Retro chic: a fresh look at four classics
The Swinging Sixties brought music, freedom, travel and most importantly, wine to the population of Britain.
The democratisation of flights and increasing popularity of international holidays opened eyes to the wonders of Old World wine – and people naturally wanted to bottle that holiday experience and bring it home. Spain and Italy were high on the agenda and wines like Rioja and Chianti quickly became household names.
Fiasco bottles, over-oaked styles and diluted flavours are just some of the hallmarks of these wines in years gone by. Their popularity and exotic nature outweighed the need for quality. But a new era has dawned for classic British favourites like Claret, Chianti, Rioja and Soave.
Willie Lebus, Bibendum wine development director, says, “People have had enough of the old styles and are looking for subtle whites and alternatives to over the top, New World reds. Producers such as Suavia in Soave are making very on-point wines that are miles away from the wines of yesteryear. Drinkers want more freshness, delicacy and lively fruit – that’s why these wines have become retro.”
With a reputation for exclusivity and tradition-led winemaking, classic Claret might seem a surprising choice. With an almost immovable tier of crus classes chateaux, it has been a challenge for smaller producers to make their presence felt among the giants – but a Renaissance is underway.
The Frey family is an outsider making the cut in the region. The family took over the Haut Medoc’s Chateau La Lagune in 1999. Under the guidance of gifted winemaker Caroline Frey, they have focused solely on the inherent characteristics of the area and invested in the winery to see the quality of the wines soar.
These wines have seen a reduction in the use of new oak in favour of a more approachable style – while maintaining the finesse, signature rich fruit, and sweet spice that Claret is known for. Their Mademoiselle L is lighter in oak, with silky tannins and an array of black fruits.
It’s a crime that this region’s reputation for discounts and special offers has superseded its knack for quality in the past. Spain’s hot climate coupled with extractive winemaking and heavy use of American oak have led to heavy, inelegant wines with overt vanilla flavours. Now, many winemakers are moving towards a more subtle style and are hitting the balance between oak and fruit right on the head.
Located in Elvillar in Rioja Alavesa, Bodegas Bhilar is a relatively young winery, with less than 15 vintages under their belt. David Sampedro Gil started growing grapes in 1989, and is now pursuing biodynamic certification under the Demeter International agricultural body – which would make them the first certified producer in Rioja! The winery is solar powered, while the concrete fermentation tanks are partially subterranean in order to naturally control the temperature.
“Our philosophy involves a lot of observation, control and less intervention in the winery and the vineyards,” says David. “If you understand what’s going on in the vineyard, you don’t need a lot of intervention.”
In the early days, Tuscany had a reputation for large-scale production of Chianti rolled out in ‘authentic’ wicker baskets (fiascos) and tasting predominantly of dried grapes and tawny fruit. But the fiasco has had a radical makeover since then. Savvy producers have started to harness the true essence of the Sangiovese (Sangioveto) variety – rich red fruits and Italian herbs, with firm acidity to stand up to weighty Italian cuisine.
Castellare di Castellina is a stalwart producer in Chianti Classico DOCG – and has been since 1968. They are staunch patrons of Sangioveto, unlike many other Chianti wineries who started adding French varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to their blends during the era of Super Tuscans.
But Castellare have remained true to the traditions of the region and president of the winery, Paolo Panerai, explains, “It was in the 1970s when the so-called Renaissance of Italian wine began, a Renaissance to which Castellare made its own contribution with a combination of tradition and innovation – using only indigenous Tuscan grape varieties, even when the market was asking for a more international style.”
Andrea Briccarello, group sommelier and wine buyer at Galvin La Chapelle, is a huge fan of Castellare. “When I look for a Chianti I want those classic rustic notes, but also poise and freshness,” he says. “Castellare shows these very well in each glass – they are doing incredibly well on our list. Chianti is a wellrecognised name on every wine list but Castellare has the charm and personality of a true top Chianti. The style is not overpowering or pretentious, but retains a solid typical Tuscan character.
In the north of Italy, among the foothills of the Alps, lie the DOCs of Soave and Soave Classico. Garganega rules supreme here, but historically the wines tasted heavily oxidised and had little flair. Until now.
The best Soaves of today are elegant, fragrant and complex – especially if put away for a few years! Technological advances over the past few decades have allowed Soave producers to maintain freshness and acidity during winemaking, which is retained even after ageing.
Suavia is one producer who has spearheaded the Soave revival. A small artisanal winery, Soave is run by three of the inimitable Tessari sisters. Fresh, deep and mineral with a hint of saltiness from the volcanic soils, their wines strike a very different chord to the Soave of old.
Although focused on Garganega, Suavia also produces a single varietal expression of Trebbiano di Soave, an ancient grape grown on the hillside's basalt soil. Small amounts of Trebbiano may typically be included with Garganega to produce Soave Classico, but it’s rare to find a pure expression.
Stefano Vallebona, founder of Vallebona in Wimbledon, is a huge fan. “For me Suavia’s wines are very approachable and elegant, with an incredible length. Soave has massive potential in the UK. It is a style that everyone could love, but you don't often see it on supermarket shelves – which is a good thing!”