The Italian road less travelled

Recently, because of studying for wine exams, I have had to concentrate on tasting mainstream, commercial wines.  If it isn’t ‘widely available and commercially important’   sadly it isn’t high on my current list of priorities.  This is a complete volte face for me.  Normally, I would seek out the local varieties and ignore the Cabernets, Chardonnays and Syrahs. It’s not sheer obscurity I seek but the local varieties which have traditionally been drunk – Ciliegiolo, not just Sangiovese, in Tuscany; high quality (it does exist) Carignan in Roussillon.  So it was a real treat for me to attend Robert Steel’s Italian tasting for Andover Wine Friends.  Robert imports excellent value wines mainly from Italy’s less famous regions. His father is a great expert on Puglia, the heel of Italy, and together they have built up a great specialist portfolio.  There were a couple of classics in the selection which would make my study criteria – the Soave Classico and the Rosso di Montepulciano – but for the most part we explored the vinous hinterland which contributes to Italy having the most indigenous grape varieties in commercial production of any country in the world. 

Robert SteelTasting

We started with a sparkling version of Falanghina, one of Campania’s three good-to-great local white varieties.  It is thought of as the workhorse alongside the racier Greco and the thoroughbred Fiano but I like it for its broad palate of peach and green fruit.  But I don’t recall a sparkling version but here it is from the other side of the Appenines: Villa Schinosa, Falanghina Spumante Brut, IGP Puglia, 12.5%, £12.25.  For the price of a posher Prosecco, you get a restrained version of that broad, peachy fruit overlain with some fine yeasty notes, the result of having been kept on the lees in the fermentation tank for six months.  A very worthwhile local sparkler.  In fact we had three wines from this one estate just outside the picturesque harbour and resort town of Trani. Their Fiano 2012 is a classic mid-priced example of this great variety:  assertive honey and floral notes on the nose, a textured and weighty palate.  It sits neatly between the simpler but great value wines from Sicilian cooperatives and the intense, classy but higher priced Campanian examples of Fiano which can age with distinction.  The third was the red AglianicoAglianico with some bottle age. Al -li-AN-i-co comes in various shapes and sizes, but they are all big and tannic.  Early- to mid-season picked examples like this one have a fairly  deep ruby colour, baked plum fruit, high acidity and tannic sinew. The great wines from Taurasi and Vulture need time, sometimes decades, to strut their stuff without doing you an injury in the process … This example was in perfect condition but then it was in its sixth year:  Aglianico, IGP Puglia, 2008, 13.5%, £12.25.  On this showing, Villa Schinosa is doing a great job producing wines of real character at reasonable prices.  While we are in the south, let’s pick off a Campanian speciality, Farro, Piedirosso, DOC Campi Flegrei, 2012, 13%.  The Campi Flegrei are the weird areas north of Naples which to this day steam with volcanic fumes which the ancients, reasonably enough, thought were inhabited by spirits.  The grape variety is Piedirosso, probably native to the region, which produces pale ruby wine with bright cherry fruit with a mineral undertow, youthful and full of a taut energy. 

Red footMoving northwards we had three further whites, one from central Italy and two from the north.  When Janet and I visited Romagna last year, I loved the quality examples of the virtually unknown whites of the region, for example at Podere Berta: Trebbiano of course, but also Pagadebit and especially Albana.  The last makes quite a famous sweet wine but can also be persuaded to develop character in the dry versions.  Admittedly there are oceans of undistinguished Albana but Celli Albana di Romagna ‘I Croppi’, 2010, 14% is not one of them:  striking mid lemon in colour, intense citrus rind nose, citrus on the palate with characteristic crunchy acidity and a spicy note, plus some phenolic grip, presumably from keeping the juice on the skins for some hours. This was my favourite wine of the evening. I did say I liked the local and characterful!  Lenotti Soave Classico 2011 12.5% is another wine punching above its weight.  Again, we have to be honest that much Soave is remarkable chiefly for its dullness and a slightly elevated price for a famous name. Lenotti’s delights with its fresh, rounded lemon and peach fruit and perfect balance. Finally in the whites, Castelfeder ‘Von Lehm’, Gewurztraminer, Alto-Adige, 2010, 14% would give many top Alsatian wines a run for their money.  The grape variety comes from these parts and you could not have a more typical rose water, orange blossom and lychee combination. 

There are two remaining reds to comment on.  Perhaps the wine with the most famous name attached to it was Le Berne, Rosso di Montalcino, 2010, 13.5% at £14.50.  Though the rules do not require it, this is 100% Sangiovese, likely the neighbouring and more prestigious Montalcino wines.  I liked the earthy, savoury sour-cherry Sangiovese with a rustic edge and good length, but it is perhaps not quite the value for money as other wines tasted here.  The final and most expensive wine was Lenotti Massimo, IGT Veneto, 2009, a sort of mini-Amarone with an intriguing grape variety line up: 50% of the expected Corvina, but then 20% Sangiovese and the last 30% made up of some really obscure local characters: Pelara, Rebo, Dindarella and Oseleta.  The grapes are air-dried for 50 days and then fermented for that baby-Amarone touch of richness, the maturation taking place in a mixture of large and small oak barrels.  The wine showed some real subtlety, with red fruit fragrance, medium weight and fine tannins.  Decent value at £20. 

Eight wines from six wineries in six regions were a pretty good introduction to the byways of Italian wine. A sparkling wine, six standard table wines, a passito … we just missed the sweet options.  And not a Cab Sav or Sauvignon Blanc among them. That’s why some of us love Italian wine.  Back now to the classics. 

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