Sydney Italian Wine & Food Festival


‘Natural’ wines reared their controversial heads at last Sunday’s Sydney Italian Wine & Food Festival. The event was a major success, attracting about 1200 to the Sydney Town Hall, where more than 250 premium Italian wines were offered for tasting.

I hosted some masterclasses in an upstairs room, all of which were booked out and the wines were exceptionally good as well as interesting – although the ‘natural’ wines were challenging. As I’ve repeatedly said about these ‘back to the roots’, hands-off wines, the good are good and the bad are terrible. I can handle wines looking cloudy and even amber in the glass, but we were served wines which were alternately mousy, excessively volatile and oxidized. And some that smelled dirty or simply lacked freshness.

On the other hand, several were very palatable. Quealy’s ‘Turbul’ Friulano 2013 ($34 – previous tastings) was very reductive to sniff but the palate was superb: rich and fleshy, with silky texture, full body and marvelous complexity of flavour. I also liked the 2006 Gravner ‘Anfora’ Ribolla Gialla ($140) – an unequivocally orange-amber coloured white wine with tremendous complexity and persistence, as well as very special, and very appealing, character.

We began with a sparkling wine, Podere Pradarolo Vej ($64), a non-vintage malvasia from Emilia. While yellow-amber in hue and leaving sediment in the glass, it had a delightful perfume. It was very tannic, prompting me to wonder if it mightn’t be much more enjoyable with the right kind of food, eg a simple slice of smoked salmon.

The one red that I (and it seemed, everyone else) enjoyed was 2010 Damiano Ciolli ‘Cirsium’ ($59), made from the cesanese grape under the DOC Olevano Romano. It was rich, chocolaty, full-bodied but smoothly textured in spite of its abundant tannins, with a satisfying old-viney density.

The tally for this admittedly rather traditionally-schooled taster was 4/10 acceptable wines. Well, at least whoever selected the wines didn’t cop out: they pulled no punches and went for some pretty wild stuff, so the audience had a true glimpse of the ‘natural’ offering. As Max Allen, my co-host for this tasting said, these wines are about a state of mind. It’s a philosophy. Tom McCarthy of Quealy Wines made the point that they’re about problem-solving: making wine with minimal intervention, no additions or subtractions, is about solving the problems that inevitably arise. Some do that better than others.

More conventional were my masterclasses on, firstly, tre bicchieri Italian wines (3 wineglasses, as rated by the Gambero Rosso wine guide) and secondly, the red wines of Piedmont. There were some sensational wines.

I was gobsmacked at the freshness, vitality and charm of a 2006 Soave – the Suavia ‘Monte Carbonare’ (previous tasting) – although, yes, it was from magnums. I’d never tasted a biancolella (white grape) from the island of Ischia, and the 2012 Casa D’Ambra ‘Frassitelli’ ($42) was very, very good. The wood-aged 2011 Provenza ‘Fabio Contato’ Trebbiano di Lugana ($68) – actually the same grape as verdicchio – was superb, as was the even more full-bodied and oaky Cervaro della Sala 2011 ($80) from the Antinori (tastings) family’s Umbrian property Castello della Sala. Then in reds, the 2008 Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco ($80) was a crackerjack example of this oft-maligned grape, while the 6Mura Carignano del Sulcis 2009 ($68) was carignano (carignan) as you’ve never seen it from Spain or France, or even probably from Italy. 

The buzz at the Italian festival was amazing and the venue outstanding, although it was hard work hearing the chefs for the noise of the enthusiastic crowd as they did their cooking demonstrations in the Smeg kitchen set up in one corner of the Town Hall auditorium. Artisanal Italian beers were also represented, and Australian wines made from Italian grapes were given a run, with the likes of Coriole (tastings), Pizzini (tastings) and Quealy (tastings) pouring their wares. Hungry visitors snacked on breads, cheeses, salumi and pasta. Hot food was provided by restaurants Pilu, Ormeggio, Balla, A Tavola and Via Napoli.

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