It would have been so easy to walk past the bottle sitting there on the bottom shelf of a large supermarket display: a rather dull label, a producer I’d never heard of and surrounded by a number of unexciting bargain-basement wines. And then I spotted the word ‘Appassimento’ on the label. Suddenly this wine became a lot more interesting.
Appassimento is a method of making wine from dried grapes and dates back at least 3000 years. In ancient times it was quite common, especially in the warmer southern Mediterranean wine-growing areas. After harvesting, the grapes were spread out on reed or straw mats under the sun (or hung up in nets) for 3 or even 4 months before being crushed and fermented. During this time, they lose up to 50 per cent of their moisture, becoming shrivelled and dried up. This concentrates the sugars in the berries producing a richer, sweeter wine.
Today, the process is much less common and many producers now dry the grapes in drying lodges rather than using the traditional straw mats. It is mainly practised for sweet wines such as Vin Santo and one of my favourites, Passito di Pantellaria from a tiny island off the south-west coast of Sicily. There is also one particularly famous dry example: Amarone della Valpolicella.
The bottle I bought was not so famous but also dry. This one was from the Puglia region in the ‘heel’ of Italy, made from an unusual blend of grapes: Merlot, Negroamaro and Zinfandel – this latter variety has a long history in the area, although better known locally as Primitivo.
Ca’ Marrone’s Appassimento (Tesco, £8.50) has all the power and richness that this process typically gives to this type of wine, but accompanied by good plum and prune flavours and a certain smokiness. This isn’t an easy quaffing wine but, with robust food it really comes into its own. And at the price, it’s a real bargain when you think of the cost of a good Amarone.
We bought some nice trout recently caught locally in Chew Valley Lake and my wife was poring through some old recipe books looking for a tasty and different way to cook them: “how about baking them and serving them with an anchovy sauce”, she suggested. Just seconds after agreeing that the idea sounded really interesting, I suddenly realised the challenge I’d set myself: what sort of wine could possibly go with it?
The trout wasn’t the problem – unless they are quite old, when they can take on an earthy flavour – trout is quite wine friendly; it was the anchovy sauce that was causing my headache!
Why? Anchovies are both salty and oily and, in addition, have quite an assertive flavour – all characteristics that can have an effect on wine. Saltiness can be an advantage, taming tannin and making wines taste smoother and richer but it also makes wine seem less acidic – and it’s acidity that would be vital to cut through the oiliness of the anchovies. And, with quite a strongly flavoured sauce, the wine would need some character if it wasn’t to be completely overwhelmed.
In all of this, the question of red or white faded into obscurity – until we tasted the almost-finished sauce, when we both agreed that we couldn’t see a red working at all. So, a white; but which one?
The food and wine of a region often work well together and, in this context, Portugal came to mind. Not anchovies, but sardines have many of the same characteristics.
And so we opened the somewhat pretentiously named FP by Filipa Pato (Wine Society, £9.95).
Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato – the man who, virtually single-handedly, put Portugal’s Bairrada wine region on the map – and she is certainly keeping up the family reputation with this delicious appley-fresh white made from 2 high quality grape varieties native to this area of Portugal – Arinto and Bical.
One final thought: the surname ‘Pato’ means ‘duck’ in Portuguese. I wonder how duck and anchovies might work together? And the wine to match? Any suggestions?
The French use the word ‘terroir’ a lot when talking about wine. There’s no exact translation in English but I usually think of it as meaning the combination of natural factors that affect how a vine will grow in a particular place and so how the wine made from its grapes will taste. The local soil, slope of the land, exposure to the sun, shelter from the wind and climate are all clearly part of terroir but many would say the local traditions and customs of an area should be added to that list. And, how about the variety or varieties of grapes used? Are they part of terroir or not? Who knows?
But terroir is not unique to France, even if the word is. I recently opened a bottle of Tierras Coloradas Old Vines Carignan from the Montsant region, deep in the hills of Catalonia in North-East Spain (Waitrose, £9.99). This was clearly made with the Spanish equivalent of terroir in mind –why else would the back label highlight the particular soils of the Montsant region – red and yellow clay, slate and chalk – on which the grapes for this wine were grown?
And talking of the grapes, the old vine Carignan is also part of the tradition of the area (although there’s a nod to internationalism here in calling them by their more common French name, Carignan, rather than their usual local alias, Mazuela).
The wine itself is a rugged, earthy red with attractive violet aromas and deep, intense flavours of cooked plums and dried fruits. But, did I taste the terroir in the wine? Well, it’s clearly from somewhere warm (14% alcohol and the cooked and dried flavours) and almost certainly from somewhere quite traditional in style. So, there are certainly some links to its place of origin but, I have to confess that, tasted blind, I doubt whether I’d be able to identify it specifically as a wine from Montsant, but it’s quite delicious and excellent value for money nevertheless.
Argentina has adopted the Malbec grape as its own, even though the variety is originally a native of France – although whether its home is Bordeaux, Cahors or the Loire is open to doubt. But France has never really appreciated Malbec in the way it loves Cabernet and Pinot Noir, for example; perhaps that’s because they don’t grow it anywhere with sufficient sunshine and warmth to really ripen the berries. That isn’t a problem in Argentina, even though most of the plantings are around Mendoza, high in the foothills of the Andes. Malbec thrives there – and it just happens to make big, rich red wines that are a perfect foil to Argentina’s beef-dominated cooking.
Often, you see Malbec as a single variety wine – and it can be very good, especially in the hands of good producers, such as Catena – but, occasionally, it’s used as part of a blend; Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot are the most common partners, but Viñalba unusually combine it with the Portuguese variety Touriga Nacional (Majestic, £9.99) and the result is a real winner; and that’s not just my view – Decanter magazine awarded it a Gold Medal in their Wine Awards last year.
The wine is intense, rich and powerful – as you’d expect from one with 14.5% alcohol, but it’s well balanced at the same time and there’s no excess heat on the finish. The fruit comes through well – blackberries and other hedgerow flavours dominate – and there’s something quite floral in there, too (the label suggests violets) and some nice, spicy oak, too.
It’s not a wine to drink on its own; food – and robust food at that – is essential. No surprise that the producer suggests a grilled steak, but, for me, any red meat, game or hard cheese would work well.
It’s certainly an unusual blend – I know of no other example of these 2 grapes together – but it really does work and, for the quality, it’s quite a bargain.
In my view, Spain is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today. Wherever you look, you’ll find dedicated and innovative winemakers working with an array of high quality local grapes. And it’s not just in the traditional areas – Rioja and sherry – that you find delicious wines. I recently ran a course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre concentrating on Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’ – some of the lesser-known regions and grapes – where you can find wines that are not just very drinkable but, because they are not well-known, they are also great value.
The bottles I found for the group to taste provoked plenty of discussion – and some very diverse views; indeed, when I invited votes for favourite wines of the day, 11 of the 12 wines attracted at least 1 vote. But, there were 2 clear winners:
San Antolin’s Rueda (Waitrose, £8.99) comes from the Upper Duero Valley in western Spain where vineyards are planted more than 600 metres (1800 feet) above sea level. The altitude means cool nights, even in summer, which help to retain precious acidity in the Verdejo grapes from which this wine is made, while the heat of the day results in perfect ripening and a succulent, rich but refreshing white wine. Fine for drinking on its own but even better with some fish in a creamy sauce that reflects the character of the wine beautifully. I’ve enjoyed this Rueda over a number of years and it was an unsurprising winner.
The close runner up, however, was, perhaps, a little less predictable. Not, I hasten to add, due to any lack of quality in the wine, but, I might have expected that the soft, mellow, cooked fruit and spice flavours of an 8 year old red that had spent 2 of those years in old oak casks wouldn’t have had such wide appeal. Happily, I was wrong and Anciano’s Tempranillo Gran Reserva 2008 landed in a well-deserved 2nd place. Had this wine been from Rioja rather than from the deeply unfashionable Valdepeñas area south of Madrid, it would certainly have been at least double the £8.99 I paid for it in Waitrose. A bargain, indeed!
And bargains are what you can expect if you explore ‘Hidden Corners’. You just have to know where to look.