The 2017 version of the Luma grillo, an Italian white, is just as enjoyable and as delicious as the 2016 – and that’s saying something
Vintage difference is a good thing. What isn’t good is inconsistency from vintage to vintage, when quality appears and disappears seemingly at random. This is something that happens to wine at every price, a function of our post-modern wine world and its focus on price instead of value. So when you find a wine that shows vintage differences, but doesn’t show inconsistency, buy as much of it as possible. Which is the case with the Luma grillo.
The Luma grillo ($11, purchased, 12.5%) is a Sicilian white, and grillo is one of my favorite grapes. Grillo is a Sicilian specialty, and offers a welcome change from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc – not as rich as the former and not as tart at the latter. This vintage shows lemon and green apple fruit, and even some almond and spice. It’s exactly what grillo should taste like – balanced, interesting, and light but food friendly.
Two Italian wines from a Big Wine company, but only one of them tastes like it came from Italy
This is where we are in the wine business in 2019 – two Italian wines from the same Big Wine company, one of which is varietally correct, terroir-driven, and a pleasure to drink, while the other tastes like it was put together by a marketing company and is about as Italian as a pair of panty hose. Why does anyone think this will advance the cause of wine?
The insolia white wine ($14, sample, 12.5%), made by Zonin1821’s Feudo Principi di Butera subsidiary in Sicily, is Big Wine done right. The insolia grape is native to Sicily, and it’s not necessarily easy to work with. But the Butera is all should be – tart green apple fruit, lots of spice and almond, an almost stony finish and even some green herbs. It’s Hall of Fame quality, a white wine that is neither chardonnay nor sauvignon blanc and a reminder of how much value Sicilian wines can deliver. This is seafood wine – risotto with shrimp, perhaps?
Which brings us to the panty hose. The second wine is a sauvignon blanc from Zonin1821’s Ca Bolani in northern Italy’s Fruili region. Italian sauvignon blanc has long taken a back seat to pinot grigio, which probably explains why the Ca Bolani ($14, sample, 12.5%) tastes the way it does. Or, as a friend said when she drank it, “Why did you open this wine? You know I don’t like New Zealand sauvignon blanc.”
Which is exactly what it tastes likes – big, huge smacking gobs of grapefruit. It’s a well made wine, and there is even a little something trying to peek out from behind the grapefruit. And $14 isn’t a bad price. But none of that really matters, since it raises a larger question: Why would I want to buy Italian sauvignon blanc that tastes like it came from New Zealand? Isn’t that what New Zealand sauvignon blanc is for? Shouldn’t Italian wine taste like it came from Italy?
Apparently not. These days, the goal seems to be to make all wine taste the same, so it will be easier to market. Because Big Wine. Hopefully, no one at Butera will realize this and turn the insolia into Paso Robles chardonnay. Because then I would have another reason to worry about the future of the wine business.
The Feudo Zirtari Bianco is an astonishing $10 white wine, and especially given how old it is
This Italian white blend from Sicily is not supposed to be this enjoyable. First, it’s too old – who ever heard of a $10 white wine lasting more than a couple of vintages? Second, the producer’s wines are notoriously inconsistent, and my notes are littered with lines like “not as good as the last one.” Nevertheless, the Zirtari Bianco is $10 Hall of Fame quality cheap wine.
Which, of course, is one of the joys of doing this – finding a wine like the Zirtari Bianco ($10, purchased, 13.5%) when I don’t expect to find anything at all. It’s a blend of insolia, a native Sicilian grape, and chardonnay. Hence, the sum is far greater than its parts, given the usual quality of Sicilian chardonnay.
Look for spice (white pepper, nutmeg?), almonds, and pear fruit, which is a surprisingly delicious combination considering the two grapes that have been blended together. Plus, it’s not thin in the mouth or on the finish, which is what usually happens with a three-year-old cheap white wine.
Highly recommended, but there is a conundrum: Should you try to find this vintage, and hope it held up as well as my bottle did? Or should you buy the current vintage and hope that it’s as well made as this one? I don’t have an answer, though it’s almost certainly easier to find the current vintage.
This vintage of the Stemmari grillo reminds us how terrific cheap Sicilian wine can be
About a decade ago, Sicily was home to some of the world’s best – and least known – cheap wine. But then the wine geeks discovered the Italian island, prices went up, and quality suffered. Case in point is the Stemmari grillo, which alternates between terrific and not worth drinking as often as a wine judge spits.
The 2017 version of the Stemmari grillo ($10, purchased, 13%) is back to terrific. As my notes say: “Much better than expected, and especially after the past several vintages.” In fact, I bought this white wine, made with the grillo grape, because I have to buy lots of bad wine to find something worth writing about.
What makes this version of the Stemmari grillo so much more interesting? It tastes like grillo, for one thing – spicy (white pepper?), with some sort of lemony apple flavor (or apple-y lemon, if you prefer), and it’s dry and clean and almost minerally. When the wine is off, it’s sort of oxidized – heavy and brandyish and about as refreshing as a kick in the head.
Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2019 $10 Hall of Fame. Just make sure you buy this vintage, and not one of the previous two or three. Chill and drink on its on, or pair with almost anything Mediterranean that comes from the sea. And it wouldn’t be bad with humms, pita breads, and a bulgur salad, either.
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month
• Cusumano Insolia 2016 ($11, purchased, 12.5%): This Sicilian white, made with the native insolia grape, is heavier and more chardonnay like this time, without the freshness and citrus of past vintages. But what do you expect when some PR type describes the wine like this: “… a sensuality that could only be born under the Sicilian sun.” Imported by Terlato
• Torremoron Ribera del Duero 2016 ($13, sample, 14%): Well-made Spanish tempranillo from the Ribero del Duero that isn’t too heavy or too rich or too un-tempranillo. It’s the ideal wine for someone who wants something with more heft than Rioja, but doesn’t want to break the bank. Imported by Ole Imports
• La Bastide Saint-Dominique Côtes du Rhône 2016 ($18, purchased, 13.5%): A well-made, competent, and enjoyable red blend from France’s Rhone that tastes exactly like it’s supposed to – rich, fruity, a little earth. But it costs $5 more than it’s worth. Imported by Europvin USA
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month. This month, four red wines.
• Big Smooth Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($17, sample, 14.5%): Much winemaking and craftsmanship went into this California red to make it taste like a cherry Tootise Pop. If that’s what you want your wine to taste like, then it’s worth $17. Otherwise, taste and be amazed at the post-modern marketing cynicism that also went into it.
• Casillero del Diablo Malbec 2016 ($12, sample, 13.5%): This Chilean red speaks to terroir and varietal character, and is about more than the jammy black fruit of similarly-priced Argentine malbecs. Having said that, it’s not a value this price – a little thin and tart. But if you find it for $8 at the grocery store and you need a bottle of wine for dinner, you won’t be disappointed. Imported by Excelsior Wine
• Bagordi Rioja Navardia 2016 ($13, sample, 14%): Nothing special about this Spanish red – just a full-bodied (heavier, more red fruit) and not especially varietal tempranillo made with organic grapes. Imported by Winesellers Ltd.
• Cantina Cellaro Luma 2016 ($10, purchased, 13%): This Sicilian red, made with the nero d’avola grape, was either oxidized (doubtful, given the vintage) or so extracted and so overripe that it was about as Sicilian as my Honda. Imported by Gonzalez Bypass
The real thing: The Feudo Principi di Butera Nero d’Avola is tasty, honest Sicilian red wine
The worst results of the new-found popularity of Sicilian wine has been the decrease in quality and the increase in prices. We see more cheap, ordinary wine that is priced as if it was something special, and fewer affordable, honest and authentic wines.
The Butera Nero d’Avola ($12, purchased, 14%) is a most welcome exception. It not only tastes like Sicilian wine, but the nero d’avola grape is the main focus. It’s not blended with merlot or cabernet sauvignon to achieve something that it’s not. Instead, look for cherry aromas, the dark and earthy plum fruit that I don’t find often enough anymore, and a little baking spice. Also surprising: the length, where the wine doesn’t disappear in your mouth after the first couple of sips.
This is a food wine – fresh, yes, and especially for a wine this old, but also substantial. It’s stews and red meat braises and almost any sort of warming autumn dinner.
To be honest, I didn’t expect this quality. Butera is owned by Zonin, a large Italian producer, and Butera is just one of its 10 labels. But, as always, taste the wine before you judge it.