Overnight successes are rarely that. In the world of wine there are occasions when regions that have been producing for years seem suddenly to gain traction in the market. In the noughties the rise of off-dry Prosecco, crisp Albarino from Rias Baixas, black cherry scented Pinot Noir from Central Otago and the Languedoc’s oyster friendly Picpoul de Pinet (to name but a few), became vital additions to any wine-list with pretensions of modernity. In the 2010’s the re-discovery of white wines fermented on their skins, aka ‘orange’ wines, the proliferation of minimal intervention ‘natural’ wines with their restrained use of sulphur dioxide (SO2), and the global thirst for the seductive Pinots of Burgundy, demonstrates the ever shifting sands of public and journalistic opinion.
Like most fashion, much is a barely changed interpretation, or reboot, of a previous expression. As a teenager I had to endure my mother’s commentary on the similarity of certain contemporary styles with those she had worn in the sixties. Like any self-obsessed adolescent who believes that they know more than the generation that went before, I pulled a face and ignored my mother’s obvious truths. Now I am tempted on occasion to say the same thing to my sixteen year old, but resist where possible. Why would she believe or be interested in the ruminations of her Dad?
Having recently returned from Sicily (where I had been fortunate enough to be a guest of Sicilia En Primeur 2017, Sicily’s most significant wine fair), another wine region, Etna, is perhaps the most obvious ‘new’ darling of those in the know. In some ways Etna really is new. It is true that there were vineyards producing wine on this uncommonly active volcano’s slopes in the 19th century, yet as recently as twenty years ago there was but a handful of serious estates that were crafting wines worthy of discussion beyond Sicily’s cerulean border. Now there are more than 130 and with the ever-ebullient Angelo Gaja, deeming this the right time to join the Etna party, the focus on these volcanic slopes will only increase.
So what is it that makes Etna special and does it really have the necessary quality to join southern Italy’s other great vinous gift to the world, the Aglianico based wines of Taurasi in Campania? Two weeks ago I would have been non-committal, simply because I had tasted too little to have an opinion that was worthy of sharing. The wines I had tasted were mainly red, the product of the principal black grape of the region, Nerello Mascalese. From the very first time that I pulled the cork on my first bottle of Nerello (approximately four years ago), I recognised the potential. They are aromatic, firm and fresh and taste like they have the ability to age gracefully, the problem was that I had never tried an example older than that produced in 2009. That particular bottle also seemed a little tired, with the ample structure still in place but with a fruit profile that had begun the slow slide to obscurity. What I wanted was to see if Nerello Mascalese could be transformed, i.e. could it move with time from being invitingly nubile to something altogether more flavoursome and complete.
The two bottles that proved that this was indeed possible both originated from one of the great names of Etna: Benanti. Tasting their Rovitello and Serra della Contessa from the 2004 vintage demonstrated that high quality Nerello in the hands of the experienced can result in greatness. Both remained perfumed and pretty but beneath those remnants of youth was a glut of more savoury smells and flavours. I was reminded (and I’m sure that I am not the first) of a rather delicious marriage of the noble Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir from their respective homes of the Langhe and Burgundy.
So will the wines of Etna prove to be more than a modish nod to the esoteric? Undoubtedly. Make no mistake, the best reds (and the same can be said for the saline whites) are not just very good wines they are fine wines. They deserve both a place in your affections as well as your wine rack and will justifiably be considered a true modern classic before this decade is out.
Names to look out for include:
Barone di Villagrande
Tenuta di Fessina
On Monday whilst sipping on some salty, nectarine, herb and lemon peel scented white made from that superior Sicilian, Carricante; the bias exhibited by many Taiwanese consumers towards red wine appeared increasingly nonsensical. Whilst I am glad that the wine market here in this corner of East Asia continues to grow, the rise in the consumption of white wine remains painfully slow. Why is it that in a country with a culinary history heavily influenced by the ocean’s proximity, are so many still marooned in a world where the vinous view does not extend to the joys afforded by great white wine?
People talk about the colour red as being lucky but the success of spirits such as the distinctly ‘brown’ Whisky in this market does not suggest that colour is a dominant factor. Red wine is also believed by some to be more beneficial to health, even if this is factually correct (and I’m not saying it is), I don’t think that those consuming the classed growths of Bordeaux or the Pinots of Burgundy are doing so to limit their visits to the doctor. As we all know, history, or the version of history that most of us are exposed to, is written by the successful, the ones able to impose their will on others, the ones who manage to beat the opposition. The scale of the marketing machine that makes Bordeaux what it is ensures that it remains the first region to be explored by most emerging wine consuming markets. The 1855 classification created a relatively brief and convenient list of Chateaux whose main focus was the production of red wine. This has helped create the illusion that red wine must be the best, and of course it is apart from when it isn’t. Sometimes your mood and one’s food cries out for white, so why deny yourself? Increase your wine drinking pleasure by including some white wine in your life and the wine from Gulfi below is an excellent place from which to start.
Gulfi, Carjcanti, IGT Sicilia, 2011, 12.5%
Grape: Predominantly Carricante with a little Albanello
Winemaking: 60% aged in 500l oak barrels for ten months. Made from organic grapes
Note: Delightfully pure with a spine of mouth watering acidity that pretends to quench your thirst whilst demanding that you drink more. This is flavourful and herby with citrus peel pithiness to the finish. I’ll be ordering a case.
Available from: laroutewine.com
Three days ago I wrote about the ease with which people have dismissed the wines of the South of France in their stampede to drink the more famous, if not always better, wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone.
A similar situation exists in Italy where the renowned regions of Piedmont and Tuscany in the North occupy most critics’ top two positions when considering overall wine quality. It would be churlish of me to argue with this assumed pre-eminence as the magnificence of some of the wines produced here justifies their status. But forget the South and you will regret it. South of Rome there are many wines that offer more than simple pleasure, with the best capable of greatness in their own right.
As with the Languedoc, I have always had a soft spot for Campania and in particular the best red varieties of the region; Aglianico and Piedirosso. The best Aglianico (think Taurasi) is capable of producing complex, mineral and elegant wines whose alluring but controlled ripeness hints at the southerly latitude of the region whilst retaining both poise and the ability to refresh. Piedirosso is more overt and less coy about its strawberry scented best self and is generally less expensive and more approachable than its more age-worthy cousin. Further south still, Sicily produces equally impressive wines from Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese that can be both aromatic and charming with similarities to fine Syrah and Pinot Noir respectively. The idea that these southerly regions only produce jammy, uninteresting wines is wrong. Like the Languedoc the south of Italy offers the novice wine drinker a safer, less financially intimidating experience than that offered by Barolo and Brunello further north. They are also wines that are not so needy of a plate of protein to help make them sing, so my recommendation is simply this: to go forth and discover.
Terredora, Taurasi ‘Campore’ Riserva, Campania, 2006, 14%
Wine-making: Matured in French oak barrels for 30 months
Note: Approaching full maturity this ripe but restrained, sour plum and black cherry fuelled Campanian is the result of Terredora’s best single vineyard site ‘Campore’. It has a fine tannic backbone that lends the wine structure whilst never being hard-edged or unfriendly. My Mum would like this.
Price: Approx 2500NT
Available from: affinatolunetta.com
Rosso del Conte, Conte di Sclafani DOC, Sicily, 2011, 13.5%
Grape: 63% Nero d’Avola with a mixture of other varieties making up the balance.
Wine-making: 18 months in new French oak
Note: Minty and dark with a juicy plushness, this provides pleasure and seriousness in equal measure and is an excellent place from which to begin your appreciation of the merits of Nero d’Avola.
Available from: www.ascentway.com.tw
Ocone Piedirosso ‘Plutone’, Taburno DOC, Campania, 2012, 13.5%
Wine-making: Stainless steel
Note: Strawberry and red cherry yoghurt…what’s not to like?
Price: Globally approx. $15USD
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan