If you’ve ever opened a bottle of Chianti, then you’ve tasted the grape variety Sangiovese with its typical flavours of bitter cherries and herbs. It’s the No1 variety in Italy in terms of area and it’s far more widely planted than just in Chianti; it’s found throughout the regions of Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Marche but its home is, I suppose, in Tuscany (think Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano as well as Chianti).
Outside Italy, though, Sangiovese is far harder to find. To me, that’s surprising considering the number of families of Italian origin who have emigrated and settled in many different countries across the world. They’ve planted a couple of thousand acres in Argentina and a little in California (notably Antinori’s Atlas Peak) but, beyond that, very little. Although I recently found a bottle from Australia made by an ex-Italian family, now living in Victoria’s King Valley, who have imported a range of vines – not just Sangiovese but several other Italian varieties, too – which they grow and use for all their wines.
Pizzini’s Pietra Rossa Sangiovese (Wine Society, £18) is more Brunello than Chianti in style, rounded and full of lovely fresh plum and cherry flavours with a hint of spice. The wine has spent 14 months in barrel, with a proportion of that in new oak, but I found no overt oak flavour, just a savoury, harmonious mouthful. The 2019 vintage is still quite tannic so needs decanting and pairing with chunky flavours.
The King Valley is not well-known (although it is the home of the famous Brown Brothers company) but it is an interesting area, a good couple of hours drive north-east of Melbourne. The key for vine growing here is the closeness to the foothills of the Australian Alps where the heat of the growing season is offset by the altitude. This allows the grapes to ripen fully yet still retain that essential freshness that showed well in Pizzini’s wine.
A little bit of Italy in Australia and perfect for celebrating Australia’s National Day (26 January).
I used to have regular discussions with a friend of mine over the wines we tasted together. He would say that I always opened my wines too young, before they had a chance to develop all their complexities. I would counter that he always kept his wines too long, so that they lost their fruit and freshness and were past their best. Of course, we were both right and both wrong; wine is about tastes and opinions and his and mine clearly differed.
But he had a point; most of the wines my wife and I drink at home are quite young. So, when I opened a 9-year-old Rioja recently, it was a bit of a shock at first. I had to adjust to the different tastes and search hard for the words to describe its character.
Urbina’s Rioja Crianza 2012 (Wine Society, a bargain at £10.95) was at an interesting stage of its development, still retaining some of its youthful cassis fruit alongside some attractive cooked plum flavours, more typical of wines showing a bit more age. All this was wrapped up with distinct coconut and cedar flavours from the oak ageing. I was actually a little surprised at the oakiness of the wine; the Crianza category only requires wine to spend 6 months in oak barrels, although many of the more traditional producers – among them, I suspect, Urbina – significantly exceed this minimum without upgrading to Reserva status.
Overall, we both enjoyed the wine with its – for us – different tastes, and it certainly went really well with some rib-eye steak. But did it convince us to buy older wines more often? I don’t think so. And should we have waited until it was even older before opening it? I would say firmly ‘no’; my friend, I am sure, would be equally convinced that it would improve further after a few more years in the bottle.
My wife and I like to vary what we cook and eat to reflect the seasons so, at this time of year, we’re usually aiming for warming, hearty dishes. And, when we open a bottle to accompany them, it’s more likely to be red than white – reds generally working better with that sort of food. But it just isn’t happening that way at the moment – the white section of our wine rack is looking particularly bare while the reds are still sitting there. I’m not sure why; it could be that, until recently, this winter has been particularly mild and that has influenced what we’ve been cooking (and drinking). I hope it’s not that we’re losing our taste for red wines!
Last weekend was no different; the nicest wine I opened was yet another white, this one an interesting and unusual bottle from Hungary.
Gizella’s Barát Hárslevelű (Novel Wines, £15.79) is a dry wine from Tokaj, a region far better known for its delicious and unique style of sweet wines. Crisp, medium-bodied and fresh with delightful flavours of citrus, ripe pear and melon and a long, herby finish. It paired beautifully with some pan-fried pheasant breasts.
The Hárslevelű grape variety is native to Hungary and is quite widely grown across the country as well as in Austria and Romania, but, here, in the Tokaj region, is more commonly found blended with Furmint in those lovely sweet wines I mentioned earlier. But the bottle we opened was a varietal wine (made with 100% of the one variety), grown in the Barát vineyard, locally recognised as a Grand Cru. It certainly showed the potential of the grape, particularly in the hands of a talented winemaker as we clearly have here.
I’ve mentioned Bath-based Novel Wines (www.novelwines.co.uk) previously in these blogs. They specialise in importing bottles from small artisan producers in less familiar areas of the wine world, particularly Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and are well worth seeking out by more adventurous wine lovers looking for different and interesting flavours.
Let me begin this first Blog of 2022 by wishing you a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year.
We started the year in great style entertaining some very good friends on New Year’s Day with some delicious food and wine, alongside the usual interesting and lively conversation.
As befits the time of year, we cooked a rich, hearty, warming venison casserole – an easy dish to match with wine, pairing well with almost any big, robust red. I chose a Barbaresco from north-west Italy with its attractive flavours of raspberry and leather. During the evening I thought it was rather overpriced for its quality although subsequently I concluded that I may have opened the bottle when it was too young (it was from the 2015 vintage); a glassful left in the decanter developed very well overnight and the following day showed rather more of the complex character I was expecting.
The real wine talking point of the evening, however, was the bottle our friends brought: Caggiano’s ‘Devon’ Greco di Tufo (bought from the Great Wine Company, formerly Great Western Wine). It was absolutely delicious – rich and vibrant with lovely melon and peach flavours and a long savoury finish. It went perfectly with some soft, creamy cheeses at the end of our meal but would also team well with fish or poultry.
Greco di Tufo, as you might guess from its name, originated in Greece but has been established in the Avellino Hills north of Naples for centuries where it produces white wines of reliably high quality; if you can’t find this particular wine, just look out for the grape name – I doubt you will be disappointed.
But there was another reason this wine was such a hit with us: my wife was born and raised in Devon and to be given such a thoughtful bottle was very special. The only question that remained was what is the link between a wine from southern Italy and the English county of Devon? My best guess is that the producer thought that the Avellino Hills resembled Devon’s Dartmoor region but his website gives no clue and so the mystery remains.
We may need to buy another bottle to mull over the question a little longer!