Castello di Brolio – the resurgence of a great Chianti estate

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

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

Brolio Castle and some of its vines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.

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

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

Brolio Castle.

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

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

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

The aperitif:

2015 Torricella
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

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

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

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

Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:

2013 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

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

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

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

2006 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2008 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

2003 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

Served with the cheese course:

2013 Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

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

2010 Colledilà Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

Served with the petit fours:

2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marche – a region awakes: Part 2 – the red wines

A few weeks ago I was on a wonderful trip to the Marche region of Italy, some of you will have read Part 1 of my thoughts on the trip, well here is Part 2 and it focuses on a couple of producers whose red wines really stood out for me.

Beautiful vineyards in the Marche.

I saw so much that excited me on my trip to the Marche, it is a beautiful landscape with much to enjoy and incredible variety, borne out by the many different wine styles. However it is the quality of the DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi whites and the lesser known, in the UK anyway, Cònero Rosso DOC and Cònero Riserva DOCG that must be the region’s vinous calling cards.

I was hugely impressed by the modern examples of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, they were totally different from the thin and harshly acidic wines of my youth.

In truth I had no idea what to expect from the reds, so really enjoyed the experiences of tasting the wines. They were so varied, from deliciously fruity and modern wines, to rich and powerful examples and refined elegant wines. It seems there is something for everyone here.

We tasted good red wines at pretty much every where we went, but these are the ones that moved me the most.

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

The main grape in the Marche for red wines is Montepulciano and the most important wine that it is used for is Rosso Cònero DOC and it’s big brother the Cònero Riserva DOCG. Both of these must contain at least 85% Montepulciano and can have up to 15% Sangiovese.

Montepulciano is a grape that struggles with its image I think. For a start there are the cheap and cheerful wines from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I know there are good wines made down there, but most of the examples that we get are somewhat jammy and easy drinking. Well most of the Rosso Cònero and Cònero Riserva wines that I tried were nothing like that. They were very enjoyable to drink, but they were layered and complex wines that really excited me.

The other problem for Montepulciano, which can cause confusion, is that in Tuscany there is a town of that name that produces a wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Sangiovese grapes.

I was really astonished by how good these Cònero wines were and very disappointed that are very hard to come by in the UK.

Cònero DOCG covers the same area, but has lower yields and is aged for at least 2 years.

Fattoria La Terrazze

Fattoria La Terrazze from the air showing the proximity to the sea – photo courtesy of the winery.

My second winery visit in the Marche was to Fattoria La Terrazze in the Rosso Cònero area. The setting is so lovely, 10 km or so to the south of Ancona and only a kilometre or so inland from the Adriatic Sea and Mount Conero which gives this small wine area its name. The mountain is a promontory to the south of Ancona (there is a slight bulge out into the sea on my map) and is the only high point on the east coast of Italy and at 572 metres it really stands out. In ancient times it must have been a welcoming marker to tell sailors that they had made it safely to Ancona.

Antonio Terni.

The estate has been here since 1882 and is still owned by the founding Terni family, although its reputation is all recent. Today it is run by Antonio Terni and his charming English wife Georgina. I liked them, their beautiful winery and all the wines. Antonio is something of a music fan and his rosé is rather memorably called ‘Pink Fluid’. We even tried his bulk wine that is sold to the locals by the litre – they bring their bottles and jars to be filled. The red was a Montepulciano and the white was a Chardonnay and they were very nice, drinkable wines, however, some of his finer products really stood out.

2014 Rosso Cònero
DOC Rosso Cònero
Fattoria La Terrazze

100% Montepulciano grapes are fermented in stainless steel and then aged in huge, 2000-4000 litres wooden barrels for 15 months.

The colour was a mixture of damson and dark cherry, while the nose gave off wild fruit of the forest and light smoke notes together with something a little salty or soy sauce-like. The palate is medium weight with nice acid balance, herbal flavours, salty, mineral and spicy flavours and some coulis like brambles fruit together with a very long finish. I liked this a lot. It was my first wine of the region that I can remember tasting and it was pretty impressive, a worthy alternative to Chianti or something like that – 89/100 points.

The road to Fattoria La Terrazze, that is Monte Cònero and the sea in the distance..

2013 Sassi Neri
DOCG Cònero Riserva
Fattoria La Terrazze

This wine is named after a beach below Monte Cònero which is called black or neri because it is covered in mussels.

This is also 100% Montepulciano grapes that are very carefully selected for this wine, picked later and riper are fermented in stainless steel and then aged in 225 litres wooden barrels for 18-24 months depending on the parcel of fruit. It is also aged for a further 6months in bottle before release.

The colour was attractive, deep, and plummy. The nose was earthy, smoky and savoury in a really attractive way. Then the palate was rich and intense with smoke, herbs, sweet liquorice, a sweet and sour umami thing, rich cooked dark fruit, spice and some pretty big, drying chalky tannins in a good way. My I liked this, it really is beautifully made  – 91/100 points.

Antonio also shared bottle of the 1998 Sassi Neri with us. This was much more developed with more prune-like fruit, fig notes, dried raspberry, as well as rich umami, coffee,muchroom and salty flavours on the lovely finish.

Some of the Fattoria La Terrazze wines are available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk and Italvinus.

Azienda Agricola Moroder

Aerial view of Azienda Agricola Moroder -photo courtesy of the winery.

Azienda Agricola Moroder is another winery in a magnificent setting. It’s in the middle of Conero National Park, just 5 km inland from the Adriatic Sea and the glorious Mount Conero which gives this small wine area its name.

Mattia and Marco Moroder.

The estate today is run by Marco and Mattia Moroder whose family have owned the site since the late eighteenth century, but who turned it into a dedicated winery in 1837. The winery is still in the cellar of the beautiful original farmhouse. The Moroder name is actually Ladin and Germanic and originates in the South Tyrol, indeed the brothers told us that Giorgio Moroder is a relative. They also explained that the name came from bands of fighting men who were left behind, making it strikingly similar to ‘marauder’ in English.

The cellar dates back to 1700 and was originally used as an ice store and to keep food in good condition. Although they have a long history here, their reputation is much more recent and Marco and Mattia’s parents, Alessandro and Serenella Moroder can pretty much be credited with revitalising the red wines of the area.

Azienda Agricola Moroder.

The estate has a huge terrace with beautiful views out over the vineyards making it seem very restful. It covers some 120 hectares, but only 50 are planted with vines. The rest being forest, olives and fruit trees, all of which helps with bio-diversity and other products like oil, jam and truffles. The brothers are keen to have a light impact on nature and since 2010 the estate has been certified organic.

Azienda Agricola Moroder.

We tasted a wide range of their wines, including a sparkling, but it was the reds of the Cònero Rosso DOC and Cònero Riserva DOCg that really got to me. All of these are made from 100% Montepulciano grapes.

They produce a comprehensive range too starting with two very different Cònero Rosso DOC. The fresh, unoaked Aiòn was a great start, but the botti aged Moroder Cònero Rosso was a real step up in complexity.

Botti in the cellar of Azienda Agricola Moroder.

2013 Rosso Cònero
DOC Rosso Cònero
Azienda Agricola Moroder

100% Montepulciano long macerated on the skins to give good colour and flavour, then aged for 24 months in botti, large barrels of 2700 litres.

The nose is lovely with one leafy notes, chocolate and ripe red fruit. The palate is beautifully structured with delicate oak, ripe fruit and tamed tannins. There is plenty of fruit with earthy and mineral flavours. I loved this wine and think many others would too if we could just buy it – 89/100 points.

2004 Rosso Cònero
DOC Rosso Cònero
Azienda Agricola Moroder

100% Montepulciano aged for 24 months in botti, large barrels of 2700 litres.

As you might expect this was much more developed than the 2013 version. The fruit had turned much more savoury, earthy and leathery with a meaty and tomato stem quality. It was a splendid wine, a bit of a treat really, but needed food. The younger, brighter wine was more for me – 89/100 points.

2012 Cònero Riserva
DOCG Cònero Riserva
Azienda Agricola Moroder

This is their standard Cònero Riserva DOCG, the grapes are carefully selected, with low yields and the wine is aged for 30 months in oak, half in 10,000 litre botti and the other 50% in barrels.

The nose is gorgeous, with lifted damsons, sweet cherry and smoky, coffee / mocha notes. The palate is full, smooth and rich with some intense dried fruit characters, fresh acidity and a lovely earthy, savoury character leading to a very long finish. I was hugely impressed by this wine, it was concentrated and intense, with lovely mineral, earthy notes and a wonderful backbone of fresh acidity – 90/100 points.

Azienda Agricola Moroder.

2011 Dorico
DOCG Cònero Riserva
Azienda Agricola Moroder

This is their top wine, a Cònero Riserva DOCg called Dorico in celebration of the Greeks who brought grape growing to the Italian peninsula. This cuvée is made by a very careful selection of the best fruit that is left on the vine for 2 extra weeks to get even riper. The wine is aged for 36 months in barriques, 225 litre barrels.

The nose is gorgeous, with lifted damsons, sweet cherry and smoky, coffee / mocha notes. The palate is full, smooth and rich with some intense dried fruit characters, fresh acidity and a lovely earthy, savoury character leading to a very long finish. I was hugely impressed by this wine, it was concentrated and intense, with lovely mineral, earthy notes and a wonderful backbone of fresh acidity. It was one of my two favourite reds of the trip, beautifully balanced with tension between the richness of the fruit and the grapes natural acidity and the minerality of the style. Again the tannins of this famously tannic grape were very well tamed – 93/100 points.

Some of the Moroder wines are available to be shipped to the UK – until Brexit ruins everything – by Uvinum.

Umani Ronchi

Massimo and Michele Bernetti.

Umani Ronchi is one of the really famous names from this part of Italy, but despite the scale on which they operate, everything of theirs that I tasted was very good indeed. The company was created and is still owned by the Bernetti family. Michele Bernetti is the CEO while his father Massimo is the chairman. It’s a pretty large estate run on several different sites as they produce Verdicchio wines and wines in neighbouring Abruzzo as well as in Cònero and all their vineyards are farmed organically.

Some of Umani Ronchi’s Cònero vineyards.

2016 Serrano
DOC Rosso Cònero
Umani Ronchi

85% Montepulciano with 15% Sangiovese fermented in stainless steel aged in stainless steel to preserve the juicy fruit.

Everything about this wine is fresh, juicy and lively. The colour is vibrant like liquified raspberry. The nose gives bright, fresh lively raspberry fruit together with a touch of herb and pepper. The palate is plump, chunky, smooth and supple with loads of bright, rich fruit and a light touch of chalky tannins on the finish. This is a happy wine that is very modern, very fruity and beautifully made – 89/100 points.

The Umani Ronchi barrel cellar in Cònero.

2011 Campo San Giorgio
DOCG Cònero Riserva
Umani Ronchi

100% Montepulciano grapes carefully selected from the San Giorgio vineyard which was planted around 2000 and is trained into bush vines in order to stress the plant and produce small yields. Everything is done by hand in this vineyard and everything is done to ensure a small crop of concentrated fruit. The grapes are fermented whole, but without the stalks, using the natural yeast to give a spontaneous fermentation. The wine is aged in new oak barriques for 12-14 months depending on the parcel the barrel. They only make around 4000 bottles of this wine. 

The ageing and the maturity really show here, it has an earthy, garnet colour. The nose delivers salty, tangy, earth,  sweet cherry and raspberry notes.
The palate is lovely and supple with a fresh, breezy feel, the oak makes it mocha infused and there is a wonderful concentration of fruit. All in all it has a lovely balance between lightness and richness. There are nice fine grain tannins on the finish, while the minerality and freshness give it great elegance. A very fine and very beautiful red wine – 94/100 points.

I also tasted the 2010 Campo San Giorgio which was also very good, but I thought the 2011 just had the edge – although I would happily drink either.

Some of the Umani Ronchi wines are available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk.

It does seem very strange to me that these are so rarely available in the UK. They deserve to be more widely seen here as the general quality seemed to be very high indeed. The style struck me as being very accessible and would prove popular with anyone who enjoys Chianti, Rioja or Bordeaux. There was nothing odd, rustic or quirky about these wines, they deserve to be widely known and enjoyed and not just treated as an obscure oddity. As you can see I liked some of these very much, the best of these red wines were as good as anything I have tasted this year.

I will leave it at that for now, but I have more to say about the wines of the Marche, some more producers and styles to mention, so will return to the region soon.

 

Alto Piemonte – Italy’s Hidden Treasure from Alpine Piemonte

The beautiful vineyards of Gattinara.

The dramatic vineyards of Gattinara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

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

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

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

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

Your author amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Your author making notes amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

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

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

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

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

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

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The beautiful vineyards at Tenute Sella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking down on gattinara from

Looking down on gattinara from the vineyards.

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

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

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

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

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

Our little group hard at work.

Our little group hard at work.

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

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi's vineyards.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi’s vineyards.

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

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

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

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

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

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

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

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

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

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

Our little group in Ghemme.

Our little group in Ghemme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

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

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

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P1020702

Eva and Leonardo Beconcini.

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

Wine Map of Tuscany click for a larger view.

Wine Map of Tuscany click for a larger view.

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

The lovely vineyards at Pietro Beconcini.

The lovely vineyards at Pietro Beconcini.

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

The wonderful colour of Fresco di Nero.

The wonderfully vibrant colour of Fresco di Nero.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2014 Fresco di Nero
Tempranillo Toscana
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
Tuscany, Italy

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

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

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

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

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.

Wine of the Week 44 – a classy and classic Bordeaux-like blend from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

I have been visiting South Africa semi regularly now for well over 10 years and over that time the wines have continued to improve and become even more exciting. Very few places can touch South Africa’s Western Cape – the main centre of wine production – for sheer diversity, whether it is in soils, altitude or aspect. This allows them to grow an extraordinary array of different grape varieties and they put this to good use by producing an incredible variety of wines, often from quite a small area.

The Cape is very beautiful too, which makes it a real joy to visit. What’s more the wine regions are all pretty compact and most of the estates are within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport. I love visiting the place, the beauty of the place never fails to get to me. Many of the wineries are old with the charming Cape Dutch architecture. Even the modern ones are lovely places to visit, as they are usually very well geared up to receive visitors and most have good restaurants too, like the excellent Terroir at Kleine Zalze. But even if they don’t it doesn’t matter as Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl and Franschhoek are all full of lovely places to eat excellent food and drink good wine.

As far as wine is concerned, the place produces such variety that it is hard to say what is best, but I have been seriously impressed with many South African Sauvignon Blancs recently, especially this one and this one, they really are world class and can often give great value for money too – like this one here.

As for reds I am struggling to single out trends, as so many styles from the Cape are good. I still admire this Cabernet Franc from KWV, which was a former Wine of the Week. The Chocolate Box blend from Boekenhoutskloof is also hugely impressive and enjoyable and there is much else to enjoy, including some superb and enjoyable examples of Pinotage and this lovely Sangiovese.

However, last night I showed a very exciting South African Bordeaux-blend at a tasting. I have tasted the wine many times before from previous vintages and it never fails to impress, as well as to offer great value for mine, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

South Africa map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine map of South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Bordeaux blends, wines made from a blend of the grapes that are famously used in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (Cot) are a very traditional South African style and something of a speciality of the Stellenbosch area, so are well worth trying. This one is from the venerable Meerlust Estate, which has belonged to the Myburgh family since 1756, but was actually founded in 1693. Situated very near the sea in False Bay, southern Stellenbosch, the site benefits from cool ocean breezes and mists that temper the extreme heat of summer and must have made the place a logical place to build.

The name Meerlust apparently means ‘pleasure of the sea’, but I do not know in what language – as far as I can detect it is neither German, the original owner was German, Dutch or Afrikaans. I can get sea in the meer bit (mer), but cannot help feeling that lust implies something more than pleasure!

Whatever the name means though, it was a fortunate site to choose for wine too, as the cool conditions allow Meerlust to produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay too. However their main focus has always been their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends – Meerlust Rubicon is their Grand Vin – as well as some single varietal wines. My Wine of the Week is in effect their second wine made from younger vines and declassified vats, but it is still very good indeed.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust-Red2012 Meerlust Red
W.O. Stellenbosch
Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc and 9% Petit Verdot aged in 55% new French oak.

Frankly this is more like a classic Claret from my youth than most Claret nowadays. The nose is fragrant and scented with very attractive leafy herbaceous notes, not green though. Just behind this there is plenty of vibrant fruit too, cassis, plums and a touch of blackberry. However the fruit is delicate and more European in style, rather than lifted, rich and sweetly ripe, as drinkers often expect from the new world. There is also a little touch of leather, cedar, pencil shavings, mocha and espresso bean, that all give a nice feeling of complexity and elegant sophistication.
The palate is medium-bodied and fresh tasting with some nice cleansing acidity balancing the succulent ripe fruit that gives cassis, dried and fresh, a touch of creamy vanilla, mocha again and some attractive leather too. The tannins are lovely and ripe, with a nice fine-grain texture giving just a little touch of astringency to the finish, which gives the wine some nice focus and definition – structure is the official word. The freshness really dominates the finish, which adds to that sense of focus and poise in the wine, while the finish is extraordinarily long. I love this wine and think it would happily grace a dinner party table as well as being great value for more frequent drinking. Perfect with Sunday roast, game, meat and semi-hard cheese – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society, WinerackN.D.John, Lea and Sandeman, South African Wines Online, Slurp and Exel Wines – more stockist information is here.
Meerlust wines are distributed in the US through Maisons Marques & Domaines.

If you like classic Bordeaux wines you will certainly enjoy this, but even if you have never tried a Claret it is still a delicious wine that will find favour with almost anyone who enjoys Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Wine of the week 4 – Zalze Sangiovese

Beautiful vineyards at the Kleine Zalze Estate, South Africa.

Beautiful vineyards at the Kleine Zalze Estate, South Africa.

Finding the unexpected in wine is always such a delight for me that I can get really quite excited, especially when the wine involved is a total bargain as well.

I love Kleine Zalze. It’s a beautiful estate in South Africa’s Stellenbosch region and not only is it wonderful to visit – they have a superb restaurant – but they make some fabulous wines too, including some of the very best Pinotages that I have ever tasted.

Everything they do smacks of quality from their inexpensive Cellar Selection range to their stunning Family Reserve wines – do try the Sauvignon Blanc from this range, it is very different and very fine. The presiding genius is winemaker Johan Joubert who is a lovely, engaging chap whose passion is infectious and even makes the technical stuff and science of wine seem very interesting indeed.

Johan Joubert, chief winemaker at Kleine Zalze and Zalze.

Johan Joubert, chief winemaker at Kleine Zalze and Zalze.

It always seems to me that they never sit on their laurels at Kleine Zalze and this was borne out at a wonderful tasting and dinner that Johan hosted in London recently. All the wines were very good, but however good the other wines were, and they really were, for fun, generosity of fruit, drinkability and sheer value for money, my standout wine was:

Zalze2013 Zalze Sangiovese
W.O. Stellenbosch, South Africa
South African Sangiovese was a new one for me, but if they can all be as good as this then it really should catch on and be more widely grown. The Sangiovese grape has only been in the county for ten years apparently, but these results are impressive.

The nose is rich with red fruit, floral aromas and spice, while the palate is attractively soft and juicy with fresh herbs, bright plum fruit, morello cherries, rich raspberry and smooth tannins. All in all this wine is a lovely, easy drinking fruit-packed wine, but it does not fall into the normal fruit-bomb trap of being simple and cloying, there is freshness, balance and a smack of complexity here, a lovely wine – 89/100 points, it earns high marks for being such great value for money.

The equally good 2012 vintage is available in the UK from the Co-op at £7.99 per bottle.