Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES February 7th – Part One
Native Wine Grapes of Italy and Sundry Whites
By John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato
The spotlight this week shines on the native grapes of Italy, or at least a handful of them. Despite the promising billing of the thematic, the February 7th release will disappoint anyone hoping for a real chance to discover some of the more obscure, unique regional treasures of this implausibly wine-rich nation. Considering that Italy is home to more native wine grapes than any other country – a staggering one-quarter of the world’s known commercial varieties (anywhere from 377 to around 2,000, depending on who’s counting and how you define “native”) – the selection proffered by the LCBO is, well, dissatisfying to say the least.
There are some fine wines from already familiar friends like sangiovese and dolcetto which we’ve highlighted below in the Buyer’s Guide, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is a hopelessly corporate release, playing it ultra, ultra-safe. To build a feature around barely ten grapes, all of which Ontarians have seen countless times before, and from producers already well drilled on the LCBO shipping and payment process (there’s not a single new producer included in the feature) seems to me a huge opportunity lost. But it’s a reality of the monopoly world, you’ll say.
The selection in Ontario is of course much broader if you’re keen enough to search for wines in the private import/consignment program, where you’ll find an impressively comprehensive range of unique, native Italian grapes if you look hard enough. But you’ll have to buy them a case at a time. Otherwise, I’d suggest a stop at one of the more enlightened restaurants and wine bars across the province, where the chances of expanding your horizons are much greater.
For anyone looking to learn about, if not taste, Italian wines, I couldn’t recommend more strongly the monumental, magnum opus by Italian-Canadian wine authority Ian D’Agata entitled Native Wine Grapes of Italy. D’Agata spent no fewer than thirteen years researching the work (not counting the other dozen and a half years that he’s been covering the world of wine for publications like Gambero Rosso, Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, The World of Fine Wine, Decanter and others), and has compiled the most complete, accurate and detailed work on Italy’s native grapes imaginable. Each of the hundreds of entries includes details on where the grape is found, its history, etymological origins, synonyms, and general style/flavor profile, and which specific wines to choose and why. Curious about pelaverga, timorasso or frappatto? You’ll find everything you need to know, and much more besides, in the book.
With the author’s permission, I’ve quoted some interesting tidbits on a few of the varieties mentioned below to give you a bit of the flavor of the work. Anyone seriously studying wine should have this classic reference book in their library.
Also in this week’s report is a collection of sundry whites, including some memorable wines from central Europe and a pair of west coast chardonnays.
Buyers Guide: Native Italian Wine Grapes
Volpaia 2011 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($27.95)
D’Agata on Sangiovese: “One of the etymological possibilities includes a mythological reference to the blood of Jupiter (sanguis jovis), unsurprisingly given the wine’s longtime association with myths, symbols, and sacrifices to the Gods. Another possibility is that the monks in Santarcangelo di Romagna, at the foot of the Monte Giove near Rimini, chose the name sanguis jovis when forced to call the wine they made by a name other than vino”.
John Szabo – Admittedly I love the classic style of Volpaia, representing the finessed side of sangiovese, grown in some of the highest elevation vineyards in Tuscany. The 2011 is a wine for fans of lighter, more elegant Chianti Classico, which should really hit ideal drinking in another year or two, at which point succulent savoury flavours will lead the way.
Salcheto 2011 Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy ($29.95)
John Szabo – 2011 was the first experiment with wild yeast fermentation at Salcheto, an organic estate. The result, as fine as past vintages, is an earthy, savoury vino nobile, still a year or two away from prime drinking, but with an attractive range of resinous herbal notes to encourage additional sips.
Sara d’Amato – This generous Tuscan red of the prugnolo gentile varietal (sangiovese) is concentrated, musky, compelling and organically produced. A well-known sustainable producer, Salcheto was named Gambero Rosso’s “Sustainable Winery of the Year” in 2014.
Feudi Salentini Luporano 2012 Primitivo Del Tarantino, Puglia, Italy ($17.95)
D’Agata on Primitivo: “Puglia is Primitivo’s home in Italy, and at 11,133 hectares it is one of the country’s ten most planted red varieties…. When very good, Primitivo is creamy-rich and heady, usually not shy in alcohol (16 percent is common) and awash with aromas and flavours of ripe red cherry, strawberry jam, and plums macerated in alcohol”.
John Szabo – Like D’Agata’s description above, I often find primitivo to be overly sweet, alcoholic and raisined. This example, on the other hand, has rare balance and freshness. You might say it’s not “classic”, but I find it pleasant and highly drinkable. No fork and knife required.
Abbona 2013 Papà Celso Dogliani, Piemonte ($24.95)
D’Agata on Dolcetto: “The Dolcetto di Dogliani… can also be the most powerful. This is because in the Dogliani area Dolcetto has always been viewed as the most important grape and the best sites have been reserved for it.”
John Szabo – Abbona’s dolcetto supports the above description of Dogliani’s more powerful versions. This is made from 50-60 year old vines in the Bricco di Doriolo, a prime hilltop sight. Fruit is ripe and in the dark berry plum spectrum, with considerable density and length on the palate.
David Lawrason – As I have always been a fan of fruit-first reds like gamay (Beaujolais) I have also had a soft spot for dolcetto. An eyebrow raises that it has hit $25, but not unexpected now that it has its own Dogliani appellation. This is a lovely fresh and fruity, and even substantial – estate grown old vine example from a producer I admire.
Sara d’Amato – A consistent over-performer, this dolcetto from the relatively recent Dogliani DOCG once again proves a terrific value. Exotic spice, violets and pepper dominate the soft, round palate. Although dolcetto’s name means, “the little sweet one”, it is rarely sweet but rather low in acid (making the wine feel less than dry) and high in tannins. Thankfully, in this example from Abbona, the tannins are rather supple, balanced and allow for immediate enjoyment.
Resta 2011 Salice Salentino, Puglia, Italy ($15.95)
David Lawrason – Italy’s deep south is a gamble, with all kinds of modern, soft, fruity/jammy pleasing but often not very interesting reds (as on this release). Then again there are gems from another era (or at least a traditional mindset) that are very complex, edgy and powerful. Go to school on this imperfect, slightly volatile classic. Great winter fare.
Beni Di Batasiolo 2006 Riserva Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($39.95)
David Lawrason – Ok, this doesn’t have the heft and structure you might expect from great Barolo. But it has exact aromatics that are wonderfully complex, and I have often said that scents are what make Barolo really fascinating. And the fact that it is a mature wine, from a great vintage, at $40 makes it all the more appealing. Go to school here.
Ocone 2012 Flora Taburno Falanghina del Sannio, Campania, Italy ($18.95)
D’Agata on Falanghina: “Along with Aglianico, this is believed to be Campania’s oldest variety… Today we know that there are at least two genetically distinct Falanghinas, Falanghina Flegrea and Falanghina Beneventana… Falanghina Flegrea wines (especially those from Sannio where Falanghina Flegrea will ripen up to three weeks earlier), tend to be less complex but more fruity, with flavours and aromas of unripe peach, golden delicious apple, apricot kernel, and cherry pit.”
John Szabo – I can’t say that Ocone’s version is particularly fruity, in fact it offers more organic oil, rock and earth than fruit flavour, but there’s a point of bitterness on the palate that is indeed reminiscent of cherry pit and apricot kernel. In any case the flavour intensity is impressive for the price category. Drink this at the table with white meats, pork and poultry, heavily herb-flavoured.
Sara d’Amato – Ocone is a certified organic winery practicing minimalist intervention with grapes from seriously old vines. Falaghina is the winery’s star white varietal, a grape almost exclusively planted in the southern, coastal region of Campania on the volcanic soils surrounding Mt. Vesuvius. This version shows off the varietal’s distinctive floral characteristic and has a good dose of succulent citrus balanced with a decadent, mouth-filling texture.
Michele Chiarlo 2013 Le Marne Gavi, Piedmont, Italy ($16.95)
D’Agata on cortese: “One romantic legend has it that the name of Cortese’s most famous wine, Gavi, derives from the golden-haired, beautiful, and gentle-natured Princess Gavia, daughter of Clodomiro, King of the Franks, who eloped to get married against the wishes of her family.” “Cortese wines, when well made, have many selling points: high acidity, real minerality, and even ageworthiness”
John Szabo – Chiarlo’s version fits into the mould of pleasantly fresh and fruity, with balanced acids and light alcohol, for current enjoyment, chilled, without excessive contemplation.
Eco 2013 Pecorino d’Abruzzo Superiore, Abruzzo, Italy, $17.95
Sara d’Amato – An organically produced wine from Italy’s eastern coast – home to the fresh, exotically floral and mineral pecorino variety. Eco’s very characteristic interpretation is dry, zesty and lightly peppery with notes of jasmine and apple blossom.
Buyer’s Guide: Sundry Whites
2012 Wieninger Nussberg Alte Reben Wiener Gemischter Satz, Wien DAC, Austria ($37.00)
John Szabo – This may seem pricey for a wine you’ve likely never heard of, but it’s a marvellous old vines (“alte reben”) field blend (“gemischte satz”) from one of the greats of Viennese winegrowing. Nine different varieties, grown biodynamically in a stunning limestone vineyard overlooking downtown Vienna, converge to yield a powerful and complex wine with fleshy white and yellow fruit. Just picture yourself in Wieninger’s heurige as you sip – pleasure guaranteed. Wieninger on the ’12 vintage: “Unfortunately, there was a very small quantity due to the damages caused by hailstorms and hungry wild boars.“ Ahh, the perils of growing grapes in a major European capital…
Weingut Zahel 2013 Riedencuvée Grüner Veltliner, Wiener Lagen, Austria ($16.95)
David Lawrason – This wine slowly reeled me in. At first glance it presented the basics – a fresh, firm and balanced grüner. Then it hooked me with its very fine structure, depth and subtlety. If you have not yet ventured into Austrian grüner here is a very well-priced example you can’t afford not to try.
Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt 2008 RK Riesling, Mosel, Germany ($15.95)
David Lawrason – From one of the great estates of the Mosel, this is a clinic and fine value in a mature riesling. I really can’t believe it has landed here, six years later, at $16. So there is no excuse not to see why mature Mosel riesling is the darling of so many aficionados. It’s off dry but tender, elegant and impeccably balanced.
Poplar Grove 2012 Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley, B.C. ($29.95)
David Lawrason – Poplar Grove has long been one of BC’s boutique wineries doing a better job of getting beyond BC’s borders. It has improved with new ownership in recent years, and importantly the quality consistency has evened out. This is a quite complex, well balanced and firm chardonnay.
Caves Orsat 2013 Fendant, Valais, Switzerland ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Fendant or chasselas is Switzerland’s second most planted grape variety after pinot noir. Although chasselas is found throughout Europe, it is most celebrated in Switzerland. An adaptable varietal, it is generally subtle and nuanced but in the best cases can exhibit a rich mouthfeel. This fresh version from Caves Orsat is nicely representative of a Swiss chasselas (rarely seen here on our shelves) and exhibits a creamy, delicate nature with a touch of white pepper spice.
Girard 2012 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California, USA ($26.95)
Sara d’Amato – A slightly creamy but bright Russian River chardonnay that displays impressive refinement, balance and restraint. The Girard winery is currently owned by former Pump Room sommelier, Pat Roney, who is very much inspired by the cool climate chardonnays of Burgundy.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES February 7, 2015:
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