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
As a fellow educator it is always an enjoyable experience to see a true professional at work. Last week Debra Meiburg was in Taipei to help promote the 2011 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino so I was always going to find room in my diary for a date that dovetailed California’s finest with the apogee of Sangiovese.
As a Master of Wine, many will have assumed or expected Debra to be on point but all of us who have ever attended a formal lesson or seminar whether at school, college or through work, will know that knowledge per se does not a great teacher make. The ability to engage is the most fundamental skill as learning is then elevated to what it should be; a positive experience rather than a chore. Debra’s methods are neither revolutionary or unique but by talking to those present (rather than at them), inviting contributions and gently fishing individuals from the audience to help her illustrate certain essential facts, ensured that the two hour class felt refreshingly concise.
As an admirer of Brunello, the four samples from 2011 did not disappoint. Fans of 2010, with its opulence and generosity might find the crisp acidity of 2011 too brusque but I enjoyed the elegance and nervosité of these wines. One must also never forget that these are Italian wines. Italian red wine devoid of acid is like an Italian man who doesn’t look good in knitwear; it’s just not meant to happen. Debra signed off with a quiz that was designed to whittle those assembled down to a number where she could award prizes. Unfortunately her abilities as a teacher coupled with the Taiwanese trait of attentive academic application meant that this proved impossible, everyone had been too engaged to fail. Hopefully Brunello di Montalcino 2011 has a similar effect on the wine-drinking public.
Listed below are the two wines that I would happily buy and if you’ve never been convinced by Brunello then one of these should be sufficient to make you see sense.
Col d’Orcia, ‘Nastagio’, Brunello di Montalcino 2011, 14.5%
This is a little too reticent (on the nose) at the moment to warrant more than the score I have given but on the palate the wine springs to life delivering dried herbs and cherry flavours wrapped in firm but fine tannins and a bite of acidity. It also has a silkiness, weight and persistence that suggests this is worthy of a few more years in your wine fridge to allow it the opportunity to blossom. Elegant and fine.
Currently seeking an importer in Taiwan
Le Macioche 2011, 14.5%
This was the first time that I had tasted wines from this small estate and this has the perfumed purity and prettiness, that will really appeal to Taiwan’s ever growing band of ‘Pinotphiles’. Refreshing and with less obvious grunt than the Col d’Orcia, Le Macioche is a wine I would be very pleased to serve this evening. No ageing required but this has enough concentration to warrant further cellaring if you can resist its already ample charms.
Currently seeking an importer in Taiwan
Sitting, looking up and across the tree-edged Dentelles of the Vaucluse, with the mistral bullying its way across the vineyards, I feel an almost guilty level of contentment. I came here to taste Grenache, not any old Grenache but great Grenache and that is what I have done. Whether at Vieux Donjon and Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape or at Saint Cosme in Gigondas, I wanted to taste Grenache that was three dimensional, Grenache that had guts and grace in equal measure, Grenache that could sing rather than merely mumble, I wanted to be impressed.
Yet as a molly-coddled middle-ager, whilst I appreciated the Clos de Beze like reek of Rayas and the sandy drag of tannin across my palate of Saint-Cosme’s ‘Hominis Fides’, I also wanted some pleasure that I could afford to consume more regularly than a couple of times a year. When one has the good fortune to bump into one of the aforementioned wines, any emotion experienced other than wonder can leaver the drinker feeling hard done to. These are wines that are supposed to be eye-widening in quality. Ideally an even greater sense of satisfaction can be achieved by bottles with less lofty provenance or from those ‘estates’ still suffering from nappy rash, such is their youth.
The last couple of days has seen an array of Grenache based ‘easy drinkers’ pass my lips and the best have been Mas de Libian’s ‘Vin de Petanque’, a sappy and thirst slaking paean to freshness that for the English amongst you (does anyone still admit to being English in this post Brexit world?) was akin to drinking alcoholic Vimto; high praise indeed. This estate, based in the Ardeche produces this Vin de France at a price that sees it retailing in France at less than 8 , a definitive bargain that is best enjoyed chilled.
The second wine to impress with just a little more structure, finesse and finish than the first, was Mick O’Connell’s debut wine ‘Garnacha not Guerra’ from the island of Sardegna. At 12.9% and with a cranberry and raspberry like pithiness this was much more than a creditable first attempt, this was more a statement of intent and with O’Connell looking to almost double production this year to six hundred bottles, I for one will be seeking an allocation to ensure that my contentment quotient remains not only replete but guilt-free as well.
In between grazing my way through a well-judged collection of plates at ‘Beata te’, one of Taipei’s most believable Italian restaurants, I listened to and chatted with Luisa Rocca, daughter of Bruno, owner of the small, eponymously named estate in Barbaresco. Rocca’s wines are easy to like. Their Chardonnay has an edge that both cuts through and remains keen in the presence of food. Their Dolcetto, unlike the too often rustically bruising examples from other producers provides pleasing refreshment and their Barbera, high on acid yet silkily structured, rendered foie gras stuffed meatballs elegant and light, tempering their richness but not their impact.
The wines that I was most keen to try were of course those based on Nebbiolo, grape supreme here in the hills south of Alba, and they did not disappoint. The best, the single vineyard Rabajà, was all powder and perfume, scenting both the air and mouth with a graceful intensity expected from this region but particularly apparent in the wines that emanate from the vineyards and cellar of Bruno Rocca.
The evening ended with a traditional Piemontese dessert called ‘Bonnet al cioccolato, amaretti e oro’. This unfathomably fine pud (the best I have had since we arrived in this East Asian idyll) did what chocolate so often fails to do which was to be intense without being psychotically so, leaving me deeply satisfied.
Luisa was in Taipei for just one night. Recently arrived from Seoul (and only one stop removed from Sao Paulo) next on her itinerary was Singapore. The constant toing and froing has left Luisa’s ebullience undimmed a result she explained of promoting something that she loves. I can’t help think that the work of her brother and father in the vineyards and cellar must be an easier task than that faced by Luisa but she disagreed. Luisa took a quick selfie of the two of us framed by long tables decorated with fine wine, food and lots of happy guests. ‘I think my job’s pretty good’ she smiled. I think perhaps she’s right.
Some will think that linking Sangiovese to the irascible means that I cannot be one of this Tuscan variety’s biggest fans but they would be wrong. Being the proud owner of a Mr Grumpy mug, (thanks daughter), ensures that being judged as a little tetchy is more a badge of honour than a slur on my, or indeed Sangiovese’s, somewhat querulous nature. Deep down we are not grumpy at all, just occasionally misunderstood.
Sangiovese is not a variety for the uninitiated. On first entering a pub on my 18th birthday (and not a day before) I was drinking cider; a sweeter, more approachable and forgiving taste experience than the Tetley Imperial bitter, I would gravitate towards after a few months training. Younger wine drinkers are also often seduced by a little sweetness and why not? Barefoot Moscato or Apothic red are easy wines to like but for many the shift towards drier styles is a natural progression in the same way that some people grow into liking the full flavoured Brussels sprout or the iodine reek of Islay whisky.
Sangiovese is a variety that many will come to reluctantly, especially if one’s only drinking experiences have been the meanest of Chiantis bought whilst holidaying in Italy. Historically these wines have been served in that most aptly named bottle, the straw covered ‘fiasco’. So why is Sangiovese worthy of your hard earned money, why choose this over a more generous Merlot or violet scented Syrah? Because with some care and effort, better producers can smooth out the testiness and rusticity and create wines that twinkle on the palate. The inherent high levels of acidity and sour cherry fruit style make it well suited to food. Sangiovese cleanses one’s weary maw in a way no amount of 70’s inspired sorbet ever can and cuts through dishes laced with fat (such as those containing a slick of Tuscany’s famous olive oil), like a tooth through blancmange.
Sangiovese is also relatively affordable. Good examples are to be had from around the 1,000NT mark here in Taiwan (or in the ten to fifteen pound mark back in the UK) but if you want something really fine, a wine that can mature with you, it can do that as well. Arguably the apogee of the variety is to be found in the southern Tuscan town of Montalcino. Here Sangiovese is known as Brunello and these wines, aged for a minimum of five years before release, have the guts to provide gustatory pleasure over many years. With the passing of time, maturation reveals an increasingly complex array of aromas that runs through truffle and leather to the more floral and perfumed. Structurally, these flavours are supported by warming but not aggressive alcohol and fine, powdery tannins, that hold the attention of your tongue without ever threatening to stick it to the roof of your mouth. So is Sangiovese really Mr Grumpy or more Mr Tickle? Try one of the wines below and find out.
The Wine Society’s Exhibition Chianti Classico, 2013, 14%
I make no apology for choosing as my entry level Sangiovese a bottle that costs more than a tenner. Some grapes just aren’t very well suited to making cheap wine. This is a good quality introduction to the variety and region and is delicious drinking now. Plenty of fruit whilst retaining the dry finish that lends these wines an appealing if slightly rustic elegance.
Available From: thewinesociety.com (UK)
Bibbiano Chianti Classico, 2012, 13.5%
Smelling of raspberry tea and with a herbal twang, this is classic Chianti Classico. Vigorous, sappy and almost crunchy, lovely now but will happily sit under the stairs for a couple of years although like its neighbour, the vacuum cleaner, it won’t improve much during this time.
Available from: bbr.com (for those in the UK or Hong Kong)
Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino, 2008, 14%
I like this style of Brunello. In the same way a good suit can make a man a little more handsome than you’d first suspected, Montalcino seems to add an air of refinement to a variety that inherently suffers from ‘bed hair’. This is perfumed like sandalwood and has the beginnings of some aged aromas that are leafy and comforting. This is good to drink now, although it would benefit from the aeration that decanting would provide, or if you are patient, leave for a year or ten and wait for the complexity to unfurl.
Available from: Ascent Way (Taiwan) or leaandsandeman.co.uk
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