The wines of Ricci Curbastro, Franciacorta, Italy

Riccardo Ricci Curbastro

Riccardo Ricci Curbastro

As a fan of sparkling wines, I was pleased to get the chance to meet Riccardo Ricci Curbastro and taste through his wines, at a masterclass hosted by Vini Italiani in South Kensington.

The Ricci Curbastro family have been growing grapes in Franciacorta since the 14th century, but sparkling Franciacorta as we now know it is relatively young. Ricci Curbastro were one of the first 11 producers of this wine style, which began commercially in 1967 when they formed the DOC. Franciacorta achieved DOCG status in 1995, when there were 45 producers. Now there are 115. The emergence of sparkling wine gave the region, which is located in Lombardy in northern Italy, a much needed renaissance.

The modern era for the region began when monks from Cluny settled here and began planting vineyards. With them they brought Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. And here’s another interesting fact: apparently the first book ever about sparkling wine comes from Franciacorta, when in 1570 a physician wrote about the effects of carbon dioxide on digestion. But until the change in direction 50 years ago, the sparkling wine in the region was mostly made for home consumption, and wasn’t marketed.

The region itself is small and hilly, formed by glaciation, and with Lake Iseo as the northern boundary, in a part of northern Italy that’s famous for its lakes. The soil here changes every few hundred metres, with 60 different profiles, as a result of the glacial activity. Riccardo has vineyards in three different villages. ‘Tasting and creating the blend is like painting,’ he says.


Ricci Curbastro Franciacorta Brut NV Italy
Three years on the lees. Very fresh and linear with good acidity. Bright with a hint of grapefruit. Pure, with clean fresh citrus fruit. Very crisp with super purity. 90/100

Ricci Curbastro Franciacorta Satén Brut 2012 Italy
This has spent four years on the lees. Fresh and vivid with lovely purity. Perfumed and linear with crisp citrus fruit and nice precision and focus, showing direct fruit. 91/100

Ricci Curbastro Museum Release Franciacorta 2006 Italy
This is the same blend as the NV, but it was left on its lees for 8 years, disgorged in March 2015. There’s a lovely refined bready toastiness here with fresh citrussy notes and some richer pear and peach characters. 92/100

Ricci Curbastro Franciacorta Museum Release Satén Brut 2005 Italy
Very pure with subtle toast and meal notes. Lovely acidity and freshness here with some pear and peach fruit. Nice crystalline citrus fruits, with great concentration, weight and purity. 92/100

Ricci Curbastro Franciacorta Museum Release Satén Brut 2006 Italy
Very fine and expressive with fine citrus fruit, a hint of white peach and some lovely lemon and apple. Keen and supple with a beautifully expressive character. 90/100

Ricci Curbastro Dossagio Zero Gulberto 2008 Franciacorta, Italy
Zero dosage, 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Distinctive stuff. Very fresh and linear with nice precision to the cherry, herb and citrus fruit. Fresh and expressive with nice complexity and lovely purity. Stylish with some depth. 92/100


Ricci Curbastro Zero Trattimenti e Residiu Sulle Uve 2016 Sebino Bianco, Italy
This translates as zero treatments and residues on the grapes, although by law they had to treat against the vector of vine disease flavascens (Scaphoideus titanus), which they did with Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural product. It’s from an 8 year old vineyard that has never been sprayed, and is made from a blend of four varieties that are resistant to disease. The vineyard is in the middle of the village, and it’s now a garden where children can learn about viticulture and trees. Very fresh, pure, lemony and bright with clean citrus fruit. 89/100

These wines are available in the UK from Vini Italiani

How oak barrels are made: visiting Tonnellerie de Mercurey, Burgundy

tonnellerie mercurey

I recently had the chance to visit Tonnellerie de Mercurey, a leading barrel manufacturer in Burgundy. Barrels are pretty important to wine, because even though they are an old technology, they are still widely used, especially for more premium styles, and have a strong influence on the flavour of the wine produced.

If you’ve ever tasted through barrels in cellars, you will know that the same batch of wine will taste quite different depending on the barrel they are being aged in. There’s the age of the barrel, the source of the oak, the size of the barrel, and the way that the barrel was produced (for example, how it was heated to bend the staves) – all these factors influence the way the wine tastes.

Tonnellerie Mercurey deal exclusively with French oak. The other widely used sources of oak are American (which delivers more sweet oak flavour) and eastern European (these barrels make the wine taste quite savoury and spicy).

Staves, ready for assembly into barrels

Mercurey own their own stave mill, which processes the trees and produces staves. This was where their business began, with staves and forestry, and they still sell staves to other cooperages. The Tonnellerie, where they use their own wood to make barrels, is a more recent development, and began in 1992. It has expanded quite a bit, and they moved into the factory we visited in 2009. Currently, they make 16 000 barrels a year, which works out about 80 per day.

Staves, ready to be assembled into barrels

The staves arrive here pre-cut. One of the specialities here is that each barrel is made of blends of staves from different origin wood. They also have some barrels that are made from specific terroirs: for example, oak trees grown on more rocky soils show more heterogeneity in the staves, with some having a wider grain than others. It’s interesting that terroir affects the way that oak grows and that this in turn will affect the properties of the barrels.

Generally speaking, tighter grain is better, and produces higher quality barrels that impart less character to the wine, but which are suited to long ageing of wine in barrel. Staves must be split, not sawn, when French oak is used, or else the barrels would leak. American oak can be sawn, which is one reason that American oak barrels are cheaper.

The appearance of staves after they have been seasoned outdoors, before they have been planed for barrel construction

They are stored outside to season for two or three years. They get rained on, and this leaches out the bitter green notes that would otherwise make the wine taste horrible. They are then planed into shape.

The staves arrived stacked on pallets, and chalk marks indicate where one barrel ends and another starts. The first stage in barrel assembly is to take them and arrange them in a metal hoop, a job that looks easy, but which requires skill and experience. The ring holds the base of the staves close together, and then a wire pulls the top of the staves in a bit so another, wider hoop can be placed at the other end, beginning to form the barrel shape.

Then further temporary hoops are placed on the barrel and banged into place, drawing the staves closer together. The barrel is then ready to go to the most dramatic bit of the factory, where it is fired.

The barrel is placed over a small burner, where the heat of the flame begins to soften the wood a bit, making it flexible enough for the staves to be brought properly together and the shape of the barrel formed.

It’s then moved a short distance to another area where here the flames are used to provide the right degree of toasting of the inside of the staves. The degree of toasting is specified by the customer, and can range from light (the barrel smells of bread and toast flavours when you put your nose in) to very heavy (here, the barrel smells of chocolate and coffee).

High toast, inside of barrel: smells of chocolate, coffee

Low toast, inside of barrel: smells of bread, toast

The next stage involves sanding the ends of the barrel and carving the slot inside the rim (the croze), in order for the heads to fit into nicely. After these are cut the grooves are filled using a sawdust flour paste, so that when the ends are fitted, they form a watertight seal. A barrel hole is also cut into one of the staves.

There are two ways of making the barrel heads. The first is to take flat staves and then cut tongues and grooves in the sides. These are then joined together to form a tight seal. The other is to take flat staves and join them using a combination of dowels and reeds. After this, they are cut into circles and planed so that they fit nicely into the grooves around the inside rim of the barrel.

Tongue and groove head construction

Dowel and reed head construction

After the ends have been fitted, two permanent barrel loops are added, one at each end, and hammered into place. The barrels are then tested to see whether they are watertight, by putting warm water in at pressure and then moving the barrel around on some rollers. Once they pass this test, the temporary hoops are removed, they wood is sanded down so it looks nice, and the other permanent hoops are added.

Leak testing with water under pressure

Sanding down

Adding the hoops

The barrel is checked, and then it is branded at one end, with the name of the cooperage and in many cases, the customer’s own name or logo, plus details about the toasting level and the origin of the wood.

Checking the barrel

A 225/228 litre barrel is expensive, at around 800 Euros, but it’s a thing of beauty, made of high quality oak, and it will last a few years. It would be hard to imagine fine wine production without oak barrels, even though now more people are experimenting with alternatives such as large casks, concrete eggs and tanks, and terracotta amphorae.

See a film of the process:

Dinner at La Maison du Colombier, Beaune

maison du colombier scallops

Rather daft to think that you can do a walk-in to somewhere as spectacularly good as La Maison du Columbier in Beaune, especially in the third week of November, but we tried our luck and they had a table for two free. This set us up for a great evening of lovely food and booze. And by coincidence, Xavier Rousset and Neal Martin were on separate adjoining tables.

la maison du colombier lentils

This isn’t a fancy place, but the cooking is solidly good and delicious (pictured are the scallops, and the foie gras and lentils), and the wine list is astonishing. This has to be one of the best lists I have seen, and it was hard to get past the epic grower Champagne section, which was very fairly priced. Burgundy forms the bulk of the list, and includes some gems, including some very affordable Roulot. We ordered the Luchets, but they’d run out, so we slummed it with the village Meursault. I love places like this, and if I’m back in Beaune any time soon, I’ll make a reservation here my top priority.

roulotmeursault copy

Champagne Marie Noelle Ledru Grand Cru 2009 France
Intense and bold with apple and citrus on the nose as well hints of wax and nuts. The plate is intense with amazing acidity and precision as well as nuts, herbs, a hint of anise and fine spices. Quite vinous. Profound. 93/100

Domaine Roulot Meursault 2014 Burgundy, France
Delicate and expressive with sweet lemon fruit together with hints of flowers, cedar and sweet vanilla. It’s vital and complex with a matchstick twist. There are some sweet notes (some toffee) but the main drive is freshness and focus. 93/100

A 50 year old Barbaresco

barbaresco 1967

This was a generous birthday gift. You never quite know what you are going to get with an old wine, and 1967 wasn’t a strong vintage in most European wine regions, but this wine really delivered a lot of pleasure. There’s something special about drinking a wine that transports you back in time.

Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Paijè 1967 Piedmont, Italy
This is 50 years old and very murky and cloudy, but it has some red colour still. There’s a bit of sappy greenness on the nose, as well as some mushroom and earth hints, but there’s also lovely cherry and raspberry fruit still, and good acidity. It’s drinking beautifully, with complexity and detail, fully mature but still with terroir characteristics – a real sense of place here. Juicy, lemony finish, and a sense of umami, too. 93/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Kerner Estate Vineyard Pinot Blanc 2007

pyramid valley kerner pinot blanc

In addition to making their own highly-regarded estate wines, Pyramid Valley have also made a series of negociant bottlings from interesting vineyard sites across New Zealand, and this Pinot Blanc is one of their earlier releases from 2007. Now, at age 10, it is still remarkably youthful and pure, and full of interest.

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Kerner Estate Vineyard Pinot Blanc 2007 Marlborough, New Zealand
At age 10, this is a very interesting wine. Textural and complex yet really fresh still, with lovely pear and white peach, as well as a hint of honeydew melon. There are subtle notes of bread and wax, too. Complex and linear with depth yet precision, this is a really interesting wine that’s ageing slowly but well. 92/100

I have another new phone - this time, it's love


We’re so used to our smart phones that it’s hard to imagine what we’d do without them, and it’s hard to remember what it was like to have really terrible smart phones. But it wasn’t all that long ago that we got quite excited and paid lots of money for handsets that now we’d never put in our pockets.

But what is remarkable is how recent the whole smart phone phenomenon is. For someone like me, who is still quite strongly an internet dude and who started out on the internet, these things affect how I work. They are important tools. I first got a smart phone in 2010. That’s just seven years ago

My first smartphone was an HTC Desire (read about how I described it here), and the camera on it was completely rubbish (but at the time it seemed great). I held onto it for a couple of years, but the first time I had a decent smartphone camera was when I got an iPhone5. The iPhone5 was my introduction to Apple, and it was a real step up.

I held onto this for the contract period, too, and then upgraded to an iPhone 6. This was a real step up in terms of the camera, and I began to use it more, sometimes confident enough in its qualities to leave a proper camera behind. Its weakness was when the light was low, but overall I was very happy with it. It was a little bigger than the 5, but I got used to the size. This phone got stolen on a plane, and I ended up using a Chinese android phone for a few months, which was a mistake. It was the Umi Iron, and I’d bought it a few months earlier out of curiosity.

The Umi was OK, but it taught me a lesson. You use a phone all the time. You live your life on it. If you are skint, there are some pretty good, inexpensive Android phones, and they will do a job for you. But the last place you should be saving money is with something you live your professional and personal life on. Save money elsewhere, but go for the best phone.

I eventually got fed up with the Umi, and bought an iPhone. The SE. I liked its small size, and the fact that it has a state of the art camera, the same as the one in the iPhone 6S. I had a very happy 18 months with this phone, but now I have updgraded.

I went for the iPhone 8 Plus. Why? The camera. It actually has three cameras: two facing forwards, and one selfie. The two facing forwards, together with decent processing, result in stunning pictures, and can even emulate depth of field effects very convincingly (as in the picture above). It’s a big phone: a ‘phablet’, but it was the camera that made me opt for it, and so far I’m getting on very well with it. The iPhone7 Plus has a similar camera arrangement, as does the X. But the X wouldn’t give me anything better than the 8 Plus, and I’d be paying around £500 extra for it over the course of a two-year contract.

This is the first smart phone camera that produces something close to the quality possible with a proper camera and decent lenses. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough to change my approach. Previously, if felt like a bit of compromise putting smartphone pictures on my blog: now I feel that in some situations, the smartphone pictures are just as good.

I’ve taken a few phone calls with my iPhone 8 Plus, just to remind me that this is actually a phone. But it’s actually a very sophisticated computing device. For now, I can’t do without a laptop (and I can’t see that changing), but this smartphone is really impressive.

Dinner at Café Sillon, Lyon, with Ganevat and Dard & Ribo

Cafe Sillon Lyon

It was my birthday. And I was in Lyon. And at short notice we managed to get space at the bar at Cafe Sillon, which I’d heard a lot about. It exceeded expectations: the set menu was sensitively cooked and very imaginative, with a couple of options for each course (for a small place like this, offering fewer options is a great idea). But it was the wine list that I was here for: one of those lists where it hurts only being able to order just a couple of bottles. Still, we drank well, revisiting the Grands Teppes from Ganevat that we’d enjoyed back in June, and then smashing a beautifully pure natural northern Rhône.

It was a fine evening, and the whole experience was very special.

ganevat grands teppes

Domaine Jean-François Ganevat Les Grands Teppes Vieilles Vignes 2013 Jura, France
An impeccable, thrilling Chardonnay from Jura star Ganevat. Intensely vivid, mineral, spicy and focused with incredible acid structure. So complex with vital citrus fruit, a hint of apple and pear, and fine spicules. So intense and linear. Profound. 96/100

dard et rio crosse hermitage

Dard & Ribo Crozes-Hermitage 2015 Northern Rhône, France
Vivid, intense and peppery with grippy structure under the sleek, pure raspberry and black cherry fruit. Focused and intense with lovely typicity. Essence of cool climate Syrah with grainy, grippy structure. 94/100

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A couple of nice Chablis


I’m a big Chablis fan, and these two bottles really hit the mark.

Sebastien Dampt Chablis 2016 Burgundy, France
12.5% alcohol
£19.50 Berry Bros & Rudd
This is benchmark Chablis, with lovely concentrated flavours of lemons, wet rocks, a twist of creaminess and some white peach richness. It has real presence in the mouth, and lovely fresh acidity. 92/100

Fèvre-Fèvre Chablis 2016 Burgundy, France
£17.50 Tanners
12.5% alcohol
Beautiful nose of tangerines and lemons with a stony edge. In the mouth this is really expressive and delicate with delicious tangerine and lemon flavours, a bit of peachy richness, and lovely balance. This is a thrilling wine that’s rich and delicate at the same time. 92/100

Two lovely sparkling wines from Langham, Dorset


Very impressed with these English sparkling wines, from chalky soils in Dorset.

Langham Rosé 2014 Dorset, England
12% alcohol. From Cretaceous chalk soils in Dorset, this is a blend of the classic Champagne varieties. It’s an attractive light pink colour, and shows taut, compact cherry and citrus fruit with a hint of red apple and just a trace of creaminess. Lovely balance and texture here: a really refined, expressive sparkling rosé. So pure and harmonious. 92/100 (£26 Marks & Spencer)

Langham Classic Cuvée 2014 Dorset, England
12% alcohol. Hailing from Dorset, this English fizz is made from the three classic Champagne varieties grown on chalky soil. It’s rich and fruit-driven with ripe pear, apple and citrus fruit and really well integrated acidity. There’s a hint of brioche/toast, too, adding interest. It’s really delicious in a ripe style. 90/100 (£24 Marks & Spencer)

Grower Champagne: Marie Noelle Ledru Grand Cru 2009


I found this on the list at La Maison du Columbier in Beaune the other night. It was beautiful. This place has the most amazing wine list: it’s so good it hurts that you can only share a couple of bottles between two of you.

Champagne Marie Noelle Ledru Grand Cru 2009 France
Intense and bold with apple and citrus on the nose as well hints of wax and nuts. The plate is intense with amazing acidity and precision as well as nuts, herbs, a hint of anise and fine spices. Quite vinous. Profound. 93/100

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