Archive for the ‘Sicily’ Category

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

trebicchieri-2017

So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

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red-wine

 

From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

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I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

white-wines

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

Geography Lessons: Planeta’s Sicilian Vineyards

December 5, 2016

Alessio Planeta, who visits the United States often on behalf of his family’s winery, tried valiantly to explain Sicily’s multitude of terroirs alessio-planeta-2to a group of journalists gathered at Del Posto for a tasting of a selection of Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties. Planeta has a deep interest in this, since the family firm (headed by Alessio and his cousin Francesca, with knowledgeable input from her father/his uncle Diego) has been at the forefront of exploring and exploiting those diverse terroirs and their native grapes. Currently, the Planetas have vineyards in at least six different parts of Sicily, so Alessio had a good deal of information to impart.

That was no easy task, since there is a great deal of confusion about Sicily’s geography/geology, even among its residents. Because of its great variety of landscapes, Alessio remarked, people sometimes speak of Sicily as “not an island but a small continent,” and sometimes they refer to the Etna area – the eastern third of Sicily, roughly – as “an island within an island.” No wonder outsiders can find it all confusing.

As Professor Attilio Scienza of the Universita di Milano once explained it to me, Sicily really has two totally different geologies. The eastern third of the island is purely volcanic: Etna is the southernmost of a series of volcanoes that once ran down the length of Italy. Long ago, it rose above the sea and formed that chunk of land. The western two-thirds of Sicily consist of a very variegated piece of the North African karst that drifted north and got caught on or by the volcanic piece. So on the eastern part of Sicily you find volcanic soils of different ages and varying mineral traces, and on the western you have the whole variety of soils that can be found on continental North Africa.
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sicily-map-2

It all matters greatly, because different grape varieties do well – and the same grape variety performs differently – on the different soils in different parts of the island. That is exactly what the Planetas have set about investigating, so Alessio led us on a tasting tour of some of the family’s vineyards, focusing primarily on what happens to Nero d’Avola, one of Sicily’s most important red grapes, in those different locales – to wit, Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna, and Milazzo. Well, we skipped Etna, for the simple reason that Nero d’Avola doesn’t do well there at all – Nerello Mascalese is the red variety that excels there – but we palatally visited all the other areas.
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menfi-etc

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Alessio’s photos show the difference of the soils at the Planeta’s four vineyard sites, and his text ticks off the prime distinctive characteristics of the Nero d’Avola grown and vinified at each. Here are the wines we tasted and my reactions to them. We started in Vittoria, with

Frappato DOC Vittoria 2015. This wine is vinified from 100% Frappato, a very localized indigenous red variety, that makes a light, agile, and refreshing wine. Bitter almond and cherry nose and palate, medium-length dry finish – in all, unusual and intriguing. Then we went on to

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2014. Sicily’s only DOCG, this wine is vinified from 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato. It has a rich cherry/tobacco nose and a cherry/berry/tobacco palate and it finishes long and rich. The next wine was

Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2014. A cru wine made from 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato. All these wines so far saw no wood: all stainless steel fermentation and aging. This particular bottle was slightly closed on the nose, but showed lush cherry and chocolate notes on the palate: very nice indeed. Alessio said that Vittoria’s marine/calcareous soils yielded Nero d’Avola marked by strawberry and cherry aromas and tastes, showing great freshness. I didn’t pick up much strawberry, but about the cherry and the marked freshness I emphatically agree.

Then, to demonstrate that this seemingly ephemeral light wine could age well, Alessio showed a Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2007. This nine-year-old perfectly proved his point: It had an intense cherry/strawberry nose and palate, with a very long finish. Despite its age, it still felt light and agile. This was a completely enjoyable wine that I would go so far as to call distinguished. Any wine drinker would love this with the ritual holiday turkey.

We then moved to Planeta’s La Baronia vineyards in Milazzo, near Messina on Sicily’s northeast coast, for Nocera Sicilia DOC 2015. Nocera is another localized indigenous red variety that is undergoing a revival of interest – deservedly so, I would say. This example had a wonderful grapey/stemmy nose, strikingly fresh, before a delightful plum and black pepper palate that made me want to find out more about the variety and its potential. We then progressed to

Nero d’Avola Nocera Sicilia DOC 2014. 70% Nero d’Avola, 30% Nocera. Fermented in stainless steel, with 14 days’ maceration on the skins, and four months’ aging in used barriques before bottling. This wine had a very nice cherry and anise nose and palate and finished long – very good drinking. Alessio described the Nero d’Avola of this area as showing cherry and citrus flavors, with great freshness and a velvety mouth feel. I got more anise than citrus, but otherwise his comments tally very well with my tasting notes.

He then zigzagged us, geographically, to the Noto area, near Siracusa on Sicily’s southeast coast, to taste Noto Nero d’Avola DOC 2012. This wine is fermented and macerated in stainless steel, then racked and aged for ten months in second- and third-use Allier barriques. Alessio says that the features of Nero d’Avola from this area are incense aromas, as well as aromas and flavors of currants and carob, plus balsamic notes – quite a complex medley, in fact. And that was indeed what I tasted, though I think some of those more exotic notes may have come from the barriques rather than the grapes.

Next came Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2011, 100% Nero d’Avola and vinified in exactly the same way as the preceding wine. This example was intense and deeply characteristic in both the nose and the mouth, with the black currant flavors especially prominent – a very elegant and very long-finishing wine. Incidentally, 2011 is Alessio’s favorite of all the recent vintages. Drunk again with the lunch following the formal tasting, this wine showed very, very well – elegant, with dried cherry notes and hints of chocolate and tobacco, and an almost sweet finish.

The final wine of the formal tasting was Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2010, once again 100% Nero d’Avola, steel-fermented and oak-aged. I found this wine very aromatic and edgy, though round in the mouth, soft and deep, with the elegance that seems to be a hallmark of the Noto zone. I thought it fine, though I feel it really wants more aging.

With the lunch, we drank the 2011 again, as I mentioned above, as well as 2007 and 2005 Santa Cecilia Noto DOC. I found the ’07 slightly closed, needing time in the glass to open at all. It should be wonderful in a few years: This may merely be that dumb phase that so many substantial red wines go through. The ’05 was excellent, still fresh, though maturing beautifully, with lots of years still in front of it. As it opened in the glass, it just got fresher and fresher – very impressive indeed.

Thus ended the geography lesson, which gave me a greater understanding of how much more there is to learn about Sicilian varieties and their regional characters and just how much more than we have yet seen they may be capable of. That’s what’s most exciting for me about Italian wine: no region of Italy has hit its limit yet.

Sicily Is Hot!

April 25, 2016

OK, so I can’t resist a bad joke. But it’s true: Sicilian wine is hot right now, especially in Italy, where for the past several years the wines of the three-cornered isle have been getting a lot of press attention and a great deal of consumer demand. In recognition of that, the New York Wine Media Guild dedicated its April tasting and luncheon to surveying Sicily’s highly varied bottlings.Sicily wine map

Organized by co-chairs Pat Savoie and Charles Scicolone, with a little input from yours truly, the WMG tasting focused almost entirely on Sicilian wines vinified from indigenous grape varieties – a decision I heartily applaud. In my opinion, the two impediments to the growth and reputation of Sicilian wine have been the fad for international varieties – think about it: does the world really want a Sicilian Chardonnay or a Sicilian Cabernet? – and the influx of young Australian winemakers, some of whom assume (a) that Sicilians knew nothing about making wine until the Aussies arrived, and (b) that Syrah is the answer to all questions. So a tasting that concentrated on Sicilian wines made from native grapes – 25 wines in all – put the spotlight right where I think it belongs, on the wines that are unique to this beautiful island.

Here are the wines in the order of their presentation that day.

White

  •  Feudo Sartanna 2014 Zirito Grillo
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2014 Grillo Cavallo Delle Fate
  • Spadafora 2013 Dei Principi di Spadafora Grillo
  • Cusumano 2014 Insolia
  • Benanti 2013 Etna Bianco di Caselle (Carricante)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Vigna Casalj (Catarratto)
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2012 Nozze d’Oro Contea di Sclafani (Inzolia & Sauvignon)
  • Planeta 2014 Cometa (Fiano)
  • Tenuta Rapitala 2014 Piano Maltese (Grillo & Cataratto)

Rosé

  • Tasca d’Almerita 2015 Le Rose di Regaleali (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Paternò di Vittoria 2013 Frappato
  • Planeta 2014 Frappato
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2014 Frapatto
  • Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2012 Paterno di Vittoria (Frappato & Nero d’Avola)

Red

  • Cusumano 2014 Nero d’Avola
  • Morgante 2011 Don Antonio Nero d’Avola Riserva
  • Tasca d’Almerita 2010 Rosso del Conte Regaleali Contea di Sclafani (Perricone & Nero d’Avola)
  • Vivera 2010 Etna Rosso Martinella
  • Benanti Etna Rosso 2013 Rovitello (Nerello Mascalese)
  • Palari 2011 Rosso del Soprano
  • Palari 2009 Faro
  • Palari 2008 Santa.Nè
  • Alessandro di Camporeale 2012 Kaid Syrah

Dessert

  • Florio Targa Riserva Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco
  • Florio 2009 Malvasia

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That is a pretty exhaustive sampling of Sicily’s native grapes, spread out over 9 whites, 5 rosés, 9 reds (one non-native Syrah slipped in there) and 2 dessert wines. The varieties covered there include the white Grillo, Insolia, and Carricante, widely grown in the western two-thirds of the island, and the white Catarratto, a specialty of the Etna region. The red Frappato is usually used to produce a charming rosé wine, delightful with Sicily’s great seafood cuisine – or just about anything else, for that matter. Nero d’Avola and Perricone are the favorite red grapes of the western chunk of Sicily, though a whole cluster of indigenous red varieties – Nerello mascalese and Nerello Capucci especially – replace them throughout the eastern piece of the island.

That kind of completeness has been characteristic of WMG tastings of Italian wines in recent years, and it is one of the most enjoyable and most useful aspects of those tastings: You come away from them with a good sense of an area’s production, quality, and styles, which is invaluable for a wine journalist and not at all harmful for a collector or consumer.

Needless to say, being the opinionated person I am, I have my favorites: I like especially the wines from Sicily’s eastern hills. It is a not sufficiently appreciated fact that, broadly speaking, Sicily has two distinct geologies. The eastern third of the island – think Messina, Catania, Etna – is part of the Italian geologic plate, a continuation of the same piece of land that is thrusting up into Europe, raising the Alps in the north and causing volcanic activity in the south. The western two-thirds of the island are a portion of North Africa that broke off from the mainland, drifted north, and got snagged by the Etna mass.

That eastern, Etna-anchored portion of Sicily, with its mineral-rich volcanic soils, makes the Sicilian wines that intrigue me most – the reds from Etna and from Palari (the Faro DOC), and the whites of Etna. All taste richly of their native grapes and of their roots in volcanic soil, which may well be a wine grape’s greatest ally.

Etna’s volcanic soils especially nurture richness and subtlety in the vines that grow there, so that red wines vinified from Nerello mascalese (Faro, Rosso del Soprano, Vivera, Benanti’s Rovitello) possess a richness and nuance that remind many fans of the beauties of Burgundy. The whites vinified there from Carricante are in a league of their own: Some of Benanti’s are among the best white wines in Italy, though most of the market hasn’t realized that yet. Your gain, while it lasts, before tastings like this one spread the word.

Convergence: Nostalgia and Preserving a Patrimony

March 31, 2016

I recently attended a seminar, sponsored by Banfi, on the subject of saving some Italian wines whose continued existence is threatened by a variety of modern phenomena, even including, in some cases, their own popularity. Such paradoxes aside, this is an important topic, and the Banfi presentation highlighted it with four wines that constituted a kind of nostalgia trip for me, a sort of where-are-the-snows-of-yesteryear experience with, for a change, a happy ending.

The wines were Albinea Canali FB (for Fermented in Bottle, which it is) Lambrusco di Sorbara, Luna Mater Frascati, Palari Faro, and Targa Riserva Marsala – four wines utterly different from each other but alike in how near they have come to slipping under the waves of fashion and disappearing into wine’s dead letter office – to thoroughly garble a metaphor. Language sometimes gets away from me, but I usually have a firm grasp on my glass.

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Albinea Canali FB Lambrusco di Sorbara

Many of my readers will remember clearly when Riunite Lambrusco was one of the largest selling wines in America. At its peak, tens of thousands of cases a month were being consumed. That wine was the sweet version of Lambrusco, and its amazing popularity effectually killed the American market for dry Lambrusco, the premier exponent of which was – and is – Lambrusco di Sorbara. A lot of sweet Lambrusco is still being purchased here, but the dry version has survived and is starting a comeback.

In contrast to the brashness of the sweet Lambrusco, Lambrusco di Sorbara is dry, delicate, and very elegant – a pleasing light wine to serve as an aperitif with any sort of hors d’oeuvre, or simply to sip as a cocktail. A niche wine, perhaps, but the niche is a big one, and the wine is pleasing enough to drink right through any light meal. The bottle of Canali FB that was poured at the seminar was pale salmon in color and, having undergone its final fermentation in the bottle, was unfiltered, fully dry, and with all its fresh fruit intact.

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Fontana Candida Luna Mater Frascati

Luna mater

The Fontana Candida Luna Mater was a 2011 bottle chosen to show just how well this wine can age. Really heavy nostalgia here: Frascati has always been the white wine of Rome, and in the days of yore it was one of the most popular white wines in America. Demand exceeded supply, and producers began overcropping or using any grapes they could lay their hands on. Consequently, many bottles of Frascati eventually devolved into lightly alcoholic water, and its American market disappeared.

But Fontana Candida soldiered on. The firm had been the first bottler of Frascati, and it now accounts for 40% of Frascati production. These days, it is fighting a war on two fronts: one to reclaim the reputation of properly vinified Frascati, the other to physically save the Frascati zone from Rome’s ever-encroaching urban sprawl. The only way to prevent small growers from selling their vineyards to developers is to make it more profitable for them to grow grapes, so Fontana Candida is working with growers both in terms of technical support and in the solid cash terms of paying premium prices for superior grapes.

Luna Mater is a key element in Fontana Candida’s campaign. Meticulously and painstakingly vinified by an intricate and lengthy process* from selected grapes, all from prime vineyards on the volcanic hills that surround Rome, Luna Mater evokes decades-old memories of charming, refreshing Frascatis, sipped on hot summer afternoons on cafe terraces in a quieter, far less touristed Rome than we will ever see again. Medium-bodied, aromatic, mineral on the palate, elegant and light, Luna Mater recalls not so much the snows of yesteryear as the bright sunshine of summers past.

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Palari Faro

Faro

Palari is the name of both the estate and the wine; Faro is the DOC. The name derives from the lighthouse (faro) of Messina, in whose zone the vineyards are located. When that DOC was on the verge of being swept off the books some 20 years ago, the great Italian wine journalist Luigi Veronelli challenged then-architect Salvatore Geraci to save it. Geraci had inherited his grandfather’s vineyards near Messina, and they needed heroic efforts to be brought back into production again. But the efforts were made, the DOC was preserved (the tiny Faro zone now has five working producers), and Geraci’s Palari started winning Tre Bicchieri awards almost from the get-go. Veronelli hailed Palari’s second vintage by comparing it to Clos de Vougeot. For me, it is probably the best red wine of Sicily (and I say this loving the red wines of Etna), however improbable its blend of obscure indigenous varieties from old, head-trained vines (Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Capucci, Nocera, Iacche, Acitana, Cor’e Palumba).

Signor Geraci tells me I was the first American journalist to visit Palari and the first in America to write about it: If so, I was amply repaid for my efforts by the taste of the 2009 he poured at the seminar. To call it fine is understatement: It was big, elegant, mineral, subtly fruited, and very long finishing, albeit still very young – a wine worthy of long cellaring, if you can keep your hands off it.

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Florio Targa Riserva Marsala

targa

The Florio Marsala was a 2003 semidry specimen. Marsala, once as esteemed as Port or Madeira, fell victim to its identification with culinary uses and flavored bottlings. Outside of Italy it never developed the kind of cult following that saved Port from decline when taste turned against sweet, fortified wines. The Florio family, which was among the Italian founders of Marsala in the early 19th Century, nevertheless persisted, becoming even better at their craft. They now make their Marsala only from the Grillo grape, which is vinified and aged with extreme care. The result, in the bottle poured at the seminar, was a beautifully Madeira-like wine – my first thought on tasting it was old Bual – sweet but balanced, with excellent acidity to keep it supple. I would love to serve it with some fine bloc foie gras, where I think it would work better than Sauternes.

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This was for me a very enjoyable session, not just for the quality of the wines served but also for the success of the mission each wine represented, for both of which Banfi should be congratulated. Italy is a treasure trove of fine wine varieties, and none of them should be allowed to fall out of use.

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* Handpicked grapes are divided into two lots. One is cooled before pressing to maintain aroma. The other is fermented on the skins in small oak barrels to preserve varietal character. A subsequent harvest, a few days later, adds hand de-stemmed whole grapes to the must to enhance aromas and flavors. (Source: Banfi website)

 

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4

 

What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

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If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

A Miscellany of White Wines

February 28, 2014

The shad have started running, one of the earliest signs that maybe this winter really will eventually end. And our neighborhood Citarella has been stocking beautifully fresh John Dory (Saint Pierre or San Pietro to those of you who speak Mediterranean, along the shores of which sea we first tasted it). It’s one of tastiest fish around, and between it and the shad, Diane and I have been hitting the white wines hard.

Both shad and John Dory are fish that are so rich and flavorful that we tend to cook them very simply, the former broiled because shad is very oily, the latter lightly floured and sautéed in butter or olive oil. With either fish, we want a wine to complement its intensity, not compete with it – so no big-bodied assertive wines, but rather medium- to light-bodied whites with plenty of minerality and acidity: ideally, a wine that could serve as aperitif or appetizer companion and segue gracefully into its place alongside the entrée.

Happily, there are many such, both French and Italian. Some of my French favorites I will treat in a later post. Right now, I want to focus on a handful of Italian producers whose wines have been giving us a lot of pleasure lately.

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Poggiobello

Poggiobello

This is a large estate – it has grown to 90 hectares under vines – owned by Genagricola, which as the name implies is a corporate entity. There are several such that in Italy have entered the wine world, and – to the surprise of most of us who are suspicious of big corporations playing in what we think of as an artisan’s field – most of them do a very nice job. They have the deep pockets to acquire good sites and good people and to do the things necessary to attain quality.

In the case of Poggiobello, this involved not just the acquisition of land, though that was important: Poggiobello’s vineyards lie in and near Rosazzo in the Colli Orientali del Friuli, one of the best zones for Friulian wines. Beyond that, Genagricola invested heavily in terracing, canalization, and drainage – large expenditures and generally unaesthetic projects that make a huge difference to wine production.

Poggiobello makes the whole line of Friulian wines, including some, like Sauvignon and Merlot, that would elsewhere be classified as international varieties but that have been cultivated here for centuries. My favorites are the whites, especially Ribolla Gialla, a wine that doesn’t get enough attention and that pleases my palate immensely: It marries particularly well with firm-fleshed, distinctive fish like John Dory. My other favorites include Friulano, which used to be called Tocai – despite the changed name its pleasing, almondy character remains intact – and Pinot bianco, a variety that seems to make interesting wine wherever it’s planted.

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Peter Zemmer

Peter Zemmer vineyards

This is a family-owned winery in the southernmost part of the province of Alto Adige, near the tiny, mostly German-speaking town of Cortina. This is a beautiful stretch of country, with fruit orchards lining the bottom lands alongside the Adige river and vineyards stretching up the slopes that frame the lush valley. Despite being so far north in Italy, the climate is more Mediterranean than continental, and a tremendous variety of grapes grow well here at different altitudes and on different soils. The latter differ quite sharply from one side of the river to the other and as you move up slope from the valley floor.

All that good fish my good wife has been preparing gave me an ideal chance to catch up with some of Zemmer’s latest vintages (I’ve written about his wine before, here). The new releases quite easily live up to the fine impression that earlier ones made. I particularly liked both the 2012 Pinot bianco, which showed excellent varietal character, and the very interesting blend called Cortinie Bianco (2010). The latter is composed of Chardonnay, Pinot grigio, Sauvignon, and Gewurztraminer. Two-thirds of the grapes are fermented in stainless steel, one-third in barriques, which conveyed no perceptible oak flavor to the wine but did give it a lovely roundness and some depth. Very pleasing wines, both.

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Cusumano

Cusumano vineyards

This winery, with vineyards in several parts of northwest Sicily, is quite a large and committedly Sicilian firm. It has a deep faith in the native Sicilian Insolia (white) and Nero d’Avola (red) grapes, but it also cultivates Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, which it vinifies as 100% varietal wines and also blends with indigenous Sicilian grapes.

Minor point: I’ve always seen the native white grape spelled with a Z – Inzolia – but Cusumano spells it with an S. Who am I to argue? The major point is that the 2012 Insolia that I drank with shad was lovely: nice varietal character – white fruits, a little peachy, with excellent minerality – and good medium body to match with but neither conquer nor surrender to the shad. Purist that I am, I prefer this 100% Insolia to Cusumano’s 2012 Angimbé, a 70/30 blend of Insolia and Chardonnay. This probably more because I am totally bored with non-Burgundian Chardonnay than because of anything wrong with the wine – which was emphatically not the case. Angimbé is a well-done blend, mixing the minerality of the Insolia and the tropical fruit character of warm-climate Chardonnay. I just preferred the distinctiveness of the native grape in purezza, as the telling Italian phrase has it.

So there you have it: a run of shad, a run of white wines, and the prospect of a few more of both as spring gradually (hurry, please!) moves north.

Etna Erupts – Wine!

September 5, 2013

Over Labor Day weekend, Diane contrived a Sicilian summer dinner out of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels – lots of fish to please the cranky detective’s exigent palate and a good meat dish followed by cheeses to satisfy us red wine lovers. Since I really enjoy matching ethnic dishes with the wines they grew up with, this presented me with an interesting challenge.

Sicily makes a lot of wine, but – truth must be told – a lot of it is very ordinary, and a lot of it is all the same, no matter where it’s grown on the Three-Cornered Isle. If one thing I didn’t want was “ordinary,” certainly another undesirable was “the same,” so I began searching for good quality Sicilian wines to match with Diane’s and Inspector Montalbano’s dishes. This turned out to be both simple and difficult: simple because I focused quickly on Etna and its environs, where some of the most interesting wines in Sicily are being made; and difficult because their distribution in this country is very spotty. I persevered, however, and came up with some lovely bottles. To wit: Benanti’s Biancodicaselle 2010 and Rossodiverzella 2010, Biondi’s Outis bianco 2009.

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But let me begin at the beginning. I chose Etna because it amounts to quintessential Sicily, even geologically. The northeastern third of Sicily that constitutes the Etna region is, in a manner of speaking, the sole indigenous piece of Sicily: The western two-thirds are geologically and climatically very different. In fact, that western portion of what is now Sicily is a chunk of north Africa that eons ago broke off, drifted north, and bumped into Etna, where it has stayed ever since. A good choice, both for geography and for wine.

So, having said all that, I now have to admit that none of it applies to the first wine we tried that evening – my bad. For aperitivi, we drank Prosecco – not very Sicilian, but authorized (literally) by Camilleri’s treatment of the second course’s clams, which steamed them open in Prosecco, thereby opening the door for me to serve that delightfully light and pleasing sparkler to brace our palates for the meal to come. We tried two different ones: Nino Franco’s nv Rustico and Miotto’s nv Federa Extra Dry.

two proseccostotally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.

Both were light in body and alcohol and totally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.

???????????????????????????????With the first course of fresh anchovies, we drank the 2010 Biancodicaselle. Since Etna’s reputation has skyrocketed in Italian wine circles, many new producers have been entering the scene. Benanti is an Etna old-timer that has been making top-flight wine there for decades from some long-established, high-altitude vineyards. They – it’s a family firm – have been proudly cultivating very indigenous grapes – the white Carricante, which grows nowhere else in Sicily or in Italy, and the reds Nerello mascalese and Nerello cappuccio, which are specialties of Etna and its surrounds. On the volcano’s mineral-rich soils, these grapes yield extraordinary wines, unlike any others. Benanti’s Pietramarina, a cru 100% Carricante from some of its oldest, highest vineyards, stands among the small handful of Italy’s finest white wines (unfortunately, I couldn’t lay my hands on any in time for this dinner: damn!). The parallel red wine, Serra della Contessa, ranks right up there with Palari in the topmost tier of Sicilian – or Italian – red wines.

For this dinner, because of that spotty distribution I mentioned above, I had to settle for a level below those two. Initially a disappointment, this turned out to be for my palate a blessing in disguise, in that the simpler wine matched better with the simplicity, directness, and freshness of the acidulated but uncooked anchovies. It still had the lovely, dry grapefruitiness of excellent Carricante grapes, and still those provocative Etna mineral tones that made it partner perfectly with the fleshy, oil-and-lemon-laced little fishes without either the dish or the drink dominating. For me, that’s the essence of a good pairing.

???????????????????????????????We tried a different white with the baked clams, Biondi’s Outis. The intriguing name is Greek and means no one or no man. It’s what Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was, so that later, when the Cyclops bellowed in pain after Odysseus blinded him, and his fellow Cyclopes called out, “Who is hurting you?” he answered “No one,” and they all told him to just shut up, if that was the case. What that has to do with the wine I’m not exactly sure, beyond the fact that one version of the legend has the Cyclops living on or near Etna, but it makes a good story and an intriguing wine name.

Whatever: this wine is made by Salvo Foti, who is chief enologist for Benanti and probably the most highly regarded wine maker in eastern Sicily. It differs from Benanti’s in incorporating a little (total 10%) Cataratto, Minella, Malvasia, and Muscatella dell’Etna into its Carricante. It also differs in style – a touch more rustic, perhaps, and definitely bigger, deeper, rounder in the mouth, showing both a little bit more Carricante and a little bit more Etna. The best way to put it is simply that it had more intensity, which was just fine for its place in the dinner. It was perfect with those succulent little morsels of clam, and even the deep-dyed red wine drinkers took an extra glass – for science, to be sure.

Benanti rossoWith the earthy flavors of a very Sicilian beef roll, we drank the 2010 Rossodiverzella. This was a wine I can only describe as mellow, in the most honorific sense. Round, soft, dark-fruited, tasting of that unmistakable Etna minerality, it was at the same time direct and undemanding. All it asked was that you enjoy it, which was an easy request to grant. The Nerello grapes that make up its blend are capable of lengthy cellaring, but for this particular dish an older wine might have been overkill. I like to keep the players in each course on a par with each other, so for me this match was just fine.

Taurasi 1With the cheese course, I broke pattern completely. The cheeses were from northern Italy, and the wine was from The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – that is to say, Naples – Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Riserva 1985. I had to get an older wine in there somewhere, and this proved to be the exact right spot for this elegant, deep, complex red – an absolute pleasure to drink. I do wish I had more of it, but that was my last, oldest bottle of Taurasi. Sigh. I do believe that even the seafood-loving Inspector Montalbano would have relished it, and forgiven my introduction of a “foreign” wine.

Hot-Weather Red Wines

August 15, 2013

Nowhere is it carved in stone that you must drink white wines or rosé all summer long. Not that that’s bad, mind you: I’ve had some lovely whites and enjoyable rosés so far this tarmac-melting season. But I can only go so long before my system requires red wine. The first signs of my withdrawal symptoms are usually quickening of the pulse at casual mentions of, say, Beaujolais, followed at the next stage by scent hallucinations: I keep thinking I smell Gragnano or Freisa. When that starts happening, Attention Must Be Paid.

Maresca family legend has it that this addiction was formed in my earliest childhood, when my Neapolitan grandfather – the man whose youthful moustache style still adorns my upper lip – fed me slices of peaches that he had cut up and soaked in his glass of cellar-cool red wine.

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Grandmother and Grandfather Maresca in their  Vegetable Garden

Maresca Grandparents in their Vegetable Garden

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The most extreme forms of the story have me still in my highchair, which became a high chair indeed as I imbibed those wine-soaked peaches. I barely remember any of this, but I still enjoy peaches in wine. My grandfather’s wine was, I am sure, homemade stuff from the-cousins-down-on-the-farm, but peaches and I are adaptable: We’ll both work with just about any fresh, fruity red wine.

The easiest recourse, of course, is Beaujolais. It’s available everywhere, and there are many good producers. In a pinch, I can even drink some of Georges Duboeuf’s better cru bottlings. His Julienas and Fleurie and Regnié seem to have a more modest touch of the banana-oil scent so prominent elsewhere in his line, which many years ago led some less-reverent wine journalists to refer to him as Georges Du Banane. Duboeuf has the advantage of availability: His wines are sold almost everywhere. NB: For peach-soaking purposes, his simple Beaujolais Villages works best.

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But for savoring purposes, there are many excellent smaller Beaujolais producers whose wines are worth seeking out. Two of my favorites are Jean Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées and Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette. The latter’s Fleurie and Christal and the former’s Morgon, Fleurie, and Chénas are among my all-time top Beaujolais.

In the US, Chénas is probably the least-known of the Beaujolais crus, but it’s one of my favorites for its intense individuality – and its surprisingly ability to age. In France, I have drunk 10- and 15-year-olds that were just lovely, almost Burgundian in their velvetiness and complexity. Moulin-à-vent is the cru that is best known here for its cellaring potential, but Morgon shouldn’t be overlooked in that regard either. Remember, it’s acidity that keeps a wine alive, and all Beaujolais have an abundance of that.

Some Loire reds also serve very well in summer, since their soft fruit – Cabernet franc – makes them tolerant of a little chilling, in the manner of Beaujolais. Don’t ice them to death, but serve a good Saumur or Bourgueil at a true cellar temperature, around 50 to 55 degrees, and you can enjoy them in the steamiest of Julys and Augusts. I haven’t actually tried slicing peaches into any of these, but I see no reason why the combination shouldn’t taste fine. In the old days – which are getting more and more distant all the time – when red wines normally ran about 12 or 12.5 degrees of alcohol, you could even enjoy St. Emilion or Gigondas served cool on a hot summer evening, but today’s higher-alcohol wines don’t respond well to such treatment, and would probably overwhelm a humble peach – alas.

More recondite choices come from Italy: harder to find, perhaps, but worth the effort. Bardolino is a reviving appellation that deserves more attention than it gets. The best of them combine the kind of light, fresh fruit and vivacious acidity that make an excellent warm-weather dinner drink and companion to fish, white flesh, or salume or pastas – a very useful, almost-all-purpose wine, and certainly suitable for soaking a few peaches.

Gragnano – a personal favorite, and probably close to the kind of wine my grandfather first dunked his peaches in as a young man in Italy – makes the perfect pizza or pasta summer wine. Grown in the Sorrento peninsula, it was once the ubiquitous everyday red wine of Naples, where I’m sure it still cradles many a peach slice after lunch and dinner. Several good growers – Grotta del Sole, Federiciane, and Monteleone for example – are now reviving the breed. Gragano is vinified from a blend of Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso, the latter a very localized, very Campanian variety.

Sicily, as you might expect, offers some lovely warm weather reds, most notably Frappato and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The latter should not be confused with the Marche’s Cerasuolo, an entirely different wine from an entirely different grape. The principal variety in both Sicilian wines is the indigenous Frappato, which makes a charming, light-bodied and light-cherry-colored wine under both denominations. Both are delightful hot-weather drinking and worth some effort to find.

Back in the north, in addition to the big, austere Nebbiolo wines, the fields around Alba also produce Freisa and Grigolino, two wines that have lost ground – in the most literal sense – to the growth of Barolo and Barbaresco. Freisa and Grignolino are almost polar opposites of those two wines: both are lighter-bodied, acidic, and sprightly – indeed, you often find slightly fizzy examples. Freisa smells and tastes like a strawberry/raspberry cocktail with an underlayer of tar (we are in the Piedmont after all), while Grignolino is the grittier, earthier, seemingly more rustic wine of the two. Pio Cesare makes a lovely example of it, and several good small growers have remained loyal to/are turning back to Freisa. Both make great companions to a summer lunch or dinner, and both take a little chilling without losing anything – in fact, a slight chill seems to me to better release their aromas.

So there are lots of wines to choose from, and you have no excuse to give up red wine because of the weather. Get busy peeling and slicing those peaches!

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Two Useful New Books

March 29, 2013

Two recently published books deserve every wine lover’s attention. Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, by Tom Hyland, and The World of Sicilian Wine, by Bill Nesto, MW, and Frances Di Savino, take very different approaches to their subjects, but both offer abundant and valuable information for anyone curious beyond the most obvious level of Italian wine lore.

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hyland

Tom Hyland is a Chicago-based freelance wine writer and photographer who fell in love with Italy, its people, and its wines more than a dozen years ago and has been immersing himself in them ever since. His Beyond Barolo and Brunello organizes itself in what seems a familiar pattern, but then quickly moves off in unexpected directions. It treats all of Italy’s regions, north to south and the islands, an arrangement that will be familiar to anyone who has done a little reading in Italian wine – or in Italian travel, for that matter. But within each section, Hyland’s treatment is very different from the conventional.

He begins each regional section with a simple listing of the most important grape varieties grown there, and then presents cameos of his favorite producers of each variety. This means that each chapter offers a survey of some of the best producers of each region in particular relation to what Hyland considers their best wines. For most readers, this will create some comforting recognitions, and a few surprises. For example: Massolino’s Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva is an expected and appropriate entry – it’s a famous wine, after all – but how delightful it is to find entries as well for less familiar appellations and makers, such as the Boca from Le Piane, or Sella’s Lessona “Omaggio a Quintino Sella” from Piemonte’s northern wine zone.

Similarly, in his treatment of Campania, all the famous varieties – Aglianico, Greco, Fiano – and all their famous makers – Mastroberardino, Terredora, Feudi di San Gregorio and so on – are handled thoroughly, but there is also respectful treatment of lesser-known varieties (the whites Falanghina, Coda di Volpe, Asprinio, Fenile, Ginestra, and Biancolella; the reds Piedirosso, Tintore, and even Merlot) and their producers. So Pietracupa’s and Ciro Picariello’s Fianos are presented right alongside their more famous compatriots. In the same way among the red wines, along with the famous Taurasis and Aglianicos, you find such fine small producers as Monte di Grazia, whose Costa d’Amalfi Rosso harbors the rare Tintore grape. For the wine lover who wants to explore the spacious world of Italian wine, Beyond Barolo and Brunello opens a very wide door to a treasurehouse of wines and their producers.

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The Nesto/Di Savino book, The World of Sicilian Wine, approaches its more traditional subject in a more traditional way, starting with several quite interesting chapters about the long – and for its protagonists, too often frustrating – history of winemaking in Sicily, a process too often directed more by external events and foreign interests than by Sicilians themselves. There follow equally interesting sections on the geography, geology, and climate(s) of Sicily and how all of these affect winemaking. Three large chapters deal in detail with the contemporary wine situation in Sicily’s three main geographical sections, the Val di Mazara, Val di Noto, and Val Demone. All three chapters feature interviews, long and short, with producers, great and small, yielding a fascinating overview of the important trends in Sicilian wine right now, as well as informative perspectives on some of the principal players.

This clearly a heartfelt book: The authors’ affection for Sicily and its people – especially its devoted wine people – shines through everywhere, though it never gets in the way of their clear-eyed view of Sicilian winemaking’s possibilities and pitfalls. Of course in a book that covers as much ground as this one does, there are bound to be areas where my opinion differs from the authors’ – for example, I’m much more enthusiastic about the Carricante variety and the Etna wines made from it than they seem to be. But that’s a minor point: The key thing to remember is that this is a very carefully done, thoroughly researched production, packed with information and detail that will be very hard to find anywhere else. If you want to know about Sicilian wine, this is your book.

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.

z-schioppettino

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.