Archive for the ‘Friuli’ Category

Used to be Twiggy: Sauvignon blanc

July 26, 2013

Many, many years ago, back in Mastering Wine, I described the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc as Marilyn TwiggyMonroe compared to Twiggy. That comparison is pretty dated now, for a lot of reasons. Most run-of-the-mill Chardonnays have gotten a lot more zaftig – not to say flabby – than they used to be, moving closer to Roseanne and Melissa McCarthy than Marilyn. Some Sauvignons have gone the opposite direction and become positively anorexic, grassy and herbal as a ruminant’s lunch. And some – especially New World Sauvignons – have plumped up (to put it kindly) and become fruit cocktails.

Once upon that long-ago time, I was quite fond of Sauvignon blanc. When its grass and herbaceousness and cat’s pee flavors were moderated by some grapiness and the occasional taste of terroir, as was common then in Sancerre and other Loire valley Sauvignons, it could be a very elegant wine, useful in many dinner situations.

From Jancis Robinson's Vines, Grapes, and Wines

From Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes, and Wines

I’m not sure, as time has passed, whether my palate has changed or the wine has, but the fact is that I haven’t these days enjoyed most Sauvignons. I found many of them extremely grassy and herbal, or at the other extreme so fat with oak and vanilla, that I simply couldn’t drink them. This may be just poor viticulture and viniculture – bad work in the field and worse in the cellar – but its consequences are that I had even begun to think of the grape variety as distinctly second tier, if not third.

I hate to lose a wine: The world’s repertory of truly noble wine grapes is not so vast that we can spare any. So I set out, in a modest, home-tasting way, to explore contemporary Sauvignon blanc. I tried a sort-of representative sample of Sauvignons from key parts of the winemaking world to see what, my prejudices and memories set aside, the present state of Sauvignon blanc truly is.

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The most obvious thing about Sauvignon blanc nowadays is that it’s grown and vinified just about everywhere: Name an important or burgeoning wine area, and Sauvignon blanc will be there. That’s pretty surprising for a variety whose northern European origins – all the DNA evidence points to the Loire valley, which was its epicenter for most of its history – make it unsuitable for growing in particularly warm areas. On its home ground, it became a notable wine as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé and later spread from the Loire to Bordeaux where it became an important component of both dry white Bordeaux and Sauternes.

???????????????????????????????In the past 50 years or so, Sauvignon blanc has become the paradigm international variety: It successfully marched around the world, colonizing California, where Robert Mondavi first made it famous as Fumé blanc, then Australia and New Zealand, South America and South Africa. In New Zealand it scored spectacular success: It became the main motor of the New Zealand wine industry, after Cloudy Bay’s version set an international standard for the breed – richly aromatic, racy, and intensely herbal/grassy. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, in the popular imagination at least, the international style of Sauvignon blanc has largely pushed the traditional Loire valley style to the margins. For my palate – and that’s the only one I can judge with – Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon blanc (I tasted the 2012 vintage) is way over the top. Here’s my tasting note (with all my usual caveats about tasting notes):

Pale straw. On the nose, Grass!!! and cat’s pee. Some mineral on palate, but very herbal/citrus. Long grass-and-something finish – gooseberry? Lean-bodied, but big with alcohol. Gets more citrus-y as it opens, but still for my palate an extreme wine – not unbalanced in the conventional wine-speak sense, but almost freakishly top-heavy with exaggerated fruit.

Unfortunately for me, that kind of wine has become the model for most non-European Sauvignon, and probably is what most consumers now think Sauvignon is all about. But since that traditional style of Sauvignon blanc is the one I used to love, I tried to find out if anyone is still making it.

So I turned back to France. Again this wasn’t a systematic tasting, nor a wide one – but it was quite satisfying. The handful of wines I tasted – 2012 Francois Crochet Sancerre Les Perrois, 2011 Domaine Reverdy-Ducroux Sancerre, 2012 Pointe d’agrumes Touraine Sauvignon Blanc – all shared a restraint and balance that made them very successful dinner wines. None was strongly grassy – in fact I had to hunt hard in most to smell and taste grass – and all showed elements of terroir in their flavor – flint and wet stones, riding along with occasional citrus (grapefruit) notes. Home at last.

Loire wines

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Given my great passion for Italian wines, I naturally had to see what happened to Sauvignon blanc there. I tried several Sauvignons from northern Italy – Alto Adige, Venezia-Giulia, Friuli – all with some pleasure. The grassiness that I dislike was never as prominent as in New World wines – but I did find that the further west I went from Friuli the more it showed in the aroma, though rarely on the palate. So the 2011 Tiefenbrunner Kerchleiten Sauvignon and the 2012 Tramin Sauvignon (both Alto Adige) both gave a little grass on the nose while having more mineral-inflected notes on the palate. Both were fine with food. Bortoluzzi’s 2011 from Venezia Giulia showed much more mineral all through, and conveyed a nice hint of terroir.

Northern Italy wines

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Once into Friuli proper, I found that Sauvignon blanc seems to have discovered a whole new home for itself. Producers like Villa Russiz and Vie di Romans are turning out balanced, restrained Sauvignons marked by strong minerality and gout de terroir, medium-bodied and conveying a round mouth-feel despite bright acidity. You would never confuse them with Sancerre or its kin – they offer a completely different style and flavor range – but these are wines that equally convincingly convey a sense of place, that they have found their place. Normally I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but in Friuli Sauvignon blanc turns out to be a variety I can get enthusiastic about.

Friuli wines

Native Uprising

January 17, 2013

My book-writing days are probably behind me, but if I were to write a new wine book, I know what I’d call it – Native Uprising – and it would focus on the ascent of indigenous Italian grape varieties. Italian winemaking has made fantastic progress in the past 50 years (yes, my memory goes back that far, more’s the pity), and, while that progress may have been turbocharged by the phenomenon of the so-called supertuscans and the brief prominence of “international” (meaning grown in France and California and Australia) grape varieties, the real motor that has propelled it all along has been the native grapes of the many Italian wine regions.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo

It’s probably a clear indication of the deeply ingrained chauvinism of the wine world that we continue to speak of “indigenous” or “native” Italian grapes, with often enough an implication of quaintness and lesser standing and quality, while no one – myself included – ever speaks of Cabernet and Merlot and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or even Syrah or Sauvignon, as indigenous French grapes – which, of course, they are. The fact that Nebbiolo and Sangiovese – not to mention Barbera – are now grown around the world hasn’t made them “international” varieties: they remain humble, indigenous – to Italy – grapes.

Sangiovese

Sangiovese

So a good part of my reason for once again taking pen (keyboard?) in hand would be counter that notion of inferiority. It shouldn’t be too difficult. The strides that Piemontese and Tuscan winemakers in particular have made, and especially their success in drawing publicity, have certainly raised the visibility and the status of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese for any wine drinker who has gotten beyond an introductory level of wine knowledge. Other noble Italian red wines lag that level of recognition, but Aglianico and Amarone (not a grape variety, I know, but bear with me) are not far behind.

White wines may be a little trickier, because so many of the fine whites of northern Italy are vinified from “international” varieties that have been cultivated in Friuli and Alto Adige for almost two centuries. (Which raises the interesting question, how long must a variety be grown in an area before it becomes native? And where did the ancestors of those “indigenous” French varieties originate?) The excellence of many other Italian white varieties is only beginning to be discerned. The process is slow because so many of them are in the south, which for many wine lovers, and even for many Italians, is terra incognita.

Which brings me to what would be the second purpose of the book I’ll probably never write: to call attention to the cornucopia of interesting-to-distinguished varieties awaiting their moment in the south of Italy. In a rather haphazard way, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past two or three years in southern Italy, and every visit has been a revelation. Maybe a learning experience is a better way to put it: not only have I been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines, but I have each time encountered grape varieties previously unknown to me. Even more important, these varieties have not been simply quaint survivors of another age, but grapes with real wine-making interest and potential.

Susumaniello

Susumaniello

For example, let’s consider Puglia, which I’ve written about recently both here and in Decanter. Almost everybody knows about Primitivo, the cousin of Zinfandel. There are some excellent ones, but in my opinion Primitivo is far less interesting than either Negroamaro or Uva di Troia, or even Susumaniello. These are red grapes of distinctive character, and in the hands of careful producers they are already capable of making long-lived, high-quality wines. With more clonal research and more attention from more producers, their future is wide open.

z-bombino bianco

Bombino bianco

Puglia shows less impressively with white grapes, but even there some bright spots appear: Bombino Bianco, Verdeca, and local clones of Greco have promise. And of course, throughout the rest of the south, white grapes shine: In Campania, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino lead the way, but those two varieties do quite well on volcanic soils all through the south. (The Soave zone in the Veneto is the northernmost of Italy’s volcanic regions, and its prized Garganega, which makes Soave Classico, is probably a descendant of, if not the same as, Greco.)

Nerello mascalese

Nerello mascalese

And in Sicily, the hyper-volcanic slopes of Etna already yield world-class wines, whites from the native Carricante and reds from Nerello mascalese, which also forms a major portion of what is probably Sicily’s most distinguished red wine, Palari, from the nearby Faro DOC.

That’s far from the whole story even for the south: The white Falanghina is fine and getting better all the time, and the red Piedirosso, a long-time blending companion of Aglianico, is undergoing a significant revival. Even the once lightly regarded Coda di Volpe is rewarding serious attention from winemakers.

Timorasso

Timorasso

Nor is the north of Italy exempt from this growing wave of attention to each region’s viticultural heritage. In Piedmont, Rucché and Timorasso – red and white respectively – lead the contingent of reviving varieties, with the whites Favorita and Nascetta getting more attention every year.

Colorino

Colorino

.In Tuscany, Merlot is losing ground to Colorino and Mammolo as the blending grapes of choice in Chianti, with several experimental bottlings of monovarietal wines – especially of Colorino – already available.

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Schioppettino

In the Veneto, the once-scorned local clone of Trebbiano is achieving real importance in the Soave zone. And Friuli is a minestrone of local varieties, especially of red grapes: Schiopettino, Tazzelenghe, and Pignolo, to name only the currently most important. This is by no means exhaustive: there are many, many more potentially noble varieties out there.

So there is definitely a book to be written, and a lot of fascinating – and delicious – research to be done. I’m not feeling overly ambitious these days – grey winter weather always has that effect on me – but maybe I’ll do it yet.

Winter Whiteout Part II; Carnivore Jamboree

February 14, 2011

I left off last post’s account of my Friuli white wine seminar at Vino 2011 halfway though the tasting, verbally smacking my lips over the wonderful ways all sorts of Italian wines, Friulian white wines in particular, partner with foods.

The wine that sparked that rhapsody was a Pinot bianco, Campo dei Gelsi, a very good wine but not an unusual one: Its representativeness is really what was most important about it. What followed it in the tasting sequence was a wine that in many key respects is even more representative of Friuli: a 2009 Friulano (DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli) from Butussi.

This the wine we used to know as Tocai, its name change mandated by EU bureaucrats lest we ignorant saps confuse it with the totally different Hungarian Tokay – different country, different grape variety, a sweet dessert wine rather than a dry dinner wine, but hey! what do we ignoramuses know?  As you may gather, bureaucratic interference of that sort with traditional names (and traditional practices, but that is another and far more serious story) drives me up the wall. Recent studies have shown that Friulano-né-Tocai is in fact genetically similar, perhaps identical, to the now-almost-extinct French variety Sauvignonasse, but it is anybody’s guess which way the vine travelled.

Though forced to abandon its traditional name, in this case the producers of the wine were able to opt for a name that means something: Friulano indicates quite accurately just how deeply rooted in the life of the zone this wine is. In Friuli, it’s the wine of all purposes and every meal. To eat prosciutto while drinking something else is to invite queries about your health, mental and physical. The example we tasted at the seminar was absolutely true to type, showing all the appeal of the variety: Medium-bodied and fully dry, it started with a lovely nut-and-mineral nose, followed with similar flavors on the palate, and ended in a delightful hazelnut-and-almond finish. This is a wine interesting enough to drink by itself but even more intriguing when you give it some fish or fowl or frittata to play with.

The next wine was another Friulian specialty: a 2009 Bianco (DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli) called Valmasia – a 100% dry Malvasia from La Tunella. This is an ancient variety, grown all around the Mediterranean. It has made Friuli its home long enough to produce a distinctive clone, known either as Malvasia friulana or Malvasia istriana. Almost everywhere else it’s grown, Malvasia is usually either used in blends or vinified into a sweet dessert wine: it was famous in Shakespeare’s day as Malmsey. This fully dry, uniquely Friulian example was vinified entirely in stainless steel, so there was no muffler on its own distinctive character: an almost moscato nose, with orange peel and white fruits on the palate, and a long finish, redolent of roasted fruit and leather. A very interesting wine, very different from most other whites.

The seminar concluded with a lovely pair of uniquely Friulian dessert wines. (Can a pair be unique, or is that mathematically impossible?)  The first of these was a “simple” 2007 Vino da Tavola Bianco, called Pensiero, from Petrussa. This wine was 100% Verduzzo, a grape so native to Friuli that it is unknown elsewhere. It is occasionally vinified dry, but this was a dark gold, sweet, botyritis-touched wine – just lovely, with its hints of honey and smoke. For all its residual sugar, its equally abundant acidity kept it supple, so that it gave an overall palatal impression of a complex blend of elements, of which sweetness was only one.

To be honest, this Verduzzo shouldn’t be classified so much a dessert wine as a vino da meditazione, a wonderful apt Italian phrase for wines whose subtlety and elegance and complexity make them objects of thought as well as aids to it – which may explain the name of this specimen, Pensiero.

The final wine we tasted belongs in that same rarefied category: 2007 Picolit (DOCG Colli Orientali del Friuli) from Aquila del Torre. For Friulian producers and fans of Friulian wine, Picolit is the jewel in the crown. Not only is this variety a Friulian indigene, it amounts to an endangered species despite how much it is revered. The vine suffers from a malady called floral abortion: Pollination is very irregular and often unsuccessful, and even when successful the flowers often fall off before setting fruit. A mature bunch of Picolit can contain as few as half a dozen grapes – so yields are naturally very, very small. Late harvesting and air-drying further reduce the amount of wine produced. What does eventually result is a precious (and costly, to be sure) nectar, honey-scented even without botrytis, lush and rich – almost viscous in the mouth – and long, long finishing: a vino da meditazione par excellence, to thoroughly garble my languages (an effect fine wine often has on me).

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Carnivore Jamboree

Giovanni Manetti

A few days ago I had the good fortune to be invited, courtesy of the wonderful Chianti Classico producer Giovanni Manetti, owner of Fontodi, and his US importer Dominic Nocerino (Vinifera Imports), to a special dinner at the restaurant Del Posto: a Cena della Vacca Intera, a dinner of the whole cow. It was prepared by Dario Cecchini, a master butcher and restaurateur from Panzano, a tiny town right at the heart of the Conca d’Oro, one of the most prized runs of hillsides in the whole Chianti Classico.

Not coincidentally, Fontodi’s vineyards are also right there, and Signor Manetti also raises some of the much-sought-after Chianina cows that Signor Cecchini dresses out and cooks, as he says, dal culo al colle – from the hind end (to put it delicately) to the neck. He presented five courses of beef, with a lively commentary on each:

  • First came Sushi del Chianti e Ramerino in Culo – beef tartare from the butt, with rosemary.
  • Then Cosimino in Salsa Ardente – a sort of meatloaf, based on a Renaissance recipe, with an attention-getting spicy sauce.
  • Then Tenerumi in Insalata – slow-cooked cow’s knee, with a salad of fennel, carrots, etc.
  • Then Magro Fiorentina – a Florentine roast beef.
  • Finally, when you thought you could eat no more, Carne in Galera – neck meat, long cooked in water and vinegar and served with Tuscan beans.

Dario Cecchini in a typical moment of high seriousness

All were delicious, but for me the best of the best were the unlikeliest, the tenerumi  (the cuts the butcher couldn’t sell and consequently had to learn how to cook for himself) and the carne in galera, which Cecchini described as not so much the cooking of the poor as jailhouse meat  – prison fare – in my opinion, perhaps the reason so many Italians risk jail for income tax evasion. I know I would.

With all these dishes, Fontodi’s 2005 Chianti Classico and superb 2000 Flacianello just sang. Great food, great wine, very happy journalist.

Winter Whiteout, Part I

February 3, 2011

Vino 2011 – a nearly week-long showcase of Italian wines – and a couple of snowstorms hit New York City more or less simultaneously last month, both with pretty major force, leaving many of the attendees content never to leave the comfortable confines of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. For my small part in the proceedings, I mushed my dog team northward in time to lead a seminar on Friuli white wines – not exactly the most seasonally apposite drinks, but the wines showed beautifully, so nobody seemed to mind.

Friuli Speakers Panel

As almost everybody knows, Friuli is the northeasternmost of Italy’s regions, right up against the border with Slovenia. Its most prized wine regions are exactly its most eastern, nearly Slovenian ones, the hilly vineyards of Collio and Isonzo and Colli Orientali del Friuli. Ethnic mixes – Slavic, Austrian, Italian – make the region diverse and very interesting. You readily see this in its cooking: Italian ways with pasta join with Austrian and Slavic ways with potatoes, the ethereal prosciutto of San Daniele shares the table with slices of speck, a hearty German-style air-dried bacon. There is almost nothing green that doesn’t find its way to the table, in uses from frittata to contorno. Unexpected delghts abound: Friulians make a great risotto with stinging nettles, and they do an unforgettable potato gnocchi stuffed with small plums and dressed with butter and breadcrumbs.

That same sort of diversity shows in the wines: The number of grape varieties vinified is as impressive as their quality. Indigenous grapes abound, as do some by-now-long-naturalized international varieties: Friulano (formerly Tocai), Ribolla gialla, Verduzzo, and Picolit are the most prominent native white varieties. (Among reds, Marzemino, Pignolo, Refosco, and Schioppettino are distinctive.) The “international” contingent includes the white grapes Chardonnay, Pinot bianco, Pinot grigio, and Sauvigon. (Among the reds, the usual suspects: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot.)

Because of the nature of Friuli’s soils and the varied slopes and exposures of its characteristically U-shaped valleys, even varieties that you may think you know well (Ho hum; another Pinot grigio!) taste different here – distinctive and interesting, more serious and more substantial. The eight examples we had at the seminar showed this very clearly.

We started with a marvelously characteristic Friulian wine, a 2009 Ribolla Gialla (DOC Collio) called Roncalto, from Livon. If you don’t know Ribolla, this is a close-to-textbook example of the kind: classic nut and fruit aromas with a strong mineral inflection; similar flavors plus a hint of citrus; and a tiny suggestion of sweetness in the fruity finish. A thoroughly enjoyable wine, it could serve as an aperitif but it really wants to be partnered with almost any kind of seafood.

Our second wine was a 2009 Sauvignon (Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC) from Comelli. This wine is slightly unusual for Friuli in that it had spent some time in barriques, which lent it a little roundness to flesh out Sauvignon’s usual raciness. In all other respects, it remained classic Friulian Sauvignon, with lively herbal aromas and underbrush and mineral flavors in the mouth. Only the finish betrayed the smallest taste of oak sweetness.

Next came a wine that surprised many attendees, a 2008 Pinot grigio (Isonzo DOC) from Lis Neris. The surprise was, simply, that this was a real wine, a wine of character, and not the forgettable, almost tasteless gulp that so much Pinot grigio has become. Grown in poor soil, with a tightly restricted yield, fermented and matured in tonneaux, and deliberately emulating the Alsace way with Pinot gris (same grape, different country), this example was medium-bodied, with excellent pear-and-apple fruit, rather creamy and rich (the only palatal evidence of the oak ), with a long, mineral finish.

With this wine, two of the major points I was trying to get across in my seminar remarks became apparent. The first is that Friuli makes serious, worthwhile wines and not the throw-away party fizz that so many people associate with Italian white wine. The second is simply that one of the hallmarks that identifies Friulian wines and makes them memorable is a bracing spine of minerality.

A 2009 Pinot bianco (Grave DOC) called Campo dei Gelsi from Forchir was our fourth wine. Pinot bianco performs well in almost every Friulian zone, especially if it is planted at a good altitude. It yields a medium-bodied wine like this example, usually less floral in its aromas and flavors than either Pinot grigio or Chardonnay. The kind of nice, earthy complexity this Campo dei Gelsi showed is what makes Pinot bianco such a fine dinner wine – and that, exactly, was my third major point about Friulian white wines: Like so many Italian wines, they aren’t vinified to be drunk alone, either as lightweight cocktails or as fruit bombs to overpower judges and walk home with gold medals. They’re made to drink with food. Wine in Italy is food, and if you ever want to understand the best Italian wines, you must never lose sight of that bond.

That’s also a good point at which to conclude this post. Next time, the rest of the Vino 2011 Winter Whiteout, plus a little coda about a carnivore jamboree.

Carla Capalbo’s Edible Italy

December 20, 2010

There are two kinds of really good books: those that satisfy a hunger and those that make you hungry. Here are two that do both: Carla Capalbo’s Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-East (Pallas Athene, London: 2009; 256 pages, many photos, all by the author) and her The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, London: 2005; 473 pages, many photos, all also by the author).

Uncountable numbers of guidebooks to Italy exist, but in English at least there are very few that treat the wine and food culture of the country seriously. Capalbo does – and in her hands, “serious” stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from ponderous, from elitist, from precious. These two books are about artisan gastronomy. The people Capalbo writes about work the fields, tend the vines, make the cheeses, and want to keep on doing those things because they believe in the worth of what they do. Most of us – at least here in New York – live in a world of designer rip-offs and this week’s theme restaurant. Reading these two books moves you into another world, one with different values and a different pace. I won’t say it’s more authentic, because for those who live in New York, this world is about as authentic as it gets, but that other world is clearer, cleaner, and more immediately satisfying than ours. Maybe we hardened old urbanites couldn’t live there, but we know we would enjoy a visit.

Capalbo’s books serve as both that visit and a guide to a visit. The most recent volume, her Collio book, exhaustively explores that northeasternmost chunk of Friuli, the opening end of a parenthesis wrapped around a bulge of Slovenia. The area for centuries belonged to the Austrian empire, until it was returned to Italy after WW I. Its culture and foodways thoroughly blend Italian, Germanic, and Slavic strands to make some of the most unusual dishes and some of the finest white wines to be found in Italy. If you’re looking for a good place in Gorizia to snack on a slice of prosciutto and a glass of Tocai or Ribolla gialla, or maybe nibble a warm frico, the information is in this book.

Lorenzo D'Osvaldo

If you’re anywhere near Cormons, Capalbo can direct you to one of the very best prosciutto makers in Italy, Lorenzo D’Osvaldo. Josko Sirk’s great restaurant, Trattoria al Cacciatore de la Subida, is given the detailed attention it deserves for its fabulous menu and wine cellar. But smaller and lesser-known eating establishments and food sources are respectfully treated as well, so the gastronomic traveler can find just about any local specialty desired.

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The book’s coverage of Collio wineries is a special treat: Everybody is here, from the unique Josko Gravner and the incomparable Silvio Jermann down to the smallest artisan winemaker, and everything one could want to know is covered, from grape varieties to methods of vinification – both a lot more varied than one would expect – and aging potential of the wines.

The buried amphorae in which Gravner ferments his wines in the ancient manner

Focused on the other end of Italy, Capalbo’s Campanian book is commensurately larger, as is the territory she covers. It’s hard in a brief notice to do justice to how thoroughly this book explores the foods, cooking, and wines of this most varied of Italian regions. From seacoast to mountaintop, however, it’s all here: the artichokes of Paestum, the bottarga and colatura di alici of the seacoast, the pizza of Naples, the Aglianico and Piedirosso wines of the volcanic hills. You can learn about melannurca apples, the great selection of cheese to be had at La Tradizione near Vico Equense, the mysteries covered by the word friarelli (there are at least three different vegetables meant by it, depending on just where you are in Campania).

Fiano grapes

Once again, the coverage of grape varieties, wines, and wineries is excellent: they’re all here, from the historic Mastroberardino to the young Feudi di San Gregorio, and all the ages and sizes in between – a literal cornucopia for the Italian winelover. Appropriately, she gives the bulk of her attention to the major varieties – the reds Aglianico and Piedirosso, the whites Fiano, Greco, and Falanghina – but less well-known varieties such as Coda di Volpe and Biancolella also get their share of attention.

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Gragnano pasta

Capalbo covers this large and diverse territory province by province, with a chapter devoted to each, from Caserta in the north; through Napoli, Vesuvio, and Avellino; to the Cilento, south of Paestum. I particularly relish her exploration of the Sorrento peninsula (ancestral home of my clan: The Marescas emigrated from Sant’ Agnello di Sorrento a hundred years ago). She discusses everything, from the colatura and fantastic fresh fish of the colorful fishing village Cetara to the pastas of Gragnano, whose namesake wine may be the ideal accompaniment to pizza, to the altogether more important wines of Furore (by all means, seek out those of Marisa Cuomo), through the ubiquitous lemons and olives, cheeses and gelato, and all the places to taste them, right down to the ceramics of Vietri at the foot of the peninsula. This is one of the sections of these books that really made me hungry – and thirsty too.

You could do a lot worse for your wine-loving friends than to give them either or both of these books this  Christmas.

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Full disclosure:  I’ve met Carla Capalbo several times in Italy and once here in the US (she was here promoting the Campania book – which I received as a review copy, though I bought the Collio one for myself). I like her as a person, and I thoroughly respect her as a researcher and writer.

For more about Carla Capalbo and her writings, go to her website, www.carlacapalbo.com.

Family Matters

November 11, 2010

Among the far-too-many wine events in New York this fall, I particularly enjoyed two of – for me – the highest importance, at opposite ends of the size spectrum: one a large, well-attended Amarone seminar and tasting sponsored by a group called Amarone Families and held at the New York Public Library (!), and the other a private lunch with Roberto Felluga, head of the Marco Felluga/Russiz Superiore estates and son of the eponymous Marco.

Let’s start with white wines, shall we?  Not that Felluga doesn’t make a few nice reds, but its whites – and, generally speaking, the white wines of its native region, Friuli – are the real attention grabbers. I joined Roberto for a simple, satisfying lunch of interesting bruschette and very tasty pasta at Corsino, deep in the West Village, a comfortable setting for both tasting and talking.

Roberto Felluga

Roberto represents the fifth generation of his family’s commitment to Friuli’s indigenous grape varieties and the fine wines they produce – maybe the best, certainly among the best, white wines of Italy. His great-great-grandfather began that enterprise, and his father Marco expanded it to its present dimensions. A graduate of Conegliano, one of the most prestigious enological institutes in Italy, Marco created the vineyards that bear his name in Gradisca d’Isonzo, as well as the Russiz Superiore vineyards in Capriva, both within the Collio DOC, the most prized viticultural zone in Friuli.

Roberto took great care to explain his family’s goals in winemaking: to express both the character of the grape variety and the character of the land. To that end, he said, they use the best and least intrusive of modern technology. In the simplest terms, that translates into controlled-temperature fermentation and a very carefully measured time in oak (largely for the red wines). That showed clearly in the wines we tasted, which one after another were absolutely textbook examples of their kinds.

The Marco Felluga MonGris 2009, a single-vineyard Pinot Grigio, stood stylistically halfway between Alsace and Italy, with the steely spine of the former and the alluring fruit and spice of the latter. The ’07 Russiz Superiore Friulano – that’s what the EU says we must now call the grape we used to know as Tocai, an indigenous Friulian specialty – and the ’08 Russiz Superiore Pinot bianco both showed classic varietal character, lush fruit, and spines of steel. These would make perfect dinner wines with any dish calling for a white wine, from delicate to assertive. I’d have to use the same sort of adjectives over and over to describe Felluga’s other distinguished white wines as well, so I’ll simply name them here: Sauvignon blanc (from both estates); Ribolla gialla, a very traditional variety in eastern Friuli (Marco Felluga); Molamatta, a lovely blend of three varieties (oak-fermented Pinot bianco and steel-fermented Friulano and Ribolla gialla: Marco Felluga); and finally Horus, a succulent dessert wine made of 90% Picolit, a very old and much endangered Friulian variety.

Totally different in setting, scale, and formality, the Amarone Families seminar and tasting took place in a cavernous hall just across the third-floor lobby from NYPL’s catalog room and equally cavernous main reading room. For all the times I’ve used the library, I never once suspected this huge space was there – much less that it could be used for food and wine events!  New York is filled with surprises.

The Amarone families number 12 – Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Agricola Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Sant’ Antonio Estate, Tommasi, Venturini, Zenato – and collectively embody 2000 years of history in wine. They have banded together to defend quality Amarone – Amarone d’Arte is the name they use in Italian – from the tidal wave of commercialized plonk that is now pouring out of the Veronese hills under its label. They are devoted to what Sandro Boscaini of Masi called “true, historic Amarone.”  That is a wine, as their manifesto makes clear, that can only be made in the best vintages, from the best sites, with very restricted yields (half of what’s allowed for Valpolicella from similar sites). It must be made slowly, over an exceptionally long, gentle fermentation and an even longer pre-release aging. Amarone d’Arte consequently is never going to be inexpensive, will always need time to mature, and ought never, ever be thought of as an everyday drink: It is by deliberate choice a special-occasion wine.

To emphasize their point, the youngest wines the families showed at the seminar were all ten years old, – five wines from the 2000 vintage – and my tasting note on each one of them ends with the same observation: “needs lots of time.”  The five 1997s  they poured next were all potentially lovely wines, but each one of them was either entering or already well into that dumb phase that all great red wines undergo – though it usually happens a few years after bottling: Amarone does everything in slow motion. The single examples of the 1988 (Masi) and 1986 (Brigaldara) vintages showed the glory of mature Amarone – big, balanced, velvety, elegant on the palate, deep and complex and long-lasting, and for all their evolved flavors still vigorous, with years of life before them.

The Amarone families’ assertion that theirs is a special wine, a unique wine, is no simple puffery: It’s a fact. Mary Mulligan MW, who led the seminar, made this strikingly clear from the start, when she emphasized that while Amarone is a “process-driven wine, like Sherry or Port or Champagne,” it is at the same time (and unlike those wines) “a vineyard-driven wine,” whose vineyard sites and the varieties planted in them dramatically affect the wine they produce. That is a two-fer of gigantic proportions in wine terms, and when it’s handled well, as the Amarone families do, it yields a giant of a wine.

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.

With My Mouth Wide Open

December 4, 2009

One of the banes of reading wine journalism, I have always thought, is the glowing, multi-adjectived report on extraordinary meals that the writer has consumed and that you, poor underprivileged reader, have not – often with an implied “nor will you ever, you miserable peasant.” So, with considerable ambivalence, I am about to inflict not one but two such on you – not to glory in my caloric excess, but because in both cases what really impressed me was the interplay of the food and the wine. That for me is what wine is really all about. To sip a wine by itself as an aperitif or by itself as a dessert can be lovely, but fundamentally wine is a food and belongs with food, and that is where it shows itself best.

Event 1 – A Dinner in Palermo

The Wildman/GIV trip that I wrote about on November 27 included a dinner at the palazzo of Laurent Bernard de la Gatenais in Palermo. The palazzo and most of the vineyards that make up the Rapitalà estate have been in de la Gatenais’s family for generations, and he had himself taken the dinner preparations in hand, so this was probably as authentic an expression of Sicilian cucina di monzù as I am ever likely to experience. What struck me most about it was its seeming simplicity: If the highest art is to conceal art, this dinner was high art indeed.

Photos: Odila Galer-Noel

First, little snacks of panella – tiny, salted chickpea-flour fritters, superb appetizers. Then a primo from the heart of Sicilian tradition: a timballo. This was a golden pastry crust, lightly flavored with orange rind, encasing a filling of pasta, chicken, peas, capers, and cheese – think “The Big Night” and you’re on the right track. For secondo, we had a whole, enormous dentice, a Mediterranean fish, poached and served with boiled potatoes, with excellent olive oil and freshly made mayonnaise to dress both. Dessert was semifreddo with almond praline and the most delicate imaginable cannoli.

We drank Rapitalà white wines throughout. Piano Maltese (Grillo and Catarratto, both indigenous Sicilian varieties) served as aperitif. Pleasing in itself, it was deepened and intensified by the slightly salted, slightly nutty panella, so that what on first sip had seemed somewhat one-dimensional showed itself as complex and very interesting indeed. With both the timballo and the fish we drank Casalj (Catarratto and Chardonnay, 70/30), a fuller-bodied white that played lean and muscular with the pasta, which highlighted its acidity, and rounder and softer with the dentice, which emphasized its fruit and balance. Neither of these wines had seen oak.

Laurent de la Gatinais enjoys his cannoli

By contrast, Cielo d’Alcamo (late-harvest Sauvignon and Catarratto), the dessert wine, had spent about 11 months in barrique. Drunk by itself, the wine showed primarily sweetness: I had to work hard to taste other elements in it. But with the semifreddo, it blossomed. Its acidity came up, its sugar subsided, and its delicacy, elegance, and complexity stepped to the fore, making it crystal clear why it has been taking prizes in Italy. Once again, the magic of food and wine matching.

Event 2 – A Lunch in New York

Also in November, the Wine Media Guild, which holds regular lunch meetings at Felidia Ristorante, invited owner Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe to present the wines of their Friuli estate. Those wines have been garnering awards in Italy almost since the estate’s inception 10 years ago, so that in itself was attractive. Moreover, the thought crossed several of our minds that, under those circumstances, we could hope for something quite exceptional from Felidia’s normally fine kitchen. We were happily right on both counts.

We tasted our way through the Bastianich line of Friulian varieties – Friulano (formerly Tocai, now because of EU bureaucracy renamed Friulano), Tocai Plus (a small vineyard, old-vine selection, bottled only in the very best years), Malvasia, and Sauvignon blanc. The last wine stood out for me because of its delightful coppery edge, which I think of as the distinctive gift of Friuli’s soils and microclimates.

Then we worked through a really interesting vertical of Bastianich Vespa Bianco (’01, ’02, ’04, ’06, and ’07). This blended wine represents the pre-WW II tradition of Friuli, when field mixes were the norm and monovarietal wines the exception. Vespa contains roughly 45% Chardonnay, 45% Sauvignon, and 10% of the very local and lovely Picolit, and the blend really blends – no single variety dominates. It leads with a pretty floral, white-fruit aroma and follows up on the palate with an elegant medium body, intriguingly inflected with mineral and flint notes.

When the lunch is served, WMG members get to choose from among the tasted wines to drink with the food. Because of its complexity, Vespa was my choice to companion the first two courses, one a gorgeous octopus salad (the tender tentacles thinly sliced and arranged like a Byzantine mosaic on the plate, topped with slices of warm potato and onion), the second fresh ravioli stuffed with pecorino cheese and pears and dressed only with butter and a little cheese.

The first dish brought up beautifully the underlying fruit of the Vespa, giving it the slightest suggestion of sweetness that worked perfectly with the fleshy sweetness of the octopus. The ravioli, which were wonders of delicacy, worked in the opposite direction, emphasizing Vespa’s minerality and creating a delicious counterpoint of fruit and earth. With these dishes, the Vespa showed not only better but more than it did by itself – and that for me is what it’s all about.

Picking a wine that will enhance and be enhanced by the food it’s served with requires some thought, some experience, some experimentation. There is no magic formula, until you learn your own palate and gain a little knowledge of the way different foods and different wines interact. It’s not a mystery, but it’s not a slam-dunk either. In The Right Wine I tried to suggest some principles for matching food and wine for their mutual enhancement. If you find the whole subject intimidating you might want to take a look at what I say there. But essentially, the best teacher is good old trial and error. It may take a while to get the hang of it, but the practice doesn’t hurt at all.