Although you can find wine produced in virtually every states in the USA, there are only a few, limited regions where viniculture and wine-making enjoy a really have a long history. Compared to the United States, Europe’s history is much longer, and so the opposite is true for Italy. From the Alto Adige and Lombardia regions in the north, down to Sicily in the far south, wine is grown and celebrated in every part of Italy and the wine making culture, history and traditions go back a very long way. There is so much to choose from, so much to try, it makes it challenging for even a wine savvy reporter to cover a walk around tasting that covers all of Italy. But that is exactly what the Merano WineFestival presented in New York City this past October. Below is a report of my whirlwind “Sicilian wine tour” plus a few recommendations for stellar Italian sparkling wines at affordable prices — just perfect for holiday gifting and entertaining.
The Merano Wine Festival has been promoting international wines and wine tastings since 1992. Walk around tastings are basically designed for importers, beverage managers, sommeliers, and retailers to sample a large number of wines quickly to decide if they want to include them in their offerings. But as with most things Italian, this tasting featured pasta, cheeses music, and style that one does not generally see at a tasting. That was a good thing! But at the October 2014 event in New York, there were 42 different wines being showcased, from 15 Italian wine regions Given the size and breath of this kind of tasting, I thought about how I could best cover this for advicesisters.com readers and not overwhelm you, the reader So I decided to cover something specific and unique that most people may not find in the general food and wine press. In this case, rather than covering the better known regions of Piemonte, Toscana or Umbria, I focused on wines from lesser known regions in the southern part of Italy.
You can’t get much further south in Europe than Sicily, and while this island is probably know in America more for the Patton’s invasion during the Second World War than it is for wine, in Italy, Sicilian wines are quite popular. In fact, legend goes that Dionysus, the god of wine, planted grapes in Sicily himself. When the Greeks first arrived in Italy, it was in Sicily that they established the earliest commercial vineyards. The region is mountainous with a lot of sun and soils dominated by volcanic ash (from the still active Mount Etna). While Sicily is known for Marsala, a fortified wine made actually from white wine grapes, producers also make a variety of solid red and white table wines.
I sampled two wines from Conte Tasca D’Almerita, a family winery founded in the 1830’s. The winery produces both from native grapes, including the most common red varietal, Nero d’Avola, as will as from traditional French varietals. The 2013 Grillo Cavalio delle Fate Sicila (DOC) which can be found for about $13 a bottle in New York was golden yellow in color with a nose that reminded us of hairspray. The wine was quite fruity and crisp on a palate, and featured a lot of apple. There was enough acid to hold the wine together and in many ways it reminded us of a Cayuga which is popular in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. We also sampled a 2012 Nero d’Avola called Lamuri. This wine is about $14 a bottle in New York, and was ruby in color with a spicy nose with a bit of rubber. The palate was very fruit forward, with cherry, black currant and a spiciness that reminded us of a Syrah. This suggests that Nero d’Avola wines might be a good choice when one is considering an Australian or Rhone red.
Located just up from Sicily in the toe of the boot of Italy, is a region called Calabria. As with Sicily, commercial wine production began in this region with the ancient Greeks who produced a wine known as Ciro, which is produced from the Gaglioppo grape. We sampled three of these from a small organic family winery known as Ceraudo Roberto. The winery itself features Dattilo restaurant, which has a Michelin Star, and also produces olives and citrus. We started with a 2009 called Dattilo Val di Neto, which is 100 percent Gaglioppo. The wine is purple in color with a rubbery nose. The palate was a bit rough, with strong tannins and an overlay of blueberry over dark red fruits. The wine prices at about $15 a bottle. While this was not our favorite wine from the tasting, the varietal itself produces a range of different tastes. The 2012 Grayasusi Etichetta Argento Val di Neto, a rose of the varietal which ages for 6 months in the barrel was out favorite of the tasting. The wine, which sells for about $19 was strawberry in color with a nose dominated by minerals and oceanic notes. While the palate features this minerality, the wine tastes a lot like its color. Strong strawberry notes along with the minerality give the wine a unique and refreshing quality. Finally we sampled 2007 Petraro Val di Neto, a wine that is a blend of Gaglioppo and Cabernet Sauvignon with a bit of a local grape called Magliocco. Priced at about $35 a bottle, the wine again shows the malleability of the varietal. This wine was red orange in color with a nose that reminded us of a Laundromat. The palate featured soft tannins that provided excellent structure, along with black fruit tastes. This is a small winery, and bottles may be difficult to find, but the will make an excellent addition to any cellar.
From here, I moved on to the North, to the Campania region, which surrounds the city of Naples. Like Sicily, this region features volcanic soils laid down by the eruption of Vesuvius. Like most of southern Italy, this region was also colonized by the ancient Greeks who brought with them their viticultural skills. The local varietal of this region, the Aglianico provides good structure for red wines that can age well.
I also tasted a number of wines from a producer named Mastroberardino, whose wines were excellent. A white, 2013 Radici Fiano di Alvellino which sells for about $18 was clear in color with apples and honey on the nose, with a light citrusy palate with a good heft of minerality. The producer said that this was a white to age, and since the winery has been in business since 1750 they must know something about age. The Agliancio grape provided a good test in aging, as the vintner was pouring a vertical of 1998, 2006, and 2009 Radici Taurasi, all of which were 100 percent Agliancio. These wines price out over time, with the 2009 going for about $35 a bottle and the 1998 now selling for around $110. The younger wine was red in color with a fruity, cherry nose. Soft tannins structured around a cherry bomb. Young this wine shows extremely fruit forward and would make a fine selection for those who enjoy say California Pinot Noirs. As the wine ages it becomes more complex, probably due to the 2 years that it spends in barrels prior to release. The 2006 was similar to the 2009, however, the nose was beginning to show more herbal and forestry notes. And while the wine was still quite fruity it was starting to show more complex mineral and ham like flavors. By 15 years, as the 1998 showed, the fruitiness had matured to a more mellow form. The color was actually starting to drop from the wine and it was getting slightly orange. Interestingly, the tannins were still there showing that the wine had an excellent structure, but the salty meaty tastes were dominant.
Another producer from the region, La Guardiense, was pouring a Agliancio and Sangiovese blend, Guardiolo Rosso Riserva (2008). Priced at about $18 a bottle, the wine was red to ruby in color with a very spicy nose. The young Agliancio grapes were showing well with a cherry, strawberry fruit palatte. This wine did not have the tannins that the Radici Taurasi featured and would be a great Campania Agliancio for drinking right now.
On my whirlwind tour of tasting Sicilian wines, I made one more stop: the region of Lazio. Located on the coast, just to the south of Rome, the region may be most famous as the site of the Anzio Beach landings of World War 2. This area can be described as the central valley of Italy, with large production of bulk table wines. The region’s volcanic soils and cool valleys produce many white varietals, but many producers are experimenting more and more with classic varieties of noble grapes. One such producer is Casale del Giglio, a 180 hectare producer focusing on blends of local and French varietals. They were pouring a 100 percent Bellone, a local white varietal, called (2013) Bellone Bianco Lazio. The wine was golden yellow in color with an apply nose. Very minerally, with some pear, the wine would be a good selection in lieu of say an Alvarino. The winery also produced a Petit Verdot varietal (2012 Petit Verdon Sosso Lazio) with a rich ruby color, a rubbery nose, smooth tannins and a palatte of cherry and plumb. Most of this vintner’s wines price at under $10 a bottle.
Overall, we discovered that the wines of Southern Italy are very complex and are derived from ancient varietals that have withstood the test of time. They can make excellent additions to any cellar, and should be considered along with their more popular northern cousins.
*thanks to John R. Dunham, our “wine guy” for this report.
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