Round Italy in 10 Wines

How do you choose just 10 wines to represent Italy – a country that produces almost ⅕ of the world’s wine each year? That was the problem facing Graeme Ewins of Great Western Wine who hosted a recent meeting of the Bristol Tasting Circle. His solution? Avoid the obvious like Chianti and Barolo and focus on producers who are creating something interesting and distinctive.

That is certainly true of Roberto Anselmi from the Veneto region.

20200210_193121His deliciously rich, medium-sweet I Capitelli (£25 per half bottle) was a bold start to the tasting with its intense flavours of orange, peach and honey from the often bland Garganega grape (think Soave).

Next came Lambrusco, that (justifiably) much-maligned lightly sparkling red.

20200210_194005But Sassomoro (£14.95) is quite different with its refreshing bitter cherry and blackberry fruit, this would perfectly cut through any fattiness in a plate of dried or cured meats, which just happen to be a speciality of the region of its production.

My favourite wine of the evening was Antonio Caggiano’s Bechar,

20200210_200337a lovely crisp, fresh, slightly smoky Fiano di Avellino (£18.95) from the hills inland of Naples. Good to drink on its own but even better as a food wine – a creamy risotto springs easily to mind.

Among the reds was an incredible bargain:

20200210_202526Palladino’s Biferno Riserva from the east coast (£9.50) is a blend of Montepulciano and Aglianico giving a wonderfully quaffable wine full of smooth, jammy black fruits. Not greatly complex but oh so drinkable.

Rather more serious was the final red, Varvaglione’s Primitivo di Manduria (£22.50).

20200210_205217A big mouth-filling wine in every way (14.5% alcohol) but with the blackberry fruit and spicy, smoky oak all in complete harmony. A wine for full-flavoured robust winter dishes – a game casserole, perhaps?

So ended a fascinating trip round the wines of a country full of delicious surprises. Special thanks go to our guide, Graeme, for pointing us towards bottles that, before this evening, many of us would have ignored.

Why did I buy that?

“Now why did I buy that wine and what’s it going to taste like?” It’s not a dilemma I face often – I usually know what I’ve bought and why. But, every now and then, I see something unusual that catches my attention and so I buy it. Normally, we drink it within a few weeks, but, sometimes, for no particular reason, it sits in our wine rack for months until I’ve completely forgotten what drew me to it or what to expect when I open it.

Montefalco Bianco

 

That’s just what happened with Scacciadiavoli’s Montefalco Bianco from Umbria in Central Italy (Wine Society, £13.95). I must have had a good reason to buy it but, when I looked at it, I just couldn’t remember what it was or – perhaps more importantly – what to drink it with to enjoy it at its best.

I know the name ‘Montefalco’ – it’s a red wine similar in style to a nice Chianti, but this was a white. I guessed my wine would be dry and, with 13% alcohol, reasonably full bodied. But what else? Not a word about it in Jancis Robinson’s wine ‘bible’ and just a single line in my usually helpful Italian wine guide. Even the Wine Society’s tasting notes were a bit sparse so I decided that we should try it with some roasted monkfish with rosemary and tomatoes; fortunately, it worked perfectly.

The wine was, as I thought, quite generous and rich in the mouth; also really complex in a tangy, spicy sort of way with hints of pineapple and peach and a lovely long dry savoury finish. It’s made from an unusual blend of 2 local grapes, trebbiano spoletino and grechetto with a touch of chardonnay added which had been fermented in old oak barrels. The trebbiano, which can be quite neutral and bland, had been left on its skins as you would for a red wine which gave it some attractive texture in the mouth.

So, a very pleasant surprise in the end but a nudge that, next time I buy something obscure, to note down what to expect!

Sharing a Secret

Garda winesThose of you who read my last blog, “Garda: A Lake of Wines” might have been left with the impression that my wife and I did nothing but eat and drink wine while we were there. That’s not entirely true – we did plenty of walking and explored the wonderful scenery too, although I’ll share a secret with you: we both exceeded the Government’s recommended limits for units of alcohol consumed in a week. But, hey-ho, we were on holiday and, with such a great choice of wines wherever we stopped for lunch or dinner, who could blame us? We’ll certainly return to sample more but, perhaps, not for a few years. Also, as many of the wines we saw aren’t on sale in the UK, I was keen to taste them while I could – within reasonable limits, of course.

And, thinking about those that are available here, have you noticed that wines somehow never seem to taste quite the same at home as they do when you’re in the region they’re produced? Some would argue that it’s that wines don’t travel well; I disagree with that – after all, unless you live in a winemaking area, all our wine has had to travel before it reaches our shelves. No! I think it’s more to do with us, with our state of mind whilst on holiday, the fact that we’re there to relax and enjoy ourselves. And, in moderation, I think wine is a part of that.

But, even when on holiday, I can’t deny my interest and my wife always waits for my first ‘there’s a vineyard over there!’ comment. In and around Lake Garda, it would be difficult not to spot one – unless it was hidden by the olive groves that produce the other great local speciality: fragrant, tangy olive oil.

Garda: A Lake of Wines

Bardolino early morningBardolino, on Italy’s glorious Lake Garda – the perfect wine lover’s holiday destination! Joking? No! My wife and I have just spent a relaxing week there enjoying the superb scenery, delicious food, and, yes, some excellent wines.

TacchettoBardolino’s reds can be thin and uninteresting but Guerrieri Rizzardi’s Tacchetto includes a touch of Merlot alongside the local Corvina grape to add richness and a little more body without losing the lovely black cherry fruit. And the local rosés, known as Chiaretto (key-a-rett-toe) – were pale, dry and very refreshing; ideal lunchtime drinking, especially alfresco overlooking the lake.

Bordering the Bardolino region to the east is Valpolicella, also very much influenced by the Lake’s microclimate but another area with a rather mixed reputation. I often look for bottles labelled ‘Ripasso’, which are more concentrated, and the wine list of a super little local restaurant, La Piccola Osteria, had a few to choose from.

20190920_191401Our server liked the one from Pietro Zardini, not a name I was familiar with, but I was happy to take her recommendation. It was a real winner with intense dried fruits and spices and a long smoky finish.

BrolettinoOn another night, I noticed the same restaurant had Cà dei Frati’s Brolettino on their list. I’ve blogged before about this producer’s I Frati, a crisp, fresh white from Lugana, on the south shore of the Lake, but Brolettino is one of their top bottlings, altogether more complex and with very subtle oak hints – a gem. And the same producer’s Tre Filer is a lovely, honeyed dessert wine made, unusually, from a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc plus some local varieties.

While on sweet wines, another local restaurant, Due Torri, recommended a superb sweet red, Valpolicella Recioto, made with semi-dried grapes and a perfect accompaniment to a chocolate pudding. The same restaurant had a Soave on their list from my favourite producer in that DOC, Pieropan. Sadly, it was out of stock so our server offered Suavia’s Massifitti instead.

20190919_191355Another wine that was new to me and not actually a Soave – labelled as an IGT Veronese instead – but a high quality oak-aged white with much of the style and character of my original choice.

So, Bardolino on Lake Garda. Good food, friendly people and, if you’re selective, wonderful wines. We will be back soon!

Italian sun shines in Bristol

Italy tastingA warm summer evening and a tasting for the Westbury Park Festival held in ‘C The World’, a local Travel Agent. What better theme for the event than the Wines of Italy – one of the favourite holiday destinations for us Brits? And the wines I took along to taste reflected that idea, with all coming from areas much visited by tourists.

Our first wine was from the island of Sardinia – a crisp, peachy white: Nord Est Vermentino (£9.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse, where I bought all the wines for this tasting). Vermentino is a high quality grape variety especially well-suited to some of the warmer parts of the Mediterranean as it retains its refreshing acidity well.

The hills above Pescara on the Adriatic coast provided our 2nd white: Collecorvino’s Pecorino (£9.99). Yes, Pecorino is a cheese, but it’s also a grape variety; there are many explanations for the similarity – none of them particularly believable! This wine was a little fuller and richer than the 1st – the result of some of the grapes being fermented in oak.

For our final white, I looked to the Avellino hills, east of Naples. It’s an area rich with excellent local grape varieties including Fiano and Greco but I chose Terredora’s Falanghina (£11.99) – beautifully crisp and fresh but with an attractive savoury character from 3 months of lees ageing.

It was back to the islands – this time Sicily – for the 1st of the reds. Corolla’s Nero d’Avola (£8.99) was everything a simple, every day wine should be – lots of red fruit flavours and very moreish.

A little more challenging was Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Ripasso (£12.99) from the area to the east of Lake Garda. Valpolicella can also be simple and gluggable but, when the word ‘Ripasso’ is on the label, it takes on a whole new dimension. Refermented on the lees of an Amarone, a wine made with dried grapes, this is intense with delicious prune and fig flavours.

And finally, from Piedmont, in the north-west, De Forville’s Langhe Nebbiolo (£10.99) is effectively a mini-Barolo in all but name (and price!). Ideally, it should be left a few more years to allow the tannins to soften (I opened the 2017) but, if you can’t wait, decant it well in advance and serve with robust food; you’ll find the quality and richness will shine through.

So, there it was: a taste of the Italian sun in Bristol and, hopefully, enjoyed by all.

Wine from Dried Grapes

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.

 

The Century Wine Club

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.

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

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!

Chianti: love it or hate it?

24 Ricasoli winesFor me, the answer for many years has been ‘both’. Chianti is an enormous area and produces a vast quantity of wine ranging from the outstanding to the barely drinkable. So, how do you distinguish one from the other? There’s no simple method – Italian wine laws are massively complicated – but some knowledge of the best areas and the good producers has usually led me in the right direction. But a recent short break visiting some vineyards there showed that the whole thing is now becoming even more of a nightmare!

The word Riserva on the label of a bottle of Chianti indicates wines from selected grapes that have had longer ageing to produce a more complex and harmonious wine. These wines often come from a single estate and so the term Riserva can be a good guide to the best wines. But now, one part of the Chianti region, the part known as Chianti Classico has, controversially, come up with a sort of super Riserva to be known as Gran Selezione, where the wines have had extra ageing and all the grapes must come from a single estate. Spot the difference? No, nor do some of the producers we spoke to, who are refusing to use the term, while others are busy relabeling their Riservas as Gran Selezione.

And, if that isn’t complicated enough, some producers are adding a small proportion of Cabernet or Merlot grapes to the main Chianti grape, Sangiovese and ageing their wines in small French oak barriques. Others insist that only traditional local grape varieties should be blended with the Sangiovese and the wine aged in very large old oak or chestnut barrels. Both are quite within the rules of Chianti but, having tasted examples of each, I can say that these decisions make a real difference to the taste and character of the wine, yet there is no indication on the label which you’re getting. So, a system that Jancis Robinson MW once described as ‘that glorious confusion’ has been made worse, not better.

But we did taste some lovely wines during our trip and I’ll tell you about them next time.