Tim James: The grapes of southern Italy

May 11, 2015
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 2 Comments


I wouldn’t be overly distressed to know that I’d never again drink wines made from, or heavily dependent on, roussanne and marsanne – those important white grapes of the northern Rhône valley (along with less widespread viognier and clairette, and I’m not much committed to them either). The opposite would be true of a pair of white grapes from Calabria in southern Italy: greco and falanghina, in which I revelled on a recent visit to Rome.

Yet I’m heavily outnumbered (not to mention outranked) in my doubts about the charms or the greatness of marsanne and roussanne, most famously expressed in the white wines of Hermitage. Jancis Robinson and her partners in their great book on varieties, Wine Grapes, accord them the respective lofty characterisations of “potentially very high quality” and “high quality”. Greco, on the other is “potentially fine”, while falanghina merely exists.

Wines from the two Italian varieties are not expensive (but seldom cheap; 9-13 euros in Rome), and there’s presumably not a huge international market for them. Locally, even Caroline’s Fine Wines in Cape Town, with something of a speciality in Italian wines, unfortunately doesn’t carry any (nor any other southern Italian whites, except for a few from Sicily and Sardinia). Meanwhile, Rhone whites are comparably easily available – and can reach starry price levels: Wine Cellar in Cape Town offers Chapoutier’s L’Ermite Blanc 2011 Hermitage for R4 250 (100 points in the Wine Advocate) and his St Joseph Les Granits Blanc 2012 (95 points) for R550. (Dare I disagree with the Wine Advocate?)

On the other hand, the tasting group to which I belong has in recent years had two tastings of northern Rhône whites, including some well reputed examples, if not Parker 100-pointers, and it’s fair to say that we have been not very enthusiastic on the whole. The last of these tastings included the Granits Blanc 2012 and it was pretty well admired, but from the discussion I doubt if any of us would have rated it anywhere near 95. Certainly, the tasting confirmed my own opinion to as how much Northern Rhône wines are overrated. Where’s the elegance, charm and, especially, freshness?

But, as Nicola Tipping, who organised our latest tasting said, we really do need to have a larger range of white grape varieties here. Nicola, who works for Mullineux, knows just how keen the Rhone-devoted Swartland revolutionaries are to get hold of marsanne and roussanne. I wonder if it’s for their reputation and origin or because of inherent qualities….

Roussanne has been here quite a few years now – Rustenberg made the first varietal version, and it appears in some smart Swartland blends. Marsanne has lurked for a while unofficially, but is now a permitted variety, and will no doubt also become widely used in the Swartland and elsewhere.

Whether either variety can really significantly improve their chenin-based wines, apart from looking smart on the list of contributors, I have doubts. I’m not necessarily suggesting that greco or falanghina would be great additions either, but as hot-country grapes that can make fine whites with modest alcohol levels and good acidity, they could be a marvellous addition to the Cape’s repertoire. Viticulturist Rosa Kruger tells me she “will start looking into it right away!”. Of course, even if she does, and the looking has positive consequences, the melancholy truth is that I myself am very unlikely to ever taste a greco from the Cape. But it is unquestionably time for Cape viticulture to start exploring more deeply and experimenting with the many grapes of southern Italy.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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  1. Tim JamesMay 11, 2015 at 5:20 pmReply

    Fair enough, Kwis. I was being extreme in making my point! I agree with you that there is some most appealing local roussanne. There didn’t seem space for me to go into this (Christian frowns upon long blogs and I already was pushing my limit!), but I’m glad you’ve mentioned these. I don’t know the Olifantsberg or the KF, but agree about the Thorne & Daughters blend. Hermit on the Hill’s Round Table is also a fine wine. The Rustenberg can also be good, and I’ve much liked Thelema’s Sutherland Viognier-Roussanne. Eben Sadie, of course, is one Swartlander who uses the grapes, in his Palladius, without ruining it! So I am, in fact, very glad the grape is here. Incidentally, many people think marsanne only has an increasingly significant place in the Rhone because it’s a much easier grape to grow, apparently, than roussanne.

  2. KwispedoorMay 11, 2015 at 1:02 pmReply

    Though I do agree with your overall sentiment, Tim, I’ve recently found myself increasingly drawn to some excellent Roussanne wines (both varietal and blended). Stuff like Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse Cape White 2013 and Olifantsberg Blanc 2013. And you’d do well to investigate the Ken Forrester Roussanne 2012, if you haven’t yet. I find it near impossible to drink wines like these slowly.

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