The many tastes of Italy
By John Schreiner
April 3, 2008
For those who have not been to Italy recently, this year’s Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival – where Italy was the theme region – was full of surprises.
For me, the surprises began with the first Italian wine I sampled in the tasting room, a white from a Sicilian winery, Casa Vinicola Calatrasi. The wine was a 2006 Terra Di Ginestra Catarratto. Neither this wine, not any of Calatrasi’s other quite excellent wines, are listed in the British Columbia market. However, I would expect some sharp agent will pick up the winery and get the wines into the market.
Catarratto is a white grape variety, one of the many indigenous Italian varietals that have been squeezed out of global markets by the ubiquitous varietals that everyone grows (Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris). One of the messages at this year’s wine festival is that Italian producers, who also grow the big international varieties successfully, have drawn the line in the sand: they are not going to let their heritage varieties disappear. Good for them.
The Terra Di Ginestra Catarratto is a crisp and refreshing white, with attractive notes of green apples and citrus. The biggest surprise was how well-balanced the wine is, with excellent fresh acidity. After all, Sicily is supposed to be hot and here is a wine with the cool climate acidity of an Okanagan white.
I turned to winery owner Dr. Antonio Micciché for an explanation. It turns out that the Calatrasi vineyards are high in the mountains, relying on altitude for coolness. The red brother Terra Di Ginestra is called 651, the altitude of the vineyard in metres. The red is a mostly Nero D’Avola with a dash of Shiraz and is a delicious and elegant red.
Micciché went on the explain that the white vines grow in soil that is similar to the soil of Champagne; and that perhaps also explains the good acidity in the wines.
He is the sort of winery owner that any agent would die to have – charming, articulate, fluent in several languages and passionate about his wines. By training, he is a doctor. Now in his 40s, he left his profession when he was 29, taking over the wine business that has been in his family since 1780. He practises the profession now only when circumstances require him to. Such as on a recent Alitalia flight from Europe where he was able to help a fellow passenger who was ill and received an award from the grateful airline.
There were many other varietals on display that were unfamiliar but deserve a place on the table. The only winery from Sardinia at the festival, Cantine Argiolas, has an excellent $20 white in specialty liquor stores here: S’Elegas Nuragus 2006. The variety is Nuragus and, if this is a representative example, it makes interesting wine. This wine has fruity aromas but flavours that are rich and nutty, with a dry finish that would suit a lot of seafood.
Arneis is another Italian varietal seldom seen here (and currently not listed in the liquor board stores). It is a lovely wine with floral aromas with refreshing peach notes on the palate. A more familiar Italian white is Verdicchio, always crisp and fresh. Fazi Battaglia has had a long-running success in this market with its $15 and $20 examples, both listed here. This is another terrific seafood wine.
An excellent Italian red varietal we should drink more often is Aglianico, an important variety in southern Italia. Feudi Di San Gregorio has an excellent example of this variety in the LDB’s specialty stores, Rubrato Irpinia Aglianico 2005 ($30). This is a juicy red, with aromas of liquorice and balsamic on the nose and flavours of plums and cherries.
And the festival’s roll call of other Italian varietials was long and fascinating: Cannonau, Monica, Vermentino, Soave, Prosecco, Primitivo, Verduzzo, Barbaresco, Barbera and, of course, Sangiovese.
Many festival visitors would have been happily surprised at how much the Sangiovese-based wines (like Chianti) have changed, and for the better. When Chianti bottles came in straw baskets, the wines were pretty rough. Today’s Chianti wines are riper, more full-bodied and generally more appealing to international palates because the Italians are doing a much better job at growing first rate Sangiovese.
From time to time, growers in the New World have also planted some Italian varieties, for the most part without much success. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, the Italian varieties do not appear to travel well to other wine regions. Until the wine world figures out why, we’ll have to be happy with the wines that the Italians are exporting from these varieties.
That can’t be too hard, can it?
John Schreiner is chair of the Wine Festival’s Selection Committee.
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