The Ladies in Red
Education Experience 4.5 Wine Courses

The Ladies in Red

Saturday 13 October 2018

Experience: 4.5/5

It was one of those glorious sunny October mornings when one is just happy to be alive, even more so when heading for Diploma lessons with the Cape Wine Academy. Day 1 of the 3rd Diploma Module was a hectic canter through the wine regions of Central Europe to the Eastern Mediterranean that ended in Northern Italy. My journey today was not only from Cape Town to Stellenbosch (Morgenhof Estate) but also south through Italy and to Portugal.

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Central and Southern Italy

We were fortunate to have a new Lecturer for the lesson on Central and Southern Italy, in the form of Catherine Dillon. She well knew her wine stuff! It was not long before we were being taught the Italian pronunciation. Puglia and gnocchi, for example have a silent ‘g’ when spoken. The gauntlet was laid down as to whether we could taste the difference between 100% Sangiovese and a Sangiovese-blend.

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Central Italy has 7 wine regions – Romagna (silent ‘g’ here, of course), Tuscany, Le Marche, Umbria, Lazio, Abruzzo and Molise. Many, I was to learn, are associated with a particular wine or cultivar: Tuscany with Chianti and Sangiovese; Umbria with white Orvieto; Lazio with sparkling Frascati made from Trebbiano and Malvasia; Emilia-Romagna with sparkling red Lambrusco; and the Marches with Verdiccio. Tuscany, of course, is the most historic and important, with Spanish influence via Sardinia.

It wasn’t long before Catherine was discussing the differing DOC, DOCG and IGT classifications that make up the straw-covered bottles (fiaschi) of Chianti and Chianti Classico. As ever, there’s a lot to learn. Tangy cherry and floral, violet Chianti, with its chalky, calcareous soils, must contain at least 75% Sangiovese whereas Chianto Classico contains at least 80% Sangiovese, must be grown in the Chianti Classico area, and has more earthy, liquorice and vanilla flavours from longer ageing in oak. There’s Brunello di Montalcino from the region to the South-East of Siena too that is 100% Sangiovese and aged for at least 4 years. If not already befuddled, there’s the black cherried, softly spiced Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (at least 70% Sangiovese) that is not to be confused with the Montepulciano red grape of the Marches.

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The rise of the ‘Super Tuscans’ is a story worth reading. Like many good stories, it starts with a ‘villain’, a 1920s rebel in the form of Marchese Mario Incisa del Rochetta (it’s not only the Germans who like their long names!) who planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc on his coastal estate at Tenuta San Guido in its Graves-like stony soil (or sassicaia). The Sangiovese-Bordeaux blends were made for private consumption from the late-1940s through to nearly 1970, until nephew Marchese Piero Antinori produced the first commercial Tignanello. The artisanal ‘Chianti-style’ wines – made with different ageing regimes and in small French oak barriques – soon gained international attention and recognition, even though the extant regulations meant they were humble vino di tavola or ‘ordinary table wine’, the lowest quality classification. Every good story has a happy ending and, under pressure, the Italian wine authorities re-wrote the Chianti regulations 1984. Today, Sassicaia is the only single wine DOC estate in Italy.

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Central Italy has the other ingredients of a good story too: controversy and scandal. Dusky, powerful, elegant Brunello di Montalcino – Tuscany’s answer to the Barolo of North-Western Italy – has a similar traditionalist versus modernist winemaking debate: whether ‘tis better slowly to ferment for maximum flavour and colour and age long in Slovenian barrels (20 or more years) to wait for tannins to soften, or to make a fruitier, more approachable wine using French oak that is ready to drink in 5 years? Then there’s ‘Brunellogate’ in 2008 in which large amounts of 2003 wine were impounded by the Italian authorities as several top estates had added other cultivars not permitted in the 100% Sangiovese wine.

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Wine theory makes me thirsty and so it came as welcome relief as morning coffee approached to sample the first wines. Catherine told us carefully to look at the tile red colour that is Sangiovese that gives clue to the percentage and hence distinguish between Chianti, Super Tuscan and Brunello. Remember ‘FAT’ for red wines she said: Fruit, acid and tannin, together with intensity, depth of colour and degree of opaqueness. The single cultivar Sangiovese was medium ruby, garnet in colour with ‘confected’ cherry, floral violet and aromatic tomato on the nose. It was light bodied with soft tannins on the palate.

The second wine of the flight, a Brunello, showed a greater complexity of earthy, savoury tomato and sweet cherry, with greater depth and intensity, more tannin for a fuller mouth feel and a dryer palate. The second flight followed soon after. I took few photos as I was focused much on the wines. The Super Tuscan to start was full-bodied with intense colour and a slight colour change on the meniscus which, Catherine explained, was more due to traditional winemaking than ageing. I liked the sweet cherry, pronounced violet, liquorice and violet aromas and the juicy intensity and medium acidity on the palate.

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The second wine showed less depth of colour and more gradation. This wine was more concentrated on the nose, made in traditional style, with sour cherry and tobacco herbal flavours on the palate. This was a Nero d’Avola from Sicily, a wine I had tasted at last year’s Italian Wine Festival at Idiom wine estate.

The final wines allowed me to compare Chianti with a Chianti Classico, containing 75% and 80% Sangiovese, respectively. The Chianti showed the slight watery rim of modernist, minimalist winemaking with high acidity and less complexity of bitter, tart, sweet cherry, tomato and raspberry than the fruitier and less tannic Classico.

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As the tasting ended, we barely covered the regions of sunny, dry Southern Italy such is the importance of Tuscany. That said, the Module assignment asked questions of Aglianico (the signature grape of Campania), the wines of Sicily, and of sweet Marsala. Catherine did not stay for the Lecture to follow and left as we stopped for morning coffee. Her knowledge and enthusiasm were impressive. I would have liked to have heard more from her.


We were fortunate to have Lizette Tolkein as our lecturer for the second and final session of the day. Equally enthusiastic and knowledgeable, Lizette very soon explained that Portuguese wines were among her very favourite. This was another time of steep learning for me. Besides drinking cheap Mateus Rosé and after-dinner Port, together with a holiday in Madeira 40 years ago, I knew little beyond the fact that Douro wines are difficult to pick out in blind tasting.

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Lizette immediately impressed upon us the huge diversity and styles of Portuguese wine and the big East-West climate difference in the country. We skated fast, fortunately, over the wine classification system to consider the main geographical regions that seem to lessen in importance from North to South, as temperatures and yields rise and quality falls. Most well known are the wines of Vino Verde, Porto, Douro, Dão and the Bairrada in the North, each with their unique history and character.

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Like Italy, Portugal is known for its many big red wines. We started though with the refreshing, light white wine called Vinho Verde. The answer to Spain’s Albariňo, I learned that ‘verde’ does not refer to the colour of the wine. The indigenous grape varieties are harvested early – or ‘green’ – to give a wine that is tart and low in alcohol (9-10%) with a ‘decidedly local taste’. Vinho Verde was the first wine for tasting, showing a slightly spritzy character, fresh lime and apple flavours, little complexity and little alcohol content. You can buy Vinho Verde from Checkers Hyper if you want to taste it.

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The rest of the lecture and wines were red. The River Douro flows from North of Madrid almost due west to Oporto on the West coast of Portugal. The Duoro region straddles the river that cuts through schist. The vines grow on steep riverbank slopes on stone-walled terraces (socalcos) to make for beautiful and spectacular scenery. It is no surprise that the Alta Douro was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. I learned that the principal 5 grape varieties are: the small-berried, cassis and violet, tannic Touriga Nacional; ripe, fruity blackberry and mulberry Tinta Roriz (known in Spain as Tempranillo); perfumed violet fruity and most widely planted Touriga Franca; high sugar and youthful Tinta Barroca; and pale, elegant Tinta Cão. These varieties make for powerful, complex, tight and structured wines.

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The Douro grapes are used also to make Port. They are picked and fully fermented after the autumn harvest before the wine is transported, traditionally down the river, some 80 to 200 kilometres to Oporto in the spring. It is here in the coastal ‘Port houses’ that the wines are blended and fortified with neutral brandy spirit that stops all fermentation to preserve the natural grape sweetness for the finished wine. It is here too that the process to make the many different kinds of Port begins, whether bottle matured (reductively without oxygen) or cask matured (oxidatively with small exposure to oxygen). Bottle-aged Port is made in White and Ruby styles (Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage) whereas the best and most sought after Vintage Ports are typically aged for 10 to 40 years.

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As Lizette continued with the theory, we tasted 2 wines from the inland Dão region that lies South of the River Douro. The region has a very broad range of grape varieties, often grown in mixed plots in small parcels between forests and orchards. Touriga Nacional is best known and makes up at least 20% of these fragrant, expressive wines with their simple fruits and moderate intensity. Dão wines were the next 2 for tasting. The first was a blend and lighter in colour, light-medium bodied, and with fruity red fruit and dark berry flavours. The second wine, made by the same producer, was mostly Tinta Roriz. It was more purple colour in appearance with earthy ripe berry and currant fruits on the nose, medium-high acidity, tannic but with a short finish.

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After, Lizette shared two unlabelled wines made from Portuguese cultivars by a friend in Rawsonville. The Tinta Amarella and Touriga Nacional were fruity with a nose of plums, blackberry and black cherry, with dry grippy tannins and medium complexity on the palate. We ended the tasting of table reds with a Douro blend that showed juicy red berry and plum complexity on the nose with a savoury, herbaceous palate.

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In between further theory – the coastal Beira region that makes the rich, concentrated, robust tannic Bairrada wines using the indigenous Baga grape with some Touriga Nacional – I tasted a White Port that was a delicious deep, golden straw in colour with sweet fruity apricot, raisin and dried fruit flavours. I could feel the heat of the 18% alcohol at the back of my throat.

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The 2 final wines were a Cape Port (European Union classification rules prevent sole use of the term Port unless from the DOC region) made by renowned Calitzdorp producer Peter Bayly together with a Madeira wine. The Cape Port was well made with an inviting deep purple colour, ripe stewed fruits with chocolate and cocoa and a nutty taste. The Madeira, my first perhaps for over 30 years, showed copper and tawny colours with nutmeg and cinnamon spices, together with honeyed apricot fruits that fell away for a short, sweet finish.

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The Finish

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Thus ended the lesson from the 2 ladies with their red wines. As ever, the standard of teaching was as high as the concentration I needed to absorb it given my unfamiliarity with the wines, their countries and regions. It was a pleasure both to hear from a new lecturer, in Catherine, as it was to be taught again by Lizette. I said at the start of the Module that it is well-known as the toughest to study for and pass. I can now see why even more. This makes it a challenge that I can hope only to rise to for the final day and for the theory exam thereafter.

Wines tasted:


NV Lagosta Vinho Verde (Portugal)


2014 Le Casada Sangiovese (Italy)
2011 Collosorbo Brunello di Montalcino (Italy)
2010 Marchese Lodovico Ornellaia (Super Tuscan, Italy)
2009 Caelo Nero d’Avola (Sicily, Italy)
2010 Isola e Olena Chianti Classico (Italy)
2012 Fattoria dei Barbi Chianti (Italy)
2014 Quinta dos Carvalhais Duque de Viseu (Dao, Portugal)
2003 Quinta dos Carvalhais Tinta Roriz (Dao, Portugal)
2016 Tinta Amarella (Rawsonville, South Africa)
2014 Touriga Nacional (Rawsonville, South Africa)
2010 Niepoort Charme Tinto Douro (Portugal)


NV Portal Fina White Porto (Portugal)
2009 Peter Bayly Cape Vintage Port (South Africa)
Justino’s Fine Rich 5 Years Old Madeira (Portugal)

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