by Fabrizio Russo
We went in search of great wines whose production area, sunshine hours, vineyard cultivation techniques and sensory properties can be defined as typically Mediterranean.
The story we are about to tell starts years ago, in that mare nostrum that Fernand Braudel called “a liquid plain, surrounded by vines”. But the Mediterranean, the cradle of ancient civilization, is also a metaphor for life and, like life, it feeds on a vast sea of contradictions, playing with cynical nonchalance the part of maternal belly as well as insatiable devourer of dreams. Contradictions apart, there is no doubt that this sea has fulfilled a fundamental role in the route the vine has followed through the centuries. With the founding of a symposium, the ancient Greeks granted wine a cultural dignity that allowed it to converse with high knowledge. However it wasn’t its mystical aura, fruit of its inebriating qualities, but its rise to a symbol of civilization that drove the Athenian Thucydides to claim: “the peoples of the Mediterranean emerged from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the vine”. Let’s return to that “wine dark sea” (ed. quote from the title of Leonardo Sciascia’s book – even if we should always keep water and fermented must at a due distance), but this time water is the common thread in the narration, although the real protagonist is wine. Not just any wine, obviously, but nectars that taste of sea salt, that smell of the sun and sand blown on the wind, that evoke the roaring surf, in other words Mediterranean wines. We have selected 30 of them, representative of different terroirs. The list, drawn up far from any logic affirming a quality hierarchy, considers wines that address the heart rather than the sensory organs and other stylistically exemplary ones that reject the title of well-made wines, because they convey emotions.
Sicily, mother of all islands
Enveloped by cobalt blue arms, the island of Pantelleria has a long series of walls passing through it, which indelibly mark the landscape. Wine and sea spray, a constant presence here, preclude anything other than the bush-trained “alberello” system. What Homer defined as the “navel of the Mediterranean”, was for the Phoenicians Yrnm (“island of the ostriches”), the name of a wine from the Miceli winery; this wine is made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Yrnm, sensuous on the nose, evocative of the aromatic quality of raisin wines, has a palate that is unwilling to deliver the promise on the nose, marked by a severe timbre and a pleasant bitterish latency. Sicilian winemaking wouldn’t be what it is without Marco De Bartoli, impetuous winegrower, creator of masterpieces such as Bukkuram (“father of the vineyard” in Arabic) made from grapes grown in the district of the same name. The slopes of Etna are studded with centuries-old vineyards of Carricante and Nerello Mascalese grapes. The former is used by the Benanti winery to make a long-lived monovarietal wine: Pietramarina, from bush-trained vines at an altitude skimming one thousand metres. The sensory profile, with intense minerality, ranges from flint to orange blossom, anticipating a pulpy and gratifying mouthfeel. Passopisciaro, owned by Andrea Franchetti, gifted winegrower and visionary, is in a picturesque setting on the northern slope of the volcano. Five vineyards, located at different altitudes, express traits that have little in common. The 2011 Contrada Guardiola, a monovarietal Nerello Mascalese, is lavish in fruit, with balsamic hints and earthy notes, favouring the progression to peremptoriness. Let’s turn to the story of a “Grillo“(Italian for cricket, as well as the name of a Sicilian grape variety)and too many rabbits. The protagonist is the Grillo variety grown in Mozia, in a vineyard surrounded by archaeological digs. With these grapes, Tasca d’Almerita has tried to bring the “wine of the Phoenicians” back to life. Tasting the 2011 vintage was thrilling, but this time the fairy tale lacks the happy ending because the drought, the inclination of the long-eared rodent to reproduce quickly and the slow bureaucracy have frustrated the Whitaker Foundation’s requests for intervention and the rabbits, undisturbed and happy, have eliminated the 2012 harvest by devouring shoots, leaves and roots. The Marabino winery’s golden-yellow White Muscat is striking for the extent of its aromas: pear, date, hazelnut; for its finesse on the palate and the well-proportioned sugar content. Carlo Hauner, “u bresciano” (“the man from Brescia”) as he was known in Salina due to his Lombard origins, came to the island as a tourist in the 1960s and moved there permanently ten years later, revolutionizing the image of Malvasia. The winery, headed by his son, Carlo Jr., produces a good-natured Malvasia Passito raisin wine that is as clear as the seabed of the island, with aromas of Mediterranean bush, marzipan and candied orange peel, ending with a salty taste to remind everyone that we are dealing with a great seaside wine.
Sardinia, far and prevailing
There are two creations by Giacomo Tachis: the first, the Santadi winery’s Terre Brune, created thirty years ago, exalts the qualities of the Carignan variety, with aromas of mastic, myrtle and juniper and a solemn pace of flavour underlined by polished tannins, which accompany the progression towards an endlessly lingering finish. Cocoa, tobacco, balsamic scents and fruity hints, embellish the suite of aromas of Turriga, the Argiolas winery’s masterpiece, despite the high extract, highlighting its elegance rather than opulence. Talking of Canonau, Giuseppe Sedilesu’swinery, though it only started bottling in the new millennium, has already achieved results that have projected it towards the heights of island viticulture. It would take a whole book to tell the history of Vernaccia di Oristano. It is celebrated by the poetic Contini winery, guardian of not quite full barrels, made happy by the presence of flor yeast. The Antico Gregori wine has exciting depth, mouthfeel and expressiveness. The lands of Calabria belonged to the Brutii before the arrival of the Greeks, who called them Enotri, and the clay pipes of the “wine ducts” that carried wine to the ports, bear witness to how deep-rooted the wine culture was in that period.
The eclectic and surprising south
Roberto Ceraudo is aversatilewinegrower (his farm also produces oil, cheese, cured meats and citrus fruits) who, to keep up with the times, interprets the Gaglioppo grape from a seductive rosé to a muscular Dattilo, cloaking it with charm and personality. Librandi is credited with recovering vines at risk of oblivion, such as Magliocco, the main component of Magno Megonio, a lavish summary of complexity and elegance. Awarded by Wine Enthusiast as one of the Best Wine Travel Destinations, Apulia is one of the leading winemaking regions in southern Italy, year in year out. Es is a world-beater, a wine with extraordinary sensory depth created by Gianfranco Fino, who has looked after vineyards for over 80 years, proffering an image of Primitivo that goes beyond the mere solidity of the variety. The Taurino winery’s Patriglione, Negroamaro with a small amount of Malvasia Nera, has offered quality ways that have become reference points for the whole of winemaking in the Salento area. The La Valentina winery’s Cerasuolo Spelt plays on tones of aromatic immediacy and drinkability, displaying fascinating aromas of pomegranate, marasca cherry, raspberry and geranium. From the terrain castigated by snowfall that damaged a significant number of vines, the Trebbbiano grapes reached the wooden barrels aided by Francesco Paolo’s constant assistance, who is a real symbiont of the vineyard. At the cost of appearing iconoclasts: Valentini’s wines abandoned hitting the news years ago to pass over into legend. Let’s say straightaway that Trebbiano, a real “peasant wine”, abandons gently rustic scented spheres after a few minutes in the glass and that the wine, sometimes penalized by the perceptible presence of carbon dioxide, is for patient drinkers who are aware that, after the wait, it may even be possible to hear the sweet song of cherubs emerging from the glass. The Sant’Andrea Winery expresses its Mediterranean vocation through a range of wines centred on the aromatic Moscato di Terracina variety, making five different types of wine. Oppidum, with a nose strongly reminiscent of citrus fruits, flaunts a fine balance of flavour. Sergio Mottura is one of the Grechetto variety’s leading choirmasters, as Latour a Civitella bears witness to, made from selected grapes from five vineyards: a magnificent wine with an extraordinary potential for development. Cecubo, Falerno and other ambrosia from “Campania Felix” were particularly appreciated during Roman times and regularly present on the lavishly decked tables of patricians. After losing part of its splendour, the vineyard in Campania has found its old brilliance again in the last twenty years. Luigi Moio, one of the greatest experts in the world on aroma studies, realized his dream by founding the Quintodecimo winery in 2001. The Greco di Tufo Giallo D’Arles, golden with a polychrome aroma mosaic, composed of tiles of terse definition, has subjugated our sensory universe. Characterised by a firm territorial identity, Villa Diamante’s Fiano Vigna della Congregazione, confirms the greatness of the grape variety and the suitability of the terroir of Montefredane (Avellino). Eloquent, inviting and with a fascinating suite of aromas; this is the identikit of Falanghina Cruna deLago, from the La Sibilla winery, a splendid white grown in the heart of the Campi Flegrei. Loose soils, rich in tuff and volcanic ash, have been the training ground of the D’Ambra winery since the nineteenth century, the banner of Ischian winemaking. The popular Biancolella by the Frassitelli Estate is icon of this, with its intriguing aromas of white melon, wild herbs and yellow flowers, easy to drink, revealing the marine roots of the wine. Pallagrello nero, much-loved by Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, met with a relentless decadence during the last century. The Terre del Principe winery, mainly accountable for rescuing it, combines it with Casavecchia to produce Piancastrelli, an explosion of aromas: Mediterranean bush, rosemary and small black fruits of the forest.
Umbria, Tuscany and Liguria, little gems
Umbria’s most successful winemaking is represented by Sagrantino. The grape of the same name, linked to Hirtiola, mentioned by Pliny, reached the hills of Montefalco at a later date with the byzantine monks, and its relationship with the “sacred” would explain the origin of the name. Taming the fury of its tannins isn’t easy. Filippo Antonelli managed to move away from an aggressive and material character without distorting the personality of the variety, and Chiusa di Pannone, despite the high extract, heads towards caressing sensory routes. The Orvieto area has ancient origins that can be traced back to Etruscan rather than Greek winemaking traditions. Grechetto, on the other hand, is the variety that rules the blend of the Barberani winery’s charming Calcaia, an earthy wine with warm sea scents. From grapefruit to almond, it is still the Mediterranean charm that defines the taste and aroma of one of the great players of central Italian viticulture: Verdicchio. How can we not mention Umani Ronchi’s sensational Vecchie Vigne. Val di Cornia is a splendid corner of Tuscany, an area full of enchanting villages and great wines. Gualdo del Re, owned by Teresa and Nico Rossi, produces profound and appealing wines, such as Vermentino Valentina, which captures the attention of the nose thanks to a sensuous aromatic structure, rich in fruity aromas, acacia honey and yellow flowers. The palate is just as lively and displays a captivating fresh acidity and a sapid finish that seems to scream the word “sea” out loud. A few miles further south, the Ristella farm ennobles rosé with careful vinification of Aleatico grapes. The radiant bouquet of Lalbore is made up of violets and wisteria, also strawberries, cherries and pomegranate. A spring wine on the nose but summery on the palate, marked by well-crafted acidity and by a non-slender structure. The Cecilia winery’s Ansonica wine releases the minerality of Elba soils into the glass, merging it with notes of yellow-fleshed fruit and a fine flavour development. Our journey comes to an end with Pigato u Baccan from the Bruna winery, a wine full of fruity notes and hints of straw, lifting our glass to Neptune, so that he will toast with us, in honour of the Mediterranean. On one condition, though: that he knocks it back without giving in to the temptation to … dilute it with water.
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