Tasting Italian Cultivars South African Style – No Need to Buy Italian Wines!
Thursday 24 August 2017
Italian wines were the theme for our 9th Society Meeting. I like to vary the monthly themes between regions and cultivars, other topics too, and so this made a perfect choice. I had been inspired to choose Italian wines after tasting wines at the Vineyard Hotel by Italian importer Nobile Collezione, based in Somerset West. However, I soon realised from tasting visits to Waverly Hills, Morgenster and Steenberg estates that there was no need to buy expensive Italian wines. Why not explore instead the Italian cultivars grown and made into wines from our very own vineyards in South Africa? And so, a seed was born.
Tonight was a relaxed evening too. Five wines were adequate for the tasting and so I did not prepare my usual comprehensive set of tasting and information notes. We began with a Pinot Grigio that made a delicious aperitif. I explained that Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same grape. Both are from the Pinot family that includes inter alia the Champagne/MCC grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (Pinot Blanc also). Pinot Gris is grown in France whereas Pinot Grigio is planted in North-East Italy, the USA and Germany too. It is grown in some 25 vineyards in South Africa and is growing in popularity. The wine comes in 3 basic styles: minerally and dry; fruity and dry; and fruity and sweet. It is characterised by low to medium body and fruit, is dry, and has medium acidity and alcohol content. The Idiom bottle we tasted was typical of a cooler climate wine, with flavours of citrus lemon, lime and apple rather than warmer climate melon and stone fruit. Pinot Grigio made a perfect start for the tasting and was much enjoyed. It makes a refreshing change to Sauvignon Blanc – with less acidity and without the herbaceous and grassy flavours that characterise many wines of the variety.
We were spoiled by a great range of red wines, sampled as a single flight, with the evocative names of Sangiovese, Barbera, Zinfandel (Primitivo) and Nebbiolo. It is of course easier to pick out these cultivars in South Africa as, unlike wines in the Old World, our wines are named by cultivar rather than geographic district or region. I had prepared home-made pizza for my guests that made a perfect backdrop against which to enjoy the wines. Sangiovese, the first wine, is grown almost exclusively in Italy. Taste Chianti or Montepulciano from Tuscany or Montefalco Rosso from Umbria and you will taste Sangiovese. Barely 15 vineyards grow the cultivar in South Africa and it proved to be one of the favourite wines of the evening. It has high tannin and medium acidity, and average alcohol content. Redcurrant, leather and roasted tomato flavours give low to medium fruitiness to this medium-bodied wine. It makes for easy drinking and no wonder it is so popular with the Italians.
Few, if any, had heard of Barbera before and let alone tasted it. Yet it was universally the favourite wine of all. Like Sangiovese, it is mostly grown in Italy with some grown in the USA. Merwida, an estate that boasts 7 generations of winemakers and which is located in the Rawsonville Valley, is one of fewer than 10 farms to grow the cultivar in South Africa. Their Barbera is moderately oaked for 12 months (1/3 in new French oak and 2/3 in 2nd/3rd fill oak) to give a rich wine high in acidity but with lower levels of alcohol, fruit and body. Blackberry flavours dominated with added notes of sour cherry, liquorice, coffee and truffles, complete with rounded tannins, to make an interesting and tasty wine.
It came as a surprise to me to learn that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same grape. It originated in Croatia (known as Tribidrag). The wine was traded in Venice in the early 1400s. American Zinfandel is made in a style with jammy and smoked caramel characteristics and with higher alcohol levels than Italian Primitivo. The Idiom Collection wine, in elegant, tall, slim bottle showed typical spicy, red to dark berry flavours. We liked the low to medium acidity (less than in most red wines), moderate tannin levels and high body and fruitiness.
Nebbiolo, the final red wine of the tasting, came from Steenberg, one of 8-10 vineyards that grow the cultivar in South Africa. Known as Barolo as well as Nebbiolo in Italy, it is grown in Piedmont in the North-West of the country. It compared well with the other wines and is always, I consider, something of a mix. Pale and aromatic in style and with high tannin and acidity, it has some cherry, cranberry and spicy anise flavours that could lead it to be mistaken for a beefed up Pinot Noir. However, fruit and body are higher and the wine has distinct rose, leather and clay flavours to give good complexity. High tannins levels make it a wine for ageing too. The unusual character made in less preferred than the other red wines.
We all eat Italian foods. Think pizza and pasta to start with. So, why not drink Italian wines (or those made from Italian cultivars) with them? This is a tasting I shall do again and especially since Italian cultivars are being grown in more and more South African vineyards. Idiom and Morgenster with their Italian owners are at the forefront of making good wines, mostly in single variety wines. La Vierge, in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, makes the divine Satyricon, a Sangiovese-led blend with Barbera. My greatest enjoyment from the evening, as so often with the Society tastings, is to introduce (and educate) my guests to wines that they would rarely choose if alone. I know that many of us shall be looking to buy Barbera to drink in future!
2016 Idiom Heritage Bianco di Stellenbosch Pinot Grigio – R85
2014 Anthonij Rupert Terra del Campo Sangiovese – R100
2015 Merwida Barbera – R145
2012 Idiom Collection Zinfandel (Primitivo) – R250
2014 Steenberg Nebbiolo – R185