Archive for the ‘Italian wine’ Category

Longparish’s Italian tour

I love writing pieces for this website but just occasionally it is good to have another voice, somebody’s else take on a tasting. So here is the view of Tim Pierce, owner of GrapeExpectations, on the giro d’Italia which I led with his wines. It was a real pleasure to be in Longparish, just outside Andover, and to meet so many friendly imbibers, both new to me and some good friends.  There were some really drinkable wines here. My favourite?  The Verdicchio … Tim writes:

Line up Monday evening was a very successful tasting with Andover Wine Friends in Longparish Village Hall. Lead by David Way, the wines were all supplied by me. Janet & I managed to squeeze out 33 samples from two bottles of each wine. Quite a feat but everyone had more than sufficient to taste.

The theme was Wines of Italy, with a different selection from the highly successful, ‘For Love of Wines’ Italian tasting, the previous month. We wandered from the Alpine hills of Trentino- Alto Adidge with a very fresh, summery Terrazze della Luna: Nosiola 2013 (£7.95),; through Veneto with an off dry, very berrish (pink) Fabiano Prosecco (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Pinot Noir!) which I really like, to a simply delicious Colle Stefano 2013 Verdicchio di Matelico DOC  (£10.65). Forget the “wishy washy” dry white in the ‘Gina Lollobrigida’ bottles of the 1970’s, this is really classy from the hills bordering Umbria. Fragrance of almond blossom with a refined mouthwatering, almond palate, it was so well received I have entirely sold out, until the next delivery. Delicious!

(Just for your information. If I don’t have a wine currently in stock, it won’t be featured on the website. So no link, it’s not currently in stock. I will update web-site as wines are available).

The ‘star red’ was a modest Barbera D’Asti DOC ‘Ceppi Storici’ 2011. This has been  a ‘star buy’ with me for the past three years. Made by a giant co-operative in Piedmonte, its gutsy ripe cherry fruit with supple tannins just beg for a bowl of pasta or a good Neapolitan pizza, at the very modest price of £8.45. Don’t worry, the label might have changed (for the better?) but the wine is the same great value.

The ‘original Zinfandel’: Primitivo di Manduria DOC 2011 was well received by our American host & the large majority of tasters, as was the Fabiano Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2008. For an Amarone so young, its is very forward. Bursting with rich ripe cherry fruit, ripe figs, liquorice & wood smoke it is quite delicious & considering the tiny volumes made & the incredible method of production, still a snip at £30.





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Gravner’s orange wine at L’Ortolan

Janet and I have been meaning to go to L’Ortolan, the Michelin-starred restaurant near Reading, for longer than I can remember, a couple of decades perhaps.  It sprang to fame as John Burton-Race’s place (long before celebrity beckoned) but today it is in the talented hands of Alan Murchison.  Janet tried to book online for my birthday but it was a Friday lunch and full. So she rang up and was offered the chef’s table … and without really understanding what that meant said ‘yes’. She has good instincts! 

Alan Murchison presides over and directs one of the best kitchens in England with a calm and polite manner. The kitchen is a model of quiet concentration and productivity.  Orders are passed once by the head chef with a ‘please’, timings given in a tone which clearly implies that the team are his colleagues. He assembles, tweaks, checks and occasionally corrects.  While he is doing that, he talks to the guests on the chef’s table who are a couple of feet from the action.  The food tastes as good as it looks, the portion control and pacing are perfect.

L’Ortolan also has an enterprising wine list with more than a smattering of off-piste bottles of which we certainly had one. Josko Gravner is famous for the production of ‘orange’ wine, oxidative in style, vinified in amphora and matured in large traditional barrels.  Culturally, it is quite difficult to imagine many greater gaps in Europe than between a Michelin-starred restaurant in affluent Berkshire and the biodynamic viticulture which Gravner practices on the Italian/Slovenian border but contemporary life is full of such contrasts . This was the top, four-way blend (Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling Italico, ie central Europe’s Welschriesling), called Breg 2002.  In colour, the wine was orange heading towards amber.  The liquid was so clear that I could take photos of the kitchen at work through it. Thus, despite being the last word in low intervention wine, it was crystal clear. 

What strikes you principally about the wine is the volume in the mouth. Yes, there is fresh and cooked peachy fruit but the wine has a solidity and substance which makes it stand out.  It is a wine which reminds you that wine is a food as much as a drink, one of the principles of Italy’s natural wine movement. 

Breg is an excellent all-the-way-through-a-meal wine.  There is real refreshment here to match delicate dishes like the seared tuna but also enough weight to stand up to the foie gras ‘sandwich’, where the cherry cuts through the fattiness of the main ingredient. It also went perfectly with the pork which followed – though I had a glass of the restaurant’s selection of a surprisingly good Loire Pinot Noir with this.  You would need to move to something quite different to match the remarkable intensity of the chocolate disc.  What was remarkable was the wine’s relative freshness.  Unlike modern wines made in stainless steel, it has been made in a way which does not rigorously exclude oxygen. This both contributes the slight ‘marmalade’ tone to the nose and palate but then the wine has remained very stable in the bottle for its ten year repose.  It had not developed ageing notes but merely rounded out and perhaps filled out.  A triumph. 

Whether you go to L’Ortolan for the food, the wine or the whole experience, it is a triumph. 

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Rare Italian varieties

It is a great moment when a book is published which genuinely marks a substantive change in our knowledge. For decades, wine people have been dependent on Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The world atlas of wine and the same team’s Oxford companion to wine as their basic reference books.  Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand on grape varieties, Grapes and wines, has not had quite the same stature though it is invaluable; in fact in terms of what varieties taste like it is will continue to be essential reading.  But it is no exaggeration to say that we have a new standard work in J Robinson (her again), Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes: a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours (Penguin 2012). This article is not a full review of this family-bible sized tome but in passing we note its comprehensiveness (all varieties in commercial production) and above all, for the first time ever, the combination of established wine knowledge (volumes, places, flavours) with the results of a decade and a half of new work on DNA testing of varieties. The latter has revolutionised our understanding of the relationships between varieties. The book also is a fantastic resource on wine names in written sources, less revolutionary than the science but also very interesting. 

The man behind the science is the Swiss plant geneticist José Vouillamoz.   At a seminar at Vinitaly 2013, he recounts the moment which changed his life.  Jancis Robinson had asked Carole Meredith of Davis to collaborate on the project which became Wine grapes.  Meredith is the mother figure of the new science having IMG_0712_thumb[1]demonstrated as recently as 1997 to an amazed world that Cabernet Sauvignon was not an indigenous variety grown since time began in Bordeaux but  a relatively modern cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.  But Professor Meredith was about to retire from her academic post to go and grow vines … there is soul for you.  Instead she recommended a young Swiss scientist who had worked with her and in Italy who might just do the job.  He had already surprised the world of Italian wine by demonstrating in 2004, á la Meredith, that Sangiovese was not an historical Tuscan (or Etruscan) variety but the offspring of the little regarded if at its best, high quality Ciliegiolo and a variety, probably from Calabria, which nobody had heard of, Calabrese Montenuovo.  José remembers thinking that the new project, summarizing the results of the new DNA-based science, might be six months’ work. Four years of painstaking labour later he has contributed the DNA profiles of the varieties we do now know about and mapped the relationships in his contribution to this remarkable book.  Combined with the formidable wine knowledge of Julia Harding and the collaborator-in-chief Jancis, they have collectively put a whole generation of wine students in their permanent debt. 

But the great thing about the wine world is the way that it combines hard work (in the field, the winery, university or at the blogger’s laptop) with a celebration of life, with Founder varietiesfun.  Thus, to launch the book at Vinitaly, José put together a tasting of ‘unusual Italian varieties’.  This is entirely appropriate as it turns out that there are no fewer than 377 varieties in commercial production in Italy, the largest number for any country. France for example has 204.  Of the six varieties chosen here I had heard of, indeed tasted, two before:  Prié from Aosta and Raboso Piave from the north east.  But Dorona di Venezia, Cordenosa, Uvalino or Nieddera? 


Blanc de Morgex et la Salle, Maison Albert Vevey, Valle d’Aosta, 2012 – made from the Prié variety, the vines are grown at between 900 and 1200m of altitude, on the border between Italy and France.  They are trained on a low pergola system to reflect the heat off the ground to enhance ripening. José informs us that one of Prié’s parents is Lughienga Bianca and, rather surprisingly, one of its offspring is Airen, which dominates thousands of hectares of the Spanish Meseta.  It is difficult to imagine two more different wine locations than the central Spanish plateau with its near desert conditions and the Valle d’Aosta!  The wine is near water white, with light, floral and hay notes on the nose. Surprisingly full flavoured (stone fruit, salt note, slight final bitterness) it has high acidity (8-8.5g TA) and medium length. 

Venissa, Tenuta Venissa, 2011 -  the planting of the Dorona di Venezia variety stretches to the limit the concept of ‘in commercial production’. This is a one-vineyard variety grown only on one hectare. But it is a very special hectare the Isola Mazzorbo, an island in the Venetian lagoon next to the better known Burano. The settlement is a predecessor of the current city of Venice, long abandoned.  (There is a fine picture of the vineyard and island the Dobianchi website.  The variety has long been confused with the common Garganega; indeed it is a cross between Bermestia Bianca and Garganega.  The reason it is in production is due to the historical interest and the backing of the important Prosecco family, Bisol, who own the vineyard.  To add to the interest it is produced in a bottle which recalls the glass making of Venice and enhances mid-gold colour of the wine with its rich palate of mango and honey with just a hint of varnish or shoe polish on the nose.  The wine is made in a very traditional manner with 30 days of skin contact and there are perceptible tannins as a result. 


Ros de Sanzuàn, Emilio Bulfon, Vino Rosso, 2011 – another one hectare speciality, this time from the Cordenosa variety with as yet unknown parentage. It comes from Emilio Buffon who has a collection of unusual local varieties in Italy’s most north easterly region Friuli Venezia Giulia. Very fruity on nose and palate with candied strawberry carried forward by 20 g/l residual sugar, rustic, sweeter than off-dry.

Uceline, Monferrato Rosso DOC, Cascina Castlèt, Piemonte, 2008 – made from Uvalino, the third and final member of the one-hectare club and related to the ‘not in production’ Neretto di Marengo.  Unusually harvested as late as end of October / beginning of December.  Black cherry fruit, pepper, dry, good acidity, high tannins; needs time.  Apparently has high levels of resveratrol (anti-oxidant).  

Rosso, Valle del Tirso IGT, Attilio Contini, 2010 -  where is the Nieddera I hear you say? Well here it is.  Grown on a massive 60 hectares in Sardinia – with that ‘dd’ combination of consonants it has to be Sardo!  Perhaps Spanish in origin, like many Sardinian varieties.  Juicy black fruit, black cherry, mint, almond; fine medium plus tannins, long finish of sour cherry. 

Gelsaia, Piave Malanotte DOCG, Cecchetto, 2009 – Raboso Piave is responsible for this intense wine grown on 11 hectares in the Veneto. Deep ruby in colour in colour, complex prune, chocolate and blackcurrant cordial with some residual sweetness, fine medium plus tannins and remarkably long. the secret here is that 20% of the grapes go through a partial drying out to concentrate flavours and sugar. Raboso might mean ‘sharp’ in the local patois but in fact this variety is made in a whole range of styles from sparkling to passito though the residual sugar does help with the acidity and the tannins. 

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Artisan wines of Piemonte

The still wines of Piemonte region have a something of a double reputation.  On the one hand bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco are among Italy’s greatest and most sought after wines.  Some of them have a price tag to match.  Then on the other hand there are inexpensive reds from less prestigious areas, made from higher yielding varieties, and, let’s be honest, often rather dull Gavi.  It tells us how far wine culture has come in the UK when we remember that Gavi used to be a staple of the UK restaurant trade, a beacon of sophistication in a country without wine! 

Nowadays, with the wines of the world to chose from, more discerning UK customers will be looking for distinctive wines that reflect their origins and reasonable value for money.  On the first point, Piemonte can be a star. It has a clutch of varieties of real distinction, some famous, some not, with particular climate and soil types.  On value for money it is more of a struggle.  The Wine Society has the remarkably characterful Nebbiolo/Dolcetto blend, Bricco Rosso Suagnà, at £6.75 a bottle – but it is the exception which breaks the rule.  Otherwise the best buys are from cooperatives such as Araldica, but you have to pick and choose for wines of some real interest. 

Into this field now comes the brain child of Noel and Tricia Desnos who source wines in the region from small, hitherto unimported, wineries at very good prices. Andover Wine Friends’ tasting of April 2013 put these wines to the ‘distinctiveness’ and value for money test.    Let’s start with the two stars of the evening.  

Minola Barbera

Barbera is a very versatile grape variety which has at least three main styles – inexpensive jug wine, sometimes fizzy, which can be good or very ordinary; quality fruit-led varietal wine; and quality varietal wine which has been oaked.  The first is not available in the UK, the second I comment on below, and third was well represented by Minola, Barbera del Monferrato, Azienda Agricola Nuova Cappelletta, 2008.  This wine comes from the area most associated with Barbera and one where it – and not Nebbiolo – gets the best vineyard sites. The grower states that this wine always makes 15%, whatever the year, and that it has the highest recorded level of colour components in tests in the local lab – clearly something to brag about in the bar!  It comes from certified biodynamically farmed grapes with a substantial two weeks of maceration time, which produces all those anthocyanins.  It is then aged for a year in barriques and bottled with a low level of sulphur dioxide.  It showed dense black plum colour and a really good balance between plummy fruit and the smoke and leather notes derived from its time in barrels. The fruit covers the alcohol all too convincingly and is offset by Barbera’s trademark acidity. The tannins are quite chunky but this would be excellent with food. The wine certainly more than passes the distinctiveness test and is remarkable value at just over £12. 

The evening’s other prima donna was competing in a rather stiffer context: Barolo.  Here we are not looking just for competence and some complexity but for real vinous excitement.  Barolo, SA.PE.RI 2004 certainly provided that. If you wanted a textbook example of what fine, structured, ageable, Nebbiolo is about – at a reasonable price – you need to look no further.  A true pale-brick colour, as you lift the glass to your nose you are met with a waft of complex fragrance – red fruit, smoke, floral notes, a hint of something earthy.  In the mouth this has the volume  and structure which would make it work well with big meat dishes, with ripe red fruit and tar, and then the tannic wall which characterises this variety. The fruit, high acidity and tannins should mean it will develop well over the next ten years.  Highly drinkable now with rich food, good value at £20. 

At this point I will sneak in one more star wine: mildly fizzy, a nose and palate of rose blossom, orange citrus notes and grapiness, attractive sweetness in the mouth, it can only be the minor classic that is Moscato d’Asti, again from SA.PE.RI.  Just 5.5% of alcohol and £9.50 a bottle.  Partially fermented grape must of a high quality, the sweetness comes not from later additions of sugar but from the original grapes themselves.

the redsOther wines tasted

Basaricó, Sauvignon, Langhe DOC, Adriano Vini, 2010 – very pleasant peach and herbal notes on the nose joined by some well-tamed green fruit on the mouth-filling palate with a bit of welcome steeliness. Very commendable if an unusual variety to find in the Langhe. 

Cortese, Piemonte DOC, Nuova Capelletta, 2010 – made with the Gavi grape, this is sold as unsulphited wine and sadly it showed.   Some burnt toffee and celery notes on the nose, then an oxidised palate. It didn’t have the fruit or the intensity to carry off the oxidation. Maybe a faulty bottle, maybe just too old, maybe inadequately protected.  PS we tried another bottle of this a couple of weeks later and it was much better – rich, peachy nose and palate, some attractive citrus rind, medium plus length, slightest oxidative touch which was an enhancement not a distraction.

Roero Arneis, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2010 – made from the currently and rightly, fashionable white grape of Piemonte, Arneis, I was anxious about this as Arneis has to be really good if it is not really young.  But it carried its few years lightly.  Not a huge nose but then floral, quite exotic fruit and commendable continuing freshness. 

Barbera d’Alba, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2008 – our example of quality unoaked Barbera if at a modest price level (£9.65) grown in the sandy soils of the Roero.  This wine real split opinion.  I and some others liked the dry, sharp cherry palate with decent persistence, a good light summer red, others did not. 

Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2008 – often sold as a ‘junior Barolo’ this is really not the case as it does not have the complexity. But this example did have attractive smoky red berried fruit, freshness and a taut palate.  Good value at £9.65. 

Basarin, Barbaresco DOCG Riserva, Adriano Vini, 2005 – classic Nebbiolo perfume on the nose, bright strawberry fruit, high chewy, somewhat unresolved tannins, medium plus persistence, very good value at under £15. 

Ravera, Barolo DOCG, Azienda Agricola Cagliero 2005 – a rather more traditional style Barolo than the SA.PE.RI above with clove and red and a hint of black fruit on nose and palate, those dense chewy tannins again, very good but still needs time to soften and develop more complexity. But again a steal at £21.50.

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A Barbera weekend

Barbera, a grape variety common in Piemonte and in much of northern Italy, does not have much of a press.  In the Langhe, where Nebbiolo reigns in the form of Barolo and Barbaresco, it was seen mainly as a short-term wine to drink while you waited, in the old days for 10 years, for your Barolo to come around.  Elsewhere it was regarded as a commodity grape, northern Italy’s answer to the Sangiovese which dominates central Italy.  The fact that there were ‘frivolous’ lightly sparkling reds – frizzante – from Barbera did not exactly help, though lightly chilled on a hot day they can be very appetising.  But when looked at positively, Barbera’s versatility is a real strength.  Depending on where it is grown and how it is treated it can turn out almost any style from dull, thin acidic jug wine to rich, ageable, rounded wines of international quality.  Barbera’s appeal to the grower is obvious – it is reliable, relatively early cropping (two weeks before Nebbiolo and from less good sites) and can give high yields. If you regard wine as a food you will plant it anywhere you can.  If you want density and finesse, you have to work rather harder and accept much lower yields. 

This last weekend Janet and I drank three interesting, contrasting examples.  At the moment Janet is choosing all the wines we drink so that I get to taste them blind.  It is a big responsibility for her and a real challenge for me!  She is signed up Barbera-lover for its tre Barberasimple red fruit, usually unoaked, and characteristic high acidity.  She is not overly impressed by tannins so its low tannin count is a bonus.  We started on Friday with a bottle we have had for a few years but which I had forgotten about.  No doubt we bought Barbera d’Alba DOC, Enzo Boglietti 2007 in an attempt to bring down the average, per bottle, price of his outstanding Barolo … ah, the little tricks we wine lovers pay on ourselves to convince ourselves that prized bottle are not really that expensive.  However, Boglieti takes his Barbera very serious and it is of outstanding quality – for which we paid £11 a couple of years ago, an absolute bargain.  Of our three wines, this strikes the perfect midpoint with its moderately-rich, almost sweet tasting, fruit which combines red plums with blackberries and a touch of smoke and palate weight from light oak.  The acidity holds the richness in check, the density and quality of the fruit tell you that you are a million miles from simple refreshment.  Even the best Barbera does not have the complexity and layers of interest of great Nebbiolo, but it is nonetheless a wonderful wine to drink and to cherish.  Tasted blind I thought it was Primitivo from Puglia, which gives you an idea of its richness and weight, though I think I was more accurate about the former than the latter. 

Wine number two was a wine we had recently bought at auction. We knew that the very best Barbera ages as we had drunk a magnificent magnum of Sandrone from 1998 with Mark Shannon, the Californian wine maker who now makes remarkable wines from the best bought-in fruit in Puglia.  Buying at auction is always a bit of a risk but this sedimentwas as safe a bet as there can be – six bottles in their original wooden case, reported to have been stored professionally and indeed it was in perfect condition.  Like the 2007 discussed above, Ai Suma, Barbera d’Asti DOC, Braida 1998 (£28) threw an impressive sediment, a testimony to the rich colour of the Barbera grape variety.  Ai Suma is a special wine from Giacamo Bologna, the ‘creator’ of modern oaked Barbera.  Nowadays the talk is about backing off from over-oaking the very best Barbera. But back in the 1970s, Bologna created a whole new category by applying what he had learnt on visits to France to create a fine wine made from this grape variety which had previously been just for wine for quick consumption.  We would probably not have had the current trend for great fruit-purity Barbera if you hadn’t had Bologna’s excursion into oak.  And after 15 years in any case the oak on a wine has receded and the fruit (if it was there in the first place) reasserts itself.  Ai Suma is a magnificent wine, not as well known as Braida’s single vineyard Bricco dell’Uccellone, but a special selection of very mature bunches left on the vine to gain some further concentration in the best years. Still very deep in colour, the nose greets you with rich, black, raisiny fruit perfectly integrated with some coffee and chocolate notes. The palate is the real treat with its great density and luxurious texture, counter balanced with Barbera’s fine acidity. Fifteen years young, it is will be fascinating to see where this goes next. 

Our final wine was not in the same quality league as these two but it did show what medium priced Barbera can do.  I Tre Vescovi, Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2009, Vinchio-Vaglio Serra is a very good supermarket bottle and shows what can be done at the £9 level.  It is produced by the cooperative in the area around Vinchio and Vaglio Serra in the steep hills of the Alta Monferrato.  Once poured it took a while to open up in the glass but when it had done it showed bright red and black berry fruit, a fragrance uncommon at this price level and the food friendliness and refreshment of this versatile grape variety.  The wine is made with fruit from (undefined) old vines and with the highest sugar levels – this gives the richness and the ‘Superiore’ tag.  It is aged before release for a year, six months of which are in large wood barrels.  I think it has enough fruit concentration to age and winery suggests up to eight years. 

After our Barbera weekend, here’s to next weekend!

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Gussalli Beretta: from guns to wine

Gussalli Beretta, based in the northern Italian city of Brescia, is a name much better known to collectors of high quality firearms than to wine lovers. image But that may be about to change.  Under the name of Gussalli Beretta family wineries and distributed in the UK by Antonio Tomassini from Wine and Food Promotions, they have created a portfolio of wines from very different estates and parts of Italy.  Nearest to the Brescia home and an hour east of Milan is Lo Sparviero, a 30 hectare Franciacorta estate making both excellent, bottle-fermented, sparkling wine, white and rosé, and a still white and a red.  Of these four, the vintage 2007 Franciacorta sparkling wine stood out for its combination of subtle yeastiness, characteristic ripe red apple fruit and fine savoury notes.  The still Chardonnay is quite classy but is up against so much competition in the crowded UK market; more distinctive for its pale ruby colour and well profiled fruit is the Cabernet/Merlot blend, Il Cacciatore 2009.

The company’s Tuscan property is altogether more ambitious in its scale. It was bought in 2003 on a prime site in Chianti Classico between the wine town of Radda and the local landmark, the Castello di Volpaia.  In this sensitive landscape they have cleverly inserted a handsome new winery to process the 45 hectares of vines on the property.  Both Chianti Classico lines are worth trying – the easier drinking Poggio Selvale (90% Sangiovese, 5% each of Canaiolo and Merlot) and the wonderfully austere, 100% Sangiovese, Castello di Radda, both available in standard and riserva qualities.

The third estate offers the most diverse range and perhaps the biggest area for exploration for UK drinkers of Italian wines.  Aside from a couple of big names known to wine buffs, Abruzzo is chiefly known for its excellent value Montepulciano which is a staple of the UK supermarket trade – deep ruby in colour, simple plum fruit, an inexpensive ‘pizza’ wine.  But there is much more to Abruzzo’s offering than this.  First there are white wines of real character from the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo variety. This has the misfortune to have the same first name as the seriously dull and commoner Trebbiano Toscano and may (or may not) be the same as Puglia’s Bombino Bianco – see Robinson el al, Wine Grapes, 2012 for the inconclusive state of play.  Gussalli Beretta have bought the wine estate of the aristocratic family Orlandi Contucci Ponno. If a family has three surnames in Italian they will usually have family silver!  Their Trebbiano, Colle della Corte, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC, 2011 has marked complexity on the nose and intense lemon, apple and mineral notes on the palate.  Secondly, there is substantial rosé from Abruzzo, or to give it its proper name, Cerasuolo, the deep pink wines of Italy.   Vermiglio (ie the colour vermillion), Montepulciano Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC, 2011 is great ambassador of its style.  It is made from the free run juice of the deeply coloured Montepulciano grapes. It retains the freshness of a white wine but with the fuller body of a red.  Fully dry, it makes a great food wine for the fish and crustaceans of the nearby Adriatic coast. 

This estate has a large number of bottlings (Abruzzan Sauvignon Blanc anyone?) but we keep the best to last which showcases the third great feature of Abruzzan wine: full-on, top quality red wines from the local Montepulciano d’Abruzzo variety.  Orlandi Contucci Ponno’s example is from Abruzzo’s one DOCG: La Regia Specula, Colline Teramane DOCG, 2006.  Far from being a simple red wine, this is made from the best fruit from the vineyard which bears the name of an old observatory.  It is aged in a mixture of medium-sized, 20 hectolitre, barrels and stainless steel. The best Montepulciano grapes do not need a lot of oak.  It is released after two years but really needs time, and plenty of it, in the bottle. Deep in colour with just ten days of maceration on the skins, the nose and palate show intense plum and prune fruit with herb and vegetal overtones, vibrant acidity and a good tannic structure well hidden by the fruit.  An outstanding wine and one that would repay ageing. 

All in all, the Gussalli Beretta wines are welcome additions to the Italian wines available in the UK. They would fit naturally on the shelves of independent wine merchants or on restaurant wine lists.  Closer to home, I would very happily have them in my cellar or on my table. 

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Savoury Sangiovese

September’s BBC2 was a postponed celebration of a birthday – and the custom is that the birthday girl gets to choose the theme which in this case was Sangiovese.  The likelihood, therefore, was there would be quite a lot of Tuscan, or at least, central Italian wines. The questions for a blind tasting might be:

  • would be able to spot any non-Italian wines?
  • would there be clear stylistic differences between the Tuscan zones: Chianti Classico, Montalcino, others?
  • how does Sangiovese age in the bottle?
  • how does Sangiovese compare in quality to other fine wines? 

The wines were sorted by one of our members and served in two main flights, with two outriders.  What did we learn from a blind tasting of 11 bottles?

Lesson Cheap and cheerful1.  Inexpensive Sangiovese can be a good, everyday wine

As a joker, I brought a Sangiovese di Romagna, Palastri, 2010.  This wine cost £4.65 (on special offer but a real price in Sainsburys) and was probably the cheapest wine ever brought to the BBC.  It showed simple, sour cherry and red plum fruit, moderate if present tannins and acidity but was perfectly drinkable and showed some regional character.  The trick is to have ripe enough fruit to give some real fruit character, moderate acidity and ripe tannins and then to keep it on its skins for just long enough to extract a good colour but not those powerful tannins for which this variety is famous.  This wine is a a tribute to the versatility of the Sangiovese grape and to clean, accurate, modern winemaking. It is also an important representative of the inexpensive wines which make Sangiovese the most planted of all Italian grape varieties, 10% of all area under vine in Italy is Sangiovese, from the Veneto down to Puglia. 

After this start, six wines were presented which were deemed to have something in common – not least that they were made with Sangiovese as the major grape variety. Blends were allowed as after all most Tuscan DOCs are blends.   

Lesson 2.  It is surprisingly difficult to spot the non-Italians (especially if they are 10+ years old)

take any six winesThere was a pretty wide consensus that the first of these six was not from central Italy – and we were right. Secondly, we thought that wine number 4 was not like the others – but we were wrong to think it was non-Tuscan.  Nor did we spot that wine 2 was the other non-Tuscan.  Wine 1 was in fact Hannibal, Bouchard Finlayson, Walker Bay, South Africa, 2002. It just about qualifies for this field as there is more of the nominated

S African and N American contributionsgrape variety (43%) than anything else and its partner varieties are not dominant ones or in high percentages – 23% Pinot Noir, 12% Nebbiolo, 11% Syrah, 6% Mourvedre, 5% Barbera.  Amber in colour, it gave off clear leather, chocolate, liquorice and balsam notes of an older oak-aged wine. The fruit was in the plum register and not surprisingly not particularly characteristic (age and blend).  More of a puzzle was Andrew Will, Pepper Bridge, Sangiovese, Walla Walla Valley, Washington State, USA, 1999.  A darker amber (though the light wasn’t good), some older wood notes, moderate sour cherry and plum (classic Sangiovese), fine grained tannin. 

Lesson 3.  It is also challenging to spot the classic Tuscan regions from other well made wines!

two Tuscan outlierstwo old Chianti riservas
The remaining four of the six were all Tuscan and as it turned out two were Chianti Classico and two were not.  As least we noticed that wine number 4 was different, though we had it in the new world rather than in southerly Tuscan Scansano. This is right as the Maremma is Tuscany’s new world – warmer and less constrained by rules.  L’Arcille, Poggio Trevvalle, Morellino di Scansano Riserva, 2007 was a high quality wine already developing attractive forest floor notes on the nose, while the palate was dense with modern clean fruit and lower acidity than some – warmer climate than Chianti if with some altitude.  The other non-Chianti was from northern Tuscany. Tenuta di Valgiano, Palistorti, Colline Lucchese, 2007 had lively acidity and tannin, and was quite rich on the nose and palate (tasted after the older Washingtonian), with old oak notes.  This flight finished with two more mainstream wines – La Prima, Castello Vicchiomaggio, Chianti Classico Riserva, 2001 and Rancia, Félsina Berardenga, Chianti Classico Riserva, 1999. Although there was a step up in intensity to La Prima, it was surprisingly light in body, even sleek, but not with the impact that you might expect from a big name.  The Berardenga was all that you might expect in terms of tertiary iodine and savoury, meaty notes with surprisingly high tannins which on this showing may never soften!

4.  Brunello di Montalcino shows its class

The final flight was three wines, a Rosso and two Brunello from the Montalcino appellation.  We did not taste these in the same flight as the preceding six but there was a marked step up in complexity and in class.  The Rosso (less ageing requirement) stood up well in this company:  San Polo, Rosso di Montalcino, 2007 had a slightly medicinal nose with fine the Montalcino threeSangiovese fruit to follow, in a classic austere style.  The second of these three was hailed as the wine of the evening: La Fuga, Brunello di Montalcino, 2001 with some restraint on the nose and then a fabulously long and succulent palate – those famous tannins have been softened and elongated by a decade of ageing, some of it in large, neutral oak barrels.  A rich quite modern style but a wonderful wine.  As a good contrast, the final dry wine was from one of the stars of this appellation which has so many fine, small estates alongside the big boys:  Podere Salicutti, Brunello di Montalcino, 1998.  This again was in the classic austere style with classy sour red cherry and dried fruit prominent and that big tannic/acidic structure now well rounded out.  On a personal note I was delighted that this was good, not least as I had taken the chance to buy a whole 12-bottle case of this mature Brunello (with a couple of others at this tasting) and this was the first bottle broached by me – or them!  No pressure then.  For a full profile of Francesco Leanza’s commitment to producing great Brunello, see my piece here.

5. Vin Santo made from Sangiovese is a rare treat

The final wine of this splendid evening was by courtesy of Laura Perini whose very specialised estate Janet and I visited in the summer on a day of visits near the picturesque tourist Vin Santo with Sangioveseresort and port of Castiglione della Pescaia.  Laura kindly sent  us a bottle for this tasting.  Vin Santo is normally white, a good use for the acidity-retaining Trebbiano grape, but occasionally red versions are made by the same method of semi-drying the grapes before pressing and then ageing in wood.  The class of wine is given the name Occhio di Pernice, pheasant’s eye, which no doubt helps when selling it as normally it is expensive (as all quality Vin Santo should be given the production difficulties).  Sestosenso, DOC Vin Santo Montereggio di Massa Marittima, is a simple, delicious example.  Moderately aromatic, in the glass it developed chocolate and coffee notes (presumably oak derived) to go with the red fruit of Sangiovese. 

While I need no persuading of the merits of Sangiovese as a grape variety and Janet is a self-styled Sangiovista, this was an excellent introduction to the quality and ageing potential of central Italy’s most important grape variety.  Most important areas were present, even if we missed Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the wines of the Marche and the Sangiovese-based Super Tuscans, eg Tignanello.  The wines here were of a very high quality, earthy, savoury and structured.  The non-Italian examples were surprisingly good given Sangiovese’s reputation for not being much of a traveller.  Given Italian love of sparkling wine somebody will be make a sparkling version … no shortage of acidity, not overly fruity, controlling the tannins will be the thing, so perhaps a blanc de noir is the next big thing! 

And on the subject of sparkling wines, as an aperitif we also had a superb complex Cava, reputedly among the best: Kripta, Cavas Agustí Torelló, Cava Brut Nature, Gran Reserva, 2002, with powerful autolytic notes that would give many top Champagnes a run for their money.  Great bottle shape too – obviously you will have a sommelier on hand to hold the bottle for you.  Thanks to all who contributed the wines to make this such a special tasting. 

  we have a problem Houstonwhat problem?KriptaEnglish wild boar

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Two Chianti Rufina estates

IMG_3124Since a visit to Chianti Rufina last summer, I miss no chance to taste or talk about these wines.  I was therefore delighted that the Wine Society offered a mixed tasting case which was the perfect starting point for a Fine Wine supper.  The wines were from two socially contrasting estates, the workmanlike Grati (also known as Galiga e Vetrice) which Janet and I visited last summer and the more aristocratic Colognole whose charming representative we had met at Vinitaly, the Italian wine fair, in 2009.  So I knew the wines were going to be good.  

Both estates are in one sense traditionalist in that they complement the predominant Sangiovese grape variety with the local Cannaiolo and Colorino, not with the mildly fashionable Merlot.  The result is that the wines are classic Rufina: pale ruby in colour, sour cherry, tea leaves, smoke and leather on the nose, medium weight in the mouth with a taut, fine boned structure due to the lively acidity and racy tannins. IMG_3127 They also share an amazing value/price ratio. The 2007 Riserva from Grati at £8.25 has got to be among the most complex wines on the market at this price; basic Colognole at £12 is still a great bargain.  As the wines were so similar in style, they made for an excellent set of comparisons. 

So what did the wines show?

  • well made simple Chianti Rufina, for example the Wine Society’s own brand made by Grati, is perfect everyday drinking at under £7.  Fresh sour cherries, a subtle fruit palate, plenty of structure to stand up to food, great refreshment and balance. 
  • There is marked vintage variation and perhaps wine making variation in the Grati wines – everyone preferred the 2007 Riserva to the 2006. Not only was it a near perfect vintage weather wise, but the wine making tasted cleaner too. 
  • Colognole achieve a purer, more fruit driven style, especially in the very young 2009
  • the two 2004 Colognole bottles we tasted were quite superb: from the other top year of the decade, the ‘basic’ wine was beautifully judged, complex, subtle, light and drinkable, the ‘Collezione’ bottling added a richer fruit note to that.  Unfortunately when ordering these wines I missed the chance to compare the Riserva which is also on offer. 
  • Rufina ages incredibly well: the Grato Grati, Vecchia Annata, 1991 tasted like a good 10 year old wine, not a 20 year old. 


To finish off the evening, we had three wines all of which had something special – or at least unusual – about them. Sangiovese is known as a bit of home lover, it does not in general do well outside of central Italy.  But an Argentinian bottle showed pretty well – much weightier fruit but a decent everyday glass of wine.  Second, Ben of Caviste’s mystery wine, tasted blind, was just that.  Quite deep ruby in colour and with restrained ripe blackberry fruit on the nose, its best feature was the full-on black fruit on the palate, with quite sharp acidity, medium plus length and  … um, I had no idea as to its identity.  Some went for  a Sangiovese component for the acidity – correctly.  My best guess was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo fruit and Sangiovese from, say, Northern Puglia or the Marche.  Needless to say it was a compete joker: 90% Tempranillo, 10% Sangiovese from Tuscany, made by Pietro Beconcini.  This is claimed to be the only Tempranillo in Italy … and given the peninsula’s wealth of local grape varieties, it is probably not going to catch on!


And finally, one of Tuscany’s great glories, a really good glass of Vin Santo.  There are thousands of really poor examples of this classic wine sold to unknowing tourists as a dessert.  But when made by semi-drying perfect ripe grapes for three months before a long, slow  fermentation and maturation in sealed small wood barrel (for 5-8  years) it can produces a great wine. This is Grati’s ‘current’ vintage, the 1995, and is distinguished by its relative dryness and superb walnut, dried fig and caramel notes with a rich, fruity acidic finish. Most Vin Santo is made from white grapes (the dull Trebbiano and the aromatic Malvasia), but this example also has one third Sangiovese which contributes some red fruit and acidity to the mix.  A suitable climax to an excellent evening with these two Rufina properties. 

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Antinori: kick-starting the Italian quality revolution

Decanter’s vertical tasting of the Antinori Super Tuscan wines was a remarkable chance to compare five vintages of Tignanello and Solaia going back thirty years.  But more than that, in Marchese Piero Antinori’s presence, it became a fascinating cross section through the quality revolution in Italian wine making over the last forty years.  As Antinori explained, in the 1960s the quantity of wine produced was all, nobody expected Italian wine to be of high quality.  His new wine Tignanello, 80% Sangiovese beefed up with 20% Cabernet (of which 5% is Cabernet Franc), was an attempt to break that mould. In addition to the French grape varieties – full of colour, blackcurrant fruit and weight in the mouth – the wines were made in a French, now international, style, especially by being aged in the smaller French oak barrels. The use of barriques not only fixes the colour but conveys quite powerful vanilla, spice and smoke flavours and some further tannins of their own.  The end result is a darker, denser wine, intended for ageing, and with the substance which makes an impact in Paris, London, New York and, nowadays, Beijing. 

Solaia was a further development on this theme.  Here the proportions of the grape varieties are the other way around, 80% Cabernet and just 20% Sangiovese, with the latter only being present at all from the fourth vintage in 1981.  The wine came about through an experiment in 1978 when there were more Cabernet grapes than were required for IMG_0194Tignanello. The resulting 100% Cabernet showed so much potential that Solaia was born. As Antinori states credibly: in the 1980s, in order to be taken seriously as a wine producer, you had to have a successful Cabernet to show.  Mercifully things have now changed and he is convinced that the future of Italian viticulture is in its native varieties – but the platform had be created by the success of Tignanello, Bolgheri’s Sassicaia and the like. In response to a question I put, the Marchese indicated that the Tuscan character of Tignanello is very important to him and that they are moving to using larger barrels for the Sangiovese element of the wine – which is very welcome.  Larger barrels means less new oak influence and therefore more chance for the distinctive Sangiovese fruit to be the star.  I should have also asked whether they would now reduce the Cabernet element markedly as well … but having established Tignanello as a successful, profitable Super Tuscan, they are not going to turn it in to Chianti Classico riserva! 

En passant, Antinori gives the key factors which define these wines:

  • the two named vineyards are dedicated to these two wines, Tignanello (an old name reflecting a family who owned it) the larger at 57 hectares and Solaia, with a new and obvious name (‘sunny’) and less than 20 hectares
  • both are located in the Chianti Classico area, at an average elevation of 450m above sea level which in turn gives cool nights and an excellent variation in day/night temperature, moderating growth and preserving acidity, which in turn leads to freshness in the glass.  All the fruit grown in the area (eg peaches) is smaller than from plants grown at low attitudes but full of taste and concentration.
  • shallow, infertile soils; a mixture of limestone (‘alberese’) and calcareous (‘galestra’) soils with vineyards oriented to the south west with steep, fast draining, inclines – ideal for quality and lower yields, if more demanding to work
  • a stony soil with large rocks. The latter used to be removed but now are crushed and used as a mulch between vineyard rows, reflecting light and controlling the weeds
  • massal selection to propagate replacement vines from their own best vines, ensuring distinctive stock and preserving some diversity in the vineyard
  • strict selection of the bunches in the vineyard and on reception at the winery both before and after destemming the grapes.  In other words they now remove individual berries that are not up to standard – which should raise quality further.


But as always, what matters is the taste of the wine in the glass and in this case, how these wines develop over three decades. 

The young wines, from the very good 2007 vintage, are just that: very young.  Tignanello 2007 is a deep ruby with an intense nose of oak, herbs and more than a hint of chocolate. The palate is intense and substantial with dense fruit. At this age the Cabernet dominates with its black fruit character and the fruit comes over as rather raw – it is just to young to drink without food and needs time.  It is concentrated but not that big in the mouth – a real contribution of the Sangiovese.  By contrast the Solaia 2007 is darker still, not yet very expressive on the nose but the rich fruit is striking, plus some bitter chocolate and olive notes – we are in Tuscany if only just!  In the picture to the right, the wine at the top is the young Solaia, the bigger glass at the bottom the aged wine.  At five years old neither wine is really expressing its potential yet but if you must, of these two the Solaia would be the one to drink earlier. 

The 2004 pair are a testament to development in the bottle.  Also from a very good year (‘close to ideal’), they are still youthful but now the Tignanello has shaken off its jagged edges with a pronounced and rich array of aromas including the first hints of pleasant farmyard and medicinal notes. Of the two principal grape varieties it was a Sangiovese year with its superb acidity and supple fruit showing through.  Solaia was also impressive with its rounded plum, blackcurrant and chocolate flavours and quite prominent tannins.  But at this point, eight years on the difference of fruit is really beginning to show.  The 1999 pair, while still very worthwhile, are from a less good vintage and at this point in their development probably as good as they are going to get.  The tannins are quite soft in Tignanello while the Solaia has the richer, better fruit. Cabernet with its greater resistance to disease can do better in a poorer year. In the only really wet vintage of the last decade, 2002, Antinori made no Tignanello at all, while Solaia was made from 100% Cabernet and sold as annata diversa, a different year.

The final pair came from very good or at least good years.  1997 was a great year if a small production.  Tignanello by now has a broad garnet rim and is noticeably paler than its Cabernet-heavy sibling.  The nose is beautifully perfumed with complex elements of red fruit, herbs, and some toffee notes, followed by a sumptuous texture IMG_0195on the palate, fine tannins, fresh, delicate and intense.  Solaia shows great balance, with lovely mature fruit and balsamic notes on the nose nose, but with fine rounded fruit as its greatest strength. And finally, for a great treat, thirty year old versions of the two wines from 1982, a famous year in Bordeaux and good one in Chianti Classico.   This may seem a long time ago now but, to put in some perspective,  was Piero Antinori’s 15th vintage. The two wines are quite different from each other now:  For me the Tignanello was remarkable – pronounced tertiary notes of leather and fruit on the nose and even more so on the palate; refined bitter cherry fruit (it may not be a blockbuster but Sangiovese has staying power), good acidity and fine tannins which have kept it going, excellent length, superb and subtle.  The Solaia was more interesting than pleasurable – powerfully medicinal on the nose (which some will like), a luxurious palate with sweet fruit and caramel notes and, how can I put this, some rotting fruit notes but in a good way …

As regular readers of this website will know, I have a strong preference for quality wines made from local grape varieties. I admire Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah in Tuscany but I like to drink great Sangiovese.  What this splendid tasting showed is how the Antinori contribution to wine making in Tuscany raised the game so that now Tuscan growers can complete with the best – while now drawing on their own viticulture heritage.   

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Puglia – the quality revolution

Andover Wine Friends’ January tasting gave the opportunity to review the stirrings of a quiet revolution going on in the heel of Italy. Puglia’s recent history – to add to the waves of foreign overloads going back to Greek times – has been of a reduction of the huge production, overproduction, of the 1980s (13 million hectolitres per year) down by half to seven million by 2005.  This tidal wave of wine went into the vermouth industry, cheap red blends or had to be distilled to prevent the European wine lake bursting its banks. Even the so-called quality wine legislation allowed ridiculously high yields – 100-120 hectolitres per hectare on the vast plain of northern Puglia producing characterless wines, a better 63 hl/ha on the Salento peninsula.  But alongside this obsession with quantity, the last 25 years has seen a focus on quality. The big cooperatives, the large private firms (both typical of Puglia) and the small number of small to medium sized quality producer-growers have all produced high quality lines at very reasonable prices. 

If you step back from the history of bulk wine production in Puglia, this is hardly surprising. The region has a warm to hot Mediterranean climate, with the extremes of heat being moderated by the effect of the sea or altitude.  The Salento peninsula is surrounded by sea on three sides. The Murge is a calcareous plateau with 450-500m of altitude.  The region receives around 700mm of rain a year but nearly all of that is in autumn and winter, leaving a long, dry growing season.  Drying winds further help to keep vines healthy.  The soil is basically limestone – always a promising start for quality production – with a mixture of iron oxide.  Land is relatively cheap and thus attracts inward investment from quality minded growers.  Finally, while many of the alberello bush vines have been grubbed up in the name of progress and EU subsidies, many remain and, as they age and yields drop further, they are a great source of potential quality for the grower who can work them manually or in a semi-mechanised way.  There are many factors which point to the potential for quality in Puglia. 

IMG_1303This tasting comprised nine wines, two whites, one rosato and six reds.  We started with Alta, Puglia IGT Bianco from Teanum, 2010, which was the test that the Bombino Bianco grape variety, responsible for some very dull wines indeed, can rise to the quality call.  Harvesting by hand ensures good selection, while keeping fermentation temperature done to a, by Puglian standards, positively chilly 14°, ensures a clean wine with modest lemon fruit, some structure and refreshing mouth feel; not a bad wine but expensive for what it is in the UK (£8.75) with the rest of the world’s wines to choose from.  Much more interesting was the Fiano from Villa Schinosa 2010. This grape variety is quickly gaining ground in Puglia, partly on the back of its great success in Campania across the Apennines.  A warm medium lemon in colour, moderately buttery, honey notes, some herbs, good persistence and weight in the mouth, with a almond bitterness to finish.  The rosé was a very typical example – medium deep salmon pink in colour, prominent strawberry aromas, some vinous aromatics, concentration on the palate, medium persistence, quite a robust wine intended for food, and good value at £6.75. 

On to the reds which of course are the wines the rest of Europe and the world value from Puglia.  First a real old favourite: Masseria Monaci’s Eloquenzia, 2007 from Copertino on the Salento peninsula.  This is the enologist Severino Garofano’s own estate and features the Negroamaro variety, one of a trio of great red varieties to be found in the region.  Medium ruby with hints of ageing, complex bouquet of violets and prune aromas, good fruit and development, balanced and medium plus in length – and all this for £6.95 a bottle, remarkable in terms of the quality/price ratio.  We then took a  quick detour via an old Puglian variety, Susumaniello, on the point of extinction because of its uncoperative habit of dropping production levels after only 20 years when most varieties will be highly productive for around twice that time.  Sum 2007, from Racemi’s Torre Guaceto estate on the Brindisi side of the peninsular. A distinctive floral and bright black cherry to plum nose, bright fruit on the palate, good acidic finish – well worth saving from extinction. 


Four excellent, premium reds followed.  First a great personal favourite which Janet and I drank regularly on our Puglian trip of last Easter: a single vineyard Nero di Troia wine made by the big company Torrevento: Vigna Pedale 2007.   This grape variety is paler and more elegant than the other two main Puglian varieties, giving Puglian reds more diversity of styles than you might imagine.  Grown on the high plateau near Castel del Monte, the grapes are late picked for maximum complexity but still only make a wine of 13%.  Superbly complex red fruit and oak notes on the nose, subtle red fruit to follow, a lovely savoury character, great balance and length, just under £20 in the UK. 

Much better known is Primitivo from the Salento peninsula. We compared two examples from Racemi, who delight in the various soils available to them (black, red, sand) to produce different styles of wine.  The simpler example was Sinfarosa 2009: from the red soils (that iron oxide we noted above), which has complex red and black fruit, is medium in weight with soft tannins and good acidity. Only 30-35 hectolitres per hectare, half the resulting wine aged in large barrels, the rest in stainless steel.  Most people thought this was a £15 wine – in fact it is £8.95, showing that value again.  By contrast there is inky concentration in Dunico 2007, from the Masseria Pepe estate, also run by Racemi, but this time on the sand near the beaches. Great depth of mainly black fruit, earthy notes, small amount of residual sugar, 15.8% alcohol – but well hidden by the fruit and acidity, still very drinkable. 

And finally a Puglian cult wine which I had never tasted before as we did not visit Vallone last year.  This wine was created by Severino Garofano to put something on the table in Milan and Rome and (especially) Verona at the national trade fair which would change the image of Puglian wine and say: great wines can be made in the far South.  The best Negroamaro grapes are selected in the best years only and then, as with Amarone, are dried on graticci, mats, and then made into wine. The result is Graticciaia 2006.  Very inviting nose of prunes and sweet, plummy fruit, a broad and luxurious palate, fine balance, very long.  This is not a block buster wine – it is a powerful and seductive wine that you want to drink and to savour.   A fitting conclusion to an introduction to the quality wines of Puglia. 

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