Archive for the ‘Abruzzo’ Category

Romano Brands’ Small Producers

January 2, 2020

Romano Brands is an interesting small importer that specializes in interesting small producers – which, of course, is very interesting to me because the wines of so many small regional vintners never make it out of their local markets and to these shores.

So when Michael Romano invited me to a tasting of four of his producers’ best wines, I quickly said yes – especially when I heard that the tasting and lunch would take place at The Leopard at Des Artistes, one of the very best Italian restaurants in New York. Good wine and good food will get me every time. I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

The four producers present were, from north to south, Giusti, Corte Quaiara, Cerulli Spinozzi, and Cavalier Pepe, the first two representing different zones of the Veneto, the third Abruzzo, and the fourth Campania. That covers a lot of important wine areas, and the distinctions among them made for a lively and informative tasting.

The stand-up, pre-lunch portion of the tasting surveyed that geographic spread with some lovely, fresh, young, mostly white wines. The notes I take at stand-up tastings grow less and less legible, and sometimes less coherent, with every event and every year. In this case, that didn’t become too great a problem because my notes – usually just memos to myself rather than full-blown tasting notes or descriptions – all said practically the same thing: very fine; very typical; good varietal character; quite enjoyable.

That covered a Pecorino from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Falanghina from Cavalier Pepe, a Greco also from Pepe, Pepe’s Aglianico rosé (the latter particularly fine, fully dry with a lovely Aglianico finish), a Cerasuolo from Cerulli Spinozzi, a Chardonnay and a Prosecco from Giusti, and 2015 Erbaluce di Calusa from KIN, a producer not present at the tasting, who is so small that he makes only this one wine and so interesting that he keeps getting awards for it.

The wines served with the subsequent lunch got more varied and distinctive. That is no way intended to belittle the stand-up tasting wines: It just means that we moved up a category and into greater complexity.

Four wines, all produced by Giovanni Montresor at Corte Quaiara, were served to accompany a delicious bowl of cavatelli with seafood ragu:

  • A fascinating 2018 ramato (coppery) style Pinot Grigio Amfora. Aged in amphora, this wine more resembled Pinot gris than it did the average Pinot grigio, showing pronounced varietal character and real intensity.
  • A 2013 100% Garganega Campo al Salice, a very lovely, old-vine wine with deep Soave character and amazing freshness for a six-year-old white. Soave, despite the fact that most people drink it young, can be very long-lived and all the more interesting for its bottle-age. Its acidity keeps it alive and its minerality keeps it attractive.
  • 2013 Monte delle Saette, a blend of a grape that is itself a cross between Gewürztraminer and Trebbiano, called Goldtraminer because that is the color of its juice, and another Veneto white grape whose name in my note remains illegible. My bad, but the wine wasn’t: very aromatic and again quite fresh for its age.
  • A classic Italian Pinot noir 2016, sturdy and deeply fruity, with fine acidity that served it beautifully with the seafood cavatelli.

All told, a nice suite of wines.

Lamb chops Scottadito accompanied a single wine, Cerulli Spinozzi’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva Torre Migliore. This was a totally enjoyable wine, with great intensity of black cherry fruit, on both the nose and the palate, and great acid/tannin balance that made it an ideal accompaniment to the lamb. A single vineyard wine from old vines, at nine years old it still tasted very fresh and young, the kind of welcoming red wine you could happily drink all through a meal.

Two more reds joined the Montepulciano on the table for the final course, delicious veal braciole with prosciutto and caciocavallo: Giusti’s 2016 Ripasso della Valpolicella and 2014 Amarone. These were both lovely wines, both fully dry, and both with fruit so intense that it kept suggesting sweetness. The Valpolicella Ripasso was in the currently very popular – with both winemakers and consumers – style that makes the wine into a baby Amarone, which is exactly what this fine example was: smooth on the palate, big and lovely, with sufficient acidity to keep it supple. The Amarone smelled profoundly of dried fruit – especially cherry – and felt positively velvety in the mouth, with great balance: This will be a very long-lived wine.

Before this tasting, I had had very limited exposure to any of these producers, a fact I now seriously regret. Romano Brands has put together an excellent selection of top-notch small producers which otherwise wouldn’t ever make it onto the American market – not because they don’t have the quality, but because they don’t have the large production that the big, nationwide importers and distributors need. So much the worse for the big distributors, so much the better for us, who can badger or beg our local retailers to stock wines like this from producers like these. Globalization brings many advantages, but so too does thinking small and local.

Older White Wines

August 31, 2015

I recently received a solicitation, from an enterprise I will not shame by naming, that included an online article presenting the brilliant aperçu that, yes indeed, white wines can age. After a lip-service concession that whites from Rioja, Burgundy, and the Jura (?!), plus German Riesling and Australian Semillon, are known to last for decades, it went on to list 15 “favorite” cellar-worthy whites from other regions.

This perspicacious enumeration omitted all of Spain and Italy, and recommended Bordeaux – all of it, including apparently the notably long-lived wines of the fabled Entre-Deux-Mers – as well as Alsace – I guess all of its varieties too. It also listed individual varieties from Greece, South Africa, Napa, Oregon, and Washington, all of these too in their entirety, with no qualifications about maker, style, region, or anything else.

I pity the poor souls trying to shop for white wines to cellar on the basis of those recommendations.

Really, it should not be news to anyone that all sorts of white wines from all sorts of places are capable of wonderful and rewarding bottle-aging.

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White wine colors

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Serious wine journalists of every palatal persuasion have been trumpeting that information for decades now, and while a newbie can be forgiven for not knowing it, anyone halfway serious about wine should already have experienced it.

The important point to be made is not that some white wines can age well, but which ones, and how you are to know them. Great as white Burgundy can be, not every bottle that emanates from that small stretch of France will survive beyond five years – and that is equally true of white Graves, of Fiano di Avellino, of Rioja whites, of Rhine and Moselle Rieslings, of Alsace Riesling and Pinot Gris.

Who made the wine, in what vintage? Is it from the best sites, or some outlying parcel just barely entitled to a prestigious appellation? Those facts matter: They constitute the difference between buying yourself a potential treasure and throwing your money away.

What I’ve just said implies that repute – of the zone, the maker, the vintage – should be the key determinant for a canny white wine shopper. By and large, that is true, but like so many such truths, it’s hardly absolute. As with any other category of wine, any one of those elements could outweigh the others. A vintage may be so fine in a particular zone – some recent vintages of Chablis, for instance – that you’re safe with almost any purchase. Or a producer may be well known for turning out great wines in off-years. Or some producers may be so exceptional that their wines, from an otherwise middling area, are always age-worthy.

ValentiniI can give you a fine example of the last: Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from the late, great Edoardo Valentini. A more unlikely great white wine is hard to imagine: Trebbiano is the blessing and the curse of Italian viticulture. Hardy and prolific, it grows everywhere and bears heavily, usually producing very ordinary wine that is used predominantly in blends. It has many different clones, though few of them are prized. Trebbiano di Soave is one, and another (I’m tempted to say the other) is Valentini’s distinctive Trebbiano d’Abruzzo.

It’s fair to say that the vast majority of Trebbiano-based wines made in Abruzzo (or anywhere else, for that matter) is meant to be consumed as young and fresh as possible, because such charm as these wines possess fades quickly. Valentini’s wine is utterly different – round, full-fleshed, deeply mineral and fruity, with enough tannin from skin contact and enough natural acidity to sustain it for the long haul. How long? Well, I’ve drunk 25-year-olds that were still fresh and lively, so much so that I kicked myself for pouring them prematurely.

98 TrebbianoI quite recently opened my last bottle of Valentini’s 1998 Trebbiano for a dinner with friends I knew would recognize its allure. None of us was disappointed, even though the wine was only 17 years mature. What was it like? I’ll quote Burton Anderson’s landmark book, Vino, about his experience of a younger specimen:

[T]he Trebbiano is in a class by itself, unquestionably the finest wine of that name I have tasted. The 1974 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, drunk in 1979, had everything a dry white wine should have plus the elegance, breed and strength of character that even some of the finest lack. I would not hesitate to compare it to the white wines of Puligny Montrachet.

The comparison with great white Burgundy is one that many tasters have repeated since. In fact, it is probably even truer now than it was in ’79: As Valentini’s hand got surer and his vines aged, that round, mouth-filling Burgundian quality only intensified. My ’98 displayed it beautifully, even the next day when I finished the little left in the bottle.

Edoardo Valentini was not a lovable man. He could be as hard and exacting with people as he was in his winemaking. Every year he sold off most of his harvest, keeping only the very finest grapes for his deliberately small production. In the years since he has passed on, his son has very successfully maintained the quality level he so arduously pursued, and the Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo remains a monument to what can be achieved by individual effort.

And that brings me back to the original point of this post. Of course white wines can age, sometimes magnificently. It all depends on the What and the Who and the Where and the When, and there are many well-informed journalists out there who have been trying to preach this gospel for some time now. Go read Ed McCarthy and Mary Mulligan, go read Kerin O’Keefe, Tom Hyland, Michael Apstein, Charles Scicolone – even some of my previous posts and articles. The information you need to shop intelligently and fruitfully is there for the gleaning.

New York all’italiana

May 14, 2010

No lengthy disquisition this time, just notes on two recent New York happenings, the Wine Media Guild Taurasi luncheon and Ed McCarthy’s unveiling of his five favorite Italian white wines to the Gang of Six.

Happening #1

The WMG event was the regular May meeting, upstairs at Felidia Ristorante, with the usual rugby scrum to taste all the wines and take notes before lunch (actually better, now that there’s room for an additional tasting table). The guest speaker and principal organizer of the event was Maurizio De Rosa, a Naples-born one-time NY restaurateur now back in Italy and working for Feudi di San Gregorio.

Maurizio De Rosa

Feudi has quickly grown to be the largest (and best capitalized?) winery in Campania, and Maurizio is one of the most knowledgeable people around on the wines of his native region. His focus was Taurasi, Campania’s red DOCG wine, and he managed to round up for the occasion 19 examples of Taurasi from 19 different producers – no mean feat, since several are very small and in quite limited supply. They were Boccella, Caggiano, Cantina Crogliano, Cantina dei Monaci, D’Antiche Terre, Di Meo, Di Prisco, Feudi di San Gregorio, La Molara, Lonardo, Mastroberardino, Molettieri, Perillo, Romano Clelia, Terradora di Paolo, Urciolo, Villa Matilde, Villa Raiano, and Vinosia.

All were interesting, though many marred their fine Aglianico fruit (Taurasi is usually 100% Aglianico, though a small percentage of Piedirosso is permitted) with too much new oak – the bane of every expanding wine region all around the world.

For me, the outstanding wines were the more familiar ones: Mastroberardino, Terradora (the other half of the Mastroberardino clan, after a horrendous family break-up in the mid-90s), Feudi, Di Meo. The Villa Matilde, which I’m normally very fond of, showed a bit tight and unready, perhaps going into eclipse (it was vintage 2004). The 2004 from D’Antiche Terre was also fine, but its price is about twice that of the other wines shown: perhaps a Gaja del Sud in the making here.

Just as interesting as the wines were Maurizio’s remarks. According to current research, Aglianico doesn’t derive from the word for Hellenic, i.e., Greek, as has long been thought, and the grape wasn’t introduced to Campania by the early Greek colonists of the region. It seems in fact to be an Italian native, probably established in the Naples area by the Etruscans, who had pushed that far south centuries before the Greeks arrived. That may make Aglianico the longest-cultivated variety on record.

Maurizio also explained that the Aglianico growing area, traditionally centered on the town of Taurasi in the province of Avellino (which name may, in passing through the mouths of the successive French and Spanish masters of the Kingdom of Naples, have metamorphosed into Aglianico) is really divisible into at least four distinctive zones, which differ by soil type, elevation, and the character of the Aglianico they produce. All this information and more will be contained in the book about Taurasi that he is working on. By the way, should you meet Maurizio, never refer to Taurasi as “the Barolo of the south.” Barolo, he insists, is the Taurasi of the north.

Happening #2

The Gang of Six is, first of all, a collection of pizza freaks, whose devotion to real Neapolitan pizza has led them to gather as frequently as they can at Keste or Pizza Fresca for massive intake of carbohydrates and as much fine wine as the members can manage to bring with them. This time, exceptionally, we convened at Donnatella Arpaia’s Mia Dona – no pizza! – so Ed McCarthy could challenge us with a blind tasting of his selection of Italy’s five best white wines.

Those who know Ed’s and his wife Mary Ewing Mulligan’s books know that Ed has a massive store of information about wine. Those who know Ed also know that he has a pretty good fund of opinions based on it, so this was a fun lunch – despite the absence of pizza! – and an interesting tasting, as well as a substantial challenge.

Ed lurking behind a wall of his favorites

These are Ed’s nominees for Italy’s best white wines:

  • Abbazia di Novacella’s Kerner – a hybrid of Riesling and a lesser variety that does reasonably well in Germany and spectacularly in one of Italy’s northernmost vineyards, in Alto Adige.
  • Benanti’s Pietramarina – Carricante from the Etna region of Sicily. (Not Catarratto, as I first said; see Ed’s comment below.)
  • Jermann’s Vintage Tunina – a blend of several white varieties, including indigenous Tocai (now Friulano) and Picolit, from Friuli. 
  • Tiefenbrunner’s Feldmarschall – Müller Thurgau from high-altitude vineyards in Alto Adige.
  • Valentini’s Trebbiano – a highly selected vinification from meticulously tended vineyards in Abruzzo.

Though they are quite diverse, both geographically and stylistically, all – and this tells you a lot about Ed’s taste – are whites that are all the better for a few years of aging.

I can think of a few wines I’d like to add to his list, but I’m interested in what others may think of Ed’s selections and omissions. Please comment, if you feel so moved.