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Wine, italian wines
When wine statistics are trotted out, Italy always arrives somewhere at the top of the global list: third in area under vine (849 000 hectares in 2004), second in wine produced (5 300 000 000 litres) and per capita consumption (46.50 litres). Another figure that would also leave many other countries in its wake is the number of indigenous grape varieties in this land of the long boot.
Of course, the ubiquitous international quintet of cabernet, merlot, shiraz, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are also found in Italian vineyards, but the country's real strength lies in its lesser known varieties, many producing wines of great individuality and distinction.
Such varietal diversity is as much due to Italy's geography as its history. Wine grapes are grown from 47º North, near the Swiss and Austrian borders and close to the Alps, all the way to 37º South, on the sun scorched island of Sicily, in climates both continental and Mediterranean. Historically, the Greeks, the mysterious Etruscans and of course the Romans themselves have all helped to develop the varietal mix.
The good news is that the Italians have now realised the worth of these grapes, from both quality and marketing points of view and much more is being done to promote the wines made from them.
Fortunately for South Africans, there are several good examples available here. Before recounting a few I tasted recently courtesy of importers Stefano Gabba and his son, Lorenzo, who run Melgab International, a word on the Italian system of naming the origin of its wines.
The DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata – system is modelled on the French Appellation Contrôlée. This set of regulations covers such aspects as viticulture, winemaking and labelling. As with the French AOC, place names rather than grape names often appear on the label, the variety or varieties being implicit in such place name.
Less confusing is the Italian culture of enjoying wine with food, thus their focus is on creating food friendly rather than show winning wines.
The following quartet is a small representation of worthwhile examples of the lesser known Italian varieties available here.
Cantina Lunae Bosoni Colli di Luni Vermentino 2006 12%R95.19
The Colli di Luni is a DOC on the Ligurian coast just to the east of Genoa. Both white and red grapes are grown there; the whites based on vermentino with up to 10% other white grapes. This example has presence without showiness in its firm, fresh structure, good flavour intensity, without being overtly fruity, and dry finish. As its coastal situation suggests, vermentino and seafood are natural partners.
La Giustiniana Gavi di Gavi DOCG Lugarara 2006R99.75
The 'G' in DOCG stands for Garantita, its purpose to identify the finest Italian wines – 'guarantee' as opposed to merely 'control'. If it has gained credibility in the few number of DOCG's awarded, some have been seriously questioned, but overall it does confer an image of quality where awarded. The town and DOCG of Gavi are on hilly slopes in south east Piedmont, just to the north of the Ligurian coast. Cortese, the only grape permitted, was originally used as a base wine for Asti Spumante. As a solo act, under the Gavi di Gavi nomenclature, it rose to fame in the 1960s, in the process becoming Italy's most expensive dry white wine. Burton Anderson's Wine Atlas of Italy describes the it as having a 'clearly refined scent and acutely dry flavour with pronounced acidity countered by a vague sensation of fruit.' Elegant La Giustiniana's fragrance combines flowers and herbs; its fine, mineral acidity lends a lightness of touch, and it does indeed end bone dry, and has just 12% alcohol. Again, it is the ideal partner for Mediterranean's seafood bounty.
Damilano Barbera d'Alba 2006R118
The red barbera is known in South Africa, mainly from the version produced by Durbanville winery, Altydgedacht, although now it also features on the lists of another two or three cellars. It enjoys much greater popularity in Italy, where it was the third most planted red variety in 2000. It is best associated with Piedmont, where it comes second only to nebbiolo in terms of quality. Characteristically high in acid and low in tannin, the black cherry/berry fruit is fresh and succulent, spiced by the pointed acid. The Damilano family, whose barbera vines are between 30 and 50 years old, follow a traditional style, aging the wine in older, large wood, which focuses on the wine's mouthwatering qualities and leaves it ready to be opened now. This is a delicious example that should go well with any spicy or rich dishes where the richness will benefit from the wine's cutting fruity acids.
Mastroberadino Radici Taurasi Riserva DOCG 2000R269.04
Some of my favourite Italian wines come from the great red grape of Campania, aglianico (a corruption of Ellenico, the Italian word for Hellenic). Its worth is acknowledged beyond provincial borders: the 2003 version of this example of it has recently been voted one Italy's 50 greatest wines, as selected by 19 global authorities on Italian wine. A remarkable achievement, given the Mastroberadino family was the only producer to market an aglianico until the early 1990s, but they have been in the forefront of championing Campanian varieties for ten generations. Two important features account for aglianico's success in Campania: the volcanic soils (Vesuvius is a favourite tourist destination), and the vicinity of Taurasi, which lies around 500 metres above sea level on the elevated spine that runs down the centre of the country. Aglianico is an imposing wine, especially in its youth when it is noted for its fine, if ferocious, tannins, a feature which can see it age for decades. This Radici – single vineyard – remains youthfully stern, its characteristic fresh acid backbone focusing and lengthening the deep scents and savoury flavours of plums, tobacco and bitter chocolate. Despite its current austerity, a game dish or mature hard cheese should show off its great potential. With the Rand weakening, it also offers value for money. Patience will be well rewarded!