Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Course on Italian wines at Incanto: The South and Islands

The Italian South and Islands was the theme of our fifth wine class at Incanto.

Vineyard in Sicily

We started our tasting with Sardinia, the second largest Mediterranean island after Sicily. It is located off the west coast of Italy, just south of the French island of Corsica. Vines have been growing on the island since pre-Roman times. Over the centuries, viticulture and winemaking have been influenced by many foreign cultures, Spain being the most influential country. Sardinia's most important varietals, such as Cannonau ( Grenache), Monica and Vermentino, have all been imported from Spain during the Spanish domination of the island. Geographically, Sardinia consists mostly of mountainous plateaus made of granite and volcanic rocks with most vineyards being planted in the hills and flatlands.

We tasted two wines from Sardinia. The white wine was a Vermentino di Gallura, an appellation located on the northern side of the island. This is one of the only four Italian DOCG. The finesse of the grape is said to come from the combination of heat and marine winds, and from the richness of the soil made of decomposed granite. The 2003 Cantina Gallura Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Canayli had a golden color, an aromatic nose of dried herbs, a fat, nutty mouthfeel and a mineral, almost salty finish. The perfect wine to accompany grilled sardines.

The second Sardinian wine was a red wine from the Cannonau di Sardegna appellation. Cannonau thrives in Sardinia's Mediterranean climate and accounts for 20% of the island wine production. The 2001 Contini Cannonau di Sardegna 'Inu had a forward nose of sweet berries. It was medium-bodied and supple on the palate with fruity aromas, and a smooth and well-balanced aftertaste.

We moved to Campania for the other white wine of the tasting. The region, home to the world-renowned Bay of Naples and the threatening Mount Vesuvius, is bordered on the north by Latium and Molise, to the east by Apulia, to the south by Basilicata, and to the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is also the gateway to Southern Italy. It is said that if the south of Italy has become one of the most exciting wine areas of the world, then Campania is the most exciting part of it.

Campania has a long history of viticulture. When the Greek discovered the region in the 8th Century BC, they called it Enotria or Wineland. Local grapes such as Greco, Grecanico, Grechetto and Aglianico, may have a Greek origin (in fact, maybe not).

The best vineyards are found around the town of Avellino, on the slopes of the Apennine chain where the volcanic soil is rich with minerals and the Mediterranean sun is cooled down by winds coming from the mountains. This region is at the heart of the Campania Apennines and is sometimes called the Switzerland of the South. It is home to Campania's best wines including the red Taurasi, often called the Barolo of the south, and the white Greco di Tufo.

The wine we tasted was a Fiano di Avellino, the third DOCG of the region. The 2003 Feudi Di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino is made from Fiano, a varietal that the Romains called Apiano because bees (apis in Latin) are attracted by the sweet aromas of the grape. The wine had a bright golden color and an attractive floral nose with fresh pear and apple aromas. It was medium-bodied with smoky and spicy flavors on the palate and quite complex on the finish. It should go well with a Mediterranean fish stew.

Our next wine came from Apulia, the region that is at the heel of the Italian boot. Apulia competes with Sicily for first place as grape producer. For a long time, most of its wines were shipped north to Turin to make Vermouth, or to France to add color and weight to lighter French reds. However, in recent years, production has scaled back and many vintners are now focusing on quality.

The traditional wines of this area are the powerful inky reds made from Primitivo, Negroamaro, and Malvasia Nera. We tasted the 2003 La Corte Solyss Negroamaro made from the Negroamaro grape. In Italian, Negroamaro means black bitter and in fact, I found some bitter cocoa flavors on the finish. The wine had a fresh and fruity nose and tasted peppery on the palate.

Our tasting of the South ended with Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean sea. Sicily has more vineyards than any other Italian region and a reputation for bulk wine. But recently, like in Apulia, production has been decreasing and a push for quality has developed.

Sicily has a long history of making sweet wines. In the late 18th century, English merchant traders created Marsala and Sicily became a major source of fortified wine. Dessert wines still account for about 90% of the total DOC production but an increasing amount of lighter, fruitier wines is produced by quality-conscious vintners. Although Sicilian producers are expanding their use of international varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, the island is home to distinctive native grapes such as Nero d'Avola, Frappato, and Grecanico. We tasted the 2002 Valle dell'Acate Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which is a blend of Frappato and Nero d'Avola. The wine had an ample nose of black berries and prunes, felt warm with flavors of stewed fruits and some acidity on the palate, and had notes of caramel on the finish.

More on Italian wines:
• Sparkling Wines
• The North
• Tuscany
• Piedmont

Coming next week: The dessert wines.

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