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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Sometimes the success of a dinner party depends not just on your planning and execution but also on your good luck. In the case I have in mind, a quite nice dinner was kicked up to another dimension of pleasure by the wines we served with it – wines from a mixed case that we had lost track of and had brought home from storage just a week or so before this occasion.

The dinner, arranged on necessarily short notice, was for two visiting out-of-town friends. We wanted to give them a good meal, of course, but one with familiar dishes that we could put together within the time and culinary resources we had available. We settled on a first course of pasta alla carbonara, which prepares and cooks easily; a main course of osso buco, which we could make up entirely in advance; a cheese course, which requires no work at all; and for dessert a simple apple tart, which Diane is always happy to toss together. A nice meal, but not extraordinary.

What made this dinner distinctive was its wine and food pairings. The first of these was made possible by Champagne originally bought for long-past holidays and the rest by that mixed case of wines that had luckily wended its way home just a week before.

Of course, I can and will claim that it wasn’t just luck that I had long ago purchased those wines. But I have to admit that their meshing so perfectly with the courses of this dinner was serendipity, far beyond the reach of cunning. From the 12 available wines, I’d chosen the 3 that I thought would work best with our dishes, but I couldn’t know how perfectly they would match up. I don’t have a super palate, and we all need a little luck sometimes.

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Our first piece of good luck: For aperitifs, a fine grower Champagne, an NV “Élégance” from Vincent Couche. This mouth-filling, aptly named wine was biodynamically grown:  84% Pinot noir, 16% Chardonnay, with 3 years on the lees. It started our evening off on a properly savory and substantial note that relaxed all four of us from the week’s busy pace. Memo to self: Keep some of this around.

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To give our first course a little distinction, we made the pasta alla carbonara with some duck bacon we had on hand (luck again) instead of the usual pancetta. This made for a richer but less assertively flavored dish that paired beautifully with a bottle of 2008 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva. Volpaia’s high-altitude vineyards characteristically yield wines of great elegance and restraint, and this bottle proved to be a perfect, almost interlocking match with this more restrained version of carbonara.
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Osso buco is always richly flavored: long-cooked veal shank on the bone creates a wonderful sauce around itself. But this is still veal, so it’s not an aggressive flavor but a mild, insinuating one. To my mind, this dish wants the gentle suaveness of Barbaresco, so I opted to match it with a 2004 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga, a beautiful wine from one of the greatest crus of the appellation, just – at 17 years – reaching its peak of mature, woodsy flavors.
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With the cheeses, I went a different direction, with a slightly more assertive wine: a 2004 Château Lafon-Rochet, still from that case. Equally as old as the Barbaresco, this Saint Estèphe (55% Cabernet sauvignon, 5% Cabernet franc, 40% Merlot) had also evolved to a perfectly balanced state of maturity, which played splendidly with the somewhat battered-looking but still delicious remnants of goat, cow, and sheep cheeses we had on hand. Lafon-Rochet covers 100 acres in a single plot that lies between Lafite Rothschild and Cos d’Estournel. That’s a very nice neighborhood, as the excellent evolution of this wine amply showed.
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The result of not-too-demanding cookery and wonderfully compatible wines was a dinner both guests and hosts loved. Because the interplay between the wines and the dishes brought out the best of both, the whole meal stood out as something special and memorable, making us very happy indeed. As Italian winemakers and chefs have drilled into my head, abbinamento – the matching of the food and the wine you serve with it – is everything. And if you love mature wines as much as I do, you need the luck or cleverness to have squirrelled a batch of them away years ago.

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Over the years that I’ve been writing about wines, the red wines of Italy have gradually assumed their rightful place among the world’s great wines. It’s pretty generally acknowledged now that Italy has three noble red varieties – Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico – and one great red wine of process, Amarone. There are probably more than that: Italy is a cornucopia of indigenous varieties, but for the moment, those three grapes and Amarone stand as Italy’s contenders for the crown of greatness. Of them all, Aglianico is probably the least known inside and outside Italy, though that is changing steadily as its finest avatar, Taurasi, claims more and more respect with every harvest.

 

Taurasi Grapes

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It’s almost certainly not news to even casual readers of this blog that I have long admired the Taurasi produced by the Mastroberardino family. For me, every bottle of their Taurasi I open is a time trip, a summary review of the history of Campania’s greatest red wine, and Campanian wine generally, since WW II.

Those wines have a much longer history than that, of course. The vineyards of Campania felix – Campania the blessed – were the Côte d’Or of the Roman Empire, and many an emperor and senator thought as highly of them as Napoleon ever did of Gevrey Chambertin. More than a millennium after the fall of Rome, under the Bourbon kings, the wines of Campania were still famed. It was only with the Bourbon kingdom’s defeat by the Savoy dynasty – an event known to history as the Risorgimento – that the south and its wines went into decline, a process that was for all practical purposes finished off by the phylloxera and WW II.

That’s where the modern history of Aglianico and Taurasi begin. For many years, that history has centered on the work of the Mastroberardino family. Their winery in Atripaldi was the largest and most up-to-date in southern Italy, and the family held the line on quality, resisting both the pressure to make lots of wine fast, and the pressure to plant “international” varieties. Indeed, because of the Mastroberardinos, Campania was saved for native Italian varieties. It now has the smallest acreage of French grapes, and the highest percentage of indigenous varieties, of any Italian wine region. Whether it be Taurasi you’re savoring, or a regional Aglianico, or a Greco or Fiano or Falanghina, it was the Mastroberardinos, under the leadership of the now almost legendary patriarch Antonio, working side by side with his brother Walter, who ultimately made that possible.
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Mastroberardino Vineyards

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As the family made a success of this enterprise, others took notice. Not only did new investment begin to flow into the Campanian wine sector, but also many growers who had previously been content to sell off their grapes (often to Mastroberardino) began to vinify and bottle under their own names. A rising tide floats all boats, and for a few decades now the tide of profit and prestige has been steadily rising for the wines of Campania. I think that the wines now emerging from Campania felix are the best they have ever been – though, obviously, I am not quite old enough to personally verify that.

I can, however, vouch for the quality of the bottle of Mastro’s 2006 Taurasi Radici that I opened with dinner a few nights ago. 2006 was a good vintage in Campania – a substantial touch above average, let us say, but not a great, off-the-charts vintage to set critics agog. This bottle was not a riserva or a cru: Rather, it was the kind of wine that Mastroberardino regularly produces.
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Would that every winery everywhere worked to such standards! It was gorgeous. Ravishing. Velvet in the mouth, with scents and tastes of dark berries and forest undergrowth, with lovely minerality, and an exquisite balance of acids and tannins and alcohol, and still an underlying freshness that indicated it would have had years of life before it if I hadn’t greedily drunk it now.

Call it infanticide: I don’t regret a single droplet of it. Who knows how many amphorae of their beloved Falernum the winos of the classical ages drank too young? Posterity hasn’t indicted them, and I can hope to get off with as little pain, and as much – or more – pleasure.

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Livio Felluga is a highly respected name in Friulian wine, and rightly so. Since the middle of the last century, at least, the family firm has been at the forefront of quality wine production in Friuli and a leader in raising the quality of — and calling worldwide attention to – the varietal wines of Friuli, especially the white varieties...

Tocai – now called Friulano – was the native variety that first drew the wine world’s attention to Friuli. The Felluga family championed it, and I can still recall my pleasure at sipping its almond-inflected goodness, way back when I first encountered it, longer ago than any of us would care to recall.

Livio Felluga

I remember with equally deep pleasure my first press visit to the Felluga estate, tasting the whole range of its white varieties while listening to Livio, the principal winemaker, delivering a non-stop monologue of carabinieri jokes that had us all – even those who spoke no Italian – in stitches. I briefly wondered whether anyone so funny could possibly make great wine. He could, and he did. The Italian wine world was rich in such multi-faceted characters in those days.
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Terre Alte was Livio Felluga’s great invention. First produced in 1981, it was from the start – and still remains – a blend of three white varieties in pretty much equal proportions: Friulano, Pinot bianco, and Sauvignon. All are grown in some of the best and highest fields – thus the wine’s name – of the firm’s great Rosazzo property, where the soils are a complex of marl and decomposing sandstone.
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Felluga’s Rosazzo Vineyards

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While there is obviously some slight variation from vintage to vintage, Terre Alte has maintained a pretty consistent character right from its start: It’s a big wine, round and full in the mouth, with great aromatics – minerals and flowers, white fruits and forest scents – and a highly complex, mineral-inflected palate marked by notes of apricot and tropical fruits. With all that, Terre Alte also ages very well, growing subtler and deeper as it does. This is a world-class white wine, from one of the best sites and best producers in one of the world’s great white wine regions.

Just recently I opened a bottle of the 2007 Terre Alte to match with Diane’s beautiful dish of braised chicken and morel mushrooms in cream. I am not a great chicken aficionado, but I thought this combination of flavors and textures was wonderful – and the Terre Alte thought so too.

The wine was a lovely copper-gold color. I don’t know whether it was the power of that visual suggestion, or whether this vintage was an example of the ramato style that used to be more common in Friulian whites, but the very floral nose was marked by a distinct coppery edge that I found very attractive. In the mouth, the wine was big and round, balanced, with fine acid. Minerals and flowers and dry white fruits dominated the palate, with dried apricot notes becoming more and more prominent as the wine opened.

This was a very nuanced wine: nothing blatant, but lots of intriguing flavor hintlets and that persistent coppery edge. And it had one final surprise: with cheese, it suddenly felt very clean and fresh, as if it had shed years of aging.

If only wine writers could do the same. Sigh.

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Lake Garda is Italy’s largest lake, and one of the most beautiful. Its shoreline grows the northernmost palm trees in the peninsula, and the fields around it yield a lovely olive oil. But for the resolutely focused wine lover, its greatest accomplishments are the splendid wines it produces, especially from the Lugana zone along its southeastern rim.
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This small wine zone – with a very distinctive soil, predominantly white clays and limestone varied with alluvial deposits, volcanic traces, and stony mountain gravel – seems to have a vocation for white wines. Those soils give Lugana white wines great freshness and character, making them wonderful food wines, companions to everything from fresh shellfish to roasted fowl. With warm weather not too far off (he said hopefully), those whites are getting my attention now.

Recently, I had the opportunity to taste an array of them, at a wine luncheon arranged by Susannah Gold, who represents the Lugana consorzio in the US. I enjoyed ten wines, in all of Lugana’s approved styles: Spumante, Lugana, Lugana Superiore, Lugana Riserva, and Vendemmia Tardiva.
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All the wines are made from a single variety: Turbiana, alias Trebbiano di Lugana. Despite the alias, Turbiana isn’t related to actual Trebbianos, but rather is a close relative of the Adriatic coast’s esteemed Verdicchio. Those who follow Italian wine closely know that’s a good family to belong to: Verdicchio yields wines that not only drink well when young but are also capable of fine aging. As winemaking techniques grow more sophisticated in the Lugana zone, its Turbiana is showing an ability to follow suit.

One other important item about Lugana: All its wines spend a long time on their lees, which makes them rounder and fuller, a sort of underscoring of the varietal fruit and flavor. Some white grapes lose freshness with that sort of treatment, but that has – in my experience – never been a problem for Lugana.

So here are the wines I tasted:

  • Sguardi di Terra Lugana Brut Spumante. This sparkler was made by the champagne method, Metodo Champenoise, and a charmer it was, a perfect apéritif: dry, lightly frizzante, with lovely fresh white-fleshed-fruit flavors.
  • Citari Lugana Sorgente 2020. This and the next wine partnered casonsèi, a rustic sausage-stuffed pasta of Lombardy, dressed with butter and sage. Both were very enjoyable with the dish. This wine was very soft and round, lightly fruity, with subdued acidity.
  • La Meridiana Lugana 2020 Organic. This wine was somewhat similar to the Citari, but a touch more subdued and also fuller. Perhaps it was a bit closed: It might need a little more time in bottle. It showed very fine acidity and a fine, dry, fruit finish, which bodes well for it.
  • Tenuta Roveglia Limne 2020. This and the next two wines accompanied a more complex meat-filled cabbage roll served in tomato sauce. Again, all three wines matched excellently with the food. This one was very nice indeed, biggish, with lots of fruit and minerality.
  • Colli Vaibò Lugana 2019. This wine greatly resembled the preceding one, and it bloomed with the food, opening to show more and more character. The extra year of aging, here as in the next wine, seems to make a real difference. Very fine.
  • Zeni Lugana Vigne Alte 2019. This was the biggest, most mouth-filling wine of this trio, and it grew even bigger and more flavorful with the food. As it opened, I tasted a resemblance to Soave Classico: Some people conjecture that Turbiana, aka Trebbiano di Lugana, is related to Trebbiano di Soave.
  • Seiterre Lugana Superiore 2018. A lovely, pale gold wine, with all the characteristic flavors of its breed, nicely maturing.
  • Zenato Riserva 2016. This wine showed more body and depth of flavor than its very light gold color would lead you expect. It is in no way tired or even peaking, which gives some hint of what Turbiana can do.
  • Tenuta Roveglia Filo di Ariana. Medium-bodied late harvest wine, with good minerality and suggestions of almond and white fruits. This wine comes from old vines, which gives it nice concentration and a bit of intensity.
  • Cobue 31 October 2019. A very pretty-in-the-mouth dessert wine vinified from overripe late harvest grapes. Its whimsical name tells you exactly when that occurred: the last day of October, 2019.

This lunch provided an impressive demonstration of Turbiana’s great range. Its zone may be small, but its potential is large indeed.
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I hate to sound cynical, but I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who happily consume Pinot grigio have no idea what that wine tastes like at its best, and that it should always taste that way. They’re mostly drinking, probably at inflated prices, inexpensive Pinot grigio that is being almost mass-produced for its apparently indiscriminate and insatiable market.

Old timers will remember that we’ve seen this before, with insane fads for light Italian white wines that looked as if they would never end – until they did: Soave, once upon a time, and Verdicchio, both of whose quality producers have had to labor mightily to restore their reputations once the bubble burst.

I’m hoping Pinot grigio can avoid a similar fate. The quiet, steady, rock-solid work that many producers are doing throughout the whole arc of Pinot grigio’s cultivation zone ought – ought – to be sufficient to sustain the wine’s reputation when the thirst for watery whites moves on to another variety.

A good example of what I mean by the best of Pinot grigio can be found in the bottles from Albino Armani. This is a firm that – despite its trendy, very fashionable and “now”-sounding name – is not a new start-up but a family firm that has been making wine since 1607. The name is their own, and the present head of the winery, Albino Armani, has been visiting the US and presenting his wines wherever Covid restrictions make that possible.  He and I did not meet this time, though we did many years ago when I visited the firm’s Veneto estate and headquarters.

This time, my Wine Media Guild colleague and US representative of several Italian wine organizations, Susannah Gold, provided me with some samples to taste. They form the basis of what follows, though my long-standing esteem for Armani wines flows from that long-ago visit, when I was bowled over by the wonderful typicity that Armani achieved with every variety it grew.

This time I was tasting three of Armani’s basic Pinot grigios: one from Valdadige, one from the Venezie, and one from the Grave del Friuli.

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That trio was particularly interesting to me because it represented in miniature the west-to-east sequence of the primary zones for Pinot grigio production in Italy. Armani maintains wineries in each, so I expected each of my bottles to accurately reflect the characters of Pinot grigio’s different growing areas.
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All three wines were of the 2020 vintage, and all three showed nearly identical pale straw color, as you would expect of Pinot grigio. I tasted west to east, so my first bottle was from Valdadige, which proved to be a fine place to begin.
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It initially had a lovely stony-and-stone fruit nose, followed by earth and spice. Diane picked up a little lemon among the stones.  In the mouth, the wine gave similar stone fruit, earth, and spice flavors.  Diane tasted pear as well. Over all, it was smooth feeling, with restrained acidity and a touch of elegance. (How often can you say that of a Pinot grigio?) I particularly liked its long, dried-peach finish.

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My second bottle was Pinot grigio delle Venezie.

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Its aroma was very similar to the Valdadige wine, but a bit stronger and a touch earthier, as were the flavors it gave in the mouth. I tasted dried apricots on the palate and some peach in the finish, but overall I found it subdued: not fully open, in fact, as if it needed more time to pull itself together. Diane called it austere. Based on the aroma and the finish, I think this wine will grow in time – six months, a year? – to become a really lovely example of almost hefty, medium-bodied, classic Pinot grigio. But not yet.

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My final sample was from the Grave del Friuli, which turned out, not to my surprise, to be my favorite: I think Friuli has a genius for all sorts of white wines and a bevy of producers – Jermann, both Fellugas, Princic, and Villa Russiz, just for example – capable of showing it.
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This Pinot grigio had a stronger, more assertive aroma than the first two. It featured the same kind of fruit but with more pronounced earth and mineral. On the palate, it seemed bigger, more complex, more characterful. Its finish was very mineral, with even a slight coppery edge.  This for me was the wine of the flight: I loved its weight and its complexity.

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Overall, these were three fine Pinot grigios. I would use the Valdadige wine for cocktails and aperitifs, the Friuli bottle as a dinner wine, and I would wait a year for the Venezie wine – and then drink it happily at any time.

 

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Burton Anderson has a new independently published anthology/memoir, Vino II. It is available on Amazon, and if you love Italian wine, you should get it, read it, and prepare for the exam: It will certainly be on any test I administer.

Sorry: that’s just the old teacher in me asserting himself.

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Vino II
is a time trip back to what I more and more think of as the heroic age of Italian winemaking, when the sleeping giant finally awakened and shrugged off the rust and dust of centuries. Back in the 1960s, names like Sassicaia and Tignanello were scarcely known in Italy outside of Tuscany, and you could search for days in the best wine shops to find a Barolo or Barbaresco with a vineyard name on the label. All such stuff was in the future, and that future is what Anderson’s book is all about.

Anderson was not only an eyewitness but also, if you will, a catalytic figure, who by his interactions with winemakers and by his publications helped shape that future. The original Vino, published in 1980, was brilliant, nearly prophetic, in its selection of makers and wines and regions to present and explain. For most readers, it opened a whole new view of an Italian wine world that stretched far beyond Chianti in a straw flask and Verdicchio in a fish-shaped bottle.
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Vino II
chronicles the great renaissance of Italian wine that followed. Anderson and I are just about the same age, but there is no question that, for English-speaking persons who love Italian wine, he is the father of us all.

How to talk about Vino II? It’s in part an anthology of articles that Anderson has written over the decades, all of them timely at the moment of writing and almost all of them just as relevant and telling today. These are woven into a chronological account of the revival of Italian wine and Anderson’s engagement with and too-often unrequited love for it. No: scratch that. Italian wine rarely let Anderson down; it was the commercial world of wine publishing that often did.

Anderson as a young man took tremendous financial risks to follow his love of the wines and the people who make them. You would think the importance of his work – the original Vino was and is a landmark book is the history of Italian wine – would have assured him a comfortable income from which to carry on, but that was never the case. Even the “raters” – the 100-point-score wine writers whom he despises — probably are better known today than he is; and he – who writes only in English – is probably better known in Italy than in either the US or the UK. Anderson is mordantly aware of the ironies here. Nevertheless, though he may have made some unfortunate financial decisions, he has also made some brilliant life choices, and we are the beneficiaries of those.

His stories, in Vino II, of conversations and dinners with the likes of Giacomo Bologna and Costantino Rozzi, with almost mythical winemakers like Giorgio Grai, owners and winemakers like Sergio Manetti, Angelo Gaja, and many, many more, all read like excerpts from the journals of Rabelais in Italy. Moreover, they illustrate very clearly how wide-open and wild-westish the world of Italian wine had become in the sixties and seventies of what is now the last century. Everything lay in the future: The present was all flux and change, with no surety about what would happen next. There were giants in those day, and Anderson ate and drank with them.

This book was a major nostalgia trip for me, but I know that for many people it will serve as an excellent – and vivid – introduction to the story of how Italian wine achieved the prestige it now has, and even more importantly how and why it has become so complex. The most amateur of wine drinkers knows to expect complexity from Burgundy and knows that there is a long tradition behind the most seemingly arcane of distinctions in French wine, but most wine lovers – and I include here the great majority of wine “professionals” – remain basically clueless about the great diversity of Italy’s noble varieties and the incredibly diverse geography and geology of the country that created and preserved them. As was true of Vino in 1980, Vino II is a great place to start pleasurably learning about them. Not to mention savoring the tales of the great individualists – and I emphatically include Burton Anderson among them – who created the marvelous cornucopia of fine Italian wine we enjoy today.

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This is my final post for 2021. It presents the last of my 12 special cellar selections for the year, Quintarelli’s 1981 Amarone. What a spectacular series it turned out to be!

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When I got this Amarone, somewhere back in the middle ‘80s, I remember thinking that I would have to put it away for a while. I’m pretty sure that I was thinking that the “while” in question would be about 5 years, or maybe, since this was a Quintarelli, 10. I’m sure I had nothing like 40 years in mind. That just happened, as year after year I considered tasting the wine and decided to give it a little time yet, until this particular Amarone got pushed back into the Do Not Disturb portion of my brain, and there it stayed for a few decades.

At last its moment came round, and I was worried alternatively that I had waited too long and that I was still rushing it.

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That’s a legitimate worry when Amarone is concerned. These are notoriously long-lived wines, and in some vintages they can be very slow maturing. 1981 is, I suspect, one of those vintages. In the Veneto that year, the grapes matured very slowly on the vines, so in some spots the harvest was late, and required several passes through the vineyards to bring in the grapes as they came ready. Fermentation was also long and slow. So ‘81 showed itself early as a wine that would demand patience.

You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking 40 years was enough, but I couldn’t be absolutely certain. I’ve opened 20- and 25-year-old Amarones only to find they were years, perhaps decades, away from full maturity: drinkable, of course, because of their intense fruit, but still tasting and feeling like young wines, and lacking the mature, complex flavor I hoped for, as well as the balance, depth, and, above all, the velvet mouth-feel of fully mature Amarone.

To this point, the oldest Amarone I’d drunk was a 47-or 48-year-old Bertani that celebrated my 75th birthday, and I remember it vividly as one of the most profound wines I’ve ever tasted, with flavors and aromas so deep and concentrated they seemed endless. The empty bottle still smelled wonderful two days later: I could hardly bring myself to throw it out.

Quintarelli doesn’t have the history with Amarone that Bertani does, but Giuseppe Quintarelli in his lifetime became an acknowledged master of the wine: A colleague once quipped that Quintarelli was a black belt in Amarone. Some knowledgeable critics still regard him as the greatest winemaker in the history of Amarone, and I find it hard to argue with that. The “lesser” wines of his that I’ve tasted — Valpolicella and a handful of IGT wines – have always been impressive, big and rich and deep, with a thoroughly craftsmanlike character: superbly made wines.

That latter characteristic is crucial, I think, because Amarone, like Champagne, is an oddity in the universe of wine: It is a wine that owes more to technique than to terroir, more to art than to nature. You start with the late harvest and the number of passes through the vines the winemaker chooses to make. Compound that with the degree of noble rot the winemaker encourages/discourages/prohibits. Then add in the timing of drying and pressing the grapes, and the choice of vehicle in which fermentation occurs. Then whether he does or doesn’t permit malolactic fermentation, plus all the subsequent decisions about handling and aging the wine.

All these craftsmanly decisions affect the wine in more profound ways than its terroir does. All are the techniques of an artist whose chosen medium is the juice of grapes and the wood of barrels. Those appassionati who pursue Amarone are winemakers in the most profound sense, and the resulting wine reflects their skill and artistry more significantly than it does the character of the grapes that go into it. Champagne is the only other wine I know of which you can say that.

Well, the moment of truth arrived, the cork was pulled, the wine was poured, swirled, sniffed, and tasted. The immediate results: two simultaneous, totally unrehearsed “Wow!”s. No kidding: off the scale.

Here are my first five words about its aroma: honey; raisins; prunes; chocolate; chestnut. Here is my first tasting note: “all of the above in velvet!”  This was simply an amazing wine, of elegant power, depth, and duration. It rolled right over foie gras and barely noticed a rich, fruity, pan-roasted duck. I find it hard to imagine a dish that would challenge it – perhaps high-mountain game, like chamois?  This wine was wonderful, still fresh and rich, and simultaneously complex and deep. It is unlike any other Italian or French wine I know, and made a powerhouse conclusion to my 12 cellar selections for the year.

For those who may be curious, here the other 11, in the order tasted, each name linked to my post about it. There is a lot of fine drinking here. In all honesty, I’m not sure what I learned from the whole endeavor, except confirmation that I love mature wine, and that it is well worth the effort of putting some bottles away for your own and their old age.

Happy New Year to all my readers, and many of them to come!

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January

2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé

February
2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja

March
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal

April
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio

May
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana 

June
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)

July
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann

August
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato

September
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray

October
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach 

November
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli

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It is no secret that I love grappa. I’ve been a devotee for years, and I’ve witnessed – and to some extent chronicled – grappa’s rise from near embarrassment when reluctantly served in serious restaurants (it was thought of then as transalpine truckers’ breakfast) to ultra-fashionable sip (the period when, as one fellow devotee put it, many grappas seemed to be more about glass blowing than drinking) to, finally, settle down as a fine brandy to be routinely served and consumed in restaurants of any scale anywhere (well, almost anywhere).

A selection of grappas at a restaurant in Italy now

Along that trail, I’ve tasted many different grappas, made from many different grape varieties, since the distillation of grappa has spread from its northern homeland all throughout Italy. I’ve tasted grappas right from the still, and grappas aged for years in barrels of various kinds of wood. I’ve even tasted a few grappas not made from grapes, a trend I hope died quietly and quickly. Through it all, I’ve always preferred somewhat old-fashioned grappas. When I ask for one in an Italian restaurant, I describe my preference as chiara, forte – non morbida – e con fuoco: clear, strong, and with a little fire.

I don’t mind if it’s made from blended vinaccia or from single-grape pomace, as long as it isn’t sweet. I have even been known to request a grappa in the middle of a meal – it was a very big meal – to clear a little space for the food yet to come. If Normans and Bretons can do that with their p’tite calva, I don’t see why it should be scandalous for Italians to do so with their native brandy. And I can report that after a few minutes of buzz, everyone else at my table also ordered one. It was a very big meal.

These days, when I want a grappa that tastes of the old days – the best of the old days, to be sure – I pour a glass of Marolo’s Dedicata al Padre, a mixed vinaccia grappa of great intensity and a little touch of – what to call it? – funkiness, odor of the farm, goût de terroir, just basic earthiness?  All are true, and all part of the rich character of this fine grappa.

Marolo is a serious grappa distiller, and its line includes all the principal grapes of the Barolo area and then some, almost all of which it distills monovarietally. Of that large range of single-grape grappas, my hands-down favorite is Marolo’s Grappa di Barbera, a grappa chiara, forte, e con fuoco if there ever was one.

Some of Marolo’s grappas are available here in the States – Dedicata al Padre, for instance – but the Grappa di Barbera is not, to my dismay. I nursed my last bottle of it for almost two years, through all the Covid travel restrictions and interruptions, until I could get to Italy and replace it. I did so at my first opportunity, walking from my Rome hotel to the holy sanctuary of Enoteca Costantini and cradling my prize until I got it home intact.

I cannot tell you the pleasure of my first sip – the wonderful fruity aroma, the little tingle on the tongue, the big mouth-filling flavor, the long aftertaste, the genial warmth spreading throughout my whole body, the comforting feeling of completeness that little glass gives me. It’s just a beautiful grappa, and I’m sorry – really, genuinely sorry – if that means nothing to you.

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I don’t have much 25-year-old-Barolo stored away. I like Barolo too much, and I tend, despite my best judgment, to drink it too young – just to see how it’s getting along, you know. This bottle I was hoping would be very special: It’s from one of the most traditional growers and winemakers in the whole zone.

I don’t suppose either of those – producer or appellation – need much comment from me. Barolo is one of the most famous of Italian wines. It’s vinified entirely from Nebbiolo grapes grown in a very tight zone just southwest of the city of Alba in the eastern Piedmont. Borgogno is one of the longest-established and best-known firms in the area. Headquartered in the town of Barolo, Borgogno was run by the same family from 1761 until 2008. In that year, it was acquired by the Farinetti family, who have dedicated themselves to perpetuating the house techniques and style. So: still cement tanks for fermentation, still big – and I do mean big – Slavonic oak barrels for aging, still meticulous, increasingly organic techniques in the fields and the grape handling, still minimal intervention in the cellar. Borgogno’s character and reputation seem secure.
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In most vintage charts of Barolo, the years 1996 through 2001 are a series of exclamation points, each of them given whatever is the top rating in that particular chart. On Poderi Colla’s chart, which is one I trust, those vintages are all five-star. 1995 doesn’t quite make that level: it’s only given four stars, which is normally pretty impressive, but looks puny compared to the string of vintages that followed it. Nevertheless, I’ve often gotten great pleasure out of such overshadowed vintages. (Economy-conscious buyers take note: many such under-rated vintages make excellent buys, whether for immediate drinking or long-term aging.)  As for my 1995 – if Borgogno thought enough of the vintage to make a riserva, my bottle might be a treasure indeed.

Since we don’t drink a bottle this potentially precious every day, Diane and I thought long and hard about a meal to set it off properly. We finally opted for forward flavors and simple preparations:  For a first course, Diane would make a classic gougère; for a main course, a hanger steak – a very gamey, juicy cut – simply grilled and accompanied by a sauté of leeks and Marconi peppers, and some cremini mushrooms in a little bit of a spicy sauce. Dessert, if we and the wine made it that far, would be pears and gorgonzola al cucchaio – well blued ‘zola so creamy and runny that it’s scooped rather than cut.

Not to keep you in suspense, we got a winner. From the moment I pulled the cork, I knew we were in for a treat: beautiful fruity aromas – raspberry and cherry especially – popped right out.

I let the wine breathe about two hours in the bottle before pouring it alongside the warm gougère. Lovely, just lovely: balanced and serene, velvet on the tongue, with a whole palate of fruit and forest flavors.

Chestnut and mushroom notes emerged as it developed in the glass: these became especially prominent with the beef and its accompanying mushrooms.

The wine tasted wonderful with everything: seemingly, nothing could disturb its perfect equilibrium. This was probably the most prominent and important characteristic of this 26-year-old Barolo: its harmoniousness, what I meant earlier by calling it serene. It conveyed an amazing and almost reassuring sense of completeness, as if it could not be anything other than the velvet nectar it was.

.Neither we nor the Barolo made it to the cheese course.

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Even by my own leisurely standards, I’m late getting a new post in place. That’s because Diane and I just managed ten marvelous days in Rome, a trip long overdue, thanks to Covid.

We revisited many of our favorite Roman sites, and as many as we could manage of our favorite restaurants and wine bars. Some of the latter have not survived the plague-related closures: We especially missed Angolo Divino*, a stand-by spot for a simple, light lunch and a great selection of wines by the glass, as well as in bottles. Happily, many others were still in business, and we were able to visit enough of them to taste a nice selection of local wines, my particular interest being the Lazio red variety Cesanese.

Cesanese seemed to be widely available this trip, so much so that a few waiters even spoke of it as a typical Roman red. You would think that would be the case, since it’s grown in the hills not far from Rome, but its availability is actually a recent development, one of the many results of modern Italy’s rediscovery of its own culinary and viticultural traditions.

When I first started traveling to Italy, Rome’s red wine was Chianti – not necessarily Classico (it was rarely so specified) and often sfuso – drawn from a tank or barrel. In those days – the late 1970s and early ‘80s – Rome’s white wine was rarely identified by any other name than bianco, and it was usually verging on brown. Much has changed for the better since then, and Rome’s current pride in Cesanese counts heavily in that score.

Perhaps there was a golden age of Cesanese in Rome’s more distant past. Ian d’Agata, in Native Wine Grapes of Italy, lists several popes as fans of the wine, and it seems to have always been popular with the growers, as the vine’s presence all through the Lazio region indicates. Currently there are three DOCs: the relatively minor and rare Cesanese di Affile, and two more important ones, Cesanese di Olevana Romano, actually produced quite close to Rome, and Cesanese del Piglio, now a DOCG and grown in the hills around towns like Agnani and Acuto. This area is what you could call deep Lazio, where traditions die hard and “Forz’ Azzura!” always means the Lazio soccer team and never the hated Roma club.

Cesanese is not an easy grape to grow: It ripens late and unreliably, but many winemakers – and increasing numbers of consumers – think it is worth the effort. Ian d’Agata waxes rhapsodic about it:

[T]here really are many fine cesaneses made today. The better wines are ripe red-cherry fruit bombs, with aromas of delicate sweet spices (a hint of cinnamon and of white pepper) and red rose petals, and come across as luscious and creamy. I can’t stress enough the wonderful, delicately aromatic nose that a well-made cesanese is endowed with: one whiff and you’ll be hooked for life.

In Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson speaks of Cesanese’s “velvety tannins and a distinctive perfume reminiscent of mulberries and pimento.”

I tasted a good number of Cesaneses in my all-too-few days in Rome – those are the label photos that punctuate this post – and I was in fact uniformly struck by the wine’s softness: It really coddles your tongue and palate. And I did find their aromas attractive, though elusive and difficult to pin down, and definitely not uniform: They seemed to me to vary greatly from producer to producer.

Most important, Cesanese proved to be a fine food wine, matching very happily with a wide variety of dishes, from antipasti both cold and hot, through a range of Roman pastas, to meats and fowl grilled or cooked moist, usually in sweet/acid tomato sauces. I found Cesaneses to be thoroughly enjoyable wines, whether with food or by themselves. The ones I tasted were nowhere near the caliber of the great Barolos and Amarones – perhaps someday they will be – but they are also nowhere near the price of such wines. In Roman restaurants, Cesaneses went for a third to a quarter of the price asked for Barolo. For their actual quality and great enjoyability, that is bargain-basement pricing.

The biggest problem Cesanese presents the American wine lover is finding it. Some are coming into this country, but not in great volume – a problem that the Covid-caused shipping delays have only exacerbated. You will have to search for a bottle of Cesanese, that’s certain. But I assure you, from my experience of them, they’re worth the effort, whether you root for Lazio or Roma or even Tom Brady.

 

* The very week after we left Rome, Angolo Divino apparently reopened. See Charles Scicolone’s post about it.

 

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