If I was given a bottle of wine for every Italian wine tasting in London, I would acquire a substantial cellar in no time at all. Vini d'Italia tastings are like London buses: you wait for one but suddenly three arrive, one generic perhaps, the other a focus on Chianti, the last maybe some sort of exclusive focus on Italy's most desired wines, Barolo/Barbaresco or Brunello di Montalcino. Yet despite all this marketing activity, the Italian wine sold through multiples in particular is dull, mainstream stuff. Look on the shelves of your local stockist and chances are – unless it is a specialist store run by someone with a real passion for Italian wine – you will find Chianti, an OK Barolo or two, some dull, mass-produced Pinot Grigio and Soave, and of course Prosecco. Lots of it.
So has all of the good, interesting stuff somehow stayed home, to be drunk by discerning Italians? Last week's Definitive Italian Wine Tasting in London gave a definitive answer: No. Good importers like Winetraders, Armit, John E.Fells, Boutinot and Berkmann have probably never supplied such an interesting range of Italian wines, from around £10 upwards. Sturdy Amarone from Veneto, steely rich Vermintino from Sardinia, dark complex Aglianico from Campania/Basilicata, hefty Nero d'Avola and wonderfully mineral Etna from Sicily, full-bodied Primitivo and Negroamaro from Puglia...the list confirms that the British love affair with all things Italian is alive and well. I tasted some excellent wines including the Papiri 2014 Vermintinto di Sardegna from Santa Maria La Palma – delightful saline but very fresh as well and excellent value at around £11 – and a stonkingly good Amarone, the Tedeschi Capitel Monti Olmi 2008 from Tedeschi: a serious wine, with 16.5% alcohol and priced at £67. These are excellent examples of what Italian wine can do at its best, at both ends of the price scale without using either Trebbiano or Sangiovese, the high-yielding varieties mandated by the government just after the war yet still dominating Italian production 70 years later.
Yet the biggest surprises came from two regional wine consortia, the Consorzio Tutela Vini Montefalco from Umbria in central Italy and Consortium Alto Aldige, from the northern border with Austria, who clearly and quite rightly feel their wines needed greater exposure amongst UK consumers.
Montefalco wines, known to me pretty much by only name alone before last week, from a region best known for its dramatic and historic hill towns, deserve to be better known not least because their existence today is something of a miracle. Wine-making in Umbria was in steep decline until the late 1960s, thanks to small plots and a native variety – Sagrantino – that many felt inferior, and certainly much harder to manage, than Sangiovese. Even today, even after three decades of revival, there are only 1000 hectares of Sagrantino in Italy, against 70,000 of Sangiovese, but what wines they produce!
Italy focused wine writer Walter Speller argues that the altitude at which Montefalco wines are grown – 200 to 700 metres – and the continental climate (Umbria is one of the furthest points in Italy from the sea – makes these low yield, highly tannic and powerful wines unique.
“This is a small but quite diverse region with cold winters and hot summers, drier than Bordeaux...the Sagrantino grape has thick skin and lots of polyphenols, but they are fickle which means it can be hard for winemakers to get the balance right,” he says.
The results when they do are quite remarkable and although you don't usually taste the alcohol in the better made wines, remarkably alcoholic: 15-15.5% is not unusual, Amarone territory, but within very different wines.
The unitiated could start with Montefalco Rosso, wines using Sagrantino in a blend with Sangiovese and Merlot: Scacciadiavoli's Rosso 2011 is a good example, with lots of upfront fruit supported by 12 months in oak and six months in bottle. Or go the full monty: Fattoria Colsanto's Montefalco Sagrantino 2010 and Cantine Giorgio Lungarotti's Montefalco Sagrantino 2009 are excellent full-on examples, the former with a remarkable 24 months in oak giving the wine a wonderfully deep toasty character.
Alto Adige/South Tyrol wines are equally left field. The red wines here – dominated by Pinot Nero and Lagrein – are well worth seeking out: ideal for summer, the wines tend to be lightly oaked or unoaked, with lovely berry fruit flavours. Yet white is king here, understandably perhaps, given that this Alpine region (until 1918, part of Austria) retains so many Germanic influences.
“People associate Italian wine with rich, fruity reds and we are so very different: South Tyrol wines are fresh and aromatic but with high acidity reflecting the cold nights and warm days that characterise this Alpine region,” says Werner Waldbath of the Consortium Alto Aldige.
Alto Adige makes great Pinot Grigio (with much more depth and aromatics that typical Italian PG), Gewurztraminer (drier than Alsace) and Muller-Thurgau. However it has made Pinot Blanc, a variety that is something of an also ran in regions like Alsace, its own. Seek out the Alto Adige Pinot Blanco Festival 2014 from Cantina Merano, the wonderfully rich and aromatic Pinot Blanco Pratum 2013 from Castel Salegg or Tecum 2013 from Castelfelder. These are all very well priced wines – most are between £10-15 a bottle – and as as fresh and approachable as if they were bottled yesterday.
More importantly, like Montefalco Sagrantino, they confirm that great wine from Italy doesn't have to be made from Sangiovese or indeed, Nebbiolo or Corvina. This multi-dimensional nation still has the capacity to surprise as well as impress.
The Glories of Gaja
The release of a new vintage from the Gaja family can be pretty much guaranteed to cause a stir, given how highly regarded are their Nebbiolo and Sangioveses in the wine world. However the launch of the 2010 Brunello di Montalcino from Pieve Santa Restituta has generated particular excitement, as the general consensus is that the wines are outstanding.
Last week Gaia Gaja, daughter of Angelo Gaja and the fifth generation of Gajas to manage the family business, unveiled the wines at a tutored tasting held in Mayfair's trendy Boccacino restaurant. Hosted by Armit Wines, sommeliers and others were amongst the select few to get an early taste of the 2010 Brunello and its more esteemed and pricier single estate counterparts, the 2010 Rennina and the 2010 Sugarille.
The general consensus? Pretty upbeat.
“A classic vintage” said Gianni, an Italian sommelier sitting to my left and a self-confessed fan of Gaja Brunellos from the start. He says growing and climactic conditions in Montalcino in 2010 were close to perfect. “These wines will just get better and better.”
Armit's website not unnaturally supports this view, calling the success of the vintage “one of the worst kept secrets of the wine world” whilst some critics have gone so far as to call them possibly the greatest in a generation. For fans of Brunello, this will come as relief after the Brunellogate scandals of 2008-09 when some wine-makers were convicted of using non-approved grapes and a more recent foiled plot to flood the international wine market with 220,000 fake bottles of Brunello, in fact inferior table wine.
The Gaja family – who made their name producing award winning Barberescos in their native Piedmont – are actually relative newcomers to Brunello. They missed out on the 1980s, the big era of Brunello expansion and the decade when this fortified historic Tuscan village really put itself on the international wine map. Their involvement came about as a result of wanting a second string to their bow – another iconic Italian grape variety to sit alongside Nebbiolo. Tuscany's Sangiovese was its obvious companion. The family bought the historic Pieve Santa Restituta estate in 1994 – named after the church (pieve) which sits at the heart of the estate, whose foundations date back to the fourth century. Two years later the family established a foothold in Bolgheri with the Ca' Marcanda winery to make Bordeaux-style Supertuscans.
Gaja produced their first Brunello vintage in 1996 with wines made from the estate's historic vineyards of Rennina and Sugarille. The first big change came in 2005, when Angelo Gaja made the decision to add a cuvee Brunello made from grapes gathered from across the estate. The aim was to make a more forward, pretty much ready to drink wine retailing at around half the price of the traditional wines. The result has been a consistently good wine retailing at around £50 – pricey by most standards, but not necessarily Brunello ones. More importantly, it is around half the price of Rennina and 40% that of Sugarille, which of the Gaja Brunellos usually fetches the highest price (currently around £395 for six bottles in bond, against £160 for the standard Brunello).
Presenting the 2010s, Gaia Gaja admits that there has been a gradual change in the style of the wines, away from the more tannic and reserved approach of earlier vintages towards the accessible richness more usually expected of Sangiovese.
“At the start we were making wines more as if they were Nebbiolos, in the Piedmont/Langhe style, whereas now we are much happier to work with the natural evolution of Sangiovese,” she said.
For Rennina this has meant a more exuberant style, with rich opulence on the nose but some austerity on the palate; Sugarille, she sees as presenting, initially, more reserved notes on the nose but greater richness on the palate. Tasting both one feels they are at the very start of what will be a long life, with the wines not expected to reach peak maturity for possibly another 10-15 years, although the Sugarille in particular is already showing signs of the rich complexity for which it is so famous.
How does Gaia see Brunello as a DOCG evolving? She thinks that despite the many different types of terroir within the denomination it is the winemaker rather than soil, location or climactic particularities that makes the real difference in how wines taste and evolve.
However she says global warming is forcing changes at Santa Restituta, including the need to keep grass long to protect the soil and vines for as long as possible in what are increasingly warm spring periods.
The future for Gaja and Santa Restituta looks pretty good, though. Alongside the 2010s tasters got a sneak preview – OK, barrel samples – of the 2013 and 2014 Brunellos. Although it is way too early to judge the 2014, the 2013 is already showing great depth and flavour. As ever with Gaja wines, expectations are high.
“2010 is impressive but I think when it comes of age, 2013 will be even better – perhaps Santa Restituta's best ever vintage,” says Gianni.
Contact Armit Wines (www.armitwines.co.uk) for details and availability of Gaja's Santa Restituta wines.
Just what is it about Italy and wine? The question kept crossing my mind as I negotiated the organized chaos that was last weeks' Borsa Vini Italiani tasting in London's West End. This was one of two major Italian wine tastings organized by the Italian Trade Commission to bring less well known Italian wines to the attention of the trade and press (the other was in Manchester). It was one of many Italy tastings to be held this year; although my reckoning is entirely unscientific, it feels as if Italian tastings outnumber those by other major producing countries by at least 50%, especially if you add specialist ones like Chianti or Piedmont. Yet how much does the average wine enthusiast really know about Italy?
This is after all a country with some really fantastic grape varieties. Not that you'd know it from supermarket wine shelves but there is a whole world out there beyond Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and prosecco. More than almost any other country, Italy can boast some truly remarkable producers, a heritage and terroir matched only by France, with a climate that is second to none. Most importantly, it has unmatched international goodwill: when was the last time you came across someone who said they didn't like Italian wine (or Italy for that matter)?
Yet here I was in a vast room full of great producers (35 in Manchester, 80 in London) who almost all had one thing in common: they were all looking for a UK importer, and most that I spoke to said this was proving to be tough work. The problem seemed to be even more pronounced amongst producers from the south, Italy's Mezzogiono, which is clearly why BVI had decided to focus this tasting on that large but (being Italy) inevitably complex area.
“The Mezzogiorno has been the butt of Northern Italian jokes for years but they really have some fantastic wines and grape varieties down there, just waiting t be discovered,” says Peter McCombie MW, who led a Masterclass at the tasting.
Amongst these are Taurasi, made from Aglianico in Campania and sometimes dubbed the Nebbiolo of the south; Aglianico dei Vulture, made both in Campania and over the border to the south, in Basilicata; and amongst whites in Campania (and elsewhere in the south) minerally Greco di Tufo, Fiano (McCombie sees this as a hit amongst Chardonnay fans) and the sometimes overly-acidic Falanghina.
Further south in Puglia – Italy's second largest wine region after Veneto which in a good year can produce as much wine as the whole of Australia – you have of course, Primitivo, famous for producing jammy and sometimes quite fat wines that are popular with UK consumers. But actually this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Primitivo's popularity and affordability has come at the expense of other varieties. More intriguing are Nero di Troia (most common in northern Puglia, towards the border with Molise, which can produce elegant, velvety wines) and to the south, especially in the Salentine peninsula, Negroamaro, which makes some great and complex wines. Amongst whites, Minutolo (which used to be called Fiano Aromatico but has no genetic relation to Fiano) and reds, Ottavianello and Susamaniello, can produce delicious, textured wines that hark back to an earlier, non-commercial era, and perfectly express their terroir. Indeed the first of these is grown only in the Val d'Itria in central Puglia; Gianni Carparelli of the boutique Pastini winery just outside Locorotondo says his family helped rescue the variety from local extinction.
“The variety is very important to my family and we are very proud of what we have produced in Rampone, a mineral but also highly approachable, intense and fragrant wine,” he says.
Carparelli says wine producers in Puglia need to move away from big commercial wines and focus on getting back to basics. However a look around BVI last week suggested to me that many wine-makers were doing just that but the message somehow wasn't getting across to importers and consumers – in the UK at least.
“We have fantastic traditions and some really interesting varieties including gallioppo, greco nero and malvasia nero (all red): we use only indigenous varieties and no oak so they can speak for themselves,” says Ippolito Giuseppe of the Du Crupio winery in Calabria.
Yet aside from perhaps Ciro, few British consumers are likely to have tasted wines from this part of Italy's wild south, even though some remarkably interesting rustic style wines are being produced here.
Even amongst Puglian wines – pretty well represented on British wine shelves – one gets the sense we are not seeing the full extent of what is being produced there. How come one cannot find here wines like those produced by Schola Sarmenti, whose output includes the remarkable Diciotto, a rich, powerful primitivo made from rare 80 year vines with an alcohol strength checking in (as the wines name suggests) at 18%. Not a wine for everyday, I grant you, but proof that Puglia can produce some remarkable and historic wines well away from the mainstream.
So what can be done? Consumers and importers need to be more adventurous and recognise that less obvious varieties and regions are well worth discovering, especially in Italy's south.
But producers have a role to play too. The whole DOC/IGP system, as ever, remains baffling and in need of (further) reform, as there are too many producing regions.
“Frankly there are too many DOCs and many seem to exist more for reasons of local politics than to reflect terroir or grape varieties used,” admits McCombie.
Easier to change may be bottle labelling. Many of the more interesting bottles at BVI gave little or no clue as to what lay within; as well as the grape variety and production method, labels should surely give full details about the region (Campania or Calabria or wherever), possibly even accompanied by a little map (an approach adopted by I Pastini), highlighting the wine's regionality. When you are attempting to persuade people to buy your product, educating them with the basics is no bad thing.