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Beppi Crosariol on wine

Toasting, ahem, middle-aged Italian whites Add to ...

For most wine lovers, the words "aged Italian white" might sooner stimulate trepidation than thirst. It's the oeno-equivalent of "last month's sushi."

The essence of Italian white wine, many people will insist, is freshness. Flavour? Nice when you get it in a Soave, verdicchio, Gavi or pinot grigio. But it's considered sort of optional, like compliance with North American emissions standards in a Ferrari.

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Yet some can age almost with the grace of Marcello Mastroianni. If you want to rock the myth that Italian white wine is all about skin-deep youth, seek out a rare bottle of Cervaro della Sala, a chardonnay-grechetto blend from Umbria, then lay it down for a decade or more. Last week I sampled a few oldies, including one from the 1996 vintage. The latter had held up and evolved beautifully, showing roasted nuts on the nose and a honeyed palate lifted by a rigid spine of acidity and minerals. The wine - all aged white wine, in fact - wouldn't be to everyone's liking. You have to be the kind of hardcore white lover who appreciates the oxidized tang and subtle layers of middle age. (It helps if you've been exposed to a lot of sherry.) But there's no denying it could compare with many top 14-year-old premier cru white Burgundies, the world's most cellar-worthy chardonnays.

Cervaro's maker is Renzo Cotarella, who happens also to be the chief executive officer of Antinori, the storied Tuscan producer based in Florence. He oversees such famous reds as Tignanello and Solaia, but his favourite calling card appears to be a mature bottle of Cervaro, his baby, so to speak. "White wine is really sincere wine," he says. "It's more transparent. It reflects the particularities of the vintage."

I tasted six vintages, from 1996 to 2007, with Cotarella at the opening night of Malena, a new seafood restaurant on Avenue Road in Toronto. Fish and tangy old white wine - two of my favourite food groups. Two things impressed me with the wine: the consistency in quality and - perhaps most of all - the fact that I liked the oldest vintage best.

A key reason for the consistent quality is that Cotarella each year can vary the grechetto volume from 10 to 20 per cent. A local white variety best known as a component in wines labelled Orvierto, it tends to be crisper and more herbaceous than chardonnay and is never aged in oak. When the season is hot and the chardonnay, which does get aged in oak barrels, gets riper and flabbier than normal, as it did in 2000, Cotarella will blend in more grechetto for backbone. In Burgundy, your hands are tied. Laws dictate the chardonnay can't be blended. It's all chard or nothing. And if it's a hot year for the chardonnay vine, you get a flabby wine.

There is just a smattering of the excellent 2007 vintage in Quebec and Ontario at the moment. For availability of the forthcoming 2008 vintage in Ontario, call 416-593-2662 or e-mail sales@halpernwine.com.

I'd like to add two important footnotes to an all-too-brief review of kosher wines I published last Wednesday. They both come from Beckett's Flat, a boutique winery in Western Australia that produces an excellent kosher line called Five Stones. All the wines are kosher for Passover as well as mevushal, a hard-core kosher designation signifying they have been flash-pasteurized. You don't have to be an observant Jew to appreciate them.

Five Stones Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2009 ($21.95, No. 111138) is a zesty, exceedingly fresh white, defying its mevushal status. Think tropical-fruit salad splashed with a bit of sea foam. Five Stones Shiraz 2008 ($22.95, No. 111120) is an elegant red, showing the savoury, minty side of classic cool-climate shiraz. This is a full-flavoured, fruity red with a lively, crisp finish.

Several weeks ago I enthused about a great-value pinot noir that was on its way to the Ontario market. It's here. Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir 2007 ($19.95, No.146548) has a classic pinot core of raspberry jam and beetroot carried on a silky light- to medium-bodied frame. The wine, from an excellent family-owned winery founded in 1961, was originally slated to cost $27.95 and it would have been a deal at that price, but the liquor board played hardball with the importer to get it under $20.

And for the domestic buy of the week, I turn now to vodka. Schramm Vodka is made by Pemberton Distillery of British Columbia and it's superb. Distilled from potatoes, it's full-bodied and vaguely sweet with a hint of vanilla; it finishes with peppery spice. Currently available only in British Columbia ($49.99, No. 261990), it will be rolled out to select stores in Alberta within several weeks. The producer hopes to make it available next in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Ontario by year's end.

Picks of the week

THE DEAL

Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot

Noir 2007 ($19.95, Product No. 146548 ) has a classic pinot core of raspberry jam and beetroot carried on a silky light- to medium-bodied frame. The wine was originally slated to cost $27.95 and would have been a deal at that price, but the liquor board played hardball with the importer to get it under $20.

THE SPLURGE

Five Stones Shiraz 2008 ($22.95, No. 111120) is an elegant red, showing the savoury, minty side of classic cool-climate shiraz. This is a full-flavoured, fruity red with a lively, crisp finish.

THE DOMESTIC

Schramm Vodka ($49.99, No. 261990) is full-bodied and vaguely sweet with a hint of vanilla. Currently available only in British Columbia, it will be rolled out to select stores in Alberta within several weeks.

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