Castello di Brolio – the resurgence of a great Chianti estate

I seem to have become a bit obsessed by Italian wine of late and there is nothing wrong with that. The country has a great deal to offer, hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, dozens of wine producing areas, every imaginable style – some uniquely Italian – and everything from  honest, everyday wine to some of the grandest fine wine producers in the world.

In the last couple of years I have enjoyed many trips to Italy and tasted many good – and great – wines. However recently I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner and tasting in London as a guest of Baron Francesco Ricasoli, one of the grandest Italian producers of them all.

Brolio Castle and some of its vines.

The Ricasoli family are very old and emerged as feudal lords from Lombardy in the times of Charlemagne. They settled in Tuscany in the area now known as Chianti – perhaps it was then too as the name is thought to be that of an Etruscan family – more specifically what is now the Chianti Classico. The family took ownership of Brolio Castle in 1141 and have been there ever since, which makes them officially the oldest winery in Italy  – quite an achievement when you consider that the castle marked the border between Florence and Siena. I found it extraordinary to be having dinner and chatting away with a man whose direct ancestors would have had dealings with the Medici family and be involved in the intrigue and violent politics of Florence in the Renaissance.

From a wine point of view though his most important ancestor, in modern times anyway, was Bettino Ricasoli, 2nd Baron Ricasoli. Born in 1809, Bettino eventually became the Tuscan Minister of the Interior and was instrumental in pushing for the union of Tuscany with the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piemonte) that took place in 1860 and established the Kingdom of Italy. He went on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of the newly unified Italy.

As if that was not enough for one lifetime, Bettino also made an enormous contribution to the history of Chianti.

Wine map of Tuscany showing the location of Brolio Castle – click for a larger view.

The wine had been around for centuries, indeed Henry VIII was known to drink it, but originally it was only made in the area called the Chianti Hills just to the north of Siena. Indeed the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’Medici, issued an edict creating the boundaries of the region which today broadly correspond with those of modern Chianti Classico. Brolio is at the heart of this region, in Gaiole in Chianti some 10 km north east of Siena.

The idea of what constituted a Chianti wine seemed to be somewhat fluid in those days. Indeed there is some evidence, as with Rioja, that it was a white wine in the past. It was not until Bettino had finished his stint as Prime Minister that he was able to bring some clarity to what Chianti actually was. He had worked very hard at restoring the Brolio estate, replanting and experimenting with what grape varieties really suited the land and making the best expression of Chianti that he thought possible. In the end he settled on a blend of three grapes, Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia, or Sangioveto, Canajuolo and Malvagia as they were known back then and sometimes still are locally.

Just as an aside, in those days it was normal to grow lots of grapes together, to pick them together and to vinify them together too as a field blend. Such wines that included white grapes were much paler and lighter than most red wines of today. I was fortunate enough to taste a wine made in this fashion at Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Monticello, Virginia and it was a real eye opener to wines of the past.

So after decades of research and winemaking Bettino finally wrote down what he had learned and sent it in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa in 1872:

‘…I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…’

I find it fascinating that even then he knew the Malvasia diluted the wine – softening it to make it drinkable – and could be left out if you wanted to age the wine instead. Malvasia is no longer a permitted grape for Chianti – although it is still grown in the region for other wines – all the grapes used in Chianti must now be black.

Today the estate is the largest in Chianti Classico – 12000 hectares in total with 236 hectares of vines and olive trees and it might all seem rosy, but that is only because of a great deal of hard work and foresight.

The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.

In the 1960s the Ricasoli family sold their name, their brand, to Seagrams. They managed the vineyards and sold the wine to Seagram who marketed it around the world. It may seem strange today, but at the time it made total sense. Many fine wine regions were struggling, astonishingly both Chablis and Côte Rôtie almost disappeared at that time, and Chianti was going through a hard time too. The wines had lost their reputation for quality and many producers had lost confidence in their grapes and their land – this was the time when some Chianti makers saw their future in Cabernet and Merlot and the ‘Super-Tuscans’ were born.

The Seagrams deal saved them at the time, but undermined their history and reputation. Baron Francesco Ricasoli took over the family business in 1990 and decided to put that right. The first thing he did was extensive replanting to ensure the quality came right in the vineyard. Then when Seagrams sold out to Hardy’s in 1993 he was able to buy the family brand back. From then on the focus has been on quality and re-establishing the prestige of their brand.

Brolio Castle.

Francesco was not a winemaker by trade, but a professional photographer, so since 1990 has been operating outside his comfort zone in many ways – although frankly it doesn’t show. He is assured, charming, deeply knowledgeable about his land and I could have listened to him forever. He introduced his wines with modesty and was keen to emphasise that he had built a team to make this project work, but you could hear the pride in his voice when he told us that in 20 years Ricasoli went from being almost forgotten to being regarded once more as a great estate.

Key to the progress they have made with their wines is their zoning project. This is a study in collaboration with the Experimental Institute for the Study and Protection of the Soil in Florence, which is mapping each parcel of vineyards by soil and climate to ensure that the correct grapes varieties are planted where they should be and on the most suitable rootstock.

The tasting was held at Pied à Terre in Charlotte Street in London and the food was an exquisite backdrop to these wonderful wines.

The aperitif:

2015 Torricella
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was our aperitif and it was a  blend of 75% Chardonnay blended with 25% Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnay was aged for 9 months in used barriques and tonneaux on the lees. the sauvignon was aged on the lees in stainless steel for 9 months.

This was a terrific wine with a lovely, beguiling, balance of richness and texture with freshness, acidity and minerality. I have had a few wines over the years that blend these two grape varieties together and they always seem good to me, so I often wonder why more people don’t don’t do it. This example is very fine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from:
Fareham Wine Cellar and Slurp.

Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:

2013 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

A single vineyard Super-Tuscan wine that has been produced since 1993. It was originally pure Sangiovese, but is now 100% Merlot. The vineyard is south facing and the soil is chalky clay. The different blocks were aged for between 18 and 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux before blending.

I am not always a fan of Merlot, but this was delicious stuff. The colour was deep, vibrant and plummy, while the lifted nose offered mocha, chocolate, plums and coffee with a touch of earth and even a whiff of the Mediterranean. The palate was smooth, creamy almost with light grainy tannins, vanilla, rose hips, plums and a dusting of cocoa. The flavours really build in the mouth and it is very long. It was a great match – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Tannico and Just in Cases.

2006 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was the last vintage that blended 30% Merlot and 70% Sangiovese together, from 2007 Casalferro has been pure Merlot. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques.

Beginning to show its age with a tawny rim and a briny, balsamic dominated aroma together with leather, earth, dried fruits and strong coffee. The palate was very soft, yet savoury and earthy with something almost medicinal about it. The tannins and the fruit were smooth and velvety and the acidity, presumably from the Sangiovese, kept it youthful and bright. This was magnificent with the quail meat, especially the crispy roast quail legs – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Hedonism Wines.

Served with venison, celeriac, watercress, sprouts and chestnuts:

2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine, now labelled as Gran Selezione – the first eligible vintage was 2010, is the Grand Vin of the estate. Gran Selezione is an attempt to firm up the quality credentials of top Chianti Classico. Historically the Riserva wines were the pinnacle of production, but normal Chianti Classico could be aged longer in wood and be labelled as a Reserve, so nothing really set the wines apart as being great quality.

Gran Selezione wines must be made from estate grown fruit, not bought in. The minimum alcohol must be 13% compared to 12.5% for Riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 months for Riserva. There is some controversy around the adoption of this new system, but I can see the point of it.

This 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

The nose offered bright plums and pomegranates together with rich earth and mocha notes. The palate was supple, youthful, joyous and delicious with fine grain tannins, sweet red fruit and a harmonious feel. I could drink it now, but it really needs time – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Waitrose Cellar, Tannico and Millésima.

2008 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 28 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

2008 is not considered a great vintage, but Francesco is very fond of it and wanted to share it with us. I am glad he did, I thought it was terrific.

The age is beginning to show here with more toffee, caramel and balsamic, soy sauce and general umami note The palate was very supple, very smooth with nice freshness, dried fig fruit, mushrooms, smoky coffee and caramel flavours. The finish was long, savoury and saline with a touch of mocha and cedar too. A beautiful wine ageing gracefully – 93/100 points.

2003 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

One of the hottest vintages to date, this was a blend of  Sangiovese with a little cabernet sauvignon. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques – 65% new.

The age shows here, but it is very good. the nose is earthy, mushroomy, truffles, meaty, dried figs and rich coffee, even a touch of stout on the nose. The palate is again very supple with sweet dried figs, almost no tannins and a meaty, savoury richness that makes it great with food – 93/100 points.

Served with the cheese course:

2013 Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine is a site specific, pure Sangiovese Chianti Classico that is now labelled as a Gran Selezione. In effect it is a Cru from a vineyard on the estate that sits at 380 metres above sea level and faces south west. 

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 40% new.

I am not always wowed by the top wines of an estate, but this really seduced me. What’s more it was from a difficult vintage with lots of hail. It was fragrant, floral, perfumed with sweet red fruit, mocha and a touch f tobacco. The palate was smooth, supple, smoky with fine grain tannins, ripe red fruit and a beautifully fresh, lightly flesh and succulent mid weight to it. This was stunning wine and I would add that the label is utterly beautiful too – 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £50 per bottle from:
Hedonism and Millésima.

2010 Colledilà Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 18 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux.

Showing some lovely bottle age, this is much more savoury and meaty with dried fruit, walnuts and coffee aromas, even some toffee. The palate is wonderfully cohesive with an underlying freshness balancing the richness and binding it all together. The tannins are supple and there is a dried fruit and savoury, earthy flavours and a sense of purity about it that makes it sing. It was magnificent with the Comté – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £32 per bottle from:
Vintage Wine & Port.

Served with the petit fours:

2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This blend of Malvasia and  Sangiovese is made from late harvested grapes that are then dried over the winter to concentrate the sugars further.  The juice is then fermented and the wine then aged for 4-5 years in French oak barriques.

This was the colour of Malt Whiskey and had a nose of cinder toffee, caramel, oranges, dried apricots together with a whiff of old books, leather, pipe tobacco and coffee. The palate is a wonderfully sumptuous blend of sweet and sour with chestnut, coffee, dried fig, maple syrup and concentrated apricot fruit. The finish is firm and surprisingly unsweet with great acidity and balance. The end is almost savoury and salty with reminders of Sherry, Sauternes and Madeira on the nose and plate – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £33 per half litre from:
Hennings Wine.

The whole evening was a memorable experience of good company, excellent food and magnificent wines. If you want to see what Chianti can be, do try one of the wines from Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli, they are quite a revelation.

The wines that I have written about here are the pinnacle of Barone Ricasoli’s production. If you want to dip a toe in the water and try their wines without quite such a large price tag, then they make many other wines including their superb Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva, their excellent Brolio Chianti Classico  – also here – and the Waitrose in Partnership Chianti Classico, which is very good and great value for money.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the UK by John E Fells.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the US by Domaine Select & Liber Selections,

Wine of the Week – a delicious Italian white

For me the much of the excitement of wine is experimentation and finding something new and surprising.

To that end I am always on the look out for regions about which I know nothing, or little and grape varieties that I have never tried before.

Well, the other day I tried a dry white wine that ticked both those boxes and was really good. I enjoyed it very much and it was very, very drinkable. Certainly the bottle just seemed to empty itself with incredible speed – which is often a good measure of how much I like a wine, especially when the bottle is emptying fast, but I don’t want it to actually end – like a good book.

Anyway, the wine I drank came from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, from DO Romagna and was made from the Pagadebit grape, of which I had never heard and rather surprisingly it was so good that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Northern Italy. Emilia-Romagna is in the South East. Click for a larger view.

The amazing winery at Poderi dal Nespoli.

2016 Poderi dal Nespoli Pagadebit
Poderi dal Nespoli 
DO Romagna
Emilia-Romagna
Italy

There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just a blend of 85% Pagadebit with 15% Sauvignon Blanc. 

Pagadebit is the name in Emilia-Romagna for the Bombino Bianco grape. This undistinguished grape variety grows all over southern Italy and has long been confused with Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. In fact they are so intertwined that DO Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wine can be made from either Trebbiano or Bombino. The name Pagadebit is interesting and refers to the fact that the grape gives a large crop, so ensures a good financial return so the name means something like ‘pays your debts’.

The estate at Poderi dal Nespoli which is a family run winery that was founded in 1929.

The aromas are floral, light honey, apple and herbs. The palate is a lovely combination of ripe, but crisp fruit and savoury herbal flavours. Tangy, crisp apple, light peach and a burst of fresh lemony citrus and tangerine vie with the savoury, almond and herbal notes and the merest hint of something saline. This is not a hugely complex wine, but it is really very drinkable, utterly delicious and incredibly versatile. Perhaps the addition of Sauvignon adds little finesse here. Enjoy it without food or with any lighter dishes, especially seafood and chicken. What’s more Emilia-Romagna is the home of Parma ham and I am sure that would be a great match too – 88/100 points.

Parma ham a local speciality.

I particularly like recommending this wine because it is mainly made from a grape that almost no one has a good word for. Pagadebit / Bombino Bianco is reckoned to be a grape that makes very ordinary wines and I love it when such generally held wisdom is shown to be inaccurate or out of date, just as it is with Verdicchio, which funnily enough was also long confused with Trebbiano.

Available in the UK for around £10 per bottle from:
Laithwaites – online and from their shops.

Wine of the Week – a delicious and great value Chenin Blanc

As some of my regular readers might know, I am not especially fond of Chenin Blanc. Indeed much of the time I choose not to drink it. However recently I re-tried a Chenin Blanc from one of my favourite South African producers – Kleine Zalze.

Kleine Zalze is an old established, family owned winery in Stellenbosch, just a couple of kilometres southwest of the town in fact. This is an incredibly beautiful wine region and the traditional hub of the South African wine industry. The first Europeans to settle the Cape were the Dutch – the British took the colony over during the Napoleonic Wars – and a lot of Protestant French Huguenots washed up in South Africa where they helped develop the wine industry that had been started by Simon van der Stel. Deer Steel was the first Dutch governor and Stellenbosch,  as well as nearby Simonstown, are named after him.

Kleine Salze was founded in 1695, so dates from these early days of South African wine. However it really received a new impetus to produce high quality wines when businessman Kobus Basson and his family bought the estate in 1996.

I have known the wines ever since then and have visited a couple of times and they are a very impressive outfit that turns out some brilliant wines from a wide range of grape varieties and blends. In my opinion their top range Family Reserve Pinotage is one of the very best examples of the grape, but I think that everything they make is really good – have a look at this wine.

Wine map South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view.

Anyway recently I had a bottle of their Zalze Old Vine Chenin Blanc and it was so delicious that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Kleine Zalze in winter.

2016 Zalze Bush Vine Chenin Blanc
Kleine Salze
WO Coastal Region
South Africa

The Zalze range from Kleine Zalze are akin to entry level wines, but they are very high quality and this wine really proves that point. It is made from old bush vines that are dry farmed, so not irrigated. Old vines produce smaller crops of more concentrated fruit, which is why old vine wines are usually considered to be that bit finer. Most of the fruit comes from the Kleine Zalze estate in Stellenbosch, but some is sourced from other places like Swartland, which is why the wine is described as coming from Wine of Origin / WO Coastal Region and not Stellenbosch.

The fruit was hand harvested in the early hours to keep the fresh acidity. The grapes got a bit of skin contact to add texture and complexity and after the fermentation the wine was aged on the lees for four months, which also added complexity.

Kleine Salze in winter.

The wine is fresh and lively, but with a lovely soft, round and ever so slightly creamy quality. The natural high acid of the grape shows through, while the Mediterranean climate of the Cape adds the richness and softness that makes it so succulent and moreish – be warned the bottles empty very fast.

Bright, crisp lemon and lime citrus give a lovely refreshing quality. That freshness wraps around rich tropical guava and pineapple fruit and there is a touch of stony minerality that gives the wine focus and poise.

This is not complex wine, but it is very, very drinkable, delivers great value for money and is really versatile too. It goes well with almost anything, from the simplest fish and chips to salads, Mediterranean style food and spicy oriental dishes. I think it’s really delicious and will make a perfect house wine for the summer – 88/100 points.

I would also mention that Stellenbosch is a wonderful place to visit. In fact from a wine point of view South Africa’s Western Cape is one of the best places to see, as everything is so compact and the wineries are really well set up for tourism. As well as being a great winery to visit to taste the wines, Kleine Zalze is home to the wonderful Terroir restaurant.

Available in the UK for around £8 per bottle from:
Waitrose Cellar, Morrisons, Asda Wine Shop, Tesco, Booths.

 

 

The Marche – a region awakes: Part 1 – the whites

A few weeks ago I was on a wonderful trip to the Marche region of Italy. This lovely region is in central Italy on the Adriatic coast and the capital is the bustling port city of Ancona. The name of the place, Le Marche, has always intrigued me. It’s pronounced Mar-Kay – and comes from the plural of the word March, which is an archaic term for a borderland. Orginally there was the March of Ancona, the March of Camerino and the March of Fermo, together they were described as Marca or Marche. So when they were put together to form a single region that is the name it was given – Marche or the marches.

The beautiful countryside of Marche.

The region has interested me for quite a long time, but life has prevented me from actually getting there before, so I was quite excited to see the place for myself. Of course I was primarily there for the wine and I was very pleased to be there too, because I had the feeling it was going to be an exciting place.

I wasn’t wrong. The Marche is an exciting wine region. In fact it seemed to me that the whole place is a bit of a sleeping giant that is only just beginning to get really ambitious and to realise just what a good wine region it can be. The wines might not be as well known as those from Tuscany, but I rather think they should be.

For quite a while now I had been convinced that the wines were worth reappraising. That is because all the books still describe the most famous wine from here – Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi – as it was 30 years or so ago, light acidic and bland, but in truth they aren’t actually like that – not anymore.

Staffolo, a hilltop town near Cantina Cológnola.

The countryside is very beautiful and very varied too and well worth a visit if you would like a more unusual corner of Italy to explore. Inland the landscape is very attractive and gentle – not unlike Tuscany – with appealing hilltop towns and villages standing guard over the valleys.

The coast at Sirolo some 10km south of Ancona.

Sirolo.

The coastline too is attractive, with a rugged and wild quality as the beaches are usually at the bottom of coastal cliffs, while the seaside towns are delightful places to stroll around – I was there in May, but I was warned that they are very busy in the summer.

Of course I was there for the wine and there is a lot of wine going on in the Marche. It is a region where a lot of PDOs / appellations / DOCs – call them what you want – overlap each other and cover much of the same territory. I know this as I have just drawn a wine map of the region and it took some working out as it is very complicated.

Wine map of the Marche – click for a larger view.

From an export point of view the 2 most visible wines are both white and made from the Verdicchio (pronounced Ver-dick-ee-oh) grape variety. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is the most famous and enjoys the biggest production, so is the wine that you will come across more than any other. The other leading white wine is Verdicchio di Matelica, which only produces a tenth of the amount of the other Verdichio, so tends to be more artisan production.

Verdicchio is a grape that has really captured my imagination in recent years. It is somewhat written off by most wine books, certainly the ones that I have, but deserves to be taken much more seriously. From my experience, even cheap versions of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi have more about them than most books and wine courses let on. I am sure this is because the wines, like so many, have improved out of all recognition over the last 15 years or so. They are no longer pale, lemony and thin, but have some texture and weight to them and the cheaper versions can often be very inexpensive and pretty good quality too – click here for an example.

Beautiful vineyards in Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

The finer bottles of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdiccio di Matelica are very different though. I found them to be quite beguiling with taut, crisp acidity and minerality, with mouthfeel and texture showing good weight of fruit, although they are fresh rather than fruity, and complexity. They were seriously exciting wines and the best ones that I tasted are as good as a good Chablis and very much in that style. What’s more, again like a good Chablis, fine examples of Verdicchio are not just fresh, crisp wines, they can be aged to develop more complexity and character. Ian D’Agata, in his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, states his belief that ‘Verdicchio is arguably Italy’s greatest native white grape variety’ – which is high praise indeed as there is some serious competition from the likes of Fiano and Greco. Verdicchio is also used to make Lugana near Lake Garda, another excellent Italian white wine.

Beautiful vineyards in Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC for white wines only. They have to be made from at least 85% Verdicchio grapes with the rest being most likely Malvasia or Trebbiano, although most that I have tasted are 100% Verdicchio.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, shown in deep yellow on my map, comes from the historic area of production and has to be made with lower yields than the wines labelled purely as Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Superiore wines are also made using lower yields and can be made anywhere in the region, while Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore are made from lower yields in the Classico zone.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante are sparkling wines from the region and can be very good indeed, as can the dessert wines made from dried grapes, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Passito.

The pinnacle of production is Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva. These wines have enjoyed the superior classification of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita / DOCG since 2010. They are produced in the Classico zone with lower yields and have to be aged for at least 18 months before release – this does not have to be in oak, but some are oak aged.

The soils here seem to be a mix of sandy, chalky, stony and limestone which together with the sea breezes and cold north easterly winds from the Balkans makes for wines with fresh acidity and a note of minerality, which sort of defines the finer wines here.

Inland there is another Verdicchio area. Verdicchio di Matelica DOC is a much smaller zone of production and is away from the coastal influence, so has a continental climate that is cooled by the winds coming down the valley from the north. In order to refresh the grapes further, they are planted high up at 500 metres above sea level. Again sweet, Passito, versions are made, as are sparkling, Spumante. Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva DOCG is made using lower yields and with longer ageing.

Sadly we only tasted a handful of wines from the Matelica zone and they did not stand out. However I would recommend this one, this one and especially this one, which is an especially good wine.

For me the standout producers and wines from Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi were the following:

Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone.

My first visit got off to a very good start at Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone. The estate is a few kilometres south west of Jesi, roughly where the ‘e’ in dei is on my map. It’s owned by the charming Darini family and the winemaker is the very humble, but clearly gifted Gabrielle Villani, who kept saying that he just wanted to make better and better wine.

2016 Via Condotto
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

I really liked this bright, fresh and focussed wine. The colour was bright – it was sealed with a screw cap – honey tinged straw, while the aromas offered rich lemon zest, floral notes and straw. There was no malolactic, so the acidity was vibrant and forthright. It is aged for a few months in tank before release and it has lovely natural balance between nicely textured palate and the freshness. A terrific wine with an incredibly long finish – 88/100 points.

Interestingly when I asked Gabrielle why it was so very different from the bland and dull Verdicchios of my youth he explained that they now do not use Trebbiano – this was 100% Verdicchio, as were most of the others I tried, they use much lower fermentation temperatures in stainless steel tanks, so keep the wine fresh, they age the wine for less time, they site the vineyards more cleverly for freshness, they plant with lower density, use lower yields and harvest later. So that combination of things reduces the yields and increases the concentration of the grapes, so adding flavour, while the fermentation techniques and the site selection adds freshness and balance. The result is a wine that bears no relation to the Verdicchios of the past.

2016 Ghiffa
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

Much as I liked the Via Condotto, and I did, this really made me sit up. It is also 100% Verdicchio, but picked later, to let the sugars build, then a rigorous selection of the fruit makes it more concentrated to start with and then it was aged for 12 months on the less. The lees are the yeast sediment left over from fermentation and give the wine more complexity and can give it a richer texture too.

This had a deeper colour from all that ageing, a lemon curd, creamy and herbal aroma, while the palate was textured and succulent, with peach, apricot, honey and even nougat flavours, while the acidity and saline minerality really gave freshness and balance. This is a serious wine, rich and tangy with a stony mineral finish – 91/100 points.

Gabrielle also makes 2 excellent quality sparkling Verdicchio wines that I enjoyed very much indeed:

Gabrielle Villani.

2014 Musa Brut
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

This is 100% Verdicchio grapes made sparkling by the Traditional Method, as used for Champagne. The wine was aged on the lees for 9 months.

The colour is quite golden while the aromas give a biscuity note as well as ripe each and apples. The palate was surprisingly rich, but balanced with lively, fresh acidity – 89/100 points.

Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone.

2012 Darina Brut
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

This is also 100% Verdicchio grapes made sparkling by the Traditional Method, but this richer wine wine was aged on the lees for 24 months.

This is a very serious sparkling wine with a rich colour and has a powerfull, leesy, biscuity, flaky pastry sort of aroma with nuts, caramel, cooked apples and cooked peach. The palate is soft and rich with a rounded mouthfeel balanced by refreshing acidity. The wine is rich and complex and tasting it blind I would never have imagined it was from a region so unknown for sparkling wines  – 91/100 points.

Some of the Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone wines are available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk.

Società Agricola La Staffa di Baldi Riccardo

The entrance to La Staffa.

This beautiful little estate is near Staffolo, so not far from Cantina Cológnola and is universally known as La Staffa. The Baldi family started it in 1994, because of the rising reputation of the local wines, but it is now run by the charming, energetic and remarkably assured Riccardo Baldi. Riccardo is only in his twenties but clearly understands this piece of land and how to make wines from it. The estate is now 7 hectares with some vines going back to the 1970s and Riccardo farms biodynamically with no use of chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. It is a wonderful place, very peaceful and utterly lovely. Standing there it felt very much like being in Chablis, but a Chablis vineyard that had somehow been plonked down in the Mediterranean – which is very much how the wines feel too.

Interestingly the wines all have a salty, mineral quality. All the water used in the vineyard comes from a well on the site and I got to taste that water and it was salty.

La Staffa.

If you have never tried a Verdicchio, or have not had one for a while, Riccardo’s wines may well be the best place to start as they are exemplary.

2016 La Staffa
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Società Agricola La Staffa

100% Verdichio from 12 year old vines fermented in a mixture of stainless steel and cement tanks with a spontaneous fermentation using the wild yeast, 12.5% abv.
The colour is very pale and pure, slightly silver.
The nose gives salty peach skin aromas and the palate is juicy, there is a lovely sweetness of ripe fruit there making it surprisingly surprisingly succulent.
However it feels very fresh with a long salty, pretzel like finish with lively citrus acidity and a mineral quality. The acidity is on the high side, but not too dominating. This is a beautiful wine, pure and lively, but with some weight too. I loved this wine – 89/100 points.

The wonderful Riccardo Baldi.

2011 Rincrocca
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Società Agricola La Staffa

Rincrocca is the name of a hill next to the winery. This wine is 100% Verdichio from 45 year old vines fermented in cement tanks with a spontaneous fermentation using the wild yeast. It was aged in concrete tanks on the lees for 12 months –  14% abv.
Very rich amber honey colour shows the development.
The nose is salty and mineral with apple compote and some mushrooms that again show the development.
The palate is full, rich, honeyed and creamy with mealy texture – but bone dry. The salty purity of the young wine returns on the long, long finish and there is plenty of fruit, peach, peach skin, apple and even some rich citrus like tangerine. Oh I loved this wine, it is quite magnificent like a really good Premier Cru Chablis – 93/100 points.

Some of the stainless steel tanks at La Staffa.

I was also fortunate enough to taste this:

Some of the cement tanks at La Staffa, they are quite old and came from another winery.

2013 Rincrocca (from magnum)
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Società Agricola La Staffa

As you might expect this was not quite so developed, but it was superb. The colour was honeyed, the nose gave complex herbal, camomile, sage, sea salt, sweet dried apricots, toffee and orange zest notes.
The palate was fabulous, round and succulent with ripe peach, peach skin, dessert apples, herbs, honey, caramel and then smoke and salt. The finish was incredible, it just went on and on like a prog rock drum solo – 94/100 points.

These were magnificent white wines that can hold their heads up in any company.

Some of the La Staffa wines are available from Berry Bros & Rudd and Amazon.

Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

Frankly I feel a bit mean putting Garafoli here as they make wonderful red wines too, but it was the whites and sparkling that especially captured my heart. They are a big producer for the region as they farm 50 hectares and they make many of the different wine styles found in Marche.

Daria Garofoli showing me some of their wines.

They were founded in 1901 and are still owned and managed by the Garofoli family. My tasting here was led by the charming Daria Garofoli who is charge of exports and she claims that they were the first commercial producers of Marche wines. I can well believe that as for most of Italy – apart from Tuscany and some Piemonte wines – selling bottled wine is almost entirely a post WWII enterprise in most of Europe.

Today they have a winery in the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi zone that makes those white wines and a winery in Cònero that makes everything else.

Daria explained that until well into the 1970 yields remained high and the wines were quite ordinary from here, often with other very bland grapes blended in with the Verdicchio. In those days, and to some degree it continues formally of the more everyday wines, the wines were bottled in a special amphora shaped bottle. Garafoli were one of the very first to bottle wines here and to export their wines. They were also among the first to realise the great potential for quality here, by more carefully siting vineyards, lowering yields and focussing on the mineral quality that Verdicchio can bring.

An old amphora shape bottle of Garofoli’s Verdicchio, it’s from 1964, so even older than me.

2010 Podium
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly overripe. The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks for 15 months on the lees.

As you might imagine, the colour is a little deep with a peach skin hue. The aroma is wonderfully lifted with creamy, leesy notes competing with fresh citrus, salty sea shore notes, a stony tang and some peach and peach skin. The palate has a lovely succulence and a creamy, mealy feel. There is a salty, mineral quality, rich citrus and a wonderful intensity that balances the lithe freshness and vice versa. A great white wine – 93/100 points.

Beautiful Verdicchio vineyards.

2008 Podium
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly overripe. The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks for 15 months on the lees.

Another stunning white wine with an amazing balance between the fresh and the linear and the richer and weightier. There is more salinity here and creamer, curdy texture with rich lemon and almost a touch of beeswax – 93/100 points.

That beautiful rainswept beach.

2012 Garofoli Brut Riserva
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante
Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly underripe. The wine is made fizzy by the traditional method and is aged on the lees for 48 months.

This was either really, really good, or I really really wanted some fizz at the end of a long day. We were tasting this at a beautiful, if rainswept beach and it was a great experience. The wine had a lovely peachy, apricot, citrus and biscuity aroma, while the palate was silky and refined – 90/100 points.

Some of the Garofoli wines are available in the UK from Tannico.

So, there you are, a little snap shot of some of the white wines and sparkling wines that stood out for me on the trip. There were a few more producers of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, but I think that is quite enough for now, so I will return to the subject.

You never really hear anyone extolling the virtues of Verdicchio, but I think they should, because as you can see the wines can be very high quality indeed. So, the next time you want a sappy, saline, mineral, dry white wine with real complexity and character, try a Verdeicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. I think you’ll like it.

Wine of the Week – a beautiful summer white wine

At this time of year I love to drink delicious white wines, perhaps with some fish or chicken or even on their own. I recently presented a very well received tasting of Australian wines that I thought were suitable for summer and although they are all really good, one in particular stood out.

Lodge Hill Vineyard complete with Kangaroo.

It was a white wine made from a very unusual grape variety. Indeed it is the only example of that grape in Australia and together with the wonderful Rieslings (also click here) and the delicious Hancock & Hancock Fiano – that I wrote about recently – is clear proof that Australia is really good at bright, fresh white wines.

The wine in question is made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. This is the main grape variety used in Santorini where it is responsible for producing some of the very finest dry white wines – and great dessert wines too – of the entire Mediterranean. At their best these wines are bright, mineral and refreshing and there is nothing better with a bit of fish or some calamares. If you like crisp, dry, taut white wines, along the lines of Sancerre or Chablis, then you would certainly like a dry white Santorini.

Sue and Peter Barry in the Lodge Hill Vineyard August 2012.

Peter Barry certainly does. He is the third generation winemaker at his family’s Jim Barry winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. In 2006 he and his wife Sue were on holiday on Santorini and they were astonished by the quality of the local wines. Their bracing acidity reminded them of the Rieslings that they made back home, but they had something extra too. That something extra was probably minerality, which is what the combination of the Assytiko grape and the volcanic soils delivers.

Lodge Hill Vineyard.

Peter had got the bug and returned to the island in 2008 in order to collect some cuttings of Assyrtiko from the always excellent Ktima Aryros, Argyros Estate. After a period of quarantine the vines were eventually planted at their beautiful Lodge Hill Vineyard. Peter was convinced that although the soils were very different, the other conditions would really suit Assyrtiko.

There has only been one vintage released to date, the 2016, and I would say that it bears him out. I loved it, as did the other tasters. In fact I loved it so much it is my Wine of the Week.

Map of South Eastern Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Lodge Hill Vineyard from the air.

2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko
Jim Barry Wines
Clare valley
South Australia

There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just perfectly ripe grapes cold fermented at low temperatures in order to retain all the freshness and delicate flavours of the grape.

The nose is lovely, floral, citric and lifted with some richer notes of apricot and pear and even a hint of sage. The palate is gorgeous, bright, fresh, pure and pristine with a lovely little touch of silky succulence balancing the high acidity. There are lime, orange, pear, apricot and nectarine flavours together with a little chalky minerality. It balances purity and freshness with fruit and texture beautifully. It’s quite a beguiling wine, but in the end delivers a wonderfully vibrant wine with crisp acidity, pure minerality and delicious fruit. It is a tad richer and softer than a Santorini, but that just adds to the sensation of trying something totally new. This is a fine white wine – 93/100 points.

This is a perfect wine to serve with some clams in white wine and garlic, seared scallops, grilled prawns, moreton bay bugs, some sea bass, sea bream, swordfish or tuna, or try it with spaghetti all vongole

By the way, they only made around 3,000 bottles, so grab it while you can!

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Corking Wines, Noel Young Wines, The Solent Cellar, D Vine Cellars, Eagle’s Wines, Vagabond and House of Townend.

Monople Clásico, the return of a Spanish classic

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I have always had a soft spot for white Rioja, whether fresh and crisp, barrel fermented or aged in oak. Well now there is a new style of dry white Rioja around. I say new, but actually it is an old style that has been brought back to life.

When I was young and just getting into wine I spent a great deal of time in Spain and one of the most widely sold white wines was Monopole made by the wonderful CVNE, Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España. The Monopole had been created in 1914 and was given a French name, because the founding brothers – Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa – loved the white wines of Burgundy, and a German style bottle because German white wines were so commercially important in those days. It was the first white Rioja made in anything like a fresh, lively, modern style. Of course in those days it was partly aged in oak, but it was a complete break with most white Riojas of the times.

Ever since the early 1980s CVNE have made fresher, completely unoaked style of Monopole, which is a very good, just off-crisp wine that is very versatile and pleasurable. However to mark 100 years of Monopole, they have recently returned to making the traditional Monopole as well and it is wonderful to revisit this wine and to experience again what a fascinating – and delicious – wine style it is.

They call this reborn wine Monople Clásico and like the ‘normal’ Monopole it is made from Rioja’s classic white grape Viura, but then it gets very different. Firstly the Viura juice is settled in concrete tanks, then fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel. Then they add a small amount of aged Manzanilla Sherry from the famous Bodegas Hidalgo – yes really. Manzanilla is basically a Fino Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the Sherry region and so it is dry and ages with the Flor, or yeast, to give it complexity and that nutty, bready character. Then the blended wine is aged for 8 months in 300 and 500 litre barrels – used barrels so it softens the wine rather than flavours it.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

Now, I will have to whisper this and you will have to promise never to mention it to anybody else, but I do not really like Sherry. I appreciate it and am very interested in it, but cannot drink much of it for pleasure. What you have to realise is that Sherry holds the same place in many, possibly most, wine people’s hearts that Alfa Romeo does for petrol heads. You simply have no credibility unless you profess to love Sherry, so this will have to remain our little secret.

So, adding Sherry to a wine might seem strange, illegal even given that Rioja is a PDO / appellation and so the grapes must be grown in the correct area for the term Rioja to appear on the label. That is true, but because CVNE had traditionally made the wine this way, they were allowed to do so again. The idea is strange, but it really, really works. It makes for a truly delicious, fine and complex wine that I loved.

It seems that the management of CVNE were reminiscing about the old style Monopole, as the centenary of the brand was about to happen, so they sent down to the cellar for a bottle and could only find a single example left, a bottle from 1979. They tasted it and it was still in great condition, fresh, lively and so delicious that they decided to resurrect the style. To help them they called on the services of Ezequiel Garcia, the retired CVNE winemaker from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Ezequiel was thrilled to be part of the project and had no reservations in resurrecting this classic wine from the past, indeed I am told that he found it a moving experience. The part of that loves 1940s music hopes that Ezequiel cried!

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view

CVNE, like many of the original band of Rioja bodegas, are based in Haro in Rioja Alta.

2014 Monopole Classico
CVNE
DOCa Rioja
Spain

The nose is very appealing, delicately aromatic and lifted with waxy apples, light custard notes, some spice, wafts of brioche, flakey pastry, rock pools and sea breeze. The palate is very fresh, lively and slightly saline as well sever so slightly succulent with cooked lemons and apple fruit as well as a waxy quality. There is something smoky and haunting about this wine and the flavours build in the mouth becoming slightly rounded and mealy even. This is a beguiling, complex and fascinating wine that is deeply satisfying, bone dry and wonderfully complete with richness and freshness vying with each other to dominate your senses – 93/100 points.

This would be wonderful with some sea bream, sea bass, mussels, clams, garlic prawns, oysters, chicken, pâté, smoked salmon, or anything light.

Available in the UK for around £25 a bottle from: The Wine Reserve.
It is also available mail order from Spain – until Brexit ruins everything – for around €15 a bottle plus shipping – from Decántalo and Uvinum.

 

Wine of the Week – Fiano Spreads its Wings

Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

I like Fiano. It is a fabulous white grape from Campania in southern Italy. Campania is a great region, centred on Naples it produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines, using a palate of high quality indigenous grapes including Fiano. The best examples are widely considered to be those from vineyards on the volcanic slopes around the town of Avellino. Fiano di Avellino is a DOCg and is a prestigious, fine and mineral dry white, while other examples from Campania, grown on non-volcanic soils, tend to be softer and easier to drink.

Fiano is an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most refined and most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Fiano is also found in other parts of Campania, including the Sorrento peninsula, and Puglia – the heel of Italy. I was vaguely aware that a few people grew the grape else where. Jenny Dobson makes one at Bush Hawk Vineyards in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, but it seems that Australia has really taken this, slightly exotic grape to its heart and around 70 producers have now started making examples of Fiano – which is hardly surprising as Italian food and Mediterranean style is big down under, so Fiano would be a perfect accompaniment.

Well, recently I tasted – actually retasted – one that excited me so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Chris Hancock.

Map of South Eastern Australia, McLaren Vale is to the south of Adelaide – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2016 Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard Fiano
Hancock & Hancock
McLaren Vale
South Australia

For the second week running I am telling you bout an Australian take on a Mediterranean classic. It is a bit more widely made than last week’s Montepulciano, but it is still pretty rare. Which is a pity, because it seems to suit the climate superbly, as well as the cuisine.

Many times while in Australia last year I enjoyed some simply cooked prawns, Moreton Bay Bugs or clams with garlic and oil and lemon together with a glass of white wine made from a suitably Mediterranean grape variety – my favourite place for such delights was Claypots Evening Star in South Melbourne Market and my favourite grape was Fiano, although there was one Assyrtiko as well, more of which another day.

Chris and his brother John Hancock have owned their Home Vineyard in McLaren Vale for over 10 years now. They farm some 80 year old Grenache and Shiraz, together with Cabernet and Touriga, as well as having a 2 hectare plot of Fiano that was head grafted, in situ, onto Chardonnay in 2012. Chris Hancock, who is an honourary Master of Wine, worked with Robert Oatley for many years and Chris is still involved with the Robert Oatley company which distributes his Hancock & Hancock wines.

A part of this was fermented in neutral, old, oak barrels to give roundness and volume rather than flavour, but most was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures.

To look at the wine has a crystalline purity about it, then on the nose it has nectarine and white peach together with some lemon zest, dry honey and herbs. On the palate there slots of fruit giving a juiciness which is then balanced by freshness and a little taut minerality in the background. The texture is succulent, ever so slightly creamy even which together with the lemon, stone fruit and touch of herbs makes it delicious and very drinkable.

It is light and crisp enough to be refreshing, yet juicy enough and succulent enough to feel interesting and more complex. In a kind of way it shows the ripeness of the place it is from and some the beguiling minerality of the grape, which gives it an inbuilt tension. Lovely with fish,chicken, Mediterranean food, or just to drink on its own – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, Farnham Wine Cellar, Flagship Wines, The Wine Reserve, Drinkfinder, Amazon.co.uk, Eynsham Cellars, Luvians Bottleshop, Ann et Vin, Warren Wines & Amp Fine Wines.