Messy Pavese

The Metodo Classico DOCG from Oltrepò Pavese is probably one of Italy’s least-known sparkling wines. Indeed, the very words Oltrepò Pavese are enough to make most English-speaking wine consumers ask “What’s that?” Well, “that” is the southernmost appendage of Lombardy and all sorts of wines are produced there, none to much acclaim. So why did I go there? …

ItalyMap-Lombardy

I went to Oltrepò Pavese because Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Blanc de Blancs performed so brilliantly at the first Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships (CSWWC). Tasting blind (of course), Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Blanc de Blancs was clearly the best Italian sparkling wine produced outside of Franciacorta and Trentodoc and that was by a very wide margin. However, as it was made from 100% Chardonnay, it could not claim the Oltrepò Pavese DOCG, which must comprise of a minimum of 70% Pinot Nero (or 85% for rosé). My visit and centralised tasting was therefore not only to taste my way through the DOCG, but also to see if there might be any other pure Chardonnay or Chardonnay dominated sparkling wine produced in the region but outside the DOCG and, if so, did they show equal promise or is Tenuta Scarpa Colombi an exception?

Pavia

Oltrepò Pavese is located in the southern half of the province of Pavia and with Oltrepò Mantovano, it is the only part of Lombardy that is south of the mighty Po river (hence Oltrepò or “over the Po”). Even in knowledgeable Italian wine circles, if you ask about Oltrepò Pavese, the only thing that really springs to their mind is the amount of Pinot Nero that is grown, not any outstanding wines.

Oltrepo

In fact, so much Pinot Nero is grown here that Oltrepò Pavese claims to have the largest acreage of this variety in all of Italy (between 50 and 75% of all Italian Pinot Nero, depending on which source you decide to believe). You do not have to be long in the region before you hear rumours about where a lot of this Pinot Nero ends up. Out of the region, so the stories go, in other far more famous wines. I have absolutely no idea how much truth there is to these rumours, if any, so I won’t name any names, but if you want to know, you only have to come here and before long you will find out for yourself …

canneto

As it’s all a bit of a mystery, let’s start with a quick overview of Oltrepò Pavese. There is one DOCG (Metodo Classico), seven DOCs (Oltrepò Pavese itself plus Bonarda dell’Oltrepò Pavese, Buttafuoco dell’Oltrepò Pavese, Casteggio, Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero dell’Oltrepò Pavese, and Sangue di Giuda dell’Oltrepò Pavese) and one IGT (Provincia di Pavia). Simple enough, isn’t it? Well, on the surface maybe, but the DOC regime has always been so relaxed and unfocused for its own good. The basic Oltrepò Pavese DOC epitomises everything that is wrong with the system and how it confuses rather than informs potential consumers. Yes, the basic Oltrepò Pavese denomination might be one of only seven DOCs, but there are a stack of authorised grape varieties and this single DOC encompasses no less that 36 different types of wine:

1.   Barbera
2.   Barbera Frizzante
3.   Barbera Riserva
4.   Bianco (minimum of 60% Riesling, plus a maximum of 40% Pinot Nero and any other non-
      aromatic white grape variety)
5.   Cabernet Sauvignon.
6.   Chardonnay
7.   Chardonnay Frizzante
8.   Chardonnay Spumante
9.   Cortese
10. Cortese Frizzante
11. Cortese Spumante
12. Malvasia
13. Malvasia Frizzante
14. Malvasia Spumante
15. Moscato
16. Moscato Frizzante
17. Moscato Liquoroso
18. Moscato Passito
19. Moscato Spumante
20. Pinot Nero Bianco
21. Pinot Nero Bianco Frizzante
22. Pinot Nero Bianco Spumante
23. Pinot Nero Frizzante
24. Pinot Nero Rosato
25. Pinot Nero Rosato Spumante
26. Riesling
27. Riesling Frizzante
28. Riesling Riserva
29. Riesling Spumante
30. Riesling Superiore
31. Rosato (no varietal restrictions)
32. Rosato Frizzante (25-55% Barbera, 25-65% Croatina, plus a maximum of 45% Vespolina &
      Pinot Nero, and jointly or separately a maximum of 15% of any other non-aromatic black
      grape variety)
33. Rosso (no varietal restrictions)
34. Rosso Riserva (no varietal restrictions)
35. Sauvignon
36. Sauvignon Spumante

This is DOC at its worst. It is the reason why the Italian wine scene is so messed up that it will never be unravelled. Consumers can look at a wine map of France and instantly have a sense of place for all the major grape varieties and wine styles in their mind’s eye. It might take a lifetime to understand the infrastructure of Burgundy’s greatest wines, but consumers instantly know that Burgundy is one of France’s five great wine regions, where it is and what type of wine is produced there, just as they visualise Champagne, Alsace, Loire, Bordeaux, Rhône et al. However, if those same consumers look at a wine map of Italy they have absolutely no idea where the major grape varieties are grown, let alone what wine styles are produced. Consumers even have a fuzzy idea of the approximate shape and boundaries for each French region, but they know diddly-squat about Italy because it does not have half-a-dozen easy-to-remember flagship regions: everything grows everywhere and every grape can be turned into every style of wine, as demonstrated by the 36 wine styles of Oltrepò Pavese above. It’s a pity because the best Italian wines are as great as the best French wines.

If there is very little perception of Oltrepò Pavese it is because its baseline DOC is a microcosm of the mess that is Italian wine. It is also as counter-productive as any wine legislation could be. If you can imagine what style the DOC’s authors had in mind for a Rosato Frizzante made from Barbera, Croatina, Vespolina and Pinot Nero, then you have a greater imagination than I have. And why would anyone want to blend Pinot Nero with Riesling to make a dry white wine? What’s the point? It would be better and less deluded to have, like the Rosso, no varietal restrictions and simply treat the DOC as a guarantee of origin. However, not even the bewildering number of wine styles or the pointlessness of the obligatory blends pose as much threat to future reputation of Oltrepò Pavese as the DOC’s 17 different sparkling wine styles (frizzante and spumante, all produced by metodo martinotti, also known as the charmat method or cuve close) . It takes a long time, hard work and high quality to carve out a reputation, so the very last thing any aspiring Oltrepò Pavese metodo classico denomination needs is all and sundry styles of fizz marketed under the Oltrepò Pavese name.

When the DOCG for Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico was introduced in 2007, the lawmakers should have looked to Franciacorta, the most famous of all brut-style Italian sparkling wines, for inspiration. When Franciacorta was upgraded to DOCG in 1995, it was Italy’s first metodo classico appellation and the producers wisely took the opportunity to make it illegal for any other sparkling wines to bear the Franciacorta name. The still wines retained their basic DOC status (even though some are better than many DOCG red and white wines, which in itself is a lesson worth learning), but the DOC changed for these wines from Franciacorta to Terre di Franciacorta. Then in 2008, as a further protection of the Franciacorta name, Terre di Franciacorta was renamed Curtefranca. If the Oltrepò Pavese DOCG is to progress, there are many things that must change, but the very first of these must be the DOC name, which should be different and preferably something shorter rather than longer. Something like Pavese DOC. And the wine styles authorised absolutely must not include any form of fizz, whatever the method of its production. Sparkling wines produced by any method outside of the DOC and DOCG should be allowed, but without any reference to Oltrepò Pavese or either of its two constituent parts. They might well be phased out in 10-20 years, but for now they could prove useful in determining whether other grape varieties might be useful additions to the DOCG before that becomes set in stone. For example, a maximum of 70% Chardonnay is allowed and, as the greatest sparkling wine produced in Oltrepò Pavese is a pure Chardonnay blanc de blancs, 100% Chardonnay should obviously be authorised one day. Otherwise the reputation of this DOCG is denied the support and reflected glory of the best sparkling wine in the region.

 

What is Oltrepò Pavese DOCG?

The first sparkling wine to be produced in the region was made in 1870 by Domenico Mazza di Codevilla, a local engineer, who sold the wine as “Champagne d’Oltrepò” and apparently it was Oltrepò Pavese’s sparkling wine production in the early years of the 20th century that was responsible for such large plantings of Pinot Nero. If true, it is as much a mystery as a pity that this was also not responsible for establishing a lasting reputation for those wines, but it’s a good story on which to build a name for the future, I suppose.

The Oltrepò Pavese region south of the Po encompasses 42 villages in a much hiller terrain than that of Franciacorta further north. The lower slopes consist of clay and sedimentary rocks of marine origin, while the soil on higher slopes contain gypsum.

Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico (Minimum 70% Pinot Noir, plus a maximum of 30% of one or more of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc)

Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico Rosé (Minimum 70% Pinot Noir, plus a maximum of 30% of one or more of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc)

Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico Pinot Nero (Minimum 85% Pinot Noir, plus a maximum of 15% of one or more of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc)

Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico Pinot Nero Rosé (Minimum 85% Pinot Noir, plus a maximum of 15% of one or more of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc)

Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico Pinot Nero Cruasè* (85% Pinot Noir, but moves are afoot to make this 100%, which most are anyway)

Note
*Cruasè is not officially part of the DOCG classification, but is a trademarked name owned by the Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepò Pavese.

 

The Tasting

When Franco Ziliani, the famous Italian sparkling wine specialist, heard that Fabrizio Cali had set up a tasting of 70 sparkling wines from Oltrepò Pavese for me, he asked if he could join in. Franco, who is a friend as well as a colleague, is always welcome as far as I am concerned, so he was at one table and I was at another, bringing back memories of when we tasted five-times this volume of Franciacorta over several days at the Relais Mirabella at Clusane sul Lago just 18 months earlier. And then there was the audience … I do not normally taste in front of an audience and it was certainly a bizarre experience for me, but Fabrizio had invited (amongst others) participating producers to drop in and although I felt a bit like a performing dog, their presence did have one advantage. When popping in and out of a region for a centralised tasting the venue is sometimes an individual winery, as it was here at Tenuta Scarpa Colombi, which can be diplomatically awkward when inviting other producers to participate. Well at least on this occasion they could see that the host winery was not only fair to all the wines being tasted, but its owner, Roberto Colombi, was their personal sommelier, buzzing around like a blue-arsed fly serving his competitors’ wines to Franco and me. How fairer can you get than that? Putting cooperation before rivalry is the first, very elementary, step that any wine region must take if it is to establish any sort of cohesive reputation. Only by pulling together can the producers of Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG ever hope to carve out a niche for themselves.

There is still a long way to go, as the tasting demonstrated, with just 11 wines out of 70 that verged on the cusp of Bronze and Silver medal quality and no outstanding gold (the award-winning 2009-based Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Blanc de Blancs was not present). There were three more that were solid Bronze medal quality (La Travaglina Julilae Cruasè NV, Mazzolino Rosé 2012, and Monsupello Rosé Metodo Classico Brut VSQ 2011), thus could possibly be Silver quality in magnum, if those wines are indeed produced in magnum, but apart from these 13 wines, which I would recommend entry into this year’s CSWWC (the entry deadline is 10 April, with 24 April for delivery of samples deadline) in both magnum and 75cl bottle if available, I would not urge other producer to enter any of their wines because it would be a waste of their money. Unlike those competitions that want to maximise profits by attracting as many entries as possible, the CSWWC is more interested in finding truly special sparkling wines that it is in making money (although it has to be profitable to a certain extent to remain in business from year to year!), so I do not want to encourage the entry of any wines unless I personally believe that they have a good chance of winning at least a Silver medal. Having said that, I can give no guarantee, of course. CSWWC medals are evaluated by all three judges and the verdicts here are the personal opinion of just one of those three judges.

 

General conclusion

Although I tasted non-DOC wines made by both metodo martinotti and metodo classico, from various grapes, including Chardonnay, Riesling and Moscato, most of the wines submitted were Oltrepò Pavese DOCG and Pinot Nero was the most prolific grape tasted. I liked the structure of most of the wines, including those I was unable recommend, but there is either widespread misunderstanding of when to harvest (too many were either overripe or underripe) or very few are planted with an appropriate clone or selection of Pinot Nero in vineyards that are sited, trained, pruned and exclusively reserved for sparkling wine production. Many of the wines were dull and lacked elegance in addition to having at least one fault: oxidation, reductive, DMDS, heavy-handed malolactic. Some wines were simply over-gassed and would benefit from 0.5-1 atmosphere lower pressure, while a lot of wines that were simply spoiled by dull fruit and a lack of elegance could be improved by a judicious addition of ascorbic acid with the SO2 after disgorgement.

I came to Oltrepò Pavese hoping to find other wines as exciting as Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Blanc de Blancs, whether DOCG or not, but I did not. I came to Oltrepò Pavese hoping to find other Chardonnay of equal potential to Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Blanc de Blancs, but I did not. It is the exception.

Although the vineyards of Oltrepò Pavese possess the intrinsic potential for other producers to match the quality of Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Blanc de Blancs, it is this non-DOCG sparkling wine that is clearly head and shoulders above the rest. Not even Roberto’s own DOCG wine can touch it for quality. This “humble” VSQ does not indicate a vintage on the bottle, but it is the product of a single year and although I arrived late the night before the centralised, I did manage to taste every vintage past, present and future. I was impressed. This blanc de blanc has not always been made to the same extraordinary level every year, but vintage variation happens in the greatest vineyards, and even when the quality has dropped at Tenuta Scarpa Colombi, the lowest quality I have found has never been less than Silver in potential. I am not certain whether Roberto Colombi has ever considered petitioning for the inclusion of 100% Chardonnay in the Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, but from an outsider’s point of view it is a no-brainer. To have the best sparkling wine outside the DOCG would be ridiculous anywhere, but in Oltrepò Pavese, the sparkling wine of which has zero public awareness, it is criminally insane. It does not matter if no one else produces a half-decent sparkling Chardonnay, either now or in the future: get Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Blanc de Blancs inside the DOCG. This is not, however, the only item that should be on Oltrepò Pavese’s “To Do” list. Here is my minimum plan of action:

Do not have the best sparkling wine outside the DOCG: Include 100% Chardonnay in the DOCG, whatever the political objections might be.

Focused vineyards: start a longterm programme to ring-fence the most suitable viticultural areas and reserve them exclusively for DOCG production.

Focused output: At least five of the producers listed below should work towards DOCG wine accounting for 90% of sales. The DOCG will never build an image until producers are pushing that image.

World-class mentoring: A group of the best and most serious sparkling wine producers (both DOCG and non-DOCG) should hire the consulting services of someone like Michel Salgues to tour their vineyards and wineries on a regular basis, but they should not bother to do this unless they are willing to follow any advice that is given.

oltrepo tastingh
All ready to go! From left-to-right behind me: Fabrizio Cali (Winenot, organiser of the tasting; Franco Ziliani, Italian sparkling wine expert; Stefano Torre, consulting oenologist; Roberto Colombi, owner of Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Country Inn where the tasting was held; and Gianni Fava, the Regional Minister for Agriculture who kindly dropped by to welcome me).

 

The Wines

Bosco Longhino Moscato Spumante 2013
VSQ, 100% Moscato, 100g/l
This has a lovely Moscato aroma that is really quite exquisite, with deliciously fresh Moscato fruit on the palate that is more citrus than peachy, and so pristine that it hardly tastes like 100g residual! Drink as fresh as possible.

Bruno Verdi Vergomberra Extra Brut 2010
Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, Pinot Nero & Chardonnay, 6g/l
Bags of fruit, just teetering on the VA cusp, but nice and pretty. Not for keeping, this should be consumed on purchase.

Frecciarossa I Moschettieri Blanc de Noir Pas Dosé 2011
Provincia di Pavia IGT, 100% Pinot Nero, 0g/l
Very fresh, fruity Pinot aromas nose and palate, elegant. Not for keeping, this should be consumed on purchase.

Monsupello Millesimato Pinot Nero Brut 2008
Metodo Classico VSQ, Pinot Nero & Chardonnay, 12g/l
Very pretty Pinot fruit, with elegant, soft, fine mousse. Despite being the oldest vintage recommended in the Oltrepò Pavese tasting, this is one that can be kept a year or two.

Monsupello Pinot Nero Rosé Brut NV
Metodo Classico VSQ, Pinot Nero, 8gr/l
This would have benefited from more post-disgorgement ageing, but it has good Pinot fruit, a nice silky mousse and may be cellared for 6-12 months.

Tenuta Il Bosco Oltrenero Pinot Nero Brut NV
Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, 100% Pinot Nero, 7.1g/l
It was lovely to find a true delicacy and elegance of fruit in this is enhanced by its fine silky mousse. I would prefer to drink now, to capture as much of the freshness as possible, but it will drink nicely for at least 12 months.

Tenuta Il Bosco Oltrenero Pinot Nero Brut NV
Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG Cruasè, 100% Pinot Nero, 7.1g/l
Fine, silky and elegant in mousse and fruit. Tenuta Il Bosco has obviously mastered the technical aspects of how to produce a top-quality, ultra-smooth mouse and has a light hand when it comers to construction of the fruit, preferring elegance to weight.

Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Roberto Colombi Blanc de Blancs Brut NV
VSQ Metodo Classico, 100% Chardonnay, 5g/l
This is from the 2010 harvest and it tastes sweeter, despite having one gram per litre less sugar than the award-winning cuvee. It is not just sweeter, but also fatter, lacking the minerality and finesse of the 2009. A nice wine, but not outstanding.

Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Roberto Colombi Brut NV
Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG Cruasè, 100% Pinot Nero, 5g/l
Very Pinot in aroma, with an elegant richness of Pinot fruit and a creamy aftertaste. Not the finesse of the blanc de blancs, but certainly one of the best wines of the tasting.

Torrevilla La Genesia Brut 2010
Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG Cruasè, 100% Pinot Nero, 10.2g/l
Full of fruit and gracefulness. Delightful and easy to drink. I would drink as fresh as possible, although it can easily be kept 12 months.

Vanzini Pinot Nero Spumante Rosé Extra Dry NV
Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, 100% Pinot Nero, 15g/l
This Extra Dry tastes almost brut and until the change of EU regulations in 2009 it would have qualified as a brut. Certainly some true brut sparkling wines taste sweeter than the Vanzini Pinot Nero Spumante Rosé, which has more of an extreme fruitiness on the palate than sweetness per se, and that is perfect for the style. Clean finish.