Friday, March 18, 2011

Dinner with pecorino and barbera

A relaxed dinner with friends at Italian & Sons last night. Trapped into drinking Peroni by asking if it was local or not, but then into good wines and food.

With a dish of sardines marinated in vinegar, onion, pine nuts & sultanas - a glass of 2009 Caldora Colle dei Venti Pecorino. Recommended by the waiter as a good match for the sweet/sour/fish/onion challenge of the sardine dish, this turned out to be a good recommendation. Not overtly fruity of definitive in flavour, the wine's most obvious characteristics were a light gold colour and a line of oxidative flavour (in a good way) that really worked against the fish dish. Somewhat like how the oxidative line and weight of fino or manzanilla sherry is also so good with sardines.

Even better drinking was a bottle of the 2008 Pio Cesare Barbera d'Alba. While the rest of the table had a round of pizza, I had the Thursday night special of White Rocks veal with marsala and king brown mushrooms. Excellent, it was, with the veal tender, the marsala well-judged and the mushrooms inspired. The balance, poise and acid of the barbera sat well against and across the savoury and sweet of the veal dish, as well as the different pizza I may have helped myself to.

So a good, relaxed time of Italian food, wine and conversation. Even if no one agreed with my dislike of Mad Men's version of late-fifties and early sixties America. A good short black and a glass of Nocello get me over these things.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Coriole Sagrantino 2007 (McLaren Vale)

The back label text for the 2007 Coriole sagrantino reads:

"Sagrantino is the most recent addition to Coriole's range of Italian varietals. It has a reputation for being one of the most tannic varieties in the world, but with great structure and longevity. This wine will reward patience with careful cellaring."

There's an admirable Australian directness about that reference to tannins, kind of "right, we've said it, that's out of the way now." The wine is not as tannic as the back label suggests, but it is about structure. It is also about deep fruits, purple-black but shot through with red fruits notes. Some Umbrian sagrantino (not just the blended ones) show a touch of dried herb in behind the dusty, bitter chocolate characteristic of the variety. This wine has some of that chocolate, and good persistence to go with the structure, but needs some time to fill out and add further complexity.

There is a fear among sagrantino makers and marketers from the few Australian vineyards and wineries who have it that consumers will think it too cabernet-like. Yes, it is a tannic variety, but these are not cabernet tannins. With the grip, there is a dusty, gritty, sandy, nut-skin character to the tannins that, combined with the bitter chocolate notes, make for something distinctly Italianate (and very good with braised or roast pork; Umbria is the porcine heart of Italy, after all).

If I had to try and describe good sagrantino through an Australian frame, I'd say it has the structure, length, fruit intensity, depth and persistence of a top cabernet-shiraz blend, with Italian notes throughout the nutty tannins and bitter chocolate finish. But I think I prefer the Coriole label approach - take it on its own terms, with directness and honesty.

$45, cork, winery sample, 14% alcohol.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Yarrh 2004 Sangiovese (Canberra)

This wine, along with several of Bryan Martin's Ravensworth sangiovese wines, convinced me that sangiovese could be a good fit with the Canberra District. I bought a six pack and have followed them over the last six years.

The Yarrh vineyard is in Murrumbateman, closer to Ken Helm's site than it is to Clonakilla or Quarry Hill. It's a sloping site, wrapped around with native vegetation, including reveg plantings, topped off with a well-designed winery and cellar door. While the vineyard has some good air drainage, frost, disease and drought pressures, as well as sangiovese being a tricky prospect in the district, mean that a crop of quality each year is far from certain.

The 2004 as a younger wine had expressive cherry fruit and an attractive mix of nutty tannins and dried herb varietal characters. Through the bottles had between 2006 and 2009, these characters remained, topped up by a little tannin softening and bottle development. But this bottle suggested a wine on the downhill run. The nose has unstitched itself from the rest of the wine, turning dry-reddish rather than varietal. The varietal characters are still there on the palate, but they are fading, with the bones of the wine poking through.

Matched with a tray-roast of chicken thighs, onion, carrot, tomato, thyme, rosemary, oil and red vinegar, the wine clearly had its best days behind it. Still drinkable, it has lost the characters that attracted me to it over the past four bottles. Still good to follow these wines over time though.

Yarrh Wines, $25, screwcap, 14% alcohol.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Picking savagnin at Quarry Hill

Savagnin was planted at Quarry Hill in 2006. Thought at the time to be 'real' albarino, it has since looked well-suited to the site. A tiny amount of fruit was picked in 2009 for a micro-ferment of 27 litres. In 2010, more fruit (most rack-dried to make an experimental dessert wine, some off to Brian Schmidt at Maipenrai).

For vintage 2011, the savagnin vines were cane-pruned back to 6-8 buds per cane, with double or tirple buds flicked out by hand. Later in the season, the vines were shoot-thinned to control yield but also to shape the canopy and ensure good airflow in this wet year.

Picking happened on Monday March 7, along with the sauvignon blanc, and the savagnin plantings provided 2.4 tonnes of good quality fruit. Tasting the fruit at picking, then the juice from the press that evening, the main impressions were of citrus and crunching through a green-skinned apple.

So from planting vines in the winter of 2006, we should have a dry, textural new white wine available around August 2011. It's important not to rush these things.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

David Hook 2009 Barbera (Hunter Valley)

What is the point of barbera? Where does it sit against sangiovese and nebbiolo as 'the' red grapes of Italy? And why bother with barbera in Australia?

I have a lot of time for barbera as a grape. When done well, it can be both 'serious' (for whatever that's worth) and functional. There are few wines I reckon do as well with dishes using slow cooked tomato sauces, in part due to barbera's ability to retain natural acids as it ripens. Ripe barbera can sit in the purple (rather than red or black) fruits spectrum, riding high on acid, with a generous set of dusty, grippy, sometimes sandy tannins.

Whereas some sangiovese will offer grilled nuts, nut skins and dried herbs, barbera can substitute a slightly bitter, fresh herb, astringency. Against tomato-based pasta sauces, for example, or an osso bucco made with tomato, that bitter herb character, combined with bright and bouncing acid, yet still a decent weight of primary fruit, can see barbera a better match than sangiovese or nebbiolo.

But it can go wrong. Overcrop it, shade it out, don't thin the fruit back and you can end up with a thin, barely-fruited, overly-tannic, searingly acidic underdone soup of a wine.

This 2009 Barbera from David Hook in the Hunter Valley avoids many of the problems that can befall this grape. There is a bit of a hidden story about the Hunter Valley, cloud-cover and sunshine hours that make it a region nominally too hot for some types of 'quality' grape if considered on heat summations alone. This is ripe, with red and purple fruits, a touch savoury and attractive to smell. The nose says real wine and brambly spice to me, before a palate that builds tannins and acids as you move through a glass, then a bottle.

It livens up even more with food. The fruit folds back into the wine (this was tasted with bistecca) and lets the tannins and acid cut and refresh. My minor quibble about what is otherwise an enjoyable barbera is that with more airtime the acids and astringent finish become more pronounced, including a tinny note of pressed citrus rind (almost as you can find in young-vine tempranillo). A glass carried over to a second day continues this trend.

Fully-priced at $27.99 from Dan Murphy's, this is $25 a bottle from cellar door and is sealed with a Stelvin Lux closure. This could settle a flesh out a little more with time in bottle, but I would drink it in the next two years, not trying to hold a bottle over more than a night open. Worth a look to indicate what barbera is doing in Australia (and can do in the Hunter), but the current release Chrismont 2009 Barbera (King Valley, $26 rrp) is a more convincing and better value argument for the grape in Australia.


Two new discoveries for me:
- Using my pancetta and artichokes preserved in oil as a pizza topping (just a bit of cheese and tomato sauce underneath). A great combination of salt, oil and sharp from the artichoke brining, plus the giving texture of the artichoke against the chewy resistance of pancetta cut into batons. Went well with a Rockfords Moppa Springs grenache mataro shiraz blend. A sangiovese or barbera would have been a good match too.
- Hazelnuts in pesto instead of pinenuts. Dictated by the necessity of having run out of pine nuts and needing to make pesto to go with a pane di casa loaf I'd just baked. Usually, I have little time for pesto variants (especially commercial pre-mades that substitute many of the key elements that make fresh, traditional pesto so good). But this time, using good hazels with the skins on, the pesto turned out lighter and crunchier than usual. The skins gave the pesto a length of flavour (and tannin grip) that made it an excellent accompaniment to the fresh bread. Surprisingly good with a sparkling pinot noir from Adelaide Hills fruit (done as a white bubbles with the barest touch of bronze), but would have also been good with a prosecco or pinot grigio.