Cracking the codes on an Italian bottle

The Italians don't make it easy, but a sure bet is to choose a wine that grew up alongside the food you're eating.

I’ve got chilled comfort for anyone who finds French wine hard to understand: Italy makes France look simple by comparison. These are the world’s two biggest wineproducing nations – France is usually ahead but there’s not much in it – and neither seems bent on reassuring the novice.
If you’re a native of Barolo, in Piedmont, you are born knowing that one of the world’s great wines – the purest expression of the Nebbiolo grape – takes its name from your village. In fact, by the time you’re about three, if you’re lucky enough to have family vineyards, you’re probably making the stuff yourself. The idea that some foreigners may think Barolo is a grape is, to you, unimaginable. Which is presumably why the Museum of Wine in Barolo, though an entirely hilarious cacophony of multimedia fabrications, son et lumière and mirrored ceilings (really), tells you absolutely nothing about Barolo.
Italy is large and historically and geographically complicated, and most of it makes wine; it also has more than 300 grape varieties. Yet its classification system is loosely copied from the French – a combination that works about as well as Cornas with tiramisu. At the top of the hierarchy are DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCGs, the latter showing their superior quality, for some reason, by adding the word “guaranteed”. To make life more difficult, many great wines, including the legendary Super Tuscan reds, choose to break the DOC rules specifying which grapes are allowed in whose wines in what proportions, and have willingly downgraded themselves to Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) – if you can call a voluntary switch from focusing on the contents of a bottle to prioritising the land on which it was grown a “downgrade”.
The oddest thing about this system is that it concentrates on grapes yet there is nothing in the rules about listing grapes on the label. You must offer would-be buyers a name of some kind. You are also obliged to give the bottle volume, even though that is standardised at a multiple of ten between 740ml and 760ml. But for all the poor thirsty blighters can tell, you’ve squeezed tomatoes to make their beverage. So the best course is to be neighbourly – something that grew up with what you’re eating.
In Sardinia, I was given dinner by the children of Alberto Loi, who now run the winery of that name. They fed me an eel the size of a boa constrictor, pinioned on a skewer the length of my torso. This was daunting: what to drink with it? The fratelli Loi’s answer was Sa Mola, made of Cannonau, Sardinia’s most celebrated grape, known elsewhere as Grenache. This quaffable, raspberryish wine was a fine match for the meaty fish – and prepared my stomach for the sausage extravaganza to come, which was in turn excellent company for the thyme waft and blackberry tang of Loi Corona 2009, a more imposing wine, still mostly Cannonau but with a little Carignano and Cabernet Sauvignon to add weight. Even though, by this point, I was doing that without help.
These wines have little in common with the vibrant and sophisticated reds of Piedmont, a thousand kilometres north, but how to negotiate the madcap variety of the many regions in between?
My recommendation is don’t. This is a country that can find more than 650 ways to turn flour and eggs into pasta; do you really want to mess with them? If you aren’t choosing wine to go with food and so can’t follow the suggestion above (though you’re now sorted, should anyone ever present you with grilled and skewered eel), visit a wine merchant with a strong Italian list, such as Berry Bros & Rudd or Lea & Sandeman, and ask for advice. Better yet, turn up with a map. If fellow customers look at you oddly, let them. You are saluting the far-famed regional pride of the Italians; the least those Italians can do is give you a nice drink in return. 
Next week: John Burnside on nature 
The perfect match: if in doubt, be neighbourly, writes Nina Caplan.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.