Nero Oro, Appassimento, Nero d’Avola, Sicilia DOC, The Wine People, 2017, 14.0%.
This is available from Majestic for around £9 if you “mix six”, otherwise £10. Oh, and it really is a Sicilia DOC wine as stated above, rather than the IGP designation shown in the image. The Wine People market it as part of their range, but the wine is actually made by Santa Tresa, an estate in South East Sicily near Vittoria.
Appassimento means that before winemaking the grapes are partially dried, which concentrates their sugar, acidity and flavour. In this case the enhanced sugar content of the grapes ferments to give a wine with a highish alcohol content, and with some sugar left over after the fermentation to give a slightly sweet wine. Together with low astringency, this gives a smooth easy drinking wine with some classy fruit, and the wine’s sweetness is moderated by balancing acidity.
This will doubtless have broad appeal, and it is well made for what it is, even if it is not a style I would usually drink myself. I suggest drinking it slightly chilled – maybe at around 17-18ºC. And remember it will warm up quickly if left out of the fridge in the hot weather we have been having recently, so probably best to bring it out a bit cooler than that. See here for advice on adjusting the temperature of wine bottles. I reckon it would work well with pork and duck, and pretty much any barbequed meat. Also with cheeses like Cheddar and Stilton, as a lighter alternative to Port.
Medium pale ruby. Intense fresh fruit – cherry and damson. A delicate fragrance, and aromas that somehow reminds me of Aussie Shiraz. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Low astringency, but there is some present. You can feel the alcohol on the palate, but it is not hot. The sweetness and acidity are nicely balanced, and the wine finishes sharp. A pretty and straightforward wine. Drink now ***
(Unlike the vast majority of wines I mention on my blog, I did not pay for this wine. It was offered to me as a sample, which I accepted because I thought the wine sounded interestingly different to a lot of wines on the market.)
A true Marmite wine, not only did this split opinion around the table, but the nose actually had a whiff of yeast extract. For better or for worse, I thought this was a great example of what the natural wine experience is all about.
Lemoss, Ca’ di Rajo, Vino Frizzante Bianco, Non Filtrato, NV, 10.5%. Around £15 retail. This is a sparkling wine made from Glera grapes grown in the Prosecco region. So if it were produced differently it could bear the Prosecco name but, as it is, it is a mere sparkling white wine from Italy.
Rather than undergoing the Prosecco production method of sealed-tank fermentation, this wine was given an initial skin maceration for 12hrs at 4ºC, fermented for 7-10 days at 15-17ºC using indigenous yeasts, then was put into a bottle, sealed with a crown cap, and allowed to ferment dry. Malolactic fermentation also took place in-bottle. The wine is cloudy, as there is no filtration, and no disgorging after the secondary fermentation.
After the cloudiness, the next obvious impression was on the nose. And the impression was sulphur – struck matches – which is surprising considering the sulphite content is claimed to be only 25mg/l. However, it blows off eventually, leaving what is basically a rather neutral fresh smell, but with the slight whiff of Marmite I mentioned at the top of this post. As Marmite is a yeast extract, I presume the nose was due to dead yeast cells? On the palate it had medium acidity, and was dry. Again, quite neutral aromatically, but it was refreshing, with the acidity being sour rather than sharp. The mousse was fine. Overall, I found it a very pleasant drink, but it seemed to lack what I can only call vinosity. There was little body and fruit, and in many ways seemed more like beer than a wine.
It was interesting to compare it with a proper Prosecco that was served at the same time, in fact a decent quality Valdobbiadene Prosecco from Adami called Vigneto Giardino. That had, I think, a touch of fennel on the nose, and ripe fruit on the palate with some leesy character. It was about the same acidity as the Lemoss, but a tad sweeter. The bubbles were coarser. It seemed to have more body, perhaps from the sugar as it had only another half percentage point more alcohol. Unsurprisingly, it was very much like Prosecco. This was good too, but it certainly lacked the interest of the Lemoss.
In the end I decided I liked them both roughly equally (****), but in very different ways. If I were offered a straight choice of bottles to drink tomorrow, I would go for the Lemoss, as I feel I have unfinished business understanding it. But if I had the same choice next week as well, who knows?
I starting getting engaged with this topic when reading the November 2017 press stories about new archaeological evidence for winemaking in Georgia 8,000 years ago. We were told that this pre-dates the winemaking remains previously accepted to be the oldest, which were discovered in northern Iran. That confused me because, for several years now, Georgians have been claiming an 8,000 year old unbroken winemaking tradition. And then, to make my confusion worse, I saw articles elsewhere saying that the remains of the oldest winery were in Armenia. It does not help that popular reporting occasionally fails to differentiate different between “BC” and “years ago”, as to most people a couple of millennia here and there does not seem to matter. In the face of all these claims and a smattering of misinformation, what seemed to be lacking was a recent overview of the evidence with no promotional agenda – which is what I aim to provide here.
Firstly, as some say there is archaeological evidence for wine in China in 7,000 BC, let’s take a quick look at that claim. And dismiss it. What was found in China was evidence of a fermented drink. Some people have suggested the drink may have been made partially from grapes, but that is speculation, and seems very unlikely. Even if true, we would normally expect our wine to be made of grapes exclusively.
While individual countries now lay claim to the oldest winemaking tradition, we must remember that modern-day boundaries did not of course apply back in Neolithic times. There was a largish region that included (to mix names from different eras) Northern Mesopotamia, Eastern Turkey, the Zagros mountains in Northern Iran, and the South Caucasus, in which there were many new developments: permanent human settlements, plant domestication for food, and crafts such as weaving, dying, stone working, woodwork and pottery. It was within this context that, not unsurprisingly perhaps, winemaking seems to have emerged.
Archaeological evidence can currently only point to the existence of early winemaking activity in a few isolated instances, each one in a particular place and time. While important, that evidence sadly can say little about the general picture. However, there is also supporting evidence that links this region with the origin of viticulture and winemaking. Genetic diversity in a plant is taken to be an indicator that it has existed for a long time – simply because it has had more time to mutate – and the Eurasian wild grape shows its greatest genetic diversity in the Near Eastern uplands, suggesting that grape vines in their wild form originated there. Also, Western European grape varieties are closer genetically to the wild vine of Anatolia than they are to more local wild vines, meaning that they probably originated close to Anatolia as domesticated forms, and later spread west. This is also consistent with the current indigenous Georgian grape varieties being closely related genetically to those of Western Europe, though by itself that fact does not indicate any particular direction of travel.
The oldest wine-related archaeological sites are in present-day Georgia, just 50km south of Tbilisi. They were two nearby villages, each around 1 ha in area – sites 2 and 3 on the above map – comprising circular mud huts of 1-5 m in diameter. Here sherds of fired-clay jars were found with residues that, when analysed, showed to be very likely to be of a grape product, and which were dated as 6,000-5,800 BC. The jars were up to 1 m high and 1 m in diameter, with a capacity of over 300 li. The jars had small unstable bases, so for stability could have been partly buried when used, but the decoration around the top of the jars suggested that they were not totally buried. Present day Georgian qvevris tend to be larger, and are totally buried, so these ancient jars are perhaps better seen as a forerunner of the Georgian qvevri rather than the first examples. In fact, no direct evidence of winemaking on those site has yet come to light, but pollen samples indicate that there were grapes growing nearby, and considering the wine culture known to exist in that region at later dates, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that wine was actually made in those villages. These are the same sites where for several years Georgians have, with little justification, been claiming an 8,000 year old history of winemaking. But it was a lot more recently that the convincing evidence mentioned above was obtained, and published in November 2017 the PNAS article Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus. Unless credited elsewhere, this PNAS article is the source of pretty much all the information in this blog post, and the map is reproduced from that article, so if you want to chase up more detailed references that is where to go.
Prior to November 2017, the earliest known winemaking site was in the of Northern Iran, site 17 on the map, just south of Lake Urmia. As on the Georgian sites, jars were found in a domestic mud hut with traces of the tartrates that indicated they had contained wine. These remains were dated to around 5,400-5000 BC. There were six partially-buried jars found in one hut, each with a capacity of around 9 li.
This quantity was typical for a hut in the village and indicates winemaking on a sizable domestic scale, but we must go to the Areni-1 cave (site 15 on the map) of present-day Armenia for the earliest evidence of a proper winery. Unfortunately, because Armenia’s legitimate claim for the earliest known winery is sometimes made in isolation, this can easily give the impression that winemaking itself started here. While in actual fact the winery was dated to 4,000 BC – around two millennia later than the winemaking finds in Georgia. Nevertheless, the Areni-1 cave finds are significant and impressive. In addition to the tartrates, there were found grape-vine fragments, pips, and the red pigment malvidin. Also plaster pressing floors, arranged so the released grape juice would run into buried jars. To put these Armenian finds into a bit of perspective, they are roughly contemporary with early signs of winemaking in Northern Greece at Dikili Tash, yet still considerably earlier than anything in what is now Italy.
So if anyone asks when and where winemaking began, the only honest answer is that we don’t know. However, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that it was in or around the South Caucasus. And there is strong archaeological evidence for winemaking 8,000 years ago at a specific location in what is now Georgia, which is the oldest hard evidence we have at the moment.
More interesting than chronological one-upmanship is perhaps the details of how wine was made in the Neolithic period, and how winemaking evolved into what we see today – but that is another story.
Around 1980 I was on a budget holiday in Northern Italy, where most meals were bread, cheese and ham picnics. However, one evening we pushed the boat out and went to a proper (albeit cheap) restaurant. I remember we ordered a bottle of Barolo and, even though I had little interest in wine in those days, I can still conjure up a vivid image of how it tasted: brown, tannic, and totally devoid of fruit. Today I would probably send it back, and I did consider it back then. But of course we drank the bottle, even though it gave no pleasure.
That must have been an example of the wine that prompted the modernist revolution in Barolo. It was the style of wine that sold for little money and kept the wine growers in poverty, as described in Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution. But then how does it relate to the great traditional Barolo wines that, in the same documentary, David Berry Green said were so fantastic? Ultimately I am still left a little confused about what the situation was before the revolution, and how it relates to the current state of affairs. However, it seems that the quality of Barolo has been raised generally, irrespective of whether the traditionalist or modernist tag is applied. Are the Barolo Boys to thank for that? Regardless, it must be seen as a good thing.
The Barolo Boys were a group of producers who introduced crop thinning, shorter maceration times and barrique aging, thus making the wines more appealing to consumers and critics alike, and allowing them to sell for a lot more money. The film tells this story through interviews with the people involved, and through archive clips. However nice it was to meet the people, learn a bit about their culture and see the landscape, I am not convinced that is the best way to understand a story, but I cannot deny that I did learn quite a bit.
I am a little ashamed to admit that I used to think that the Barolo Boys was just the name of the winemakers’ football team. Though it is that too, and the football team even featured in the film. The other surprise was to see the documentary’s Langhe landscapes suddenly switch to the volcanic Mount Etna and Marco de Grazia. I know about Marco – he is the guy that is currently busy raising the profile of Etna wines. But what’s he got to do with Barolo? Ah, I see… before he arrived in Sicily he encouraged the Barolo revolution, introduced the Barolo Boys to America, and imported their wines. In fact, it was on the American tour organised by him that their name was coined.
Interestingly, the booklet that accompanies the DVD mentions that in the early 19th century Nebbiolo was used to make a wine that was semi-sweet and slightly fizzy. But the landowners wanted something better, so experts were called in to introduce the latest winemaking techniques. Does that sound familiar? Terms like traditional and modern are, if they have any meaning at all, relative terms. My only concern about change, particularly with modern communications, is that stylistic choice in the world of wine might get diminished. That might be a real danger in some cases, but I would say today’s Barolo remains distinctive. And if you want red wine in the early 19th century style, you can still get that from the region, in the form of Bracchetto d’Aqui. Has much really been lost?
If you are interested enough to read my blog, I think there is something in this documentary for you. DVDs of Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution are available here, along with further information. That is where I bought my copy. But be warned – the homepage is a badly-executed multimedia extravaganza, so you will probably want to turn your computer sound off. If you want to see the trailer, you’d do better accessing it on Vimeo directly, by clicking on the above image for example.
Update 03/2016: I was recently talking to a Barolo expert (but not sure he would want to be quoted on this), who said that before the revolution the general standard was poor. But there were a few producers making good age-worthy wine that sold for more money than most, and that David Berry Green was probably mainly thinking of one in particular that he had an involvement with.
We finally got round to sampling the haul of Lambrusco we brought back from our stay in Bologna, which was chosen mainly for being varietally typical according to Ian D’Agata. We drank them, and another Lambrusco sourced in the UK, with food that was as close as possible to being of the Emilia-Romagna region and appropriate for the wine – Parma ham, mozzarella, mortadella and Parmigiano-Reggiano, followed by home-made brawn, tagliatelle al ragù, and cherry pie.
All the wines were slightly fizzy, and low on tannin. Acidity was on the low side of medium, but the sparkle gave them a refreshing quality regardless. They were all described as dry on the label, but I think I detected a small amount of residual sugar on all of them – they were certainly not bone dry. None of the wines was expensive, those brought back from Italy being between £6.30 and £8.70 when converted from Euros, while The Wine Society are asking £11.50 for the Rinaldi.
Francesco Bellei e Co, Ancestrale, Modena DOC, Vino Frixxante Secco (Lambrusco di Sorbara), 2012, 11.5% It wasn’t declared on the bottle, but this is of the Lambrusco di Sorbaro variety, and also seems to be from the eponymous DOC region. The vast majority of Lambrusco is made fizzy by the tank method, but this wine is exceptional in that the latter part of its single fermentation takes place in bottle – the one it is sold in. I was looking forward to this, but was totally underwhelmed. It was a medium pale neon pink, and did not taste distinctively of anything much at all. But at least it was not unpleasant ***
Cleto Chiarli e Figli, Vecchia Modena, Premium, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC, Vino Frizzante Secco, 2013, 11.0%
Another Lambrusco di Sorbaro wine, with the same colour but more intense. Also more intense on the nose and palate, Soft, red strawberry fruit. Bubble-gummy actually, reminding me of carbonic-maceration marked Beaujolais. Some people liked it a lot, and were in good company as it is a Tre Bicchiere wine. I was not that impressed, but it was markedly better than the previous wine, so ****
Cleto Chiarlo, Antico Vitigni Grasparossa, Vigneto Cialdini, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOC, Vino Frizzante Secco, 2013, 11.0% This and all the following wines are of the Lambrusco Grasporossa variety; they all had a deep purple colour and more robust flavours. Confected notes again, but this time of blackcurrant boiled sweets ****
Villa di Corlo, Corleto, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOC, Vino Frixxante Secco, 2012, 11.5% This was my favourite wines as it was more rounded and mature *****
Fattoria Moretto, Monovitigno, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOP, Vino Frizzante Secco, 12.0%
Well into the second half of the evening now, and scant notes. From memory it was similar to the Vignetto Cialdini ****
Rinaldi, Vecchio Moro, Lambrusco dell’Emilia IGT, Vino Frizzante (85% Lambrusco Grasparossa, 10% Ancellotta and 5% Marzemino), 12.0% Scant notes again I am afraid, but this seemed to have more body that the other wines this evening, and was more bitter. Could this be due to the non-Lambrusco grapes? Ancellotta has thick skins, but is best known as a variety that contributes colour to blends ****
Fattoria Moretto, Semprebon, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOP, Vino Frizzante Amabile, 10.5% Dumb, and with very little flavour. Not particularly sweet either, despite the amabile description. Suspect this was low-level corked, even if there was no detectable mustiness. I will assume it was not faulty for my rating **
Overall I was a little disappointed with the quality of the wines, perhaps due mainly to my unrealistic expectations – they were after all hardly expensive. I was also rather hoping there would have been more to distinguish between the various Grasporossa wines. Having said that, I did enjoy the evening, and rated most of the wines quite highly as a result.
Without wanting to pinpoint any particular food-wine match, I thought that the Lambrusco was an excellent match for the rich Emilia-Romagna cuisine, with the fruity flavours and slight sparkle, rather that the wines’ more structural elements of acidity and tannin, being the key to cutting through the richness.
This covers a few non-Lambrusco wines that we drank while staying in Bologna. For Lambrusco, see my previous blog post.
Wine number one was actually not drunk in Bologna at all, but on a day trip to Parma, in Enoteca Fontana, a wine-bar-cum-trattoria that was absolutely rammed with locals on a Thursday lunch time. I am not sure we chose our wine and food wisely, but the place looked very promising, and I would happily return. The wine was Colli di Parma Rosso DOC, Amadei, and we got it for EUR 2 per glass. As we all know (ahem) a Colli di Parma Rosso must be 60-75% Barbera, with most of the remainder being made up of Bonarda Piemontese and Croatina. The colour was a deep purple. I think there was a little residual sugar, but the acidity was high and the overall effect was dry. I didn’t think the fruit quality was great, but what can you expect for that price? I gave it ***.
Now for the first of 2 or 3 Sangiovese di Romagna wines. This was Scabi, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore DOC, Azienda Agricola San Valentino, 2012. It is what was offered to us at a restaurant when it was clear we needed a red wine, and I later noticed that is graced around 30% of the tables I could see. I am not sure how much we paid for it, but I see a bottle retails in Italy for around EUR 11. This was deep purple, with intense dark fruit, attractive and spicy. The spice added a mouth-watering quality to the nose. It had medium acidity, and quite a strong but fine-grained astringency. This was a good, classy wine, which I think will age further. I thought ****, but I tired of it as I got to the end of the bottle, and it was not a good match for the tomato-based sauce with our ossbucco. The Bologna restaurant was Drogheria della Rosa. A A Gill wrote well of it last year, but I was not so taken with the place. The food was all good, but I did not get on so well with the general atmosphere, nor with the fact that there was no written menu or wine list, and no mention of price until we were presented with the bill. The bill turned out to be perfectly reasonable, but when ordering I would have liked to consider my options with more time and information at my disposal.
Incidentally, as an aperitivo at Drogheria della Rosa, we were given a glass of Prosecco that I thought was pretty impressive. From the label, I noted the name as Foss Marai Surfine Cuvée. Later research showed that this was not particularly expensive, but it had a complexity that you rarely get from Prosecco. I am wondering if it was the result of a bottle that had been open a while. Whatever the reason, it was good.
Our final Sangiovese di Romagna wines were at a restaurant not coincidentally called Al Sangiovese, which turned out to be run by the same family who owned the wine producer/brand Condé which is available in the UK. There was also a tenuous family link to the owners of the hotel down the road where we were staying. It was suggested that we try their Condé Sangiovese di Romagna Superioré DOC 2010, with the offer of a swap if it did not suit. I only has a small sip to taste so cannot supply a proper tasting note, but my impression was that of a rather flabby and slightly sweet wine. I felt a little embarrassed at my reaction to the family wine, but obviously was not very good at hiding my disappointment. After a brief chat about preferring something with more bite, acidity and tannin, a bottle of Principe di Ribano, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore DOC, Spalletti Colonna di Paliano, 2012 was brought to the table, EUR 15 on the wine list. Top marks to the restaurant for listening to what I said, and finding something to my liking the second time round. This was a beautiful little wine that really hit the spot. Medium ruby in colour. Intense red fruit, tea and spice. Medium-high acidity, and dry. Medium-low tannin. Excellent length. Overall, it had a light refreshing character. Drink now or in next couple of years. In context, which all my ratings are, this was *****.
In addition to a few days in Bologna, we were originally planning on spending some time in an agriturismo in the countryside around nearby Modena, i.e. the land of Lambrusco, and maybe visiting a few wineries by car. But the plan changed and we stayed the whole week in Bologna (view from Asinelli tower above) with some day trips by train. There must be plenty of tasting opportunities there, and maybe some organised trips out to some producers, no?
No, not really. I did my homework, knew some of the good producers, the main Lambrusco varieties, and (thanks to Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy) the most typical examples of those varieties. And I knew the locals liked the real Lambrusco, mainly dry, refreshing, frizzante and red; not the sweet pap of UK supermarkets that everyone seems to feel the need to mention when writing about the wine. I was raring to get stuck into some serious exploration, but felt thwarted on this trip.
I found lots of gushing prose about Lambrusco on the Web but little of substance on the ground. The Consortium for Lambrusco wine of Modena did not bother replying to my email about a tour that was mentioned on a web page, commercial foodie tours generally offered a tasting of three unspecified wines at an unspecified vineyard, and wine bars and restaurants I found served a maximum of two or three Lambruscos. Indeed, when it came to Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, supposedly the largest of the Lambusco DOCs, I did not find a single bottle – not a sausage. I can only conclude that the locals satisfy their thirst for Lambrusco by buying direct from producers.
But we did find and drink Lambrusco, and here are some of the Lambrusco moments on our trip. Don’t bother reading on if you are only interested in great wines. There are none here that would retail for much over EUR 10. They are wines for drinking with everyday food, but they are wines of character.
My Lambrusco of the week was Riservato Agli Amici, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOP, F.lli Bellei. As with most Lambruscos, there was no indication of vintage on the bottle. Like all the Lambruscos we had, the style was described on the label was rosso, secco, frizzante. The grape variety Lambrusco di Sorbara, the dominant variety in Lambrusco di Sorbara DOP, is at the light, fruity and perfumed end of the Lambrusco variety spectrum, and is generally regarded as inferior to the more substantial and darker coloured variety Lambrusco Grasporossa. But from my limited experience of the varieties, I preferred Lambrusco di Sorbara. This particular wine exuded raspberry – delicate, bitter, and perfumed. As with all the Lambrusco’s we had, it was low on astringency. This one was also sharp, bone dry, and mouth-watering. I decided the experience, albeit rather low-brow, merited an unlikely sounding *****. We drank it at the rather old-school Bologna restaurant Diana, which we had seen recommended as being particularly good for some traditional Bologna specialities. I am not one to judge the food against local standards, but I certainly enjoyed my tortellini in broda there.
The other Lambrusco di Sorbana we had was Leclisse, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC, Paltrinieri. It was the colour of a dark rosé wine, lighter than Bellei’s Riservato Agli Amici. The flavours were rather muted, mainly I think because it was served in a bucket of ice. Only as it warmed up a little did the red fruit flavours start to emerge. Another truly dry wine. A bit unfair perhaps, but this got ***.
At the low end of my Lambrusco enjoyment spectrum was Pra di Bosso, Reggiano Lambrusco DOP, Casali. To be fair, this was a bit cheaper than all the other Lambruscos we tried. It comes from around a town that is, from a Bologna perspective, a bit beyond Modena, and thus a bit out of the way of the main Lambrusco producing area. The name Reggiano is the same as that in the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano. This was in my opinion lacking in fruit, and had a hard character. At one point I was wondering if the wine was corked, but I do not think it was and a glass we had elsewhere was similar, so **.
In addition we tried three wines of Lambrusco Grasporossa: L’acino, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOP, Corte Manzini; Nero di Nero, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, Barbolini; and Cardinale Pighini, Colli Scandiano e di Canossa DOC, Cantina Arceto (Colli Scandiano e di Canossa is another lesser-known Lambrusco DOC). These were all dark violet in colour, with an intense blackcurrant fruitiness. Medium acidity I thought, and also a touch of residual sugar, despite their being secco. I prefer the sharper and drier style. The Nero di Nero was a little oxidised, but that may have been because the bottle we were served from had been open too long, and there is little else I can say to distinguish between the wines – it would have been easier to spot differences if I had tried them at the same time and place. All three were ***.
So that’s the Lambrusco we tasted on the trip, but we bought the bottles illustrated above back with us, and intend to drink them together sometime early next year. Of the wines I tried while staying in Bologna, Ian D’Agata suggested the Leclisse and L’acino were particularly typical of their varieties, and I am bringing back a few other wines highlighted for typicity by Ian: the Monovigno, Cialdini, Corleto, and Franceso Bellei’s Ancestrale. Also, the “Antica Modena Premium”, mentioned as being particularly good and typical by Ian, must actually be the Vecchia Modena Premium in the above image, as the Antica wine does not seem to exist. I am looking forward to drinking these, and intend to report back.
I got my copy of Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata from Amazon for just under £24, and it is the best £24 I have spent on a wine book for a long time. I am delighted to be able to enthuse about a wine book for a change.
This book certainly deserves to be considered in its own right, but inevitably it will be compared with Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. So, with apologies to Ian, I shall occasionally refer to The Other Book. To compare at the most superficial level, while Wine Grapes unambiguously boasts on its cover that it is a guide to 1,368 varieties, Ian more vaguely claims to have identified over 500 native Italian grape types, not all of which may prove to be varieties, with the implication that most of these are described in the book. Also, you will find more Italy-related information about each grape in Native Wine Grapes of Italy than you will in Wine Grapes. So, if quantity of information is important to you, when it comes to native Italian grapes you get more in Ian’s book. All that does rather raise the question of Ian’s definition of a native Italian grape. It includes all grapes that have formed part of Italy’s viticultural tradition. Thus Cannonao (Grenache) is included, as it is traditional in Sardinia, but more recent imports like Cabernet Sauvignon are definitely out. Also excluded are grapes only traditional in Alto Adige, on the basis that the region was not part of Italy until after the First World War. All rather arbitrary in a way, but you have to draw a line somewhere.
In my last book review, I mentioned that information can be made interesting by ensuring there is plenty of detail, and this book is a good example of how that can work. You learn not only about the results of the latest genetic studies, but also how the varieties are officially recorded, synonyms, misunderstandings, ampelography, what the wines taste like, and what growers have to say. It is clear that, even in this terroir-obsessed age, Ian is a firm believer in the importance of grape variety, and a true champion and enthusiast of Italian varieties.
The enthusiasm is infectious, and I found myself not treating the book as a mere reference work, but actually reading it page-by-page from the start. So far I am on page 110 of over 600, and may still falter before I get to the end, but already I have read more than I ever did of Wine Grapes. And as I read I was inspired to get hold of some of the wines described. One notable feature of the book is that specific wines are recommended, not on the usual basis of how good they are, but from the point of view how varietally correct they are judged to be. I definitely feel a Lambrusco tasting coming up 🙂
Amazingly, I am nearly at the end of this book review, and have not yet mentioned any criticisms. The main one I can think of is that the book is not ideally laid out for reference purposes. The varieties are listed alphabetically, but distributed across four chapters: Grape groups and Families, Major Native and Traditional Grape Varieties, Little-Known Native and Traditional Grape Varieties, and Crossings. So unless you know the category your grape fits into, you may not hit it on your first look-up in a chapter. I have already mistaken a few varieties for being “little-known”, when in fact they are “major”. Rossese Bianco, for example, is actually quite major, and not at all little-known! The best solution would probably have been to use italics in the index to indicate the main entry for each variety. Clearer headings for each variety would also make them easier to find.
If you have anything more than a passing interest in Italian wine, I would strongly recommend this book. If you don’t, buy it anyway, and discover what you are missing out on!
Ben (that’s Benjamin Spencer of Etna Wine Lab) had just shown us around the palmento at our hotel, and ferried us the short distance to the restaurant Da Antonio for this tasting. It was from one palmento to another. This restaurant used to be in the town of Randazzo, but had recently moved a few miles out into the country. The tasting was upstairs in the old treading area of the beautifully restored palmento, where we met Valeria Càrasto, also of Etna Wine Lab, who arranged this tasting for us. They did receive payment, but in the interests of full disclosure I should add that I very much doubt that what we paid covered the full cost of the event.
We soon got stuck into the pleasant task of tasting wines from the Etna region, starting with the whites. I finished up with 20 tasting notes, so a bottle must have arrived after the initial line up shown above. The tasting table picture was taken with permission from Valeria’s Facebook page and shows, left to right, Ben, my wife and me. The only thing missing from the picture, but not from the event, was the wonderful finger-food provided by Da Antonio, and the wine producers.
Towards the lunchtime, and I think about halfway through the tasting, producer representatives arrived to say hello to us and meet each other – owners and family members of the smaller producers, and winemakers and marketers from the larger ones. Left to right above are Mariarita Grasso, and Franco Calcagno with Valeria Càrasto.
And here is agronomist Giovanni Marletta with Alberto Falcone holding one of his bottles, and Patricia Tóth, winemaker at Planeta, in thoughtful discussion with Ben.
Finally, Ben with Agatino Failla, responsible for export sales at Benanti, and Valeria Franco and Giuseppe Scirto. We also met Antonino Destro, Peter Wiegner, and Irene Badalà, but sadly they will have to remain pictureless, and is as far as I can tell Irene does not have a website.
As ever, please do not take my tasting notes too seriously – they show my impressions on the day, no more no less – I hate to be seen as a judge of wines, but also feel I want to communicate my impressions. Looking back on my notes I see that there are a lot more high scores than usual, which is measure of how I enjoyed the day, but which I fear might be a bit unfair to wines elsewhere in my blog. The prices are approximate UK retail, or my best guess in the cases where they are not available over here.
Saxanigra, Vino Spumante, Metodo Classico, Brut, Destro, 2010, 12.0%, £20.00
This is 100% Nerello Mascalese, with 36 months on lees. Pale greenish straw. Very persistent surface foam, whose appearance reminded me of Asti. But appearance was the only similarity to Asti. This was fresh, dry, and had high acidity. Intense minerality and fruit. I think I would probably drink this now, but it could have aging potential ****
Isolonuda, Etna Bianco DOC, Destro, 2013, 12.5%, £13.00
Carricante, with some Carraratto. Pale straw. Intense fruit, and with a distinctive spice. Clove perhaps? Medium acidity. Dry, intense, viscous. Excellent length. Drink now ****
Mari, di Ripiddu, Etna Bianco DOC, Filippo Grasso, 2011, 12.5%, £13.00
Carricante, with some Carraratto, 50% from Milo. Medium gold. Don’t get a lot on the nose. Medium acidity. Dry, with citrus fruit. Thought I detected oak, but there is none! Excellent length. Drink now ****
Eruzione 1614, DOC, Sicilia Planeta, 2013, 14.0%, £14.00
Carricante and 5% Riesling. Medium gold. Again, that spicy note that could be clove. Medium acidity. A little off-dry I think? Citrus. Excellent length. Drink now ***
Dayini, Bianco, Etna DOC, Terre di Trente 2012, 12.5%, £18.00
Carricante and Minnelo. Medium gold. Reductive and farmyard – but in a good way. Medium acid. Dry, elegant, complex and subtle. Drink now *****
Wiegner, Elisena, Sicilia IGT, 2011, 13.0%, £15.00
Fiano. Medium gold. Dumb on the nose. Medium acidity. Dry, elegant, some complexity. Something about this wine that I find difficult to characterise. Drink now *****
Quantico, Etna Bianco DOP, Giulemi, 2012, 13.5%, £25.00
Carricante and Cateratto. Biodynamic, natural, and I’ve heard they do weird stuff with electromagnetism in the vineyards (which I am sure someone else told me was bad for cosmic energy, but what do I know). Medium gold. Nose is complex and had a sweet nature. Medium high acidity. Definitely dry on the palate. Hugely intense. Apples. Drink now *****
Eruzione 1614, Nerello Mascelese, Sicilia IGT, Planeta, 2011, 13.5%, £14.00
Pale ruby garnet. Slightly reductive red fruit. Medium low acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now **
Treterre, Sicilia IGT, Rosso, Wiegner, 2009, 14.0%, £15.00
Nerello Mascalese. Medium garnet. Rasiny red fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Raisiny, but fresh. Intense. Drink now ****
Arcuria, Etna Rosso DOC, Calcagno, 2011, 14.0%, £17.00
Arcuria is the Contrada name. 2010 was the drier vintage in this Contrada, but 2011 is generally better. Medium garnet. Dumb. Spicy red fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Good sweet intense fruit. Drink now or keep ****
Arcuria, Etna Rosso DOC, Calcagno, 2010, 13.5%, £17.00
More tawny than the 2011. More intense, and spicier, but otherwise quite similar. Good intense fruit. Drink now or keep *****
Capu, Chiurma, di Ripiddu, Etna Rosso DOC, Calderara Sottano, Filippo Grasso, 2011, 14.0%, £18.00
Intense garnet. Smoky. Reductive. Medium acidity. Medium high tannin. Big, powerful and intense. Sweet fruit. Needs several years *****
Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Agricola Irene Badalà, 2012, 14.5%, £20.00
From a 3ha vineyard. The wine is made at Terre Nere. Intense ruby garnet. Intense sweet perfumed fruit. Medium high acid. High tannin. As nose. Very attractive wine. Needs more time ******
A’Culonna, Scirto, Etna Rosso DOC, 2010, 14.5%, £30.00
Medium pale garnet. Fresh red fruit. Medium acid. Medium tannin. As nose. Delicate and elegant. Another great wine. Drink now or keep ******
Nerello Mascalese, Sicilia IGT, Terre di Trente, 2008, 14.0%, £21.00
Medium pale garnet. Reductive. Medium acidity. Medium high tannin. Metallic finish. Maybe will come round with time, but I find this difficult to like now **
Quantico, Etna Rosso DOP, Giulemi, 2012, 13.0%, £25.00
Pale garnet. Gentle nose with blackcurrant. Medium high acidity. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****
Aitho, Etna Rosso DOC, Azienda Falcone , 2012, 13.5%, £15.00
3ha South-West of Etna, and high altitude vineyard. Medium pale garnet. Reductive, perhaps. Fresh aromatic fruit. Medium high acid. Medium high tannin. Needs more time ***
Rosso di Gulfa, Etna Rosso DOC, Feudo di Gulfa, 2011, 14.0%, £25.00
South-West of Etna. Medium pale ruby garnet. Intense fresh fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. A little raisiny, but still refreshing. Excellent length. Spice. Good now, but will improve *****
Serra delle Contessa, Etna Rosso DOC, Benanti, 2004, 14.0%, £31.00
Prephylloxera. Nerello Mascelese and approx 20% Nerello Cappuchio. Medium pale garnet. Intense, mature, complex, aromatic. Medium high acid. Medium high tannin. Intense. Great now, but still scope for improvement ******
Pietra Marina, Etna Bianco Superiore DOC, Benanti, 2009, 12.5%, £31.00
Pale greenish gold. Complex, and not too intense on the nose. Medium acidity. Dry. Intense, and complex in ways I find difficult to describe. Good now, but will keep for several more years ******
For those that know Benanti maybe it is no great surprise that I liked their wines so much, especially considering they had the advantage of a fair amount of bottle age over the others at the tasting. But I was really impressed by them, even though they were numbers 19 and 20 of a 20 wine tasting. The white was even tasted “out of order”, after the reds.
My other two favourites (given all the caveats already expressed) were a couple of wines less familiar to UK drinkers. They are pictured below to help you recognise them should you get a buying opportunity. The Scirto A’Culonna was difficult for me to adequately describe, but had a quiet elegance that I really liked. While the Irene Badalà was very different, being very astringent and with intense and good quality fruit. I really didn’t think the Badalà was ready for drinking now, but I took a bottle home with me and look forward to trying it again in several years time.
After my Etna trip, and this tasting in particular, I certainly understand Etna wines a lot better than before, but I still don’t think I have a great handle on the major grape varieties of Carricante and Nerello Mascelese. Indeed I am beginning to doubt there is much of a handle to grasp. I view them both as being like Chardonnay, in the sense that they are good quality, but seem to be able to adopt a broad variety of styles, but do not have easily recognised aromatics. The only style that I have not encountered in Etna wine is over-ripe flabbiness – they all have good structure, even reds with raisiny notes. Where the comparison with Chardonnay breaks down is in the underlying cause of style variation. That is, I suspect that the Etna varieties are more similar to Riesling and Pinot Noir in their ability to express terroir, if not the distinctiveness of their aromas. I would be interested to hear other views on that subject. I have certainly seen Nerello Mascelese aromatics compared to Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, but I am personally not convinced.
Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Ben and Valeria of Etna Wine Lab. They are great people, very knowledgeable, and responded very positively and flexibly to my requests for help to become better acquainted with Etna wines.
Monte Ilice and Carpene were both owned by Vini Biondi until 2011, at which point Ciro Biondi and his business partner Giuseppe Brancatelli separated. After the separation, Giuseppe finished up in possession of Monte Ilice and Carpene, and Ciro the vineyards Chianta, San Nicolò, and Cisterna Fuori. The right to the Biondi company name is now a matter of legal dispute, but it is useful to understand that Giuseppe currently has control of the old Vini Biondi website www.vinibiondi.it, which still seems to reflect the state of the business before the split, while Ciro’s website is www.levignebiondi.it. I contacted an email address given on www.vinibiondi.it, and so was looked after by Gino Paternò who works with Giuseppe.
We met Gino in Sant’Alfio square in Trecastagni and were land-rovered off to two vineyards, starting with Monte Ilice, shown below, which is significantly higher and steeper than Carpene. Monte Ilice is very difficult to work. Walking uphill between the vines is very much like climbing a sand dune – your feet constantly slide back in the deep, fine soil. To make life easier, a cable transportation system was installed for moving goods up and down the hill.
Note the beauty of the vineyard. This beauty is not by any means unique on Etna, with many of the good vineyards seemed to including small trees, shrubs and undergrowth, or having them nearby. See the picture of one of Terre Nere’s for another example. This is not the uniform monoculture of many of the better French vineyards.
To my eye, the soil at Carpene was very similar but, contrary to my expectation, the grapes here ripen later than in Monte Ilice, as the steep slope of Monte Ilice catches the sun, whose warming effect more than compensates for the higher altitude.
Sadly it was not possible to visit the winery or taste the wines, but we were given a present of three wines for later: two Outis whites and one red. Note that these were both of vintages before Ciro and Giuseppe went their separate ways. I had already tasted the red last year, and liked it a lot. Here are notes from that wine and the three gifts, which were all tasted and drunk with a meal. They probably retail in the UK for between £20 and £25. You can see that my notes are very different for the same wine. I never pretend to be a consistent taster, but I do think that in these instances there was some bottle variation.
Etna Rosso DOC, Outis (Nessuno), 2008, 13.5%
I first tasted this in August 2013. Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense, complex and mature red fruit. Medium high acid. Light. Medium low tannin. A peppermint note. Fruit is vibrant and tangy as well as having some maturity. Drink now *****
Later on my Etna trip, at La Rocca della Rosa, where we were staying at the time. Medium garnet. Fresh mature red fruit. Medium high acid. Low but detectable tannins. Savoury mature fruit. Sous bois maybe. Possibly a bit tired ***
Etna Bianco DOC, Outis (Nessuno), 2010, 12.5%
At La Rocca della Rosa. Medium pale gold. Nose difficult in this glass. Medium acidity. Dry. Rich, deep and mature flavours. Orange, apricot. Excellent length. Ginger that is pretty dominant. Other spice too – more obvious as wine warms up. Drink now ****
Back home, after the trip. Pale amber gold. Intense. Pear maybe. Very slightly oxidised. Smoky. Mature. Medium acidity. Dry. Excellent length, with smoky finish. Drink now. Significantly more oxidation the following day ****