Project Front Foot End of Season Report 2014-2015

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A message from my friend Vic Mills, who runs the very worthy Project Front Foot, which provides kit, coaching and age group matches for a hundred children from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum during the November to May season.

The PFF End of Season Report can be downloaded here.

“Just a quick note to introduce the PFF End of Season report. More review than report, the document covers our sixth season in Mumbai from December to June along with a series of (I hope) inspirational photographs. Well worth a read when you next get ten minutes over a cup of coffee. Atmospheric too given the temperature hike this week.

On the fundraising front our flagship summer initiative – 50 for Front Foot – is still up and running and will be for the rest of the season. If you would like to contribute, in the process adding your own Half-century Highlight, please click on the following link to our Just Giving site https://www.justgiving.com/Timothy-Gill1/ .

With all good wishes

Vic”    DSCN1401

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Wine, Women and Song: The Art of Martin Fuller

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The full version of this article appeared in Artists & Illustrators in July 2006.

When I visited him, Martin Fuller assured me that he had wanted to tidy up, but his studio was still what one would politely call a ‘working’ studio, with paint pots cheek by jowl with cooking pots. His dress sense is rather tidier, though; the matching red socks and braces made him look more like a City gent than a painter. He has owned (and lived in) his Brixton Hill studio for 18 years, buying it on a 120–year lease.

As his dress sense (and Garrick membership) implies, Fuller is a traditionalist, though the striking use of colour and the fluid shapes and forms of his art suggest a modernist streak. He had a classical training, but his paintings are more jazz than opera–like – bright, unexpected, and imaginative. He is a great believer in learning one’s trade before becoming more adventurous, ‘learning to walk before standing on your head’, as he puts it, and so has little time for much of modern art: ‘One has to be a shock jock to get any publicity, so that art is only validated by how much publicity the artist gets and how shocking the work is, rather than the intrinsic quality of the work. We live in a culture where what matters is not what somebody does but how famous they are’.

After seeing Fuller’s painting The Encounter, the novelist Howard Jacobson wrote that ‘I am not sure that I have ever seen so much wine, women and song on a single wall’, though this could be applied to much of Fuller’s art, and his domestic life, too. Wine has always featured in his work – ‘wine is central to European culture, really’, he reckons. His fiancée Margaret Rand is a distinguished wine writer, and he has even designed a wine label for the London wine merchants Morris & Verdin. A great opera fan – he likes to paint to music – he met Margaret at Glyndebourne during a production of Così fan tutte. His love of music led to an appearance on Radio 3’s Private Passions.

1cWine, women and song are obviously important to him, though he describes his own work as focusing on ‘opera, love, sex and something of the nightclub’, and that it is ‘more like poetry than prose…the onlooker makes their own personal associations from their own personal experience’. He is vague about the meaning of any particular canvas, but the titles of his paintings are deliberately epigrammatic, hinting at a story that the viewer doesn’t necessarily see at first. Take The Encounter, for instance: a woman throwing a glass of wine at another woman in a bar. But why? And who? And where? He won’t say. ‘I like a story’, he says, ‘but a story that people can make their own, a bit like going to the opera and not understanding German but seeing this moral tableau and fitting on this story’. He doesn’t have a favourite painting: ‘It’s like asking what’s my favourite wine, it changes depending upon one’s mood’. He has been influenced by ‘lots and lots and lots’ of artists in his career, too many and too diverse to name: ‘When you start off as a painter, you feel palpably as though somebody is sitting on your shoulder. I loved the Impressionists, but now my reaction to them is sentimental’.

Martin Fuller was born in 1943 in Royal Leamington Spa and his initial studies were at the local Mid–Warwickshire College of Art, from 1960–62. ‘Mid–Warwickshire College was very good’, he says; ‘they taught drawing, and I was a natural image maker, but I wasn’t necessarily a natural drawer. They made me draw objectively. In a way it’s quite beautiful to have gone through that rigour and not to have one’s creativity made dead’.

He moved to London in 1962 to attend Hornsey College of Art, where he became ‘more sybaritically cultured’, then was awarded the Guggenheim–McKinley Scholarship to Italy in 1964. He was in Positano for just under a year and says that it changed his life: in those days there was a thriving artists and writers community, long before the tourist invasion: ‘Although it was the beginning of the supposed swinging sixties, London was still fairly dour, so then I went to Italy with its food culture and more emotional openness…I remember watching a traffic policeman in white jodhpurs and a white hat pinching a girl’s bottom. It was a wonderful revelation of a different way of life’. The Italian light, which was ‘very different from Camden Town’, also influenced his art.

When he returned from Italy he took a job at Hornsey, painted portraits, and then in 1968 had his first one–man show at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, which he reckons at that time was probably the best provincial art gallery in Britain. He continued to exhibit widely throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

3cIn 1991 he spent a year as Artist in Residence at Santa Fe in New Mexico. Five years later he won the Discerning Eye Modern Painters Prize and also won first prize in the Hunting Art Prize in 1997. In 2001, Martin was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at Leamington Art Gallery & Museum, and was alarmed when not a single person from his early days in Leamington came to the exhibition, bringing to mind John Betjeman’s poem ‘Death in Leamington Spa’. His most recent exhibition was in December 2005 at Adam Gallery in Mayfair, just up the road from the Royal Academy of Arts, where nowadays he occasionally teaches.

Martin’s work may be found in many collections, including Trinity College, Oxford (1971), Bristol City Art Gallery and Museum (1971 and 1973), and the Sullivan Collection, New York (1995) – so many, in fact, that he admits, ‘I do wonder where some of my pictures are, whether they’re still hanging on the wall or have been stolen!’

He also does watercolours, believing that ‘you can get saturated working in just one medium’. How long does it take him to complete a painting? ‘As one progresses through one’s career, there’s a lot more thought and a lot less work…It might take a poet an hour to physically write down a poem but the composition and thinking behind it might take six months…I tend to do some things and then hide them’. His paintings cost anywhere from £5,000 to £15,000, and he has regular commissions from collectors and other people.

In his review of Martin’s 2001 retrospective, William Packer wrote that ‘He does what he does, is what he is, and has always taken his own path. He is something of an original, and as such yet to be recognised at his full critical worth’. Amen.

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“Katie Melua and friends” – please support people and animals who lost homes in Tbilisi flood

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My friend Mako Abashidze, who is Director of the British-Georgian Chamber of Commerce, is holding an event in support of people affected by the recent floods in Tbilisi:

“As you know we had a terrible flood in Tbilisi, families lost their homes and poor animals are homeless too.

We would like you to ask for your support and help- please join us on Friday, 26, 7pm at 77 Shelton Street, Covent Garden. With your help and support we believe we can help our friends in Tbilisi.”

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RAW emotion: Natural Wine

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Due to other commitments I was unable to attend this year’s RAW fair, always so expertly managed by Isabelle Legeron MW. But a while ago I wrote an account of a very enjoyable evening in New York with Alice Feiring, the so-called “high priestess” (though she prefers “Patti Smith”) of natural wine and author of (the in parts excellent) The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization.

We tried several natural wines, which, with no official recognition, can be difficult to define. Essentially, as little as possible is added to the wine. Grapes are grown organically or biodynamically and only natural yeasts are used.

The use of sulphur with natural wines is contentious. In principle, a bare minimum is used but the bravest (some would say most foolish) winemakers don’t use any at all, which makes the wine highly prone to oxidation and microbial growth.

The wines we tasted in New York were, for the most part, oxidised. (Some deliberately so, apparently – but this may be tautological.) They had acidity like a cat’s claws. Natural as they were, I took no pleasure in drinking them. I like freshness and balance, not decay and a kick in the face.

Alice’s view of wine is, “I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue.” Alice and other proponents of natural wine believe emphatically that natural wine = good wine, or, more poetically, truth is beauty. But, on the basis of what we tasted together that night in NYC (and other wines that I have tasted subsequently), this is a fallacy. Just because a wine has used cultured yeasts or sulphur doesn’t mean that it’s bad or that it doesn’t speak the truth. Chemicals won’t make a wine better – but they do stabilise it. Is an oxidised wine more “truthful” than a wine freshened by sulphur? Which would have the most expressive fruit and best interpretation of its terroir?

During a pevious Natural Wine Fair, held at Borough Market in London (and at which Miss Feiring was a speaker), there was a panel discussion on “Selling Natural Wine in the On-Trade”. Chaired by Doug Wregg of the excellent importer (and natural / organic / biodynamic wine specialist) Les Caves de Pyrène, the panel comprised the current world champion sommelier Gérard Basset MS MW; Xavier Rousset MS of Texture and 28-50; and Romain Henry of Hibiscus, which has one of the most extensive restaurant lists of natural wines in the UK.

As Doug admitted, “The big problem is defining the term, ‘natural wine’. We deliberately don’t want too many precise rules. A lot of producers have opted out of systems like AOC or Vin de Table and don’t want to be evaluated by the wine press or other people. (But) we can respect them for being individuals.”

Xavier said, “I tasted a lot of very good wines today but I’m even more confused than I was before going in. I thought there was never any sulphur but some producers used sulphur… The biggest issue for me is people hiding behind ‘natural wine’ and bottling oxidized wine and thinking, ‘I can get away with that because I’m natural’… I find them interesting and I enjoy a glass – but never a bottle.” It’s difficult for consumers because, as Xavier pointed out, some natural wines are “crazy” and some are “very clean and fresh.”

The distinguished wine writer Margaret Rand was in the audience. She asked Gérard if he had any oxidised-style whites on his list: “No.” Margaret continued, “I’ve tasted some outstanding wines here but some wines that, frankly, were horrible because they were oxidised to hell. I thought, bring on the sulphur! I have nothing against natural wines in principal but surely they stand or fall on their quality?”

Xavier asked Romain what was “the best wine he had ever tasted, perhaps a Grand Cru Burgundy or 1961 Bordeaux, probably it was conventional.” Romain didn’t answer specifically but Feiring piped up that it was “probably naturally made”, though what defines “natural” remained elusive.

What was intended as a debate on how to sell these sometimes esoteric wines turned into a clash of cultures: natural = good vs. good = good. The natural wine “debate” has turned into an argument about moral judgements. Even the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who said, “Drunkenness is temporary suicide”, could not settle this one.

My conclusion is that, as the English conductor and impresario Sir Thomas Beecham said, you should try everything once except incest and folk dancing. Everything includes “natural wine”.

 

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Serene Sotheby’s: A history of Sotheby’s Wine Department

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Founded in 1744 as the book saleroom Baker’s, Sotheby’s, as it became in 1804, began to diversify into wine much later. From modest beginnings, its wine department now bestrides the wine world, with offices in London, New York and Hong Kong.

Early fermentations

Sotheby’s first recorded sale of wine was in 1868 at Wellington Street in London, when 1,300 dozen Rhine wines went under the hammer. But there would not be another sale of note for over 100 years.

The formation of Sotheby’s wine department is inextricably aligned with that of Christie’s, which had re-established its wine department in 1966 with Michael Broadbent MW and other staff from Harvey’s of Bristol, including Digby Lang, David Cossart MW and Broadbent’s secretary Rosemary Ward. That year was the centenary of the only wine auctioneers in London, W&T Restell, whose then head Alan Taylor-Restell suggested that his family business and Christie’s new wine department might combine, with Restell providing logistical help to Christie’s.

Upon the establishment of Christie’s wine department some of Sotheby’s clients started to sell their wine through Christie’s. These clients often had substantial inherited estates, including furniture, paintings and other works of art, so Sotheby’s board became increasingly fearful of losing potential business. Some board members were “not keen”, remembers Patrick Grubb MW, but by 1970 agreement was reached and a wine department was formed.

Fenton’s Reagent

The first head of Sotheby’s wine department was the late Colin Fenton MW, who, like Broadbent, was a former employee of Harvey’s of Bristol. He brought with him his secretary Sarah Nelson, David Molyneaux-Berry (another future head of department and MW) and John Lloyd. Effectively, then, all the founding members of both Christie’s and Sotheby’s wine departments were ex-Harvey’s staff.

Fenton was a protégé of the late Harry Waugh, the director and wine buyer for Harvey’s. “Colin knew his wines, had good contacts and great charm”, says Grubb, who also joined Sotheby’s at this time. Molyneaux-Berry recalls, “largely due to Colin and the fact that the wine department was given free rein, it was hugely innovative from the start. We were given an office that had previously been a flat. It always amused me that Colin sat at his desk in a chair that was situated where previously there had been a lavatory! Basically we were given a blank piece of paper on which to draw up our plans and strategy. I had worked with Colin on this project whilst still at Harvey’s – in our own time, I might add.”

The fledgling department’s first sale was in Glasgow on 16 September 1970, followed by the first London sale on 26 October. At this time British Transport Hotels owned the Glasgow Central Hotel (along with many others) and was launching the Malmaison Wine Club. The turnover for the inaugural season of wine sales was £148,288 and included a bottle of Château d’Yquem 1921 that sold for £38.

In 1972, Sotheby’s was involved with the Nicolas “In Aid of Venice” auction, the first three-nation wine sale, which was to be held in London, Paris and New York. At the last minute, New York refused permission for the auction because of legal restrictions and the sale was transferred to California. Another 20 years would pass before wine auctions were formalised in New York and Sotheby’s wine department was able to establish itself in the North American market.

Grubb Street

Patrick Grubb was invited to take Colin Fenton’s place in 1973 but it was not an auspicious time to be a wine auctioneer. “Within a few months we were all faced with the 1974 recession and collapse of the property market”, he recollects, “but I had good contacts in the trade, having started in 1952. My main efforts were to source stock but also to raise morale in the department in the face of continuing opposition from some board members.” Grubb also recalls being told in confidence by a friend that he had overheard a fellow director in the picture department tell some clients that “the wine department was hardly worth maintaining.”

The millionaire real estate developer Alfred Taubman purchased Sotheby’s in 1983, acting as a “white knight” when the company was threatened by a hostile and unwanted takeover by Marshall Cogan and Steven Swid of the carpet manufacturing company General Felt. After the Taubman purchase, Grubb resigned to establish his own business in 1984, which continues to be the UK’s leading importer of old and fine Madeira wines. Grubb observes, “The department has grown enormously, with substantial turnovers each year, and has skilfully taken full advantage of the increasing global interest in fine wines.”

The strong rivalry with Christie’s became even more intense when Sotheby’s wine department introduced an eight percent buyer’s premium in 1984. “I took quite a lot of flack from some of our clients and Christie’s made a bit of a meal of it”, says Grubb. The wine department was opposed to the premium “but after considerable pressure agreed to fall into line”, says Molyneaux-Berry.

Broadbent declared that he would implement a buyers charge “over (my) dead body” and referred to his rivals as “a whited sepulchre!” Sotheby’s apparently lost much business because of his successful stance against imposing a buyer’s premium. However, in 1986 Broadbent was forced to cave in due to pressure from the Christie’s board. This brought a gleeful response from Grubb, who published a satirical poem aimed at Christie’s that included the lines, “Sepulchral hollow laughter is heard in King Street now / Despite all protestations they’ve killed a sacred cow.” Broadbent was apparently crestfallen. “It took him over three months to telephone me”, recalls Molyneaux-Berry, “he said, ‘this is a spirit talking.’ I did not get the joke immediately, but it dawned on me later what he meant.”

Among the highlights of his time with Sotheby’s, Grubb mentions “a splendid Midlands cellar, about which the owner was very deprecating. A wonderful long, vaulted cellar with vast double bins down either side, slightly damp, which had led to the finest crop of penicillin spreading across all the bottles. Amongst the gems were several dozen Constantia, circa 1790, in their original Cape Dutch bottles. When tasted later in our sample room, the aromas filled our office and the wine was still vigorous and beautiful. It sold well, too!”

On another occasion, he received a letter from Scotland that accompanied a bottle: “I was asked to appraise the bottle and value a further stock of the same wine. It was 1870 Latour or Lafite, I forget which, and another superb treasure but the vintage had been slow to mature and for decades was not toothsome. The storage in Scotland had meant a slow maturation. The bottles were contemporary, too. Anyway, I wrote a glowing report on the wine and valued it. A terse reply came to the effect that the owner had not intended me ‘to open the bloody bottle’!”

Molyneaux Corners

Patrick Grubb’s successor was David Molyneaux-Berry. In his early days with Sotheby’s “it was still very conservative, although its chairman Peter Wilson had led the company to centre stage with his vision of Impressionist art and Victoriana sales.” Like Grubb, he recalls struggles with the board: “We came under the direct control of the Earl of Westmoreland, who was very supportive but there were a few directors and partners who had reservations and were against the whole idea. We won them over with our innovations.”

During Molyneaux-Berry’s 20 years with Sotheby’s the wine department expanded abroad, with sales taking place in Amsterdam, Geneva, Zürich, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tokyo and Bangkok. There were other novelties: “We were the first department to break away from the very staid catalogue covers, shapes and colours. We were the first to put an illustration on the cover and the first to print estimates for each lot. Today this is standard practice in virtually every auction house in the world. It caused quite a stir at the time but it was clear to us that that this is what clients wanted.”

There were many logistical difficulties in the early days. Before the introduction of the decimalised sterling currency in Britain, everything was sold in pounds, shillings and pence. Sotheby’s chief sales clerk declared that calculators were “not accurate enough” so all calculations had to be done manually. If, after calculating the total value of the sale, it was out by a single penny, the clerk would insist on it being recounted. All invoices and delivery documents were handwritten. In the saleroom there were no paddles – the auctioneer called out clients’ names, with a runner collecting the names on sheets completed by successful bidders.

When Britain joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973, its currency was changed to the decimal. The strict clerk now permitted calculators but these were expensive and not provided by the company.

Computers were introduced, which were “both a blessing and a curse”, feels Molyneaux-Berry, “because the computer had to be able to accommodate every department of Sotheby’s auction business. It was a nightmare. Furthermore, the American operation used a different system and a different machine that could not talk to the UK machine. Sometimes at least 30 percent of the working day was taken up with sorting out computer problems rather than getting business. Things have changed now.”

Serenity

The current head of Sotheby’s wine department is Serena Sutcliffe MW, who joined the auction house in January 1991. She and her husband David Peppercorn MW were both approached in mid-1989. Peppercorn said no thank you, as did Serena “because we had a lovely life. We worked very well together. But then David said ‘you should do it.’ I was finally persuaded by the challenge of running the wine department and the possibility of being close to the art world. Access to great tastings has always been a strong motivation, too.”

Jamie Ritchie, the present Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s New York wine department, had just joined and Stephen Mould, now Senior Director in London, was already in situ. Sutcliffe’s first sale was set against the background of a recession and was held on the day that the USA went into Kuwait in January 1991. It was “challenging”, she remembers. “There were four people in the room and two of them disappeared quickly!”

Although there was no hangover from the Taubman acquisition and “Patrick had been very, very good and did very well”, when she joined the department it nonetheless needed a lot of work to catch up with rivals “but it can be good to turn something around in those circumstances and make the ground rules.”

Prior to the opening up of Hong Kong and the Asian market, the biggest change to the fine wine market during Sutcliffe’s tenure had been the reintroduction of wine auctions to New York in 1994. Because of the legal requirement that wine auctioneers have a retail partner, Sotheby’s worked with Sherry-Lehman to 1999 and then with Aulden Cellars, which was bought by Sotheby’s in 2008 so that it now has its own wine retail outlet in New York City. Before New York was opened for business Sotheby’s wine sales were largely restricted to London. Sutcliffe admits that if New York had not emerged “I would probably have gone off to do something else.”

Highs and lows

Since that inauspicious start there have been many highlights for Sutcliffe, such as “great private collections, not all of which we can reveal the owner of. Many of the great collections and sales have been anonymous.”

High profile sales have included The Andrew Lloyd Webber Wine Collection, which was sold in May 1997 for a total of £3,692,821, a then-record total for any wine sale and which still stands as the best ever total for a Sotheby’s wine sale in London. “It set the wine world alight and got the world’s media interested. People realised that wine could make money”, she comments. The highest priced lot of the sale was “The Millennium Dream Cellar” of 265 bottles, 77 magnums and some larger formats of fine and rare wine. It was sold to Barrie Larvin, the then Master Sommelier of the Rio Group of Hotels, for £242,000. Some of the wines are still available at the Rio Suites Hotel and Casino’s The Wine Cellar bar and restaurant in Las Vegas.

Other big sales include The Millennium Cellar of 3,000 lots auctioned over two days in November 1991 for $14.4 million, a record total that stood until October 2006 when it was broken by Acker Merrall & Condit’s THE Cellar II sale. The auction of wines from the cellars of the Princes von Thurn und Taxis at Schloss St. Emmeram in October 1993 totalled £957,432. (The current and 12th Prince Albert Maria Lamoral Miguel Johannes Gabriel, born in 1983, is apparently the world’s youngest billionaire.) The Christian Sveaas sale in 1999, the Russell Frye and Park B. Smith sales in 2006 and the four Aubrey McClendon “Classic Cellar from a Great American Collector” auctions in 2009 and 2010 have also been successful and high profile.

Individual lot records claimed by Sotheby’s include the most expensive fortified wine – a 1775 sherry from the Massandra collection, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2001 for £27,500. In November 2004 Sotheby’s sold the “World’s Largest Bottle of Wine” – a “maximus” of 2001 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which holds 130 litres, equivalent to 173 regular bottles or 1,200 glasses – for $47,500.

Sotheby’s New York sold 50 cases of Mouton Rothschild 1982 for $880,000 in November 2006. A Jéroboam of Mouton 1945 sold for $260,000 in the Baroness Philippine sale in February 2007 and a case of Romanée-Conti 1990 made $220,000 at the New York Evening Sale in October 2007 – both were claimed record prices for the wine and format. The highest bid of 2008 was £320,000 for 136 bottles of Château d’Yquem 1892-2001, sold at Sotheby’s London in April that year.

Sotheby’s hasn’t always got it right. Some Latour 1982 that was owned by the auction house itself failed to sell in the mid-1990s and a sale of Massandra wines in December 2004 sold only 37 percent of lots. But on the whole, Sotheby’s, like most other wine auctioneers, enjoyed febrile market conditions before the October 2008 crash. The market has continued to strengthen since then. “People can still make a lot of money”, Sutcliffe believes.

Future studies

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Wine Department in 2010, Sotheby’s held a two-day sale in London on 22-23 September. “It is difficult to believe that the turnover for the Wine Department’s first season, 40 years ago, was £148,288 while our 2010 global turnover to end July was over US$37 million. Feel the pressure!” jokes Sutcliffe. “Certainly, this could not be done without a devoted and experienced international team, to which all credit falls. It has been a privilege to lead Sotheby’s Wine Department to this position.” A retail wine shop was opened in New York on 21 September 2010.

Sutcliffe promised Sotheby’s only five years of her time but so far has given them 24: “There are always new challenges, new stimuli. There are still some great collections out there, though most of them have now been acquired. There are still some great family cellars in Europe.”

She concludes, “After all these years, you’ve seen it all. The market has changed since 1991, with huge globalisation. It’s good being part of what I call the ‘dispersal’ process. When you’ve got great stuff, you can sell it. The whole secret is finding the good stuff.”

Reflecting on his 20 years at Sotheby’s, Molyneaux-Berry sums up, “I could write a book about the subject as there were so many memorable moments, mostly good, some bad. One thing is for sure: this is one of the most interesting jobs anyone could have.”

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Sophie’s Choice: The life and work of Sophie de Pichon-Longueville

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With the Bordeaux en primeur campaign currently underway, and Pichon-Lalande 2014 being highly praised, I thought it was timely to revisit an article that I did for FINE magazine a while ago that looks at this great Bordeaux estate from a different perspective.

Although Virginie, Comtesse de Lalande, is the most famous of the women to be associated with Château Pichon-Lalande, her elder sister Sophie de Pichon-Longueville is the most enigmatic.

peinture sophieThe long story of Château Pichon-Lalande often has a strong feminine presence. Directly or by marriage, the same family governed it from 1685 to 1925. For most of the eighteenth century, women oversaw the Pichon-Longueville estate, a tradition that culminated in the distinguished May-Eliane de Lencquesaing working at Pichon-Lalande for 30 years until January 2007.

Two sisters founded what eventually became Pichon-Lalande: the beautiful Virginie de Pichon-Longueville (1798-1882), who became Comtesse de Lalande after marrying Henri, comte Raymond de Lalande in 1818; and the enigmatic Sophie (1785-1858), a painter, poet and nun. 

Le Songe d'OssianThe sisters are commemorated today in the grand vin’s full name of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and in the estate’s limitrophe vineyards, which – uniquely among the Médoc’s crus classés – sprawl across two appellations. The Pauillac vineyards include the “Sophie” parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that lies to the south-west of Pichon-Lalande’s château, cheek by jowl with Latour’s vines.

Five into two
Pichon-Lalande traces its origins back to Pierre Rauzan (c.1620-1692), one-time owner of Châteaux Margaux and Latour. Land surrounding Latour was turned into an estate that became known as L’Enclos Rauzan and which formed the basis of Pichon-Longueville.

As if in a Balzac novel – albeit one with a relatively happy ending – the Baron Joseph de Pichon-Longueville (1760-1849), great-grandson of Pierre Rauzan, decided to share the domain between his five children.

It took Baron Joseph 70 years, during which he saw France undergo three revolutions, five kings, two republics and one empire, to create Pichon-Longueville. To divide the estate into two separate entities took only six years.

Raoul gained the part destined for the two sons (the younger son Louis had died in 1835), which became Pichon-Baron; the rest went to the three daughters Virginie, Gabrielle and Sophie.

Terror and Terroir
Only 14 surviving paintings have been attributed to Sophie and hardly anything is known of her life. But two things are thought to have influenced both her art and her life: the Revolution of 1798 and a love affair that apparently ended with sadness.

Sophie was only seven when her family was forced to leave Bordeaux for the Médoc in spring 1792. Eighteen months later, la Terreur began. Baron Joseph and his wife Marguerite de Narbonne Pelet d’Anglade were arrested and imprisoned. They were not released until June 1794.

When the Bourbon family, in the form of Louis XVIII, was restored to power in 1814 after the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte, Sophie became a passionate Bourboniste. Talleyrand, the “Prince of Diplomats” and a former owner of Château Haut-Brion, supported the new king. Doubtless the de Pichon-Longueville family knew Talleyrand as a fellow winemaker and Bourboniste.

After the death of Marguerite in 1822, Sophie privately published 16 of her poems in a volume called Poésies Fugitives, printed on vellum and dedicated “to my mother, who always asked me for a collection of my verses.” The copy at Pichon-Lalande, which contains handwritten notes by Sophie herself, was found serendipitously by Madame de Lencquesaing’s son in Paris several years ago.

Several poems refer to the events of 1814 and to the birth in September 1820 of Henri Charles Ferdinand Marie Dieudonné d’Artois, duc de Bordeaux, comte de Chambord, in 1820.

Louis XVIII did not have children so the throne passed to his younger brother Charles X, whose son the duc d’Angoulême had also so far failed to produce an heir. Charles’s younger son the duc de Berry was assassinated in February 1820, putting the Bourbon dynasty in serious jeopardy. But Berry’s widow Princess Caroline of Naples and Sicily gave birth to the “Dieudonné” (“God-given”) duc de Bordeaux in September 1820, enabling the Bourbon line to continue. Baron Joseph was charged with representing Bordeaux to the king at the christening of the duc.

Some of the other poems in Poésies Fugitives are more frivolous. “Voyages” is about the vulgarity of the nouveaux riches at a ball held in Lesparre-Médoc, a small town 20 kilometres north-west of Pauillac, and has whimsical observations on a one-eyed, one-legged coach driver.

Les femmes savantes
The most famous woman artist of the late eighteenth century was Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, the favourite painter of Marie-Antoinette and a member of the Academies of Rome, Parma, Bologna, Saint Petersburg and Berlin.

Her husband was Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer, whose great uncle was Charles Le Brun, the first Director of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. In 1663, Le Brun introduced the first female to the Académie, Catherine Duchemin, wife of the sculptor François Girardon.

Although Vigée-Le Brun was highly successful, there were few female painters in the early nineteenth century. Academic art training placed much emphasis on nude studies, which was considered inappropriate for women.

An unknown master in Bordeaux taught Sophie to paint. She went to Paris in about 1812 to study in the studio of François Gérard, the most fashionable portraitist of the Empire and the Restoration. Gérard had studied under Jacques-Louis David, the pre-eminent Neo-Classical painter of the era.

Le Songe d'Ossian Reproductions of Gérard’s portraits were in great demand – he was a noted society figure, known as “the king of painters and painter of kings”. As part of his students’ training they would make copies of his works. Sophie’s partial copy of Gérard’s 1802 work Ossian évoque les fantômes au son de la harpe, signed and dated 1814, shows her leaning more towards the exuberant colours of Romanticism than the sombre chiaroscuro of Neo-Classicism.

Though Gérard paid Sophie for the copies she made of his paintings, there is no record of her selling any of her own canvases.

Savoie faire
Despite the upheaval caused by the fall of Napoleon’s French Empire in 1814, Sophie continued to lead a privileged life. Probably she was able to attend some of Gérard’s high society salons. She refers in her poetry to a visit to Vichy in 1814 and is known to have met the duchesse d’Angoulême at about this time.

In about 1815, she travelled to the Alps, the landscapes of which appear in several of her paintings. She was probably in Paris between 1816 and 1819 before returning to Bordeaux in 1820 or 1821, when she painted a portrait of her brother-in-law Comte Henri Raymond de Lalande, husband of Virginie.
There is a portrait by Sophie at Pichon-Lalande of a good-looking, bespectacled young man known as “Sophie’s fiancé”. A similar figure appears in two of Sophie’s mountain scenes, Lucerne (1820) and Le Pont du Diable au Mont Saint Gothard (1821).

Nothing at all is known about this man. David Haziot, author of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande: A Passion for Wine, suggests that he was Savoyard or Italian, though Pichon-Lalande’s Communications Director Fabienne Durou believes that he might be Pierre Lacour fils, son of the painter of the same name who founded the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. It is possible that Lacour père was the unknown Bordeaux master who tutored Sophie.

In the Musée there are three portraits of Lacour fils by Lacour père, one of which is a copy by his daughter Madeleine Aimée Lacour. Certainly there is a remarkable resemblance between “Sophie’s fiancé” and the portraits of Lacour fils.

Still waters
LucerneThe figure in Sophie’s portrait wears a Tricolour flag in his buttonhole. Perhaps the Bourboniste Sophie was in love with a Republican, though there is no suggestion in her writings of any betrayal by a lover, so possibly Sophie was forced by the political zeitgeist to break off their relationship. A poem in Poésies Fugitives suggests that Sophie had been unable to marry because of her mother’s illness.

Lucerne shows a woman sketching beside a bespectacled man, who looks up at her adoringly. His red military jacket lies on the ground next to them. She wears white and the river flows by calmly.

Le Point du DiableThe emotions of Le Pont du Diable au Mont Saint Gothard are the antithesis of those of Lucerne. The landscape has been identified as the Teufelsbrücke (Devil’s Bridge) in the Schöllenen Gorge in Switzerland. A black-clad female sits with her back turned to a bespectacled man, who now wears his red jacket and prepares to mount his horse. The water rushes past with much more urgency than in Lucerne, its haste conveyed by the busy, forceful brushstrokes.

Panorama_Teufelsbrücke_Andermatt2There are two later undated Swiss landscapes, Vu d’un lac de montage en Suisse and Le Songe d’Ossian, in which the water is again calm.

Portrait of the artist as a young woman?
Madame de Lencquesaing acquired an undated portrait that once hung at Pichon-Baron and was sold after the château was acquired by AXA that is thought to be a self-portrait by Sophie.

The melancholy female figure wears no makeup. The pink ribbon adds a touch of brightness to an otherwise sombre and unflattering painting in which the unsmiling lady wears a black velvet dress that was typical of the habit worn by the spinster residents of the Order of Saint Anne.

Maison au bord du lacIn 1823, Sophie retired to a convent. The Order of Saint Anne in Würzburg was attached to a sister convent in Munich, where Sophie became a lady of honour. She used her full title “Comtesse Sophie de Pichon Longueville, Ordre des Demoiselles de Sainte Anne à Munich” to sign her 1838 painting Maison au bord du lac, the largest of the Sophie canvases at Pichon-Lalande.

After entering the convent Sophie wrote no more poems but continued to paint, though the portraits and Alpine scenes were now replaced by religious themes. In the church of Saint-Martin de Pauillac hangs the life-size painting of Christ en croix, its dark colours and orange hues recognisably the work of Sophie. Saint-Martin was designed by the architect Armand Corcelles, who also built the château at Labégorce-Zédé.

Mystic wills
In her “testament mystique” – her will, dated 25 August 1858 – Sophie requested that 400 prayers be said for her soul. Some of her estate went to her brother Raoul and other sister Gabrielle but most of it, including her share of Pichon, was left to Virginie, “ma chère soeur”.

ComtesseVirginie inherited Sophie’s half-share of the Hôtel Montméjean, the de Pichon-Longueville’s Bordeaux home. She sold the hotel share to her surviving sister Gabrielle and used the funds to buy equipment and to build a winery and cellar. In the year of Sophie’s death, Virginie had her portrait painted by Perrignon. The image of her in a black shawl, still mourning for her sister, now adorns the label of Pichon-Lalande’s second wine Réserve de la Comtesse.

Virginie and Sophie first jointly made wine separate to Raoul’s in 1856 – their 20-hectare holding was the beginning of what became Pichon-Lalande. Gabrielle, who had retained a ten-hectare share of Pichon-Longueville, continued to use Raoul’s facilities until her death in 1875. Like Sophie, she left her estate to Virginie, making that estate the larger of the two Pichons.

Despite the 1855 classification, which saw Pichon-Lalande created as a Deuxième Cru, the 1850s was a challenging decade for Bordeaux, a period in which in its vineyards were devastated by Powdery Mildew. But thanks in part to Sophie de Pichon-Longueville, Pichon-Lalande’s immediate future was assured.

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Viennese Waltzes: Wine in Vienna

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Every year since 2010 I have been invited, though have not always been able, to attend the Austrian Wine Challenge as the sole UK representative.

On a previous visit I visited the historic Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz and its vineyards on the Nussberg terrace to the north of Vienna.

Even when enjoying the gemütlichkeit offered by one of Vienna’s many Heuriger taverns, it seems improbable that a capital city of 2 million people can be one of Austria’s oldest viticultural regions. But this beautiful city is home to over 70 wine producers, with 700 hectares of vines planted within Vienna’s municipal boundaries.

City life

Vienna has a long winemaking history. Celts and Illyrians made wine as early as 750BC at what became the Roman military camp of Vindobona, on the site of what is now the Innere Stadt (city centre) of Vienna. The third century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus, after whom Probusgasse in Heiligenstadt, north Vienna, is named, imported vines from Italy and planted them in the Danube region.

Wine growing ceased when the Barbarians displaced the Romans in the fifth century. Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, re-established vineyards in Vienna in the eighth century.

The Middle Ages from the fifth century to the 15th century saw the foundation of monasteries in Vienna, many of which had vineyards. By the 15th century enough wine was made in Vienna to be able to export. Records show that 75,760 hectolitres of wine were exported between 1445 and 1447.

Under siege

The Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent failed to capture the city in 1529 during the Siege of Vienna but, fearing further attacks, the city was fortified and surrounded by a moat in 1548. Central Vienna was enclosed and vineyards were grubbed up. The 30 Years War from 1618 to 1648 and the second Turkish attack in 1683 further depleted Vienna’s vineyards.

In the 18th century the architects Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Johann Lukas von Hildebrand turned Vienna into a Baroque city, building many splendid palais (garden palaces) across the ever-expanding city’s vororte (suburbs).

In 1784 Emperor Joseph II issued a decree that permitted all residents to open establishments to sell and serve “self-produced wine, juices and other food.” These Heurigen (wine taverns) helped to sustain Viennese wine growing. Heurig comes from heuer, the Austrian word for “year”. Hauer is an abbreviated version of weinhauer, or “winegrower”. The wine of the most recent harvest is the Heurige, which becomes “old” wine by St Martin’s day on 11 November.

Phylloxera badly affected Vienna’s vineyards in the late 19th century. But from the early 20th century onwards, Viennese wine was reinvigorated. Viticulture was improved by the trellis systems that were introduced in the 1950s by Franz Mayer of Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz.

The Blue Danube

Vienna is at the eastern foothills of the Alps and the western rim of the Vienna Basin, a tertiary tectonic hollow – in plain English, a large hole – that was originally covered by an ocean.

The Nussberg terrace to the north of Vienna, where the magnificent 200-hectare Nussberg vineyard now lies, was created by the withdrawal of the ocean.

The salt content of this ocean increased over time and killed off its corals, algae and sharks. Only mussels and snails survived, the fossils of which can today be seen in Nussberg’s sand and clay soil. The Danube River and its Ice Age sediments formed a subsoil of flysch-marl, a porous sandstone soil.

Vienna’s climate is influenced by the Danube; the Vienna Woods, which protect Vienna from cooler northern weather; and the Pannonian Plane. At Nussberg this means hot summers and dry autumns but cool nights because of proximity to the Danube.

Mayer day

Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz was established after the Turkish Siege in 1683. The winery remained in family hands until 2007, when Franz Mayer sold it to Hans Schmid, who had made his fortune with GGK Occidental PR agency, which at one time was the seventh largest PR company on the world. Schmid had bought the Rotes Haus estate in 2001, a small house in the middle of Nussberg with 2.2 hectares of vines.

Franz Mayer made the wine for Rotes Haus. With no heir, Mayer decided to sell his estate to Schmid in 2007.

New challenges

Mayer am Pfarrplatz owns 13.5 hectares of Nussberg, including the named sites of Preussen, Muckental and Mitterberg. Vines are also owned at Schenkenberg, a south-facing site at Sievering, southwest of Nussdorf, and at Alsegg, an 8-hectare vineyard in the 17th District of Vienna, in the northwest of the city.

Production is 90% white wine and 10% red, totalling 120,000 bottles per year on average. Mayer is now the biggest wine producer in Vienna.

Mayer’s Managing Director Gerhard J. Lobner defines the differences between the two Schmid-owned wine estates as, “Mayer is always primary fruit and fresh acidity. Rotes Haus is more mineral.”

The 2009 vintage was challenging but Gerhard does not mind: “Difficult vintages are more interesting,” he said, which is not something you hear often in Bordeaux…

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Sogevinus – The House of Tawny Ports Masterclass at the Big Fortified Tasting

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The Big Fortified Tasting, or b.f.t, is an annual tasting held in London that celebrates the diversity of fortified wines. It showcases Sherry, Madeira, Port and local variations on these classics. The only snag is that it is impossible to taste everything and still be standing at the end. Despite the treats on offer, other commitments and consideration for my overworked liver meant that I tasted only at the “Sogevinus – The House of Tawny Ports Masterclass”. Tutored by head winemaker Carlos Alves, this was a look at older treasures from the 1930s from Barros, Burmester and Kopke.

All four wines in this mini-horizontal/vertical were bottled two weeks before the event.

The Kopke Branco 1935 was a medium-amber and noticeably lighter in colour than the other wines. The fresh and honeyed nose evoked orange peel – very appealing. The high-voltage acidity ensured a dry taste, though there is 50-60g/ltr of sugar. The acidity was less daunting than the alcohol “burn” on the finish that spoiled the otherwise elegant patina. But it had plenty of length of flavour, not just alcohol.

Also from 1935, the Kopke Colheita had a restrained nose and was less exuberant than the Barros and Burmester wines. It felt a bit lighter on the mid-palate than the others, though had plenty on the finish.

The Barros Colheita 1938 was a slightly deeper colour than the Burmester 1937 but was fresher and less unctuous and heavy. The glowing finish was probably the best of the four wines. A good wine.

Finally, the Burmester Colheita 1937 was “high-toned”, with a hit of acetate at the first sniff. It was very sweet, with 120g/ltr of sugar. But the flavours and aromas were quite savoury – dried figs, for example. Probably it was the richest of the four but wasn’t the most elegant – foursquare and squat.

It’s always a treat to taste wines of this age, especially when they’re guaranteed to be in good condition. Thanks to Sogevinus for this tasting and to Ben Campbell-Johnston and Danny Cameron for organising the b.f.t. I can hardly wait for next year’s event.

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Coralie Goumarre of Domaine Galévan: Spirit of Wine

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In August 2010 I made a whirlwind tour of France to profile three estates for Gilbert & Gaillard.

Arguably the most impressive estate that I visited was Domaine Galévan.

Robert Parker was in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in late August 2010. But he had yet to visit Domaine Galévan, nowadays overseen by Coralie Goumarre, the ninth generation of her family – and the first woman – to make wine at the family estate near Courthézon.

IMG_0379Galevan’s farmhouse is next to the A7 autoroute du Soleil, the west side of which forms the north-eastern boundary of the Châteauneuf appellation. Even though its vineyards are cheek by jowl with those of Château de Beaucastel, not lying inside Châteauneuf itself has perhaps condemned Galévan to be sometimes overlooked.

Galévan’s Châteauneuf, Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages vines are spread across two parcels, one on sandy argilo sableux and the other, which is 90% of the total, on the classic Châteauneuf terroir of argilo calcaire and galets roulés. The vineyards are Biodynamic and will be certified as such by the 2011 vintage.

Until Coralie’s father built the winery in 1967, Galévan’s grapes went to the local Cellier des Princes cooperative. Some of the Côtes du Rhône is sold as bulk wine but Coralie aspires to bottling all her own wine.

Galévan’s maximum potential production from its 49 hectares of vines is 330,000 bottles. The estate’s average vine age is about 50 years, with the oldest vines a parcel of Grenache that is 94 years old. Syrah is trained to Cordon de Royat, the other varieties to gobelet.

Galévan wineryThe small winery is as simple as it gets: the red wines are made in concrete tanks, the whites in steel. “I don’t work by the book”, explains Coralie. “I taste the wine and make it like that.”

Seven wines are made. The Côtes du Rhône rosé is clean, fresh and simple, all “fruit, fruit, fruit!” as Coralie puts it. The Grenache juice is saignée but the Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Clairette and Carignan are pressurages followed by macération pelliculaire (skin and juice macerated together before pressing).

The Côtes du Rhône blanc is atypical for its high percentage of Clairette. “I like white wines with beautiful acidity”, asserts Coralie. “I don’t like flabby wines.”

Two red Côtes du Rhône are made: the unoaked Paroles de Femme and the more elegant, darker flavoured and punningly named Esprit Devin, which is made from a rockier terroir and older vines than the Femme. It used to be bottled in a heavy bottle but with the move towards Biodynamics it became important to consider more conscientious transportation methods and costs.

Galévan galets terroir 2The Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc is part-fermented in new oak barrels and aged on its lees for up to nine months. The 2007 was drinking beautifully, retaining the clean acidity that Coralie strives for.

Galevan’s grand vin Châteauneuf-du-Pape is mostly Grenache with a seasoning of Mourvèdre. Aged in 500-litre casks and some 1-year old barriques that were used for the white wine, the 2008 is a good effort for that unloved vintage. “I made a big selection in 2008, trier, to make a good wine”, explains Coralie. She admits that such conscientiousness “is difficult economically.”

In 2009, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape cuvée “Saint Georges” was made for the first time from rented vineyards in and around Courthézon, specifically the lieux dits of St-Georges and Beaucastel.

IMG_0094 digGalévan exports to Canada and the USA and has recently sold wine in China. Coralie is open-minded about wines away from the Rhône méridional: “I like Burgundy and some Italian wines. I had Château Kefraya a few years ago and it was superb. It’s important to taste different wines. You don’t have the same analysis with these as you do with tasting another Châteauneuf or Côtes du Rhône.”

Despite Parker’s enthusiasm for Châteauneuf, she remains ambivalent about him: “I don’t say that I like his influence but it is a necessity. If you have a good score it is easier to sell in the USA.”

As the first, but perhaps not the last, female member of her family to make wine, she finds her work “interesting but difficult. There is not only the winery and the vineyard; there are the customers and the banks. There is always something to do. The bad side of the job is not having enough time for myself, to play sports and go running. But I like my job a lot. Watching TV at home is not for me.”

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That’s Amarone

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In January 2012 I visited the Valpolicella-producing areas of the Veneto, with a particular focus on Amarone. It’s a lovely part of the world, with a lot of history.

Sixteenth century Venice, devastated by the Black Death and challenged by other sea-faring nations, nonetheless remained Europe’s preeminent vinous emporium, exporting and importing wines to and from all over the Mediterranean. Frequent wars with the Ottoman Empire caused supplies from the east (Greece and Cyprus) to be blockaded, which led the Venetians to develop vineyards in the hills around Verona. Inspired by the Greek example, strong red wine from half-dried grapes was made in Bardolino, Soave and Valpolicella.

By the nineteenth century this “Rosso Austero Costa Calda” (“austere red hot coast”), as it was referred to in Paris in an 1845 auction catalogue, was considered to be the “Supreme Wine of Italy … better than other Bordeaux and Hermitage.”

The wine’s name, meaning “big bitter”, was apparently invented in 1936 by Adelino Lucchese, winemaker at the Cantina Sociale Valpolicella, when he declared said of a serendipitously dry Recioto wine, “Questo non è un Amaro, è un Amarone” (“This is not a bitter wine, it is a big bitter wine”).

The Soave-based Bolla family claims to have been the first to market Amarone under that name. To commemorate the 80th birthday of Alberto Bolla on 13th April 1953, an Amarone Riserva del Nonno 1950 was bottled. This led to subsequent vintages being bottled and marketed as Amarone.

Alike in dignity

The Valpolicella DOC stretches 20 miles or so from the Adige river northwest of Verona to Soave in the east. The westernmost quarter is Valpolicella Classico, the longest-established and supposedly best area for this wine.

Valpolicella Valpantena is sandwiched in the middle before the basic Valpolicella area in the east, which was created as DOC in 1968 to exploit the moneymaking potential of the Valpolicella name. The soils are mostly the same as Classico – tufaceous and calcareous ­– but the mesoclimate is less affected by Lake Garda, the breezes of which temper the climate.

Classico is unofficially – though certainly topographically – divided into five valleys. Fumane to the northwest of Verona is a cool part of Classico, influenced by its close proximity to Garda. The Lessini Mountains sway the communes of Negrar and San Pietro in Cariano more than Garda. The Valpantena Valley is sandwiched between Lake Garda, the Alps and Verona and therefore has plenty of air circulation. The Valli Orientali (Eastern Valleys) have altitudes varying from 300 to 500 metres. As is often the case elsewhere, the better wines of Valpolicella come from hillside vineyards rather than from the plains, where the soils are more alluvial.

Three Gentlemen of Verona

In his Carmina No. 27, the Latin poet Catullus mentioned “calices amariores” (“bitter glasses”) in a lengthy passage on “the wine called Acinaticum, which takes its name from the acino berry…”

Catullus described how Acinaticum was made: “The grapes are selected from vines on locally managed pergolas, they are hung upside down, and they are stored in their amphorae, the regular vessels used. With time the grapes become hard but do not turn into liquid. They sweat out their insipid fluid and become delicately sweet. This continues until December when the winter begins to make their juice run, and, wondrously, the wine becomes new even as you find wine already mature in all the other cellars. The winter must – the cold blood of the grapes, the bloody fluid – (becomes) potable crimson, violet nectar. It stops boiling in its youth and when it is able to become an adult, it once again becomes new wine.” More than 2,000 years later, this is more or less how Amarone is made today.

Valpolicella is unique among wine regions of the world for having several styles possible from the same grapes and vineyards. First, Valpolicella “normale” is made as a standard red table wine from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes.

Two wines are possible from a process that involves drying grapes on mats or shelves in special lodges called “fruttaia”. The drying process causes the grapes to lose water and thereby increase their (relative) sugar content. If there is some sugar left after fermentation, the wine is a Recioto. If fermented to dryness and retaining at least 14% alcohol the wine is Amarone. Grapes for these wines tend to be a selection of the best, which does not necessarily say much for the quality of the “normale” wine.

Over the last decade production of Ripasso and Amarone has increased while the production of Valpolicella has decreased. Between 2000 and 2003 production of Amarone doubled. By 2006 one-third of all Valpolicella grapes were being used to make this most expensive of Veronese wines.

A third (or fourth?) Valpolicella wine is “Ripasso”, which involves pumping the “normale” wine over the lees of the Recioto to cause a minor refermentation. Masi first marketed this Ripasso style in the 1980s.

Big and bitter

Amarone is an expensive and painstaking wine to make. Grapes are selected and transported to the winery in single layers; they are dried and must be carefully monitored to prevent rot (which affects colour and acidity); the dried grapes yield only about half of what they would otherwise give; and the wine is aged for a significant period before release.

Historically Amarone was an oxidative and often volatile wine whose main attraction was its richness of flavour. Modern wines are much fresher and better counterpoise the forceful acidity, alcohol and bitterness that so characterise Amarone.

Styles and quality vary tremendously – this is Italy, after all. In March 2012, 12 family-owned estates (Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommasi, Venturini and Zenato) grouped together to found the “Familia dell’Amarone” (Amarone Family) organisation.

The “Amarone d’Arte Manifesto” of the Familia states that Amarone is “now threatened by overproduction, without regard for those areas which are most suitable for the production of Amarone, and using only the minimum production standards set out in the official regulations, with a consequent decrease in quality. It has recently been subjected to sales strategies from large scale distribution channels (that) squeeze prices and force producers to sacrifice quality.”

The families’ response is “artisanal dedication… the exclusive use of the best positioned vineyards, superior viticultural techniques, precise bunch selection during harvesting, prolonged drying periods (“appassimento”) for the grapes, and ageing in high quality barrels. Amarone d’Arte is a wine of great value. Its quality is recognized in both the price it commands and its prestigious image on international markets.”

The older wines tasted were often profound but, on the whole, as the Colonel says in Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees, “I believe that the Valpolicella is better when it is newer.”

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