With the summer fading to an autumnal August, the barbecue has been (temporarily I hope) retired. It was thus instead homemade pizza night and I was searching for a Barbera – an easy-drinking, uncomplicated Italian red, perfect for pizzas. Having little luck at the local Oddbins, and needing to get home to the kneading, I resigned myself to a Chianti Rufina I had at home and a Sicilian Nero d’Avola from Oddbins, two perfectly drinkable Italian reds, if not quite the Barbera I had in mind.
Nero d’Avola is perhaps the biggest red variety grown in Sicily. This edition (from Cusumano, 2009; Oddbins, £6.49) was a medium purple colour. The aroma profile was straightforward fruitiness – plums, cherries, boysenberry – with an overlying smokiness. Along with vanilla from French oak, this created a ‘burnt caramel’ note for me. The acidity I would describe as ‘medium’ – it wasn’t lacking but certainly not high. The alcohol was reasonably well integrated though I find many Italian reds have noticeable alcohol on the palate and this was no different. Very ripe primary fruit flavours dominated the palate, along with hints of vanilla. Fortunately that smokiness on the nose didn’t carry through into the taste. The tannins were fairly soft; chunky in texture and forward in the mouth, but not at all overpowering. A very good Sicilian ‘intro’ wine.
For about the same price, from the Wine Society, was the Society’s Chianti Rufina, vintage 2007. Chianti is made principally from the Sangiovese grape, and Rufina is a small subzone of the Chianti district in Tuscany. It is an appellation in its own right, distinct from Chianti Classico. This wine was a classic, lighter style Chianti. A deep ruby colour, with some bricking at the edges. The nose struck me first with its oak characteristics – vanilla and hazelnut essence – then came dominant fruit notes of black cherry and brambly blackcurrants. There was a ‘warmth’ to the aroma too, something reminiscent of baked clay and chocolate. The chocolate and cherries motif carried through on the palate and the cherries into a moderate-length finish. The wine was reasonably full-bodied, with high acidity, noticeable alcohol and pronounced, grippy, attacking tannins. Definitely a wine for food.
To consider the differences between these two wines and how to tell them apart blind, firstly, the cherry notes and what I have come to identify as a hazelnutty-vanilla oaking style is what tips off both these wines as Italian to me. The Chianti is fairly classic as an Italian red in that it produces ripe fruit, strong tannins as well as a sharp acidity. In many other red wines around the world the tannic strength and acidity have an inverse relationship.
The Nero d’Avola is harder for me as I’m less familiar with Sicilian wines. That ‘burnt caramel’/smokiness note is something I’ve experienced before in Sicilian wines, and would be a good clue. The lack of a sharp acidity would definitely lead me to a warm climate, while the relatively soft tannins of this wine (compared to many other Italian reds) is characteristic of the grape variety itself. Expect updated notes on Sicilian wines following a trip there later in the year!
Hints of Greatness
It wasn’t going to be all Italian that night. A friend had brought a bottle of 1997 Chateau Marbuzet, from the St Estèphe appellation in Bordeaux. A promising deep ruby-plum core and a long gradient to the brickened rim was all for naught as the bottle was tainted. A shame, as beneath the flat, wet cardboard pong of the taint you could detect rich blackcurrants, a green peppery/minty herbaceousness and creamy vanilla. Promises of what could have been.