Tag Archives: technique

Meet the Maker: Valtellina's Nebbiolo – An Interview with Ar.Pe.Pe.'s Enologist

On previous posts, we have presented the Italian wine district of Valtellina and introduced one of the finest Valtellina wine producers, Ar.Pe.Pe. along with a tasting of their wines.

On this post, which concludes our mini-series about Valtellina, you can find an interview that Ar.Pe.Pe.’s enologist and co-owner Isabella Pellizzatti Perego was kind enough to do with me.

Ar.Pe.Pe.'s enologist and co-owner in their stunning tasting room

Here are the questions I asked Isabella, along with a summary of her answers – let me give you heads up about the fact that some of the discussion is fairly technical in nature, but at the same time I think it is very interesting and educational:

Q1. First of all, would you care to explain the logic behind the various labels in your lineup and their release to the market? I understand they are not all available every year, so maybe you can elaborate a little bit on that?

A1. Certainly: essentially, we are pretty black and white with our production – let me try to explain.

At the top of our range there are the following four Crus or Riservas: Grumello Buon Consiglio; Sassella Rocce Rosse; Sassella Vigna Regina; and Sassella Ultimi Raggi.

These current Crus will soon be complemented by two new Crus that we have started making since the 2009 vintage and that are currently at the beginning of their aging phase. These new wines will be released to the market in 2018: one is our first Riserva from our vineyard in the Inferno subzone and the other one is a new Riserva from our Grumello vineyards that is going to complement our Buon Consiglio Cru.


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s 5.5 HL wood tonneau aging casks

Beside those, we have the Inferno Fiamme Antiche which, so far, is the only label that we make from our vineyard in the Inferno subzone. When our new Inferno Cru becomes available, the Inferno Fiamme Antiche will be its second vin.

Finally, there is our entry-level, easy and ready to drink wine known as Rosso di Valtellina.

Now, the Rosso di Valtellina is the only one of our wines that is available every year.

Instead, our concept for our premium wines is that, depending on our assessment as to the quality of the grapes we harvest, we decide whether they are worthy of a Cru or they should be “downgraded” to second vin. We do not compromise: the entire crop for each subzone either becomes a Cru or a second vin.

So, for instance, if one year you see that we release the Grumello Buon Consiglio Riserva, that means that for that year the Grumello Rocca De Piro will not be released, and vice versa, which of course entails a significant sacrifice in terms of revenues. But we are happy this way: we want to stand behind the quality and reputation of our wines and we do not take any shortcut to do so.

Mountain Nebbiolo grapes in Ar.Pe.Pe.'s destemmer

Q2. The mountain Nebbiolo of Valtellina has been recognized as a biotype that is geographically distinct from Piemonte’s Nebbiolo and several clones have been identified. Can you tell us something about the clonal choices that you made in your vineyards?

A2. Valtellina’s Nebbiolo presents greater biodiversity in its clones compared to Piemonte’s Langhe Nebbiolo (where the three main clones are Michet, Lampia and Rosé). In Valtellina at least 10 different clones have been identified. For our vineyards, we have selected a mix of the various clones and we are observing how each of them has adapted to our terroir and how it performs. This way, we can identify the vines that perform best and then use those same clones to add new vines or replace existing ones.

Q3. Let’s talk a little bit about viticulture: what’s the average density and age of your vineyards? Are your vines all grafted? Which month of the year do you harvest and is it all done by hand?

Helicopter carrying Nino Negri's harvested mountain Nebbiolo grapes

A3. Our average density is 5,500/6,000 vines/HA and on average our vines are 50 years old – most are grafted, but there still are a few plants that are ungrafted.

We harvest exclusively by hand due to the characteristics of our territory, which prevent the use of anything mechanical. It is pretty much the same for all of the Valtellina producers, although some (such as Nino Negri) go as far as using helicopters to carry the crates with the harvested grapes as fast as possible to the winery. In general, we harvest the grapes for all our wines in the second half of October, except only those for our Ultimi Raggi Cru (which is our late-harvest wine) which get picked in the second half of November, just before the first snow of the season.

Q4. Speaking of the Ultimi Raggi: this is a wine that falls within the Valtellina Superiore Riserva DOCG appellation (subzone Sassella). Since it is a dry raisin wine, can it be considered your own take of a Sforzato della Valtellina? Why does it not fall within that separate DOCG?

A4. Well, yes and no: our Ultimi Raggi is a late-harvest dry raisin wine like a Sforzato, but it cannot be classified as such as the regulations for the Sforzato della Valtellina DOCG appellation require that the grapes be picked during the regular harvest season and then be dried on straw mats (in other words, it is not a late-harvest wine).

Instead, with the Ultimi Raggi we have made the choice of drying the grapes while they are still on the vine, by picking them generally a month later than the regular harvest. It is a riskier choice, because a few years ago we had just finished harvesting the last vines for the Ultimi Raggi when it started snowing: had it happened one day earlier, a large part of our harvest would have been lost. So, it is a riskier choice, but we feel that it really pays off in terms of the quality of the wine that we make.

Q5. How do you feel about organic viticulture? Is it something you are considering embracing?

A5. We practice an integrated approach to viticulture, which imposes very restrictive practices already. We would love to go all the way to organic, but considering our geography, that is made of steep mountain slopes and makes it impossible for us to mechanize anything, currently we are not in a position to incur even greater labor costs. Just think that the integrated viticulture approach that we practice results in 1,300 working hours per year for each hectare of vineyards: more than twice the number of man hours that are required in Piemonte’s Langhe and about three times as many as those required to harvest hill vineyards in general.


Delastage "rack and return" process of Ar.Pe.Pe.'s fermenting must

Q6. Let’s move on to your ultra-conservative winemaking choices: what kind of vats do you use to ferment your wines? Also, do your wines do malolactic fermentation? And for both fermentations, do you use selected yeasts and acid bacteria or are both fermentations spontaneous?

A6. We still use 50 HL wood barrels to ferment our wines: we have them made using the same traditional, proprietary mix of oak, chestnut and acacia that we use for our aging barrels. Then, after each fermentation, we gently scrape the inside of the barrels to remove any possible residue. It is a lot of work compared to just using stainless steel vats, but we think it is worthwhile because of the additional flavor and smoothness it contributes to our wines.

All of our wines go through a couple of day of pre-fermentative cold maceration to maximize the extraction of color and primary aromas, then they go through spontaneous alcoholic fermentation using only indigenous yeasts and finally they do a full, spontaneous malolactic fermentation that is kick started by careful temperature control.

Q7. What kind of barrels do you use for aging your wines and what is the main driver for your choice?

Ar.Pe.Pe.'s aging barrels

A7. As is the case for our fermenting vats, we use large 55 HL wood barrels for aging our wines too: these are made of a proprietary mix of oak, chestnut and acacia woods that we have traditionally been using from the very beginning. We also have a few smaller 5.5 HL tonneau casks made of the same wood mix that we sometimes use, but it is an exception.

In addition, none of our aging barrels is toasted: we only use un-toasted wood to minimize the release of tertiary aromas/flavors to our wines. We made this conservative choice because we want our wines to underscore primary and secondary aromas and to be a reflection of their unique terroir. Anyone can add spicy notes to a wine that, in itself, could be not very exciting: we want our consumers to appreciate our wines for the story they tell about our grapes, our territory and the environment our vines grow in.

Q8. Speaking of terroir, how would you briefly describe that of your vineyards? Also, how would you say that the wines made from grapes grown in the three different subzones you have vineyards in (Sassella, Inferno and Grumello) differ from one another?


Valtellina mountain vineyardsA8. The Valtellina district of Lombardia counts a little over 800 HA of vineyards altogether, and our grapevines grow on mountain slopes at an average altitude ranging from 400 to 600 mt (1,300 to 2,000 ft) above sea level. The soil here is scarce, as rocks abound.

This is also one of the main differences between the Grumello subzone versus the Sassella and Inferno subzones: the former has somewhat more soil, it is less rocky and this makes for easier, readier to drink wines, whilst the latter subzones have very little soil and rocks prevail – this makes the wines coming from these areas more austere and dependent on longer aging periods to properly assemble and integrate their components and smooth their edges.

Q9. Now, regarding the commercial aspects of your business: your annual production is about 60,000 bottles – what is roughly the split between export and domestic consumption? Which are the top three countries to which you export?

A9. This year marks the first time that we export more than we sell domestically: 60% of our production has in fact been exported.

Geographically, the USA is the top country we export to, Japan is the second and Russia (which we just started exporting to this year) came in third. This year we also started selling to a few new countries beside Russia, among which Hong Kong, Taiwan and a market that we are excited to finally be in Canada – our Rosso di Valtellina will be soon available in Quebec and we are very excited about this new challenge.

Q10. Finally, are there any new projects that you are working on that are worth pointing out to our readers?


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s fermenting barrelsA10. Yes, definitely. We already talked about the two new Crus which will become available in 2018, for which we are very excited and feel very strongly about their quality and potential.

Beside such product news, from a viticultural perspective we have decided to convert our vineyards to the Simonit-Sirch pruning method for controlled grapevine growth. In the context of a Guyot-type training system like the one we use in our vineyards, this method has the objective to optimize the performance of each vine through selective pruning of only young (one or two year old) stems growing out of the head of the trunk.

The purpose of this is to cause the vine to develop two main stems that originate from opposite sides of the head of the trunk and run parallel to the bending wire, giving the vine a characteristic T-shape. This optimizes the canalization of the plant’s lymph into such two main vessels and makes a vine grown with a Guyot-type training system more similar to a free-standing bush vine, which nowadays is considered the most efficient vine training system and one that considerably increases the life expectancy of the vine.


Ar.Pe.Pe.'s stunning tasting room

That’s all: hope you enjoyed the read, and let me thank Isabella once again for her exquisite hospitality and for being so patient as to answer all of my questions! 🙂

A Food Photography Primer

Over time, a few readers of this blog who seem to have been enjoying my food images have been asking that I write a post with a few pointers about food photography: today is the day for that. Bear in mind that what follows is not intended to be a comprehensive course on food photography, but just a reflection on some basic rules of photography that play an important role in making a good food photograph.

There is no magic, food is just one of the subjects of studio photography and food photography is still photography, so the same basic principles apply. As such, there are three main guiding criteria that everyone with an interest in food photography should focus on:

1. Composition
2. Lighting
3. Post-Processing

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

1. Composition

Composition is an element that can literally make or break a photograph. A successful image, including one of a food item, needs to have a strong, clean, balanced composition or it will look flat and boring at best. Here are a few pointers as to how to tackle this aspect:

  • Devise a plan before your shoot: pre-visualize how you would like your image to look like and figure out what you need to accomplish your vision (in terms of props, lighting, background and focal length of your lens)
  • Set up well ahead of time, when you have no time pressure: the shoot should be set up according to your plan and your vision, with everything in place except the food you are going to photograph. Take a few test shots in the same light that you would use for the real thing and see how your image looks like through the lens you chose. Use this opportunity to find out what does not work and to move things around or change camera/lighting settings until you achieve a pleasing composition that conveys your vision. Add the actual food item to be photographed only when you are all set and ready to go, so when you photograph it, it is going to be perfectly fresh, in top condition
  • Although composition is subjective and should convey your own vision, there are a few “rules” that will generally make your image a stronger one, including the following:
    • Less is more: keep your composition clean and simple;
    • Compose in such a way that the main subject of your image is immediately obvious to everyone;
    • Avoid blank space near the edges of your frame: make sure that your subject and other meaningful elements of your composition fill the frame in a balanced and pleasing way, making sure that you have a strong foreground, middle ground and background in your image;
    • Very rarely does a subject that is in the smack center of your image look good (unless you are going for an extreme close-up where your subject fills the entire frame): try to create some more dynamism by for instance resorting to the rule of thirds, that is placing your main subject off center, near one of the corners of your frame, or positioning important elements in the frame along an imaginary diagonal line;
    • Know your camera’s commands well and select a focal length and an aperture suitable for what you are trying to accomplish: do you want to achieve a compressed look with quite shallow a depth of field? Select a telephoto lens. Do you want to place a strong subject in the immediate foreground in the context of a wider scene with greater depth of field and a clearer sense of depth? Go for a wide angle lens. Do you want more depth of field? Select a smaller aperture (bigger f/stop number). Do you want only a narrow area in your image to be in sharp focus with the remainder being rendered as a soft blur? Pick a large aperture (smaller f/stop number). Every tool (i.e., your lenses) should be used for the purpose it is intended for and ultimately to realize your vision.

2. Lighting

Lighting is the essence of photography (the very word “photography” comes from Greek and means “writing with light“) and yet it is an often overlooked component in a photograph. Almost never will a photograph taken in bad light look good. Once again, here are a few things to bear in mind while you are planning for your shoot:

  • If you want to photograph using natural lightnever set up in direct sunlight (you would end up with harsh, unattractive contrast) – prefer the light of an overcast day or light coming from a northern facing window or skylight, but be prepared to supplement it with some extra light source so as to avoid that the image looks too flat – also, be ready to use a tripod (especially if youintend to use a smaller aperture) as your shutter speed will likely be fairly slow, unless you crank up the ISO which however may end up in a noisy (as in, grainy) image
  • Stay away at all costs from your camera’s pop-up flash and never place a flash head directly onto your camera’s hot shoe as this arrangement would give you flat, unattractive front light: remember, photography (like painting) is the art of creating the illusion of a 3D object in a 2D medium, and the key to achieve that is creating visible, pleasing shadows in your image
  • In order to create visible shadows you need to ensure that your main light source (AKA your key light) is off axis with your camera: side lighting and backlighting are both effective ways to create shadows
  • Generally, in food photography you want to achieve soft shadows and stay away from harsh, unpleasant shadows. The way to do this is to use a large light source or, if you don’t have one, to make your light source as big as you can: remember, the bigger the light source, the softer the shadows it will cast. This is why photographing food (or making people portraits) in natural light on an overcast day is something appropriate: thanks to the cloud cover, the sky turns into a gigantic source of diffused, soft light. In the studio, soft light can be achieved in several ways: by using a light modifier, such as a soft box (essentially, a big diffuser) or an umbrella (a reflector) or (assuming you have white walls and ceiling) by bouncing the light of your flash head off a wall or the ceiling
  • If you need to open up a bit the shadows that you have created, so as to reduce the contrast and provide more detail in the parts of your image that are in the shadow, you should use a fill light, which is another light source coming from a different direction and with a lesser intensity than your key light (you don’t want to obliterate your shadows altogether, you only want to make them lighter): a second flash head at a weaker setting or a reflector that bounces some of the light coming from your key light back into the scene are both good solutions to achieve this (tip: some aluminum kitchen foil crumbled and then flattened out works fairly well as an improvised silver reflector)

3. Post-Processing

Neither in the “good ol’ days” of film-based photography nor in nowadays digital photography world will a great image come straight out of the camera. While the old GIGO rule still applies (Garbage In, Garbage Out – meaning, if you start out with a bad image, it will be very difficult that you may turn it into a good one in post-processing alone), even a very solid image out of the camera will require some extent of post processing to become a great photograph. A few tips:

  • Shoot RAW, not Jpeg: by shooting RAW you will retain the maximum flexibility on your files and will not have to live with choices irreversibly made by the camera – the possibility of changing your white balance into whatever light temperature you desire is by itself totally worth the choice of shooting RAW instead of Jpeg
  • Learn how to use at least the basic features of Photoshop (or whatever other image editing software of your choice): at a minimum, learn how to crop your image (should you need to); how to work with levels and curves and with the dodge/burn tool to control contrast and exposure; how to use the saturation and color balance commands to control color; how to effectively sharpen an image; and finally how to work with layers so every change you make can be reversed at a later time if need be
  • Generally, be subtle with your changes and only aim them at optimizing your image so as to extract all of its potential from that digital file and turn a good image into a great one.

That’s it! I hope the above may be of help or inspiration to some of you to push the envelope a little bit and try to apply all or some of the above tips to your own food photography and see what comes out of it. And especially, have fun in the process and experiment!

If you are interested in seeing more of my food images, feel free to check out my photography Web site.

An Overview of the ISA Wine Pairing Criteria

StefanoAs promised a while ago to Suzanne, the gracious author of food and cooking blog apuginthekitchen, in this post I will briefly go through the core foundations of food-wine pairing, providing an overview of the main criteria conceived and recommended by the Italian Sommelier Association (ISA). This should hopefully offer readers a few guidelines that they may consider trying out the next time they will need to pair a wine with food.

Our discussion about wine pairing will utilize certain of the concepts and terminology that we have gone through in the context of our overview of the ISA wine tasting protocol: if you are not familiar with it, consider reading that post before continuing on with this one.

The first step in the wine pairing process is to assess the food you intend to pair a wine with: in so doing, you should consider (and ideally write down) which of the following characteristics are present to a noticeable extent in your food:

  • Latent sweetness (this is that sweetish feel that you perceive eating such foods as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, carrots, certain seafood such as shrimps or prawns, most ham, bacon, etc. – note, this is NOT the full-blown sweetness of a dessert)
  • Fatness (this refers to the presence of solid greases, such as in most cheeses, salame, hard-boiled egg yolk, etc.)
  • Tastiness (it is given by the presence of salt in a food, such as for instance in most cured meats, salame or cheeses)
  • Latent bitterness (it can be found in such foods as artichokes, raw spinach, radicchio, liver, grilled food, etc.)
  • Latent sourness (it is generally found in tomatoes, seafood marinated in lemon juice, salads with vinegar-based dressings, etc.)
  • Sweetness (typical of a dessert, honey or most fruits)
  • Aftertaste (meaning, whenever the flavor of the food tends to linger in your mouth after swallowing it – for instance, venison meat generally has a longer afterstate than veal meat)
  • Spiciness (this merely indicates the moderate use of spices in the preparation of the food, it does NOT indicate a “hot” food – examples are the use of saffron, curry, pepper, vanilla, etc. in foods like cured meats, risotto, desserts…)
  • Flavor (this indicates a noticeable, distinct flavor that is typical of a certain food or ingredient, such as in the case of blue cheese or goat cheese, salame, foods complemented by herbs, such as pesto sauce or butter and sage ravioli, coffee, cocoa…)
  • Juiciness (there are three types: (i) inherent, which is that of foods that have noticeable quantities of liquids in them, such as a fresh buffalo mozzarella or a meat cut cooked rare; (ii) due to the addition of liquids, such as a beef stew to which some kind of gravy or sauce was added, a brasato, etc.; and (iii) induced, which is that of salty or relatively dry foods, which cause abundant production of saliva in the mouth, such as in the case of a bit of aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese)
  • Greasiness (caused by the presence of oil or other liquefied greases that is still noticeable in the mouth at the end of the preparation of the food, such as in a bruschetta, seafood salad, grilled sausage, etc.)
  • Structure (this depends on the complexity or the extent of elaboration of a food – for instance, a cracker with cheese or a bowl of white rice shall clearly be considered foods with little structure, while a dish of goulash or a Sacher torte shall be considered foods with significant structure)

Now, the core of the wine-food pairing criteria preached by the Italian Sommelier Association is that certain of the aforesaid qualities of a food (to the extent of course they are detectable to a noticeable extent in the food you want to identify a good wine pairing for) shall be paired by contrast with certain qualities of a wine (see below), while certain others of such food qualities shall instead be paired by association with the corresponding qualities in a wine.

Having said that, let’s now move on the second step and see specifically which qualities in a wine relate to the food qualities that we have listed above and how:

Food Quality   Wine Quality
(A) Pairings by Contrast
Latent sweetness ==> Acidity
     
Fatness ==> Effervescence or Minerality
     
Tastiness    
Latent bitterness ==> Smoothness
Latent sourness    
     
Juiciness / Greasiness ==> ABV or Tannicity (by contrast)
(B) Pairings by Association
Sweetness ==> Sweetness
     
Spiciness / Flavor ==> Intensity of nose/mouth flavor
     
Aftertaste ==> Aftertaste or Finish

Wherever per the above guidelines a food quality presents an alternative in the choice of the related wine quality, structure of the food can often dictate which of the alternative wine qualities should be picked. So, for instance, in the case of the greasiness of a delicate seafood salad whose dressing is olive oil-based, the choice in the related wine quality should fall on a white wine with good ABV over a red wine with noticeable tannins, which would have a structure that would overwhelm the much simpler, more delicate structure of the seafood salad dish.

A few side notes on some “special situations“:

  • Very spicy (as in “hot”) food is very difficult to successfully pair: the best thing one can do is to pick a wine with plenty of smoothness and intensity in an effort to compensate, but if the food is too spicy, it will always overwhelm the wine
  • Particularly sour dishes are another challenge, such as in the case of salads with significant vinegar- or lemon-based dressings
  • Ice cream, gelato and sorbet are also tough pairings, because their cold nature makes taste buds even more susceptible to wine acidity, tannins or minerality – sometimes, the best bet is to pair them with a spirit (such as in the case of Granny Smith apple sorbet with Calvados or lemon sorbet with Vodka)

One last comment: the above guidelines are just that, guidelines that should offer you some pointers as to “which way to go” in your choices of which wines to pair with a certain food, but they are certainly not carved in stone, nor are they not meant to be breached now and then if you think there is good reason for it: ultimately, the bottom line is that whatever wine pairing you choose ends up being a pleasant one for your and your guests’ mouths!

Now have fun and experiment!  🙂