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Going South – Exploring the Evolving Wines of Southern Italy

By John Aranza

For years Southern Italy was on the verge of a bad reputation. You know, the kind of rep where you’re known for “getting around”. Quantity and quality do not always go hand in hand, so much of the wicker covered bottles heading out of Italy for many years were not the best. The market was there however and as a result many producers fell into the habit of lower quality wines to get the most bang for the buck….Later when Napa reds rose in popularity, again Southern Italy tried to compete with big – Cab forward wines that they felt would appeal to the international market.

But these times are a changing…..

There is a movement right now in the South to use this limited terroir how it was originally intended; high quality wines with perhaps lower yield, that have brought serious attention to the potential of this historic winemaking region.

Lets start with Frank Cornelissen. Starting with 200eu, he bought a small plot of land on Mount Etna. Now expanded to 8.5 hectares of sustainable vinyards, these wines are identified not by vintage but rather number. A minimal approach by an extraordinary vintner. At last weeks tasting we poured the Munjabel Bianco No. 8 (800 bottles total produced). A blend primarily dominated by Grecanico Dorato, it offers an incredible nose of caramel & nuttiness, this is a part of oxidation. Historically, this was always an undesirable quality in whites. However in natural aging where it is intentional the wines are different. The result of the all natural practice of amphorae aging with no sulphites added, nothing but the vocanic ash & minerals at work here produce some interesting wines. The winemakers aging this way believe they are getting back to the basics of winemaking. These wines are indeed limited though. Based on the yield. We had the opportunity to dine with Frank when he was last in Chicago and he remarked that this particular wine was limited because his horses broke into the 2hectare plot & ate a fair amount of that vintage’s ripened grapes!

Another producer we featured at our last tasting was Arianna Occupinti. She is one of a few new style winemakers in Sicily who has really put them back on the map. Last Wednesday at Wine Wednesdays we poured her soft yet expressive 2011 Frappato. Grown on 10 Hectares of stoney vinyards, this southern blending grape gets a homecoming crown in this very capable producers hands. Soft tannins & fruit are reminiscent of a Burgundy, but Sicilian at heart with a uniqueness all their own. Ariana took the vineyards organic, then biodynamic, and the resulting wines are stellar on the palate. Small packages do indeed deliver big things with altitude & attitude and an astute winemaker all combining to create this exceptional wine. Bravo!

Finally our journey took us to Puglia, for the 2005 Alberto Longo “Capoposto” which is driven by the Negro Amaro grape. Translated into “Dark Bitter”, this astringent Southerner must be in the right hands. In this case it is, delivering a lush and welcoming, mouth-filling wine. Deliberately light on skin contact, this old world vinefera is tamed by oak transforming this rough around the edges grape into a wine that is a formidable contender! Lamb, Short Ribs & other hearty fare come hither….we have a match for you!

Our next entry will explore this weeks tasting which focused on French whites. Up next week, join us for Sherries or join us in April for our next series of Wine Wednesdays. Always at the bar, always informal and always fun!


Exploring Balkan Wines

As a part of our companion series for Wine Wednesday our Sommelier John Aranza, is writing companion pieces to give you an overview of the region we are exploring and what we taste. Read on for an exploration of Balkan Wines, and join us this month for Wine Wednesdays!

Today we are going to skip across the Adriatic to the Balkans. Formerly Yugoslavia, this area had been cloistered from the rest of the world of wine export for some time until the late 1990’s. It was then with the independence of Croatia, Slovenia, Montengro that these long standing wine producing arease were able to bring their wares west.

The Balkans refer to the range of mountains that extend inland across these Eastern European lands. It is just now being made aware that wine has been made here for centuries with the same intensity & warmth that many familiar producers display in France and Italy. Today we are going to talk about three characters in this play that have often been snubbed by the Oscar’s, but deserve a nod for their continued, expressive roles in the Balkan wine community.

The First, is from Ilocki Podrumi. A combined effort of Cabernet Sauvignon & an Austrian/Hungarian descendant called Blaufrankisch. BF is a late ripening, tannin-realized red grape. Expressive on its own, and possibly explosive with CS, but this invocation is soft in the hands of one of Croatia’s oldest producers. In the glass it is Burgundian, in a sense, with its soft balance & red fruit delivery. Perhaps this is why IP wines were served at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

Next we travel to Montenegro. Off the shores of Lake Skadar, which borders Albania & Montenegro claiming the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula. From the cool, Mediterranean climate comes Vranac (translated black stallion) from producer Monte Cheval. Firm in tannins, this fruit-forward workhorse dates back to Roman plantings. This medium bodied red can be found throughout the region and further inland in Serbia as well. Familiar to residents of the Balkans, this is the favorite son served usually fresh from the producer in local Konoba’s! Red meat and game are a perfect match for the dark-horse of grapes!

Lastly we travel a bit inland, completely land-locked to the Mostar region and the limestone plateau’s of Citluk in Herzegovina. Zilavka is the grape, and aromatic is the name. Tropical fruit, and hints of grass dominate this white. Reminiscent of Pinot-Gris in its earthy tones, it pulls from its stony roots…literally…and delivers a wine that has been schooled in the cool mountain evenings and bathed in its sunny afternoons.

Having family roots in Croatia I appreciate the education these wines deliver at the table. A history of a people & terroir that is just now being realized by discerning palates that have been denied these pleasures for far too long. Enjoy all, join us for dinner one evening and raise a glass. It’s an affordable trip to a magic place.

Zivjeli!