Read Part 2 on our sister site RedWine.co.uk.
Well, I went into week three of my WSET Intermediate wine course thinking Spain makes great, affordable reds and passable whites; Portugal makes port and not much else; and Italy makes a load of old rubbish that tastes like watery tar and invariably costs too much.
(The only Italian wine I’ve ever enthused about was made by an Englishman.)
I looked forward to being proven wrong.
Sadly, as with many things I actually know nothing about and then attempt to educate myself about, it turned out I was probably right in the first place.
Our teacher provided me with the first (semi-)legitimate reason for my Italo-scepticism where wine’s concerned, anecdotally recounting how – a few decades ago when Austria permanently damaged its reputation in international wine circles by watering down its produce with glycol, and before I was old enough to be worrying about such things – Italy’s wine industry was responsible for an even more serious instance of wine-contamination, resulting in multiple deaths.
Quite how the above scandal has been washed clean from Italy’s wine-stained hands over the years is anybody’s guess – particularly as Austria remains in the dog house. One could make an analogy with Hitler and Mussolini (particularly as the granddaughter of the latter is now representing her country in the European parliament), but experience tells me people don’t like to mix wine and politics. And I’m all for forgiving and forgetting; you can’t blame today’s vintners for the sins of their fathers, and the wine world at large would have it that Italy knows what it’s doing.
I’m not so sure: in fact, I’m increasingly inclined to believe they keep the decent (or half-decent) bottles jealously guarded in cellars in the villages from whence their grapes were plucked and that the bottles that make it over here – incomprehensible labels notwithstanding – are export-only wines, and that somewhere to the East there are well-fed, swarthy vintners laughing all the way to the bank, doing drunken wheelies on their clapped-out mopeds.
At least the French have the decency to put some effort into making their labels decipherable these days; at least they keep their AOCs fairly understandable. Italy grows upwards of a thousand recognised grapes according to our teacher. (Lord knows who recognises them.) No doubt they employ the same fiercely traditional localism to their winemaking as they do to their cuisine, which can result in some pretty neat combinations – to be sure - but smacks of a myopic world view that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, and does not inspire me with confidence as regards quality produce for exporting.
We tried a few Italian wines; a Gavi, a Sangiovese and a Valpolicella. All varieties with which I’m familliar; all pretty typical of what I’ve come to expect; all priced at least £2 higher than what they’re worth. Frankly, I wouldn’t dampen the earth of my dead dog’s grave with any of them.
The Spanish contingent was much better. There must be an element of personal taste in this, I concede: because not everyone was agreeing with me around the table by any means; I love the woodiness of Spanish wines, and was pelased to learn a pretty basic (but so far unknown to me) way of reading this via the label: joven to crianza to reserva to gran reserva all indicate the amount of time spent in oak barrels, with increasing levels of oakiness. I’d not necessarily say more is best, but I know I like the flavour it imparts on their full-bodied reds, and I like a lick of vanilla in the finish. Oh yes.
I’d be interested to try a joven though, as I don’t think I ever have.
Anyway, we tried a light white called Airen, which I enjoyed the subtle perfume of, but which is not really the style of white I usually opt for. There was a lovely tannic Tempranillo - perhaps king of the value grapes for me, if that doesn’t sit too much like a polystyrene crown: I certainly mean it as a compliment!
I love the leathery flavour that seems to come so readily even from young Tempranillos – from Rioja or elsewhere – though I know they can seem too harsh on the gums for some people. The Reserva Rioja was nicely vanilla-infused too, although not quite as tough as I like mine to be, and oddly underwhelming on the alcohol front at 12.5%.
I’m sure it indicates a lack of refinement in me, but if I’m honest, alcohol is one of my favourite flavours in wine: sure, it’s got to have fruit, and the more complex and subtle the blend, the better: and I do love some of the very light, fruity German whites that clock in at about 8%; but with a red wine I almost invariably favour a 13.5% plus alcohol content. I find most wines need it to really hit home. Give or take a Burgundy or Beaujolais, I think few red wines are subtle and complex enough to carry the weight of flavour that’s lacking when it’s light on alcohol. This is often my problem with Italian wines: they’re light on flavour all-round and there’s nothing to fill that gap. (And the stronger they come, the more they taste like tar or burnt toast.)
The Portuguese one was alright, but it’s not going to have me making any special detours in the supermarket.
So, there we go: prejudices reaffirmed. I’m learning to have confidence in my opinions. From now on perhaps I shall simply assume I am right about everything, just to save time?
I’m looking forward to the South African wines particualrly in next week’s SA, Australia and New Zealand mix, as I think it’s the nation I have the most to learn about.My prejudices tell me they make a damn fine Shriaz: I hope to be proven right.
Part 4 is over on my blog: Coin du Vin.