Category Archive: Explore Wine

Undiscovered Wine Varietals of Northeastern Italy


On my travels in the beautiful countryside of Northeastern Italy, I love discovering the unique wines that have been cultivated here for generations. In Italy, these wine territories are designated as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) zones. The types of grapes and production methods in each zone are strictly controlled by the government, and this designation is an indication of the quality of the wine.

Across the Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, there is a new wine region with its own traditional wines, remarkable terroir and distinctive winemaking style around every corner. An amazing number of them are relatively, if not completely, undiscovered in the US.

Here are my favorites – my top 10 undiscovered wine varietals from Northeastern Italy. We’ll savor a Tai Rosso and Raboso on trips through the Veneto. Ski trips in the winter will give me lots of opportunities to taste Teroldego and Lagrein wines, and visits next season to Friuli will include a few tastes of Friulano and Picolit.

1. Friulano (the wine formerly know as Tocai Friulano or Tocai Italico).

Tocai Friulano is the pride and joy of the Collio wine region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. So Friulians were not particularly happy when the EU dictated that the only wine that could use the Tocai name was the Hungarian dessert wine, Tokay. A new name was decided upon: Friulano. However, you will still hear the wine referred to as Tocai throughout the region (and Italy). Friulano is clean, delicate, refreshing white wine with a palate that varies according to the terroir. It appears as both a varietal and in blends.

2. Ribolla Gialla:

This grape, believed to have originated in the Colli Orientali di Friuli, produces a wonderful white. The phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century destroyed many of the Ribolla plantings, which were replanted with imported grapes like Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Recently, renewed international interest in the wines of the Friuli has thankfully led to an increase in plantings of the grape. It is lively and flavorful, and pairs well with many dishes, from seafoods to fruit.

3. Vino Santo

The Trentino region is renowned for its Vino Santo, a sweet wine made from dried grapes. This is not to be confused with the Vin Santo produced in Tuscany – this is a uniquely traditional product of the region, incorporating the native Nosiola varietal. Nosiola is the oldest white grape variety grown in Trentino, believed to have originated in the Pressano hills and Sarca valley.

4. Picolit

Also known as Piccolit and Piccolito, Picolit is a white Italian wine grape grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC zone. The name comes from piccolo, or small, due to the fact that this grape has very low yields, which continues to challenge growers to make it an economically viable product. The Picolit grapes are characterized by a nice balance of sugar and acidity, resulting in a well-balanced dessert wine with soft floral aromas and stone fruit flavors.

5. Teroldego

Teroldego is considered the king of Trentino wines. It flourishes only in the Piana Rotaliana area, and, in spite of many efforts to reproduce the vineyards, environment, and irrigation in other regions, no one has successfully replicated these high quality wines anywhere else. Teroldego wines are quite distinctive, with intense fruit, full body, and a strong, dry taste.

6. Marzemino

Originally produced in the Rovereto region of Trentino, Marzemino was introduced by the Venetians in the 16th century. In Mozarts’ opera, Don Giovanni, Giovanni himself makes his last request before his deliverance to hell – a glass of Marzemino. This is a delicate, mellow wine with intense fruit and floral elements. It is a lighter bodied wine, and is not aged for too long.

7. Raboso

Raboso is an ancient wine, grown in the Piave River valley of the Veneto region. At one point, this grape was perhaps the most important variety of eastern Veneto, but, as with many indigenous grapes, saw native planting replace by international varietals in the 20th century. At full maturity, Raboso is one of the great Italian reds, dry and full-flavored with an intense ruby red color and its typical bouquet of spicy cherries.

8. Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso

Refosco is a family of dark-skinned varietals native to the northern Italian areas of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino. The grape is also known as Terlan or Terlano. The origins of this varietal are not clear, but DNA analysis has shown that it is related to Marzemino.
Refosco produces deeply colored wines that age well, with very intense and concentrated flavors, and a slightly bitter finish.

9. Lagrein

Lagrein is a red grape native to the Lagarina valley in Trentino-Alto Adige. Along with Marzemino and Refosco, it is a descendant of Teroldego, and related to Syrah, Pinot Noir and Dureza. Lagrein grapes produce wines that exhibit a high acidity, and even the free run juice is tannic. Lagrein produces a very deep yet intense red color in wine, with flavors of dark berry and cherry, and notes of tobacco and mushrooms. A rose version is also produced.

10. Tocai or Tai Rosso:

Tai Rosso, an indigenous varietal cultivated in the Colli Berici of the Veneto region, where it arrived from Hungary. In spite of its alleged origins, is not related to the Hungarian Tokay; most experts believe that it is more likely related to the Sardinian Cannonau or Granache. Before 2007, it was called Tocai Rosso, but since the regulations restricted the use of the Tocai name, it has been changed to Tai Rosso. This is a lighter red wine, clear and brilliant, with a bright red color, and a balanced, harmonious taste with a hint of cherries.

Oak Wine Barrels – What You Need To Know About French Versus American

Winemakers will debate the choice of French versus American oak wine barrels. It’s an oversimplification to limit the choice between American and French oak when it comes to the wine barrel. Factors such as the skill of the winemaker, vineyard, cooper’s techniques to make the wine barrel, stave (the individual strips of wood which form the barrel) thickness, barrel size, toast level, grain, cellar conditions, and amount of time in the oak wine barrel all influence the character of the wine. When a wine barrel is about 5 years old, it becomes neutral in its influence on the taste of the wine.

Most of the world’s fine wines are aged in wooden wine casks or wine barrels as opposed to stainless steel tanks. Oak wine barrels enhance flavor, aroma and complexity of the wine through extraction of substances from the wood into the wine. Oak wine barrels allow air (oxygen) to make contact with the wine resulting in a slow oxidation process.

Why Oak?

Historically, wood type was a question of tradition, wine variety, economics, and personal taste. Redwood was commonly used in the construction of puncheons or uprights many times larger than the traditional 60-gallon oak barrel. However, redwood is no longer used, being too rigid to bend the staves and gives a yellow tint to the wine. Chestnut, high in tannin, is too porous and needs paraffin coating to prevent excessive evaporation wine loss. Oak is used almost exclusively in barrel ageing of fine wines because of its strength, workability and lack of undesirable flavor or color extractives. Oak’s tight grain permits a gradual extraction of wood flavors. Oak is resilient, enabling staves to be bent without breaking, unlike hardwoods like apple or cherry, and has a neutral wood smell. Oak is high in tannin, an important flavor component in proper amounts that allows red wines to age by gobbling up oxygen, which would otherwise spoil the wine.

French versus American Oak

The majority of winemakers insist on French oak. However, a growing minority uses an American white oak species, grown in Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Oregon, and Ohio, for the crafting of wine barrels. It is preferred over red and black oak because of the high tannin content, tighter grain minimizing wine evaporation, and resistance to shrinkage preventing wine leakage after the wine is removed from a newly-filled barrel.

Common forests in France harvesting French white oak for wine barrel production are Limousin, Alliers, Vosges, Troncais and Nevers, planted in the days of Napoleon for shipbuilding. Each forest produces oak that imparts slightly different nuances of flavor to the wine. Each forest produces slightly different densities of wood determining the rate of extraction of these flavors. Winemakers typically use a blend of wine barrels from different forests to take advantage of the unique characteristics of each.

This notion of regional character does not exist with American oak. The character of oak can vary within a forest due to growth conditions and age. Winemakers using American oak are more concerned with the reputation of the cooper than exactly which state the oak was grown in. A cooper’s reputation is established on the basis of his ability to make a uniform product from year to year. While winemakers expect variation in grape quality from vintage to vintage, consistency in new wine barrels purchased from one year to the next is critical.

As wineries seek to lower production costs, demand for American oak has increased dramatically. More winemakers have substituted American oak wine barrels costing about $400 each for French oak wine barrels costing over $1,000 or more per barrel. This trend has prompted renewed scrutiny of the differences between American and French oak. While both American and French oak contribute tannin and aroma, French oak contains more tannins and flavor components with less “oaky” flavor and smell than American oak. American oak has a more aggressive mouth feel and immediately apparent aroma. American oak contains more vanillin (vanilla aroma) and more odorous compounds.

Some have thought American oak’s somewhat harsh, raw character ruled out its use for white wine and made it desirable for aging powerful, robust red wines such as Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. But coopers successfully reduced the undesirable characteristics of American oak by applying traditional French production techniques. Stave wood is stacked outside to air-dry, instead of kiln or oven drying, for a minimum of 18 months. The wood is exposed to rain and drying leaching out excessive harshness while retaining desirable vanillin components, 70% of which is lost during artificial drying. In the past, American oak wine barrels were flash-fired, producing a heavy char suitable for ageing bourbon. Toasting of the barrels are done more slowly over lower heat, allowing a deeper flame penetration and caramelization of the wood sugars.

When it comes to wine barrels, all winemakers look for something different. If you had five winemakers that tasted the results, you would get five different responses. There is no right or wrong choice of wine barrel.

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South African Wines – The New Shining Light?

South Africa is considered a new world wine region, and has been producing wine since 1659. New World wines are wines that are produced outside of the traditional wine-growing regions in Europe and Northern Africa. Another characteristic of new world wines is the fact that they are produced in warmer climates. This means that the grapes of new world wines are riper. South African wines are distinctively new world, but the taste of South African wines falls between that of the new world and classic European style.

In 1659, South Africa started producing wines and in 1685, the Constantia region of South Africa became famous for its wines. The wine of Constantia became very popular among European royalty. At that time, Constantia was considered to be one of the greatest wines in the world. The South African wine reputation suffered greatly from the industrial wines that were produced during apartheid. Apartheid was the system of legalized racial segregation enforced between 1948 and 1994. Under apartheid, South Africa struggled with inferior grape varieties and industrial winemaking. However, the end of apartheid (1994) gave way to a wave of investment in the vineyards of Cape.

South African wines tend to reflect a European influence because the first European vines were planted in South Africa in 1655. South Africa is especially known for its two distinct types of wines: Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. Pinotage is bred from Pinot Noir and Cinsaut and was created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold. Pinotage is South Africa’s signature red wine because it is South Africa’s own variety.

Although the South African wine industry suffered greatly form apartheid, in the 1960s, South Africa’s Chenin Blanc was the biggest-selling wine in the world. Chenin Blanc is also known as Steen in South Africa. Chenin Blanc is produced from white wine grapes indigenous to the Loire valley of France, but these grapes are the most widely planted variety in South Africa. These grapes can be used to make anything from sparkling wines to sweet dessert wines.

South African wine tends to have more of a traditional taste that reflects that of the old world (Europe, Northern Africa). Although South Africa is designated as a new world region, South African wines are uniquely positioned between new and old world tastes.

The most famous wine producing region in South Africa is Cape Town. The major production centers in Cape Town are Stellenbosch, Paarl, Constantia and Walker Bay.

Stellenbosch is South Africa’s leading wine producer and is home to the countries best wine estates. Stellenbosch’s granite-based soils are well suited for the production of fine red wines. The Sandstone soils in Stellenbosch’s west are best for producing high quality white wines. Stellenbosch is the heart of South Africa’s wine region and produces several of the finest South African wines.

Constantia is the site of the first vineyards in South Africa and is now in the midst of a revival. Constantia is home to the famous dessert wine of the same name. For many years, this South African wine was considered one of the best in the world.

Paarl is a region that produces South African white wines. Paarl is one of the most famous producers of South African wines because the very best wines in South Africa come from the more elevated regions. Walker bay is a cool-climate wine region and has only a few wine production centers. This region is well known for making very classy styles of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

These are the most well know wine producing regions although South African wines are produced in several other regions of the country. South Africa has very fine wines that are also produced in the regions of Worcester, Elgin, Franschoek, Robertson and Swartland.

South African wines have been among the finest in the world for a long time. With the exception of the wines produced during the devastating apartheid, South African wines have been reinvented and reintroduced to compete with the wines of the old world.

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