Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Wine in Venice: Not as Great as It Should Be

June 17, 2019

Granted, my expectations were probably too high. Granted, I was only in Venice for a week, and probably missed a lot of good shops and restaurants. And granted, there was an abundance of drinkable, enjoyable wine in most restaurants.

But – and this is a very big but – given what Venice has to draw upon from the land to supplement the treasures offered by its lagoon and the Adriatic, there should have been an abundance of great wine too. All the resources of the Veneto, Friuli, and Alto Adige lie at Venice’s doorstep, and those three regions contain dozens of fine white varieties and hundreds of great producers – most of which you will have to search pretty hard to find any trace of in Venice. It ought to be a capital of great white wines, and it’s not.

Not that Venice doesn’t drink white wine. Prosecco is ubiquitous, both as a wine in its own right and as a principal ingredient in La Serenissima’s beloved spritz, an aperitif of Prosecco, sparkling water, and a splash of Campari or Aperol. It’s almost compulsorily the first thing you’re offered when you enter a restaurant or sit down at a café. A spritz is cool and very refreshing and unquestionably charming, but in many of those cafés and restaurants, Prosecco may well be the best there is on the wine list.

Most lists are very short and not at all deep: maybe a Soave or a Lugana from the Veneto, maybe a Sauvignon or – rarely – a Friulano from Friuli, maybe a Chardonnay or Pinot blanc from Alto Adige. That’s about it. I don’t know why there isn’t more and better wine: Perhaps this is another sad result of Venice’s hyper-tourism, the consequence of a daily influx of hordes of once-only customers who neither know nor want any better. But it’s a sad situation for the serious wino, in a place where the seafood can be wonderful.

I’m not saying there is no good wine in Venice, just that you have to search hard to find it. Out in Burano, one of the smaller islands near Venice, the restaurant Venissa provided a lovely bottle of Pietracupa’s Fiano di Avellino, one of my favorite Campanian wines, which I was delighted to find so far off its own turf – and especially because it was one of the more reasonably priced wines on what was predominantly a very costly list.

And in Venice itself, at the fine Osteria da Fiori, which offered the best wine list I encountered in my week of seeking, Diane and I enjoyed a 2016 Vintage Tunina, Silvio Jermann’s masterly blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Picolit. Although very young, this wine was so fine that I was tempted to make this whole post an ode to it – but that would have conveyed a very false impression of Venice’s wine scene.

I can’t pass it over in silence, however. Vintage Tunina – a fantasy name, invented by the then-young Silvio Jermann back in 1975, when he produced his first bottles of it – is one of Italy’s greatest white wines. It was iconoclastic, back then: The norm in Friuli was monovarietal wines, which were held to be traditional. Jermann pointed out to anyone who would listen that that was a new tradition: His grandfather had told him that, before WWI, all Friulian wine was blended, usually a field mix. So he began experimenting, liked the results he obtained, and so persisted, for which we should all be grateful. Vintage Tunina and other of his “inventions” (e.g., W…Dreams…, Capo Martino) rapidly became stars, winning prizes and markets and drawing attention to Friuli’s great potential.

Back in 1996 (I think it was ’96), at the Salone del Gusto in Torino, Jermann conducted a vertical tasting of two decades of Vintage Tunina, back to the 1976 vintage – his second – thereby demonstrating another of Vintage Tunina’s excellences. It ages beautifully, growing deeper and more intense with increasing years. I remember the ’76 was transcendent, like velvet in texture, dry, mouth-filling, tasting richly of dried fruits and earth.

So, here in 2019 Diane and I were drinking with great pleasure the fortieth descendant of that 1976, and our only regret was that it wasn’t 20 years old. And maybe that we weren’t either.

A New (to Me) Grappa Maestro: Capovilla

April 15, 2019

This post is about a grappa distillery that I haven’t had the opportunity to visit, much as I would like to: Capovilla, located in Bassano, near Monte Grappa, in Vicenza province. I had been hearing for some time about Gianni Capovilla, the proprietor, as a sort of grappa-and-distillates genius.

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In this age of hype, I had taken the reports with a grain of salt. Especially since one of the major praises of Capovilla’s genius came from a Wine Spectator article written by someone who, before tasting Capovilla’s distillates, had been unaware that grappa was capable of “nuanced aromas.” Enough said, I think: You will understand my skepticism. (If you don’t, take a look at some of my earlier posts about grappa and its splendors – this one, for instance.)

More recently, I’ve had the opportunity – in Italy – to taste several Capovilla grappas in social circumstances, and I was very favorably impressed by their purity, and so slowly began to suspend my skepticism. Even more recently, a friend here in New York served me Capovilla’s grappa di Bassano, which I found impressive indeed. And more important, that same good friend told me that at least some Capovilla grappas were now available stateside. The hunt was on.

I’ll spare the tedious details: I’ve acquired a few of Capovilla’s products and have tasted them analytically, as well as appreciatively, and my verdict is in: This is a first-rate producer – maybe a bit pricey for some items, but clearly a top-tier distiller.
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From left: grappa di Lugana, grappa di Bassano, distillato di pere Williams, grappa Triple A

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Gianni Capovilla, now in his 70s, began professional life as an engineer, working with agricultural and enological machinery. Like so many Italians in the wine and food world, he had to go abroad to learn to appreciate what he had at home. Experiences with quality distillates in France and Germany hooked him, and thirty-some years ago he began making wine, grappa, and fruit brandies. Shortly after he moved entirely into distillation, whose complexities – and the complexity of its results – fascinated him. He quickly attracted attention in Italy, which was itself finally beginning to esteem its home-grown spirits. He is now regarded as one of the maestros, turning out small quantities of almost hand-crafted grappas and fruit brandies – close to two dozen kinds.
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Of the latter, the ones I’ve tasted are right up there in quality with the far more famous clear fruit distillates of Alsace, and in some cases Capovilla’s are even better. His pear Williams distllato (he makes three different ones, from different kinds of pears) in particular stands out for the delicacy and clarity of its aroma and flavor. He spends much time and attention on his fruit distillates, in some cases cultivating and/or gathering the fruit himself. He even has people bringing in wild fruit for him to distill – though that, as you can easily imagine, is a very small production.

Grape pomace, happily, is much more readily available, though even about that, Capovilla is very picky. In grappa making as in Italian cookery, the prima materia is crucial to the quality of the finished product, and Capovilla works with carefully selected pomace from specific regions and vineyards. He makes, for instance, a beautiful grappa di Lugana, clear, aromatic, and deeply flavorful, from the pomace of the Ottella estate near Lake Garda, a first-rate vigneron in the heart of the Lugana zone.

Another example, which I’ve not yet had but am eager to try, is a grappa di Ribolla, distilled from the legendary winemaker Gravner’s pomace. The list goes on: grappa di Cabernet, di Merlot, di Amarone, di Barolo, di Brunello. You get the picture, I’m sure: Gianni Capovilla is a passionate, dedicated craftsman, working intensely to produce grappas and brandies of the highest quality he and his land are capable of. And now I’ve acquired a vocation too: finding and tasting as many of them as I can.

Donatella, Prima Donna del Vino

April 1, 2019

 

 

Donatella Cinelli Colombini has lived and worked in the wine world all her life. Her family owns the Barbi vineyards and winery. They have lived in Montalcino since at least the 16th century, and the properties that Donatella now cultivates have passed down the female line for many generations. The most important one, a Montalcino vineyard, used to be called simply Casato; for reasons that will come clear shortly, Donatella has renamed it Casato Prime Donne.

The Cinelli Colombini family and the Barbi vineyards played a key role in the invention of Brunello. In the 19th century, one of their ancestors, along with a Biondi-Santi ancestor and a few other individuals in Montalcino, began experimenting with vinifying the local clone of Sangiovese by itself – a heresy of sorts in Tuscany, where blending several varieties had been the traditional way of vinification for centuries. That tradition was powerful enough by itself, and it had only recently been reinforced by the influential precepts of Barone Ricasoli about the way to make Chianti. Nevertheless, the Montalcino pioneers persisted, and so the wine we now know as Brunello di Montalcino was born.

For many years, Donatella was generally in charge of affairs at Barbi, running everything from the cheese- and salume-making to the winemaking (Barbi was and still is a complete farm operation), but in the late 1990s she claimed her share of the family properties and set up on her own – “in keeping,” as Kerin O’Keefe dryly puts in her book Brunello di Montalcino, “with the unwritten but solid tradition of most of Italy’s great wine families of not being able to work alongside parents or siblings.” My own sense of the matter is that it was not willfulness on Donatella’s part that led to her departure. But that isn’t important: What does count is what she proceeded to do at Casato, which is to create a winery completely staffed by women – hence Casato Prime Donne.
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This would be significant anywhere, but in the Italian wine world it was close to revolutionary, and it was compounded by the fact that from the very beginning, she made wonderful wine. I think it’s getting better all the time, as the house’s emphasis is shifting from power to elegance, but even some of the earliest bottles have matured very well.

That isn’t all Donatella did. For as long as I’ve known her (Full disclosure: I’ve known Donatella – as well as her mother Francesca and her brother Stefano – for decades now), she has been engaged on many fronts, all linked by her love of the wine, nature, history, and traditions of Montalcino. She has compiled and published collections of local food lore. She even campaigned to save the local species of donkeys. Most important, she created a whole organization for wine tourism in Montalcino and invented Cantine Aperte, an annual event during harvest time when Italian winemakers – who by and large are the antithesis of Napa Valley, totally unequipped to deal with visitors – open their cellars to the wine-loving public. Cantine Aperte has spread from Montalcino all through Italy.
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Donatella now teaches wine tourism in the graduate programs of three universities. It’s hard to imagine a more complete and more successful life in wine.

What spurred this whole lucubration for me was an exquisite bottle of her 1999 Riserva that Diane and I drank about a week ago. I had brought home a gorgeously marbled T-bone steak from Ottomanelli’s, which we simply broiled; and we had found at a sub-astronomical price at Eataly some fresh porcini mushrooms, which we seethed in olive oil along with some sliced fingerling potatoes; and we both felt that a properly aged wine of some real complexity was called for. Donatella to the rescue:  The wine was perfect, with all the deep, dark prune-plum-grape-earth elements that Brunello is famed for in perfect balance, and wrapped in a velvet envelope of soft tannins and still-fresh acidity – simply put, at 20 years old, as good as Brunello gets. Savoring it, we reminisced about Donatella and realized how much she had accomplished and how infrequently it is acknowledged. Hence this long overdue tribute to one of wine’s great women.

Casato Prime Donne makes all the classic Montalcino wines: Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello, and Brunello Riserva. In addition it produces a special-selection Brunello Prime Donne, which is blended according to the input of a group of prestigious female tasters. The bottles I’ve sampled have been pretty heavy on the fruit, but all showed the kind of structure necessary for good maturation – so I’m hoping to taste some of them again with a little age on them.

More power to the women, I say, and I’m pretty sure that’s coming: I have no statistics, but a great many of the Italian wine families I’ve visited in recent years seem to have a large number of very capable daughters.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines II

March 21, 2019

I’m posting now about the inexpensive case of mixed, everyday red wines I put together as a complement to the dozen everyday white wines I talked about two posts back.

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We drink a lot of white wine at Casa Maresca, but we consume even more red. I’d guess that two out every three, maybe three out of four, dinners we make call for red wines – and since I care strongly about making the wine and food play happily together, it means I like to keep a good variety of red wines on hand. And that means, of course, reasonably priced wines, for all the obvious reasons.

Enough prologue: Here’s the list.

  • Barale Barbera d’Alba 2017 Castlé
  • Barale Dolcetto d’Alba 2017 Le Rose
  • Bodegas Olarra Rioja Reserva 2010 Cerro Anon
  • Cà Lustra di Zanovelli Marzemino 2017 Belvedere
  • Centopassi Nero d’Avola 2016 Argille di Tagghia Via
  • Château de Plaisance Anjou Rouge 2017 Entre Copains
  • Cuvée des Galets (Côtes du Rhône) 2016
  • Filipa Pato (Vinho Tinto Bairrada DOC) Baga 2017
  • Oreste Buzio Freisa del Monferrato 2017
  • Oreste Buzio, Grignolino del Monferrato 2017 Casalese
  • Villa Sant’Anna Chianti Colli Senese 2015
  • Viña Real Rioja Crianza 2015

In selecting this batch of wines, I was not trying to be experimental, to try new wines or kinds of wines I’m not familiar with. Food compatibility was the goal, and compatibility with the kinds of food we cook every day was the guiding principle of selection. Hence the preponderance of Italian wines on the list, and especially the large presence of Piedmontese wines, which I think are particularly food-friendly, and which – happily – are available in good variety in the New York area.

Barbera and Dolcetto I find are especially useful. Barbera’s medium body and high acidity make it compatible with an extraordinary range of foods, from – to choose a few random examples – asparagus frittata to tomato-based sauces to grilled sausages or even steaks, especially gamy cuts like skirt steak or hanger steak. Dolcetto is softer-bodied and far less acid, and it loves buttery sauces, mushrooms, more delicate meat – especially veal in any form.

Nero d’Avola is also medium-bodied, and on the palate feels and tastes Merlot-ish. Its strong suits are stews and brown-sauced casseroles – really any dish that isn’t aggressively sauced or spiced.

Even more useful – the utility infielder of red wines – is that perfectly named Anjou red, Entre Copains – “among pals,” which is how I envision large quantities of this wine must be drunk on its home turf. It’s 100% Cabernet franc, which is a Loire valley specialty, and this is one of most welcoming versions of it I’ve encountered. Its pleasing, soft, generic red fruit would match with anything from a good pizza on up the culinary scale to simple roasts and grilled meats. It’s practically the definition of an enjoyable everyday wine.

The Côtes du Rhône wasn’t quite that all-niches useful: By itself, it was a fairly light, high-acid Rhône, with cherryish fruit and a good finish, but it rounded nicely and gained some flesh with food, especially with cheese.

The Baga from Filipa Pato was also surprisingly soft on the palate and versatile with food. It stood up well, for instance, to mideastern spiced lamb meatballs and to Indian chutneys and pickles. Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato, the acknowledged master of this grape in Portugal, and with this particular wine she has chosen a different path from that of her father’s formidable bottles.

The Grignolino and Freisa are more specialized wines that I couldn’t resist buying, since I don’t encounter them that often. Both are light-bodied, light-fruited reds ideal for warm weather quaffing, which is exactly what I’m saving them for. I should have done that too with the Colli Senese Chianti: These are always at-most-medium-bodied and fruity, with a touch of Sangiovese elegance, but this bottle was a tad too light for matching with cold weather dinners.

The Marzemino was another wine I selected simply because I don’t get many chances to taste it. This one turned out to be a big, not entirely balanced wine, black-plum fruited and a touch hot: It loved steak and mushrooms, but wasn’t too happy with anything else.

The two Riojas – Crianza and Reserva, at opposite ends of the aging spectrum – were both a bit disappointing. I love Rioja and find it very useful as a dinner wine, but of these two bottles the Reserva was too young of its kind and yet still too important for everyday utility, while the Crianza had been exposed to too much oak, which diminished its freshness and charm. I won’t give up on Rioja, however: I’ll just have to sample some others.

And there’s my necessary excuse to order some more wine. Diane, look away.

The Wine Version of March Madness

March 11, 2019

By March, in New York, the wine season shifts into high gear. National and regional promotional groups presenting wines from all over the world stage elaborate tastings; importers of a few wines and importers of many hundreds of wines display their entire portfolios; visiting winemakers offer their own wines at stand-up or sit-down tastings or lunches or dinners; and a conscientious wine journalist risks cirrhosis, or at very least indigestion, nearly every day. I know, I know: “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” I can hear your sarcasm clearly.

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And I freely admit it’s not all penitential. One of the annual events I’m always happy to attend is the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting. It’s always crowded, and at its worst, getting a taste of the most popular or famous wines can be a little bit like trying to break through a rugby scrum, but it’s always worth the effort.

The 2019 edition of Gambero Rosso’s annual guide Italian Wines runs to over 1,000 pages and includes more than 2,300 wineries and 25,000 wines. Nearly 400 producers were awarded its highest rating of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), and almost 200 of them sent wines to the New York presentation. Need I say I didn’t even try to taste them all? There were 190 tables set up, with one producer and one to three wines per table: I leave you to guess what fraction of them I managed to taste.

Those I did taste I found uniformly excellent: The Tre Bicchieri award still designates the topmost rung of Italian winemaking. (That emphatically doesn’t mean that a wine without Tre Bicchieri can’t be magnificent, but it does mean that a wine with Tre Bicchieri usually will be very fine.) Of the wines I sampled, here are those that impressed me most.

  • For one, I Favati’s 2017 Fiano di Avellino Pietramara, a poised and elegant example of one of Italy’s finest white wines.
  • This was matched by Villa Raiano’s 2016 Fiano di Avellino Ventidue, a very polished and deep version of the grape.
  • Pietracupa’s 2017 Greco di Tufo similarly showed the quality of Campania’s white varieties.
  • Then there was Pieropan’s 2016 Soave Classico Calvarino, a deeply mineral and complex wine from a master of the breed.
  • And, from the Marches, La Monacesca’s 2016 Verdicchio di Matelica Mirum Riserva, an exceptionally full-bodied and deeply flavored wine that drinks well from its youth but is noted for its longevity.

Still among white wines, the 2016 version of Livio Felluga’s perennial award-winner Rosazzo Terre Alte just shone. Blended as always of Sauvignon, Pinot bianco, and Tocai Friulano, this wine achieves a balance and fullness – and ageability – that rank it among Italy’s – and the world’s – great white wines. And – lest I forget – I did taste one sparkling wine from a producer I had not known before, Villa Sandi: Its Cartizze Brut Vigna La Rivetta showed wonderful light fruit in a fully dry and savory package, as elegant as a Prosecco can get.

By this point I had to move on to red wines, which were just as rewarding but more difficult to taste at an event like this (because the scrum is always thicker at the big-red-wine tables). Here I managed to sample an eclectic batch before my shoulder pads wore out. From Piedmont:

  • Ca Viola’s 2013 Barolo Sottocastello di Novello was a trifle woody for my taste but intensely aromatic and attractive.
  • Vietti’s 2014 Barolo Roche di Castiglione is a big wine that returns to the classic style of this great house.
  • Equally big and balanced was Elvio Cogno’s 2013 Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, a wine I would love to be able to taste in 20 years.
  • The final Nebbiolo-based wine I tried was Nino Negri’s 2015 Valtellina Sfursat Cinque Stelle, a wine of tremendous complexity both in the nose and on the palate.

After Piedmont, my next largest cluster of reds came from Tuscany: probably no surprise there.

  • Mastrojanni’s 2013 Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Loreto
  • Castellare di Castellino’s 2014 I Sodi di San Niccolo
  • Castello di Volpaia’s 2016 Chianti Classico
  • Cecchi’s 2015 Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia

All are long-time favorites of mine that express beautifully the many nuances of the Sangiovese variety, and none disappointed.

After that, I managed to taste a small selection of other reds, mostly from Campania. The big exception to that geographic limit was Masi’s magnificent 2013 Amarone Costasera Riserva (another wine I’d love to taste in 20 years). Then I sampled Donnachiara’s 2016 Aglianico, a spicy, underbrushy wine that testifies to the steadily improving quality of red wines at this already successful white wine house; and Nanni Copé’s outstanding, unique 2016 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco, a wine of great elegance and depth crafted from the rescued-from-the-brink-of-extinction Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia varieties.

I would have been happy to taste more – my palate was still working and my tongue still alive – but by this point the scrum had grown too thick and combative (why will people plant themselves right in front of the spit bucket?) for my aging bones, so I retrieved my coat and hat and gloves and headed out into the cold with enough anti-freeze in my system to see me safely home.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines I

February 28, 2019

If you’re a committed wine lover and need your fix every day, it’s a great advantage to live in New York City. The variety of fine wine available is unmatched anywhere in the world, and shopping is a snap. Let it sleet and storm outside: You can sit at your desk – perhaps sipping a glass of wine – and let your search engine (Wine-Searcher is a good one) investigate for you. That’s especially handy if you know more or less the kind of wine you’re seeking.

Even handier is the search service provided by several of the larger retail shops in New York, which allows you to rummage through their entire inventory by any of several different criteria.
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I’m especially fond of one that Astor Wine and Spirits offers: searching by price range. That’s useful for any number of reasons, but I especially like that it offers me things I might not have thought of, wines outside my usual Italian and French go-to categories. We all get into ruts: This helps push me out of them. Twenty minutes of online browsing and I can put together a case of 12 different whites and another of 12 different reds at prices I like – say between $10 and $20 for everyday wines – and they will probably be delivered within 24 hours. For an aging wino, it doesn’t get much easier.
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Let me be clear: When I say everyday wines, I mean every day. Diane and I have wine with dinner every night. All right, maybe once or twice a year we have beer, but 99 times out of 100 we opt for wine – and like most people in this galaxy, we can’t afford to drink great wine every time. Not that I haven’t done my best to raise the level of our daily bottle by, for decades now, buying wines young and unready but at reasonable prices and squirreling them away for as long as I could.

Besides, it’s not just wine we care about: It’s also and especially what Italians call the abbinamento – coordinating the wine with the food it accompanies. That’s crucial to making an everyday dinner something to relish. You have to pay attention to the way the wine and the food mesh. Much as I love mature Barolo and Barbaresco, I don’t want to drink them with a dish of frankfurters and beans. It’s disproportionate – and besides, good franks and beans are estimable in their own right and deserve a decent wine that works well with them. Don’t send a Brunello to do what a Bardolino can do better, don’t open a Beaune Premier Cru where a Beaujolais Villages is what’s needed.

(Incidentally, the above examples illustrate the first principle I laid out centuries ago in The Right Wine, my book about wine and food matching: Scale is crucial. I feel even more strongly about the second principle declared in that book: Acidity is what makes a wine food-friendly. But that’s a topic for a different post. End of digression.)

Now, just what sort of everyday wines am I talking about? Well, here’s the case of white wines, all under $20, that I recently purchased, most of which I tasted first as an aperitif (we all need to keep up our strength while cooking) and then with dinner.

 

Alsace Auxerrois Leon Manbach 2017 – Very pleasant, light, but substantial enough to handle a choucroute. Nice white-flower and mineral nose, round, but with enough acidity to work with food. Quite decent.

Alvarinho Couto de Mazedo 2016 (Vinho Verde) – Very nice Albariño, crisp, fresh, aromatic: Good aperitif, fine with fish.

Alvarinho Regueiro 2016 (Vinho Verde) – quite fine: rounder and fuller than the preceding wine, more dinner wine than aperitif. Excellent with a roasted orata (sea bream).

Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc 2017 – excellent Beaujolais producer. Nice unwooded Chardonnay, with round fruit and great freshness. Very enjoyable.

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Classic Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet 2016 – This is a Muscadet producer I normally like very much, but this bottle was a bit of a disappointment. Drunk by itself, it tasted too much of oak. Food wiped that out to some extent, but it never rose to the level of crispness and sharpness I had hoped for.

De Cranne Bordeaux Sec 2016 – Should have been really interesting (the blend is 40% Sauvignon gris, 25% Muscadelle, and 35% Semillon), but turned out to be somewhat coarse and disappointing.

Gavi di Gavi Podere Merlina 2017 – Not a big, round Gavi, but a lighter-bodied, mineral-inflected example, with a marked and enjoyable citrus bite. Fine as aperitif and with lighter fare.

Meyer-Fonné Alsace Gentil 2016 – A lovely Alsace wine, so floral that the initial taste seemed German, but it rounded beautifully with a pheasant pâté and roasted chicken thighs.

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Ribolla Gialla Ronchi di Cialla 2017 (Friuli Colli Orientali) – quite fine and characteristic. Stood up beautifully to a choucroute garnie, and I don’t know how much more you can ask of a white wine.

Rioja Blanca Real Rubio 2017 – A bit disappointing: old-fashioned, slightly oxidized white, not unpleasant but with no charm.

Timorasso Colli del Timorasso Ricci 2014 – A lovely light Timorasso, soft-bodied but with sufficient acid; floral aroma and delicate palate of dry pear and apricot. Very enjoyable.

Weszeli Grüner Veltliner Langenlois 2017 – Very good and characteristic Grüner, with nice balance, body, and minerality. Partnered quite nicely with Chinese dumplings and home-made egg foo young. Bright, light on palate.

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I grant you that this is not an earthshakingly exotic list of wines: Had I wished, I could have cast a much wider net. But these are the kind of wines I like, so this time around I stuck with them. Others, of course are free to be as experimental as they wish: There were 88 other wines on the list I was choosing from. Have fun!

One Fine Wine: Benito Ferrara’s Greco di Tufo

February 18, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

This is a post I should have written years ago. Greco di Tufo is a wine I love, drink often, and always enjoy deeply on the palate and in the mind. It reverberates with me, and no Greco di Tufo does so more than Benito Ferrara’s, especially his cru, Vigna Cicogna – the Stork Vineyard. It would be nice is there actually was one, nesting or feeding nearby, but the name is memorable enough even without the leggy bird itself.

I had a bottle of Ferrara’s 2016 Cicogna just a few weeks ago, to accompany an improvised dish of fresh cod and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. It was serendipitous in every respect, and the Greco just sang, even after the main dish was done and we had started cracking a few toasted hazelnuts and walnuts to finish the wine with: the Greco improvised a few notes to harmonize with them too.

I’ve admired Greco di Tufo for years, from back when Mastroberardino’s was almost the only example of the variety and appellation to be found on the American market. Mastro still makes one of the best examples of the breed, but many fine small growers in the Tufo zone have begun bottling their own wines, and Ferrara is one of the finest of the lot.

Just for clarity: Greco is the grape variety, Tufo the town in the center of the DOCG zone in Campania, in the province of Avellino. So all Greco di Tufo originates in a small, high and hilly area, where the soils are largely volcanic and richly laced with minerals, especially sulfur. Benito Ferrara’s vineyards, in fact, lie very close to the old Di Marzo sulfur mine, which for decades was the major employer in the area

It makes an odd picture: beautifully tended vineyards, hillsides thickly forested – still – with chestnut trees and hazelnuts, and a distinct whiff of sulfur in the clear air. The scent is often present in the wines of the zone also, sweetened and made welcoming by the other scents of fruit and forest that the grapes convey.

Greco can be a tough variety to work with. It ripens late – October – and that can be dicey for any grape, but especially for one that grows as high in the hills as Greco does. And it is quite thick-skinned, so a lot of coloring agents leach out in fermentation, making the new wine occasionally brownish, often dark gold, as if old and oxidized. This is a bit ironic, since Greco di Tufo, while thoroughly delightful to drink young, no matter what its color, is one of those remarkable white wines that ages quite well and continues to drink enjoyably for years – no matter what its color.

Benito Ferrara is a fourth-generation family estate, currently operated by Gabriella Ferrara and her husband Sergio Ambrosino. It’s not huge: 8 hectares of Greco di Tufo, 1 of Fiano di Avelino, and 3.5 of Taurasi. The Cicogna vineyard, at 1.5 hectares, forms a sizable fraction of it, and it is high, nearly 600 meters up.

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Several years ago, when I visited, Gabriella and Sergio let me taste, in addition to their prized Cicogna, wines from three other sites that went into their basic Greco di Tufo. I understate when I say I was impressed: I thought each of the three was delicious enough and distinctive enough to be bottled separately as a cru in its own right. This is first-rate terroir, and the Ferraras are making the most of it.

Incidentally, in the important reference book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, author Ian d’Agata calls Vigna Cicogna one of Italy’s ten best white wines, and I can’t say I disagree: This is just one fine wine, plain and simple.

 

Postscript: A DNA study has claimed that the Greco grape is the same variety as Asprinio. Jancis Robinson’s influential Wine Grapes accepts this claim, rather uncritically I think, since it is based on a very small sampling of both grapes. Allowing for all possible differences caused by soils, cultivation, and vinification, my palate can’t discern any similarity between the wines of the two, so I conclude that this study is flawed and more work needs to be done. I’m happy that Ian d’Agata is of the same opinion, for much the same reasons.

In Memoriam: Beppe Colla

January 28, 2019

Beppe Colla died on January 15. Beppe was the patriarch of the Colla clan: Although mostly retired, he continued to advise his much younger brother Tino and his daughter Federica at their jointly owned estate, Poderi Colla. Before that, he had been the owner of the Prunotto winery and the winemaker who in the ‘70s and ‘80s guided Prunotto Barolo and Barbaresco to the heights of accomplishment and acclaim. He was 88 and, had he lived, would have enjoyed his 70th harvest this year.

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It is hard to overestimate Colla’s contribution to Alban winemaking, indeed to the whole Piedmontese wine world.

  • He was one of the pioneers who opened the way for Barolo and Barbaresco to achieve the kind of fame they now enjoy.
  • He made great wines before there was a single stainless steel tank or a notion of temperature-controlled fermentation anywhere in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.
  • He welcomed the new technology when it became available: At Prunotto, he used the first stainless steel fermenters ever seen in the Alba area.
  • He made the first cru Barolos and Barbarescos, a then-heretical act for which he was at the time severely criticized by the local establishment.

Along with Renato Ratti and a few other like-minded individuals, he founded the Ordine dei Cavalieri de Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba, a group that is widely credited with having spurred the modern revival of Piedmontese gastronomy, which immensely benefited the whole zone and every hungry tourist who has ever visited it.

At heart, for all his innovations and all the ways he altered the Piedmontese wine universe, Colla remained devoted to the traditional ideals of Barolo and Barbaresco: The wines had to taste first of the fruit and the soil, and of the technology never. At Prunotto, he crafted wines that became benchmarks of Barolo and Barbaresco. Even, I would add, of humbler varieties: I remember the incredible balance, intensity, juiciness, and encompassing elegance of the Barbera d’Alba that he drew from the Pian Romualdo site – Barbera that for my palate has not been equaled since, anywhere in the zone.

Throughout his career, he remained an uncomplicated person, devoted to his craft and his family, plain-spoken and shy of personal publicity. I had the pleasure of talking with Beppe Colla many times, over a good many years, and I always learned something from him: He was a trove of wine lore and viti/vinicultural information. But my characteristic memory of him will always be a simple one:  his shy smile of pleasure at the sight of someone enjoying his wines.

We have lost many fine winemakers in recent years – Bruno Giacosa, Beppe Rinaldi, Leonildo Pieropan, Antonio Mastroberardino, and now Beppe Colla. We are witnessing the end of the heroic era of Italian wine. A generation of giants is passing.

The Essential Guide to Italian Wine? Very Possibly

December 27, 2018

With its recently released 2019 edition, its fifth, Daniele Cernilli’s Essential Guide to Italian Wine has come of age. Published now in Italian, English, and German editions, well over 600 pages long (and well indexed), and reviewing 1,134 estates and 2,809 wines, the Essential Guide certainly covers the Italian wines that a North American consumer needs to know about – in fact, many more than are currently available in this hemisphere. But one can always hope.

Cernilli’s Guide is organized in the classic way, region by region, the producers listed alphabetically and awarded zero, one, two, or three stars based on their total production and track record; and selected individual wines scored on the now standard, to me infamous 100-point scale and their price range indicated – all useful information, handily presented.

For those who may not recognize his name, Daniele Cernilli is a central figure in the Italian wine world, a critic of major importance and great knowledge. He was one of the founders of Gambero Rosso and was deeply involved not only in its editing but also in the whole process of its evaluations, which by way of their one-, two-, and three-bicchieri awards became the most prestigious of all of Italy’s ranking systems.

When he and Gambero Rosso parted ways several years back, Cernilli reinvented himself as Doctor Wine and began creating his Essential Guide.

I shudder to think of the amount of work it took to bring it to its present condition, especially since Cernilli and his co-workers do not solicit samples or accept advertising from individual wineries. Instead they visit wineries, participate in regional and consorzio tastings, and even buy wines from the same sort of shops Italian consumers patronize. That last practice will send chills up the spines of wine magazine publishers on several continents.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Daniele Cernilli for at least two decades. Even fuller disclosure: We don’t always agree – in fact, we have sometimes been on opposite sides of a wine, a winery, or a wine style. But I don’t know anyone who knows the wines of Italy – all of Italy – in greater depth than he does, so I always take his evaluations seriously.

Here’s a representative example of both his knowledge and our occasional disagreements: The 2019 Guide’s White Wine of the Year award is shared by two wines:

  • Fiano di Avellino Stilèma 2015, Mastroberardino, Campania
  • Solo MM 15 2015, Vodopivec, Friuli Venezia Giulia.

Now, Fiano di Avellino is a justly esteemed grape variety, and Mastroberardino has long been one of its finest producers. Additionally, I happen to have tasted the Stilèma, and I agree totally with Cernilli’s judgment of its greatness. Here’s what he says of it in his entry:

Typical notes of flint, then fresh almond, wild herbs, elegant and extremely clear aromas. Agile and savory taste dominated by a magical freshness that gives elegance and drinkability to the wine. Smooth and long persistence. Great wine.

Stilèma is the first fruit of an experiment initiated by the late Antonio Mastroberardino to use materials derived from old and especially from pre-phylloxera vineyards (of which there are several in the Fiano zone) to back-engineer Fiano di Avellino to the sort of prime vines and field and cellar techniques that yielded the greatest wines of what we can call the “pre-industrial years” of Italian winemaking. As Antonio’s son Piero puts it:

We intend to evoke the style of vinification of the native vines of Irpinia (Greco, Fiano and Aglianico) as it took place between the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 70s of the twentieth century for Taurasi, and between the years 70 and 80 for the two noblest whites of Irpinia. It is, then, the style (or the Stilèma) of a family that interprets, over generations, the natural heritage of its territory, which makes it specific, as predestined to play a role in that land.

Noble purposes, and already producing noble results.

But what of Cernilli’s other choice for White Wine of the Year? Solo MM 15 2015 is a wine and Vodopivec a maker unknown to me. Cernilli describes winemaker Paolo Vodopivec as a meticulous and devoted craftsman, committed to the very localized traditions of the Friulian Carso and to experimentation with vinifying wines in amphorae. Of this wine, he says:

100% Vitovska grapes. Fermented in amphora for 6 months then aged in large casks. Unfiltered. Bright straw yellow color. Austere nose offering notes of sea breeze and aromatic herbs. The palate is expressive, briny and citrusy; powerful and fresh, vibrant, and with a unique personality. Wonderful wine.

That’s certainly detailed enough to prompt me to look for a bottle next time I’m in Italy, since I infer that it comes to this hemisphere only occasionally, in small quantities and at fairly high prices. A little research told me that Vitovska grapes are very localized within Friuli, had almost disappeared until rescued a decade or so ago by some devoted winemakers, and are now enjoying a small vogue in Italy. Worth a try? For sure. One of the year’s great white wines? Given my very uneven experiences with amphora-aged wines, I’d say that’s far less certain.

But the surprising (to me at least) award pairing gives evidence, if any is needed, of just how unconventional and eclectic Cernilli’s palate is, how plugged in to the Italian wine scene he is, and how informative and useful – indeed, what a simply interesting read – his Essential Guide is. You can count on one finger the number of annual wine guides I enjoy picking up and just browsing in: This is it.
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Since this will be my final post of 2018, there can be no better time to wish you all a very happy and a very vinous New Year – which I do, most heartily.  Cheers!

Pelaverga: Another Cause for Celebration

December 6, 2018

Among the many reasons I had for giving thanks this year, I count Pelaverga high among my vinous blessings. It’s yet another of those Italian grape varieties (of which, happily, there are now many) that was teetering on the edge of extinction when a handful of growers rescued it, lest another fragment of their youth and their heritage should disappear forever.
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© MIPAAF – National Vine Certification Service

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The Burlotto family in Verduno, a town in Piedmont’s Cuneo province, appears to have been the first to make a serious commitment to Pelaverga. Long-time Barolo producers, they did this back in the 1970s, when it was beginning to appear that the whole Alba area was about to be engulfed by the most restricted form of monoculture – not just of grape vines, but of Nebbiolo exclusively. Forests that once yielded truffles gave way to vineyards, and vineyards that once grew Dolcetto and Barbera gave way to Nebbiolo. At that time, to devote a fine vineyard to Pelaverga, a grape unfashionably light-bodied and “unserious,” must have looked like lunacy.

Now that I think about it, I should have reserved the top spot on my Thanksgiving list this year for all such lunatics: May they increase and multiply and replenish the earth.

At any rate, the Burlotto family works both their eponymous estate and their Castello di Verduno estate. They gave over the latter’s Basadone vineyard to Pelaverga, and they have never regretted it. They still produce that wine today, and it is regarded by their colleagues and by the (still not enormous) corps of Pelaverga fanciers as the pace-setter for the variety.
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It has been joined over the years by more producers, almost always drawn from the ranks of traditional growers and those reluctant to see the best of the past slide away. In addition to Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, these include Fratelli Alessandria, Ascheri, and Bel Colle. Reverdito and Terre del Barolo also make Pelaverga, but I haven’t had the chance to taste theirs. The very best I’ve had are Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, both of which I know are available in the US, albeit of limited supply.

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Let me be clear about this: Pelaverga is no mere nostalgia trip. Growers are cultivating Pelaverga because it makes a wonderful wine, bright and acid and charming, yet still substantial, still a true Piedmont wine. But Pelaverga is a difficult grape to manage: Let it hang too long or get too ripe (an increasing problem in these days of global warming) and its acidity drops like a rock, and with it the charm and fresh fruit that distinguish the variety.

First-time tasters of Pelaverga almost always think of Beaujolais, because, like many Beaujolais it’s light in color, it almost always tastes lightly but distinctly of strawberry, and it has marked acidity. But there the resemblance ends: Pelaverga is an altogether guttier wine. It reflects a terroir with a horizon of Alps, not the gentle hills of smiling, sunny Beaujeux. The wine weighs in as a middleweight, not a lightweight, and its fruit is almost always brightened by spiciness and pepper.

Its low, soft tannins and bracing acidity make Pelaverga a versatile companion to many kinds of food: In the Piedmont, they love it with carne cruda and with local salume, as well as with pastas and risotto of all sorts. It seems to have a special affinity with mushroom dishes. In short, it’s happy with everything short of the biggest roasts – and I myself can certainly imagine enjoying it alongside a rare roast beef, even if it might, in that company, taste a little light.

One caveat: The grape I’m describing here is Pelaverga piccolo, grown around the town of Verduno in the Barolo zone (hence often called Pelaverga di Verduno). There is an unrelated Piedmont grape that shares the name, Pelaverga grosso, grown around Turin. This is more often blended than vinified monovarietally, and indeed is often made into a rosé. Until quite recently, these two were thought to be identical, even though they yield very different wines. Pelaverga grosso is still of very localized production around Turin, and has not caught the attention of Italian enophiles the way Verduno’s Pelaverga piccolo has. For my palate, Pelaverga piccolo makes by far the more interesting and pleasurable wine, a wine distinctly different from Piedmont’s heavyweights, yet clearly still a child of the same soils and weather.