Ancient Grapes, Recent Tastings

That Italy is one vast vineyard holding hundreds of ancient, nearly lost grape varieties – that has become a truism. No surprises there – not until you taste wines made from some of those varieties and find yourself brought up short by how good they are: How could they ever have gotten lost?!

I had that experience twice recently, first with a wine that has managed to re-establish itself, and then with one struggling for a renewed toehold (roothold?) in that vast Italian vineyard.

First stop: Sicily

My bella moglie Diane has one major addiction beyond good food and wine: mystery stories. She devours detective novels. One of her current favorites is Andrea Camilleri’s series about the Sicilian Inspector Montalbano. Montalbano stands in the grand tradition of Nero Wolfe and Inspector Maigret – that is, his work never interferes with his dinners, and they are lovingly described in the books. So it was inevitable that, when Diane found a cookbook of the Montalbano recipes, she would announce that she wanted to do a whole Montalbano dinner party, and my job was to match the wines to it.

Now, if it had merely been wines made in Sicily that I was looking for, that wouldn’t have been a problem – but for truly Sicilian food, I wanted truly Sicilian wines, top-quality wines vinified from indigenous Sicilian grapes. That narrowed my search considerably. My first thought was Benanti and his great reds and whites from Etna – but a quick check showed I had no Benanti wines on hand. (I will correct that!)  So I turned to some of the best Nero d’Avola around and to Salvatore Geraci’s brilliant Palari, the wine that saved the Faro DOC from extinction.

Palari may still be the only example of Faro; it’s certainly the only one available in the US. No matter: It has executed the rescue brilliantly. Geraci was urged by Italian wine critic Luigi Veronelli to plant grapes on his family’s lands in the Faro zone (on steep hillsides near Messina, in eastern Sicily) lest the Faro DOC slip from sight. So Geraci began cultivating the basket of indigenous varieties that compose the wine: Nerello mascalese, Nerello cappucci, Nocera, Tignolino, Cor’e palumba, Acitana, Galetena – none of them household names, though because of the recent explosion of winemaking on Etna, Nerello mascalese at least is becoming better known.

From its earliest vintages, Palari has been steadily winning praise in Italy. By now it sports close to a dozen Tre Bicchieri, and has been joined by a second but by no means secondary wine, Rosso del Soprano, with an almost identical grape mixture. We started our Sicilian dinner with that, and went on to two vintages of Palari, 2005 and 2000. All three wines were perfect with the food, handling its rusticities and elegances, its simplicities and complexities, with equal aplomb. Velvety, deep, with complex dark fruit and leather flavors, they all showed an almost Burgundian combination of seeming weight and suppleness. Just lovely wines.

We finished with a 1998 Nero d’Avola Riserva, Don Antonio, from the top-notch producer Morgante. Nero d’Avola is pretty well known these days, but that is quite recent history for this ancient Sicilian variety, which as little as 20 years ago was being abandoned in favor of international grapes. Happily, the soft, almost-Pomerol-like wine has made a strong comeback. Morgante’s barrique-aged Riserva is bigger and more austere than its regular bottling, and at 13 years old had completely integrated its oak into a mouth-filling and very complex mature wine, ideal with the cheeses it accompanied.

(For an account of the whole delicious dinner, take a look at Diane’s blog, which contains every carbohydrate-rich detail.) 

Next stop: Tuscany

Thanks to an old acquaintance in Florence, Ursula Thurner, I found out that the well-known Chianti Classico estate San Felice had undertaken a long-term project with the University of Florence involving the planting of an experimental vineyard with some 270 disappearing Tuscan varieties. Out of that welter of grapes, one variety has stood out so much that San Felipe has propagated and begun commercializing it. It’s called Pugnitello, from the fist-like (pugna) shape of its clusters.

It’s imported to the US by Premium Brands, and I recently tasted bottles of the 2007 and 2006 vintages, first by themselves and then alongside a grilled steak and morels (the last fruiting of our too-short spring, alas). I agree completely with San Felice’s judgment:  This is a variety worth saving, a wine well worth knowing, and one I’m looking forward to learning more about in the future.

Here are my first impressions of the very young (still almost purple) 2007: a slightly brambly, underbrushy aroma, almost but not quite reminiscent of top-flight, claret-style Zinfandel.  The palate delivers a package of earth, spice, and berry, again vaguely recalling Zinfandel, but with more breed and elegance – soft berrylike fruit, a sort of Merlot with black pepper. (I’m trying to compare Pugnitello to more familiar wines to give some perspective on it, not to posit any kind of identity between them.)

The 2006 showed a maturing color, shifting from purple to garnet, and a slightly fuller, darker, more peppery and intense aroma and flavor. Whether that is due to the one year greater age or to the difference of the vintages, I don’t know enough about the wine to say. But I found both examples intriguing and enjoyable as they are now and promising interesting development in the future. Both vintages seem to have the acid/tannin/alcohol/fruit combination that promises at least several years of bottle development. It will be interesting to see what they become: their potential seems to me very great indeed.

I greatly honor growers like San Felice for undertaking a project like this. (I believe La Porta di Vertine, a small Chianti Classico grower, is also working with Pugnitello and blending some in its Chianti.) It shows real devotion to one’s land, traditions, and craft to put in the time and effort and money that a project like this demands. That’s especially true when the prospect of financial return at any point in the near future is very slight indeed. For me, people like this are Italy’s true Cavalieri del Lavoro.

One Response to “Ancient Grapes, Recent Tastings”

  1. Sean Antoniello Says:

    Great post! I love “out of the box” wines… and I don’t mean wines that come out of a box! I finished editing the video footage from the Tuscany Seminar, check it out when you get a chance…

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