Fine White wines, Rosés and Sparklers from an Unexpected Corner of Italy

Beautiful vineyards and landscape of northern Piemonte.

In the last few years I have travelled extensively in Italy and have ben fortunate enough to explore a great many wine regions. Italy is a fascinating wine producing country and it’s not only full of world famous wines styles and grape varieties either. Everywhere you go there are constant surprises and new discoveries to be made.

I have travelled to Campania, Sicily, the Marche, Veneto, Friuli, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Trentino and the north of Piemonte, as well as the more famous regions of Tuscany and the south of Piemonte. In all of these places I have found wines that have really excited me.

All of these regions are full of wine, sometimes famous and often less well known. Even in the most prestigious regions such as Piemonte and Veneto you can find wines that have almost no presence on the export market and are appreciated almost solely at home.

Italy is most known for her red wines and Italians, like the Spanish, often hold white wine in very low esteem. I expect this view became fixed because Italy, like Spain, is on the whole a hot country in the summer when the grapes are growing. So in the past – before cold fermentation, modern knowhow and clean wineries – the white wines would have been somewhat ropey – especially when compared to the more full-flavoured red wines.

In my formative years Italy’s reputation for white wines – in the UK anyway – was based upon cheap Soave, Frascati, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi and Orvieto. However good those wines can be now – and they can be very good indeed – in the 1970s and 1980s they were often less than interesting. Usually based on the high yielding and rather bland Trebbiano, rather than the more interesting grape varieties that had made these wines famous in the first place, they slowly fell out of favour when compared to the competition coming from elsewhere, especially the New World.

It is interesting to note that Frascati was the wine that gave birth to the phrase that a wine ‘didn’t travel well’ and so you should only drink it where it was made. Like most of these white wines it was not regularly bottled until after the Second World War, so until the late 1940s – often much later – it was served by the carafe straight from the barrel or demijohn.

A vineyard in northern Piemonte.

This allowed another Italian white wine to force its way onto export markets and to enjoy success – Gavi. Coming from Piemonte and made from the quite acidic Cortese grape, Gavi – certainly when I first tasted it in the 1980s – seemed more distinguished and refined than those other white wines from Italy at the time. Gavi continues being successful to this day and what helped Gavi create a name for itself is surely the timing. It emerged later than the likes of Frascati, when wineries were already using modern techniques of being ultra clean, using stainless steel fermentation tanks and fermenting at low temperatures. Much of Europe had to play catch up you see as the new world, with less wine making tradition, had often gone the high tech route from the start.

It might be the downward spiral of sales or the example of Gavi, but Italian white wines have fought back and are today in a quite different place from where they were just 20 years ago. Indeed I would say that the white wines of Italy are some of the most exciting you will find from anywhere. This story by the way is repeated in Spain, Portugal and even the less well know corners of France.

Many things have changed how the white wines of Italy taste, but the most important, apart from clean wineries and cold fermentations, are carefully sited vineyards to make sure the grapes do not bake – this retains acidity. Lower yields ensure more concentration and so more flavour, while later picking also gives more flavour – as long as the vines are in a good place to retain freshness and balance.

So I have tasted my way through astonishingly good Vermentino from Sardinia, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi from the Marche, Lugana from Veneto and Lombardy, Soave from Veneto, Tai from the Colli Berici in Veneto, Fiano, Greco, Falanghina, Coda di Volpe and Caprettone from Campania, Carricante from Etna in Sicily as well as world class sparkling wines made by the Traditional Method from Trentino (Trento DOC), Lombardy (Franciacorta), Campania (Falanghina), Marche (Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi ), Lugana and Piemonte (Gavi and some Nebbiolo sparkling too).

Which brings me on to my theme for today, the white, rosé and sparkling wines of northern Piemonte.

Piemonte’s fame almost all rests on the wines produced south of Turin, which is a great shame as there are wonderful wines made to the north in more Alpine conditions. Most of these wine making areas are actually older than the likes of Barolo and Barbaresco in the south and were much more famous in the past. For many reasons – I wrote about them here – the modern wine revolution passed these places by and so they have had a much harder job getting their wines onto the world stage.

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

I loved a wide array of the red wines from these fascinating outposts in northern Piemonte and wrote about them here, but the area produces some pretty exciting whites and sparkling wines too, most of them made from a grape variety that was totally new to me – Erbaluce (pronounced Urr-ba-luch-eh). Rather fascinatingly Nebbiolo also gets a look in for the rosé wines, both still and sparkling.

This intriguing grape is indigenous to Piemonte and doesn’t seem to grow anywhere else. The most ‘famous’ wine made from it is Caluso DOCG – often known as Erbaluce di Caluso – and they must be 100% Erbaluce, as must the whites of the nearby Canavese DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC and Colline Novaresi DOC. It is known as a high acid grape and certainly the best examples for me where the ones that retained refreshing acidity.

The wines

 

Tenuta Sella.

2014 Doranda
DOC Coste della Sesia

 

I was very taken by the wines at Tenuta Sella. It is a beautiful estate in Lessona, although they have vineyards in Bramaterra too – and has a long history going back to 1671 and have always been owned by the same family. Until the unification of Italy Piemonte and Sardinia constituted a single country called the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Sella family, which had married into the Mosca family, also owned Sella & Mosca one of the most prestigious wine estates in Sardinia.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce, grown in estate vineyards in Lessona and Bramaterra, both of which are DOCs for red wines only, which is why this is labelled as Coste della Sesia. Some vintages from a wider source of vineyards are labelled a DOC Piemonte.
I enjoyed this wine, it was aromatic, fresh and floral with a rich, pithy note too. The palate was quite rich and creamy because of skin contact and and lees ageing. It was nicely balanced with juicy grapefruit and more succulent peach flavours. A good introduction to Erbaluce but with less overt acidity than many – 89/100 points.

 

Vineyards at Tenute Sella.

2015 Majoli Rosato
DOC Coste della Sesia

 

This rosé is pure Nebbiolo and from 45 year old vines, old vines helps give depth and concentration to the wine. The vineyards are in the two ‘Cru’ appellations, Lessona (95%) and Bramaterra (5%), which is why the wine is labelled Coste della Sesia, as that is the wider area. The Bramaterra component is made by bleeding some juice off their red wine while it is fermenting. The Lessona component gets 36 hours cold soak pre fermentation to help extract flavours and complexity and is then direct pressed. The wine has malolactic fermentation and has a 6 month ageing on the lees in tank.
This has real Nebbiolo character on the nose, with earthy and rose petal notes, blood orange, cranberry and spice too. The palate is quite full, with some weight and intensity and texture – those lees? It is also very tasty with lots of rich red fruit, that twist of bitter orange, some spice and a good fresh acidity and minerality making it lively. This is a fine rosé and it would go with all manner of dishes from salads and fish to veal and pasta dishes – 92/100 points.

 

2015 (no vintage on the label as it is not a DOC or DOCG wine) Clementina Brut Rosato
Vino Spumante

 

This is 100% Nebbiolo from their estate vineyards in Bramaterra and it was my first sparkling Nebbiolo ever. It is made sparkling by the Charmat, or tank method  – known locally as the Martinotti Lungo method – in order to emphasis freshness and downplay Nebbiolo’s hard tannins.

 

The first thing that hits you about this wine is the beautiful colour. It is vibrant and a little orange as befitting a wine called Clementina! The nose is bright, scented, floral and fruity while the palate is fresh, lively, fruity – strawberry and cherry – and a little creamy too. A delicious and very unusual take on Nebbiolo – 90/100 points.

 

The view north from Nervi’s vineyards.

2015 Nervi Bianca
Vitivinicola Nervi
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

I loved visiting Nervi. They are one of the 2 main producers in Gattinara, a DOCG that should be much, much more famous than it is. Their wines were really impressive, they were very gracious hosts and their cellars were a joy to see.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce with modern handling, cold fermentation in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation and a little lees ageing. 
This was bright, fresh, zesty and pure with a little touch of miner laity, or salinity. A fresh, lively, modern dry white wine that is very appealing – 88/100 points.

 

The view south across Nervi’s vineyards.

2014 (no vintage on the label as it is not a DOC or DOCG wine) Jefferson 1787 Nebiule Rosato Brut Spumante
Vitivinicola Nervi
Vino Spumante di Qualità

 

A Traditional Method sparkling Nebbiolo this time. It is a pale rosé with 4 hours skin contact to give the colour, zero dosage (so very dry) and 9 months ageing on the lees. This was the last bottle left of the first vintage and the wine was proclaimed by Gambero Rosso to be the best sparkling wine in Italy! The DOCG Gattinara does nor permit sparkling wines, so it is simply labelled as Vino Spumante di Qualità.

 

The wine is named in honour of Thomas Jefferson who travelled extensively in Europe while serving as Minister (Ambassador) to France. He was a great wine lover who spent a lot of time and effort trying to grow vitas vinegar grapes at his Monticello estate in Virginia. He wrote glowingly of Nebbiolo, or Nebiule as it was then known, saying ‘there is a red wine of Nebiule which is very singular. It is about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate a Bordeaux and as brisk (sparkling) as Champagne’. Which just goes to show that Nebbiolo has changed beyond all recognition in a little over 200 years!

 

This is a lovely orangey, wild salmon colour with a touch of rose petal. The aromas are also rose petal with cherry and raspberry notes. The palate has a softness of ripe strawberry, cherry and raspberry together with thrilling, lively acidity and a fine mousse. There is also something very taut and lean about it, like Champagne, with a touch of minerality, something savoury and balsamic and a long, crisp finish. This is a very fine sparkling wine – 94/100 points.

 

Alberto Arlunno in his vineyards.

NV Mia Ida Brut Rosato
Vino Spumante

 

I loved visiting this family owned estate in Ghemme. Alberto Arlunno, who took over the running of the estate from his father in 1993, was a charming host and their wines were very good indeed – especially their Ghemme made from Nebbiolo, which was an area that I had only ever heard of before, not tasted.

 

This is a sparkling Nebbiolo, again made by the Charmat method and named after Alberto’s mother Ida.
Again the colour was spectacular, it looked like an Aperol Spritz! The aromas were fruity and lively with a little cherry and raspberry, while the palate had loads of flavour. Soft red fruit, raspberry and strawberry, mingled with blood orange and cherry, so giving a delicious richness and lovely bright, balancing acidity. A really nice, drinkable sparkling rosé – 89/100 points.

 

Masere and pergolas.

2015 Anima Erbaluce di Caluso
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

I was impressed by La Masera which is a new winery founded by a group of friends in 2005. Today they farm 5 hectares within the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG zone. They grow Barbera, Freisa, Vespolina, Neretto and Nebbiolo, but focus on Erbaluce in dry, sparkling and sweet, passito, styles. Their name comes from the Masere which are the thick stone walls between each vineyard.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce, grown in the rocky morainic hills of Canavese at 250 metres above sea level, hand harvested, cold fermented at 16˚C and aged 6 months on the lees in stainless steel tanks.
This was the first Erbaluce that made me really sit up and take notice. It is very modern and very bright. It has a very fresh nose that is slightly leesy with rich citrus, green apple and light floral notes.

 

The palate is bright, lively and fresh with brisk, lively acidity and lightly herbal, savoury and nutty. There is purity here, with a little saline on the finish.
Straightforward, but well made and very drinkable with thrilling acidity. A very nicely made and versatile dry white wine that would have broad appeal, especially with Sauvignon drinkers – 89/100 points.

2014 Macaria Erbaluce di Caluso
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Anima’s big brother, this is 100% Erbaluce macerated on the skins and part fermented in stainless steel and then half way through the ferment 70% of the wine is transferred to oak barrels. Lees stirring takes place on both components – the 70% in oak barrels and the 30% in stainless steel tanks – and it is aged for 7 months on the lees before blending.

The nose is attractive with nice herbal, oily creamy notes and a touch of olive oil and vanilla.

On the palate it has a good texture, that fresh lively acidity, savoury, herbal flavours, orange-like flavour and feel – like barrel aged Viura can have – together with a creamy quality. It has a long finish with apricot succulence making it an attractive and well balanced wine – 90/100 points.

The winery, vineyards and views at Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo.

2011 Masilé Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante

 

I liked their white wines, but my favourite wine from La Masera was this sparkling Erbaluce. Interestingly the grapes were grown on a traditional pergola system, which is finding favour once again after having been seen as old fashioned for many decades. Long seen as hard to ripen, pergolas might just be perfect with the sunnier conditions as a consequence of global warming. They also allow for good movement of air to keep the fruit cool and healthy.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce cold fermented and then aged on the lees in a mixture of barrels and tanks for 6 months, with lees stirring. It is then bottled and undergoes the Traditional Method to become sparkling. Once fizzy it is aged for a further 36 months on the lees before disgorging giving it 48 months on lees in total.

 

Complex stuff with a great nose of apricots, brioche, rich pear and sweet spice. The pear carries through to the palate, dollops of honey and ginger and cooked fruit and brioche, flakey pastry . The lovely rich style is tempered by the fresh acidity and the delicate, persistent mouse. A triumph – 91/100 points.

 

2015 La Rustia
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Another small producer, this estate has a much longer history having been founded n 1894. However at first it was a restaurant with wine being made just for the customers to drink with their food. Over time it was the wine that became famous and nowadays the Orsolani family focus almost solely on Erbaluce with a few black grapes too. They actually produce a Carema, which I assume is from bought in fruit as carom famously only has 2 producers, Ferrando and the Carema cooperative.

 

100%  Erbaluce grown on a pergola on south facing slopes at 350 metres above sea level, hand harvested and cold fermented and aged on the lees for 6 months.
This is aromatic and more steely and quite herbal and nettle-like in style. The palate has some softness and roundness that is attractive, while the acidity keeps it clean and fresh. Despite all the zing though it feels textured from lees ageing for 6 months. Again very drinkable and good, but a little richer in style – 90/100 points.

Vineyards in Ghemme.

2011 Cuvée Tradizione
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante Gran Riserva

 

Another ambitious and delicious Erbaluce sparkler made by the Traditional Method. Partly barrel fermented and partly tank fermented the wine is aged for 48 months on the lees before disgorging. There is no dosage, or added sugar, but there is 3 grams per litre of residual sugar.

 

A bright nose of seashore, bread, flakey pastry together with dried lemon and light apple notes.
The palate delivers a lovely balance between richness – honey, nuts, dried fruit – and lemon / apple freshness and there is some nice minerality too – 91/100 points.

 

2009 Cuvée Tradizione 1968
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante Gran Riserva

Gianluigi Orsolani is the winemaker at the family estate today, but it was his father Francesco who made the region’s first traditional method sparkling wine back in 1968. This wine is named for that first vintage and is aged on the lees for 60 months to give even more depth and complexity60 months on the lees. Again there is no dosage, just the sweetness of the ripe Erbaluce grapes.

A very intense and ripe wine with a lovely, lifted nose of pineapple cubes, toasted brioche, flakey pastry, nuts and caramel. The palate follows on with rich flavours of cooked orchard fruit – apple and peach – with more brioche, biscuit and nuts.  Full-flavoured and rich with a long finish – 92/100 points.

 

2012 Pietro Cassina Spumante Metodo Classico
Vitivinicola Pietro Cassina
Vino Spumante di Qualità

Pietro Cassina is a charming fellow who farms 6 hectares and makes lovely wines in a fabulous new winery in Lessona, another place that I had only heard of before this trip. As well as Nebbiolo, he grows some Erbaluce and makes this lovely traditional method sparkling wine from it. He ages it on the lees for 36 months. His reds are DOC Lessona or DOC Costa  della Sesia, neither of which permit sparkling wines, so his fizz is simply labelled as Vino Spumante di Qualità.

A lively gold colour with a rich, smoky, leesy, pastry, brioche nose. The palate is rich, biscuity and creamy with nutty and caramel flavours and a good cut of acidity. This is classy stuff indeed – 92/100 points.

 

2012 T
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Cieck are another impressive producer that is relatively new. It was originally founded, in 1985, to produce sparkling wines, but they have branched out and today they farm 16 hectares of vines, mainly Erbaluce, but grow Nebbiolo and Barbara too.

 

This special cuvée is a selection of fruit from Cieck’s Misobolo Vineyard. Harvested late, in November, with skin contact for 36, then cold fermented and finally aged in untoasted Slavonian (Croatian) oak tonneau of 1500 litres for 8-10 months.
This remarkable wine has and rich, intense nose of ripe greengage together with something tropical, herbaceous and it’s slightly mealy and nutty too as well as having a waft of jasmine about it.

 

The palate has great concentration, super acidity that cuts through the fatty texture giving tension and a mineral feel. A delicious and great wine with a very long finish – 93/100 points.

Walking through vineyards in Gattinara.

2011 San Giorgio Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

This was the original product of the estate and it is pretty good. The base wine is cold fermented and after the second fermentation in bottle – Traditional Method – the wine is aged for 36 months on the lees. 

 

Given the long lees ageing the nose is remarkably fresh and lively, with floral, jasmine and camomile too as well as biscuit, pastry and fresh naan bread.

 

The palate has lots of soft fruit and a cut of zesty acidity making it very balanced and refreshing too. A lovely aperitif wine – 88/100 points.

 

2010 Calliope Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Cieck’s most complex sparkler with some 35% of the base wine fermented in new oak barrels and aged on the lees for 9 months. This component is then blended with cold, stainless steel tank fermented wine and the second fermentation takes place after bottling – Traditional Method. After the second fermentation in bottle the  wine is aged for 36 months on the lees. 

 

This offers a really lovely nose of ripe citrus, lime, lemon together with richer leesy, pastry, biscuit and nutty notes.

 

The palate delivers rich cooked lemon, cooked apricot and apple together with more savoury spicy, wholemeal bread and pastry flavours. It has refreshing, brisk acidity and something that I have wondered about for a long time. A good friend of mine and perhaps the greatest taster that I have ever known once described a sparkling wine to me as having a ‘brittle mousse’. I have always struggled to understand the phrase, but liked it at the same time. I now understand what it means as this too has a brittle mousse. It feels like it will shatter in your mouth, which just makes the wine even more intriguing! Great stuff – 92/100 points.

Lake Viverone from Cellagrande.

 

2004 San Michele Brut Brut
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso – became DOCG in 2010

 

Set on the northern shore of Lake Viverone about as far north as you can get in the Caluso zone, Cellagrande farm a small estate and winemaker Fabrizio Ruzzon crafts their wines in the remains of a beautiful twelfth century convent. Only the church, bell tower and cellars remain and they are put to good use as the perfect place to age their sparkling wines.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce grown on south facing slopes dropping down to the north shore of Lake Viverone. Cold fermented then bottled and after the second fermentation the wine is aged on the lees for a minimum of 36 months, often much longer. This 2004 had only just been disgorged.

 

This was a deep golden colour with a wonderfully enticing nose of rich apples, apricots, pastry and spices. The palate was rich and creamy with cooked apples, a touch of pineapple, dry honey, caramel, biscuits and pastry all kept balanced by some lovely, bright, cleansing acidity. This is serious stuff and a real triumph – 93/100 points.

 

Vineyards in Ghemme.

Sweet Wines

Given how important sweet wines were in the past – they were the most sought after wines in ancient times and the middle ages because they kept whereas other wines did not – this may well be the oldest wine style from Piemonte. Sweet wines made from dried grapes, to get rid of water and so increase the proportion of sugar have been made all over the Mediterranean world since the beginning of civilisation.

 

2007 Alladium Passito
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso Passito

 

For this wine they select the best bunches of ripest Erbaluce fruit on the estate and then dry them in ventilated rooms on special racks. The dry conditions stop the grapes from going mouldy. After crushing the juice is fermented and the finished wine is aged for 3 years in oak barrels.
A light dessert wine with honey, orange, fig, orange peel and a touch of oak spice and tea on the nose. The palate is full and rounded with a soft viscous texture, caramelised orange, cooked apricot, a little treacle and cinder toffee. A very attractive wine, fresh and delightfully drinkable rather than complex – 88/100 points.

 

2009 Sulé Passito
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso Passito

 

This passito – a sweet wine made from dried grapes –  wine is fermented in oak barrels and then aged in those barrels on the lees for 3 more years.

 

A richer style with a caramel colour and aromas of creme brûlée, burnt sugar, caramelised orange, coffee and sweet spice. The palate is intense and figgy, almost like a an Australian Liqueur Muscat with buttery toffee, molasses, coffee, dried orange, caramel and cinnamon. It is viscous, silky and mouth-filling and has a long finish – 90/100 points.

 

I was very impressed with these white wines and sparklers from northern Piemonte. I went expecting to taste red wines made from Nebbiolo and although there were plenty of those that were very good indeed, I also enjoyed these whites and sparkling wines. Which just goes to show what an excellent wine region it is.

 

So you see, Italy can always surprise you, even astonish you, with wonderful whites and sparkling wines from places where you least expect them. This can be from regions that you have never heard of and grape varieties that you have never even heard mentioned before. Personally I think that is a good thing as it means the world of wine is even more exciting than we thought and it gives us even more good reasons to keep an open mind and and to try everything.

 

Try them if you get the chance and let us know what you thought of them.

Wine of the Week 61 – an affordable classic

I am not often one to encourage people buy the cheaper examples of classic wines. As a rule I believe that you need to pay a proper price for the true classics. This is because budget wines are often a pale imitation of what they out to be. Sub £12 Sancerre or Chablis are normally pretty dilute things, all tart acidity and no real character. Cheaper Châteauneuf-du-Pape in no way prepares you for the joys of the real thing. Entry level (under £10) Gewürztraminer lacks true concentration and depth and so on. This is understandable, these wines are really fairly expensive to grow and make and so if there is a cheaper version then it is usually made to a price.

Of course there are exceptions and I am delighted to have found one just the other day. Rather excitingly it is a Barbaresco from Piemonte in north west Italy. These wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape like its near Neighbour Barolo, are often among Italy’s most expensive and sought after, so to find a great value example that is actually rather good is quite something.

The wine is made by the wonderful Araldica cooperative who make a wide range of well made Piemontese wines – I love their La Battistina Gavi for example – and never seem to put a foot wrong. Certainly this Barbaresco is a delicious example that gives a very real idea of what these wines are about, at a good price so I made it my Wine of the Week.

The beautiful Piemontese landscape.

The beautiful Piemontese landscape.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, I will draw a more detailed map soon.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, click on map for a larger view.

Barbaresco2011 Corsini Barbaresco
Barbaresco DOCg
Araldica Vini Piemontesi
Piemonte
Italy

This is 100% Nebbiolo, made from quite old vines – which give greater depth and concentration – grown at between 180 and 400 metres above sea level. The grapes were hand harvested and fermented in stainless steel vats. It was then aged for 18 months in large oak vats.

The colour is typical Nebbiolo in that it is translucent and red with an orange / bricky rim. The nose is lifted and vibrant with smoky spicy notes mingling with rich cherry and plum together with some rose floral notes and light touches of leather and savoury mushroom and truffle.

The palate is smooth and seductive with lots of tannin, but it ripe and smooth rather than astringent. There is plenty of deep red fruit together with spice and rich truffles, smoke, flowers and a dusting of mocha from the oak ageing. The finish is long and satisfying with those tannins giving some nice firm structure, while the high acid – typical of the grape and Italian red wines in general – make it perfect with Italian style food.

A lovely, drinkable introduction to Nebbiolo, this is well made and refined, with a fresh, clean and vibrant feel – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar and Ocado for £11.99 per bottle. Other stockists can be seen here.

Like most wines made from Nebbiolo grapes, this is a deeply savoury wine that really needs to be enjoyed with food. It would be excellent with steak, roast or braised beef, rich risottos and mushroom and truffle dishes. Give it a try if you can, and let us know what you think.

2 books to enjoy this Christmas

Most of us who love wine are either armchair hedonists from time to time, or know someone who is, so books about wine, food and food and wine travel usually make perfect Christmas presents. So, I thought I would tell you about a couple of books that have come my way recently.

Firstly a wine and travel atlas of Piemonte

The beautiful rolling hills of Piemonte.

The beautiful rolling hills of Piemonte.

Paul bookPiemonte Wine and Travel Atlas
by Paul Balke
Published by Château Ostade at €49.50
ISBN: 9789081376914
Available from the author here

Firstly I should tell you that Paul Balke is a friend of mine and earlier in the year I spent a very informative and pleasurable week in his company touring the Monferrato area of Italy’s Piemonte region, which includes Gavi. If you ever need to know anything about Piemonte wine or the wine regulations of the region, then Paul is your man. He is a very nice and knowledgable man and a real Piemonte insider who escorted our little group to some wonderful wineries and places, introduced us to the right people and took us to some memorable restaurants. Well, now he has written this handsome book about the whole region too – oh and as if that isn’t enough, he is a fine piano player as well. Talented people make me feel so inadequate!

It really is a lovely book and invaluable as a work of reference, Paul certainly knows the region. It’s good on the history and the geography of Piemonte as well as the wines themselves, so the reader can just read it, or dip in to it from time to time, or use it as a reference book. As you might imagine from his surname, Paul is Dutch and very occasionally you get the sense that the writer is not writing in his native tongue, well he isn’t, but it’s still very readable and informative.

The man himself, Paul Balke entertains.

The man himself, Paul Balke entertains.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, many by Paul himself, that bring the place alive and show you exactly what he is talking about. Of course, the book is also an atlas, so there are plenty of maps that make sense of the complex and overlapping wine regions of Piemonte, as much as it is possible to do so anyway. You certainly learn how complicated the DOC and DOCg’s of the region are. What’s more Paul does not limit himself to Piemonte, but includes sections on the neighbouring Valle d’Aosta and Liguria regions.

There is lots of good stuff to read here, from fascinating detail about the history of the towns and the people of the region, to separate sections about areas, towns, buildings or local tradition or myths of special interest. There are also highlighted sections that give mouthwatering asides about local gastronomy, so we can learn about the link between Gavi and Ravioli for instance, or the chocolate shops of Turin

All in all this is a terrific book to dip into when you fancy a bit of armchair travel, or use it for reference, or as your guide for that long promised wine trip to Piemonte. However you use it, it will certainly open up the delights of Piemonte to you as never before.

My second book is a book about cheese

A fabulous cheese shop in Bordeaux.

A fabulous cheese shop in Bordeaux.

Cheesemonger_tales_1024x1024The Cheesemonger’s Tales
by Arthur Cunynghame
Published by Loose Chippings at £14.99
Available in the UK from Amazon @ £14.78
and on Kindle @ £12.86
ISBN Hardback 978-0-9554217-0-9
ISBN eBook 978-1-907991-04-2

Like most wine people I love cheese, but I do not know much about it, so for me this book was a good primer, as is a sedate stroll through the world of cheese by someone who really knows the subject. Arthur Cunynghame is the former owner of Paxton & Whitfield and before that he spent 18 years as a wine merchant and he brings this experience to play in this light, breezy and pleasurable book.

Arthur goes in to detail about how a handful of classic cheeses are made and goes down all sorts of byways exploring the history and styles of cheeses as well as some of the wines that he thinks partner them to perfection. In fact there is a whole section on partnering wine and cheese and very rewarding it is too, as it successfully challenges the widely held belief that red wine goes with cheese. The truth is far more complex than that, but personally, if I had to generalise, I would say that white wine is usually better with cheese than red.

The author also takes a look at food policy and how food is treated in the UK, and is quite happy to give us his views as well as the benefit of his experience and one thing he says really resonates with me. When he writes that we should ‘treat food as important’, I felt it really summed up the enormous advances in food that have happened in Britain during my lifetime and they have only happened because people increasingly feel that food is important and worth thinking about, talking about and enjoying properly.

I recommend this little book as a fun, light read, a good introduction to cheese and a lovely stocking filler for the hedonist in your life – even if it’s you. My only quibbles are the quality of the maps, which are truly terrible – as a cartographer myself I wince when I see them – and the photographs are too small, but these are details that do not undermine the book’s qualities.

Both of these books are full of lots of useful and interesting information and can be treated as books to read, or books that you refer to from time to time, and both would make great presents.

Wine of the Week 15 – a fine Picpoul as last of my summer wine

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

Well, the summer is drawing to a close and the weather, in the UK anyway, is not very good, but I have the antidote. I enjoyed a wine last night that was a pleasure to drink and made me happy.

I was especially pleased as the wine seemed to be very good with scrambled eggs. I say scrambled eggs, but more accurately the dish I cooked should be called huevos revueltos. It is a dish of roughly scrambled eggs into which I put prawns, asparagus and lots of garlic and served it on a bed of crispy roast potatoes. It is a typical Spanish dish and worth trying when in Spain, other classic versions incorporate black pudding and often they include little eels as well, not my thing but very popular in Spain. The best version, other than my own, that I have tried was in Restaurante El Botin which is in Madrid and is officially the oldest restaurant in the world.

Eggs are notoriously difficult to partner with wine, as is asparagus actually, but I decided to match the weight of the dish and the fresh Mediterranean flavours of the prawns and the garlic rather than the eggs, and it worked brilliantly. It might have helped that I served it with a lovely Insalata Caprese and that went superbly with the wine too.

The pairing came to me as a flash of inspiration, so I was delighted that the food and the wine all went so well together. The wine was a particularly good example of a something that has managed to break through the Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc stranglehold to become quite trendy and popular – Picpoul de Pinet. This is a white wine within the Languedoc appellation, which overwhelmingly produces red wines, and has its own sub region appellation.

I really like and enjoy Picpoul, at least Picpoul Blanc which is the version we normally encounter and the only one I have knowingly tasted – both black skinned Picpoul Noir and pink skinned Picpoul Gris also exist, but in tiny amounts. The wines made from Picpoul Blanc might never be the most complex and profound, but when they are good they can give a great deal of pleasure. Like Gavi they have a reputation for being more crisp and acidic than most of them actually are.

Laure Colombo

Laure Colombo

image-12013 Picpoul de Pinet Les Girelles
AC Picpoul de Pinet / AC Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet
Jean-Luc Colombo
Jean-Luc Colombo is really a Rhône Valley winemaker who is based in the Northern Rhône area of Cornas, but he makes wines across the Rhône Valley. It is a new business, only having been founded in 1982, but has enjoyed remarkable success in this short time. I really admire their style as they seem to be able to make very elegant wines with fabulous fruit concentration. In recent years Jean-Luc has been joined in the business by his daughter Laure, who has proved herself to be a superb winemaker in her own right. They have also expanded their production to Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and IGP wines from the beautiful landscape near Marseilles as well as Picpoul de Pinet and Rivesaltes in the Languedoc. 

The colour is a lovely burnished copper like peach skin, in the glass it looks viscous and enticing.
The nose gives attractive floral notes, wild herbs, nuts and fresh peaches, whilst remaining delicate and offering a faint whiff of the sea.
The palate is fresh, yet succulent at the same time. Juicy and clean, so poised between being racy and being rich, which suits it too. There is an apricot fleshy succulence to the palate, a crack of white pepper – not unlike Grüner Veltliner – clean, refreshing acidity and a touch of minerality. I like this very much indeed, there is good concentration, it’s delicious and a lot of fun to drink. There is purity and richness, lightness and weight, freshness and richness. It feels like a glass of sunshine to push away the Autumn blues – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Oddbins and a range of other outlets at around £9.99 per bottle. Jean-Luc Colombo wines are distributed in the UK by Hatch Mansfield.
Jean-Luc Colombo wines are distributed in the US by Palm Bay International.

If you have never tried a Picpoul de Pinet, or perhaps been disappointed by one in the past, then do try this. It is an especially good example, brilliant on its own or with prawns and all manner of seafood, as well as Mediterranean cuisine from Provencal, Spanish, Italian to Greek and Turkish. It would be perfect with Mezze or Tapas as well as being with, scrambled eggs and asparagus, either together or separately. Oh, and it is an utter delight to drink, a little burst of sunshine in your glass.

In the interests of total disclosure I must mention that I do some work for both Hatch Mansfield and Jean-Luc Colombo, but the views expressed here are my own genuine ones and totally unsolicited.

Gavi & Cortese – the place, the grape and a surprise

 

The beautiful landscape of Gavi.

The beautiful landscape of Gavi.

The Santuario di Nostra Signora della Guardia dominates the landscape around gave.

The Santuario di Nostra Signora della Guardia dominates the landscape around Gavi.

I have long had a soft spot for the wines of the Gavi DOCg and consider the best of them to be among the very finest white wines of Italy. My recent trip to the Province of Alessandria in Piemonte was a delight, I loved seeing it all, but one of the highlights was visiting the lovely old town of Gavi and tasting a wide array of the wines produced there.

The view from the Santuario di Nostra Signora della Guardia.

The view from the Santuario di Nostra Signora della Guardia.

Gavi town

Gavi town

Gavi is made from the Cortese grape which really only gets a starring role in south east Piemonte. It 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.

However it is in the rolling hills around the town of Gavi and the 10 outlying communes that Cortese produces its most famous wine – Gavi or Cortese di Gavi which was created as a DOC in 1974 and promoted to DOCg in 1998. Gavi is very much regarded as Piemonte’s pre-eminent white wine and as such the production zone is very small, it produces less than 2% of all Piemonte’s wine and covers just 11 communes or villages , of which Gavi itself is the most important and famous.

As for the place name it seems that in ancient times the local people were cave dwellers and Ga Va means land of holes in the local Ligurian dialect.

The rolling hills of Gavi.

The rolling hills and vineyards of Gavi.

The area is in Piemonte now, but historically was more associated with Liguria and Genoa, which being on the coast needed more white wine to partner their fish based cuisine. Records show that Cortese has been grown here since at least 1659, but the wine that we know of as Gavi did not appear until 1876 and Gavi’s reliance on Cortese did not fully start until replanting took place after Phyloxerra was beaten in the early years of the twentieth century. In reality Gavi’s reputation and its perception as a quality wine only dates from the 1960s with its fame growing through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s as new producers created new estates and used modern knowhow to make increasingly better wine.

One thing I learned was that 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 11 communes able to make Gavi then it can be labelled as Gavi del Commune di Gavi – or 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 are 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.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, I will draw a more detailed map soon.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, I will draw a more detailed map soon.

It is a lovely part of the world, hilly in a way that reminded me of Tuscany and surrounded by mountains. The Alps to the north and west, coastal mountains towards Genoa and the Apennines to the east and south. Standing on a hillside just outside Gavi I was struck by the beauty of the place, the excellent exposure to sunlight, which would help ripen the grapes on a well angled slope, but above all the lovely fresh, cooling breeze coming from the Ligurian Sea some 60 kilometres to the south. It is this cooling wind together with the chalky soils that helps keep the freshness, acidity and balance in the wine that makes Gavi’s reputation and ensures this is a fine white wine region.

As I say, I tasted a great many different Gavis and I can truthfully say that none of them were disagreeable in any way. Most of them were what I would term reliable and I would have happily drunk any of them at all at the right price and in the right setting. Sadly a few were a little lacking in character and excitement, but luckily the others more than made up for it.

It’s strange that Gavi is so often talked about as a high acid wine, well actually most of the examples I tasted had medium acidity at most, which made them softer than I had expected and hoped for, as it also made them somewhat anodyne. For me the heights were reached when the wines had a more thrilling and zesty level of acidity that lifted them to a different level and emphasised Gavi’s much vaunted, but not always seen, minerality. For me at least it is that minerality and vibrant acidity that gives the wine its real finesse, elegance and excitement.

The Wines
As I said, all the wines are agreeable, but some were superb, and these were my absolute favourites:

Azienda Agricola Morgassi Superiore
This wonderful, and innovative winery is very new as it was only founded in 1993. Marina and Cecilia Piacitelli farm 50 hectares of steep south and southwest facing hillsides and have achieved amazing success in that short time. I really liked all Morgassi’s wines and their labels are very beautiful too, as are their vineyards. They even produce a delicious example of the rare Timorgasso grape, which has to be labelled as Timorgasso Monferrato Bianco DOC rather than Gavi because it is not made from Cortese grapes.

I really liked all Morgassi's wines and their labels are very beautiful too.

Azienda Agricola Morgassi Superiore.

morgassi_tuffo2013 Morgassi Superiore Tuffo
Azienda Agricola Morgassi Superiore
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
Very pale, citrine and bright, silvery with a little touch of lime.
The palate is lovey and taut with great acidity, green fruit, more freshness and minerality and complexity, there is even a nice touch of weight to the palate too and lovely balance. The finish is pretty long and there is a touch of attractive peach stone bitterness. Really lovely stuff and nicely balanced – 90/100 points.

2010 Morgassi Superiore Volo
Azienda Agricola Morgassi Superiore
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
This Riserva level wine is a careful selection of the best fruit on the estate and spends 9 months ageing on the lees and is then aged for at least 18 months in bottle before release.
Bright citrine leemony, lime hue with more obvious vore viscosity.
More creamy, smoky aromas, that could be mistaken for oak even though there isn’t any.
Fatter more rounded palate with savoury leesy flavours and touch of cheese in the texture, savoury, bready, herbal and creamy. Very good weight, the acidity is masked a bit, but very good and zesty. Lovely texture, good length and the finish has some real fat to it. – 91/100 points.

Azienda Agricola La Ghibellina

The beautiful vineyards at

The beautiful vineyards at Azienda Agricola La Ghibellina.

Probably my favourite visit in Gavi, and not just because they served us a superb buffet. Again this is a very new venture, founded as recently as 2000 by Alberto and Marina Ghibellini. Again the estate is small, just 20 hectares of south facing slopes that form a sort of amphitheatre giving perfect aspect to capture the sun’s rays and the cooling sea breezes from the south. Gavi is the focus, but they also make some red wines and Chiaretto rosé that are labelled as Monferrato DOC as Gavi is solely for white wines made from Cortese.

Mainin2013 Laghibellina Mainìn
Azienda Agricola La Ghibellina
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
This is Gavi as I imagine it to be, with a crisp, mineral character and high acidity, reminiscent of good Chablis. The wine is aged 4 months on the lees to help develop complexity.
Very bright and shiny with a pale silvery lime colour.
Very fresh, lively lime aromas, together with a touch of pear and zingy peach.
Nice pure mineral and zesty limey style, crisp, good acidity and some rich rich citrus fruit on the palate.
There is real tension here and a stony crisp acidity. This is a very fine wine with lovely citrus fruit and a long finish, thrilling acidity and minerality – 91/100 points.

2011 Laghibellina Altius
Azienda Agricola La Ghibellina
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
This Riserva level wine is a selection of the best fruit on the estate and spends 8 months ageing on the lees.
Deeper colour with a touch more gold.
Concentrated rich peachy fruit aroma with  leesy notes, cream, cheese and caramel.
Broader palate with a rich texture, smoky flavours, peach fruit and peach skin too. The acidity is there on the finish, but the succulence and fleshy, fat texture dominate, with succulent peach and nectarine fruit. The finish has a little bitter nutty, peach stone character – 91/100 points.

Azienda Agricola Gian Piero Broglia
Sadly we did not visit this producer, but we enjoyed a stunning lunch with them in the wonderful Cantine del Gavi restaurant – if you are anywhere near the area do try and get there. Everything they served me was superb from the wild boar salami to the two pasta courses, and the scrumptious zabaglione to the home made amaretti biscuits with the coffee.

The beautiful dining room in the Cantine del Gavi.

The beautiful dining room in the Cantine del Gavi.

The first pasta course.

The first pasta course.

 

The second pasta course - Ravioli originates in the area and some people say there was a chef or family called ravioli whose name was given to the stuffed pasta.

The second pasta course – Ravioli originates in the area and some people say there was a chef or family called Raviolo whose name was given to the stuffed pasta.

The main course, Chema a typical genoese dish of sliced meatloaf stuffed with vegetables.

The main course, Chema a typical genoese dish of sliced meatloaf stuffed with vegetables and served with Genoese pesto – what’s more it was delicious.

The zabaglione, one of the best desserts I have ever tasted.

The zabaglione, one of the best desserts I have ever tasted – it was served hot and had frozen raspberries at the bottom.

Piero Broglia owner of Azienda Agricola Gian Piero Broglia and our host for lunch.

Piero Broglia, chairman of the Gavi Conzorzio, owner of Azienda Agricola Gian Piero Broglia and our host for lunch.

The La Meirana estate is very old indeed and records show that some of it had vineyards on it as long ago as 971. The Broglia family purchased it in 1972, having first renovated a beautiful villa in Gavi. Piero took the estate over from his father in 1974 and they have never looked back. In many ways La Mairana is considered the quintessential Gavi as it makes beautifully elegant, mineral wines of great finesse and vitality and farm some of the oldest vines in the region.

gavi_di_gavi_la_meirana_broglia_weisswein_trocken_075_l-16062012 Broglia La Meirana
Azienda Agricola Gian Piero Broglia
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
5 months ageing on the lees with no malolactic fermentation.
Enticing pale appley cream colour with slightly green hints.
The aroma gives nice delicately cream notes with pear and apple fruit. together with some gentle, leesy, smoky aromas.
The palate feels elegantly weighty, with pear, apple and melon fruit. There is a fresh, soft acidity, too which gives a rounded and creamy mouthfeel.
All in all it is very attractive with steely minerality on the finish. A beautiful wine that would go with all sorts of dishes, but was especially good with the Ligurian food they served – 90/100 points.

brubr12_anv8002012 Bruno Broglia
Azienda Agricola Gian Piero Broglia
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
A Riserva level wine made from a parcel of vines on the La Meirana estate called Fasciola. These vines were planted in 1953 and 1955 and produce a wine with great concentration and which is named in honour of Piero’s father. It is unasked, but spends 6 months on the lees.
A deeper colour, like creamy pear juice.
The nose was aromatic, gently cheesy and creamy, with herbs, flowers and pear, together with delicate peach notes and some gentle spice too.
Very rounded palate with lovely freshness of acidity with minerality and an earthy, ashy character, touch of almond bitterness to the finish too. Lovely soft, creamy texture, very rich finish, long with lovely balance. This is a fine, fine wine and quite delicious too – 92/100 points.

Over lunch and during the tasting that followed I was also hugely impressed by these Gavis:

gavi-di-gavi-minaia-nicola-bergaglio-2011_original2013 Minaia
Nicola Bergaglio
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
Very pale, pear juice colour with a dash of lemon.
Pear drop aromas, herbs and onion seed, all very delicate though.
Lovely palate, soft acidity, gentle mouthfeel, just fresh enough to be lively, but with pear juice succulence.
Very attractive wine – 89/100 points.

 

La Fornace2013 La Fornace
Azienda Agricola Bergaglio Cinzia
Gavi del Commune di Tassarolo DOCg
I loved this wine with its thrilling acidity and minerality and it came from a different commune too.
Bright, pale colour, a sort of silvery lemon and lime.
Leesy nose, with citrus and apple skin notes, floral blossom and acacia, all in all very fresh and attractive.
Nice intensity of peach and green apple fruit, and good acidity with some texture of fruit, nicely mineral too making it feel clean and zesty. Very good balance, concentrated and fine with lively acidity, great length and a twist of peach stone bitterness at the end – 92/100 points.

A sparkling surprise
I was very excited to be served some sparkling Gavi too. I knew they existed, but had never tasted one before and I was very impressed. Prosecco and Franciacorta get all the fame and plaudits for Italian sparkling wine, but from the examples I tried, sparkling Gavi – and by extension sparkling Cortese – can be really good and perhaps more exciting too. Some are made fizzy by the tank method, and can be very enjoyable as this one shows, but the best are made using the traditional method – metodo classico in Italian – and the extra finesse and complexity really show.

P8040352-low-640x480

The beautiful vineyards at Azienda Agricola Magda Pedrini – courtesy of Azienda Agricola Magda Pedrini.

image description2011 Magdalena Pedrini Metodo Classico Gavi Brut
Azienda Agricola Magda Pedrini, Tenuta Nuova Cà da Meo
Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCg
Cà de Meo is a hamlet – or lieux-dit – within Gavi and it is very old indeed, with a history dating back at least as far as the fifteenth century. Magdalena Pedrini’s estate covers 10 hectares on 3 natural south facing amphitheatres that catch the sun and those vital sea breezes. Sadly I have not yet visited, but if all the wines are as good as this, then I really should.
Very fine wine with a lovely biscuity caramel nose. The palate has a fine mousse, rich apple and apple skin flavours some butterscotch and mealy character. Very good indeed with lovely acidity, balance and complexity. The freshness shows well and there is lovely richness too making it a brilliant fizz. We enjoyed it as an aperitif with some salami to nibble on, but it would partner anything you can eat while drinking Champagne  – 92/100 points.

I think you can see that there is a lot to enjoy in Gavi. There are a great many perfectly enjoyable wines and lots of flashes of brilliance – from producers like those mentioned above – which lift Gavi up into the ranks of world class wine regions and put it firmly with the best white wines and sparkling wines of Italy.

I leave you with a view of the dramatic fortress which dominates the skyline of the town of Gavi as it has done since it was first built in 973.

Gavi fortress.

Gavi fortress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piemonte Part 1 – first taste of Monferrato

Vignale in Monferrato.

Vignale in Monferrato.

I experienced my first wine trip to Piemonte the other week and I really enjoyed it. The countryside is beautiful, the variety of landscapes in a small area is quite extraordinary – totally flat around the Po Valley, but with the towering Alps just to the north, while the rolling hills in the south morph into a coastal range of mountains towards Liguria and the sea. The towns and villages are delightful too, the food is memorable and the people are very welcoming. There is a great deal to enjoy in Piemonte and I recommend a visit, oh and the wines are wonderful too and come in an amazing array of different styles from a plethora of grape varieties, some well known, but some quite obscure.

As soon I told people that I was going to Piemonte they jumped to the conclusion that I would be visiting Barolo, but actually my destination was the much less well known Monferrato region. Monferrato covers the provinces of Alessandria and Asti, I was visiting the bit in Alessandria. For most of the time was I based in the lovely provincial town of Acqui Terme, which was originally a Roman Spa town and the bollente, or hot spring, still bubbles up in the town centre.

Il bollente, the water comes out at 75˚C.

Il bollente, the water comes out at 75˚C.

Monferrato
The Monferrato D.O.C. is pretty hard to pin down. It covers great swathes of territory that look and feel very different. The D.O.C. itself can use all sorts of different grapes and incorporates the territories of other wines within its boundaries, Gavi D.O.C.G. being the most famous. It also includes much of the Asti territory, so allowing many producers to make Asti, Mosacto d’Asti as well as Barbera d’Asti. The overall effect is a quite beguiling hotch potch of wine names that straddle and overlap each other.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, I will draw a more detailed map soon.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, I will draw a more detailed map soon.

The region is divided in to two by the Tanaro River. In the north the Basso Monferrato – or Monferrato Casalese – is an open land of rolling hills that give way to the plains of the Po Valley. To the south there is the Alto Monferrato, which is a hilly and mountainous land that forms part of the Apennines. Culturally the whole region is diverse with Piemontese, Genoese and Ligurian influences in the food. Asti and neighbouring Alba are also centres of truffle production and they are also important in the cuisine.

The most widely grown grape, the signature grape for the region is the generally under appreciated Barbera. Many others are used though, including Gavi’s Cortese, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Freisa  and Grignolino and I will write more about those another day.

Looking towards the Alps from Marenco's vineyards in Strevi.

Looking towards the Alps from Marenco’s vineyards in Strevi.

Marenco
There were many highlights on this trip and I will write about some of them soon, but one of my favourite winery visits was to the Casa Vinicola Marenco. This family winery is run by three sisters, Michela, Patrizia and Doretta, who are the third generation of the Marenco family to run the family business, interestingly the next generation is entirely male.

The Marenco winery.

The Marenco winery.

Michela Marenco picking cherries for us to eat.

Michela Marenco picking cherries for us to eat.

Our little group enjoying the cherries - photo courtesy of Paul Balke.

Our little group enjoying the cherries, that’s me front left looking serious – photo courtesy of Paul Balke.

Marenco are based in the lovely quiet town of Strevi midway between Gavi and Asti – which is an important area for Moscato (Muscat) production and Moscato Passito di Strevi is the tiny local speciality D.O.C. for a dessert wine made from dried Moscato grpes. All their wines were excellent, but the ones that thrilled me the most were:

2scrapona2013 Marenco Scarpona Moscato d’Asti 
Casa Vinicola Marenco
Strevi
D.O.C.G. Moscato d’Asti

Moscato d’Asti is less fizzy than Asti itself, but tastes very similar and is similarly light light in alcohol – 5.5% in this instance. This single vineyard wine from the Scarpona slope is an exceptionally fine example with a purity, elegance and finesse to it, so much so that it tastes drier than it is, even though it has 130 grams of sugar per litre.

The wine is very pale and delicately frothy rather than fizzy and the CO2 settles on the surface like lace. It is wonderfully aromatic with floral and delicately peachy notes and candied lemon peel making it smell like a freshly opened panettone. The palate is light and fresh with that frothy feel, a slight creamy intensity, and although it is sweet it also tastes very clean, fresh and lively. Candied citrus, light peach and zesty orange flavours dominate. A joyous hedonistic delight of a wine, try it with some fruit, a panettone or a simple sponge cake – 90/100 points.

Click here for UK stockist information for Contero Moscato d’Asti as Scarpone is not available in the UK.
Click here for US stockist information.

Marenco's Scarpona vineyard.

Marenco’s Scarpona vineyard.

pineto2013 Pineto Marenco Brachetto d’Acqui
Casa Vinicola Marenco
Strevi
D.O.C.G. Brachetto d’Acqui

The rarer red equivalent to Moscato d’Asti, this is made from the Brachetto grape, which is a local speciality. The grape is thin skinned, so makes pale wine, but is tannic, like Nebbiolo and is made sweet to balance the tannins in the wines, as many Nebbiolos were until the late nineteenth century. Marenco farm their Brachetto grapes in the Pineto Valley, hence the wine’s name.

In many ways this is like a red partner to the Moscato, with a similar character, lightly sparkling and low alcohol of 5.5%. It has 125 grams of sugar per litre, but tastes drier.

The colour is red cherry or cherry-ade even with that lacy, frothy top. It smells of tangy red fruit, cherry and strawberry, with a touch of cherrystone bitterness too. Frankly the palate tastes like a really good Black Forest Gateau and it would be the perfect partner to it too. This is so, so delicious that I could not stop drinking it – 91/100 points.

I cannot, for the life of me imagine why these two wine styles are not more popular in the UK, they just deliver pure pleasure to your senses – go on, please, I beg you, give them a try. Sadly you won’t find these two particular wines in the UK as Marenco’s distributer, Liberty Wines, sell the Moscato d”Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui from the Contero estate. Luckily Contero is also owned by Marenco and the wines are equally fine.

Click here for UK stockist information for Contero Brachetto d’Acqui.
Click here for US stockist information.

I was also delighted with this red wine produced in a more normal dry style:

MA4012010 Marenco Red Sunrise Albarossa
Casa Vinicola Marenco
Strevi
D.O.C. Piemonte

Albarossa is an unusual grape that is just beginning to catch on in this part of Piemonte and I tasted quite a few, but this was definitely my favourite example. In case you have never heard of it, and I hadn’t, it is a cross of Chatus (Chat-ooo) with Barbera. The position is confused somewhat by the widespread belief that Chatus is a form of Nebbiolo, so some people tell you that Albarossa is a cross of Nebbiolo and Barbera, both native to Piemonte, but that is not the case. This confusion probably arose because Chatus is known as Nebbiolo di Dronero in the Alba region of Piemonte.

The wine is cold fermented in stainless steel tanks and 50% was aged for a year in large oak casks.

As you might expect from this area the wine is red, quite a vivid crimson in fact.
The nose offers a mix of floral and earthy notes, stones, black fruit and red too, especially plums and stewed cherries, with a dash of tobacco.
The palate is soft and marked by rich smoky fruit, red and black, the texture is supple, deep and velvety, with slightly gamey, savoury flavours. All the while there is excellent balance between the lovely acidity, concentrated fruit and soft gamey, ripe tannins. I enjoyed this wine very much and was very excited to try something so completely unexpected. There is a Nebbiolo like feel to it at times, it is overwhelmingly savoury, but the fruit is richer and the tannins softer. I think this is a very fine wine and my favourite Albarossa so far – 90/100 points.

Click here & here for UK stockist information. Also contact Liberty Wines.
Click here for US stockist information.

I think you can probably tell that I was completely bowled over by Marenco and loved visiting them. The vineyards were very beautiful, their wines were superb, the people were lovely and they have real passion for their land and their wines, and it shows. Do try them if you can, you won’t regret it. I will be writing much more about my trip to Piemonte, but Marenco was a real highlight.

 

Deliciously different & exciting white wines

There is so much wine available from so many different places that it must be hard for most casual wine drinkers to decide what to drink. Which is presumably why so many people I know stick to a very narrow range of favourites.

There is no need to get stuck in a rut though, even with tried and tested wine producing countries or companies. Here are details of four delicious and exciting, for different reasons, white wines that have come my way of late. At first glance on the shelf they might not seem all that different, the first two are from the famous and always excellent Villa Maria in New Zealand while the second pair are from Chile, one made by Álvaro Espinoza in the Casablanca Valley and the other by Errazuriz.

What sets these wines apart and makes them a little different and exciting is that they are made from slightly more unusual grape varieties, or in the Chilean case blends. I love championing less famous grapes as there is a great deal of pleasure to be found in many of them and so I think it is a great shame that so many drinkers limit themselves to such a tiny palate of grapes. There are hundreds of grape varieties out there and many of them can make very good wine indeed.

All it needs is to be slightly adventurous and try something new. I always tell my students that at least once a month they should buy a bottle of wine that they have never heard of or thought of drinking before, that way they experience lots of new things. In addition I tell them to buy at least some of their wine from a proper independent wine merchant, which can give advice and usually stock the more interesting things too.

It is so good that wine producers are still trying to offer consumers wines that are a little bit unusual and more interesting than the normal run of the mill wines that fill the shelves. Especially so as both New Zealand and Chile have long focussed on a narrow range of commercially successful grapes, so it is good to see such exciting experimentation. In recent months I have also seen Grüner Veltliner from New Zealand too, all we need is an Albariñoa Godello, a Fiano and a Falanghina and I will be a very happy bunny indeed!

Remember to click on all the links – and leave a comment too.

New Zealand

Sir George Fistonich founded Villa Maria Estate in Auckland in 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Set Michelle Wines.

Sir George Fistonich at harvest time. George founded Villa Maria 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

image-12013 Villa Maria Private Bin Arneis
East Coast G.I., New Zealand
If you have never heard of the Arneis grape variety before, well you can be forgiven as it is only a speciality of Piemonte in north west Italy. It makes the wines of the Roero Arneis D.O.C.g, and D.O.C. wines in Langhe too. In its native country it seems to make wines that are quite floral and aromatic, but is usually too low in acidity for me, so I am generally more keen on Nascetta or Gavi’s Cortese grape. Somehow it seems that the New Zealanders are able to compensate for this lack of acidity and produce fresher, more lively versions than the the original – just as they do with Viognier. Historically Arneis was considered very hard to grow as it is so delicate, hence the name which means ‘little rascal’ in Piemontese and so the grape almost died out in the 1970s with only two producers left by 1980. Luckily – as with so many white grapes – modern know-how has swept to the rescue and limited plantings are now found in Liguria and Sardinia, as well as California, Oregon, cooler parts of Australia and New Zealand’s North Island.
This wine has the East Coast Geographical Indicator, because the vineyards are in more than one region. In fact the grapes are grown at 3 vineyards sites between Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne.
Villa Maria’s Private Bin wines are their fruit forward more easy drinking range.
This offers a gently aromatic and slightly floral nose with touches of pear and very delicate peach.
The palate is juicy, delicately succulent and textured with soft acidity and lots of fresh and lively orchard fruit – pear –  and is nicely flowery too. There is also a fresh seam of acidity keeping the whole thing together and lively, without dominating.
All in all a really good approachable take on this grape making it a sassy and enjoyable easy drinking wine that goes well with almost anything, what’s more it only has 12.5% alcohol making it an ideal quaffer too – 87/100 points.

Map of New Zealand's wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

image-1-22013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Marlborough G.I., New Zealand
Sauvignon Gris is a grape close to my heart. I became very fond of it in Chile over ten years ago and am very pleased that it is now being grown in New Zealand too. Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose.
Villa Maria’s Cellar Selection wines are more concentrated, complex and so perfect with food. This particular wine is actually from a single vineyard in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley – Fletcher’s Vineyard.
The wine has a pale pear juice colour that hints at succulence, while the nose offers pear and delicately smoky peach.
The palate is by turns stony and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit too.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominat than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

UK stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Ste Michelle Wine Estates.

Chile

Emiliana's beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

Emiliana’s beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Banfi Wines.

CCC06-02012 Signos de Origen Chardonnay-Roussanne-Marsanne-Viognier
Emiliano Organic Vineyards
D.O. Valle de Casablanca, Chile
Casablanca is a beautiful place, one of the best bits of Chile to visit the wineries. this is because it is near both the main cities of santiago and Valparaiso and so is home to some excellent winery restaurants as well as some very good wine producers too. For a long time Casablanca was the undisputed premium white wine region of Chile, this is because the lack of mountains between it and the ocean ensure it is cooler than the wine regions to the south – like the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys. Nowadays Casablanca has competition from the equally cool San Antonio and Leyda Valleys as well as Acocagua Costa and Limari to the north, but is still a great region.
I love interesting blends and this is a wonderful combination of classic Rhône Valley white grapes – Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier – with the more lush style of Chardonnay and it works perfectly. The grapes are organically grown and the grapes were partly fermented in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures before being moved to French oak barrels to complete the fermentation – this technique gives subtle richness and texture to the wine. 90% of the wine then aged in those barrels for 6 months, while 10% was aged in egg shaped concrete tanks, which are very trendy right now and do good things – you can read about them here.
This is a serious white wine with complexity, structure, texture and finesse.
The fruit drives it with rich apricot and peach characters giving succulence and texture as well as the fresh herb characters of the Rhône grapes. Ripeness and oak give honey and nut tones too and an overarching richness, even a touch of oatmeal at times. There is freshness and stony minerality too though giving some tension and balance.
A glorious wine, dense, concentrated and fine, perfect with cheese, rich poultry or pork – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Boutinot.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Banfi Wines.

Chile Map watermarked

Map of Chile’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

If you want to try Rousanne, Marsanne and Viognier without Chardonnay, try another great Chilean blend:

image-1-32011 Errazuriz The Blend Marsanne-Roussanne-Viognier
Viña Errazuriz
D.O. Valle de Aconcagua, Chile
Another thrilling blend from grapes that originate in France’s southern Rhône. This comes from a little further north than Casablanca in the Aconcagua proper – Casablanca is politically a sub-division of the Aconcagua Valley – about halfway between the cool Aconcaua Costa and the warmer eastern end of the valley where Errazuriz traditional produce their red wines.
25% was fermented in third use French oak to give delicate richness while the rest was fermented in stainless shell to give freshness. 25% was also aged for 6 months in French oak.
This wonderful wine has a rich, earthy nose with wild herbs, honey, rosemary, spicy toasty oak and nuts too, it is savoury but with rich underlying fruit.
The palate is succulent with rich juicy fruit and a touch of minerality and acidity keeping it fresh not cloying. Herbs, apricots, peach, stones, a touch of oily texture and even cream together with a bite of tannins and nuts on the finish. Another glorious and exciting wine that is perfect with roast pork or rich poultry dishes – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Vintus.

So you see, there is plenty of excitement and lots of different, but still delicious, wine out there if you are prepared to be a little adventurous. There really is no need to get stuck in a rut or keep drinking the usual suspects.

In the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I do some work for both Villa Maria and Viña Errazuriz from time to time. However, the views that I have expressed about their wines are completely honest and unsolicited.