It is indeed that time of the year, where Christmas starts showing early signs of desperation on people’s faces. Don’t get me wrong, at least here in the UK people have been planning Christmas for months, but it’s only when December approaches that they start panicking and become incredibly irritable; I thought Christmas was meant to be a peaceful and eventful occasion, where family and friends get together to share a special moment, where we are all meant to be nice, or at least try. Never mind.
Surely, for me Christmas represents the unification of my family, where after a year of hard work and emotional stress, we gladly sit around a table to pig out with almost no rules except politeness. It might be an extreme take on it, but I can assure that after four hours of culinary marathon, the quality of the conversations inevitably drops due to severe food and wine overload, which makes the brain go at a much slower pace…
Now, personally one of the things I look forward to the most, when the festivities are about to begin, is the wine selection (I know, you might think that is nerdy or bit a superficial). And the main reason is: because you get the chance to experience wines that go well beyond your standard Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon and to showcase something different.
Plus, in the eventuality conversations start getting repetitive, boring or awkward, wine makes for the perfect excuse to talk about more interesting topics because, just like people, it is a very personal product with its own characteristics and traits. It may not necessarily sit well with everyone around the table, but I can assure you it is a playful way to exercise your palate and discover things you never knew you could find in a wine. I am all about: “you might not love this wine, but you will certainly not forget it”.
On the basis of all these possible scenarios, I thought I would give you a personal selection of wines with a “personality” that I think could work wonders during the Christmas holidays.
I contacted my fellow friend from Italy, Damiano - a young guy, that just like myself has an incredible passion towards the fascinating world of Italian wines - meet up to discuss which wines to choose for the occasion. Damiano, together with his friend Alex started up here in London a couple of years ago “Tuttowines”, a company that specialises in importing Italian artisanal fine wines from small growers who have respect for the grapes, the land and regional winemaking traditions. As a Vino lover, I cannot tell you how privileged we are to have people like Damiano and Alex importing such incredible wines that truly reflect the immense diversity and uniqueness of the Italian “terroir”.
Of course, we will have to start with the bubbles. As a proud Italian, I would have to recommend you “the Italian answer to Champagne”: Franciacorta (which literally means short France).
This area, located just off Milan and not too far from Lake Garda is considered to be one of the best zones for fine sparkling wine production. I am particularly excited about the producer Casa Caterina with their 2007 Blanc de Blanc Nature. The brothers who run the winery make this incredibly complex 100% chardonnay that, if blind tasted, could be easily mistaken for a good Champagne. What Casa Caterina stands out for is the fact that the vineyards are located in the best part of Franciacorta and, as they let nature do all the work, the result is simply stunning. Instead of using sugar and yeast for the fermentation like most Franciacorta and Champagne producers, they only use fresh must to keep the product as natural as possible. So you can drink liters of it and you will have little or close to no chances of wakening up the following day with that terrible headache… unless you mix it with something else!
On to the white! And for this wine, we head all the way down to Sicily, more precisely in the Marsala area. Please, allow me a marginal comment on the perception that most of you may have of Marsala. You would, probably, regard it as a cheap wine great for cooking. That is far from being the truth. Unfortunately, some producers have treated this wonderful wine like an industrial product, so over the years many people have had bad experiences and decided it would be a better idea to make a nice sauce with it. But, when Marsala is crafted in the right way, it can be an incredibly complex, just like the best Sherry and Port.
The wine I am going to recommend to you is not going to be a Marsala. I simply wanted to make sure that when I mention that name you don’t click away to some other page.
The wine is a Grillo 2012 from Nino Barraco. I do not know Nino very well, but from the couple of times that I saw him, I can tell you he is one of the nicest producers I have ever met, which is always a nice plus. Grillo is a local indigenous white grape that is quite common in this part of the island. In this particular case, his Grillo does a 4day skin contact, a wine making technique that is normally done only with reds in order to give the wine more structure, colour and complexity (the skin of a grape is where of most of the flavour and perfumes are found). His Grillo comes from old vines (generally speaking the older the vine the more complex the wine as the roots go deeper into the soil and can extract more “earth quality”) in bush like shape, in sandy soils and are located a few hundred meters from the sea. The result is quite staggering: a golden white with fantastic perfumes ranging from flowers, yellow fruit to a strong anchovy marine element with an incredibly clean, mineral and salty finish - as Nino correctly says “a wine from the sea”. When you close your eyes to smell and taste it, your mind immediately transports you to the exact location where this wine is made and that, for me, is when pure magic happens!
For the next wine we head to the Campania region, famous all over the world for Pizza, Limocello, Mozzarella, Pompeii and, of course, the Amalfi coast. In this case, we are going to a less glamorous area in the mainland, more precisely in the Irpinia, where a very interesting red wine is produced: Taurasi. What makes this area fascinating and great for wine production, is its volcanic soil which allows the wines to develop some peculiar characteristics.
I am quite intrigued by the Nude 2006 by Cantina Giardino. Just like all wine producers that Damiano and Alex work with, they have a profound respect for the land they are from, in fact, they only use local materials and suppliers during all the stages involved in the wine production, a great way to self sustain the local economy and get a final product that is the purest reflection of the land.
Made with 100% Aglianico grape from old vines, it is considered the “Barolo of the south” due to its great complexity and longevity, which allow it to peak only after a considerate amount of ageing. With its dark, spicy, earthy and smoky notes, this vibrant wine will be the perfect companion to robust and hearty meat dishes. A wine that screams for food, but that can also be enjoyed at the end of the meal, perhaps while sitting by the fireplace, unpacking all your wonderful gifts.
Needless to say that we could have not ended our tour without something sweet. So, back we go to the north of Italy to the Piemonte area, one of the world’s greatest regions for premium wine production. In the area between Asti and Cuneo, there is a wine artisan considered mad for making a unique Moscato in a land where all his neighbours make it sparkling. His name is Ezio Cerruti and his wine is called Sol. He believes that a still wine is the best way of letting the grape and the place speak, enabling him, at the same time, to stick to his strict principles of natural wine making. He obtains Sol by making the grapes dry directly on the vines and the final result is something out of this world. The one I had the pleasure to taste was incredibly balanced, sweet, but not overly with an almost freshly squeezed juice like feel of apricots, guava, figs, dates, carob and an intriguing vegetal touch, typical of Ezio Cerruti’s style. Without a doubt, one of Italy’s greatest sweet wines, a perfect match for any quality Panettone or Pandoro, served with a nutty-vanilla mascarpone cream.
The most exciting thing about natural wines is the philosophy of their producers, whereby they let Mother Nature shine, by making wines that are clearly identifiable, healthy and “alive”. It also means that, as weather conditions vary every year, the wine will also result different, thus making every vintage simply inimitable.
A personal thank you to Alex and Damiano for brining such exceptional wines to London; trust me once you get that one moment of glory at the dinner table, where you can show off all your hidden wine knowledge, you will see exactly what I mean.
Further information at www.tuttowines.com