ITALIAN FESTIVAL AT IDIOM
Sunday 4 March 2018
As I write, I am trying to think of all those Italian stereotypes, politically incorrect as they are but always with a risotto grain of truth. Spaghetti, mafia, pasta, music, flamboyant hand gestures, romantic, pizza, fashionable, coffee, loud, chaos, gelato and – of course – wine! Many don’t know that Italy is the largest wine producer in the world. Yes, you’d be forgiven for thinking France was, or perhaps even Spain.
Wine festivals are always fun and the Idiom Italian Festival was my second in just a week having been to the Stellenbosch Wine Festival a week previously. The Festival was my second visit to Idiom. I was excited to attend, not only because I adore Italian wines but because Idiom is an estate high on my list of those to return to. Coincidentally, it was the 2nd day of the 2nd Idiom Festival as it was held over the weekend of 3/4 March.
The event was very well publicised on FaceBook and social media. ‘Experience a Taste of Italy at Idiom’ the publicity said, and at just R150 per ticket (10.00am to 6.00pm). The price included a programme, tasting glass and bottle of either still or sparkling water. Italian wine workshops and master classes were an additional R200 per session and arranged throughout the weekend. These focused on either an Italian wine region or cultivar. I chose two: ‘Barbera: Asti, Alba and Beyond’ and ‘Nebbiolo, Barolo or Barbaresco?’ These were aimed at the connoisseur and serious wine student. I could easily have gone to all as they well tied in with my Cape Wine Academy Diploma studies.
There were other activities too that I didn’t participate in. Many were aimed at families and children, for example sand art and face painting, pizza making, colouring and mask decorating, and learning Italian.
I made sure I arrived early and to avoid any queues at the ‘Stop/Go’ on the approach to Sir Lowry’s Pass village at the base of Sir Lowry’s Pass, East of Somerset West. I remembered the road well. There’s something vaguely disturbing and very South African to drive through a dusty township, children playing and chickens wandering between the wriggly tin-roofed homes, en route to a contemporary wine estate.
Arriving early was good since there was a delay at the entrance while tickets were checked. The traffic was split into 2 lanes, one for those who had pre-booked tickets and one for sales on the day. I am sure those arriving later had an extended wait and this is something to be improved upon next year. I am told that around 1,000 people visited on the Sunday which was more than double the first event, such is the obvious popularity of Italian food and wine.
There was plenty of parking on the open field below the Italian-styled villa (Cellar beneath) that was obscured by large marquees. The sound of a band playing already added to the buzz even though the Festival was just starting. My partner and I took our bearings before deciding where to go and what to drink and taste.
The space was sensibly and well divided into different areas: upper marquee, with additional seating and Prosecco tasting, gin, Aperol wagon, cheeses, pastas and mostly seafood; food tent (cash) with gelato, coffee, pastries, beers, deli, pasta, panettone, pizza, olives (Morgenster), cool drinks (San Pellegrino), Bottega prosecco and Italian themed books from Exclusive Books; large seating marquee with a live band; Idiom food stalls (pre-paid voucher); upper restaurant; Cellar tasting of Italian wines; and the specialist workshop room in the Italian wine shop beside the Cellar. Outside and elsewhere were a mini children’s adventure playground and a display of classic and vintage Italian cars: Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia.
It wasn’t long before Idiom began to get busy as festival-goers arrived in number. All ages came and I sensed for many that the event was an occasion for the Italian expatriates and their friends to reunite for the day. I decided, as space was limited, to sample many of the imported Italian wines available for tasting. These were on display in the cool of the Cellar and sensibly grouped by style and wine area: white/red and North, Central and South regions. There were too many to give detailed tasting notes for each.
I began with the white wines. The range was as exciting as it was bewildering, and as intriguing as it was new to me. I tried to taste representative cultivars of the wines I did not know, which was virtually all! White wines from the Northern Region typically come from North-East Italy, from the Veneto and Fruili-Venezia-Guilia areas. I tasted Pinot Grigio (dry, crisp, light minerally and citrus – not unlike a Sauvignon Blanc less the high acidity and fruitiness), Friulano (dry, fresh, citrus fruity), Ribolla Gialla (dry, smooth and nutty – creamy like a Chardonnay and aromatic like a Viognier but without the floral flavours), and a Sauvignon Blanc. The latter fascinated and was one of my favourite wines. It was less acidic than a South African Sauvignon Blanc, with perfumed citrus notes of lavender and lemon, which became fruitier on the palate with flavours of white peach and green fig. Wow!
White wine cultivars that I tasted from the Central Region, best known for its red wines, included Verdicchio (with ‘hints of green’) from Marche on the Adriatic Sea (delicate, subtle, nutty, citrus and with weight), together with a wooded and an unwooded Pecorino from Abruzzo to the South (dry, minerally, rich, aromatic).
Campania to the South, surrounding Naples, gave my first tasting of a Fiano (fruity, aromatic, heavier and honeyed, with moderate acidity). I had never tasted wines from the Italian islands before either. I sampled Vermentino from Sardinia (aromatic with Viognier-esque floral, fruity and citrus flavours, acidic and with robust structure) and Grillo from Sicily (more usually used to make Marsala, Sicily’s fortified wine, fresh, floral, fruity and clean).
I detected a trend to the white wines in moving from North to South. Northern whites were lighter and more Sauvignon Blanc in style and weight, less intense and more minerally. The white wines of the warmer South were more intense, aromatic and heavier, not unlike Viognier in character.
Surprisingly, given the popularity in South Africa, I tasted only one Rosé. It was a ‘Rosa’ made from Sangiovese, onion skin in colour and typically fresh, fruity and with flavours of strawberry and raspberry.
Tempo di Magiare
Hunger was getting the better of me and I needed to give my palate a break too. My partner and I checked out all the food stalls before settling on those closest to the Cellar. We queued for prepaid food vouchers – in R50 amounts, the same as each dish was priced – before finding afterwards that most of the food vendors took cash or card. We chose some tasty arancini – deep-fried rice balls stuffed with either porcini mushrooms, sage or saffron and coated in bread crumbs. Later, I chose a vegetable filled mozzarella roll which was fresh and light. There was a rich tiramisu that was creamy and filling. By mid-afternoon we were feeling hungry again and still had vouchers remaining. The food was by then all sold. We had a struggle to get our cash back for the unused vouchers.
Meanwhile, I spent some time in the main food tent. I did not expect the range and number of Italian-themed food stalls. There were more than I could enjoy but I did manage a refreshing mint and chocolate chip gelato. I always thought gelato was Italian for ice cream but discovered that the 2 are different. Gelato generally contains less fat (5% to 7% rather than 10%) as it is made with a greater proportion of milk to cream. It is denser too as it is churned at lower speed and so has less added air. It is also served at a slightly warmer temperature so it is not completely frozen.
I tasted a range of the Bottega sparkling wines too. The Brut and Brut Rosé prosecco wines were fizzy and light, definitely for easy drinking. The Moscato (Italian for Muscat) was characteristically light (6.5% alcohol), frothy, grapey and sweet.
I returned to the Cellar to sample the red wines before the late afternoon master classes. This was another opportunity to taste many new cultivars. Italian wines, unlike South African wines and like those from most of the rest of the world, are known by their region rather than cultivar. Nonetheless, I was interested to learn about unfamiliar grape varieties. I followed the same tasting route as before, from North to South.
Red wines from the Northern Region mostly come from the North-West rather than the North-East (white wines) and from Piedmont and Lombardy. I tasted classic Barbera and Nebbiolo that were the topic of the 2 workshops I had booked to follow. I had sampled Barbera before from Idiom and also at Altydgedacht. The fruity full-bodied wine is known for its high acidity and low tannins. Nebbiolo has high acidity too but is high in tannin to give a grippy mouthfeel.
I hadn’t tasted Dolcetto before. The name literally means ‘little sweet one’ but the wine was anything like sweet. Dolcetto is Italy’s best answer to Beaujolais and a refreshing every day red. The wine was dry, pale to medium in body, slightly tannic and with flavours of cherries and bitter almonds.
I could not resist the Sangiovese from Tuscany in Central Italy. I tasted Chianti Classico and Brunello (the name for Sangiovese from Montalcino) which were light to medium-bodied, tomato and red fruited in aroma and flavour, acidic, dusty and moderately tannic.
I was intrigued by the Merlot from Lazio. It was unlike any other I had tasted. This was bold in body, ripe and fruity in flavour, woody in character and with atypically (for South Africa) acidic puckering tannins. I am unsure if I liked it.
I ventured south to Puglia to taste a Primitivo (more commonly known as Zinfandel in South Africa and the USA) that was big, bold and dark fruited, with high alcohol (14.5%) and low acidity. I hadn’t tasted Nero d’Avola or Nerello Mascalese from Sicily. Nero d’Avola is the most planted variety in Sicily. Deep in colour and rich in aroma and cherry/berry flavour, I liked the slightly sweet, floral scent and smoky finish.
The Nerello Mascalese was lighter in style, pale in colour, aromatic and elegant that reminded of a Pinot Noir. Last, there was Cannonau from Sardinia, otherwise known as Grenache in France and Garnacha in Spain. The dryish wine showed good aromas of cherry and redcurrants, with high acidity and a clean, grippy mouthfeel.
Meanwhile, my head was starting to spin with the number of new wines I tasted. The large band was in full swing and playing the old favourites – ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘I feel Good’ – and had many dancing in front. I ventured to the upper tent for some (relative) peace and ate a classic croissant filled with tomato, basil and mozzarella. Fortunately, the first workshop was slightly delayed as it gave me time to relax.
Maestros Roberto, Barry and Esme
The 45-minute Master Classes were held in the beautifully lit wine shop under the Restaurant. They were well attended and owner Roberto, aided by Master Sommeliers Barry and Esme, dazzled with their insight and knowledge. Two flights of 4 wines each, that included a South African wine for comparison, formed the basis of the specialist tasting.
Barbera vineyards occupy over half of those in Piedmont. The cultivar has long been the ‘second fiddle’ to Nebbiolo or, as Roberto told us, ‘what one drinks while waiting for Nebbiolo’. The Italian cultivar has had a chequered history – far more damaging than the adverse early British reviews of Pinotage – as it was caught up in a mid-1980s scandal. Methanol was added to the thin wines that were being overproduced, which killed 30 people and blinded many more. It took a concerted effort by the 6 leading family producers to clean up the scandal as the Government stepped in and ripped up the vines.
The tasting included wines from 3 of the 6 families and of different quality levels. We compared Barbera from the key d’Asti and d’Alba regions in Piedmont with those from out-of-area Oltrepo Pavese in Lombardy, together with one from Idiom. The d’Asti wines were characteristically cooler and brighter in colour, with more finesse and elegance, and higher in acidity. In comparison, the d’Alba Barbera was more affable, rounder and softer on the palate but with a deeper colour, more complexity and power.
I learned that camomile (dry herbs) is a distinguishing aroma of Barbera. Particularly interesting was to taste the Idiom Barbera beside those from Italy. The contrast between the Old World and New World wines could not have been greater, having drunk Old World wines all day. The Idiom wine immediately struck by its boldness and riper fruitiness, higher alcohol content, fruit-forwards character – and, yes, familiarity.
Nebbiolo was the subject of the second workshop – the other main cultivar of the Piedmont region in North-West Italy. It is one of Italy’s top red wines and famously known as the ‘King of Wines and Wine of Kings’. Barry impressed again by his extensive knowledge and ability to express the subtleties of taste and texture. He described the ‘marmalade and ethereal character’ of this dusty, red-fruited wine that was high in both acidity and tannin. This, he explained, was why it is best not to drink young wines.
The tasting compared inter alia Nebbiolo from the 3 principal growing areas: Roero – light, fresh, red-fruit driven, juicy and approachable; Barbaresco – the ‘Queen’ – light, delicate, perfumed, dainty, aromas of cherry and orange peel, aromatic and dry on the palate, less oaked so as not to destroy the perfumed notes; and Barolo – the ‘King’ – dark, brooding, concentrated, bolder and with more complex fruits.
I discovered how site sensitive the grape is, especially to wind during budding, and how it needs much warmth and sunlight. The cultivar is complex as it can show red and black fruits, also sweet and sour, at the same time. Barry advised how to keep red wine in the mouth for at least 5 seconds while tasting to gain most from the flavour and feel on the palate.
I learned much (and cannot remember nearly enough) from the 2 sessions. It is always a pleasure to listen to experts in any field and none more so than my passion of wine. As ever, I realise how little I know but then I must remember where I have come from in knowledge in short time (little more than a year). I would not, in future, book back to back sessions or at the end of a tasting day. I was likely tired to start and would have gained even more had my mind been fresher and sharper. I didn’t like the amount of talking across the different presenters. The workshops would be improved by one speaker gaining control by taking questions one at a time, together with better managing the one participant who wanted to dominate the conversations.
The Idiom Italian Festival was superb value and fun. There was so much to see and taste and eat and enjoy that I could easily have spent both days at the event and would not have been tired of it or at a loose end. It was clear that I was not alone and that the families, from young to old, were also enjoying themselves to the full. I did not expect there to be so many food stalls but rather anticipated a greater focus on wine.
Naturally, I chose to devote much of my time to the wines. I liked how the Italian wines for tasting were grouped by wine-producing region. It made sense – separating white from red wines within each region – and the large rectangular tasting counter made the most of the available space, slightly set aside from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the Festival. The event was fantastic value for money for the wine tasting alone – a bargain at R150. I must have sampled over a dozen cultivars for the first time. I didn’t buy any wines – though easily could have done and gained the Festival discount – as I was too busy tasting.
The Festival contained all the elements of the Italian stereotype, except possibly the mafia! There was pasta and pizza and gelato and coffee in abundance and much more besides. There was music and noise. There were pretty clothes and romantic affections during the dancing. How could I forget Barry’s extravagant hand gestures as he described the beauty and the elegance of a Barbera or a Nebbiolo? He could so easily have been Italian.
The Festival was overwhelming. There was a degree of Italian chaos too which gives food for thought for the future. I sensed there was some surprise at how popular the Festival proved to be. Certainly, I consider 1,000 people to be pretty close to – if not at – capacity for Idiom. The number of helper staff was just about enough but the excellent Idiom food, the dishes with the pre-paid vouchers, was insufficient to last the day. I recommend either cash or a token/card arrangement for payment in future (as many large events do) rather than a mix of both. Had I known, for example, that there were food stalls that did not use the vouchers I would not have bought them at all, and so avoided a queue to buy and a hassle for refund after. I am sure too that the checking of/buying tickets at the entrance could also be improved.
That said, these are but minor irritations to an otherwise excellent Italian Festival. I shall certainly attend again. My thanks to all the many people involved to make it such a success.
Wines tasted (bought *):
NV Bottega Gold Brut Rosé – R210
NV Bottega DOC Brut Prosecco – R220
NV Bottega Vino del Amore Moscato – R230
2016 Zenato Pinot Grigio delle Venezie lgt (Pinot Grigio) – R140
2013 Livio Felluga Friulano (Friulano) – R305
2012 La Tunella Col de Bliss Ribolla Gialla (Ribolla Giallo) – R270
2014 La Tunella Col Matiss Sauvignon (Sauvignon Blanc) – R270 FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Velenosi Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi (Verdicchio) – R140
2016 Velenosi Villa Angelo Pecorino (Pecorino) – R150
2014 Velenosi Pecorino Reve (Pecorino) – R255
2013 Sella & Mosca Vermentino di Sardegna (Vermentino) – R120
2016 Donnachiara Fiano di Avelino (Fiano) – R210
2016 Tasca d’Almerita Grillo Sallier de la Tour (Grillo) – R130
2014 Brezza Lungarotti Rosa (Sangiovese) – R80
2014 Enrico Serafino Dolcetto d’Alba (Dolcetto) – R190
2013 Zenato Ripasso (Corvina, Rondellino, Molinara) – R310
2015 Vietti Nebbiolo Perbacco (Nebbiolo) – R340
2015 Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo) – R150
2010 Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Sangiovese) – R500
2012 Talenti Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Sangiovese) – R665
2015 Castelli di Volpaia Chianti Classico DOCG (Sangiovese) – R235
2013 Falesco Montiano (Merlot) – R525
2015 Feuda di S. Croce Primitivo di Manduria LXXIV (Primitivo) – R285
2013 Tasca d’Almerita Tascante (Nerello Mascalese) – R590
2013 Tasca d’Almerita Lamuri (Nero d’Avola) – R190
2011 Sella & Mosca Cannonau (Cannonau) – R140
2012 Coppo L’Avvocata (Barbera) – R190
2015 Enrico Serafino Barbera d’Alba (Barbera) – R195
2013 Castello di Cigoognola Dodici Dodici (Barbera) – R150
2012 Idiom 900 Series (Barbera) – R450
2015 Braida Montebruna Barbera d’Asti (Barbera) – R325
2014 Braida Bricco dell’Uccellone Barbera d’Asti (Barbera) – R945
2014 Vietti Barbera d’Alba Tre Vigne (Barbera) – R325
2015 Vietti Scarrone Barbera d’Alba (Barbera) – R650
2013 Enrico Serafino Roero (Nebbiolo) – R200
2013 Enrico Serafino Barbaresco (Nebbiolo) – R470
2013 Enrico Serafino Barolo (Nebbiolo) – R665
2014 Morgenster Nabucco (Nebbiolo) – R390
2012 Idiom 900 Series (Nebbiolo) – R450
2013 Vietti Nebbiolo Perbacco (Nebbiolo) – R340
2008 Vietti Barolo Brunate CRU (Nebbiolo) – R2740