The Italian definition of terroir

Prior to this year’s WSET Diploma Course BeNeLux graduation in Rotterdam restaurant Fitzgerald, WineWise invited Jancis Robinson’s Walter Speller to lecture on Italy: the Italian definition of terroir. Three hours of theory and tasting with one of the most renowned Italian wine experts.

Italy is such an intriguing country when it comes to wine (ok, obviously not only in wine). Each of the twenty winemaking regions are different in soil, climate and therefore in style. Diversity is key and the numerous indigenous grapes certainly contribute to a widespread palette of wines of which we were about to sample a few.

Speller kicked off with saluting Mario Soldati, writer of the book Vino al vino (Wine to Wine), in which he describes his quest at the end of the 1960s through Italy for authentic, local wines as opposed to the vast majority of mass produced wines with little character.

The tasting started with two sparkling wines from the North. The first was a 2015 Prosecco from bio-dynamic winery Ca’del Zago. An unusual prosecco, made from 80-100 year old Glera vines, some still ungrafted. Comparable to methode ancestrale, the must ferments in cement and the wine stays on the indigenous lees, called Col Fondo in Italian, before it further ferments in the bottle. Part of the grapes are used to make passito, which in turn is used as liqueur de tirage. Interestingly, the bottle is sold with crown cap.

The second sparkler came from Franciacorta, a 2012 Dosaggio Zero from organic winery Arcari + Danesi. Alas, Franciacorta is often compared to Champagne and according to Speller, many wine growers even try to imitate the French by picking their grapes early to keep the alcohol level under 12.5%. Speller noted that it was time Franciacorta developed its own style and due to warmer climate and riper grapes, the Dosaggio Zero style should become leading.

Ever heard of Nascetta? This is a forgotten grape from Piemonte, especially around the area of Novello, and currently only three growers make wine out of it. We tasted the 2015 Anas-Cëtta from Elvio Cogno, the estate run by Nascetta pioneer Valter Fissore. Some refer to it as the white Barolo due to its aging potential, which makes it even more interesting as not that many whites in Italy can last in the cellar.

Moving further south, we continued with a 2013 Grechetto & Trebbiano Procanico blend from Orvieto’s Barberani winery. Oak cask fermented, partly sur lie, with approx. 5% botrytised grapes added that were vinified separately. This wine screamed for air, as it became better over time in the glass.

On to the West coast, where we stepped back in time with Astroni’s Strione 2011 made from Falanghina Flegrea grapes. This is a different Falanghina clone than the one near Benevento. Almost half of the grapes were macerated on the skins for 20 days in oak casks, a style frequently used in the old days.

The last white wine was a 2014 Zibibbo from Sicily, aka Muscat d’Alexandria. Sounded like nothing special, but the surprise came while sipping it: it was a completely dry wine. Coste Ghirlanda is run by a very wealthy family that seems to care less about consumer demand, explaining the unusual wine style for which the market niche will probably be difficult to find.

From Sicily back to the North, the first red wine was the 2015 Gschleier from Alto-Adige. Schiava, also known as Vernatsch from Girlan, made from 100 year old vines. A wine that can age for 20-30 years, according to Speller. Younger producers like Abraham are forced to market their Schiava’s as IGT, because their wines are too tannic due to longer skin maceration and therefore not typical under DOC rules.

Amarone is Recioto gone crazy

“Amarone is Recioto gone crazy”. Also sprach Speller, while introducing a Valpolicella Classico from Fralibri. Although a Cru system is in the make for Amarones, Speller was not convinced of this wine style. He did like grapes like Corvina, Corvinone and Oseleta as basis for Valpolicella. This organic one from 2015 from the small estate Fralibri was a classic example of how this wine should be made and taste according to Speller, instead of the bulk amount of cheap Valpollicella’s out there.

Even though worldwide known, it is still difficult to sell Chianti. Tuscany has always been an investment region, lacking a sustainable build-up of estates. Allowing large areas to produce it, without a proper classification system in place, doesn’t help Chianti’s reputation. Speller argues that the latest classification Gran Selezione is like the Supertuscans under the Chianti Classico denominiation and nothing more than a means to market more expensive Chianti.

Speller argued for a village classification system, comparable to Cotes-du-Rhone Village, with single vineyard cru’s as top level. Like the 2013 Riserva we tasted from Monte Bernardi from the village Panzone, arguably the best part of Chianti.

One of the tasting highlights for me was a red wine from Sicily’s Faro DOC. A 2010 blend from Nerello Capuccio, Nerello Mascalese, Nocera, Acitana and Giacchè, made by Palari near Messina. This wine couldn’t be further away from the happy (and jammy) Sicilean wines, cleverly marketed as sun in a bottle. This was serious stuff with loads of aging potential.

Finally, a Nebbiolo line-up, one from traditional Barolo country and one from Alto Piemonte. The latter was from Lessona and made by Colombera & Garella. Cristiano Garella is rapidly becoming one of Italy’s star wine consultants.
This 2012 blend from Nebbiolo and some Vespolina is a completely different style than Barolo. From rare yellow sand soil, fermented in cement. Apparently very hip among sommeliers in New York. Lovely glass.

The wine contrasted a lot with the 2011 Barolo Castellero from Giacomo Fenocchio. Old school Barolo had often unripe tannins, requiring extensive aging. Nowadays, producers use longer maceration times, but the grapes are much riper. Fenocchio had also done experiments with different maceration times, claiming around 40 days was ideal for Nebbiolo.

A lot of food for thought, although it still wasn’t clear to me what exactly was the Italian definition of terroir. But, Walter Speller showed some interesting wines and styles and certainly lived up to his ‘guru’ reputation.

While the Faro and Lessona were still battling it out in my mouth for the longest finish, a lovely glass of Pierre Paillard´s Grand Cru Champagne cleansed my palate as cue for the start of the official diploma graduation.

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