Quacquarini Vernaccia di Serrapetrona = tasty red sparkler review
Well that was interesting. What we have here is a serious, unique sparkling red from central Italy that is a bit of a rarity and definitely worth a try with a few friends.
Vernaccia is mostly associated with the famed Tuscan white grape that makes the (sometimes overpriced) whites of San Gimignano. However, this is the maybe/maybe not related red Vernaccia Nera grape that is not grown in Tuscany at all, but rather in the foothills of the Marche region. It is grown exclusively in the province of Macerata, and the DOCG is specifically for dry or sweet sparkling with a minimum of 85% Vernaccia Nera with various "local" varietals (Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Ciliegiolo) possibly constituting up to 15% of the blend. Vernaccia Nera is said to be spicy and a little wild at relatively low alcohol levels. It is a late ripener at the end of October. Not sure if this particular wine is blended or not, and it is also non vintage. It is "spumante" which indicates that it is a full sparkling wine, but many Italian sparklers run at a pressure a little below the standard 6 atmospheres, which seems to be the case here (Franciacorta blanc de blanc can be 4.5 - whoa, geek moment, sorry, but you should know that "frizzante" on a label means much lower pressure/fewer bubbles than spumante). And, the bunch pictured below, if it is accurate, indicates a pretty hefty weight and possibly high productivity, which might explain historically the need to dry some of it and still have it clock in at a modest 13% alcohol.
The really neat thing about the Serrapetrona tradition is that the grapes are harvested traditionally, but only half are vinified at harvest. The other half are dried as in the Amarone or more correctly "appassimento" or "passito" style for a couple of months. But, unlike Amarone, the wine from the dried grapes is combined with the wine from the undried grapes, and then this combination undergoes tank or Charmat fermentation to create the bubbles and is bottled under pressure to maintain them, unlike the Champagne method. So two different styles of wine made from (primarily or totally) the same grape are recombined and carbonated. Pretty cool...
The label states "secco" which means dry, but the one possible complaint is that it is not completely bone dry. One of the practical difficulties of Amarone and other styles of wine production made from dried grapes is that they are incredibly hard to ferment to complete dryness. The process of drying changes the gravity of the must, bacteria increase, and yeast struggle much more. They are also fermented in the dead of winter, adding other environmental problems to the mix. Most Amarone have a bit of residual sugar, and though many wines are called dry at five grams of sugar per liter (most wine folk can sense sugar down to about three grams), in fact Amarone is allowed the exceptionally high level of 8 grams and can still be called dry, well above sensory threshold. This is the equivalent to about two good sized teaspoons of residual sugar per liter. It can be a little jarring at first if you are expecting a bone-dry wine, but persevere you should. The Italian tradition is quite flexible with stickies and sparklers often made from grapes used for still wines, we just don't see many of them imported as they are usually consumed locally and dry wines are considered more "serious".
So, what does it taste like? First thing we thought was cool-climate Syrah. Looking past the bit of sugar that is present (and it is appropriate for this style) the wine is pleasingly round, rich and balanced. The fruit is full and plumy in the darker plum and berry spectrum. The acid is balanced and totally unobtrusive. Alcohol is unnoticed yet is part of the rich backbone. The wine most likely did not see any barrel time, or if it did it was in the large neutral botti, keeping the wine clear and focused. The partial drying of the grapes rounds and concentrates the tannins, producing a rich and velvety grip on the palate, just firm enough to be serious but refined and well polymerized like Amarone or an aged Bordeaux. And like an Amarone, the drying intensifies the natural spice components, adding more black pepper and savory spices to the mix, almost sort of a cumin quality comes through with a bit of that sweet cardamom spice finish seen in the North.
For food pairing entree-wise, the bit of residual sugar is the rub. Just use it for a charcuterie and cheese plate. But, if you must match it to a dish, the trick would be to balance the sweetness of the wine with a sauce that had some sweetness. For example plain steak would be a problem, but steak with a slightly sweetened berry-licious sauce that just matched the wine would be ticket. Duck with berry or fruit infused sauce would be an obvious go to - cherry or Kirsch sauce for example. Pork and prunes? Venison is often prepared with a bit of sweetness in the sauce that might work well. One place I worked at served slightly sweet foie gras sauce with the grilled hangar steak. The wine can take beef (or roasted eggplant and peppers for the vegetarians) no problem.
The other alternative is simply to call this a charcuterie and/or cheese plate red, where the sugar can balance the salt and the bubbles provide lift and freshness. This would be my first application choice and probably the most enjoyable as a proverbial meditiation wine. The verdict: definitely worth trying, and at approximately $20ish a bottle it is worth the unique experience. A quick internet search should yield a few outlets. This bottle was kindly provided by Anna Maria Knapp of Celebrations Wine Club who sources these sorts of unique wines regularly for her customers. It will be featured this month in her wine club program, which is also highly recommended.