My advice to anyone thinking about studying with the WSET: make sure you have someone else paying for it! There’s the course itself, the trips to Auckland for the practical days and examinations (if you don’t already reside in the big smoke) but most painful of all is the cost associated with getting your head around a global product. As luck would have it, just as my diploma studies began I stumbled across a small, local tasting group who were gracious enough to invite me to join.
The tasting group is a brilliant collection of knowledgeable minds and experienced palates. Apart from me they have all built their careers around the wine industry, be it retail, hospitality or distribution; a handful have already successfully completed the Diploma program. Best of all, it’s a friendly, supportive group where you’re encouraged to ‘just have a go’.
The way it works is that each week a member brings a flight of three wines to be tasted and assessed blind. The timing follows the 3 wines/30-minute structure of a WSET diploma exam. And then one person per wine will read out their notes to the group. The focus stays on a particular country or region for whatever length of time fresh wines can be sourced in the New Zealand market.
Most recently spent, we spent ten weeks looking at the wines of Italy. Here’s what we tasted:
THE NORTH WEST
Piedmont is a darling of Italian wines, known for producing wines of outstanding quality. This is where you'll find the most well-known, prize-winning wines, like Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Arneis.
G.D. Vajra Barbera d’Alba Superiore DOC 2008
A wine with big acid, big flavour and a big finish. The tannins, while not huge, lend an elegance to the wine. The complexity of this wine is staggering. A yeasty angle with herb-crusted bread dough and blood, pungent spice in the way of cloves, sage and chili, black cherry and plum, plump raisins, plenty of toasty oak and an array of quirky bottle age elements ranging from smoke, coffee grinds and flint to chocolate and wet stones. It’s easy to see why Piedmont is such a wine lover’s darling when looking at wines like these.
G.D. Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo DOC 2012
Nebbiolo || 14.5%
Far more youthful. Tart, sour cherry on the nose, plum, raspberries, red currants and a cough lollies quality on the palate. Decaying potpourri opens a bouquet that’s wrapped up with cloves and save. The oak is toasty and the whole show is wrapped up with a cheesy/yeasty character. Ripe, soft tannins alongside medium acidity and alcohol. The wine is quickly progressing towards the more savoury and tertiary end of the spectrum.
G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d’Alba DOC 2013
Dolcetto || 13%
A dry wine with refreshing, high acidity, fine-grained, chewy tannins and plenty of flavour. A wine that is still developing, on the outset there’s plenty of red and black cherries, stewed plums and cassis. The oak brings with it plenty of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. There’s a dried herbal component and some red liquorice. It’s the more pungent and savoury aspects that really add interest to the wine. Tar, red meat, charcuterie, dark chocolate, coffee, tobacco and black olives.
Prunotto Moscato d’Asti 2011
Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains || 5.5%
Lightly aromatic and youthful, this lower alcohol wine is packed with the delicate florals of honeysuckle and chamomile. There’s plenty of fresh stone fruit by way of white peach and nectarine along with some candied lemon peel and banana. While fairly simple and easy there are little sprinklings of spearmint, yoghurt, thyme and marzipan throughout, making for a rather cheery, ready to drink white.
Scanavino Nebbiolo d’Alba 2011
Nebbiolo || 14%
An easy and approachable style. Plenty of red cherry, raspberry and cranberry - both fresh and dried. Plenty of pungent spice throughout, especially cloves. The tannins are chalky and grippy in nature. On the mid-to-back palate the wine is more savoury in nature, with smoke, charred wood, cedar and forest floor.Compared with the prices of the more prestigious Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo d’Alba offers great value.
Conca Tre Pile Barbera d’Alba 2010
Barbera || 14.5%
A dry wine with big acidity, alcohol, body and flavour. The tannins are just enough to keep the whole thing in balance. A laundry list of bottle age savoury characters dominates the wine: earth, mushroom, leather, meat, coffee, smoke, flint and chocolate. Not one to rest on its laurels, all these savoury notes are rounded out by fresh red cherries, dark brambly black fruit, dark violets and a touch of herbaceous green capsicum. The use of oak has left its noticeable mark with burnt toast, vanilla and cloves. Overall rather juicy with a good amount of fruit, this wine can continue to age well.
Produttori del Barbaresco Paje Riserva 2009
Nebbiolo || 14.5%
Dry with tart, zesty acidity and chalky, grippy tannins - the structural components on this wine are sharp, electric and very exciting. The nose shows plenty of soft, youthful red berry, cherry and currants, that is sweet and candied in nature. The florals are delicate white blossoms with plenty of baking spice: cinnamon and nutmeg. One of the more interesting elements on the wine is the herbal and herbaceous qualities from black olive to crushed earth, a thread of eucalyptus and some dried herbs. A subtle and classy wine.
Produttori del Barbaresco Rabaja Riserva 2007
Nebbiolo || 14.5%
Drying and grippy overall. The nature of the fruit is a mix of the sharp (sour and tart crabapples) with the sweeter (baked berries, plums and bramble). The nose shows far more of the herbal character by way of mint, tomato leaf and wet earth. The palate is focused more on bottle age with ablend of forest floor, leather, tobacco, earth and unsalted Dutch liquorice. The wine shares the family resemblance seen with the 2005 and 2009, but this is by far the driest and tightest of the lot.
Produttori del Barbaresco Moccagatta Riserva 2005
Nebbiolo || 14%
Dry with very big, dusty tannins and tart zingy acidity. Baked red cherries and biting crabapples give the wine its ‘something fruity’. The rest of the wine is far more deep, dark and savoury. A bit of a silver fox, this wine is ageing well - highlights of chocolate, walnut dust, hazelnuts, charred wood and olives. Even the oak is more savoury with toast, smoke and cloves. The degree of freshness and the strong structural elements lend support to the argument for continuing to age well.
THE NORTH EAST
Veneto, in the north-east corner of Italy, is a major player in terms of quantity, but with a much lesser reputation in terms of quality. The region's primary white is Soave, made from the lightly aromatic Garganega. Fruity Valpolicella is the red equivalent to Soave, this time a mix of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara all made in the recioto and amarone style using dried grapes.
Pieropan Soave Classico 2012
Garganega (85%) and Trebbiano di Soave (15%) || 12%
A delicate, fairly simple wine. Pleasantwhite blossom florals, chamomile and honeysuckle, lemon peel, peaches and apricots with just a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg spice. The palate repeats the nose with the addition of a mealy and toasty lees quality. A very good wine that provides everything you would expect of it. I would happily encourage you to try it.
Pasqua Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore 2012
Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara || 13.5%
A well-structured wine along with plenty of fruit suggests the potential to age. Cherry, cranberry, plum and bramble,rosehip florals along with chai tea spice and liquorice along with a medicinally herbal quality and some fennel. Drying, chalky tannins, refreshing acidity and enough alcohol to keep it all in check.
Corte Giara Amarone della Valpolicella 2009
Corvina Veronese 70%, Rondinella 30% || 15%
A classic, modern style of amarone that’s of a very good quality. Plenty of herbaceous aspectswith black currant leaf and green capsicum, the vanilla of oak and the sweet spice of cinnamon, plenty of dried fruit, mostly dates, a little raisin and fig. Caramelised cherries, espresso beans and fennel round it out. Lots of flavour, body and alcohol. The oak on this wine was clearly Slavonian, not French. Resulting in less tannin, more toast, a sweet aroma and less overall presence.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia sits in the north east of Italy, bordered by Slovenia and southern Austria. It is a cultural mix of these three countries, something that is reflected in the wines made here. It's known for its light, aromatic white wines - the only place in Italy where this can be done with ease.
Bressan Verduzzo Friulano 2007
Verduzzo Friulano || 13.6%
A beguiling mix of the sweet, bright and youthful alongside the rancio qualities of deliberate oxidation. On the fruity side of the street, there’s peach and nectarine, candied orange peel, figs and even some pineapple. On team rancio there’s the nutty mix of fresh almond, marzipan and hazelnuts with yeast and toasty undertones. Dry, with that signature Italian acidity and a good long finish.
Italy’s most important region is one that's hard to pin down. Cheap, easy and rustic or excellent and expensive. Entirely traditional varieties or a blend of traditional and international. Strictly adhering to the DOC quality checks or breaking every rule in the book. It's all of these things. Depending on which end of the scale you're sipping from, you could end up with a very different idea of Tuscany.
Villa Antinori 2011
Sangiovese (90%) and other (10%) || 14%
A wine in its prime. A structural line-up that runs through the middle of the road, with the majority of the aromas and flavours taken from the secondary and tertiary spectrum. Oak by way of smoke, cloves and all-spice, and the barnyard, hide, leather, mocha and black olives of bottle age dominate. There’s still some herbaceous bay leaf character and the freshness of red plum and raspberries keeping the wine alive.
Roccadelle Macie Tenuta Sant’Alfonso Chianti Classico DOCG 2011
Sangiovese || 13.5%
A good quality wine that’s ready to drink now. Dried strawberries and cranberries, nettle and dark chocolate on the pretty side of the street, dusty earth, old hay and decaying violets on the more savoury side of things. A well-balanced set of structural components with medium acidity, tannin, alcohol and body.
Castiglioni Chianti 2013
Sangiovese (90%) and Merlot (10%) ||12.5%
A dry wine with zesty acidity and grippy tannins. Sweet cinnamon and bay leaf spice with the vanilla and toast of oak and ripe red fruit keeping things fresh. The palate shows more in the way of smoke, coffee and cocoa. The acid is slightly high, the tannins slightly low, the overall flavour profile rather simple - the wine is ready for a happy drink now but not for further ageing.
Guad al Mare Castellani Morellino di Scansano 2012
Sangiovese (85%), Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) and Merlot (5%) || 13%
Spice and florals on the nose. Meat, tar and cooked black fruit on the palate. Nutmeg, cloves and black pepper layer themselves over the darkest of roses folded in with chocolate, walnut skins and tobacco leaf. The tannins are big, but soft and fine-grained, the oak well-integrated, showing as charred wood, smoke and vanilla. This is remembered as one of the more interesting wines from the 10-week trip.
Elia Palazzesi Collelceto Brunello di Montalcino 2004
Sangiovese || 14%
The wine is supple and poised with silky texture. Hugely swayed towards the tertiary end of things, covering the full spectrum of bottle age characters: smoke and coffee, chaucherie, leather, forest floor, fresh earth and wet leaves. Freshness can still be found with red currants, raspberries and fleshy red plums. Rosehip and musk, vanilla and toast, clove-like spice, raisins and a touch of barnyard funk all add to the complexity in this aged beauty. There’s still enough acid, tannin and flavour for this wine to keep evolving.
Warm climate, favourable vineyard locations and based on one of the better red grape varieties - montepulciano - making exciting wines in Abruzzo should be hard not to do. However, the wines are more likely to be generic and unremarkable typically because of excess production.
Farnese Fantini Sangiovese 2013
Sangiovese || 12%
This wine was a disappointment, though if you look at it for what it is - an inexpensive, commercially produced wine - it’s less so. The fruit is cherry lollies, nothing fresh. The oak is sweaty vanilla pods, pointing at oak alternatives (staves, chips) rather than the real deal. It’s not all negative, there’s some pleasant medicinal, black olive and earthy savoury notes on the nose. Some sweet milk chocolate, blueberry, green capsicum and iodine on the palate. Take it for what it is.
A tiny beauty off the beaten path, this very mountainous region is most closely tied to the white grape verdicchio - a grape that can be made into dilute, characterless wines when quantity is the focus; or an age worthy wine characteristically showing fennel, candied fruit and a subtle minerality when quality takes priority.
di Gino Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2013
Verdicchio || 13%
This is an enjoyable wine with a rich array of aromatic and flavour characteristics. Youthful white nectarine and peach, tropical pineapple and banana, delicate chamomile and cinnamon-spiced bread dough. Beeswax, crushed almonds and orange peel. A wine to sip and savour, each look delivers something more. A really appealing wine that is tasty now but also able to benefit from further ageing.
Plenio Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva 2008
Verdicchio || 14%
Viscous and waxy with a great range of complex and beguiling aromas and flavours, this wine shows lively lemon peel and grapefruit, exotic pineapple, mango and banana notes. Overall showing a tropical fruit punch character. The age of the wine makes itself known as hay, honey and wet wool. The palate mimics much of what’s on the nose but adds more in the way of herbal fennel and dill. All wrapped up with a nice long finish.
Lacrima di Morro d’Alba 2012
Lacrima || 12.5%
Dry with big acidity, although the tannins aren’t huge they are coarse and grippy. Overall the wine comes across as confused and unbalanced. The nose is equal parts overtly pretty with red strawberries and potpourri and dirty with a barnyard stink and a yeasty, toasty character. The palate is darker and more concentrated with bramble and cooked blackberry along with an odd cheesy character. Lots of flavour, little body and a medium finish.
The commentary on Southern Italy, regardless of the region, is the same: firstly there’s far too much mass-produced, commercial wine. And secondly there’s huge potential to be found. The land is ridiculously cheap when compared to Tuscany and Piemonte, grapes grow easily and there is less vintage variation. Looking back the wines are unremarkable; looking forward, armed with investment from the likes of Australia and California, the region can become something rather special.
Masseria Altemura Fiano 2012
Fiano || 12.5%
A very round and luscious body gives this a wonderful fatness to the palate. The wine encompasses the fruit flavour spectrum from orange and lemon peel to fresh peach and apricot, all the way to exotic lychee and pineapple. Along with this comes a delicate acacia florals and an attractive stony, steely, salty quality, almond meal and cashews, cinnamon spice and a savoury smoked finish. The huge amount of aromas and flavours, along with the rich body are all major pluses. On the other side of the scale is a slightly short finish.
Leone de Castris Salice Salentino Riserva 2010
Negroamaro (90%), Malvasia Nera di Lecce (10%) || 13.5%
A good but not great wine. Very big acidity, chewy, coarse tannins and lots of alcohol. Berries, bramble and plums give a juicy character to the wine. The tar, mocha, meat and tobacco dominate, giving a very savoury experience. The mid-palate of the wine is steely and metallic, while the finish is slightly bitter.
Vecchie Vigne Primitivo di Manduria 2011
Primitivo || 14%
Soft tannins, strong acidity and very full-bodied. Liquorice spice comes up a lot, as does smoke, game and fresh roasted coffee. Chocolate-covered hazelnuts, cooked strawberry, turkish delight and bubblegum all present themselves when tasting this well-rounded wine. The weighty mouthfeel, the long finish and the layers of aromas and flavours makes for a really intriguing wine.
Feudi di san Gregorio Taurasi 2008
Aglianico || 14%
A lot of big points to consider on this wine: tannin, alcohol, flavour. A very spicy wine: oregano, pepper and a good amount of tertiary bottle age - coffee grinds, barnyard, smoke, earth and forest floor with some fairly obvious oak and charred wood, vanilla and cloves. The complexity of the palate extends to a few other components, mostly dried herbs and dried roses. The degree and range of flavours helps keep the massive structural elements in check and will help the wine to continue to age and develop.
Sicily does not have a glorious wine history. Go back a little more than a decade and wine production in Sicily was mostly as a supplier for bulk blending further north.
The diversity in terroir - heat moderated by proximity to sea or altitude, - the range of traditional and international varieties and the high sunlight hours are all helping to attract a new kind of winemaker driving an upgrade in quality and a much needed makeover for the region. The most interesting producers are the ones who are putting the indigenous grapes first: nero d'Avola, catarrato, grecanico, grillo, inzolia and nerello mascalese.The wines from this region were some of the more memorable from the 10 weeks in Italy.
Cantine Pellegrino 1880 Marsala Superiore Dry NV
Catarratto – Grillo – Inzolia blend || 19%
A dry, fortified wine with zesty acidity and a light body where the dried fruit and nutty character of deliberate oxidation meet the doughy notes of yeast. A simple and straightforward wine.
Girolamo Russo ‘a Rina 2012
Mascalese (94%) and Cappuccio (6%) || 14.5%
Chewy and chalky tannins, zesty acidity and high alcohol are the hallmarks of this wine. The nose is layered complexity, starting with cooked berries and sweet nutmeg and cinnamon spices. Moving on to the well-integrated oak characters of cedar, bonfire, cloves and vanilla. Wrapping up with pungent black pepper and a range of black olives, flint, wet stones and boiled red lollies with a medicinal finish. Drink now to maximise the freshness - however, it can continue to age short-term.
Delia Nivolelli Syrah Riserva 2009
Syrah || 14.5%
The fruit on the nose is coming across as baked or stewed, pointing to the warmth of the region. Plums and prunes stand out over anything fresh. The dry palate has a decent amount of very drying tannins along with a medium acidity and a saltiness to that’s very refreshing. There’s a lot of alcohol that is very well-integrated. Cured meat and cedar, tobacco and cloves add to the complexity and enjoyment of the wine.