Category Archives: Italian wine

Wine with Goat

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We noticed some goat meat on sale in our local butcher’s recently. It’s something you rarely see in the UK, but we’ve enjoyed it in restaurants while we’ve been on holiday, particularly in Spain and Portugal, where Cabrito Asado – roasted young goat – is a familiar sight on menus.

So, we decided to buy some and cook it for ourselves. A quick scan of the internet revealed quite a choice of recipes but the one that most caught our eye involved braising our goat chops with fennel, spices and the juice of an orange. An interesting mix of flavours there, so a bit of a challenge to find a wine to match it. Red, of course, but which one? Thinking back to our travels, I would certainly have ordered a wine local to wherever we were – possibly a Rioja or a Mencia-based bottle in Spain and a Douro or Dão in Portugal. And all of those would work well with plain roasted meat. But here, I was tempted to look for something more characterful to match with the aniseed flavour of the fennel, the spices and the sweetness of the fruit juice. I settled on Luigi Einaudi’s Dogliani from Piedmont in north-west Italy (Wine Society, £11.50).

Dogliani (2)

Made with the local Dolcetto grape, this has the delicious richness I was looking for but is also quite soft and harmonious. Lovely black fruits come through with a hint of garrigue herbs and a long, dry, slightly earthy finish. Einaudi is one of the most famous and historic producers of the region, once owned by a former Italian president who helped establish the reputation of the Dogliani DOC – one that is certainly upheld by this really attractive and good value red. It worked perfectly with the goat, but, if goat’s as scarce with you as here, it would be great with some lamb, too.

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Great Food, Great Wine

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We don’t often go to London, even though it’s less than a couple of hours away by train. So, when we do, we enjoy trying some of the capital’s restaurants – and, of course, our emphasis isn’t just on good food, but an interesting wine list with, hopefully, something different for us to try. A recent discovery is Margot, an Italian restaurant just a few minutes’ walk from Covent Garden tube.

We both chose a fishy main course and, in casting my eye down the extensive list of Italian whites, my eye was drawn to a bottle from Donnafugata, a Sicilian producer we visited some years ago and whose wines we’ve followed ever since. But here was a new one to me: called ‘SurSur’, it was made with Grillo, one of Sicily’s excellent local grape varieties. sursur (2)Lovely and fresh and floral on the nose, the palate showed attractive peach and ripe pear flavours and was, as I would expect from an Italian wine, properly food-friendly.

Then, when it came to dessert, the menu offered a further temptation: each dish had a recommended sweet wine to accompany it – and by the glass, too. Again, I chose something I’d not tasted before: Bissoni’s Albana Passito from Emilia Romagna in the north-east of the country.

BissoniPassito is a method widely used in Italy and involves drying the grapes after harvesting to concentrate the sugars and so produce a more intensely sweet wine. Traditionally this was done by spreading the grapes out on straw mats on the ground, but more commonly these days takes place in heated drying rooms. But Bissoni have gone a stage further by adding a proportion of nobly-rotted grapes to the blend to give extra complexity and interest. The result was a wine with an enticing bouquet of dried figs and honey with vanilla and sweet spice on the palate. Delicious and, like the restaurant with its wonderful wine list, a real find.

Italy: Not so Confusing

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Italy is the 2nd largest supplier of wine to UK – behind Australia and just in front of USA. But, despite this popularity, I think most UK customers are missing the best Italy has to offer. The biggest sellers here include bargain-basement Pinot Grigio and Prosecco plus other famous names such as Chianti, Soave, Valpolicella and Frascati. Sadly, all of these can disappoint as often as they thrill.

Other wine drinkers in the UK simply ignore Italy completely: ‘it’s all just too confusing’ is a frequent comment. And one that I understand. The problem is that Italy produces so much wine and is so diverse that it’s hard to pick the real gems from the mass of ordinary bottles that are alongside them on the shelves.

SL Italy 3 (2)

A few pointers are always useful and that is just what I tried to give those who signed up for my recent course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. We tasted a dozen wines over the day including examples from half of Italy’s 20 regions. Of the whites, the clean, fresh Nord Est Vermentino from Sardinia (Majestic, £8.99) with its delightful pear and peach flavours was clearly most popular but the reds produced much more discussion and divided opinions.

SL Italy 2 (2)

I said earlier that Chianti can often disappoint but Medici Riccardi’s Classico Riserva that I found in Lidl for less than £7 proved to be an incredible bargain. Its dusty, slightly bitter black fruit flavours and attractive smokiness made it one of the group favourites. Sadly, I see it has disappeared from their website and so may already be sold out.

The other joint winner among the reds is, happily, still available. Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso (Majestic, £11.99) was full of figs and dried fruit flavours typical of the ‘Ripasso’ process. This is where a young wine is re-fermented on the skins of an Amarone wine, so picking up some of the richer, fuller character that comes from the drying process used for Amarones.

No-one went away an expert on Italian wines – that would take a lifetime – but most were convinced that it was worth looking beyond the confusion to discover the marvellous diversity.

50 Years On

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What were you doing in 1964?  I guess that many who are reading this weren’t even born then.  I was at school at the time and my main interest was the Beatles, then the most famous pop band in the world.  As for wine – I doubt that I’d ever tasted any by then and I certainly knew nothing about it.  But an Italian company, Masi, did; that was the year that they launched a new wine, Campofiorin – a wine that has subsequently become an iconic name and whose 2014 vintage, currently in the shops (Waitrose, £12.99) celebrates the brand’s 50th Anniversary with a specially designed ‘50’ label.

Campofiorin 50

Although sold as a Rosso Verona IGT (IGT is the Italian equivalent of the French term ‘Vin de Pays’), Campofiorin is effectively a high quality Valpolicella in disguise.  It’s made using the traditional grapes from that DOC – Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella – the main difference here is that the grapes are slightly dried before fermentation.  This concentrates the sugars in them and so produces a wine with more body and power than a normal Valpolicella – a technique borrowed from the prestigious Amarone wines from the same region.

Here, the method gives a lovely deep coloured wine with aromas of bitter cherry, prunes and spice. The same flavours, especially the spices, carry through to quite a rich and full palate with hints of chocolate, figs and vanilla on an attractive, long finish.

With good Amarones fetching £20 and more, this really is a bargain for those who like this chunky style – I admit it’s not to everyone’s taste – and no surprise that it is still on the shelves in its 50th vintage. 

Shame about all those wasted years listening to the Beatles and drinking something else!

Piedmont: So Much Choice

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If you’re looking to taste an unusual grape variety or a wine from a lesser-known region, then a good place to start is Italy – it grows more different grape varieties than any other country and has countless local DOCs (the Italian equivalent of the French Appellation Contrôlée) – many of which are hardly seen beyond the local area.

Not everything different is good – sometimes there’s a reason why a wine is obscure – but a bottle I opened recently reminded me of the grape variety Arneis and why it really should be much better known. 

Langhe ArneisCristina Ascheri makes a particularly attractive example (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a lightly perfumed white wine, full bodied but not overpowering and with delicious ripe pear and peach flavours and a hint of almonds on the finish.  A pleasant glassful on its own but even better alongside some fish or pasta in a creamy sauce.

Perhaps one reason why Arneis is not so well known is that it is native to Piedmont, a region in north-west Italy with more than its fair share of high quality and famous wines.  Among the reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, both made with the local Nebbiolo grape, stand out, although the Barbera and Dolcetto varieties can also produce very attractive wines – often ready to drink much sooner and more easily approachable.  Among the local whites, I often wonder why Gavi is so much better known than Arneis – I’ve had as many disappointing examples as great ones.  And then there’s the local sparkling wines: sadly, Asti (formerly known as Asti Spumanti) rarely shines these days but the delicately sweet Moscato d’Asti, often with only 5 or 6% alcohol, can be a real delight accompanying a Panna Cotta or Zabaglione dessert.

I started by suggesting you look to Italy for interesting and different wines, but you might not even want to cast your net so wide when the single region, Piedmont, can offer so much choice.

 

A Red Called ‘Monty’

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“I had a really nice Italian red last week” a friend said to me recently; “it was called Monty-something”.  He looked expectantly as if he was hoping that I would immediately fill the gap.  A dozen ‘Monte’s’ sprang to mind; fortunately, my 3rd guess brought a smile of recognition: ‘yes, that was it – Montepulciano’.  But, there’s not one Montepulciano but two.  Because, like Chardonnay, Montepulciano is both the name of a grape variety and of a wine producing village.  That wouldn’t be a problem if, like Chardonnay (which is grown in the village of the same name in southern Burgundy), the village of Montepulciano (in Tuscany) actually grew the grape Montepulciano.  It doesn’t!  It grows Sangiovese, the Chianti grape.  To find the grape Montepulciano, you need to look further east where Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the most common example.  Confused?  My friend was! 

I tried to describe the differences: Montepulciano, the grape, tends to be quite soft and fruity, often with flavours of plums or cherries and usually fairly easy drinking.   I frequently describe it as the perfect Spaghetti Bolognese wine.  On the other hand, Montepulciano, the village, produces 2 wines: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and its junior brother, Rosso di Montepulciano.  Vino Nobile (‘the noble wine’) is fashionable and so not cheap (think £25 plus).  It also tends to need a good few years before it is ready to drink but the cheaper Rosso is often a good buy, particularly from a reputable producer.   

I opened a bottle from Poliziano recently (Great Western Wines, £14.95). 

MontepulcianoIt had lovely flavours of dried fruits and cooked plums, black olives, chocolate and a certain smokiness.  At a little over 2 years old, it still had quite noticeable tannins but decanted and accompanying a meal, these softened nicely, although a couple of years extra ageing would be an advantage. 

But, back to the problem: is there a way to tell if a name is a grape or a place – or neither?  A tip that works for many Italian wines: look if there is a ‘d’ or ‘di’ or ‘della’ on the label.  It means ‘from’.  So, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is the noble wine from the named village whereas Montepulciano d’Abruzzo denotes the grape from the region of Abruzzo.  Simple! 

And, by the way, my friend still doesn’t know which Montepulciano he enjoyed!

 

Wine from Dried Grapes

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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.

Puglia AppassimentoCa’ 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.