Looking down a heavily misted valley, the steep Monferatto hills rise out of the clouds, each hill trellised with vines right to their summits. The air is so still, the hills absolutely silent. Through the mist I see two men alone on the hillside tend to their vines, pruning them back in preparation for the oncoming spring. It is deep winter in Piedmont. The hills in the morning carry a thick frost and the rolling landscape is an eerie yet majestic white. The tiny fortress towns that cling impossibly to the tops and folds of these hills look ancient and can’t help but instill a notion in you that nothing has changed here in centuries. During such turbulent economic times, particularly in Italy, there is something comforting being here right now, in a place that feels like nothing could or would ever change.
Behind this romantic facade however, in wine-making terms, there have in fact been huge changes over the last twenty years. The landscape may not have changed but behind the scenes a great modernizing process has taken place that has transformed the consistency and quality not just here in Piedmont but throughout the Italian wine growing regions.
On our North Italian wine trip this month as we sped through the countryside it was this mix of the historical, the traditions, the family businesses, the indigenous grape varieties, along with the immaculate vineyards, modern wineries and commercial knowhow that together paint a picture of one the most exciting wine growing regions in the world today.
Of course throughout Europe many wine growing regions have their own equally long historical roots in wine making. They too have their own indigenous grape varieties. It is this depth and breadth of the wine-making world that makes wine so exciting. However the sheer number of different varieties native to Italy, and to a larger extent relatively unknown or at least under represented in the wine drinking world compared to France, means there is still plenty for the commercial market to discover in Italy. With the reputation for consistency constantly rising in Italy, never has it been a better time to branch out with lesser-known grape varieties in the UK market.
Wine lists that continue to represent only the international grape varieties and well known classics are failing to fulfill the thirst for and exploration of the ever-knowing and more adventurous UK consumer and Italy really has some truly exciting varieties to bring to the table. That’s not to say the Italians can’t compete on the international grape variety front as well. Every Chardonnay I tasted in Northern Italy, whether oaked or un-oaked had a brightness and lift with more acidity than their French counterparts. This does a great service to liven up a wine that can often feel fat and flabby. Another example I tried in Veneto was a Cabernet Sauvignon made in an Amarone style. It offers a huge concentration of lip smacking fruit while still maintaining a wonderful structure and fresh finish at a far more competitive price than its bigger brother.
With high consistency levels we were also impressed with wines at the more competitive end of the scale and with a price to quality ratio that would give any house wine a run for its money.
It also became apparent on our trip that while the classic Italian wines from northern Italy (the Barolos, the Barbarescos and the Amarones) uphold their international reputations as unique, intense and some of the most impressive wines in the world, it is perhaps their little siblings that for us really stole the show. It was the ‘baby Barolos’ the ‘baby Barbarescos’, the Barberas and the Valpolicella ripassos that really shone in their approachability, their own uniqueness and their real, so far un-met, potential for UK wine lists.
We were also much impressed by the number of wineries who either are already or are moving significantly toward organic production. The wines we tasted produced in this way have a lovely purity to them and really distinguished themselves especially so in Soave where the grape has suffered so much from poor commercial production.
But, it is all about the baby Barolos baby! Nebbiolo wines with less than the required 24 months in oak from Piedmont can offer all the beautiful scintillating floral aromas synonymous with the Nebbiolo grape but follow through on the palate with a gorgeous plump fruity silky mouth-feel, balanced with that classic structured dry tannin finish. These are still very serious wines but with approachability and a price tag which, I think, really suits today’s wine enthusiast.
While we see the Barbera available on the occasional wine list, this is one grape that really is very under-rated. In the past I have always been put off by its naturally high levels of acidity but some wineries with modern techniques are producing some truly blockbuster wines from this grape. The depth of aromas this grape has the potential to produce blew me away, the lack of tannin also makes it so god dam accessible it really deserves better recognition.
Another positive experience of the trip was a master class in Prosecco. Never have I thought much about Prosecco other than astonishment at its incredible rise in popularity over the last five years. Largely, I think most would agree, to do with its price tag rather than its flavours. However, we found a Prosecco supplier which makes Prosecco really worth remembering and a real joy to drink, even at the commercial Frizzante and Spumante levels. A lovely surprise.
Pecorino, Teroldego, Grignolino, Arneis, Freisa as well a few more better known native varieties such as Pinot Grigio (some wonderful serious examples from Alto Adige), Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Garganega, Corvina, Rhondinella, Cortese, Montepulciano all outlined the tremendous variety and uniqueness each grape and each region of Northern Italy has to offer and we know we were only scratching the surface. It was a wonderful, insightful, educational trip that has only further cemented our love for Italian wine and our desire to promote wineries we feel produce wine with great passion. Wineries who have one foot in the historical roots of place and a belief in the potential of their native varieties and the other foot in modern techniques that can bring their wine to an international audience have great appeal.