Choosing a wine to drink with a particular dish is a very personal thing – each of us has our own preferences. So, I always advise drinking something you like rather than the wine that someone tells you is ‘right’ for the food.
But, if you keep an open mind, you can sometimes find a pleasant surprise – a combination that you would never have thought about that works perfectly. And sometimes, it will be just the opposite!
We’ve been great fans of wines from the Sicilian producer Donnafugata since we were lucky enough to visit them on a wine tour many years ago. Their ‘Sherazade’ (Corks, £15.99) is a delicious blackberry and herb flavoured red made using the local Nero d’Avola grape. We usually drink it with lighter red meats like duck leg or, perhaps, a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish would work well with its slightly earthy flavours.
The bottle’s back label has an entirely different idea: “drink as an aperitif or pair with pasta dishes, grilled fish or pizza”. We actually tasted a glass before our dinner so tested the ‘aperitif’ theory: both my wife and I thought it was OK but would go better with food. As for pasta, it would rather depend on the accompanying sauce and the same with pizza – you can have all sorts of toppings, some would work others not. And then there’s the grilled fish suggestion. For me, this is a definite ‘no’.
Now, I’m not someone who says that only white wine goes with fish – I’m perfectly happy to drink dry rosé and certain reds with seafood, particularly with the more ‘meaty’ and robust fishes, such as tuna or swordfish. But Sherazade is a red with (at present – we drank the 2019) quite significant tannins – one reason why it made a less than ideal aperitif. Tannic reds will often taste quite metallic and unpleasant with fish dishes. We didn’t try this bottle with any fish, but, from experience, I wouldn’t recommend the pairing.
But, clearly, the winemaker would, so it all comes back to my 1st sentence: that wine and food pairing is a very personal thing.
It’s often said that rosé is the perfect wine for summer. So, why am I writing about it on a bitterly cold February day?
A couple of nights ago, we were about to cook some lovely tuna steaks that we’d bought from our local fishmonger. The sauce we had prepared to go with them – a mixture of tomatoes, basil and capers – was slowly cooking away and smelt heavenly. The flavours reminded us of Mediterranean holidays and of the sort of dishes we had enjoyed eating there. As we were reminiscing and drinking in the smells, Hilary, my wife, suggested how well the dish would go with a glass of wine. It didn’t take long for me to agree, even though it was a Wednesday and we don’t normally open a bottle mid-week, apart from on special occasions.
With those aromas and our thoughts, the wine just had to be from the Mediterranean. And with tuna and that type of sauce, a rosé was the obvious choice – even though the weather outside was distinctly un-rosé.
Santa Tresa Rosé (Majestic, £10.99) from Sicily is attractively smoky with soft raspberry fruit flavours and a clean, fresh finish, typical of so many rosés you find around the south of France, Italy and the Mediterranean islands. It is also beautifully dry which made it an excellent accompaniment to our tuna in sauce. A blend of 2 high quality local grapes – Nero d’Avola and Frappato – both of which can also make delicious red wines; for the rosé, the juice spends just a few hours in contact with the skins to give a lovely delicate pink colour before being gently pressed and for the fermentation to complete – the juice alone – as it would for a white wine.
So, rosé may be the perfect wine for summer – but it’s also perfect for forgetting about winter and dreaming of better things.
Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano with major eruptions every few years and almost constant rumbling in between. So why, when there are so many more hospitable sites to plant your vineyard, would growers choose this unpredictable and potentially dangerous corner of Sicily?
There are many reasons: Vines will grow in places where little else will survive and there have been vineyards here since the ancient Greeks colonised the island more than 2000 years ago. But that doesn’t fully explain the enormous rise in the popularity of the area in recent years which has seen an influx of newcomers and major investments in the vineyards and in new wineries. The attraction? A combination of soil, climate and what’s planted in those ancient vineyards.
The volcanic soils of the mountain’s slopes are rich in minerals, especially potassium, thought to be the most important element in promoting vine health. The climate, too, is ideal with Mediterranean warmth ensuring perfectly ripe grapes every year. And many of the vineyards are planted at altitude (up to 1000m or 3300ft above sea level). This provides a cooling effect, ensuring that the grapes retain plenty of balancing acidity when harvested. And then, there’s the vines themselves. Many are over 100 years old – some of the few remaining that pre-date phylloxera (the bug couldn’t survive in the volcanic soil) and so have never been grafted (the technique used worldwide to combat the vine-killing louse).
So, what about the wines? I opened a bottle of Etna white recently, made from local varieties Carricante and Catarratto. Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Bianco (Wine Society, £12.50) is deliciously mouth-filling and rich with lovely flavours of ripe pear, melon and a hint of lemon peel. Delicious on its own or with fully-flavoured fish or poultry dishes. I can also recommend the same producer’s red (also available from The Wine Society at the same price). Again made from local grapes (this time Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) and with attractive fresh cherry and liquorice flavours.
Making wine on the slopes of Etna may be a challenge – a nightmare, even, sometimes – but many growers think it’s worth it and, on the evidence of these and other Etna wines I have tasted in recent years, I have to agree.
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, has been at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Middle East, North Africa and Europe for thousands of years. The result is a place with a fascinating mixture of influences and cultures. So, it’s not surprising to find a Sicilian wine made from a blend of 4 different grape varieties, 2 of which are Italian (although one of those has its origins in Greece) and the others are native to France. Most importantly, this multi-national co-operation is delicious, despite its understated label and designation.
Planeta’s ‘La Segreta’ (Grape and Grind, £12.99, but also fairly widely available from smaller, independent wine merchants) is a lovely, tangy, fresh white with hints of pink grapefruit on the nose and palate and some attractive, subtle dry apricot on the finish. It makes a perfect aperitif, but also has the character to match with fish or chicken. I left some in the glass for a couple of hours after dinner and found some new, savoury, herby flavours emerging. My wife thought it might even benefit from decanting – a little left-field, but I could see her point.
And the 4 grapes that make up this wine? The main player in the blend is Grecanico, now widely planted across southern Italy and Sicily but, from its name, it was clearly imported from Greece some time in the distant past. Then there’s some Chardonnay – Planeta make a very good 100% Chardonnay, so the grape clearly thrives in the Sicilian climate. The 3rd variety is Fiano, a high quality grape native to the island and southern Italy and, happily, becoming quite fashionable. And finally there’s Viognier – the source of that tantalising apricot finish I noticed. Together, they produce a delicious, very drinkable white, far more complex than I would expect at the price. Definitely one to buy again.