Thursday, 13 April 2017

Washington v. The Rest of the World

I've blogged about the excellent wines being made in Washington a few times now, so it was refreshing to attend a tasting that approached the region in a different way. The tasting was located at Sunset Magazine's new headquarters in Oakland, led by a panel of leading Washington winemakers, Bob Betz of Betz Family Wines, David Rosenthal of Chateau Sainte Michelle, and Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars. They spoke passionately and enthusiastically about Washington's wines, and the geographical, topographical, and climatic characteristics of the state which make it different from other regions.

What made this tasting particularly enlightening was the way it was structured, with three flights of wines each featuring one of Washington's major grape varieties. In each flight, the first of the four wines was a named wine from Washington acting as a template for the other wines. The other three were tasted blind, examples of the same grape variety to act as a comparison without prejudice. This was a great way of focusing on the characteristics of Washington wine, learning about other regions, while really making us think about why each wine tastes like it does.

Riesling

The best wines from Riesling are made with little interference in the winery, and it's all about the variety and the vineyard or region the grapes come from. I'm still not as excited about Washington's Riesling as some local winemakers are, so it was interesting to taste a couple of wines in comparison to Australia and Germany. The template was Eroica ($22; ✪✪✪✪), a collaboration made since 1999 between Chateau Sainte Michelle, by far the state's largest producer, and Ernst Loosen, one of the iconic winemakers of Germany. It's a pleasant, good-value, medium-dry wine with citrus and stone fruit aromas, but one that seems aimed more at local rather than international tastes.

The three wines tasted blind alongside it were around the same price. The wine from Australia, Yalumba's Pewsey Vale ($20; ✪✪✪✪), is a classic representation of Eden Valley, one often used in educational tastings to demonstrate the intense lime and dry mineral characteristics of Australia's world-class Riesling. The German Riesling was from Mosel, a Kabinett whose sweetness and weight made it feel more like a Spätlese: there's a combination of elegance and richness to the best German wines that no other Riesling-producing region can match. Drink Christoffel's Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett ($27; ✪✪✪✪✪) with spicy food, and have a tongue-twisting competition saying the name.

The other Riesling was an outlier: again from Washington, made by the dramatically named EFESTĒ ($20; ✪✪✪✪✪) and again from Evergreen Vineyard in Ancient Lakes AVA where the Eroica mainly comes from. It was off-dry with an intense texture, which made most people in the room mistake it for Alsace. The wine made me reassess Washington Riesling - that it can compete with, and be mistaken for, Rieslings from around the world, and at a very good price.

Syrah

Greg Harrington, an MS turned winemaker, described Syrah as a wine for Pinot Noir lovers with sophisticated palates. This brought out a chuckle, but he was making a serious point. He continued that there are Syrah producers who make the wines to be like Cabernet Sauvignon, and there are others who make it like Pinot Noir. He firmly places himself in the latter category - not least because the northern Rhône, geographically and in terms of climate, is so close to Burgundy.

One of the wines we tasted underlined his point, albeit in a roundabout way. Wind Gap are an eclectic producer from California; their Nellessen Vineyard Syrah ($42; ✪✪✪✪), which we tasted blind, was from a cooler area of Sonoma. Fermented in whole clusters it smelt very carbonic, that's to say bubblegum and strawberries. If I hadn't known it was Syrah, I would have guessed the wine to have been from Beaujolais, a region which has the same granite soils as the northern Rhône and a similar climate - and I've read old nineteenth-century textbooks that group Beaujolais and the northern Rhône together. It may be that we should be thinking about the connections between Syrah and Gamay, or the northern Rhône and Beaujolais, much more - even if it takes US producers to point out those connections.

The Rocks District
The template wine was called Lagniappe and made by Gramercy ($55; ✪✪✪✪) from Red Willow, one of Washington's first and still leading vineyards. Another of the blind wines, The Psycheledic by Sleight of Hand ($60; ✪✪✪✪), was also from Washington, from the recently-established AVA, The Rocks District of Milton-Freeman, one of the many Washington regions which excels in Syrah. The two wines highlighted the differences that come from a winemaker's philosophy as well as Washington's terroir: Gramercy's wine was noticeably restrained in comparison to the smoky, meaty qualities of the other wine.

The final wine was the 2014 Côte-Rôtie by Saint-Cosme ($65; ✪✪✪✪✪), a tannic, dry, subdued wine which reminded me of just how French French wine is, showing how expressively Syrah reflects where it comes from.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Willow Vineyard
I often find it hard to write anything interesting about Cabernet Sauvignon, but this was a refreshing line-up. The template was the 2013 Père de Famille from Betz Family Estate ($75; ✪✪✪✪✪), which showed just how well Cabernet works in Washington. The wine has the tannic structure expected of Cabernet, with the ripe black fruits that come in a fairly warm New World climate - a combination which summarises Washington red wine. Another of the blind wines was again from Washington (that was the one predictable aspect of the tasting). The 2014 Cabernet from Abeja, an established producer, tasted like it was from Coonawarra in Australia, minty and herbal ($52; ✪✪✪✪). Napa was featured as a comparison too, the 2012 from Forman was dusty and massively tannic ($115; ✪✪✪✪) - Washington wines are much more approachable when young. Finally, there was a wine from Margaux. It's not often I get to taste expensive Bordeaux, and I certainly wasn't expecting to do so at a Washington tasting. The best Bordeaux needs to be tasted with some age, and the 2009 from Château Rauzan-Ségla ($155; ✪✪✪✪✪✪) was evolving wonderfully, with mature leather aromas, but with fresh acidity and black fruits.

Can the best of Washington age as well as the best of Bordeaux and other established regions? Maybe that could be the subject for another tasting. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Wars and Myths of Burgundy's Climats

Over the weekend, I finally read Wine and War, published way back in 2001 and a history of French wine during the Second World War recounting the uneasy relationship French winemakers had with the Germans, involving collaboration, resistance, subterfuge, fraud, and unlikely friendships. The book is well worth reading, demonstrating just how integral wine is to French culture (as well as how much Germans love French wine).

I was reminded to read the book after attending a tasting in San Francisco centred around the climats and lieux-dits of Burgundy. A climat is a vineyard that has over many centuries distinguished itself for its particular style and unique identity. The very best climats in the Côte d'Or were designated Grand Cru in 1937 when the appellation system was introduced in France. The Premier Cru designation was created in the early 1940s as a way of warding the Germans off the wines, as they weren't allowed to confiscate the "first growths." The ways in which the French resisted the German occupation were cunning, mischievous, and risky.

Although the vineyards awarded Premier Cru status during the war were deserving of the recognition, it shows that official acclaim is often a result of chance as much as merit. For the first few years of the Second World War, France was split between Occupied France and Unoccupied France, which was governed by an increasingly fascist French regime from Vichy but nominally free from German control. Burgundy was split: the Côte d'Or and the northern part of the Côte Chalonnaise occupied by the Germans; the southern part of the Chalonnaise and all of Mâconnais was part of the zone libre. As a result, all the Premier Cru vineyards were in the Côte d'Or and in northern/central Chalonnaise villages such as Mercurey and Givry.

Such wartime necessities have led to distinctions which still determine a wine's reputation. Pouilly-Fuissé, the furthest south of Burgundy's winemaking regions, is held in less regard than it should be, in part because its wines are sometimes fuller-bodied and richer than the Chardonnay made in the Côte d'Or but also because there are no Premier Cru vineyards. If the Germans had occupied as far south as this distinctive part of Burgundy, the appellation structure would be completely different.

Not all climats have names, but those that do are called lieux-dits ("named places" - sometimes there are several lieux-dit in one climat). These names can express a lot about the nature of the vineyard, as long as you speak French: the names come from the soil (Les Perrières refers to its pebbles), from local geographical conditions (Les Bois Gautiers refers to the trees surrounding the vineyard), or from past owners (La Romanée-Conti).

vineyards are divided by small stone walls
The origins of other names are lost in time or immersed in myth. The most famous vineyard for Chardonnay is Montrachet. At the tasting, a Burgundy winemaker explained the origins of Montrachet's name and of its surrounding vineyards. Montrachet, the story goes, was a nobleman who rode off to the crusades back in the twelfth century. He left behind his virgin daughter (pucelle), whose protection he entrusted to a knight (chevalier). They, of course, had an affair which resulted in an illegitimate child (bâtard). The nobleman returned, discovered the affair, but eventually welcomed (bienvenue) the child into his family. Hence the names of the famous series of vineyards that produce some of the world's greatest Chardonnay: Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, and Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, as well as the Premier Cru Les Pucelles. There are variants of this story, but it most likely isn't true: Bâtard-Montrachet probably comes from the fact growers used the vineyard for young, experimental vines. Still, there's nothing like drinking some expensive, bastard Montrachet.


We tasted six wines to demonstrate the different styles found in Burgundy.

Domaine Auvigue Pouilly-Fuissé Les Chailloux 2015 ($40)

Pouilly-Fuissé still has no Premiers Crus, although it is likely to be awarded some soon. This is the warmest part of Burgundy, so the wines are richer and fuller-bodied with stone and tropical fruit aromas. The wine we tasted was a very good example of Pouilly-Fuissé, expressive and inviting. This is the one area of Burgundy that could be confused for the New World, but the high, refreshing acidity was noticeable. The name of the climat is Les Chailloux, which comes from the French word chaille for flint. ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Pinson Montmains Chablis Premier Cru 2013 ($40)

The most northern and coolest part of Burgundy, Chablis is the opposite of Pouilly-Fuissé. Aspect is key in the cool climate, and the best vineyards are on slopes which soak up the sun to give the grapes an extra ripeness. The name of the climat, Montmains, refers to its location on a small hill between two larger ones. I wasn't a huge fan of this wine, finding it a little too acidic and tart. Nevertheless, a white wine in its fourth year shows how Chablis retains its acidity and structure. ✪✪✪✪

Domaine Latour-Giraud Les Genevrières Meursault Premier Cru 2014 ($120)

Some of the richest Chardonnay comes from Meursault in the heart of the Côte de Beaune. Oak and malolactic fermentation add even more richness, and this wine almost had a tannic structure. Les Genevrières refers to the juniper trees grown around the vineyard and it's particularly known for its rich wines. This wine was wonderful: very concentrated and powerful, with a refreshing acidity. ✪✪✪✪✪✪


Domaine Michel Sarrazin & Fils Les Bois Gautiers Givry Premier Cru 2014 ($45)

Givry is in the Côte Chalonnaise region, just south of the more famous Côte d'Or. Here the land is more arable and there are fewer vineyards but those are planted on limestone soils similar to the Côte d'Or. Les Bois Gautiers refers to the woods that surround the vineyard, cooling and sheltering it from the wind. Despite that cooling effect, the red and black fruit aromas were quite ripe, although held together with a gripping tannic structure. ✪✪✪✪

Maison Chanzy Les Gravières Santenay Premier Cru 2014 (€35)

The more I learn about Burgundy, the more convinced I am that Santenay is my favourite village. It's the furthest south in the Côte d'Or, so there's a warmth, richness, and a certain meatiness to the wines. At the same time, they're not as full-on, dark, and intense as the more famous wines further north in the Côtes de Nuits. I have also learnt that the best climat in Santenay is Les Gravières, whose name refers to its gravelly soils. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine des Beaumont Aux Combottes Gevry-Chambertin Premier Cru 2015 (c.$125)

Not only did I learn quite a few new French words at the tasting, I learnt a new English word too. Aux Combottes refers to the combe in which the vineyard sits - a combe being a hollow in a valley, or, in geological terms which apply to the Côte d'Or, "a dry valley in a limestone or chalk escarpment." Aux Combottes, which has a deep, pebbly soil, is a Premier Cru vineyard, though in essence it is considered Grand Cru: the initial rules created in 1937 stated that a vineyard within the village of Gevry-Chambertin could only be Grand Cru if it touched either Chambertin or Clos de Bèze, both of which Aux Combottes is close to but not touching. Such distinctions do nothing to aid the accessibility of Burgundy's wines. Aged in 60% new oak barrels, this was a deep, rich wine, with ripe black fruits, liquorice, and vanilla, and quite tannic. The power and tannic structure of Burgundy's Pinot Noirs, especially from the Côte de Nuits, can often be overlooked. ✪✪✪✪✪

Does it matter if a wine is a climat, a Premier Cru, or a Grand Cru? A Grand Cru may not be better than a Premier Cru which may not be better than a named climat. The designation certainly changes the price of a wine, but more importantly the name on the label can tell you a lot about the style of a wine, the village it comes from, and where in that village the grapes were grown. And, what's such an integral part of Burgundy's appeal, the name expresses the history (and the myths) of a vineyard.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Oregon Beer

My trip to Oregon was initially about wine, but segued into a beer journey. That isn't too surprising: Oregon is one of the great states for craft beer, and visitors travel from across the US for the beer alone. The beer scene is extraordinary; spread around the state, it's concentrated in the major city of Portland and the smaller, remote, and very beautiful town of Bend. Beer here is treated with a fanatical fervour, its quality debated heatedly in bars and breweries.

ninkasi, eugene

I'd only tried one beer from Ninkasi before, Total Domination, a widely-available IPA I had found a little too sweetly aggressive. Nevertheless, while in Eugene I wanted to visit the ten-year-old brewery to see what else they had to offer. I'm glad I did. They have a small, intimate, and very friendly tasting bar, with ten beers on tap. Visiting a brewery or its tasting room offers the opportunity to taste beers that aren't distributed, and here I was able to taste two newly released beers. Their winter ale was brown, malty, and nutty, perfect for the rainy weather. The Megalodom was something else. Based on Total Domination (which the barmaid admitted was her least favourite of Ninkasi's beers), it's a whopping 10% ABV and dangerously drinkable. Such a beer encapsulates the trend of West Coast IPAs: extremely well made, highly alcoholic, fruity and hoppy, big but balanced, and not for the faint-hearted.

grain station brew works, mcminnville

Portlandia is a TV comedy which lampoons the touchy-feely habits of those who live in Portland. The first episode features a couple who won't order the chicken in a restaurant until they've visited the farm where the chicken was raised to establish that it was treated properly. I experienced a similar moment in McMinnville, a small town in the heart of Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir country. "Are your fries gluten free?" I heard a young girl behind me ask. The waiter responded, "All of our ingredients are gluten free, but I can't guarantee there isn't gluten in the environment." Thus ensued a half-hour debate, interspersed with the waiter going back and forth from the kitchen to check the gluten status of each product on the menu. "The fries are briefly cooked in sunflower oil, but we can't determine if that results in some gluten in the fries."

This was at Grain Station Brew Works, a brewpub located in an old timber barn and which I stopped off at for lunch to avoid the pouring rain. I had two beers: the Bet the Farm IPA, which was excellent, malty, fruity, and not too hoppy. I then ordered the RyePA, a request which prompted the waiter to ask me if I was sure I wanted it. The Oregonians can be a little too concerned with the customers' happiness, as it was a good, spicy rye IPA.

cascade, portland

A drinker from Florida sat next to me at the bar declared that he was "in heaven." He couldn't believe that a brewery was devoted to making so many sours. These are Belgian-inspired beers that small breweries like Cascade have taken to extremes, merging wine-making techniques with beer-making practices. Cascade have been doing this for so long that they can almost exclusively focus on aged beers. I tried two vintages of their Sang Rouge, a red ale aged in old oak barrels of different sizes. Ageing beer in wine and whisky casks is becoming common across the country, but doing it well is very difficult. The 2013 was fruity, sour, and still a little closed; the 2009 was tannic and leathery, with aromas of dried fruits and mushrooms, and as close to wine as beer will, for better or worse, ever get. Cascade are probably the best producers of sour beers in the States and their beers, although expensive, are well worth seeking out.

deschutes, bend

I drink a lot of Deschutes, mainly their Fresh Squeezed IPA, a green, hoppy, herbaceous summer beer that's now their best seller - overtaking Mirror Pond Pale Ale, another very drinkable beer. They're based in Bend, a town that's next to spectacular forests and far from anywhere. They started in 1988, beginning a trend that's led to Bend becoming one of the most beer-centric towns I've ever visited, with at least fifteen breweries in a town of 80,000 people. The Deschutes bar/restaurant was heaving when I visited, yet the two barmen were able to serve beer tourists like me while entertaining locals. The Bachelors' Bitter was as good an English-style beer as I've tried in the US (the other contender is Blue Bell Bitter by Magnolia in San Francisco).

boneyard, bend


This is quite a different operation, located in a reconstituted garage full of old car and garage parts (hence the name boneyard). It's down to earth, with full-on tattoo-style artwork, and still very low-key. The beers aren't bottled, and the tasting room only pours them by the 28ml (1oz) serving - though you can have as many as you like for $1 a pour. The IPAs are as magnificent and as full-on as the artwork. The RPM IPA is their best-known beer, distributed throughout Oregon, but Incredible Pulp was perhaps the best of those I tried: briefly infused in blood oranges, it's subtle, balanced, yet orange and intense. Boneyard encapsulate the Oregon - and by extension West Coast - beer scene: no frills but an intense concentration on quality and innovation.




Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Oregon that isn't Pinot Noir

Oregon is a young wine region, dating back to the 1960s. In that short time, it's become defined by Pinot Noir. The grape accounts for over 60% of plantings, mainly in the long, narrow Willamette Valley that stretches south of Portland. Given the high quality of its Pinot Noir, it's no wonder that the association between Oregon and Pinot is so strong. But Oregon is a large state, sharing some of its AVAs with neighbouring Washington and Idaho in desert-like conditions in contrast to the rainy Willamette Valley. And then there's Southern Oregon, just north from California, with a continental climate not dissimilar from the northern Rhône.

I decided to make the drive up from Napa to find out about the wines being made in Southern Oregon, without quite realising the terrain one has to cover. After hours of driving straight along the flat I-5, the highway rises into the Cascades, a mountain range with active volcanoes that stretches all the way to Washington. It's beautiful, but snow was falling heavily with temperatures dropping to -3˚C in the middle of the afternoon.

Once across the border, the highway falls quickly down into valleys where snow was still drifting down on vines planted in obscure corners far away from any major city. The hills are beautiful, covered with trees and snow; the valleys remote, with wineries hidden away. This is the US at its quirkiest and most local.

Rogue Valley

The first thing to be said about Rogue Valley is that it has a great name. The second thing is that it's a dramatically beautiful region, surrounded by snowy hillsides covered in evergreens (logging has been Oregon's main industry since the nineteenth century). It's a popular tourist destination, not so much for its wine as for its Shakespeare festival. Nevertheless, it's quite remote and the wineries are scattered far apart in the countryside, especially in the Applegate Valley sub-region.

Many fruits are grown here, and grape vines are still a recent addition to the landscape and economy. But although few people outside of Oregon know about the wines from the area, the wineries have already established a reputation with tourists as well as locals. Some focus is needed, on how to promote the industry as well as which grape varieties work best.

Despite the snow during my visit, apparently anything can grow here in the dry summers, even Petit Verdot. The best wines are from Rhône varieties, both black and white, where there's a fresh acidity to complement the ripe fruits and full body. But this is a young wine region still learning about what works and what doesn't: there's also good Merlot and the Gewürztraminer I tried from Wooldridge was as good an example of that difficult grape variety as I've had in some time.


Umpqua Valley

A couple of hours further north is Umpqua Valley, another region with a great name. Despite being further north, it's a bit warmer than Rogue Valley (it wasn't snowing for a start, just raining), with a climate more Spanish than French. The main draw for my visit was Abacela, a winery established in 1995 by a dermatologist from Florida. His love for Spanish wine caused him to ask why no one in the US made wine from Tempranillo as good as that found in Spain (a fact which largely still holds true across the US and the rest of the world). With the help of his son, a climatologist, they spent three years looking for the perfect site within the US for Tempranillo.

Tempranillo is a tricky grape: it ripens early so needs a difficult climate to make it ripen more slowly. In Rioja, Tempranillo is grown at altitude with a maritime influence, while in Ribera del Duero it can be grown at 850m elevation to escape the hot temperatures. The choice of a site in Umpqua Valley was an inspired one: a continental climate with varied aspect, elevation, and temperature where Tempranillo gets rich, ripe aromas without ripening too quickly.

Abacela's Barrel Reserve Tempranillo 2013 is an extraordinary wine. It has the concentration and structure of Ribero del Duero, without the aggressive tannins, and is easily the best Tempranillo I have tasted from outside Spain. It makes clear how important site selection is for Tempranillo: you can't just plant it for the sake of it. Abacela also make very good Albariño and Garnacha, making Umpqua Valley a little piece of Spain.

It's hard to imagine the small wineries of Southern Oregon making enough of an impact to dislodge perceptions of Oregon as a Pinot Noir state: to do so will take a long, long time. But there's some really good wine being made there, at very affordable prices. It may not be an easy region to get to, but the beautiful landscape and the wine are worth the effort.
 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Unending World of Italian White Wine

Italian wine is daunting. I attended Gambero Rosso's Tre Bicchieri event in San Francisco, organised by the prestigious Italian magazine to showcase the top-rated wines from the country. Walking into the old warehouse, I was confronted by over 130 importers pouring several wines from at least one of their highly-rated producers. There were more than 400 wines, white, rosé, red, sparkling, and sweet, from cool to warm climates both inland and near the sea. It's impossible to take in such a diverse range in one tasting, so I took a deep breath and decided to focus on one aspect: white wine made from unusual grape varieties.

I blogged a couple of years ago about how exciting Italian white wine is these days, certainly compared to twenty years ago. The wines are crisp and refreshing, rarely aged in oak, and are very food friendly. Tasting more of the wines confirmed that Italian producers are concentrating on quality white wine, as well as experimenting with old grape varieties to produce wines resonant of Italy's rich history and varied climates.


Vermentino

Wines made from Vermentino were some of the most common whites of the tasting, and it feels that Vermentino is helping to lead the drive to gain greater awareness for Italy's crisp, fresh white wines. Of course, this being Italy, it's not as simple as that. Vermentino is also known as Favorita in Piemonte, Pigato in Liguria (where it's a little heavier and fuller-bodied), and Rolle in the south of France (where it's often used in blends). Vermentino is the most familiar name, with one DOCG and twenty-two DOCs, all in central/north-west Italy and Sardinia. I think it's at its best grown near the coast, when the wines have crisp acidity and salty aromas; there can also be some nuttiness from lees ageing to give the wine weight and texture.

Pala Vermentino di Sardegna Stellato 2015

The warm island of Sardinia produces surprisingly fresh, acidic white wines, especially from Vermentino, of which this is a very good example - like nearby Corsica, which also produces good Vermentino, the coastal influence is all-important. It's made from 45-year-old wines, which gives it a concentrated intensity; the acidity, as one would expect, is crisp and fresh, and there's a creamy texture from three months lees ageing. ✪✪✪✪✪

Bellone

Bellone is a variety I had never heard of before. One of the fascinating aspects of tasting these wines is that Italian winemakers are returning to obscure quality grape varieties - for red wine too, but I feel particularly for white - that had been neglected throughout the twentieth century. Bellone is now rarely planted, mostly in Lazio around Rome, but, as it is susceptible to noble rot, it once formed the backbone of good sweet wine drunk in the capital city.

Casale del Giglio Antium Bellone 2015

I tasted two wines from Lazio producer Casale del Giglio: the wines were fresh, floral, and aromatic, and noticeably acidic. Their single-vineyard "Antium" was a wine that, on top of that freshness, was weighty, gripping, and nutty. ✪✪✪✪

Carricante

Carricante is the main grape variety for Etna Bianco, where some of the highest vineyards in Italy are planted. A main advantage of Carricante is that it can grow at that high altitude on rocky soils, where little else survives. It produces consistently high quality wine, with relatively low alcohol and high acidity. Sicily may be a very warm island, but it's capable of producing good white wine, with Etna Bianco among the best.

Cantine Nicosia Etna Bianco Vulkà 2016

This is a blend with another local Sicilian variety, Catarratto, named after Etna's volcanic soils. It's fresh, floral, and aromatic, that cooler altitude evident, though the warm influence of the island gives the wine body and weight. ✪✪✪✪


Manzoni Bianco

This is a grape with an unusual history. It's a crossing of Riesling and either Pinot Bianco or Chardonnay, created in the 1920s and 30s by one Luigi Manzoni. It's now popular with a small number of producers because of its quality despite it being a difficult grape to grow. The representative of Veneto's Italo Cescon said, with a weary yet proud look, that it took ten years to make "Madre," which is made from the variety. It lacks vigour, the berries are small, and the skins are thick but subject to sunburn. Growing such a difficult and obscure grape variety must be a labour of love.

Italo Cescon Madre 2014

Rich, inviting, floral, and aromatic, with a lifting, acidic mouthfeel, although the nose is more interesting and expressive than the palate. For what it's worth, the wine is packaged in a beautiful, long-necked bottle. ✪✪✪✪


Pallagrello Bianco

This grape is so rare that it's barely mentioned in either Ian d'Agata's Wine Grapes of Italy or The Oxford Companion to Wine. Apparently, wines made from the grape were a favourite of the Bourbon king, Ferdinand IV of Napoli, but the variety all but disappeared until it was revived in the 1990s. The grape is indigeneous to Campania and has small berries which get very ripe.

Vini Alois Caiata 2014

I walked away from tasting this wine rather underwhelmed, as it's very acidic and rather neutral at first, but its lingering spicy finish made me rethink. That acidity and the subtle aromas make this a good wine to pair with white fish. ✪✪✪✪✪

Pecorino

Pecorino is a great example of how Italian wines have changed over the last twenty to thirty years. An ancient variety that was largely forgotten about, it was rediscovered in the 1980s and is now thriving, producing popular, aromatic, full-bodied wines. It's mostly grown in Marche and Abruzzo in the east near the coast.

Velenosi Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014 

Offida Pecorino is a DOCG which produces the best Pecorino. This wine has an acidic backbone with a spicy bite to it; that acidity is offset with a rich, creamy, nutty mouthfeel. Rich but refreshing - another example of a wine which would be enhanced by food. ✪✪✪✪✪

Ribolla Gialla

Fruili is an area where outstanding white wines are made from a wide range of varieties, including international well-known grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. The whites are crisp, fresh, and aromatic. Ribolla Gialla is a little bit different, as it can be quite neutral and highly acidic. The best grapes are grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio DOCs, in which the Rosazzo and Oslavia vineyards, respectively, stand out. Because of its acidity, many producers make sparkling wine from it; because of its neutral aromas, others experiment with skin contact, its yellow skins (gialla means yellow) giving the wine a rich gold colour. Although experimental and fashionable, these skin-contact wines are quite old-fashioned, a reminder of how Italian white wine must once have tasted: heavy, rich, and grapey.

Primosic Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012

With nearly a month fermenting in contact with its skins and a further two years ageing on its lees, this is a wine with a deep gold colour, weighty and nutty, and definite tannins. The grape's natural acidity lifts the wine, but this is a wine for the sommelier rather than the drinker - and one that is very different from the fresh, crisp whites being made across Italy. ✪✪✪✪

Zibibbo

I recognised the name Zibibbo but it had been a long time since I had tasted a wine made from the variety and I couldn't remember too much about it other than it is planted in Sicily. Smelling a dry version from Sicily's excellent Donnafugata, I immediately thought it was just like a wine made from Muscat: aromatic, floral, and very grapey. It turns out, in true Italian style, that Zibibbo is actually Muscat of Alexandria (or Moscato di Alessandria), grown throughout Spain and Portugal as Moscatel - though Zibibbo is probably an older name. It's responsible for one of the great sweet wines of Italy: Passito di Pantelleria. Pantelleria is a small Mediterranean island off the coast of Sicily, while passito refers to the practice of drying the grapes after they are picked to concentrate sugars.

Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2014

Donnafugata's Ben Ryé is one of the leading examples and it's a wonderful sweet wine, rich, lush, and aromatic, with plenty of floral and dried fruit aromas, and a refreshing acidity. Its acidity makes it refreshing enough to drink on its own, but drink this with cheese after a meal to soak up the richness of the wine and as a contrast to a cheese's stinky aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

These, of course, are just some of the many, many grape varieties grown across Italy, making increasingly interesting white wine. Traditional areas such as Soave and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi are returning to form, while elsewhere producers are looking at once-forgotten varieties. Italian whites are marked by a refreshing acidity that makes the wines very food-friendly. As confusing as the many names and regions are, the quality of Italian white wine makes them worth investigating.