ITALIAN FESTIVAL AT IDIOM
Sunday 3 March 2019
I always look forwards to the annual Idiom Italian Festival, held at the estate that is North of Sir Lowry’s Pass village. The approach and the setting are magnificent except perhaps for the Stop/Go that, one year on, is still in place before the village.
The approach road after the village winds its way between green pastures and tall trees, around tight bends that would not look out of place in the Italian Alps, and through vines to the Tasting Room and Restaurant. Every turn offers a different view of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains that rise above on several sides. For now, at least, the large stone-faced cellar building, with its Classic Roman arches, was hidden by the marquée village that was home to the Festival.
Last year, I went on the 2nd day of the 2nd Festival. Today it was the 3rd day of the 3rd month and the 3rd Festival. Tickets for the 2-day event cost R200 (R80 for children), an increase from R150 last year, for a fun-packed day out from opening at 10am to closing at 5pm. There are master classes too which cost R200, the same as last year. Entry includes a Festival embossed tasting glass, an incredible wide range of wines to taste, a food market, craft and other stalls, displays of Italian cars and motorbikes, cooking shows, live music, a raffle, and an hourly programme of children’s activities. There really is something for everyone at the Festival, evidenced by the wide range of ages attending.
I went with primarily to taste the wines. I have always adored Italy and its food and wines, enjoying 10 holidays in 10 years when I lived in England and having visited since. To call Italy one country is akin to describing the British Army as a single entity. Both are made up of many moving parts, each with their own precious and proud identity, customs, habits and differences.
I am a Diploma student with the Cape Wine Academy and so the opportunity to taste some 200 wines is rare indeed. Since the last Festival, my study of the wines of the world, took me to Italy in September and October. This made today’s experience even better as I had some understanding and knowledge of the wine regions, their wines and styles.
I tasted too many wines individually to mention here. They are listed at the end of this review. The area beneath the first floor Restaurant and modern Tasting Room, beside the large well-lit shop where the master classes were held, make for a central and convenient setting. The space is well laid out with a separate station for each major wine region – Sicily and Sardinia, Southern Italy, Central Eastern Italy, Central and Western Italy, North West and North East Italy – with white and red wines grouped together by sub-region.
The accompanying wine list is a treat for any wine student or enthusiast. The sub-regions are mouth-watering: the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia; Lombardia and Piemonte; Toscana and Umbria; and Sicilia. There were wines too from the lesser known regions of Abruzzo, Marche and Emilia Romagna, Campania and Puglia, and Sardegna. The big names of Prosecco (Glera), of Valpolicella and Amarone (Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara), of Barolo and Barbaresco (Nebbiolo) and Barbera, of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese) and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo sat alongside wines made from the lesser known indigenous, regional cultivars. These had evocative names like Friulano, Cortese, Vermentino, Trebbiano, Falanghina, Grillo and Nero d’Avola. There were more besides and also the amazing opportunity – for someone who blind tastes weekly South African white and red wines from around the world as part of my studies – to sample Italian Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
For this reason, I always like to pace my tasting by dipping in and out of the Tasting Room to enjoy the other Festival activities and food. I began with the white wines from the North-East as I took my Italian journey at the Festival. Their freshness, elegance and balance always appeal to me. I struggled, as always, to describe their floral or fruit aromas and flavours. Somehow, my vocabulary of South African tasting descriptors does not seem to fit anymore. I need think of minerality and salinity and more besides.
The main marquée on the grassed lawn below the cellar building was bigger than ever, even if there seemed to be less food and drink stalls than last year. There were wines from Morgenster, Prosecco from Bottega, Italian sausages and polenta to tempt, coffee and ice cream, pizzas and pastries, olives, salamis and Italian produce, together with a stage for live music. The available, shaded seating is vast. The ample seating for all – there’s more too in another large marquee besides the main building as well as inside it – which is a real plus for the Italian Festival. Sufficient seating makes obvious sense but is not always provided. It means too that the event can go ahead unhindered in the event of inclement weather.
Idiom sells Festival snacks from the Restaurant – pappardelle, bruschetta, arancini, pizza, tagliatelle, carpaccio and mortadella balls. I bought 6 mushroom and sage arancini which came with truffle aioli mayonnaise and cost R50. The little, stuffed rice balls coated with breadcrumbs and then deep fried (arancini is a diminutive of arancio meaning ‘orange’) were warm and tasty and just what was needed to line my stomach for my next tasting session. Irritatingly, there is little signal on site for payment by card and so I had to wait 5 minutes while the staff member walked around the Festival to find sufficient signal for it to work. A welcome change from last year was a mobile ATM for those who needed more cash. Perhaps, in future years, food payment could be cash only to avoid delay.
I returned to the Tasting Hall to sample more white wines from North-East Italy, including the magnificent wines from Livio Felluga, one of Italy’s best producers of Sauvignon Blanc. I was struck how natural the wines were, with a relaxed balance and without the rather forced wine-making and over-worked acidity that is so common in South African white wines. It was a privilege to taste the Terre Alte blend, first created in 1981, that is considered one of Italy’s best white wines and, indeed, in the world. There was a lightly frizzante Verdicchio in corked bottle together with wines made using the unfamiliar varieties of Pecorino, Gavi and Trebbiano. I was struck how knowledgeable many of the serving staff were and how polite too.
It was soon time for food again and so I explored the upper marquée with its mix of stalls that were selling crafts and clothes (I bought a book on Italian cooking by Gino d’Acampo, one of my favourite TV chefs), pastries, cheeses and ice cream, prosecco, Aperol and beer. I enjoyed the sit down and ate a tasty ciabatta roll (R45) with mozzarella, salami, tomatoes and basil. After, I ogled the Ducati superbikes and the Alfa Romeo owner’s club cars that were of as many vintages as the wines.
I returned for more tasting past the upstairs Tasting Room, Restaurant and Deli, where children having obvious fun making their own excellent pizzas under the close instruction and supervision by one of the restaurant’s chefs. Another activity for the children was grape-stomping. I picked out a few last white wines, from Southern Italy and Sicily, before retracing my steps around the room to the North-East. It was good to sample wines that I had studied and written assignments about. I tasted Valpolicella and Ripasso (literally meaning ‘re-passed’ as extra flavour and alcohol is added by re-fermenting young wine on unpressed grape skins) and Amarone (‘amaro’ means bitter for this kind of ‘straw wine’ made from grapes that are dried on mats over the winter to concentrate their juices) made from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara.
A welcome stracciatella ice cream (R30) gave the chance for another break. Unsurprisingly, the Piemonte station was the busiest, with this North-West region being home to Barbera and the Nebbiolo of Barolo and Barbaresco. The Barbera surprised, not by its high tannin and low acidity, but by the pale garnet colour of some of the wines, akin to the Nebbiolo. There is nothing lightweight about these wines though, as they are full of power and weight and dark fruits. These wines are made to last for years, even decades.
I passed many of the wines of Tuscany as I had booked the Chianti Classico master class which started at 2pm. I did pick out a Brunello (also Sangiovese) and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Tuscany, as well as the only Merlot for tasting (from Lazio). The 2 latter wines were good to sample so as to compare with the South African wines made from the same cultivars. It was a treat too to taste a Vin Santo (literally meaning ‘holy wine’), a Tuscan dessert straw wine made with white grapes that was similar to a sherry in character but with dried fruit rather than nutty flavours. It was almost time for the Master Class so I ended with an Aglianico from lesser-known Campania and a Nero d’Avola from Sicily. It was interesting to reflect on how both white and red wines become fruitier and weightier as one heads south from the Veneto and Lombardy to Puglia, Calabria and Sicily.
I attended two 45-minute master classes last year, one focused on the Barbera wines from the d’Asti and d’Alba regions in Piedmont and the other covered the Nebbiolo of Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo. Both were excellent even if too detailed and technical for my learning at the time. I was nonetheless looking forward to the one class I had booked which was about Chianti Classico. It started on time in the well-lit shop-come-class room that was packed with enthusiasts and eager learners. Idiom owner Roberto well put the wines of Italy and South Africa in perspective to set the scene. Italy is the world’s largest wine producer (there is an annual tussle with France for that honour), with South Africa being the 8th largest in the world, and 6 times as large as South Africa. Italy has some 365 common grape varieties (over 1,000 if obscure varieties are counted in) – woe betide the wine student! – whereas 95% of South African wine is made from just 15 cultivars. Interestingly, Sicily is 34°N and South Africa 34°S. All of South Africa’s wine production would fit into Sicily.
Roberto then introduced Federico, the owner of Castelli di Volpaia that is one of the most famous Chianti Classico producers. I was soon struck that I was in the presence of Italian wine royalty. The Chianti authorities, she told us, passed in 1716 the first ‘appellation’ laws in the world to regulate the quality of the wines. Federico told of her family history and of the Volpaia estate that is located between Sienna and Florence in the heart of Chianti. Her grandfather built up the business having on one day announced to the family that he had ‘bought the village’ of Volpaia. Roberto interjected to explain that ‘paia’ means place and so Volpaia means the ‘place of the fox’. Federico’s mother continued a business that has since expanded to the coastal estate of Prelius in the Maremma sub-region in Southern Tuscany, which is just 2 kilometres from the coast.
Volpaia is a UNESCO World heritage site which means that none of the historic buildings can be altered and so, when the cellar was modified in 1966, the new equipment had to be installed via the building roofs. The village at the top of the hill lies at 600 metres above sea level with vineyards stretching below to 450 metres. This provides for the hot summers with their cold nights that bring acidity and elegance to the Sangiovese. The stricter Chianti Classico classification rules mean that the DOCG wines are 25% more expensive than those for regular Chianti. The altitude means makes for harder work in the vineyard, lower yields but grapes of higher quality. Roberto showed us the black rooster symbol used to denote a Chianti Classico because, as Federico explained ‘we fight each other’.
We tasted the wines in 2 flights. The first compared 3 Volpaia Chianti Classico that used different amounts of Sangiovese (blended with Merlot or Mammolo, or nothing at all) that were of increasing quality, ending with the single vineyard Coltassala. The second flight included wines from the Prelius estate, beginning with a mineral and salinic Vermentino. Next was a potent, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon that, with Volpaia Sangiovese, was blended equally to form a ‘Super Tuscan’ called Indue. This was by common agreement the best wine of the master class.
As I was leaving to go sample some last regional wines, Roberto kindly invited me to join for the final master class that was about the wines of Umbria. It is a region I have not visited and whose wines I know little of so I was pleased to join. There were fewer attending, most likely for these reasons, as Roberto introduced Mario who is the Business Manager for Lungarotti. Umbria is the ‘green heart of Italy’ and lies very much in Tuscany’s shadow. It is a struggle, Mario passionately explained, and one of his key roles was to bring the attention of the world to this lesser known wine region. Lungarotti is the region’s largest producer and exporter and very much synonymous with Umbria when it comes to wine.
Grechetto is the main grape of the region. The nutty, white wine adds structure and richness to many blends and was a key component of all 3 wines of the first tasting flight. Each wine was very different: the first an entry single variety wine; the second, an unwooded blend with Vermentino and Trebbiano; and, last, a Burgundy-style barrel-fermented and barrique-aged blend.
Mario was in full flow as we tasted the second flight of Lungarotti Sangiovese, likewise in increasing order of quality and price. The terroir of the region as well as the Sangiovese clones, differ to those of Tuscany to give earthier wines with a fresh acidity. By now, the master class session was far over-running and Mario showed no sign of stopping. It was well after the Festival end time of 5pm. The final 2 wines were Sagrantino from 2008 and 2009. I did not like the wines at all. They were classic Italian cherry fruity but austere, intense and very tannic. These were certainly food wines, as many Italian wines are. Worryingly perhaps, Mario said that further keeping would likely increase the tannic structure rather than soften it as the smoky, fruit flavours would fall away with further ageing.
It was almost 6pm when the master class ended. By now, almost all the Festival guests had left and the stall holders and estate staff were packing up with a beady eye on what was left of their busy weekend. The over-run was unfortunate, though the master class nonetheless interesting, as I wanted to buy some wines before leaving. It left a taste almost as bitter as the Sagrantino at the Festival end.
However, this small mishap takes little away from what was a hugely enjoyable day out and the chance to taste a most impressive range of wines. Most of the 200 wines on offer, and the Festival ticket, have increased substantially in price since last year (by up to 25%) albeit the Master Class cost has remained unchanged. The electronic payment system did not work. It did not work well last year either. I recommend either an all cash or a cashless system such as Howler in future (subject to any connectivity issues). I have recently used Howler at Newlands Cricket Ground and at the Up The Creek music festival (also with limited mobile signal) with ease.
In conclusion, the Italian Wine Festival was bigger and better than ever before. The annual event seems able to grow organically without losing either its intimacy or character. All guests are well provided for and the choice of snacks and food is excellent. I could easily have gone for both days as some of my friends did. The Idiom and other staff are to be congratulated for the excellent hard work and their cheery smiles. I salute the enthusiasm of Roberto and his family. I shall be going again in 2020. I am sure that many of the Italians who went today will also. You cannot say better than that.
Ciao for now!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2014 Fazi Battaglia Castelli di Jesi Titulus Classico (Verdicchio) – R170
2017 Livio Felluga Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc) – R350
2017 Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio (Pinot Grigio) – R335
2015 La Tunella Friulano (Friulano) – R235
2016 Bidoli Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc) – R190
2015 Colutta Sauvignon Collo Orientale (Sauvignon Blanc) – R240
2016 Enrico Serafino Gavi de Gavi (Cortese) – R255
2015 Velenosi Villa Angelo Pecorino (Pecorino) – R205
2014 Fazi Battaglia Castelli di Jesi Titulus (Verdicchio) – R170
2016 Masciarelli Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (Trebbiano) – R150
2016 Feudo di St Croce Alèa Malvasia (Malvasia) – R150
2014 Donnachiara Beneventano Falanghino (Falanghino) – R200
2017 Tasca d’Almerita Grillo Sallier de la Tour (Grillo) – R190
2016 Livio Felluga Terre Alte (Friulano, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gallia) – R845
2015 Livio Felluga Abbazia di Rosazzo (Friulano, Pinot Blanc, Malvasia, Ribolla Gallia) – R845
2016 Sella & Mosca Vermentino di Sardegna (Vermentino) – R165
2015 Volpaia Prelius Vermentino (Vermentino) – R200
2016 Lungarotti Grechetto (Grechetto) – R170
2016 Lungarotti Torre di Giano Bianco (Vermentino, Grechetto, Trebbiano) – R190
2012 Lungarotti Vigna il Pino (Trebbiano, Vermentino, Grechetto) – R380
2016 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore (Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara) – R230
2014 Pasqua Valpolicella Ripasso (Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara) – R290
2014 Pasqua Amarone Valpolicella (Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara) – R650
2015 Vietti Barbera d’Alba Tre Vigne (Barbera) – R370
2015 Vietti Scarrone Barbera d’Alba (Barbera) – R745
2015 Ca ‘Viola Barbera d’Alba Brichet (Barbera) – R355
2010 Enrico Serafino Barbaresco (Nebbiolo) – R430
2013 Enrico Serafino Barolo (Nebbiolo) – R765
2012 Feuda di S. Gregorio Taurasi (Aglianico) – R485
2014 Braida Bricco dell’Uccellone Barbera d’Asti (Barbera) – R1025
2013 Falesco Montiano (Merlot) – R545
2010 Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese) – R635
2014 Tasca d’Almerita Lamuri (Nero d’Avola) – R270
2014 Castello di Volpaia Prelius Cabernet Maremma Toscana (Cabernet Sauvignon) – R220
2012 Volpaia Indue (50% Sangiovese, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon) – R400
2015 Volpaia Chianti Classico (90% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot) – R300
2016 Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva (Sangiovese) – R450
2013 Volpaia Coltassala (Sangiovese, Mammolo) – R600
2015 Lungarotti Cadetto Rosso (Sangiovese) – R135
2013 Lungarotti Rubesco (Sangiovese, Colorino) – R220
2006 Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva Vigna Monticchio (Sangiovese) – R630
2009 Lungarotti Sagrantino di Montefalco (Sagrantino) – R450
2008 Falesco Sagrantino RC2 (Sagrantino) – R450
2009 Badia a Coltibuono Vin Santo (Trebbiano, Malvasia)(375ml) – R600