Latin passion

SINGAPORE - Most people would agree that the most important factor in quality wine production is the choice of grape variety. Clearly, where that variety is planted, how it is grown and by whom, along with winemaking practices used will all impact on the final quality.

Nonetheless, selection of one variety over another, or more precisely one clone over another, is one of the most important decisions a producer can make.

In the fourth article featuring wines that have been shortlisted in The Business Times Wine Challenge 2014, just two grape varieties (Spain's Tempranillo and Italy's Sangiovese) dominate four of the wines while the fifth wine is a classic French Bordeaux blend that ignited passion and controversy when it was first produced in Italy.

Spain and Italy provide interesting comparisons as far as grape varieties are concerned. Italy has a proliferation of red grapes while Spain has largely relied on three main varieties - Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo and Monastrell (Mourvedre). Both countries have used the mainstream international varieties with varying success while Spain, in particular, has renewed its focus on the revival of ancient local varieties, such as Mencia, in previously neglected regions.

Spain's flagship grape variety is Tempranillo. Spain's leading wine region continues to be Rioja. As distinguished wine writer, Andrew Jefford, remarks: "Rioja matters because it's the greatest spot on earth humans have yet found to grow the Tempranillo grape." In the past, American oak barrels were the preferred choice of Rioja winemakers, whereas French oak is now far more widespread and some bodegas use French oak exclusively for their wines.

One such producer in Rioja is Bodegas Roda. Founded in 1987, Roda is seen as one of Rioja's most ambitious, modern wineries with a reputation for producing, dark fruited wines, relying on old vine Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano at different altitude levels over 17 different parcels of land. Roda has also been instrumental in leading the recovery of 550 biotypes of Tempranillo discovered in ancient vineyards to create a valuable seed bank for future planting.

Produced from 95 per cent of the above variety with 5 per cent Graciano, Bodegas Roda Sela 2010 DOC (Denominacion de Origen Calificada) is a younger and fresher style than other Roda wines, coming from their youngest vineyards. Opaque in colour with a pink/purple rim, the enticing nose displayed herbal and boiled sweet characters. The round, fleshy palate was filled with concentrated raspberry jam that was lifted by juicy acidity and savoury, toasty characters to deliver a really delicious wine.

Travelling west and much further inland from Rioja to the area of Castilla y Leon, we come across the small but relatively high profile region of Toro. Toro has been one of the stars of Spain's modern winemaking transformation with the rise in bodega numbers leaping from eight in 1998 to 50 by 2012. In this hot, sparse region, altitude (giving cool nights which help retain flavour and colour) is the key to quality where structured, intense wines are often produced from Tempranillo, known locally as Tinta de Toro and covering 85 per cent of vineyard plantings in the region. Bodegas Valduera's Arbucala Esencia 2011, Toro DO is a very fruit-driven, straightforward offering from a low yielding, concentrated vintage. Very high density crimson with a vibrant pink/purple rim of youth, the nose showed simple estery aromas. Lusciously textured with fine tannins the palate displayed pure, brambly black fruit characters.

Italy, like Spain, has experienced significant changes and approaches to wine production in recent decades. Both countries have had their fair share of supporters and detractors. It could be said that one Italian region in particular jump-started Italy's modern approach to winemaking and one individual was responsible for that catalyst - namely Piero Antinori in Tuscany. The launch of "Tignanello" in 1971 really "broke the mould" with the practice of blending international varieties (either with or without traditional local grapes) within the highly regulated region of Tuscany to create the advent of "Super-Tuscans".

Until the arrival of Tignanello red wine, Tuscany had always been synonymous with the grape variety Sangiovese. Suddenly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot proportions increased so that the final wines did not classify as normal Denominazione di Origine (DO) wines and the new Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) category was born. Many of the wines are highly concentrated with powerful structures requiring time and patience for the wines to gather real interest and complexity. Unfortunately, not every so-called "Super-Tuscan" is of the high quality set by Tignanello.

On Tuscany's west coast, the DOC region of Maremma has attracted great interest and investment from the wine world during the past decade. The best plots are on steep hillside slopes that run down to the sea. Long sunny days, cool nights and a drying breeze can result in wines that are particularly fruit driven but still have underlying elegance. Monteverro is a young property established by German businessman, Georg Weber. In true Super-Tuscan style the Terra di Monteverro 2009, IGT Toscana is a particularly concentrated style.

The blend of 45 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 per cent Cabernet Franc and 10 per cent each of Merlot and Petit Verdot has produced a deeply crimson coloured wine. The nose displayed hints of toasty oak with dense black fruit concentration and a hint of jamminess. The palate was dominated by a powerful fruit core of blackberry jam and very fine, but drying tannins. The new French oak requires further time to integrate, as it is too evident at present.

Moving inland and eastwards Tuscany's real charm begins with pretty vineyard vistas and ancient hilltop towns. Chianti and the towns en route, namely Montalcino and Montepulciano, are considered the spiritual home of the Sangiovese grape.

Interestingly, recent profiling of the variety has shown that Sangiovese's most likely origin was in southern Italy rather than Tuscany. It is a variety famous for its clonal proliferation and has been the subject of extensive research at several Italian universities. The focus has been to identify low yielding, high quality planting material to replace clones planted during the 1960s and 1970s. The Poliziano Vino Nobile de Montepulciano 2010 DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is produced from 85 per cent Prugnolo Gentile (the local synonym for "Sangiovese" meaning "gentle wild plumâ").

Established in 1961, Poliziano is considered a leading estate in Montepulciano aiming to produce glossy, modern wines that are aged in a mixture of new and old french oak. The complex nose revealed Panforte, spice and leather notes. A very ripe, slightly raisined character on the palate was particularly well balanced by the fleshy, chewy tannins and abundant acidity providing a lovely freshness to the other mature characters in the wine.

Drinking perfectly now from the region known to produce quintessential Sangiovese is Le Potazzine Brunello di Montalcino 2009 DOCG. With renewed scandals emerging in the press, Brunello di Montalcino continues to be a focus of commentary for all the wrong reasons.

Nonetheless, Le Potazzine - a very small but significant producer - sources Sangiovese Grosso grapes from both owned and rented vineyards. The result from this warm, early vintage of 2009 is a deeply coloured wine revealing a touch of spice and leather with notes of floral fragrance. The fine, very dusty tannins, maturing flavours of spicy black plums together with still primary fruit characters show the wine's pedigree and potential to gather greater complexity with further careful cellaring.

Spain and Italy provide interesting comparisons as far as grape varieties are concerned. Italy has a proliferation of red grapes while Spain has largely relied on three main varieties - Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo and Monastrell (Mourvedre).

This article was first published on September 20, 2014.
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