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 – a stylish Italian sparker

I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to the Soave region of Italy. It is a very beautiful and tranquil area centred on the wonderful city of Verona. There were many wines that impressed me and many experiences that stood out and I will write in more detail soon.

The beautiful landscape of Colli Berici just to the south of Lessini Durello.

However one group of wines did surprise me. The sparklers. This is because I simply had no experience of them. In the UK only one Italian sparkling wine seems to be important – Prosecco – and while it is dominant even in Italy, there is so much more.

Everywhere I have been in Italy recently there have been excellent quality sparkling wines. Sparkling Falanghina in Campania, sparkling Carricante on Sicily, Verdicchio in the Marche, sparkling Lugana in the Veneto and Lombardy, Franciacorta in Lombardy, Nebbiolo – both white and rosé – in Piemonte, Chardonnay in Trento DOC and many other I am sure. So I was excited to find yet one more – I find that life is always better with a bit of fizz.

Prosecco of course can be made over a very wide area, principally in the Veneto region, but also outside in Friuli, while most of these other sparkling wines are produced in much smaller regions and mainly using the traditional method.

Whilst touring around Soave though I was made much more aware of another sparkling wine from Veneto that has a great deal to offer.

Wine map of northern Italy. Lessini Durello is immediately to the north of Soave and Colli Berici – click for a larger view.

DOC Lessini Durello is a smallish PDO just to the north of Soave in the Monti Lessini, which is a lovely area that forms part of the prealps. Somewhat confusingly the grape they grow here is actually called Durella – the wine must contain at least 15% of this and can also include Chardonnay, Garganega, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero.

Riserva wines must be made sparkling by the traditional method followed by 36 months ageing on the lees, while standard – non Reserve – examples is only made by the tank – or Charmat – method, so the second fermentation, which produces the CO2 that makes the wine sparkling, takes place in a tank before the wine is bottled.

I tasted quite a few of these wines and was impressed. The only problem being that thy do not generally seem to make it to export markets. So I was very excited to taste one that does and have made it my Wine of the Week.

Settecento33 Brut
Cantina di Soave 
DOC Lessini Durello
Veneto
Italy

I loved visiting the Cantina di Soave, they are the big cooperative producer in the area, but make some superb wines. 

There is nothing too fancy about how this wine is made, it’s just very technical, clean and precise and that is pretty much how the wine tastes. It is made from 100% Durella.

One of the beautiful buildings belonging to the Cantina di Soave.

Everything about it is clean and fresh. The nose is floral and citrussy while the palate is pure and lively with a bracing acidity that makes the wine lively and refreshing. It feels more taut and classic than most Prosecco which gives it a feel of elegance and finesse. This is a very attractive easy drinking and versatile sparkling wine. It makes a great aperitif, goes well with light dishes, pesto and tortellini with sage and butter – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10.00 per bottle from:
Oddbins.

So you see, Italian fizz does not have to be Prosecco!

Wine of the Week 67 – lovely Lugana

I was in Italy last week, visiting the beautiful region of Trentino. I loved the place and found much that was exciting – not least the wonderfully vibrant beer culture in the area. However I flew in via Verona and treated myself to an extra day to explore this delightful city.

Apparently it has been a splendid Summer there, but decided to rain for the day and a half that I was there. And when I say rain, I mean rain, real rain, stair rods even.

However, nothing can take away from the beauty and charm of this famous little city, it remains a wonderful place in any weather. My only quibble is that the locals seem to be completely unaware that Romeo and Juliet are fictional. They mention them all the time and they claim that you can visit Juliet’s house and even her tomb. When I was there most of the tourist groups seemed to be going to the Disney Shop, which seemed just as strange.

Finding myself sitting in a lovely little Osteria just near Verona’s Piazza Brà – which is where you will find the amazing Roman arena, an incredible amphitheatre that is still in use for operas and concerts – I was excited to find a wine that I had long wanted to try on their list, so I ordered a glass.

Verona Arena.

Verona Arena.

The inside of Verona Arena.

The inside of Verona Arena.

The region around Verona is famous for the white wines of Soave and the reds of Valpolicella, but there are three other less famous wine made nearby. The reds of Bardolino are very similar to Valpoicella, the whites of Bianco di Custoza are very similar to Soave, but nearby Lugana produces white wines that are a little bit different and it was a specific Lugana that I had wanted to try.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy. Luana is just West of Verona on the shore of Lake Garda.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy. Lugana is just West of Verona on the shore of Lake Garda.

Lake Garda.

Lake Garda.

Lugana is right on the southern shore of Lake Garda and because of this location it enjoys a Mediterranean climate – everything else around has a continental climate. The vineyards are mainly in Lombardy with a small part in Veneto. I was always taught that Lugana is made from Trebbiano di Lugana, locally known as Turbiana and so had it down as a Trebbiano wine. Recently, however, it has been discovered that this grape is not the same as the nearby Trebbiano di Soave or any of the other Trebbianos that are found all over the country, but strangely is actually the same grape as Verdicchio. Verdicchio is most usually associated with the Marche region where it is most famously used to make Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica, but it is grown in Umbria and Latium as well.

Of these white wines, Soave remains widely available, at all quality levels from acceptable to very fine indeed – try an example from Inama or Prà – and while Bianco di Custoza suddenly seems to be available everywhere in the UK, Lugana remains something that needs to be sought out. Well, I now know why. It is because so much of it is drunk locally as it is highly prized in the region.

There are several quality levels and different types of Lugana, the more straightforward wines are called Lugana DOC, but these can be very fine indeed as is my Wine of the Week. Lugana Superiore requires 1 year maturation (not necessarily in oak, although some are) and lower yields.
Lugana Reserva is aged for a minimum of 24 months, with 6 months in bottle – not necessarily oak maturation.
Lugana Vendemmia Tardiva is a rarely produced late harvested, lightly sweet style and I have yet to try one.
Lugana Spumante is the sparkling version, but again I have yet to try one.

My spaghetti with clams.

My spaghetti with clams – the red powder is Botargo, which is cured fish roe, tuna in this instance.

I ordered a glass of  Lugana from Cá Lojera to go with my spaghetti and clams. The waiter brought over the bottle and  poured me my glass. I tasted it and that was enough for me to know it was very good, so I asked him to leave the bottle on the table – and I liked it so much I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Lugana2014 Lugana Cá Lojera
DOC Lugana
Azienda Agricola Cá Lojera
Sirmione, Lombardia, Italy

Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi bought this estate in 1992 and by 2008 and they were crafting some of the finest wines in the region and were instrumental – together with others such as Cà dei Frati – in making Lugana a sought after wine rather than just a local drink. They farm 14 hectares and only use their own estate grown fruit and make their whites from 100% Trebbiano di Lugana / Turbiana. There is no oak used on this wine, which is the entry level of the range and is the freshest, simplest wine they make.

The wine is bright and lustrous to look at with a pale straw colour. The aromas excited me straight away with fresh apples, a touch of ripe melon, floral notes and a little cream. The palate has just a kiss of weight and texture and there is a lot going on with ripe fruit, apples and melon and a hint of something tropical, together with a salty mineral thing and a seam of fresh, citrus acidity. This is a beautiful wine that cheers the soul and is is very, very drinkable – 91/100 points.

If you like wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño or Godello then you will certainly enjoy this wine. It was a perfect aperitif and great with my Spaghetti alle Vongole and it would work with all manner of fish and poultry dishes too, even veal and pork and would be a good foil to lightly creamy sauces.

Available in the UK for around £17.00 per bottle, from Vinoteca, Buon Vino and Bottle Apostle.
Available in the US for around $17.00 per bottle – for stockist information, click here.

Wine Without Borders – travels in Slovenia & Friuli

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

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

Recently I was invited on a trip called Wines Without Borders. It was organised by my friend Paul Balke and we visited the wine regions of Colli Orientali, Collio and Friuli Isonzo in north eastern Italy and Brda, Vipava Valley and Koper in Slovenia.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

The whole focus was that the modern borders of the area bear no relation to reality and are merely lines on a map that ignore the peoples and cultures that straddle them. I was aware that the Slovenian people are to be found on both sides of the frontier, although the ones in Italy are often outwardly Italian and speak Italian, at least to foreigners.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Most of what we now call Slovenia was for centuries part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and much of Slovenia remains very Austro-Germanic. Ljubljana, the delightful capital city – called Laibach in imperial times – was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1895 and was rebuilt in an Austrian style, so resembles parts of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Most menus offer dumplings, schnitzel and cream cakes, while the inns and coffee houses often resemble those of Vienna. What’s more that great Austrian icon, the Lipizzaner Horse – of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School fame – has been bred at the Lipica Stud Farm in western Slovenia for over 400 years.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran main Square.

Piran Tartini Square was originally an inner harbour, boat trips leave from Piran for Venice every day.

Some of the western parts of Slovenia also have Italian influence, the coastal towns were all originally Venetian and rather charmingly still look it – Piran is one of the loveliest and most elegant seaside towns that I have ever visited. Even today people in these coastal zones often speak Italian, pasta is on every menu and the ice cream is as splendid as that in Italy itself.

As for Friuli in that north eastern corner of Italy, all of it together with Veneto had been in the old Austrian Empire until 1866. Right up until 1914 the border was a little further west than it is now. Trieste was Austria’s principal port – it still has an Austrian / Mitteleuropean feel – and further to the west Trentino-Atlo Adige (Südtirol) was still Austrian, infact the border cut through Lake Garda.

The First World War changed everything here. The Isonzo Front went right through the frontier zone between Italy and Austria, basically following the line of the river and the mountains, and the brutal fighting in these mountains was as hard as anything seen in Flanders. At the end of the war the Italians had seized Trentino-Alto Adige and the mixed Slovene / Italian city of Trieste. Both are still part of Italy today, while the western regions of what is now Slovenia – including the Istrian Peninsula – only remained Italian from 1919 before being handing over to Yugoslavia in 1947 before being inherited by Slovenia and Croatia in 1991.

After the Second World War Slovenia was a Republic within Tito’s Yugoslavia, and although the country was relatively liberal and outward looking by Eastern European standards – Yugoslavia was never part of the Warsaw Pact – the border was still strongly guarded.

This gave winemakers all sorts of problems as the border was drawn in such a way that it often cuts through vineyards, so many growers found themselves growing grapes in both Italy and Yugoslavia.

Nowadays of course both Italy and Slovenia are members of the EU, so the border is open and there are umpteen unguarded crossing points. Back then there were many fewer frontier posts and it was all more rigorously controlled, with growers having to drive hours out of their way in order to be able to tend grapes that grew only yards from their home. Anti Europeans often forget many of the good things that have come about because of the EU.

The border situation is most dramatic in Brda, which is arguably the most important wine region in Western Slovenia, it is certainly the most famous. Brda means hills in Slovenian and is simply a part of Italy’s Collio region that was detached when the border was fixed in 1947 – Collio means hills in Italian.

As you might expect they grow much the same grapes at the Italians grow in Collio and nearby Colli Orientali, although the names are not always the same:

Italian Name Slovenian name
Ribolla / Ribolla Gialla Rebula
Malvasia Malvazija
Refosco Refošk
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio Sivi Pinot
Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) Sauvignonasse / Jakot (Tokaj backwards)
Pinot Noir / Pinot Negro Modri Pinot
Pinot Blanc / Pinot Bianco Beli Pinot

Of course they also use the classic international grapes like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and have done for centuries. Interestingly Cabernet Franc often appears on labels here, and indeed it is grown, but the grape actually used is very often Carmenère. Just as in Collio it is very hard to generalise about the wines as such a wide range of grape varieties and blends is used, but this does for make for very exciting variety.

Brda
Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

The general quality is very high indeed, even from the local cooperative which is the largest producer in Slovenia. Most of the producers though are boutique wineries using organic techniques and low sulphur in their wines. I was very impressed by Mavrič (a superb Jacot and Sivi Pinot), Iaquin (whose production is tiny but who own a couple of very attractive looking guest houses), Čarga (whose Rebula is superb, as is their Cabernet Franc which is actually 75% Carmenère) and Ščurek whose blends – both red and white – were great wines.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

We also visited Movia, which is one of the star wineries of the country. The quality is very high and the wines are very exciting. I have been before, but this was a very different visit, so will write about it separately. We were also treated to a tasting of the wines of Marjan Simčič, who is a great winemaker who made some of the best wines that I tried on the trip. I have met him before and tasted his wines several times and they never cease to thrill me – I will write about him very soon too.

The other sub-regions of Primorje are: Koper, named for the beautiful town of the same name, this covers the coastal area and is the warmest and sunniest part of Slovenia. This coastal region – along with Kras – is where you find most of the Slovenian Refošk or Refosco. Just as with Malvasia, there appear to be several different Refoscos, which may or may not be related to each other – strangely it seems that the grape is also the Mondeuse Noire used in France’s Savoie Region. The low yielding Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the variant most commonly used in Friuli and is named for its red stems. Slovenia by and large uses the higher yielding Refosco dal Pedunculo Verde, which has green stems. Either of them might or might not be Teran when grown on Terra Rossa soils, or Teran might be a separate strain, sources disagree and I have not been able to find a definitive answer. Refosco has high acid and high tannins, so can appear somewhat rustic to the unwary palate. Modern winemaking can get around this and I have tasted some delicious examples from both Italy and Slovenia, I would particularly recommend the Refosco from Tenuta di Blasig in Friuli, the Refošk from Santomas in Koper and the Organic Refošk from the Polič Estate between Koper and the Croatian border.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia's tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia’s tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Sparkling pink Refosk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

Sparkling pink Refošk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

The Kras, or Karst, is a limestone plateau just inland from Trieste, it is riddled with cave systems and underground rivers and gives its name to this sort of landscape worldwide. A visit to the Postojna Caves is an incredible experience and one not to be missed. Henry Moore described them as ‘the best exhibition of nature’s sculpture I have ever seen’. Lipica Stud Farm is another attraction worth visiting in this area.

The soils here are iron rich red terra rossa and that iron minerality often finds its way in to the wines. The climate here is harsh and variable, storms are frequent and winds powerful, but the wines can be very rewarding. The beloved local speciality is Teran, which is a type of Refosco, as far as I can discover it is probably a local variant of the Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (although it might not be) and as you might expect it is also produced in the neighbouring Italian Carso DOC. We did not visit any wineries in Kras on this trip, but I have been very impressed by the wines from Čotar in the past, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and their Terra Rossa red blend of Teran, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Vipava Valley is a beautiful place just inland from the Kras and Koper. Strong winds rip through here, tempering the conditions and making a sub-Mediterranean climate and allowing them to make some stunning light and fresh white wines and some very elegant reds, including some made from the Barbera grape more commonly associated with Piemonte in north western Italy.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

Vineyards in Vipava.

Vineyards in Vipava.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

One of my very best experiences on this trip was a wonderful tasting and lunch in Vipava with a handful of generous and passionate wine makers who showed us some thrilling wines. The quality impressed me enormously, especially the wines from Sutor, Tilia Estate, Posestvo Burja (an organic producer that still makes the field blends that were the traditional style of the area until WW11), Lepa Vida (whose oOo is one of the most enjoyable Orange wines that I have ever tasted) and Guerrila who produce stunning white wines made from the local Zelen and Pinela grapes, as well as very toothsome red blends.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

In Italy we visited the Isonzo area, which is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene). I was very impressed by all the wines of Tenuta di Blasig and some of the Pinot Grigios that I tasted. It is very unusual for me to like Pinot Grigio, but they just seem to have so much more character and interest here than the bland examples that most people drink in the UK. I particularly enjoyed the Pinot Grigio from Masùt da Rive.

Vineyards of Collio.

Vineyards of Collio.

Our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Some of our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Collio, or Collio Goriziano, is historically the same region as neighbouring Brda before the 1947 border split them up and the words mean the same things – hills. As you might expect both sides of the frontier are very hilly, but in a very attractive, gently rolling kind of way – it really is a delightful landscape. Just as in Brda the range of grape varieties and wines made from them is enormous, from both single varietals and blends, but production favours whites more than reds. Ribolla Gialla and Friulano might well be the signature grapes here, but both Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are produced, as are Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Cooking the polenta in Collio.

Cooking the polenta at the Osteria de la Subida near Cormons in Collio.

The polenta is ready.

The polenta is ready.

I have never really warmed to Friulano, I have always considered it a very odd grape, it is certainly hard to pin down. Long known in Italy as Tocai or Tocai Friulano, it was likewise called Tokaj in Slovenia, but it has nothing to do with the Hungarian Tokaj at all. It is actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, which was widely planted in Chile where it was believed to be Sauvignon Blanc – it isn’t. Well you will be pleased to know that on this trip I did warm to the Friulano grape and had some splendid examples in every region that we visited, but perhaps my favourite was a single vineyard wine made by Raccaro, their Friulano Vigna del Rolat. I also greatly enjoyd the wines of Carlo di Pradis and Borgo del Tiglio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

We returned to Collio a few days later to stay in a place called San Floriano del Collio, which though in Italy had a view of our first hotel just 3 or 4 kilometres away in Slovenia. Whilst here we visited Oslavia a village a kilometre or 2 further south and it was a fascinating day. Firstly it was a very beautiful place, secondly all the ‘Italians’ that I met spoke Slovenian and thirdly the wines were fascinating. I must admit that I even found the name Oslavia interesting, surely that means place of the west Slavs? If so how amazing that it is about as west as Slavs can be found even today. The focus for this part of the trip was the local speciality of Ribolla Gialla, although we tasted other wines too. Ribolla is said to get its name from the fact that historically the wines were not very stable and would re-ferment, so bubble away and look as though they were reboiling. The grape is not very aromatic and can seem a bit strange when you first taste it, but there are some superb wines made from it.

Most of the wines that we tasted here were Orange wines, white wines made with long skin contact – hence the orange colour – they were also organic and often biodynamic and low sulphur too. I have to be honest, wines like that are not often for me, I usually find them more interesting than drinkable, but I did try a few here that were both. Fiegl’s wines impressed me, but these are the only ones here that were not Orange at all and instead had freshness and purity. The others were about the complexity of long skin contact and barrel ageing on the lees, sometimes for years. I was very impressed by Primosic, whose 2010 Klin was my wine of the day. Radikon also made an excellent Ribolla, which is officially a wine with no sulphur, as the amounts are so low they cannot be measured – I have never seen that before. I also liked their Slatnik blend of Chardonnay and Friulano. Dario Prinčič also makes a fascinatingly complex Orange style Ribolla.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Colli Orientali was an interesting place to visit too, if hard to get a handle on. It is a big place with lots going on. Lots of grape varieties and lots of blends are produced here too. Historically it has been seen as more prestigious than Collio and the wines were certainly more visible in the UK than those of Collio. One reason might be that this is often said to be the birthplace of varietal labelling, soon after World War 11, so the labels were easier to understand, who knows? Again this is mainly a white wine region, or at least the wines that have made it famous and prosperous tend to be white, but plenty of red is made too. Dry white wine production is dominated by Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and the local Verduzzo, the best of which now has its own DOCg Ramandolo. Picolit, another local grape variety, is used to make light sweetish wines.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Although plenty of famous black grapes are grown and red wine is made, the speciality red is Schioppettino. This grape variety was rescued from near extinction only in the 1980s and is enjoying something of a modest renaissance, which is good as the wines seem to be very good, with a lovely rich fruity quality, smooth texture and delicate spice characters.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

We visited the rather lovely Azienda Agricola Moschioni where we were able to taste a wide range of local wines produced by them and other local wineries. I was very taken with the wines of Bastianich, particularly their Friulanos, white blend and incredibly concentrated Calabrone red blend. Rodaro‘s Schiopottino Romain made from dried, overripe grapes and aged 18 month in barrel was a delight, as was their intense Refosco dal Peduncolo Rossa Romain. I was also really impressed by the concentrated and spicy Moschioni Shioppettino.

P1120788

Looking down on the Isonzo from Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino. Some of the fiercest fighting of WW1 took place in this terrain.

A Wonderful Corner of Europe
I loved this trip to this wonderful part of the world that is somewhat neglected by tourists, certainly ones from the UK. I loved the countryside, I loved the people, their food, their wines and their spirit of hospitality. I even got the chance to clamber about in some of the First World War trenches high on Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino where some of the fiercest fighting took place between the Austro-Hungarians and the Italians. Ethnic Italians and ethnic Slovenes fought on both sides and today share this landscape in a peaceful, productive and creative way. So many things are better today, I just cross my fingers and hope that Europe does not revert back to the destructive ways of nationalism and formal borders. We all suffer if we do that. People suffer, our culture suffers, our pleasures diminish and wine will be the poorer.

I like my Wines Without Borders.