Tuscany – a short travel guide

The weather is getting better and many of us are turning our thoughts to travel. Every now and again I write wine travel articles for my friends at the excellent 3D Wines Experience wine club and they print them in their Uncorked Magazine. Well, I thought that some of my readers here would enjoy them too, so I will publish them on here in a slow trickle.

My first piece for 3D Wines was about Tuscany and while it isn’t comprehensive it does cover a good swathe of lovely places in Tuscany’s, so I hope that it comes in handy for some of you.

Wine map of Tuscany – click for a larger view.

Tuscany has been attracting visitors for hundreds of years. It has everything from sun, sea and sand to some of the most romantic towns and cities in the world. It is a place that you can visit time and again and yet always find something new to excite you.

Tuscany is home to many famous wines, but Chianti remains its beating heart. The term Chianti was first used to define the hilly area area around Radda, Gaiole and Castellina and is thought to have been the name of an Etruscan family. This is the heartland of Chianti, where it all began and today it’s the core of the Chianti Classico D.O.C.g., but the whole Chianti area is worth exploring.

Castellina in Chianti.

Castellina
Castellina in Chianti is small and still has the feel of a mediaeval walled town. It is a joy to wander along the charming main street – Via Ferruccio – and the Via della Volte, an amazing vaulted, passage now home to shops and restaurants. The main square – Piazza del Comune – is dominated by the Rocca di Castellina castle which houses the Museum of Etruscan Archeology. This is a real gem and if it whets your appetite to learn more about this ancient culture, there is the stunning Etruscan tomb of Montecalvario a few minutes walk away.

It can be very hot here, so some amazing, homemade ice cream from the Antica Deliza Gelateria is highly recommended and almost reason enough to come to Castellina – do try the lemon and sage. If you need something more substantial the Antica Trattoria la Torre serves very good traditional food and is right in the main square.

Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi.

Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina.

Just outside the town is the Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi an old country house turned into a welcoming B&B hotel complete with swimming pool, while the nearby Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina provides high class Tuscan food and a wine list to match.

The rolling hills of the Colli Senesi.

Siena
Chianti Colli Senesi, as you might imagine is produced in the hills around Sienna. Once Florence’s equal as a city state, Siena ultimately lost out politically to its rival in the north, but in every other respect is by far the winner. Siena was never the centre of Renaissance intrigue, or Italy’s capital and so it remains small, with just 53,000 people its population is barely a seventh of Florence. This amazing, compact city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose buildings are almost all the same colour – terra di Siena or ‘Siena earth’ which makes it seem very beautiful.

Piazza del Campo Siena.

Do spend some time in the Piazza del Campo, this huge piazza is used as the racetrack for the Palio horse race twice a year and is lined with cafés, restaurants, gelaterias and market stalls. Make sure that you climb the Torre del Mangia, the bell tower overlooking the Piazza, heavy going in the heat, but the view is worth it as the whole city opens up before you.

The Duomo, or Siena Cathedral, is not only stunning in itself as it contains bas-reliefs by Donatello, but the site also includes the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo which houses masterpieces such as Duccio’s Maestà. Once you have absorbed all the art another panoramic view awaits you from the terrace of the Il Facciatone tower.

Every Wednesday there is a lively market around the Fortezza Mediceana, where food, wine, antiques, animals and clothes are all for sale and it is a great place to watch the locals going about their lives.

Torre del Mangia Siena.

As you might imagine Siena is bursting with places to eat and it is hard to make a mistake, but my favourite is the Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda which has been run by former Palio jockey Pierino Fagnani since 1973. This place is wonderfully atmospheric and fun with a great wine list and a very traditional menu. Try Pici – a thick hand rolled spaghetti which is only made in Siena and often served with a rich wild boar sauce. This would also be a good place to try some Panforte for dessert, with a glass of Vin Santo perhaps?

Looking down on the Piazza del Campo Siena.

Staying in Siena isn’t always easy as the hotels are usually very old, small and lack air-conditioning, while many of them are up several floors with no lift. The Hotel Duomo is pretty central, air-conditioned and has wonderful views from most rooms, but like many hotels in Siena it does lack parking. If you are seeking something more luxurious then the 5 star Grand Hotel Continental Siena occupies a magnificent 17th century Palazzo once owned by Pope Alexander VII. What’s more their Enoteca SaporDivino is a superb wine bar in the cellar that has to be experienced.

Florence.

The Duomo in Florence, beautiful by day and night.

A colourful procession in Florence.

Further afield – Firenze
I suppose that Florence must be at the heart of many trips to Tuscany, so I should mention some of my favourite delights to be found there. Harry’s Bar was opened on the banks of the Arno in 1952 by a friend of Giuseppe Cipriani who created the original in Venice and it appears to be unchanged. It is so elegant and cosmopolitan that as you sip your Bellini you half expect Clark Gable to appear arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe.

More traditional fare is available at the nearby Cantinetta Antinori which is housed on the ground floor of the ancient Antinori family palazzo. This beautiful place offers a small menu of classical Tuscan cuisine together with an enormous list of wines made by Antinori and their friends throughout the world. You can even try all their Super-Tuscans by the glass.

Trattoria Marione

Both of those are delightful and swanky and perfect if your wallet is full, but if you are after some good food and charming local colour on a tighter budget then the wonderfully bustling Trattoria Marione is nearby in the Via della Spade. The check table cloths, Chianti flasks on the tables and salamis hanging over the bar might make you think it’s a tourist trap, but I have only ever known locals to be in there and they always seem to be happily tucking into wonderful traditional Tuscan food in abundance – try the tagliatelle sul Cinghiale – tagliatelle with wild boar.

Florence is also known for its colourful Fiaschetteria or Vinerie, traditional wine bars that are often no more than a hole in the wall. The upmarket Enoteche are a more salubrious update on the theme, often quite smart and serving an array of wine together with stuzzichini, snacks or appetisers of Crostini, Salami and Affettati – mixed cured meats.

Piazza Napoleone, Lucca.

Walking Lucca’s walls.

Lucca
Far from being filthy, Lucca is a delightful walled town a little north east of Pisa. You can walk all around the walls and see the town before you venture in to the maze of winding streets, some of which look as though they are stuck in the Renaissance, while others like Via Fillungo boast an impressive array of luxury shops – as with Florence jewellery and leather goods are the things to buy here. The oval shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was once the ancient town’s Roman amphitheatre. This is a beautiful space and it is wonderful to soak up all the history for a while in one of the many bars.

Lucca from the air – you can clearly see the walls and fortifications – click for a larger view

Lucca boasts one of my favourite family run restaurants. The Trattoria da Leo has been in the Via Tegrimi since 1974 and is a delightful place to enjoy delicious, simple Tuscan food and while away an hour or two. It is an unpretentious, but totally genuine place that lists just two wines, both red – Vino Toscano at 12.5˚ in either quarter or half litre carafes or the local Vino Colline Lucchesi in bottles.

If you find yourself in need of intellectual stimulation, Puccini was born in Lucca and his house in the Corte San Lorenzo is now a wonderful museum. After which you surely deserve an ice-cream and luckily the Gelateria Santini Sergio is nearby and has been making superb gelato on the premises since 1916 – do try the chocolate and orange.

Just go there
There is so much to enjoy in Tuscany that nothing can really do it justice other than going there and seeing these places as well as Pisa, San Gimignano, San Miniato, Livorno, Pistoia, Elba, Montepulciano, Montalcino and all those other little towns you would stop in along the way and remember for ever more.

Not only is everywhere a feast for the eyes, but every corner of Tuscany is home to something that you can actually feast on. Internationally famous wines, local wines, superb olive oils, honey, hams, cheeses, salamis, mushrooms, meats, herbs, breads and sweets abound – no wonder I am so drawn to the place.

Useful Addresses:

Antica Trattoria la Torre
Piazza del Comune15
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57- 774-0236

Albergaccio di Castellina
Via Fiorentina, 63
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57-774-1042

Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda
Via della Galluzza, 26
53100 Siena
+39 (0) 57-728-2208

Harry’s Bar
22R Via Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci 
Firenze, Toscana 50123 
+39 (0) 55-239-6700
Cantinetta Antinori
Piazza Antinori 3
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-292-234

Trattoria Marione
Via della Spada 27R
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-247-56

Trattoria da Leo
Via Tegrimi 1
Lucca, Toscana 55100
+39 (0) 58-349-2236

 

Grenache – a huge variety and many different names

cantine-di-orgosolo

Grenache vines at Cantine di Orgosolo, Sardinia.

I recently had a fascinating experience. I was a wine judge in the Grenache du Monde competition. This was the fifth edition of this competition that solely judges wine made from that most beguiling of grape varieties – Grenache.

I only fell for Grenache’s charms relatively recently in fact, but boy did I fall. Red Grenache wines often have lots of fruit, soft tannins and deliver lots of pleasure. I am also drawn to the delicious whites made from Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris and the more elegant red styles from cooler places. So, I do seem to now love Grenache in all its guises and so was thrilled to be invited to judge Grenache wines from all over the world. What’s more the competition was in Sardinia, so all in all it was a pretty exciting week.

So, first of all what did we taste? Well, there are at least four Grenache grapes; 2 black grapes, Grenache Noir and Garnacha Peluda as well as the white Grenache Blanc and the pink tinged Grenache Gris. Grenache Noir is the most important of these, it is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world – indeed it might well be the most planted black grape in the world, because there is so much of it in Spain.

On top of that Grenache goes by more than 20 different names, but I only knowingly got to taste examples called; Grenache (in France and the New World), Garnacha (in Spain), Garnatxa (in Catalunya), Tocai Rosso / Tai Rosso (in Veneto, Italy), Cannonau (in Sardinia) and, confusingly, Gamay.  In Umbria they call Grenache Gamay, or Gamay del Trasimeno or even Gamay Perugino.

What’s more the competition didn’t just taste wines made from pure Grenache, but as it is frequently used as a blending grape – in Côtes du Rhône and the Languedoc-Roussillon for instance –  blends were included in the competition as well, as long as there was at least 60% Grenache in the wine.

There was every style of wine too, dry white, rosé, sparkling, dry red, sweet white and sweet red too.

A total of 684 wines were entered and they came from 8 countries: South Africa, Australia, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Macedonia and Lebanon. There were 100 of us judges and we divided up into panels of 5, so I did not get to taste all the wines during the judging, but I had a darn good try during the tastings afterwards.

I was very impressed by the overall quality of what I tried and personally awarded some pretty high scores. My fellow judges seem to have agreed with me and there were 104 Gold Medals awarded, 87 Silver and 22 Bronze. Spain was the overall winner with 108 medals – out of 322 wines submitted – France entered 149 wines and gained 51 medals, Italy entered 204 and won 51 as well, while Australia, Macedonia and South Africa all gained 1 medal each.

Everything was tasted blind, so it was reassuring to discover that I had given high marks to some old friends as well as exciting to discover completely new things.

My favourite wines of the competition were:

France

Wine map of France - click for a larger view.

Wine map of France, Chêne Bleu are just north of Avignon and Banyuls is on the coast right by the Spanish border in Languedoc-Roussillon – click for a larger view.

la_verriere182

The vineyard and winery at Chêne Bleue, Domaine de la Verrière.

chene-bleu-nv-abelard-bottle-1000x10002010 Abélard
Chêne Bleu
Vin de Pays /IGP de Vaucluse
Domaine de la Verrière
Rhône, France

I love what Chêne Bleu does and have written about them here and here, so it was no surprise that this stunning wine received a Gold Medal. It is a biodynamic blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah aged for 18 months in French oak barrels. The vines are grown at around 500 metres above sea level and are between 30 and 40 years old.
There is concentrated fruit, rich herbal characters and a nice touch of spice too. This is a rich, elegant, refined and utterly delicious wine – 95/100 points.

Available in the from £50 per bottle from Justerini & Brooks, Wine Direct and Waitrose Cellar.
For US stockistsclick here.

ban_premium_ok2015 Banyuls Premium
Terres des Templiers
AC / PDO Banyuls
Roussillon
France

Banyuls is the closest thing to Port produced in France. It is a sweet fortified red wine made right on the border with Spain, from Grenache grapes and it can be utterly delicious. This is wood aged for 12 months, but still opaque, rich, dark and sugary, much like a good Ruby Port. Blackberry and sugar plums and wild raspberry together with wild herbs, sweet spice and cocoa dominate the aroma and flavours. A lovely style that we do not see enough in the UK, try it with something chocolatey  – 93/100 points.

Spain

Spain is always a great wine producing country to go to for value and nothing epitomises that as much as what they do with Grenache, or as they would call it Garnacha or even Garnatxa in Catlunya. 

I love what Bodegas San Alejandro do in Spain’s Calatayud region in Aragon. I fell in love with their wines a long time ago whilst staying in the amazing Monasterio de Piedra – it’s a medieval monastery that is now a hotel within a wonderful natural park that contains a series of waterfalls that are the highest in western Europe and it is a magical place. Anyway, it’s near the winery and so the restaurant lists their wines. In fact it was their Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Viñas Viejas that started me on the way to loving Grenache. The wines are so good that they won four Gold Medals in the competition and all the winning wines are well worth trying. Sadly you cannot get them in the UK, but you can order them to be delivered – until Brexit reimposes limits and duty anyway – from the likes of Uvinum and Bodeboca.com.

Wine map of Spain, Aragonwith Calatayud and Campo deBorja are between Rioja and Barcelona - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, Aragon with Calatayud and Campo de Borja are between Rioja and Barcelona – click for a larger view

bot-crianza-2012_82013 Baltasar Gracián Crianza
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

60% Garnacha with 40% Syrah aged for 12 months in a mix of French and American oak. It’s a big wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well. Intensely ripe and very generous with plenty of coffee, vanilla, liquorice and earthy tones developing as it ages. A lovely wine that I cannot find in the UK – 91/100 points.

terroir_paisaje_general

Bodegas San Alejandro.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-reserva_02013 Baltasar Gracián Reserva
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

70% Garnacha with 30% Syrah aged for 18 months in French oak. Another big wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well. This is soft, rich and spicy with loads of ripe red fruit and coffee and vanilla – 92/100 points.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-garnacha_02015 Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Viñas Viejas
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

A stunning wine made from 80 year old dry farmed bush vine Garnacha grown in slaty mountain soils at about 800 metres above sea level. It spends 10 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels and is simply wonderful. Full of flavour,full of life and personality. It is deeply concentrated, mineral, balsamic and liquoricey with a long finish. Great with game – 93/100 points.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-garnacha-nativa_02013 Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Nativa
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

This version is made from the oldest and highest vines, 82 year old plants growing at 900 metres. The wine is aged for 12 months in new French oak barrels. They only made 2600 bottles and again it is superbly concentrated, but more smoky, intense and savoury this time, while the finish is silky and refined. Like all their wines, it is big and bold, 15% again, but elegant too in its own way – 94/100 points.

Aragon is a great area for Garnacha production and the wonderful Bodegas Borsao in the Campo de Borja – the Borgias came from there – also won 4 Gold Medals as well as a Silver. Again I cannot find any UK stockists, although Wine Rack used to sell them, but they are also available from the likes of Uvinum and Bodeboca.com.

garnacha_borsao

Garnacha bush vines at Bodegas Borsao.

berola-20152014 Borsao Berola
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

80% Grenache, 20% Syrah grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged 14 months in French barriques. This is a fine, aromatic wine with rich red cherry, some black cherry, liquorice, earth and balsamic notes. The tannins are soft and it is delicious – 92/100 points.

crianza-seleccion-new2013 Borsao Crianza Selección
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

This 60% Grenache, 20% Merlot and 20% Tempranillo, also grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged 10 months in French and American barriques is a little silver and firmer, with more savoury and dark fruit characters, more classically Spanish perhaps – 92/100 points.

bole-new2013 Borsao Bole
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

70% Grenache with 30% Syrah, made from younger vines and only aged for 3 months in French oak.It is very ripe, very bright with some lovely firm spice and it still got a Gold Medal despite being around €5 in Spain – 91/100 points.

tinto-seleccion-flores2015 Borsao Tinto Selección
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

Another Gold Medal winner, 85% Garnacha, 10% Tempranillo and 5% Syrah and with no oak. This is juicy and delicious with lovely fruit and spice. Robert Parker said this about a previous vintage, which probably says all you need to know; ‘Possibly the single greatest dry red wine value in the world, this is an unbelievable wine’ – in case you didn’t know, Parker – and perhaps other Americans – use the word ‘value’ in that very odd way that jars. I would say is it’s great value. A value to me is a quite different meaning, ho hum – 92/100 points.

For some reason the next one only gained a Silver Medal rather than a gold, but I think it is brilliant and great value for money too:

trespicos2015 Borsao Tres Picos
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

100% Garnacha from 35-60 year old vines and aged 5 months in French oak barrels. This is very intense with bright, ripe, juicy, succulent fruit, floral aromas, spices and a silky, smooth, rounded palate. A wine that always delivers a huge amount of pleasure – 91/100 points.

26146999742_167359daa5_b

Vines in Terra Alta – photo by Angela Llop

Perhaps the most highly thought of part of Spain for Grenache based blends  – Aragon and Navarra specialise more in pure Grenache wines – is Catalunya with its trio of exciting regions; Priorat, Montsant and the decidedly up and coming Terra Alta, which as you can see on the map is not far from Calatayud. Historically it was rather cut off because of all the mountains, but the Mediterranean ensures the grapes ripen very well, while the stony soils keep vigour down ensuring the grapes are concentrated and flavoursome. My panel judged a whole flight of 11 red wines from Terra Alta and they were very good indeed, some of my favourite wines of the competition came from this flight – Terra Alta is avery exciting wine region and these examples are the best that I have ever tasted.

seleccio2014 Edetària Selecció Negre
Bodegas Edetària
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This Gold Medal winning wine is a fabulously exciting blend of 60% Garnacha Peluda (Hairy Grenache), 30% Syrah and 10% Cariñena, or Carignan. The vines are over 40 years old and the wine is aged in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months, so twice the size of normal barriques, so it softens the wine rather than flavours it. This truly delicious, smooth, rounded, plump, herbal, spicy, mineral, elegant and concentrated, one of my top wines of the whole competition – 94/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Decántalo and Uvinum.

lafou-de-batea2013 Lafou De Batea
Lafou Celler
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This is a blend of mainly Garnacha with a little Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and it is another stunning wine, again concentration is the hallmark here, with rich cherry fruit, balsamic, liquorice, herbal, spicy characters and minerality and freshness giving the whole thing balance. This is a beautiful wine that I want to enjoy with some slow cooked, garlicky lamb – 94/100 points.

Lafou also make a (much) cheaper wine called Lafou El Sender which is available in Waitrose and Waitrose Cellar for £10.99.

lavi-arrufi2014 L’Avi Arrufí Blanco
Celler Piñol
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This organic white wine is 100% Garnatxa Blanca barrel fermented and aged for 8 months in French oak. It is creamy and gently toasty and smoky,with lots of succulent orchard fruit, herbs and spices.There is enough acid to keep it balanced and refreshing, but at its heart it is all about the texture and mouthfeel. A beautiful white wine, full of character and perfect with a selection of different cheeses – 93/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Uvinum.

tempus-1167093-s313-jpg2014 Tempus
Altavins Viticultors
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

Another amazing wine from this up and coming region. The blend changes every year and I have no idea what the 2014 is, but it includes Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Merlot. The vines are 30 year old and grown on rocky slopes with low vigour. The finished wine is aged for 10 months in French oak barrels to round it out and soften it. The fruit is very ripe, deep red fruit with some flashes of blacker fruit notes, even some kirsch. There is plenty of spice here too and the oak gives a lovely touch of coffee and cocoa. This is opulent stuff that needs time or decanting  – 92/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Vinissimus.

Italy

wine map of southern Italy - click for a larger view

Wine map of southern Italy – click for a larger view

Grenache is so associated with Spain and France that it comes as quite a shock to discover it in Italy. In fact it is grown in three different regions, in the Veneto’s Colli Berici region it is called Tai Rosso, formerly Tocai Rosso. In Umbria they call it Gamay del Trasimeno or Gamay Perugino and like Veneto seem to have grown it there since the mid nineteenth century, having brought it from France.

However, it is Sardinia that really specialises in Grenache. They call it Cannonau and the fact that the grow it, indeed specialise in it, is a reminder of their mediaeval past when the island was conquered by the Crown of Aragon, which was a joint Aragon and Catalan Kingdom that also ruled Valencia, Roussillon, the Balearic Islands, Malta, Sicily, Naples, Sardinia and even parts of Greece from 1162 to 1469, when it became linked with the Kingdom of Castille and eventually came to be called Spain. It is presumed that Aragonese or Catalan settlers took Garnacha grapes with them to Sardinia. Certainly Catalan people did settle there and Catalan is an official language around Alghero to this day.

During my time on Sardinia I tasted some rustic, everyday examples, but then I also enjoyed some Cannonaus that were superbly balanced and fine:

1401971753-651486472015 Neale
Cantine di Orgosolo
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

This sumptuous wine is a beautifully balanced blend of 85% Cannonau and 15% Bovale. Bovine is name used for two different grapes, both Spanish in origin; Bovale Grande is Carignan / Carineña / Mazuelo, while Bovale Sardo is Rioja;s Graciano. From a linguistic point of view I had hoped that it would turn out to be the Bobal grape of Valencia, but who knows that might have been the name they used – things were less precise and scientific in those days, people seldom knew what the grape actually, just that they grew it and the local name for it.  It’s richly fruity, blackberry and plum, and incredibly smooth with nice savoury earthy touches and soft, sweet tannins – 92/100 points.

dicciosu2015 Dicciosu
Cantine Lilliu
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

I know nothing about this wine, but suspect that its bright red fruit, smooth tannins and juiciness means that it is pure Grenache. It is very elegant though with nice freshness and balance. there is nothing rustic or overworked here, instead it has a pristine quality that is rare in Grenache – 93/100 points.

pantumas2015 Pantumas Rosato
Cantine Lilliu
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna Rosato
Sardinia
Italy

Again I know nothing about this wine, except that it was the best rosé that I tasted the whole trip. Delicately scented of rose petals, red cherry and even some blood orange, those flavours follow on to the palate. It is a delicate, fine rosé with elegance and finesse, I loved it – 93/100 points.

audarya2015 Audarya
Audarya
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

I was seriously impressed with this stripped down, acoustic style of wine. There is no oak here, just pristine, bright Grenache fruit that delivers waves of sweet ripe cherries, raspberries, plums and exotic spices. The wine is taut, refreshing and beautifully balanced and yet at heart a simple little thing. Fine wine making indeed and as far as I can see, this is their first vintage – 93/100 points.

So, there you have it, some stunning wines made from members of the Grenache family, or blends that include Grenache. All of these are wonderful wines that certainly captured my imagination whilst I was in Sardinia. All of them have soft tannins, voluptuous fruit, spiciness and drinkability that people like in things like Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so if you enjoy those, then you will like these too. I hope that you get to try some of them, or perhaps just use the information to try Grenache wines from a wider array of places. If so, do tell us all about them, won’t you?

 

Alto Piemonte – Italy’s Hidden Treasure from Alpine Piemonte

The beautiful vineyards of Gattinara.

The dramatic vineyards of Gattinara.

When a wine lover thinks of Piemonte, or Piedmont, then the chances are that their very next thought is of Barolo. This small area of wine production south of Turin is capable of producing sublime red wines from the local Nebbiolo grape. They come at a price though. Barolo can be very expensive indeed and even the everyday examples are approaching £20 a bottle nowadays. That being said, those basic examples of Barolo are now generally much better than they used to be some ten or fifteen years ago.

Nearby the wines of Barbaresco, also made from Nebbiolo, can also be wonderful, and often much more charming than Barolo, but are often also very highly priced – and prized.

Wine map of Piemonte - click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

A glance at my map will show you the geography of Piemonte. Turin sits in an ampitheatre surrounded by the Alps that mark the frontiers to the south, west and north and so the flatter south eastern part of Piemonte is historically the most productive. Together the Langhe, where you will find Barolo and Barbaresco among other wines, and Monferrato, where many wines including Asti are produced, account for over 90% of Piemonte’s wine production.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas on Piemonte’s northern fringes, Alto Piemonte, were once very imporatnt. Many have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries, and could possibly be famous again.

I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to Piemonte, one that focussed solely on these more northerly and less well known wine areas. Not for us the well worn path to Barolo and Barbaresco and the rolling Langhe Hills. No, our little group of wine writers was whisked north of Turin to the very foot of the Alps. Here, over the course of several days, we visited vineyards and sampled the wines from twelve wine producing areas, only two of which were known to me beforehand. I even tasted a grape variety that I had never, ever heard of before – which is always an exciting experience.

Many different grape varieties are grown in Piemonte, but for the really famous reds, it is Nebbiolo that is considered to be the true aristocrat. Indeed together with Sangiovese it is traditionally regarded as one of the noble black grapes of Italy. The grape gets its name from the thick fogs – called Nebbia – that descend from the mountains in the late Autumn, just before harvest, and so causing ripening problems for this famously late ripening grape variety.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

Spanna – Nebbiolo in the North
Further north Nebbiolo is also widely grown, but in the past they often called the grape Spanna up there. Although it is Nebbiolo, it is a different clone of the grape and so gives subtly different results, a bit like Tempranillo and Tinto Fino. I remember seeing Spanna on wine labels in my very early days, but as far as I can see true Nebbiolo has either taken over in the areas where Spanna once ruled supreme, or is just treated as though it and Nebbiolo are completely the same. Certainly – again much as with Tinto Fino and Tempranillo – some growers told me that Spanna and Nebbiolo are identical, just different names for the same thing, while others were certain they were different. Whatever the case, I am sure that Nebbiolo is easier to sell than Spanna, just as Malbec is easier to sell than Cot and Tempranillo than Tino Fino.

Centuries ago this area was much more important than it is now, with the wines enjoying more fame than those of southern Piemonte, but all sorts of things changed that. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant high up than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades . The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they couldn’t pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north.

This was all new territory to me and it was tremendously exciting. We visited three districts, with Piemonte being the region. These districts had PDOs and also contained village level appellations – Crus in the same sense that Fleurie is a Cru of Beaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé a Cru of Mâcon. The Italians producers themselves seem to only use the word Cru in the specific vineyard sense, as in the Grand Crus of Alsace.

Your author amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Your author making notes amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Coste delle Sesia
Our first visits were to the Coste delle Sesia. This DOC – or PDO – covers vineyards near the River Sesia in the Provinces of Vercelli and Biella. One white can be made from Erbaluce, a new grape for me, but from what I saw it was the reds that rule supreme here and these must contain at least 50% of Nebbiolo, Bonarda (Uva Rara), Vespolina, Croatina or Barbera.

I tasted a few excellent wines from this appellation, but the real excitement came from the examples that had a grape variety on the label too. I was very impressed by some of the Coste della Sesia Nebbiolo as well as the few examples of the deliciously spicy Coste della Sesia Vespolina that we got to try. As far as I can see, Vespolina is a very appealing grape that only grows arpound here and a little over the border in Lombardy.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, especially their Orbello red and Majoli rosé.
Pietro Cassina, especially his delicious Coste della Sesia Vespolina.
Travaglini, who really produce Gattinara, but who use their younger vines in an excellent Nebbiolo Coste della Sesia

The Communes of the Coste delle Sesia
Wholly contained within the Costa delle Sesia are three commune – or village – appellations, Cru if you like. Many of these had a very hard twentieth century and are desperately trying to come back from that near death experience. A mixture of Phyloxerra, follwed by mass migration to America and Argentina, wars, depressions and then the rise of the local textile industry – it was relief for the locals to earn a steady wage working in the textle factories after so much instability, so they lefy the land in droves – all took a toll and nearly killed off wine producing in these parts.

Climate wise the area benefits from being south facing, so good sun exposure and having a long growing season, just what Nebbiolo needs. There are also big night time temperature drops which helps retain acidity and finesse in the grapes, as does the cool air that descends from the Alps, tempering the summer heat.

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The beautiful vineyards at Tenute Sella.

Lessona DOC is a tiny PDO which only makes red wines and as far as I can see deserves to be better known. Fundamentally they are made from Nebbiolo – 85% minimum, but a little Vespolina and the wonderfully named Uva Rara is permitted. The wines must be aged before release for a minimum of 22 months, 12 in wood, usually big old 3000 litre wooden foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riserva wines are aged for at least  46 months, 30 of which are in wood.

Once upon a time the area had hundreds of hectares under vine. Now most of those have returned to forest and by the mid 1990s there were only 6.5 hectares of grapes left, but a modest rennaisence is underway and there are now somewhere around 23 hectares with a few new producers just getting started as well, which bodes well for the future.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, this producer’s top wines are all from this PDO. With a history going back to 1671, Sella has long been the commune’s beating heart and the wines are very impressive.
Pietro Cassina is a new producer, but his previous profession as an architect seems to have given him an eye for detail that ensures his wines are very good indeed.
La Badina, especially their Lessona Riserva 2010.

Massimo Clerico, my new favourite drinking buddy makes very good wines that age pretty well – his 2005 is perfectly mature.
Proprietà Sperino, an exciting producer created by Paolo De Marchi whose father founded the Isole & Olena estate in Chianti Classico.

Bramatera DOC is another miniscule PDO that makes good Nebbiolo – or Spanna – wines. Again they are oftem blends with a maximum of 30% Croatina, 20% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina.

The wines must be aged for a minimum of 22 months, 18 in wood, again normally foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riservas are aged for at least 34 months, 24 of which are in wood.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, I know it’s repetitive, but they make very good wines and have vineyards in three different PDO areas.

Looking down on gattinara from

Looking down on gattinara from the vineyards.

Gattinara DOCG is perhaps the most famous of all the PDOs in the northern part of Piemonte. Once upon a time it was more highly praised than Barolo. Indeed it was famous before Barolo had even decided to make the wines as we know them today. I saw old photographs which showed the hills to the north of Gattinara town to be completely covered in vineyards. This was only in 1906 – just four years before my aunt was born – but today just 60 hectares remain.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi - my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn't open one.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi – my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn’t open one.

In Gattinara it’s normal, and traditional, to soften the potentially hard edged Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 10% Uva Rara and 4% Vespolina. The wines have to be aged for at least 35 months, 24 of which are in wood. Riserva wines receive at least 47 months, of which 35 are in wood and sometimes a proprtion are aged in barrique – 225 litre barrels. Like a good few of the PDOs around here, Gattinara has some volcanic soils in the mix which can often boost acidity and produce elegant wines.

Our little group hard at work.

Our little group hard at work.

From what I experienced, the quality here is very high. I was hugely impressed by the wines that I tasted, they had real class, elegance, finesse, whatever you want to call it, but they were very good wines indeed.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi's vineyards.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi’s vineyards.

Recommended producers: Nervi, the oldest producer in the area is now under new ownership and appears to be in fine fettle. I loved their wines, which seemed to have the merest touch of modernity to them. The whole range was first rate including their standard Gattinara, but the Valferana and Molsino Cru wines from specific vineyard sites were maginificent – only a tiny proportion of the very best parcels of the Crus are bottled seperately, the rest is blended in to their Gattinara. I also greatly enjoyed their traditional method pink sparkling Nebbiolo called Jefferson 1787 and really regret not buying a bottle now.

It was particularly fascinating to taste the 2013 Molsino Cru from 4 different wooden vats, Austrian oak, Slavonian (Croatian) oak, Swiss oak and Vosges oak from Alsace. The same wine went into the 3000 litre wooden vats, but 4 entirely different wines came out, which got me seriously wondering about terroir! For me the Slavonian oak was the clear winner, as it really tamed Nebbiolo’s firm tannins.

Finally a decent sized bottle - being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder's great grand-daughter.

Finally a decent sized bottle – being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder’s great grand-daughter.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Travaglini is not quite as old as Nervi, it was founded in the 1920s, but is still run by the original family and appears to be more traditional and, I thought, sees itself as the keeper of the flame of Gattinara. Whether that is true or not, I loved their wines which are all produced from their own fruit grown on the slopes of Gattinara. Real passion came through into the glass and the whole range shone. The standard Gattinaras are very fine, while the Riserva really thrilled me. Travaglini chose not to bottle the Crus seperately, but to blend them all together as they believe that gives the best expression of the region.

I also fell for their white sparkling Nebbiolo. Named Nebolé Brut, they have only made one vintage so far, but it was voted best sparkling in Italy last year by a Sommelier’s association – not a bad start. The wine was pure and mineral and fine and sadly we drank the last bottle. I would also recommend the salami they make that is flavoured with their Gattinara, it is delicious.

Colline Novaresi
East of the Sesia River is the Colline Novaresi – Hills of Novara – which does a similar job to the Coste delle Sesia in the west. Again the white wines must be 100% Erbaluce with the reds made from a minimum of 50% Nebbiolo, Barbera, Vespolina, Croatina or Bonarda.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Villa Horta Vespolina and Abate di Cluny.

There are four commune PDOs here; Boca DOC, Sizzano DOC, Fara DOC and Ghemme DOCG. Sadly I only have experience of Ghemme, but the others are so tiny in terms of production that it would be very unusual to find them in the outside world, indeed, I didn’t even get to try them there!

Our little group in Ghemme.

Our little group in Ghemme.

Ghemme DOCG is yet another miniscule PDO of just 60-65 hectares. The wines must be at least 85% Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 15% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina. The standard wine must be aged for at least 34 months, 18 in wood, while the Riservas must be aged for at least 46 months, with 24 in wood.

At around 400 metres above sea level, the vineyards are the highest on this side of the Sesia River, while the soils are very mixed, but are not volcanic, so the wines can feel a little fatter than in Gattinara.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Ghemme and Collis Breclemæ Cru Ghemme.
Torraccia del Piantavigna, make a wide range of wines, but it their standard Ghemme that shone out for me, although their Gattinara was pretty good too.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

Carema DOC
Our last Nebbiolo visit was to Carema, a place I had heard of and I had even tried the wines, but never visited before. It is an astonishing place, right on the border with the Valle d’Aosta, that tiny Italian region sandwiched between France and Switzerland. We are truly Alpine here, indeeed the landscape reminded me of Switzerland’s vineyards to some degree.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

It only makes red wines in the DOC and they are made from pure Nebbiolo. Standard wines have to be aged for a minimum of 24 months before release, 24 of those in wood, while Riservas have to be aged for at least 36 months, again 12 in wood. These times have been seriously reduced recently, which I suspect has done the wines no end of good. I found the oak to be well integrated and the tannins very well controlled.

The place is extraordinary however you slice it. The vines grow at between 300 and 600 metres above sea level, making them amongst the highest in Europe. There are only 16 hectares grown – roughly 32 acres – and bear in mind that in my mid 1990s copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson MW states that there were then 60 hectares, then a lot have been lost very recently.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

What’s more, 14 of those 16 hectares are controlled by the excellent local cooperative, Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, which has 78 members, so each holding is miniscule as well as being almost perpendicular. The only other producer – yes only two companies make this wine – is Ferrando Vini.

In the past there were many more vineyards, but such back breaking work doesn’t appeal to younger generations, and hasn’t for decades, so people have left the area for an easier lifestyle. However I am willing to bet that the wines have never been better. I tasted the co-op’s Carema Classico, black label and their Riserva, white label, and I was seriously impressed. The wines were lighter perhaps than the other Nebbiolo wines that I tasted on the trip, but they were at least as complex as the Gattinaras and had great concentration of fruit as well as silky tannins. Like the wonderful wines of from Etna DOC in Sicily, I believe these are worthy of DOCG status.

Alpine Piemonte
All in all it was an excellent trip and really fascinating to discover a part of this hidden corner of Italy. The quality of the wines was very high and the passion and commitment of the producers was very clear. They struggle though, as they don’t have the simple clear message of success that their colleagues in the Langhe enjoy. In many ways, with the possible exception of Gattinara – which has a little fame, they have no clear message to make their wines accessable to the outside world. We had a round table conference about this and I tried to help. I came up with the phrase Alpine Piemonte, which I think does give a clear message, certainly more than Alto Piemonte. As long as you know what Piemonte is and know what Alpine is, then surely it’s clear? I would be willing to let them use the slogan for some fair renumeration, a holiday home in Carema perhaps?

Anyway, I urge you to try the wines, I think you will be surprised and excited by their quality and often by the value they represent as well. We visited a few other wine districts too and tasted some really interesting white and sparkling wines that I will write about another day.

Stockist information for the UK:
Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Ferrando Vini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Travaglini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Nervi are imported into the UK by
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Stockist information for the US:
For Tenute Sella stockists click here.
For Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema stockists click here.
For Travaglini stockists click here.
For Nervi stockists click here.
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

New Wine of the Week – another Lugana

Verona Arena.

Verona Arena, Lugana is not far from Verona.

I have been drinking rather a lot of this little beauty lately and have enjoyed it so much that I thought it deserved to be my Wine of the Week.

It is a Lugana and it is made by the respected firm of Zenato, but that is really all I can tell you about – except how nice it is – because Zenato’s website fails to mention, as does the site of their UK agent and neither of them have seen fit to respond to my emails or telephone calls.

On a recent trip to Verona I was very struck by Lugana and it has quickly become my one of my favourite Italian dry white wines. If you want to read a little about the region, the grape variety and the styles of Lugana, have a look here.

Anyway, here it is:

zenato-villa-flora-lugana2014 Villa Flora Lugana
Zenato
Peschiera del Garda
Italy

I love this style of wine and although it bright, fresh and breezy I can drink this in the depths of winter with a nice bit of fish, some shellfish or even with the odd cheese straw as an aperitif.

The nose is understated, taut and delicately fruity with wafts of light white peach, apricot and blossom. There are herbs and nuts too, as well as straw and a tight, stony quality. The palate is reasonably full with some texture and even a hint of cream. This is not really a flamboyant wine, but neither is it truly crisp – although there is some zing. The herb and nuts follow through onto the palate and there is a lovely squeeze of citrus – a fusion of lemon, lime and mandarin perhaps – while at its core is an equally refreshing stony mineral quality. A delicious wine that goes with all manner of light dishes, fish, chicken or whatever takes your fancy. – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK at £9.99 per bottle from Waitrose Cellar, Waitrose and Ocado.

Happy Christmas and a great 2016 to all plus a review of my year

Wow another Christmas is upon us and I have barely achieved a fraction of the things that I wanted to this year.

However, it was a great year for me for learning about amazing wines and visiting beautiful wine regions, so I can’t really complain. Here a few of my highlights of the year, I hope you enjoy them.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Back in March I visited Campania for the first time, seeing Naples and Pompeii as well as the wine regions of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, Sannio and many more. It was a great experience full of wonderful wines and interesting stories. You can read all about it by clicking here.

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

One of my favourite photographs of Slovenian vineyards.

Italy was very much the theme of the year for me as I visited four times in all. The first one was actually an amazing trip to study the wines produced in the north east edge of Italy and over the frontier in neighbouring Slovenia – the tour was called Wine Without Borders. That whole part of the world is very beautiful and produces some stunning wines too and you can read all about it by clicking here.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the Romanian countryside.

One of my most exciting trips of 2015 was to Romania. I had never been to the country at all before and had no idea what to expect from the wines. It turned out to be a beautiful country full of lovely people and some astonishing wines. I did not taste a single terrible wines and was very excited about the quality of most of them. You can read all about it by clicking here.

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

In June I was thrilled to go on my first dedicated trip to Chablis and I learned ever such a lot about what makes these wines quite so important. Ever since I have enjoyed talking about Chablis to all my students, but have yet to write about the visit – watch this space.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux on Lake Geneva’s north shore.

In the same month I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition in Switzerland. Chasselas is a real speciality grape in Switzerland, but comes close to being unloved almost anywhere else. Well I think the breadth of wines that I tasted and the sheer quality of most them proves the Swiss are right to love the grape and I loved the trip, as well as the big trip I made to Switzerland’s wine regions in late 2014. You can read all about my Swiss adventures by clicking here.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

New discoveries and experiences continued with a terrific trip to Germany in September. Excitingly I visited Württemberg and the Neckar Valley as well as the amazing Stuttgart Wine Festival. This part of Germany is slightly off the beaten track wine-wise, certainly when compared to the Mosel or Rheingau, but it is well worth seeing as the landscape is very beautiful and some of the wines are stunning. Weingut Wöhrwag‘s 2013 Pinot Noir Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg Großes Gewächs was certainly the best Pinot I tasted in 2015 and one of the very best red wines that I drank all year. I aim to write all about it soon.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento, the beautiful capital of Trentino.

My Italian adventures continued in October with an enjoyable trip to Trentino in the north of the country. It is a fascinating and beautiful region that has only been part of Italy since 199, so is steeped in history. The wines were pretty good too, but then so was the beer – you can real all about it by clicking here.

Verona's amazing Roman Arena.

Verona’s amazing Roman Arena.

One added bonus of this trip was that I managed to stay an extra night in Verona and so saw that wonderful little city and was able to experience the delights of Lugana, a white wine from the southern shore of Lake Garda – it might well be my favourite Italian white right now and this delicious example is my Christmas white wine.

As well as overseas visits I have tasted some amazing wines over here too. I was particularly thrilled to meet the charming David Mazza who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, but makes an amazing range of wines from Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties – you can read about him by clicking here.

The new discoveries kept coming too, new grapes like Tibouren from Provence and Cserszegi Fűszeres from Hungary, exciting old vine blends from Chile, a light red or a deep rosé from Tuscany, made from Tempranillo at that! Try as I might I simply could not leave Spain alone, I kept finding amazing Spanish wines that moved and excited me and that offered great value for money too – have a look here, here, here and here.

Along the way too I tasted a superb Albariño from California and another from New Zealand – Albariño is on the march it seems and you can read about them by clicking here.

Just the other day I presented my favourite sparkling wine of the year and I would urge you to try it if you can. It’s rather modestly called Apogee Deluxe Brut and is handmade by the great Andrew Pirie from fruit grown on a  2 hectare vineyard in northern Tasmania. I have long admired what Andrew does and if there is a better Australian fizz than this – indeed any non-Champagne fizz, although it had stiff opposition from Gramona’s amazing 2006 111 Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava – then I have yet to try it. It is certainly a rich style of sparkling wine, but it never gets too serious, the fruit, freshness and frivolity dominate the palate and made me just want to drink more.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I nearly forgot, all right I did forget and had to come back and add this, the most exciting wine that I drank all year. There was lots of competition from the delicious 2011 Chêne Bleu Aliot, the sublime 1978 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from California and the downright amazing 2001 Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes, but my stand out wine was from my own collection and it was a beautifully mature Merlot-Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch 19891989 Rozendal
Rozendal Farm
Stellenbosch
South Africa
I was very nervous about opening this. For South Africa it is very old, Nelson Mandela was still in prison when this was made and I know nothing about it. The estate seems to have disappeared. Frankly the wine seemed older and looked older than it was – even the label seems ancient. the nose was classic mature wine, smoky, cedar, earthy and overwhelmingly savoury with some balsamic notes and a touch of dried fruit too. The palate was extraordinary, still all there with that hallmark savoury fragility of very mature wine. Good acidity kept it fresh and provided the secret of its longevity. the tannins were almost totally faded, but for me the big revelation was a solid core of ripe sweet fruit that made it a joy to drink despite its venerable age.

Tasting this was a great moment and one worth recording as mature wine from anywhere other than the classic regions – I include California here – is pretty rare, especially of this quality. If anyone knows anything about Rozendal please let me know, I tried to contact them, but to no avail.

All in all 2015 went too fast, but it was good fun – despite me turning 50 in January – so let’s hope for even more excitement in 2016.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year and thank you so much for reading my wine page.

 

Trentino – Italy’s Alpine North

 

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Recently I enjoyed a fascinating trip to Trentino in northern Italy. Trento, the capital of Trentino, is a beautiful, compact city and wandering around it makes you very aware what a mix of cultures this part of the world really is. On a modern map Trentino is most definitely in Italy, but until 1919 it was part of Austria and it shows.

More Alpine Austrian architecture.

More Alpine Austrian architecture.

The wonderful Forst Beer Bar in Trento, Forst has been brewed since Austrian times.

The wonderful Forst Beer Bar in Trento, Forst beers have been brewed since Austrian times. Photo by my friend Panos Kakaviatos of Wine Chronicles.

The other side of the Piazza Duomo.

The other side of the Piazza Duomo.

Some of the stunning painted buildings in Trento.

Some of the stunning painted buildings in Trento.

Every where you turn in Trento you come up against this mix, frothy Italian buildings that seem to embody the Renaissance side by side with foursquare Austrian-Germanic constructions. Food-wise, pasta and polenta abound, but then so do dumplings, sausages and Weiner Schnitzel. Even for an aperitif smart bars serving local wines and Aperol rub shoulders with Germanic looking beer cellars. Fashion is mixed too, as amongst the elegantly dressed inhabitants, whose clothes scream Milan couture, you will also find some wearing the traditional grey green Tyrolean loden jacket.

IMG_3532

Fascist mosaic together with quote from Mussolini created in 1936 by Gino Pancheri. The Fascist symbol and Mussolini’s name were removed in 1943, but strangely the rest remains.

Nestled amongst the grand buildings, there are even some architectural reminders of Italy’s more recent Fascist past, most noticeably the striking mosaic on the entrance of the Galleria dei Legionari on via San Pietro. Entitled ‘Victory of the Empire’ it shows a woman (Victory) who was originally carrying a Fascist Lictor, but this was chipped off in 1943. Underneath it is a typically bombastic quote from Il Duce, about defending the Empire with blood. Strangely this anachronistic quotation survives, although Mussolini’s name was removed at the same time as the fasces. I wonder what young Italians make of this inscription from another time?

All in all I think there is a lot to enjoy on a trip to Trento, I only scratched the surface of what you can see and do in the city, but it pleased me greatly. The narrow shop lined streets are a delight, the Piazza Duomo is stunningly beautiful with its ornate fountain in the centre, cathedral on one side and cafés and restaurants on the others. The Dolomite Mountains are all around you giving an Alpine feel and offering glimpses of a totally different landscape nearby, while the mountain air is wonderfully fresh, pure and invigorating.

Trentino is almost always mentioned alongside Alto Adige – or the Südtirol in German – because together they form the Trentino-Alto Adigo region. They had both had been in Austria-Hungary and the Italian authorities did not want an almost totally ethnic German province and so amalgamated the German speaking Alto Adige with the ethnically Italian Trentino.

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.

From a wine point of view the two places are quite different, the Alto Adige was once Austria’s Südtirol region and still looks, feels and sounds very Germanic in character and at its best produces wines that have an Alpine purity about them. Trentino, the more southern part is mainly Italian in feel – with the odd onion domed church exception – and produces wines that tend to be softer and a little less racy.

So far I have only visited Trentino, it is an Alpine region and everywhere you look there are mountains together with over 300 lakes, which just add to the beauty  of the place. The lowest point of the region is the Plain of Rotaliano at 200-220 metres above sea level, which is still higher than the hills of Lombardy’s Franciacorta sparkling wine region, while the mountains reach over 4000 metres, which makes a mere 15% of the land workable. The place is astonishingly warm for such an Alpine location, with vines either being grown on the hot valley floor or on south facing slopes, so ripening is not a problem and they do not have to limit themselves to early ripening grape varieties. In fact there is huge range of styles produced from a dazzling array of grapes.

The typical Pergola Trentina growing system protects the grapes from the strongest sun while allowing the morning sun to penetrate the vine. It also helps combat humid conditions by being more open than a normal pergola.

The typical Pergola Trentina growing system protects the grapes from the strongest sun while allowing the morning sun to penetrate the vine. It also helps combat humid conditions by being more open than a normal pergola. Panos Kakaviatos is providing the human scale.

Trentino DOC
Trentino DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which is the Italian equivalent of the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) covers almost the entire region and usually a grape variety is also mentioned on the label.

Chardonnay is the most important white variety, but Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau are also widely grown as well as the indigenous Manzoni Bianco, Nosiola – often used to make sweet Vin Santo wines – and Moscato Giallo.

Beautiful Trentino vineyards.

Beautiful Trentino vineyards.

Pinot Grigio & Müller-Thurgau
This region is also the original home of Italian Pinot Grigio and while I freely admit that I am not a fan – why such an inherently boring wine style is so popular beats me – the examples from Trentino seem to have far more character and interest than those from the flat lowlands of Veneto and elsewhere.

One of the surprising specialities of this part of the world is the whites made from the widely unloved Müller-Thurgau which in Germany is the workhorse grape for the cheap wines like Liebfraumilch. However, in the right hands it can make very nice dry wines, try examples from Villa Corniole or the much more German sounding Gaierhof.

More beautiful Trentino vineyards.

More beautiful Trentino vineyards.

As for red wines, the most important grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot together with Teroldego, Schiava (known as Trollinger in Germany and Vernatsch in the Alto Adige), Moscato Rosa, Marzemino, Enantio, Casetta, Lambrusco and Lagrein. I understand that as in Friuli there is even some Carmenère, but am not aware of having tasted any.

Try Trentino DOC wines from Agraria Riva del Garda, La Vis, Fondazione Edmund Mach, Cantina Roverè della Luna amongst others. One of my favourite producers was Moser who make Trento DOC sparkling, but whose still wines are simply labelled as IGT, sometimes IGT delle Venezie and sometimes IGT Vigneti delle Dolomit depending on the location of the vineyard. Their Riesling is superb and one of the best white wines I tasted on the trip.

If a bottle is labelled as simply Trentino Bianco or Trentino Rosso with no mention of a grape variety, then it contains a blend of grapes.

Our little group at dusk in the vineyards above the town of Isera.

Our little group at dusk in the vineyards above the town of Isera.

Trentino DOC Marzemino
Although I enjoyed a wide selection of the Trentino DOC wines, my favourites were consistently the Trentino reds made from the Marzemino grape. This grape isgrown all over Lombardy too, but is the speciality of Isera, a commune down near the north shore of Lake Garda. I found them to be attractive dry reds with medium body, red fruit, smooth tannins and a mineral, savoury, herbal, almost earthy character that goes very well with the delicious local cuisine. Try examples from the excellent Cantina d’Isera.

The northern shore of Lake Garda from the mountains above.

The northern shore of Lake Garda from the mountains above.

Valdadige DOC (Etschtaler in Alto Adige)
This vast DOC covers both Trentino and Alto Adige and as such is only used for basic wine and so is more akin to a PGI / IGT.

More gorgeous vine covered slopes, I cannot get enough of them!

More gorgeous vine covered slopes, I cannot get enough of them!

Trento DOC
This DOC (always spoken as Trento-doc as one word) is only slightly smaller than Trentino, but is for sparkling wines produced by the Traditional (Champagne) Method. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the principal grapes, but Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc are also permitted. The wines must be bottle aged on their lees for 15 months for non-vintage and 24 months for vintage.

Cembra-localita-Vadron

Stunning vineyards, photo courtesy of Cembra Cantina di Montagna.

I managed to taste a great many of Trento Doc wines and thought many of them were pretty good quality, indeed the best are very like Champagne and sadly sometimes have price tags to match. Ferrari are of course the pioneers and most famous producer, as well as being the most available in the UK, but if you get the chance do try wines from Maso Martis, Rotari, Càvit, Revì, Moser and Doss24 from Cembra Cantina di Montagna as well.

Cembra-e-Faver-dal-sentiero-dei-castellieri-di-Lona-Lases

Stunning vineyards, photo courtesy of Cembra Cantina di Montagna.

The other DOCs
As well as these over-arching DOCs, there are some other DOCs in Trentino, some of them covering smaller, more specific areas and some straddling the border with Alto Adige:

Casteller DOC for light red wines made from Schiava, Merlot and Lambrusco grapes.
Sorni DOC makes lightish, dry reds from Schiava that is often fleshed out by being blended with Teroldego and Lagrein. The whites are usually based on the lightly aromatic and delicate Nosiola grape  together with Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Pinot Blanc.
Caldaro DOC, sometimes Lago di Caldaro or Kalterersee in German, is a large area straddling the border with Alto Adige and producing red wines from Schiava that is often blended with Ligroin and Pinot Noir. Often simple, easy drinking, the best can be very fine indeed, look out for the superioré and classico versions as well as the sweet Scelto made from late harvested grapes.

Our little group being lectured, for a very long time in the relentless sun, about Teroldego Rotaliano.

Our little group being lectured, for a very long time in the relentless sun, about Teroldego Rotaliano.

Teroldego Rotaliano DOC makes red wines from the indigenous Teroldego grape. Indeed it seems to have originated here and not really to succeed anywhere else. The Campo (Plain) Rotaliano is the flattest and lowest land around here and the wines can be very good indeed with rich fruit and smooth tannins. Superioré and Riserva versions are richer and more concentrated. Try examples from Foradori, Zanini Luigi and the Mezzacorona cooperative.

There are two possible sources for the name Teroldego, either from the tirelle trellis system the vines are grown. Or, and this is my favourite, so I hope it is the real one, from it being a dialect phrase for Gold of the Tyrol.

Looking down on the Campo Rotaliano.

Looking down on the Campo Rotaliano.

So, as you can see there is a great deal to experience and enjoy in Trentino, and not only the wine,  so I highly recommend a visit, or if you cannot get there, try some of their wines, or beer, in the comfort of your own home.

Lake Garda's northern shore.

Lake Garda’s northern shore.

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 rather 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.