Wine of the Week – a fine & delicious Gavi

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The beautiful landscape of Gavi.

Many of you who read these pages regularly will know how much I like Italian wines. Some of you will also know that I bang on rather a lot about how much better wines are nowadays than in the past – especially the whites from places that are more well known for quality reds in the past, places like Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Italian white wines are generally of a very high standard in my experience and far more interesting and sophisticated than their reputation would have you believe. In recent months I have enjoyed some superb Soave, Colli Berici, Verdicchioand click here , Lugana, Gambellara, Fiano, Falanghina and Greco from Campania, as well as those wonderful crisp dry whites of Etna in Sicily.

Gavi is another interesting Italian white wine and is now quite widely available, certainly more than most of the wines mentioned above, and has almost broken free of the Italian ghetto to be known as a style in its own right. It is nowhere near as famous as Pinot Grigio or Sancerre of course, but you occasionally get it mentioned in novels or hear the name in television dramas. However, as with most wines, there is Gavi and there is Gavi. It will never let you down in my experience, but can, like so many wines, occasionally be a bit dull, dilute even. The answer to that is to drink a well made wine from a good producer. Sadly most of the time price is a pointer to quality, there are exceptions, but on the whole never drink the bargain basement version of a well known wine – or if you do, manage your expectations.

Piemonte Map with watermark

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

Gavi itself is a town in Piemonte, north west Italy, but until 1815 its powerful fortress formed the northern defences of the Republic of Genoa. Luckily, thanks to the EU and European integration – a little bit of politics – war has left this place alone since 1945 and today Gavi is a rather lovely, sleepy little town of narrow streets, café lined squares and those amazing fortifications of old.

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Gavi fortress.

Nowadays of course it’s fame lies in the wine that bears its name. Gavi is the only important wine made from the Cortese grape. There is a tiny bit here and there, but just this tiny patch of Piemonte specialises in it. Cortese is also grown in the nearby Colli Tortonesi and Monferrato regions as well as in the provinces of Cuneo, Asti and the wider areas of Alessandria to make the slightly more humble wines labelled as Cortese del Piemonte DOC. Outside Piemonte Cortese can be found in Lombardy’s Oltrepò Pavese region and it is also cultivated around Lake Garda where it is used to produce Garda Cortese as well as being used in the blend of Bianco di Custoza.

I have also had one Cortese from Australia that was very enjoyable, but I am surprised, given what nice wines can be made from Cortese, how little the grape is grown and known around the world – although it is slowly becoming more widely known.

11 communes, plus Gavi itself, make the wine called Gavi and despite its popularity there is no such wine as Gavi di Gavi and that term should not appear on labels. If a wine comes from fruit grown in just one of the communes able to make Gavi then it can be labelled as Gavi del Commune di Gavi – or Rovereto, Bosio, or Carrosio, or Capriata d’Orba, or Francavilla Bisio, or Novi Ligure, or Parodi Ligure, or Pasturana, or San Cristoforo, or Serravalle Scrivia, or Tassarolo.

What’s more these form a single DOCg, they are indivisible and are considered to all be of the same quality – unlike Chianti and Chianti Classico for instance which are separate DOCgs.

The countryside around Gavi is quite beautiful and the slightly high land – around 300 metres all – and the surrounding mountains channel cooling breezes off the sea and the nearby alps to cool down the vines and create really good conditions for white wine. While the southern exposure ensures they catch the sun to get excellent ripeness. Add all that together with the white wine technology that came in during the 1970s-1980s and you can see why Gavi has made a name for itself in recent years. It cannot be a hinderance either that nearby Alba, Asti, Barolo and Barbaresco all enjoy reputations for high quality wine and so the infrastructure for export is close at hand.

Anyway, long story short, the other day I drank a stunning bottle of Gavi that spoke to my soul and so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Rolona-nuovo2016 Rolona
DOCG Gavi del Comune di Gavi
Castellari Bergaglio
Gavi
Piemonte
Italy
I really like the wines of Castellari Bergaglio and have been meaning to write about them for a while. They produce exemplary Gavis and what’s more make a fascinating range too. Ardé, their traditional method sparkling Gavi is very good and their standard Gavi, called Salluvi, is exceptional at the price. However the wineries true stars are their special cuvées. Pilin is made from partially dried grapes, Fornaci is a Gavi del Commune di  Tassarolo and Rovereto is a Gavi del Commune di Rovereto. They even make a sweet passito wine called Gavium, so produce a lot of varity for a single grape variety grown on just 12 hectares.
Castellari Bergaglio was founded in 1890 and today is run by 4th generation Marco Bergaglio and although he clearly loves the place his wine comes from and is steeped in the area, he also likes to experiment and push the boundaries of what constitutes a Gavi. He tries to balance tradition and modernity to great effect in my opinion.
The fermentation is long and slow at moderate rather than cool temperatures – 18-20˚C, which allows for lovely flavours and delicate textures to develop on the palate. This textural component is helped by the lees ageing.
CASTELLARI BERGAGLIO - FABRIZIO PORCU3

Marco Bergaglio (right) in his vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Rolona is perhaps the most pure of his range and indeed the Rolona vineyard has chalky soil. The aromas are delicately floral, orchard fruit, straw, perhaps a touch of dry honey, earth and wet stone. The palate is crisp with an underlying richness, succulence and concentration that shows what a high wire act the wine is. It is detailed and beautifully crafted in miniature. The minerality really suits it, as does the lemon and tangerine edged citrus and the sheer vitality of the wine. All the books and all the wine courses make great play about how high the acid is in Gavi, that simply is not true. It isn’t low acid that’s for sure but, but it is usually tempered by the ripeness of the fruit and this wine is no exception. I enjoyed it so much that I simply cannot tell you how quickly the bottle emptied itself. It’s lovely on its own or with some shellfish or delicate fish like seabass – 92/100 points.
Available in the UK @ around £14 per bottle from The General Wine Company and It’s Wine Time. More stockist information is available from Grape Passions.

The Good Campanians – stories, grapes and wines from Italy’s deep south

The other week I was a guest at Campania Stories, which is a wonderful event designed to immerse wine writers and wine educators in the exciting world of Campania wine.

The view from my Naples hotel balcony, Mount Vesuvius is pretty dominating and dramatic and could erupt again any time. It last erupted seriously in 1944.

The view from my Naples hotel balcony, Mount Vesuvius is pretty dominating and dramatic and could erupt again any time. It last erupted seriously in 1944.

Campania is a fascinating region, very beautiful, amazingly varied, steeped in history and full of wonderful things to see. Naples is of course at its heart, but there is so much more here too. Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia all offer rewarding experiences for the traveller, as do the ancient wonders of Pompeii and Herculaneum. However the less well known inland areas are also extremely interesting and whilst they are a little off the tourist trail, they do produce some of the region’s – and Italy’s – most exciting wines. At first glance the wines here seem very traditional and almost the antithesis of the soft, overtly fruity new world wines that dominate the wine selections in supermarkets around the world. They are of course labelled by place name as is the custom in Europe, but many Italian wine names include the name of the grape variety too, as is often the case here. Pretty much everything in Campania is made from local indigenous grapes, some of which are very old indeed, with histories that reach back into ancient times. These grape varieties are the driving force of Campania, they define the types of wine the region can make, while the climate and soils reinforce those definitions. Man of course can make choices and adjustments, so there can be some differing styles and emphasis in the wines.

Naples fishing harbour with capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the distance.

Ancient Grapes Any search for new flavours and excitement should take in Campania as it is home to such fabulous grape varieties.

The Black Grapes:

Aglianico is the region’s mainstay black grape and its name is either a corruption of ellenico or Helleni that betray Ancient Greek origins, or Apulianicum, the Latin term for southern Italy. Either way we know it is very old and was used to make Falernian which was the most highly rated wine of Ancient Rome, the modern Falerno del Massico is made in the same area. Aglianico is traditionally full-bodied, with high acidity – perfect with food – and high tannin that can seem a little rustic in the wrong hands. Luckily many winemakers increasingly seem to know how to tame those hard tannins.

Piedirosso, was apparently mentioned by Pliny the Elder and its name translates as ‘red foot’ because the stems are red in colour. In fact, in the local dialect it is called Palombina or Per’e Palummo which means ‘little dove’ and ‘dove’s foot’ because the stems are made up of 3 stalks that make it resemble a bird’s foot. This grape also has high acid, but is lighter in tannin, so produces quite soft wines. It is often blended with Aglianico to make the wine fresher, especially in Fallerno del Massico and Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio.

The White Grapes:

Fiano is also 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 balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Greco is a fascinating grape, capable of making some great dry whites, the best are traditionally made in the area around the town of Tufo and are very mineral and fine. The jury is out about the origins of the name though. Most books say it was brought to Italy by the Ancient Greeks, but Ferrante di Somma di Circello, whose Cantine di Marzo produces fine Greco di Tufo, told me that it was called Greco because it was the best grape to make Greek style wine, by which people used to mean sweet wine from dried grapes. These were the most sought after wines in the middle ages and were known as Romneys by the English wine trade.

Falanghina, much as I love Fiano and Greco, I reckon Falanghina is Campania’s calling card for white wines. It is capable of being much softer and fruitier than the others and can easily be enjoyed without food. Again this was used by the ancient Romans to produce the famous Falernian.

Coda di Volpe was apparently even named by Pliny the Elder, because the bunches are thought to resemble a fox’s tail. The wines seem to have less acidity and to be more textured than the other Campanian whites. The Caprettone, which is used to make white Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, was long thought to be Coda di Volpe, but recent research has shown it to be a variety on its own.

Ancient Wines I have never been anywhere where so much of the ancient world is still visible and all round you. The Campanians are very proud of their past, both as part of the Roman world and as the separate Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and some producers are keen to keep the links with the ancients alive and I came across two fascinating projects that do just that.

A restaurant in Pompeii, busy, but a little understaffed.

A restaurant in Pompeii, busy, but a little understaffed.

True Amphora Wine
Villa Matilde is a terrific producer which specialises in Falerno del Massico – every time I tasted their wines I marked them very highly indeed – and farms some of the original vineyard slopes that made the Roman Falernian wine. This was the first cult wine of Rome and  records show that it was served to Julius Caesar and even shipped to England. Salvatore Avallone owns Villa Matilde and wanted to create a wine that harked back to how the Romans made it, but was also recognisably wine – the Romans made wines that as far as we can tell were like a sweet syrup to which they added water and spices.

Villa Matilde's Amphora wine, the seal has just been broken and you can see the grape matter in the wine.

Villa Matilde’s Amphora wine, the seal has just been broken and you can see the grape matter in the wine.

So he created a wine that is a blend of Aglianico di Falernia with 3% Piedirosso that was fermented and aged in 25 litre amphora that are lined with bee’s wax. The resulting wine is rich and delicious with concentrated fruit and lots of character.

Up From the Ashes
Every region needs a large scale pioneer and guiding hand, and Campania is lucky enough to have at least two, but the original is Mastroberardino which for a century, between 1878 and about 1980, was the only important commercial winery in the region – everyone else made wine for local consumption. Mastroberardino intially led the way to produce quality wines, to breathe new life into this region and to rescue its indigenous grape varieties. That task has now been taken up by others including Feudo di San Gregorio, but Mastroberardino are still important and make some very fine wines indeed.

One of the Mastroberardino vineyards in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 destroying the city and killing everyone within it.

One of the Mastroberardino vineyards in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 destroying the city and killing everyone within it.

In 1996 they helped the archeological superintendent of Pompeii to investigate five vineyard sites within the boundaries of Pompeii town itself. They carefully made casts of the vine roots from the holes that had left behind – just as they famously did with the human victims at Pompeii – and identified the vines. They were Piedirosso and Sciascinoso and both are still grown here. Then using all the sources they could they replanted the vineyards using the same viticultural techniques they think the Romans used, which I have to say look very modern to my eye. The resulting wine is called Villa die Misteri and is named after the large villa just outside the city walls that has the most spectacular wall paintings. Sadly I have not tried it as it is very expensive, but the whole project is very exciting and thought provoking.

Stories of Wines & Wineries
Frankly I was spoiled for choice on this trip, so many producers went out of their way to show me wonderful wines and to give me great experiences. Here are the ones that stay with me and for me sort of encapsulate the region. As there is so much ground to cover, I will restrict myself to the highest grade of Italian wines, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita / DOCGs – I will tell you about some of the other wines another day.

Campania watermarked

Wine map of Campania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Campania’s most well known and leading wines all come from the Irpinia region, which covers the same territory as Avellino province around 30 miles inland from Naples. The three most important DOCG, one red and two white, nestle together. This dominance of white wine shows just how cool the region can be. The winters are long and harsh judging by the conditions in March and while the summers are hot and dry there is always a tempering influence from the mountains that dominate the landscape.

Vines in Taurasi.

Vines in Taurasi.

Taurasi DOCG is arguably the most well known wine from the region and was made famous by Mastroberardino, which was the only serious, export led winemaker here until the late 1980s, there are now nearly 300 producers. The dominant grape is Aglianico, but it can be blended with up to 15% of Barbera, Piedirosso and Sangiovese, all of which have softer tannins than Aglianico, so make the wines fresher. To give you an idea of what it is like, Taurasi is rather lazily called ‘the Barolo of the south’ and I can see why. The wines have similar tannins and acidity to Barolo, but in truth are more properly full-bodied and are normally much more mineral – I always think you can taste the slate and the salt in Taurasi. The soil is actually sand and sandstone and so the area is Phyloxerra free and the vines are on their own roots. This can be a hard edged and unrelenting wine and so not to everyone’s taste. The best examples though manage to tame the grape’s wilder instincts and make the wines approachable, if still very savoury and dry. I struggled to see the charms in some, but my favourites were simply superb.

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

Cantine Guastaferro This small estate made the most impressive Taurasi wines that I tried all trip, indeed they were some of the best red wines that I have tasted over the last 12 months. Raffaele Guastaferro farms 7 hectares at around 300 metres above sea level on south east facing slopes. The great secret is that the vines are – are you sitting down? – between 150 and 200 years old! This means they produce tiny amounts of very concentrated juice and that shows in the finished wines. Raffaele modestly told me that he has a magic vineyard and so he does not have to do much work in the cellar!

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Ancient vines at Cantine Guastaferro. The Pergola system is a traditional way to train vines in Campania. It allows the farmer to use the land below for growing food crops and keeps the grapes away from the humid conditions on the ground.

All Cantine Guastaferro’s wines are superb, although I didn’t taste his white, but his Primum Taurasi  and Primum Riserva was magnificent with great concentration, ripe fruit, beautifully managed tannins, lots of minerality and even a twist of blood orange. My favourite was the 2006, but they all wowed me and deserve a place in any serious cellar.

Primum2006 Guastaferro Primum Riserva Taurasi DOCG 1-2 years in Botti (large barrels) From 150-200 year old vines. Opaque, almost black and treacley colour, some slight tawny on the rim. Smoky nose, cinders, meat, ash, caramel, dried red fruit, blood orange and some leather too, as well as that tight minerality. Gorgeous palate, really oily rich and mouth coating, totally dry wine with a fine balance between the fruit and austerity, makes it taut, that slate taste creeps in here too. Glorious, with fine grain tannins, tasty, smoky wood, cooked fruit, gamey and absolutely superb. Some refreshing blood orange acidity lends purity. Lovely spicy tingle on the finish. Simply stunning, the tannins are firm but not too much, they are enjoyable and the finish is epic – 94/100 points.

Feudo di San Gregorio
Produced on an entirely different scale and readily available all around the world, I also found the Taurasi from Feudo di San Gregorio to be very impressive – as well as everything else they made in fact. This is a big winery, but their passion and attention to detail cannot be denied. They have only been in existence since the mid 1980s, but in many ways are the engine – the Mondavi, the Torres – of Campania and put it on the map at least as much as Mastroberardino. For many of us our first taste of this region was a wine from Feudo di San Gregorio. When I visited it was a bitterly cold day, so sadly I saw nothing of the vineyards, I was just grateful to get into the warm of the winery, which also boasts a Michelin starred restaurant.

Antonio Capaldo the energetic and knowledgable chapman of Feudo di San Gregorio.

Antonio Capaldo the energetic and charismatic Chairman of Feudo di San Gregorio.

feudi-di-san-gregorio-taurasi-aglianico-vino-02010 Feudo di San Gregorio Taurasi Taurasi DOCG Deep opaque colour, deep ruby with just a garnet tinge. Gamey, basalt nose, smoky, iron, roses, plums, red cherry, it still offers primary fruit despite being 5 years old. Beautiful palate, very tight and drying fine grain tannins, loads of black fruit, it’s earthy and beginning to be leathery, with coffee and mocha oak and running through it all is some refreshing, balancing acidity. Really good wine, gamey, meaty, rich and fine with liquorice spice and that touch of slate. The fruit carries the tannins and drying character well, without being aggressive – 91/100 points.

There is plenty of Aglianico grown outside the Taurasi zone of course, and many of them are very good wines indeed, have a look at this one which is a very drinkable IGT from Benevento. Tenuta Cavalier Pepe too make a very wide range of quite excellent wines. This blend of 70% Aglianico with 30% Sangiovese was quite delicious and would be my Wine of the Week if it was available in the UK.  In fact Tenuta Cavalier Pepe is an excellent winery and everything I have tasted from them has been very well made, including their Taurasi and Aglianico rosé.

The White DOCGs

The view from my hotel in Avellino - it was bitterly cold.

The view from my hotel in Avellino – it was bitterly cold.

Fiano di Avellino DOCG is probably the most impressive of the three white wine styles produced in Irpinia, although they are all good. Avellino is ringed by mountains and apart from grapes the big crop here is hazelnuts as it has been since Roman times. Although the Italian for hazelnut is nocciola, the Latin is abellana and the Spanish is a still recognisable avellana. I really fell for the Fiano grape, it seems to me that it makes very fine wine indeed, mineral and acidic to be sure – the area has volcanic soils which often make for mineral wines, think of Etna and Santorini – but the best have lovely deep flavours, often of hazelnuts and almonds. The best examples often had orange peel characters too that I like very much, as well as apricot, which put me in mind of Viognier or Gewürztraminer, but with much more acidity, in fact by having texture and acidity, they remind me of the best examples of  Godello from Galicia.

I tasted many fine Fianos, but the stand out wines came from Rocca del Principe. This delightful winery is in Lapio, right on the border between the Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino zones, which means they can make both wines here. The name means fortress of the Prince, because a local royal house were based in Lapio in the early middle ages. Rocca del Principe Fiano vines are grown high at 500-600 metres above sea level, on south east facing slopes. They age the wines for 6 months on the fine lees, which imparts complexity and a delicately creamy richness.

Ercole Zarrella and his wife Aurelia Fabrizio who own Rocca del Principe.

Aurelia Fabrizio and her husband Ercole Zarrella who own Rocca del Principe.

I tasted 9 vintages of the Fiano here, from 2014 tank samples, which were delicious, lovely and fresh, to the 2006 which was showing some age, but was still a great wine. The young wines had a more linear style, while the older bottles had more rounded richness, which suits the wines, I think. They were all superb dry white wines, but my absolute favourite was the 2009. roccadelprincipe_fianodiavellino_bianco09__74317__27016.1407758626.1280.12802009 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino Fiano di Avellino DOCG Musky notes, butterscotch, cinder toffee, apricot and orange peel on the nose, together with some hazelnuts. The palate offers lovely sweet fruit, making it round and rich, but balanced by the minerality and cleansing acidity. I found it very like a dry Gewürztraminer, or perhaps a Godello. The texture is big and mouth coating, oily even, while the fruit and complexity gives it elegance , which together with the acidity and minerality give superb balance. A great dry white wine – 92/100 points.

I also tasted a range of vintages at Ciro Picariello, which is another superb little, 7 hectares again, estate that produces excellent Fiano di Avellino, as well as Fiano Irpinia from outside the boundaries of the DOCG, and once again the wines are well worth trying.

I also found the 2013 Fiano di Avellino from Feudo di San Gregorio was very good indeed, while their single vineyard version, the 2013 Pietracalda Fiano di Avellino had a little more fat on its bones, so was richer and finer, yet still very mineral and had great finesse.

Vineyards in Lapio.

Vineyards in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

Fiano is also grown outside the boundaries of Avellino too and especially good examples are available from the Sannio DOC just to the north, take a look at this one here.

Greco di Tufo is quite different. The wines made from this grape, in the area around Tufo anyway, tend to be leaner and more overtly mineral. In fact some of them reminded me of bone dry Rieslings, although a better comparison might be to Assyrtico from Santorini. Greco of course is more widely grown in southern Italy, but can be pretty inconsequential from elsewhere. It seems to need the  tuff soils of Tufo, after which the town is named, which is compressed volcanic ash, which allows the minerality to really shine through.

Once again Feudo di San Gregorio’s wines were a very good introduction to the grape, both their normal Greco di Tufo and their single vineyard Cutizzi Greco di Tufo are very good quality indeed. I loved the taut mineral style, but with concentrated fruit and just a touch of richer cream adding weight.

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The flamboyant and charming Ferrante di Somma di Circello of Cantine di Marzo, whose ancestor brought the Greco grape to Tufo.

I was also very impressed with the Greco di Tufo made by the venerable Cantine di Marzo, I really approved of the lithe, taut, mineral style, which also suits their excellent traditional method sparkling Greco called Anni Venti.

Equally good were the Greco di Tufo from the wonderful Tenuta Cavalier Pepe, all of whose wines seem to be first rate, and the excellent low sulphur example from the Azienda Vitivinicola Le Ormere, but I will tell you about those producers another day.

One last DOCG Aglianico is widely grown and the increasing quality caused the authorities to create a new DOCG in 2011. This is Aglianico del Taburno which covers the Benevento area, where much more easy drinking Aglianico is produced as well, much of it IGT. The vineyards are often very high, up to 650 metres above sea level and the wines that I have tasted certainly have a fresher style than the intensely mineral Taurasi wines. I especially enjoyed the two example that I tried at Fattoria La Rivolta. This is an excellent winery that is one of the leading lights of  Benevento and farms in a near organic way. Their wines pleased me greatly, but then I was eating a rather lovely rustic lunch at the same time, so I might be biased!

Vincenzo Mercurio the winemaker at Fattoria La Rivolta.

Vincenzo Mercurio the winemaker at Fattoria La Rivolta, which is a rising star in Benevento.

AGLIANICO TABURNO  ROSATO2013 Le Mongolfiere a San Bruno rosé DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico The colour was most attractive, a sort of cross between copper and coral with ripe strawberry and cherry. The palate was very pure and fresh with high acidity and ripe cherry all the way through to the end. I enjoyed this very dry rosé, which was perfect with the local salami – 88/100 points.

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

Rivolta AGLIANICO DEL2011 Terra di Rivolta Aglianico del Taburno DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico aged 18 months in barriques The nose was rich and offered ripe black cherry and plums, some coffee spice, earthiness, liquorice and dark chocolate too. The palate had lovely supple tannins, sugar plums and black cherry flavours and some refreshing high acidity. There was a savoury bitterness that built up from the mid palate, but it was delicious, like the inherent astringency in Nebbiolo. I thought this wine was very good indeed – 91/100 points.

The Good Campanians

There is much to enjoy from Campania. There are good wines, exciting grapes and fascinating stories everywhere you look. There is so much passion there, so much dedication and so much determination to make great wines. I have only scratched the surface in this piece with a peep at the DOCGs, and a few other delights, but I hope that something took your interest. Anyone who loves good wine would enjoy most of the wines that I have mentioned. The variety of wine in Campania is enormous, but so too is the potential. We shall return to Campania soon, so keep dropping back.

In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

bw_26661_49bec9c1be734a9e6e6be89610319ec0

Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.

Sicily Land of Delights: Etna

Hope fully you enjoyed my piece about Sicilian food and your appetite was suitably whetted to hear some more about the wines from this wonderful island. I wrote about Donnafugata, one of the leading Sicilian estates here, but this article focuses on one of the leading quality wine regions on the island – Etna.

Mount Etna, a wonderful sight and at the heart of an amazing wine region.

Views of Etna dominate the landscape.

The first couple of days of my Sicily trip were spent around Etna and although this wine region is a mere D.O.C. – rather strangely the only D.O.C.g. on Sicily is Cerasuolo di Vittoria. I found Etna to be the most consistently high quality region that I experienced on Sicily. Other areas have some great producers making very good wines, but to me Etna appeared to be Sicily’s most consistently reliable region for making good and interesting wines. The natural conditions seem to lean towards excellence and excitement whereas perhaps the other places need to work that bit harder for really exciting wines? Of course the fact that it is Sicily’s smallest region might help keep the quality up too as it means that by and large Etna is a land of boutique producers and small estates.

Sicily 2013 blog

Wine map of Sicily – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Etna is an amazing area and although wine is produced all over the volcano’s lower slopes and surrounding hillsides, the D.O.C. only covers the northern, eastern and southern slopes – see my map. This can mean that some very good Etna wines only have I.G.P. on the label, as does the fact that the D.O.C. does not cover the very highest slopes – yet.

P1070503

The soil is a fine volcanic dust – see the bird in the sky, look 2 photos down.

A close up of that fine volcanic soil - at Firriato this time.

That volcanic soil again.

The best shot I got of that bird, anyone know what it is? It looks eagle-like to me.

That bird again, as close as I could get it, it looks like an eagle to me. Anyone know what it is?

Altitude varies enormously here from 450m to 1100m above sea level and the eastern slopes enjoy much more rain than the other sides. This tempers the heat and dry conditions, so together with the height making it cooler and the rich mineral, volcanic soils this area is really good for white wine production. Certainly three of my favourite whites from the trip were grown around the village of Milo on the south eastern slopes of Mount Etna – if your Etna Bianco is labelled Superiore then it can only come from Milo.

I really liked a great many wines from around here, but the whites led the pack for me – perhaps because they suited the cuisine so perfectly, but possibly because they were really very good. The secret weapon of the area is their own indigenous white grape called Carricante. It does not seem to be grown anywhere else, but it responds superbly to the local conditions to produce elegant dry white wines with high acidity and wonderful minerality – so can put the drinker in mind of Assyrtiko from Santorini.

My highlights:

Tenuta di Fessina

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina.

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina, the site of an ancient lava flow, blocks of volcanic stone are used to build the retaining walls.

Our host at Tenuta di Fessina. Like most Sicilian winemakers she was very difficult to photograph as she never stood still!

Diletta Lavoratorin, our animated and informative host. Like most of our Sicilian hosts she hardly ever stayed still enough for me to get a decent photo! I did wonder about a caption competition for this, so feel free to send ideas in!

This beautiful estate is the brainchild of Tuscan wine producer Silvia Maestrelli and Piemontese Federico Curtaz and is just 10 hectares pieced together by buying up old bush vine vineyards.

a-puddara2011 A’Puddara
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
100% Carricante from 45 year old vines grown in Santa Maria di Licodia at the southern tip of the Etna park and on a southern exposure at around 900 metres and although I loved all the wines here, this was my favourite and the one that I actually bought. Unusually this was seemingly fermented and then aged for 6 months in large French oak barrels, these varied between 1 and 15 years old – leaning towards older and so neutral in taste – but oak does not dominate this wine at all, or detract from the minerality, acidity or tension, or not yet anyway. Perhaps the oak will shine through in a few years time, but I would rather have it now with a pristine, mineral feel to it.
Right now though it is taut, lean, stony and mineral with a thrilling citrus cut of high acidity to the palate and a touch of saltiness too. There is real richness to the palate as well which gives that lovely feeling of tension to the wine. I really really liked this and it went wonderfully with a superb dinner at the winery, the arancini were especially good – 91/100 points.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the UK from Outis.

Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Winebow.

Azienda Vinicola Benanti

Benanti's Vigneto Monteserra.

Benanti’s Sera de la Contessa vineyard.

I was greatly looking forward to visiting Benanti. I had tried a couple of their wines before and knew they were good, so eagerly anticipated trying them in situ and learning about this impressive producer. Technically it was established in 1988 by Giuseppe Benanti, but actually his family had farmed this land for generations and what he did was to really focus it on wine production. Not just any old wine either, right from the start he wanted to produce fine wine. As recently as 1988 no one else was trying to make top quality wine on Etna, so Benanti was the trend setter. He saw the potential in his land and sought outside advice from experts in Burgundy and Piemonte on what to grow and what to do he set off trying to turn Etna into a great wine region.

Antonio Benanti.

Antonio Benanti – the only photo I have of either of them even vaguely in focus as they would not keep still, even when posing for pictures!

Today the place is run by Giuseppe’s twin sons Antonio and Salvino and they really do seem to do a wonderful job. They exude charm and confidence and a real love for their land, although they have both had other careers before joining the family firm.

What fascinated me was their belief that Etna is totally unlike the rest of Sicily, they claimed to never even talk about Sicily, just Etna. They regard their wines as mountain wines, Alpine like Austrian or Friulian wines rather than Sicilian Mediterranean wines. I can see what they mean too, their wines – the whites anyway – have a purity about them that seems very unlike the Mediterranean. Although the history of Benanti wines is not long they have come a long way since 1988 and now exclusively champion the native grapes of Etna over the international varieties they started with.

Again I thought all the wines were good, but the stand out wines for me were:

NoblesseBrut Noblesse
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

Pietramarina2009 Pietramarina
D.O.C. Etna Bianco Superiore
For me this is the standard bearer wine for Sicily – or Etna anyway. Pure Carricante grown in Milo at over 950 metres above sea level, most of the vines are over 80 years old and many are ungrafted. The wine is unoaked, but released after ageing in bottle, 2009 is the new release. This age means that we still get the taut, nervy minerality and high acidity, but it is balanced by some creamy waxy richness that makes the whole wine more complex and interesting and introduces richer orange notes and nuts in to the flavour profile. This is a wonderful wine – 93/100 points.

Yet again it was the whites that really thrilled me and again they were just perfect with the food, but everything Benanti made seemed very good including 2 of the very best Etna reds that I tasted on the trip:

Castiglione di Sicilia.

Castiglione di Sicilia where Rovittello’s grapes are grown.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

P1070354

Elders of Castiglione di Sicilia.

Rovittello2005 Rovittello
D.O.C. Etna Rosso
80% Nerello Mascalese – the dominant black grape in these parts – and 20% Nerello Capuccio. Masacali is a village on Etna which lends its name to the Nerello Mascalese. This wine is made from a 80 year old vines on a single vineyard site in Castiglione di Sicilia at 750 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 12 months.
This is a delicious red wine, rich with black cherry characters and iron-like minerality, silky tannins and earthy, mushroomy, leathery, tobacco together with dried fruit and gently rustic and baked Medierranean flavours. The finish is very long and with a wonderful savoury character – 90/100 points.

Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio
I.G.T. Scilia
100% Nerello Capuccio, also from Castiglione di Sicilia, grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 8-10 months. This is simply an I.G.T. as the  D.O.C. rules only allow up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio in Etna reds. This is because it is not so widely grown and is very much the junior partner historically.
I did like the Rovittello very much, but this really stood out, everything about this wine is a delight. The colour is intense, the nose is lifted and aromatic with rich red fruit and savoury leather and herbs. On the palate there’s a supple, mouthfilling and velvety texture with soft tannins and intense sweet red fruit, ever so slightly cooked and reminiscent of rich Pinot Noir, especially as there is some freshness of acidity. There are herbs, iron, earth, rich cherry, salami, tobacco and mocha, some of which implies a sort of rustic memory somewhere in this wine’s DNA, but it isn’t rustic at all. A glorious wine – 93/100 points.

I should also point out that the 2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Mascalese is rather lovely too, but the Cappuccio totally thrilled me that bit more.

Benanti wines are available in the UK from Les Caves De Pyrene.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Wine Warehouse in California.
The road to Cottanera.

The road to Cottanera.

Another family winery that is seeking to make great Etna wines in the Castiglione di Sicilia area, Cottanera was created in the 1990s by brothers Guglielmo and Enzo Cambria when they converted a hazelnut grove into a vineyard. Since Guglielmo untimely death the estate has been run by his daughter Mariangela and Enzo.

cottanera_etnabianco2012 Cottanera Etnabianco
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
The fresher, zestier side of Etna Bianco This is basically a cold fermented Carricante – with a little dollop of Catarratto – that was aged on the lees.
The nose was restrained, tight and mineral with just a touch of lemon, lemon rind and smoky lees. The palate is deceptively rich with zesty lemon rind acidity and some weight of smoky creamy lees in the mouth. It is almost crisp and has pretty high acidity too and is very clean with a feeling of purity and lively with pear and grapefruit on the long finish. A lovely dry wine – 89/100 points.
I also highly rated (90 points) their seductive 2005 Etnarosso which is 90% Nerello Mascalese with 10% Nerello Cappuccio aged for 9 months in a mixture of large wooden vats, new and older barrels.

As I say Etna seemed to me to be the finest and most cohesive of Sicily’s wine regions. I had lovely wines elsewhere, but they seemed more dependent on being made by a good producer, whereas all the Etna wines I have tried have been very good indeed – especially the whites.

In fact after I arrived back in the UK I tried the Wine Society’s bargain 2012 Etna Bianco from a producer called Nicosia and while it was not in the same league as the other whites mentioned in this piece, it was a lovely, fresh, crisp, mineral and tasty dry white wine of real quality at just £8.50.

I also tasted one more Etna white on the trip when I visited Planeta a few days later. This impressive producer started making wine much further West in Sambuca di Sicilia and Menfi, but now has vineyards dotted throughout the island. They created an estate on Etna in 2008 and their first vintage is the 2012. So far they only make a white that it is mainly Carricante blended with something quite surprising – and wow is it good. More of that another time.

In the meantime, do try some wines from Etna – you will enjoy them, I promise.

Classic Wines at GREAT Value Prices

A couple of times over the years I have mentioned Aldi in these pages because I really like their Toro Loco Tempranillo red and Toro Loco Bobal Rosado / Rosé from the Spain’s Utiel-Requena wine region. They are extremely good quality wines, deliver loads of pleasure and will disappoint no one at the £3.69 asking price.

Well, Aldi seem to have noticed as they recently sent me a few of their other bottles for me to try:

Gavi2012 Gavi ‘The Exquisite Collection’
D.O.C.g. Gavi, Piemonte, Italy
Made by Fratelli Martini Secondo Luigi / Casa Sant Orsola

I like Gavi and think it is one of the best of Italy’s traditional dry white wines from indigenous grapes – of course recently I have discovered the wonderful whites of Etna and Campania. This had the little bit of weight, almost creaminess like a Mâcon, that I associate with good Gavi and a slightly nutty character, fresh acidity and was just a tad richer than crisp making it very attractive and enjoyable.
Extraordinaryly good wine for £4.99.

The beautiful rolling hills of Piedmont - photo courtesy of Made by

The beautiful rolling hills of Piemonte – photo courtesy of Fratelli Martini Secondo Luigi.

Albarino2011 Albariño Rías Baixas ‘The Exquisite Collection’
D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
Made by Bodegas Martin Codax

Another stunning value bottle of wine made by one of the top producers of the region. This is not the finest Albariño I have ever tasted – it lacks a little acidity, minerality and poise for me – but only a little and it is a lovely and enjoyable dry white wine. It is concentrated and tasty with some succulent fruit and some freshness from the acidity. An excellent aromatic, floral and peachy dry white wine  and a good Albariño for beginners. And the price is just £5.99!

Macon2012 Mâcon-Villages
A.C. Mâcon-Villages, France
Henri de Lorgère

I like Mâcon wines and think they can be really very attractive indeed, provide value and sometimes really great quality too. Well, this is a nice wine, it is very classic and European – not a fruit bomb – there are discrete apple and pear notes, nice acidity and flinty minerality even. This is very much on the light end of the Mâcon spectrum, but it isn’t dilute, it is fresh, very dry – verging on crisp –  and just medium-bodied, so refreshing and gently rounded too, but clearly unoaked. It is nice and great value, but the Gavi is better – £4.99.

Rosé(2012) Côtes de Provence Rosé ‘The Exquisite Collection’
A.C. Côtes de Provence, France

I don’t often choose to drink a Provence rosé – I don’t really know why, I just never think of it, so did not know what to expect from this Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah blend. It looked attractive having deeper colour than I often associate with Provence and was in the classic curvaceous bottle. Incidentally I have been informed that this was from the 2012 vintage, but I searched the bottle in vain for that information. This is a very drinkable rosé – judging by how fast the bottle emptied – very fresh and lively with good acidity and a core of juicy  red currant, cranberry and strawberry fruit. A great deal of pleasure for just £5.99.

Pinot(2011) Pinot Noir
Vignobles Roussellet, Vin de France

To be honest I put off trying this. Cheap / inexpensive Pinot always makes me wary and Vin de France is roughly what used to be called Vin de Table, so it theoretically pretty basic stuff, but I tried it in the end. Again you will scour the label in vain for the vintage, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the wine and this is quite remarkably good, soft, juicy and fruity. It has the soft tannins and bright fruit of a nice Beaujolais, but some Pinot-like earthy fruit quality too. It is not a great Pinot by any means, but it is a very good Pinot for the price and a nice drop of easy drinking, soft red wine. Amazing value and very versatile, with food, without food, room temperature, chilled, even mixed with lemonade and all for £4.49.

ChampagneN.V. Champagne Veuve Monsigny Brut No: 3
Champagne, France
Made by Champagne Philizot & Fils

I was half looking forward to this and half dreading it. Somedays I thought it was going to be ok and others undrinkable. Well it was better than both those thoughts. This is genuinely a nice bottle of Champagne, fresh, lively and very appley with a soft mousse and palate. Frankly for the £12.99 price tag it is stunning!

The only odd thing about really is the back label, where it claims; ‘Ageing in cellars 5 years more than the legal minimum has enhanced its complexity.’ Really, this spent 75 months on the lees – the legal minimum is 15 months for Champagne – it doesn’t taste like it, which is a good thing I think in this instance and it would cost an enormous amount to do that!

The vineyards of Champagne.

The vineyards of Champagne.

I haven’t given these wines any points as that would be, er well… pointless actually. All of them are just right, absolutely what you want, extremely well made and very good value for anything like the price. So, if you want nice wines and no surprises – except for the low price tag – then it seems to me that Aldi can offer much more pleasure at their normal on the shelf prices than most of their competitors do with their special offers.

Aldi didn’t only send me wine by the way, there was also a bottle of Oliver Cromwell London Dry Gin in the box and as I type this I am enjoying a rather good Gin and tonic made with it. As a republican – American readers note the small ‘R’ – and admirer of Cromwell, given the times he lived in, I could not resist trying it and I am glad that I did because it really is pretty good, nicely perfumed and aromatic with a good depth of flavour and at just £9.65 per bottle it is a steal for a properly made gin – where the botanicals have been redistilled in a pot-still with the base alcohol.

You can find your nearest UK Aldi branch here.

Santorini – A Great Wine Region

Ia_Santorini-2009-1

The stunning, rugged beauty of Santorini

I had thought that I wouldn’t write anymore about Greece and Greek wines for a while, but the sheer excitement of some wines that I have tasted from Santorini recently mean that I really have to share them with you.

Over the last month I have been giving some Greek wine tastings and as I had expected the quality of the wines won lots of sceptics over and made people look at Greek wines in a new light.

All the wines were well received and all showed very well indeed, but one region consistently proved to be the crowd pleaser. This was the white wines from the beautiful volcanic island of Santorini.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view – see Santorini north of Crete & south of Paros

Sadly I have yet to visit the vineyards of Santorini – I hope to put that right this year though – but I have known and loved the white wines from this island for a long, long time and have almost always enjoyed them. I have found that as long as the alcohol level is not above 13.5% then these wines always deliver pleasure. Above that, and a handful are, the alcohol burn ruins the balance for me – so check the alcohol level when you first buy one.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Many of you will know Santorini I am sure, it is basically the lip of a volcano, so a settlement perched at the very top of a mountain as the rest just happens to be underwater. The place is tiny and basically solid volcanic rock which has very little organic matter and a complete absence of clay which means that Phylloxera never took hold. As a result Santorini can boast some of the most ancient vine roots in the world – up to 300 years old it seems.

Santorini's wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or 'pezoules'.

Santorini’s wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or ‘pezoules’.

The problems here are wind and lack of water and they solve both of these in the same way. In order to protect the vines from the extreme winds that blow across the island, they basically train the vines close to the ground and weave the stems into a basket to contain and protect the grapes as they ripen. Growing this low to the ground also maximises the effect of the morning dew on the vines.

Santorini vines woven into baskets.

Santorini vines woven into baskets on the ground – note the rocky soils.

Backbreaking work.

Backbreaking work.

Unfortunately it also means that tending these vines is backbreaking work, but like so may other extreme vineyards around the world – Mosel, Côte-Rôtie, Cinque-Terre, Etna, Ribera Sacra etc. – the results do seem to make the effort worthwhile.

Everything about grape growing on Santorini makes for naturally low yields and good concentration, so it is hardly surprising that the island has enjoyed a high reputation for its wines for thousands of years. Whatever the wines were like in antiquity though the modern wines are of excellent quality and that is thanks to these extreme natural conditions and the high quality local grapes.

Santorini is home to a handful of grape varieties and all of them are of interest, but one stands out as being especially fine, capable of being the standard-bearer for Greek wine much as Sauvignon Blanc is for New Zealand wine. That grape is the wonderful AssyrtikoAss-err-tick-OH – and frankly if you like Sauvignon Blanc (or Verdejo and Grüner Veltliner for that matter) you will like it. Who knows you might even prefer it, some of the people at my recent tastings did.

The wonderful thing about Assyrtiko is that it retains its freshness and acidity even when grown in desert conditions like those on Santorini.

The harvest

The harvest

The wines:

ASSYRTIKO2012 Santorini Assyrtiko
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
100% Assyrtiko
I had tried the 2011 while in Greece last year and it was excellent, a real standout wine, but if anything this had the edge. The nose was stony and mineral, citrus and fresh, while the palate was crisp, bone dry and nervy. There seemed to be a purity and concentration to it that I found thrilling, the fruit was there in a lemon/lime kind of way with hints of apricots too, but it was the acidity and mineral quality that gave this its finesse and elegance and the finish was wonderously long. A great wine, how I wish I had had a bit of fish with me – 92/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Argyros Atlantis White bottle2011 Atlantis White
Argyros Estate, Santorini
P.G.I. Cyclades (like a Vin de Pays, but actually could be labelled as a P.D.O.Santorini)
90% Assyrtiko with 5% each of Aidani & Athiri
The other grapes make this slightly less crisp, it is softer and even slightly fleshy and textured, so it feels less pure and less mineral, but is still a gorgeous dry white wine and what it lacks in minerality and complexity compared to the pure Assyrtiko it more than makes up for in sheer drinkability. The palate gives a touch of pear that softens the citrus, while the nose has a touch of the sea – 89/100 points.

Around £10 a bottle in the UK from Marks & Spencer online.
Distributed in the US by Athenee Importers.

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

VINSANTO2004 Vinsanto
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
85% Assyrtiko with 15% Aidani
Vinsanto desert wines are an old tradition on Santorini and if they are all as good as this one I can see why it caught on. Very ripe grapes are harvested and then dried in the sun for 10 days or so to further concentrate the sugars. As with all really top notch desert wine the sugar here, although high, was balanced by the sheer class of the wine and the cleansing high acidity. The flavours were astonishing with great depth, concentration and complexity. Toffee, caramel, honey nuts, nougat, apricots, orange, coffee, fig, clove show what long ageing in old oak will do, but the dominating character was freshness and liquor orange. A great, great desert wine that was superb on its own and with the baklava, but would be equally good with apple pie or strudel, and blue cheese – 93/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Oia on Santorini

Oia on Santorini

On this showing – and past experience – I really believe that Santorini is one of the great wine regions and Assyrtiko one of the world’s finest white wine grapes. Do try some when you can, you will not regret it, there might be nothing better with simply cooked fresh fish and seafood.

Thanks to my friends at Tsantali for most of the photographs.