The new world of flying winemakers

Antipodean winemakers are still breathing fresh air into the stuffy Old World of wine. Monty Waldin reports

Most people shopping in their local supermarket wine aisle might be impressed if told they were buying wine made by a 'flying winemaker' 

The term describes technically qualified, usually young, men and women who leave their (usually) native Australia and New Zealand after the winemaking season there (February to May), for the northern hemisphere and its winemaking season, from August to November.

Around 20 years ago, Australia and New Zealand transformed their (mostly) awful wines via a scientific approach: keeping wineries as clean as possible; preventing a vinegary taste by fermenting wines as cool as possible, often in temperature controlled stainless steel vats; preserving fruit flavours by keeping wines waiting in huge tanks to be bottled at the right temperature; and regular scientific analysis to make sure that rogue yeasts and bacteria, which can destroy wines almost overnight, were kept under control by (commonly) adding judicious amounts of sulphur dioxide (E220), which is allowed in all wines by law and which is a main weapon in stopping them from spoiling.

What has this got to do with The Ecologist’s organic wine club?

Well, when the first ‘flying winemakers’ started arriving in Europe, around 20 years ago, they usually ended up working for big supermarkets keen to improve the quality of their cheapest (ergo biggest-selling) wines, which were usually sourced from grimy wine co-operatives in not-so-famous European wine regions.

Getting local growers (peasants) to pick the grapes a few days later than usual (for riper, stronger flavours) by buying them a beer (or five), making sure the grapes were pressed with minimum damage (often with a flick of a screwdriver to force the rollers on the thresher a few centimetres further apart), and keeping everything clean (‘It’s amazing what effect a bucket of water and some detergent can have on wine quality’, as one flying winemaker told me) were the stock-in-trade of the flying winemakers’ skills. Their technical prowess meant that supermarkets no longer had to worry so much that wine shipped in quantities of hundreds of thousands of litres at a time would go off on the shelf.

Now flying winemakers are increasingly being asked to polish wines made from organically grown grapes, as organic winemakers had a (sometimes deserved) reputation of earnestness in the vineyard, where they grew superb grapes; but a lack of direction in the winery.

If you have followed the fortunes of the Perlage winery, in north-east Italy, you’ll have noticed that since a flying winemaker project began here in 1998, the wines have gained much-needed zip and clarity.

Perlage is owned by the Nardi family and, as well as its own vineyards, which are certified organic, it buys in grapes from local growers who are certified either organic or Biodynamic (by Demeter).

Subtle changes made here include leaving newly-fermented dry white wines like the Terre di Chieti to rest on the dead yeast after fermentation, which gives the wine a bit more texture and freshness; or fermenting each variety of dark-skinned grape at a designated temperature: the robust Cabernet Sauvignon needs to be fermented slightly hotter than the more fragile Merlot.

One risk of the flying winemaker phenomenon is that wines from different regions and countries can taste standardised. But flying winemakers are becoming savvy to such criticisms; and no one can argue that they have shaken up complacent Europeans who used to be content with ‘making wines like granddad did’, even though they were often little better than vinegar.

Ecologist Organic & Bidynamic Wine Club
(15% off the RRP £76.50, incl VAT) +£7.95 delivery

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November selections
1) Bodegas Robles ‘Piedra Luenga Fino’
2) Bodegas Robles ‘Piedra Luenga PX’
3) Cantine Volpi ‘Era’, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (x2)
4) Cantine Volpi ‘Era’, Nero d’Avola, Sicily (x2)

December/January selections:
5) Juniper Green Gin
6) Sparkling Perlage Prosecco (x2)
7) Perlage Terra Viva Merlot
8) Perlage Terra Viva Bianco Terre di Chieti
9) Port from Casal dos Jordoes


Perlage, Prosecco
Dryish, light sparkling white wine made from the Prosecco grape, local to Treviso province. The grapes are picked, crushed and the juice fermented into a dry white wine. Yeast and sugar are added while it is in sealed tanks, to provoke a second fermentation. The fifizzy gas this produces appears only once the bottle is opened. Ideal as an aperitif or after a meal with nuts, dried fruit or light cheeses.

Perlage, Terra Viva Merlot
Easy-drinking, smooth light red made from Merlot grapes. These are chilled as soon as they are picked, then crushed so that the cooler-than-usual juice ferments on skins as slowly as possible at first. This does three things: it accentuates Merlot’s plum and bramble flavours; it means the wine tastes smooth (not tannic); and it means the wine tastes crisp instead of flfl abby (Merlot can taste flabby if fermented too hot).

Perlage ‘Terra Viva Bianco Terre di Chieti’
Light, dry, crisp aperitif-style white made from northern Italian grapes such as Trebbiano and a local creation called Incrocio Manzoni – literally ‘Manzoni’s cross’. This is a cross bred from two famous white wine grapes: the steely Riesling, and the Pinot Blanc, which tastes like Chardonnay-lite. This wine is ultra-cool fermented to preserve its tangy greengage fruit. Good also with light main courses.

Majara Vintage Character Port, Vegan suitable
A mouthfifi lling blend of Port wines made from four local grapes: Touriga Francesa (light blackberry fruit), Tinta Roriz (red cherry fruit), Tinto Cao (tea leaf aromas) and Touriga Nacional (concentrated blackcurrant fruit). The Casal dos Jordões port winery’s Port grapes are still trodden by foot in open troughs (‘lagares’), allowed to part-ferment using wild yeasts, then the fermentation is stopped by adding grape spirit (brandy).

Juniper Green Organic London Dry Gin, Vegan suitable
You can drink this with tonic water or make it part of the classic martini. Juniper Green is distilled at Thames Distillers and flfl avoured with juniper, coriander, angelica root and savoury, ‘botanicals’ certifified organic by the UK’s Soil Association. The grain from which the spirit is distilled is also certifified organic.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006


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