Recantina renaissance – a rare red grape from the Veneto
Regular readers of these pages will know how much I like to discover new and unusual grape varieties, especially those native to Italy. Recently I had the pleasure of staying in Asolo, primarily to explore their DOCG Prosecco. However, this part of the Veneto is also an excellent source for red wines, from the Montello DOCG and Montello – Colli Asolani DOC. Most of those are “classic” Bordeaux blends or single varietals based on Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carmenère. There are some great examples of these made which will form the basis of a future article. However, the Montello – Colli Asolani DOC also has 12 (yes twelve) hectares of a rare red grape variety called Recantina, an obscure native of these parts.
Recantina has a long history, documented back in the 1600s as growing around the nearby town of Treviso. While well regarded, it seems likely that much was grubbed up and replaced by French vines after the western part of the Venetian Republic became ruled by Napoleon until his exile in 1814. (A similar situation occurred in Lucca in Tuscany). In all probability, the phylloxera epidemic and the devastation of World War I did for the remainder.
In recent years Recantina has been rediscovered. There are two primary clones. Curiously, one has a red stalk (pecolo Rosso) while the other is green (pecolo Scuro). There also appears to be a slightly different biotype called Forner, named after the family vineyard where it was found, at Pat del Colmèl.
At Forner, three rows of vines always became bright red soon after the harvest. That’s a common occurrence, as, in preparation for winter dormancy, the vines slowly shut down and recover their green chlorophyll from the leaves. What’s then left in the leaves are red-coloured polyphenols. However, these particular vines always showed this trait earlier and more prominently than any of their neighbours. They were Recantina.
Microvinifications showed the resulting wine to have intense violet and blackcurrant scents and flavours, with plenty of polyphenols (intense colour and tannin), juicy acidity and with alcohol content in the 13-13.5% sweet spot. In other words, the Recantina clones make distinctive and high-quality wine. Just as well, as being rare in itself isn’t enough – it has to taste good too!
Over the last decade, several wineries in the Montello-Colli Asolani DOC area have planted Recantina and are now making excellent single-variety red wines. Notable bottles include those from Villa Giustiani, Serafini & Vidotto and Pat del Colmèl. Indeed, there is the talk of Recantina becoming authorised for use as a blending partner in Valpolicella and Amarone, which would undoubtedly encourage more plantings and broader adoption. How likely this is I don’t yet know, but I have contacted the relevant Consorzios about this and remain hopeful of an answer.
However, my personal favourite Recantina wine is also available in the UK. It’s from Giusti, who has the most significant area of Recantina of any winery, at 7 ha. It’s named Augusto. Indeed, in February I was able to taste every vintage so far made, from 2014 to 2017. Stylistic progress, especially in maturation, has been remarkably rapid given that with such grape rediscoveries, determining the optimal cultivation, yields and vinification is a work in progress over several years with varying vintage characteristics. The resultant Giusti wines have all been 100% Recantina so far and are Montello – Colli Asolani DOC.
A complete vertical of Giusti “Augusto” Recantina
At Giusti, the Recantina is harvested in early October and vinified in stainless steel tanks after a two-week maceration on the skins. Maturation is predominantly in 2500 litre inert Slavonian oak barrels for 12-14 months plus extra time in bottle to settle down. Other producers are using French oak barriques or no oak, with longer or shorter maturation times. Indeed, Giusti experimented with barrels made from Mulberry wood but found the resultant tannins too green and bitter. Production is now approaching 13,000 bottles per year.
The first vintage made, in a challenging harvest year, being cold and rainy. Still purplish hints to the ruby colour, violet perfume. Acidity and tannins a little rustic, but the impression I get is that this is more about the vintage than the grape or winemaking. Blackcurrant and blueberry fruit, with a little coffee and white pepper on the finish.
A big step up, from a classic vintage, much warmer and drier. A tiny proportion was matured in French oak and blended in. Perfumed, all violets and cherries. The tannins are all smoothed out, lovely balance of acidity and fruit. Majors on cassis, but hints of figs and plums too. A much longer length, hints of stony minerality and white pepper, with more elegance and balance in this vintage expression. Excellent wine drinking well now.
Silkier tannins compared to 2015. Juicy, with more black fruits, and maybe black cherry rather than blackcurrant. Hints of iron and cloves I thought. A satisfying and savoury spice finish. Very precise, bright acidity. Wafting violets on the nose. Excellent again, though contrasts to 2015.
Still young, needs more time, as only in bottle for two weeks. Bottle ageing will increase to 9 months before release. Bright ruby colour, purplish glint, violet-scented. Some cherry and chestnut oak maturation used in this year, perhaps a touch of cedar wood showing. Hot drought year – the tannins are still a little angular but need more time in bottle to soften. Rich blackcurrant and fig fruit suggest potential here. Wait a year or two.
And how will Recantina age? The answer must be that nobody knows what development it might show yet, though it’s a red wine that certainly isn’t going to fall over quickly. All you can do is go on tasting, which is all the excuse I need.
I tried Augusto with Braised Oxtail, an excellent match. A Bistecca alla Fiorentina would hit the spot too – a T-bone steak cut thick, grilled on a wood fire, charred on the outside, rare on the inside. Vegetarians might try mushrooms or aubergine dishes, or a Venetian bean stew.
The Augusto 2015 is available in the UK at Mondial Wines, for £19.20 and comes highly recommended.
Why not check it out at the upcoming London Wine Fair? That’s if I haven’t bought it all by then.
Dosage Zero, Champagne Paillard with Crofton Cheese
Dosage Zero is a specialist Champagne from Bruno Paillard. I’ve written about this Champagne House previously, so rather than repeat myself, see here for my piece on what Champagne Bruno Paillard is all about. In style, the wines from this Champagne House are usually Extra-Brut, with minimal residual sugar, designed to let the land and climate speak clearly. However, Dosage Zero takes this one step further and is a style produced by relatively few Champagne Houses. It’s brut-ist of the brut, but not brutish, as you might say after a few glasses.
Dosage is part of the traditional method of making Champagne and other sparkling wines, where it determines the final sweetness of the wine produced. That’s long been the secret of success in such a northern latitude as Champagne, where ripeness can still be problematic despite climate change.
With Champagne, the secondary fermentation that adds the bubbles is carried out in the bottle. Once this is complete, the wine matures on the lees in that bottle. Then, the wine is disgorged to remove the sediment, and the opportunity comes for adding extra sugar. In French, this is called the liqueur d’expédition, which is usually a mixture of the same wine to top up the bottle, plus some dissolved sugar syrup. The bottle is then corked up. The majority of Champagne made these days is in the Brut (dry) style.
Most Champagne and similar wines are usually so high in acidity that they need additional sugar to balance them. In other words, balance means that no single element of the final wine is too prominent on the palate. There is a classified scale of sweetness based on residual sugar. So for example, Extra Brut is between 0-6 g/l, Brut is <12 g/l, while demi-sec is 32-50 g/l. Such can be the acidity that even wines with relatively high added sugar can still taste bone dry. Indeed, if you ever taste Champagne base wines after first fermentation but before the bubbles are added (known as Vin Clairs), you may fear for your tooth enamel!
A question of balance
Dosage Zero wines (also sometimes known as Brut nature, Brut sauvage or pas dosé), as the name implies, avoid adding any balancing sugar. To make this utterly naked style and still produce balanced Champagne is, therefore, a remarkable and challenging feat. It’s an illustration of the winegrowers art in extremis. While this style has become better known and is a growing category, only a few dozen Champagne producers make it. Of the well-known producers, they include the likes of Roederer, Laurent-Perrier, Drappier, Philipponnat and Pommery. Now with Dosage Zero you can Bruno Paillard to that list.
Bruno Paillard makes his Dosage Zéro by combining several critical elements to achieve that elusive balance. These include:
A high proportion of fifty per cent reserve wines in the non-vintage blend from thirty locations. These date back to 1985, blended in a solera system – you need a high percentage of reserve wines from older years to tame the acidity. A significant component is also the 2000 vintage of unreleased Bruno Paillard Nes Plus Ultra cuvée, sourced from reopened bottles;
Unusually, a high 50% of fruity and natural sugar-laden Pinot Meunier (plus unstated amounts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) from around Cumières in the Vallée de la Marne and also in the Montage de Reims;
All organic farming (and in some cases, biodynamic conversion);
Bruno Paillard owns 70% of his grapes, so can decide on optimal picking to control acidity and ripeness;
Only first press wines used – the best juice;
Fermentation is mostly in old oak barrels, so I assume the malolactic fermentation occurs, at least in part, which softens the acidity;
Forty-eight months on the lees adds yeast autolysis flavours, followed by another year after disgorgement in February 2018 to settle down.
If creating this style is so difficult, then why do it? I’m tempted to answer “because we can”. Joking aside, Dosage Zero is a specialist Champagne, made only in small quantities. However, it demonstrates the winegrowers art and attention to detail; it suggests mastery and control over the entire process, and it produces an expression of Champagne’s terroir.
In any case, never underestimate the value of prestige, where the top wines always push the edge of the envelope in some way.
A Champagne for those that like to explore
Dosage Zero is a fascinating and individual Champagne; ideal for those that want to explore different styles.
After all that, how does it taste? Of course, it’s bone dry, with an elderflower and almond perfume. But the key here is the balance on the palate. Softer, filigreed acidity that preserves freshness, accompanied by citrus, pear and apple fruit, with leesy flavours and savoury notes. Slow bubble streams and tiny bubbles. Hazelnut, shortbread biscuit and a final salinity on a long length.
Subtle. Nothing aggressive, just purity and elegance.
Dosage Zero is a specialist Champagne that demands food. It matches with cheeses particularly well. In France, the usual suspects such as Chaorce, Brillat-Savarin or an aged Brie-de-Meaux would be lovely companions.
From our shores, I tried Dosage Zero with the artisanal raw-milk cheeses made by Thornby Moor Dairy in Cumbria. In particular, their Crofton cheese proved to be a fabulous match. Nothing else needed, though some crusty bread hits the spot.
Crofton Cheese – Thornby Moor Dairy
Thornby Moor Dairy started in 1979, run by Carolyn Fairbairn, who is entirely self-taught. In 1994 the dairy expanded and Carolyn’s daughter Leonie joined her. The dairy only uses single herd raw milk, and Crofton unusually has using a 2:1 ratio of cow and goat milk. Made entirely by hand, it’s semi-soft, naturally rinded, creamy and with a mushroom complexity.
Talking with Leonie Fairbairn, I soon realised that Crofton is every bit as carefully made as Dosage Zero. Hence, it matches it in artistry as well as in flavour and texture. This cheese has just won a Gold Medal at the annual Artisan Cheese awards. I recommend a visit if you’re in Lakeland.
He wrote other novels, short stories and letters. Meanwhile, his notes and lists collected ideas and impressions, ranging from the profound to the banal, including a list of thirteen ways to use up leftover Thanksgiving Turkey.
He was, ahem, more than well acquainted with alcohol, so it seems apt that the most striking symbol of The Jazz Age, The Cocktail, had already become a verb as well as a noun in his time.
Perhaps only F Scott Fitzgerald could think about conjugating the word Cocktail when used as a verb. This is in a letter he wrote in 1928, to Blanche Knopf, the wife of his publisher. It goes like this.
F Scott Fitzgerald conjugated To Cocktail in this letter
I hate like hell to have to decline all those invitations, but as this is three days too late I have no choice. As “cocktail”, so I gather, has become a verb, it ought to be conjugated at least once, so here goes”
Present: I cocktail, thou cocktail, we cocktail, it cocktails, you cocktail, they cocktail.
I don’t often write about serious Bordeaux reds. Not because I have an aversion to them, it’s more because I don’t get involved in the en primeur or auction/investment scenes. I prefer to drink my wines! Also, top Bordeaux Cru like St. Émilion commands prices ranging from expensive to stratospheric. However, looking back through my St. Émilion tasting notes made over a decade and more I found for some of them a common quality denominator. Not price, not points and not vintage. Instead, a famous winemaking consultant called Stéphane Derenoncourt.
Stéphane Derenoncourt has wineries clamouring for his services. Right-Bank Bordeaux, particularly St. Émilion, is where he established his reputation.
Derenoncourt was born in 1963, in Dunkerque in Northern France, in modest circumstances; he is the son of a steelworker. Wine didn’t figure until at age 18 he hitchhiked down to Fronsac to work the 1982 grape harvest. During the eighties, he continued to work in vineyards and cellars and became self-taught. In 1990, he got the winemaking job at the prestigious Château Pavie Macquin. Recognition of his talents followed swiftly.
He became a consultant in 1997 and has owned his estate, Domaine de l’A in the Côtes de Castillon, since 1999. One of his most famous creations is La Mondotte, revolutionary at the time as one of the first garagiste wines.
In 1998 he was sorting out Inglenook/Rubicon in Napa Valley for Francis Ford Coppola (I wine I admire) and launched his Californian wines in 2009. In Italy, he’s in the Bolgheri with L’Argentiera and Campo Alla Sughera, and in the Veneto with Inama. Phew!
Now Derenoncourt consults for 90 wineries worldwide, with his wife Christine and a team of assistants. In addition to various Bordeaux Châteaux, there are projects in other areas of France, the USA and Italy. There are more ventures in Austria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Georgia, Mexico and even in the UK with Coates and Seely.
A man in demand, how does he decide what work to accept? He says that he chooses projects where he can develop a strong rapport and be deeply involved.
No winemaking formula
Winemaker consultants are oft accused of making wine according to some stylistic method, so the wines “all taste the same”. However, Derenoncourt’s technique differs from other consultants. He observes, tastes and adapts according to the winery, the style of the wine sought, the terroir and the vintage conditions. Derenoncourt insists he has no winemaking formula.
In the vineyard
Viticulture is an emphasis. Winemaking using biodynamic and organic practices fascinate him. He is firmly against chemicals, which he feels have ruined many vineyards, especially in Bordeaux.
His estate at Domaine de l’A is biodynamic. Biodynamic and organic methods are also used at properties elsewhere, though these are difficult in the maritime climate of Bordeaux. Spraying is unavoidable in some years, but pruning and open canopy management help prevent disease, as do seaweed preparations. He does not seek certification because he does not want to be pigeonholed by specific techniques.
Low yields are also a prerequisite, meaning severe pruning and green harvests. Derenoncourt likes old stressed vines that “suffer to give us complexity” and picks as late as possible for ripe grapes. He ascribes many wine quality problems to high yields and poor quality vines.
In the winery
In the winery, Derenoncourt uses minimal sulphur as a preservative. He isn’t a fan of fashionable super-cuvées or second wines, preferring to work with the produce of the entire vineyard and blend accordingly, though in practice this is not always the case.
Over the years he has cut extraction, preferring to swap naked power for balance and longevity. So what about micro-oxygenation? Derenoncourt was one of the first to experiment with this technique, designed to soften tannins and add body. Now he feels that it’s a tool to be used sparingly, as such wines may mature too quickly.
Ageing wines on their lees interests him because it introduces more complexity in the final wine, so there is minimal racking of the wines from their lees and plenty of stirring (battonage). His attitude to Brettanomyces, (or Brett), the spoilage bacteria, is that he tries to avoid it because it blots out terroir, but agrees that a little Brett does add complexity. Derenoncourt prefers using new oak barrels with only the lightest toast, to avoid marking the wines with excessive vanilla oak flavours, even when the demanded Château style is for 100% new oak. Finally, he neither fines nor filters the wines.
He claims he is not a great taster but is a good drinker. So his wines tend to be food friendly. For his enjoyment, his preferences include the white wines of the Loire and the red wines of Burgundy as well as St. Émilion.
The wines – see the clickable google map
Below are eleven Derenoncourt Right-Bank Bordeaux wines, shown on the accompanying map. Ten are St. Émilion; the other is from his estate.
As is typical of the Right-Bank, all the wines here are dominated by Merlot, with Cabernet Franc generally in the primary support role rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. The ratio of the grape varieties grown at each estate is quoted below, but note that this ratio is not always the same as that in the final wine made. The vintages covered are between 2004 and 2015, so all the wines are on different stages in their maturity journey, and there will be vintage variation. Consequently, I’d caution against comparing one wine directly with another. However, given their longevity, all have years still in front of them.
Derononcourt seeks to show how the terroir varies in St. Émilion, which is principally dictated by the presence (or absence) of limestone, gravel and slope.
Without further ado, here are the wines, from a wide range of vintages. There is considerable variation in price, given different ages, reputations and quantities made. All these are available in the UK as single bottles. The stated prices are retail rather than “In Bond”, so include Duty and VAT. Auctions, while often a source of such wines, are not included.
St. ÉmilionChâteau La Bienfaisance, St. Émilion Grand Cru. 2006.
85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 12-16 months in oak, 30% new. Derenoncourt involved since 2001. Poor and cold clay soils near the outskirts of St. Émilion, at St. Christophe-des-Bardes. Not much limestone and a late ripening vineyard. Pale crimson. Marked by high acidity and red berry fruit. A bit pinched and spare, lacks fruit compared to the best here, with softer but still drying tannins. Anise and spice on the finish. Wine Trove,£26.00
Château Sanctus, Château La Bienfaisance, St. Émilion Grand Cru. 2005
70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc. A separate château wine from Château Bienfaisance made since 1998. Originally made by Aurelio Montes before Derenoncourt took over in 2001. Derononcourt says he’s changed the grape selection to improve elegance and minerality. Concentrated, deep colour, a big wine in the iron fist/velvet glove mode. Fat and extraction, raw meat nose and (I think) a touch of Brett. Mocha and milk chocolate oak effects. Trés moderne. Not my style, an extracted Parker-style wine. Lay & Wheeler,£47.56
Château Cadet Bon, St. Émilion Grand Cru. 2005.
60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Very close to St. Émilion centre, on limestone, with warmer soils. Deeper colour, violets and tobacco leaf on the nose and a truffle aroma. The palate has darker berry fruits and is quite sauvage, minerality here. Good balance, freshness and a harmonious lightness of touch. OlivWines£33.00
Château La Gaffelière, St. Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. 2015.
80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Derononcourt made his first vintage here in 1993. High limestone content, where Derenoncourt says the wine derives its purity from the hillier slopes and elegance from the flatter land. Garnet colour, the nose is all raw meat. A full and powerful wine with a palate dominated by violets and prominent tannins. A classy promise of loveliness in future. Nemo Wine Cellars,£76.00
Château Tertre Daugay, (Now Château Quintus) St. Émilion Grand Cru. 2010.
70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Garnet hued. The nose has toasty aromas from oak along with meat-like extract. Reprised on the palate, charred notes, concentrated dark fruits and power with some alcoholic warmth and sweetness. Gawky drying tannins still present. Connaught Cellars.£55.50
Château Clos Fourtet, St. Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. 2012.
85% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. From the St. Émilion plateau, sandy lenses in the clay soils add warmth. These bring roundness and darker fruit. Black fruits on the nose, along with leather and balsam. It’s rounder, laced with spices before an attractive mocha finish. Harmonious and subtle. Excellent. Hook and Ford, £89.99
Château Rol Valentin, St. Émilion Grand Cru. 2015.
90% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Eric Prissette, an ex-professional footballer who bought this microchâteau of five ha in 1994, in the north-west part of the St-Émilion. Derenoncourt joined in 1998, and organic methods employed. Hand harvested and fermentation in temperature-controlled, wooden tanks. Ageing in 100% new oak barrels for 18 months. Deep purple, with animal aromas, the palate is full of cassis fruit, liquorice and smoky oak. Sturdy, polished, with a mineral streak and spice ending. Tiny quantities of cult garagiste stuff. Bottle Apostle£39.00
Château Canon La Gaffelière, St. Émilion Grand Cru Classé. 2013
55% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Stephan von Neipperg, withDerenoncourt present since 1996. Said to be a very cold vineyard and perhaps that shows on the nose too; it’s greener, leafier and slightly floral. The Palate is austere with blackcurrant and plum fruit. Harmonious, elegant style and a fabulous finish with fruit, oak and spice complexity. A classy classic. The Bordeaux Cellar,£45.00
Château Pavie Macquin, St. Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé. 2010.
70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s usually windy (and drying) at this higher elevation estate; this means there is minimal rot and is biodynamic. Wine in a different league; violets on the nose with pencil-box. The palate is rich yet lifted and fresh. Seamlessly integrated, with weightless elegance. This estate’s stellar reputation is entirely understandable. Lay & Wheeler, £94.48
La Mondotte, St. Émilion. 2004.
80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc. An estate of just 4.5 ha owned by Stephan von Neipperg. The first vintage was made in 1996 by Derenoncourt. Little soil depth, cold clays over limestone and late ripening vineyards. Ancient vines farmed biodynamically and absolutely no expense spared. 100% new oak and only tiny quantities made. A new-world style and yet retains elegance. Big ruby colour, eucalyptus, spices and black truffles on the nose. A sensual experience. The Sampler£122.60
Côtes de CastillonDomaine de l’A, Côtes de Castillon. 2014.
60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. The only non-St. Émilion in this list. Derenoncourt’s estate at Saint Colombe, bought in 1999, on limestone that extends into the nearby Côtes de Castillon from St. Émilion. A frivolous question: does his domaine name ensure that it’s the first one listed in the Yellow Pages?
The estate allows him experimental freedom and biodynamics. Deep colour, purple-flecked, leggy and powerful. Highly aromatic, cloves and brown spices on the nose with berry fruit. The palate has silky dark fruits with a spicy undertow. Open, subtle and rewarding. Good structure and balance, hard to resist even when young. Gentle milk chocolate note on the finish. Excellent wine. Field & Fawcett, £38.95
With these wines, Derenoncourt ably demonstrates terroir differences and shows there is no preset “winemaking recipe”. A couple of the wines are ultra-modern, less in accord with Derenoncourt’s stated philosophy, being marked by extraction and significant big oak.
The best wines here show elegance, terroir and individuality. Excellence guaranteed.
Now I’ve got to look through reams of old tasting notes looking for his influence at all those other properties. Where did I put them?
It might seem obvious, but the taste of wine occurs in the Human brain. Indeed, there is a good deal of scientific research that’s gradually revealing how this works. A terrific book called Neuroenology, by Gordon M. Shepherd, explains this in detail. So why also include the Silly Tasting Notes in this article? Well, once the taste of wine is in our minds, then comes the challenge of communicating this to others meaningfully. Hence Silly Tasting Notes attempts to illustrate this with humour.
Wine tasting is an incredibly complex process that combines all our senses; whether vision, touch, taste, smell or even sound. To understand how the brain comes up with how a wine tastes combine neuroscience, biomechanics, and human physiology. Experience, training, memory and particularly emotional responses play a part too.
In the book, Shepherd says that wine tasting engages more of the brain than virtually any other human behaviour. I suspect there might be one at least one other candidate, but I digress. Yes, wine tasting does mean our senses are working overtime.
As we are all individuals, the taste of wine is consequently an individual perception. It varies from person to person, even though most of us are born with similar anatomy and potential. Therefore, taste cannot help but be subjective, though we can all discriminate and enjoy or dislike different things. As they say these days, your mileage may differ. What’s right or wrong is never absolute. Some people love Marmite; others hate it. C’est la vie.
However, trying to convey our own, unavoidably personal perceptions to others is a challenge. We find it easier to describe visual stimuli (such as colour) than any other sense. However, accuracy and understanding rely on the simple or familiar. Do you know the game where someone verbally portrays a teapot while another draws what they hear? If so, you’ll know what I mean. Try to describe a friend’s face to someone that hasn’t met them. No wonder we laugh at clumsy identikit pictures.
Using language to describe Taste, being a combination of smell, taste and touch, is even more daunting. We’ve seen that taste is from inputs; sensing the properties of the wine, then transmitting this to the brain. Here, different areas interact to create our taste picture as thoughts and feelings. Communicating those as an output in a meaningful linguistic way is highly personal and limited by language.
We can add all kinds of rules and training in an attempt to increase objectivity and meaning. And of course, some people are more agile communicators than others. However, all too frequently the attempted result contains little sense. Other attempts end up being pretentious, repetitious or unmemorable, which rather defeats the point. We don’t have the language to convey as accurately as we would want. That’s one reason the world loves points systems; they seem so objective by comparison. But of course, as the creation of the brain, they aren’t.
Perhaps all you can do is to try, to practice telling the difference ‘tween the lemons and the limes. As Samuel Beckett famously said, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Communicating our thoughts and feelings about wine is imperfect, yet it’s the best we can do. On that note, it’s time for some Silly Tasting Notes.
Silly Tasting Notes
Given the difficulties, it’s no wonder that wine communication is often ripe for parody. Welcome then to Silly Tasting Notes. It’s a fun antidote to the world of the bland, the boring, the unfathomable or worse, po-faced elitism. Hence I’m a fan of Silly Tasting Notes generator v1.2, created by Greg Sumner. It’s been around on the internet for a few years. Add a few wine variables into the programme and press a button. Hey Presto!, a tasting note appears, deliberately daft. Here’s a dozen I made earlier.
Fancy hedonistic sparkler. Aromas of mint, wicked lime and bashful boiled veggies.
Dark and mysterious oaked Rhône. Hints of peach-pit, over-oaked raisins with weak roast pork.
Opens with liquorice, over-ripe garlic and light apple. Only drink on the second Tuesday of the month.
A tightly wound but supple Bordeaux. Displays clay, acidic French oak and strong-willed blueberry. Drink this Friday.
Remarkable middle-aged Chardonnay. It resembles carrot, sad salt and hopeful bananas. Drink with cornflakes.
Unimpressive and meandering Pinot Noir that throws kalamata olive, elegant ginger and scantily clad roasted meat.
Ripe in flavour, almost sassy dessert wine. Roasted vegetables, arcane melon and lingering ginger.
Almost astounding Merlot. Contains chutney, extra-ripe fig and insufficient plum. Drink.
A wine that resembles clam chowder, with whimsical dishwater and forward toothpaste. It’s now drinking throughout eternity.
Classic and supple Chardonnay. A reminiscence of desperate figs with traces of juniper at the molecular level.
Nicely fleshy Cabernet Franc. Opens with lingering raspberries and a sturdy cigar box — special on Groundhog Day.
Liberal, it’s bordering on the reckless at the quantum level. This stunner is ripe for self-medicating any time of day.
Well, those Silly Tasting Notes make me smile, and I hope you do too. Meanwhile, I suspect I’ve been guilty of writing similar twaddle on occasion.
In conclusion, the next time you hear or read a wine description or a tasting note, consider Neuroenology. It’s part of what makes us Human, and that’s food for thought.
As the recent Wines of Spain tasting, the annual show in London, there were many excellent wines of every description. However, my Wine of the Show was Rebel.lia. It’s from the excellent Bodegas Vegalfaro, in the heart of the DOP Utiel-Requena region of Spain, inland near València.
Regular readers of these pages will know of my love for all things Valèncian, and you can find out more about DOP Utiel-Requena from my previous articles.
Vegalfaro has 60 ha of vineyards and is certified organic. Furthermore, since its creation in 1999, their vineyards have never had any chemical treatments. They produce an excellent range of wines, including those at Vino Pago level, which is now Spain’s highest quality classification.
Meanwhile, this young red wine is one of the very best blended wines available in the entire region. Not only has it won some distinguished awards; it’s also incredible value for money.
Rebel.lia is a blend of 30% Bobal, with 35% Garnacha Tintorera (Grenache) and 35% Tempranillo. These three classic Spanish grape varieties complement one another well. There’s a splash of Merlot is also included this year. Bobal is a Spanish grape variety that can be quite brilliant in its own right. However, it also makes a great blending partner and “medicine wine”. Unlike Garnacha and Tempranillo, it produces modest alcohol and has high acidity and tannins together with vivid colour. These valuable qualities are put to good use here.
The grapes come from the Casa Alfaro vineyard, on limestone and gravel soils. The different varieties are blended after vinification, then get four months maturation in mostly Hungarian oak barrels.
2017 was a drought year throughout most of Europe, and Utiel-Requena was no exception. Production was small but of high quality and ripeness. It’s arguably one of the best vintages in recent years. Utiel-Requena is hot and arid in any case; there were no fungal diseases, and the vines relied on soil water reserves to survive and thrive.
The result is splendid. It’s a deep purple colour and is no shrinking violet at 14.5%. There’s no overt alcoholic heat and the balance between bright acidity, fruit and alcohol are impeccable. Enticing smoky red berry fruit on the nose gives way to a palate of cherry and plum, backed by a smidge of cocoa and brown spices. Polished tannins offer a velvety mouthfeel before a long fade on the finish. In short, it’s a harmonious and satisfying blend with no edges.
Food-wise, you’d expect meat to be a good partner. Lamb, whether chops or roast, is particularly good. As we head into barbeque season, then all manner of grilled meats will work a treat. An authentic Valèncian Paella, based on rabbit and snails, also comes to mind. The nearby town of Requena is famous for its sausages too, so think Chorizo and Sobrasada.
Rebel.lia is £9.95 at Vintage Roots.I didn’t know how much this wine cost when I first tasted it and had it in the £15-£18 bracket. Enough said.
As Lance Pigott, co-founder of Vintage Roots said to me at Wines of Spain, it’s a head-turner, and not just because the writing on the label is upside down!
Afterwards, I put my money where my mouth is and bought it online. I recommend you do the same. With 100,000 bottles made, there’s plenty to go round!
Part 1 introduced the Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, setting it in a cultural context and describing its relationship with the larger Prosecco DOC and the neighbouring Prosecco DOCG of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Now Part 2 features a dozen recommendations for Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG. In style, these range from bone-dry to sweet, each with food matching ideas mentioned. Most producers make Prosecco in more than one form, so I’ve picked those bottles available in the UK, with prices and sources.
A note on the wines
All the wines mentioned below are Spumante and made by the Charmat method unless otherwise stated. Spumante is fully sparkling, with pressure between 3.5 to 6 Bar. Frizzante is lightly sparkling with a maximum of 2.5 Bar pressure. The wines are between 11% and 11.5% alcohol.
They feature extended second fermentations (called Charmat Lungo) to create smaller and more persistent bubbles with additional leesy flavours. The minimum second fermentation time in a pressure tank for Prosecco is just 30 days, but these take considerably longer. I’ve given the residual sugar (RS) figure too if only to express my inner geek. I’ve also included a re-emerging traditional style called Col Fondo, which is delightfully different, both in creation and taste.
Here they are.
Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG: examples of Col Fondo, Extra Brut and Brut styles
Extra-Brut (0-6 g/l of residual sugar)
Loredan Gasparini, Vigna Monti, 2016. 0.5 g/l RS
From the Monti vineyard at Montello, 100% Glera. This example uses Método Classico, not Charmat, hence the older vintage date, as the wine is aged in bottle for 12 months before disgorging. Delicate beading of bubbles and deep yellow colour. Lively, rich and creamy. Some freshly baked bread character and a distinct moreish flintiness. 2013, with some extra bottle age, is available at 3Venice Wine£19.00
Astoria, Fanò, 2018. 6 g/l RS
100% Glera. 35 days second fermentation. Foaming, less leesy than some, but with a refreshing almond and sherbet finish after an explosion of apple and honeysuckle fruit. Gerard Seel£13.95
Pasta-wise, Ravioli with lots of butter and parmesan is delicious. Also Fresh-water fish, sushi/sashimi and dim sum. Asparagus, even difficult matches like Artichoke hearts and fresh tomatoes. As an antipasto, try Smoked salmon blinis. Fish & Chips, (or scampi if you want to be posh).
Ravioli is great with Extra-Brut.
Brut (6-12 g/l of residual sugar)
Case Paolin, 2018. 7 g/l RS
Case Paolin makes outstanding wines from their 15 ha of vines at Voplago dl Montello. They were the first to be certified as organic in this region and is a low-sulphur regime too. The second fermentation takes 45 days. Greenish highlights and a persistent mousse with small bubbles. Scents and palate of honeysuckle, with a little baked bread too. An elegant wine with a terrific long chalky finish. Woodwinters£15.00
Tenuta Amadio, 2018. 8 g/l RS
From Monfumo, at around 200 metres altitude. 100% Glera with 8 g/l sugar for this Brut. Fifty days second fermentation, followed by four months on the lees. Also comes in Extra-Dry and Dry styles, but the Brut style is more revealing of underlying flinty minerality. A softly textured wine, with acacia on the nose and peachy stone fruit character. Drink young or leave to age. 2014 is £12.00 at Waud Wines
Botter, 2017. 9 g/l RS
Botter started small, at Fossalta di Piave, near Venice. Now they are massive, with a vast range of wines. They make half the total volume of Asolo DOCG production! This Brut is 100% Glera and proves that big wineries can make great wines. Generous style, a hint of quince and excellent length. London Wine Shippers,£12.18; Excel Wines, £13.20
Giusti, 2017. 10 g/l RS
A winery to watch, established by Ermengildo Giusti (known as Joe), an Asolo native who returned to create a modern winery after a career in Canada. The hilly vineyards are in Nervesa della Battaglia. Light colour, greenish glints. High intensity on the nose and palate, featuring green apples and lemons. Zingy, vivacious, with a baking soda undertow. 5 Bar pressure means persistent bubbles. Coming soon to Mondial Wine, priced around £14.50.
Villa Sandi, 2018. 12 g/l RS
A major high-quality Prosecco DOCG and DOC producer. Pale yellow. Fruity aromas of Golden Delicious apples, and grapefruit too. Soft and cushioned on the palate, dry Brut style. A hint of banana on the finish I thought. Bellavita£14.99
Sea-fish such as sardines and anchovies. Polenta based dishes. Crustaceans (prawns, lobster, crab) Anchovies. Salumi such as Parma Ham. How about this road-tested recipe for Baked Zucchini.
Extra-Dry (12-17 g/l of residual sugar, so this is off-dry)
More Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG: Extra-Dry and Dry
Bele Casel, 2017. 16 g/l RS
A small artisanal producer, organic but uncertified. 100% Glera from From Cornuda, 40-50 days second fermentation and four months on the lees and low sulphur. 16 g/l sugar and 4.5 Bar pressure. Creamy green apple, grapefruit and greengage on the palate before a long saline finish. Berry Brothers & Rudd£14.95
Ghisolana, Over 100, 2018. 15 g/l R/S
Ghisolana is a tiny artisanal organic winery in Monfumo, with just 3 ha of Glera vines that are over 100 years old. Their Extra-Dry is the only Prosecco they make, with a delicate balance of sugar and acidity, so it’s elegant and finishes cleanly. Some subtle acacia and wisteria floral notes, with an apple and pear palate, savoury finish and a good mousse. Super complexity that the sugar can’t hide and it’s dangerously drinkable. Most of it is drunk in their excellent restaurant near Asolo called Al Capitello (the tiny winery is underneath, in the cellar). However, in the UK you can drink 2018 at the Humble Grape wine bars in London (£19.75). Alternatively, if you’d like to experience how Asolo Prosecco can age well, 2012 now has a honeyed character and is £14.46 from Colyer, London.
Indigena is a very different proposition to their Vigna Monti Extra-Brut, even though the Glera grapes are from the same vineyard. The second fermentation takes more than ten months in a Charmat pressure tank, resulting in an extraordinary creamy wine. Massive dry extract of 38 g/l. All elegant apricots and pears alongside green apples. Suave, sophisticated, finishing clean and fresh. 3Venice Wine has 2012 at £21.00
Porchetta (think roast pork with apple sauce), spicier “fusion” cuisine. Stir-fries. Desserts such as pastries, fruit tarts, ice cream, trifle.
Dry (17-32 g/l of residual sugar, so this is the sweetest)
Villa Giustiani, VG 2017. 25 g/l RS
Firmly in the Dry category. Despite the initial sweetness on the palate, the balancing acidity means it’s fresh and finishes cleanly, without cloying. Think baked Apple Pie, all sweet pastry with green apples. While this level of sugar does mask the terroir aspects, it’s undoubtedly an excellent match for desserts. There are also Brut and Extra-Dry versions made. Tannico, £15.20
Panettone is the classic, other cakes and biscuits. A classic companion for English afternoon tea!
English Afternoon Tea: pick a Dry prosecco for cakes, pastries and biscuits
But wait! As promised there’s a unique emerging style based on ancient tradition, called Col Fondo.
Col Fondo – a unique style
Col Fondo is a different style of Prosecco. It’s only in small volumes, but production is growing as this style rides the trend for “natural wines”. Col Fondo means “with the bottom”. It’s an ancient tradition of having the second fermentation in the bottle. The spent yeast sediment forms a thickish layer at the bottom of the bottle.
While some might want to decant the wine from this sediment, that misses the point. A much better solution is to invert the bottle gently two or three times. Those old enough may remember we were once encouraged to do so with Orangina, with the TV with the slogan, “shake the bottle, wake the drink”. These will then be served cloudy. Often, these wines also feature other production tweaks like skin maceration, using natural yeasts, extended lees ageing, no fining/filtering and low sulphur. Col Fondo isn’t an “orange wine” and isn’t funky. Instead, they have enhanced flavours and textures, usually Extra-Brut.
Consequently, Col Fondo is related to the Ancestrale sparkling method, or the modern “Pet’ Nat”. However, it’s technically neither. Those involve bottling a wine that is still first fermenting. Col Fondo bottles a still wine that has finished the first fermentation, with a dosage of grape must and yeast to begin a new second fermentation in the bottle. It’s a process sometimes known in Italy as Sui Lieviti.
Case Paolin, Col Fondo, 2017, 0 g/l RS
If I chose only one wine out of this excellent selection, it would be this. The oldest Glera vines, low yields, pre-maceration before first fermentation with wild yeasts. Second fermentation in the bottle, with the sediment acting as a natural protector, so low sulphur too. Served cloudy, this is Bone dry, without any residual sugar at all. It’s also in the Frizzante, lightly sparkling style. Remarkable texture, combining the creaminess of the yeasts with a prickle on the tongue from the bubbles. Still fresh and refreshing – nothing oxidised, nothing reductive. Stong white flower and acacia aroma, the palate has chalk and flint minerals and leesy notes, with the honeysuckle and grapefruit fruit playing second fiddle. Remarkable and delicious, an older bottle from 2014 had developed some honey and quince notes. Woodwinters,£15.00
Pasta with pumpkin, Spring Rolls. Aperitivi / canapés. White meats such as Chicken.
Map of Asolo Zone
More producers to look for
Note, some quite brilliant Asolo Prosecco’s are not yet in the UK. I forecast this to change as a segment of Prosecco drinkers seek out drier styles and higher quality. So if you visit Asolo or Venice, check out these producers and their examples:
Bedin (Brut) – Note, imported to the UK by Jascots under the “Adalina” label, exclusive to UK hotels and restaurants
Costa (Prà Grande, Dry)
Dal Bello (Celeber, Extra-Brut)
Martignago (Xero Extra-Brut)
Montelliana (“57” Extra-Dry)
Montelvini, (Il Brutto, Col Fondo; and Serenitatis, Extra Brut)
Pat de Colmel (Duse, Dry)
Sartor (Kairòs, Extra-Dry)
Serafini & Vidotto (Extra-Dry)
The Last word
Asolo: another of those 100 Horizons
Robert Browning wrote, in his poem Fra Lippo Lipp1:
“If you get simple beauty and nought else, you get about the best thing God invents.”
With Asolo Prosecco, beauty takes a lot of hard graft and dedication. So it seems an appropriate way to conclude.
Not content with making DOCG Prosecco, the Asolo region also produces all sorts of other white and red wines, and I’ll be featuring some of those soon.
On a clear day in Venice, take a moment and look inland to north-north-west. On the horizon, shimmering in a lagoon haze, are a range of hills forming the first outliers of the alps, some 60 km distant across the pancake-flat land of the pianura. Here lies the town of Asolo; perched on the Colli di Asolo hillside. It’s where this story begins.
The City of 100 Horizons
Asolo has existed since pre-Roman times. Known as the “Pearl of Treviso province”, or the “City of 100 horizons”, it became a Venetian fiefdom once ruled by Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus. Meanwhile, the profusion of white Mulberry trees recalls its past importance on the Silk Route.
A Venetian playground then, a quiet haven for those wanting to escape Venice’s summer heat and humidity, or its winter floods and fogs. Indeed, this is a place of balmy Mediterranean sea breezes, peppered with grand Palladian villas and Renaissance gardens.
A romantic description perhaps, yet Asolo is. After all, this is where poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning came to stay. Indeed, Asolando was Robert Browning’s last book, published on the day of his death. This town has always been a magnet for artists and actors, writers and travellers.
Asolo has even given the Italian language a verb, Asolare. It means to take a breath of fresh air and the good feeling that this brings.
And so then, to Prosecco
It’s time to weave Prosecco into Asolo’s story. Perhaps we think we know Prosecco all too well. After all, the UK alone takes 20% of its enormous production, meaning 35% of all its exports. It’s the white sparkling wine that’s ubiquitous in our bars, cafes and pubs. We see it as sharply-priced, soft and off-dry. Commercial froth then, a fun wine for celebrations, aperitivo and as the base wine for cocktails like Bellini,Aperol Spritz and Sgroppino. Considered by some as poor-persons Champagne, by others as an affordable alternative.
But it’s worth getting to know Prosecco better, as there is more to it than meets the casual eye, especially regarding style and quality. There are toothsome and characterful Prosecco wines, and nowadays some have the potential for greatness.
A Prosecco primer
Prosecco DOC and DOCG
The Prosecco DOC is vast, stretching across the two Italian provinces of Friuli and Veneto. There are some 23,300 hectares, with a production of around 450 million bottles. Double-digit growth has followed insatiable demand over the past two decades.
While this volume is phenomenal, some suggest that we may have reached “Peak Prosecco”. Others even predict that the “bubble” (sic) will burst when consumers become bored and look for alternatives.
My view is that Prosecco will continue to be the engine of sparkling wine sales worldwide.
Meanwhile, Prosecco became protected from increasing mimicry by other regions and countries in 2009. Hence the primary grape variety, once known as Prosecco, is now officially called Glera.
In short, Prosecco is the name of a wine. It must be from Glera and other authorised grape varieties within the DOC. Anything else can’t officially be Prosecco, at least in Europe.
Glera is the basis of Prosecco, an indigenous semi-aromatic grape variety. It may originate from around the town of Prosecco, or come from Croatia, where it’s also grown.
Under the DOC rules, Prosecco must contain at least 85% Glera, with other allowable varieties (Verdiso, Blanchetta Trevignana, Penera, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero vinified white) up to 15%. Many bottles contain 100% Glera.
A Rosé version, combining Glera and Pinot Noir vinified red, is likely to receive approval by the DOC soon.
Meanwhile, there are sweetness levels which apply in Prosecco DOC. From driest to sweetest, these are Brut, Extra-Dry, and Dry. Brut allows up to 12 grammes of sugar per litre; Extra Dry wines range from 12-17 g/l. Perhaps confusingly, “Dry” Prosecco wines are the sweetest, with 17-32 g/l.
Though there are rare examples of still Prosecco (Tranquillo), most are fizz; sometimes Frizzante (lightly sparkling) but mostly Spumante (fully sparkling).
Sparkling Prosecco DOC has to use the Charmat (Marinotti) pressure-tank method. Some see this process is as inferior to Método Classico. However, it serves the fruitiness of the Glera grape variety perfectly well. See my piece called I’m Forever Making Bubbles about the different ways of sparkling winemaking.
While (with notable exceptions) much of the DOC continues to pump out inexpensive commercial fizz from high yield vineyards on flat land, producers are increasingly diversifying and releasing premium bottlings. Indeed, those around Treviso and Trieste can append their names to the DOC to indicate better quality.
There are also more styles emerging, thanks to improvements in winegrowing and winemaking. Not only are the best producers imbuing Prosecco with a sense of place; their wines are food friendly too. These are far higher quality wines. They may cost a little more yet they retain a strong value proposition.
Increasing quality and DOCG
Such quality innovations are led by Prosecco’s two (and only) Superiore DOCG enclaves. Also created in 2009, these enjoy a reputation for higher quality, though remain a little less well known to many in the UK.
The larger DOCG is around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. That covers 6,860 ha in size and makes 90 million bottles each year. It has new subzones and many excellent producers. However, their story must wait for another time.
However, just to the south and west of this DOCG, and separated from it by the River Piave, are the south-facing hillsides of the Colli Asolani and Montello. Here lies the smaller Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, of 1,783 hectares and 13 million bottles.
Generally speaking, these two prestigious DOCGs are a reliable source of the best Prosecco. Both DOCG’s have similarities; having lower yields, hillsides, and higher minimum alcohol. Both, unlike the DOC, avoid the humidity of the lower flat land and have also rejected the possibility of making a Prosecco Rosé in future because it’s not traditional. Also, there is scope here to make Prosecco using the Método Classico method, just like in Champagne and Franciacorta. The DOCG producers range from small artisans to large enterprises, with a focus on quality and a sense of place.
Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG
Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG terroir
There are also significant differences between these two DOCG’s. Asolo is a little lower at a maximum of 450 metres, and its hills are mainly south facing. It enjoys warm Mediterranean breezes by day and colder winds from the hilltops at night. This temperature variation preserves acidity and means the vineyards are slower to warm up in the mornings, so there is more extended and more gradual grape ripening. In summer, 33°C in the day will drop to 15°C at night.
There are ten different soil types, including glacial moraine, alluvial fans from stream wash, and gravels along the right bank of the river Piave. Limestone soils are on the hilltops. In contrast, Conegliano-Valdobbiadene can be higher and steeper, as well as colder and wetter, mainly when Alpine winds blow from the Dolomites.
One technical fact that differentiates Asolo Prosecco is its amount of Dry Extract. Before your eyes glaze over, this the residue of solid stuff left after removing all the water and alcohol from the wine. The minimum is 15 g/l, but Asolo Prosecco frequently has up to 18 g/l.
It doesn’t sound much difference, but the effects are considerable. Firstly, it leaves an impression of more weight and body in the wine. Secondly, it enables ageing. Most Prosecco is best when drunk young, but Asolo Prosecco ages well over 5-7 years, which brings additional honeyed tones.
Lastly, it means that these wines can come as an Extra-Brut bone-dry style (0-6 g/l residual sugar). This style is the crispest and most refreshing. The lack of sugar also reveals the terroir aspects of the wine, such as minerality and subtler aromas and flavours. Sugar can mask poor winemaking, just like noise masks the sound of music. Hence such naked wines demand the best grapes and the most skilled winemaking because there’s nowhere to hide.
This style has other advantages too, in that it’s meeting rising consumer demand for drier fizz and it’s also a more versatile style for food pairing.
This Extra Brut style originated in the Asolo DOCG in 2014. Indeed, it currently has the Extra-Brut style solely for itself. So successful is it that Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG will also adopt it shortly.
Villa Barbaro, Maser, near Asolo. Palladian splendour.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for some great Prosecco and piqued your curiosity too. Of course, what most of us now want to know is, “what does it taste like, where can I buy it, and how much does it cost.”
Hence in Part 2, it’s time to Asolare. It contains a personal selection of Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG bottles, made in a wide range of styles, together with some food matching ideas. All have a clear sense of place. It’s coming soon!
Hot off the Press! The latest 2019 edition of 100 AWEsome Wines from the Association of Wine Educators (AWE) is out now. It’s brand new, now in its 5th year, and it’s free!
What’s the catch? There isn’t one. We’re wine educators, so it’s what we do. AWE members are professionals that taste and teach wine almost daily. Quite often we drink it too. This guide has 100 wines we rate as being exceptional quality and value. The wines are available in the UK at supermarkets, independent wine merchants and online websites, so there should be no difficulty in finding them. There’s sure to be something you’d love to try at a price you like.
The brochure has easy-to-use sections: Under £10 in white, red and rosé. Then wines between £10 and £25, again in white, red and rosé. These are followed by sparkling, sweet and fortified wines, finishing up with sake.
Get the Free Download
As usual, as a longstanding member of the AWE, I’ve chipped in with three stunning examples. Meanwhile, the other 97 are from some of my favourite people in wine. Hence you can bet it’s a reliable and useful guide. You can download a pdf of the free brochure by clicking the link below (it’s a safe link to another part of my website):
When you think of Pinot Noir, the chances are that you won’t be thinking about Italy. Of course, Italy has its own great native red grape varieties, while the spiritual home of Pinot Noir is in Burgundy. However, in Lombardy, Conte Vistarino has long been a Pinot Pioneer.
In Italy, Pinot Noir is called Pinot Nero. Sadly, it’s often considered an ugly duckling rather than a swan.
Italy has around 5,000 hectares of Pinot Nero, with 60% of this in Lombardy. In Lombardy, it’s primarily used in high quality sparkling wine production, just like in Champagne. Within Lombardy, there are two areas for this, one being the small Franciacorta DOCG, the other the much larger Oltrepò Pavese.
The Oltrepò Pavese
Indeed, Oltrepò Pavese has nearly 3,000 hectares of Pinot Nero, so in one sense it’s the Italian homeland. To put that in context, this is the equivalent of about a third of the Pinot Noir area of Burgundy and a little more than that grown in New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
The Oltrepò Pavese name means “beyond the River Po in the Pavia region.” It’s a vast triangular-shaped wine producing area in southern Lombardy. Bordering Piemonte, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, it’s only 30 km from Pavia and 60 km from Milan. Winegrowing here goes back 3,000 years, yet this wine region isn’t well known internationally.
For many years, this area, as with many other Italian regions, sacrificed quality for quantity. Also, a good deal of its Pinot Nero is still sold off in bulk to sparkling winemakers elsewhere in Italy. There’s also a wide variety of white and red grape varieties grown beside Pinot Nero, made into every conceivable wine style.
The Oltrepò Pavese sits on the 45th parallel, where an ocean of rolling hills rises steadily southwards to the Apennine mountains. The soils are rich in lime and clay, and there are long sunny days with plenty of diurnal temperature variation. All this makes it eminently suitable for winegrowing. Now, this unspoiled area is steadily improving in quality and searching for a clear identity. The prime candidates for exceptional wines are those Pinot Nero DOCG Spumante sparklers, but also still red Pinot Nero wines.
Conte Vistarino is an enormous and historical 826-hectare estate in the district of Rocca de’ Georgi in Oltrepò Pavese. Inherited by Giorgi di Vistarino in 1629, it’s remained in the hands of this family ever since.
At the heart of this estate, the family built a magnificent stately home in the 18th century called Villa Fornace. Nearby is Rocca de’ Georgi, a ruined medieval fortress, from whence the surrounding area gets its name.
Conte Vistarino vineyards
The estate includes 200 hectares of acacia and oak woodland, 120 ha of arable land and 160 ha of vineyards. 140 ha are devoted to Pinot Nero, grown for both sparkling and still red wines. As is typical in this area, there are many other grape varieties grown, so the remaining 40 ha of vines here consist of Riesling Renano, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Moscato, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Croatina and Uva Rara. Conte Vistarino makes some 400,000 bottles each year and has more than 20 different wines available.
Conte Vistarino was responsible for bringing Pinot Nero to the Oltrepò Pavese. In 1850, Augusto Carlo Giorgi di Vistarino planted imported Pinot Noir clones from Burgundy. He was the first person to do so in Oltrepò Pavese and then, in 1865, also became the first to make spumante. So suited were these non-native vines to the local terroir that other producers followed his example.
Unsurprisingly, the flagship of the Conte Vistarino sparkling wine portfolio is called “1865”, a Pinot Nero Método Classico Brut DOCG. It’s given a minimum of 60 months ageing in the bottle and is rated Tre Bicchieri by Gambero Rosso.
Ottavia Giorgi di Vistarino runs Conte Vistarino today. With a Master’s degree in winemaking and viticulture, she has become a leading winegrowing figure, championing wine excellence in the Oltrepò Pavese and takes part in the Italian Women in Wine movement.
Ottavia Giorgi di Vistarino with a glass of Pinot Nero
Significantly, Ottavia Giorgi di Vistarino is also a Pinot Pioneer, just like her illustrious forebear. Her project is to produce Pinot Nero still red wines that are an authentic expression of this land. Consequently, optimal Pinot Nero vine clones match specific vineyard sites to create Cru wines that reflect their terroir.
As a result, there are three Cru wines, all 100% Pinot Nero. These are Tavernetto, Pernice and Bertone.
Provincia di Pavia IGT
All three wines are Provincia di Pavia IGT. A humble designation, but make no mistake; these are Grand Cru wines. They are all made similarly, so the principle differences between them are down to the specific terroir of each vineyard site. How very Burgundian! All three feature hand-picked grapes and low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel. They have 24 months maturation; 12 months in French oak barriques and then 12 months in the bottle.
Without further ado, here they are. All are from 2015, the latest release, and all are 14% abv. Being young wines, they were all decanted for an hour first.
Conte Vistarino Pinot Nero
Three Conte Vistarino Pinot Nero Grand Cru
The Tavernetto Cru is at 325 metres altitude. It has an east facing aspect, so it’s a drier and cooler site. Soils are calcareous clay with silt. Ruby-coloured, Tavernetto has a scent of rose and strawberry. The juicy red hedgerow fruit has an earthy minerality that shows on a persistent finish. Eurowines, 2013, £32.50.
Pernice Cru is a 3.5 ha plot, again at 325 metres altitude, though with a different aspect, facing south/southeast. It’s warmer and wetter, with calcareous clay soil. Pernice means Partridge, of which there are many in residence.
Ruby/Garnet coloured, a shade deeper than Tavernetto, Pernice is the most elegant expression of these three Cru. Less aromatic, with a densely textured palate. Strawberries and cassis fruit with silky-smooth tannins before balsamic and saline notes on the long finish.
It’s a Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri award winner. Meanwhile, a 2013 bottle of Pernice had the benefit of extra bottle age, so was more aromatic and nuanced, showing herbs, tobacco and forest floor on the nose and palate. SimplyWinesDirect and Ministry of Drinks 2013, £26.49
The highest plot, at 400 metres altitude, with a west/southwest aspect. The Calcareous clay soil here also contains stones and sand, so is more free-draining. There’s a sharper contrast between day and night temperatures too. Unlike Tavernetto and Pernice, this cuvée has 10% whole bunches in fermentation, which shows as a little extra tannic texture. Not quite as elegant as Pernice, (at least at this young stage) but with a higher acidity that seems to make it slightly more vibrant. That balsamic note is again present on the finish. Of the three, Bertone probably is the wine that needs more time to show its best. Awarded Tre Bicchieri. Not yet available in the UK, expect a similar price to Pernice.
Just like with any fine Burgundy, with these wines, I’d recommend game and game birds, terrines, and roast meats, especially lamb. For those looking for a match with local Italian cuisine, try Pavia rice Risotto with mushrooms, or the classic Osso Buco.
All three wines are brilliant expressions, reflecting their terroirs and drinking now. However, being young wines, they will improve, say over the next five years and will easily keep for ten. Useful then that the UK stockists have 2013, which on the evidence of Pernice, have more development. It’s difficult to decide a preference, but if pushed I’d choose the Pernice at this stage. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. And I’d like to try examples with more bottle age too.
These wines will impress Burgundy lovers. But there again, Italian wine lovers should seek them out too. They are recognisably Pinot Noir in character, with finesse and elegance, yet there’s a subtle Italian dimension. They prove that Pinot Nero in Italy can make great red wine.
Indeed, these expressions stand easily with their Pinot peers from New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, the USA and Germany as well as from Burgundy itself. I can think of no higher praise. These Italian Pinot Nero’s come highly recommended!