Sicilian Value

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and almost any sea voyage east to west will pass close by its shores.  That key strategic position resulted in the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders and the Moors all taking an interest in the island and evidence of their presence is still clearly visible for tourists to see.  The Greeks and Romans also, undoubtedly, had a major influence in developing the local wine industry although, until the last 20 years or so, very little from Sicily was of any great interest to wine lovers as producers focussed on quantity rather than quality.

Happily, all that has now changed and you can easily find fresh, fragrant whites from grape varieties such as Catarratto, Grillo and Carricante and deep, rich reds from, among others, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese – the latter particularly good when grown on the inhospitable, volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.

But, in the heat of this record-breaking English summer, deep, rich reds are not really the sort of wines we choose to drink with our salads and other lighter dishes.  Fortunately, Nerello Mascalese is also a good blending partner, adding weight and some tannin to softer fruitier varieties such as Frappato. 

Corte Ferro produce an attractive, very quaffable example of this mix (Majestic, £9.99).  Only light-medium bodied but with intense black fruit flavours and surprising complexity and length for the price.  As so often at the moment, we are even giving our reds a half hour in the fridge to bring them down to a more refreshing 16 – 18°C (equivalent to a cool room temperature) and the Corte Ferro drank very well as a result.  (It’s probably best to leave very tannic reds on the wine rack just now, as cooling them tends to emphasise the tannins).

If you have yet to discover Sicily’s wines, I recommend you look out for them.  Many are delicious and most are excellent value for money – an increasingly important factor with so many prices rising so quickly.

Distinctly Spicy

Some very good friends of ours, who share our love of good food and wine, brought us back some authentic paprika from a River Danube cruise recently.  So, of course, we wanted to cook a suitable recipe to enjoy some of this lovely hot, pungent spice at its best.  No problem!  One of our favourite dishes is a variant of a well-known Eastern European recipe: chicken paprikas.  Our version features chicken thighs casseroled with onions, the paprika and chicken stock and finished with sour cream, although I have seen similar recipes that include tomatoes as well.  Either way, it’s a delicious, rich, flavoursome dish, so the wine to accompany it needs to have enough character not to be overpowered.

I’d happily drink white or a light-bodied red with it but, as we were going to enjoy dinner on our terrace on a warm summer evening, my wife really thought a white would work best, so who was I to argue?

Going on the old idea that the food and wine of an area often pair well together, my first thoughts turned to a dry Furmint or a Grűner Veltliner but, as luck would have it, we’d already drunk our stock of those and so I had to look elsewhere.

Angelo Negro’s Roero Arneis from Piedmont in north-west Italy (Great Wine Company, £16) was a more than adequate substitute.  A delightful, rich, creamy, unoaked white with interesting complex savoury flavours and enough body to match the dish.  The Arneis variety is little-known outside the immediate area of Roero and was even at risk of disappearing completely in the 1970s but, happily, it has now been rescued and plantings are on the rise again.  I’ve also read of some in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand so, hopefully, this wider interest will ensure the survival of an attractive variety and one that is happy pairing with such a distinctive spice.

A Taste of the Med

My wife and I have enjoyed quite a few Mediterranean holidays over the years although none since the Covid virus interrupted all travel (and much else).  But we still love cooking and eating Mediterranean-style food – especially when the weather is warm and sunny.  And the wine to go with our Mediterranean dishes? Well, how often do you find the food of a country or region matches the wines from the same area perfectly?

Of course, when considering Mediterranean wines, you have a vast range to choose from: parts of Spain, the whole of the south of France, much of Italy and Greece and so many others besides.

This time, looking at the dish we were cooking didn’t help to narrow the choice at all; seared tuna steaks with a soy and balsamic glaze would probably have worked with many fuller-bodied whites, a flavoursome dry rosé or even a light and fruity red.  In the end, we settled for Tenuta Flaminio’s rosato (rosé) from Brindisi in Italy’s south-eastern Puglia region. 

Made with the local Negroamaro grape variety (which can also contribute to some delicious reds from the same area), this crisp, fresh, dry rosé is full of lovely crushed strawberry flavours with some attractive smoky hints.  It teamed beautifully with the tuna although it was so good as an aperitif that there wasn’t too much left to enjoy with the food.  Best lightly chilled – not too cold; about a half hour in the fridge is all that it needs.  A real bargain at £8.95 from The Wine Society.

Rosés are widely produced throughout the Mediterranean and are often thought of as just wines for summer.  But, although they obviously do work well at this time of year, many of the drier examples – and this is important – are very food-friendly and are worth considering to match fish, chicken or just about any Mediterranean dish throughout the year.

No Ordinary Soave

Last time, I blogged about looking for interesting and different flavours from lesser-known regions and rare native grapes.  Today, I’m going to the other extreme and focussing on one of the most famous white wines of Italy: Soave.  Made mainly from the local Garganega grape in the north-east of the country, you will see bottles of Soave in every supermarket, often at rock-bottom prices – £5 and below is not unusual. 

So why would I pay more than £20 (Wine Society, £21.50 to be precise) for a bottle of Soave?  And why would I choose a Soave when I wanted a special bottle for a particular anniversary of ours?  Well, as you might guess, the bottle in question – Pieropan’s Calvarino Soave Classico – is no ordinary Soave.

Yes, it does have the crisp, fresh acidity that is one of the trademark characteristics of Soave, but there the similarity ends.  Calvarino – named after the vineyard from which all the grapes are harvested – is altogether a much richer, fuller flavoured wine, tasting of peaches and almonds, with a delightful floral nose full of hints of pear and honey.

So, what makes this wine so different from others with a similar name?  Soave is one of a number of Italian wine regions (Chianti being the most famous) which have (mistakenly, in my view) allowed the area in which the wine can be made to expand over time.  Most of the newer plantings are on flat, fertile land where the emphasis is on volume and meeting supermarkets’ basic price points.  The result is the fairly bland, high acidity wines that Soave has become known for. 

Better quality examples will have the words ‘Soave Classico’ on the label.  The ‘Classico’ is important as this shows that the wine is made from grapes grown in the original area – the craggy hills close to the town of Verona where the vines are older, tending them is more challenging and the grape yields are much smaller.

There are several very good Soave Classicos – admittedly not all costing £20 a bottle – but, for me, this is the best of them and, to celebrate a special anniversary, I couldn’t think of a better choice.

A Versatile Red

I was chatting to a friend about Italian wines when my wife called over to me ‘don’t forget to mention those lovely Sardinian whites’.  I agreed and duly passed on the recommendation for the island’s very drinkable and often good value Vermentino-based wines.

I must have still had Sardinia on my mind when I was choosing a wine to drink with dinner that night as I picked Isola’s Cannonau di Sardegna (Novel Wines, £13.99) out of our wine rack. 

For those not familiar with the name ‘Cannonau’, it’s the islanders’ name for the grape more commonly known as Grenache – part of the blend in Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf du Pape or the ‘G’ in Australia’s GSMs.  (It’s also called Garnacha in Rioja and generally in the Spanish-speaking world).

Whatever you call it, this one was a delicious, silky smooth unoaked medium-bodied red full of attractive black fruit flavours.  I tasted damsons and plums together with some peppery spice and even hints of chocolate (which may have been a nudge to what was to follow).  The finish was medium length and the tannins very soft and restrained.  It worked really well with a game casserole made from a mixture of pheasant, partridge, venison and who knows what else from our local butcher.

But the wine had a surprise for me.  As I often do, I left a little in my glass after dinner to sip throughout the evening.  When it came to coffee time, my wife and I split a bar of bitter chocolate and I tried the wine again.  I found the chocolate bringing out some lovely cherry fruit in the wine that I hadn’t noticed earlier.  I know some reds do go well with dark chocolate (Argentinian Malbecs, for example) but I wasn’t expecting this pairing to be so successful.

Which just proves that food and wine matching is far from an exact science; some of the most unlikely combinations can sometimes deliver the most pleasant of surprises.

From Devon or Italy?

Let me begin this first Blog of 2022 by wishing you a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year. 

We started the year in great style entertaining some very good friends on New Year’s Day with some delicious food and wine, alongside the usual interesting and lively conversation.

As befits the time of year, we cooked a rich, hearty, warming venison casserole – an easy dish to match with wine, pairing well with almost any big, robust red.  I chose a Barbaresco from north-west Italy with its attractive flavours of raspberry and leather.  During the evening I thought it was rather overpriced for its quality although subsequently I concluded that I may have opened the bottle when it was too young (it was from the 2015 vintage); a glassful left in the decanter developed very well overnight and the following day showed rather more of the complex character I was expecting.

The real wine talking point of the evening, however, was the bottle our friends brought: Caggiano’s ‘Devon’ Greco di Tufo (bought from the Great Wine Company, formerly Great Western Wine).  It was absolutely delicious – rich and vibrant with lovely melon and peach flavours and a long savoury finish.  It went perfectly with some soft, creamy cheeses at the end of our meal but would also team well with fish or poultry. 

Greco di Tufo, as you might guess from its name, originated in Greece but has been established in the Avellino Hills north of Naples for centuries where it produces white wines of reliably high quality; if you can’t find this particular wine, just look out for the grape name – I doubt you will be disappointed.

But there was another reason this wine was such a hit with us: my wife was born and raised in Devon and to be given such a thoughtful bottle was very special.  The only question that remained was what is the link between a wine from southern Italy and the English county of Devon?  My best guess is that the producer thought that the Avellino Hills resembled Devon’s Dartmoor region but his website gives no clue and so the mystery remains.

We may need to buy another bottle to mull over the question a little longer!

Wine from the Co-op

No – this blog isn’t about wines you can find in your local Co-op supermarket (although I’ve found some good bottles there from time to time), I’m thinking about the enterprises that produce a fair amount of Europe’s wine (as well as olive oil and many other processed agricultural products).

In many villages across the continent, you’ll find a number of individually owned smallholdings, often just a couple of acres, sometimes less, producing several different crops, not just grapes and, frequently, tending a few animals, too.  Individually, their grape harvest would be no more than enough to make a little wine for themselves and their immediate family and, perhaps, a few bottles to sell at the farm gate.  So, joining with their neighbours to form a co-operative is often a good choice.  It means that, between them, they can produce wine in quantities that can be sold commercially allowing them to afford better winemaking equipment, employ a specialist winemaker and even someone to market the end products to supermarkets.

Historically, most of the co-operatives concentrated on quantity and quality was often moderate, at best.  Today, this is rarely true and many co-operatives are producing excellent wine.  For example, look on any supermarket shelf for Chablis and it almost certainly comes from the local co-operative – and very good (and good value) it is too.  The same can be said for wines from Cave de Turckheim in Alsace, also in many supermarkets.

Another of my favourite co-operatives, the Cantina di Terlano, was founded in 1893 and is based in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige.  It produces some delicious wines including their Pinot Bianco (Corks of Cotham, £18.99).  

An enticing nose of apples and limes follows through onto a surprisingly rich palate with flavours of pear, peach and a long, savoury finish.  Although attractive on its own as an aperitif, I think it really comes to life with food – the producers recommend pasta carbonara but, really, it would co-operate happily with any fish, poultry or vegetables in a creamy sauce.

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.