Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Italian wines: what happens when heritage grapes get cutting edge winemaking

Very few wine producing nations bring as much panache to their tastings as do the Italians.

The Italian Trade Commission recently sponsored its ninth annual tasting in Vancouver, a gala affair in which producer tables occupied two-thirds of a large Convention Centre ballroom. The other third was, of course, devoted to fo0d. The Italians know how to eat and drink.

The Italians have sponsored tastings in Toronto and Montreal for 19 years; those cities are the major Canadian markets for Italian wine. In the last decade, Italy has made more of an effort in Western Canada as well, trying to win away consumers that buy most of their wine from Australia, California, South America and British Columbia.

Perhaps half of the 37 wineries at the Vancouver tasting have no wines in the market. Those wineries were looking for agents and listings in the BC Liquor Distribution Branch.

The LDB currently lists 460 Italian products, including multiple sizes and fortified products. Sales of Italian wines in British Columbia in the 12 months ended September 30 totalled $59.2 million, up five per cent from the previous 12 months.

It is a sliver of the market. The LDB’s total sales in the same 12 months were just under $3 billion.  

But the Italian sliver is worth exploring, to discover the excellent “new world” styling of the wines. In the past decade or two, Italian producers have really raised the bar. And they are doing it with varietals that grow primarily in Italy. The taste profile of Italian wines is a refreshing change to palates that may have become jaded with Merlot and Shiraz.

To be sure, Italians also grow the French varieties, making excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. However, they understand their competitive edge does not require taking Australian Shiraz or Napa Cabernet head on.

Their edge comes from using varietals not even grown in much of the rest of the wine world. When you add those novel flavours to modern wine making, you get crisp, fresh whites without a trace of oxidation and you get juicy and appealing reds without the hard tannins of yesteryear.

Italy still offers the familiar brands that have been on the market for years and years, but made to improved quality standards. One example is a 45-year-old brand, Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Classico ($14.99), a crisp, refreshing white still being sold in the green hourglass shaped bottle. Many of us bought it initially because the bottles, like the Chianti in the “fiasco” served well as candle holder.

(The fiasco disappeared from the market for a while. Last year, the LDB restored it by listing Piccini Chianti ($15.99) in the straw “fiasco” bottle. I don’t believe the latter was among the wines in the trade commission’s show.)

Fazi Battaglia is an example of why the Italians are competitive. Verdicchio is an ancient variety that is planted widely in central Italy but hardly anywhere else. The LDB’s tasting notes speak of flavours of baked apple, hazelnut and ripe melon. The wine is light but it has its own personality.

All of the wines I was able to taste – and there was only time to skim the surface – were impressive. Some examples:

Farnese: This is a familiar name in this market. The brand has been here close to 20 years, arriving first with a $7 Sangiovese that the liquor stores could not keep in stock. Well, Farnese Sangiovese Daunia is now up to $9.99. The LDB  currently stocks 2,800 bottles, along with small quantities of another Farnese red and a Farnese white, also both $9.99.

Well, Farnese has gone up market. All of the six wines at the trade commission show would be priced between $22 and $40, if listed. I scored all but one higher than 90. Keep an eye peeled for Farnese Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2011 ($22.95), a delicious mouthful of black cherry, spicy fruit and chocolate.

Castello Banfi: This is a well known winery in Tuscany, currently with four excellent red wines in the LDB, all of which are 100% Sangiovese but all different in personality. Three were at the wine show. Rosso Di Montalcino 2010 ($26.99) is elegant and juice, with spice and plum favours. Brunello Di Montalcino 2007 ($59.95) has complex aromas of truffles and red berries and flavours of plum, fig, tobacco and chocolate. Brunello Di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2007 ($69.95) is even more concentrated and complex, with notes of black currants and coffee. These all are 90 to 92 point wines.

Casa Planeta is an excellent producer from Sicily, with six wines in the LDB, most of which were at the wine show. There is a crisp, fresh $15.99 Planeta White 2011, a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and an indigenous variety called Grecanico. The winery also has a $15.99 red, a blend of Syrah and Nero D’Avola, another indigenous grape. It was not at the show but, on the strength of the other wines, it is worth trying.

Moving up the ladder, there is Planeta Alastr0 2011 ($25.99, a 100% Grecanico white and a very interesting wine, with fresh, tangy lime-accented flavours. Cerasuolo Di Vittorio 2010 ($29.99) is made from two indigenous grape varieties, Nero D’Avola (60%) and Frappato. This is another intriguing wine, a red with aromas and flavours of pomegranate, plum and strawberry and with silky tannins. These are both 90 point wines, in my judgment. 

One of the producers that has not yet landed listings in B.C. is Marramiero, a winery from Abruzzo, the region on the coast east of Rome. The quality of the wines is high – none below 90. These included two made with Trebbiano, a widely grown Italian white and a versatile variety. One of the wines, Anima 2011, is a tank-fermented wine that displays floral aromas and appealing flavours of melon and apples. The other, Altare 2009, is made from grapes from 45-year-old vines. It was fermented and aged in oak barrels and given another year of bottle age. It is the most complex Trebbiano I have ever tasted, with the oak flavours cradling rich citrus flavours. The winemaker recommends aging this wine.

The winery’s three reds, all made from the Montepulciano grape variety, were big, rich reds, very satisfying to drink. They should be picked up for this market.

Another Abruzzo winery that is not here, but should be, is Azienda Agricola Nicola Di Sipio. Its offerings began with a delicious sparkling wine, Di Sipio Brut Spumante Metodo Classico, made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There were two excellent white wines made with blends of Pecorino, Falanghina and Trebbiano – one made in stainless steel and one barrel fermented. Finally, there were a solid pair of reds made from Montepulciano; the riserva 2007 reminded me a bit of a Rioja red.

The bottom line is that the Italians, by adopting cutting edge winemaking techniques but not jettisoning their traditional varietals, are producing wines that are unique.


At November 29, 2012 at 10:42 AM , Blogger Mari Kane
Wine Slut

Great article John!

At November 29, 2012 at 10:42 AM , Blogger Mari Kane
Wine Slut

Great article!


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