Unless you are a cognoscenti of Italian wine you probably haven’t heard of Pecorino, at least not as something packaged in a bottle. Just like the cheese, the name comes from the Italian word for sheep, pecora. No, the wine isn’t made from sheep’s milk—in this case the connection is that sheep are said to have been fond of nibbling the super-sweet Pecorino grapes off the vines as they passed through the vineyards.
Pecorino is one of the many hundreds of grape varieties indigenous to Italy. It is naturally low producing, an attribute that promotes rich flavor development with a minimum of vineyard management. However, for much of the 20th century economic forces led Italian grape growers to emphasize quantity over quality, replacing lower yielding classic varieties with much higher yield strains, and Pecorino was one of many varieties that gradually disappeared.
Guido Cocci Grifoni, a grape grower and winemaker in the province of Marche in Italy, is credited with Pecorino’s re-discovery in the 1980s. Disappointed with the wines coming from the popular varieties planted in his vineyards, he researched native grapes of the region that had fallen out of favor to find new alternatives. One of the grapes that attracted his interest was Pecorino.
No producers were actively working with this variety any longer, but he was able to track down a few remaining vines in a small nearly abandoned vineyard. He brought cuttings back to his property and grafted them onto rootstock in his vineyards. After tasting the first vintage, he was sure that he had found his new grape.
Pecorino wines tend to have tropical fruit or citrus flavors supported by minerality that can run to saltiness. The sweetness of the grape means higher alcohol levels (for a white), which is well balanced by the Pecorino’s natural acidity. The wine’s structure and acidity also mean that it is one of the few white wines able to improve with age.
It’s a combination that has been successful. Pecorino from the Offida area was granted DOC status in 2001, followed by DOCG status in 2011. During that same period, the acreage planted to the grape quadrupled, making it one of the fastest growing grapes in Italy.
When you taste it, you’ll find out why. Pecorino is typically a medium bodied white wine that is an excellent match for things like pasta with vegetables, seafood, chicken, and even pork. For a classic regional treat, try Olive Ascolana (stuffed and fried olives).
And, yes, Pecorino wine can go with Pecorino cheese as well.
Puglia, the boot heel of Italy, hasn’t always had the best reputation for wine-making. For many years, it was known primarily as a source of bulk wines for blending or making vermouth. However, driven by economic forces, this situation is changing and now more than half of the region’s wine is produced under Italian wine quality laws.
The traditional training system used in Puglia is alberello, where vines are grown as low free-standing bushes rather than in neat lines strung out along wires. This style of growing is naturally low yielding and well-suited to the climate in Puglia, but also labor intensive as most of the work needs to be done by hand rather than using tractors. It’s a combination that makes profits difficult when wine prices are low and, in recent years, many bulk producers in the region have opted to accept EU payments to “grub up” their vines and leave the business. Those remaining are increasingly focused on putting wine into bottles instead of tank trucks.
Nearly three-fourths of the quality wine production in Puglia is based on just two grapes: Primitivo and Negroamaro (also written as Negro Amaro). Their dominant position likely comes from the one thing they have in common– an affinity for warm, dry weather.
Negroamaro is a dark, late ripening grape that has been cultivated in Puglia for at least 1,500 years and many people believe even longer, perhaps as long as 2,700 years. One possible origin for its name can be translated as “blackest of the black”, and wines made from it typically exhibit black fruit flavors with savory spice and herb notes. Historically, Negroamaro has been used as a blending grape to add body to other wines (often in other parts of Italy, or even other countries), but it can also make a structured, age-worthy wine by itself. A native Italian variety, nearly all of the world’s production of this grape is grown in Puglia.
Primitivo, on the other hand, is an early ripening red grape that was brought to Italy from Croatia only in the last few hundred years. Its name means something along the lines of “first one”, and it is typically harvested starting in August. (Primitivo is also one of the few grapes that can have a second harvest in the same year, typically 20 to 30 days after the first.) As discussed in Zinfandel’s Italian Cousin, Primitivo is a close relative of the much more famous Zinfandel, and it exhibits the same flavors in wine- red berries and jam with a touch of pepper.
A third grape worth noting is Malvasia Nera, an aromatic dark-skinned variety that is descended from Negroamaro and Malvasia Bianca Lunga. Like its lighter-skinned relatives, Malvasia Nera is known for enticing aromas and flavors when added into a wine blend. There are 11 classified reds based on a combination of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera in Puglia, the most famous of which is Salice Salentino.
Examples of what to expect from wines made with these grapes are provided by three products I represent from Consorzio Produttori Vini of Manduria, Italy. Detailed descriptions are provided below.
Consorzio Produttori Vini Memoria Primitivo di Manduria 2013: This unoaked wine preserves the light, bright berry flavors and hint of sweetness that are the hallmarks of Primitivo/Zinfandel grapes. Earth and pepper aromas mingle with scents of blueberries. A medium dark ruby color promises a lot of flavor, and the Memoria delivers with just enough structuring tannins to give the wine focus. An easy-drinking, pleasant wine that is great for cookouts.
Consorzio Produttori Vini Neama Salento Negroamaro 2014: Dark ruby with purple highlights, this wine has savory aromas of black cherry and herbs with flavors of black cherry and black raspberry, a touch of clove, and moderate tannins. Well suited to grilled red meats and vegetables, it matches up nicely with onion and garlic flavors and can also work with savory spicy foods. For something out of the ordinary, try grilled tuna steaks with grilled peppers and grilled eggplant.
Consorzio Produttori Vini Salice Salentino Riserva 2011: This is a versatile wine that can pair with a range of foods from the sublime earthiness of truffles to the simple pleasures of a meat lovers pizza. It has a moderately dark ruby color with enticing aromas of raspberry and plum augmented by hints of allspice and vanilla that come from its time in French oak. Delicious flavors of cooked cherry and raspberry combine with nice structuring tannins and notes of nutmeg and allspice– a complex mingling with a long, pleasant finish. A local food match for Salice Salentino is Penne alla puttanesca (pasta with anchovies, onion, olives, tomato and capers). Foods with extended cooking times such as stews, roasts, and smoked meats are also good candidates to make the most of the layers of flavor in this wine.
Memorial Day is fast approaching, and with it, in New England at least, the official opening of barbecue season. Oh, sure, most of us have fired up the grill once or twice already, perhaps even a few times, but this is the weekend that our summer cookouts really get rolling.
Barbecue season is a time for friends and family; a time for the exciting flavors of smoke and spice; and a time for big wines like Zinfandel or… its Italian cousin, Primitivo.
The similarity between Zinfandel and Primitivo came to the attention of UC Davis professor Austin Goheen during a trip to Italy in 1967. Not long thereafter, ampelographers, experts who classify of grapevines by comparing the shape and color of the leaves and berries, declared the two varieties to be the same. In the early 1990s, the connection was proved beyond a doubt when DNA fingerprinting established that American Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo are in fact clones.*
Recently, I had a chance to perform a less scientific comparison involving two 2013 California Zinfandels and a 2013 Primitivo. The three wines were:
Bedrock “Old Vine” Zinfandel 2013 (Sonoma) Michael David Winery Earthquake Zinfandel 2013 (Lodi) Consorzio Produttori Vini Lirica Primitivo di Manduria 2013 (Manduria)
One sip was all it took to recognize the family resemblance. All three glasses were full of ripe berry flavors supported by spice and pepper notes. However, there were also interesting stylistic differences.
The Bedrock Zinfandel has to be considered a bit of a ringer. Containing nearly 23% of grapes other than Zinfandel (Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Abouriou, Aubun, and assorted mixed white varieties), it possesses the kind of complexity that only a well-done blend can. Those other grapes may also be a factor in holding the alcohol content down to relatively modest (for Zinfandel) 14.5% while still delivering big time flavor. Bright cherry and raspberry aromas are accented by savory herb notes. Take a sip and you get all that plus blueberry and pepper flavors. This is a wine that will pair well with spicy foods that contain a hint of sweetness such as spicy BBQ pulled pork or coconut curry grilled chicken.
The second California entry, the Earthquake Zinfandel, starts out tight and herby– not nearly as welcoming as the other wines. However, give it a little time to unwind, about 30 minutes or so, and the wine reveals a rich ripe fruit core and solid structure framed by intriguing herb and spice accents. At 15.5% ABV, this is a powerful wine that can stand up to just about anything- I’d like to try it with BBQ beef ribs or chili rubbed tenderloin tips.
The Lirica Primitivo is a bit more restrained than its California cousins. A nose of spice, plum, and pepper gives way to flavors of pepper and raspberry with a quick touch of mineral on the finish. Lightly oaked (three months in French oak), this wine has a subtle complexity with moderate structuring tannins and nice length. The alcohol level, 14.0% ABV, is also a bit more restrained than the other wines. The laid back character of the Lirica makes it an ideal complement for things like grilled Italian sausages, spice rubbed pork, and grilled bacon wrapped jalapeno shrimp.
While each wine has individual nuances, they all have the signature berry flavors, spice notes, and jamminess that are a great match for everything from burgers and sausages to spicy BBQ sauces. So next time you want to invite Zinfandel over for a barbecue, don’t forget to invite the Italian cousin, Primitivo. You’ll be glad you did.
As noted in my post The Good, the Bad, and the Fiasco, the black rooster is the logo of the Chianti Classico growers association, Consorzio del Vino Classico Chianti. The consortium chose the rooster because it is a long time symbol of Chianti, dating back at least as far as the establishment of the Military League of Chianti in 1384. However, that still leaves the question: Why a black rooster?
During the Middle Ages, there were two important cities just north and south of Chianti: Florence and Siena. By the early 13th century these rivals had an established history of diplomatic scheming and bloody battles. Both were interested in controlling the Chianti area that lay between them, and the rooster is part of a legend about how they settled one of their disputes.
As the story goes, the parties were interested in a non-military resolution to the crisis at hand. The plan they came up with was to set the border at the place where two riders, one from each city, met when they simultaneously set out to travel to the other’s city. Lacking radios or synchronized timepieces, the method devised for coordinating the departure times was the first crowing of a rooster on the chosen day.
The Sienese selected a white rooster which they fed well so that it would have plenty of energy for crowing long and loud when dawn broke. The Florentines picked a black rooster which they kept tightly confined and underfed. As a result, Florence’s rooster was in a foul mood and on the day of the contest it began crowing as soon as it was disturbed, a time well before day break. This gave the rider from Florence a large head start. The two met at a point only a short distance outside of Siena (most accounts say 12 kilometers), giving control of Chianti to the Florentines.
Whether the story is true or not, history records that when Siena threatened to attack the town of Montepulciano in 1203, Florence manufactured a diplomatic crisis by laying claim to Tornano, a fortress a few miles north-east of Sienna. The potestà (chief magistrate) ofPoggibonsi was asked to arbitrate the dispute, and on June 4, 1203, he gave his decision, moving the border between the two cities to just six miles north of Siena.
We’ll almost certainly never know for sure if a black rooster was involved in the events of 1203 (or any other time in the Florence-Siena rivalry). On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that you’ll never forget what the black rooster means to wine today!
For those interested in history, detailed information on Florence and Siena in the Middle Ages can be found in two e-books available through Google:
A History of Siena by Robert Langton Douglas, with information on the decision of the potestà starting on page 58.
For many people, their first experience with Italian wine will be Chianti. It’s an experience that has the potential to be either very good or very bad and the reasons for this are intimately tied to the history of the wine.
Chianti became the first designated wine region in the world in 1716 when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, issued an edict naming the land around the villages of Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina (with Greve added later) as the recognized producers of the wine. Today the boundaries of Chianti have expanded to cover almost 100 miles in length from north to south while the smaller area around the original villages is now known as Chianti Classico.
The modern definition of Chianti was formulated in 1872 by Barone Bettino Ricasoli and documented in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa:
“… the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption… “
It is interesting to note that this description encompasses two styles of Chianti: a lighter, younger style for everyday drinking, and a richer, aged style. For a variety of reasons, it is the former that has been, until recently, dominant.
During the first half of the twentieth century, agriculture in much of central and northern Italy was based on a sharecropping system. Farmers who were making wine for their own consumption using their share of the grapes had little interest in (or surplus wealth to support) laying down bottles for aging, so they naturally turned towards the younger, everyday style. Many landowners were also focused on converting grapes to wine as quickly as possible and then selling it in bulk. Both would often manage the vineyards to produce as much fruit as possible, a bias reinforced by government-led replanting programs in the 1960s, and a choice that led to and acidic wines.
Further eroding the flavor of Barone Ricasoli’s original recipe was the replacement over time of the aromatic and flavorful Malvasia by the considerably less so Trebbiano. This was undoubtedly driven by Trebbiano’s prolific production, resistance to disease and rot, and adaptability to a wide range of soils. These are advantages which it also holds over Sangiovese, which may explain why larger percentages of white wine came to be used in Chianti blends.
The quantity over quality style became the official version of the wine when the Chianti DOC was created in 1967, and white wine grapes were required to be at least 10% of the blend, with up to 30% allowed. Using this formula, an ocean of tart, cheap wine was bottled and distributed far and wide in the straw-wrapped container all too aptly called a fiasco*.
However, even as the government was encouraging the production of bad wine, some Tuscan winemakers were focusing on excellence in winemaking. This movement is famous for giving rise to the ‘Super Tuscans’, but it also led to changes in the laws governing Chianti. In 1984, the minimum percentage of white wine grapes was reduced to 2% and blending up to 10% of “international” red wine varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon was authorized. Chianti and Chianti Classico were also upgraded to DOCG appellations, a change which reduced the maximum yield from the vineyards and led to the growing of more concentrated fruit.
The laws were changed again in 1996, eliminating the requirement for blending in white wine at all and upping the allowed portion of international grapes to 15%. Finally, in 2006, blending white wine was completely banned in the Chianti Classico region (though still permitted in other parts of Chianti), and the allowed portion of authorized international varieties was increased to 20%.
Bad Chianti still exists today, but there is also a lot of good. The most highly regarded region is Chianti Classico. Many of these wines, some will say the best, carry the gallo nero (black rooster) logo of the Chianti Classico growers association, Consorzio del Vino Classico Chianti. In the larger Chianti appellation, the wines of the Rufina sub-zone are generally considered the best, though good wines can come from anywhere in the region.
A full range of styles is available, from early drinking wines that, outside of the Classico region, incorporate white wines in the blend, to rich, age-worthy riservas that undergo extended maturation in wood. Finally, yes, there are those that only a generous person would categorize as, er, rustic. But, for the most part, Chiantis are still affordable enough that when you hit a bad one, you just open another bottle.
*Most etymologists believe that the English meaning of fiasco, ‘a complete failure’, is related to the Italian word for flask or bottle, but not because of bad Chianti. The origins of the English usage are unclear but apparently rooted in late 19th century Italian slang. Two good discussions of the subject are this entry on World Wide Words and Still in the Bottleneck, or, Chasing for the First Fiasco on the Oxford University Press blog.
Theories abound on the origin of the name Sangiovese. One of the most common (and most likely incorrect) is that it comes from the Latin sangius Jovis, “the blood of Jove.” Others say it comes from the phrase “the blood of the ridges” (sangue dai gioghetti), which would seem to tie to the name Sangiogheto used in what is believed to be the first written reference to the grape. Another interesting theory is that it comes from the term sangiovannese, a word that refers to an inhabitant of San Giovanni Valdarno, a town in eastern Tuscany.
No matter what the origin of the name, no grape captures the essence of Italian wine better than Sangiovese. This is not because it is the most widely grown grape in Italy, present in more than 250 DOCs across the country, nor because somewhere around 90% of the Sangiovese grown worldwide is grown in Italy. All those things are true, but the key fact is that the wines made from Sangiovese demonstrate both the abysmal lows and the stellar heights that Italian winemaking can reach.
There are some good reasons for this. Sangiovese has been described as being as sensitive to location and climate as Pinot Noir. It buds early and ripens late, so it likes a long growing season with plenty of warmth. If not fully ripe when picked, the resulting wine can have a distinct barnyard quality, but too much warmth can dilute the grape’s flavors and rob the wine of complexity.
Left to its own devices, Sangiovese will produce copious amounts of fruit, leading to wines that are thin and acidic. The fruit grows in very tight clusters that ripen unevenly. It is a relatively thin-skinned variety which, along with the tight clusters, makes it prone to rot when rains occur near harvest, a fact that can put pressure on growers to pick the grapes before they are fully ripe.
In the mid-twentieth century, the focus for many Italian winemakers was to create low-cost easy-drinking beverages meant to be consumed in their youth. In such an environment, greater quantity meant greater profits, making Sangiovese a popular grape. It was not uncommon for growers to rip out lower yielding varieties and replant with Sangiovese (or if looking for white grapes, Trebbiano, another variety known for abundance). Emphasizing quantity almost guaranteed bringing out the worst in Sangiovese, so blending in other grapes to shore up the weaknesses was the norm.
It didn’t always work.
However, there always was a segment of industry focused on quality vinification using Sangiovese. Out of this group have risen some of the greatest Italian wines of all time: Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti Classico, Morellino di Scansano, Sangiovese di Romagna, and, more recently, Sangiovese-based Super Tuscans. (Ironically, “Super Tuscan” is a term now coming to encompass the worst in Italian winemaking as well. See Snake Oil From Tuscany.)
While each expression of Sangiovese has its own identity, and blending partners can change the overall taste of the wine, there are commonalities. Flavors of cherries, tobacco, and leather generally come from Sangiovese. Some people get strawberry notes in young wines and prune and chestnut flavors in older ones. Regardless of style, these wines are exceptionally food-friendly, matching with everything from red sauces and pizza for young Chiantis to deep rich stews for Brunellos.
And that truly is the soul of Vino Italiano– food and wine together.
There have been several stories recently about counterfeit wine. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that the wines chosen for schemes like this are higher pricedwines. An example in Italy is Brunello di Montalcino, which often starts in the $60-$70 per bottle range. Now one industry organization is fighting back.
The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino has created a system to verify the origin of wines of Montalcino. Go to their website, select the type of wine, the size, and enter the number from the DOC or DOCG label, and you will immediately have the truth about whether the bottle in front of you is authentic or not. They say the current system works for Brunello di Montalcino vintage 1999 or later, and Rosso di Montalcino vintage 2005 or later.
It is hardly news that the term Super Tuscan has steadily been losing its luster. Created in the 1970s to put a name to some exceptional wines that didn’t fit into the structure of Italy’s DOC laws, it has been widely co-opted by lesser products seeking to bask in the sunshine of the original success. Just how devalued the name has become was demonstrated to me at a recent wine tasting.
Invited by the seller to try a “Super Tuscan”, I was immediately wary when I noticed that the wine in my glass had a definite brown color at the edges. True Super Tuscans are big wines with tons of aging potential and this one was only 5 years old (vintage 2010, which happened to be a pretty good year in Tuscany). The aroma wasn’t conclusive, but my first thought upon tasting was, “This seems a bit tired.” In fact, what it really reminded me of was a Chianti past its prime.
A glance at the spec sheet confirmed my instinct. The wine was 85% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot, and 5% Syrah (meeting the rules for Chianti), and made just outside of Montalcino, well within the borders of the Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG. So why would a wine made in the style of a top level appellation settle for carrying a Toscana IGT name? There are several possible reasons, but I think the clues we have, coupled with a quick look at Italian wine law yields the most likely answer.
The Toscana IGT rules allow winemakers to do pretty much anything they want as long as the grapes are grown in Tuscany and the yields are 16 tonnes per hectare or less (for red wine grapes). The Chianti rules are stricter, requiring the wine to be 75% Sangiovese and limiting yields to 11.5 tonnes per hectare in Colli Sensei. Sangiovese is a grape variety that will produce bountifully if you let it. By selecting the IGT appellation, the winery can legally harvest nearly 50% more grapes from the same land.
The trade-off in doing this is that the resulting wine tends to be thin and acidic without much aging potential. Merlot and Syrah are exactly the right grapes to balance out a thin and acidic wine in its youth, and that completes the picture of what’s going on here. The winemaker was creating an inexpensive quaff meant to be enjoyed while young. Nothing wrong in that… until the sales channel starts trying to pass it off as something more.
The definition of “snake oil” is a product with questionable or unverifiable quality. The problem with unofficial names like “Super Tuscan” for wines is that there are no rules, which means there is no framework for evaluating the quality. Even legally defined terms can be of little value when they are too broad or too vague, as demonstrated in the discussion above. Some of the original Super Tuscans now have their own DOC designations, a step that provides a much more reliable guide to their composition and quality. Everything else being marketed under the Super Tuscan name is best covered by an ancient Roman law: caveat emptor.
The recent rise in popularity of dry rosé wines (at least in the U.S.) might lead you to think they are something new. You’d be wrong. For much of history, dry rosé was the preferred expression of red wine grapes.
It is only in the last couple hundred years that winemakers have had all the technological pieces in place to reliably make the mature red wines we enjoy today. For example, without the ability to to control temperatures, wines undergoing maceration can get hot enough to kill the yeast (called “stuck fermentation”). The was particularly a problem in warmer climates, such as southern Italy. Winemakers learned that by pressing the wines early and separating the juice from the skins, they would be able to complete the fermentation. The trade off was that they would end up with a lighter color wine, or rosato, the Italian word for rosé.
An example of this is Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. Brief maceration (8 to 12 hours) and light pressing on the dark, flavorful, thick-skinned Montepulciano grape yields a delightful medium bodied wine. The word Cerasuolo means “cherry red”, and the resulting wine is a vibrant color that could make other rosés (if you’ll excuse the term) blush.
The color isn’t the only vibrant thing about Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. These are some of the heartiest pink wines available, likely to have cherry and strawberry flavors supported by elegant spicy notes that might include orange peel and cinnamon. Richly flavored without being heavy or tannic, these wines are capable of pairing with an amazingly wide variety of foods.
Richer seafood dishes, pork, and roast game are all easy choices, but the bright fruit and exotic notes of a Cerasuolo can stand up to spicy food as well– after all, pepperoncini comes from Abruzzo. These wines go great with grilled Italian sausages (sweet or spicy) and BBQ.
Wanna take a walk on the wild side? Try Cerasuolo with curry. Then you will know for sure that there is Power in Pink.
One of the things that sets wine grapes apart from table grapes is their sweetness. Good grapes for making wine have lots of sugar for the yeast to convert to alcohol.
While all are sweet, one Italian variety is so sweet that it used to be called vitis apiana which means “vine that the bees like”, and was use to make a wine called Apianum. That grape is believed to be what we call Fiano today.
Fiano is a grape that was nearing extinction in the 1960s. It is a low yielding variety with small thick-skinned berries that produce little juice. This is great for winemaking but not so good for grape growers interested in getting paid by the ton. Because of this, many Fiano vineyards were ripped up and replanted with higher yielding varieties like Trebbiano and Sangiovese.
The game changed in 1963 when Italy introduced the DOC laws regulating wine quality. These laws, which include things like specifications for what grapes can be used in certain regions and limits on their production levels were intended to foster the development of higher quality wines. It worked. In 1978 Fiano di Avellino was named a DOC area, and in 2003, it was promoted to DOCG, the highest quality level under the Italian laws.
Fiano di Avellino wines, which can also be called Apianum under the law, are known for fruit and floral notes with hints of spice and hazelnuts, these last two characteristics typically becoming more pronounced as the wine ages. Most Fianos can be cellared for up to 5 years though higher quality ones may continue to develop for as long as 7 to 10 years.
I recently had the pleasure of introducing the 2014 Fiano di Avellino from Cantine Catena (a wine I represent) during a Feast of the Seven Fishes event at a nearby restaurant. This wine presents aromas of flowers, citrus, and herbs and flavors of dried fruits with a little spice and a touch of mineral. It was paired with Zuppa di Pasta e fagioli con cozze (Pasta soup with cannellini beans and mussels) and Spaghettini alle vongole Bianco (Angel hair pasta with little neck clams in white sauce), near perfect matches for this Campania wine.