I love the endless challenge that the Italian wine scene presents. There are always new varieties, wine districts or producers to be discovered. How can you not love the opportunity to constantly taste new wines?
Kerner is a variety that is a specialty of one small zone, that of the Valle d’Isarco in northeastern Alto Adige, not far from the Austrian border. The best known producer is probably Abbazia di Novacella, as they craft two lovely dry versions as well as a passito bottling. I tasted these wines during a recent visit to the winery and then for my next appointment that day, I stopped at Weingut Niklas, where Dieter Sölva renders a delicious example with bright fruit and lively acidity. I’ve also tasted a very nice example from Strasserhof, also from Valle d’Isarco.
I was told by a local producer that Nössing was a producer to search for if I wanted to taste an excellent version of Kerner. On my way back to my accommodations one night in Alto Adige, I stopped at a local enoteca and found the Nössing wine, but this was the vendemmia tardiva (late harvest) offering, not the dry one (vintage 2010). That was fine as I love dessert wines and was curious to see what this producer could do with this variety.
Am I glad I purchased this wine! Displaying a light, bright yellow color, the aromas of apricot, yellow peach, papaya and honey are haunting – face it, don’t you want to try a wine that smells like that? Medium-full with excellent concentration, this is ultra clean with lively acidity, excellent persistence, impeccable balance and just a hint of sweetness. It’s only 11% alcohol, so it is delicate in the finish and not overly sweet or lush. It’s absolutely delicious and the fruit flavors stay with you long after you’ve finished the wine. I tasted this with a producer of red wines in the Veneto who was absolutely blown away with the flavors and quality of this wine.
To the best of my knowledge, this is not imported in America. Given that Manni Nössing only produces a total of about 1800 cases of wine in total – divided up among this offering as well as a traditional dry Kerner, Sylvaner, Gruner Veltliner and Gewurztraminer – there just isn’t much of this wine to go around. But the next time you’re in Alto Adige and can find this in an enoteca (17.50 Euro for a 500 ml – well worth it), do yourself a favor and purchase a bottle so you can experience one of Italy’s least known yet finest dessert wines!
Manni Nössing, Bressanone (Brixen)
In keeping with the spirit (pun intended) of this blog, today’s post will be an educational one, but this will not be my thoughts about particular Italian wines, grapes or producers, but rather a review of the wonderful book Grappa: Italy Bottled written by Ove Boudin.
Boudin, a Swedish wine writer, does a terrific job informing as well as entertaining in this book; after reading this, you’d probably like to sit down and have a glass of beer – oops, I mean grappa – with him. He admits that when he started this project, he was curious about grappa, yet not really a devotee; “there was a time when grappa was a challenge that made me hesitate. Then the challenge aroused my curiousity.”
So Boudin decided to discover first-hand the wonders of grappa; he would head to Italy and drive to a good number of distilleries in the northern regions – these areas are home to the finest examples of grappa in the country - and learn everything he could about production methods, from the type of alambicco – the still – to the various flavors imparted by each variety, from the aromatic Moscato and Gewurztraminer to the more powerful Nebbiolo or Barbera.
Before sharing his travels however, Boudin devotes a good section of his book to an A to Z look at grappa, not only telling us how it is made in great detail – we learn the details of continuous distillation versus non-continuous (the latter method yields much more complex products) – but also giving us a brief history of grappa as well as telling us what to expect when tasting a grappa, which is generally quite different than tasting wine.
After this opening section, Boudin shares his grappa adventures with us as he drives throughout regions such as Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli, Veneto and Piemonte in search of the finest offerings available. He shares an important thought with us at the beginning of this section; “Grappa does not come to you. You must come to the grappa.” This is such an important notion to understand, as the author reminds us how unique this product is. He will dislike one example, but believes his reaction is probably due to his lack of experience tasting these products and that the grappa will taste better upon his return to Sweden. It’s this refreshing attitude, one in which the author does not take himself too seriously that makes this book such an entertaining read.
Along the way he takes us to some of the most famous grappa producers, such as Pojer & Sandri in Trentino, Nardini in the Veneto and Marolo in Piemonte, while also profiling such lesser-known excellent distillerie as Pilzer in Trentino, Capovilla in the Veneto, Nannoni in Toscana and Portofino in Liguria. Of course, what would any study of grappa be without mention of the amazing products of Poli and Romano Levi, who are given thoughtful profiles by the author.
I truly admire the way that Boudin takes his time telling this story as this is more than a technical diatribe about grappa and it is certainly more than a check list of the best producers. His description of his travels throughout Italy – struggling with the language, missing turnoffs on the highway, et al – are quite charming. I particularly loved his section on Conegliano – Valdobbiadene and the simple pleasures he discovered during his brief time there.
I highly recommend Grappa: Italy Bottled for anyone who wants to learn more about this iconic product as well as those who simply want to read a nicely spun yarn about life in Italy.
There’s a belief in some circles that the wines of Franciacorta are expensive. I’d like to introduce evidence to the contrary with the beautifully made, value-priced offerings from Ronco Calino.
Founded in 1996 by businessman Paolo Radici, Ronco Calino produces several style of Franciacorta, Italy’s most famous metodo classico sparkling wine. Recently, Michael Skurnkik Wines of Syosset, NY, one of America’s leading importers of Italian wines, started to sell these wines in the US; I tasted the three offerings they represent and was quite impressed.
The NV Brut is a blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Nero (note: these are two of the three varieties allowed in a Franciacorta sparkling wine, the other being Pinot Bianco). Aged for twenty-four months on its yeasts, this has a persistent perlage and aromas of Bosc pear, acacia blossoms and citrus fruit. Medium-bodied with good concentration, this has nice length in the mid-palate along with very good acidity and persistence. Nicely balanced, this is a clean, refreshing sparkling wine of very good complexity. This would be a nice aperitif or served as a starter for many meals; it’s wonderful with vegetable risotto. ($30)
Even better is the 2011 Brut Satèn, a sparkling wine of lovely finesse, which is quite appropriate given that the term Satèn means “satin” or “silky.” Regulations for a Satèn in Franciacorta allow only for white grapes; this is 100% Chardonnay, aged on its yeasts for 24 months. Light yellow with a creamy mousse, this offers lovely aromas of green tea, spearmint, lime and peony – how sensual! Medium-full, this has an elegant entry on the palate, very good acidity and notable persistence. This is a lovely Satèn with excellent varietal character and beautiful focus; this is quite flavorful and yet always manages to maintain a delicacy on the palate. Above all, this has impressive complexity, freshness and balance and is quite delicious. At $30, this is an excellent value and certainly the finest example of Satèn I have tasted at anywhere near this price. Enjoy this over the next two to three years; this is ideally paired with most seafood, especially tilapia, sole or sea bass.
Finally, the NV Rosé “Radijan” is, in my opinion, the best of these three sparkling wines from this classy producer. This is 100% Pinot Nero, something not seen very often, as many examples of Franciacorta Rosé have only 30% to 60% of this variety. Displaying a lovely bright copper color, the delicate aromas are quite pretty with notes of strawberry, pear and geranium. This also spent twenty-four months on its yeasts; medium-full, this has a delicate feel on the palate and in the finish. There is very good acidity, impressive persistence and excellent length in the finish; the complexity is first-rate, as is the varietal purity. Enjoy this over the next two to three years with duck breast, lighter poultry or pork. ($33)
I rate the NV Brut with a three-star (very good) rating, while both the Satèn and the Rosé are four-star (excellent) wines to my way of thinking. To have wines of this quality as well as complexity and overall harmony retailing for $30 and $33 a bottle? Well, certainly in this case, Franciacorta is not expensive. If you’ve been waiting to experience this celebrated sparkling wine, but never took the time to do so, here are three notable examples to get you started!
We’ve moved from summer to autumn; in a few days, we turn the page on September. Temperatures will fall and we’ll get ready for cooler days, which will turn to very cold days before you know it (at least in many places in the Northern Hemisphere, including my home of Chicago).
I mention this as the so-called summer whites will now take a back seat to red wines as well as more weighty, “serious” whites. Yet there are many whites that work all year long; unfortunately too many wine “gurus” think of white wines as lightweight, given a few exceptions such as white Burgundy, California Chardonnay and Grand Cru releases from Alsace, of course.
Hence my praise in today’s post for the 2011 Jankara Vermentino di Gallura. This is a famous wine type from the beautiful island of Sardinia in the Tyrrhenian Sea off Italy’s western coast about the latitude of Lazio. Vermentino is grown in many parts of the island; these wines are known as Vermentino di Sardinia. But the finest examples are the Vermentino di Gallura, from far northeastern Sardinia; vineyards here are very close to the sea and give the wines a salty edge in the finish; the rocky soils lend a distinct minerality.
The Jankara, from a relatively new estate, is a marvelous examples of Vermentino di Gallura, especially this new release from 2011. I tasted the 2010, which I enjoyed, but while it was clean and well made, it lacked a vibrancy, an edge that would lift it above the average; to be fair to the owners, that growing season was not the most favorable. However, the 2011 is a superior wine, an exceptional Vermentino. Offering lovely aromas of melon, kiwi and lilacs, this is very rich on the palate, while the finish is ultra long with excellent persistence. There is textbook lively acidity and beautiful varietal character with a nice sensation of minerality. This is a delicious white of great balance and complexity; pair this with most shellfish – I especially love it with grilled shrimp – and enjoy it now or over the next two to three years, that is, if you can resist its marvelous charms right now!
I mentioned summer time is gone and so are summer whites. It’s clear that a first-rate example of Vermentino di Gallura, such as the 2011 from Jankara is so much more than a simple summer quaffer. It’s a marvelous white wine that can stand up to many foods, even lobster. So enjoy this year round!
Imported by Empson, USA, this has a suggested retail of $24.99.
Claudio Tipa, proprietor, Poggio di Sotto, Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Montalcino
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)
My latest print article appears in the August 31 issue of Sommelier Journal, one of this country’s finest wine publications. The article is about Brunello di Montalcino and you can read it by clicking on this link. In the article, I discuss the current goings on in Montalcino, about how producers are putting the controversies of the final few years in their rear view mirrors as they move ahead with the most critical business of all – that of making the finest wines possible.
Various producers go about this in different fashions, of course, as some continue the traditional viticulture of their parents and grandparents, while others aim for a more modern style. Some of this philosophy is determined in the vineyards, while much is determined in the cellars; all of this is covered in the article.
Loyal readers of this blog know that I favor traditional red wines from Italy; ones aged in large oak casks known as botti (plural; botte, singular). These casks, ranging in size from 20 to 50 HL – or 2000 to 5000 liters – (some are even larger) have subtle wood influence. The more modern wines are aged in barriques of 225 liters or tonneaux of 500 liters. Clearly these smaller oak barrels impart more wood sensations to the wines, which can dominate a wine with their spicy and toasty notes. Too often wines that have been matured in these containers tend to blur the varietal characteristics of the grapes. Even worse, one loses a sense of place; it can be difficult to identify if a wine is from Tuscany, Abruzzo, Umbria or any number of regions. For my way of thinking, that’s not a good thing.
Botte in a Montalcino cellar (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Now I am not saying that every wine aged in a smaller oak barrel does not have notable varietal character; much of this, as with any discipline, depends on moderation. I enjoy several examples of Brunello matured in mid-size tonneaux; the Poggio Antico “Altero” being a marvelous example. But the appeal of a wine depends on the oak being a supporting player and not the dominant force. It’s all about balance.
In my article, you’ll read tasting notes of some of my favorite wines. Of the more than 75 examples of 2007 Brunello di Montalcino I have tasted this year (2007 is the new release for Brunello in 2012), my favorite is the Poggio di Sotto. This renowned estate in the premier Castelnuovo dell’Abate zone, a bit south of the town of Montalcino, was purchased in 2011 by Claudio Tipa from the original owner Piero Palmucci, who had elevated his winery into one of Montalcino’s most in-demand, due to his ultra traditional style of aging for a longer period of time in botti than required by DOCG reglations for Brunello do Montalcino. Tipa, who also owns the magnificent Bolgheri estate Grattamcacco, promised Palmucci that he would maintain this traditional approach in the cellars.
When I sat down with Tipa this past February at the estate and tasted the 2007 Brunello as well as the 2006 Brunello Riserva, I was impressed with the complexity and richness of each wine. But while I was tasting these wines, it’s almost as though a light went on, as I was completely taken by the delicacy of these wines on my palate. Yes, these are wines that will improve and age gracefully for some 15-25 years, but the beauty of these wines was not their power, but rather their finesse. Clearly much of this elegance on the palate comes from the fact that these wines spend so much time in large oak casks – both were matured for four years in botti – which not only softens the wines, but lengthens the mid-palate and lends an overall sense of refinement. (Note: the DOCG regulations require two years of wood aging for a Brunello normale and three years for a Brunello riserva, so both wines at Poggio di Sotto are matured for longer than normal periods. Even their Rosso, a wine of great character, is aged for two years in botti; this wine type does not even require any wood aging, according to the disciplinare.)
Now this extra time in wood is of course a more costly way to do business and the wines of Poggio di Sotto are priced higher than most other examples of Brunello (I refuse to label these wines as expensive, as that is a relative term. A $150 wine that is magnificent can be thought of as reasonably priced, while an uninspiring $12 wine can be overpriced). But the sensation of elegance, of finesse, of discovering subtleties not found in other wines is a rare treasure. The wines of Poggio di Sotto – along with the examples of Brunello from Biondi-Santi, Il Paradiso di Manfredi, Le Chuise and a few other traditional producers – are in a word, sublime. This is what separates the great producers from the very good ones.
In short, there’s nothing trendy about these wines. For the reviewers at certain influential wine publications in the US, power is what makes a wine stand out; for them, bigger is better. Let them have their way – power is certainly easier to understand than finesse. It’s always been that way and it may always be that way. But for experienced wine lovers, finesse, subtlety and delicacy are magical terms. You wonder if the big-name wine writers will ever learn that lesson.
Learning how to pair distinctive Italian wine and food with a chef and wine director at Vivere, Chicago
I’ve moderated numerous seminars and taught many classes on Italian wines over the past decade and one question that always comes to the forefront is “what foods should I pair with this wine?.” It’s a great question, not only given the relationship of food and wine in general, but especially given the nature of Italian wine and its link to a specific sense of place and the local foods that pair effortlessly with these wines.
It’s a subject that has many right answers (and very few wrong ones) and it’s one that I never tire of studying. Given that there are hundreds of indigenous varieties used throughout Italy, which are used to produce thousands of wines, well you can just imagine the endless array of flavors – as well as textures and acidity levels – in these wines. A medium-bodied red such as Dolcetto with its fruit forward nature is going to need an entirely different food than a Barolo with its firm tannins. And these are two wines that are often produced from vineyards only a few miles apart in Piemonte! Now think about the red wines from southern Italy, such as Puglia or Campania and you have a whole new set of variables. As I said, this is an endless journey; but it’s also one that brings a great deal of pleasure into one’s life.
Ian Louisignau, Wine Director, The Italian Village, Chicago (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
So to learn more about the subject of pairing Italian wines and food, I went to see my friend Ian Louisignau, wine director at The Italian Village Restaurants in the heart of the Loop in downtown Chicago. Ian took over this job last year and has continued the stellar tradition of an exceptional wine program at this long-time family owned restaurant.
So I brought four Italian wines – two whites and two reds – that were not sold at the restaurant and asked him to pair them with something off the menu at Vivere, the upscale dining room at The Italian Village (there are also two less formal dining rooms at The Italian Village: La Cantina and The Village.) I thought that by bringing in wines Ian had not tasted, he would have to come up with an original pairing – this wouldn’t be a wine and food match that he makes all the time. I loved doing this and I believe Ian did as well, so here are his thoughts on what to match with each wine.
2011 Le Caniette Passerina “Lucrezia” (the label of this wine is pictured at the beginning of this post) – I thought this would be a great, slightly offbeat way to begin, by tasting out this relatively rare white indigenous variety from southern Marche. This is an excellent example of this wine; medium-full with aromas of dried pear, orange blossom and biscuit, this has lovely texture and a rich finish with a note of honey. Aged only in steel tanks, this has very good acidity and offers a great deal of character for its moderate pricing (about $12 retail, a steal!).
Ian (and his chef Robert Reynaud, who was with us for a few minutes), suggested the Spiedino di Capesante, rosemary skewered scallops with lime braised fennel, crisp romaine and yellow tomato purée (my mouth waters even as I write about this!). As the Passerina is not a big wine, scallops are ideal for a dry white such as this and certainly the aromatics of the wine are nicely complemented by the lime braised fennel. A nice start and an intriguing match!
2010 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino “Alimata” – Here is one of two cru offerings of Fiano di Avellino from this excellent Irpinian producer; this wine was awarded the coveted Tre Bicchieri ranking from Gambero Rosso in their 2012 guide. This is a very impressive Fiano with flavors of lemon and Bosc pear and a very, very long, satisfying finish with notes of honey and minerality; it is drinking beautifully now and will be enjoyable for another 3-5 years. To pair with this wine, Ian selected Granchio e Astice Freddo - jumbo lump crabmeat and Maine lobster with a tarragon emulsion, toasted brioche and micro arugula. I think this is a great pairing, as not only are the flavors of the crab and lobster ideally suited for Fiano, but you also have the slight earthiness of the wine’s finish that is picked up by the bitterness of the arugula.
2005 Falalone Primitivo Riserva – This wine from the Gioia del Colle zone, one of the great growing areas for the Primitivo grape in Puglia is a robust (15% alcohol) red with plenty of character as well as a slight rustic edge. It’s a big, gutsy wine, but it’s elegant with subtle wood and balanced tannins. For this wine, Ian suggested two different options. The first was Pappardelle with wild boar ragu; the second, Cannelloni di Vitello, crepes filled with braised veal breast, fava beans and pickled red onions. Two excellent choices here, given the power of this wine as well as its hearty character; the wild boar is a natural for the assertive flavors of Primitivo.
2006 Batasiolo Barolo “Vigneto Boscareto” – The final wine was a cru Barolo from the commune of Serralunga d’Alba from Batasiolo, a consistent producer with an impressive track record for single vineyard Barolo. This is from the classic 2006 vintage, a year that resulted in very rich Barolos that are tightly wrapped and need several years to reveal greater complexity. This Boscareto from Batasiolo is not as intense as some 2006s, but it is a big wine with plum, cherry, myrtle and tar flavors with medium-weight tannins; while it will be at its best in another 12-15 years, it is balanced enough to pair now with the proper foods.
For this wine, Ian opted for Maiale con Speck, pork tenderloin wrapped in speck, potato carrot purée, brussel spout leaves and a balsamic glaze. This is a lovely match, a dish that has the richness of the pork tenderloin to stand up to the fullness of this wine along with the earthiness of the carrots and brussel sprouts that pick up on the tannins and render them more elegant (carrots and turnips are great to serve with a young, tannic red as they make the wine seem less tannic- this, a tip I picked up from a winery chef years ago).
So there you go, class dismissed. I hope you learned a few things about pairing particular Italian wines with Italian foods. If you’re ever in Chicago, dine at The Italian Village and you’ll have a wonderful experience learning about this subject. Hopefully Ian will be there to answer your questions – you’ll learn a lot!
I always love discovering value wines and boy, have I found one! It’s the 2011 Bibi Graetz “Casamatta” Bianco from Tuscany. Bibi Graetz makes a wide variety of white and red wines (as well as a lovely rosé) from several growing areas in Tuscany. Of course, it’s the more expensive wines that get much of the attention (human nature, I suppose), but what a delight it is to report that this white is a first-rate value and bottom line, an excellent wine!
This is a blend of grapes from vineyards near the seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia in the province of Grosseto in southwestern Tuscany. It’s a blend of 60% Vermentino – the perfect variety for this location near the Tyrrenhian Sea – 30% Trebbiano and 10% Muscat. If you think that the Vermentino and Muscat lend some beautiful aromatics to this wine, you’re right! My notes detail the lovely perfumes of fresh red apple, honeydew melon and magnolia flowers, while there is very good depth of fruit and a rich, flavorful finish with striking natural acidity. This is aged solely in stainless steel to let the perfumes emerge – why mess with oak in a wine like this? – and it’s beautifully balanced, dry and absolutely delicious!
I’d love to pair this with shellfish – this would be especially great with sautéed shrimp or prawns – but I’d also enjoy it with vegetable risotto or even a chilled chicken salad.
Bottom line – you don’t have to think about a wine such as this. It’s made for food and it’s delicious, so just drink it!
Best of all, it has a suggested retail price of $13. That’s $13! Please let me know if you can find any other Italian white – or white wine from anywhere at $13 that’s this good (and from as famous a producer). You can’t afford to miss this wine!
P.S. The artwork on the label is by Bibi Graetz himself.