Big changes for Sicilian wines
Monday June 25th 2012, 8:58 pm
Filed under: travels
Until about three decades ago, much of the wine from Sicily was bland and sold in bulk. That situation has changed.
Now Sicily produces almost a fifth of Italy’s wine, and Italy remains the globe’s largest producer.
Michele Shah markets wine for Sicily. She said quality had leapt since the 1980s, and benchmark vineyards like Planeta and Donnafugata had established the island’s reputation worldwide.
A major factor was the move away from international varieties like cabernet sauvignon or riesling, and a concentration on indigenous grape varieties.
“Over the past 15 to 20 years IRVOS [the regional institute for viticulture and olive oil] has contributed enormously – helping with vineyard management, research and clonal selection of indigenous varietals. Sicily’s current production focuses on elegance and quality.”
Dr Dario Cartabellotta, director of IRVOS, believes success came from focusing on local grape varieties. He organized a tasting from most of Sicily’s 24 regions.
“Indigenous grape varieties show the character of our wine,” he said. “Sicily is a continent and thanks to its diverse microclimate we are able to produce wines of market appeal, from easy drinking to the more structured and complex wines with a true Sicilian imprint.”
Sicily has such a range of climates that in some regions the harvest starts as early as July, while in others it does not end until November.
The Italian government is keen to let the world know of Sicily’s potential. Earlier this year it paid for 30 masters of wine to spend eight days in Sicily. Masters of wine are always busy people, and to get a tenth of all the MWs on the planet in one place was a remarkable achievement.
Michele Shah pointed out that different regions produced vastly different wines. Vineyards on the slopes of Etna, the famous volcano, gave us wines similar to Burgundy in France.
“Near Palermo in western Sicily we have sophisticated international blends as well as indigenous nero d’avalo, grillo, caratatto and inzolia. The cliffs of Erice Ottoventi produce mineral whites from zibibbo and inzolia [grapes].”
Sicily has almost 120,000 hectares under vine, with 65 per cent white grapes and 35 per cent red. Carricante is the most common white variety. It has a distinct mineral quality with citrus flavours. The most common red is nero d’avalo, also known as calabrese, and it makes hearty wines with soft tannins that can be drunk young, or cellared to reveal greater complexity.
These recommendations are based on what I managed to sample in half a day.
Planeta vineyard has been making wine since 1985 and its mature vines offer good value and high quality. The 2010 Plumbago, from 100 per cent nero d’avalo, has the colour and aroma of dark cherries, and could be drunk any time in the next decade.
Decanter magazine awarded a trophy to Planeta’s 2009 chardonnay, and lovers of this grape variety will appreciate it greatly. It tastes of tropical fruit and vanilla, the latter the result of some new oak treatment.
Donnafugata is another of the established vineyards, having been planted in 1983, and all of its wines are worth seeking. The Mille e Una Notte 2007 (translated as a 1,001 nights) red is 90 per cent nero d’avalo. Its concentrated flavours are the result of below-average rain that year.
Gulfi is a relative newcomer, having been planted in 1996. The 2009 Carjcanti made from 100 per cent carricante tastes of lemon and pineapple, with a mineral backbone, and an aroma of fresh mint. It would be an ideal summer wine.
Their best wine was the 2007 Nero Bufaleffj, from nero d’avalo. It was beautifully balanced, tasted of sun-dried blackberries, and had a velvet-like finish with light tannins. Decanter magazine gave it 96 / 100.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are grown on the slopes of Etna, the roots deep in the lava. The 2009 Erse looks and tastes like a red burgundy, and the 2010 Puddara is similar to a crisp chablis, though made from carricante grapes. Both are elegant and desirable.
Sicilian wines are available from Dimatique.
Published 28 June 2012, page 10, under the headline “Italians keen on promoting Sicilian wines” in China Post. Find a link here.
Circle of Wine Writers magazine
Trends detected from the fifth Wine China Expo in Beijing in late April 2012 were a drift away from a fascination with red, an interest in less-sweet wines, and a growing sophistication in wine marketing.
How do we measure sophistication? I use the mini-skirt ratio. At other wine exhibitions I have attended in China, booth owners employed attractive young women in mini skirts to market their wine. Most winemakers I spoke with talked of the inverse relationship between skirts and wine: The shorter the skirts, the worse the wine. Some of the skirts in previous years have been very revealing.
This year in Beijing I noted fewer mini-skirts.
China has not become the acme of sophistication over night. Some booth owners still offer lukewarm white wine in plastic wine glasses. Many still display their wares but do not offer them for tasting. Yes, a wine tasting without the tasting. Some decorate their booths with sweet-smelling flowers whose aromas overwhelm the flavours one detects from their wine.
But one cannot deny the growth of the wine business in China. See my other article in this edition for details. This year’s Wine China Expo was held in Beijing on April 23 and 24 April for trade people, with April 25 allocated for public visitors. The location was the China World Trade Center in Beijing. It attracted 300 exhibitors from 35 countries who paid for 450 booths (though perhaps a fifth of the booths marketed olive oil).
Robert Wu, who managed the event, said last year’s Beijing expo, also in April, attracted 200 exhibitors from 24 countries. The 50 per cent increase in the number of exhibitors this year suggests growth.
It was difficult to estimate the number of attendees in Beijing because admission is free once people register with a business card. Given the ease with which one can buy fake business cards in China, who knows how many legitimate attendees were there. The official figure for attendance was 12,000.
The expo moved to Shanghai for April 26, which must have meant some trauma for jet-lagged Western exhibitors who had to finish about 5pm on April 25 and be set up in Shanghai for 10am the next day. Domestic flights in China, especially between Beijing and Shanghai (about two hours to the south), are seldom on time.
At least at the Beijing event no-one tried to sell me fake watches, jewellery and handbags: something that has happened at earlier wine events. This article I wrote for China Daily in June 2011 describes the experiences of the Shanghai international wine festival: http://squinn.org/?p=401
It will take some years for China to match the success of VINEXPO Asia-Pacific, the major wine event held on consecutive years in Hong Kong and Bordeaux. The 2012 exhibition from May 29-31 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre will assemble a record 1,050 exhibitors from 28 countries, and anticipates 14,000 buyers from around the world.
At this year’s Beijing event I noted that while red wines remain popular, but sensed whites and sparklings might be starting to gain a foothold. Many of the wines my colleagues and I tasted were less sweet than in previous years. Moscato appears to be emerging as a popular variety.
The expo also saw the first booth occupied by a Canadian winemaker, Unsworth Vineyards, from Mill Bay in British Columbia.
One interesting feature was the number of booths marketing wines from former Soviet countries like Georgia, or former Communist-aligned nations such as Romania.
Romania’s wine producers are looking to China for their future. A special wine-loading terminal is being built in Galati harbour on the country’s east coast. It is a contract between Romanian exporters and Chinese investors. China’s national news agency, Xinhua, reported the deal was worth about 50 million euros ($US 70 million).
Romania has eight main wine regions, 37 vineyards, and 171 viticulture centres. The industry was worth 270 million euros ($US 375 million) last year.
Because of its economic growth rate of 9 per cent in 2011, and a steadily rising number of wine consumers, China has established itself as one of the world’s ten largest wine markets. China’s wine industry in the first quarter of 2011 was worth RMB 7.37 billion (up 23.8 per cent from the previous year) with sales of RMB 7.272 billion (up 26.2 per cent).
Imported wines represented 15 per cent of the total market and were expected to rise dramatically. China Customs reports that the annual growth rate of imported wines was about 30 per cent.
The top four distribution points for imported wines were hotels and restaurants, supermarkets and stores, terminal outlets, and group purchases. This represented 95 per cent of total sales.
Chinese taxes on imported wines are high, compared with Hong Kong where taxes were abolished in June 2008.
All imported wines attract customs duty of 14 per cent. Add to that another 17 per cent of value-added tax (VAT) and then a consumption tax of 10 per cent of the previous prices. In all, it adds about 42 per cent to the original cost.
China’s wine market doubled in the five years to 2011, influenced by the adoption of Western culinary habits and a rise in personal incomes. Based on this growth rate, by the end of 2012 China will be the seventh largest wine-consuming nation in the world. By then the Chinese will be drinking 1,000 million bottles of wine a year.
Paris on a budget
Monday April 27th 2009, 9:09 pm
Filed under: travels
It is possible to enjoy Paris without taking out a second mortgage.
Some travellers are avoiding France because of the financial crisis and the low value of the Aussie dollar, also known as the Pacific peso. But with discipline and the information in this article we can appreciate one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Let’s begin with the basics: accommodation, food and transport. Hotels in Paris are expensive. Instead, I rented an apartment by putting an advertisement on Craigslist.com, paying $70 a night for a double room about 100 metres from the Louvre. Hotels in the area cost triple that even for one star accommodation.
Craigslist is a web site that functions like a newspaper’s classified section. Placing an advert is free and takes five minutes. I received more than a dozen replies to my five-line query.
Beware of scams, though, especially people who require money in advance. I received photos of an alleged luxury apartment in central Paris from a man claiming to be a doctor working in Nigeria. “Dr Smith Mayers” said he would send me the keys after I wired money to his bank account. Victorian police confirmed he is a fraudster.
Parisians who rent rooms in family homes happily accept cash when you arrive. They also let you wash clothes in their laundry, and use their kitchen to make coffee and snacks, which saves money.
French coffee and hot chocolate are delicious, but expensive. I paid $16 for two cups of brown muck masquerading as “chocolat chaud” in a central Paris café. Best to avoid cafes despite the romantic notion, fuelled by the movies, of reading a book while sipping wine or coffee. It looks cool but will burn a hole in your wallet.
Instead, take a thermos of tea or coffee, which you can prepare in the kitchen.
Tap water is safe to drink in Paris, so carry a plastic bottle to re-fill from the many fountains in the city. And ask for “l’eau ordinaire” (tap water) if in a café. Most waiters will try to sting you $8 for a bottle of water available in a supermarket for less than a dollar.
The recession has forced restaurants to lower their prices. Paris has thousands of good restaurants and all display their menus on the street, so window shop to your heart’s content when selecting where to eat. Lunches tend to be large, especially in winter. I found I only needed a snack most evenings after a big lunch. Baguettes cost about $2 from most bakeries and make an ideal snack.
Most restaurants offer a prix fixee as part of their menu – that’s a set price for two or three courses. I had superb lunches in a Michelin-starred restaurant named Les Terrines de Gerard Vie at 97 rue Cherche-Midi in the sixth arrondissement. It cost $48 for three courses, and included a glass of wine. The food was so good I kept the menu as a souvenir and returned the next day.
My first lunch consisted of a sampling of terrines with crusty baguette and creamy butter, followed by a selection of jambon (a chewy dried ham) and cheese. The waiter carved the ham from a leg in the centre of the restaurant. I was full by the time the main course arrived: blanquette de veau (veal stew with carrots, onions and potatoes), washed down with a glass of red from the Corbieres region.
I needed to take a long walk to digest that wonderful meal. I waddled rather than walked.
Paris is a city for walking. Taxis are expensive and get trapped in traffic while the meter keeps ticking. Better to use the underground rail system, the Metro, because it is cheap and free maps are available at any station. Buy a “carnet de dix” – a book of 10 Metro tickets – for $24. Individual tickets are $3.20 so buying in bulk saves $8 each time. One Metro ticket will take you anywhere in Paris – no zoning system of varying prices as in other cities.
Take a sturdy pair of boots and see Paris by foot. Buy a copy of Paris Pratique ($10), a paperback book of maps available at any newspaper kiosk. Apart from the main boulevards with iconic names like St Michel and Haussmann, Paris is a maze of small streets that fan out like spokes from a wheel, often merging into lanes and squares. Streets are known to break, assume another name, and re-join under the original title.
You will need a map in Paris even if your French is good enough to ask directions. Generally I found my attempts to speak French rewarded by small acts of generosity. One old man took my arm and guided me to my destination, seemingly glad to help a lost foreigner.
Paris appears chaotic. It is divided into areas, or arrondissements. These are numbered from one to 21. Do not expect a grid pattern like in Adelaide or most American cities. Arrondissements are sequenced in a spiral shape, like the shell of a snail, with number one at the centre of the city.
And yes, you can eat snails, or escargot, in Paris. But expect to pay at least $2.50 each, or $30 a dozen. They are smothered in garlic and a bright green sauce made of parsley and butter. If you must eat escargot, try them in one of the regional cities serviced by France’s fast rail system. They will be cheaper and fresher.
I took the train to Epernay, the centre of the champagne region. The 100km journey flashed by in about 95 minutes, and cost $40 return. In Epernay I walked the Avenue de Champagne, where all of the main bubbly houses display their wares. It is said to be the most expensive piece of real estate in the world because of the billions of dollars worth of champagne in the cellars, or caves, under the houses.
Most of the prestige-name champagne houses offer tastings: With the basic option for $24 you get to taste two wines. A more expensive option, which costs $50, includes a taste of two vintage champagnes plus a tour of the caves below. Do not arrive at noon because everything will be closed until 2pm. Lunch is a ritual, even a religion. I worshipped with excellent escargot at $18 a dozen, washed down with bubbly.
If tasting at the prestige-name champagne houses seems expensive, visit the champagne bar in rue Gambetta, a 10-minute walk from the railway station. They stock champagne from 43 of the lesser-known houses, and charge $6 to $10 a taste. Plus you can buy from their cellar. I paid $34 for a bottle of 2000-vintage champagne that would cost at least treble that price in Australia.
Winter is the best time to visit Paris because airfares are lower, meals are larger and heartier, and fewer tourists crowd the streets of the popular spots like Notre Dame cathedral or the major museums.
Paris can be very crowded in spring and summer. If you do travel then, and want to enjoy several museums, consider a pass for two, three or five days. Details are available on the http://www.discoverfrance.net/ web site. The pass means you skip the frequently long queues and enter through a special door.
I planned to visit the Musee d’Orsay, a magnificent building that stretches along the Seine river opposite the Tuileries gardens. But the entrance queue snaked for at least a kilometre, meaning I faced a wait of at least an hour. Most museums are closed on Tuesdays, apart from the Musee d’Orsay and the Rodin Muesum. Best to plan something apart from museums on a Tuesday.
Notre Dame cathedral is a must see. All churches are free to enter. Notre Dame has vespers at 5.45pm, and you can usually hear the magnificent organ and choir perform at that time each evening.
One of my favourite places is the cemetery named after Pere Lachaise (1624-1709), confessor to King Louis XIV. Take the Metro to Gambetta and cross the road to the cemetery.
The great Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, is buried in Pere Lachaise. The sculptor Jacob Epstein designed the grave, and it has become a tourist attraction. Many visitors rouge their lips and kiss the grave. Oscar would have appreciated the attention: His grave is covered in kisses and flowers.
The nearby grave of the great French novelist, Marcel Proust, is more sedate: a black granite slab.
My favourite is the grave of journalist Victor Noir, a famed womaniser. His memorial consists of a full-size brass sculpture of the writer, with the buttons of his flies open. Women who want to conceive are said to rub this part of his anatomy. This area of the sculpture is well worn.
You will need a map to explore the cemetery. They are sold at the entrance for $4. The cemetery is like the rest of Paris, full of irregular streets and magnificent architecture. But unlike Paris, the cemetery is free.
Stephen Quinn teaches journalism at Deakin University. He paid $2,160 for an economy class flight to Paris with Malaysian Airlines, via Kuala Lumpur.
* Published in The Age and the SMH, 14 March 2009
Big market for human organs in Iran
Friday April 24th 2009, 10:58 am
Filed under: travels
A visit to Iran can be exciting and scary, often at the same time. The fear factor is felt strongest when on the roads. About 27,000 people die on the roads each year. Iran’s population is about three times the size of Australia’s. Even when we convert our death toll to match the population size it still puts Iran’s total at 27 times higher than Australia’s each year.
One of the consequences of the number of deaths is the booming market for human organs. Iran’s Association of Kidney Patients, based in the capital Tehran, is responsible for all legal kidney transplants. All donors receive up to $1,400 per kidney. This may not seem much to an Australian, but that’s about one eighth of a year’s salary in Iran.
Iran is the world’s only theocracy. The religious authorities encourage voluntary gifts, seeing them as a blessing on the giver and receiver. Pious Muslims offer free kidneys to anyone who needs one. But usually the association gives money to the organ donor.
Given the ready supply, operations happen quickly. In the united States, by comparison, the average wait for a kidney is five years.
Readers will remember US president Bush’s description of Iran as one of the three members of the original “axis of evil”. Before my visit to Iran I was apprehensive. I was keen to go because of the country’s long history. But I also read the warnings on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade web site advising only essential travel. DEVELOP
The level of hospitality my colleagues and I received was overwhelming. Everywhere we went we were introduced to mayors and marketing officials. The last time I was photographed as often as when in Tehran was probably in the weeks after I was born. We quickly got used to celebrity status.
In Isfehan, the main tourism city, three limousines awaited us at the airport. We were in a group of 12 speakers at the third international conference on public relations. Other speakers were from Malaysia, India, France, and New Zealand.
Isfehan is a beautiful city. See Isfehan and die happy is an oft-repeated quote SOURCE. That thought crossed my mind on the return journey in the limousine to the airport, when we topped 180 kph on the highway. The young driver was desperate to show how well his car could perform.
Indeed, most Iranians we met were keen to show how beautiful their country is. We visited the Caspian Sea on the north. Given that the former Soviet Union was just across the water, it is easy to see why Iran has had good relations with Russians for centuries.
Many people still speak Russian as well as Persian. Iranians are fiercely proud of their language. I made the mistake of saying hello in Arabic at the airport, and was politely reprimanded: “We are not Arabs, we are Persians.”
It was an eye-opening first exposure to the country. The two-hour wait for a visa was not pleasant after a 30-hour journey. Neither was the $60 fee. But travellers have to accept that visas are a part of the experience when visiting Arab nations. I have been to all of the available Gulf and mid East states except Kuwait and Syria, and the visa process and fee are part of the price we pay.
In truth, because of the low standard of living, costs are low in Iran. A visitor could get by on $120 a day. Five-star hotels cost about $70 a night, including a large buffet breakfast. Food is plentiful and cheap, though one soon becomes bored with the standard fare which appeared at most meals.
My companions invented a game where we predicted the menu for the next meal, awarding a mock prize to whomever was closest to what appeared. Salad followed by rice accompanied by chicken and lamb kebab won the prize every time.
We visited historic ruins in the xxxxxx mountains. These separate the top quarter of the country from the rest. This top quarter is lush, has high rainfall and is Iran’s breadbasket. Much of the country’s south is barren and stony desert.
The journey through the tight mountain passes provided the same high levels of fear and excitement. Our bus driver took every chance to overtake convoys of trucks. He screamed along the narrow roads flashing his lights to warn approaching trucks. We cowered in the back. At the end of the journey we experienced a strange feeling of joy at being alive. Perhaps it was the adrenalin rush.
* Written December 2007 after going to Iran to present a conference paper. Published in the Geelong Advertiser January 2008.