Wine articles

A Sicilian Wine Odyssey

I was complaining the other day about the lack of good wine books being published these days. It turns out that I just wasn’t looking hard enough. True the great stalwarts of recent wine publishing have either given up, Faber & Faber, or severely pruned their list, Mitchell Beazley, but quality new titles are still appearing often from little-known publishers.

Take the University of  Nebraska press for example. I, and this probably says more about my ignorance of this great institution, would have thought that they would be content to publish biographies of 19th century spinster poets but on their list is Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey by Robert V. Camuto. I’ve been to Sicily twice and both times been disappointed with the distinctiveness of the local wines I tried; though often good they could have come from Tuscany or California.

If only I’d read this book before going. Palmento examines the revival in traditional wine-making from indigenous grape varieties. The author has a rare gift for describing these wines: ‘It too seemed like a wine from another time: a rustic combination of black earth, fruit and rocks that tasted as though it were made by a man who indeed rode on a mule.’ Doesn’t that sound more interesting than another glossy cabernet?

This book’s other great asset is its cast of characters. Towering over them all is Marco de Bartoli the outspoken champion of old-fashioned marsala who died recently. In 1995 the carabinieri shut down his winery ostensibly for making a vino da tavola that was too strong.  As this is Sicily the truth behind the raid was more complicated. His outspoken opinions on other producers had made him some powerful enemies. ‘My father is not a diplomatic man’ his son Sebastiano is quoted as saying.

Palmento is an ode to Sicily, Sicilians and their wines. Camuto celebrates the traditional but is also refreshingly unsentimental about why people gave up the old ways – they were very hard work and did not make any money. It is understandable that people want to make modern wines that can be easily sold internationally. Thank heaven for the obstinate people making something different.

My appetite for the more idiosyncratic end of Sicilian wine whetted, I got myself invited to the Natural Wine Fair in Borough market. I was going to write a whole post on ‘Natural Wines’ but frankly I’m a bit bored of reading articles advocating or criticising this movement. I’m anti-movements in general, a relic of my childhood horror of ‘joining in.’ At the fair were some of the producers featured by Camuto including COS who age some of their wine in amphora and Arianna Occhipinti. Sadly the Sicilian tables were at the far end of the market and by the time I reached them my tasting technique of not spitting had left somewhat tired and emotional. Combine this with my lack of Italian meant that my attempts to engage with the Sicilians were unsatisfying for both parties. And then I managed to knock my glass out of my hand, it broke on the floor and I had wine all over my trousers. It was time to go home.

Nero di Luppo, 2009, COS –  Chewy deliciousness, good acidity, refreshing and drinkable. This is 100 % Nero d’Avola and probably the most ‘normal’ of the COS range.

10 SP 68 Rosso, 2009, Arianna Occhipinti – This is a blend of frappato and Nero d’Avola. ‘God this is nice’ I wrote just before the glass dropping incident.

My favourite wines at the Fair came from a Sardinian producer called AA Panevino. I have put a big tick on their page and written ‘magical.’ Try the snappily-titled: Kussas Intrendu A Manu’ e Manca 2009. Made from cannonau (grenache), it’s sweet, tannic and hedonistic.

All are available from Cave de Pyrene. The Sicilians at about £10 a bottle and the Sardinian somewhat more.

Wine articles

The Romance of Wine

It was after visiting a tiny vineyard in Faugeres that I decided to sell my flat in London, buy some land and make wine. Domaine Sarabande consists of  an Australian/Irish couple Paul and Isla Gordon, four hectares of vines and a garage with some basic equipment. This couple for me personified the romance of wine. They’re young, they’re in love and they make wine in what looks like a big dustbin. ‘We could do this’ I said  to my wife as we left. She just smiled.

Later that week we visited another couple, Simon and Monica Coulshaw, working in the same region. Their facilities were on a bigger scale but they both had the same air of barely suppressed excitement that they were finally doing what they have always dreamed of. It may have been the wine, it may have been the Catalan feast prepared by Monica or it may have been the sunshine, but I drifted off into a reverie imagining my life as peasant farmer communing with nature. I snapped out of it when Simon started telling me about the difficulties he had finding the right property. He looked at over 100 and was about to give up and go back to his to his previous job in IT when by chance he found Domaine des Trinites. Almost immediately disaster struck. His second vintage – 2008 – was obliterated by hail. He lost over 90% of crop and nearly went bankrupt.

As we left my wife turned to me and said ‘you’ve decided against your little dream, haven’t you?’

I was beginning to have my doubts but it was a later visit to Domaine de Montazellis that clinched it. If any couple reflected the romance of wine then it was these two. I’ve mentioned them in my previous post. They have a picturesque estate in the Languedoc complete with an artfully decrepit pre-war Citroen van and a ruined church. Sadly the ruins were recent. The Collettes had been planning to convert the church into a guest house to bring in some much-needed income. It had collapsed only a few days before we visited. A setback like his would have finished me off but they seemed to take it in their stride.

It was then that I realised quite how all-consuming this life is. It looks superficially glamorous but without the drive, knowledge and talent of these couples it would be a recipe for disaster. It’s no life for an impoverished dilettante like me. A rich dilettante on the other hand? That might work.

Some wines from committed couples:

Fortunately for them but not for me the Gordons at Domaine Sarabande had sold out of their Faugeres. Instead I tried a vin de pays called Misterioso which is a blend of Grenache and Mouvedre. It was almost  black in colour and had a dense chewiness about it. Great stuff now but I’d love to try it in a year as it had just been bottled and was a little uncommunicative. I also tried a very fruity rose and some cask samples of the 2010 vintage. They were very powerful and needed time. The 2010 Grenache, however, which was sitting in a stainless tank was already delicious. I can’t wait to try the finished wine. An estate to watch.

Everything I tried from Domaine des Trinites had a rare fragrance and freshness which I found very appealing. These two stand out:
Faugères, les Maurels, 2007
– £9.99 or less from the cellar door. This one had a nice funkiness on the nose that brought to mind some of the wilder wines from this appellation. On the palate it was smooth, round and elegant. This is a grown-up, beautifully-poised wine and I feel a little childish  for preferring the next one.

Pezenas/ Coteaux de Languedoc, La Dèves,  2007  – It’s just so moreish and may be to blame for my earlier bucolic revelry. There is a taste of raspberries but it’s not at all jammy or sweet. If I was making my own wine I would want it to taste like this. It’s also absurdly cheap at 8 euros a bottle.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Venturing out

‘I wandered out in the world for years, and you just stayed in your room. I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon.’ The Waterboys

When it comes to creative inspiration, people fall into two camps,  they can be like Prince, about whom this song was written  – tucked away on his own – and the chap from the Waterboys – venturing out soaking up experiences. I know which one I am and so far for the blog I have pretty much stayed locked up with my books, bottles and a laptop. I was becoming a bit peculiar and my seclusion had not produced anything nearly as good as Sign o’ the Times. It was time to sally forth, meet people and maybe I’d create the Fishermoon’s Blues of wine writing.

My wife and I decided to go to France. Initially we stayed at my auntie’s in Pomerols. Note the S, we were in the Languedoc not Bordeaux. Later we stayed in more luxurious surrounding at Le Grand Hermitage. The next few posts will be from vineyards that we visited on our trip. I’d like to thank Barbara and Richard at La Pause Parfaite who introduced us to some incredible producers and showed us such warm hospitality.

For the first post I’m going to resurrect my much-neglected Wine of the Week slot.

Wine of the Week:

Merlot 2008, Domaine de Montazellis, Vin De Pays Des Côtes De Thongue – £7.69 from C2C wines. Less from the cellar door. Also available at Planet of the Grapes in London and at their bar in the City by the glass.

The first things to say about this wine is what it is not. It is not full of rich, ripe plummy fruit. In fact it does not taste like merlot in the New World varietal sense at all. There is no oak. It’s not heavy. It smells floral and tastes spicy. Wines like this make me think what a pointless activity variety spotting is. More important is where the vines are grown and this wine tastes of the Languedoc. It’s not fancy but it is delicious.

Appropriately enough for my introduction, one half of the partnership who made this wine is a Parisian musician called Dhanya (hippy parents I think) Collette. He lived in London for many years – the local refer to him as le anglais – where he met the other half, his wife Nova. Five years ago they uprooted from city life and bought this domaine. Together they make up the most glamorous couple in wine. It’s been bloody hard work by all accounts but thankfully the wines are good and their gamble seems to be paying off.