Valtellina, Lombardia – a regular growing season, without excesses, with rain when the vines needed it, & little disease pressure. The harvest occurring later than in 2018, giving more finezza & less alcohol.
Alto Piemonte – as per their friends & colleagues in the Basso Piemonte below, 2019 was a classic vintage in the Alto Piemonte, with regular rain showers, no frost or hail (or deer) damage, an importantly warm & dry July, & a perfect September & mid-October harvest. Quantità e Qualità, 2019 is particularly fine in Alto Piemonte!
Roero & Langhe – after a relatively normal winter, with some snow in Jan/Feb, a cold & wet May/June that caused the flowering to be interrupted & hence growth delayed, whilst providing ample water for the season ahead. It was thanks to the relatively cool April/May that growers had time to get behind the vegetative growth. In late June/July there was a heat spike that seemed less problematic/high than other parts of Europe (Iberia & France) but which knocked the vine, disturbed the (phenolic) ripening process & compounded the vegetative delay, pushing the harvest date back by 10 days, with Roero & Barolo starting their Nebbiolo harvest wc 9 Oct, while Monforte, Castiglione Falletto, & Serralunga began wc 14 Oct. Regular rain showers influenced pHs – some 15% less rain fell in 2019, with 21% fewer rainy days, than in 2018 but 15% more rain in 2019 than in 2016! – ensured that the vine was never stressed throughout the year. A regular Sept/Oct season, with notable diurnal shift/temp. excursion (vs. warmer ’18) helping the skins to thicken & phenols to ripen notably from week commencing 7th Oct, with rain setting in from 19 Oct.; peronospera reared its head but no presence of susukii flies. In 2019 skins were thicker, more ‘old school’, with more skin to pulp than in 2018. On 5th Sept. hail swept through La Morra, lower Castiglione Falletto, lower Serralunga d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour & the lower slopes of Diano, Madonna di Como, brushing San Rocco Seno’d’Elvio.
Vintage 2019 in four words: classic, fresh, vertical, sinewy?
Leaving Catania airport up towards Linguaglossa, the sea behind you, the rugged, barren, grey, rocky outcrops tell of recent lava flows visible on either side of the hastily mended road. Wild flowers, yellow with flashes of pink, mix with what resembles giant fennel.
Etna seems to buzz. Perhaps living on the edge of a volcano adds a certain heightened, vibrant energy. Even the lush green vineyards seemed more alive. The often ungrafted, ancient alberello vines looked like inverted octopuses with outstretched tentacles and suckers where previous growth has been cut. And above, glimpses of brooding Etna, streaked black and white still with snow.
Terroir is super complicated and ever changing. One Contrada – roughly speaking a ‘Cru’ – can have different soils and characteristics – it is never wise to make generalisations – although they all seem to be blessed with antimicrobial properties from the ash and few chemicals are needed in the vineyard. Here the age of the lava flow is discussed rather than the age of the soil; and the crescent like shape which makes up the Etna DOC is divided into Versanti (Sides/Aspect).
On the Versante Est is Milo, the heartland of Etna Bianco, where the wind blows in a funnel down the volcano to meet the moisture-laden ocean breeze. More rain falls on this side, yet the fast-draining lavic soil means that the wines still maintain admirable concentration and health. No dilution here where it is too cold and high for Nerello Mascalese to ripen. Milo is the only place on Etna allowed to call its wines Etna Bianco Superiore. From their vineyards overlooking the sea just outside in Sant’Alfio, Fabio and Nuna from Tenute di Nuna make a substantial Etna Bianco and a Superiore, the latter with a touch of oak and malolactic, but both with the salinity, savoury character brought by the proximity to the sea.
Over to the warmer, drier, sunnier Versante Nord, famed for its reds where between Randazzo and Passopisciaro, DBGitalia stalwarts, SRC Vini, make wild, expressive wines with minimal intervention from their contrade. Roberto Abbate has vineyards in Feudo di Mezzo, tiny quantities of both Etna Rosso, Bianco and an exquisite Rosato. Feudo di Mezzo is the largest Etna contrada and the soil here is less rocky, deeper and more earthy, suffering less in hot years from the heat radiating from the rocks.
And what of these Etna grapes? Captivating Nerello Mascalese with its unmistakable, orange-tinged wines, seductive like Pinot Noir with its sweet red fruit, sometimes more like Nebbiolo (especially on the Versante Nord), more herbal, structured or vertical but often all of the above, but mostly like itself. Showing an affinity for oak from botti to barrique ma non troppo. Then playful chameleon-like Carricante, with its many characters, from steely Chenin/Chablis minerality, through a miriad of honeyed citrus/pineapple fruits, weighty yet so often balanced, via the tanginess of Jurançon through to petrolly Riesling aromas with bottle age. These wines have energy.
We need a trip back next year in order to continue to explore the South but for now we have a taste of the South West in the historic estate Castello Solicchiata, where classically well made, fine, Bordeaux-style blends grown on terraces surrounding the castle are found. This was an absolute surprise, but again perhaps that is Etna, full of surprises.
From my impression of the wines of the Contrade, I felt that the wine making on Etna has not yet settled down entirely, both innovation and enthusiasm erupting in a slightly unconstrained wild manner. Etna’s lava flows ironically are mostly slow and controlled. For the Rosso in particular there was the question of oak. Nerello Mascalese in my mind is a seductive grape which can wear it well but should be coaxed rather than smothered. I would prefer exuberant to gaudy – this is not Nero d’Avola after all. As for the whites, maceration at the Contrade was à la mode but was at times overdone, adding unnecessary background noise and even a tannic finish.
But finally, back to the giant ‘fennel’ with its huge stalks, feathery fronds and bright yellow orbs of flowers. One producer explained that the plant was ‘finta’ (fake), called Ferula, and not to be confused with its much smaller edible cousin which also grew wild in the same spots along roads. Ferula is mildly poisonous, and fortunately has none of fennel’s unmistakeable aniseed perfume from its crushed leaves. According to Greek mythology, when Prometheus gave mortals fire, he stole it from Mount Olympus and hid it in the stalk of the Ferula plant which contains slow burning fibres and was often used to transport fire. Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, was often depicted carrying a stalk of the giant plant topped with a pinecone as a sceptre. All in all a most fitting plant to cover a volcano where the vineyards are littered with sherds of ancient Greek pottery.
While not as famous as the other ‘Bs’ (Barbaresco & Barolo) to the west, the relatively new DOC, Buttafuoco, is clearly a player in the Full Bodied Italian Rosso squad – probably in defence – & justifies its selection on several counts: geographically, geologically, historically, & ampelographically (grapes!). The name ‘Buttafuoco’ seems to have two origins: from the blazing paean of colours displayed by the grapes Croatina, Barbera, Ughetta di Canneto & Uva Rara at harvest time (a sight enjoyed also in the vineyards of the Alto Piemonte); & secondly from the dialect “butafeug”, literally ‘burning mouth’, as exclaimed by the Milanese poet Carlo Porta (18th century) on drinking the strong, sapido, flavoursome wines!
The hilly Buttafuoco region is located in Lombardia’s provincia di Pavia, 90 mins drive east of the Langhe & Roero, on the notable 45th parallel & forms the most northern part, a spur-shaped area (‘lo sperone di Stradella’) closest to the river Pò, of the larger Oltrepò Pavese – 15km due south of Pavia (Ticinum), & 52km south of Milano, with the towns of Broni & Stradella at its head; it’s a tapered slice of Lombardo land that’s sandwiched between Piemonte (to the west), Liguria (to the South), & Emilia-Romagna (to the east), which makes for a heady mix of rich cultures (& delicious salami!). The river Pò runs west to east, below the Buttafuoco hills – similar in a way to the Tanaro river as it ebbs its way past Barbaresco & Barolo. The zone is additionally influenced & delimited by the important presence of two smaller rivers, once glaciers, Scuropasso & Versa, that run from the Apennines above to the Pò below. There are seven comunes within the Buttafuoco DOC: Broni, Stradella, Canneto Pavese, Montescano, Castana, Cigognola & Pietra de’ Giorgi. And all except Broni (famous for its Barbacarlo DOC) & Stradella make up the core Buttafuoco ‘storico’/historical. Elevations at circa 250 – 300m asl.
A glance at any geological map of Italia will show that the Buttafuoco dell’Oltrepò Pavese region is a continuation of the Tortonian Marne Sant’Agata Fossile that forms the bedrock of Piemonte’s Langhe & Roero regions, dating back to the Miocene period circa 15 million years ago; the sedimentary remains of when the wide Padana valley was occupied by the greater Mediterranean Sea, before the Gibraltar’s gap was prized open, emptying the Sea into the Atlantic ocean, & leaving behind shelves/banks of seabed through which subsequent glacial movements created the spectacular Oltrepò Pavese valleys & hills. In particular the historical zone of Buttafuoco is located on three bands of soil: ghiaie (conglomerated sands & gravels), arenaria (sandstone), & argilla (clay), that impart their own character to the wines thereof: supple/juicy (ghiaie), austere/sapidità (arenaria), & compact/dark flesh (argilla). The region is climatically influenced by the nearby Apennines up to 2000m asl, creating downdrafts, by the close proximity of the Mediterranean sea, & of course by the river Pò just the north, bringing cool air currents from Piemonte & the west. The climate is similar to that of Piemonte, being (semi) continental, with cold winters, hot summers & long autumns.
Historically, & according to the esteemed writer/sommelier/educator Roberto Vinci (robertovinci.org), the ‘Oltre del Pò’/Oltrepò Pavese region, including Buttafuoco, has been well-documented over the centuries by the likes of Strabone, Maragliano, Robolini, cav.Giuletti, Prof. Marescalchi et al…plus more recently, the wines were highlighted by Burton Anderson & praised by Luigi Veronelli. Indeed, for centuries the hills & villages of the Buttafuoco zone, perched above the river Pò, would have been familiar to anyone being transported along the river Pò, or by foot sulla Via del Sale (the salt route) making their way between Milano & Genova. During the second war of Italian independance (1859), the defending Austrian army apparently sought refuge among the Buttafuoco hills, drank too much of their rich red wine & then named a naval ship after it – hence the motif on the bottle. The 100ha Buttafuoco DOC region contained within the Oltrepò Pavese (itself famous for base wine for making Spumante) was only recognized as such in 1970. Meanwhile the bijoux 20ha (100k bts/anno) zone of Buttafuoco ‘Storico’ dates back to 7th February 1996 when a group of 16 producers came together to shine a light on the core zone for making full bodied dry reds from local varieties; the Buttafuoco DOC was eventually codified into law in 2010. Enshrined in the Buttafuoco ‘Storico statute is the ability to feature the vineyard name (vigna X) on the label, of which 17 across the five communes have been identified & delimited.
Until Italian reunification in 1861, the region was always referred to as l’Antico Piemonte on account of it being part of the Savoia kingdom. Little surprise then that the grapes planted among the hills of Buttafuoco are also widely dispersed in Piemonte, notably Croatina, Barbera, Ughetta di Canneto (Vespolina) & Uva Rara. And perhaps unlike other viticultural regions, the grapes form part of a field blend in the same vineyard, harvested at the same time & co-fermented; the timing of harvest being crucial (as with Nebbiolo!) The proportions of the grapes in the vineyard vary between cantine, but are roughly: 50% Croatina, 25% Barbera, 15% Ughetta di Canneto (Vespolina) & 10% Uva Rara; all four are required to qualify for Buttafuoco ‘Storico’ status, & the privilege of using the embellished ‘Storico’ bottle (photo). A minimum 36 mths ageing is required prior to release, of which 12 mths affinamento in legno; traditionally using the 900Litre ‘ciüf’, whose oval shape is reproduced on the bottle, surrounding the ship!
So the small, delimited Buttafuoco zone offers rich dry reds of a seriously superior quality & defined character thanks to a unique, & very Italian blend of ancient geological, historical, geographically, & culturally diverse, ampelographical roots. Indeed, roots & traditions that owe much to l’Antico Piemonte!