The top wines of Cantina Tramin in Italy’s Alto Adige

I received a few samples from Cantina Tramin, an Italian cooperative in Alto Adige, also called Südtirol in German. Cooperatives are still often perceived as making cheap, inferior wines, so I was happy to receive some of their top wines in white. Cooperatives can produce genuinely good value for money wines, but others also have ambitions in the “premium” segment. As is the case for Cantina Tramin.

I had the pleasure of talking to Wolfgang Klotz, Director Marketing and Sales of Cantina Tramin, and Willi Stürz, their winemaker. In a mountainous region like Alto Adige working together is almost a necessity. “Alto Adige has 5000 hectares, and 5000 growers,” says Wolfgang, “so that gives a good idea of how fractioned Alto Adige is”. Without cooperatives it would probably not be economically viable for many to grow grapes. “But as a member of the cooperative it is. Many people would otherwise grow apples, for example. Or just move away to other regions where it is easier to make a living.” I remember hearing this as well when I spoke to the people of Cantina Tollo, who are based in Abruzzo, another mountainous region where it is hard to make a living in the countryside. Another example of the social impact of Cantina Tramin is the price guarantee that wine growers get : “For the high-end wines we want to have perfect ripeness of the grapes, which means harvesting later than for other grapes.” As chances of hail or heavy showers are higher in the mountains, there is always the risk that the grapes will be damaged if they are left in the vineyard until October. “But we cover that risk,” says Wolfgang. “The growers who are selected to provide the grapes for the topwines of Cantina Tramin are paid the full amount, no matter what happens.” This means that the growers can let the grapes hang until the ripeness is reached that Willi Stürz wants, withouth losing a part of their income if a storm destroys the harvest. So while the growers have a guaranteed income, Cantina Tramin gets the quality of grapes they want.

So what does this give in the glass? I tasted 5 whites that were selected to showcase the quality and style of Cantina Tramin’s high end wines.

Stoan 2019, DOC Alto Adige

If the name of this wine makes you think of “stone”, it is because it means exactly that. German is the main language in this region of Italy, and “stoan” is the local dialect for the German word “Stein”. This wine is made mostly of Chardonnay (65%), with Sauvignon blanc (20%), Pinot blanc (10%) and Gewürztraminer (5%) and is aged for one year in large casks. This blend may seem peculiar, but for Willi Stürz this was a logical choice : “At some point we thought : why not make a blend with the grapes that represent our region?”. And the blend actually works very well! The nose is very expressive, with apricot, fresh pear, a hint of aniseed, but also a bit of minerality that adds refinement. On the palate this wine is nicely round and creamy. The Sauvignon gives a touch of freshness, that counterbalances the ripe, exotic fruit. In the end there is a slight almond bitterness, giving a welcome contrast. Everything comes together so naturally in this wine. In a time where terroir and variety expression have become very important in the view of wine critics, this wine shows that skillful blending is still an art in itself.

Unterebner 2019, DOC Alto Adige

This is a Pinot gris, fermented in oak (25% in small tonneaux and 75% in large casks) with 12 months of further aging on the lees, again in large casks mostly. “People choose this wine because it is Unterebner, not because it is Pinot gris.” says Wolfgang Klotz. Indeed, Pinot gris doesn’t get positive press in general. “Few people invest in Pinot gris. In Alto Adige the advantage is that vineyards are not allowed in the valleys, where it can become too hot. The vineyards are on the slopes of the mountains, so we always have good cool temperatures during the nights. Nevertheless, most producers here will produce Pinot gris in stainless steel, to make clean and crisp wines.”

It’s clear that Cantina Tramin wanted to make everything but a crisps palate cleanser. Just after opening the nose starts off with very pure aromas, such as fresh pear and minerality. After a while the wood becomes more apparent, also on the palate, almost in a Burgundian way. This is definitely a Pinot Gris with a lot of substance and volume. Just as in the Stoan, there is a combination of creaminess and freshness that combines really nicely.

I was eager to taste this wine on the second day as I was curious how it would evolve. In fact, the evolution was quite impressive. The wood had nicely integrated, which brought the minerality and the fruit of this wine to the forefront. The elegance and balance of the Unterebner as showcased on day 2 makes it worth to give this wine a little more time.

Pepi 2020, DOC Alto Adige

This Sauvignon blanc takes its name from the first letters of the two sites the grapes come from : Pinzon and Penon. The latter is on the east side of the hills and is a cool site, which gives a typical Sauvignon expression and freshness. Pinzon is on the west side of the hills and gives riper grapes and a more exotic fruit expression. The fermentation happens in stainless steel tanks, after which it matures for six months in big barrels.

Sauvignon blanc can rarely hide that it is Sauvignon, and also here the aromas readily point in that way. But there are definitely no grassy or vegetal aromas here, rather attractively fresh peaches. On the palate this wine is graceful and light on its feet. Very refreshing and inviting, this wine will be a great partner for hot summer days.

Nussbaumer 2019, DOC Alto Adige

Cantina Tramin is a specialist of Gewürztraminer. The Nussbaumer is made and aged entirely on stainless steel. 30 years ago it had almost disappeared in Alto Adige, but now it is back and Cantina Tramin has several Gewürztraminers in the premium segment.

The nose is very aromatic and rich with roses, coreander, green herbs, and aniseed. After a bit of air there is also a subtle hint of minerality that gives extra complexity. The wine is creamy, round and sufficiently fresh. Although Cantina Tramin makes this Gewürztraminer in a dry style, it is not bone dry. There is a bit of residual sugar that gives a hint of sweetness.

Gewürztraminer is not an easy grape to get right. It can lack acidity, have very high levels of alcohol, or bitterness in the end. There is none of that in this Nussbaumer. “We let the grapes ripen until they almost burst. That is why there is no bitterness here. And yet the acidity is good, because of the altitude of the vineyards (300-500m).” Not everyone likes Gewürztraminer, but if you do, then this Nussbaumer offers much complexity and depth.

Troy 2017, DOC Alto Adige

If the previous wines are the “premium” segment of Cantina Tramin, then you could this Chardonnay their “super premium” wine. The vineyards are situated between 500 and 550m altitude, the yields are kept very low (35 hl/ha) and, just as with their other wines, Cantina Tramin goes for full ripeness of the grapes, while keeping good acidity for freshness. The fermentation is done in small oak barrels, followed by 11 months of lees aging. An additional 1,5 year of aging in stainless steel tanks makes the wine pretty much ready to drink when it comes on the market.

The nose starts off with attractive aromas of apricot and pear. There’s a bit of vanilla here as well that makes a nice combination with the ripe fruit. But it’s on the palate that this wine really reveals all its power. There are two elements that make this wine very special : the first is the flavor intensity. This is something that is rarely talked about when discussing the quality of wine, but in my experience high flavor intensity is a quality that I only find in top wines (and sweet wines, but that’s a completely different story). The second is the density, again something that I associate with top wines. Troy has both these aspects, not to mention a very long finish. This is a wine that makes a big impression. Definitely not a Chardonnay for the faint-hearted, but a wine that makes a statement.

This changed dramatically on day two, however, with the wine that had shed most of the oak and the density, only to gain in finesse and elegance. There was even a bit of minerality that made the nose very intriguing and attractive. The oak played a support role, rather than being one of the prominent features. A completely different appearance of this wine. But both versions are very neat renditions of what Chardonny has to offer, and allow you to play with the time of opening : you can enjoy this wine in its youth to savour the richness and density, or you can wait a few years to allow for more subtlety to develop.

Conclusion

This line-up made it very clear that cooperatives are perfectly capable of producing top wines. It’s also nice to see that there is a clear vision behind these wines : the choice to go for optimal maturity leads to wines with full and rich flavors, while maintaining their freshness. Clever wine making by Willi Stürz.

Then there is the social aspect of working as a cooperative : garantueeing the price for the grapes, offering technical expertise and ultimately contributing to the possibility for local growers to be able to make a living in a region where grape growers would otherwise struggle. Not something every wine drinker might care for, but nice to know for those who do.

Chiaretto di Bardolino : 10 great summer sippers

The summer season is coming, so the Consorzio di Bardolino presented the new vintage of Chiaretto, the local rosé, as part of the Anteprima Campaign. In fact, I should say Chiaretto di Bardolino, as is it officially called now. Bardolino is perhaps most known for its light and fruity reds, very much in the style of its bigger neighbor Valpolicella. But Bardolino is also Italy’s biggest producer of rosé, with 12 million bottles of Chiaretto per year. That’s twice as much as that other known Italian rosé, the Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. Chiaretto has nothing to do with Cerasuolo, however. As the name suggests (Chiaretto comes from the Italian word chiaro = light) the color is pale pink. But it hasn’t always been like this. In fact, it’s only since 2014 that the decision was made to change the style of the rosé. Before the rosé was made with skin maceration (or “saignée”, the French word for “bleeding”), which gave a darker hue to the wine. Now the grapes are pressed with minimal skin contact, resulting in a fashionably pale pink. The reason for this is very simple : pale rosé sells better! Having said that, there still was quite a bit of variation in the color of the samples, as you can see below.

Pale rosé is nowadays inextricably linked to the Provence in France. But there where Provence rosé often has rather ripe, almost sweet fruit, Chiaretto di Bardolino tends to be crisp, fresh and bone dry. They are not the most fruit forward pinks, although there is mostly a bit of citrus fruit there. The main feature of the Chiaretto is its freshness! And that immediately explains what makes it so attractive for summer sipping. The acidity in these wines is very refreshing, which makes them great for aperitivo, or for an al fresco lunch. Chiaretto is a favorite drink of tourists around Lake Garda, and in fact the match with the fish of the lake is ideal, as it is sweet water fish, giving a rather delicate taste and structure.

The wines

I tasted 50 samples of Chiaretto, almost all 2020, with a few exceptions. In principle the main grapes are Corvina and, to a lesser extent, Rondinella. Other grapes are grapes allowed, such as Merlot, but despite the fact that some of the wines indeed had other grapes in the blend, the consistency of the taste profile was remarkable : fresh and crisp rosé. Not immensely aromatic and also no fruit bomb, Chiaretto is made to be refreshing and inviting.

In general the quality was consistently good. Below I recommend 10 wines, but I easily could have listed many more that would provide an enjoyable summer drink. The 10 wines I chose have more to offer, however, than the hallmark freshness of Chiaretto. I rewarded the wines that showed a little bit more interest, in the form of more pronounced fruit or fresh herbal aromas. I also payed attention to the balance, as the acidity in some was so pronounced that it became unenjoyable. But those were really the minority. In fact, I daresay that that the consistency of the wines is so high that you can be pretty safely buy a bottle and know what you’re going to get. This is my slection of those that had more to offer than the standard crispness and freshness :

Seiterre – El Salgar, Chiaretto di Bardolino 2020 ❤️

I have a top 5, but if I had to pick one out as my favorite, it would be this one. Very attractive rasberry color, clearly a bit darker than most others. Attractive nose of redcurrant and green, minty freshness. Really nice on the palate with that redcurrant coming back and even a hint of blackcurrant. The balance is impeccable with well integrated acidity. There is more to this Chiaretto than the usual freshness. The red fruit and the green herbs give this wine an additional element that provides more interest. I thouroughly enjoyed this wine!

Guerrieri Rizzardi – Keya, Chiaretto di Bardolino Classico 2020

There is a lovely hint of minerality in the nose with a green fresh element, inviting you to take a sip. The palate is somewhat surprising as the aromas suggest a lean and tight rosé. In fact, there’s more volume here than in most others, which makes this rosé also a good companion for dishes with more character. A bouillabaisse springs to mind. The acidity is nicely integrated and overall the balance is really good. There is something distinguished about this wine.

Vigneti Villabella – Chiaretto di Bardolino Classico 2020

The nose immediately attracts my attention, with red fruit and a bit of herbal freshness. Good balance with the green herbs giving more depth. Everything is fresh, but the acidity is mild, which makes for a very pleasant rosé.

Vitevis – Cà Vegar, Chiaretto di Bardolino 2020

Probably one of the palest pinks in the line-up. The nose is appealing with citrus and a hint of smoky minerality. This is lovely on the palate with citrus fruit against a fresh and yet mild background. You will want more than just one glass.

Poggio delle Grazie – Chiaretto di Bardolino (organic) 2020

Subtle but attractive nose with a bit of smoky minerality. Very nice balance on the palate with the typical salivating acidity of Chiaretto, but also good volume, which makes it more than just refreshing. The mouthfeel is really pleasing. This rosé would feature nicely on a restaurant wine list to accompany mediterranean styled fish dishes.

I reserve a special mention for a maverick in the line-up that performed on the same level as the others in my top five, but that was just too different to include it there with the others :

Villa Calicantus – Chiaretto di Bardolino Classico (biodynamic) 2019

The color is remarkable, as it has a very orange hue. The nose gives evolved aromas with dried fruit, brown apple and even a bit of honey, which is admittedly a bit awkward between all those fresh and crisp Chiarettos. On the palate, however, this is extremely fresh, with a nervous acidity that offsets the dried fruit. There are even tannins lingering in the background. Although this is definitely a bit of an oddball rosé, I cannot help liking it, as there is real complexity here. The contrast on the palate is challenging, but rewarding. During the Anteprima presentation there were questions about this wine, but Angelo Peretti of the Consorzio left no doubt about whether this wine should be accepted as Chiaretto : “yes, of course, this is also a typical Chiaretto. It has that typical freshness, just like the other Chiarettos”. I can only agree about the freshness. But it is obvious that this is not your typical summer sipper.

And the four runners up to complete my top 10 :

Bennati – I Gadi 2020, Chiaretto di Bardolino

One of the more darker colored rosés, almost raspberry color. Attractive nose, with a hint of florality, rose hip, and rather ripe redcurrant. The attack is fresh and the acidity is nicely integrated. A juicy and well-balanced rosé.

Lenotti – Decus, Chiaretto di Bardolino 2020

Not very aromatic but rather subtle nose with an attractive hint of minerality. Very juicy and pleasant. Perfect for a hot summer evening while chattering away with friends.

Casaretti – Rosa dei Casaretti (organic), Chiaretto di Bardolino Classico 2020

Very pale, onion skin color. Fresh but not very aromatic nose. Quite elegant and balanced with a certain pine tree freshness that gives a nice touch to this wine. There’s even a subtle hint of cedar wood.

Le Morette – Chiaretto di Bardolino Classico 2020

White peach and a hint of smoky minerality. This is very refreshing and juicy. Really pleasing on the palate with well integrated acidity. A no-brainer for a summery picnic.

To conclude : A few tips on the serving temperature. It is suggested to serve Chiaretto really cold if you have it as an aperitif. I found, however, that the wines showed more interest when served a bit warmer than served straight out of the fridge. These wines are already not the most aromatic, so letting them warm up a little bit will help to bring out the aromas. And the lively acidity helps alot to keep that freshness in there, even when the wine warms up a little. So there is really no reason to be afraid that your rosé will flat.

I wrote this piece in between the showers and hail storms, which is a little odd when the topic is rosé. But hopefully the weather gods will bring change soon. And when they do, make sure that bottle is well chilled. Salute!

Le Macchiole’s Paleo and a vertical of the Bolgheri Rosso

Bolgheri has a special place in my memory. We were on holidays in Tuscany in 2010 while my wife was pregnant of our son. It was also the time that my interest in wine started developing, so even though we were not based anywhere near Bolgheri, I still managed to convince my wife to head there and drive along the Strada del Vino, lined with majestic cypress trees, just to see the grounds where some of Italy’s most famous wines come from. The owner of a B&B in Liguria, where we were staying on our way to Tuscany, had glitters in his eyes when he heard where we were going. The way he spoke of wines such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia was with great reverence, but also a certain melancholy. Already then these were wines that fetched prices that occasional wine drinkers found undecent. So it was with great delight that we found a wine bar in Bolgheri where you could actually taste Sassicaia from a wine dispenser. 15€ for a quantity that allowed my wife and I each one sip.

I remember thinking : is this it? the great Sassicaia? In hindsight, it probably was the youngest vintage on sale, so close-knit and not very aromatic, and with a quantity like that, you’re literally not going to taste much. But at that time, it did not stimulate me to further explore Bolgheri and it was with great pleasure that I delved into Italy’s treasure trove of indigenous grape varieties.

The opportunity arose for a new look at Bolgheri when I was invited to attend an online tasting of Le Macchiole’s Bolgheri Rosso and their flagship wine, Paleo, a 100% Cabernet Franc. Le Macchiole was founded in 1983 by Eugenio Campolmi and his wife, Cinzia Merli, and is located a few kilometers from the coast. The first wine that appeared under the name of Le Macchiole was the Paleo in 1989. First made as a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, they decided to add Cabernet Franc in 1993 to become a monovarietal wine in 2001. The exceptionally hot summer of the previous year had led the winery to add more Cabernet Franc to give more freshness and acidity. The result was so good that they decided to fundamentally transform the wine into a 100% Cabernet Franc, the first winery in Bolgheri to do so. And with great success, as the Paleo is a wine that receives much critical acclaim.

The Bolgheri Rosso of Le Macchiole is a blend of mostly Merlot and varying amounts of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, depending on the vintage. As Cinzia Merli, who leads the estate since her husband passed away in 2002, explains : the Bolgheri Rosso should not be seen as the “entry level” wine. It is made to stay true to its Bolgheri origins as a Tuscan expression of a blend of French grape varieties. What is quite remarkable about the Bolgheri Rosso is the lack of new oak. 20% of the grapes is aged in cement, the rest is put in 2nd, 3rd and 4th passage barriques.

The tasting was an interesting opportunity also to compare vintages; as we tasted the 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 of the Bolgheri Rosso alongside the Paleo 2017.

Bolgheri 2015

Attractive cherries and cherry pith, with a hint of dried flowers. There’s a subtle layer of dark spice underneath, clove perhaps, that gives extra depth. On the palate the wine has good substance which is kept nicely fresh against a backbone of ripe tannins. In general the mouthfeel of this wine is rather soft and silky, but there is a dynamic quality that adds liveliness and makes the wine quite exciting. This wine is really good and enjoyable now, but has many years ahead of itself.

Bolgheri 2016

Sommelier Eros Teboni, who led the tasting, proposed the 2016 alongside the 2015. Both are outstanding vintages, but 2016 has that extra oomph and is generally considered as one of the best vintages of the last 10 years. The wine does not fail to demonstrate that it has that extra edge. Just after opening, there is something flowery, ethereal almost. With a bit of air it gains extra volume and offers salivating juicy cherries. Again there is lifting vein of acidity that makes every sip so refreshing. With extra time in the glass there’s also black pepper coming through in the nose. No hard edges or whatsoever, everything is just perfectly balanced.

Bolgheri 2018

The next pair we tasted was the 2018 vs the 2019. The summer of 2018 was very hot and there was little rain, making it very important to leave enough leaves on the vines for extra shade and to keep works on the soil limited to avoid ground water from evaporating. The nose of the 2018 is quite frivolous. An initial lactic touch blows off to make place for cheerful violets and cherries. The wine is quite supple and has a little less depth than the others, but its smoothness makes it ready to enjoy already now.

Bolgheri 2019

The 2019 is a bit shy upon opening. The nose is a bit hesitant but all ingredients are there with dark cherries, a hint of pepper and again that dark, spicy layer underneath the fruit, just as the 2015 had. A little bit of pine freshness gives a nice lift. As can be expected from such a young wine, everything is quite concentrated. And yet, the hallmark frehsness and silkiness of Le Macchiole’s Bolgheri wines are also present here. Interesting to add, by the way, that the 2019 had opened up considerably when I re-tasted it on day 2, so a few more years will be good to add extra aromatic appeal.

Paleo 2017, IGT Toscana

Blueberries and brambleberries, graphite and noble cedar wood, it is clear that this is a very different ballgame than the Bolgheri Rosso. The nose is incredibly refined and fresh with a hint of green herbs, but not a single trace of Cabernet Franc’s typical bell pepper aromas. The balance and elegance of this wine is impressive. Despite its youth everything comes together beautifully already now with pure and fresh fruit and incredibly fine tannins. There is a kind of restrained power in this wine that makes it so attractive to enjoy already now, but also for many years to come. The finish is long and makes you grab for another sip. This wine is definitely in a league of its own.

Just one suggestion if you want to enjoy this wine now : open it a couple of hours in advance to give it some air. There is a bit of new oak just after opening that will blow off and make place for all the nuances that this wine has to offer.

CONCLUSION

Le Macchiole has done an outstanding job with these wines. What I particularly liked in the line-up was the consistency. Despite the very different profiles of the Bolgheri Rosso and the Paleo there is a clear vision that transpires of elegance and freshness in all the wines we tasted. The Bolgheri Rosso is probably the opposite of a bombastic wine, with silky fruit and freshness, while the Paleo is simply one of the best Cabernet Francs I’ve ever had.

The great thing with the Paleo is that it has carved out an own identity for Cabernet Franc. As Cinzia pointed out : there is no 100% Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux, and Cabernet Franc in the Loire is very different, so there’s no real comparison to be made with the wines from France. Indeed, the Paleo was perfectly ripe and had no trace of the green and unripe notes that you can sometimes have in French Cabernet Franc. It ripens perfectly in the Mediterranean climate ànd can handle the heat better than Merlot. It is therefore no surprise that other wineries in Bolgheri have followed suit and also started making 100% Cabernet Franc.

On a personal note, this tasting definitely aroused my interest to have a closer look again at the wines of Bolgheri.

MonteRosola : putting Volterra on the wine map

I received samples from a relatively new winery in Tuscany, called MonteRosola, which started activities in 2015. The winery in Volterra was bought by a Swedish family, who runs an investment company back home. If you’ve been to Tuscany, then chances are high that you know Volterra. It’s one of those beautiful, dramatic hill-top towns that are so typical for the region. But the fact that it attracts many tourists every year, doesn’t mean that it has a strong reputation when it comes to wine. As a matter of fact, Volterra is more or less a stretch of no-man’s land in between famous wine producing zones such as Bolgheri in the west and Chianti in the east. So setting up a winery in such an area is a bold move, especially if you have high ambitions like the Thomaeus family.

The Swedish owners left nothing to chance. The winery is impressive, with ultra modern equipment and the capacity to host big celebrations. With the rolling countryside hills in the background, everything is set up to provide a luxurious “Tuscan” experience. For the wine making, they called upon Alberto Antonini, a wine consultant who formerly worked as technical director at Col d’Orcia and head wine maker at Antinori.

MonteRosola has a range of wines with on the one hand the typical Tuscan varieties Vermentino and Sangiovese, and on the other a more international line with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Viognier. The price of the latter category clearly follows a « Super Tuscan » approach.

The samples that are reviewed here are the Vermentinos and the Sangioveses.

Mastia 2018, IGT Toscana Rosso

Sangiovese blend. Ripe and generous cherry fruit on the nose, with a hint of florality just after opening. The generosity of the fruit is also reflected on the palate and there is a bit of heat noticeable, both contributing to a very round mouthfeel. A layer of powdery tannins makes for a grippy texture and there’s a slight bitterness in the ending. The balance is not quite right yet here.

Crescendo 2016, IGT Toscana Rosso

100% Sangiovese. Brambleberry, blueberry, and prominent but attractive Bordeaux-style cedar wood. There’s also a hint of leather against a pleasantly smoky background.

There’s a lot going on in the mouth with the forest fruit that opens the scene for a boisterous mix of fresh acidity and relatively muscled tannins. The latter again have that powdery quality, like in the Mastia, but they are better integrated here. The spiciness of the wood and the texture of the tannins beg for more bottle aging, but the balance is right and the classiness of this wine is already obvious now. Everything is in place for this wine to become really outstanding in three or four year’s time. The « international » style will perhaps not appeal to those who seek for “pure” Sangiovese, but the fact is that this is a really good and rather elegant wine.

Cassero 2019, IGT Toscana Bianco

Vermentino. Very lemony nose with candied lemon and lemon pith, and a bit of pear. Vermentino often has a tell-tale bitterness in the finish, but here it is already present on the mid-palate. This full-bodied white is definitely not an easy summer sipper, but rather a wine to accompany a meal. I had it with several different creamy cheeses, and that worked well. This is a characterful Vermentino, and in a region where a lot of bland whites are made, that’s a good thing.

Primo Passo 2018, IGT Toscana Bianco

Vermentino. Quite subtle nose. Attractive, fresh and smoky nose with pear and apricot. Beautifully cool, almost mineral, with a hint of aniseed in the backdrop. The freshness is also clear on the palate with a precise vein of acidity. That Vermentino almond bitterness is there but it is well measured and adds a bit of structure in the finish. Vermentino is not the easiest grape to get right, but this one is spot on!

Conclusion

MonteRosola definitely has something to show. It’s great to see, by the way, that ambition doesn’t come with bombastic wines, as they move from rather full bodied entry-level wines to more refined and elegant wines in the higher price range. And a little surprising, also, to see how good the whites are. Tuscany is a famous wine region, but the fame is made with the reds, not the whites. So to see them taking Vermentino to a really high level with the Primo Passo is great.

Palmento Costanzo : a future reference for Etna wines?

When I was offered to try the services of WineJump, a platform that allows you to buy wines in Europe straight from the winery, the first thing I noticed was that they have a very big offer of Italian wines. My litmus test for Italian wine shops is to see how many wines they have from Le Marche, a wine region that produces top white wines (Verdicchio) and underestimated reds (Lacrima di Morro d’Alba anyone?). Turns out they have 7 pages with wines from Le Marche… Pretty impressive choice!

But my curiosity about the wines of Palmento Costanzo got the better of me. It’s been quite a while since my post on Etna Rosso, and I was curious about this relatively new winery. They’re based on the northern slopes of the volcano, near Passopisciaro. where several famous wineries are based, such as Graci and Frank Cornelissen. Palmento Costanzo is one of many wineries to have arrived since 2000, many of which came with ample resources. Palmento Costanzo does not seem to be an exception, as the winery was bought in 2011 by Mimmo Costanzo, owner of a big construction company in Catania. The pictures leave no doubt about the investments that were done to build a very modern winery. The ambition level also speaks from the price setting of the wines. The most expensive wine in the range is a pre-phylloxera wine that hits the 100€ mark. So it’s with high expectations that I tasted 6 of their wines.

The whites

It is mainly the red wines of the Etna that receive all the attention, and I must admit that the few Etna Biancos that I tasted before did not do much to change that for me. I was ready, however, to be proven wrong.

Mofete 2019, Etna Bianco (70% Carricante – 30% Cataratto)

Pop and pour : the word that comes to mind after the first sniff is “crystalline”. The nose is very pure and cool. There’s a subtle scent of flowers and sage. This wine is particularly linear, and I mean that in a positive way. If you’re familiar with the wines of the Etna, then this does probably not come as a surprise, but still, it’s so counter-intuitive to come across such a cool and linear wine from an island in the Mediterranean. I had Chablis recently that was not as tight as this Etna Bianco! The 12°C alcohol is an apt illustration of the character of this wine.

Half a day later : more fruit has appeared, with apricots that make this wine more expressive and perhaps more approachable. The acidity is still prominent, however, without being excessive. This is an attractive, cool-climate wine. Yes, from Sicily.

Bianco di Sei 2018, Etna Bianco (90% Carricante – 10% Cataratto)

The price tag of the Bianco di Sei is 10€ higher than the Mofete, and some wineries then make the mistake of making an ambitiously wooded version of the entry wine. In this case there is no wood involved, but 10 months of lees aging, which normally gives added volume and roundness to a wine.

The nose is rather reserved, but again very fresh, just as the Mofete. There is a big difference in terms of volume, however, as this wine definitely has more body. There where the Mofete has an almous nervous tension, the Bianco di Sei has a friendlier way of introducing itself without, however, losing its coolness and vibrant acidity. There is a bit of fennel and an intriguing herbal fresh note that oddly reminds me of pine resin. This is a beautifully balanced wine with a very distinctive character.

The reds

Mofete 2017, Etna Rosso (80% Nerello Mascalese – 20% Nerello Cappucio)

Pop and pour : Beautiful flowery and ethereal aromas rise from the glass. These quickly make space, however, for ripe red fruit that balances between raspberries and cherries. There’s a certain generosity here that comes with the ripe fruit and that’s continued in the mouthfeel, which is rather round and and a bit fluffy. A slight bitterness in the end wraps it up for day 1.

Day two : no more raspberries, but black cherries now, with a bit of allspice. The generosity of day one has made place for more precision, and a more slender frame that also brings out the tannins, although they are still very civilized. Drinking this wine now will certainly provide a lot of immediate pleasure with the ripe fruit, but if you can give this wine an extra year or two you will be rewarded with more definition and elegance.

Nero di sei 2017, Etna Rosso (80% Nerello Mascalese – 20% Nerello Cappucio)

Pop and pour : a little bit shy in the beginning, but then beguiling aromas of redcurrant come out of the glass, very ethereal and refined. While the wine seems a bit fragile at first, it gains in volume with a bit of air, and there’s a very interesting savory element that adds to the red fruit, with curry powder and black pepper. Very intriguing. The balance is really nice with good acidity that keeps the wine very succulent.

Half a day later : the red fruit has turned into attractive cherries, with aromas that are reminiscent of a luscious Sangiovese. Quite different from what it was just after opening, but just as enjoyable. There’s definitely plenty of time left to drink this wine, but you can also just happily pop the cork and enjoy this wine.

Contrada Santo Spirito – Particella 466 – 2016, Etna Rosso (90% Nerello Mascalese – 10% Nerello Cappucio)

Palmento Costanzo have three “Contrada” wines. Santo Spirito is the name of the Contrada, but they have further divided the vineyard in three parcels – which received the numbers 464, 466 and 468 – as they felt each parcel gives a different expression of Etna Rosso.

There where the Mofete and the Nero di Sei opened with red fruit before evolving towards black fruit, this one immediately opens with cherries, appearing a bit riper, and also more structured, with tannins that are present, but pleasantly ripe and still very much playing a supportive role rather than taking the forefront. Again everying is nicely balanced, nothing is overdone. While this wine is attractive already as it is with lots of luscious fruit, I expect it to develop more nuances and layers with a few years more in the bottle.

Contrada Santo Spirito – Particella 468 – 2016, Etna Rosso (90% Nerello Mascalese – 10% Nerello Cappucio)

The nose is very subtle and complex, with enticing redcurrant. In general I agree that we should not over-compare, but this wine begs a comparison with great Chambolles. This is a nose that really takes me in and that does so from the very start, so no need to wait until it opens up. People looking for big and bold will not be impressed by this 468 as this is very much a light-footed wine, but if that is your game, than this wine really delivers. Everything is in the right place, with tender fruit, refreshing acidity, and subtle tannins. There’s also a hint of blood orange that adds to the complexity of the wine. With a price-tag of over 40€, this is definitely not cheap, but I daresay that Palmento Costanzo’s ambitions resulted in a top notch Etna Rosso here!

Conclusion :

The consistent quality of the wines of Palmento Costanzo is remarkable. Although this is a relatively young winery, they seem to have found a clear identity for their wines, with their hallmark balance and freshness. And that is true, by the way, both for their white and red Etna wines. The Particella 468 left a big impression, but the Nero di Sei also deserves a special mention with its intriguing savory notes.

Palmento Costanzo is perhaps not a household name yet in the Etna, like Benanti, Graci, Tenuta delle Terre Nere and others, but with the ambitions they have and the quality they offer, I see them offering stiff competition.

Review : Cantina Tollo’s new sustainable range of Abruzzo wines. And why sustainable is more than organic.

Cantina Tollo launched a new line of sustainable wines for the on-trade in April. In this article I review those wines, but I also elaborate on what sustainable means for Cantina Tollo. And that is more than the environmental part of it.

Cantina Tollo is a co-operative from the Abruzzo region in Central Italy. If you are keen on cycling you may remember Cantina Tollo as shirt sponsor (1996-2002) of the team which included Mario Cipollini, Danilo di Luca and other well known cyclists.

They are also known, however, as a producer of consistently good wines with a good price-quality ratio. My first acquaintance with Cantina Tollo was in 2016 when I tasted their MO Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2011, which I liked very much. It was very smooth and elegant, perfectly balanced. A real pleaser, and sold at just over 10€. This wine keeps piling up the awards and has received five consecutive Tre Bicchiere of the Gambero Rosso wine guide since the 2011 vintage. The last MO I had was the 2015, which confirmed all the goodness I remember from the 2011. Luscious black and red fruit, noticeable but well-dosed wood, and refreshing acidity. An attractive and harmonious wine, and at a democratic price.

So I was very excited to taste the samples I received from Cantina Tollo of their newly released line of sustainable wines for the on-trade. These wines are certified organic and vegan, which means no animal-derived products were used, such as cow manure or fining agents based on animal proteins. Moreover, efforts were made to make the packaging sustainable with the use of recycled cardboard, recycled paper for the labels, and capsules without pvc.

You may think that they are a bit late to jump on the bandwagon of organic wines, but in fact they have been making organic wine since the 1980s. The difference of the new line with the other organic wines is that the new wines have undergone a stricter selection, and the best quality grapes go into this line.  

The thing I like the best, however, about these new wines, is that sustainability goes beyond the environmental aspect and includes a socio-economic part as well. The odd 50 members of the co-operative who farm organically are offered a price for their grapes that reaches almost double the price of non-organic grapes. Cantina Tollo also offers them a contract that protects them from unforeseen circumstances. So even if yields were low because of bad weather or diseases, for example, the growers will still get a good price. In a region such as Abruzzo, which is still a big producer of bulk wines that are sold at bottom prices, this is a very welcome incentive not only to work organically but also not to convert to other crops, or simply not to move away from the region.

In terms of appearance much attention was given to the styling of the bottles. Cantina Tollo chose a format that represents the bottles that were used in the end of the 19th century by producers to bottle their own wine. While they certainly catch the eye, the downside of this type of bottle is that they are relatively heavy (ca. 500g). This is an issue that was given a fair bit of attention recently by well-known wine critics, such as Jancis Robinson, so this is something Cantina Tollo will have to address. As Commercial and Marketing Director of Cantina Tollo, Andrea Di Fabio, explains, however, they are aware of the issue and intend to look for solutions for future vintages.

In terms of the wines there are 5 different offerings, all singly variety, and all made of local grapes.

Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2019

Very expressive, lemony nose with a hint of almond. While the mouthfeel is quite round, the acidity makes this is a refreshing wine. This is definitely not a thin Trebbiano, of which there are still many unfortunately. There is real substance here and considerable length with a pleasant lemon zest bitterness that lingers for a while.

This is a not a very complex wine, but really well made as the kind of wine you want to have in an ice bucket next to you when you have a fritto misto or a warm goat cheese salad.

Passerina 2019, IGP Terre di Chieti

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Subtle nose with white peach and a green herbal note. This Passerina is not as aromatic as the Trebbiano but the nose is delicately perfumed. No fruit bomb but rather driven by its mild and well integrated acidity. This wine is fresh, dry and structured in a way that reminds me somewhat of a Verdicchio. In a previous article I lauded the gastronomic qualities of Verdicchio because of those characteristics, and this Passerina seems to have the same quality of being an subtle and elegant wine that will accomodate many dishes. White fish dishes will do well, but also Oriental food is a good match. The soy and fish sauce flavors of the ramen soup we had with it paired beautifully with the Passerina.

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Pecorino 2019, IGP Terre di Chieti

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Very delicate and shy nose with green herbs and a bit of aneth. On the palate this is again nicely balanced with good freshness against a round backdrop. This is definitely not the type of Pecorino that is made in the style of a Sauvignon Blanc, as those exist as well. The character of this one is more in line with the Passerina, dry and fresh, and will therefore be a versatile food companion. Sea fruit, oysters and mussels will all make a good match.

Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2019

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Bright and aromatic, the freshly cut red fruit and minerality jump out of the glass. This invites very much for a sip. Absolutely not a characterless rosé like there are so many, but a wine with a fresh core and subtle red fruit, a combination that is difficult to resist. The mesmerizing, dark pink color completes the picture of the perfect wine for a sun-drenched lunch that lasts until it’s time to have dinner. Lovely! 

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2019

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Fresh cherries with a herbal, peppery element. Lovely fruitiness, with mild acidity that keeps everything nicely fresh. The tannins are a bit grippy but ripe. The wine was aged in cement tanks, so this is a pure rendition of the grape. Don’t let this fool you in thinking that this is a light, fruity wine, because there is considerable structure here. Cantina Tollo managed to combine accessibility with character. Not always easy to find that balance.

This wine will be a great match with grilled meat. The match with our (attempt of) homemade pizza was decent, but this wine can, and wants to, handle more than that.

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When asked whether the decision to go for cement tanks was a conscious choice in terms of the style of the new line, Andrea di Fabio explained that Cantina Tolla was never big on wood. A recent tasting of their top wine, the Cagiòlo 2012 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, confirms this. Whereas Montepulciano is a grape that tends to get heavy oak treatment, the wood in this one was very discriminate with beautiful cedar tones. Also the Cagiòlo is a very well-made and balanced wine that will seduce many palates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright side of planet Valpolicella

The red wines of Valpolicella, Italy, are very diverse. From very light to more dense and even big and bold, not to forget sweet, Valpolicella has something to offer to almost every palate. And yet, when quality is considered, most people turn to Amarone della Valpolicella, the famous wines made of partly dried grapes, and to Valpolicella Ripasso, often called “baby Amarone”, made of “basic” Valpolicella and then put on the lees of the Amarone in order to give more body and concentration. The production of Ripasso has exceeded the production of normal Valpolicella already by 50%. And that while Ripasso only got formal DOC recognition 10 years ago.

It is easy to understand why : these big and bold wines, especially the Amarones, boast high alcohol levels, full body, and sturdy tannins and have a slightly sweet undertone. This is a style that appears to be very popular in Asia, and despite signs that the market there may be slowing down somewhat, the global demand for Amarone and Ripasso keeps going strong, boosting the production, and consequently, the planting of new vineyards. According to data of the Consorzio Valpolicella, the number of hectares in Valpolicella has been rising ever since 1997 from 4902 ha to 7596 ha in 2015.

The popularity of Amarone and Ripasso has cast a shadow on the lighter Valpolicellas in a way that enthusiasts of elegant, fresh and juicy wines rarely consider Valpolicella. The reputation that some may still know of Valpolicella as a cheap pizza wine does not particularly help either. That is why this article is a hommage to those unashamedly light and juicy Valpolicellas and the more concentrated and even complex Valpolicellas Superiore that would surprise many, if given a chance. That other side of planet Valpolicella is translucent red and totally worth being explored.

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The bright side of planet Valpolicella

Valpolicella (Classico)

“Basic” Valpolicella (Classico if made in the Classico heartland) could hardly be more different than Amarone. It boasts fragrant, fresh red fruit, redcurrant, strawberries, cherries, and often has a slight herbaceous touch as well as a bit of pepper here and there. These wines are the epitome of Spring and Summer. The freshly cut red fruit of a Valpolicella deserves a slight chill to emphasize the vibrant acidity, as it is the main element to give texture. Tannins rarely make a meaningful appearance here.

Valpolicella sometimes gets cited amongst wines that are compared to Pinot Noir. That comparison probably stems from the fact that Valpolicella is light, tranparent, fresh and boasts red fruit. Despite those similarities there are very few of the list of wines below that actually echo Burgundian Pinot Noir. If a comparison is needed, Beaujolais is a more apt one. While comparisons with Pinot Noir are well intentioned, they also create expectations that Valpolicella cannot and should not live up to. If Pinot Noir is about complex layers of aromas, depth and length, then Valpolicella is all about delving right into it and indulging in the fresh fruit that bursts out of the glass. If Pinot Noir was a rose, then Valpolicella would be a daffodil.

Valpolicella (Classico) Superiore

Valpolicella and Valpolicella Superiore are often considered as one style. While the DOC regulations do not impose big differences, in practice the Superiores tend to be a bit fuller and more concentrated. It is also in the Superiore category that you can find wines with real ambition. In the list of recommended wines below, the Superiores of Marion and Roccolo Grassi are good examples of wines that are absolutely unfit for the “fun wine” label that Valpolicella often gets. So the tiered system of Valpolicella really makes sense.

There where Valpolicella is made either with fresh grapes or with grapes that were dried for a week or so, the Superiores sometimes already undergo a few weeks of drying to concentrate the juice. Also wood aging is not uncommon at the Superiore level. As is often the case, many of these choices depend on the winery and the style of wine they wish to make. One thing that is sure, however, is that the comparison with Pinot Noir no longer goes here. While the comparison with Beaujolais still holds for some of the Superiores, others will be more complex and structured. Again others will echo some of the characteristics of an Amarone,  boasting maraschino cherries and a warmer mouthfeel. The variety amongst the Superiores is rather big, but they will invariably be fuller and more concentrated than the normal Valpolicellas. That may sound evident, but in many wine regions “Superiore”, or “Supérieur” in France, does not necessarily mean much in terms of taste or style.

Below you will find a list of recommended wines. The ones with the title in red are particularly worth looking out for.

Valpolicella (Classico)

Valpolicella Classico 2017, Montecariano

Very light color. The nose has the whole range of red fruit on offer with redcurrant, raspberries and red cherries. This wine did not age on wood, but there is a certain smokiness that adds complexity. Also the fruit is layered from fresh to ripe, creating depth. This is really lovely. While most of the Valpolicellas in this list are attractive, this one is more than that, it is complex.

On the palate it has more volume than you would expect based on the nose. There is good, refreshing acidity here and the tannins are kept in the background. This juice is really enjoyable.

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Rêverie 2017, Valpolicella, Zymè

Slightly lactic upon opening, but this blows off fast. There’s loads of ripe cherries and some raspberry as well. Not the most complex nose, but the fruit is very attractive and inviting.

The ripe/fresh contrast makes this wine very playful and exciting. Again a Valpolicella with an extremely light color, but don’t let this fool you, as there is good substance here. Only 12% alcohol by the way. Slight bitterness in the end.

This is the kind of wine that makes a creamy Camembert sandwich a feast!

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Valpolicella Classico 2018, Bonacosta

Slightly lactic just after opening. The wine needs a bit to open up, but after a short while you are treated to floral aromas and even a whiff of raspberry. In the background there’s a bit of thyme as well.

This wine is very smooth and creamy, and full of fruit. It is perhaps a little fuller and rounder than some of the other Valpolicellas in this list, but the acidity makes this wine very digestible. Everything comes together very nicely already at this young age. No need to wait, this is instant pleasure. If you like Beaujolais, you will want to try this as well. And at 8,50€, this is a no-brainer.

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Valpolicella Classico 2018, Rubinelli Vajol

The color gives away that this is not a blockbuster. If this Valpolicella were to stand next to a Tavel rosé, it would be difficult to tell them apart. A bit of reduction after opening, but this fades away with a couple of swirls. The dominant aroma is redcurrant but there is a nice green, herby touch here that spices things up in a way that nutmeg does with potato mash.

The wine is very fresh with frivolous red fruit and well integrated acidity. While tannins are normally very light or even absent in these light Valpolicellas, the powdery, but ripe tannins here give your taste buds a friendly pat on the back. Slightly chilled, this wine goes down dangerously fast. This is a such a fun and easy-drinking wine.

Valpolicella Classico 2018, Allegrini

Very fruit-forward nose with candied red fruit, but also violets and black pepper. In the same way as Bonacosta’s Valpolicella the style is very reminiscent of a Beaujolais.

The wine is kept very fresh with vibrant red fruit and a nice acidic lift. The tannins are ripe and well integrated. This is such a pleaser! Frivolous, light on its feet, and highly quaffable.

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Ca’ Fiui 2017, Valpolicella, Corte Sant’Alda (biodynamic)

Fairly intense and rectilinear nose of sour cherries. This is not a wine that will keep you searching for all the different aromas, but the precision and finesse of the nose is attractive.

The acidity that was suggested in the nose manifests itself clearly on the palate and creates the backbone for the cherry fruit. While this wine is dangerously easy to drink, there is a more serious side to this wine. The substance suggests aging potential, which is rather unusual for this category of Valpolicellas. Would be nice to try again in a couple of years.

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Valpolicella Classico 2016, Villa Spinosa

This is the odd one out. There where Valpolicella tends to boast red fruit, the Villa Spinosa had a very surprising nose with blackcurrant and even liquorice. There is some red fruit, but rather in the background, and a “wild” touch that’s hard to pin down. The hallmark acidity of Valpolicella contrasts nicely with the dark fruit. Tannins are hardly noticeable. Simple, but perfectly enjoyable with a selection of soft cheeses.

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Novarè Corvina 2017, IGT Verona, Bertani

This is technically speaking not a Valpolicella as it is made exclusively of Corvina, while this grape is only allowed up to 95% of the blend (with a minimum of 45%). But in terms of style, it fits right in here with the rest. Red fruit and florality in the nose, and a lovely mineral undertone. This is very light, juicy and fresh, the tannins staying discretely in the background. Uncomplicated, but very enjoyable on a summer afternoon. Impossible to keep the glass full.

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Valpolicella (Classico) Superiore

Valpolicella Superiore 2015, Marion

Very surprisingly rich wine, full of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and also cherries and strawberries. The nose is complex and has enough to keep you sniffing for a while.

The wine is rich and juicy but does not lack freshness. The balance is just right and there’s good length as well. This is obviously a different register than the Valpolicellas described above. Unfortunately, also the price tag is from another level (available around 30€ in Europe). Given the quality of the wine, however, the price is defensible.

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Verjago 2016, Valpolicella Superiore, Domini Veneti

Immediately after opening this is a real pleaser with cherries, a touch of wood, and fresh, red fruit. This is almost like a synthesis of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire and Northern Rhone. The fruit is ripe, but there is great tension in this wine, with a beautiful combination of creaminess and vibrant acidity. The wood influence decreases the longer the wine is in the glass, to make place for a whiff of minerality. There is a sense of restraint that contributes to the elegance of this wine. Also the fact that there is a certain degree of concentration that does not hinder the airiness is really exceptional. Especially considering the price tag (under 15€). You need to drink this to believe it.

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Valpolicella Superiore 2014, Roccolo Grassi

Quite ambitious nose, with cedar wood reminiscent of a Bordeaux. Very dense and edgy tannins. Difficult to enjoy. On day two, however, a much more balanced picture with pepper, cherries, iron, and a hint of mint. On the palate there is also red fruit coming through, and in general the wine is nicely fresh and mildly structured with ripe tannins. The Bordeaux connection is not completely gone yet, but it’s on the Cabernet Franc side of things. Serious wine that still needs a few years to reach its peak, but its performance on day 2 makes it hard to be patient.

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Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2015, Le Calendre

Ripe red fruit, thyme, and a whiff of leather. There’s considerable depth and complexity here. The fruit is ripe, but the acidity keeps it well in balance. There is clearly enough substance to cellar this wine for a couple more years, but there is no reason not to open this wine either. The style is somewhat reminiscent of the Valpolicella Superiore of Marion. Maybe without the wow-factor, but also without the price tag, as it is available at less than half the price.

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Valpolicella Superiore 2015, La Bandina

From the first whiff it is clear that this is not a summer quaffer. Abundant dark cherry, accompanied by liquorice and leather. There is a nice smoky touch here and some pepper and clove in the background.

If the nose suggests an opulent wine, the first sip leaves no doubt that the contrary is true. The acidity is beautiful and is part of the picture that is constructed around a tight backbone of ripe tannins, the cherries being rather in the background. There’s a subtle touch of wood that adds to the attraction of this wine. Also no sign of the 14,5% alcohol. Still tight-knit, the wine will benefit from a few years of cellaring. But the wait will be rewarding.

Pruviniano 2017, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Domini Veneti 

Pure cherries and very high acidity just after opening. Half an hour later the wine has opened up nicely with a mineral undertone to the cherries. There’s also a bit of cinnamon and redcurrant in the background.

The start is very fresh with vibrant acidity, underlying minerality, and a hint of bell pepper, not unlike a Loire Cabernet Franc. The tannins are present but they are soft and mostly in the background. The salinity in the finish is really interesting and underscores the freshness of this wine. This is a rather subtle style of Superiore that makes you want to sniff your glass again and again. At just above 10€ (in Europe) this is an absolute steal.

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Trying Orange and non-Orange Wine with Jamie’s kinda Niçoise Salad #winePW

Today I join the Wine Pairing Weekend bloggers in their dive into skin-contact white wines, aka orange wines. These are wines that are made from juice that macerated on the grape skins, resulting in a darker hue, more volume, and noticeable tannins in the wine. The wineries who make this style of wines often swear by minimal intervention, and their wines are called “natural”. If you’re a regular on social media, you will undoubtedly have witnessed fascinating debates (I admit it is with some irony that I say this) on what constitutes a natural wine, or whether natural wine should be certified, and so on. Rather than participating in the controversy, I find it more interesting to highlight the fact that this makes for a highly original style, which in my experience often stands out because of the freshness and the purity of fruit. That is if they do not reek of barn, and other funky smells that unfortunately still occur in some of these wines. Orange wines in particular are often said to be versatile when it comes to food pairing. So, not having extensive experience with orange wines, I got very excited about this Wine Pairing Weekend theme and decided to step in with a little experiment…

I found an Italian winery that actually makes both styles, traditional and orange, of the same grapes. At Draga winery, situated in the north-east of Italy near the border with Slovenia, they have a Ribolla Gialla that is made in the traditional way, while there is also an orange Ribolla Gialla, released under the named Miklus, the name of the family who owns the winery. On his website The Morning Claret, Simon J Woolf talks to Mitja Miklus, who is currently holding the reins at Draga. Miklus describes the orange wines as “his” wines, the style he wants to make, and apparently they are very popular in Japan in China. The Draga series is produced for the Italian market, as there is more demand for the traditional style in Italy according to Miklus.

I chose both the Ribolla Gialla “Natural Art” 2014 and the traditional Ribolla Gialla 2018 to pair with Jamie Oliver’s Griddled Tuna kinda Niçoise Salad because of the meaty structure of the tuna, capable of absorbing tannins, and the very fresh dressing based on basil. I chose both wines, firstly to fully appreciate the difference between the wines, and then of course also to judge which one would fit best with the tuna. Honestly, though, I expected this to be a walkover for the orange wine. Little did I know at that point…

But first a closer look at the wines :

Miklus Ribolla Gialla Natural Art 2014, IGT Venezia Giulia

First impressions just after opening and coming straight out of the fridge : ouff, what’s this?! There’s a lot of vinegar-like and oxidative aromas coming out of the glass. The first suggests volatile acidity, which is an aroma that can come from an oxidative style of wine making, creating an environment in which the lactic acid bacteria who are responsible for these off aromas, can develop. There is also a very pronounced curry aroma, which makes me think of a vin jaune, an oxidative style of white wine from the Jura, France.

After half an hour the wine fortunately opens up with a more pleasant bouquet of exotic fruit, curry, honey and cedar wood. There’s no obvious trace anymore of the volatile acidity, but the nose is still “lifted” with a touch of freshness. With the temperature now only just below room temperature the full-bodiedness of the wine becomes very clear. This wine has great volume, is bone-dry and has pleasant tannins. The acidity is lively and well integrated. The wood is more prominent than I had expected and carries the very long and satisfying finish. I find this definitely an interesting wine, with a good deal of complexity. But it’s not an easy one. Something they obviously realize at Draga’s as well as the website clearly states: “This wine requires a lot of experience”…

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Draga Ribolla Gialla 2018, DOC Collio

If there was one word I had to choose to describe this wine, it is “shy”. There is a little bit of (browned) apple in the nose, a hint of florality perhaps. Again very dry, and the acidity is rather mild. Apart from a slight almond bitter the finish is very short. A very light and rather neutral wine.

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Would anyone at this point expect the second wine to be the better match with the grilled tuna? You wouldn’t, would you?

Jamie’s Griddled Tuna kinda Niçoise Salad

Jamie Oliver’s take on the famous Salade Niçoise is a very loose one, with fresh, grilled tuna and a dressing with basil giving a fresh lift to the dish. Fresh tuna is already very chunky, but grilling gives it even a more meaty feel.

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The pairing

I thought the powerful and outspoken tastes of the orange wine and the tuna would keep each other in balance, but alas. Instead of a beautiful marriage, the two behaved like wrestlers in a ring where there is only place for one to come out victorious. The strong, spicy character of the Miklus did not work at all with the charred and salty flavors of the tuna. And the cedar wood cursed with the lemony fresh basil dressing. While one and one can sometimes be three, this pair went for a fight to the death.

I didn’t see that one coming!

As if that wasn’t enough, the traditional Ribolla Gialla started singing like a nightingale. What I first perceived as mild acidity, became a vibrant and zingy backdrop for the tuna salad in a way that reminded my of my experiences with Verdicchio. Although I regard Verdicchio as a higher quality grape, it behaves in the same way as this Ribolla, namely as a great food partner, not very expressive but capable of accompanying many dishes and supporting them with a fresh backbone. The palate-cleansing quality of the Draga Ribolla worked wonders in comparison to the overpowering orange Ribolla.

Normally the experiment would have ended here in a quod erat demonstrandum kind of way. What had to be proven, was proven. But since it wasn’t, I was piqued and felt an urge to re-try the orange Ribolla with a different dish. By coincidence I was offered a second chance the next day when we had a improvised stir-fry beef dish. The slices of beef were marinated in yakitori dressing and the chillies gave a nice heat to the dish.

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We tried the rest of the orange Ribolla with it, and this time it was bullseye! The wine beautifully echoed the spicy and hot character of the stir-fried beef. Instead of a ring fight, this combination felt very natural and balanced.

No wonder they like this Miklus Ribolla Gialla in Japan and China.

Wine Pairing Weekend Posts

Have a look below to see what other bloggers pair with their orange wines.

  • Camilla of Culinary Adventures With Camilla is “Diving into the Skin Fermented Wine Pool of Two Shepherds Winery”
  • Wendy of A Day in the Life on the Farm presents Donkey and Goat Skin Fermented Roussanne; A Baaaaad Ass Wine”
  • Andrea of The Quirky Cork takes up “Turkish Amber Wines and Fast Food”
  • Lori of Exploring The Wine Glass asks “Orange you glad I have wine?”
  • Jeff of FoodWineClick offers “Wine 201: Orange Wine Primer”
  • Jill of L’Occasion has us “Thinking Wine: The Engaging World of Orange Wine”
  • Linda of My Full Wine Glass is “Revisiting NY Finger Lakes Skin-Contact White Wines”
  • David of Cooking Chat proffers “Cauliflower Bacon Spread with Orange Wine from Georgia”.
  • Gwendolyn at Wine Predator is featuring “Orange Wines from CA and Italy by Accident and on Purpose Paired with Shrimp curry #WinePW
  • Lauren at The Swirling Dervish shares “He Said, She Said: Ryme Cellars and the Tale of Two Vermentinos”
  • Susannah of Avvinare serves up “Orange wine from Slovenia’s Movia Paired with Homemade Sushi”
  • Katrina Rene of The Corkscrew Concierge wonders “Is Orange (Wine) the New Everything Wine?”
  • Nicole at Somm’s Table is “Cooking to the Wine: Kabaj Rebula and Chicken w/Mushroom Escabeche and Lentils”
  • Rupal, the Syrah Queen advises us that “Radikon Orange Wine – Not Just For Hipsters”
  • Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog, is serving up “A Cadre Of California Skin-Contact Wines Paired With Ethnic Fare”

Twitter Chat (#winePW)

You can join a Twitter chat on Saturday, May 9th 8:00 am PST/11:00 am EST/5:00 pm CEST (Brussels time) as we explore skin-contact white wines and food pairings. Just follow the hashtag #winePW.

 

 

 

 

 

INAMA : showing the potential of Soave

It is with melancholy that I think of our holidays in Italy last year. In these times of confinement things that seemed to be for granted before, now appear to be the stuff of dreams. Being able to travel freely, visit wineries, walk in the vineyards, talk to wine producers, and of course taste local wines. Like Joni Mitchell said : “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”.

The feeling we had during our stay in Verona is for sure gone : sheer bliss, relaxation and indulgence. I very much like Italy in general, but I particularly like Verona and its surroundings. The gentle rolling slopes, the nearby Garda lake with its picturesque towns and airy breeze, and the utterly drinkable wines that are produced in the greater region, such as the light and fun Bardolinos, the fruity and fresh Valpolicellas, and the zippily refreshing Soaves in white. After a hot ice-cream-laden day, a light and fresh Soave is the perfect start of a relaxed dinner in one of the bustling restaurants of Verona.

As is often the case, though, when you are in such surroundings, everything seems to be perfect as long as you are in that intoxicated holidaymaker state of mind. Unfortunately, it is a little bit like that with many Soave wines : when you open a bottle of that spritzy and playful wine, it often doesn’t have the same appeal anymore when you open it an urban environment on a bleak and rainy day.

And yet, Garganega, the grape Soave is mostly made of, is often mentioned as one of the best grapes for white wine in Italy. Curious about the potential of this grape, I decided to try the Soave wines of top producer Inama. Their vineyards are situated in the Soave Classico area, which mainly consists of hillsides with volcanic rock (basalt) or limestone soils.

heuvels Soave

heuvels en vlakte Soave

basalt rock in soave

Basalt rock in Soave (Picture copyright Charley Fazio)

On the pictures you clearly see the difference between the hills of the Soave Classico area and the plains (in the background on the second picture), where the DOC Soave wines are made. Apart from the difference in terroir, most producers in the DOC Soave go for high yields to produce cheap, easy-drinking Soave.

So what does Inama have on offer? They have four different Soaves, all made of grapes coming from vineyards that are situated on basalt.

Vin Soave 2018

Very expressive, with candied lemon, exotic fruit, and in the background a hint of minerality and even green herbs and a touch of almond. This wine is really round and full-bodied. This has absolutely nothing to do with the light and crisp Soaves that you often come across. The acidity is well integrated and supports the body of the wine, making sure it stays nicely balanced. There is a slight lemon pith bitter in the end that nicely closes the loop with the almond in the nose. If this is an entry-level wine, then I’m curious what the rest will bring, because there is already great character and concentration here!

Vigneti di Carbonare 2016

This is a recent addition to the portfolio of Inama. The wine is made of grapes coming from the località (local area) Carbonare, and more specifically from an east-facing cooler vineyard. 2016 is the first vintage of this wine.

The nose is very fresh with loads of citrus, minerality and again a hint of almond. This wine is driven by its freshness, but not the kind of light and zippy freshness of a simple Soave. There is also concentration here and substance, giving the wine extra character. Even if this is the lightest of Inama’s four Soaves, calling it “light” is not giving this wine enough credit. It is the balance here and the freshness that make this wine really outstanding.

Vigneti di Foscarino 2016

This wine is made of grapes from the famous Monte Foscarino, a site that is considered to be one of the top spots for Soave. It is fermented in used barriques.

The nose offers minerality, citrus and apricot. The texture of the wine is very rich and again there is great substance. The fruit is ripe and abundant. If you are used to light Soave, then this wine will come as a big surprise, as it is luscious and almost literally a weighty wine.

Vigneto du Lot 2016

A single-vineyard wine and also the top Soave of Inama, made of grapes coming from Monte Foscarino. It is fermented in 30% new barriques and the rest used, followed by 6 months on the lees.

Great minerality in the nose, and a bit of smokiness. There is also vanilla and a hint of honey. Beautiful and enticing nose! The start is fresh with the acidity being perfectly proportioned and integrated. A touch of honey creates a very attractive ripe/fresh contrast. The vanilla resurfaces towards the end extending the finale considerably. This is a wine that makes a great impression. Not just a great Soave, but simply a great wine by any standard.

Conclusion

Inama has an extraordinary range of Soaves. They perfectly illustrate that Soave can be so much more than an easy summer drink. Each and every one of these Soaves has impressive character, and each has its very own identity. What really strikes me is how different Inama’s wines are in terms of substance and concentration.

In his book “Amarone, and the fine wines of Verona”, Michael Garner explains this feature as a result of the basalt terroir in the Soave Classico area : “The palate will typically appear richer and with a more luscious texture and the lingering aftertaste more reminiscent of ripe and mature fruits rather than floral tones.”

A description that fits the wines of Inama very well.

 

 

Food and wine pairing does matter

I always thought of food and wine pairing as something that’s fun. I enjoy thinking about how to combine both. If you hit the nail on the head, you can transcend the individual level of the wine and the dish and reach something that’s more than the sum of the parts. On my blog I have a category that’s called “one and one is three”, where I talk about food and wine pairings that make me especially happy. Because the combination of the flavors create something special, or because one really pushes the other to a higher level, or just simply because they create that kind of feeling where I think : life is good.

American wine writer Alder Yarrow doesn’t think much of food and wine pairing. On his website Vinography he published a blog post calling food and wine pairing “junk science”. Or “the source of panic attacks and the fodder for hundreds of books and scores of useless smartphone apps”. I won’t disagree with the fact that there are many books that are not particularly useful. Many just give very specific combinations of a particular dish with a particular wine. What if you tweak your recipe with a few additional ingredients, or change the sauce? Or more likely, what if that particular wine is not available in your local shop? Not so helpful indeed. But as Mr Yarrow explicitly states that one plus one does not equal three, I felt compelled to write down my own opinion on food and wine pairing.

According to Mr Yarrow the rules of food and wine pairing are “bullshit” and you’re better off forgetting about food and wine pairing altogether as “it only leads to disappointment”. I hear much frustration there. In more than 25 years of eating in top restaurants he can count the experiences  where the sum was greater than the parts on one hand. The good thing I read in that is that at least he had such experiences after all. But apparently very few.

The issue at hand here might be expectation management. If you expect a sommelier to always come with a wine that “will make the choir sing”, then you need to think twice of how restaurants work. Especially the ones who want to be innovative, who experiment with dishes and flavor combinations, and on the top of that change their menu very regularly in order to constantly offer something new to the demanding customer. For a sommelier to find a wine that will fit with a new dish on the menu, there are many things to consider : what is the defining flavor? There might be more than one. And they can interact in a way that does not allow for an extra component, the wine, to interfere. What is the texture of the dish? Does the wine have to support this or contrast with it? Do you want to go for complementarity or make a bold move and aim for contrast? Not to forget a very practical question : what does the sommelier have on the wine list? He/she has to work with what is available and what is ready to drink. If you have a thousand of references to work with, that might ease the job, but such restaurants are exceptions. On top of that, the time and possibilities the sommelier will be given to experiment with the food and wine pairing will be limited. So there are a lot of “ifs” here. That is why I don’t necessarily expect the choir to sing in terms of food and wine pairing when I go to a top restaurant. I know this may sound strange to some, but I don’t. If one plus one equals two, then I will be happy. If the dish is a winner, and so is the wine, without either negatively influencing the other, then also that is a successful food and wine pairing!

Alder Yarrow also talks about the rules of food and wine pairing. As if there was a bible of what to drink with what. Food and wine pairing is not a science. If I were to regard it as such, I would probably also come to the conclusion that food and wine pairing rules are bullshit. But it’s not. Again, if you take top gastronomy as a starting point, there simply are no rules. That is the definition of innovation and experimentation : you do something new. So the wine pairing will inevitably be a trial, and yes, sometimes also be an error.

Bad experiences in such settings is not a reason to conclude that food and wine pairing is bound to be disappointing. Mr Yarrow suggests that wine should be something “universally simple and essential”. So why not look at established combinations that have been tried millions of times and that work. A sauvignon blanc will work wonders with a simple goat cheese. Just as a Muscadet or a Chablis will be a great marriage with fresh oysters. Or a lamb shank from the oven with a spicy, herby Languedoc. These are classic, straightforward dishes that do not need top wines to still be a great match with their liquid partner. There is a much bigger potential for the food and wine to lift each other up if you start with simple things than vice versa. That’s where I see the biggest added value ànd chances of success in food and wine pairings.

Mr Yarrow seems to realise that : “Our expectations need to be re-set. The bar needs to be lowered. We should absolutely be choosing wine to go with our meals, but our goals should center on enjoyment of both and the idea of “mistakes” should be banished.” I can’t think of a better way of saying it actually. So why conclude then that we should forget about food and wine pairings? There will be times that the food and wine pairing does not give the effect we wanted or hoped for, but we can also have great experiences and discover unexpected pairings. You can only do that if you’re open for it, if you see it as fun to experiment, ànd if your state of mind is rather to welcome anything good that comes out of it rather than to be disappointed if the result is anything less than stunning.

Let me give one example of a great discovery I did myself recently. One of our favorite dishes to prepare when we want comfort food is keema matar, an Indian/Pakistani curry with ground meat and green peas, topped with coriander leaves. As you can imagine, it is a very rich and relatively spicy dish. In Mr Yarrow’s opinion you should drink what you like with your food. I quite like red Burgundy, but I wouldn’t dream of drinking that with keema matar. It’d be an absolute waste of the wine. In the past I had already paired this dish with a very rich and opulent Negroamaro, an Italian wine with very ripe black fruit. The reason why that worked very well was because there was a certain sweetness from the ripe fruit that worked with the spiciness of the curry. Recently, however, I decided to take it up a notch with an Amarone, the Campo Inferi 2013 of Brunelli.

This is, for my standards, the embodiment of a “big” wine. Very rich, bold and smooth at the same time, and with a whopping 16,5% alcohol. This is a wine that is defined by ripe black cherries, milk chocolate, butter scotch and cinnamon. Big and ripe tannins, and a supporting acidity that keeps the alcohol in check. Again there is a sense of sweetness here that works very well to counterbalance the spiciness, and the smoothness and ripeness of the wine complement the structure of the curry. A good food and wine pairing, without any doubt. But what really made me tick in this combination was the combination of the ripe cherries, chocolate and cinnamon with the coriander leaves. A match made in heaven! Yes, this was definitely where I felt that one plus one equals three, where everything blended in so well together that the choir sang a little hallelujah.

The effect of the coriander with the Amarone is an example of how food and wine pairing is not a science, but something that you can discover and that will give great satisfaction once you do. Maybe not everyone will appreciate this combination the same way as I did, but others might. And by the looks of the numbers of people who post their food and wine pairings on social media, there seem to be many people who enjoy looking for that combination that adds an extra dimension. These are people who do not think in terms of potential disappointment, but in terms of discovery.