Category Archives: Italian wine

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!

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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!

 

Sicily Transformed

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Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, holds a key strategic position and so has attracted traders and invaders since ancient times.  Each of these has left their mark, not least where vines and winemaking are concerned.  But sadly, for much of the last century, the island’s focus was firmly on bulk wine and, in 2001, barely 2% of Sicily’s output was of DOC or IGT quality, the remainder just lowly Table Wine.  (Even now, this figure is only 15%).

Yet, change is definitely happening and some of the diverse range of grape varieties planted in former times are, at last getting the recognition they deserve.  To the west of the island, Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, once used to produce the sweet, fortified Marsala are now turned into crisp, refreshing dry whites which, given Sicily’s latitude, surprisingly outnumber their reds. 

But, for me, it’s the reds that are the main attraction:  on the precarious volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, vineyards are planted at up to 3000 feet above sea level where they produce some delightful wines from the Nerello Mascalese variety with its intense herb and red berry flavours (Wine Society have a good example for £9.50).

Towards the south east coast, the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, can be found.  The most famous producer here, COS, has revived the ancient tradition of fermenting the wine in clay amphorae buried in the ground to make some interesting and distinctive wines.  Others, such as Planeta, use more modern techniques. 

Planeta redTheir example, a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola with 40% Frappato (£15.50 from Great Western Wines), undergoes a cool fermentation in large stainless steel tanks.  This preserves the lovely red fruit aromas of the grapes and gives attractive vibrant and fresh bitter cherries on the palate and a good long savoury finish. 

I know £15 isn’t cheap – even though I think it’s worth every penny – (and wines from COS are even dearer), but many Sicilian wines are real bargains, and will remain so until customers recognise the transformation in winemaking on the island in recent years.

My Kind of Lesson

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I used to hate history lessons when I was at school.  I just couldn’t see any reason for learning about things that had happened so long ago.  And geography wasn’t much better.  Why should I be interested in places that, at the time, I never thought I would visit?

Of course, I know better now – I’ve been to some of the places I learnt about and realise that much of what is happening today is as a result of what happened in the past.  And, through my interest in wine, both history and geography have come to life – something my teachers could never manage to do.  For example, the back label of a bottle of wine I opened recently told me that the Aglianico grape from which the wine was made had been grown in the Campania region of southern Italy for over 2000 years.  But that bare fact hides something more: the name Aglianico (“alley-annie-co”) derives from “the Hellenic (or Greek) one”, so we know that, although the grape has been grown in Italy for 2 millennia, it was originally brought there across the Aegean Sea by early Greek traders.  History and geography in a single bottle!

But, what about the wine? 

AglianicoTerredora di Paolo’s Aglianico (Waitrose, £12.99) has a typical southern Italian intensity and richness with attractive wild berry and cherry flavours and a distinct underlying acidity that helps it go so well with food – try it with grilled lamb chops.  And, despite the warmth of Campania, the alcohol is quite restrained (13%) giving the wine a nice balance.

I’m sure my history and geography teachers would be proud of me now – I certainly gave them no reason to be at the time.  But then, their lessons couldn’t explain things in my kind of way – through the medium of 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.

 

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.