Unknown Italians

A few months ago I came to love Italian wines. I can even narrow down the experiences that led to this epiphany. First was a tasting of, among other Italian wines, a 2000 Barolo from the Roagna Family Estate. The wine was rather romantically named La Rocca e la Pira and I was fascinated how a wine could be so deep, so complex, so alive and continuously changing in the glass. Especially as we were informed the wine had been decanted over 8 hours ago, and could easily stand being decanted overnight to let it breathe even more! This excellent tasting was given by Hector Scicluna of HS Fine Wines in Cambridge.

Secondly, a trip to Italy over the last Easter break revealed to me the true variety and authenticity of Italian wines. Every village it seems has its own style of wine-making, its own specialities. I was very impressed in the Chianti region how strict the control is of what can go into the wine. No herbicides, no pesticides, the grape content is strictly monitored, you couldn’t even water your vines in times of drought. Economic suicide perhaps in dry years, but it shows a commitment to producing a wine that reflects its origins in the soil, and in the weather conditions of the vintage. A wine that comes, as much as is possible, solely from nature.

As might be imagined, reds were the staple diet on this Italian trip, and doubtless I will be returning to Italian reds again and again in this blog, for their infinite complexities, their power, and the sheer numbers of styles that originate from a relatively small geographical area.

However, at another recent Italian wine tasting in Oxford, I was pleasantly surprised by some Italian whites. What do you know about Italian whites? Well, for me, most of my experience had been limited to the seemingly ubiquitous Pinot Grigio, a variety I’m sure I’ll return to at some stage.

However, it was some relatively unknown white Italians that really caught the attention of my palate that evening. First up was a Prosecco, Italy’s take on fizz. This particular sample was Treviso Frizzante, and at £9/bottle from the Wine Society, is great value. There are creamy, vanilla notes underlying a crisp honeyed-apples flavour. A hint of peardrops on both the nose and palate complement this wine, and is for me the ‘marker’ that tells me this wine is Italian. Makes for a very refreshing and enjoyable aperitif.

An orvieto is a style of (still) wine native to Umbria that is a  blend of the Grechetto and  Procanico grapes. Orvieto Classico Superiore, ‘Castagnolo’, from the Barberani Estate, 2009 vintage, includes a little bit of Chardonnay and Riesling in the blend. This makes for a deliciously aromatic wine with notes of apricot, honey, white flower petals. There is also a herbaceous grassy-ness thanks to the Grechetto, and a very subtle kerosene note due to the Riesling. This wine has a firm ‘backbone’ of acidity, fairly high alcohol, although this doesn’t detract from the wine. It would go very well with a delicate white fish dish. It’s about £10/bottle. grapes.

Verdicchio is another overlooked Italian white. Pale and crisp like Pinot Grigio and Orvieto, it has a more complex and vegetal approach, as opposed to fruity and/or floral lines. The Verdicchio that stood out for me was made by Monte Schiavo, and was their Palio di San Floriano, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, Classico Superiore (yes, a bit of a mouthful!). This was of 2009 vintage. Qualifiers that came to mind when describing the nose were crabapples, asparagus, along with a smokiness, and underlying floral hints. The alcohol was high (it’s 13.5%), and perhaps stands out a little from the body, and there was a herbaceous finish to the wine. Perhaps not a typical tasting note to get the average punter enthused, but believe me this was a fairly complex wine that is a little bit different, a little bit challenging to those of us on a standard fruit-driven white wine diet. This wine would go excellently with most fish dishes and vegetarian meals in particular. And at only £8.50/bottle it’s worth branching out a bit.

I guess the moral of Italian whites for me is that there’s a lot there to be surprised by. How about you look out for an orvietto, a verdicchio to go with your meal? (Good Italian restaurants are good places to start to try a glass). Or indeed a prosecco for a refreshing summer aperitif?

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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9 Responses to Unknown Italians

  1. Neel says:

    The Oxford wine tasting you are referring to is no doubt the tasting that was organised by the Wine Society on the 22nd of June, and that was well worth attending. There were also some incredible reds on offer, and you must have scribbled something about them too. Which did you prefer? Do let me know ASAP, as I am about to put an order through.

    • James says:

      Indeed it was the Wine Society Tasting in the Oxford Town Hall. As for reds, I particularly enjoyed the Barolo Fossati 2005, though it needs aging, and at £45/bottle is not the cheapest. In the same category is Isole e Olena’s Cepparello, 2006. For ‘good value’ I liked Isole e Olena’s Chianti Classico, 2007; Podere Colla’s Barbera d’Alba, 2007; and Barberani’s Foresco, 2007.

      In the ‘interesting’ category I had the Alvolo Aglianico del Vulture, 2003, and Vallone’s Graticciaia, 2003.

      Not to forget the very delicious (white) sweet: Barberani’s Calcaia Dulce, Orvieto Classico Superiore, 2005 – late harvest.

      • James says:

        Incidentally, for anyone interested in the specific wines I’ve mentioned in this post. They are all available through The Wine Society (the link is in the post). The Society is a national organisation for wine lovers. You can join for life for a modest £40 and thus have access to quite a diverse range of wines to purchase online, in person, or by mail or phone order. They also put on various tastings and events throughout the country.

  2. Will says:

    Spooky timing. I had my first Verdicchio last night and was expecting something fairly neutral and unexciting in the Pinot Grigio mode, but was very pleasantly surprised: smokiness, banana fruit, and a weird (and pleasant) herbal bitterness.

    • James says:

      Yes! It’s one of those wines that if you write about it, I feel people would wonder why on earth they would want to try that! So I was a little easy on the adjectives, but definitely a distinct herbaceousness and yes, a bitterness that is not at all unpleasant. Grass, oil, and smoke are in my notes and though not the most appealing words for a wine, they really do work. I think some examples can be a bit astringent though. Some floral notes are needed to give a bit of roundness.

  3. Paul says:

    Thank you for this James. I agree entirely with your comments surrounding blind tasting, great to find circumstances where you can say the wrong thing and then be pointed in the right direction. Following reading your blog in New Zealand I swam across the great lake of Sauvignon we have here towards a 08 Chianti Speciale. Normally I find Chianti’s alive with large ripe fruit and from my limited experience. However this was impressively integrated leading to what I suppose could be termed an elegant style. I paid $18.99 for those that would like to swim over to Franks in Fendalton.

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