Sunday, April 8, 2012


This year the secret project has been to start up a balsamic vinegar line. The Italians call the series of progressively-smaller barrels the vinegar moves through a batteria or battery. This is a sequence of five or six, give or take, barrels, getting smaller as you move through the series & liquid evaporates. My first sequence starts with a 50 litre oak barrel. In a year, the balsamic will be moved to a 40 litre barrel, then 30, 20, 10 & 5 litres for the 6th year.

Where 'normal' wine vinegar starts with wine, which then acetifies courtesy of acetobacter converting alcohol to acetic acid, traditional balsamic is a different pathway. Instead of starting with grape juice fermented to wine, the start point with balsamic (most of the time, not counting the commercial, short-cuts processes) is unfermented grape juice that is cooked out over flame to make musto cotto. Reduced to about half of the starting volume by the slow boiling process, the cooled must is settled & transferred to barrel, along with a small amount of gluconobacter culture (a story in itself). Unless you already happen to have some balsamic & bacteria in the bottom of that barrel already.

Gluconobacter are a group of bacteria sometimes found in combination with types of acetobacter, but they operate quite differently. Where acetobacter eat alcohol to make vinegar, gluconobacter eat some kinds of sugars while they make acid. So no alcoholic fermentation needed in the traditional balsamic process.

From hand-picking sauvignon blanc grapes from Quarry Hill, to foot-crushing & basket-pressing the fruit, then settling & filtering the juice, cooking it out in my 92 litre stainless steel pot on a heavy-duty metal frame wok-burner over a couple of days to make the musto cotto... it has been a fascinating learning process. Not least about the hazards of do it yourself gas fitting.

Now the hard part. Staying hands-off that little barrel & let the gluconobacter do the work, racking & transferring down the line once a year. In six years time, perhaps something good. Though traditional balsamico from Modena takes 12 years...

The image above is a close shot of some of the 32 jets on the Mongolian wok burner, with the 92 litre stainless steel pot of must cooking out on top. Beautiful to watch at night, if a bit noisy from the air-mixing Venturi effect the system uses (sounds a little like a jet engine when it gets going).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Yarrh 2004 sangiovese (Canberra)

The Yarrh vineyard is an attractive, gum-treed site wrapped around by bush and not far from Ken Helm's Murrumbateman cellar door. Sangiovese is a strict mistress in regions marginal for it, such as Canberra. Everything has to line up: soil, water, vine health, bud counts, shoot vigour, shoot length, fruit load, season. Bryan Martin, of Ravensworth fame (and a big part of Clonakilla) has shown how sangiovese can perform in Canberra, but this wine fleshes out that story.

Maybe a sign of the Canberra roots I've put down, I've been having a bottle or two of this most years for the past seven years. Like old jackets shift smells and change their fit over years, seeing and feeling the aging path of this wine has been a satisfying thing. Tight and red-fruited, with a hint of something dried-herb & tobacco as a younger wine, this has aged well (though my bottle before this one had largely fallen over). In it's old age, this has become more local and less varietal, without losing overall appeal. The wine now shows aged red fruit, a touch of leather & mint, and something elusive, nutty & sweet, like a toffeed hazelnut. A good showing, from what I think is my last bottle. Congratulations to the winemaker, Fiona Wholohan, and the site.

A satisfying, if surprising pairing for this: bucatini in a sauce of onion, zucchini dice, black pepper and gorgonzola dolce, thinned with pasta water. The aged, nutty, toffee character of the wine made an excellent fit with the sweet yet blue cheese of the sauce and the comparative bitter of zucchini skin.