The Wine Show: Episode 5
Matthew Goode and Matthew Rhys star in this series about the stories behind some of the world’s most fascinating wines. From their villa HQ in the Italian hills, they head to Chianti and the former home of Mona Lisa Gherardini, subject of Da Vinci’s famous portrait. Expert Joe Fattorini visits the Maule valley to find out how hope can find roots in the vineyards at the epicenter of Chile’s devastating 2010 earthquake. Chef Atul Kochhar fires up his tandoor to complement his favourite wine. And in Moldova – a tiny country where 25 per cent of the population rely on wine for their livelihood – Joe goes inside one of the biggest cellars in the world, and asks ‘why did Russia stop buying their wine?’.
Wine born from an earthquake
At 3.34am on the 27th February 2010, Derek Mossman-Knapp’s house shuddered. He knew instantly what was happening. He ran into his children’s rooms to carry them into the garden. “You could hear the creaks of the earth,” he says. His garden seemed to ripple like a disturbed pond. Then he realised he was naked. In his hurry to get out, Derek forgot he doesn’t wear pyjamas.
In the days and weeks that followed, more than 500 people were confirmed dead. Thousands were injured. And the fragile, ancient wine-making industry in the remote Maule valley was devastated. Yet this was a catalyst for change. In an audacious trip to Maule, Derek and his photographer friend Matt Wilson documented the challenges the winemakers faced. He won funding from the auspicious Geoffrey Roberts Award in the UK. This let him collect together ‘crazy parcels’ of wines, bottle them and show wine importers and critics a completely new face of Chilean wine.
It’s fair to say Derek is not your normal businessman. As we travelled around Chile, Matt explained how Derek books into hotel rooms. Not by phoning up, checking availability and leaving a credit card. Derek arrives, has a word with reception and after ‘negotiating’ agrees a suite at a peppercorn rate. Think wine-maker, crossed with Canadian Ski Instructor (his original profession) crossed with Alex Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. I’ve known Derek ever since the start of The Garage Wine Co. Each year he arrives in London with a suitcase full of wine samples but few spare clothes. If he looks as if he just walked from the winery to jump on a plane, it’s because he did.
Yet he’s a modest impresario. Derek champions old vines and small producers. Don Nivaldo is one of his producers. He’s never driven a car; he does everything on his horse. He’s been on his horse all his life. Even after a rodeo accident bent his knee backwards leaving him with a lifelong inability to bend his left leg properly. When you talk to Don Nivaldo and his wife Otelia it’s clear time is relative. I ask how old his winery equipment is. Derek translates; “Nivaldo says he doesn’t know but he says it was old when he was a child”. I ask how old the vines are that Derek grafted new fruit-bearing wood onto after 2010. Nivaldo says all he knows is that early South American missionaries planted the roots.
Chile has won a loyal following making dependable, good-value wines with consistent character and great, memorable brands. Its producers are famous in the wine business for being true to their word. Efficient. Almost boring. Not these guys though. Don Nivaldo, Derek and the other small, independent producers invite us for lunch. We have roast lamb, cooked over an open fire. I am given a testicle as a ‘treat’ that makes everyone fall around laughing. We drink captivating, distinctive wines from unusual grape varieties fermented in old barrels. There’s talk of horses, rodeos and an unrepeatable joke featuring the floppy rim of my chupalla (pronounced ‘choo-pie-ya’) – the wide-brimmed hat of the Chilean chuaso (‘who-ass-soh’), the gaucho of the Western Andes.
Everyone agrees that the 2010 earthquake brings back hard memories. But out of the devastation these producers created something special. These are some of the most delicious wines we tasted on The Wine Show. It’s fitting that their story is one of the most special too.
Garage Wine Lot 47 Old Vine Carignan
Some wines are so much more than the sum of their flavours. Sure, this is packed with layers of captivating blueberry and bramble fruit wrapped in muscular tannins and rustic charm. But it’s impossible to enjoy with grilled meat without thinking of Don Nivaldo hand-harvesting and producing this in his home.
Moldova – winemaking between two giants
Which country is the world’s largest wine producer and makes The Queen’s favourite wine? I suspect you aren’t thinking of Moldova. Yet this small, poor country on the eastern fringe of Europe can comfortably claim both titles. But perhaps because of its geographical position and history it’s not a country you reach for on the shelves of your wine shop.
Moldova has a double claim to be the world’s biggest wine producer. It doesn’t make the most wine. That’s a duel between France and Italy. But per person and per acre this country makes more wine than anywhere else in the world. Moldova’s legacy as the wine cellar of the Soviet Union is, well, the largest wine cellars in the world. And the second largest. It has wineries with dedicated railway lines to transport wine to its giant neighbour to the north.
But what happens when that giant to the north no longer wants your wine? Around a quarter of all Moldovans are involved in the wine business in some way. They’re a pawn between a resurgent Russia and the wealth of Europe. Everywhere are signs of a divided population. Election posters either feature Russian-backed strongmen or cosmopolitan, Europhile bureaucrats. From one building flutters the brown and yellow stripes of pro-Russian supporters, from the next the EU ring of stars on blue.
And in among it all is the wine. The Queen (or rather her household) regularly bought 1990 Negru de Purcari. It might seem a curious choice. For decades this was the fine wine of the Politbureau and Kremlin dinners. Now its producers tread a diplomatic line between appealing to new markets in the west and a stop-start trade with Russia. Move too close to Europe and suddenly Russia claims to find contaminants in the wine and stops imports. Make peace with Moscow and suddenly the shipments begin again.
Wine is weather, soil, people and grapes. Moldova has good soils, pleasant weather and interesting grapes. But its people have spent decades working for collectives. They’ve had a ready market that bought Moldovan wine because that was all there was. To sell to the west, Moldova competes with countries who have refined their wines, their sales techniques and their marketing in fierce competition with rivals. Constantly in Moldova, we ran up against people bound by a straight-jacket of bureaucratic intransigence and inflexibility. The people are kind, but professional hospitality is rare. They want to learn and to sell and to engage, but only once they have had their weekly meeting and absolutely not at the fringes of working hours.
Rioja evokes images in peoples’ minds; most people would struggle to point to Moldova on a map. Sicily spent years improving the quality of its most basic wines; Moldova makes basic wines that simply aren’t as good. Australia spends money and time convincing people that its fine wines are world-class; Moldova tells us The Queen came back a second time for one vintage of its top cru. Driving round Moldova you see scenes of nineteenth century poverty. Its people deserve better. But its wine business needs a lot of help. And that’s unlikely to happen whilst it sits on a knife-edge between a resurgent Russia and a coy European Union.
Cricova Sparkling Gold Collection
Never knowlingly under-embellished, this was the most outré bottle featured on The Wine Show. Glitzy, hand-crafted crystal and 24 carat gold for Moldova’s leading Champagne-method sparkler; a blend of equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and bling. Lovely fresh citrus fruit and a floral complexity.
If you’re after Moldovan wine, there are some alternatives you can try. Clink the link below to see some alternative wines…
THE WINE SHOW CASE – Challenge FIVE
“Find a wine that reflects Italy’s great restaurants.” Almost impossible you might think. Wine and food in Italy go together like bread and butter. But Joe gives Matt and Matt another little clue which clever old Goodey manages to unpick to set them off in the right direction. “This could become a bit of a fiasco” is the hint. A fiasco is the raffia basket which is wrapped around bottles of Chianti and turned into lamps throughout the 1970s.
But Chianti today is a long way from the rough and ready, cheap and cheerful wines synonymous with large quantities of pasta and even bigger hangovers. Today it has become one of Italy’s greatest and finest exports. Chianti Classico is one classification of this wine, recognisable from the black cockerel that adorns the label of every bottle. The story of how that bird came to be the symbol of this wine involves a race on horseback, the city states of Florence and Sienna and a world where alarm clocks did not exist. You can read more about it here.
Thankfully Matt and Matt’s alarm clocks worked well enough on the day we were filming in Chianti and they were welcomed at one of the region’s most historic vineyards at the Villa Vignamaggio. The villa was built by the Gherardini family; if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Monna Lisa Gherardini is thought to be the subject of the most famous painting in the world… Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting La Gioconda. It is said she spent much time there in the 15th Century when her cousins were living at the Villa. It’s certainly easy to imagine her wandering in the beautiful gardens or sitting on the terrace overlooking the vines.
Today the estate produces several great wines, three of which were enjoyed over lunch by Matthew and Matthew. And in a Wine Show first, they decided to take back only one wine to Joe: the Villa Vignamaggio Gran Selezione. It’s a high-risk strategy… will Joe agree it’s worthy of the Wine Show Case?
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Patrice Taravella, Villa Vignamaggio’s owner, firmly believes that Mona Lisa (of Leonardo Da Vinci fame) was actually born here. So the top wine is named in her honour – a bold Chianti Classico in a modern style with vibrant fruit to match the meat-loving tannins and freshness on the long, scented palate.
Click below to read more about this wine and see a selection of alternative wines in the same style.