The Finest Wines Available to Humanity IV: Bressan Schioppettino

I’m in a wine bar just off Regent Street in central London and choose a Schioppettino 2007 from the list. I don’t know the winemaker, Fulvio Bressan, but the one time I tried schioppettino (means ‘little shot’; also known as ribolla nera) before, at a Friuli tasting, it was really, really good.

I take a big sniff of this Bressan 2007 and it’s breathtaking, one of the most perfectly poised and distinctively perfumed wines I’ve had the pleasure to try. The nose has something like pine singing over the fruit, then it’s more like pungent oregano oil.

Then it does that thing that all special wines do, namely having you climbing up the wall in frustration at not being able to connect an aroma to some long-undisturbed memory, an agonising something “that should be firm but slips, just at the fingertips”.

Is it frankincense? I imagine a priest swinging his clinky thurible down the church aisle (though I’m not a Catholic and never went to church). Then these aromas resolve into something… more homely – and I have it: lavender bags – those muslin lavender bags placed on pillows in certain impossibly cosy and settled homes.

These were the aromas rising so hypnotically from this glass of Bressan 2007 Schioppettino.

Really amazing.

Then I googled ‘Bressan wine’.

The first word you see in connection with ‘Bressan wine’ is ‘racist’.

It turns out that Fulvio Bressan is a very intense man with military pretensions and rabidly racist tendencies. In 2013 his grotesque social media tirade against a black Italian politician caused such outrage that some wine industry people called for a boycott of his wines. One London chef, Jacob Kenedy, of Bocca di Lupo, even made a social media show of smashing his entire stock of them:


Several commentators, Guardian restaurant critics Jay Rayner and Marina O’Loughlin among them, expressed their support for Kenedy’s actions. It caused a big stir in the normally staid world of Italian wine.

So we have an amazing wine and a morally repugnant winemaker. Tricky. It’s funny that this comes just after I’ve written about another disgusting racist, Philip Larkin, and about the importance of separating the man from his art.

I would like to say that the same applies to Fulvio Bressan. It does to the extent that I can call his Schioppettino 2007 one of the finest wines available to humanity, but not to the extent that I will be drinking it again soon.

Disgusting public outbursts like this (note that Larkin’s racism was not public and he’s dead now) and what they represent, do call for a sort of protest, no matter how fine the wine is.


The Finest Wines Available to Humanity III: Setteporte Etna Rosso

Here’s another one that could easily be mistaken for a pinot. It’s a blend of nerello mascalese (95%) and nerello cappuccio, both grapes of the Etna DOC in Sicily.

I always go for reds with a special sort of purity of fruit expression (ie, wines whose flavours are clearly defined, that aren’t oak-aged or full of sulphur or brett, such as the COS Pithos Rosso). Unmistakably the Setteporte Etna Rosso has that.

The grapes are grown 650-800m up the south-facing slope of Etna, where the volcanic soil, high altitude and Mediterranean sun create a unique habitat for intriguing, elegant and very, very drinkable wines.

It’s limpid in the glass, invigorating on the nose and on the palate, with mouthwatering acidity, cherry and wild strawberry fruit, and a smoky mineral note that seems to be a special characteristic of nerello macalese when grow on the slopes of Etna.

There’s no oak used here (though there is on the equally limpid and delicious Etna Rosso 100% nerello mascalese, which costs about a tenner more, but still worth the splurge), just a vibrant expression of the grapes and the terroir.

Cheers to The Sampler for uncovering this one. Please keep your Italian shelf well stocked.



The Finest Wines Available to Humanity, Part I: Ognostro

In a recent post, Bronze-Age Booze: It’s the Future, I mentioned a couple of Italian wines that stood out as my big favourites from last year: the COS Pithos Rosso and Marco Tinessa’s Ognostro.

Happily Marco Tinessa picked up on that post and got in touch, so I had the chance to find out more about his wine. Ognostro, to remind you, is a 100% aglianico made in the Taurasi region of southern Italy (Taurasi DOCG is known as the ‘Barolo of the South’).

This is the one:


I do like that label (Francis Bacon? Ralph Steadman? The Shining?)

Josko Gravner —> Frank Cornelissen —> Marco Tinessa
It turns out that Marco has produced this wine under the tutelage of one of the most idolised winemakers working anywhere in the world today – namely Frank Cornelissen, who makes extraordinary, totally natural (more on this below) wines on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Wines like this one:

Frank Cornelissen Magma, 100% nerello mascalese from the high slopes of Etna

Marco met Frank about 10 years ago. His wife is from Sicily and as a wine lover he would often visit winemakers in the region. Gradually Marco and Frank became friends, and Marco suggested the idea of making a wine in his own region of Taurasi. After a couple of years they found the right vineyard (see main picture) and started their project.

Frank Cornelissen, in his turn, was inspired by possibly the key figure of modern amphora winemakingJosko Gravner. Gravner, an Italian of Slovenian parentage, is often cited as the first modern European winemaker to use such vessels, adopting the proto-technology from winemakers in Georgia, who have being quietly making wine this way for about 8,000 years, since viticultural year dot.

So the pedigree for Ognostro is good.

Although Marco made his first vintage in 2007, this is the first year that his Ognostro is going to be sold in the UK. London-based wine lovers will be able to find it in Terroirs wine bar and Sager + Wilde (that’s a little scoop for you). But you’ll have to be quick on the draw: he only makes about 1,000 bottles of the stuff each vintage.

In the winemaker’s own words…

Here’s what Marco was good enough to share with me about his wine:

“O’gnostro is a local term for wine in the Neapolitan dialect and means ‘ink’. The concept at the heart of my O’gnostro is the quest for bottling the uniqueness of a ‘terroir’.

 “The wine is from a 25-year-old vineyard located in Montemarano (AV). Montemarano is, in my view, the best area of the Taurasi denomination.

“Aglianico is a varietal that ripens very late (early November), when weather conditions start to be challenging. So what I try to do is to work with low yield in order to get a ripe fruit. Acidity is not a big problem as aglianico is a grape that’s rich in acidity, which gives a nice effect when balanced with ripeness of fruit.

“After the harvesting the grapes are left for a day or two in a refrigerated room, then vinification will start. We de-stem/press and put in clay amphorae. I don’t like the taste of small barrels (barriques) on the aglianico, and my production is too small to have big barrels (I produce roughly 1,000 bottles per year).

“The skins are left with the must for as long as needed and then we separate skins from must and leave the fermentation and the ageing process for as long as needed (normally around a couple of years).

“What is important is that nothing is added during the whole fermentation/vinification process: no selected [cultured] yeasts, no sulphites, no enzymes – NOTHING. A bit of sulphur dioxide is added during the bottling process if needed.

“The aim is to have a full reflection of the varietal (and the vintage) in the glass.”

Wine is a living thing… yes, a living thing
Marco’s Ognostro, in common with the wines of Josko Gravner, Frank Cornelissen and the kvevri wines of Georgia, is a living wine. Or, rather, there is bacterial life in them. That’s because they aren’t pasteurised or centrifuged or filtered beyond recognition, as many mass-produced bottles are in order to minimise the risk of spoilage (the end result is usually a bland wine).

Ognostro is this way because it is a minimal-intervention wine. Minimal intervention means, for one, spontaneous fermentation – using ambient yeasts instead of cultured ones – which gives a subtle difference to the character of the wine. Cultured yeasts are know for creating certain specific flavour compounds during fermentation with certain grapes; if ambient/wild yeasts from the specific environment of a winery are used, the effects will be less predictable, and generally more interesting.

Minimal intervention also means minimal use of sulphur dioxide, a compound almost always necessary to prevent the wine from turning into vinegar (though someone like Frank Cornelissen would disagree; note that the soil he grows his grapes on is volcanic…) It also means no fining or filtering. Heavy sulphuring inhibits the bacterial growth that has been proven to enhance the flavour of a wine (so long as its the right sort of bacteria). Fining and filtering has much the same effect.

This minimal-intervention approach to perfectly ripe, unadulterated aglianico grapes, combined with a winemaker’s care and patience (note how Marco says he leaves the ageing process for “as long as needed, usually about two years”) is what helps to make wines like Ognostro irresistible; so irresistible, in fact, that just smelling it makes you salivate.

If you’re looking for a tip for a beautiful, textured, limpidly fruity and vibrant red wine, a glass of Ognostro is your only man*.

*As Brian O’Nolan almost said.

A Beginner’s Guide to M̶i̶d̶d̶l̶e̶ ̶E̶a̶r̶t̶h̶ Italian Wine

According to my mate Giovanni, a former sommelier, trying to understand Italian wine is like trying to understand Lord of the Rings: you think you’re finally on nodding terms the cast of characters and then they hit you with Mordor. Having focused on Italian wines for most of this year (French is my firmer ground), I see what he means: where wine is concerned, Italy, is annoying in its complexity. In fact, it’s the worst subject for a beginner’s guide in the entire world.

But why is this KINKY BOOT of a country so hard to fathom when it comes to wine? Here’s why.

1: Geography

Italy crosses 10 degrees of latitude – from the Alpine peaks of PIEMONT to the sunbaked expanses of SICILY, with the fuming colossi of VESUVIUSSTROMBOLI and ETNA inbetween. Even with this huge variation – of soil, climate and topography – wine grapes are grown everywhere.

2: Grapes

Italy boasts more indigenous grape varieties than any other country on earth – more than 2,000. Grape-wise, it is blessed. But along with that dizzying variety comes a remarkable rubbish standard of classification. Many of these grapes are not region-specific, but are grown across several regions, and have different names depending on which region you’re in. It’s very parochial in that respect, which brings me on to…

3: Localism

Despite having a longer wine-making tradition than anywhere outside Eurasia (where wine-making began more than six millennia ago), winemaking has remained very much a local enterprise. It was only in the 1963 that the Italian government brought in its Denomiazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denomiazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) system (a system of geographical/administrative protection that also sets limits on the type and style of wine that can be made in a given region – like the French Appellation D’Origine Controleé (AOC)). As a QI aside, even as late as the 1960s, only 5% of Italian wine was bottled at the winery, the rest being transported in bulk for blending and bottling elsewhere.

What this localism means is a very vernacular approach to the wine market – labels that only make sense to people within a 1km radius of the village the grapes were grown in, stuff like that. A more formal labelling is making it a bit easier for consumers to find what they want, but the appellation system is still a bit of a mess. The 1992 implementation of INDICAZIONE GEOGRAFICA TIPICA (akin to France’s Vin de Pays) was supposed to help, but often just muddies the waters. It’s supposed to rank below DOC, but in reality many IGT wines are superior to DOC ones.

Anyway, as befits such a Boschian wine region, below is a totally non-methodical, non-comprehensive glossary of Italian wine regions and grapes. It will not make you an expert (even the experts aren’t especially expert on all Italian wines), but it will give you a way in, a window on some of the best wine tasting experiences you’re ever going to have.

The wine regions of Italy

The 20 wine regions of Italy, roughly from north (on the border with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia) to the south are: Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Trentino Alto Adige, Triuli-Venezia Giulia, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Marche, Umbria, Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sardinia and Sicily.

Some red grapes

Sangiovese – Main grape in Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Nobile Di Montepulciano (NB: get to know these wines); also features as the main indigenous grape in most so-called Supertuscans (blends of international and indigenous grape varieties, making big, rich, expensive reds; Sangiovese (it means ‘blood of Jove’) is the most heavily planted grape in Italy. Its many strains can plumb the depths of dreadful, tangy pub wine or scale the heights of the most lip-quiveringly lovely aged Brunellos.

Nebbiolo – Used in some of Italy’s most revered wines – Barolo (aka the ‘wine of kings’) and Barbaresco. Native to Piedmont where, in addition to Barolo and Barbaresco, it also makes Nebbiolo di Langhe and Nebbiolo D’Alba. In the middle ages, people could be heavily fined – and recidivists actually hanged – for cutting down a nebbiolo vine. Naturally high acidity and tannin levels make nebbiolo a wine that could age for a long, long time and develop a hugely complex flavour – fruity, earthy, herbal, chocolately. Often compared to pinot noir for its relative lightness and potential for complex flavour.

Aglianico – The grape of Taurasi (Campania) and Aglianico del Vulture (Basilicata). Similar high levels of acidity and tannin to nebbiolo (in fact, it is sometimes called the ‘Barolo of the south’); capable of producing richly plummy, chocolatey wines that could age for decades. An amphora-aged aglianico – Ognostro, made by winemaker Marco Tinessa – was one of the most sensationally delicious wines I tried in 2014.

Montepulciano – Widely planted in central Italy, especially Abruzzo. Montepulciano D’Abruzzo can be an excellent value Italian red, richly fruity with good, grippy tannins; also produces Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno in the Marche. Montepulciano is also the name of a town in Tuscany that makes Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano – though not with the montepulciano grape. Well done, Italy, well done…

Corvina – The main grape of Valpolicella and Bardolino in Italy’s north-east. Produces generally light, easy-going red with a distinct sour-cherry note. It’s best expression is in amarone, for which the grapes are dried for a period of months in order to concentrate their sugars. Valpolicella ripasso is known as Amarone’s ‘little brother’ because the young ripasso wine is strengthened by being refermented on the unpressed skins of Amarone wine (‘ripasso’ means ‘repassed’).

Nero D’Avola: One of Sicily’s most reputable and widely planted grapes, also known as Calabrese. Not a million miles away from French syrah in profile. Often blended with other grapes but can produce lovely single-varietal wine as well.

Frappato: I’m betraying a Sicilian bias here. I happen to think Sicily is one of the best wine-producing regions in the world. I’m planning to travel there for the grape harvest this year. Nero d’avola and frappato are the two blending partners for Sicily’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. They go together to make my absolute favourite wine of 2014: COS Pithos Rosso (another amphora wine). Frappato is the lighter of the two: singingly fresh cherry and pomegranate fruit, dried herb, pure deliciousness. If you haven’t tried it, do so immediately.

Some white grapes

Vermentino: A prized, aromatic white variety of Sardinia and Liguria. Also known as Favorita in Piemonte. Usually picked early to retain acidity and crispness, but also capable of producing richer more full-bodied whites, as is done in the Vermentino di Gallura appellation.

Verdicchio: Responsible for two classic whites of the Marche in central Italy – Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. In the past has been made with skin maceration during fermentation (in common with many other Italian whites of old), which gives the wine a beguiling combination of lemony freshness and almondy bitterness. The best verdicchios, though made in the modern style (no skin maceration), maintain this profile. In the north of Italy, verdicchio is known as Trebbiano di Soave; in the west, as Trebbiano di Lugana. Excellent grape for sparkling wines.

Garganega: Main grape of the Venice (Veneto) region, whose most famous incarnation is Soave. Soave is lemony,  with almond and mineral notes and a subtle spiciness. Garganega is also found in Bianco di Custoza and Colli Berici.

Cortese: Grape most closely associated with south-east Piemonte and with the deliciously refreshing, subtly aromatic GAVI (Gavi is sometimes compared to white Burgundy).

Prosecco: Native to Veneto and the grape that produces the sparkling wine of the same name. These days it’s usually referred to as Glera, ‘Prosecco’ being reserved for the DOC label, which is better for international recognition, and therefore company profits.

We ride to Mordor…

It’s plain to see that, when trying to understand Italian wines, you’ve got an EPIC JOURNEY ahead of you. But these little knowledge nuggets will help you on your way. And here’s the main point: these wines are so worth getting to know. Anyone who has tried a really special PINOT NOIR, who has had that experience of divine berry fruit combined with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, a hard-to-define but oh-so-exquisite perfume, well that’s what you’re going to find in a lot of Italian wine.

I could have included so many other wonderful native Italian grapes here – ruché, ribolla gialla, refosco, pignolo, nero mascalese, negroamaro, greco – but, well, I did say this was the worst subject for a beginner’s guide in the entire world. If you’re seething about some borderline-criminal omission, please let me know (comment below or on Twitter @darrennsmith #thefinestwinesavailabletohumanity), let us all know, and let’s booze our way through this Middle Earth-style maze together.

PS: this is the last time I will ever make reference to Lord of the Rings