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.
Their 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.
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?
Terredora 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!
Brunello di Montalcino is one of Italy’s most prestigious red wines. It’s made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes, the same variety used in Chianti, in a designated area around the small town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany. Here, in the warm, dry climate, the Sangiovese (known locally as Brunello) reaches maximum ripeness leading to fuller, richer wines than many of those found in Chianti. 14% alcohol and more is not unusual, particularly in a hot year.
The rules for Brunello demand 4 years ageing at the winery (at least 2 of which must be in oak barrels) before the wine can be sold. And even once they are on the market, most Brunellos still need considerable time before they really reach their peak – 10 -15 years after vintage is a commonly suggested drinking window.
But, with 4 years to wait before producers get any income from sales of Brunello, most also make another wine, Rosso di Montalcino, usually from younger or less well-sited vines. This only has to be aged for a year after which it can be sold. In normal years, a Rosso di Montalcino from a good producer is an attractive, approachable red wine ready for early drinking but, in warm years like 2015, when there was a large harvest of almost uniformly high quality grapes, it becomes a really interesting proposition. The producers, eager for some early income, won’t want to put all their grapes into their Brunello even if the quality might allow them to do so. No, in these years, some go into the Rosso making it altogether richer and more characterful.
And that is exactly what had happened in the example I opened recently from Gianni Brunelli. This is quite complex and full of lovely bramble flavours. There’s still some tannin there – we decanted it and drunk it with some grilled herbed lamb – but it would certainly improve for another couple of years or so. And, compared to the same producer’s Brunello (£34 for the 2012 vintage from the Wine Society), the Rosso (£15.50, same supplier) is a real bargain.
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.
Ca’ 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.
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.
Grown 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.
Say the name ‘Valpolicella’ to many wine lovers and you’re likely to hear a fairly negative reaction. I take a different view: Yes, there’s a glut of pretty ordinary examples among the bargain basement offerings on supermarket shelves and these have caused Valpolicella’s reputation to suffer in recent years. But, leave those alone (and pay a few £s more) and you’ll find some delightful, fresh and deliciously fruity reds that are ideal for drinking on their own or with, for example, a seared tuna steak.
My suggested food match is a key to what you should expect from this red wine from the Veneto region of northern Italy: it’s a delicate red, not heavy or chunky but light-bodied, refreshing and easy drinking. You can even chill it for a summer picnic. One of the best producers is Allegrini whose wines bring out all the lovely bitter black cherry flavours that are so typical of a good Valpolicella (available from Bristol’s Grape & Grind, £12.50 or the Wine Society, £10.95). This wine is now available under screw cap after Allegrini fought a long battle with the regional authorities who were insisting on cork closures.
Just as you need to take care to avoid poor examples of Valpolicella, there are a number of very different wines with similar names: Amarone della Valpolicella is made in the same region, but using partially dried grapes to give a much fuller, richer and robust wine, while if you see the word ‘Ripasso’ on the label alongside Valpolicella, this is a kind of halfway house between the two – but still much bigger in style than a simple example. And finally, Recioto della Valpolicella is a sweet wine. All these can be delicious, but check the label carefully to see you’re buying the style you want – and, above all, avoid the ultra-cheapies that have so damaged the reputation of these attractive, but misunderstood wines.