I left off last post’s account of my Friuli white wine seminar at Vino 2011 halfway though the tasting, verbally smacking my lips over the wonderful ways all sorts of Italian wines, Friulian white wines in particular, partner with foods.
The wine that sparked that rhapsody was a Pinot bianco, Campo dei Gelsi, a very good wine but not an unusual one: Its representativeness is really what was most important about it. What followed it in the tasting sequence was a wine that in many key respects is even more representative of Friuli: a 2009 Friulano (DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli) from Butussi.
This the wine we used to know as Tocai, its name change mandated by EU bureaucrats lest we ignorant saps confuse it with the totally different Hungarian Tokay – different country, different grape variety, a sweet dessert wine rather than a dry dinner wine, but hey! what do we ignoramuses know? As you may gather, bureaucratic interference of that sort with traditional names (and traditional practices, but that is another and far more serious story) drives me up the wall. Recent studies have shown that Friulano-né-Tocai is in fact genetically similar, perhaps identical, to the now-almost-extinct French variety Sauvignonasse, but it is anybody’s guess which way the vine travelled.
Though forced to abandon its traditional name, in this case the producers of the wine were able to opt for a name that means something: Friulano indicates quite accurately just how deeply rooted in the life of the zone this wine is. In Friuli, it’s the wine of all purposes and every meal. To eat prosciutto while drinking something else is to invite queries about your health, mental and physical. The example we tasted at the seminar was absolutely true to type, showing all the appeal of the variety: Medium-bodied and fully dry, it started with a lovely nut-and-mineral nose, followed with similar flavors on the palate, and ended in a delightful hazelnut-and-almond finish. This is a wine interesting enough to drink by itself but even more intriguing when you give it some fish or fowl or frittata to play with.
The next wine was another Friulian specialty: a 2009 Bianco (DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli) called Valmasia – a 100% dry Malvasia from La Tunella. This is an ancient variety, grown all around the Mediterranean. It has made Friuli its home long enough to produce a distinctive clone, known either as Malvasia friulana or Malvasia istriana. Almost everywhere else it’s grown, Malvasia is usually either used in blends or vinified into a sweet dessert wine: it was famous in Shakespeare’s day as Malmsey. This fully dry, uniquely Friulian example was vinified entirely in stainless steel, so there was no muffler on its own distinctive character: an almost moscato nose, with orange peel and white fruits on the palate, and a long finish, redolent of roasted fruit and leather. A very interesting wine, very different from most other whites.
The seminar concluded with a lovely pair of uniquely Friulian dessert wines. (Can a pair be unique, or is that mathematically impossible?) The first of these was a “simple” 2007 Vino da Tavola Bianco, called Pensiero, from Petrussa. This wine was 100% Verduzzo, a grape so native to Friuli that it is unknown elsewhere. It is occasionally vinified dry, but this was a dark gold, sweet, botyritis-touched wine – just lovely, with its hints of honey and smoke. For all its residual sugar, its equally abundant acidity kept it supple, so that it gave an overall palatal impression of a complex blend of elements, of which sweetness was only one.
To be honest, this Verduzzo shouldn’t be classified so much a dessert wine as a vino da meditazione, a wonderful apt Italian phrase for wines whose subtlety and elegance and complexity make them objects of thought as well as aids to it – which may explain the name of this specimen, Pensiero.
The final wine we tasted belongs in that same rarefied category: 2007 Picolit (DOCG Colli Orientali del Friuli) from Aquila del Torre. For Friulian producers and fans of Friulian wine, Picolit is the jewel in the crown. Not only is this variety a Friulian indigene, it amounts to an endangered species despite how much it is revered. The vine suffers from a malady called floral abortion: Pollination is very irregular and often unsuccessful, and even when successful the flowers often fall off before setting fruit. A mature bunch of Picolit can contain as few as half a dozen grapes – so yields are naturally very, very small. Late harvesting and air-drying further reduce the amount of wine produced. What does eventually result is a precious (and costly, to be sure) nectar, honey-scented even without botrytis, lush and rich – almost viscous in the mouth – and long, long finishing: a vino da meditazione par excellence, to thoroughly garble my languages (an effect fine wine often has on me).
A few days ago I had the good fortune to be invited, courtesy of the wonderful Chianti Classico producer Giovanni Manetti, owner of Fontodi, and his US importer Dominic Nocerino (Vinifera Imports), to a special dinner at the restaurant Del Posto: a Cena della Vacca Intera, a dinner of the whole cow. It was prepared by Dario Cecchini, a master butcher and restaurateur from Panzano, a tiny town right at the heart of the Conca d’Oro, one of the most prized runs of hillsides in the whole Chianti Classico.
Not coincidentally, Fontodi’s vineyards are also right there, and Signor Manetti also raises some of the much-sought-after Chianina cows that Signor Cecchini dresses out and cooks, as he says, dal culo al colle – from the hind end (to put it delicately) to the neck. He presented five courses of beef, with a lively commentary on each:
- First came Sushi del Chianti e Ramerino in Culo – beef tartare from the butt, with rosemary.
- Then Cosimino in Salsa Ardente – a sort of meatloaf, based on a Renaissance recipe, with an attention-getting spicy sauce.
- Then Tenerumi in Insalata – slow-cooked cow’s knee, with a salad of fennel, carrots, etc.
- Then Magro Fiorentina – a Florentine roast beef.
- Finally, when you thought you could eat no more, Carne in Galera – neck meat, long cooked in water and vinegar and served with Tuscan beans.
All were delicious, but for me the best of the best were the unlikeliest, the tenerumi (the cuts the butcher couldn’t sell and consequently had to learn how to cook for himself) and the carne in galera, which Cecchini described as not so much the cooking of the poor as jailhouse meat – prison fare – in my opinion, perhaps the reason so many Italians risk jail for income tax evasion. I know I would.
With all these dishes, Fontodi’s 2005 Chianti Classico and superb 2000 Flacianello just sang. Great food, great wine, very happy journalist.