Category Archives: Italian wine

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.

 

Italy’s South Rises Again

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In ancient times, the south of Italy was thought of as one of the great wine regions of the known world.  Fast forward 2000 years and, by the time I started enjoying wine (in the early 1970s, if you must know!), it was a place for wine lovers to avoid.  But, rather than concentrating on the bad times, I’d sooner focus on its re-emergence over the past 20 years or so and on the delicious wines you can find there now – wines that were the subject of a recent evening at the Bristol Tasting Circle, hosted by Alex Pack of Liberty Wines.

Temperatures in this part of the Mediterranean normally favour red wines over white, but Donnafugata’s rich, minerally Vigna di Gabri from Sicily was the exception: full of citrus and herb flavours with an attractive touch of bitterness, this would pair beautifully with poultry or white meats.

The reds mainly showcased the best of the local grape varieties, such as Aglianico, thought to have been originally imported into Italy by the early Greek traders, Nero di Troia and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel).  Opinions on the night were divided as to the best of these with Canace’s Nero di Troia, Zolla’s Primitivo di Manduria and Vesevo’s Taurasi all getting favourable mentions, particularly as partners for robust red meat and game dishes, or with flavoursome hard cheeses.

But, the last wine of the evening stole the show for me and, I guess, many others: again from Donnafugata, their wonderful sweet but refreshing Ben Ryé has intense aromas and flavours of orange and passion fruit.  benryeMade on the tiny island of Pantelleria, off the South West coast of Sicily, this ‘Passito’ uses grapes picked and then traditionally laid out on straw mats to dry and concentrate the sugars.   It must surely rank alongside some of the great sweet wines of the world.

As Liberty Wines supply the trade only, I have not given prices, but a check on, for example, the wine-searcher website will show whether any of these great bottles are available near you.

 

The Century Wine Club

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One of my fellow wine bloggers (appetiteforwine.wordpress.com) wrote recently about his aim to become a member of the ‘Century Wine Club’, open to anyone who could show that they had tasted at least 100 different grape varieties.  I think I might qualify as I’m always looking for different and unusual wines but I haven’t kept detailed notes going back far enough to prove it.

But I did open a bottle the other day that, if he can find it, will almost certainly get Mr Appetite for Wine (sorry I don’t know him by any other name) one step closer: the Italian producer Cà dei Frati makes their wine I Frati (Wine Society, £12.50) from the grape Turbiana.

2017-01-28-11-15-18Grown on the southern shores of the beautiful Lake Garda and labelled as DOC Lugana, this little-known variety yields a rich, floral and complex white, full of quite subtle tropic fruit flavours; a wine that would be ideal with fish or chicken in a creamy sauce.  Unusually, it is matured in barrels of acacia wood – not oak – although there is no hint of any wood ageing on the nose or palate.

Turbiana was once thought to be Trebbiano, Italy’s most widely planted white grape variety.  This link surprised me as I know of no wine from that grape that has the richness of flavour that I Frati shows.   Research for Jancis Robinson’s book “Wine Grapes” confirmed my doubts – indeed, it showed that there are at least 6 different varieties all using the name Trebbiano.   No wonder it apparently produced such a range of different styles!

Trebbiano di Lugana is still sometimes used as a synonym for Turbiana although it now appears that it may be more closely related to Verdicchio – widely grown on Italy’s Adriatic coast and producing some delicious, fresh, lemony whites – than to any of the more common Trebbianos.

I hope my fellow blogger can find a bottle; it will get him 1 closer to his target in a really delicious way.  He should, however, be careful in lifting it – the bottle weighs in at a ridiculous 770 grams empty!  The contents are good enough to speak for themself without such excesses.

Finally, a word of thanks to an eagle-eyed reader who spotted a mistake in a recent blog: my ‘Hidden Corners of Spain’ wine course at Stoke Lodge will be on Saturday 4th March, not the 7th as I said previously.  A few places are still available and you can book via www.bristolcourses.com or by phone to 0117 903 8844.

Not just Soave: Classico

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The Italian white wine, Soave, hasn’t got the best of reputations: thin, acidic, cheap and nasty would be common descriptions – and, for some examples I have tasted, I would say that description is entirely justified.  So, why would I choose to open a bottle to accompany a starter of pan-fried scallops in ginger and garlic on a special occasion recently?  The answer: the majority of Soave you see on supermarket shelves is in no way typical of the flavours and quality of true Soave.

To find the good – I might even say great – bottles of Soave, firstly, you need to look for the word ‘Classico’ on the label.  Let me explain.

Like many of Italy’s famous name wines, Soave has suffered from its fame.  Many years ago, producers outside the area originally designated as Soave started to use the name illegally.  Sadly, the authorities did nothing to stop them and the practice spread until, eventually, Soave had expanded to 3 or 4 times its original area onto flat land completely unsuited to producing quality wine.

Eventually, the producers in the original area decided they had had enough and protested.  Yet, with a true Italian compromise, the authorities simply confirmed the use of the name Soave in the wider area.  The one concession – and a very important one – was that those producers in the hills that formed the original area were allowed to add the word ‘Classico’ on their labels.  Which makes that word key to finding the best Soaves.  The same word is important for finding quality in a number of other Italian famous names – Chianti, perhaps, the best known of all.

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But, back to Soave, and, for me, some of the best of the Classicos come from the producer, Pieropan.  Their top bottling is La Rocca (around £20 but worth it) with wonderful – almost white Burgundy – richness.  But, even their entry level wine, simply labelled Soave Classico (Avery’s £13.99), is a real treat and it was this that we opened – and loved – on our special occasion.

Yes, you pay rather more for a good Soave but isn’t life too short to drink ordinary wine?

Valpolicella: So Misunderstood

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valpolicellaSay the name ‘Valpolicella’ to many wine lovers and you’re likely to hear a fairly negative reaction.  I take a different view: Yes, there’s a glut of pretty ordinary examples among the bargain basement offerings on supermarket shelves and these have caused Valpolicella’s reputation to suffer in recent years.  But, leave those alone (and pay a few £s more) and you’ll find some delightful, fresh and deliciously fruity reds that are ideal for drinking on their own or with, for example, a seared tuna steak.

My suggested food match is a key to what you should expect from this red wine from the Veneto region of northern Italy: it’s a delicate red, not heavy or chunky but light-bodied, refreshing and easy drinking.  You can even chill it for a summer picnic.  One of the best producers is Allegrini whose wines bring out all the lovely bitter black cherry flavours that are so typical of a good Valpolicella (available from Bristol’s Grape & Grind, £12.50 or the Wine Society, £10.95).  This wine is now available under screw cap after Allegrini fought a long battle with the regional authorities who were insisting on cork closures.

Just as you need to take care to avoid poor examples of Valpolicella, there are a number of very different wines with similar names:  Amarone della Valpolicella is made in the same region, but using partially dried grapes to give a much fuller, richer and robust wine, while if you see the word ‘Ripasso’ on the label alongside Valpolicella, this is a kind of halfway house between the two – but still much bigger in style than a simple example.  And finally, Recioto della Valpolicella is a sweet wine.  All these can be delicious, but check the label carefully to see you’re buying the style you want – and, above all, avoid the ultra-cheapies that have so damaged the reputation of these attractive, but misunderstood wines.

The Little Sweet One

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Anyone who has ever enjoyed a meal in an Italian restaurant (haven’t we all?) will be familiar with the word ‘dolce’ – the dessert or pudding course.  But you might also find a ‘dolce’ on the cheese board: dolcelatte (“sweet milk”).  And who of a certain age could ever forget Fellini’s famous film, ‘La Dolce Vita’ (The Sweet Life)?  There’s that word again.  But there’s a ‘dolce’ for wine lovers to look out for, too: dolcetto – a delicious and under-rated red grape variety native to the Piedmont region in Italy’s north-west.

Mention Piedmont and red wine and most will immediately think of Barolo or Barbaresco and there’s little doubt that the Nebbiolo grape that goes to make these wonderful, powerful, age-worthy wines is Piedmont’s most respected variety.  But 2 other high quality red grapes are also widely grown in the region: Barbera, that I blogged about some months ago, and Dolcetto.

Dolcetto – the ‘little sweet one’ takes its name from the small size of its grapes and their lovely flavour, yet, despite the ‘dolce’, the wines made from it are almost invariably dry.  And, happily for those who find Italian wine complicated, you’ll usually see the grape name on the label as Dolcetto d’Alba or Dolcetto d’Asti (Alba and Asti being the areas from which the wines come).

DolcettoLong established producer Ascheri makes 2 Dolcettos from different vineyards (as well as a selection of Barolos, Barberas and other interesting bottles).  I opened an example from the Nirane vineyard in Alba recently (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a lovely summer wine; not too heavy – you could even lightly chill it if you wanted and the fresh, clean fruit of this unoaked red shines through – delightful bitter cherries to perfectly cut through rich food.  We enjoyed it with a spicy chicken dish but duck or, as the label suggests, fresh water fish would be other good matches.

And, of course, ideal to share with your own ‘sweet one’!

 

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

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The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!