I’m not going to give you an exhaustive account of the native grape varieties I encountered on my recent wine trip to North Greece, but Xinomavro certainly deserves a few words. And before that I’d like to say that the trip also confirmed my liking for Assyrtiko and Malagousia. They are very different grapes, Assyrtiko being relatively lean and mean, the closest point of reference being Riesling I would say. A couple of times I even believed I detected a whiff of petrol in it. Malagousia however is a lot more full-bodied and aromatic – more of a crowd-pleaser I think. Incidentally, Malagousia was effectively rescued from obscurity by winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou, now owner of Ktima Gerovassiliou, who joined us for lunch there. Assyrtiko’s stronghold is Santorini, which is now even more firmly on my list of places to visit. Anyway, back to Xinomavro…
The variety is hardly a branding success with a tricky-to-pronounce name that translates as sour-black. Actually the pronunciation is not too difficult: It starts with a “ks” sound and the stress is on the first “o”. Without a doubt, Xinomavro is the quality black grape of North Greece. It is the only variety allowed in the important PDOs of Naoussa and Amyndeo, and, as mentioned in a previous post, one of the three varieties required for PDO Rapsani. Most of Xinomavro wines are red, but it is not unusual to find rosé and even white examples. There is nothing special about the grapes used for the white version; they are just vinified as a white wine, in the same way as the base wine for a Blanc de Noirs Champagne.
Xinomavro is often compared with Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, and said to develop olive and tomato notes as it matures. I am not sure about Pinot Noir, but I can certainly see similarities with Nebbiolo, largely because the Xinomavro tannins are so huge. The aromatic profiles of Nebbiolo and Xinomavro also have points in common. Someone on our trip said that neither variety was particularly fruity, and I think I see what they mean, but that is not to say they are not aromatic. On the basis of the young wine aromatic profile only, I also found similarities with Aussie Shiraz – a sort of engineering workshop smell of oil and Swarfega – but I think I was in a minority of one on that!
Am I selling the grape to you? Really, you have to believe that I came away as a big Xinomavro fan. Despite the name, I did not find the wines particularly acidic, but they were certainly not flabby either. Maybe that makes it sounds more attractive? But the best is to come. Like Nebbiolo, Ximomavro wines age well. I really would not like to characterise the bouquet of mature Xinomavro wines from my limited experience, other than to say that they are beautifully complex and I wasn’t totally convinced about the olive and tomato flavours they are meant to have.
The white Xinomavro wines I tried were attractive, with no hint of their tannic grape origins. On the other hand, the rosés were pretty dark and beefy by rosé standards, tending towards a light red wine. As I am not a big rosé wine lover, the closer it is to a red wine the better. It should also be noted that while most Xinomavro reds are very tannic, it is possible to vinify the grape to make a red wine that is much more soft and fruity when young.
A good example of that style (to the honest, the only one I found on the trip) is Thymiopoulos Naoussa Jeunes Vignes, which is available from The Wine Society. Marks and Spencer also do one of his wines at a similar price, which they call Thymiopoulos Xinomavro. If you are buying from The Wine Society, you could also pick up a bottle of ThymiopoulosEarth and Sky Naoussa, which is considerably more tannic and age-worthy than the Jeunes Vignes. I tasted the 2008, which I suspect had already begun to soften with age. I wouldn’t want to single these wines out for excellence, as I tasted many other good ones, but I think they offer a nice contrasting pair, and have the advantage of being relatively easy to buy in the UK. If you would like another recommendation, I would suggest the Alpha Estate Xinomavro Reserve Veilles Vignes, which is PDO Amyndeo. We tasted the 2010, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the wines we sampled at Alpha Estate. Amyndeo wines are supposed to be softer and more generous than those from Naoussa – Côte de Beaune rather than Côte de Nuit as someone put it – and this is approachable now, even if it would improve with age. It is available from a number of independent merchants in the UK.
So I have three Greek grape varieties that I know I like: Assyrtiko, Malagousia, and now Xinomavro.
The very first event of our North Greece wine trip was an evening tasting in our Thessaloniki hotel, offered by four wineries that we would not get the opportunity to visit. We had many good wines, but the Tear of the Pine in particular grabbed my attention. It was not only good, but something markedly different to anything else I had tasted before: a high quality Retsina.
Modern Retsina is generally a low quality white wine heavily flavoured with pine resin, which masks the quality of the base wine and any faults it might have. It is uncertain how it developed from the ancient practice of using pine resin for sealing amphoras to help preserve the wine. The evidence seems to be that the resin flavour was merely tolerated by the Greeks, it being left to the Romans to decide that it was a Good Thing, with Pliny the Elder writing about the best resins, and how he liked the bits of resin that got stuck in his teeth. But how did Pliny’s connoisseurship of pine resin lead to the resinous Greek wine of today? Apart from anything else, the resin is now added at the fermentation stage, which is necessary to extract the resinous flavour. The above-mentioned amphoras were used for transporting wine, not for fermentation, so it is possible that if ancient wines did taste of resin it was because the fermentation continued a little or re-started after the main fermentation period.
I always thought that Retsina was a pleasant enough drink when sitting in a simple taverna on holiday in Greece; in that situation I think I tended to order it more than most people. But for some reason the idea of drinking it back in the UK never appealed. Then, a few weeks ago, I was at a tasting in central Thessaloniki on a rainy evening, and without wanting to sound too negative the atmosphere was probably closer to that of Manchester than a Greek beach. The second producer at the tasting was Stelios Kechris Domaine, with oenologist Eleni Kechris presenting the wines.
We started with their Kechirabi Retsina, a wine they started making in 1939. It is 100% Roditis and fermented in stainless steel tanks with top quality pine resin. Without having had other Retsinas to compare with, it was difficult to evaluate, but I thought it was better than the Retsina of Greek beaches enjoyed many years ago. The predominant flavour was without a doubt pine resin, and it had a nice clean and refreshing feel to it.
Then we moved on to the Tear of the Pine Retsina. Like Kechirabi, the vintage was not on the label, but it was in fact from 2014. To give you some idea of the price, it retails in Greece for around €12, which would probably translate to around £17 in the UK, and is over double the cost of Kechrabi. The Tear of the Pine is made from the highly regarded Assyrtiko grape variety, fermented in new oak barrels, and aged on the lees for 6 months. It demonstrated very well how good Retsina could be, if you start with the intention of making a good quality white wine and use carefully selected pine resin in a controlled fashion. Here the use pine resin was very subtle, to the extent that it was easy not to notice initially. But the strength of the resinous aromas did seem to build up, perhaps as the wine warmed, and was most noticeable on the finish.
Let’s attempt a tasting note for the Tear of the Pine… Intense, fresh, citric on the nose. Almost Riesling-like with lime and maybe a hint of petrol. Herbs. Oak definitely. Aromatic resin in the background, sometimes contributing a spicy note. Medium high acidity on the palate, and bone dry. Citrus, oak and pine in that order of intensity, and with that order in time. More pine on the finish, then oak, giving an almost astringent finish. Elegant, with the resin providing complexity and refreshment. I drank the wine with dinner on a couple of occasions too, and the only slight negative was that after four glasses or so the wood flavours – the oak as well and the pine – started to get a bit much for me. If only I was able to stop after three glasses… 🙂 *****
It was the first afternoon of our wine trip in North Greece programme, and time for The Rapsani Wine Aventure. On receiving the itinerary before my trip, I quickly checked out this Adventure using Google. I found the video, and it looked fun.
But it took me more time to figure out what Rapsani was, and why we were being taken up the mountain. It turns out that Rapsani is the name of a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) that lies just to the South of Mount Olympus. Its wine is red, and made from roughly equal parts of three grapes: the highly respected Xinomavro variety, and the lesser known Krassato and Stavroto, which moderate Xinomavro’s rather austere structure. Traditionally the vineyards have mixed vines, but some newer ones are mono-varietal.
The mountainous PDO region is closely associated with the producer Tsantali, who effectively rescued wine production there by buying the failing local co-op winery from the Greek Agriculture Bank. They did this in 1991, and invested heavily in the area, not only in the vineyards and production facilities but also in promoting the wine. And it was Tsantali who were our hosts, transporting us in Land Rovers up the mountain, pouring samples of Rapsani en route in the vineyards, and providing larger quantities of mature vintages for us to drink with dinner at our destination, a taverna in the town of Rapsani – the town that gives the PDO its name.
Our first stop en route was at around 250m above sea level, where we inspected some bush vines and tasted Tsantli’s entry-level 2012 Rapsani. This was made from vines grown at altitudes up to 250m, and in accordance with the PDO rules had at least 6 months ageing in oak barrels and a further 6 months in bottle before release. Their Reserve Rapsani is grown at 250-500m and has at least 12 months in barrel and 12 in bottle, and the Grande Reserve is grown above 500m with at least 3 years in barrel and 1 in bottle. So we were standing on the boundary between straight Rapsani vines and Reserve ones as it were, and tasting the wine of the vineyards below us. It was refreshing, straightforward, and easy to like. Whilst having character and a certain edginess it also had good fresh fruit. There was minerality and good acidity, with an astringency that was kept at a low level, but which still made a positive contribution to the wine.
We paused at places with stunning views where you could see the extent of the Rapsani vineyards, but the next tasting stop was as 500m. Here the vines were cordon pruned. Following the pattern of sampling from the vines we had just driven through, we had Reserve wines here: a 2014 barrel sample and the 2011. I thought I detected a little reduction in the barrel sample, but the 2011 was more complete, with slightly lifted red fruit, good depth, a smooth and viscous mouth-feel, and moderate tannins. A more serious wine than the straight Rapsani, but I liked them both equally in different ways.
We also popped into the charming St Theodore’s monastery, founded in 1778 and dedicated to winegrowers. Internally it is covered with well preserved Athonite style frescos. Then onto Rapsani town. We first visited the fascinating Museum of Wine and Vine. Here there were many well presented winemaking artefacts, but for me some of the most interesting exhibits were the photographs. These included some from what I would guess were the 1950s and 1960s, depicting families posing in vineyards wearing their Sunday-best. Clearly the vineyards and wine had great cultural significance for them, which would have made the economic decline of winemaking in the area, leading to the collapse of the co-op, even harder to bear.
This was followed by a short walk to a local taverna for an excellent dinner of generous proportions, and equally generous supplies of Tsantali wine, mainly Rapsani of course, but also a Malagousia. The wines included the 2008 Grande Reserve, and two magnums of fully mature Reserve, 1999 and 2002, which beautifully demonstrated how well Rapsani can age in 10-15 years.
It was a long day, finishing well past midnight, but I had experienced a lot. And I had learned a lot about Rapsani, from the history and vineyards, all the way through to enjoying the magnums of mature Rapsani Reserve with good food. I felt I had begun to get under the skin of Rapsani.
The trip was organised through the Circle of Wine Writers, and I am very grateful to Ted Lelekas for initiating and leading the visit, to Wines of North Greece for their support including trip expenses within Greece, and to all producers who gave us hospitality. We started in Thessaloniki, and then visited the points of interest in a clockwise direction on this map. For more geographic detail, click on the image and pan and zoom around my Google map.
The producers we visited were Gerovassiliou (G), Tsantali vineyards in Rapsani (H), Katogi Averoff (A), Alpha Estate (B) and Kir-Yanni (K), but we also met many others and tasted their wines. I mention the ones we visited here, because inevitably they had the greatest effect on my overall impression. It is also worth mentioning that about half-way through the 5 days, we took a break from wine-related activities and visited the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai in Vergina, which is probably the most impressive archaeological museum I have ever visited, and a stunning reminder of Macedonia’s historical wealth and power.
From what we were shown, and indeed from what I have read elsewhere, the overriding impression is that producers in North Greece are ambitious, quality conscious and, perhaps most importantly, prepared to drive forward their vision by investing and taking risks. This is not a place largely populated by small family businesses who continue to produce wine according to the tradition of centuries, nor a place that attracts foreign celebrities who come to play out their winemaking fantasies. Here are people serious about rebuilding a modern quality-conscious wine industry.
There is a lot of pride in native grape varieties, and significant efforts have been made to save and protect them. But equally I found a surprising willingness to use international varieties, blended with local or other international grapes, and in varietal wines. Presumably the wines made solely from international varieties are mainly for the Greek market. They must be difficult to sell abroad, where they compete either with classic regions or with whoever can sell cheaply at the commodity end of the market.
The approach to viticulture and wine making is largely based on science and technology. Many of the producers use sustainable viticulture, and I understand there is a certification scheme for this in Greece, but few seem to worry much about being organic. Biodynamics was only mentioned once, and in reply to a direct question from me. The reply was “we have no interest in biodynamics”. I fear most drinkers of quality wine would like a bit of mysticism in the back-story, but personally I applaud the approach of ignoring woo-woo and seeking quality through science and sustainable viticulture.
Indeed, taken as a whole, I found the down-to-earth and business-like approach very refreshing compared with the flannel often heard in wine marketing. It accords more with the “common-sense attitude” in the strapline of my blog.
So those are my general impressions. More about specific parts of the trip later…
Update: Alexandra Anthidou, of Wines of North Greece, indicated that my comments on the use of technology and biodynamics were not generally applicable to Greek wineries. For example, around half of them are in fact biodynamic. The ones we visited, and which formed my impressions, were a selection of some of the more serious, successful and famous wineries. I still suspect that equivalent producers in other countries and regions would project a different image, but I will let you the reader decide on that.
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.
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 ****
The cantina of Calabretta, despite being on the main road through Randazzo, is easy to miss. Planning our visit, we just about managed to locate it the previous day, Sunday, when it looked pretty much like it did in Street View, shown below (click image to go to Google Street View). There may have been a small sign to indicate its presence, but we couldn’t find one. The following afternoon however, the shutters were open and the cellar man Salvatore was by the entrance to greet us.
It soon became apparent that Salvatore had about as little English as we had Italian, and only a little longer to discover that actually it did not matter. We could get the drift of most of what he said, and he seemed to understand most of our blend of English and pidgin Italian. His friendly smiling manner helped no end, and the more technical it got the easier it was. Fermentazione malolattica? No problem. He showed us a list of wines that we were to taste: Carricante 2012, Nerello Cappuccio 2012, Nonna Concetta 2012, Contrada dei Centinari 2012, Pinot Noir 2012, Pinot Noir 2013, Etna Rosso 2012, Etna Rosso 2010, Etna Rosso 2007, Etna Rosso 2005. The non-varietally named wines were basically Nerello Mascalese, the Etna Rosso also having some Nerello Cappuccio.
With the list in mind, we set about exploring the cantina to find each of the wines. As at Terre Nere, this was to be a tasting from barrel and (here) stainless steel tank. As I remember it, the cantina consisted of the basement, ground floor and first floor of the small block shown in Street View above, plus some out buildings in the yard behind, and it certainly felt like we visited all corners. It’s amazing how much wine you can store in a small space. It seemed chaotic, but was clean, and Salvatore knew exactly where to find each wine. My tasting notes are so sketchy as to be meaningless to anyone else, so I will just give some brief more-or-less general impressions here.
Overall I was very impressed, with all my scores being **** or *****. Supposedly Calabretta make wine in a more traditional manner than most Etna producers, for example favouring large barrel maturation to barrique. I am not sure I was (or am now) knowledgeable enough to be able to recognise that traditional quality in the wines, but I will say that they generally had a straightforward fresh honest simplicity about them, which I liked a lot.
The Nonna Concietta 2012 and the Etna Rosso 2012 had a raisiny note, which I also came across in Etna wines of other producers. Normally I do not like that character, associating it with flabby wines made from over-ripe grapes. But the raisiny Etna wines also seemed to show good acidity and astringency, which made them very appealing.
A star wine for me was the Pinot Noir 2012, grown at the high altitude of 900m. This definitely showed varietal character, but was a Pinot Noir unlike any other I have tasted. In addition to the intense fruit, it had a remarkable focus, and a steely minerality. We also tasted the 2013, which was a little frizzante and farmyardy – fermentazione malolattica.
Towards the end of the tasting, we had the mini-vertical of Etna Rosso – 2012, 2010, 2007 and 2005. All were very enjoyable. The 2012 was still very astringent, but not such that it would stop me drinking it with food, and I thought the 2007 and 2005 were fully mature.
After the tasting I bought a bottle of Etna Rosso 2004 without reflecting on it too much, but was later told that Calabretta sell their Etna Rosso only 10 years after the vintage, when it is judged to be ready for drinking – a fine principle that I wish more producers would adopt. The other two bottles I bought, based on my liking of the barrel sample vintages, were Nonna Concetta 2010 and La Contrada dei Centenari 2011. The Etna Rosso was a very reasonable 12 Euros at the cellar door, and would be likely to sell for around £20 in the UK, if you can find it at all. I didn’t see a complete price list, but none of the wines I bought were over 15 Euros. If you think you might wish to buy several cases, as well you might, take plenty of cash as credit cards are not accepted.
We started our visit to Tenuta delle Terre Nere in the winery office, and met our host Marco Ciancio. The first thing that caught my eye in the office was a large geological relief map of the Etna region. I wanted one, but soon realised that even if I could find one to buy, there was no way to get it home intact on the plane and so abandoned the idea. Unlike most images here, if you click on it you can see an enlarged version, but sadly there is still not enough detail to read it properly. The town of Randazzo, and Tenuta delle Terre Nere, lie roughly to the North of Etna’s peak, and must be close to the edge of the orange bit at the top of the map.
We were briefly introduced to Marco de Grazia, the founder of Terre Nere, who had popped into the office briefly despite not feeling well. He explained his vision of how Etna could rival Burgundy in terms of quality wines showing distinct terroir characteristics. On the face of it, it certainly seemed possible. The colours on the map indicate geological variations, and superimposed on that there are large topological variations and height differences. The question remaining in my mind is whether Nerello Mascalese, the local standard bearer grape, is up to the job carried out by Pinot Noir in Burgundy. But even if Etna wine does not reach the dizzy heights of Burgundy, we can certainly all have a lot of fun discovering Etna’s potential.
Before long we were in Marco’s 4×4, heading out to Terre Nere’s various contrade, a term which in wine law is now used to refer to officially defined vineyards areas. Terre Nere’s vineyards are laid out in a band along Etna’s Northern flank between Solicchiata and Randazzo, at heights between 400 and 900m. We started at the relatively low Calderara Sottana, with the prephylloxera vineyard, and then drove up to the higher contrade of Santo Spirito, Guardiola and Feudo di Mezzo. The differences between these vineyards were obvious even to the untrained eye. They were not the famed Burgundian terroir differences that depend on which side of the track, or exactly how far up a gentle slope, you are. The soils were clearly different in texture, and the altitude differences huge. The image above shows rotovating in progress between old Nerello Mascalese albarello vines, in Guardiola I believe.
Then back for a quick scamper through the winery. We paused to taste barrel samples from last year’s vintage, which was to be bottled in 2015. I am not sure how meaningful tasting notes are at this early stage in the maturing process, but they were already attractive wines and showing clear differences, so some brief impressions are given below. The wines are all Etna Rosso DOC, and would retail for around £28 in the UK, or £50 for the Prephylloxera. Cellar door prices were about the same numbers, but in Euros rather than Pounds.
Santo Spiritu – Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Delicate. Feminine ****
Feudo di Mezzo – Slightly reductive. More body than the Santo Spiritu. Medium acid and tannin. Intense raspberry and strawberry *****
Guardiolo – Intense fruit. Some peppermint. Medium high acid. Medium tannin. Intense and precise *****
Calderara Sottana – Medium acid. Medium tannin. Precise and intense fruit. Similar to Guardiolo, but more fruit *****
Prephylloxera– Intense spice. Medium acid. Medium high tannin. Intense. Good minerality and fruit too. Great length *****