Tastes of the Med

© Cape Times Friday 15th March 2013

Have you ever thought how strange it is that we are all totally familiar with Italian food yet most of us know hardly anything at all about Italian wine? Last weekend everyone was a-buzz with carbo-loading for the Argus and ‘bolognaise’ ‘carbonara’ and ‘fettucine’ were showing up on every chalkboard in town. It’s like pizza – come on, confess – who else’s knowledge of Italian is pretty much limited to ‘prosciutto’, ‘formaggi’ and ‘Quattro Stagione’? Thought as much.

Like most other countries in the new world, our winemaking is based on French grape varieties and the main reason is that the French got good at wine somewhat earlier than the Italians and Spanish. Whilst those countries were still fighting civil wars and arguing over who was in charge, France had already formulated and implemented a stringent system of checks and rules, all intended to improve quality. So when people started looking at Italian and Spanish grapes, there was confusion as to what was good, what worked and what actually tasted nice at the end of the day. Upshot? A resounding ‘no thanks’ to these unknown, untried varieties and back we all went to planting Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Well the wheel has now turned full-circle and many South African winemakers and wine retailers are becoming very excited about Italian and Spanish varietals, particularly now that quality has soared in the last twenty years. If you want the real deal, then Woolworths and Checkers are bringing in some really interesting stuff – try Checkers for fabulous Tempranillo at R24.99 or go to Woolworths for Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Primitivo all of them around R50 a bottle, along with their new Spanish selections – a Rueda Blanco, a Tempranillo and a Garnacha – all at the same price.

Strange names huh? But don’t let them put you off – all these wines have good back labels giving you chapter and verse in English so you don’t need to buy blind. But if you want to go for something familiar before venturing into the world of overseas wines, there are a few South Africans making wine from these Italian and Spanish varietals already. One of the first people to punt Italian varieties was Anthonij Rupert Wines (previously known as L’Ormarins) who launched their Terra del Capo range a decade ago. They have a Pinot Grigio (R59) and a Sangiovese – the great grape of Chianti (R75) as well as an interesting blend of Sangiovese and Merlot called ‘Arne’ (R115). Try them at their new tasting room antipasto bar (previously Graham Beck’s cellars).

If you want to try Spanish varieties, go to the Port people of Calitzdorp. The traditional port variety Tinta Roriz, is known as Tempranillo in neighbouring Spain and De Krans make a great version. Or try the Woolworth’s Portuguese Connection made by Boplaas which puts Tempranillo with Touriga Nacional and Cabernet for a great mouthful of chewy black fruits. For Garnacha – aka Grenache – try the Nederburg Winemakers Reserve which sells for around R50 and is a great introduction to the variety. Or trade up to the wonderful Ken Forrester ‘The Gypsy’ (R350) which uses some of the oldest Grenache vineyards in the country.

My final recommendation of Italian/Spanish grape varieties is actually Zinfandel! Zinfandel is widely-regarded as America’s pet grape variety, but DNA tests have now shown that it is originally an Italian grape known as Prmitivo (actually, they’ve gone back even further and discovered they both came from Croatia, but let’s stop there for now!) and with its ability to withstand high heats, it should do well in SA. The biggest proponents at the moment are Blaauwklippen who make a rosé version (R100), a normal everyday drink (R100) and – in the best years – a reserve (R310) but keep your eyes open for Grand Provence from Franschhoek who are making one this year as well. As Julius Caesar would say “Veni, vidi, vici” – they came, they saw and now finally, it looks like Italy and Spain might be conquering as well.