Italian wine

Italian wine

By
Stefano de Pieri
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740661713
Photographer
Earl Carter

A long time ago, I had the misfortune of being asked by a friend in the wine industry to stand in on his behalf at a function of retired engineers to speak on the subject of Italian wines. The ‘old boys’ received me most kindly, but could not hide very well the fact that they did not believe a word I said. Any public speaker knows the dread of being looked at in a bemused fashion by a bunch of guys who want to laugh you out of court! They could not disagree with the content of Burton’s voluminous book on Italian wines, from which I was quoting extensively. They could not argue with the fact that in antiquity, Italy was called Enotria, the country of wine, and that to this date it boasts over 2000 wine varieties, and that it is a major player in the world wine market.

What these chaps could not accept and believe was the suggestion that Italian wines could be drunk. ‘They are rubbish, they have no guts, they are not like our Rutherglen wines, they are not like Barossa shiraz,’ and so on and on – was their refrain. The conversation retained a semblance of civility, but if ever I was trying to persuade them to my point of view, the mission was a failure. In hindsight, it is not surprising that the audience did not believe me. Italy had been a major producer of co-op wines made to a cheap formula and designed for bulk export.

More recently Italy has cleaned up its act. Wines exported these days are cleaner, fresher and defined by the specific character of their clone in conjunction with a clever matching to terroir and nearly always correct handling of oak. Way, way above all, they are marvellous when paired with the food of their region of origin. They are intriguing because they are nothing like what Australians have been used to – not by name, not by flavour. The new generation of Australian drinkers does not have nasty memories of bad wines, not only from Italy, mind you, but from home as well. Hence they are better informed, more sophisticated, more open to suggestions.

A number of Australian growers now plant Italian varieties and a significant number of wineries vinify them. Pinot Grigio has recently become a household name. Sangiovese has wriggled its way into the extremely popular Rosemount split label range. Viognier is a loud instrument in the Yalumba orchestra. Nebbiolo seems to have found a home in the Victorian King Valley, together with Barbera and Arneis.

How did this trend begin? There is no possibility of a definitive history here, but there are discernible patches of development. For instance, many migrants brought pieces of vine-cane in their pockets, evidence of which exists in the King Valley. CSIRO keeps an extensive planting of vines from around the world, a kind of vine-library. Montrose was one of the first Australian wine companies to produce a Barbera and a Sangiovese, possibly out of ‘material’ found in Mudgee.

Coriole in the MacLaren Vale as well as Cherise were among the first producers of South Australian Sangiovese. Joe Grilli moved things along with a wine made in the Veneto style – a concentrated cabernet in he fashion of Amarone from the Verona area – while in Victoria Gary Crittenden was busy preparing the ‘I’ series, a range of Italian wines that really showed great affinity to food as well as hitherto unseen flavours. This trend is continuing, most definitely, and not just with Italian wines. Tempranillo, Monastrel and Graciano from Spain and Viognier and Petit Verdot from France have definitely joined the crowd of newcomers.

As the former Chairman of the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show Committee, I can say that I have witnessed first-hand the growth of these new varieties. The first show held only five years ago in Mildura saw a competition between some 27 wines, mostly pure Sangioveses or in a blend. The show now has over 300 entries from a rich diversity of varieties and regions, including New Zealand.

It is hard to guess what the future holds, but if experience teaches us anything, Australian growers and wineries will always be looking for something else, something that can give them a competitive advantage. There are many parts of Australia where we have yet to see plantings of new varieties; we do not know what the real potential for quality is – we have not yet experimented enough.

There are also many varieties that have not been planted at all as yet and if they have, it must be happening as I write. Vermentino, a lovely variety from Sardinia and Tuscany, comes to mind. I can also think of Negroamaro from Puglia and Nero d’Avola from Sicily. Many clones of Sangiovese, such as the famous ‘Brunello,’ which gives us the mighty Brunello di Montalcino, have yet to hit the ground. Chianti is made with Sangiovese. In some instances, the Sangiovese base is expanded with the help of small quantities of complementary grapes in the same clonal family such as colorino and canaiolo. Should Australian-grown Sangiovese also be blended with its brothers? Your guess is as good as mine.

As you’d expect, some of the newcomers are terrific and some are eminently forgettable. If the correct clone has been planted and care has been taken in the field and in the winery, then the results can be very good. Many gold medals were awarded to Pinot Grigio/Gris, to Viognier and to Petit Verdot. More than an encouraging result came for Nebbiolo grown and made in the King Valley (Pizzinis), and for an obscure Lagrein from Macedon (Cobaw Ridge), but overall Italian reds are not yet brilliant – at least in the context of the show. Some of these plantings may still yield a wine that is cheap and cheerful, and pleasant at a noisy party. The important thing is not to charge ridiculous amounts for these bulk producers.

The question of affordability opens another Pandora’s box. Affordable wines can be made where the land is cheap, where there is access to water and certain economies of scale can be implemented. This actually is a roundabout way of saying that irrigated vineyards of the Murray region and the Riverina are capable of producing those wines that you reach for in your fridge almost daily, those that you can purchase around the $10–15 mark. Like it or not, the only place we can make drinkable wines at an affordable price is in the irrigated regions. Everyone knows that the cost of land these days determines what we can and cannot do.

I am against the disparaging remarks of most so-called wine connoisseurs about warm irrigated areas. Without these, the much celebrated export boom would not have gone ahead. We would not have a multi-million dollar industry without Casellas, Bin 65 Chardonnay and Jacobs Creek, the last of which, contrary to what they’d like you to think, is not grown entirely in that little piece of wonderful land called Barossa, but elsewhere, along the Murray River. Some wine varieties – those already grown for centuries in warmer areas of Italy or France – will grow very well in the warmer regions of Australia. At the cost of sounding prophetic, in the next few years we will all enjoy many more unusual wines than has been the case hitherto. Look at the success of the French variety Viognier to get an idea of what’s ahead.

A glossary of wines

Following is a list of Italian wine varieties more or less available in Australia at the moment of going to press. There are many plantings going in furiously as I am writing, so the outlook for Italian varieties will certainly be more exciting in the years to come. The purpose of this very brief overview of alternative varieties is to introduce to you names that you may encounter now or in the future and tell you a little about them. For further readings I suggest Nicholas Belfrage’s Barolo to Valpolicella and Brunello to Zibibbo, two serious looks at the wines of the north and the south of Italy. Also by the same author, Life Beyond Lambrusco. As this is a book about Italian things, I have excluded, for brevity, French and Spanish varieties such as Viognier, Petit Verdot and Tempranillo. Chalmers Nursery in Euston, near Robinvale, is responsible for an outstanding selection of clones from Italy. The long, but necessary, quarantine process has slowed down the import of varieties, but most are now in the Chalmers’ nursery ready to go. The Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show is held in Mildura annually. The Chairman is distinguished wine personality and grape grower, Robyn Day. Chairman of Judges is Tim White, a wine writer and critic who has ably steered the show over a number of years through the very perilous procedure of adopting guidelines for inclusion of varieties into the show. If you are interested in the Show, it is held annually on the weekend following the famous Melbourne Cup. This is an opportunity to find out what the visionaries are achieving or indeed where they are going wrong.

Arneis and cortese

You will find some good examples of this wine from Pizzinis and Crittendens. Arneis is originally from Piedmont in the north-west of Italy. This is without a doubt one of Italy’s most characteristic white wines. It was not taken very seriously until recently on account of the fact that Arneis is low yielding and tends to lose acidity rapidly towards maturation. Figures show that Arneis plantings have doubled in the northwest from 1992 to 2002, a sign that winemakers have seen its potential and perhaps have got their heads around it. It is also interesting to note how recent these new plantings are. This fact alone indicates to us that even in old wine-producing countries things change rapidly.

Cortese is another Piedmontese variety grown in Australia. Cortese is interesting because when it gets too cold in Piedmont its acidity is very low. Conversely, it keeps its acidity in warmer years, making it a balanced wine. Sometimes it comes under the name Gavi or Gavi di Gavi. Gavi is the main place where it is grown and Gavi di Gavi simply means Cortese from Gavi. It gets confusing? Yes, but persevere, because that’s half the fun.

Aglianico

A red wine found in the hills around Naples, especially in the Avellinos area called Irpinia, Caserta and Benevento – and also in the small area north of Potenza, known as Vulture, around the towns of Melfi, Rionero and Barile. Belfrage actually claims that the word barrel (barile in Italian) comes from this town in Basilicata, which was famous for its barrel-making industry. Aglianico is becoming a superstar of Italian wines, next to Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.

Once again it worth noting that it is only just not much more than a decade ago when young winemakers and producers got really serious about Aglianico. Although grown in the south, Aglianico does not appear to me to be too big and alcoholic. The better wines are grown at fairly high altitude, mitigating the southern latitude. The hills around Naples can be very cold, with Aglianico ripening fairly late. It seems that Aglianico needs cold nights to keep it from going wild, producing too much sugar and losing balance. Aglianico in many instances – all dependent on DOC rules – is blended with other local red grapes, such as Piedirosso. If you try this wine in Australia – there are many fine examples available from local importers – taste it with a map at hand and demand to know what it has been blended with. Some Australian plantings of Aglianico will soon come to fruition.

Barbera

Barbera is found all over Italy, including the south. For some reason this wine has the ability to penetrate a large number of blends. It is probably because it shows heaps of colour and low acidity, making it an ideal blend.

The natural home of Barbera is Piedmont, particularly the Monferrato region. Barbera, although popular in Italy and world over where Italian migrants have settled, is not as ‘serious’ as its compatriot Nebbiolo. Barbera is a ‘drinkable’ everyday wine. Some producers have experimented with wood-ageing in new barriques and the general opinion seems to agree that Barbera benefits from time in oak. As usual I have to quote Belfrage, who says that oak seems to impart a nice balance of seriousness and drinkability. Naturally, the old school would prefer ageing in old wood or straight in the bottle.

Once again, it is hard to predict what Barbera will do in Australia. There are some good examples here, but if this wine is judged according to the standard measures, it may never be able to deliver. If instead someone aims for a Barbera with pleasant drinking characters, suited to certain food types, then it could have a future.

Dolcetto

Another Piedmontese wine, whose name means ‘the sweet one’, probably referring to the sweetness of its grape, which is really about the balance of sugar, acids and other components. It is an all-purpose wine. In Piedmont there are many types of Dolcetto, therefore when you purchase a bottle of imported Dolcetto look out for the word that accompanies it: is it (Dolcetto) di Diano d’Alba? Di Dogliani? D’Acqui? and so on, each referring to the area or village of provenance.

Popular opinion suggests that Dolcetto d’Asti is superior, indeed, a superstar of Piedmontese wine. Look out for names like Conterno, Azelia, Prunotto, Altare, Rocca, Roddolo, to name but a few; all these megastars produce a Dolcetto d’Asti. In all, this is a very pleasant, everyday wine, low in acid and food friendly.

In Australia one large company has sought to capitalise on the name Dolcetto by making a literally sweet red wine. It may be a legitimate ploy for selling wine, but it has nothing to do with Dolcetto proper. This raises the eternal issue of correct nomenclature. The Italians are not as tough as their Gallic neighbours in protecting the names of their products, but noises have been made about establishing a body for policing the integrity of things Italian.

Lagrein

A variety from the area of Bolzano, a city of Alto Adige or, if you prefer, South Tyrol, as this part of the world joined Italy only after World War I. The area in question is high up in the mountains but viticulture is practised on the floor of the valley. Lagrein is mentioned in this book simply because there are a few quirky Australian producers of this variety.

I will go on record and risk saying that Australian Lagreins are gamey and rich in colour and flavour, and do not have the bitterness that is typical of the originals. In fact, I have found our Lagreins more rewarding than the imported ones. Look out for Cobaw Ridge, which has won many awards at the Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show.

Moscato

There are many sub-varieties of the grape Moscato all over Italy, but it is in Piedmont where Moscato Bianco becomes Moscato d’Asti and simply Asti. Moscato d’Asti is a lovely drink: fragrant, perfumed, lightly bubbly, and low in alcohol. Asti is a less refined example of the same. Whenever you get an Australian-made Moscato or Spumante Moscato, it is usually an extremely tacky imitation of the real thing. When you drink Asti Riccadonna, you drink a passable commercial moscato whose other virtue is said to reside in its ability to make the girls more amenable to a certain type of suggestion.

The success of the brand Riccadonna has obscured the real meaning of the words Asti and moscato. Unwittingly it has become synonymous with a non-serious drink and therefore overlooked by ‘proper’ wine drinkers. These, however, never fail to be impressed by a reputable Moscato d’Asti, like a Saracco. Committed producers are deadly serious about turning Moscato d’Asti into a cru wine, that is, a single-vineyard wine with a floral bouquet and freshness in the mouth that is as enchanting as it is easy to drink.

A good Moscato d’Asti is de rigueur at a Christmas/New Year party with an Italian theme or flavour. Moscato is the natural companion to panettone or to fresh fruit, particularly tropical fruits. It is ideal for pastries with custard. I love it as an aperitif or as that drink after you have had everything else. And it makes a great zabaglione, the Italian dessert par excellence.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo is probably the greatest red wine grape variety in Italy. That is my opinion, at least. It is presented to consumers as Nebbiolo, Barbaresco and Barolo. Actually, in order of importance it should read in reverse. The fact that this variety presents itself in at least three different guises attests to its complex and unpredictable personality.

Nebbiolo is the generic name from wherever, although the label is likely to specify the location – delle Langhe or d’Alba or whatever. When matched to a good producer you have a top wine. In its Barbaresco incarnation it means that it comes from the town of Barbaresco, located a few kilometres east of the Piedmontese town of Alba. In its ultimate incarnation, that of Barolo, the wine is made in the town of Barolo southwest of Alba.

And that is only the beginning of the story. It may come from higher up or lower down this or that hilltop; made by this or that producer according to the old-fashioned way or the ‘French’ way’ – with new oak, etc. Families have been known to split down the middle as to which is the right way, with fathers angry at their children for introducing practices hitherto unknown after centuries of solid traditional wine-making practices.

Of all the great wines in the world Barolo – and to a lesser extent Barbaresco – is the least understood in Australia, according to my experience. In the thirteen years in the restaurant trade I have sold very few bottles of Barolo, having drunk most of the purchases myself with family or friends. Barolo – and Nebbiolo generally – is a wine with high astringency which takes years of maturation. The old timers like to leave it in the barrel or bottle for a long time, then drink it after many years, often decades, in the bottle. The young modernists prefer to turn it around quickly, adopting techniques usually reserved for other varieties to achieve a more user-friendly drink, rounder and easier to drink and with the flavours of French oak.

Nebbiolo and white truffles conspire to make Piedmont one of the most exciting gastronomic regions of the world. It is surprising to me that most Australians have not been to Piedmont and are not even aware of what it has to offer. If there is a Tuscany of the north it would have to be the Barolo region!

Nebbiolo in Australia – and elsewhere in the world – has shown itself to be just as elusive and problematic as Pinot Noir. However, as Gary Crittenden and the Pizzinis have shown, it is possible to reach for some of its structure and nose. Only perseverance will tell what Nebbiolo’s future is here.

Vermentino

Vermentino is said to have originated in Corsica and is now found in Liguria, Tuscany, Sardinia and France, where is it known as Rolle or Malvoisie a Gros Grains. In general it prefers warm coastal areas. It displays, as many other Italian white wines, a certain neutrality of taste, which is ideal for me to accompany Italian white foods, especially seafood, and dishes with a little chilli. In fact, I often wonder if it might not suit certain Asian salads. Vermentino is suitable for wood ageing and I have tasted some good examples in Tuscany. It can also display some oiliness as well as citrus flavours.

At the time of writing, Sandro Mosele, winemaker at Kooyong Estate in the Mornington Peninsula, is experimenting with a first batch of Vermentino harvested at Chalmers’ Nursery. It will be released under the Murray Darling Collection range. I certainly look forward to this addition to the panorama of new whites, and especially to matching its flavours to Italian food.

Sangiovese

Sangiovese or the ‘blood of Jove’ (Sangue di Giove) is bigger than Ben Hur. It is so successful it can be all things to all people. But while it is found all over Italy, its spiritual home remains Tuscany, where it finds its best expressions.

Sangiovese is the base wine of Chianti, that drink that was made popular in past decades by the raffia-bound 2-litre bottle in which Italian restaurants used to stick a candle. Chianti now is something else, as drinkers of Italian wine have come to notice. It is more palatable as the rules for making it have relaxed considerably. Sangiovese mutates into a clone for another great Tuscan wine, Brunello di Montalcino. In yet another incarnation, Prugnolo gentile, it becomes Vino nobile di Montepulciano. As Morellino, it becomes Morellino di Scansano, and so it goes.

There may be two main Sangiovese: grosso and piccolo, big and small, referring to berry size. Grosso is actually the better one, although such confusion reigns out there, it is almost impossible to know which is which and which is where. To make matters even more complicated for the inexperienced navigator of Sangiovese is the recent practice of blending it with imported varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot and even Shiraz. It seems that these varieties do well in Tuscany, producing wines of exceptional quality. When Sangiovese is blended with the newcomers, and it is well made, it is called a super-Tuscan, although in some instances it may also be a Chianti, as it is now possible to blend a Chianti brew with the inclusion of ‘foreign’ guests. In both cases, they are likely to cost a small fortune, but if you want a taste of Italy, it is cheaper than going there.

Negroamaro

To my knowledge this variety is not planted in Australia yet, although I believe that an Australian winemaker went over to Italy to make some over there. ‘Negro’ means dark and ‘amaro’ means bitter, and not in a negative sense. It is said that the slightly bitter taste is needed to counter the sweet fruit. This is a wine to look out for in the future, as I believe that of all varieties this may do well in hot Australia.

In Italy it is grown almost exclusively in the Apulia region, which is the spur of the peninsula, a rather hot place where loads of grapes are grown for, believe it or not, the French and northern Italian quaff wine industry.

Pinot grigio

Pinot grigio hardly needs an introduction, as it is becoming increasingly recognised in Australia. Here some confusion emerges between the word grigio and the word gris, which also means grigio in French. The funny thing about this grape is that it is not white but an in-between colour – thus ‘grey’.

Gris is grown in Alsace and Germany, whereas the grigio incarnation is Italian, mostly in Trentino and Friuli. In France the wine can be opulent and richly textured, whereas in Italy, it is more of a table wine, not lacking sophistication, but very different in structure and mouth feel. In Australia and in the US winemakers have tended to emulate either the French style or the Italian one. I’d agree with the Australian wine writer Huon Hooke who suggested that since the wine often displays a slightly copper colour, it should be called ramato, or copper-like as they sometimes do in the Friuli. Under the name ramato there’d be no need for grigio or gris; the difference in style will then be identified by the maker rather than by the name.

Primitivo

Another wine from Apulia, like Negroamaro. Primitivo actually means early, referring to the fact that it can be harvested earlier, even a month earlier than its regional companions. Everyone is happy to accept the fact that Californian Zinfandel is the same grape variety as Primitivo. So, while being an early ripener, it can still produce some sugar, as you’d notice when drinking American Zinfandel or some primitivos from an area called Manduria, in Apulia, which resembles port wine!

Primitivo was not much chop even as recently as a decade ago. I think that the internationalisation of wine is leading the program of discovery of the grape’s potential around the globe, unearthing all kinds of possibilities. Experts claim that Primitivo has the ability to produce top wines in warm areas. If a race is on to explore the potential of Primitivo, it may as well include Australia.

Recipes in this Chapter

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