Italy for Value

Many who enjoy their wine simply ignore Italy; ‘it’s too complicated’, ‘too many unpronounceable names’, ‘too many unfamiliar grape varieties’ are just a few of the comments I’m familiar with – and those are from consumers who have actually thought about Italian wines.  Sadly, many don’t even get that far.  And those that do, usually look to the famous names like Chianti and Barolo, where prices reflect familiarity (and dare I say it, not always quality).

But look further afield and Italy is an excellent source of good value and very drinkable wines.  The South (especially Puglia and the hills above Naples) and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia are particularly worth considering – see some of my earlier blogs for recommendations – but, perhaps even less well-known are the regions overlooking the Adriatic coast.

Marche is home to delicious dry, herby whites made from the local Verdicchio grape as well as attractive fruity reds labelled Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno.  You should find reasonable bottles of any of these in good supermarkets for less than £10.  Marche’s neighbour to the south is Abruzzo, which, to my mind, produces one of the most reliable easy-quaffing reds that I know – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  Montepulciano is the grape variety and it looks like a mouthful to pronounce but is actually very easy:  Monty – pull – chee – arno with the stress on the ‘arno’.

The Wine Society list offers an example from Contesa Vigna Corvino, a deeply coloured red with intense aromas and flavours of damsons and blackberries, soft tannins and fair length.  It’s fresh and fruity enough to drink on its own or pair it with grilled lamb chops or Spaghetti Bolognese.  The wine is not especially complex, but very drinkable and a bargain at £8.50.  Look in your local supermarket and you may find a bottle of another producer’s ‘Monty’ for even less money.

And, if you hear someone say that Italian wine is just too complicated, lead them to the nearest wine shop (after getting them to read this blog, of course!)

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What do you think of this?

Working in the wine industry, you sometimes get friends or colleagues thrusting a glass into your hand asking for your thoughts.  I usually start by describing the wine – its fruit character, its balance, its length – and then wait for the inevitable follow up: ‘but what do you think of it?’  This is easy when the wine is very good or has some particularly attractive quality to comment on but can be tricky otherwise.  Even if the wine is pleasant but nothing special, someone has worked hard to make it and I don’t like to disappoint.  So, I sometimes reach for words like ‘unusual’, ‘different’ or even ‘interesting’.  (Apologies to readers who have heard those words about a wine they have offered me!)

More challenging is when I’m also expected to identify the wine in the glass.  ‘Blind tasting’, as it is called, is incredibly difficult at the best of times but almost impossible without context; so, if I’m in Burgundy, for example, I’m expecting the wine to be local, which narrows the likely possibilities.  Similarly, if I’m with friends, I tend to know their tastes, which may be reflected in the wine they offer me. 

But there’s one grape variety that is so distinctive that I would expect to identify it blind 8 times out of 10: Gewűrztraminer.  Native to Germany and the Alsace region in north-east France, it stamps its aromatic, floral, almost perfumed character on nearly every wine its used in.  We took a bottle of the Wine Society’s Exhibition Alsace Gewűrztraminer (£16.00) to a good friend recently and it had all those expected qualities and more.  The flavours were delicate yet, at the same time, intense and rich.  Just off-dry, it went perfectly with a mildly spiced Keralan Chicken curry that she cooked for us – the fragrance of the wine complementing the aromatic spices beautifully.

A wine with really ‘interesting’ and ‘unusual’ characteristics – but in a good way!

Red and White Stripes

Where do you think the wine in the picture comes from?  Unless you recognise the bottle or the producer’s name, there’s no clue on the label; the answer is on the screw cap I’ve included in the bottom corner.  The red and white stripes echo the flag of Austria and many wines from that country have those colours, whether on a screw cap or on the capsule covering the cork.  A neat piece of marketing in my view (once you know to look for it!)  On the other hand, the label, while stylish and eye-catching, is sadly lacking in detail (and the back label isn’t much better).   However, Pittnauer’s Pitti comes from the Wine Society (£10.50) and fortunately their website was, as ever, much more informative.

A blend of Zweigelt, Austria’s most widely planted red variety with Blaufränkisch (also known as Kekfrankos and commonly found across central and eastern Europe), this is a bright, very drinkable fruity red, enjoyable on its own or with red meats, especially lamb, duck breast or leg or hard cheeses.  Expect aromas and flavours of cherries and raspberries with a subtle, attractive hint of pepper and sweet spice.

Pittnauer’s vineyards are ideally situated close to the Neusiedlersee, a huge shallow lake on the border with Hungary, that creates the perfect conditions for some of Austria’s best wines.  The water tempers the heat of the summer and mitigates some of the cold of a Central European winter.  The family-owned and run estate is farmed biodynamically (a kind of super-organic regime) and with a minimal intervention policy in the winery.  The result is a wine of real quality and at a very reasonable price.

Austrian wine had its challenges in the 1980s – mostly self-inflicted – but, following a long period of rebuilding, they are now turning out both reds and whites that are well worth searching out.

A Bargain Red from Spain

Spain has more land planted with vines than any other country in the world and, wherever you look, you will find unique local grape varieties and interesting and different wine styles.  From the sherry region in Andalucia in the south, to Galicia in the north-west with its crisp, fragrant Albariños to the famous reds of Rioja and Ribero del Duero.

But this blog concerns Catalonia (Cataluña to the locals) in the north-east of the country; a region with its own language and culture and a diverse and characterful range of wines that would take a lifetime to explore fully.  The region’s most famous wine, Cava, is one that many consumers may not even associate with Spain, let alone this one region; it has become a generic name for those looking for a cheap and cheerful alternative to Champagne.  If only they looked a little further (and paid a little more) they would find some attractive, distinctive Cavas that stand as quality sparkling wines in their own right.  

And, although large producers such as Torres dominate the Catalonian wine scene, it’s also a region where smaller growers can thrive, particularly in the hilly, inland areas.  Priorat is, perhaps, the best example of this with talented, artisan producers exploiting its rugged terrain and centuries-old vines to create remarkably intense and focussed wines.  Inevitably, wine prices there have rocketed and Terra Alta, hidden away in the hills to the west, is a better choice for value. 

Dardell’s organic red (Majestic, £8.99) is a robust mix of mainly Garnacha Tinta (known more commonly as Grenache) with some Syrah giving a rich, spicy full-flavoured wine with delicious dried-fruit flavours and a savoury, smoky finish.  I opened and decanted it an hour or so before drinking to allow it to develop all the flavours and aromas and was pleased I did.  It also needs generously flavoured food to show its best (a warming venison casserole was our choice).

I began by highlighting the wealth of different wines from Spain; by buying a bottle from one of that country’s hidden corners, I found not only a delicious wine but also a real bargain.