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Around the World in Whiskey Days

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From its fabled Southern origins, dating back to the mid-19th century, this whiskey has earned the reputation of being America’s liquor.

It’s burnt golden nectar, with its singed sweetness, has a Congressional seal of approval with official status as ‘America’s Native Spirit’.

Bourbon drinkers will settle for nothing less.

There are many different bourbon whiskeys available. Each has its own distinctive flavor and, as you drink them, you will determine what you do and don’t like.

The 3 Types of Bourbon:  

A Intro To America’s Native Spirit

The Basics

Bourbon is distilled all over the country, but Kentucky will always be considered its home state of production (…although there may be a few folks down in New Orleans and over in Tennessee who consider otherwise).

To be called a bourbon, the whiskey must:

  1. Have a mash (the grain-based mixture from which bourbon is made) that is at least 51% corn.
  2. Be distilled in charred oak barrels. These barrels give the liquor its distinctive golden hue.
  3. Be a maximum of 80% alcohol by volume.

Although there are no requirements on aging the whiskey the best batches are matured for at least four years. A batch aged less than two years is legally required to display its age on the bottle.

The 3 Types of Bourbon

1) Traditional Bourbon

The grain component used to make the mash of traditional bourbon is over 70% corn, (the remainder being equal parts rye and barley).

Its flavor is a balanced blend of sweet and spice.

The traditional varieties are the brands that typically first come to mind when thinking about bourbon.

2) Wheat Bourbon

Wheat Bourbon is prepared very similarly to Traditional.

The difference, as the name implies, is that wheat is used in its mash mixture (replacing the rye). This sweetens the flavor, and also softens the burn.

3) Rye Bourbon

If you’re starting to notice a trend, you may have already guessed what makes a Rye Bourbon.

Once again, the concentration of the grain mixture is key.

In Rye bourbon the mix will be less corn, almost no barley, and double the rye. Ryes are best known for their bite.

The Little Things

Traditional, wheat and rye are the basic types of bourbon, but similar to scotch and other whiskeys, these types break down further into sub-lines based on slight alterations in production techniques.

These include:

SMALL BATCH BOURBON

Unless otherwise stated, most bourbons, and whiskeys in general, are a blend of some kind. Small batch simply means that it is the blend of a small number of barrels.

What is small? There is no hard and fast number, but as a rule of thumb, small would be under 100.

SINGLE BARREL BOURBON

As it sounds, this liquor is produced from a single barrel. Taste, aroma and color vary from barrel to barrel. Because of this, every new single barrel release you try will be slightly different.

UNFILTERED BOURBON

When whiskeys are filtered, some of its flavor is filtered out. Because of this, many argue that this is the most flavorful of all the types of bourbon. Quite simply, unfiltered bourbon is not filtered. This leaves the liquor with a hazy appearance.

STRAIGHT BOURBON

There are federal laws regarding the definition of bourbon. Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is made in a particular fashion. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the country, but it is most often associated with its origin site in Kentucky. The mash that the liquor is fermented from must be at least 51% corn and must be distilled to no higher than 80% alcohol. The liquor then must enter the new oak barrel for aging, minimum of 2 years at no more than 62.5% alcohol and bottled with at least 40% alcohol.

The description above fits straight bourbon whiskey to a tee. Straight bourbon is made from a single batch and aged in a new oak barrel. The liquid that comes out of the barrel is all that you’ll find in the bottle you buy. It is not mixed or blended with any other alcohols. It is, essentially, straight from the barrel.

BLENDED BOURBON

Blended bourbon is slightly harder to find than most blended whiskeys. It has other additives for color or flavoring mixed in once the whiskey is out of the barrel At least 51% of the mixture has to be straight bourbon.

BOTTLED IN BOND BOURBON

Bottled in Bond is the most restricted bourbon.  Not only does B.I.B. bourbon have to follow all the strict laws of bourbon, but also the 4 guidelines set down by the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 which states that to be BONDED bourbon it must:

  • Be aged for at least 4 years old
  • Be bottled at exactly 100 proof
  • Be produced at a single distillery
  • Be bottled from barrels put up in one season (barrels put up from Jan to Dec of a single year)

Because they have to use barrels put up in one season, it really limits the amount of bourbon that can be sold, so there are not that many B.I.B. bourbons produced any more.  But Bonded bourbons made up the bulk of what was sold before Prohibition (1897 till 1920) and then during Prohibition as medicinal whiskey.  It was “the good stuff” because you were guaranteed that the bourbon was a good age, and a good strong honest proof, and you knew it came from one distillery.

BARREL FINISHED BOURBON

These are bourbons that have been matured under all the regulations of bourbon, and then taken out of those barrels, and finished off in other wood finishes.  This adds depth and complexity, and other types of flavors bourbons can’t achieve in standard oak barrels.  Of course, technically they stop becoming bourbon the second they are put in to a used barrel, but they are arguably still bourbon, because they start out that way and plainly listed on the label, FINISHED in Port Wine Barrels, or whatever finish it is.  The distilleries have to apply for a special permit to still use the word “bourbon” on the label, but it’s an important distinction because if they couldn’t state that, you might assume that they were using a cheap blended whiskey, or very young whiskey as the base spirit.  So, a typical wording of this style would typically read something like,

“Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey finished in Cognac Casks”

One good thing about finishing in these types of barrels, is typically, you don’t have to age them too long in other woods to add this complexity.  The distiller does not want to have the second wood over power the bourbon.

SOUR MASH

Bourbon’s unique character comes from the 51 to 79 percent corn in its recipe. The addition of water to crushed or rolled grain begins the fermentation process, and the fermented mash is distilled to produce a spirit that is no more than 80 percent alcohol by volume. Bourbon may be double-distilled and aged at least two years in charred oak barrels. The result is a mellow, woody blend of flavors that may be bottled straight out of a single barrel or blended from a number of barrels in a small batch. Sour mash whiskey uses the bourbon recipe but starts the mash with leftovers from a previous batch, much like the starter in sourdough bread. The sour mash process gives a sweeter, deeper flavor to the final product. The alcohol by volume content of bourbon and sour mash is adjusted to between 40 and 50 percent (80 to 100 proof) at bottling time.

The name “bourbon” has been legally controlled only since 1964, so makers exist in other counties. However, only bourbon made in Kentucky may use the name of the state on the label. Tennessee whiskey uses the bourbon recipe, but the distilled spirits are filtered through maple charcoal, adding a different overtone to the flavors. Makers will specify “sour mash” on the label if that process is used.

TASTING

Did you know there is a difference between tasting your bourbon and drinking it?

The correct way to drink bourbon is however you like to drink it; mixed or on the rocks on a hot summer day, straight up next to the fire in the dead of winter, or with a twist of lemon with dinner.  It’s all good.

But that’s very different from tasting bourbon. Tasting bourbon is a careful examination of the bourbon’s nuances and aromas without the hindrance of a mixer, or an abundance of ice or water that will ultimately dull the flavors.

Tasting bourbon may seem complicated.  It may, at first, seem like people must have incredibly delicate palates to taste so many flavors in a bourbon when many people just taste, well, bourbon.  But it isn’t difficult.

There are four essential categories to consider:

Appearance:  Is it clear?  Cloudy?  Light amber or dark mahogany in color?  Age, proof, and filtration methods all affect appearance.  Hold the glass up to the light, or in front of a clean white sheet of paper to get a good look at it.  Swirl it around the glass once or twice.

Aroma: Smell is a vital part of taste, and thus it’s very important to not skip the aroma portion of a taste.  Keeping your lips parted, stick your nose right above the opening of your glass.

Taste: Don’t gulp the bourbon.  No matter how strong it is, you’ll get used to the alcohol burn on the tongue until it doesn’t bother you. So, take a generous mouthful into your mouth and “chew” it.  The folks at Jim beam call it the “Kentucky Chew.” Move the bourbon around inside your mouth with a chewing motion to coat your tongue.  Notice the difference in flavors from the front to the back of your tongue.  Finally, swallow it.  The tongue has several tasting “zones.”  The tip of the tongue detects sweetness.  The middle of the tongue detects salty flavors, and the back of the tongue can taste bitterness.  These zones, combined with the aroma, define the flavors of the bourbon.

Finish: the finish refers to the sensations after you’ve swallowed.  How long does the taste stay with you?  If it lingers for a while, that’s a long finish.  If it dissipates quickly, it’s a short finish.  Do any other flavors manifest in your mouth as the finish dissipates?  What textures did you notice?  Did you catch a warm sensation in your upper body after swallowing?  Distillers call that the “Kentucky Hug.”

Once you’ve done that, you may find it helpful to add a few drops of distilled water to the bourbon.  Don’t over-water it!  You can always add more water to the glass, but you can’t un-mix it once you’ve poured it.  Adding distilled water can help open up the aromas and flavors of the bourbon as well as bring the proof down slightly if it’s a high proof spirit.  And why distilled?  Simple.  Iron is the mortal enemy of whiskey, ruining the taste.  That’s why bourbon is mostly made in Kentucky- the entire central portion of the state sits on a limestone shelf.  The limestone naturally filters iron out of the streams and creeks.  Distilled water is free of iron.

 

 

 

A Rose by Any Other Name

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ROSÉ

rosé (from French: rosé also known as rosado in Portugal and Spanish-speaking countries or rosato in Italy) is a type of wine that incorporates some of the color from the grape skins, but not enough to qualify it as a red wine. It may be the oldest known type of wine, as it is the most straightforward to make with the skin contact method. The pink color can range from a pale “onion“-skin orange to a vivid near-purple, depending on the grape varieties used and winemaking techniques. There are three major ways to produce rosé wine: skin contact, saignée and blending. Rosé wines can be made still, semi-sparkling or sparkling and with a wide range of sweetness levels from bone-dry Provençal rosé to sweet White Zinfandels and blushes. Rosé wines are made from a wide variety of grapes and can be found all across the globe.

When rosé wine is the primary product, it is produced with the skin contact method. Black-skinned grapes are crushed and the skins are allowed to remain in contact with the juice for a short period, typically one to three days. The must is then pressed, and the skins are discarded rather than left in contact throughout fermentation (as with red wine making). The longer that the skins are left in contact with the juice, the more intense the color of the final wine.

When a winemaker desires to impart more tannin and color to a red wine, some of the pink juice from the must can be removed at an early stage in what is known as the Saignée (from French bleeding) method. The red wine remaining in the vats is intensified as a result of the bleeding, because the volume of juice in the must is reduced, and the must involved in the maceration becomes more concentrated. The pink juice that is removed can be fermented separately to produce rosé.

In other parts of the world, blending, the simple mixing of red wine to a white to impart color, is not uncommon. This method is discouraged in most wine growing regions, especially in France, where it is forbidden by law, except for Champagne. Even in Champagne, several high-end producers do not use this method but rather the saignée method.

HISTORY

When the first wine labeled as rosé was produced is not known but it is very likely that many of the earliest red wines made were closer in appearance to today’s rosés than they would be to modern red wines. This is because many of the winemaking techniques used to make todays darker, more tannic red wines (such as extended maceration and harder pressing) were not widely practiced in ancient winemaking. Both red and white wine grapes were often pressed soon after harvest, with very little maceration time, by hand, feet or even sack cloth creating juice that was only lightly pigmented.

Even after the development of newer, more efficient wine presses, many ancient and early winemakers still preferred making the lighter colored and fruitier style of wines. There was an understanding, as early as the time of the Ancient Greeks and Roman winemakers, that harder pressing and lettings the juice “sit” for a period with the skins would make darker, heartier wines but the resulting wines were often considered too harsh and less desirable. This sentiment lasted well into the Middle Ages, when the pale clarets from Bordeaux were starting to gain the world’s attention. To the powerful English market the most prized clarets were, according to wine historian Hugh Johnson, the vin d’une nuit or “wine of one night” which were pale-rosé colored wines made from juice that was allowed only a single night of skin contact. The darker wine produced from must that had longer skin contact were known as the vin vermeilh (or pinpin to the English) was considered to be of much lesser quality.

Similarly, in the early history of Champagne the wines produced from this region during the Middle Ages were nothing like the sparkling white wines associated with the region today. Instead they were pale red and even pinkish with some Champenois winemakers using elderberries to add more red color to the wines as they competed with the wines of Burgundy for the lucrative Flemish wine trade. In the 16th and 17th century, the region achieved some acclaim for their “white” wines made from Pinot noir grapes but rather than actually being white these wines were instead a pale “greyish pink” that was reminiscent of the a “partridge‘s eye” and earned the nickname Œil de Perdrix—a style of rosé still being produced in Switzerland. In the late 17th century, the Champenois learned how to better separate the skins from the must and produce truly white wine from red wine grapes.

Even as Champenois moved towards producing sparkling wines, they continued to produce both sparkling and still rosés often by means of blending a small amount of red wine to “color up” an already made white wine. The depth of color was dependent on the amount red wine added with the red wine having more influence on the resulting flavor of the wine if added in larger volumes.

AFTER WORLD WAR II

The history of rosé would take a dramatic turn following the conclusion of World War II when two Portuguese wine producer families both released sweet, slightly sparkling rosés to the European and American markets. These wines, Mateus and Lancers, would go to set record sales in Europe and the US and dominate the Portuguese wine industry for most of the 20th century but their popularity has declined in the recent years of the 21st century. While they still have a presence in the European and US markets, the trend towards traditional, drier rosés as well as the development of American “blush” wines like White Zinfandel have cut into their market shares.

In the early 1970s, demand for white wine exceeded the availability of white wine grapes, so many California producers made “white” wine from red grapes, in a form of saignée production with minimal skin contact, the “whiter” the better. In 1975, Sutter Home’s “White Zinfandel” wine experienced a stuck fermentation, a problem in which the yeast dies off before all the sugar is turned to alcohol. Winemaker Bob Trinchero put it aside for two weeks, then upon tasting it he decided to sell this pinker, sweeter wine.

In 1976, wine writer Jerry D. Mead visited Mill Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County, California. Charles Kreck had been one of the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon vines in California, and offered Mead a wine made from Cabernet that was a pale pink and as yet unnamed. Kreck would not call it “White Cabernet” as it was much darker in color than red grape “white” wines of the time, yet it was not as dark as the rosés he had known. Mead jokingly suggested the name “Cabernet Blush”, then that evening phoned Kreck to say that he no longer thought the name a joke. In 1978 Kreck trademarked the word “Blush”.The name caught on as a marketing name for the semi-sweet wines from producers such as Sutter Home and Beringer. Today, Blush wine appears on wine lists more often as a category, rather than a specific wine. In 2010 Mill Creek produced a rosé wine for the first time in years, although Jeremy Kreck (Charles’ grandson and current winemaker) chose not to use the Blush name.

Although “blush” originally referred to a color (pale pink), it now tends to indicate a relatively sweet pink wine, typically with 2.5% residual sugar; in North America dry pink wines are usually marketed as rosé but sometimes as blush. In Europe, almost all pink wines are referred to as rosé regardless of sugar levels, even semi-sweet ones from California. As the term rosé regain popularity in the US market, shares of wine labeled “blush” declined from 22% of all wines consumed in the US in 1997 to 15% in 2003.

In the United States a record 2005 California crop has resulted in an increased production and proliferation of varietals used for rosés, as winemakers chose to make rosé rather than leave their reds unsold.

WINEMAKING METHODS

Rosés can be produced in a variety of ways with the most common method being early pressing of red grape varieties after a very short period, usually 12–24 hours, of skin-contact (maceration). During maceration, phenolics such as the anthocyanins and tannins that contribute to color as well as many flavor components are leached from the skins, seeds and any stems left in contact with the must. In addition to adding color and flavor, these phenolics also serve as antioxidants, protecting the wine from degradation of oxygen exposure. While red wines will often have maceration last several days to even several weeks, the very limited maceration of rosés means that these wines will have less stable color, potential flavor components and oxygen protection. This contributes to wines with shorter shelf-life that are meant to be consumed soon after release.

The saignée (French for “bleed”) method is the practice of removing (“bleeding off”) some of the juice from the must in order to more deeply concentrate the phenolics, color and flavor the red wine. It has a long history of use in the French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy but wasn’t always used for rosé production. For some red winemakers, the juice bleed off is simply poured down the drain or used as “topping wine” to fill the ullage (the headspace of barrels and tanks) during storage. Its use in rosé production is sometimes considered an after-thought, as a way to increase cash-flow by producing a second wine to a primary red wine that can be released much sooner and available to market. While many wineries have been able to produce critically acclaimed rosé using the saignée method, its use has provoked criticism from wine personalities such as François Millo, president of the Provence Wine Council (CIVP) who claim that saignée method rosés are “not true rosés.”

Unlike the maceration method which gives some, albeit very brief, time for the juice to be in contact with the skins vin gris are wines made from the immediate pressing of red skin grapes without any maceration time. Despite the name vin gris, the resulting juice is actually not grey but rather a very pale pink that is usually much lighter than traditionally made rosés using the limited maceration and saignée methods. Under French wine laws, wines labelled gris de gris must only be made from lightly tinted grape varieties such as Cinsault,Gamay and Grenache gris. The style is a specialty of the Lorraine Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) Côtes de Toul made from Gamay and in Morocco where the orange-pink wine is made from a blend of Cinsaut, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Another method of producing rosé that is to severely decolorize a red wine using absorbent charcoal such as activated carbon. This purer form of charcoal obtained by the dry distillation of carbon compounds (such as wood or peat) has a high ratio of surface area to weight that absorbs color compounds as well as other phenolics and colloids in a wine. While it can be used to decolorize a wine, often much more than just color is stripped from the wine which makes this method very rarely used in the production of quality rosés.

COLOR

With the exception of very few varieties, known as teinturiers, most wine grapes produce clear or colorless juice. This includes such well known red wine grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot noir. The color in red wine comes from phenolics in the skin called anthocyanins that react with other components in wine (such as tanninsacetaldehyde and pyruvic acid) to form polymeric pigments. The anthocyanins are extracted from the skin during the process of maceration which can last from a few hours in the case of some rosés (which usually only have 20–50 mg/l of anthocyanins) to several days in the case of most red wines (which often have in excess of 250 mg/l of anthocyanins).

Anthocyanins have the ability to change into three different forms—colorless, red and blue—depending on the pH/acidity levels of the solution they are in. At wine pH (typically 2.9-4.0), most of the grape anythocyanins are in the colorless form unless they have reacted with tannins or other molecules (such as tannins also extracted from the skin as well as grape seeds, stems and from oak wine barrels) to form a stabilized pigment. So producers wishing to make rosé work to not only limit the amount of anthocyanins extracted into the wine but also limit the wines exposure to tannins (either by less maceration time, gentle pressing of the grapes or use only stainless tanks instead of oak) as well as protective anti-oxidative winemaking techniques that limit the development of acetaldehyde and other browning pigments that could add color to the wine.

According to Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence in France, rosés in Provence display one of the different colors below:

Many studies have shown that the color of wine influences consumer’s perceptions about the wine. While these studies have shown that consumers tend to prefer on visual inspection the darker rosés, in blind taste test where color could not be visually discern (such as using black wine glasses), often consumers preferred the lighter-colored rosés.

For these reasons many rosé winemakers are mindful of the color quality of their rosé and make winemaking decisions based on this factor. This includes the extent of maceration, whether or not to do a saignee from a darker red wine and even to do a color adjustment by blending in some finished red wine in order to reach the desired color.

AROMAS AND FLAVORS

The aromas and flavor of rosés are primarily influenced by the particular grape varieties used to produce the wine but the method of production also plays an important part. The light, fruity character of many rosés come from volatile thiols that are found as flavor precursors in the grape skins. The most prominent of these is 3-mercaptohexanol-1-ol and 3-mercaptohenyl acetate. These are extracted from the grapes skin during maceration but are less likely to be extracted at temperatures before 20°C (68°F). So producers doing a “cold soak” maceration (with much lower temperature) to limit microbial and oxidative activity may extract less of these compounds. During fermentation, other flavor components such as the esters phenethyl acetate and isoamyl acetate also form and contribute to wine’s aromas.

The stability of these aromas is very dependent on the amount of anthocyanins and other phenolics that protect these compounds from oxidation. One of the reasons why rosés have such a very limited shelf-life is because of their low phenolic levels due to the very limited skin contact and extraction time. Usually within a year of production the levels of 3-mercaptohexanol-1-ol in the wine have dropped to half its fermentation levels with the presence of 3-mercaptohenyl acetate undetectable in most wines. This is why most wine experts recommend that rosés are consumed as soon after release as possible.

ORANGE WINE

An orange wine, also commonly known as amber wine, is a type of wine made from white wine grape varieties that have spent some maceration time in contact with the grape skins. Orange wines get their name from the darker, slightly orange tinge that the white wines receive due to their contact with the coloring pigments of the grape skins. This winemaking style is essentially the opposite of rosé production which involves getting red wine grapes quickly off their skins, leaving the wine with a slightly pinkish hue.

Guess Who is Coming to Dinner? – Portuguese Wine

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Portuguese Wine

Portugal has undergone something of a wine revolution in the past couple of decades, updating its winemaking technologies, styles and attitudes. This archetypal Old World country has long been famous for little more than its fortified wines (Port and Madeira) and tart, light Vinho Verde. But it is now attracting a great deal of attention for its new wave of rich, ripe, table wines – particularly reds from the Douro Valley. 

Douro Valley Regua

One might argue that Portugal’s place in the wine world has centered more around its cork production than its wine, but this depends largely on which period of history one chooses. In the 18th century, when the supply of French wines to England was threatened by deteriorating international relations, Portugal’s vineyards proved more than capable of filling the void. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when international demand for Portuguese wines had dwindled to almost nothing, that Portugal rose to dominate world cork production. In the 21st century, the Portuguese cork industry is struggling (due to the ever-growing popularity of plastic corks and metal screwcaps), but the nation’s wines are once again on the rise, led by dry reds from the Douro and Dao.

Portugal’s many vine varieties and their countless regional synonyms are the bane of ampelographers. Some are endemic to Portugal (e.g. Touriga Nacional), while others are shared with neighboring Spain (e.g. Tinta Roriz/Tempranillo). An increasing number are the ever-popular ‘international varieties of French origin (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay). Happily, the current success of Portuguese wines has not become dependent on the latter category – a fact which has played to its favor; by retaining their indigenous grapes, Portugal’s winegrowers have maintained a certain uniqueness in their wines, which is a valuable asset in the world’s increasingly demanding and competitive wine market.

Portugal’s temperate, predominantly maritime climate has a great deal to offer ambitious vignerons. The country’s portfolio of terroirs is not as broad as that of, say, France or Italy, but there is significant variation nonetheless between its mountains, river valleys, sandy littoral plains and limestone-rich coastal hills. The high levels of rainfall that blow in from the western Atlantic are a boon to those seeking high yields from their vineyards, but they come at a price: the significantly increased risk of fungal problems in all but the best-ventilated sites.

Provided the risk of disease can be effectively managed, producers in coastal regions such as Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) and the Setubal Peninsula have little problem generating prolific yields. Quality can be achieved in these fertile environments only by limiting quantity through careful canopy management and judicious green harvesting. Sheltered, inland wine regions, such as Transmontano and Douro, are typically better equipped for the production of quality wines as their drier climate and alluvial soils force vines to dig deep, strong root systems. Illogical as it might seem, stressed vines make quality wines.

Alentejo Wine

Alentejo is a well-known, highly respected wine region in eastern Portugal. This hot, dry area is best known for its red wines, the best of which are sold under the and Alentejo DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada) title. These wines are typically made from Aragonez (Tempranillo), CastelaoTrincadeira or a rich, ripe, jammy blend of the three. Although famously diverse in its portfolio of wine grapes (navigating the many names and their synonyms is a challenge), Alentejo has not been sluggish to adopt such globally popular varieties as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the most remarkable things about modern Alentejo winemaking is its ability to create a uniquely Alentejano wine style from quintessentially French grape varieties.

The region is named for its position south of the Tejo river, which bisects Portugal, entering the ocean near Lisbon. Alentejo extends across about a third of Portugal, with only the Algarve region separating it from the southern coast of the country. Even the briefest of glances at a population density map of Portugal shows that this area of the country is only very sparsely populated, in stark contrast to the northern coastal areas around Oporto. Land here is used (somewhat intensively) for the production of various cereal crops, and the cork for which Portugal is so famous. Whereas the cork plantations of the north are quite small, here in Alentejo there is sufficient free space for the thick-barked Quercus suber trees to sprawl out all over the countryside.

The size of Alentejo means that there is a wealth of terroir, and it is fairly difficult to generalize about the region as a whole. Broadly speaking, Alentejo has a gently undulating topography, which protects much of the land from the cooling effects of the Atlantic. This lends the land to the production of rich, easy-drinking red wines, as ripeness is easy to achieve in these conditions. However, there are some anomalies – the sub region of Portalegre is in the foothills of the mountains in the northeast of Alentejo, where the climate is considerably cooler.

Alentejo has its own DOP title, as well as a wider Vinho Regional Alentejano designation. The DOP has eight sub-regions, which span from the mountains to the hot, dry center of the region: Portalegre, Borba, Évora, Redondo, Reguengos, Granja-Amareleja, Vidigueira and Moura.

Alentejo has been a key center of Portugal’s wine renaissance over the past few decades. Although wine production here was once dominated by a handful of government-supported cooperatives, the quantity of premium wine now generated by the region’s independent smallholdings is impressive. The European Union, which has been involved in various wine improvement schemes around Europe (most obviously vine-pull schemes in France and Italy), has been quick to provide assistance here. Few in the wine world can be ignorant of the impact that Portuguese wine is now having in the market place, a great deal of which is down to this aid, and the new focus the country’s wine industry has adopted.

Proudly, Alentejo is leading the charge. Although temporarily suffering from the “value for money” tag that dogged Chile and its wines for so long, Alentejano wines have already shown their ability to take on the crus of France, the big-name reds of Spain, and even the most highly respected DOCG wines of Italy.

How Alentejo’s upwards trajectory continues is something only time can tell. Similarly, whether the region’s wine fortunes are inextricably linked to those of Portugal as a whole remains to be seen. For now, whatever the case, Alentejo continues to offer some of the best value Old World wines available.

Beiras Wine

Beiras (Beira) is a traditional administrative region in the northern half of Portugal. It is also the name of the IGP, or Indicacoes Geograficas Protegidas, wine classification (formerly known as Vinho Regional) which covers the region as a whole. A wide range of wines are made in Beiras – red wines from the region are typically rich, deeply colored wines made from Baga, Castelão, Rufete (Tinto Pinheira), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Touriga Nacional, and are sometimes fortified to emulate their more famous Oporto cousins. Whites are most often based on Fernão Pires and Bical, the latter being a small-berried variety with the affectionate nickname Borrado das Moscaos (‘fly droppings’).

Beiras is relatively wide, as Portuguese regions go, and stretches from the Atlantic coast right to the border with Spain (about 100 miles/160km). It was traditionally a single region, but was later split into Beira Litoral (coastal Beira) and Beira Interior (inland Beira). The region encompasses several DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) titles, among them BairradaBeira Interior and the famous Dão.

Terroir varies greatly in the Beiras region, which touches both sides of Portugal and takes in coastline, rivers, valleys, lakes, plateau and low mountains. The same is true of the climate – although heavily influenced by the Atlantic in the maritime west, the continental draw of Spain’s hot, dry center is strong in the east. In the west are the sandier soils of the coast, slightly inland are the limestone and clays of Bairrada, and the center has the alluvial soils of the Dão, Mondego and Ceira river valleys.

Baga is arguably the most important red wine grape in Beira. It typically makes up the lion’s share of red wines, particularly in Bairrada, where it accounts for more than three-quarters of the red plantings. Prolific and late ripening, Baga’s large crops are often threatened by the risk of autumn rains blowing in from the Atlantic, one of the more significant challenges facing the region’s vignerons each vintage. Baga-based wines are typically deeply colored, highly acidic and very tannic – a consequence of their small berries and thick skins. French grapes Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah are increasingly popular across Beiras, as they are the world over, and are often used to soften Baga wines and make them more immediately appealing to those wine consumers not yet seduced by classic Portuguese wine styles.

For centuries Beiras has suffered the repercussions of a significant event in the wine history of Bairrada, its westernmost viticultural area. In the early 18th century the British appetite for port (produced in the nearby Douro valley) was reaching fever pitch, creating significant commercial opportunities. A number of Bairrada producers were caught exporting their Bairrada wines as port, and a number of legitimate port producers were found blending Bairrada wines into their own to increase output. Wine legislation and regulation was in its infancy back then (Tokaj and port were among the first), but so valued was the port name that the Portuguese government took immediate action to maintain its purity; Sebastião José de Carvalho, the country’s vehemently nationalist First Minister, ordered that all vines in Bairrada be uprooted. The stain on Bairrada’s reputation lasted well into the 20th century, and only in 1980 was the area finally granted official recognition as a Portuguese wine region.

Dao Wine

Dão is one of Portugal’s most prominent wine regions, located just south of the famous Douro Valley. It has suffered from a bad reputation in the past but international wine media attention and improvements in production (and marketing) have helped the region to start shining. The top Dão wines are now some of the most highly rated in Europe, winning consistent praise on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Dão viticultural region is in the north of the country. It takes its name from the Dão river, along which the majority of the region’s vineyards are located. The Dão is a tributary of the larger Mondego (Portugal’s longest river) and several other rivers also flow through the region. However, only the Dão is significant enough to have the local DOC named after it – mostly due to the tough, crystalline granite that the river has carved its path through for many millennia.

To the north, south and east of the Dão Valley are the granite mountains of eastern Beiras. These are the same peaks which separate Beira Litoral (coastal Beira) from Beira Interior (inland Beira), and the Dão and Douro rivers. As a result of this protected position, the climate along the Dão is relatively mild, stable and consistent between vineyard sites. Naturally, this creates a homogenization of the region’s terroir; whether this is a bad or good thing is open to debate.

The majority of Dão’s quality vineyards are situated at altitudes between 500-1500ft (150–450m) above sea level. This elevation raises the vines out of the valley’s shadows and towards all-important sunshine, allowing them to maximize their photosynthesis time during the day. It also increases diurnal temperature variation, helping the grapes cool down at night, which they must do to retain the acids so desirable in wine.

The biggest name in Dão wine production is Sogrape, the first wine company off the mark after Dão’s restrictive wine laws were lifted at the time of the 1989 vintage. Sogrape also happens to be the largest Portuguese wine producer, having firmly established itself in the second half of the 20th century through the remarkable success of its Mateus rosé wine. The company invested heavily in the Dão area, most obviously at the Quinta dos Carvalhais (The Oaks Estate), which now processes several million liters of wine each vintage. The quinta (‘farm’ or ‘estate’) has only a modest acreage under vine and much of its wine is made from grapes bought in from the surrounding area, much like the old system created under the Salazar regime.

Arguably, the finest red wines from Dão today are deep reds made from Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, two of the key grapes used to make port wines. Jaen and Alfrocheiro Preto are two other common red wine grapes here, along with large quantities of lesser grapes such as the memorably entitled Bastardo and the Baga that dominates plantings in Bairrada to the west. White wines are also produced in Dão, with the finest examples based on Encruzado, the region’s most widely planted light-skinned grape variety.

Douro Wine

The Douro region of northern Portugal is the home of Port. It takes its name from the Douro river, which flows east to west from the Spanish border to Oporto, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Though Douro is best known for its fortified wines, total production here is fairly evenly split between port and non-fortified table wines.

The viticultural zone covers the steep slopes along the banks of the lower reaches of the river, which is one of the longest on the Iberian Peninsula. From its source in northern Spain, where it is known as the Duero, it flows through the famous vineyards of Ribera del Duero before finding the Portuguese border and becoming the Douro. From here, it cuts through the landscape, creating a unique and historic wine region before meeting the ocean at Oporto.

The Douro’s most unifying trait is its mountainous terrain, although the area covers a broad array of terroir with any number of different aspects, altitudes and soil types. Typically, however, the vineyards stretch up the steep, dry slopes on either side of the river and its myriad tributaries on narrow rocky terraces – a sight that has been classified as a Unesco World Heritage site (a honor that has also been bestowed on the similar landscape of the Wachau wine region in Austria).

There are three recognized sub-regions of the Douro, each covering a section of the river as it flows toward Oporto. These sub-regions each express different aspects of the area’s hot continental climate. The Douro Superior region is the furthest inland, sharing its border with that of Portugal itself. This emerging sub-region is covered in terraced vineyards and takes up about 20 percent of available vineyard land in Douro.

The central part of the Douro region, centered on the village of Pinhão, is known as the Cima Corgo region, where most high-end vintage port originates. Cima Corgo is the largest of the Douro’s three sub-regions, and accounts for almost half of the valley’s total wine production. The steep vineyards of Cima Corgo are predominantly composed of schist with sizable granite deposits. Vines nearer the river tend to ripen much earlier than those at higher elevations, as the river holds warmth more readily than the air. This discrepancy in the climate means that the harvest is often completed in multiple sweeps of the same vineyard.

Nearest Oporto and the coast is the Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo) sub-region, the area best suited to the production of table wines. The area is cooler and wetter than its neighbors, but also more accessible, meaning that more bulk-wine operations are possible.

The river has had an enormous impact on the region, not just in terms of the terrain, but also in making the terroir accessible to human enterprise. Fortified wines have been made on the steep banks of the Douro since the 17th century, although vines have grown there for much longer. The ports were shipped in barrel down the river to Oporto on small boats called rabelos, where they would be aged in cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia. While the boats have long been replaced with trucks, the cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia remain and are still used for the maturation of Port.

The history of still wines in the Douro has been plagued by poor quality until only recently, starting with the ‘blackstrap’ wines that were popular before Port took off in the 1700s. In 1979, the Douro’s official demarcation was extended to include still wines along with fortified wines, and in the 1990s, production increased considerably. Today, Douro makes some of Portugal’s most prestigious red table wines, from the area’s array of indigenous grape varieties.

The Douro’s wines – both still and fortified – can be made from more than 80 different grape varieties, but in practice the vineyards are dominated by five key varieties: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). Of these, aromatic Touriga Nacional is the most highly regarded, and Touriga Franca the most widely planted. Vineyards tend to be an eclectic cross-section of port grape varieties, often with more than 20 present within a single vineyard. Often, the winemaker will not even be sure of the exact proportion of each variety in a given wine.

A number of international varieties have also found a home in the Douro valley, particularly for the production of table wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer are among the more common non-native grapes planted here

Estremadura – Lisboa Wine

Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) is a prolific wine region located at the center of Portugal’s Atlantic coast. Despite being one of the country’s most productive vinicultural areas, its name remains relatively obscure in wine terms, as its wines have traditionally been labeled with the names of the local sub-regions, which include AlenquerBucelas and Colares. The region is also home to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon.

The region fell under the VR (Vinho Regional) classification until 2008, when the category was renamed IGP (Indicaciones Geográficas Protegidas) to bring it into line with the rest of Europe. When the switchover happened, the Portuguese wine authorities took the opportunity to rename the Estremadura appellation as Lisboa after Lisbon, which marks the region’s southern boundary. There are nine DOCs in Lisboa, but many are more famous for their history than their modern wine industry. The most prestigious wines from the region fall under the Alenquer and Bucelas DOCs.

The region’s position on the coast gives rise to the broad terroir that shapes the local wine industry. The Serra de Montejunto hills run north from Lisbon, and effectively divide Lisboa in half. Along the coast, the Atlantic batters the vineyards with high winds and autumn rains, making viticulture a challenge. The most notable DOC on this side of the hills is Colares, which is more famous for its phylloxera-resistant soils than its robust red wines made from Ramisco. The cool, wet conditions also shape the Lourinhã and Óbidos DOCs, famous for brandy and sparkling wine, respectively.

On the other side of the hills, the terroir is more forgiving, and is responsible for some of the region’s best wines. Complex, full-bodied wines made from a range of classic Portuguese grape varieties like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz typify the Alenquer DOC, while Bucelas makes fresh, minerally white wines from the Arinto grape variety. Further inland again lies the more famous region of Ribatejo

Overall, the industry in Lisboa is dominated by a number of large cooperative wineries, although the current surge in Portugal’s wine industry has created scope for several smaller outfits to thrive. Wine cooperatives are renowned for their commercial focus (there is little room for individual creativity and passion), so Lisboa wines have tended towards the practical rather than the expressive, and towards quantity rather than quality. As a result, the vine varieties planted in the region have been selected for their high yields and disease resistance, with very little emphasis on varietal expression or traditional stylistic considerations.

More than 30 grape varieties are used (Portugal rivals Italy in the diversity of its vine portfolio), the majority for white wine production. In the past few decades the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and its Bordeaux stablemate Merlot have increasingly been used, as have Portugal’s traditional (and superior) varieties Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.

Minho Wine

Minho – Portugal’s northernmost wine region – is known for one wine style above all others: crisp, light, white Vinho Verde. It is located on the Portugal’s Atlantic coast to the north and east of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city and the home of Port. It occupies a roughly rectangular area about 60 miles (100km) from north to south, which reaches about 30 miles (50km) inland.

The key grape varieties to be found in white Minho wines are Alvarinho, Avesso, Loureiro, Pederna (Arinto) and Trajadura. Their red counterparts are based on Alvarelhao, Espadeiro, Caino Tinto and the globally popular Cabernet Sauvignon.

Minho’s proximity to the Atlantic is the reason why its land is so prolific for agriculture, including viticulture. In fact, this part of Portugal is known as the Costa Verde– a reference to its lush, green (verde) countryside. It has this in common with Spanish Galicia, immediately to the north. Rain-bearing winds blow in from the ocean, enabling the vineyards to produce much higher yields than those in drier, inland regions like neighboring Transmontano.

Aside from the Vinho Verde DOC, Minho has to its name the regional Minho IGP title, whose looser production laws allow more diversity in the average winery’s portfolio. IGP Minho was formerly known Rios do Minho before Portugal’s Vinho Regional category was updated to IGP in 2008 (to fall in line with EU-wide wine labelling conventions).

Minho is named, as are several Portuguese wine regions, after an important local river. The river Minho, which rises in the hills of neighboring Galicia (north-western Spain) forms the border between Spain and Portugal. Not just a vital source of water and transportation, the river’s power is harnessed to produce a respectable proportion of Minho’s electricity needs.

While the region’s northern edge is marked by one important river, its southern edge is traced by a far more famous river; the famous Douro (Spain’s Duero). The Douro bisects Minho’s southern one-fifth, as it approaches the end of its long journey from the hills of Castilla y Leon. The Douro occupies a key position on the Portuguese wine map, connecting Portugal with Spain and the city of Porto with the vineyards of the Douro Valley.

North by Northeast…Wines of the Veneto

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Veneto Wine

Veneto is a substantial and increasingly important wine region in the north-eastern corner of Italy. Administratively it forms part of the Triveneto zone, along with its smaller neighbors Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In terms of geography, culture and wine styles, it represents a transition between the alpine, Germano-Slavic end of Italy and the warmer, drier, more Roman lands to the south.

Veneto is slightly smaller than Italy’s other main wine-producing regions – Piedmont, Tuscany, Lombardy, Puglia and Sicily – yet it generates more wine than any of them. Although the southern regions Sicily and Puglia were for a long time Italy’s main wine producers, this balance began to shift north towards Veneto in the latter half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, southern Italian wine languished in an increasingly competitive and demanding world, while Veneto upped its game, gaining recognition with such wines as Valpolicella, Amarone, Soave and Prosecco.

With fruity red Valpolicella complementing its intense Amarone and sweet Recioto counterparts, Veneto is armed with a formidable portfolio of red wines to complement its refreshing whites such as Soave and sparkling Prosecco. Although much of the new vineyard area which supported Veneto’s increased wine output was of questionable viticultural quality, today more than 25% of the region’s wine is made and sold under DOC/DOCG titles.

The Veneto region can be roughly split into three geographical areas, distinguished by their topography and geology. In the north-west the foothills of the Alps descend along the eastern edge of Lake Garda, their path mirrored by the Adige river as it descends from the heights of Alto Adige. Here in the cooler, alpine-influenced climate, fresh, crisp whites are made under the Bianco di Custoza and Garda titles, while refreshing, unassuming Bardolino from the shores of Lake Garda makes the case for Veneto’s lightest reds. Just east of the lake and north of Verona is Valpolicella and its sub-region Valpantena: the fabled ‘Valley of Many Cellars’ produces half a million hectoliters of fruity red wine every vintage. In terms of production volume, Valpolicella is the only DOC to rival Tuscany’s famous Chianti. Immediately east of Valpolicella is Soave, home to the eponymous dry white wine which now ranks among Italy’s most famous products, and beyond that Gambellara serves as an eastern extension of Soave, both geographically and stylistically. Garganega and Trebbiano are the key white-wine grape varieties here, while Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella are behind the vast majority of reds.

In central Veneto, around Vicenza and Padua, are the Colli Berici, Colli Euganei and Breganze. Although the plains below these hills produce vast quantities of wine, only the better-quality wines from more elevated areas have gained DOC status. International varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero here) and even Carmenere have proved successful here, as has northern Italy’s flagship white Pinot Grigio and Veneto’s own Tocai Friulano.

In the northeastern corner of the region, on either side of the Piave river (which has its own Piave DOC covering the land between Conegliano and the coast), sparkling Prosecco reigns supreme. Still wines are also made here (Lison, Lison-Pramaggiore, Montello e Colli Asolani and Colli di Conegliano), but the common factor which unites almost all viticultural zones in north-eastern Veneto is the Glera grape (typically known as Prosecco), and the foaming spumante and semi-sparkling frizzante wines it creates.

Whatever the future holds for the region and its wine, the Vs of Veneto have made their mark on this era of wine history. The names Veneto, Verona, Vicenza, Valpolicella, Valpantena and Valdobbiadene have emerged with vigor into the 21st century, and now even the historic canal city of Venice has its own DOC (Venezia).

Provinces of Veneto map.png

Soave is arguably the most famous white-wine DOC in Italy. Granted in 1968, the DOC title covers wines made from Garganega grapes grown on the hillsides east of Verona, in the Veneto wine region of northeastern Italy. A dry, crisp, fruity white wine, Soave’s naturally refreshing appeal led it to phenomenal popularity in the second half of the 20th Century.

Ask any wine drinker to name a well-known Italian white wine, and their answer will almost certainly be either Pinot Grigio or Soave. Names such as Gavi, Orvieto and Frascati might also figure on the list, but the sheer volume of Soave, which has made its way out of Veneto in recent decades, has drowned out the competition. The fact that Pinot Grigio figures alongside Soave as one of the most famous Italian wines is a sign of the times. It is a sign of the power shift from Old World to New World, a change in focus from village to vine, terroir to varietal. For now, though, the DOC system survives, and is adapting year by year to the demands of the variety-led modern wine consumer.

 

Lugana is a picturesque, white wine-specific viticultural region in northern Italy, its vineyard area straddling the regional border between Lombardy in the west and Veneto in the east. It is located at the southern end of Lake Garda, the vines a relatively new addition to a landscape of fishing villages and castled towns.

The name Lugana is thought to derive from the Latin lacus lucanus (‘lake in the woods’); up until the 12th century, the area’s dense woodlands extended right up to the lake’s edge. Monastic influence from the Middle Ages is evident in town names such as San Benedetto di Lugana, San Vigilie di Lugana and San Martino di Lugana.

Most of the Lugana vineyards extend from the village of Desenzano up to Peschiera, including parts of Lonato, Pozzolengo and Sirmione. This forms a relatively small production zone of just 1482 acres (600ha). The Verdicchio grape variety (aka Trebbiano di Lugana) is the essential ingredient in the area’s bianco (white) wines. It thrives in the zone’s calcareous clay soils, which are rich in mineral salts and help the fruit to reach high levels of ripeness and organoleptic (sensory) complexity. All Lugana wines must comprise at least 90% of this variety, and are often praised for their balance, structure and fragrance, similar to that of Soave Classico. They are also characterized by a freshness and agreeable flavor thanks to the soil characteristics, and a fruit concentration, underlying floral and spice notes and delicate acidity.

 

Valpolicella is the most famous wine district in north-eastern Italy’s Veneto wine region. It’s not hard to understand why, given the easy-drinking appeal of regular red Valpolicella, coupled with the prestige of its powerful and intensely flavored counterpart Amarone della Valpolicella. The valley even produces white wines – both dry and sweet – under the various Soave titles.

Everyday Valpolicella wine is a bright, tangy, fruity red with aromas of blueberries and banana, and the distinctive ‘sour cherry’ note found in so many northern Italian reds. It is as enjoyable at room temperature as it is slightly chilled, making it ideal as a refreshing red for warm summer afternoons. As a refreshing, medium-bodied wine it is quite different from the district’s Ripasso, Amarone (‘big bitter’) and Recioto (‘little ear’) wines.

Stylistically speaking, Valpolicella might easily be viewed as the Italian answer to Beaujolais. The comparison extends beyond just style, however; in the past few decades Valpolicella has suffered from the same poor reputation as Beaujolais, the result of ever-increasing yields and inconsistent quality.

The Valpolicella production area ballooned in the late 1960s when it was granted DOC status, resulting in a dramatic see-saw of quality and quantity which lasted for approximately 40 years. The prices fetched by Valpolicella wines reached their nadir in the 1970s and 1980s, when the low price paid per kilo of grapes led more quality-focused producers, particularly in the finer Valpolicella Classico and Valpantena zones, to abandon their vines altogether. This increased the percentage of Valpolicella which came from the poorer sites, and the downward spiral continued, only to be halted by a sudden spike of interest in Amarone della Valpolicella during the 1990s.

The grapes used to make Valpolicella are Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Corvina is generally regarded as the finest of the three, and is certainly the most traditional. Rondinella proved popular in the 1960s and 1970s because of its generous yields, while pale, over-acidic, oxidation-prone Molinara has declined dramatically since its early surge. Corvina remains the grape of choice for higher-quality Valpolicella, and particularly Amarone della Valpolicella, Recioto della Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso. On warmer, well-drained slopes, Corvina produces wines with more body than is traditionally expected of Valpolicella, which explains the huge quality differential between regular Valpolicella from the plains and Amarone from the hills of the traditional classico zone.

 

Amarone della Valpolicella is an intensely flavored dry red wine made from dried (passito) grapes. It is made in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, and is arguably the region’s most prestigious red wine.

The amarone style developed as Veneto’s winemakers searched for a way to increase the body, complexity and alcohol content of their wines. As demonstrated by modern-day reds Valpolicella and Garda, wines made from locally grown Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara can sometimes be too light to give satisfaction. These three mainstays of the Valpolicella vineyard are not renowned for their inherent depth (only Corvina is able to produce wines with much body), a deficiency compounded by the cool growing conditions of western Veneto. In order to concentrate the natural sugars and aromatics in Valpolicella wines, local producers began drying their grapes after harvest, to remove water from the berries while retaining sweetness and flavor.

Corvina grapes undergoing ‘appassimento’

This technique proved very successful, although initially it was used to produce sweeter styles of wine, such as those now known as Recioto della Valpolicella. The early amarone wines were seen as mistakes –recioto left to ferment for too long – but eventually the style gained recognition and respect. Amarone comes from the Italian word amaro (“bitter”), completed by the -one suffix which denotes impressive size or volume. When compared to the sweet recioto which the early amarones were supposed to be, this name is entirely logical.

The grapes used to make modern amarone wines are of the local Corvina variety and its sub-variety Corvinone. They are picked in whole bunches and kept in drying rooms (with warm temperatures and low humidity) where they stay for anywhere from three weeks to three months. Traditionally the grapes were dried on straw mats (they are a member of the “straw wine” family) in the warmest part of the house or winery, but modern technology has replaced straw with steel and lofts with pallets. When the drying process (known as appassimento in Italian) is complete, the grapes are gently pressed and the must is fermented to dry. The grapes’ high sugar content means a higher potential alcohol, so a complete fermentation results in a strong wine of 15 or 16 percent alcohol by volume. This is then aged in barrels (traditional large botti are now being replaced by smaller Slavonian oak barriques) for at least two years before commercial release.

Standard Amarone della Valpolicella can be made from anywhere within the wider Valpolicella zone, but those from the viticulturally superior classico and Valpantena sub-zones may be labeled as such.

The amarone production process creates a vinous byproduct, of sorts. Rather than discard the dried grape skins (or use them for distillation into grappa), resourceful winemakers use them to add depth and complexity to their standard Valpolicella wines. The wine and grape skins go through a second fermentation together, during which tannins and phenolic compounds are leached out into the wine, creating Valpolicella Ripasso.

 

The Ginger Man Presents: Primitivo / Zinfandel

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One is from Italy. The other is distinctly Californian. One has a history that can be traced back thousands of years, the other less than 200. One DNA test says that they are one in the same. Another does not. Which is it? The answer varies as much as the wines themselves. But one thing is for certain, Primitivo and Zinfandel can both produce a wide array of wines and some can be quite wonderful. It can be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction with these distinct yet similar varietals, but there are a few things to know about each.

Zin barrels

First things first…Are they the same grape?

It depends upon whom you ask. This much is clear. Both grapes descend from the rare Croatian varietals Crljenak Kastelanski, Dobricic and Plavic Mali. The Zinfandel is thought to be a clonal descendent of the Crljenak Kastelanski, the Primitivo more of a sibling of the three.

But are they the same?

When planted side by side they produce grapes of differing sizes, color and bunch density. But the wines that they produce are similar enough that the U.S. ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) is considering a proposal to allow Italian Primitivo to be labeled as Zinfandel. This is causing quite a stir in California as Primitivos tend to fall in the value range of $10-15. Fine examples of both varietals are dense, very ripe and high in alcohol. To know the difference we must first know the grape.

Primitivo

We start with the Primitivo because it has the history and the mystique. Not as well-known as the Zinfandel, Primitivo can trace its lineage from the ancient Phoenicians who settled in the province of Apulia (Puglia), the heel of Italy’s boot. Many legends surround this grape. They range from the hard to prove (the wine served at the Last Supper is said to be Primitivo) to the hard to believe (it is called Primitivo because it is thought to be the first, or Primi, grape). The truth may lie somewhere in between, but we do know that it is called Primitivo for its propensity to ripen before all other varietals.

Primitivo thrives today in its original home of Apulia. This tiny region is renowned for massive production of ordinary wines. In fact the heel of Italy’s boot produces more wine than the entire continent of Australia. Vines are coaxed to their highest yields, most of which end up being either shipped north for blending with other wines or re-fermented for industrial alcohol. But change is afoot for this tiny region.

New world techniques, low yields and careful winery management have brought new examples of Apulian wines to the forefront of southern Italy. Instead of flabby and thin wines we have rich, concentrated and hearty versions that develop well under the hot Italian sun. Primitivos tend to be juicy, well-structured and heavy with pigment and concentration, and high in alcohol.

Lighter versions can be floral and fruity, but these are becoming increasingly rare. Aromas and flavors of ripe blackberries, violets and pepper are common. Primitivos can be wonderful value wines, and even reserve bottles are rarely more than $20. The best examples come from the coastal region of Manduria, though many forward-thinking producers are trying the outlying regions as well. Some of the most famous wine-making names of Italy are trying to capitalize on Primitivo’s long overdue success. In the future look for wines from Antinori, Zonin and Pasqua along with established producers of Primitivo such as Botromagno & Leone de Castris.

Zinfandel

Even the most novice of wine enthusiasts has probably heard the name Zinfandel, be it the hearty red version or the ubiquitous sweet pink plonk that changed the American wine scene in the 1980s. So famous was this plonk in fact that the red version was almost lost to antiquity. But Zinfandel has quite the storied past in America, even if it is packed into a couple of hundred years.

First brought to the U.S. in 1820 as a clipping from the Imperial Austrian Plant Species Collection, Zinfandel quickly made its way across the country gaining notoriety for its vigor and high yield. During the gold rush of the late 19th century Zinfandel was a favorite among miners and immigrants longing for wine similar to that of their homeland. Prohibition did nothing to slow its growth, and by the 1950s it occupied some of the most famous areas of northern California. As other varietals grew in popularity, Zinfandel was relegated to producing mainly jug wine in the hot central regions of California. A large surplus in the 1980s led to the production of White Zinfandel, made by either shortening the contact of the wine with the skins during fermentation, or by blending it with light, fruity varietals such as Riesling. This was a rousing success, and the true version of Zinfandel was pushed to the brink of obscurity.

But during the 1990s a few wineries in California began to make wonderful reds from the Zinfandel grape. Wineries such as Ridge, Turley and Ravenswood proved that Zinfandel could be a heavy, hearty and world-class red wine. The wines they created were rich, heavy with black fruits and almost sweet from the high sugar content in the very ripe grapes. An explosion in popularity occurred and today there are hundreds of great Zinfandels coming from all of the major wine growing areas of California. Particularly good are versions that boast an “old vines” designation on the label. The “old” in this case often is 40+ years but can be as high as 100 years.

But Zinfandel is not without its faults. The high sugar content can lead to very high alcohol content, with levels of 15% abv. and higher are quite common. If left unchecked these wines can taste hot or have volatile acidity which makes the wine unstable and prone to a short life span. Despite its resistance to rot and disease Zinfandel can be hard to grow. Grapes on a single cluster can range from green and hard to raisin and overripe, thus requiring more than one pass through the vineyard during harvest time. Like many wines it is often the winery or the producer that matters as much as the vintage or location. Look for fine examples of Zinfandel from Robert Biale and Seghesio or head for the better regions of Dry Creek Valley and Lodi.

There are many similarities in both style and flavor between Zinfandel and Primitivo, but the differences remain. Grape growers in both Italy and California will fiercely defend their version as the best, but what will happen if both can be labeled as Zinfandel? Or better yet, when both are grown next to each other in the vineyard. Will these two kissing cousins ever become one varietal? Probably not, but as the lines between the Primitivo and the Zinfandel grow closer together, one thing is for certain: We will have lots of great wine to try in order to be able to tell the difference.

 

 

 

Yalumba

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Yalumba is Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, founded in 1849 by Samuel Smith. From modest beginnings, the Yalumba Wine Company has grown to become one of Australia’s most successful wineries, owned by 5th generation Robert Hill-Smith. Yalumba regularly receives accolades for its outstanding wines, and for its leadership in viticultural innovation and sustainable farming. Yalumba was the first winery in the world to be recognized with the Climate Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (2007), earned the International Green Apple Gold Award from House of Commons (U.K. 2011), and was the first winery outside the United States to win the BRIT International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing Competition (2013). The Yalumba portfolio commences with the fresh and flavorsome varietal wines of the Y Series, then moves up to the Samuel’s Garden line to capture the essence of the classic Rhone-influenced varietals of the Barossa and Eden Valleys, explores sub-regional complexity through innovative, modern wines in the Hand Picked line, and culminates with the coveted, collectible Yalumba Rare and Fine wines including Signature and Octavius.

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Yalumba is a winery located near the town of Angaston, South Australia in the Barossa Valley wine region. It was founded by a British brewer, Samuel Smith, who immigrated to Australia with his family from Wareham, Dorset in August 1847 aboard the ship ‘China’. Upon arriving in Australia in December, Smith built a small house on the banks of the River Torrens. He lived there less than a year before moving north to Angaston where he purchased a 30-acre (120,000 m2) block of land on the settlement’s southeastern boundary. He named his property “Yalumba” after an indigenous Australian word for “all the land around”. In 1849 Samuel Smith, along with his son Sidney, planted Yalumba’s first vineyards, beginning the Yalumba dynasty. Today Yalumba is Australia’s oldest family-owned winery.

Yalumba is part of Australian wine alliance Australia’s First Families of Wine a multimillion-dollar venture to help resurrect the fortunes of the $6 billion industry highlighting the quality and diversity of Australian wine. The 12 member alliance includes Brown Brothers, Campbells, Taylors, DeBortoli, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Tyrell’s, Yalumba, D’ArenbergHoward Park, Jim Barry and Henschke. The main criteria are that the family-owned companies need to have a “landmark wine” in their portfolios as listed under Langton’s Classification and/or 75% agreement by group that a wine is considered “iconic”, must have the ability to do at least a 20-year vertical tasting, have a history going back a minimum of two generations, ownership of vineyards more than 50 years old and/or ownership of distinguished sites which exemplify the best of terroir, and be paid-up members of the Winemakers Federation of Australia.

Coonawarra is one of the very few places in the wine world which is more famous for its soil than its wines. Terra rossa makes all the difference here; it is a key factor in the Coonwarra terroir. The region’s prime land, which has this reddish-brown topsoil over a thick layer of limestone, covers an area of 7.5 miles (12km) long and just 1.2 miles (2km) wide. The reddish color of the soil is caused by iron-oxide (rust) formations in the clay. These are particularly prized for their good drainage and nutrient-holding capacity.

The Barossa zone lies northeast of Adelaide Hills and is a compact geographical unit with a variable landscape of gently elevated terrain and flat valley floors. The overall climate is hard to categorize as conditions vary – not only due to the elevation but also because of the inland locations and the coastal influence. The valley floors are very hot during summer, with temperatures often exceeding 95F (35C). This, along with scant rainfall and limited natural water in the soil, makes irrigation essential. On the other hand, the higher areas are cool with distinctly high diurnal temperature variation, which helps to bring out the best from the aromatic varieties as well as assisting a high degree of phenolic ripeness in the grapes.

Eden Valley’s wine landscape is dotted with the rolling hills of the Barossa Ranges, which provide local vineyards with all-important altitude – the single most important factor in shaping the region’s wine styles. The best sites are located on moderate slopes well exposed to sunlight, at elevations of between 1200 and 1640ft (380 and 500m). This altitude makes growing conditions in the region much cooler than those in Barossa Valley, resulting in a longer season, which gives Eden Valley wines their accentuated flavor concentration. The region has a wide array of soil types – predominantly weathered rocks and gravels in a clay-based sub-soil.

The Ginger Man Presents WINES WITH ALTITUDE

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Some wines have attitude, and others have altitude. Yes, you read that correctly, altitude, as in elevation.

There has been some discussion in my world on whether or not grapes grown at higher altitude, taste any different from those grown at more normal elevations. I would guess that most of you haven’t really paid much attention to where you wine grapes come from, much less, how high above sea level they were grown.

ViñedoCafayate.jpgOne challenge is that there is no set definition on what is considered “high altitude”. Is an elevation of 1,000 feet high, or just a hillside?, What if you move up to 2,000 feet? Most of the research into using high altitude vineyards, is being done by Nicolas Catena (owner of Catena Zapata) in Argentina. For 20 years, he has been locating microclimates at various elevations in the Mendoza region, usually above 3,000 feet.

According to research reports, “chemical analysis of grapes from four high-altitude vineyards supports the position that the same variety, in this case cabernet sauvignon, offers distinct aromas and flavors when cultivated at differing elevations and in varying soils.”

“The lower temperatures and higher solar radiation at these various altitudes make for more concentrated flavors in the wines,” Catena explains. “Cabernet Sauvignon samples in the test included fruit from the Uxmal Vineyard at 3,100 feet above the Mendoza Valley in the Agrelo district, which was ripe with blackberry and cassis aromas and flavors; the same variety and clone from the Domingo Vineyard, at 3,700 feet, showed more spice and black pepper intensity. There is also a thought that the UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grape, and actually ripen the pips, so you end up with riper tannins. Additionally, the skins grow thicker in response to the UV light and lower temperatures, again allowing richer extraction during skin soaking and fermentation. This would lead to a higher intensity of phenolics (such as quercetine and resveratrol). This is typical of grapes grown in stressful conditions.  The “stressful conditions” associated with high altitude are lower temperatures, higher UV radiation and light intensity, less oxygen and carbon dioxide, and shorter growing seasons.

Phenolics are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in grapes, which give a wine its profile. These include the flavor and color compounds and tannins, as well as hundreds of other complex chemical components which are vital to a wine’s character.

Currently, the highest vineyards in the world are located in Argentina. They are located in the Salta region, and are located in the Altura Maxima vineyard at 9,849 feet. The wines are produced by Hess, under the name of Colomé. .Another vineyard has been planted further up the mountain at 10,206 feet, and should be ready for its first harvest this year.

Most wineries do not mention the altitude of their vineyards, so plenty of online research has to be done. I knew that Argentinian wines would be a must try so we are showcasing a Malbec. The highest vineyards in Europe had to be in the Alps, Dolomite, Northern Spain or Pyrenees mountain ranges, but I found the highest vineyards are actually located on Mt Etna, on Sicily in Italy (elevation of 10,992ft, with vineyards at around 6,600 ft.)

In the United States, I focused in on the Napa and Sonoma regions, looking at areas like Lake County AVA (vineyards at 2,000 to 2,400ft), Howell Mountain (1,600 to 2,200ft), Spring Mountain (2,000ft), Mount Veeder (400 to 2,600ft), Atlas Peak (1,400 to 2,400ft), Diamond Mountain (1,200 to 2,100ft) and Sonoma Mountain (600 to 2,400ft).

As more wineries explore higher altitude, it will be interesting to see if they tout their elevation. Right now, it takes a lot of research and a lot of shopping to find these wines.

Vegetarian – “Do they actually taste better?” (With wine that is…☺)

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Although I may be a wine enthusiast I am no way a vegetarian, I have had a lot of fun trying different types of wine with strictly vegetable dishes. Vegetable dishes may not have the richness or proteins of meat-based dishes but they aren’t as wine averse as we’ve been led to believe. It does take a little experimentation, however. Vegetables actually have an amazing depth and variety of flavor and they are rarely cooked alone.

That variety can make it difficult to find a wine that complements all those flavors.

Because of their natural sugars, many vegetables come across as sweet and some people prefer to balance that with a dry wine. Other people like to complement the sweetness with a fruity wine. The point behind pairing food and wine is to elevate them to something better than either is alone.

But since you rarely sit down with a plate of peppers and a glass of wine, the question often comes down to how the vegetable is prepared and what accompanies it. In short, there is no simple answer to what wine to pair with vegetables; no quick tip, like red with red meat, white with white meat.

The good news is that this means you get to try a lot of different wines. Actually that’s probably the best answer to the question. You may wind up puckering now and then, but here’s a tip I learned watching Master Sommelier and trained chef Andrea Immer: you can make just about any dish wine friendly if you season it with wine friendly ingredients. At the top of the list are shallotsgarlicthyme and olive oil.

Now what dish wouldn’t be improved by one of these? Some Good Wines to Start You Experimenting

  • Red Wines: Go for lighter, softer reds that tend toward either spicy or fruity.
    • Chianti, Merlot Pinot Noir, Shiraz and especially Zinfandel
  • White Wine: Most whites will work with vegetables, especially the brighter, non-oaky wines. Save the oaky Chardonnay for richer dishes.
    • Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Sparkling Wine

How to Begin Thinking about Pairing Prepared Vegetable Dishes

Since you probably won’t be pairing wine with raw vegetables, it’s more helpful to focus on the way the vegetables are prepared. In fact, some preparations, like roasting, can make vegetables even more wine friendly. Some tips:

  1. Roasting and grilling will caramelize the sugars in vegetables and give them a richness that’s almost meaty. Roasted vegetables can stand up to savory reds, like Merlot, Syrah or Zinfandel.
  1. Cream, butter and cheese add richness and body to vegetable dishes and they tend to pair well with oaky wines, like Chardonnay.
  1. Spicy dishes can go two ways. They can be balanced with a fruity wine, like Gewürztraminer, or enhanced with a bolder wine, like Merlot.
  1. Greens and herbal dishes tend to have a grassy freshness that can be easily overpowered, but pairs well with an equally herbaceous wine, like Sauvignon Blanc or a Gruner Veltliner.
  1. Tomatoes, which are acidic, will taste better with a relatively acidic red, like a Sangiovese.
  1. Pair dark, leafy greens like spinach or swiss chard with light reds such as Gamay; greens make full-bodied reds too astringent.
  1. Match mushrooms, lentils, miso and other earthy ingredients with an earthy red like Pinot  Noir.
  1. Tannins intensify heat, so for dishes with hot chiles, pour soft, fruity reds like Zinfandel.
  1. Protein-rich vegetarian dishes (with cheese, for instance) often stand up to tannic reds like Syrah.

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Again, pairing wine is a matter of personal taste. But here’s a cheat sheet I’ve pulled together from various sources and one I’ve used and enjoyed myself, to experiment.

Wine and Vegetable Pairs

White Wines
Chardonnay Chenin
Blanc
Gewürztraminer Pinot
Grigio
Riesling Sauvignon
Blanc
Sparkling White
Zinfandel
Asian
Dishes
x x x x x x
Beans x x
Cilantro, dill, parsley, basil x x
Citrus x x x
Corn x x
Curries x x
Dairy x
Eggplant x x
Garlic x x x
Mexican Spices x x
Mushrooms x
Onions x x
Potatoes x x
Roasted Vegetables x x
Tomatoes, Raw x
Vinaigrette x x x x
Red Wines
Chianti Merlot Pinit Noir Syrah Zinfandel
Beans x x x x x
Mexican Spices x
Mushrooms x
Roasted Vegetables x x x x x
Rosemary, bay, sage x x
Spices, Hot x
Tomatoes, Cooked x x
Tomatoes, Raw x

 

Siena, Toscana

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The City

Siena is likely Italy’s loveliest medieval city, and a trip worth making even if you are in Tuscany for just a few days. Siena’s heart is its central piazza known as Il Campo, known worldwide for the famous Palio run here, a horse race run around the piazza two times every summer. Movie audiences worldwide can see Siena and the Palio in the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.

Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome thus Siena’s emblem is the she-wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus – you’ll find many statues throughout the city. The city sits over three hills with its heart the huge piazza del Campo, where the Roman forum used to be. Rebuilt during the rule of the Council of Nine, a quasi-democratic group from 1287 to 1355, the nine sections of the fan-like brick pavement of the piazza represent the council and symbolizes the Madonna’s cloak which shelters Siena.

The Campo is dominated by the red Palazzo Pubblico and its tower, Torre del Mangia. Along with the Duomo of Siena, the Palazzo Pubblico was also built during the same period of rule by the Council of Nine. The civic palace, built between 1297 and 1310, still houses the city’s municipal offices much like Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Its internal courtyard has entrances to the Torre del Mangia and to the Civic Museum. If you feel energetic, a climb up the over 500 steps will reward you with a wonderful view of Siena and its surroundings. The Museum, on the other hand, offers some of the greatest of Sienese paintings. The Sala del Concistoro houses one of Domenico Beccafumi’s best works, ceiling frescoes of allegories on the virtues of Siena’s medieval government. But it is the Sala del Mappamondo and the Sale della Pace that hold the palaces’s highlights: Simone Martini’s huge Maestà and Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government, once considered the most important cycle of secular paintings of the Middle Ages.

Siena’s cuisine is pure and simple, yet distinguished by the excellence of its ingredients. Sienese meats, vegetables and herbs are of excellent quality, and most recipes call for the use of olive oil (which in this region is among the highest quality).

The oak woods around Siena are still home to the Cinta Senese swine, a native breed reputed for the excellent flavor of its meat), and the Val di Chiana area continues to raise the Chianina breed of cattle, a very important one in Italy. This breed probably originated during Umbrian and Etruscan times in central Italy. Chianina cattle are famous for their white skin and remarkable size; until forty years ago it was primarily used as draft animal, while it is now a selected breed for meat production.

Sienes cuisine has ancient origins, first Etruscan, who introduced the simplicity of herbs, and then Roman influence. Spices, a valuable commodity of the past, give distinct flavor to Siena’s typcial dolci such as Panforte and Cavallucci. Soups are an important part of Tuscan cuisine, along with roasted meat, wild game, and several types of handmade pasta.

Siena toscana panorama

THE WINE

Tuscany is the most enduringly famous of all Italian wine regions, thanks to the romantic glamor of its endless rolling hills, cypress-lined country roads and hilltop villages. But even without all of this, evaluated on the merits of its wines alone, Tuscany stands tall, its reputation founded on such iconic wines as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Situated in central Italy, Tuscany’s neighbors are Liguria and Emilia-Romagna to the north, Umbria and Marche to the east and Lazio to the south. Its western boundary is formed by the Tyrrhenian Sea. As is the case with almost all of Italy’s 20 regions, Tuscany has a long wine history; it can be traced back as far as the fifth century BC.

Today, Tuscany is one of the most famous and prolific wine regions anywhere in Europe. Its vineyards produce an array of internationally recognized wines in various styles. These go far beyond the well-known reds, and include dry whites such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano and sweet wines both white (Vin Santo) and red (Elba Aleatico Passito). The region’s top wines are officially recognized and protected by a raft of DOC and DOCG titles.

Climate is a vital factor in this region’s success as a wine region. Warm, temperate coastal areas are contrasted by inland areas (particularly those in the rolling hills for which the region is so famous), where increased diurnal temperature variation helps to maintain the grapes’ balance of sugars, acidity and aromatics. One variety that particularly thrives on these hillside vineyards is Tuscany’s signature red grape, Sangiovese.

Arguably the most important of all Italian wine grapes, Sangiovese is the mainstay variety in almost all of Tuscany’s top reds. Its long history and broad regional distribution means that it has acquired various names. In Montalcino it goes by the name Brunello, whence Brunello di Montalcino. In Montepulciano, it is known as Prugnolo Gentile. Under the name Morellino it is the grape used to make Morellino di Scansano. Sangiovese also features in Chianti, in which it is joined by small amounts of Canaiolo and Colorino, as well as increasing quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

With the rise of the Super Tuscans, the most famous of which come from Bolgheri, Cabernet Sauvignon has become a much more prominent variety in Tuscany. But despite the relatively recent appearance of such ‘international’ French varieties in Tuscan wines, native varieties still reign supreme.

Castellammare del Golfo, Sicilia

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THE CITY

The name is roughly translated “Sea-Fortress (castle [on the] sea) of the Gulf”, deriving from the medieval fortress in the harbor. The body of water it sits upon also takes its name from the fortress, Golfo di Castellammare.

In ancient times, Castellammare was the harbor of Segesta, one of the main towns of the Elymian people.

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Fishing has been important in Castellammare del Golfo dating back to ancient times. Today the town’s economy continues to be based on fishing with the addition of tourism.

The small town is noted, however, for having been the birthplace of many American Mafia figures, including Salvatore MaranzanoStefano MagaddinoVito BonventreJohn Tartamella and Joseph Bonanno.

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From this name comes also the Castellamarese war, fought by Joe Masseria clan against Salvatore Maranzano clan for the leadership of the Italian Mafia in New York City. However, in the past 20 years Castellammare del Golfo has become an important tourist location as it is conveniently situated in between Palermo and Trapani.

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The city itself was founded by the Arabs and its original name was “Al Madarig” (city of steps). In fact from its beautiful marina/port, abounding in restaurants and bars, which is named Cala Marina one goes up either winding steps or long staircases or streets that lead to Piazza Petrolo with its magnificent views or towards the Villa Comunale (main central gardens) where the city center lies with many shops, cafes and restaurants.

THE WINE

Sicily is Italy’s southernmost region, and the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. For more than 2500 years Sicily (Sicilia in Italian) has been a significant center of Mediterranean viniculture, although the reputation and style of its wines has changed significantly over that time. Although once famous for sweet Muscats, and later fortified Marsala, the island’s best known wines are now its dry table wines produced under the regional IGT title, Terre Siciliane.

At its widest point Sicily measures 175 miles (280km) east to west, and about one third that distance north to south. Its roughly triangular shape led the island to be dubbed Trinacria (the triangle) during the Middle Ages, and is reflected in the triskelion (a motif with three protrusions) at the center of the regional flag.

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Blessed with consistently bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, Sicily’s classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of wine grapes. The warm, dry climate means that mildews and rots are kept to a minimum, particularly in well-ventilated areas which benefit from coastal breezes. This low disease pressure means that chemical sprays are hardly needed, so much Sicilian wine is produced from organic grapes. Alongside grapes and wine, Sicily’s key exports are the cereals, olives and citrus fruits on which its economy has been based for centuries.

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Ironically, the island’s near-perfect vine-growing conditions played a key role in the downfall of Sicilian wine in the late 20th Century. Reliable sunshine and low disease pressure have always made it easy for Sicilian vine growers to push their vineyards into generating high yields, but when the Italian government offered subsidies for ‘upgrading’ to higher-yielding vine management techniques, the temptation was too much to refuse. Many thousands of acres of low-yielding bush vines were rapidly converted to high-yielding tendone (pergola) or guyot (cane-pruning) training methods. These higher yields naturally led to imbalanced, flavor-lacking wines – a drop in quality which was soon mirrored by a drop in consumer confidence. The market was soon awash with low-quality, low-priced Sicilian wine. Happily, the movement to reverse this reputation is well underway, and Sicily is now one of Italy’s most promising and interesting wine regions.

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Sicily’s soils, and the mountains from which they came, are of particular interest when it comes to studying the island’s viticulture. Mount Etna, the towering stratovolcano, dominates the island’s eastern skyline, and is responsible for the mineral-rich, dark soils which characterize the Etna DOC vineyards. Vines are now being planted higher up on the volcanic slopes, to capitalize on the cooler air and richer soils there. Fifty miles (80km) south, the Iblei Mountains stake their place in eastern Sicilian wine. On their lower slopes and the coastal plains below them, the DOCs of Siracusa, Noto, Eloro and Vittoria sweep from east to west, forming a crescent which mirrors the arcing coastline. In western Sicily, the volcanic hills are less individually dramatic but just as influential to the soil types. The western fifth of the island is covered by the Marsala DOC, and also within this area fall the DOCs Alcamo, Contessa Entellina, Delia Nivolelli, Erice, Menfi, Monreale, Salaparuta, Santa Margherita di Belice and Sciacca. Also of note is the small Sambuca di Sicilia DOC, whose wines are not to be confused with Sambuca, the potent anise liqueur.

The key grape varieties used in Sicilian viticulture are a combination of ‘native’ varieties (those historically cultivated on the island) and newer, more fashionable imports. Nero d’Avola and Catarratto are the most important natives, occupying 16% and 32% of Sicily’s vineyard area respectively in 2008. The sheer volume of Catarratto juice created each year means much of it is shipped to cooler Italian wine regions, where it is used to increase the body and weight of otherwise thin, over-acidic wines. A large proportion of what remains on the island is used to make Marsala, for which it is joined by the white varieties Grillo and Inzolia. Although less famous than Marsala, another sweet wine of significance to the island is Moscato di Pantelleria, the Moscato grape in question being Muscat of Alexandria.

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Other grape varieties of note are Grecanico, Alicante (Grenache), Perricone, Nocera, and Frappato, the latter being the key ingredient in Sicily’s only DOCG wine Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Sibling varieties Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio are also small players in terms of volume, but are of vital importance around Mount Etna. Syrah has been brought here from its home in southern France, where hot summer sunshine and sandy, rocky soils are also key components of the terroir. The robust red Rhone Valley variety shows every sign of adapting well to the Sicilian heat, and certainly better than Chardonnay, which is less able to produce balanced wines here. Trebbiano, the ubiquitous, high-yielding white variety found all around Italy, is also present in the wines of Sicily, although it has no role of particular distinction among them.

The island’s topography has affected more than just how, and where, Sicilian wines are created; it has also had a significant impact on the way commerce and customs have developed on the island. In the late Middle Ages Palermo was one of the largest city populations in Europe, and had a correspondingly voracious wine appetite. Despite large quantities of wine being made in the east of Sicily, Palermo’s wine supplies came as much from Campania and Lazio as they did from the other end of the island, so mountainous is the landscape surrounding the port city. Given the frequent contact Palermo had with the central western coast of Italy, and the proximity of Messina to southern Italy (it is separated from southern Calabria by the Strait of Messina, just two miles wide), these two key Sicilian cities were more influenced by the mainland at this time than they were by one another. And while Palermo was importing Italian wines, Messina was actually exporting eastern Sicilian wines to Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Modern transportation and communication technologies mean that Sicily’s dramatic, volcanic landscape has less of an impact on the region’s social and cultural structures today. They remain, however, a vital part of its viticulture and winemaking, and may prove to be its unique selling point in the modern wine world.