Discovery Tasting: Umani Ronchi

The eastern coast of Italy is less well-known than regions on the other side of the country. So this tasting with a star producer represented a fantastic voyage of discovery for Collective members.

Umani Ronchi’s CEO Michele Bernetti admits that the Marche and Abruzzo are somewhat ‘mysterious’ to most people. But fortunately his winery are excellent guides. Not only are they a member of the respected Grandi Marchi di Vini – essentially, Italy’s finest family run wine companies, including the likes of Sassicaia, Antinori and Tasca d’Almerita – they make wine in three different appellations east of the Appennines. No-one knows this area better.

The family started in the wine business in Verdicchio in 1957, later opening a cellar near the coast, in the Conero DO, before branching out into the Abruzzo, 130km further south, in 2001. The vast majority of what they do involves the native grapes Verdicchio and Montepulciano, though in this tasting they also showed us a Pecorino and a ‘super Marche’ red blend.

Michele Bernetti with his father in the family’s organic vineyards Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Over their (almost) 70 years of production, they’ve developed a very environmentally friendly approach.

‘It’s very fashionable to mention sustainability now,’ says Michele. ‘But we’ve been committed to that for a long time.’ All of their 200 hectares of vineyards are farmed organically and certified as such.

Their philosophy (besides sustainability) is simple: ‘grandi vini ma non grossi vini’ – great wines but not big wines.

Our members got to look at wines from all three areas to see just what this meant.

Abruzzo

The Abruzzo is a large area – Italy’s fourth biggest wine region –  most of it is concentrated on Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. But white wine is coming back, particularly driven by a resurgence of local varieties. In the past this would probably have meant the high-yielding Trebbiano, but when the team at Umani Ronchi replanted they decided to concentrate on Pecorino which they thought was more interesting.

‘It’s a very ancient variety and very typical of this part of Italy,’ says Michele. ‘It’s been cultivated here for centuries. It’s authentic, indigenous and really gives some quality with a great personality.’

Umani Ronchi’s Abruzzo vineyards, looking towards the Appennines. Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Centovie Pecorino 2019, IGT Colli Aprunti

In terms of blind tasting, Michele says Pecorino can be hard to pick on the nose. There’s some pear and white flowers, but like many Italian white varieties it’s not a particularly aromatic variety compared to, say Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Bianco.

‘You find the character on the palate,’ says Michele. ‘I don’t like to say minerality, but there’s a definite saltiness and acidity. There’s good body and freshness and it’s capable of ageing.’

£15.40 ex-VAT, Berkmann

The Centovie sees no oak, but is settled for 12 months in concrete tanks and 5 months in bottle before release. A wine with a certain chalkiness it’s pretty versatile and needn’t be limited to fish and seafood but, says Michele, can work well with white meats too – and food with more character generally.

Centovie Organic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015

Montepulciano is the variety that the Abruzzo is best known for. Typically, they are quite deep in colour and polyphenols and fairly rich in style.

But Umani Ronchi have introduced a variety of winemaking techniques – from not over-ripening the grapes and reducing pump-overs to introducing a little whole-bunch into the ferment – to dial this style down a bit and make something more elegant. Generally sandy soils help in this regard too.

Centovie is a 100% organic estate and though the wine is aged 14 months in French oak only 25% of it is new, with the remainder second and third use.

£18.87 ex-VAT, Berkmann

‘It needs some time to soften the wine, but we don’t want too much oak character,’ says Michele, pointing out that the wine still has enough concentration to age for 10-15 years.

Collective Member Daniel Cordero Reis found it ‘intense, warm and fruity with spicy aromas.’

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi

This is where Umani Ronchi started and is home to over half of their vineyards – 110 hectares – all organically cultivated. Their vineyards are split between the ‘left bank’ (north of the Misa river) and the right bank opposite, with our members today tasting an example of each.

Verdicchio has changed significantly from the 1970s when it was making big volumes of largely uninspiring wine, to now producing some of Italy’s best whites. It’s a movement that this winery has been at the forefront of driving.

The beautiful sloping vineyards of Verdicchio Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Vecchie Vigne Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2019 

£17.84 ex-VAT, Berkmann

Umani Ronchi were engaged in renewing old, less productive vineyards, when they noticed that the vines in the upper part of this 1960s vineyard gave consistently better quality fruit. So rather than replant them, they renovated them. And this wine is the result.

It’s a very pure expression of Verdicchio – fermented in stainless steel and aged in concrete tanks for a year, with no malo and no oak. It’s not unlike unoaked Chablis and, with the latter in short supply for the next two years, could provide a useful alternative.

‘Growers now realise they have a variety that can provide very classy wines,’ says Michele, suggesting that consumers are now often looking for wines such as this, with less obvious aromatic intensity and more character on the palate.

Plenio Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva 2019

£17.07 ex-VAT, Berkmann

First made in 1995 this oaked expression is a deliberately richer, more full-bodied style of Verdicchio (Plenio means ‘full’) which was very much the fashion of the mid-90s. However, over the last 25 years, Umani Ronchi has dialled down the oak use to just 30-40%, with no new oak – just two or three-year-old barrels.

‘Because Verdicchio is not very aromatic, you have to be careful in the oak you use,’ explains Michele. ‘You can’t use a sweet oak that adds those vanilla characters. You need a more grilled character, which works better with the freshness and minerality of Verdicchio. That way the oak brings complexity but it doesn’t make it heavy and you don’t lose the indigenous character.’

The wine comes from a vineyard that’s 400m above sea level, with gives bigger day/night differences. This allows them to leave the grapes on the vine longer without losing acidity, giving a style that’s richer, but still balanced.

All of which means you can push the food matching a bit, from fish and white meats right up to spaghetti Bolognese.

Verdicchio – could it be Italy’s answer to Chablis? Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Conero

This wine region is named after the mountain (and national park) on the promontory south of Ancona. At 600m high, it shields the vineyards from the cool northerly and easterly breezes and is the reason that it’s possible to grow Montepulciano here. Even so, it’s the most northerly region for the grape in Italy.

Conero’s vineyards are protected from the wind by 600m high mountains. Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Cùmaro Rosso Conero Riserva 2017   

The proximity to the sea has a big influence on the character of this wine. Firstly, the intensity of the light helps the polyphenols to ripen, and secondly it moderates the climate. The coast is famous for windsurfing – and the constant wind explains why the ripening is slower and more gentle.

It’s a hilly area of limestone and clay soils and stylistically the Montepulcianos are different as a result: more fruity and elegant in structure, and less powerful and spicy than those from the Abruzzo. A more refined expression.

£19.69 ex-VAT, Berkmann

Pelago 2017, Marche Rosso IGT

Our final wine of the day was first created for Umani Ronchi in the 1990s by Giacomo Tachis – the Italian wine guru famous for inventing Sassicaia, Tignanello et al. Having planted Cabernet and Merlot, with the intention of making a Bordeaux blend, Tachis convinced the family to blend it with Montepulciano to make a kind of ‘Super Marche’.

Typically the latter makes up around half of the blend, with 40-45% Cabernet and a splash of Merlot.

2017 was a warm year, but the maritime climate helped mitigate against that and (along with 2013 and 2015) is one of Michele’s favourite recent vintages.

£25.88 ex-VAT, Berkmann

‘It’s always been about elegance and finesse,’ says Michele. ‘It’s never been a wine looking for a big structure.’

Umani Ronchi’s new barrel cellar. Ageability is a key feature of the Conero wines, particularly Pelago.

Discovery Tasting: Tasca d’Almerita

A riot of lagoons, mountains, islands and volcanoes, this tasting with Tasca showed off Sicily’s incredible geography to the max

Let’s face it, most of the wine trade don’t know anywhere near enough about Sicily. There’s a temptation to assume that because it’s an island it’s not very big, and because until 30 years ago much of what it produced went into bulk wine that it’s devoid of interesting terroir.

In fact, neither of these things is remotely true. Sicily is bigger than Wales. It’s 100,000 hectares of vineyard (just less than Bordeaux) makes it one of the biggest wine regions in Italy, and its scenery is extraordinary – as we discovered in this tasting.

Collective members tried wines from tiny windswept islands, salty lagoons, rocky mountains and Europe’s largest active volcano.

‘Everyone imagines Sicily is a flat island,’ says Alberto Tasca, of our hosts for the day, Tasca d’Almerita. ‘But it isn’t at all.

5 Territories, 5 Estates, 5 stories to tell – Tasca d’Almerita

‘70% of the production comes from hills, and that makes a big difference.’

Alberto Tasca

Tasca d’Almerita have an almost 200-year history of winemaking on the island, and exploring such diverse terroirs has very much become part of their philosophy, with the family-owned company adding small estates the length and breadth of the island.

‘We use as little ego [in the winemaking] as possible,’ explained Alberto. ‘We just want the wines to talk about where they’re from; the age of the vines and what kind of grape varieties they are.’

The Wines

Tenuta Capofaro, Didyme 2021

This comes from the island of Salina, off Sicily’s north-east coast. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, with vineyards overlooking the thundering waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

‘It has a little what we call ‘sapidity’ – a kind of saltiness,’ says Alberto. ‘It could be because of the strong winds blowing salty water everywhere.’

The island used to be best known for making sweet wines from Malvasia di Lipari. But in 2013 – a big year – Tasca had no space to dry all the grapes, so made some dry wine as well – a style that’s become increasingly popular and should get its own DOC soon.

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

‘I see this kind of wine working very well with sushi,’ said Raphael Thierry. ‘The oily texture is perfect with the texture of the fatty fish like tuna and the saltiness of the wine combines well with soy sauce.’

Vines with a view out over the Tyrrenhian Sea. Spray could give the wines a gentle salty finish.

Tenuta Regaleali, Buonsenso Catarratto 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

Tenuta Regaleali is the homeland of Tasca d’Almerita. It’s in the high, mountainous interior of the island. With much cooler nights, grapes ripen one month later here, which was particularly important in the days before temperature control, since it meant fermenting in October rather than much warmer September.

Catarratto is Sicily’s most-planted white variety, characterised by good natural acidity and an inherent ability to age, even without oak. ‘Because of its ability to hold acidity, you can get it ripe without worrying about it losing freshness,’ says Alberto.

It’s defined by apricot flavours. ‘But there’s a little sapidity to the finish of this wine which is just what we’re looking for,’ says Alberto. ‘We don’t want it to be all about primary aromas.’

Tenuta Regaleali in the mountains of the interior. The heartland of Tasca d’Almerita’s operation

Tenuta Whitaker, Grillo di Mozia 2021

Mozia is another extraordinary place: an incredibly low island off Sicily’s west coast, Alberto claims (almost certainly accurately) that these vines are the lowest vineyards in the world, just a couple of metres above sea level.

The sea around the island is so shallow that the grapes need to be transported to the mainland in small numbers of boxes at a time (see main picture), otherwise the boat runs aground.

Grillo is a cross between Moscato and Catarrato, and the vines are trained in the ‘Marsala bow’ – which involves intertwined bush vine branches trained on a wire, to protect them from the strong sea breezes. It’s a naturally rich wine, particularly from 2021 which Alberto says was ‘the warmest, driest vintage of my whole life.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars
Mozia: vineyards barely above the water, surrounded by a 50cm-deep sea

Tenuta Sallier de la Tour Madamarose 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This large estate inland from Palermo is at 450m of altitude and a mixture of sand and clay. ‘It’s the perfect place for Syrah,’ says Alberto. Tasca d’Almerita tried planting the grape at Regaleali, but it was too cool, and the soils too poor. It performed far better on this estate.

‘We think this is the best place for Syrah in Sicily,’ he continues, pointing out that the grape has a long tradition in Sicily, though it’s a different biotype to the examples grown in France and Australia.

This deep-coloured example from the hot 2021 vintage is ‘a step up in richness’ compared to a normal year, but Alberto says that it ‘pairs very well with food. That’s very much part of our culture in Sicily now. It’s great with barbecued meat.’

High, but warmer than the Regaleali estate, Sallier de la Tour is perfect for Syrah

Tenuta Tascante Ghiaia Nera 2019, Etna Rosso

Nerello Mascalese has found its spiritual home on Etna, which is just as well because it’s not an easy grape to grow. Tasca d’Almerita tried to grow it in Regaleali but ended up just using it for rosé. ‘It’s like trying to grow Pinot Noir in a place that isn’t suited to it,’ says Alberto. ‘But in Etna the volcanic soil brings a crazy tension to the wine.’

Pale in colour, John Prime commented that it ‘seemed to tread a fine line between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo’ and Alberto backed this up.

‘It makes crisp, gastronomic wines,’ he explained. ‘They don’t work without food. There’s something nervous about it. You need an educated palate.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This was (just) the most popular wine in the tasting, with our members suggesting it with lamb sweetbreads in miso caramel (Patrick Bostock), ‘red pepper cannelloni and lemon ricotta in our vegetarian tasting menu’ (James Payne) and ‘roast chicken or turkey’ (Jordan Sutton).

Etna’s grey volcanic rocks make for distinctive terracing

Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2016, Contea di Sclafani DOC

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

The ‘Conte’ was created by Alberto’s grandfather back in the 1960s. At that time, Chateauneuf du Pape was the most sought-after wine style, and after visiting the region for a month, he decided on blending two varieties together. It’s a mix of Nero d’Avola and Pericone.

‘Typically these two varieties were planted together because they ripen at the same time,’ said Alberto. ‘But they are totally different. Nero d’Avola is rich purple with a high acidity, Pericone is redder, with a rounder body.’

It’s easy to see how they might work well together, and they combine brilliantly here. From the excellent 2016 vintage, this wine was also popular with the Collective members.

Alberto refused to be drawn on whether he prefers the Etna wine or the Conte, but does say that in 2016 the ‘Rosso del Conte was amazing – better than the best wine we produced on Etna.’

Terraces tumble down the hillside on Mount Etna

Watch the video

Francesco Gabriele

You should see my desk – it’s inundated with bottles!

Looking after the wines for the Iconic Luxury hotels group is a plum job. We talked to Chewton Glen’s Francesco Gabriele about his journey in hospitality, and why sometimes the best way to move forward is by taking a step back.

If you’re overseeing thousands of wines across five glamorous hotels, it probably helps if you’ve grown up surrounded by the stuff. Francesco Gabriele, Wine Director at Chewton Glen was raised on Sardinia, where his mum’s family ran a winery. In fact, one of his earliest memories is stepping into the damp, winey, earthy smell of the cellar with his grandfather.

Francesco in the vineyards of his Sardinian homeland

He was taking ‘a few drops’ of wine in his water from the age of six, and drinking small amounts with food on a daily basis from 14 onwards. And yet, it was nearly all very different…

Your family wanted a different career for you didn’t they?

My dad had an accountancy business in Rome. He thought I’d be a lawyer or solicitor or something in finance. So I studied economics at the university there. But then I went back to Sardinia and got a job as a bartender in a very ordinary kind of bar and that was where my hospitality passion started.

At a ‘food and cocktails’ competition
Making headlines as a young bartender in Sardinia

So not in wine at all, to begin with?

I did maybe five or six years cocktails and mixing, but there was always some crossover. Even if you are in the bar, if there’s a shortage in the restaurant you could find yourself working on the floor. It was a smooth transition.

Tell us about your early career

I spent most of my time in Sardinia on the Costa Smerelda with the Aga Khan’s group – probably the most luxurious group in Europe at the time. From there I went to Milan and did seasons back and forth between Milan and Sardinia until I moved to the UK 10 years ago.

Why the move?

I love to explore new places – I was an economic gipsy – not settled anywhere! But in Italy the season was starting to get very short. So I came to the UK looking for a bit more stability.

With the team at Tylney Hall in Basingstoke in 2012 – his first venue in the UK

Where did you start?

At Tylney Hall near Basingstoke in 2012. It was a four-star hotel and I was head sommelier, though there wasn’t a team – so I was just head sommelier of myself. Then suddenly Chewton Glen was looking for a sommelier.

You didn’t mind going down a level?

The head sommelier [at Chewton Glen] said ‘what’s wrong with you? You’re a head sommelier and your CV is brilliant, why do you want to come here as a sommelier?’ But for me Chewton Glen has always been the best of the best in terms of sommeliering and wine. Names like Gerard Basset and Alan Holmes have all worked there. For me it was like a dream.

I didn’t mind taking a step back. My wine knowledge massively increased when I went there.

We believe you’ve heavily reduced the wine list…?

We used to have 1,966 – I wanted the same number of wines as the date Chewton Glen started. But with lockdown the owners started to take a look at what was in the cellars and said we can’t keep this money locked away there. So we have 1300 wines on the list at the moment.

The elegant setting of Chewton Glen has massively helped Francesco increase his wine education

Do you still work on the floor?

I’d love to be on the floor engaging with people, but my role is a little bit more complicated because I look after the wines for the whole Iconic Luxury Hotels group which includes Cliveden, Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds, 11 Cadogan Gardens and the Mayfair Townhouse.

That’s quite a responsibility!

Even though I started as just a sommelier I was so determined. I said to my head sommelier ‘give me the chance and I will prove that I can do it.’ And I ended up as wine director for the whole group. It’s a huge number of wines. You should see my desk. It’s inundated with bottles.

You seem to have had a very considered approach…

I never ever rush anything in my career. I consider myself a very slow person. I do one step at a time. But every time I move forward I like to feel it’s a solid step. I need to be very comfortable and confident with what I’m doing.

Two regions to look out for: Greece (Assyrtiko pic via Jameson Fink, flickr)…
…and English sparkling wine

Wine-wise, what trends are you looking out for?

I don’t mind exploring new fashions, new wines, new styles. But it has to be really convincing. For me, I think the classic styles are still winners. There’s been a lot of talk about organic wines, biological wines, biodynamic wines. But for me there’s not enough to create a proper business. The one I can see working is English Sparkling wines. The 20 we have on are really good.

(To see the results of the Sommelier Collective’s English Sparkling Wine Awards tasting click here.)

Anywhere else?

I love Eastern Europe too. And Greece and Macedonia are really underestimated. As for Hungary – people don’t understand how good those wines are.

Any advice for young somms just starting out?

My advice would be ‘don’t be too ‘sommelier-y’ – too technical. We tend to be a little bit fancy – looking at what we want to explore rather than what is people’s tastes. Look after your guests in a genuine way. Be in hospitality!

With Bierzo legend Raul Perez…
…and on a Champagne trip with some of Iconic group’s somms. Trips are a big plus of the job.

Where do you stand on formal wine qualifications?

They are really important. I love the WSET, though for me it’s a bit too commercial. The Court of Master Sommeliers is the best. Unfortunately I only did the first two. I’m generally too busy to cope with any more.

What do you do in your time off?

I like to balance my family life. My daughter is four so we go to places where we can have fun like ski-ing or swimming or horse riding, but also close to a wine region where I can explore wine topics.

What do you think about working in the countryside rather than a big city?

I absolutely love it. In terms of work/life balance it’s the best. I have to go to London a few times a month. But big cities are more for young sommeliers to go to tastings and build up their network. But for someone like myself who’s quite settled the countryside is the best of the best!

The famous Treehouses at Chewton Glen – perfect for uber-VIPs to unwind
Italian white region

Discovery Tasting: Native Italian Whites

Italian whites are among the most food-friendly wines. And this dip into the portfolio of a family-run importer showed exactly why.

Carson & Carnevale is both a relatively new name on the wine scene and one which has been around for a long time. The company was founded five years ago when the Carnevale family (specialising in Italian food) and the Carson family (specialising in Italian wine) came together in a spectacular gastronomic union. You can only imagine the catering at the Christmas party!

The company imports wines from all over the world – in fact, it’s Californian, Spanish and, particularly, it’s Australian ranges are really interesting. But the heart of its business is Italy.

Their ethos is to find wines that are authentic and full of character, but still offer value for money – and we saw that in this tasting, with a range of wines which (with one exception) were all priced to be highly sellable.

Running from Sicily to the Alps, stopping off at most points in between, this was a fascinating snapshot of the country’s wines – and of Carson & Carnevale’s range.

Steep slopes of the Alto Adige round Nino Negri

The Wines

Tenuta Scuotto Fiano 2019, Campania

£16.01 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Campania, in the south of mainland Italy, is 50% hills, 35% mountains and only 15% plains, and the vines for Fiano di Avellino are planted on slopes ranging from 400-600m above sea level, on a mix of rocks, ash, sands and clay.

Fiano di Avellino can range in style from light to full bodied, easy-going to age-worthy, happily lasting up to 10 years in the bottle, where it moves from grassy characters to smoky iodine-like notes. A late-ripening variety, its thick skins help it to resist autumnal weather.

From an excellent vintage and one of the best areas for Fiano di Avellino it’s had, 12 months ageing on fine lees.

Our tasters found hay notes and floral aromas of blossom. Honey and ripe yellow apples, lemon and pink grapefruits, also a ‘peach and lemon rind’ character. The extended lees ageing made it quite food friendly, combining weight but also freshness.

Food matches included linguine alle vongole.

The perfect wine match. Are you hungry yet?

Nino Negri Ca’Brione Bianco Alpi Retiche IGT 2019

£11.37 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

This part of Lombardy near the Valtellina DOC is a place where winemaker are happy to play around with a bit more freedom, and  locals claim this is where Nebbiolo (known as Chiavennasca) came from originally.

Both elements are visible in this wine which is a blend of international varieties – mostly (70%) Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – plus other indigenous varieties, including Nebbiolo fermented as a white.

Rocky terraced slopes give minerality and elegance to wine, while 12 months in oak adds extra weight and texture.

Our tasters found elderflower and peaches and loved its crunchy saline freshness.

Matches suggested were pork or veal tonnato, Jerusalem artichoke, hazelnuts, iberico and black truffle.

Nino Negri’s winemaker, Danilo Drocco

Sartarelli Tralivio, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOCI, Classico Superiore 2019

£11.38 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

In the Marche, on the eastern side of the Appennines, Verdicchio was described by Peter McCombie MW, who was presenting the wines, as being ‘one of Italy’s greatest white grapes’. It ripens slowly and reliably and retains high levels of tartaric acid, while the best examples can improve in bottle for as long as the average white Burgundy.

There’s been a shift to modern viticulture and lower yields over the last 15 years, which is seen in the fact that in 2006 60% of the region’s wines were produced by co-operatives, but that figure had dropped to 34% by 2017.

‘For us Verdicchio is a staple textured alternative to people who have been priced out of quality white Burgundy,’ said Allegra restaurant’s Max Manning.

This winery has picked up a couple of trophies in the International Wine Challenge down the years, and this wine, from 350m high vineyards in the rolling hills of Castello di Jesi was popular.

Our tasters found hawthorn, fern, elderberry, pear, almond and citrus; textural without lots of weight. A gentle austerity rather than fruitiness made it a real food wine.

Matches included baby spinach salad with goats cheese and walnuts, and rosemary and black olive focaccia. Plus, of course, the classic fritta mista di mare.

The rolling hills and shoreline of the Marche, home to Sartarelli

Le Morette Benedictus Lugana DOC 2018

£14.68 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Officially, Turbiana is the same variety as Verdicchio, though, this being Italy, some feel there might be differences. At the southern end of Lake Garda, it’s quite a small appellation with calcareous clay soils, with the lake creating a mild microclimate.

Le Morette was founded 60 years ago and it’s still family owned and operated. This wine is mostly made in stainless steel, though a small proportion is fermented in small oak, though the latter is sensitively handled.

A Tre Bicchiere winner from Gambero Rosso, it was nuttier and rounder than the previous wine with a little textural grip from the skins.

Our tasters found almonds, jasmine flowers and a hint of peach compote, with Gordon Ramsay’s Emanuel Pesqueira suggesting it was not unlike Pinot Gris in the richness of its mouthfeel.

‘I love that textural peach note,’ said Eden Locke Hotel’s Isobel Salamon. ‘This would be lovely with curried flavours.’ Other tasters agreed, suggesting a coconut shrimp curry.

Lake Garda. Not a bad spot, all things considered. And the wine isn’t bad either.

Assuli Donna Angelica Lucido DOC Sicilia 2017

£11.51 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

From the western end of Sicily, this wine is made from Lucido, which used to be known as Catarrato and is related to Garganega, Soave’s variety. Grown all over Sicily, it’s the most widely planted variety on the island.

This variety is usually citrus and herbal, with a mineral aftertaste and some tasters have noted a resemblance to Viognier. This wine was deep yellow and very rich and stone-fruity.

Our tasters could see where the Viognier parallel might come from but felt it had lost more freshness than it ought to have given it was four years old – possibly a bottling issue.

Jon Carson of Carson & Carnivale said that recent examples have been popular with Michelin-starred restaurants, so it might be worth calling in a different sample bottle.

Plenty of sun in Sicily, tempered by sea breezes and a bit of altitude

Tenuta Sant’Antonio Vecchie Vigne Soave DOC 2017

£12.19 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Back up in the north-east of the country, this came from a small vineyard to the west of the town of Soave from vineyards that are mostly loam over limestone, a terroir which typically gives honey and yellow fruit plus an acidic kick from the limestone.

Founded by four brothers in 1989 the business is still family run today.

‘Soave has a bit of a bad rep with the older guests,’ said Max Manning. ‘It was so mass-produced for so long it’s taking a while to get people willing to try the newer styles.’

The younger generation, though, seem more open to it. ‘If you list any Italian whites, you should have Soave,’ said Wiltons’ Monica Bachiocchi.

From 30 year-old vines, this was still remarkably fresh with tasters finding nuts citrus, mature white stone fruit and refreshing green almond.

Matches included squid ink linguini and onion tart.

The four brothers, who founded the winery over 30 years ago

Kellerei St Pauls Sanctissimus Pinot Bianco Riserva 2016

£47.97 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Surprisingly, the most expensive wine of the tasting a) came from a co-operative – albeit one which was founded in 1907, and b) was a Pinot Blanc.

From the south side of Alps this is a region that gets lots of sun, but also a chilly downdraft from the mountains, giving big diurnal temperature shifts, which help with acidity. This vineyard, planted in 1899, is one of the oldest in the Alto Adige.

The wine is fermented with skins in large amphorae, then matured in large wooden barrels. There’s no evident oak expression at all.

With flavours of toffee apple, herbs and spice, our tasters adored this wine, commenting on its balance, complexity, juicy, creamy texture and persistence.

‘It’s complex with real minerality,’ said Emanuel Pesqueira, while Spry Wines’ Arthur Ng felt it ‘drinks like a Pessac with a few years’.

‘So much texture,’ said Elly Owen from The Old Garage. ‘The finish is so good!’

Matches suggested included turbot Veronique and champagne caviar velouté, cheese, and a high quality burger in a brioche bun.

‘It’s not an everyday drink,’ said Monica Bachiocchi. ‘But I love it!’

Be honest, would you have guessed this was Italy if we hadn’t told you?

Marchese Raggio, “Old Année” Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCG 2015

£13.50 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

A staple of Italian restaurant lists for years Gavi maybe has a reputation like a more upmarket Pinot Grigio. But this wine, from a 500-year-old estate has more ambition than that.

From their best grapes, hand-harvested and softly pressed the wine has no malo (to preserve acidity), and a little batonnage to build in weight. It’s aged for three years in old oak barrels.

‘Gavi is the kind of wine where people tend to think they should have the latest vintage, but if you’ve got a bit of ambition that extra age is interesting,’ said Peter McCombie MW. ‘With time it does pick up a hint of liquorice or fennel – a bit of herbal spice.’

Our tasters found it crisp and clean with good primary flavours backed up by a singing acidity, and a slight austerity that made it perfect for food. The suggested match was crab linguini with a notch of chilli.


Drinking slightly older Italian whites made for a really interesting and unusual range of wines. As Emanuel pointed out, guests might be hesitant about this, but would be OK with it once the sommelier had ‘connected the wine to the vineyard’.

However, Valeriya Toteva from the Conrad Hilton was excited by the possibilities.  ‘As a sommelier, I’m looking for something new and unusual,’ she said. ‘It’s a plus to tell a story to our guests.’

The Marchese’s original document of ownership from 500 years ago

Download the tasting sheets

Watch the video

Beatrice Bessi

‘This isn’t just a profession – it’s something I love…’

Chiltern Firehouse’s head sommelier Beatrice Bessi tells us about her varied career, studying while pregnant and the need to think long term

We feel slightly guilty about talking to Beatrice Bessi. The Chiltern Firehouse head sommelier is on her first extended time off for a year, and instead of chilling by the pool or catching up on her sleep, she’s talking to us. Still, she has a lot of super-interesting stuff to say and we’re very happy to listen!

You’ve been in hospitality a long time…

I started more than 20 years ago to earn money in secondary school, in Parma, [north-east Italy]. I started in bars and never stopped  – even when I was studying computer science at university. I just realized that I preferred hospitality.

So you didn’t begin in restaurants?

I was a bartender for 20 years between bars, night clubs and so on. After a while I realized I needed a way to show people this wasn’t just a profession I was doing for the moment but was something I loved – a career, and something I could grow up with. I began to think will I still be making cocktails at four in the morning when I’m 50 years old? So sommeliering became the best option. In some places I was a bartender, in others a sommelier, in others a waitress. It’s been a strength to work in so many different places, from bars to nightclubs to top restaurants, old school and modern.

You came relatively late to wine then…

I started to study as a somm 12 years ago. I wanted to know more – to have power in my hands and be 100% confident and comfortable; to be the person in charge of my career, my floor. I had my first courses while I was pregnant!

Beatrice has thrown herself into the search for wine expertise and knowledge

How did you end up in the UK?

I was working as a restaurant manager for the Alajmo family, who own a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants. One of my co-workers had just returned from London, working with Ronan Sayburn and he bombarded me with his ideas. I knew that Italy wasn’t enough for me and as soon as Ronan mentioned they were looking for a sommelier at 67 Pall Mall I applied for it. I moved to London in 2016.

Did that involve a step down?

I had been a senior supervisor in Italy, and I started as a junior sommelier at 67 Pall Mall. But it wasn’t a hard decision to make. I’d do it now if I thought the opportunity was worth it. I don’t have a lot of ego. If I can see a situation that gives me growth long-term I’d always change the position I am in for the sake of learning.

Lots of nice old-vine wines at 67!

I guess you learned plenty at 67 Pall Mall…

I was very lucky to taste the best wines in the world, the best vintages, unicorn wines. I learned how to deal with Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, winemakers, wine collectors.

Did you start the CMS qualifications?

I moved for this reason. I didn’t understand the full extent of what they offer. But once you’ve studied the Advanced, you want to try for the Master Sommelier. I wanted to be internationally certified, and it helped to be in that environment. The Best Sommelier of Greece, Best Sommelier of UK, Best Sommelier of South Africa – they were all [at 67 Pall Mall].

Any advice for people who are studying?

You need to be mentally balanced. You have a lot of pressure to manage the work hours and the studying. The MS is the hardest challenge of your life; the hardest exam in the world.

Decanting during the Practical paper in the Advanced exam…
A ‘well done’ from MSs Matt Wilkin (left) and Brian Julyan

What challenges did you face moving from 67 to head sommelier at Chiltern Firehouse?

The biggest challenge was to change your style of service, and make it your own, and make all the experience of 67 worth it and applicable in Chiltern. You make your own style. We’ve doubled the wine list to 800 references, and my assistant and I have the freedom to select the wines that we want, from small producers to classics to expensive to traditional. It’s very rewarding.

What changes did you make?

I found some gaps that I wanted to fill. Some regions weren’t represented how I wanted, some producers were missing and there were others I didn’t like. So slowly, slowly we adapted. Can we only have a big modern producer in Burgundy, or do we want wines in a different style  too – oxidative, new oak, old oak? I just went through the wine list and I wanted top iconic wines to be there – but different wines, less pricey. I didn’t try to massively increase the wine list. I just wanted to create something that would please everybody.

Any favourite regions or styles?

I love Burgundy and Piedmont. Our Burgundy list is three times bigger than before, while Piedmont has doubled. After that Australia and California are my strengths. I’d always be a big supporter of those regions – and Riesling is my favourite white wine, so I expanded Austria and Germany because of that.

Piemonte – one of Beatrice’s favourite wine regions. What’s not to like?

How do you balance being a mother with the hospitality hours?

I don’t know how I do it. Honestly! I’ve always been someone who does too many things at once, and being a mum it’s natural that you have to do lots of different things at the same time. But it’s a big challenge. If I sleep six hours a night I feel lucky, but it’s the only way for the moment.

With such wide experience, do you have a final take on the profession?

Being a sommelier and a manager and a wine buyer are three completely different things. Being a good sommelier doesn’t make you a good manager, and sometimes you have amazing managers who are not good sommeliers and vice versa. You have to keep practising and training yourself in all these roles.

Beatrice with her daughter. Juggling work and domestic responsibilities is still a challenge

Masi Tassi Tour

ADVERTORIAL

Masi, the top Italian producer based in the Veneto, hailed a black cab and invited some of the Capital’s best sommeliers to do The Knowledge and sample the range and diversity of Masi´s wine.

Giacomo Boscaini, export manager and seventh generation member of the family behind Masi, hosted the evening which stopped off at three of London’s great restaurants to showcase the various Masi Estates, paired with some choice dishes.

Masi host a group of top London Sommeliers to showcase its range of wines from the Veneto and Argentina

Giacomo was joined by twelve sommeliers, and Sommelier Collective members, from across London: Stefan Neumann MS; Amedeo Bellini, Sommelier, Petrus by Gordon Ramsay; Antonio Bellochi, Sommelier, City Social; Salvatore Castano, Sommelier, Friarwood’s; Francesco Delfino, Deputy Head Sommelier, Aqua Shard; Roxane Dupuy, Head Sommelier at Sketch; Michela Di Fazzio, Sommelier, Matteo’s at Annabel’s; Matteo Furlan, Head Sommelier at The Ritz; Alexia Gallouët, Head Sommelier, Haugen; Gabriele Galuppo, Head Sommelier, Beast; Jonathan Kleeman, Head Sommelier, Restaurant Story and Daniel Murray, Head Sommelier, A Wong.

Masi Cabs for the Masi Tassi Tour in London, November 2021

The tour started at Piazza Italiana, in the heart of The City, where a number of iconic Venetian wines were tasted with some great Italian dishes. Next up at Sushisamba, Covent Garden, the somms and hosts departed from the European theme; stretching over two continents to pair South American-Eastern fusion with the wines from the Masi Tupungato estate in Argentina. The tour ended at Hide, Piccadilly where guests tasted four Amarones and one Recioto, dating back to 2007, from the family’s cellars chosen specially for the evening by Giacomo.

‘Passo doble’, it’s like the Argentine tango: it’s a dance between Venice and Argentina”

Giacomo Boscaini, 7th generation Masi family

Commenting on the London tour Stefan Neumann MS said, “The evening combined heritage and culture and was a joyful experience – a win win combination. The three different Masi wine ranges, tasted in three different locations, were able to build a bridge between different cuisines.”

Stefan Neumann MS

THE WINES TASTED:

  • Canevel Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG Extra Dry
  • Colbaraca Soave Classico, Masi 2019
  • Toar Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Masi 2018
  • Brolo Campofiorin Oro, Masi 2017
  • Organic Passo Blanco, Masi Tupungato 2020
  • Organic Passo Doble Tierra Soleada, Masi Tupungato 2019
  • Organic Corbec Appassimento, Masi Tupungato 2017
  • Canevel Terre del Faè Prosecco dosaggio zero 2020
  • Costasera Amarone Classico, Masi 2015
  • Riserva Costasera Amarone Classico, Masi 2015
  • Campolongo di Torbe Amarone, Masi 2007
  • Mazzano Amarone della Valpolicella, Masi 2007
  • Angelorum Recioto della Valpolicella, Masi 2016

“Campolongo di Torpe” & “Mazzano” for me are respectively the Queen and the King of Amarone. 2007 was an incredible vintage and the wines are showing so well at the moment, still very young but super expressive.

Salvatore Castano, sommelier and fine wine advisor, Friarwood’s

The Masi story began in 1772, when the Boscaini family acquired prestigious vineyards in the small valley called “Vaio dei Masi”, which is the origin of the company’s name. After more than 200 years of passionate winemaking the company is still in family hands, run by the sixth and seventh generations.  

A benchmark in the art of producing Amarone at a world level, Masi constantly innovates and passes on its expertise in the Appassimento method, which has been practised since the time of the Ancient Romans. Use of native grapes and autochthonous methods, and the research and experimentation carried out by the company, make it one of the most famous producers of high-quality Italian wines in the world. Masi is constantly looking to set a new benchmark for the Veneto wines of tomorrow, as they did in 1964 with the launch of Campofiorin and the creation of the Ripasso category. As Giacomo Boscaini said on the evening, “The ‘Masi style’ is always about good balance and good acidity. In my opinion, 2015 was one of the best vintages in the last 50 years. Before 2016, it would have been one of the best ever.”


My favourite wine of the night was the Amarone Riserva Mazzano 2007. The most interesting was probably the Corbec, because of the unusual blend of Corvina and Malbec.

Amedeo Bellini, sommelier, Petrus by Gordon Ramsay

Masi wines are imported into the UK by Berkmann Wine Cellars.

Follow #Masi #masiTassi @MasiWines @Berkmann_Wine

Island jewel PANTELLERIA is no longer just about sweet wines

In the sea between Sicily and Tunisia, at the southernmost point of Italy, lies the island of Pantelleria.

Geographically, it’s closer to north Africa (Tunisia is 60km to the west) than it is to the rest of Italy, so it’s perhaps no surprise to discover that it has extremely long, hot and dry summers. Rainfall is about 300mm a year, with just 0.2mm of it falling in July.

In such arid conditions, vine growing is only possible at all thanks to morning dew and decent winter rains. Most of the production is focused on sweet wines, but there is more to it than this, as you will see.

Pantelleria is not large – just 80 square kilometres – and the vast majority of its vineyards are planted to Zibibbo, also known locally as Moscato D’Alessandria. Similar to Moscato Bianco (Muscat Blanc a Petite Grains) it is highly aromatic and with a medium acidity, which makes it well suited to the production of sweet wines. Closely related to table grapes it’s quite ‘grapey’ – with flavours of elderflowers, stone fruits, and sweet spices.

Although it is found dotted around other Italian Regions it probably shows its best in the Colli Euganei in the Veneto where it is used for another sweet appassito wine called Fior D’Arancio.

Two styles of sweet wines are produced on the island – Moscato di Pantelleria and Passito di Pantelleria.

For both the styles grapes have to be laid outside either in serre (glasshouses) which have to be ventilated, or without any covers, with is the traditional way of making the wines. This drying process concentrates the flavours and increases sugar levels.

For Moscato Di Pantelleria, grapes are dried for one or two weeks. For Passito di Pantelleria it can be upwards of a month.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to vinification for Passito di Pantelleria. The traditional method involves pressing of the dried grapes only, with gives wines with more syrupy prune-like aromas.

But some producers use a similar technique to Tokaji, where a base wine is made using non-dried grapes harvest and this is then macerated with the dried grapes. Introduced by Donnafugata in the 1980s, this technique adds both aroma and body, and gives fresher wine with more primary aromas.

Both techniques give wines that are opulent and very sweet, which makes them ideal for pairing with high-sugar desserts that would overpower most sweet wines.

I also find that Pantelleria wines have some sparse tannins, as the grapes are almost raisin-like and need quite hard pressing to extract the juice. This gives an extra dimension to the wines, adding a little astringency to balance the sweetness.

The Arrival of Dry and Natural

When it comes to allowing experimentation, Sicily is one of the most creative regions in Italy, so it’s no surprise that Pantelleria is no longer all about sweet wines.

Spurred on, no doubt, by the fact that the market for the latter is declining, for ten years or so, growers have started to produce more dry wines.

A range of Sicilian grapes are used for these, but Zibibbo is the most common and also, in my opinion, the best. Grapes are harvested when just ripe, at the end of August. 

The ‘natural’ movement is very active on the small island, with a growing number of amphora and ‘orange’ wines cropping up every year.

Zibibbo is really well suited to the latter, with a contrast between the sweet, exotic aromas on the nose and the very dry, lean palate.

The only downside is that they’re not cheap. Pantelleria is very small, so there are no economies of scale, and the climatic conditions mean that yields are naturally very low. Price-wise these are likely to appear in the upper middle section of the wine list.

On the plus side, this style works really well in pairing menus and by the glass. It’s different, surprising, and has a great story behind it.

Cellar suggestions: three to try for your list

Marco de Bartoli, Bukkuram Sole d’Agosto, Passito di Pantelleria, 2015

Les Caves de Pyrene £45+

Marco De Bartoli’s history is entwined with the history of modern Sicilian wines. From two wine producing families in Marsala, he returned to the region when he called time on his rally-driving career in the early 1980s. He, focused on low yielding Grillo, and high quality Marsala unheard of at the time and became the president of Sicilian wines for a couple of years before being mysteriously removed from his position. Nobody knows exactly why, but we can assume that his ideas where quite different to the rest of Sicilian producers at the time.

What he couldn’t achieve for Marsala, He did in Pantelleria, where he bought his second estate in 1989. He pushed to produce the highest possible quality sweet wines. Changing the way Pantelleria was going.

This is a prime example of the Passito di Pantelleria. Aged in very old barriques it is made in a sweet style with complex, chocolate, peach and mint aromas. It is best served alongside a chocolate mousse or a fondant.

Marco De Bartoli, Integer Zibibbo 2016

Les Caves de Pyrene £20-25+

Another offering from Marco De Bartoli. This time it’s a dry, skin-contact amphora-aged Zibibbo. The wines is  grapey, with aromas of nectarines and pear. A more mellow style than some skin-contact wines, it also has an unusually low alcohol level, thanks to the very early harvesting.

This works well as an aperitif or with starters of crudo.

Gabrio Bini,  Serragghia Bianco Zibibbo 2017

Tutto Wines £35-40

Serragghia is probably the most famous, natural style wine of Pantelleria. The vineyard is situated in close proximity to the sea enjoying almost constant sea breezes and temperatures are surprisingly moderate, even in the height of summer.

The eccentric, Gabrio Bini, moved from Milan to Pantelleria to be a winemaker, leaving behind his former architect career in the early 1990s. In 2000 he established his cellar, where no chemicals have ever entered. He does the least intervention possible in the vineyards.

A great example of the contrasting style between the aromatic intensity of Zibibbo and the drying influence of the amphoras that Gabrio buries in the depth of the cellar, this is a wine that has aromas of stone fruits and sage, with some saline notes.

The palate is bone dry with surprisingly strong tannins, which means that this can be served with monkfish or pork – just make sure that that the dish has plenty of flavour.

Learn more

Find out more about the traditional agricultural practice of cultivating head-trained bush vines on the island of Pantelleria.

Is this eco bottle the future of wine?

Could the sound of tinkling glass, of razor-sharp bottle shards in your hallowed outside space and of RSI from lifting cases of half-kilogram bottles into the cellar all become things of the past?

A UK company is hoping that its new Frugal Bottle – made entirely from recycled paperboard – means that they might.

The bottle, with labels, logos and images printed directly onto the board, has just become available in the UK. It contains a Sangiovese/Cabernet/Merlot blend from Cantina Goccia in Umbria and is on sale to restaurants from Hallgarten Druitt Novum Wines.

‘Innovation in sustainability is something the wine trade sorely needs and this packaging helps us in so many ways,’ said Jim Wilson, Portfolio Director at HDN Wines.

In case you’re wondering how ‘wine’ plus ‘cardboard’ is a good combination, rest assured that the bottle contains a neutral plastic liner to hold the liquid.

It can’t, clearly, be chilled in an ice bucket, but after cooling in the fridge stays colder for longer due to the insulating properties of the cardboard. After consumption, both elements are completely (and cheaply) recyclable.

The manufacturers estimate that the product’s carbon footprint is six times lower than that of a glass bottle – not least because it is so much lighter to transport. The bottle weighs in at just over 80 grammes, five times less than a glass equivalent.

All of which means that while it might not necessarily be a great fit for white tablecloth restaurants, it could be a good addition to more relaxed venues, where eco-friendliness is important to the customers.

And of course, it’s easier on your back as well…

Lambrusco – great value gems that are perfect for food

The plains of Emilia Romagna and Lombardy are home to some of the biggest foods in Italian gastronomy: prosciutto, Grana Padano, and tortellini to name but a few. And here they are paired with the local Lambrusco.

It’s a wine like no other – sparkling, bright purple in colour… and tannic – which makes is ideal to go with those high fat, opulent, local products.

Lambrusco in the area’s bars is served by the glass, alongside a platter of warm, oil-dripping focaccia and all the mouth-watering products that the region has to offer. In the local’s houses, Lambrusco often goes through the whole meal, where it’s sparkle and richness helps refresh the palate.

Emilia-Romagna – the gastronomic heart of Italy

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. It’s true that Lambrusco’s name declined in the 1980s when co-operatives produced most of the wines and their ethos was definitely one of quantity over quality.

But there have always been independent producers that have made high-quality Lambrusco and there is now an upwards quality trend. Admittedly there are fewer of these good producers than there used to be, and the number of hectares planted has declined. But they’re still there and they are still worth looking out for.

Lambrusco is great value for you and your guests

Vibrant, varied, good with food and by the glass, Lambrusco can really add something different to your list – and your customers’ experience. And since it is generally very cheap, it can be an affordable surprise for your guests.

clones and styles

Lambrusco is produced from the grape of the same name, though there are several different clones named after the villages where they originated:

  • Lambrusco Salamino is the most widely planted and the most aromatic; normally medium sweet, balanced by high tannins.
  • Lambrusco Sorbara is the most deeply coloured with lower tannins. It’s typically dry or off-dry.
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa is considered the finest clone, producing the deepest wines, with lower tannins. It’s usually found as a dry wine.

Other clones exist, and they can be planted virtually anywhere within the appellations, though each of the five DOCs has a minimum percentage required of each clone for the wines to be classified.

Frothy, yes – but there are multiple styles of Lambrusco

Modena’s province, is where most of Lambrusco is produced, and it has four DOCS.

  1. Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC is the most floral, and direct, with soft tannins. Produced on sandy soils, it is usually medium sweet and is well suited for a pasta dishes and/or grilled vegetables.
  2. Lambrusco Salmino di Santacroce is 90% made up of the Salamino clone and is produced on both flat and hilly sides. It is meant to be drunk young and tends to be sweet, with high acidity. Ideal served chilled by the glass as an aperitif.
  3. Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro comes from vineyards situated on the hillside, with longer ripening season, higher concentration, and more complexity. It usually the driest in style and most age-worthy.
  4. Modena DOC is the largest and the quality and style of wines here varies a lot

Most noteworthy Lambruscos are produced using the classic method, or Ancestrale (pet-nat), which involves bottling an almost fully-fermented wine and sealing it in order to trap the CO2 produced, rendering the wine sparkling.

These are definitely the styles that quality producers are championing, and can be a great companion to food, as they tend to be dry and complex with a savoury palate. They can also age for a few years, developing dry fruit and forest floor flavours with time.

Lambrusco offers great quality for the price, starting at £5 and rarely above £20; it has a unique style that offers something different for food-matching, but it can be easily served by the glass too. I have previously stocked Lambrusco by the glass in the summer season and it went down very well with my customers.

Of course, its reputation might mean that it needs to be ‘pushed’ to them. But in hot months served alongside charcuterie and fritters, it really comes into its own.

cellar suggestions: Three to try for your list

Lambrusco Reggiano DOC Concerto, Medici Ermete

Vinum Terra, £10-12

A classic method, Lambrusco, Dry with aromas of roses, cassis, plums and an undertone of sage and bread. Served with a rich steak or lamb it works really well.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC Secco I Quercioli, Medici Ermete

Vinum Terra, £8.00-10

Brut style, this has more direct aromas of maraschino cherries, plums and strawberries. I would suggest it goes best if you serve it with deep-fried vegetables or cheese.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro ‘Ribello’ Roberto Balugani

Fields, Morris and Verdin, £8-10

Ancestral Method, off dry, with savoury aromas, herbs, and plums. This has a delicate mousse and goes well as an aperitif with salami or with a cheese platter and tomato relish.