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!

Clay Pots or Lunch?

Cos1 Cos2

I saw a bottle of COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria on the shelf of Grape and Grind, one of our excellent local independent wine merchants, recently and I eagerly handed over my £16.99 to buy it. Not just because I knew the wine to be good but also, it brought back memories of a visit to the producer in the very early 2000s.

My wife and I were on a guided tour of the vineyards of Sicily and our group arrived at COS late one morning. The itinerary said something about a brief tour of the winery followed by a tasting and lunch. It didn’t quite work out that way!

We were greeted by the owner/winemaker who was keen to tell us about a recent visit he’d made to Georgia in which he’d seen wine made in the ancient way: putting crushed grapes in a clay pot, sealing it, burying it in the ground and leaving the wine to ferment naturally. This was the way all wine should be made and he’d bought a selection of clay pots that he just had to show us:

amphora at COSAs time passed, our initial interest in his clay pots was overtaken by a desire to move on to the tasting and then – as it was now approaching 3 o’clock – to lunch.

But, I must have forgiven him for our hunger, as I’ve been a keen follower of COS wines ever since.

In fact, the bottle I opened was not made in one of his clay pots, but in tank. An unusually intense nose of black fruits greeted me on drawing the cork followed, on tasting, by a really savoury mixture of cooked plums and prunes – a delightful wine, strongly flavoured but in no way heavy; in some aspects like a lighter version of a good Barolo.

This clearly is a wine made with the passion he showed that day and, even after all these years, it is this impression that floods back every time I open one of his wines.

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.

Vines Must Struggle

It’s often said that the best wines are made when the vines have to struggle. That may surprise you but, if you make life too easy for them, with rich soils, plenty of sunshine and warmth and liberal amounts of water, your grapes will ripen quickly, but not pick up much flavour. Or, the vine will make plenty of leaf growth, shading your grapes so they won’t ripen properly. Either way, the result will be nothing special.

But, plant your vineyard on poor, rocky soils, where the vines have to fight to get every little drain of moisture and the picture is very different, assuming, that is, that you are somewhere with enough sunshine and warmth to ripen the crop.

And, of all the fine vineyards of the world, one of the best examples of this kind of challenging terrain is found in eastern Sicily, on the slopes of the still active volcano, Mount Etna. Amazingly, despite the constant threat of volcanic eruptions, there are vineyards planted all over the mountain and the growers have to face the fact that, to make the wine they want, they need to accept also the danger.

Etna Rosso

It’s something I thought about when I opened a bottle of Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Rosso recently (Wine Society, £12.50). Grown in volcanic soil overlooking the sea, about 650 metres (2000 feet) up, it’s made from a blend of traditional local grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Delicious and elegant, it’s a red with lovely bitter cherry flavours together with hints of thyme and other fresh herbs. Although rich and satisfying, it’s not at all heavy and would make an excellent accompaniment to red meat, game or hard cheeses.

But, when you open a bottle, do think of the struggle the vines – and the growers – have been through before this wine gets to your glass.