Back in June when I was down in Rome for work, I had the pleasure of seeing the lovely and talented Rome food expert extraordinaire Gina Tringali. We’d met many moons ago through work and while we’d spoken on the phone, we hadn’t seen in other in years. My week long sojourn granted us the perfect chance to catch up one evening. Add in a few other oenophiles, splash in a few bottles of delectable natural wines, stir with a passionate winemaker and a fiery challenge was vinted: which was better, French or Italian natural wines? Palate and curiosity piqued? Pour yourself a glass and read on!
As some of you might have already gathered, I’m a big wine fan, a rather serious amateur connoisseur, well, as serious as one can get on a reasonable budget and limited storage space. Nevertheless, I have lofty dreams of an expansive wine cellar lined with with best bottles of Frenc…. wait a second. Even though I’m a die-hard fan of French wines, why couldn’t there be some foreign labels in this Ali Baba oenological cave? This is where Gina, a certified sommelier and holder of a Master’s degree in Italian gastronomic culture, comes in.
For our June reunion, Gina had suggested we meet up at a wonderful wine bar Enoteca Bulzoni known for its natural wine selection, a favorite of Gina’s with friendly staff and a wide selection of wines, both Italian and foreign. We were joined by another culinary expert Elizabeth Janus and my fellow colleague Emily, enjoying a lively discussion over some crisp white Vignammare (Barraco, 100% grillo) and mouthwatering mozzarella (and charcuterie for the others). At one point the owner brought us over some of the wine he produces, which sparked a animated back and forth over the different levels of natural wine (labeling, can it contain sulfites …) during which French wines inevitably came up.
Yikes, I actually didn’t know all that much about natural wines, and from the ones I’d previously tried, I wasn’t sure it was really my cup of tea (or verre de vin). Nevertheless, being an adamant lover and defender of French wines in general, I stood up for their cause, a minority in the dominant Italian environment I was in. Rightfully Gina was also proud of her national wines and thus our friendly wine challenge was born. We laughed, shook hands and vowed to accomplish a blind tasting the next time we saw each other, little did we know it would be less than two months later!
The Challenge: France vs Italy
Criteria: Two bottles of natural wine from each country, a red and a white, maximum spend 20 euros
LH: It turned out that Gina and I both had an additional challenge to the challenge, I only had two days to track down the bottles, it was August in Paris, with so many shop closures, it was going to be tight, but I managed to find a nice specialty food shop which a good array to choose from. One the other hand Gina was limited to the selection of the restaurant for our venue, they were kind enough to allow a few outside bottles to be brought in, we really couldn’t push our luck with four. That said, as a regular of the restaurant, she was familiar with their wine list, so knew what to expect.
Gina Tringali: Great company, great food and wine… I’m not familiar with many French natural wines and I was anxious to taste a few as well as compare them to two Italian wines with Lily.
LH: We needed some neutral palates and so I invited Emily again (who’s English) and Gina brought along her Italian partner Francesco. While the challenge was only and truly for fun, why not have some tasting criteria? Gina prepared a handy tasting sheet and we all arrived at Cesare al Casaletto, an excellent and very authentic Roman trattoria, eager for the challenge to begin. The delicious dishes began to arrive with our tightly wrapped wine bottle to hide their origin… ready, set, go!
WINE #1 – Filagnotti
GT tasting notes: golden, nose – chalk, nuttiness, citrus, high acidity, on the palate olives, brine; persistent
LH additional tasting notes: the nuttiness stood out, without being oaky, almost an earthy element or toasted
WINE #2 – Pitrouillet Savennieres
GT tasting notes: lemon gold in color, medium + acidity, nose apple, vanilla, palate – lime, citrus, tangerine, green apple less persistent than wine 1, easy drinking wine
LH additional notes: definitely delicate, it was fresh and fruity, very “grapey,” white peaches also came through
GT overall “white” comments: Tasting and comparing the white wines was fun. If I had to chose only one of the two to have on hand I’d chose the Filagnotti. Why? I found the wine more interesting and complex. It’s food friendly and versatile. I’d enjoy it with focaccia, fried starters or a main dish of seafood or pork. The Pitrouillet Savennieres was a surprise. 100% chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. I adore chenin blanc but after the Filagnotti this wine was a bit too delicate. We should have drank it first. The wine was in perfect condition.
LH overall “white” comments: We spent quite a while analyzing and sampling our whites, not only for our competition’s purposes, they were also fascinating and quite different from each other. I loved the excitement of our contest, it was full of laughs, energy and the thrill of discovery. The bottles were tinfoiled up, though from the shape of the bottles, I was fairly sure that the Italian was the first wine and the French the second, spoiling the surprise for me a touch. However, upon tasting the Loire wine, I was thrown off, I’d been expecting a minerally wine typical of that region. The Italian was delightful, it had a range of flavors which struck the palate at different times and I felt it was nicely structured, something which I hadn’t associated with natural wines before whereas the white Loire was very grapey and naturally tasting, I liked the surprise of the Italian, it was sophisticated and was very enjoyable on its own. The French wine was accentuated with the meal, especially with the chicory in our mini-sandwich starters.
Leonardo observations: We were quite curious to see what Leonardo, the owner of Cesare, would think of the French wine. He was surprised that the wine was from the Loire given it spent time in neutral Burgundy barrels. Leonardo would say “neutral” barrels do not exist.
WINE #3 – a languedoc (will not name due to … issue)
GT tasting notes: cry, corked, smelt of damp cardboard
LH trieste comments: would have been mortified had we not already practically polished off two bottles of wine, friendly astonishment all around
WINE #4 – Trebbiolo – La Stoppa
GT tasting notes: medium + acidity, the nose is confirmed on the palate; black cherries, plums, coffee, herbs, persistent
LH additional tasting notes: again a very nicely structured wine, not “grapey” those black cherries where very prominent
LH conclusion: Mon dieu! Tragedy had stuck! Like the ashes falling on Pompeii, France didn’t stand a chance to win after this disaster… the French red was corked! Woe was us! Or rather woe for France in this contest. One could say that Italy won by default, nevertheless, the Italian wines were fabulous and I was very impressed, as was Emily whose overall vote went to the Filagnotti. I could even go as far as saying that this challenge has incited me to further investigate natural wines… hopefully in the near future again with Gina! Thanks so much for this first challenge!
GT conclusion: I almost cried when we opened the corked bottle. I’ll have to wait to get my hands on that one when I see Lily again. If I had to score the wines on a scale from 1 to 100, the first wine is an 88 and the second is an 80. Bring on the next natural wine challenge. Let’s narrow our criteria for wine selection and include 4 whites or 4 reds and we need someone impartial to put the wines in the “correct” tasting order for us.
Have a great natural wine to recommend! Let us know! Add to the comments or email me!