According to myth, it is Dionysus who brought the vine to Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and largest region of Italy. Over the centuries, the Island of the Three Capes has been settled or controlled by, among others, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. Traces of this rich and unique heritage are still evident in the local dialects, architectures, and gastronomies. Caesar’s favourite wine was Mamertine, from the area of Messina, not least because the Mamertines (‘sons of Mars’) had played a big part in the eventual defeat of Carthage. In Palermo’s archaeological museum, I admired a 2nd century stone sarcophagus in the shape of a lenòs, or tank for treading grapes.

Sicily offers close to ideal conditions for viticulture, with a varied and often rugged terrain, and hot, dry, sun-drenched summers. In the 20th century, this led to some very high yields, which have been dramatically curtailed by an increasing number of quality-conscious producers. In the last three decades, Sicily has morphed from bulk producer into one of Europe’s most distinct, intricate, and vibrant wine regions. This year, Angelo Gaja himself purchased 21ha on Etna. Although there are more than 20 Sicilian DOCs, many are rarely seen, especially on the export market. Outside certain pockets such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Etna, Marsala, and Pantelleria, most wine is labelled Sicilia DOC or the more versatile IGP Terre Siciliane, which cover the entire region.

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The most notable black grape varieties in Sicily are the indigenous Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. Nero d’Avola originated in the southeast but has spread out to become Sicily’s signature variety. More substantial examples are compared to New World Shiraz, dark and full-bodied with fine tannins and notes of plum, mulberry, and chocolate. Leading examples such as Milazzo’s Duca di Montalbo, Feudo Montoni’s Vrucara (pictured above), and Planeta’s Santa Cecilia are balanced, complex, and long-lived, and much in the same league as Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture.

In the southeastern region of Vittoria, Nero d’Avola is blended with the delicate and aromatic Frappato (30-50% of the blend) to produce Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily’s only DOCG. Cerasuolo means ‘cherry-like’, and the blend can be reminiscent of quality Beaujolais. COS is a top producer of Cerasuolo, and also crafts the blend in amphorae, resulting in a fresher, more persistent style.

Amphorae at COS

Nerello Mascalese is indigenous to Mount Etna. May is a good time to visit: in contrast to the rest of Sicily, which is more or less calcareous, the slopes of the smoking volcano are black with fertility, creating an ideal backdrop for genista, euphorbia, and other bright blooms. The most notable viticultural agglomeration, with its north-facing slopes and sealed-off continental climate, is the Northern Valley, across the villages of Randazzo, Passopisciaro, and Castiglione di Sicilia. The terroir is divided into named areas, or contrade, such as Feudo di Mezzo, Guardiola, and Calderara Sottana, defined by such factors as elevation, aspect, and—this being Etna—lava type. Some contrade, such as Rampante at 1,000m, are, perversely, too altitudinous to claim the DOC. Pockets of old bush (albarello) vines are highly sought-after, despite the expense of rehabilitating, farming, and maintaining stone terraces. The Etna DOC calls for Nerello Mascalese, sometimes in a blend with the rustic Nerello Cappuccio. The wines are fresh, delicate, and mineral, inviting comparisons with Burgundy or Barolo. Despite later harvests, crus from the Northern Valley are more herbal and structured than those from the south, which are broader and spicier. Comparing Nerello Mascalese to Pinot Noir, both from the same Etna producer, the Pinot Noir was fuller with more blue fruit but less earthy spice.

One of Terre Nere’s vineyards in Etna’s Northern Valley

Etna bianco calls for Carricante, sometimes in a blend with other grapes, especially Catarratto. Carricante can be reminiscent of Chablis in its acidity, minerality, and texture, but with more mandarin than lemon and an herbal note. Benanti’s Pietramarina, a 100% Carricante from the eastern village of Milo (the only village that can claim the superiore), is one of Italy’s few age-worthy white wines.

Faro DOC, produced to the north in the calcareous hills overlooking the Strait of Messina, is a similar blend to Etna DOC, but also includes the indigenous Nocera, which contributes acidity. From the vineyards above Faro Superiore (superhuman driving skills required), you can, on a clear day, just about make out the Aeolian Islands, which are noted for Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, especially the passito, which Guy de Maupassant called a sirop de soufrele vin du diable.

faro superiore
Bonavita’s tiny parcels above Faro Superiore, with Stromboli on the horizon

In terms of volume, the west of Sicily is much more important than the east, and, like Sicily as a whole, dominated by white wines. Catarratto, the principal variety, is one of the ten fortified marsala grapes (although high-end producers prefer the traditional Grillo and Inzolia), and also the major component of Bianco d’Alcamo DOC. Most Catarratto is bland and blousy, but, with strict yield control and skilful winemaking, examples from higher slopes can be crisp and mineral with notes of lemon and flowers or herbs. Two notable producers in Marsala are Marco de Bartoli and Nino Barraco, who champion the unfortified, unsweetened ‘Marsalas’ that were being made before the arrival, in the late 18th century, of English wine merchant John Woodhouse.

Wine is also made in the centre of Sicily, in all sorts of styles. G. Milazzo in the area of Agrigento even makes hand-riddled traditional method sparkling Chardonnay: the top Federico II cuvée spends seven years on lees, and, despite the heat, wins medal upon medal. Across Sicily, there is a secondary focus on international varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and especially Syrah, which is well suited to the Sicilian climate. These international varieties played an important role in attracting attention to Sicily as a quality producer, but are now somewhat less fashionable. Blending, including between indigenous and international varieties, is common practice.

Tasca d’Almerita’s Tenuta Regaleali in the centre of Sicily

Moscato and Malvasia are made into passitos all over Sicily, but the most notable passitos, Moscato di Pantelleria DOC and Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, are made on outlying islands. Moscato di Pantelleria is made from Zibbibo (Muscat of Alexandria) on Pantelleria (the name derives from the Arabic Bent el-Rhia, ‘daughter of the wind’), 60km east of the Tunisian coast. Some of the best examples are Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé and Marco de Bartoli’s Bukkuram and exquisite Padre de la Vigna.

Favourite producers are Marco de Bartoli (Marsala and Pantelleria), Nino Barraco (Marsala), Feudo Montoni (Centre), and Tenuta di Fessina (Etna). Other top producers include, on the smaller side, Bonavita (Faro), Benanti, Calabretta, Frank Cornelissen, Girolamo Russo, Passopisciaro, and Terre Nere (the latter six all on Etna); and, on the larger side, COS, Cusumano, Donnafugata, Milazzo, Morgante, Planeta, and Tasca d’Almerita. COS, Milazzo, and Morgante are in the centre of Sicily, while Cusumano, Donnafugata, Planeta, and Tasca d’Almerita are more or less pan-Sicilian.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

combe de savoie
Vineyards in the Combe de Savoie, hugging the Bauges mountains.

Twenty years ago, the wines of Savoie were often thin and acidic, and good mostly for cutting through cheesy dishes such as the local fondue and raclette. On a recent ski trip to Chamonix, I was intrigued by some complex and unusual wines, and took a few days out of skiing to visit some producers and find out more.

Even before the Roman conquest, the vine was being cultivated in Savoie by the Gallic Allobroges. The region’s 2,100ha (versus 120,000ha for Bordeaux) are dispersed across four French départements: mostly Savoie and Haute Savoie, but also Ain and Isère. Ain also contains the even smaller Bugey wine region, which is fairly similar to Savoie in terms of terroir, varieties, and styles. You can see a map of the region on the Vin de Savoie website.

Although Savoie’s wine producing areas are fairly disparate, they are united by their common Alpine landscape, with the vine cultivated on sheltered south-facing slopes and along moderating water bodies such as lakes Geneva and Bourget. Stony soils provide good heat retention and water drainage, and I spotted the odd almond or apricot tree amidst the vines.

The vines of André et Michel Quenard at the foot of the Savoyarde in the Bauges. This slope was first planted by the Romans but had been abandoned in favour of higher yields.

White wine accounts for 70% of Savoie production, followed by red wine (20%), rosé (6%), and sparkling wine (4%). Only 5% of total production is exported, so the wines, though generally good value for money, are fairly hard to source.

By far the most important appellation in Savoie is Savoie AOP. The other still wine appellations are Roussette de Savoie AOP (for the crus of Frangy, Monthoux, Marestel, and Monterminod) and Seyssel AOP (for the cru of Seyssel), although it is not clear even to the producers themselves why these two appellations are not subsumed under Savoie AOP. Interestingly, in 2009 growers in Crépy had their AOP demoted to cru status to be able to market their wines as Savoie AOP. A fourth Savoie appellation was created in 2014 for Crémant de Savoie, which is becoming increasingly important. Broadly speaking, Crémant de Savoie is at least 40% Jacquère, with any remainder being Altesse and Chardonnay, although Chardonnay cannot account for more than 40% of the blend. The style is already winning medals in Paris.

The Savoie wine region counts some twenty crus, from Ripaille and Marin on Lake Geneva in the north to Apremont, Les Abymes, Chignin, Montmélian, and Arbin in the south. The heart of the region is to the south, between the Bauges and the Chartreuse mountains in the valley of the Isère, in the so-called Cluse de Chambéry and Combe de Savoie. The soils here are predominantly limestone scree from crumbling mountains, including the picturesque Savoyarde in the Bauges and Mont Granier in the Chartreuse.

Mont Granier in the Chartreuse, as pictured from the Bauges. The valley is the Combe de Savoie.

Over twenty grape varieties are cultivated, but the most important are Jacquère, Altesse (Roussette), Bergeron (Roussanne), and Chasselas for the whites, and Mondeuse and Gamay for the reds. The high-yielding Jacquère accounts for half of plantings, while Chasselas is found, as you might expect, in the north towards the Swiss border (see my article on the wines of Switzerland). The Gringet grape is only found in Ayze, where it is made into a sparkling wine. Some of Savoie’s indigenous varieties are on the verge of disappearance: there are, for example, just nine hectares of Persan left.

Jacquère wines are dry, crisp, and mineral, with notes of citrus fruits, pear, white flowers, and wet stone. Some of the best, most ‘Alpine’ expressions of Jacquère come from the aptly named crus of Apremont (‘Bitter Mountain’) and Les Abymes (‘The Abysses’), which lie on limestone scree from a 13th century landslide of Mont Granier that killed thousands of villagers.

Altesse underlies the Roussette de Savoie AOP, and is richer than Jacquère, with notes of honey, apricots, tropical fruits, and aniseed, among others. According to local lore, the variety was brought back from Cyprus as a royal dowry, whence the name ‘Altesse’ (‘Highness’). Whatever the case, Altesse is capable of serious complexity, and, unlike Jacquère, improves with age, developing notes of toast and nuts. The Seyssel AOP is reputed for its floral sparkling wines made from Altesse, Chasselas, and Molette.

The cru of Chignin-Bergeron (not to be confused with the overlapping cru of Chignin, which consists of Jacquère) is the only cru with a grape variety in its name: Bergeron, or Roussanne, as it is known in its native Rhône Valley. Chignin-Bergeron is rich and honeyed, although more fresh and mineral, and less alcoholic, than Roussanne counterparts from the Rhône. It is capable of serious finesse and complexity, as, for example, in Louis Magnien’s Grand Orgue cuvée.

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The first century writer Columella referred to Allobrogica, which is most probably Mondeuse, as ‘the grape that ripens amidst the snow’. In 2000, there were just 200ha of Mondeuse left in France, although the variety has since recovered somewhat. Mondeuse has often been compared with, and mistaken for, the Piedmontese Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. It is deep in colour with notes of cherry, plum, violets, and spice, crisp acidity, and substantial tannins. Like Altesse and Bergeron, Mondeuse is age-worthy, and on my trip I tasted a 1998 Mondeuse from Louis Magnin that could still be counted as fresh. The finest examples of Mondeuse are arguably from Arbin, and I also loved Fabien Trosset’s 2015 cuvée Avalanche.

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Recommended producers: Louis Magnin, André et Michel Quenard, Fabien Trosset, Domaine Giachino, and Les Ardoisières (IGP Vin des Allobroges, just outside the Savoie AOP).


Blind tasting for exams and competitions

When it comes to blind tasting, there can be no substitute for experience and practice. Do not merely fall back on your strengths, however impressive they may be. The best way to improve is to work at your weaknesses. Attending as many tastings 
as possible can really help to bring things together, as can visiting wineries and wine regions, talking to wine people, and reading the wine press and literature. More important still is to find or form a dedicated study group. Aside from the purely social aspects, the benefits of a study group include: imposing structure and discipline, sharing knowledge and experiences, shaping and strengthening indistinct impressions, uncovering blind spots, and, last but not least, dividing expenses.

Also key is familiarity with timing, as time pressure in exams and competitions is often intense. Put yourself through timed practices that mirror the format of the real McCoy. When you blind taste, say, a Pomerol, you taste it with everything that you know about Merlot and right Bank Bordeaux, indeed, everything that you know about wine. Last minute cramming is not going to turn you into an overnight supertaster, and might even serve to confuse you. Better to spend the run-up to the exam or competition relaxing and sharpening your mind and senses.

In the hours leading up to the event, it can be helpful to taste a familiar benchmark such as a Rheingau Riesling to calibrate your palate. If your palate is poorly calibrated for a particular variable such as acidity, alcohol, or quality (more likely if you are ill, stressed, hungry, or dehydrated), you will be losing marks right across the board.

For competitions, if tasting in a communicating team (in which members can confer with one another), the top taster should take the lead. If there is no clear top taster, one of the stronger tasters should be designated as captain to streamline decision-making. If it becomes apparent that the captain is having an off day, he or she should immediately yield the captaincy to another strong taster. If tasting in a non-communicating team as in the Oxford and Cambridge varsity match, the team is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and gains most from the stronger tasters training up the novices.

For exams, be sure to read the questions carefully and to answer them directly and comprehensively (although not necessarily exhaustively). If short of time, choose breadth over depth, as marks are likely to be distributed across a number of domains, for instance, across several aroma groups. Elaborate only if it seems appropriate, or if you are specifically asked. If you get stuck on a particular wine, come back to it later if you can.

For many exams, it is very important to use the prescribed tasting method, including the tasting format, lexicon, and grading scales. Committing the prescribed method to memory also increases your speed while decreasing your chances of missing out key elements such as tannins or oak.

If, say, six marks are allocated to ‘nose’, be sure to write down at least six items about the nose, across all the principal domains. In particular, do not omit to comment on a defining element such as notes of honey and honeysuckle in a botrytized wine, or notes of vanilla and toast in a wine with reams of new French oak. Conversely, be careful not to imply something that is not there. For instance, ‘coconut’ is so closely associated with American oak as to imply its presence, even if you meant it in a completely other context.

When writing descriptions, use only very specific terms: instead of ‘citrus fruits’, prefer ‘lemon’, ‘lime’, ‘grapefruit’, ‘clementine’, or ‘orange’. Other cluster headings that can be elaborated upon include ‘red fruits’, ‘black fruits’, ‘green fruits’, ‘stone fruits’, ‘nuts’, and ‘spice’. Do not hedge: instead of ‘youthful’, plump for either ‘young’ or ‘developing’. Similarly, avoid broad, imprecise, subjective, or fanciful terms such as ‘mineral’, ‘fairly high’, ‘feminine’, and ‘broad shouldered’. In short, be as precise and concrete as you can. At the same time, do not fall into the opposite trap of being needlessly technical by, say, providing an estimate of the residual sugar level in grams per litre. Describe each wine in the absolute, without referencing the other wines in the flight. For instance, avoid writing that a wine is ‘more aromatic than the previous wine’ – unless specifically asked to compare the wines.

Try in as far as possible to be consistent and coherent within your tasting note. It is surprisingly easy to inadvertently contradict yourself, sometimes even within the same sentence, for example, by describing the hue as ‘deep lemon’ but the colour intensity as only ‘medium’. More broadly, if you think that a wine is obviously young, do not write down notes such as petrol or marzipan that suggest a fair bit of development.

Take care not to confuse a descriptor with a conclusion. ‘Likely fermented in stainless steel’ is a conclusion not a descriptor, and used as a descriptor is unlikely to attract a mark. Also unlikely to attract marks are negative descriptors such as ‘no sediment’, ‘no tannins’, and ‘no evidence of new oak’.

In general, when concluding, it is not nearly enough to ‘get it right’. To score full marks, you also need to back up your conclusions with evidence, explanations, and context, in proportion to the allocated number of marks. Should your conclusions prove incorrect, your reasoning could ensure that you score at least partial marks. You are unlikely to be given rare, unusual, or atypical wines, so do not stray too far off the beaten track with an Alto Adige Sylvaner, a Bío-Bío Gewurztraminer, or a Mornington Nebbiolo.

If you are also asked for a quality assessment, do not hold back from being critical. However, be sure to back up your conclusions with evidence and explanations. For instance, do not merely state that a wine ‘will not improve with age’, but argue that it is ‘lacking the concentration and structure for further ageing’. Similarly, do not merely state that a wine is ‘balanced’, but make the case that ‘the full body and high alcohol are offset by the high acidity’. Verify that your quality assessment is externally and internally coherent. If you noted further up that a probable Bordeaux has green tannins, do not conclude that it is at the level of a classed growth; and if you claim that a wine is of poor quality, do not argue that it will improve with age.

Ahead of the exam, it can be useful to draw up differential lists for recurring problem areas such as ‘mineral whites’ (Chablis, Muscadet, Savennières, Sancerre, Riesling…), ‘aromatic whites’ (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscat, Torrontes…), ‘light reds’ (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo…), ‘soft reds’ (Gamay, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera, Valpolicella…), and ‘spicy reds’ (Southern Rhône blends, Northern Rhône Syrah, Rioja, Chianti, Nebbiolo…). For each variety or style, write down the most important distinguishing features. Everyone is different, with different trouble areas, triggers, and tricks, so it is important that you draw up your own lists.

For example, this is a list for spicy reds.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Grenache dominated blend)

  • N Rhône Syrah: darker fruit, black pepper, higher acidity, lower alcohol, chewier tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less herbal, lower alcohol, more oaked and often with American oak
  • Chianti: brighter with higher acidity, higher and firmer tannins, drier finish
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins

You can then rejig the list to put it in terms of another variety or style.


  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape: garrigue, less cherry fruit, lower acidity, lower and softer tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less bright, lower acidity, softer tannins, more oaked and often with American oak

Here are some more differential lists to get you started. Try, with the help of your peers, to formulate such lists in your blind tasting practices. Start with just a couple of varieties or styles, and then, over several tastings, gradually extend and refine the list.


  • Muscadet: paler, slight effervescence, lees character, lighter body, lower acidity and alcohol, less mineral
  • Savennières: more aromatic, fuller body, higher alcohol, bitter afternote
  • Sancerre: more aromatic, notes of gooseberry and grass
  • Riesling: much more aromatic, petrol, possible residual sugar


  • Viognier: no pink tinge, more stone fruit, less exotic, often less oily, dry, lacks bitter finish
  • Pinot Gris: pear or stone fruit, no lychee, often less oily, higher acidity, greater structure
  • Muscat: grapey, orange blossom, lighter body, lower alcohol, often drier
  • Torrontes: lacks lychee note, less oily, more mineral


  • Pinot Noir: no blue tinge or estery notes, higher acidity, alcohol, and tannins, often oaked
  • Dolcetto: darker colour, more ‘Italian’ cherries and bitter almonds, lower acidity, higher alcohol and tannins, drier finish
  • Barbera: more cherry than strawberry, higher acidity, more often oaked, drier finish
  • Valpolicella: sour cherry note, higher acidity

Pinot Noir

  • Gamay: blue tinge, estery notes, lower acidity, alcohol, and tannins, rarely oaked
  • Grenache: spicier, higher alcohol, lower acidity
  • Tempranillo: brick red, less finely etched fruit, lower acidity, often oaked with American oak
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, fuller body, much higher tannins

Cabernet Sauvignon (e.g. Left Bank Bordeaux)

  • Merlot: plums, no cassis or green pepper, more earth and less gravel, lower acidity, higher alcohol, softer tannins
  • Syrah: black pepper, no cassis or green pepper, lower acidity, less structured
  • Cabernet Franc: more aromatic, lighter fruit, lesser structure and tannins
  • Cahors: inkier, earthy mineral notes, higher tannins
  • Argentine Malbec: fuller body, higher alcohol, lower acidity, softer tannins

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

concise guide to wine new 3e


My co-author James Flewellen and I were honoured a few months ago when our ‘textbook of wine’ won ‘Best in the UK’ in the the drinks education category of the prestigious Gourmand Awards.

All the national winners entered the final, which was held this month in Yantai, China, and we are delighted to announce that our title won ‘Best in the World – 2nd place’.

For several years, James and I were heavily involved in the popular Oxford University Blind Tasting Society. James presided over the society and led the university blind tasting team to victory in several international competitions. We wrote ‘The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting’ to crystallise the knowledge and expertise that we had acquired and share our passion with a wider audience.

The book was published in March last year, and soon began receiving rave reviews, including, to our astonishment, from the Times Literary Supplement, which dubbed it ‘a comprehensive education in wine’. It also gathered a strong following among people studying for wine qualifications, not least the highly-regarded wine degree at Plumpton College.

The book aims to provide readers, including novices, with a strong foundation in wine, which they can then build upon with their own, unique tasting experiences. Although all the major wine styles and regions are covered, the emphasis is firmly on blind tasting, which, by removing unconscious bias and suggestion (from the price, from the label, and so on), sets a standard of objectivity in wine.

A blind tasting in progress.

Aside from this, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses
  • Applying our judgement
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories
  • Comparing our analysis with that of our peers
  • Getting it more or less right (or ‘wrong for the right reasons’)
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.