Archive for the ‘Umbria’ Category

Bringing the Kids Up Right: An Unusual Wine Book

February 10, 2012

I just received a copy of a new book by an old friend, Teresa Severini Zaganelli. Grapes in the Glass is a wine primer intended for teenage readers. I can already hear neo-Prohibitionists shrieking in chorus from coast to coast. But relax – the subtitle is “Wine: Know-how, Fun and Responsibility,” and it’s a very common-sense introduction to the world of wine not as exotica or narcotica but as a simple part of everyday life, maybe even as a career path.

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Teresa, a trained enologist in her own right, is the stepdaughter of the near-legendary Giorgio Lungarotti, the father of serious winemaking in Umbria. So she quite literally learned everything there is to know about winemaking at the feet of a master, and one who was around every day. She is also the mother of three, so she can be considered a master of that trade too. Which will lead me – eventually: I like to work up to things logically – to what surprised and pleased me most about her book.

What isn’t at all surprising is how good a wine primer it is. Its discussions of the progress of wine from vine in the field to juices in the cellar to nectar in the bottle is detailed, clear, and complete. Anything you want to know about the winemaking process is in there, in a very user-friendly fashion, in clear, direct language, and illustrated by many amusing drawings.

The framework of Teresa’s book – maybe fictional, maybe factual – is that her teenage son Francesco has volunteered his mother and her workplace for a class outing. What will surprise many Americans and outrage some is that the teacher and school OK the project, and Francesco and his peers visit Cantina Lungarotti for a lesson in viticulture and viniculture, conducted by Teresa.

The presentation is straightforward and light-handed but never condescending. The information conveyed – and there is a lot of it – is presented clearly, in language scaled to an intelligent beginner’s comprehension. And it isn’t just about Italian wine; almost all of the book’s explanations apply equally to winemaking anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of wine lore in Grapes in a Glass that many serious wine fans will be happy to have in so concise and clear a form. Their teenagers may well have to wait until Mom and Dad have finished reading Grapes in a Glass before they get their chance at it.

Which brings me to what really surprised me about this little book: its level of literacy, and the corresponding level of comprehension, it presumes in its intended teenage audience. As I said, Teresa is raising three children, and the frame narrative of her book sounds very much as if it is based on an actual occurrence. Anyone who has visited tourist sites in Italy knows that Italian children seem to be always trotting about on one field trip or another – so that aspect of the book is completely plausible. And if Teresa is right about the reading skills and attention levels of the young people she’s aiming her book at – and I have to presume she knows ragazzi as well as she knows vino – then that is plausible too.

And that means that Italian teenagers are simply far better readers and much more serious-minded than their American coevals. I remember with great pain that I’ve taught many college students who didn’t have the reading skills or attention span that this short book presumes. That’s sad. It makes no difference whether students are reading Marx or the Bible, wine lore or the Rapture, if they can’t understand what the words mean.

It’s bracing and encouraging to me to see evidence of a school system that is working. All we ever seem to hear about Italian education in this country is about student unrest and the crisis of the Italian universities. On the evidence of this splendid little tome, Italian schools are definitely doing something – maybe many things – right.

Grapes in the Glass was originally published in Italian and has been very well translated into English, in a British idiom, by Valeria Cazzola. It’s odd, therefore, that Amazon UK sells only the Italian-language version. Amazon US doesn’t (at the time of this writing) carry the book at all, but the English-language version is available from FdF Marketing PR Consultancy for $14.99. E-mail defalco94@aol.com.

Grapes in the Glass. Wine: Know-how, Fun and Responsibility (Edizione Gribaudo, Milano, 2011), 72 pp., many illustrations, useful index.

The Feast of St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna

January 1, 2012

St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna is the patron of naps, endings, the last days, and ruins, of which I am rapidly becoming one – the latter not merely a function of age and slow time but also the direct result of far too much holiday eating and drinking. Like a volunteer Strasbourg goose, I have been reporting regularly for some first-rate gavage – so here is a roundup of the best of that: my Twelve Wines of Christmas.

 * * *

As a preliminary, much bubbly found its way into my glass and thence into my gullet this season. I’ve already given my account of the Wine Media Guild’s Champagne luncheon. The New York Wine Press’s fête at the Brasserie was only slightly less spectacular. It featured rosé Champagnes – eleven of them, so they don’t count in my Christmas dozen – around a nicely balanced luncheon that concluded with a positively sinful dose of triform chocolate.

Rosé is the hottest category of Champagne these days – why, no one is quite sure, though Ed McCarthy opines that rosé makes an ideal dinner Champagne, because of its slightly fuller body and slightly greater complexity. Pinot noir always seems to make a difference, and its greater presence in rosé Champagnes could be the factor behind their current popularity.

All the wines tasted that day would rank as excellent on any scale, but my favorites all bunched up in the middle luncheon flight: two prestige Champagnes, 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque (approximately $300) and 2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (about $250), plus 2006 Louis Roederer, the youngest and least expensive wine of the flight ($75), and finally my favorite, 2002 Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve ($100), a great wine from a great Champagne vintage.

 * * *

The Twelve Wines of Christmas all came from my own so-called cellar, over multiple dinners for Diane and myself and family and friends. Inevitably, these included some more bubbles: my old reliable Pol Roger NV Brut, a consistently pleasing, medium-bodied, mineral-driven Champagne, and Roederer Estate, vinified by the French Grande Marque in California’s Anderson Valley, and for my palate the best and most persuasively Champagne-tasting of California sparkling wines. Pommery Brut NV made a fine aperitif, working equally well with some duck rillettes and with Diane’s version of Torino aperitivi.

For my palate, the red wines formed the pièce de résistance. Despite that piece of French, they were a varied lot: some French, many Italians, and even some Californians. The latter included my last (sob!) bottle of Ridge’s 1993 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, as lovely – and as European-styled – a wine as California produces. It gorgeously accompanied a rack of lamb and garlicky rissolé potatoes, as well as a subsequent cheese course, where it fell in love with a ripe pont l’éveque only to jilt it in favor of a creamy gorgonzola dolce. As you can see, this was a wine of many faces and facets, and I’m only sorry I don’t have any more. I said this very loudly several times, but Santa did not take the hint. Another win for St. Apoconarcoleptis.

One of the most enjoyable Italian reds was an almost archetypal Chianti Classico, 1997 La Selvanella Riserva from Melini. This is a very traditionally made wine from a fine vineyard near Panzano, in the Classico zone’s prized Conca d’Oro. It also has special resonances for me, in that I participated, way back in 1998, in the process of choosing the blend for this wine. This occurred at the estate, in a session led by the very able winemaker, Nunzio Capurso, and attended by Italian and North American wine journalists. Aside from the astounding quality of each component wine that we tasted, my major memory of the session is of an idiot from Rome loudly and persistently declaiming that the wine wouldn’t be any good unless it was aged in barriques. He couldn’t have been more wrong, then or now.

We enjoyed another fine wine of this type – i.e., primarily Sangiovese blended with other native grapes – Lungarotti’s 2001 Rubesco. Although from Umbria, this wine is a kissing cousin of Chianti Classico and fully matches the very best of them in suavity and depth: a lovely wine, from an equally lovely vintage.

Of course I could not long stay away from the wonderful wines of the Piedmont, so I took the opportunity to test a few Barolos of the 2003 vintage, a hot, forward year that, frankly, I feared might already be over the hill – some bottles I’d tasted over the past year were. Well, in these two cases, no worries: Both Conterno-Fantino’s Barolo Sorì Ginestra and Einaudi’s Barolo Costa Grimaldi were live and, in the most complimentary sense of the word, typical. The Sorì Ginestra showed the merest trace of the vintage’s too-ripe fruit and green tannins, the Costa Grimaldi none at all – a nice tribute to careful grape selection and restraint in the cellar.

Equally lovely, by the way, and much less expensive, was an in-theory lesser wine, a simple Nebbiolo, but from a fine maker in an excellent vintage. Poderi Colla’s 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba was fully ready to drink, with excellent Nebbiolo character (black fruit, leather, tobacco, miles of depth) and no sign that it might not last another five years. All “simple” Nebbiolo should be so good.

Our French selections played up very gamely as well. For me, Musigny is the red-wine sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Its wines have a velvetiness and an elegance of fruit and mineral that for my palate define red Burgundy. Drouhin’s 2002 Chambolle Musigny didn’t let me down: it was a soft, luxurious wine whose flavor persisted long in the mouth. More forceful and in a leaner style – mineral to the fore, fruit after – Moillard’s 2005 Beaune Premier Cru Grèves matched quite beautifully with our Pintadeau Jean Cocteau. The wine we drank with the cheese course that evening was in a very different style, being a Bordeaux. 1989 Chateau Brane Cantenac showed the wonderful elegance of Margaux combined with the kind of structure and heft I more often associate with Pauillac: It worked beautifully with a challenging set of cheeses.

* * *

Those are my top twelve, but I’ve also got a few Honorable Mentions. Amidst this red tide, we did manage to fit in a few lighter meals that leant themselves better to white wines. Pieropan’s 2005 Soave La Rocca shone with some shrimp. This single-vineyard wine has always been in the forefront of this too-long-abused appellation, and it remains a standard-bearer even now that the Soave Classico denomination is undergoing a tremendous resurgence. In a totally different style, but equally fine, Umani Ronchi’s 2002 Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi Classico Superiore offered a mouthful of wine almost as big as its name. Still at nine years old showing a light touch of barriques, its biggish body and rich fruit very nicely accompanied a creamy veal and mushroom stew. Both these wines showed very dramatically, for those who may still be skeptical, that well-made Italian whites can age very well indeed.

Finally, lest anyone think that my holidays were just one triumphant sip after another, honesty compels me to record my great disappointment. I had reserved a place for one potentially excellent white wine to serve alongside the oeufs en cocotte and Alsace onion tarts that were part of our Christmas dinner. I was really looking forward to Labouré-Roi’s 2003 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, so you can imagine the depth of my chagrin when my only bottle turned out to be totally oxidized – just plain dead.

There has been a great deal of buzz in wine circles about the problem of premature oxidation in white Burgundies. Apparently the vintages between 1996 and 2006 are involved, and the blight strikes randomly, at every quality level. Some bottles pour brown and dead, while others even from the same case remain sound. No one knows what causes it, and the producers are loath to talk about it – not only because it’s embarrassing to them, but also because (I strongly suspect) they don’t have a clue. So since St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna looks after ruins as well as endings, I’ll conclude on this note: There is nothing like white Burgundy at its best – but be warned: that bottle you’re so keenly anticipating might be pinin’ for the fjords, and might already have joined the Norwegian Blue in the choir invisible.

From that comic note to a serious one: May your 2012 be happy, and both your New Year and your old wines healthy and enjoyable!

Seeing Umbria Chiaramente

February 24, 2011

As Chiara Lungarotti explained to the Wine Media Guild earlier this month, Umbria is a land of great wines that has always been under the shadow of Tuscany.  “But,” she added, “we are now winning our own space in wine lists and in the minds of wine lovers.”  

Chiara Lungarotti

To make clear why that was so, Chiara, the young CEO of the historic Lungarotti firm, presented WMG members with an assortment of Umbrian wines that embraced not just Lungarotti’s bottlings but examples from most of Umbria’s now numerous DOC zones – a very impressive lineup, in both variety and quality.

Chiara’s father, the near-legendary Giorgio Lungarotti, was the great pioneer of Umbrian wine.  Back in the ‘60s, his Rubesco won the first DOC for Umbria (Torgiano Rosso), only the fifth in all of Italy.  He also blazed the trail for single-vineyard wines, at a time when, for Italy, that was a daring novelty.  His white Torre di Giano Vigna Il Pino and red Rubesco Riserva Vigna Monticchio are still the firm’s flagship wines, even though the line has expanded and the firm now also produces wine in the Sagrantino DOC and other parts of Umbria, as well in its home base of Torgiano.

To tourists – wine tourists included – Umbria remains a territory far less known and travelled than Tuscany.  That’s a shame, because in many respects Umbria is the handsomer region.  It’s less wild and rugged than Tuscany, more mellow and gentler, and it has its full share of castellated hills, artistic treasures (Assisi, for one), and classical and Etruscan antiquities (Perugia still boasts an Etruscan city gate).  Moreover – I speak as one whose dinner is always important to him – its cuisine is far more interesting and varied than Tuscany’s, despite the totally inflated reputation of Tuscan cooking in this country.  “Burnt meat and baby food” is the way food writer Fred Plotkin once described Tuscan cooking to me. 

The Umbrian menu uses more game, has more truffles (three seasons out of the year!), and is famous throughout Italy for the quality of its sausages and salume – so much so that in Rome, pork butchers are called Norcerie, after Norcia, the town that is the Umbrian epicenter of salume and the site of an annual truffle fair.  The importance of that rich cuisine is precisely its interaction with Umbrian wines.  They have developed together over the centuries to mesh seamlessly.  Umbrian wines, as WMG members discovered at their lunch, match comfortably with all sorts of food – and that doesn’t mean just Italian food.  We drank them with papa al pomodoro from their native central Italy, then a southern-Italian accented fettucine with meat and tomato ragu, and finally with slices of pork filet over a bed of lentils and farro with mushroom sauce that, except for the farro, was scarcely Italian at all, simply contemporary international style cooking.  For my palate, all the wines worked with all those dishes, the whites as well as the reds.  That’s versatility!

Here are the white wines we tasted, in the order of my preference:

  • Lungarotti Torre di Giano 2009.   By far, my favorite white of the day.  A half-and-half blend of Trebbiano and Grechetto, marked by lovely fruit and penetrating minerality, excellent presence of enlivening acidity – a wonderful dinner wine at an excellent price (suggested retail price $15).
  • Palazzone Grechetto 2009.  A relatively rare wine, 100% Grechetto.   A very good wine with fine Grechetto character.  Long-time Italian wine fans will remember the flavor of Grechetto from Orvieto, where it is a key component.   This wine comes from the heart of that zone. SRP $15. 
  • Lungarotti Pinot Grigio 2009.  Lovely varietal character, with more body than the purely aperitif-style PGs possess.  From free-run juice vinified in stainless steel and kept on the lees until bottling. SRP $15.
  • Palazzone Terre Vineate Orvieto Classico 2009.  A blend of 50% Procanico, 30% Grechetto, and 20 % other local varieties.   A very enjoyable, medium-bodied white, marked by striking minerality.  SRP $17.
  • Cantine Peppucci Montorsolo Grechetto di Todi 2009.  It’s 100% Grechetto but doesn’t have as vivid a varietal character as the other wines.  But still quite pleasantly drinkable.  SRP $12.
  • Cantina Fanini Robbiana 2009 Chardonnay.  Grown near the Tuscan border, 100% Chardonnay, kept in barriques – of which, happily, it does not taste.  This is in fact quite a decent Chardonnay, but – in all honesty – if it isn’t from Burgundy, I’m just not very interested in Chardonnay any more.  Enough is enough.  SRP $22.

Then came the reds: there are too many to rank, so this is order in which we tasted:

  • Lungarotti Rubesco 2007.  Vinified from 70% Sangiovese and 30% Canaiolo, but it goes its own way and doesn’t mimic Chianti.  Medium body and lovely fruit: This wine accompanied every course of the lunch perfectly.  A major bargain at its SRP of $15.
  • Sportoletti Rosso di Assisi 2008.   50% Sangiovese, 50% Merlot and Cabernet, vinified under the direction of Riccardo Cotarella.  A very pleasant wine, easy to drink.  SRP $18.
  • Sportoletti Villa Fidelia Rosso 2006.   A blend of Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, and Cabernet franc, this wine has a very high reputation, but I am always turned off by it.  For my palate, it is totally oak-dominated and scarcely drinkable.  Some WMG members (whom I think of as kin to woodpeckers) really grooved on it, however.  De gustibus and all that.  SRP $38.
  • Cantina Fanini Vigna la Pieve 2006 Sangiovese.  100% Sangiovese, and unfortunately in its dumb phase right now, but still showing some characteristically Umbrian soft Sangiovese fruit.  Umbrian Sangiovese, Chiara told us, was “like the Umbrian landscape – softer and gentler than Tuscany.”  SRP $23.
  • Lungarotti Rosso di Montefalco 2008.  70% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot, 10% Sagrantino: Merlot and the rugged Sagrantino work well together.  Fresh and big, in the Montefalco way, but very balanced.  For me, one of the top wines of the zone.  SRP $28.
  • Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva Vigna Monticchio 2005.  Same grape blend as the basic Rubesco, but from a prized vineyard and aged longer (partly in barriques).  Slightly mute, but nevertheless lovely, balanced, and long-finishing.  This is a wine to cellar and serve on special occasions.  SRP $57.
  • La Palazzola Rubino della Palazzola 2005.  Cabernet and Merlot, 80/20.  A very good wine, with a judicious balance of fruit and mineral, acid and tannin; in all probability, will age well.  SRP $50.
  • Cantine Peppucci Alterego 2006.  Sagrantino from the Todi area.  I found this very closed: Nothing was getting through for me except the abundant tannin.  Clearly, a wine that needs time.  SRP $23.
  • Tenuta Alzatura Sagrantino di Montefalco 2007.  The Cecchi family of Chianti Classico fame have set in roots (sorry) in Montefalco.  This is one of their first efforts – a very drinkable wine (an achievement, not a given, in Montefalco), with a distinctive walnut finish.  I’d cellar it for at least a few years.  SRP $45. 
  • Lungarotti Sagrantino 2007.  Youthful, and showing some nice fruit and structure.   Sagrantino’s usual assertiveness seems tightly controlled.  I’d cellar this one too.  SRP $48.
  • Antonelli Sagrantino Chiusa di Pannone 2004.  A single-vineyard wine that sees a lot of largish oak during its maturation.  Surprisingly closed for a seven-year-old, but what showed was interesting indeed.  Worth waiting a while longer for. SRP $40.