Italy for Value

Many who enjoy their wine simply ignore Italy; ‘it’s too complicated’, ‘too many unpronounceable names’, ‘too many unfamiliar grape varieties’ are just a few of the comments I’m familiar with – and those are from consumers who have actually thought about Italian wines.  Sadly, many don’t even get that far.  And those that do, usually look to the famous names like Chianti and Barolo, where prices reflect familiarity (and dare I say it, not always quality).

But look further afield and Italy is an excellent source of good value and very drinkable wines.  The South (especially Puglia and the hills above Naples) and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia are particularly worth considering – see some of my earlier blogs for recommendations – but, perhaps even less well-known are the regions overlooking the Adriatic coast.

Marche is home to delicious dry, herby whites made from the local Verdicchio grape as well as attractive fruity reds labelled Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno.  You should find reasonable bottles of any of these in good supermarkets for less than £10.  Marche’s neighbour to the south is Abruzzo, which, to my mind, produces one of the most reliable easy-quaffing reds that I know – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  Montepulciano is the grape variety and it looks like a mouthful to pronounce but is actually very easy:  Monty – pull – chee – arno with the stress on the ‘arno’.

The Wine Society list offers an example from Contesa Vigna Corvino, a deeply coloured red with intense aromas and flavours of damsons and blackberries, soft tannins and fair length.  It’s fresh and fruity enough to drink on its own or pair it with grilled lamb chops or Spaghetti Bolognese.  The wine is not especially complex, but very drinkable and a bargain at £8.50.  Look in your local supermarket and you may find a bottle of another producer’s ‘Monty’ for even less money.

And, if you hear someone say that Italian wine is just too complicated, lead them to the nearest wine shop (after getting them to read this blog, of course!)

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What do you think of this?

Working in the wine industry, you sometimes get friends or colleagues thrusting a glass into your hand asking for your thoughts.  I usually start by describing the wine – its fruit character, its balance, its length – and then wait for the inevitable follow up: ‘but what do you think of it?’  This is easy when the wine is very good or has some particularly attractive quality to comment on but can be tricky otherwise.  Even if the wine is pleasant but nothing special, someone has worked hard to make it and I don’t like to disappoint.  So, I sometimes reach for words like ‘unusual’, ‘different’ or even ‘interesting’.  (Apologies to readers who have heard those words about a wine they have offered me!)

More challenging is when I’m also expected to identify the wine in the glass.  ‘Blind tasting’, as it is called, is incredibly difficult at the best of times but almost impossible without context; so, if I’m in Burgundy, for example, I’m expecting the wine to be local, which narrows the likely possibilities.  Similarly, if I’m with friends, I tend to know their tastes, which may be reflected in the wine they offer me. 

But there’s one grape variety that is so distinctive that I would expect to identify it blind 8 times out of 10: Gewűrztraminer.  Native to Germany and the Alsace region in north-east France, it stamps its aromatic, floral, almost perfumed character on nearly every wine its used in.  We took a bottle of the Wine Society’s Exhibition Alsace Gewűrztraminer (£16.00) to a good friend recently and it had all those expected qualities and more.  The flavours were delicate yet, at the same time, intense and rich.  Just off-dry, it went perfectly with a mildly spiced Keralan Chicken curry that she cooked for us – the fragrance of the wine complementing the aromatic spices beautifully.

A wine with really ‘interesting’ and ‘unusual’ characteristics – but in a good way!

Red and White Stripes

Where do you think the wine in the picture comes from?  Unless you recognise the bottle or the producer’s name, there’s no clue on the label; the answer is on the screw cap I’ve included in the bottom corner.  The red and white stripes echo the flag of Austria and many wines from that country have those colours, whether on a screw cap or on the capsule covering the cork.  A neat piece of marketing in my view (once you know to look for it!)  On the other hand, the label, while stylish and eye-catching, is sadly lacking in detail (and the back label isn’t much better).   However, Pittnauer’s Pitti comes from the Wine Society (£10.50) and fortunately their website was, as ever, much more informative.

A blend of Zweigelt, Austria’s most widely planted red variety with Blaufränkisch (also known as Kekfrankos and commonly found across central and eastern Europe), this is a bright, very drinkable fruity red, enjoyable on its own or with red meats, especially lamb, duck breast or leg or hard cheeses.  Expect aromas and flavours of cherries and raspberries with a subtle, attractive hint of pepper and sweet spice.

Pittnauer’s vineyards are ideally situated close to the Neusiedlersee, a huge shallow lake on the border with Hungary, that creates the perfect conditions for some of Austria’s best wines.  The water tempers the heat of the summer and mitigates some of the cold of a Central European winter.  The family-owned and run estate is farmed biodynamically (a kind of super-organic regime) and with a minimal intervention policy in the winery.  The result is a wine of real quality and at a very reasonable price.

Austrian wine had its challenges in the 1980s – mostly self-inflicted – but, following a long period of rebuilding, they are now turning out both reds and whites that are well worth searching out.

A Bargain Red from Spain

Spain has more land planted with vines than any other country in the world and, wherever you look, you will find unique local grape varieties and interesting and different wine styles.  From the sherry region in Andalucia in the south, to Galicia in the north-west with its crisp, fragrant Albariños to the famous reds of Rioja and Ribero del Duero.

But this blog concerns Catalonia (Cataluña to the locals) in the north-east of the country; a region with its own language and culture and a diverse and characterful range of wines that would take a lifetime to explore fully.  The region’s most famous wine, Cava, is one that many consumers may not even associate with Spain, let alone this one region; it has become a generic name for those looking for a cheap and cheerful alternative to Champagne.  If only they looked a little further (and paid a little more) they would find some attractive, distinctive Cavas that stand as quality sparkling wines in their own right.  

And, although large producers such as Torres dominate the Catalonian wine scene, it’s also a region where smaller growers can thrive, particularly in the hilly, inland areas.  Priorat is, perhaps, the best example of this with talented, artisan producers exploiting its rugged terrain and centuries-old vines to create remarkably intense and focussed wines.  Inevitably, wine prices there have rocketed and Terra Alta, hidden away in the hills to the west, is a better choice for value. 

Dardell’s organic red (Majestic, £8.99) is a robust mix of mainly Garnacha Tinta (known more commonly as Grenache) with some Syrah giving a rich, spicy full-flavoured wine with delicious dried-fruit flavours and a savoury, smoky finish.  I opened and decanted it an hour or so before drinking to allow it to develop all the flavours and aromas and was pleased I did.  It also needs generously flavoured food to show its best (a warming venison casserole was our choice).

I began by highlighting the wealth of different wines from Spain; by buying a bottle from one of that country’s hidden corners, I found not only a delicious wine but also a real bargain.

A ‘Wacky’ Sauvignon

The grape variety Sauvignon Blanc has been grown in France for at least 200 years and is, in fact, old enough to be one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon (along with another old-timer, Cabernet Franc).  The Cabernet Sauvignon link suggests that Sauvignon Blanc’s origins were in Bordeaux but growers in the Loire claim it is native there.  Who knows who is right (and does it matter?) but, for much of the 20th century, if you wanted to drink single variety Sauvignon Blanc, it was Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé (not to be confused with Pouilly Fuissé, which is Chardonnay) or one of the other eastern Loire Appellations.  Or, if you were happy with Sauvignon in a blend (normally with Sémillon), you looked to Bordeaux and to Graves for a dry example and Sauternes for a dessert wine.

And then, in the mid-1980s, everything changed.  Along came New Zealand, and specifically the Marlborough region, with their own very distinctive take on Sauvignon Blanc.  No longer the dry, austere, ‘flinty’ style from France, here was an altogether fresher, more zingy and lively white with instant appeal that gained popularity with remarkable speed, drawing on the success of the iconic Cloudy Bay brand.

When Cloudy Bay’s winemaker, Kevin Judd, decided to move on, he started his own label, Greywacke (pronounced ‘Grey wacky’), named after the dominant soil in the local vineyards.  On first smell and taste of Judd’s Greywacke Sauvignon, you might not think of New Zealand at all.  Here is a much more restrained version of the grape, almost French in style.  Yes, the characteristic acidity and grassy, citrussy flavours are there, but wrapped up in something far softer, more rounded and, for a variety that is sometimes described as a little one-dimensional, incredibly complex.  It is also very food-friendly; think delicate fish or lighter-style chicken dishes and you won’t go far wrong.  Not cheap for a Sauvignon, perhaps, (£20 in Majestic and widely available elsewhere for similar money) but, for me, the depth and breadth of flavour make it really worth the money.

Return to Porto

We’re just back from a few days in Porto, Portugal’s fascinating 2nd city overlooking the Douro River and a key centre for the port and local wine industries.  It’s been almost a decade since we last visited and, though much of the old city remains unchanged (as befits a designated World Heritage site), there’s building work wherever you look and international tourists have caught onto the city’s delights in a big way.

Thinking about our trip in advance, it was the Douro red wines and the delicious tawny and premium ruby ports that I was anticipating.  But, with the Portuguese autumn still warm enough to eat dinner outdoors every evening and the variety and quality of fresh fish on offer in the restaurants, we found ourselves mainly drinking the local white wines.  And, as for port, our hotel had an excellent example of white port from the formerly French-owned Rozes house that I hadn’t tasted before: clean, fresh, not too dry or too heavy.  White port is made in exactly the same way as red – by stopping the fermentation with grape spirit while some of the fruit sweetness remains – but uses local white-skinned grapes such as Codega, Viosinho and Rabigato rather than black varieties.

It’s those same grapes, along with other native varieties like Fernão Pires, Arinto and Alvarinho (better known at home by its Spanish name Albariño) that are used for the white wines although, on Portuguese wine lists, you often find whites divided into Vino Verde (‘green wines’ – light, aromatic, fragrant young whites) and Vino Branco: whites with a little more depth and complexity, possibly some gentle oak ageing and often a year or two in bottle.

Many of the wines we enjoyed are not easily available outside the region, but, if you see bottles bearing the names of the well-known port houses (including the various members of the Symingtons group plus Noval, Ramos-Pintos and Niepoort) you won’t go far wrong.  But, above all, don’t think port and Douro wines are all red, there are some delicious whites just waiting to be explored, too.

And, as for the city of Porto, go soon, before increasing tourist numbers cause real difficulties at the iconic sites and in the narrow streets.

Not So Grumpy

When I first saw the picture on the label of Oliver Zeter’s Grauburgunder (Novel Wines, £16.99), it reminded me of the old saying about being ‘like a bear with a sore head’.  For those not familiar with the expression, it’s usually used to describe someone who’s in a bad mood and taking his or her feelings out on others around them.  This bear certainly looks grumpy – not a creature to mess with; I can only assume that the glass in its paws doesn’t contain some of Oliver Zeter’s delicious wine.

The initial aromas of juicy grapefruit and other citrus fruits mellow after a few minutes in the glass and are complemented by lovely flavours of peach and ripe melon combining to make a rich mouthful with great complexity and exceptional length.  The grapes were part-fermented in old barrels but there’s no oakiness here, just pure fruit with, perhaps, a little savoury edge.  If I had to compare it, it would be to a very good Chablis, probably Premier or Grand Cru quality.

But this isn’t Chardonnay (as Chablis would have to be); Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio – a grape that, so often, yields thin, acidic, anonymous whites yet, when treated well, as here or in Alsace, where it’s known as Pinot Gris, can produce the most delicious wines full of flavour and character.

Oliver Zeter is based in the Pfalz, one of Germany’s warmer regions whose vineyards are, in fact, an extension of those of Alsace to the south.  Here, grapes ripen well – this wine is 13% alcohol – and develop a food-friendly richness; chicken or turkey in a creamy sauce or a good brie or camembert would be perfect partners.

I’ve said before that Germany’s wines are unfairly ignored in the UK and here’s yet another example to reinforce my view.

Freedom Wine

Wine drinking and, indeed, alcohol in general, often gets a rather bad press.   While not denying the problems that come from drinking to excess nor the potential links to some medical conditions, there is another side to wine: the pleasure of sharing a special bottle and delicious, freshly prepared food with good friends – a view, I guess many readers will agree with.

But wine can go further and actually be a force for good.  Part of the proceeds from sales of Purcari’s “Freedom Blend” (Novel Wines, £19.99) support Ukrainian refugees and the hotel on Purcari’s wine estate in Moldova has become a first stop for those fleeing the war in their country. 

The idea for the wine began in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea by Russia but was given added impetus by the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s troops earlier this year.  Freedom Blend combines grapes from 3 countries – Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia – each, as Purcari’s CEO says, a victim of Russian aggression, and has resulted in a wine with “the heart of Georgia, the terroir of Moldova, and the free spirit of Ukraine”. 

But however much I support the concept (and I do), I also want a wine that tastes good.  And this one, which we shared with a close friend recently, did not disappoint.  Quite deeply coloured, the aromas of blackberries and dried fruits follow on into the palate where the brief oak ageing combines to give savoury flavours of spice, chocolate and leather.  Although 14% alcohol, it doesn’t feel like a particularly full-bodied wine; we enjoyed it with a hearty marsala-infused beef and celeriac casserole, but something a little less robust – grilled lamb chops, for example – might have worked better. 

Freedom Blend is an inspiring concept combining native grape varieties from Georgia (Saperavi), Moldova (Rară Neagră) and Ukraine (Bastardo) and demonstrates the power of wine to bring countries and people together – despite those who have other ideas.

Crete on the Radar

Last time, I reviewed a tasting of the wines of the Jura – one of very few tastings I had been to since the start of the Covid-19 restrictions, but, as I noted then, tastings, like buses, seem to come along in pairs.  And, so, the very next day, I was off to another, this time hosted by Rachel of Corks of Cotham and focussing on the wines of the Greek island of Crete. 

Crete has been making wine since at least Minoan times (3500 to 4000 years ago) and that long history no doubt accounts for the wealth of unique local grape varieties found on the island.  But, unlike the Jura which uses its range of native grapes to create some idiosyncratic styles, Cretan wines are far more approachable and, as a result, the 2 tastings could not have been more different.

Rachel concentrated on the wines of a single producer, Lyrarakis – one that my wife and I visited when we holidayed on the island a few years ago – who, helpfully, label most of their wines with the name of the principal grape variety.

The tasting began with a pair of attractive dry whites – the crisp, fresh, citrussy Vidiano was more to my taste than the more perfumed and floral Dafni (£14 each).  The smoky Liatiko rosé (£18) seemed quite restrained on both nose and palate, but the Kotsifali red that followed was, for me, the wine of the night – even if it was the cheapest on show (£12).  Reminding me a little of a good Pinot Noir, this was smooth and elegant with quite low tannins and good red fruits; a wine that would react well to chilling slightly in warmer weather.

Liatiko reappeared in 2 contrasting reds.  The first, named ‘Queen’ (£14) was blended from several vineyard sites, a little weightier than the Kotsifali and full of pleasant spicy black fruits.  The other, from old (pre-phylloxera) vines in the sandy Aggelis vineyard (£19) was more complex and showed the benefit of 2 extra years ageing with lovely dried-fruit aromas and flavours together with hints of smoky oak and a good length. A wine for claret lovers to try.

The evening finished with a medium-sweet blend of 6 local varieties, Liastos (£16).  Made from partially dried grapes to intensify the sugars and with 12 months barrel ageing, this was full of marmalade and honey flavours but balanced with enough acidity to keep the wine refreshing.

A delicious end to an excellent tasting and further proof, if any was needed, that the wines of Greece and its islands should really be on every wine lover’s radar.

Tastings are Back!

When I lived in London, we had a saying that you’d wait ages for a bus then 2 would come along together.  I’m not sure if that still happens but, just now, the same seems to apply to wine tastings!  I’ve hardly been to any since the start of the Covid-19 restrictions, but this week, there were 2 on successive days.  I went to both.

The 1st, hosted by local wine educator, Tim Johnson, focused on the wines of the Jura – an area of eastern France between Burgundy and the Swiss border.  Vineyards here are quite scattered with most in the foothills of the Jura Mountains.  Tim summarised the region succinctly as ‘The Three Is’: Indigenous varieties, Idiosyncratic styles and Iconic wines.  The examples he produced wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but it was a fascinating exploration of the region nonetheless.

Typical of the Indigenous varieties was Poulsard (£14.95), an early-ripening grape giving a quite pale coloured red with low tannins but plenty of attractive cherry-flavoured fruit.  A little like Beaujolais in style and very drinkable. 

Idiosyncratic styles were almost everywhere in the tasting but I’ll mention 2 in particular:  Vin de Paille (£29.50) is a dessert wine made from late-harvested grapes which are then air-dried to further concentrate the sugars.  Flavours of honey and marmalade predominate.  If you like Italy’s Vin Santo, try this.  Macvin de Jura (£33.16) is also quite sweet but has a grapey freshness being a blend of unfermented juice mixed with local marc (perhaps better known as ‘grappa’) and then barrel aged for 10 months.  Also very drinkable but beware – this is 17.5% alcohol!

And the Iconic wine?  Vin Jaune is made with the local Savagnin grape (not to be confused with Sauvignon) which, after fermentation, is left to mature in cask for more than 7 years and develops in the same way as a dry amontillado sherry, which it resembles in both aroma and taste.  It’s sold in 62cl bottles which is supposed to represent the amount left from a normal bottle size (75cl) after the evaporation that happens during the long ageing.  This loss is known as “the angels’ share” – perhaps someone should have a word with these angels as Château-Chalon’s Vin Jaune sells for more than £60 a bottle!

So, just a brief look at some of the Jura wines we tasted – try Yapp Brothers if you want to sample them yourself.  And catch up with my review of the week’s 2nd tasting next time.