Wine of the Week 67 – lovely Lugana

I was in Italy last week, visiting the beautiful region of Trentino. I loved the place and found much that was exciting – not least the wonderfully vibrant beer culture in the area. However I flew in via Verona and treated myself to an extra day to explore this delightful city.

Apparently it has been a splendid Summer there, but decided to rain for the day and a half that I was there. And when I say rain, I mean rain, real rain, stair rods even.

However, nothing can take away from the beauty and charm of this famous little city, it remains a wonderful place in any weather. My only quibble is that the locals seem to be completely unaware that Romeo and Juliet are fictional. They mention them all the time and they claim that you can visit Juliet’s house and even her tomb. When I was there most of the tourist groups seemed to be going to the Disney Shop, which seemed just as strange.

Finding myself sitting in a lovely little Osteria just near Verona’s Piazza Brà – which is where you will find the amazing Roman arena, an incredible amphitheatre that is still in use for operas and concerts – I was excited to find a wine that I had long wanted to try on their list, so I ordered a glass.

Verona Arena.

Verona Arena.

The inside of Verona Arena.

The inside of Verona Arena.

The region around Verona is famous for the white wines of Soave and the reds of Valpolicella, but there are three other less famous wine made nearby. The reds of Bardolino are very similar to Valpoicella, the whites of Bianco di Custoza are very similar to Soave, but nearby Lugana produces white wines that are a little bit different and it was a specific Lugana that I had wanted to try.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy. Luana is just West of Verona on the shore of Lake Garda.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy. Lugana is just West of Verona on the shore of Lake Garda.

Lake Garda.

Lake Garda.

Lugana is right on the southern shore of Lake Garda and because of this location it enjoys a Mediterranean climate – everything else around has a continental climate. The vineyards are mainly in Lombardy with a small part in Veneto. I was always taught that Lugana is made from Trebbiano di Lugana, locally known as Turbiana and so had it down as a Trebbiano wine. Recently, however, it has been discovered that this grape is not the same as the nearby Trebbiano di Soave or any of the other Trebbianos that are found all over the country, but strangely is actually the same grape as Verdicchio. Verdicchio is most usually associated with the Marche region where it is most famously used to make Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica, but it is grown in Umbria and Latium as well.

Of these white wines, Soave remains widely available, at all quality levels from acceptable to very fine indeed – try an example from Inama or Prà – and while Bianco di Custoza suddenly seems to be available everywhere in the UK, Lugana remains something that needs to be sought out. Well, I now know why. It is because so much of it is drunk locally as it is highly prized in the region.

There are several quality levels and different types of Lugana, the more straightforward wines are called Lugana DOC, but these can be very fine indeed as is my Wine of the Week. Lugana Superiore requires 1 year maturation (not necessarily in oak, although some are) and lower yields.
Lugana Reserva is aged for a minimum of 24 months, with 6 months in bottle – not necessarily oak maturation.
Lugana Vendemmia Tardiva is a rarely produced late harvested, lightly sweet style and I have yet to try one.
Lugana Spumante is the sparkling version, but again I have yet to try one.

My spaghetti with clams.

My spaghetti with clams – the red powder is Botargo, which is cured fish roe, tuna in this instance.

I ordered a glass of  Lugana from Cá Lojera to go with my spaghetti and clams. The waiter brought over the bottle and  poured me my glass. I tasted it and that was enough for me to know it was very good, so I asked him to leave the bottle on the table – and I liked it so much I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Lugana2014 Lugana Cá Lojera
DOC Lugana
Azienda Agricola Cá Lojera
Sirmione, Lombardia, Italy

Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi bought this estate in 1992 and by 2008 and they were crafting some of the finest wines in the region and were instrumental – together with others such as Cà dei Frati – in making Lugana a sought after wine rathe than just a local drink. They farm 14 hectares and only use their own estate grown fruit and make their whites from 100% Trebbiano di Lugana / Turbiana. There is no oak used on this wine, which is the entry level of the range and is the freshest, simplest wine they make.

The wine is bright and lustrous to look at with a pale straw colour. The aromas excited me straight away with fresh apples, a touch of ripe melon, floral notes and a little cream. The palate has just a kiss of weight and texture and there is a lot going on with ripe fruit, apples and melon and a hint of something tropical, together with a salty mineral thing and a seam of fresh, citrus acidity. This is a beautiful wine that cheers the soul and is is very, very drinkable – 91/100 points.

If you like wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño or Godello then you will certainly enjoy this wine. It was a perfect aperitif and great with my Spaghetti alle Vongole and it would work with all manner of fish and poultry dishes too, even veal and pork and would be a good foil to lightly creamy sauces.

Available in the UK for around £17.00 per bottle, from Vinoteca, Buon Vino and Bottle Apostle.
Available in the US for around $17.00 per bottle – for stockist information, click here.

Wine of the Week 66 – a light, bright red or a deep rosé?

I got very excited by this wine. The look of it really attracted me, it just looked so bright and refreshing. The only trouble is, I could not quite work out what it was, it sort of looked liked a rosé, although in truth the colour was a bit deep. What’s more the label said it was a red wine – so who knew.

In the end I just decided to taste it – and I am glad I did, because it was so delicious I made it my Wine of the Week.


Eva and Leonardo Beconcini.

The wine is made by my friends Eva and Leonardo Beconcini at their family winery in Tuscany. The estate is called Pietro Beconcini and they make superb wines that never fail to impress me. This was the latest addition to their range and I am so glad that I was able to taste it.

Wine Map of Tuscany click for a larger view.

Wine Map of Tuscany click for a larger view.

Pietro Beconcini makes Chianti, but they also have a secret weapon. They grow a grape that is either unique to them in Tuscany, or no one else has discovered that they grow it. As well as Sangiovese, they grow Tempranillo – the Rioja grape – and have done for generations, although they only discovered what the grape was in the last 20 years or so. It is a great story and you can read all about in this piece I wrote about my visit to them.

The lovely vineyards at Pietro Beconcini.

The lovely vineyards at Pietro Beconcini.

Their new wine is a light red, or a deep rosé depending on your pointy of view, that they recommend serving chilled – which I did.

The wonderful colour of Fresco di Nero.

The wonderfully vibrant colour of Fresco di Nero.

Tempranillo Toscana
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
Tuscany, Italy

This wine is a fascinating style and is made from early harvested Tempranillo grapes – picked in August in fact, their Tempranillo is usually picked in mid September. The wine undergoes a col fermentation in glass lined concrete vats and is aged on the lees in the same tanks for 4 months.

A vivid deep, but bright and concentrated strawberry red with a subtle tinge of orange.
The nose blasts soft red fruit, orange peel and blood orange aromas together with a touch of enticing spice.
The palate is fresh and generous with a creamy texture and a touch of smoke from the 4 months on the lees I expect, even a little savoury, ready, stuffing character to the mid palate. The orange and orange peel and the red fruit, strawberry, cranberry and cherry all vie with each other for the centre spot on your palate giving a fresh fruit crunch and there is a nice freshness of acidity keeping the wine lively.

You can serve this as an aperitif, treating it as a serious rosé or with food as an excellent light red. Whether it’s a red or a rosé, it is surprisingly complex, quite delicious and very drinkable – 90/100 points.

I enjoyed it with charcuterie, but can imagine it works with almost anything and whatever you have it with, this is a wine to be enjoyed.

Wine of the Week 65 – a delicious, fresh tasting Grenache

My Wine of the Week this week is a really exciting red Grenache, or as it comes from Spain I should say Garnacha. Grenache is a Spanish grape and so should really have the Spanish name of Garnacha.

I have come to Grenache relatively late, but am making up for it as I am now tasting many delicious and exciting examples. Of course the grape is largely responsible for the famous wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France’s southern Rhône, but Spain makes a lot of very fine examples too. The most famous and widely praised must be from Priorat in Catalunya, but regular readers of these pages might be familiar with he sublime wines of Domaine Lupier in Navarra.

Anyway I have recently tasted a Garnacha that is actually not produced in any recognised wine region, so it is simply labelled as a Vino de la Tierra, similar to Vin de Pays in France – my second Spanish Vino de la Tierra Wine of the Week in a row. Don’t let that lowly classification put you off though, the wine is superb.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of the Moncayo Massif - click for a larger view.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of the Moncayo Massif – click for a larger view.

Moncayo2014 La Garnacha Salvaje del Moncayo
Vino de la Tierra Ribera de Queiles
Garnachas de España
Aragon, Spain

This wine is part of the Garnachas de España project which is attempting to reclaim garnet as Spain’s noble grape, to popularise it and to also bring Spain’s unused old Garnacha vines – the wild (salvaje) vineyards – back to productive life. Many vineyards were abandoned after phylloxera, some were considered too difficult to farm once tractors and other automative advances came in, in some cases families simply left the land and moved to the city. Whatever the reason, and there are many, old unused vines can be found all over most wine producing areas. This project is seeks to use this wonderful resource, just as Domaine Lupier did in Navarra.

The vineyards are grown on the north facing slopes of the Moncayo massif which is located between the Zaragoza in Aragon and Soria in Castilla y León – it straddles the Castile/Aragon border. The vineyards are high on infertile rocky soils that contain a lot of slate. So conditions are relatively cool with big temperature drops between night and day, even at the height of summer.

The grapes were handpicked and fermented in stainless steel tanks to retain freshness and fruit. The wine then ages in new French oak for 5 months, which smooths out the wine and softens the tannins.

The colour is relatively light and a vibrant crushed raspberry and blackberry colour. The nose is dominated by the fruit, bright fresh raspberry and cherry notes together with a twist of orange and soft spices. The palate is soft and lively with lots of freshness and crunchy red fruit. The tannins are soft and smooth with just a gentle smear of chalkiness on the finish and there is a little touch of minerality too. This is a happy, happy wine, soft, joyous and utterly delicious – 88/100 points.

Serve lightly chilled with almost any Mediterranean style food and you will have a very good time. I think it would be wonderful with Turkish lamb kebabs, it would even be nice to drink on its own.

Available in the UK from £6.95 to £10.49 a bottle from The Wine Society and Majestic Wine Warehouse.
US stockist information is available here.



Wine of the Week 64 – A is for Albillo

Those of you who read these pages regularly will know that I love finding new things, whether that is new wine regions, new wines styles, new grape varieties or producers. So, I am very excited by my new Wine of the Week.

It is a Spanish white wine – Spain seems to be turning out really exciting white wines right now – made from a grape variety called Albillo. I actually tasted it a while ago, but had failed to tell you all about, so I am rectifying that today.

Albillo is pretty rare, only being planted in Ávila, Galicia, Madrid, Ribera del Duero (where currently it is blended into red wines although the DO is about to start to make whites too) and Burgos Province. I actually mentioned the grape 6 years ago in my piece about the wines of Madrid here.

As with so many Spanish grapes, we have to be very careful as the same name can be used in all sorts of places for different grape varieties. Albillo is no exception as Albillo Real and Albillo Mayor are actually different grapes. My wine of the week is made from Albillo Mayor, which just to muddy the waters a little more and to show how confused wine names can be, is also sometimes known as Turruntés (in Rioja), Túrruntez, Abillo, Blanca del País. And if you were wondering if that means that it is related to Torrentes, well it isn’t. It seems that none of the Spanish grapes called Torrontes, or similar names, are related to the Torrentes of Argentina, although it just might be related to the Albillo Criollo grown in the Canary islands.

Excitingly though, it does seem that Albillo Mayor is one of Tempranillo’s parents, the other being Benedicto, an obscure grape that is no longer grown commercially.

Anyway, whatever Albillo it is, I love this wine so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of Ermita dl Conde - click for a larger view.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of Ermita del Conde – click for a larger view.

The Roman Theatre theatre at Clunia Sulpica.

The Roman Theatre theatre at Clunia Sulpica.

Ermita-del-Conde-Albillo-2011-640x6402013 Ermita del Conde Albillo Centenario
Bodegas Ermita del Conde
Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León
Burgos, Castilla y León, Spain

Ermita del Conde is a small estate that was created in 2006 by Marta Gomendio, but new though it is the secret here is that they largely use very old vines, which give wines of more depth with lower yields. I am also told that old vines ripen at lower sugar levels than younger vines, so give better balance and often slightly lower alcohol too.

The winery is in the little village of Coruña del Conde, which is outside the Ribera del Duero DO and so the wines have no DO, but have to be labelled as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, the equivalent of the French Vin de Pays. Coruña del Conde is roughly 60 km east of Valladolid, 60 km south west of Logroño and 40 km west of Soria. The estate takes its name from the medieval chapel, ermita or hermitage next door.

Just 2 km away are the magnificent ruins of the old Roman city of Clunia Sulpica, which was briefly the capital of Rome and for a long time the most important Roman city in northern Iberia. In fact the whole area is steeped in history, with Roman bridges, medieval churches and castles dotted about the landscape – this area was for long a defensive frontier, so castles are everywhere.

Marta now owns 16 hectares of old vines that she has purchased off the local farmers and nurtured back to a productive life, this story by the way is replicated across Spain – and elsewhere. Most of the grapes are Tempranillo, or Tinto Fino as it is known in these parts. I have not tasted the red wines, but hope to do so soon.

Apart from the age of the vines, the other thing that makes for great quality here is the height. These vines grow at over 900 metres above sea level. This altitude tempers the extreme summer heat ensuring the wines retain their natural acidity and delicacy. Also, everything here is done by hand with the utmost care, and it shows, what’s more the winery is incredibly well appointed with the most modern equipment that treats the grapes very gently.

This wine is made from vines that are over 100 years old – Albillo Centenario. It is fermented in 3000 litre French oak vats or foudres. Fermentation is spontaneous using the wild yeasts and once complete the wine is aged in the oak on the lees for a further 6 months.

The nose is pretty gentle and clean with delicate aromas of nuts, cream and lemon curd. It is on the palate that you find the excitement. The texture is so lovely that you find yourself smiling and looking around to see what others think as you drink it. It is creamy, yes, but also silky and suave. The flavours are mouth filling too, with apples, lemon, lemon rind, nectarine, almonds and a little butter. I swear there are hints of more tropical pineapple and coconut too as well as a beautifully balanced seam of acidity and mineral characters. The oak is very subtle and beautifully integrated.

I originally tasted the 2011, which was more developed, honeyed and nutty, while this is fresher and more lightly creamy. I like them both, but this wins for sheer drinkability, buy lots as the bottles empty very quickly indeed – 92/100 points.

This is a serious white wine of great quality and deserves to be much more famous. I drank it with pork, but am sure that it would be equally good with poultry or a pice of fish.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society.


Wine Without Borders – travels in Slovenia & Friuli

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Recently I was invited on a trip called Wines Without Borders. It was organised by my friend Paul Balke and we visited the wine regions of Colli Orientali, Collio and Friuli Isonzo in north eastern Italy and Brda, Vipava Valley and Koper in Slovenia.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

The whole focus was that the modern borders of the area bear no relation to reality and are merely lines on a map that ignore the peoples and cultures that straddle them. I was aware that the Slovenian people are to be found on both sides of the frontier, although the ones in Italy are often outwardly Italian and speak Italian, at least to foreigners.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Most of what we now call Slovenia was for centuries part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and much of Slovenia remains very Austro-Germanic. Ljubljana, the delightful capital city – called Laibach in imperial times – was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1895 and was rebuilt in an Austrian style, so resembles parts of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Most menus offer dumplings, schnitzel and cream cakes, while the inns and coffee houses often resemble those of Vienna. What’s more that great Austrian icon, the Lipizzaner Horse – of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School fame – has been bred at the Lipica Stud Farm in western Slovenia for over 400 years.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran main Square.

Piran Tartini Square was originally an inner harbour, boat trips leave from Piran for Venice every day.

Some of the western parts of Slovenia also have Italian influence, the coastal towns were all originally Venetian and rather charmingly still look it – Piran is one of the loveliest and most elegant seaside towns that I have ever visited. Even today people in these coastal zones often speak Italian, pasta is on every menu and the ice cream is as splendid as that in Italy itself.

As for Friuli in that north eastern corner of Italy, all of it together with Veneto had been in the old Austrian Empire until 1866. Right up until 1914 the border was a little further west than it is now. Trieste was Austria’s principal port – it still has an Austrian / Mitteleuropean feel – and further to the west Trentino-Atlo Adige (Südtirol) was still Austrian, infact the border cut through Lake Garda.

The First World War changed everything here. The Isonzo Front went right through the frontier zone between Italy and Austria, basically following the line of the river and the mountains, and the brutal fighting in these mountains was as hard as anything seen in Flanders. At the end of the war the Italians had seized Trentino-Alto Adige and the mixed Slovene / Italian city of Trieste. Both are still part of Italy today, while the western regions of what is now Slovenia – including the Istrian Peninsula – only remained Italian from 1919 before being handing over to Yugoslavia in 1947 before being inherited by Slovenia and Croatia in 1991.

After the Second World War Slovenia was a Republic within Tito’s Yugoslavia, and although the country was relatively liberal and outward looking by Eastern European standards – Yugoslavia was never part of the Warsaw Pact – the border was still strongly guarded.

This gave winemakers all sorts of problems as the border was drawn in such a way that it often cuts through vineyards, so many growers found themselves growing grapes in both Italy and Yugoslavia.

Nowadays of course both Italy and Slovenia are members of the EU, so the border is open and there are umpteen unguarded crossing points. Back then there were many fewer frontier posts and it was all more rigorously controlled, with growers having to drive hours out of their way in order to be able to tend grapes that grew only yards from their home. Anti Europeans often forget many of the good things that have come about because of the EU.

The border situation is most dramatic in Brda, which is arguably the most important wine region in Western Slovenia, it is certainly the most famous. Brda means hills in Slovenian and is simply a part of Italy’s Collio region that was detached when the border was fixed in 1947 – Collio means hills in Italian.

As you might expect they grow much the same grapes at the Italians grow in Collio and nearby Colli Orientali, although the names are not always the same:

Italian Name Slovenian name
Ribolla / Ribolla Gialla Rebula
Malvasia Malvazija
Refosco Refošk
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio Sivi Pinot
Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) Sauvignonasse / Jakot (Tokaj backwards)
Pinot Noir / Pinot Negro Modri Pinot
Pinot Blanc / Pinot Bianco Beli Pinot

Of course they also use the classic international grapes like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and have done for centuries. Interestingly Cabernet Franc often appears on labels here, and indeed it is grown, but the grape actually used is very often Carmenère. Just as in Collio it is very hard to generalise about the wines as such a wide range of grape varieties and blends is used, but this does for make for very exciting variety.

Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

The general quality is very high indeed, even from the local cooperative which is the largest producer in Slovenia. Most of the producers though are boutique wineries using organic techniques and low sulphur in their wines. I was very impressed by Mavrič (a superb Jacot and Sivi Pinot), Iaquin (whose production is tiny but who own a couple of very attractive looking guest houses), Čarga (whose Rebula is superb, as is their Cabernet Franc which is actually 75% Carmenère) and Ščurek whose blends – both red and white – were great wines.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

We also visited Movia, which is one of the star wineries of the country. The quality is very high and the wines are very exciting. I have been before, but this was a very different visit, so will write about it separately. We were also treated to a tasting of the wines of Marjan Simčič, who is a great winemaker who made some of the best wines that I tried on the trip. I have met him before and tasted his wines several times and they never cease to thrill me – I will write about him very soon too.

The other sub-regions of Primorje are: Koper, named for the beautiful town of the same name, this covers the coastal area and is the warmest and sunniest part of Slovenia. This coastal region – along with Kras – is where you find most of the Slovenian Refošk or Refosco. Just as with Malvasia, there appear to be several different Refoscos, which may or may not be related to each other – strangely it seems that the grape is also the Mondeuse Noire used in France’s Savoie Region. The low yielding Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the variant most commonly used in Friuli and is named for its red stems. Slovenia by and large uses the higher yielding Refosco dal Pedunculo Verde, which has green stems. Either of them might or might not be Teran when grown on Terra Rossa soils, or Teran might be a separate strain, sources disagree and I have not been able to find a definitive answer. Refosco has high acid and high tannins, so can appear somewhat rustic to the unwary palate. Modern winemaking can get around this and I have tasted some delicious examples from both Italy and Slovenia, I would particularly recommend the Refosco from Tenuta di Blasig in Friuli, the Refošk from Santomas in Koper and the Organic Refošk from the Polič Estate between Koper and the Croatian border.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia's tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia’s tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Sparkling pink Refosk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

Sparkling pink Refošk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

The Kras, or Karst, is a limestone plateau just inland from Trieste, it is riddled with cave systems and underground rivers and gives its name to this sort of landscape worldwide. A visit to the Postojna Caves is an incredible experience and one not to be missed. Henry Moore described them as ‘the best exhibition of nature’s sculpture I have ever seen’. Lipica Stud Farm is another attraction worth visiting in this area.

The soils here are iron rich red terra rossa and that iron minerality often finds its way in to the wines. The climate here is harsh and variable, storms are frequent and winds powerful, but the wines can be very rewarding. The beloved local speciality is Teran, which is a type of Refosco, as far as I can discover it is probably a local variant of the Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (although it might not be) and as you might expect it is also produced in the neighbouring Italian Carso DOC. We did not visit any wineries in Kras on this trip, but I have been very impressed by the wines from Čotar in the past, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and their Terra Rossa red blend of Teran, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Vipava Valley is a beautiful place just inland from the Kras and Koper. Strong winds rip through here, tempering the conditions and making a sub-Mediterranean climate and allowing them to make some stunning light and fresh white wines and some very elegant reds, including some made from the Barbera grape more commonly associated with Piemonte in north western Italy.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

Vineyards in Vipava.

Vineyards in Vipava.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

One of my very best experiences on this trip was a wonderful tasting and lunch in Vipava with a handful of generous and passionate wine makers who showed us some thrilling wines. The quality impressed me enormously, especially the wines from Sutor, Tilia Estate, Posestvo Burja (an organic producer that still makes the field blends that were the traditional style of the area until WW11), Lepa Vida (whose oOo is one of the most enjoyable Orange wines that I have ever tasted) and Guerrila who produce stunning white wines made from the local Zelen and Pinela grapes, as well as very toothsome red blends.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

In Italy we visited the Isonzo area, which is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene). I was very impressed by all the wines of Tenuta di Blasig and some of the Pinot Grigios that I tasted. It is very unusual for me to like Pinot Grigio, but they just seem to have so much more character and interest here than the bland examples that most people drink in the UK. I particularly enjoyed the Pinot Grigio from Masùt da Rive.

Vineyards of Collio.

Vineyards of Collio.

Our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Some of our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Collio, or Collio Goriziano, is historically the same region as neighbouring Brda before the 1947 border split them up and the words mean the same things – hills. As you might expect both sides of the frontier are very hilly, but in a very attractive, gently rolling kind of way – it really is a delightful landscape. Just as in Brda the range of grape varieties and wines made from them is enormous, from both single varietals and blends, but production favours whites more than reds. Ribolla Gialla and Friulano might well be the signature grapes here, but both Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are produced, as are Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Cooking the polenta in Collio.

Cooking the polenta at the Osteria de la Subida near Cormons in Collio.

The polenta is ready.

The polenta is ready.

I have never really warmed to Friulano, I have always considered it a very odd grape, it is certainly hard to pin down. Long known in Italy as Tocai or Tocai Friulano, it was likewise called Tokaj in Slovenia, but it has nothing to do with the Hungarian Tokaj at all. It is actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, which was widely planted in Chile where it was believed to be Sauvignon Blanc – it isn’t. Well you will be pleased to know that on this trip I did warm to the Friulano grape and had some splendid examples in every region that we visited, but perhaps my favourite was a single vineyard wine made by Raccaro, their Friulano Vigna del Rolat. I also greatly enjoyd the wines of Carlo di Pradis and Borgo del Tiglio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

We returned to Collio a few days later to stay in a place called San Floriano del Collio, which though in Italy had a view of our first hotel just 3 or 4 kilometres away in Slovenia. Whilst here we visited Oslavia a village a kilometre or 2 further south and it was a fascinating day. Firstly it was a very beautiful place, secondly all the ‘Italians’ that I met spoke Slovenian and thirdly the wines were fascinating. I must admit that I even found the name Oslavia interesting, surely that means place of the west Slavs? If so how amazing that it is about as west as Slavs can be found even today. The focus for this part of the trip was the local speciality of Ribolla Gialla, although we tasted other wines too. Ribolla is said to get its name from the fact that historically the wines were not very stable and would re-ferment, so bubble away and look as though they were reboiling. The grape is not very aromatic and can seem a bit strange when you first taste it, but there are some superb wines made from it.

Most of the wines that we tasted here were Orange wines, white wines made with long skin contact – hence the orange colour – they were also organic and often biodynamic and low sulphur too. I have to be honest, wines like that are not often for me, I usually find them more interesting than drinkable, but I did try a few here that were both. Fiegl’s wines impressed me, but these are the only ones here that were not Orange at all and instead had freshness and purity. The others were about the complexity of long skin contact and barrel ageing on the lees, sometimes for years. I was very impressed by Primosic, whose 2010 Klin was my wine of the day. Radikon also made an excellent Ribolla, which is officially a wine with no sulphur, as the amounts are so low they cannot be measured – I have never seen that before. I also liked their Slatnik blend of Chardonnay and Friulano. Dario Prinčič also makes a fascinatingly complex Orange style Ribolla.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Colli Orientali was an interesting place to visit too, if hard to get a handle on. It is a big place with lots going on. Lots of grape varieties and lots of blends are produced here too. Historically it has been seen as more prestigious than Collio and the wines were certainly more visible in the UK than those of Collio. One reason might be that this is often said to be the birthplace of varietal labelling, soon after World War 11, so the labels were easier to understand, who knows? Again this is mainly a white wine region, or at least the wines that have made it famous and prosperous tend to be white, but plenty of red is made too. Dry white wine production is dominated by Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and the local Verduzzo, the best of which now has its own DOCg Ramandolo. Picolit, another local grape variety, is used to make light sweetish wines.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Although plenty of famous black grapes are grown and red wine is made, the speciality red is Schioppettino. This grape variety was rescued from near extinction only in the 1980s and is enjoying something of a modest renaissance, which is good as the wines seem to be very good, with a lovely rich fruity quality, smooth texture and delicate spice characters.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

We visited the rather lovely Azienda Agricola Moschioni where we were able to taste a wide range of local wines produced by them and other local wineries. I was very taken with the wines of Bastianich, particularly their Friulanos, white blend and incredibly concentrated Calabrone red blend. Rodaro‘s Schiopottino Romain made from dried, overripe grapes and aged 18 month in barrel was a delight, as was their intense Refosco dal Peduncolo Rossa Romain. I was also really impressed by the concentrated and spicy Moschioni Shioppettino.


Looking down on the Isonzo from Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino. Some of the fiercest fighting of WW1 took place in this terrain.

A Wonderful Corner of Europe
I loved this trip to this wonderful part of the world that is somewhat neglected by tourists, certainly ones from the UK. I loved the countryside, I loved the people, their food, their wines and their spirit of hospitality. I even got the chance to clamber about in some of the First World War trenches high on Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino where some of the fiercest fighting took place between the Austro-Hungarians and the Italians. Ethnic Italians and ethnic Slovenes fought on both sides and today share this landscape in a peaceful, productive and creative way. So many things are better today, I just cross my fingers and hope that Europe does not revert back to the destructive ways of nationalism and formal borders. We all suffer if we do that. People suffer, our culture suffers, our pleasures diminish and wine will be the poorer.

I like my Wines Without Borders.

Wine of the Week 63 – marvellous Malvasia


Friuli Isonzo with the mountains to the north.

Earlier this year I was invited on a fascinating wine trip. It was entitled Wines Without Borders and was a study tour of vineyards around the Italian-Slovenian border areas. The premise was that the frontier is entirely artificial and manmade and that many of the same traditions of winemaking straddle that post World War Two border.

Sketch wine map of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia, click for a larger view.

Sketch wine map of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia, click for a larger view.

Both sides of the border tend to use the same grape varieties, Ribolla, Refosco, Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio and Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, it was the Malvasia that especially drew my attention on the Italian side of the frontier.

I am often drawn to white wines made from the Malvasia grape. However you spell it Malvasia, Malvazia, Malvazija or even Malmsey the wines can often be very exciting indeed. Spain produces some lovely examples, especially whites from Toro and Arribes in Castilla y León as well as from the Canary Islands. Malvasia can often ad more complexity and depth to Rioja’s Viura grape to make a finer style of white Rioja  try this stunning example made from 100% Malvasia.

Vineyards in Collio, north of Isonzo.

Vineyards in Collio, north of Isonzo.

Actually there are many different types of Malvasia and not all grape varieties that are called Malvasia are actually related – indeed Malvoisie in France’s Loire Valley is actually Pinot Gris. In many ways Malvasia can be seen as a sort of portmanteau word allowing early merchants to lump together good quality white grapes of the Mediterranean world – a bit like Pineau (which then possibly became Pinot) was for good quality grapes in Mediaeval France.

On this trip the particular strain that we encountered was Malvasia Istriana or Istrska Malvazija in Slovenian – the same grape is used in Istrian Croatia as well, where it is called Malvazija Istarska.

Several examples were excellent, but the one that really stuck in my mind was the Malvasia from the beautiful Tenuta di Blasig, so I have made it my Wine of the Week.


Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli talking about her beloved Malvasia.

Malvasia bottle2013 Malvasia Vermegliano
Tenuta di Blasig
DOC Friuli Isonzo
Ronchi dei Legionari, Fruili-Venezia-Giulia, Italy

Tenuta di Blasig was founded by Domenico Blasig in 1788 with the aim of making fine Malvasia wine. Although they grow other grapes and make one of my favourite Refocus, Malvasia remains the focus. The charming Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli is the eighth generation of the family to manage the estate and she seems to do a vey good job, producing wines of elegance and depth. They farm 18 hectares, but the vineyards are spread out and often found surrounded by suburban buildings – Trieste Airport is very close indeed and the winery is right next to the town hall. The region is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene).

I was always drawn to the town name, Ronchi dei Legionari, assuming that it harked back to Roman times. Sadly this is not the case. In fact the name was originally Ronchi Monfalcone and was only changed in 1925 to commemorate the fact that nationalist, war hero, poet and proto fascist, Gabriele D’Annunzio‘s legionnaires set off from here in 1919 to seize the port of Fiume / Rijeka (now in Croatia) from the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon to be called Yugoslavia. D’Annunzio wanted Fiume to be part of Italy, as was the rest of Istria at the time. His occupation of the city lasted for 16 months and made him a national hero. D’Annunzio was a friend of the Blasig family and actually stayed in the house before sailing to Fiume and a whole wall near the kitchen is covered in amazing photographs of D’Annunzio and his men.

The house is utterly beautiful and I can quite see why D’Annunzio stayed there. It is an old Palazzo with wonderful wall paintings, decorative tiles and stunning gardens. We tasted and dined in the newer part attached to the winery, but saw some of the old house after dinner.

All the wines were excellent, including a deliciously rich and savoury Refosco and their Elisabetta Brut, a lithe, refreshing tank method sparkling wine made from Malvasia and Pinot Bianco, but the standout was this dry, still Malvasia which is a single vineyard wine from the nearby village of Vermegliano. It is cold fermented in stainless steel and aged on the lees for 6 months.

The nose is fresh, but not that aromatic with melon and floral blossom notes. There are also little glimpses of orange nuts and a saline note.
The palate is medium-bodied and slightly fleshy with a little succulence and almond and toffee and a little salty minerality too, like a fine Chablis.

That orange comes back, giving a soft, citric twist, while the weight and the salty minerality dominate the finish, which is pretty long.

This is a very complex wine that shows just how good Malvasia can be – 91/100 points.

If Malvasia was more available and tasted like this more often, then I think it would be a much more popular grape variety. Try this, if you can find it, or similar Malvasias with some grilled fish and salad. For some reason Tenuta di Blasig wines are very hard to find, although the Refosco at least is available in the US, click here.


Wine of the Week 62 – another excellent rosé for Summer

Esk Valley Estate The Terraces vineyard. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Esk Valley Estate The Terraces vineyard. Photo courtesy of the winery.

I don’t really hold with the view that rosé is only nice in Summer. Some rosés really do lend themselves to being drunk with more wintery food, but even I enjoy drinking most rosés in better weather, preferably on a sun-drenched terrace  – it seems to encapsulate the feeling of Summer.

Ever since the weather became a little warmer and the sun a bit brighter I have been trying a good few rosé wines  and I have tasted some really superb examples – like this Australian one here

They have come from all over the place too, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Australia, Bordeaux, the Loire, Burgundy and of course Champagne, but one of my recent favourites has been this deliciously full-flavoured rosé from New Zealand. I liked it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

Esk Rosé Esk Valley Estate
Hawke’s Bay
New Zealand

Esk Valley is a stand alone part of the Villa Maria group of wineries that is a specialist boutique winery making some of New Zealand’s finest red wines – although their whites are pretty good too. The guiding light here is winemaker Gordon Russell, who is widely recognised as one of New Zealand’s finest. Londoners have a rare opportunity to taste his wines and to hear what he has to say at a tutored tasting on 25 September 2015 – click here for details.

Gordon Russell at Esk. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Gordon Russell at Esk. Photo courtesy of the winery.

This rosé is a blend of 34% Merlot, 33% Malbec and 33% Cabernet Sauvignon grown in New Zealand’s most important red wine region, Hawke’s Bay. The colour comes from skin contact – as is traditional, but becoming more rare in New Zealand – which gives a little touch of tannin too, which nicely balances the fresh acidity.

The colour is gorgeous with a deep cherry / salmon hue with touches of orange too. The nose is lifted and vibrant with cherry, redcurrant and blood orange. The palate has fresh red fruit and acidity – strawberry and cherry – a twist of orange and a nice dusting of spices. This is an unusually rich and complex rosé with a creamy ripe texture and some lovely weight that lifts it above many of its peers.

The weight makes it excellent with lamb, but the freshness makes it equally enjoyable with chicken or fish, while the fruitiness makes it delicious to drink on its own as an aperitif – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10.00 per bottle from Woodwinters Wines & Whiskies LtdThe New Zealand House of WineAmps Fine Wines, Central VintnersKingsgate Wines and Islington Wine.