Italian cultivars a hit with foodies

Grande Provence cellarmaster Matthew Van Heerden

South Africans love Italian food and, really, what’s not to love about simple, hearty dishes bursting with flavour, oozing with mozzarella and sprinkled with fresh basil and tangy parmesan?

Thanks to a handful of local winemakers, that foodie love affair can be complemented by growing numbers of Italian cultivars appearing on our wine shelves.

Italian grapes like sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera and zinfandel may account for a tiny proportion of local vineyards, but they deliver big-hitting wines that are really worth exploring for a taste of something different.

Many are fairly new additions, but Steenberg has been in the Italian game for a while, having just released its 2014 Nebbiolo (R255), the 17th vintage from the classic grape of Piedmont in northern Italy, grown in Steenberg’s Constantia vineyards.

Considered a “thinking person’s wine”, the Steenberg Nebbiolo is a little reminiscent of the deceptiveness of pinot noir – the bright, translucent garnet colour and delicate aromas give little hint of the wine’s intensity and complex flavours.

A subtle, earthy nose fragrant with dried herbs, fynbos and rose petals leads into flavours of sour cherries, black olives and leathery savouriness – that does sound like a bizarre combination, but those are the tastes that evolve on the tongue as the wine develops in the glass.

The wine is bolder, a little more rustic than a delicate pinot noir, and, like pinot noir, it will benefit from being lightly chilled.

Nebbiolo is known for high acidity and strong tannins – demanding some fattiness (think butter, olive oil, cream) in food to absorb them – and Steenberg cellarmaster JD Pretorius recommends decanting it to “bring it to life even more”. The wine is well worth ageing, and Pretorius suggests that its “evolution over the next decade will be a fascinating journey”.

Moving from cool Constantia to warm Wellington, and from northern Italy to southerly Puglia on the “heel” of the country, Grande Provence’s 2015 Zinfandel (R150) is its second vintage of this wine, also known as Primitivo in Italy, and more widely known as a success story of Californian wine.

Powerful and delicious, the Grande Provence also has a light body that belies its full flavours.

A beautiful, deep, translucent red with a woody-spicy nose (a bit like pot-pourri, in a good way, with hints of dried cloves and allspice, petals and dried orange), the flavours are big and savoury, leathery and spicy rather than fruity.

It’s worth opening and letting it breathe for a bit to open up, and it’s begging for rustic Italian flavours, game meat or something with similar spices to the flavours in the wine – think cloves, allspice, cumin, perhaps a north African-style tagine.

Although Port Elizabeth wine lovers will have to track these two down online or at the cellar doors, there are other Italian-style wines more widely available locally, reasonably priced and good quality, although not quite in the stellar league of the Steenberg and Grande Provence offerings.

Look out for Barbera from Altydgedacht, Fairview’s Tuscan-style Homtini blend, Fairview Barbera and Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio in their La Capra range; Zinfandel from Blaauwklippen, Nebbiolo from Du Toitskloof, and Flat Roof Manor Pinot Grigio

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