Tuesday, April 12, 2011

VinItaly 2011 - Day One

I have sinned - it has been two years since my last VinItaly – a confession by any standards. After 8 years of consecutive VinItaly Fairs, I took a break for the last 2 – something to do with about 11,000 people cooped up in vast, hot, noisy halls had put me off. Not to mention some over zealous attendees trying to rob wines from the various stands, imbibing too much and falling over in the corridors. OK – maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but I definitely needed a break from it.

Two years later, I was ready to return! The lure of the Bordeaux 2010 Primeurs circus and/or Prowein were both strong – but VinItaly won out mainly due to the opportunity to catch up with some favourite producers and have a quick search for some new value wines – something Italy does better and better each year. A few things had changed since the last visit: mostly critically the little “Locanda” slap bang into the middle of the old part of Verona that we previously stayed in had closed. Bad news. This used to be a wonderful little secret – basic, good value and a long list of things you couldn’t do… “No dogs, no cheques, no late arrival, no lift, no breakfast.” It will be missed.

So the process of identifying a new base began. Would it be a very basic, yet ridiculously expensive dive in Verona that jacks up the price during VinItaly by a multiple of 10 – with a minimum of a 5 night stay? Or would it be something a little different? Well, different won out – by a long shot. Try different town altogether. Try Brescia. Certainly a nice town for a romantic break or cultural enrichment – but maybe not the best place to stay in for VinItaly. An hour long journey each way to and from Verona made us feel a bit like we were on another planet. Quite possibly we were.

I assumed driving duties – I’m not quite sure how I landed that role, but Gay did (quite cleverly I think) tell me he accidently forgot his driving licence. And I don’t think it crossed Sinead’s mind to bring hers. So it was down to me to drive, taste, spit, write notes, taste, spit, write notes, taste, spit – and drive. Actually, the closet we came to a crash was when I was fiddling with a self-administered breathalyser thing at 140km/h on the Autostrada. Definitely won’t try that again.

As to the Fair itself – well, we arrived early (but not quite as early as planned – something called traffic) on the Thursday morning. Years of previous experience have taught us that only the vinuously insane would attempt to attend on a Saturday or Sunday when it’s a general free-for-all. All was relatively quiet on the Thursday, with many producers looking slightly confused – that sort of “just landed from another planet – and is this all real?” type look. We decided that the best start to two days of non-stop tasting would be some high quality, crisp fresh whites and we headed straight for San Michele Appiano – or Kellerei St. Michael Eppan as they seem to now prefer to be known. Why these wines don’t sell more for us is always a mystery – I suppose in a sea of inexpensive (and largely bland) Pinot Grigio and other watery Italian whites, these are small islands of excellence and it’s easy to lose sight of them. However the quality is superb – the Pinot Bianco, Riesling and Gewurztraminer all from the 2010 Classic Range were delicious and each one a great template for a varietal wine – unique, yet accessible. The Pinot Nero Riserva would put many a Burgundian or NZ Pinot to shame, but at a similar price it’s a tough challenge to actually get someone to taste both to make the comparison. Shame. One of their most well-know wines is their annual Tre Bicchieri winner, the oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc Sanct Valentin. It’s certainly an impressive wine – but after the purity of the initial wines, it seemed a little heavy and lumbering.

On the way to our next appointment, we stopped briefly at another well-known Alto Adige producer. Without wanting to sound too biased (but I suppose we obviously are), to say we were underwhelmed in comparison to St. Mick would be an understatement. We left with a spring in our step and a certain uncharacteristic – and definitely undesirable – smugness.

Puglia was next – Cantina San Donaci to be precise. Some years back we visited here and witnessed the beginnings of a wine-making revolution of sorts. There was a relatively old fashioned co-operative with many members producing juicy, chunky wines. But there was also an ambitious “Presidente” along with a talented winemaker who wanted to turn the Cantina around and make it a source for smooth, velvety, balanced wines from the old vine Negroamaro and Primitivo fruit that they had access to. Since then, the quality has soared – yet the prices remain reasonable. We sat down with Carlo in eager anticipation of a great tasting. These were some of the most inexpensive, yet highest quality, wines we were to taste at the Fair. They have a new entry-level range called Fontenera and a also a wonderful new cuvee called Contrade del Falco (blend of Negroamaro and Primitivo) along with our old favourite – the barrique aged Salice Salentino Anticaia Riserva. Normally, hot climate, rich grape varieties (like Negroamaro) and barrique ageing are a recipe for testosterone-charged, full-throttle, chunky and alcoholic wines. But not here. Each one was silky smooth and elegant – with some very skilful and impressive winemaking evident. We finished off with a sweet red called Pietra Caya – a Malvasia “dolce” that was sublime. A great tasting and watch out for much flag waving from us when the new wines arrive in a few weeks time.

Next it was back to some whites – and an intruder. The guys from Verus (in Slovenia) had told us they were getting up at 3am to drive to VinItaly to show their 2010 vintage wines on the stand of their Italian importer. Although we had tasted them a few weeks previously, we wanted to go and taste again – and to try and squeeze a few more bottles out of them for a shipment later in the year. Their Italian importer turned out to be one of the big, flash companies with a castellated stand that looked like something straight out of the Princess Bride. We were swept past security (very impressive looking security indeed) and upstairs where we enjoyed some delicious Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sipon with Danilo and Rajko. And we got a promise of an increased allocation – although I think it was due to the sleep deprivation that they were suffering from – when they wake up they might regret it! Success again.

On our way from Slovenia to Tuscany, we decided to stop by Lazio and do a quick tasting with Falesco. The wines used to be imported by O’Briens and were excellent price/quality wines. I’m not sure what happened with O’Briens, and they certainly didn’t look like they were going to tell us, so we just asked to try some wines. The Vitiano Bianco (Vermentino and Verdicchio) was lovely, but the Falesco Rosso tasted a bit like it (or the winemaker) was trying too hard – soft and a little soupy, but with a twist of heat on the finish. We tried a couple of other cuvees too – but overall, we were slightly underwhelmed. It could have been the heat, the day, the mood we were in – but something wasn’t working quite right.

Onwards then to Renzo Masi from Chianti Rufina. We feel like we know Anna-Rita and Paolo very well by now – and swap horror stories about kids etc. Once again, we are fortunate to be working with a producer who focuses exclusively on producing inexpensive wines of exceptional quality. No stratospherically priced super-Tuscan icons here – just great drinking value. For some strange reason though, none of this winemaking skill seems to have been applied to the labelling so best news of all was that the slightly wildly labelled Poggerissi wines have been the subject of a label makeover and now sport a far more restrained label that won’t give your granny nightmares. Of course, both the Bianco and Rosso were delicious as usual, along with the Renzo Masi Chianti (from bought in grapes) and the Basciano Chianti Rufina (from estate grapes). Every year, Anna-Rita gives us a big poster showing a collection of all the awards and scores the wines have accumulated. And every year we focus hard to see if they have repeated anything from previous versions – but each time we’re surprised (and impressed) to discover that, yes, everything on the sheet has been achieved in the past 12 months.

With time moving very quickly at this stage, we hurried over to Aldo Degani. Now, here is a very humble and quiet – yet impressively talented – winemaker. Not much chat from Aldo – I don’t think you’d find him doing stand-up on Italy’s Got Talent – but if it was a competition for wines that could talk for themselves, then they’d do very well. Again, he tends to go for purity of fruit, balanced concentration and elegance – not descriptors usually associated with Amarones. His straight Valpolicella Classico is packed full of juicy, cherry fruit and the Ripasso is velvet (more velvet!) and rich without any portiness at all. The Amarone has surprisingly soft, warm fruit and is also very smooth – a wine to drink and enjoy.

With an hour-long drive back to the very distant hotel beckoning, we left the Fair just after 6pm and headed back to explore the nightlife that Brescia had to offer. Not very much it would seem!

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