesty Ligurian vermentino hand made in Italy for grilled fish, a bold, spicy, floral Apulian red for times when Amarone is not in the budget, and a pair of memorable, fine value Bordeaux reds from the highly touted 2010 vintage that will remind you what made the region worth knowing in the first place. Check them all out here.

The Main Feature: Appassimento. Smart Business or Lazy Cure-All?

This VINTAGES release features wines made using partially dried grapes. Appassimento is the Italian term for the technique, the purpose of which is to concentrate sugars, and thus increase the alcohol and/or residual sugar, and body, in the finished wine, as well as to develop more complex aromas and flavours. The technique has been practiced for probably as long as grapes have been turned into wine.

The Veneto in Italy’s northeast corner is the region most closely associated with appassimento-style wines, and more specifically, the bold red Amarone della Valpolicella. But the practice is done all over the world: various muscats and mavrodaphnes, and Vin Santo from Greece; vin de paille from the Jura and the Rhône Valley and Jurançon in France; the strohwein (Schilfwein) of Austria and Germany; the PX sherries and moscatels of Spain, among others, not to mention the many other dried grape wines from Italy itself such as vinsanto from Tuscany and other regions, the Sforzato della Valtellina, the picolit of Friuli, Recioto di Soave, and the various aleaticos of Lazio and Puglia, to name but a very few. The drying techniques vary, but the majority of these wines are destined to be sweet. A few, however, like Amarone and Sforzato, are fermented into full-bodied dry wines.

Ontario, too, has recently invested significant resources into researching different grape drying techniques. As in northern Italy, the goal in Ontario has chiefly been to find a way to make the production of dry red wines more consistent and of better quality, in the style of Amarone. It’s thought that “Technologies that mitigate red wine production risks and improve red wine quality present enormous sustainability and growth opportunities for Ontario wine production”, according to a Brock U. CCOVI research brief.

“The goal of appassimento winemaking”, continues the paper, “is to further ripen the fruit off-vine to concentrate sugars and flavours without increasing acidity to develop a full-bodied high quality wine.” And ultimately, it’s hoped that “Investment in appassimento-style wine production capacity will allow our vintners to produce high quality wines even in growing seasons that do not allow the complete maturation of grapes.”

Ontario wineries that have already released commercial wines made using one form or another of partial drying, or are involved in the research, include Cave Spring, Foreign Affair, Reif Estates, Colaneri, Pillitteri, Organized Crime, Burning Kiln, Angels Gate and Rennie Estate. Considering the growing interest, the appassimento technique is obviously gaining local momentum and it appears to be here to stay.

There’s More Than One Way to Dry A grape

There are several ways to turn grapes into raisins. Bunches can be left on the vine late into the season until they become naturally desiccated, or they can be harvested and set out to dry in the sun or in a sheltered environment, or rapidly dehydrated using a source of heat and a dehumidifier. In Valpolicella, grape drying is still largely done in the traditional method, that is, a slow dehydration process done at ambient temperatures, historically in drafty barns controlled by opening and closing windows, but more often today in modern, regulated drying facilities.

The permitted technique for drying grapes for Amarone is indeed tightly controlled by appellation regulation. By law, “The drying process of grapes should be conducted in appropriate environment and can be helped by the use of air conditioning systems as long as they operate with temperatures similar to those that can be found during the natural drying process. Any dehumidifying or heating system is not allowed.”

Modern drying room at Alberto Longo's winery in Puglia. Photo by J. Szabo

Modern drying room at Alberto Longo’s winery in Puglia

Such a process results in a slow dehydration of grapes over a period of approximately three months, during which bunches lose about one-third of their original weight to water evaporation. The slow process also results in a significant modification of aromas and flavours.  It’s essential that the varieties submitted to this treatment be perfectly healthy and ripe at harvest, since appassimento concentrates everything in the grape, good or bad. Thick-skinned varieties, like corvina and rondinella used for Amarone, are preferable, as thin-skinned grapes tend to break down and allow molds to infiltrate.

In Ontario, four techniques are being investigated by COVVI, drawing from other agricultural sectors: “kiln-drying making use of technology from the tobacco industry (fast drying at Reif Estates Winery); greenhouse drying using technology from the floriculture industry (medium length drying at European Planters); barn-drying with circulating airflow as a traditional appassimento technique (slow drying at Cave Spring Cellars); and prolonged hang-time on the vine to desiccate the fruit naturally, drawing from Icewine production.”

The results of the studies, which will include analysis of biochemical changes as well as sensory characteristics of the wines, have not yet been released. But it has already emerged that the different techniques result in significant differences in the wines: “Wine from the various drying treatments differed in their chemical profile and had distinctive sensory profiles.”

While we can all look forward to more and better Ontario appassimento style wines in the future as the techniques become better understood and are fine-tuned, there is also cause for concern in the enthusiastic embrace of this ancient technique. The results of appassimento are anything but universally successful. The danger in Ontario, as in any other cool climate grape-growing region, including the Veneto, is that vintners will turn to appassimento as a cure for poor quality grapes. Dilute, under ripe grapes from over-cropped, poorly farmed vineyards cannot be magically ripened by artificial concentration. On the contrary, the drying process only exacerbates green, under ripe flavours.

And genuine complexity can only derive from naturally concentrated grapes, which is to say that grapes with simple flavours (low concentration of flavor precursors in tech talk) will not develop miraculous complexity by force-drying them. Appassimento, in short, is not a panacea, and some of the results are downright unhappy, like bitter ratatouille in a glass. Elevated volatile acidity (vinegar or nail polish aromas) is also a constant danger with dried grape wines of any kind, as are bitter, astringent tannins in red and occasionally white wines, to name but a few of the potential sideways deviations.

As such, it’s alarming to hear wineries speak of the blanket ‘premiumization’ of production, as though appassimento is the solution to viable business. Jamie Slingerland, director of viniculture at Pillitteri Estates Winery, is quoted in the December 2012 issue of The Grower as saying: “The method allows us to take a reserve wine to grand reserve status, and in some instances, to triple the price point from $20 to $60”. While appassimento can and does produce top-notch wines, most of what I’ve tasted from Ontario has not been successful and is not worth a premium.

To be fair, much of what comes out of Veneto is likewise poor quality, with notable exceptions, for the same reasons. The point is, that the technique does not result in consistent quality, or rather, that the resulting quality is only as consistent as the quality of the base grapes in the first place. So we’re back to square one. The quality must be there before the concentration process begins. The kilning technique gaining popularity in Ontario, which is the fastest and least risky, also seems to be the worst suited for quality, not allowing time for the interesting biochemical changes to take place, just straight up withering. But I eagerly await the results of the COVVI study.

Resorting to drying grapes also presupposes that bigger, more concentrated wines are inherently better than lighter and leaner wines. That’s a complex presupposition that goes well beyond winemaking techniques and into the realm of consumer tastes, trends, marketing, and beyond, but worth pondering in any case. Is bigger always better? Considering the growing consumer backlash against higher alcohol wines, such wisdom is questionable.

And leaning on grape drying to produce consistent quality also begs the question of whether you’ve got the right grapes planted in the first place. If it’s a struggle to ripen cabernet or merlot consistently, artificial ripening/drying isn’t the answer. Planting a shorter cycle, earlier ripening, more reliable variety is far more logical, at least in my view (see my recent interview with Ann Thrupp Ph.D. sustainability director of Fetzer Vineyards in California for more on the subject). There are no short cuts to quality. I sincerely hope that the Ontario market doesn’t get flooded with a rash of unbalanced, green, raisin-flavoured wines.

But since appassimento seems to be here to stay, let’s hope the technique gets put to good use on quality grapes in order to create a new category of worthy, complex wines that are worth a premium, like top Amarone. There are many models to follow, and others to avoid. Of the wines being released on April 27th, none were truly mind-blowing, but here are the ones I’d look to as the most successful examples:

2007 Monte Del Frá Lena Di Mezzo Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($48.95)

Monte Del Frá Lena Di Mezzo Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2007

2010 Remo Farina Montecorna Ripasso Valpolicella ($19.95)

Remo Farina Montecorna Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2010

2009 Masi Grandarella Igt Rosso Delle Venezie, ($25.95)

Masi Grandarella 2009

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the April 27, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Best of the Organic
All Reviews

Stags' Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

New Zealand Wine Fair - Toronto May 9

County in the City