Italian wines are a tricky one. I'm down with my pizzas, pastas and gelatos, but it seems that with the wines, you either know them or you don't - I don't - and I'm finding that the more I learn about wine, the less I feel I know... Stop me from banging my head on the table and tell me this isn't just me, please!
The thing about Italian wines is that the country really is a vinous nightmare; so many regions, so many indigenous grapes. Firstly, you have to work out what the region is (usually on the label), then it's a game of guess the grape (generally not). To confuse things further, Montepulciano is both a region and a variety, but the grape isn't used in the wine that bears it's name!
THEN, if our puzzled expressions couldn't get much worse, we are given various classifications; "Classico" doesn't necessarily mean it's better, just that the vineyard is in the original defined area. "Riserva"on the label means it's been aged before release, but the time required varies by region, so who bloody knows?!
Confusion aside, Italy's offerings are undeniably good, and November's tasting at The Grape Escape saw us try and get to grips with some of the country's finest.
So, to start off any Italian tasting, there's only one thing for it; Prosecco! We're all used to paying about a fiver on the sweeter, less complex, crowd pleasing fizz - produced for volume not quality, it's the cheap alternative - so how do we feel about spending over a tenner on a bottle?
Carpene Malvolti Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG is from Italy's oldest family-owned Prosecco producer, founded by a chemist who was fascinated by Champagne who then strived to create a similar sparkling wine from the grapes grown in the hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Carpene Malvoti were the first to produce a sparkling wine make from Glera, in the process creating an incomparable wine with its own unique perfume, taste and style. Crisp apples, pear and stone fruit on the nose, it's got a bit of oomph on the palate in comparison to your average plonk, and whilst it's fruity and the bubbles are lively, it still feels like an elegant aperitif. Even our Prosecco hating host said he liked it! You can buy Carpene Malvolti Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore for £13.85 from Wine Poole.
Next, a wine that's had a bit of a bad rep in the past (probably down to the crap stuff you get in a box from the supermarket) but is now on the up; Soave. Ca'Rugate, from the Veneto, takes its name from the volcanic hills on which the vineyard is found. Due to the sunny little microclimate they have, and rich volcanic soil, the gentle sloping hills have always been a cradle for high quality wines. In fact, Ca'Rugate is well known for being one of the top 5 producers of high end Soave. This Soave Classico 'Monte Fiorente' 2013 is single vineyard, made with 100% Garganega grapes. It's rich aromas are flaunt stone fruit, lemon peel and orange blossom, with flinty smoky notes. There's a distinct cleanness on the palate; juicy, smooth, concentrated, with a bright but light acidity. Monte Fiorente 2013 is available to buy for £14.17 (in a case) from Strictly Wine.
Falanghina is a lesser know grape variety that we've discussed in Vinspire blog posts before. The Feudi di San Gregorio has carved out a standard for making world-class wines, and the 'Serrocielo' Falanghina del Sannio 2014, Campania, is one of them. The range of soils in the vineyards, along with the cool micro-climates found in the southwestern region, enable to winemakers to produce beautifully balanced, aromatic wines. The initial smell takes you straight to lemon sorbet - tart, fresh, citrusy - and this continues in the drinking; it's like a mash up of Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc, and it really makes your mouth water. Pair this with a creamy salmon pasta dish and you'll be in heaven. 'Serrocielo' Falanghina del Sannio is £15.50 from Wine Poole.
The last of the whites, Collavini 'Broy' Bianco Collio 2013, Friuli, was the first oaky/yeasty wine we had (thanks to being aged on the lees). Collavini pride themselves on modern style wines that still retain traditions and grape varieties native to the region; 'Broy', which comes from the strip of hills against the Slovenian border, offers a richer, more intense wine than other whites in the area. A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Friulano and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, it has a harmonious balance on the palate with fresh fruit flavours and a long and consistent finish. You can get something from each of the grapes - fleshy peaches (Chardonnay), asparagus ( Sauvignon) and minerality (Friulano) - and it feels a little reminiscent of some Californian Chardonnays; a true beauty. You can pick up Collavini 'Broy' Bianco for £30.07 from Wineman.
Moving onto reds, we began with Cantine San Marzano 'Talo' Primitivo di Manduria 2012, Puglia. In 1962 nineteen vine growers from San Marzano combined their efforts to create 'Cantine San Marzano'. The cooperative has grown significantly over the years, and their great wines have branded them as being one of the most professional, forward-thinking companies in Southern Italy. A punch of Primitivo's spicy warmth with plums and figs are just what's needed in this cold weather. It's a big wine; excellent concentration, rich and well balanced; the ripe fruits flavours ensure a persistent sweetness on the finish. Great for the money, you can get 'Talo' Primitivo for £12.95 from Wine Poole.
Chiarlo is one of Piedmont's stand out winemakers, and Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti 'La Court' 2011, is one to take note of. Maximum pruning and the thinning-out of clusters within the vineyards help create a particular style where the varietal and terroir characteristics are always evident. This is a supercharged Barbera d'Asti, where you get a face full of dark fruits, smoke and spice, which seductively leads you to a tangy acidity and well structured tannins. It has a lot more texture to it than the first, and everyone at the tasting agreed that it would make a fabulous wine to go with Christmas dinner! On that note, you can buy Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti 'La Court' 2011 from Strictly Wine for £36.66.
Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco 'Martinenga' 2006 is another from Piedmont and, as a rule, Barbaresco is the queen of Italian wines (big Barolos are king). With four estates in vineyards situated in the Langhe and Monferrato areas - recognised as the home of the region's greatest wines - grapes are brought to the central winery at Martinenga to be transformed into high quality wines such as this. The Nebbiolo grape gives a fresh, fruity nose, with rose, violet and tea tones, and whilst it's got some drying tannins, its choppy/blocky finish feels unbalanced and a little too young. Buy this one now and keep for a few years if you've got the dollar; £46.99 from Amazon.
Heading to Tuscany for the final two, we first had the Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2006. The prestige of Biondi Santi dates back to the 19th Century when they started making wine using an isolated clone of Sangiovese, and the first bottle of Brunello di Montalcino was bottled in 1888… That's 100 years before I was born - eek! 100% Sangiovese Grosso, this red has the characteristic black plums and sour cherry nose, which is complimented by woodland bark and earth. It's well structured, with smoothness and acidity working harmoniously, however it could probably benefit from a bit more time. I'd say it's still drinking well though - my glass disappeared far too quickly - so it may be worth getting it from Berry Bros & Rudd for £87.50 (in a case of 6).
Lastly, Antinori Guado al Tasso 2008. Until the 1970's, Tuscany was only really famous for the Sangiovese-based vinos, but then came along the Antinori family whose estate was one of the jewels of the Chianti DOC. They included Cabernet Sauvignon in a blend of their wine, aging it in small French barriques, and the scandal was audible all over the wine world, prompting them to sell it under the 'Vino di Tavola' label (aka table wine). It wasn't until 1985, when Robert Parker awarded a super 100 points to a cousin of Antinori, that people started to take notice of the Tuscan revolution wines.
This flagship wine, which was the hands down winner of best wine of the night, contains Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes. It's not as fruit driven on the nose as the other Italian wines we tried; I latched onto the idea of play-doh and pencil shavings, clearly missing those play school days(!). The initial hit gives you all those blackcurrant flavours you yearn for, along with sweet spices, coffee and tobacco; it's so smooth yet so concentrated, and the vein of acidity that runs through is moreish. The thing which dazzled us most was that in every sip the flavours arrived in a different order, making sure you're kept on your toes, not guzzling it without a second thought. Get Antinori Guado al Tasso 2008 in a case of six for £58.34 from Berry Bros & Rudd.
All in all, I think we sampled a good range of Italian wines, and although I think I will always be a little confused by them, being able to taste a range of grape varieties side by side has given me a bit more insight into what I like. I shall certainly be buying more Italian whites!
Out of the twenty people that were there, the best value wine votes went equally to the Ca'Rugate Soave Classico 'Monte Fiorente' and the Cantine San Marzano 'Talo' Primitivo di Manduria; both under 15 bucks. Salute!