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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Tag Archives: natural wine

Cantina Giardino Gaia

Italy (Campania)


The roots of their winemaking go back to 1997, when Daniela De Gruttola and winemaker Antonio di Gruttola were touring the Ariano Irpino region of Campania in southern Italy. They discovered several farmers with patches of old vines untouched by modern treatments. Old vines, Antonio contends, are better able to defend themselves against disease and climate change. They have stronger immune systems than seedlings cloned in laboratories. “Their diversity is their strength for survival; no disease will kill them.”

Spurred on by the possibilities for winemaking at its most natural, Daniela and Antonio, with four friends and relatives joined forces to vinify about two thousand bottles for their own use, all in the garage of Pasquale Giardino, the senior partner of the group. By 2003 Cantina Giardino was born, the commercial enterprise began, and today production is up to about 24,000 bottles annually, with 90% of it exported. It is made up of ten different bottlings, both red and white, each enhanced with a label designed by one of their artist friends. At this scale there is not a great deal of profit to be made. So why do it? The answer — “Because  it makes us feel better.”

They view their approach to winemaking as fundamentally a “philosophical-cultural” concern. It embraces respect for the environment and the consumer, emphasizing “originality, craftmanship, and authenticity.” Central to that approach is the restoration of varietals indigenous to the region, including Aglianico Irpinia, Fiano, Greek, and Coda di Volpe.

Our bottle of Gaia is all fiano, from vines 40-70 years old. The various organic growers from which they purchase grapes work their vines only by hand. Once harvested in mid-October, the grapes undergo a rigorous selection process. A four-day cold maceration on the skins is followed by manual pressing with a wooden press. Fermentation on the lees extends to three months, in barriques of chestnut and acacia, and then in oak barrels of 600-litre capacity. Only indigenous yeast. A year-long aging on the lees. Bottling with no fining or filtration. Minimum addition of sulphites, and in some years, none at all.

Recently the group has purchased two hectares of their own vines. There is increased use of 200-litre terra cotta amphorae (manufactured locally) for the vinification. This has led to a new enthusiasm. The heart grows fonder. 

Cantina Giardino Gaia 2009

The natural qualities of the wine are immediate, in the golden haze in the glass, and the exciting, uncommon aromas. Rich and earthy, a complex menage of brackish smoke and spice. In the mouth it is no less lively, with a cut of tannic sourness that makes for an authentic, unstripped, thoroughly memorable encounter.  $$

[Thanks, Elena, for the wine photos, and the food!]


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Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen Contadino 5 (2007)

Italy (Sicily)

nerello mascalese (70%), several white varietals

A wine for an uncommon setting. A wine to share with adventuresome friends who appreciate diversity in the wines brought to their table.

I knew we were in for something different when I took the wine from the rack earlier in the day and eyed a distinct pinkish sediment along the length of the bottle. Or when the wine pouring into the glasses turned out to be the colour of overripe strawberries, and noticeably cloudy. I had the feeling that ‘polished’ or ‘finessed’ were not about to surface in our search for words to describe this vino, one purchased from the natural wine-loving folks at Artisan and Vine in London a couple of months ago.

Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen Contadino 5 (2007)

Yes, a dark strawberry red, that turns darker with time in the glass. The immediate reaction on bringing it within reach of the nose — sauerkraut juice. Yes, a pickled earthiness. Wine boundaries are expanding very quickly…

Ascend we do into uncharted territory, where grape-life is in flux, where rules have not yet evolved. There is a raw, unstructured intensity, a primal quality that most (but not all) of us find appealing. Yes, of course, there is fruit (wild cherry, wild raspberries) but seemingly a comparable number of vegetal and animal notes. Good acidity and workmanlike tannins. Rustic fruit, alive in the glass.

What the earth has offered up has been left in its basic state, left to its own devices, to develop in whatever direction comes naturally to it. And the result? I suspect we are encountering one of a series of results, that with each vintage the wine takes on a life of its own, that one year could be very different from the next. The winemaker’s aim is not consistency, rather full expression of the variables in play year to year.

Not a wine for the timid drinker. It is neither smooth, nor warm-hearted. It’s a walk into times past. Old world renewed. Old style, yet stylishly healthy and natural.  $

Frank Cornelissen works 8.5 hectares of vines in the North Valley of Mount Etna in Sicily. Belgian in background, Cornelissen came to the region of the famous volcano in 2001. He set himself on a unique path — some would say an extreme path — where nature rather than the winemaker dictates the qualities of the wine produced. No intervention, no treatments of any kind, No sulphur, no copper, no manure or compost. Wines, he would say, as nature intended.

The vines are free-standing, without wire or other supports, in what is called the “gobelet” or “bush vines” style of vine training. The estate balances the vines with olive, fruit and nut trees, as well as plantings between the vines, such as buckwheat. Bees form an integral part of the vineyard ecosystem.

Harvest is in October and November. Only heathy grapes at prime ripeness are gathered. Fermentation begins outdoors in 1000-litre polyethylene tubs, and eventually the wine is transferred to the cellar and into terracotta amphorae (or “giarre”) which have been buried to their necks in ground volcanic ash. Masceration takes place over several months, before basket-pressing removes the skin and seeds. Aging continues in the amphorae “until several full cosmic cycles have passed.” It’s another year or more before the wine is ready for its gentle transfer into see-through bottles with their see-through labels.

Here in his cellar Frank Cornelissen sits, his amphorae behind him. Transparent wine rebel? Unconventional, idiosyncratic viticulturalist? Certainly a wineman to stir things up. The wine world needs more like him.



[second and third photos by EP, fourth by ACM]













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Château Musar

Lebanon (Bekaa Valley)

cinsault, carignan, cabernet sauvignon

My Island home is a world away from Lebanon. You’d hardly fathom that a century ago any of its people would have braved the North Atlantic to immigrate here. But indeed so. Considering wine-making in their homeland went back at least 4000 years, they were doubtless disappointed to have come to a place without any cultivation of grapes.

Eventually Château Musar helped ease the pain. The wine is exported to dozens of countries worldwide, so I should not have been surprised to discover two excellent vintages of the red – ’95 and ’99 – on local shelves. I’ve also had the ’94 and the ’98, together with whites and reds from other Lebanese wineries. All on one particularly memorable evening, the dining table flanked by blue-bottled arak and tabbûleh, baba ghannûge, and grilled red pepper. (To say nothing of the impromptu belly-dancing.)

Château Musar 1995 is not a wine for the fastidious. It needs an open mind. Wine Spectator Magazine could only work it up to an 82.

For Château Musar has no intention of fitting the mould of the ubiquitous, pan-American wine. From the first whiff it is marked by candour and independence.

Château Musar 1995

I’d call it old Old World. Wine for wineskins. Brick red against the glass, lightly speckled with sediment. (Because it was too eagerly poured.) Breathe it in too deeply and it stings. The wine is deliciously unfiltered. Natural wine-making with flair, with provocative grace. A touch of brettanomyces, a fading background of acetone. Yes, it works within the depths of wild, dried fruit. A mellowed spiciness, a mouth-rich acidity, and all the time insistent on what it is, with no apologies.  $$

(I feel set to ride a camel. Not thinking there are no camels or deserts in Lebanon.)

Serge Hochar is the most visible of the operatives behind Château Musar. (His father, Gaston Hochar, whose name still appears on the label, founded the winery in 1930.) His brother, Roland, and son, Gaston, play equal parts, but Serge is the philosopher, the vocal front man.

He proclaims the fact that each vintage has its own character, having guided the blending since the 1950s, though he is the first to insist that nature does most of the work.  The vineyards are a thousand metres above sea level in the Bekaa Valley. The winery is in an eighteenth-century castle, 24 kilometres north of Beirut. Château Musar has sometimes found itself in the midst of the country’s civil war. Wine continued to be made while fighting raged around it, the wine cellars on occasion doubling as bomb shelters.

Similar stories pervade the histories of other wineries in Lebanon. We should celebrate the tenacity of the wine-making culture in that part of the world, and toast the uniqueness of what it manages to produce.

“Good wine,” Serge Hochar once told wine-writer Andrew Jefford, “should be dangerously enjoyable. I want to make a wine that troubles me.”

And this: “I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection.”

How refreshing. How restorative.

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