In praise of flysch – and of the Vinitaly International Academy

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In praise of flysch – and of the Vinitaly International Academy

No other place on earth can display this period of Earth so graphically and beautifully.

Marc Millon

By Marc Millon

For the past months, I have been diligently studying and learning about Italian wine with the Vinitaly International Academy in preparation for taking the Italian Wine Ambassador exam. The study of Italian native grape varieties is a vast and confusing topic made even more complex and complicated by the study of Italian terroirs - the soils and rocks upon which some hundreds of such grape varieties are cultivated. I sometimes go to sleep with my head in a complete fuzz: Sangiovese originated in the south of Italy not Tuscany and is a parent of Nerello Mascalese, Frappato, and Gaglioppo. Who knew? My head is spinning with thoughts of pyroclastic matter, lapilli, lacustrine deposits, schist, basalt, and flysch. Yes, always flysch. I sometimes wake up at night (I really do) thinking about flysch in all its various manifestions: flysh in Taurasi, Chianti Classico, Barolo, Collio and elsewhere.

To be honest, I need a break from it all. Thankfully yesterday, summer finally arrived here in southern England. It’s been a pretty miserable few months for all sorts of reasons, and the wet and cool weather hasn’t helped one bit. But we have short memories here in Britain, and when the good weather arrives we embrace it with gusto, knowing full well that it will not last for long. So it was a day to get on the water: we packed a picnic, a cooler of beer, wedged the paddleboards on to our small boat, and headed down the Exe estuary, negotiating the winding channel to reach Exmouth and the sea. The tide was rushing out as we sped along the seafront, still following the starboard (green) and port (red) channel markers as we made our way to the Bell Buoy which marks safe passage.

As we passed Orcombe Point, we could see the Geoneedle, a pyramid of stone set on top of the red cliffs that marks the start of the Jurassic Coast. In 2001 this stretch of our coast was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for the ‘outstanding universal value of its rocks, fossils and landforms’. It is England’s only natural World Heritage Site. What makes it so special is that all along its 95 mile length, from Orcombe Point at Exmouth across East Devon to Old Harry Rocks in Swanage, Dorset, the coastline uniquely tells the story of three geological time periods: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous, collectively known as the Mesozoic Era. No other place on earth can display this period of Earth so graphically and beautifully.

We head east, gazing at the red cliffs of Exmouth, a high plateau of sandstone deposits that date from the Triassic period when the Earth was a baking desert some 250 to 200 million years ago. Further along the coast other eras are revealed. During the Jurassic period 200 to 145 million years ago the sea levels rose and turned our corner of the world into a warm tropical sea. Then, a mere 45 million years later, the seas fells again, leaving behind land masses with raging rivers, dense forests, lagoons and swamps: the Cretaceous era (155 to 60 millions years ago) had begun, and the world was alive with dinosaurs, and marine and flying reptiles!

We pass carefully through a network of buoys that mark the fishermen’s crab and lobster pots - always laid down around Straight Point (lobsters and crabs, as fossils found in Lyme Bay have shown, are animals that haven’t changed much in millions of years) and make our way to Budleigh Salterton, coming in close under the cliffs to throw over the anchor. It’s a beautiful day, the water is calm, clean and fresh, so we dive in. Afterwards, relaxing on the deck with a sandwich and a cold beer, I gaze at the cliffs in front of me. What do I see? Flysch! Yes, the sedimentary deposits are in clear striated layers of red sandstone and limestone-rich chalk that has turned to hard stone.

There is a gentle tide and we listen to its soothing melody as it ebbs and falls over the pebble beach of Budleigh Salterton. For while Exmouth, just around the corner, has a sandy beach, Budleigh’s is made up of large, polished stones that are actually quite painful to walk on in barefeet (even the nudists on the naturist beach not far from where we’ve anchored are wearing shoes!). These stones are the result of fluvial action, a great prehistoric river that once raged over the land, tumbling and polishing the stones and creating the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, one of the most highly regarded conservation sites in Europe.

About 20 years ago, my good friend, Geoff Bowen, a geologist and environmental consultant (sadly now departed), had the idea to plant a vineyard not far from where we live in Topsham. He experimented with hybrid vines (Seyval, Madeleine Angevin, Rondo) with some success and Pebblebed Wines was born, the name a reference to this defining geological feature of our area. The wines - most notably sparkling - were a great success and won awards. Pebblebed is a wine we always love drinking, not necessarily for its excellence but because it is our wine, created by a friend and of this place. Such things are important.

Not much more than three years ago, I helped to plant another vineyard with another great friend, Michael Caines, who has created a stunning country house hotel called Lympstone Manor just a few miles downriver from where we live. I remember when Michael first found the property and he invited me to come over and see it - it must have been sometime in the autumn of 2015. As we sat in front of what was then a completely run-down delapidated Georgian mansion, he outlined to me his dream and his vision over a glass of Champagne. Having been head chef at the acclaimed Gidleigh Park on Dartmoor for 20 years (holding two Michelin stars for 18 years), he wanted to create his own luxury country house hotel for the 21st century with an outstanding Michelin-star restaurant. But also part of his dream, he explained, was to transform the overgrown parkland that extended down to the foreshore of the Exe into a vineyard to make high quality sparkling wine to serve in his restaurant. So it was that in 2018 I found myself helping to plant some 17000 Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay vines here. Last year there was a small first harvest and I tasted those wines with Michael in April of this year. The quality for wines from such young vines was simply astounding! We expected lean, maybe austere but this was far from the case: the malolactic had been carried out, there was phenolic ripeness, with still that underlying and refreshing backbone of exhilarating acidity that is the hallmark of the best English sparklers. I’d like to think that perhaps this quality, even elegance came from grapes grown on the rich, red loam topsoil - Devon terra rossa I’m now calling it - that sits over a deep and profound layer of flysch.

Just 20 years ago no one thought that Chardonnay or Pinot Noir could ever fully ripen in cool, moist England (hence Geoff’s choice of hybrid varieties). Now the Champenoise themselves are purchasing land in Hampshire and Sussex! Those who are involved in wine know that climate change is very real. Of course we know too that such periods of climatic change has happened throughout past eras - the scorching heat of those great Triassic deserts, followed by warm tropical seas, and then the bitterly cold periods when our earth was locked in ice. But such changes happened over the course of thousands or even millions of years. Today’s change is so rapid and that is what is so frightening. Our world was formed hundreds of millions of years ago. Humankind has walked this planet for only the briefest moment and one day we too like the dinosaurs may become extinct, perhaps through our own making.

But let’s not be glum: for in the meantime, there is wine, glorious wine to console us! I sip and dream of the massive collision of continental tectonic plates - Africa with Europe to cause the earth to move and the mighty Alps to rise. Or the Dolomites emerging from out of a prehistoric sea, the stones rich in magnesium, shiny and glistening in their majesty. I imagine fire spewing from volcanoes and flows of lava hardening into black obsidian, volcanoes that are still erupting at this moment, or else long extinct, or even which once erupted unseen and underwater. I taste a glass of Franciacorta and feel and sense the movement of massive fields of ice - glaciars we have actually skiied upon that once carved out deep lakes and pushed and moved soils and rocks as they advanced or retreated to create gentle moraine hills that today are such a propitious habitat for Vitis vinifera.

A glass of Friulano from Collio makes me think of ponca which gives the wines from there such intensity, aroma and ripeness. When I enjoy a calice of Chianti Classico, maybe a Gran Selezione that fully reveals and expresses its territorio, I sense the character of Sangiovese, elegant, with firm tannins and high acidity that comes from its galestro terroir. Perhaps I’ll open a bottle of volcanic wine tonight - but which one, Etna Rosso or Soave?- or a wine from karst limestone deposits - Malvasia Istriana or Castel del Monte - or from tufo compacted volcanic ash such as Orvieto. I drink; I taste; I dream. But again and again my thoughts come back to flysch, flysch from Taurasi, from Chianti Classico, Barolo or Collio - and now, my god, even flysch from Budleigh Salterton!

Thank you, Vinitaly International Academy, grazie mille Professore Attilio Scienza, and bravi Henry Davar and Sarah Heller for teaching me about flysch - and about so much more.