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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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.

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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.

 

Experimenting with the blind tasting order

If you have organized a blind tasting before, chances are high that you will have prepared wines from white to rosé ro red, and from light to heavy. To start with white before red makes perfect sense of course. Although you might come across wineries in Bourgogne who will present their reds before the whites, in Meursault for example. And I have experienced myself that to have a white, rosé or sparkling wine after a series of reds can be nice and useful to “cleanse” your palate, especially if the reds are quite powerful and tannic. But in general white goes before red.

When you come to the order of the reds , things can get slightly more difficult. The basic idea is to start with light and move gradually to more powerful and structured reds. The reason for this this is pretty obvious : if you have a young, structured Bordeaux before a Burgundy, you might miss some of the nuances of the latter. Especially the build up of tannins in your mouth makes it difficult to appreciate the structure and the quality of the tannins of a lighter wine. Chewing on bread and drinking water in between wines will help, but in general you will try and build up from light to powerful.

One issue, however, that I have come across regularly in tastings, is the contrast between ripe and fresh in red wines. What do I mean with that? Let’s take the example of Burgundy again : if you follow the basic guidelines, you will want to start with the Burgundy (so a pinot noir) before you move to wines with more body/alcohol or wines with more tannins. My experience is that it works, as long as you stay in the same category of “freshness”. If you move from a Burgundy to a Loire Cabernet Franc and then to a Bordeaux, for example, that will perfectly work out. It’s more difficult when you move from a fresh, cool-climate style of wine to something riper. The last time I experienced that was when I had a glass of Valpolicella Superiore after I came home from a tasting of Loire Cabernet Franc. The Valpolicella came across as sweet, something I had not experienced when I drank that wine before. Normally I would perceive the fruit of the Valpolicella as ripe, but in balance with the acidity. When I had it after the Loire Cabernet Franc, I perceived it as sweet, round, and lacking tension. We’re talking about the same wine!

So when I had a blind tasting at my place last week with two Burgundy lovers, I decided to experiment a bit with the order. I reckoned that if I put the riper wines before the  fresher, more elegant wines, the riper wines would show well and there would not be a negative effect on the fresher wines that followed.

These are the red wines I gave :

  1. The Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2016 of Stefano Mancinelli. (in my previous blog post you can read that these are very aromatic wines, with loads of ripe fruit)
  2. The Valpolicella Superiore 2014 of Roccolo Grassi, also relatively ripe, but very nicely balanced.
  3. The Barolo Ascheri 2015 of Reverdito, a very typical Barolo with ripe red fruit, and strong tannins.
  4. The Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 of Charlopin, the most elegant in the line-up with nice strawberries, relatively ripe though for a Burgundy.

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I gave the wines in this order. And as I had hoped for, the Italian wines were appreciated at their true value and were even lauded for their freshness. My two companions being absolute Burgundy lovers, I knew it was not obvious that they would like the Italian wines, especially the Valpolicella, which was the same wine that I found sweet after a Loire Cabernet Franc. So the experiment was successful! Almost…

If I could re-do the tasting, I would probably change one thing. I would put the Barolo last instead of the Gevrey-Chambertin. You can probably guess why : the tannins. The Gevrey was ready to drink and did not have very strong tannins. The Barolo, however, had tightened up a couple of hours after opening. The wine was actually very balanced and accessible just after opening the bottle. A few hours later the tannins had become quite prominent, very much typical Barolo tannins. And that made the transition to the Gevrey less smooth than I had wished.

That goes to show that reversing the order will not always work. I would not start with a very structured Australian Shiraz to finish with a fragile Burgundy. But you can play with the order of a couple of red wines in your line-up. If both wines have a tannin level that is more or less equivalent, and one has riper fruit than the other, then try putting the riper one first. And let me now if that worked!

 

 

 

 

New Etna Rosso finds

It’s about two years ago now (time flies!) that I took a closer look at Etna Rosso and recommended a few wines I liked. As I like to explore new things, I haven’t had Etna Rosso for a while, but recently I felt like going back to these intriguing wines. What I already mentioned in my previous post about Etna Rosso is confirmed in the wines I had this time as well : there is not one profile for Etna Rosso. Terroir and vintage are usually elements that are given to explain the differences, but my impression is that the style of the winery is just as important.

Here are three Etna Rossos I can wholeheartedly recommend :

ER 2014, Etna Rosso, Theresa Eccher

2014 is considered a difficult year for Italy, but things turned out relatively well for Sicily. Decanter’s Michael Garner describes the Etna Rossos of this vintage as balanced and perfumed, delicious to drink young. Theresa Eccher’s ER is very light in color. There is already some evolution here, the red fruit no longer being the freshly cut fruit that was probably there a couple of years ago. A hint of coffee, cedar, and a fresh, leafy herbaceousness give this wine an elegant and fresh profile. This is a very light type of Etna Rosso, for sure not one that is built to last. If the comparison with Burgundy is one that you often hear for Etna Rosso, then it is certainly applicable for this one. If you have this vintage, drink up, it’s in a nice spot now, and will not get better.

Nero Nibali 2015, Etna Rosso, Vino Nibali

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Very aromatic, the ripe red fruit comes floating out of the glass. There is a spiciness that reminds me of curry powder, and a hint of barnyard that adds to the complexity of the wine. A touch of noble cedar wood makes it complete. At this stage the wine is still very much fruit driven, but there is a structure behind it all that the ER of Theresa Eccher did not have. The tannins are ripe and give a bit of bite, which I like. Despite that, the global feeling I have here is one of satin softness. The savoury spiciness sets this wine very much apart from Theresa Eccher’s Etna Rosso. Beautiful!

Archineri 2012, Etna Rosso, Pietradolce

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Very ripe nose, with dried fruit, plum, spices, cigar. Very luscious wine, with also a hint of black chocolate in the background, kept sufficiently fresh by a good acidic backbone. The ripe/fresh contrast is quite big, but it works out well, the two keeping each other nicely in balance. If I didn’t know what this was, I might have guessed this was a Brunello… 2012 was a very hot vintage, so this could explain the very ripe fruit here. I am curious to try other vintages of this wine. Being able to deliver a wine in balance in such a hot vintage clearly proves craftmanship!

Conclusion :

Three different styles but three lovely wines. It was nice to reconnect with these volcanic wines and to see that the quality of these randomly bought bottles was very good . The focus on Etna wines these days does not only reflect a hype, but also the fact that this is simply a region that produces great wines.

Sangiovese : how well does it stand the test of time?

I had the luck to participate in a tasting of old Sangioveses. Not having a proper cellar to keep wines for decades myself, I was very happy to be given this chance. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a Sassicaia 1991 thrown into the deal! But more about that later.

Honestly, I wasn’t convinced of the ageing potential of Sangiovese… I have a difficult relationship with this grape. I have had very good experiences, but also less good ones. I like Sangiovese when the fruit is not cooked or too jammy, and when the alcohol levels are under control. But in recent vintages, alcohol levels of 14,5% or even 15% were more often the rule than the exception.  The fruit of those wines tends to evolve to dried fruit, and unless there’s good supporting acidity underneath that, such wines can be rather heady.

So when the opportunity came to taste a few really old Sangioveses, I knew I had to do this to finally know if these wines are worth cellaring for a couple of decades. When I say really old, they were indeed really old, the oldest bottle being a 1971… This was the line-up :

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  1. Isole e Olena 1983, Chianti Classico
  2. Brolio Riserva 1971, Chianti Classico, Barone Ricasoli
  3. La Casa 1979, Brunello di Montalcino, Tenuta Caparzo
  4. Il Poggione 1977, Brunello di Montalcino
  5. Tenuta Sant’Agnese 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  6. Avignonesi 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  7. Sassicaia 1991, (at that time still) Vino da Tavola

A really exciting line-up, with a perfect spread over the three most important wine producing regions for Sangiovese! Already the fact that I was going to taste a few wines that had spent more time on this planet than I have, was something to look out for. And yet, at the same time, I was kind of preparing myself for wines that were dead on their feet.

Isole e Olena 1983

The first wine was already immediately a surprise, because it appeared much younger than I had expected. Black cherry, plum, chocolate, tobacco, leather, a touch of cedar wood. Beautiful nose! The mouth feel was surprisingly fresh, and the wine even had some tannins still. Based on the nose I perhaps expected a wine with a bit more body, but still, this Chianti was alive and kicking. Good start! When I came back to this wine a bit later it was evolving to aromas of black tea, which I found less attractive, so no long airing needed here.

Brolio Riserva 1971

Twelve years further back in time, and that was immediately obvious, the color having evolved to copper/amber. It took a while for the aromas to show as there was a bit of dustiness that had to be whirled out the glass. After a couple of minutes we finally got some dried fruit, chocolate, dried spices, and even raisins. The wine was relatively thin, although not completely dead. Still a bit of dried fruit and chocolate, but it was clear that the best years of this Brolio were long gone.

La Casa 1979

Still ruby red with a brick colored rim signalling the evolution. Great nose! Dried fruit, floral tones, cedar wood, chocolate, plum, nutmeg, and a touch of animality. Very complex. The wine is very intense and deep, fresh as well, and still displays ripe red fruit. The balance here is remarkable. This wine is now perfect. Amazing after 40 years…

Il Poggione 1977

Clearly evolved color. The aromas come timidly out of the glass. Still some red fruit, spices, a touch of iron. It opens up a bit more after a while in the glass. After the impressive La Casa this wine appears a bit thinner, but it’s especially the tannins that draw the attention here, being a bit rough even after more than 40 years in the bottle. The balance is not completely right.

Sant’Agnese 1979

Transparent and evolved in color. Not very expressive, the fruit is ripe or dried even. There’s something dusty here as well. A touch of cedar and pine tree. In comparison to the previous wines, this Vino Nobile is a bit warmer, riper, and the acidity is lower than in the previous wines. Still noticeable tannines here. Good effort, but I personally prefer the elegance and freshness of the Brunellos.

Avignonesi 1979

Remarkably dark color in comparison with the previous wines. Quite a different nose also : black cherry, rubber, dried fruit, liquorice, coffee. Again a warmer impression in this Vino Nobile and again slightly drying tannins. The wine did evolve nicely in the glass, however, opening up beautifully with aromas of tobacco and more cedar wood. 40 years old and still margin. Hard to believe.

Before I move on to the Sassicaia : what’s my conclusion after these 6 Sangioveses? Well it’s clear that Sangiovese is worth tucking away in your cellar for a long, long time. Apart from the Brolio, all the wines were still in a good shape, which was much more than I had hoped for before the tasting. But not only were they not dead, most still displayed beautiful fruit aromas, noble cedar wood, and above all freshness. The Vino Nobiles were a bit warmer, but the Brunellos and the Isole e Olena were very fresh, even salivating wines, a characteristic I don’t often find in todays Sangioveses. That things have changed in Tuscany since the 1970s was probably the most obvious in the alcohol levels : all wines had between 12,5% and 13,5%. Difficult to imagine that nowadays…

If you were wondering about the Sassicaia, I will not beat about the bush : it was corked! What a bummer… But still, there are a couple of things worth mentioning for Sassicaia fans. 1991 was the vintage that received a 81 score in Wine Spectator, not a glorious score for  one of the world’s most famous wines. It is described as a wine that was thinner than other vintages. On top of that, Monica Larner, the Italian reviewer for The Wine Advocate, wrote this in April 2017 :

The 1991 Sassicaia has reached the end of the line. It shows overly oxidized aromas of dried meat, old leather and dried fig. This was a hot vintage and the bottom has dropped out on any residual fruit or fiber. The mouthfeel is tight, gritty and there’s a sudden note of bitterness on the finish. The effect is flat and void of any significant dimension. However, you do feel the vintage heat.

So I had no high hopes for this Sassicaia. When I discovered it had cork taint, I was even more disappointed of course. But I could still tell that this was not a wine that had “reached the end of the line”, quite the contrary actually, I could still discern loads of fresh fruit. Despite the off aromas there was still a glimpse of an elegant and vibrant wine, making the disappointment that it was corked even bigger. So if you’re lucky enough to have Sassicaia 1991 in your cellar, no reason to rush! Then why did Monica Larner say it was at the end of the line? Could it have been a badly stored bottle? Or was there bottle variation? It’s interesting to read the reviews on Cellartracker : some are really raving, while others mention oxidation. I wished there was a second bottle to put to the test, but alas…

To sweeten the pill our host came up with a replacement bottle for the Sassicaia : the Col d’Orcia 1991, Brunello di Montalcino. A good deal younger than the other Sangioveses we tasted earlier on, but still 28 years old! The difference in age was noticeable quite well : still loads of fruit, blueberry, rosemary, tobacco, leather, cedar. Great nose. The tannins were still present but in general the balance was good. Great length as well! Very enjoyable now, but still so many things going on that it can easily hold up for at least another decade!

And that was the end of a great evening. La Casa of Tenuta Caparzo was my personal favorite, but it was definitely not the only oldie with a good performance. This tasting illustrated very aptly how good aged Sangiovese can be. Anyone up for a follow-up tasting in 40 years?

 

A few Taste Bud-worthy Barberas

Barbera is probably not the sexiest grape to write about. It’s not the kind of trophy wine you see on top of wine tasting lists. And yet, it’s one of Italy’s most-planted native grapes. You can find it in many regions but it’s in Piedmont that it shines. Or should I say, tries to shine? I suppose nebbiolo will probably always be the first grape that springs to mind when you think of Piedmont. But nebbiolo and barbera are two very different grapes and produce very different wines. Nebbiolo is late ripening, while barbera is earlier ripening (still later than dolcetto though). Barbera wines are often very dark, while nebbiolo is very transparent. And barbera is low in tannins, while nebbiolo tends to produce very robust and tannic wines. The only thing they have in common is the high acidity. So all in all, despite the fact they are grown in the same area, there is very little common ground.

The reason why I find barbera interesting, however, is because it occupies a place where you don’t find many other grapes. Just think of the usual suspects in red : cabernet sauvignon or franc, merlot, syrah, grenache. Or popular Italian grapes, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, and montepulciano. None of them really has the same characteristics as barbera. Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young. The acidity of the grape is also a grateful partner for tomato based sauces. Think bolognese or puttanesca sauces with pasta. For me that’s comfort food with comfort wine. Perfect for those evenings when you want to treat yourself with a nice meal without having to spend hours in the kitchen…

I focused a bit on barbera in the past few months to explore the grape. In general I found that I prefer the Barbera d’Asti over the Barbera d’Alba. In Alba we are in Barolo territory, so it’s nebbiolo that is in the spotlight here. It’s therefore no wonder that wineries choose to use their best vineyards for nebbiolo, as Barolo can be sold at much higher prices than any barbera. In Asti things are different, because barbera does not have to share the attention with nebbiolo. In general I found that Barbera d’Asti is a bit more full-bodied and with more pronounced acidity than Barbera d’Alba, the latter being a bit warmer, rounder. Of course it’s difficult to generalise not having tasted dozens of barberas from Alba, but the Albas I had were not from obscure unknown wineries, so I suppose they were representive for Alba.

The second conclusion I draw from my experience is that barbera is a winemaker’s grape. Despite my feeling that barberas are best when they are juicy and fresh, some were very modern, with very strong wood aromas, obviously more geared towards an international palate. Those are not bad wines per se, but they loose their unique selling proposition. However, the grape allows it, contrary to  terroir grapes such as nebbiolo or pinot noir, which need very cautious extraction and use of wood.

So here’s a few barbera’s I can recommend…

If you’re looking for good, textbook barbera :

Tre Roveri 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Pico Maccario

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The nose is loaded with ripe dark cherries, yet at the same time it has a spicy freshness. The fruit is evolving towards dried fruit, showing a bit of evolution. The wine is rather full-bodied, but has the typical barbera acidity that keeps this wine fresh, nicely covering the 14% alcohol. Actually, this wine was best on day two, showing more elegance and perfect balance. So no hurry here.

If you want to show off :

Vigna Scarrone 2012 Barbera d’Alba, Vietti

Beautiful, well integrated nose with cherries and a whiff of  chocolate. Elegant and complex, with multiple layers and very long finale! No doubt that barbera transcends its peers here, but it also costs more than 30€. That’s a price point where the competition with premium wines from other grapes starts getting really tough. I know that that is comparing apples and oranges. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone does? Nevertheless, great effort.

Nizza 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, Dacapo

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Picture courtesy of the Associazione dei Produttori del Nizza

This is a barbera from the subzone of Nizza which was in 2011 still a part of the denominazione of Barbera d’Asti, but exists separately as DOCG Nizza since 2014. Before that barbera could still be complemented by 10% other grapes. Now it is 100% barbera.

The wine is a bit evolved and the nose has become a nice bouquet where everything has blended beautifully together. The morello cherries stand out, together with a bit of coffee. The ripe fruit is balanced by a razorsharp acidity that might be over the top for some, but I like it. I had it with ragu alla bolognese and that went very well. But mind you, this is more than just a simple spaghetti wine!

If you’re looking for a good price quality ratio :

Soliter 2016, Barbera d’Asti, Pescaja

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This is a barbera that can be found around 10€ and it gives very good value for money. It’s a modern barbera, the wood is still very noticeable, but then again it’s also a very young wine. Beautiful ripe cherries as well and a hint of black pepper. This is a very smooth wine that makes you grab the bottle as soon as your glass is empty. Dangerous stuff!

Piova 2014, Barbera d’Asti, La Montagnetta

Another pleasant easy-drinking barbera at around 10€. Graphite, black cherries, chocolate, and a hint of rose. Quite ripe and round, and the wood is very present. Good and lively acidity that give this wine freshness. Very modern style, but pleasant wine.

So these a couple of barberas that I liked. I did not post all the barberas I tasted here in order to avoid a too lenghthy post, but I started using Vivino to post my tasting notes there, so if you’re interested in the other barberas I tried, you can find them there if you go to my profile.

Cheers!