Italian half-marathon

Italy is blessed with a very large number of local grape varieties. One of the standard guides lists more than 500, others speak of thousands. More importantly, it has a significant number of great varieties – however much it’s fun to have something local, you still want it to make good wine or better. This tasting, a fundraising event for Cancer Research, to support Laura and Adam who had run a half marathon, focused on nine varieties – plus a bonus one. As such the emphasis was on a comparison of styles around the peninsula. 


The evening started with Prosecco, an obvious choice for an aperitivo. Mionetto is a good example of what makes this a winner – initially frothy mousse, moderate apple and floral notes, OK, not a serious wine but perfect as people gather. The Prosecco grape is capable of more, but most of it is just like this, but perhaps without the stylish bottle and crown cap (far left in the picture above).  The second wine was a famous name in disguise. Soave is a well-known area also in the Veneto, with whites made from the Garganega grape. This was an excellent example, with good lime fruit, perhaps a bit of yeast complexity and a fine finish.  The example was not from Soave itself but is Alfa Zeta’s Garganega della Provincia di Verona, good and inexpensive – it was one of the two wines we had had at a family wedding.    Would that much Soave was as good as this IGT (higher table wine classification). 

Two more ‘serious’ whites followed in quick succession – just as in a half-marathon you have to keep up you pace! Verdicchio is one of Italy’s top white grape varieties.  It is good drunk young with the best examples capable of being aged.  Our example was Stefano Manichelli’s Verdicchio dei Casteli di Jesi (2007) from near Ancona in the Marche.  This was a slightly controversial wine.  Pale lemon in colour, the first impression was of complexity on the nose, flowers and some fruit, a serious structure.  But this is followed by quite a serious whack of alcohol – 14.5° according to the label and we no reason to doubt it! Clearly a substantial wine but one that lacked balance.  Much more easy to appreciate was Greco di Tufo from the historic firm of Mastroberardino.  Despite coming from much further south, inland from Naples, its pronounced floral and mineral nose is followed by both good acidity and a moderate 13° of alcohol.   This brief trot around the whites showed something of Italy’s riches, even without having a space for Cortese (ie Gavi), Arneis (also Piemonte), Falanghina (Campania) or Inzolia (Sicilia), never mind all the international whites made successfully in Italy. 

Five reds followed, again a small sample of a large field of possible runners.  With the supper which followed we re-tasted the other wedding wine.  Made from the Barbera grape, this is a superb Piemontese food wine, excellent value, deep plum to cherry fruit, high acidity, good finish.  The example was from Riva Leone 2007.  Back to Campania, we followed this with an unusual example of Aglianico. This top grape variety is usually made either for quick drinking or it is kept on the vine for maximum maturity and given serious wood ageing before (eg as Taurasi).  Our example showed that even the simple wine has some ageing capacity.  The de Conciliis family produce highly individual wines near the great Greek temples at Paestum. Our IGT Paestum Donnaluna came from 2004 and showed mature damson fruit, some balsamic notes and with good grip and acidity.  You couldn’t easily buy a simple wine with this much bottle age in Italy – you need a UK wine merchant to keep it for you for a few years! 

Isole e Olena’s Chianti Classico 2006 is an established minor classic.  Made from the Sangiovese grape which is Italy’s most planted variety (10% of all production), it delivers a classy combination of developing perfume on the nose (well-integrated fruit and oak ageing), brilliant sour cherry on the palate and that characteristic mouth refreshing combination of acidity and tannin.  It is a worthy standard-bearer for Tuscany’s great reds. 

The main tasting finished with two substantial if very different reds.  Perhaps the most unusual wine of the evening was made from Lacrima di Morra d’Alba.  We are back in the Marche here with a grape variety which normally produces lusciously fruity even velvety wines with mulberry and damson flavours – very unusual, very local.  But this bottle is not the normal early drinking style but comes from a named vineyard and has been given the serious oak and ageing treatment (Vigna San Lorenzo, Fattoria San Lorenzo, 2004, 14°).   It had dense black fruit, obvious oak even after six years, great persistence, very good if quite demanding.  The final red was in a more famous style if made predominantly with the underrated Corvina grape. This variety produces both the light and easy-drinking Valpolicella and its big brother, Amarone della Valpolicella.  For the latter, the best grapes and sites are selected.  The fruit is then dried on racks with wine being made from semi-raisined berries and then aged in oak.  It can be very expensive (with the reason given the work involved and the low yields) but the Cantina di Negrar do a decent, typical, example at less than £20 (2006, 15°).  Even a relatively young wine has a slightly brown tone and the fruit comes with fine balsamic and leather notes.  Despite its high alcohol level, this is more than matched by its substance and flavours. 

Tasters 2

As a final lap, we tried a wine which is difficult to characterise. What colour is it?  A wine with marmalade notes and a drying finish?  De Conciliis not only do fine Aglianico (see above), they also make Antece, from the Fiano grape, another great Campanian white variety. But this is a wine made from white grapes but in a red style, ie the skins are kept in the fermenting must for a couple of weeks.  Hence the name Antece – wine as made by the ancients – except there’s would have normally been sweet and no doubt often tainted as well!  Once you get over the shock of a pale yellow to orange wine with some tannins and no sweetness, it’s mildly addictive.  The Italian half marathon is full of surprise turns! 

Thanks to all those who supported this event for Cancer Relief – even with a small group we still raised well over £200.   And there are plenty of grape varieties to do another half marathon as soon as we have all done some more training. 

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