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  • antoniamacfarlane1

After floating around the Tuscan countryside in September, having remarkable wine and some of the best food I’ve ever had, I have finally gotten around to sharing the tale.

In September I was whisked away with The Scottish Gantry to the beautiful Tuscan countryside to visit some of our wine suppliers and try some new wines which we hoped to buy in.

Arriving very late into Pisa (thanks to a delayed Ryanair fight), we drove down into the Tuscan countryside arriving in the wee sleepy hours to a very quiet San Gimignano. The beautiful cobble streets echoed with the distant crickets and soft hum of a sleepy town.

Waking up in the morning, we had the pleasure of opening the curtains to the rolling hills, towering Cyprus trees, scrawling vineyards and clear blue skies. Breakfast looked over the little terracotta town and as I sipped my café latte, I couldn’t have dreamed what the week had in store.

We were quickly whisked away in the sprinter van after meeting the marvellous Claudia and Alberto, our lovely consultants who introduced us to the best Tuscany has to offer.

Our first stop was in the charming town of Montalcino, at the top of the hill lay the historic Il Marroneto. The 9 hectare vineyard look over the Brunello valley. Owned by Alessandro Mori, this is one of the older Montalcino estates being founded in 1974. The estate refers to the deep religious underpinning of the past, Marroneto meaning ‘Old Tower’ was the Madonna delle Grazie convent, housing nuns in the 13th Century. The top wine produced ‘Madonna’ portrays this connection. The Madonna single vineyard plot being the one closest to the winery where the Nuns would have prayed.

Arriving at the vineyard, we entered from the back of the old countryside villa. This stone building was very deceiving as when we walked round the front we were greeted with the splendour of the Brunello valley. Walking under the Sangiovese vines and hanging grapes into the historic building was a lovely welcome.

Il Marroneto is 400 meters above sea level with complex soil types consisting mainly of sand, limestone and galestro. When studying my Diploma, picturing the different soil types and understanding their benefits was one of the aspects of the course I found most interesting. However, it was sometimes difficult to remember and I vowed I would make it easier for my students (and myself) by studying the soil each time I went to a new vineyard. I took samples from the Madonna plot in Montalcino, which were very different to the soils elsewhere in Tuscany.

The Brunello wines are typically elegant, refined and long lived. We were lucky enough to taste these right from the barrel. In typical Italian hospitality, we must have tasted around 15 samples from different plots, vintages and oak types. Each of these wines were different, my favourite being the Madonna 2019. After jumping about the cellars numbing our taste buds with more and more samples, we descended the stairs into history. The dark cellar was one of the best parts of the tour. We sat around the table hearing more about the history, listening to Claudia, Alberto and Jacob speak in rushes of Italian and enjoyed the true essence of the Tuscan wine adventures. I feel being in the trade and meeting winemakers to discuss business rather than being a tourist gave us a much deeper reality of the processes. The veil was lifted and we got to experience the true nature of the winery.

After a fantastic first vineyard, we jumped back in the van and descended into the valley, once more braving the country roads. Next stop, Sasso Sol!

This newer winery and vineyard had less of the rustic charm than Il Marroneto. In contrast, everything at the top of the hill is done with minimal intervention and old winemaking techniques. Sasso Sol has recently undergone a refurbishment, showcasing their huge 2000l oak barrels, bottling line and stainless-steel tanks for fermenting the wines. Where Il Marroneto is rustic its dark and dusty demeanour added to the richness of heritage and experience. Visiting Sasso Sol showed the difference winemaking techniques and vineyard location can have on the Sangiovese grape. I would describe the difference being Il Marroneto is the grandfather who has years of experience getting things right and Sasso Sol being the grandson who has taken a risk; which has paid off.

We got a tour of the winery and talked through each of the production processes. After this, I was thrilled to see the cellar had been set up for lunch. At this point I should have realised what I was in for. The next five days I was going to consume some of the best food I have ever eaten, this was the prelude of what was to come. We enjoyed six wine samples with local meats, cheese and what was to become a staple of any meal (and the whole trip) olive oil. On the trip I must have consumed a bottle of oil. We had it with every meal, including breakfast, bathed in olive oil soap and lathered on olive oil moisturiser every night.

At Sasso Sol I tried sparking Sangiovese for the first time. Pale pink in colour, this wine had a vigorous mousse (very bubbly) and beautiful soft red berry and herbal notes. It was delicious and very refreshing on a sunny day. We worked our way through the samples tasting the younger, fruitier Orcia Sangiovese and Rosso di Montalcino before diving into the richer Brunello di Montalcino and Bunello di Montalcino Riserva. It was interesting to see the difference between wines in Sasso Sol and ll Marroneto.

After a long leisurely visit, we returned to our base in San Gimignano where we had some time to look about the market stalls and try the world’s best ice cream (It was amazing, extremely creamy). We wandered around the cobbled streets and snuck up alleyways finding the local church before settling in a bar for a sundowner. We were invited to Claudia and Alberto’s for pre-dinner drinks on the balcony. As a thank you we stopped in a beautiful small deli and picked up a selection of antipasti bits including cheese, artichoke and some fennel wild boar, which soon became a favourite of mine!

Dinner was at Ristorante Peruca, tucked up a side street this restaurant felt like we were stepping back in time diving into an old wine cellar. We enjoyed a half bottle of Vernaccia, the indigenous grape of San Gimigano and again were amazed by the quality of the food. I had an onion tarte with Pecorino ice-cream (I still dream about this daily) to start followed by pear tortellini. Unusual but unreal! Well-watered and fed, we wandered back through the town for an early bed after a wonderful first day.

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  • antoniamacfarlane1

My life has changed a lot this Spring. Moving out of my childhood home, getting a new job and flying up and down to London more often for my Diploma has left me very busy, but not busy enough to realise what’s important…

I've been doing lot of reflection of the past. I was lucky enough to grow up in the most beautiful home that was in my family for 27 years. However, the time has come to move on and flee the nest! Letting go of familar things has been liberating. However, throughout this process I’ve realised how much we can't take for granted. Special times with family and spending time together with a nice bottle of wine is one of life’s precious moments.

However, the wine world is changing. The viability of the industry is being called into question. This is being magnified with the terrifying climatic changes that are ongoing. This is affecting every aspect of life, but lets discuss how wine as we know (and love) is going to change.

“THE OCEAN IS ON FIRE,” sounds like a line Chicken Little would say, but no. Today it is a reality! A gas leak off the Gulf of Mexico has left the sea burning. An underground pipeline owned by the Mexican state oil company, Pemex has burst and ignited under the water, the images are almost apocalyptic. This is a huge awakening for many to bring light to the danger the ocean is in and the issues it is causing to the climate.

Last year I wrote my dissertation on how climate change is impacting the wine industry and consumer purchasing. This year, for my WSET Diploma I was to write a report on how vineyards are seeing the impact and identify what adaption methods they are adopting. This is a recurring topic within the industry and is maybe sounding like a mantra. However, it is so important that it is imperative it's highlighted.

The warming climate is not just melting the icebergs, causing wild fires, droughts, heatwaves and raising temperatures. It is impacting our everyday life, whether we recognise it or not. The subject is so vast and sees so many elements of our lives affected.

The industry is at a cross roads, so much has already been impacted and yet more changes are forecast. Frightening predictions as early as 2050 have been announced. By this time it is believed that California, one of the largest and most renowned growing regions, is expected to loose 51% of viticulture abilities… 51%... In 29 years time...

The region is already seeing a loss to viticulture and permanent changes. The Kincade wildfires of 2019 decimated Napa and Sonoma counties destroying 66,000 acres. One of the oldest wineries in the state was completely destroyed with fire ravishing the vineyard, Soda Rock in Alexander Valley was founded in 1869. Only the wine cellar and 2019 vintage (which luckily had just been picked) were salvaged. Plans are underway to rebuild the iconic landmark.

However, it is not that easy. Fires don’t only destroy buildings, homes and families but also the composition of the soil and the grapes. Ashy soil and smoke taint are extremely temperamental in the growing of grapes. Smoke taint gets into the grape skins and leaves the final wine with burnt plastic aromas. The University of California are currently trying to find a cure or adaption method and have teamed up with a Australian institution who also are seeing the affect of wildfires more frequently.

The wildfires are a result of the increasing temperatures. Average annual temperatures are rising causing budburst, grape growing and harvest to be earlier. This causes even more issues. Earlier bud bust causes problems as brief hot spells can impact the fragile buds to open earlier. Cooler spells and spring frost can then damage the already fragile little buds causing reduced final yields and disease. Bud burst in Alsace, the famous French region bordering Germany, is occurring 15 days earlier than in 1965.

Higher temperatures causes more sugar to accumulate in the grapes. More sugar results in higher alcohol. This isn’t always a good thing. Some producers don’t want the higher alchohol as it unbalances the wine. Decisions need to be to pick early with underripe characters and lesser alcohol. This is changing the way wines are tasting and is a big concern in areas such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, the two highest value regions in France.

Heat changes and drought have resulted in areas of Spain and Southern France loss of grapes and growing ability. The Languedoc region had a 46°C heat wave in 2019, a record temperature. This resulted in 50% loss of overall yield in 24 hours. Situations like this are becoming more common and we are going to loose more wines. This means wine is going to be more expensive!

This is a very brief outline on a whole world of issues. The climate matter in regard to wine gets very complicated and goes into deep detail. If you are considering what you can do to help, keep in mind the following points when you purchase…

When going to buy wine, look at the price and type of wine it is. Is it a cheap wine? Under £5? Consider why. Cheap inexpensive wines from ‘New World’ territories such as Australia and California cause issues of their own. Wines are made using mass irrigation. They are watered extensively to plump up the grapes and get more juice. In areas where water is a precious resource and drought is a big concern...shouldn't it be shared?

Also consider why they are able to grow so much? The use of fertilisers and pesticides help protect the grapes from disease. These are needed in certain climate where damp environments cause fungal disease and other issues. However, everything in moderation. Mass produced sites which use lots of spraying can contaminate the natural water soures and soils again hindering biodiversity and the environmental make up of the land. Try to consider this when purchasing.

A bottle of wine is costed through considering tax, labour required and cost of production. If a wine is £5, how much of this cost is actually the wine content and not the added business figures?

Little changes to purchasing habits such as buying wines with ‘Green Sustainable Credentials’ can really help. This means buying wines with minimal intervention such as organic, natural or biodynamic wines. Each of these are slightly different but the overall idea is purchasing a wine where the vineyard land is left to grow naturally with little help. Winemakers will intervene when needed but will work to increase biodiversity and produce a wine as natural as possible with little use of fertilisers and pesticides.

The Sea Change range is a sustainable wine. This is an organic, environmentally focussed wine. This brand have a specific focus on protecting sealife and keeping plastic from the oceans. Every element of this wine has been sustainably sourced from the glass, cork and contents. The animal on each of the ranges bottles portray which protection charity will get the funds. The wines have been picked up by Sir David Attenborough and the charity has since seen mass consumer awareness.

This Provence rosé is beautifully light and easy. It is deemed the more luxurious of the range and is made by an award winning producer, Chateau Pigoudet. I picked up this bottle for £13. With subtle berry notes, strawberry, zesty grapefruit, white peach and tropical notes, the brand refer to this one as the “Jewel of the Ocean” perfect for any sunny Spring day… or Summer now that I’ve got my life back in order!


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  • antoniamacfarlane1

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Sometimes passion is so powerful that you can actually feel it, or in this case, taste it...

Last week, I had a lovely time attending a virtual wine tasting with Alex Virgili of Democratic Wines. This Catalonian company’s main focus is making the world of wine, 'fun, easy and accessible to everyone.'

As I have mentioned before, the wine world can sometimes be a snobby and stuffy place. However, in the case of this brand, snobbery is definitely not the case. Ran by three brothers, the younger generation have taken this old school winery and made it their own.

During the virtual wine tasting, Alex, one of the three Virgili brothers, told us the history of the family business, the trials and tribulations of taking over the family company and veering it in a very different direction. He spoke about the importance of great marketing and branding but if the wine quality doesn't match, it won't be successful. The rebranding of the old school winery has helped put the Virgili brand on the map. They are especially popular with millennial, hipsters and modern wine drinkers, a change from their previous clientele. One thing has not changed in their 50 year history, the passion and love they share for their Catalan heritage.

In the politest way possible, I would describe their brand to be crazy...crazy branding, crazy parties and crazy smart. The way the brothers have made their business so sought after by "young souls" through their innovation, brilliant marketing and approachable brand, it is no wonder it is such a success.

The brothers actually have many other brands, all following the same philosophy. Democratic wines is the umbrella for El Bandarra and Organic & Orgasmic where as Can Virgili, the original family brand, is the umbrella for Cava Mo, Sorbet wines and the delicious wines we tasted.

In 2013 El Xitxarel·lo was launched, Alex described this as the companies 'big bang.' In modernising the brand, the brothers took a 'tongue in cheek' approach. Sometimes their campaigns can be close to the bone, but this wine isn't for the faint hearted anyway.

'El Xitxarel·lo' (the name of the bottle) translates from Catalan to 'stupid young guy.' 'Xarel·lo' is the indigenous grape of the area, most popular in Cava production.

Single varietal Xarel·lo is rare, especially quality bottles. This one is delightful, harvested manually, fermented in stainless steel at 16°C for three weeks and left on lees (the dead yeast cells) for 4-5 months depending on the vintage. This process adds body, freshness, complexity and sometimes bread-y notes to the wine. These lees are stirred with a big paddle for added roundness and elegance. This is a dry wine with high acid, low abv at 11.5%, medium body and medium + finish. Characteristics include green apple, pear, peach, apricot, lemon, lime, grapefruit and a slight delicate pastry note from the lees ageing, although this is very subtle. This wine has a great capacity to age, sticking a bottle in your cellar for a few years will result in a delicious summer treat!

As you can see, the bottle is truly unique showcasing 60+ different logos which are all naughty sayings, swear words or 'tongue in cheek' phases. Nothing is hurtful, just funny and slightly risky. These illustrations are replaced every vintage, the most recent additions being "Trumpos" = liar and "Boig" = crazy guy. "Pixa Pins"= a crazy hipster from Barcelona who drives to the country to 'pee' in the vineyards.

After the Xarel·lo's success, 'El Cabronet' was launched in 2015. Again a play on the grape, Cabernet Sauvignon but meaning, 'little bastard.' This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon which is known as an 'international variety' because it is not native to the region. Plantings of this grape started in the 1980/90's in Penedes as an insurance for the future. Cabernet was big on the market at the time and these vines take 3-5 years before they harbour any fruit. It was the Virgili brothers father who first planted these vines in their vineyards.

The grapes are manually collected, fermented in stainless steel at 16-17°C for 25 days. The wine is then placed in oak barrels to mature for 3-4 months. The warm Mediterranean climate influences this wine by making is smooth, easy to drink and fruity.

It is a dry wine, deep ruby in colour with medium + acids, medium tannins, high alcohol, medium body and a long lingering finish... truly delicious. Characteristics are classic to Cabernet Sauvignon, blackcurrant, blackberry and other juicy dark fruits, cedar, graphite (like pencil sharpening) with beautiful richness. These dark fruit flavours are enhanced by a exciting winemaking technique. This is a technique that, in short, includes adding Co2 (it helps prevent oxidation), pumping the wine juice over itself and rapidly chilling the wine to -70°C. This is complex process which mimics a process called Carbonic Maceration which is common in Beaujolais to get juicy fruit and a fresh finish.

The stainless steel fermentation tanks used to covert the base must into wine were a big topic of conversation. Alex told us about the brothers plans to make the winemaking side of the business more fun for guests visiting the winery. In order to do this they have gained planning to create a large slide which will go inside of a tank (empty presumably) to show guest the journey the wine takes. When asked about the size of these tanks and the likely hood a person could fit inside, Alex replied in his typical risky way, "yes, they are pretty big, size matters."

"Yes, they are pretty big, size matters..."

The 'El Cabronet' bottle is also covered in slang, saying and swear words. One of the most noticeable illustrations is the large arrow going up the bottle, already in place for playing 'spin the bottle' which unlike the British game, doesn't involve kissing but the person whom the arrow lands gets stuck with the bill!

The branding, marketing, party persona and overall excitement of these wines is still

communicating an important message about protecting the climate and doing your bit to help with the current situation. This message is obvious when you look at the brothers innovative ideas regarding sustainable and renewable packaging. A twin pack was created with the two bottles, which after use instead of binning, instructions are given on how to transform into a light! Again with another Catalan saying "Com un llum" scribed over it.

The brothers practice organic and vegan grape growing and winemaking (viticulture and vilification). Organic wine is made using organic viticulture methods including, not spraying the crop with chemical fertilisers, using natural interventions and pretty much leaving the grape to grow itself without outside help or enhancements. However, organic viticulture is easier in warmer climates with little rain, like the Penedès region. Not having damp or humid weather helps reduce the risk of fungal disease which need lots of spraying to keep from infecting whole vineyards.

The idea that wine is vegan can be confusing, but animal proteins are often used in the clarification and filtration process. This is when proteins/large enzymes are added to the wine to bind to the remaining yeast and other floating particles. This helps make the remaining particles in the wine bigger so when they are fed through a sieve like machine they are big enough to be stopped and not fall through the holes leaving behind a lovely clear wine. Often the protein used is from fish, meat, egg and other animal products. There are however, alternatives such as a type of reformed plastic and what the Virgili Brother use, 'Bentonite' a compound deriving from clay which is often used in beauty treatments to leave skin looking younger and help remove toxins from your body.

The overall story behind this brand, the deep family history, passion for winemaking and love for their heritage all contribute to making this wine truly unique and successful. This excitement among "young souls," millennials and people who would not normally choose to drink wine is fantastic for the wine community all together. Moving away from the old school traditional methods and creating a fun, exciting persona around wine is what the industry needs. The Virgili brothers took a risk in making this tongue in cheek, sarcastic and funny brand but it has clearly paid off. The wine world needs more of this modern winemaking to ensure the industry has longevity and moves away from the stuffy, snobby image that has been created over the years. These wines are fantastic and I urge you to go and buy a bottle to support this cause but also... because, in the spirit of the Virgili brothers, it's bloody delicious.

- Cheers!

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