Friday, 16 May 2008

Italy, land of the vine

Italy has perhaps the best claim to be the oldest wine-making country in the world. When the Greeks arrived here in ancient times they dubbed it Oenotria, or land of the vine, since grapes were already being cultivated.

Since prehistoric times the various peoples inhabiting the Italian peninsula have been experimenting with vine-growing and wine-making, resulting in a rich variety of wines and wine styles, made from an array of indigenous grape varieties, as well as those imported from other countries. And, this being Italy, wine is inextricably linked with the country’s rich cultural heritage, not least its regional cuisine.

So far so good. But there are problems: all that variety can be confusing for consumers. Here’s one example: if you see Barbaresco on a bottle of wine, is that the grape variety, the area where it’s made, or the name of that particular wine? Well it’s the area of production, but that’s not obvious to many wine shoppers. And once you’ve got that straight then you come across the name Gaja on a pricey bottle of wine: he’s the most famous winemaker in Barbaresco, but declines to put the word Barbaresco on the label.

Rich complexity, yes. Confusion, certainly. Italy’s cheerful disregard for anything that smacks of kow-towing to authority, combined with a deep sense of regionality can serve to turn consumers off Italian wines altogether. However, I urge you to persist and to discover the wine riches on offer, beyond the world of Pinot Grigio.

Yes, poor old Pinot Grigio. Not so long ago it was the in wine, immensely popular, until it was supplanted in our affections by Sauvignon Blanc. Now, if you bring along a bottle of Pinot Grigio to a dinner party you might as well be saying “Look, I’m a bit out of touch and don’t know much about wine.” There is so much more to Italy and Italian white wines, that we shouldn’t overlook them in favour of yet another New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

First of all, a much-abused wine style that we all think we know: Soave. This region suffered from decades of mistreatment at the hands of unambitious growers, resulting in high yields and oceans of watery, dull wine. More recently, there has been an effort to drive up quality and rediscover the greatness of this wine. The leading light has been Leonildo Pieropan, whose Soaves start at £15 a bottle (and Pieropan is the big name on the label – you have to look hard to find the word Soave, tucked away on the back label). Majestic has a slightly cheaper version in the shape of Inama Soave Classico 2006 at £12.49, down to £9.99 when you buy any two Italian wines. This wine is anything but dull, and is full of perfumed, crisp fruit. And if you’re feeling rebellious you could make your second bottle of Italian wine Banfi’s Pinot Grigio, San Angelo 2007, normally £9.99, but down to £7.99 if you buy two. Not cheap, but if you want to know what Pinot Grigio should really taste like, then give it a go (maybe in the privacy of your own home).

To understand Italian wines, white or red, you have to grasp their function: they are meant to accompany food. Italians are rather perplexed by the British tendency to drink wine when it’s not part of a meal and their wine styles reflect their original function. White wines, therefore, are not meant to dominate, but to complement food so their flavours are designed to be muted and subtle. A prime example of this is Gavi, a wine from the northeast of Italy, made from the Cortese grape. It’s unoaked and offers understated pear fruit combined with delicious minerality. Majestic’s Gavi La Lancellotta 2007 at £7.49 (£5.99 if you buy two) is a great introduction to the style.

Italian red wines also offer plenty of, sometimes overwhelming, variety. What I like about many of them for summer drinking is that they provide refreshment along with the fruit and alcohol, one of the hallmarks of food-friendly wines. All red wines are an interplay of fruit, supported by a structure of tannin (the “stewed tea”, mouth-drying substance) alcohol and acid. It’s the acidity that gives Italian wines their refreshing quality, which is most important in warmer weather. If you generally steer clear of Italy when choosing wines, then I would urge you to try Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Primitivo 2007, £5.99. It comes from Puglia, the heel of Italy, which every year produces more wine than the whole of Australia. This deep purple wine is intensely flavoured with aromatic, fleshy black fruit. A crowd-pleaser, yes, but it could be the wine to win converts to Italy.

Do you drink Valpolicella? If you do, you’re a rare breed. Since we’ve been seduced by the power and exuberance of new world wines, we’ve come to view wines which are restrained, with a light touch, as somehow inferior. Yet on a summer’s evening, Valpolicella, with its low tannins and gently cherryish fruit is like a soothing balm. Waitrose stocks the eminently quaffable Vignale Valpolicella 2007 for £4.79 – and it’s only 12% alcohol.

Really understanding all of Italy’s wines is undoubtedly a life’s work, but there’s so much on offer from all over the country, from the crisp, aromatic wines of the German-speaking Alto Adige in the north, to the warm, spicy reds of Sicily, that everyone is bound to find something that they like. Morellino di Scansano? Fiano di Avellino? Bring it on!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

And the winner is...

OK, you’re scanning the supermarket or off-licence shelves for a nice bottle to take home that evening. Such a lot of choice, so many bottles: how to decide? That one’s got a pretty label, this other one’s discounted, but does that just mean they want to be rid of it? Hold on, this one’s won some sort of gold medal at a competition, obviously someone thinks it’s good, let’s go for that one.

Have you ever been swayed by the fact that a wine has won a medal in a competition? And have you ever wondered just what winning a medal means – what has the wine been through to deserve one?

Well, having just completed participating as an associate judge in the International Wine Challenge 2008, I have a better idea of how those medal stickers get onto the bottles. The Wine Challenge is the biggest and best known wine competition in the UK and has been dubbed “the Oscars of the wine world” by Jancis Robinson MW.

What do the judges know about the wines they are tasting?
All wines are tasted blind: judges do not see the labels, or get any hints of the identity of the wine beyond the fact that they are, for example, Syrah-based blends from the Languedoc. Wines are grouped together in “flights”, so that New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are judged together, rather than mixed in with white Burgundy, for example. There is no information regarding price of the wines: judges do not know if they are tasting a £40 bottle of wine or a £5 one.

So does one person’s taste decide the fate of a wine?
No: the wines are tasted by a panel of 4 or more judges. All wines in a “flight” are tasted and rated by the panel independently, then scores are compared and each wine discussed in turn. Like a jury in a court case, the panel tries to come to a consensus on each wine, though sometimes a “majority verdict” is the only way to move forward if there are differences of opinion. The International Wine Challenge employs experienced Panel Chairpeople, a fair dollop of Masters of Wine among them, to manage each panel, so plenty of knowledge, experience and expertise is lavished on the wines.

How many wines does a judge taste in any one day?
You might be surprised or horrified to find that many judges assess around 100 wines, or more, a day. How can they possibly maintain judgment and critical faculties by the 99th wine? Don’t forget, the judges at this competition will be very used to assessing this quantity of wines on a regular basis as part of their jobs – yes, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. And of course all wines are spat out!

Can competitions like this ever be fair?
Wines do get more than one bite at the cherry. During the first week of tasting, wines are either rated as potentially medal-worthy, Commended, or dismissed as not up to scratch. The potential medal winners will be retasted during the second week and assigned either a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal – or downgraded to Commended, or even given nothing at all. A wine will be assessed at least twice on two different days if it is to be judged worthy of any colour of medal.

Equally, wines that have walked away with nothing after the first tasting are all retasted by the inner circle of wine experts who run the competition – to make sure a panel hasn’t been overly harsh and to ensure consistency.

Do the medals mean anything?
During three days of tasting at the Wine Challenge, and well over 200 wines, the panels I sat (or stood) on discussed the possibility of only 2 or 3 gold medals. So medals are not given out lightly, just to reward a certain percentage of the entries. Gold medals in particular are hard to earn and reflect truly impressive wines – regardless of whether they cost £5 or £50.

No competition is ever perfect but, having had the opportunity to peek under the skirt of this particular one, I feel wines are judged as fairly as possible, from the Indian Chenin Blancs (yes, they exist) to the vintage Champagne.

Results of the International Wine Challenge are available from 20th May on