A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cortese - Gavi, Piemonte, Italy & Upper Goulburn, Central Victoria, Australia

When I went to put the name of today's grape into a Google image search, I expected to get a lot of results that weren't related to the grape itself.  Growing up in the 1990's, I watched a lot of MTV Sports and was mostly expecting to see photos of the host of that show, Dan Cortese.  I was surprised to see that Dan had only two results on the first page, but was even more surprised to see that one entry on the first page of results was actually for the Cortese grape.  The rest of the results were split between someone named Genevieve Cortese, who I take it is some kind of an actress, and someone named Deena Cortese, who I take it is on Jersey Shore.  All of which is to say that now I feel kind of old, since it looks like MTV sports has been off the air for over 15 years now and I have never even heard of the two women who return the most results.

But we're not here to talk about people named Cortese, we're here to talk about the Cortese grape, which has been around for much longer than any of the people mentioned above.  The first mention of Cortese can be traced back to 1659 when an Italian estate manager wrote to tell the Marchese Doria about some recent plantings of Cortese and Vermentino grapes in the family's vineyards in southeastern Piemonte.  The grape really hasn't strayed very far from this region in the last four hundred or so years, as most of the current plantings of Cortese are concentrated in the Colli Tortonesi, Cortese dell'Alta Monferrato, Monferrato Casalese and Gavi regions of Piemonte, which are all clustered in the southeastern portion of that region.  A little bit is grown just over the border in Lombardia and some finds its way as far east as Lake Garda in the Veneto, but the majority of the 1500 or so hectares devoted to Cortese in Italy are in southeastern Piemonte.

Gavi is far and away the most famous region for Cortese and is frequently cited as being the place where Cortese really reaches its greatest heights.  Cortese seems to have some trouble getting fully ripe in some of the other sites in Piemonte, which can be a serious problem as it can be searingly acidic if not fully ripe, but it rarely has that same problem around Gavi.  Gavi is a small town in the Alessandria province of Piemonte, about 100 km southeast of Turin.  The name Gavi is thought to come from a princess in the early Middle Ages named either Gavia or Gavina who had a castle in the area.  The Gavi DOCG region is an area of about 1100 hectares surrounding the town itself, and any wines from this area labeled Gavi or Cortese di Gavi must be made from 100% Cortese grapes.  If you see the phrase "Gavi di Gavi" on a label, it just means that the wine was made in the town of Gavi itself and is no guarantee of a higher quality wine.

Gavi's reputation among critics rarely seems to match the prices that most wines from there tend to command.  In his Barolo to Valpolicella, Nicolas Belfrage notes that Gavi's reputation for producing one of the finest whites in Italy is "not fully justified, according to some."  He goes on to say "that it has been one of the most hyped is beyond dispute, and when it's good - full enough of body to match the acidity, with a twist of lime cordial on the nose and finish - it can, in the right context, be just the thing," which is an absolute clinic in damning with faint praise.  The Oxford Companion to Wine's entry on Cortese says that "at its best, the wine is clean and fresh," and, generally, that "the use of oak is usually misguided."  In their entry on Gavi they say that "with care in the vineyard and cellars, the delicate flavours of the Cortese grape, retained thanks to the moderating maritime influence due to its proximity to the Ligurian coast less than 70 km/40 miles way, can yield pleasurable wines that are easy to drink," which, again, is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Never one to take critics at their word, I hunted down a bottle of the 2009 Villa Sparina Gavi, which set me back about $22.  Nicolas Belfrage notes in his Barolo to Valpolicella that many believe that Gavi doesn't show it's true character until after at least two years in the bottle, though since most of it is drunk very young, that theory is rarely put to the test.  This bottle had three years on it when I finally pulled the cork, so let's see how it was.  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was muted with some pear fruit and a bit of leesy funk, but not much.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with medium acidity.  There were some pear, green apple and lemon fruits with a hint of cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano.  The wine finished with an intense steely minerality that was probably the most pleasurable thing about it.  The wine was crisp and clean, but not much else and I found myself getting bored with it fairly quickly.  The word "bland" pops up several times in my tasting notes.  I can't say that I've had dozens of wines made from Cortese, but the ones I have had haven't been much different than this one.  They're aren't objectionable in any way, but they're not exactly pleasant or appealing either.  Considering that you're looking at an investment of at least $15, and typically more than $20, it's a hard wine to recommend.


I was recently able to track down a wine made from the Cortese grape that is not only made utside of the confines of Gavi, but outside of Italy altogether.  The wine was the 2005 Lost Valley Winery Cortese from Central Victoria, Australia.  My understanding is that this is the only planting of Cortese in all of Australia, and for this vintage (2005), only 7000 bottles were produced.  I found this at Brookline Liquor Mart and paid about $14 for it.   In the glass the wine was a pale lemon color with a very distinct greenish tint to it.  The nose was fairly intense with melon, pear, passion fruit and mandarin orange aromas with a touch of beeswax as well.  There was something bizarrely distinctive about it that I couldn't quite nail down.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of green melon, mango, passion fruit, lime, beeswax, honeysuckle flower and mandarin oranges.  There was also something slightly vegetal or herbaceous about it, but it kind of tasted and smelled stewed, like baby food or something like that.  It certainly had a unique flavor profile, but I'd be hard pressed to call it enjoyable, exactly.  It's hard to say how much of this bizarre character was due to the wine's age, but given that it was almost seven years old, I thought it was holding together pretty nicely.

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