What makes a wine great?
Technically, it’s about attributes such as balance, complexity and ability to age.
But this ignores the part that emotion so often plays. Where you were and what you were doing at the time you pressed the glass to your lips.
That last night of a fabulous holiday, a birthday lunch with your closest friends or, in my case, a little moment of magic in a vineyard by the glimmering Sicilian sea.
It wasn’t the most promising start, bumping along a dirt road to Nino Barraco’s Vignammare vineyard not long after a large, Marsala-fuelled lunch. With each twist and lurch, the sun in the western Sicilian sky slunk a little lower and the sea came no closer.
When we finally reached our destination, the vineyard looked arid, scrubby and a little untended. Had we really rattled our way down here for this?
Looks are often deceiving, of course.
Nino – with the help of export consultant and translator for the day, Elisa Zerilli – explained how he had the idea six years ago to plant Grillo vines in the dunes, to see if he could bring forward the salty character of this indigenous white grape. A wine to go with shellfish. We were about to taste the fruits of his first Vignammare vintage (2012), to find out if it had worked.
We’d already tried Nino’s more established Grillo (2011 vintage) earlier in the day at a masterclass led by Mai Tjemsland MW, who declared she’d have sent this wine back if she’d ordered it in a restaurant.
“It is made the old-fashioned way,” she said, adding that she’d already rejected a couple of bottles that day.
Nino, you see, doesn’t add many sulphites, which are used to protect a wine from the ravages of oxygen. In the case of the Vignammare Grillo, he doesn’t add any at all.
Supporters of these “minimal intervention” (a.k.a. “natural”) wines believe that the less you add in the process of making a wine (including growing the grapes) the more it reflects a sense of place.
Detractors focus on a lack of stability in the wine. It can be a Russian roulette when you buy a wine like this. Will it be drinkable? Especially at the premium prices many of these wines command (I reckon the Grillo would be c. £50 in a British restaurant).
Then there’s the smell and taste, which can range from a slight funk to nothing short of cider. In a world crammed with bland, homogenous wine, made to appeal to a perceived common palate, these wines can be so enlivening, so interesting and so challenging the senses.
The Baccaro Grillo 2011 we tasted was macerated on its skins for five days before fermentation using naturally occurring yeasts. This method used to be more commonplace for white wines, to extract more aromatics and structure from the grapes, which in turn, increased a wine’s shelf life. To today’s palate, used to modern techniques, wines like these can be an acquired taste.
This Grillo had a slightly funky, nutty smell under some light aromatics. The palate, though, had a focused line of rich citrus flavours that streaked down my tongue. It would appeal to a lot of people. And it stood head and shoulders above the oaky, alcoholic Grillo we tasted next in the masterclass. It played to the grape’s natural beauty rather than smothering it in make-up.
Nino’s aim isn’t to make a “perfect wine” but rather a singular one driven by personality. Hence the new Vignammare Grillo. Did it have a salty tang? Yes, it did – though it’s always easy to detect this once the idea has been put in your head. It certainly had a clean, tingly, lemony crispness with grassy notes and was supported by a gentle roundness.
Any deep critical analysis was quickly put aside, though, with the arrival of a platter of glistening plump pink Sicilian prawns, cured only with a few spritzes of lemon. The freshness in the wine was a good foil for the sweet, succulent flesh.
Then Nino produced a bucket of purple prickly sea urchins, barely plucked from the sea. He deftly split them in half, exposing the luminous orange roe inside. A sip of the salty water, a spoonful of the soft eggs, a glug of Vignammare Grillo. That magic moment.
In the golden light of the late afternoon sun, the Vingnammare Grillo was a great wine.
Would I feel the same way were I to drink another glass on a grey London day? I doubt it.
I suspect I’d still like it, however.
Environment and experience will never turn a bad wine into a good one. But it can turn a good wine into a great one.
End note: Nino Barraco also makes a very interesting dry Zibbibo, the name the Sicilians give to Muscat of Alexandria. Often used to make sweet wines, I tasted a few dry ones on the trip. Nino’s was the first, and the most memorable. Enticed by the heady floral nose, the dry, savoury palate was completely unexpected. If there was a song to match this wine, it would definitely be “Lola” by The Kinks…
Nino Barraco’s wines are imported into the UK by Tutto Wines.
I travelled to Sicily courtesy of Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli – Regione Siciliana