The Italian job - much has changed in the Chianti region
How do you know a good bottle of wine? A shiny gold medal on the bottle may be a reasonable indication, but not all wine medals are created equal.
Among the big gongs are the Decanter World Wine Awards, the world's largest wine competition - and this year more than 17,000 wines were submitted. They were tasted blind by 219 of the world's top experts, including 65 Masters of Wine and 20 Master Sommeliers. While the judges know the region, style and price bracket of the wine they are judging, they have no knowledge of the vineyard or producers.
Among the gold-medal winners this year is Sensi Forziere 2013, a Chianti Classico Riserva, made by Sensi Vini in the vineyards of the rolling hills of Tuscany. I had visited one of their vineyards a few weeks earlier with a number of wine writers to get a sneak preview of the wines that will feature in the annual Lidl wine sale, which this year focuses on Italy.
We soon discovered that we were not the first Irish media to have visited the winery: the late and much-loved Weekend columnist Paolo Tullio had visited quite a few years before us and had spent an engaging afternoon with Massimo Sensi, who runs the estate.
Much has changed in the Chianti region. Whereas back in the 1960s, Chianti wine, which is made primarily from the Sangiovese grape, could include up to 30pc of local white grapes in the blend - making for a pretty boring tipple that focused more on quantity than quality. Over the years, the wine producers of the area have pushed back. Regulations no longer stipulate the need for the inclusion of white grapes in the blend, and the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon - a varietal not native to Italy - in some of the top blends known as Super Tuscans, is now accepted.
Massimo Sensi is at the forefront of this change. "We are experimenting a lot on old and new vineyards, and we just turned to organic because it is a big part of our project for the future," says Massimo. "It takes three years to be officially recognised as organic. During this period, you have to stop using pesticides, and the land is given time to purify itself from the pesticides.
"We had already been handling the land in an organic way but, to certify the land, we needed to start the process officially. Organic is important because, first of all, the wine has much less residual elements; it's more natural and it gives us the scope to elevate the philosophy of winemaking. We want to be more natural, more ethical, so that we can be trusted by the consumers."
Massimo has also started to make Appassimento wines, a style that is associated with wines like Amarone from the Veneto but is now becoming popular across Italy. These wines generally have a higher level of alcohol and a touch of raisin in their flavour. "Making Appassimento is a growing trend among Italian winemakers. It gives the wine more ripeness and fruitiness combined," he says. "The method involves drying 20pc of the Sangiovese grapes and when we add them to the wine, it starts a second fermentation. It improves the fruitiness in the wine a lot - it makes it a kind of young ancient wine. It's a unique taste."
To enhance the ancient tradition, Massimo ages the wine in clay jars called orcio, which were customarily used for olive oil but are similar to the amphorae used by the Romans.
"We want to revive ancient methods," he says. "We've made 5,000 bottles from last year's harvest and we're going to do it again this year because the taste is unique. It's going to be launched in September. Also, we're doing some low-sulphite Sangiovese which is also important for the market because a lot of people are allergic to sulphite. There a lot of new things that we're experimenting with."
While the award-winning Chianti Classico is not on the Lidl line-up, Sensi's Chianti Colli Senesi, which is made from vineyards in the Siena area, features in the Italian promotion. "The soil there is rockier than other parts of Tuscany, which adds good minerality to the wine," says Massimo.
"It is a powerful blend: we consider it to be a classic example of Chianti. Basically, it's the same area as Chianti Classico but it has a different structure. It's straight and is a powerful example from the region."
The Italian collection has 28 wines, ranging from an easy-drinking Falanghina for €7.99 and a Montepulciano for €8.99 to some more unusual grapes like the Nero di Troia from Puglia for €8.99, scaling up to a well-priced Barolo Riserva 2011 for €17.99. They're available from Monday, June 12, while stocks last.
4 to try...
Casal Thaulero Pecorino Terre di Chieti GP Abruzzo 2016, €7.99, 13pc, lidl
If you’re a fan of crisp, white wines, this Pecorino is worth a try. Zesty with a touch of lime on the nose, on the palate it’s more firm and mineral, with good acidity and herbaceous notes. Perfect for pairing with fish or seafood on a sunny day.
Corte Aurelio Aglianico del Vulture DOP 2015, €9.99, 14pc, Lidl
Ripe, with savoury notes of black cherry, plum and a touch of white pepper spice, this full-bodied red wine, with its high tannin and acidity from the south of Italy, is great for barbecued beef, burgers and, if you’re going retro, steak au poivre.
Medici Riccardi Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG 2015, €9.99, 13pc, lidl
With fragrant hints of violet on the nose, this nicely balanced Chianti has a fresh and youthful aroma with a good structure of acidity and tannin. A great wine to drink with food, but also suitable for drinking on its own.
La Cicogna Barbaresco DOCG Piedmont, 2014, 14pc, lidl
Cheaper than Barolo but made from the same grape, Nebbiolo, this light-coloured wine from the Piedmont region, in the north of Italy, has a perfumed nose of rose, raspberries and cherries, and is supported with good acidity and tannins, giving it a nice structure. Perfect with prosciutto and duck.