1976 was a big year for Schioppettino and me. It heralded the rebirth of the endangered Friulian grape variety, while that baking English summer was my first on this earth. The winery of Giovanni Dri, at the foot of Il Roncat mountain near Italy’s border with Slovenia, was obliterated by a huge earthquake in 1976, the same year that Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi won the first Nonino Risit d’Aur award, set up to encourage those in Friuli who persevere with endangered indigenous varieties.
The endeavours of the Rapuzzi family and other local growers led to Schioppettino being added to the list of permitted varieties in the province of Udine in 1981. Nine years later, Giovanni Dri’s faith and hard work paid off when he managed to construct a new winery.
And then nothing happened until 2014, when I got my first taste of Schioppettino.
A name that cool clearly needs some kind of explanation. It apparently derives from the verb schioppettare, a variation of scoppiettare, which means to pop or crackle. Scoppietta, meanwhile, is Italian for musket (sic; we’re talking guns now, not grapes), so Schioppettino (skyo-peh-TEE-no) roughly means gunshot or little crackler. It probably owes the name to the way its thick-skinned berries explode when you bite into them.
I felt an explosion of recognition when I smelt the wine and it was somewhat unexpected. It put me back in England, in the country, a childhood summer. A dual impression of coolness and comfort – leafy, floral, peppery and breezy, with wafts of wild berries ripe for the picking. It was much more than nostalgia that made me love the wine. But I defy anyone to remain unmoved by that evocative perfume.
Fittingly, it was made by a guy who calls himself a dreamer. Giovanni Dri hails from Ramandolo, home of the eponymous sweet white wines from the Verduzzo grape. Dri initially established his winery in 1968 and his website, in poetically rustic translation, suggests a man seeking with proud determination to express his birthplace. “I don’t like false appearances; I’m as I look, a truthful man,” he says. “I was born here in Ramandalo, at the foot of the mountain and maybe for this reason I have a rocky face.”
He’s actually quite handsome. And perhaps he’d crack a smile at the thought of faraway converts to the Schioppettino cause.
Dri Schioppettino Monte dei Carpini 2009 Colli Orientali del Friuli
Medium ruby towards garnet and holding its colour well. The nose is pronounced with lifted forest fruits, hedgerow, violets and pepper. The entry is sweet with blackberries and the palate cool and medium bodied, with fresh, pippy bramble fruit and plum flowing with those counterpoints of leafiness and peppery spice. It’s high in tannins but these are fine and tamed by time, while a sharp lick of natural acidity gives a vibrant finish and length. Drinking wonderfully now, I can see it evolving nicely over the next five to eight years. Drink it with pappardelle and duck ragu (or wild boar if you can hunt one down).
Costs $65.50 at Enoteca Sileno – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 18/03/14
Imagination was the theme of Davis McCaughey’s speech when the Victorian Governor of the time opened the brand-new Stonier winery back in 1991. It was imagination that led to the planting of grapevines in the hills of Merricks, imagination that dreamt up a building “important for its function and a place of beauty in itself”.
In that speech Dr. McCaughey quoted British philosopher Mary Warnock, author of Imagination & Time, and her assertion that the great end of education is to stop people being bored. I wonder what the two of them would have said about wine education. You needn’t be an expert to enjoy the stuff; perhaps it’s an indulgence too far to spend time studying it. And what if an analytic approach were to drain wine of its joy? Or worse, turn you into the kind of wine-gargling know-all you go out of your way to avoid having a drink with?
Wine education is booming. Everywhere you look someone’s offering a masterclass, short course or meet-the-maker evening. Then there’s the formal side of things, from the multi-tiered Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) awards to the revered Master of Wine. WSET now offers courses in 17 languages across 62 countries. Just shy of 50,000 people sat for one of its qualifications in the last academic year, representing a fourfold increase over the past decade.
So why take the plunge? Len Evans, the late, great Australian wine evangelist, offers a typically blunt response: “You bother to learn about wine in order to enjoy it more.” Assessing wine from a technical point of view is just one aspect of this, but it’s an important one. This means understanding the interplay of a wine’s sensual and structural elements. It’s not about putting every drop that passes your lips under the microscope. But knowing what you like gets you nowhere. Knowing why you like it is a step on the journey to more wine you’ll enjoy.
The idea of a journey is an important one, since history and geography are written into every detail of wine. Where were the grapes grown? Why do they grow those varieties? And why does the wine taste the way it does? Already we’re travelling through time and space, broadening horizons and drawing a map to aid further exploration.
It’s all the more pleasurable to explore when you move with self-assurance. Let’s face it: wine can be intimidating, with its arcane language, traditions and hierarchies. Gaining a sense of ease about your palate leaves you to relish the prospect of choosing and sharing a bottle, with no heed to fashion or 100-point scores. The rules of service can seem like another minefield, but seeing the rationale behind convention – serving temperature, stemware, food pairing – frees you from blind obedience. Stick to rules that make the wine more enjoyable and ignore the rest.
If the fear persists that wine education will turn an exercise in fun into a dreary lesson in facts and figures, I say this: education doesn’t douse imagination, it ignites it. And to return to Mary Warnock, imagination’s the key if we’re to go beyond witnessing beauty to actually feel beauty. “The difference is this: in feeling the beauty of objects, we enjoy not only the common, shared pleasures of the senses, but also the private pleasures of the imagination, peculiar to ourselves, and such that we have to struggle to articulate them.”
This piece was first published in the Stonier Newsletter Autumn 2014 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the winery.
Innovation: a word from Silicon Valley, not the Barossa. Yet it peppered my conversations with bosses of Australia’s biggest wine companies over recent weeks. The interviews were for the Top 20 feature in April’s Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. You’ll find no spoilers here, merely a reflection on a recurring theme. This is about fleet-footed giants who know consumers won’t hang around if you don’t give them a reason to.
Many producers preach intimate knowledge of vineyard site and hands-off winemaking. But the major players juggle this with a markedly different mantra: intimate knowledge of consumer tastes and hands-on engineering of bottled novelty. Their preoccupation with relevance is understandable. In an industry where competition is fierce and margins razor thin, they have to build their “share of throat” anyway they can. Any throat will do, of course, but those belonging to so-called millennials – who make up a quarter of the drinking population – are particularly coveted. Last week a UK Wine Intelligence report found these 18- to 35-year-olds “have an overall lack of engagement with wine” and could easily be driven to beer, cider and spirits.
Which may help explain why Casella, the group that gave us Yellow Tail – and which copped some flak for relying too heavily on the 8.5 million cases it flogs to the US each year – has brought out a sangría at 5.5% alcohol and a Bondi Rd Sauvignon Blanc spritzer at the same strength. This latter comes as a four-pack of 275mL bottles including the improbable flavours elderflower & mint and ginger & green tea. Better they drink something grape-related and graduate to wine than be lost for ever, the argument goes.
Casella’s spritzer isn’t alone in playing with alcopoppy packaging. Some notable debuts this year include the “naughty but nice” labels for De Bortoli’s 330mL Sia Moscato bottles and the piccolo-format bottles for Brown Brothers’ popular, and very good, Prosecco. Brown Brothers, like fellow Australian First Families of Wine member McWilliam’s, has also given its labels a mass makeover. Staid is gone, making way for a colourful, contemporary look. Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) went a step further for its Yellowglen Peacock Lane bubbles, drafting in jewellery designer Samantha Wills. The bottle looks good enough to drink.
TWE says consumers are looking for solutions for mind, body and spirit. These might be portion-controlled (à la piccolo format), calorie-counted (as with TWE’s own Lindeman’s Early Harvest or US brand Skinny Vine) or lower alcohol. Moscato and friends fall under this last heading, and both Jacob’s Creek (Twin Pickings) and Brown Brothers (Moscato with Sauvignon Blanc) have made new forays into semi-sweet territory this past year. The plan here is to bridge the gap between sweet and dry in the hope that sweet-toothed sippers will become committed wine drinkers when they, err, grow up. It’s an interesting area, and one often looked down upon by serious winelovers (see previous sentence).
That’s not to say all the innovation is directed at this younger, dynamic segment in the market. Jacob’s Creek has been busy in the kitchen, rustling up a couple of wines to match Asian cuisine. Its white Wah wine for sushi now has a red brother for Japanese red-meat dishes. I’m yet to try the red but liked the white: citrus and tropical notes, savoury, grippy with a fittingly briny finish. Then there’s Lamoon, a Grenache-based, plum-sauce-and-five-spice wine that works well with a Thai beef roll. Beef’s also on the menu at TWE, where a pair of Pepperjack Shirazes have been created to go with two different cuts of steak.
Big Wine is also engaging in more small-scale, sustainable practices as people apparently become more interested in the origins of their booze. Hence Angove will soon add another organic wine alongside its Sauvignon Blanc and Peter Lehmann is working on its first carbon-neutral wine. The Barossa company has made a concerted effort to shake its blokey-red-and-Semillon tag in recent years, building a strong following among women and younger drinkers. Meanwhile Victoria’s oldest family-owned winery Tahbilk, which achieved carbon neutral status in 2012, released a pair of new wines to trumpet its green credentials. The Tower Shiraz (RRP: $17) is a fresh, bright-fruited, peppery affair and I was really taken with the Marsanne Viognier Roussanne: creamy, rich, harmonious and brimming with orange blossom, peaches and apricots (RRP: $15).
Mainstream companies are also getting to grips with fringe varieties such as Carmenère, Grüner Veltliner and Montepulciano. “I’m an idiot. Am I on drugs?” said one CEO as he ran through the weird and wonderful grapes he’s planting. The likes of Fiano, Vermentino, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Tempranillo have tended to be boutique territory; now they’re anything but. Exhibits A and B: Jacob’s Creek Classic Fiano and Classic Sangiovese.
In general the cognoscenti applaud efforts to push boundaries on sustainable practices and wine styles. They tend to be more dismissive of gimmicks they see as dumbing down wine. But is there a clear-cut distinction? The success of these companies is built on a readiness to serve popular taste. On this evidence their thirst remains undiminished.