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Dry Zibibbo : Marco de Bartoli’s Pietranera

Sicily’s stickies have been favourites among sweet wine lovers for some time; a modest following of these low production labels from the island of Pantelleria, or the towns of Noto and Siracusa has been gaining momentum for years now.

Consumers are attracted to the intensely rich aromas of orange peel, honey and citrus and the often luxuriously but naturally sweet palate of mango, lychee and candy.

Rarely though has this winemaking success translated into the courage to ferment the Muscat de Alexandria grape, or Zibibbo as it is known in western Sicily, to full dryness; creating a dry and structured white wine from this variety has always been seen as craziness.

Perhaps it is. But Marco de Bartoli’s ‘Pietranera’ however is one such example of the quality that can be achieved with a little risk and know how. Famous for producing one of Sicily’s truly magnificent sweet wines, (the Bukkuram Passito di Pantelleria), he has been working away at this wine since 1989.

Just 2500 bush vines per hectare are planted on three hectares in Contrada Cufurà on the island of Pantelleria and are now almost 60 years old. North facing so as to curb the risk of over ripening, Zibibo is hand harvested in the first half of September and destemmed before undergoing a cold maceration. Two thirds of the resulting wine is aged in steel tank while the remainder is aged in French oak to facilitate additional complexity.

Marrying the zesty character of the nose with a complex, mineral driven palate, this is a truly interesting wine. Aromas of concentrated lemon gushes from the glass while in the mouth, the distinctive aura of Pantelleria’s black volcanic soils comes through strongly. The wine is indeed dry, but nevertheless, quenching. One sip provokes contemplation, and then undoubtedly requires another.


2014: A tough vintage in Macedonia

Popova Kula picked their white varieties just before heavy rains.
Popova Kula picked their white varieties just before heavy rains.

So, I’ve been on the road in Macedonia for the last twelve days, tasting fermenting Temjanika and dodging thunder storms. 2014 has not been for the faint hearted or panic prone. As in other areas of the Balkans, it’s been an incredibly tough year for growers.

In the districts of Veles and Tikveš, the majority of producers got their white varieties in before the early September rains but the reds have been a different story. Rot is the big issue. Additional sprayings have been needed throughout the year, Bordeaux mix mainly against powdery and downy mildew, but torrential rains on the eve of harvest have drenched and damaged the fruit.

While oenologists nervously pace around their cellars, peaking out at the vast grey expanse above, Chardonnay, Temjanika, Sauvignon Blanc and Žilavka are undergoing fermentation. They shouldn’t be too bad this year though. Brix levels were fairly normal as they went to press and tasting from the tank, the evolution of the varietals looks promising. Even the very first Viognier in the country, from young vineyards in Ovce Pole, is full of floral and stone fruit character.

Popov Winery were also fermenting whites when the heavens opened.
Popov Winery were also fermenting whites when the heavens opened.

Such sheltering from the elements presents an opportunity to taste last year’s reds. Depending on the style, decisions on when to bottle and when enough oak is enough are being made. Vranec, the main red grape planted in Macedonia is starting to soften, it’s sharper edges polished. It’s a variety that is notoriously boisterous; acidity, colour and tannin are the hall marks of this somewhat confusing offspring of Primitivo. With time though, ripe berry, damson, plum, chocolate and coffee emerge to cult acclaim.

Experimentations with different types of oak have led to interesting comparisons. Macedonian oak (from Berovo) shows interesting aromatics of cinnamon and spice, although finding high quality cooperage can be a challenge. Consequently, the majority of producers are still weighing up the merits of either French or American oak – spice or vanilla. Results from Serbian and Bulgarian barrels will be equally exciting when there is enough to analyse.

It’s too early to tell what will ultimately emerge from the 2014 vintage, but while the whites should be fresh and aromatic, it may well be a year for earlier ripening reds such as Pinot Noir, Merlot and Stanushina.

Amphora Rosso by Vino di Anna

I’m on a bit of an authentic wine craze at the moment. There’s something liberating and feel good in the down to earth aromas of place, in the sharpened edges of tannin and acidity and in the weightless purity of fruit that can only be achieved without the cumbersome burdens of excessive sugar and thick new oak.

I’m not saying oak is bad. Clearly it isn’t. But when used excessively alongside super ripeness it more often than not leads to uninteresting wines. Add to this the nuts and bolts of industrial wine making and it all becomes a bit of a turn off.

Do you have to get through some volume before this becomes relevant on the palate? I’m not sure. Maybe it is an issue rarely noticed by casual consumers. For my part, I have dispatched that volume and served my time; now organically or biodynamically produced wines seeking to let nature take its course (as far is viably possible) are an absolute breath of fresh air.

My deep inhale has come from Vino di Anna’s Amphora Rosso, of which just a mere 1800 bottles were produced. This truly is low production, hand crafted wine if ever such a definition could exist.

Bunch pressed Nerello Mascalese (which adds a streak of green) is fermented in large but old oak 15 hectare litre barrels (low surface area ratio ensure little oak flavour) for about 6 weeks. The wine is left to its own devices during this period so as not to overdo extraction.

In typical Italian fashion, the resulting wine is brimming with fresh cherries enveloped in swirling floral aromas of violets and perfumed flower. It is in these subtle aromas that the magic, and the reason wine has been eulogised for thousands of years, can be felt. The extent of Vino di Anna’s minimalist approach is demonstrated in what happens next. The wine is left to mature where it is for around nine months without fining, filtration or more importantly the addition of SO2. Without the noise of traditional cellar fiddling, the land, vintage and grape variety can be heard, free to speak however it please. (As nature intended?)

In this case, we can hear the distinctive prickly spice of Etna’s mineral rich, black volcanic soils. You can taste the stone, or at least you think you can. But it is refreshing, each contemplation on the palate requires another. Flashing past this freshness are evening aromas of lavendar, tobacco, wild herb and wood smoke. This is, like much of Etna’s authentic, a fascinating creation.