Italy

Franciacorta: A Lesson For The Rest Of Italy

27 September 2018

Like most European countries, Italy has a wine classification system that, in theory, gives the potential drinker a guarantee of quality. But Italians are stereotypically poor at organization, and so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the system doesn’t always work. Hence the rise of “Super Tuscans,” for example, that transcended their essentially worthless (at the time) regional regulations.

Italy has made headway in fixing lax wine rules, but it still has a ways to go. I mean, how many beautiful examples of  Barbera d’Asti have I had, classified as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and how many examples of boring Moscato d’Asti, classified in the ostensibly superior DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)? Yes, they’re completely different wines, but is there some way that Moscato d’Asti is superior to Barbera d’Asti? I don’t know it.

But at least one region of Italy is getting things right. Franciacorta “is an object lesson for the rest of the Italian wine industry,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The region’s still wines remain classed as DOC, and only the sparkling wines, the region’s true glory, have been elevated to DOCG. Other regions could “restrict production to the original classico area and a reduced yield,” Sotheby’s suggests. “This would result in both a DOC and a DOCG for the same region and… it would ensure that the ‘G’ did guarantee an elevated quality…” Sounds sensible to me.

Windy City Wine Guy Michael Bottigliero

Although the same cannot be said for all Italian wines, at least when you buy a bottle that says Franciacorta DOCG, you know you’re getting something of real quality. Franciacorta produces “Italy’s best metodo classico wine,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and I’m not one to disagree. Like Champagne, Franciacorta has exacting production requirements, and mostly like Champagne, it’s made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir (sorry, Pinot Meunier). Franciacorta is therefore consistently delicious.

But it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bottle. A recent Franciacorta-focused dinner reminded me of how exciting the region’s sparklers can be.

The Windy City Wine Guy, Michael Bottigliero, invited me to attend a dinner at a fine Italian restaurant in Chicago called Nonnina, free of charge, in order to show off Franciacorta. We sampled — sampled? We drank four contrasting Franciacortas, and each was delightful in its own way.

The 2013 Ricci Curbastro Satèn Brut felt lean and wonderfully classy, like a slender Italian guy in a perfectly tailored suit. It certainly started the evening off on the right foot. “Satèn” indicates a Franciacorta that’s 100% Chardonnay, a Blanc de Blancs in Champagne terminology, aged on the lees for at least 24 months. Non-vintage Champagne, incidentally, need age only 12 months on the lees before its release, although many are aged much longer.

But the all-around favorite, as indicated by the room’s applause when Michael mentioned the wine’s name, was the Corte Bianca Extra Brut. “Zowie,” I wrote in my little book, taking my customarily thorough tasting notes. I don’t need notes to remember this wine, however. It had palpable richness in addition to lively lemony acids, along with a hint of white flowers. And there was that yeasty, bready note I covet in a sparkling wine. Zowie indeed. It worked wonderfully with some vegetable fritto misto as well as pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula.

I also deeply enjoyed the 2012 Monte Rossa Cabochon Vintage Brut, which smelled of Granny Smith apples and jasmine. Its zesty juiciness and minerality helped it stand up to some decadent bucatini alla carbonara. I could eat that carbonara and drink that Cabochon every day and be very happy.

We finished with a pale Mosnel Rosé, composed of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It had tight bubbles and plenty of strawberry fruit, but it was the juicy acids that leavened an otherwise bone-dry wine. With the salmon, it was an ideal match.

I’ve praised the virtues of Franciacorta before, here and here, but it never hurts to be reminded just how delicious Franciacorta can be. It’s not necessarily inexpensive, but if you want to celebrate something with someone you want to impress, Franciacorta is a great choice. Champagne is a delight but it’s predictable. Celebrating with Champagne is something of a cliché. But if you open up a bottle of Franciacorta, it shows you’ve got sophistication, as well as the confidence to stand behind something a little out of the ordinary.

I wouldn’t stake your reputation on any old random Italian DOCG, but with Franciacorta, you can feel sure that the “G” in “DOCG” is indeed a guarantee of quality.

Note: The dinner at Nonnina and the glasses of wine that accompanied it were provided free of charge.

Taming Aglianico: Campania’s Noble, Underrated Red

1 April 2017

Certain beasts inhabit the world of Italian wine. Intense Barolo from Piedmont is perhaps the most famous example, with its high acidity and powerful tannins which often benefit from long bottle aging. But southern Italy has its own wonderful beast with big acids and forceful tannins: Aglianico.

Pronounced approximately “ahl-lee-AH-nee-coh,” this “dark-skinned, top-quality” grape, as The Oxford Companion to Wine describes it, doesn’t have the name recognition or cachet of Barolo. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Aglianico “underrated,” and The World Atlas of Wine describes it as “one of Italy’s greatest dark-skinned grapes, making wines with a powerful, obviously noble, brooding character.”

One of my very favorite things is an obviously noble but underrated grape.

The Oxford Companion explains that Aglianico “seems to prefer soils of volcanic origin” and that it’s quite late-ripening, which means that the warm vineyards of Campania, notably in the Irpina and Taurasi regions west of Mount Vesuvius, provide an ideal home. And what a home — in Roman times, Campania produced the most sought-after wines in the empire, notably Falernian.

One of the best and largest wineries now producing Aglianico in Campania is, oddly enough, one of the region’s newest, founded in 1986: Feudi di San Gregorio. Founder Enzo Ercolino grew up in Campania but had moved to Rome. After the devastating 1980 Irpina earthquake, he decided he wanted to help his home region recover by investing in it, and he started a winery.

Antonio Capaldo

His son, Antonio Capaldo, has since taken over and now serves as Feudi’s president. Like his father, he didn’t start out in the business of wine. “I come from a dark past,” he confided over lunch in the Birreria of Chicago’s Eataly. “I come from finance.” He always had felt close to the family business, however, and he has since made up for lost time, taking his sommelier exam. “And I drink a lot. That helps. My wife drinks even more, so that helps the industry.” I kind of love a guy willing to throw his wife under the bus if it makes for a good joke.

Feudi completed a new winery in 2004, but in 2009 it needed a family member to take over (Feudi was and is a family business, like many companies in Italy). So Capaldo returned, and devoted his ample energy to winemaking. “But I left the winemaking to the winemakers. I tried to explain to them that perfection doesn’t exist, that we should try to produce the best wine possible, that is the most important thing,” he said, with refreshing candor. “But also other things are important. We want to communicate the beauty of our terroir.” That’s a philosophy I can get behind.

Over a lunch, we sampled four Aglianicos, as well as two whites: a rich and spicy Falanghina and a fruity, well-balanced Greco di Tufo (the Falanghina was particularly compelling — seek it out). The tasting made an Aglianico lover out of me.

2016 “Ros’Aura” Aglianico Rosé: “I didn’t think it would be so challenging to make a rosé,” Capaldo exclaimed. Feudi brought in a Provençal winemaker to consult. “In terms of rosé, the French are ahead of us [Italians],” he continued. “I hate to admit it, because I have a French wife.” Well, this Italian rosé (with French assistance) certainly turned out well, with its fresh strawberry aroma, bright berry fruit and juicy, lemony acids, as well as an appealing undertone of richness.

2014 Rubrato Aglianico: This Irpino DOC Aglianico ages 8-10 months in stainless steel, with no time in oak. It felt big and bold, with ample dark-cherry fruit, forceful acids, medium tannins and some black pepper spice. Some mushroom ravioli enhanced the spice, and smoothed out the texture of the wine. Like many Italian bottlings, this one was at its best with food.

2011 Serpico Aglianico: Also officially an Irpino DOC, this Aglianico comes from the Dal Re vineyard near the village of Sorbo Serpico. It sees 18 months in barriques as well as larger wood barrels, evident in the aromatic notes of vanilla and a touch of oak in addition to dark fruit. The Serpico tasted dark and rich, with loads of fruit, significant oak and plenty of acidity. With some meatballs in marinara, it became extra spicy delicious.

2011 Taurasi Aglianico: All my resources love Aglianico from the Taurasi DOCG. According to  The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Taurasi] is one of the country’s greatest wines from this underrated grape variety.” The Oxford Companion to Wine agrees: “Taurasi demonstrates the heights which Aglianico can reach in the volcanic soil which it favours.” And from The World Atlas of Wine: “In the volcanic hills of the Taurasi DOCG zone, where [Aglianico] finds its finest expression, it can ripen as late as November…”

This particular Taurasi sees 18 months in wood, like the Serpico, but all the wood is barriques (smaller barrels enhance the effect of the wood and are more expensive to use). I loved its enticing aroma of deep, dark fruit and toasted wood with a touch of meatiness. As you might by now expect, it tasted rich and dark. The acids felt big but focused, and the tannins were brawny but not over-aggressive. There was spiciness, too, and a rather raisiny finish. Big and beautiful. If this wine were a person, he would be my ideal dinner party guest.

2012 Caparone Aglianico: Antonio Capaldo mentioned, with a tone of some amazement, that he knew of at least one winery growing Aglianico in California. As it happens, I had a bottle of Aglianico from California in my wine rack. I’d found a 2012 Caparone Aglianico from Paso Robles (between San Francisco and Los Angeles) at my favorite local wine shop, In Fine Spirits. Now seemed like an ideal moment to try it, to compare its character with that of Feudi’s Aglianicos.

Sotheby’s notes that in Paso Robles, coastal winds and fog do not penetrate, meaning that temperatures are high and sunny days are numerous. That’s important when you have a late-ripening grape like Aglianico. Caparone grows it along with two other noble Italian varieties, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Caparone ages its wines “several years” in barrels, though it can’t be too many years, since I bought the 2012 at least a year or two ago. In any case, its Aglianico was also delicious. It had a ripe and dusty dark-cherry aroma, with a bit of earth as well. The flavor was lusty and gutsy, with bold dark-red fruit, big acids, hefty but not clumsy tannins, a note of wood and some iron on the finish. The tannins softened with a slice of pepperoni pizza, and the food brought a vanilla note out from the background. Another fine Aglianico.

Of Italy’s noble red grapes, Aglianico is arguably the least famous. That means it’s also frequently the best value. It offers a lot of brawn for the buck.

Note: The glasses of Feudi wines were provided free of charge, but I purchased the Caparone Aglianico.

Terroir, Schmerroir: Dave Phinney’s “Locations” Wines

21 March 2017

Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

I can think of no buzzier buzz word in the wine world than “terroir.” How often do we read something about how a wine reflects its terroir or expresses its terroir? The phrases describe a wine that represents where it was made, with clear influences from the local climate and soil in its aroma and flavor. Americans are relative newcomers to the concept — we tend to think in terms of grape varieties. It’s the French who have developed the potential of terroir to its fullest extent, as evidenced by regions like Burgundy, where vineyard site is everything.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the terroir bandwagon. You can find single-vineyard wines everywhere from the Okanagan Valley to Central Otago. And the fashion for “terroir-driven wines” only continues to grow.

It takes some guts, therefore, to say screw it, I’m going to make a really delicious wine from Portugal or Argentina or wherever, but about 35,000 thousand square miles is as far as I’m going to narrow it down in terms of terroir. Even in California, most respectable winemakers restrict their bottlings to at least a single region, like Napa or Sonoma. A label that simply says “California” doesn’t ordinarily inspire confidence. Unless, that is, that label is on a wine made by master blender Dave Phinney.

California-based Phinney founded a wildly popular and critically acclaimed red blend called The Prisoner (a brand he sold in 2010), as well as the highly regarded Orin Swift Cellars. Blends from both companies have appeared in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists (and even Top 10 lists), indicating that Phinney “has a knack for mixing and matching vineyards and grapes,” as Wine Spectator puts it.

His new venture, Locations, would seem to be all about terroir, given the name, as well as the first sentence of the winery’s Philosophy statement: “In the world of wine there are compelling Locations that exist where soil, climate and vines interact to produce grapes that uniquely express their Location through wine.” But Phinney goes on to lament that “laws and restrictions [discouraging cross-appellation blending] make it near impossible to express true winemaking freedom.” The goal of Locations is to combine grapes from top vineyards across several different regions in, say, Italy, to create a new and entirely unique blend that represents the country as a whole. So in a sense, these wines simultaneously celebrate and obliterate the concept of terroir.

With a collection of nine bottles of Locations, sent to me by the winery’s PR company, I decided it was time to host a blind tasting. I lined the bottles up, turned them around, mixed them up and bagged them, so that not even I knew which bottle was which. My group, a mix of wine professionals and amateurs, had a spirited debate about which wine came from where. We only occasionally all agreed, but there was general consensus that this was one of the most consistently enjoyable tastings I’ve ever held.

All the wines were red except one, a French rosé, which I left unbagged and served as an aperitif. This 100% Grenache from the South of France tasted full and fruity, with plenty of watermelon and strawberry notes, ample acids, a pleasingly bitter note and some minerality on the finish. My friends called it “delightful,” “surprising” and “f*cking good.” Its weight, one taster noted, makes it an ideal rosé for winter. In America, we think of rosé exclusively as a summer wine, but why shouldn’t we drink it when it’s cold outside? Rosé is delicious any time of year, and if I were in the mood to splurge just a bit, I would certainly pay the $19 price for this example.

Of the bagged wines, there was only one that everyone in the group guessed correctly: Oregon, the very last bottle we tried. Oregon made it easy because it was a varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, and because it came from just one region, the Willamette Valley. I got taut cherry fruit, baking spice and a tart, rather austerely elegant finish, but others noted some cough syrup in the aroma and even a touch of Kraft caramels. “It wants fat,” one taster said, and indeed, it worked quite well with some pizza topped with bacon, onion and mushroom.

All the other wines provoked disagreement, and sometimes disbelief when the country was revealed. In the order we tasted them:

Wine #1: Big and dark, with rich black-cherry fruit, soft tannins, a meaty note and some mocha on the finish. Again, there was a touch of pleasing bitterness. “It tastes way better than it smells,” one friend remarked, though I rather liked its plummy aroma with vanilla overtones. I guessed Italy, thinking of grapes like Negroamaro. Others guessed Argentina and France, but it was, in fact, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah from various vineyards in Washington. Oops!

Wine #2: “Leather!” and “Cigar box!” were shouts I heard about the aroma, which also had lots of jammy red fruit.  The wine moved from ripe, ripe dark-red fruit to a big pop of spice and some rather chewy tannins. “They’re flirting with my cheeks, in a good way,” one taster said of the tannins. And what a fantastic pairing with that bacon/onion/mushroom pizza — big, bold and beautiful. With that kind of flavor, I guessed California, as did everyone else, except for one Argentina holdout. And California it was! A blend of Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills.

Wine #3: “Oh, that’s a big boy,” a taster exclaimed. I got a lot of purple from this wine — dark fruit and a tone of violets in the aroma, and on the palate, some more dark fruit (people called it everything from fresh plums to grape candy), leavened with white pepper spice and a dry, rather tannic finish. We all convinced each other that this wine was from Spain, but it was actually a blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Touriga Franca, sourced mostly from the Douro (with a little Alentejo thrown in). So we were close: It was from Portugal.

Wine #4: A transparent garnet color, this wine had a taut red-fruit aroma marked with something savory, something meaty. “Pinot can taste like blood,” one guest suggested. But the flavor made me not so sure: red fruit followed by black olive and black pepper spice, with very few tannins. Olive plus black pepper made me think of the South of France, but everyone else guessed Italy. Sometimes it pays to go against the consensus — it was indeed France! A blend of Grenache, Syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varieties” from the Rhône Valley, Roussillon (near Languedoc) and Bordeaux.

Wine #5: “Son of a bitch!” We all had trouble figuring out this one, with its hooded dark-fruit aroma, ripe dark-red cherry fruit, ample acids, pop of spice and clear, supple tannins. “Zinfandel?” one person guessed. “There’s a squeaky finish on this one. On my teeth!” said another, providing one of the evening’s more enigmatic tasting notes. Somewhat at a loss, we all went for Washington. The wine was from the New World, but in fact it was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina.

Wine #6: We felt some relief when we got to this wine, with its raisiny aroma, raisiny fruit, ample spice and serious tannins on the finish. Everyone loved it, and everyone thought it was from Portugal (except for one obstinate guest who insisted on California). The raisins and tannins reminded us of Port, but unfortunately, no one was reminded of passito. Passito wines, such as Amarone, make use of partially raisinated grapes. And indeed, #6 was not from Portugal but from Italy. Argh! It was a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia as well as Barbera from Piedmont. (I can find no evidence of passito-style drying of the grapes.)

Wine #7: “This has biting tannins, but it like it — rrrrr — it hurts so good,” said one taster. “It’s hot hot hot!” another exclaimed, referring to what felt like a rather high alcohol content. I got lots of dark-red fruit, black pepper, an olive note and a bit of mocha at the back of the throat. I guessed that this delicious wine came from Argentina, and others went with Portugal or France. But of course, you know that it was none of these. Instead, it was a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan) from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain.

All these wines retail for about $17 to $19, making them an affordable indulgence and an excellent value for the money. Different as they were, the Locations wines each had finely tuned balance and a sense of depth, enhanced by fruit that tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, sometimes leavened with something savory or briny. That’s a profile I can get behind.

Dave Phinney asks, “The question is – do you break the rules, and thousands of years of history and tradition, in pursuit of expressing freedom?” There’s a lot to be said for rules when it comes to wine — they’re doing something right in Burgundy, after all — but Locations makes a compelling case that sometimes you should just toss the rule book into the destemming machine and go for it.

Note: These wines were provided for review free of charge.

Grappa: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

10 March 2017

Pork belly eggs Benedict and Nonino grappa

Tell people that you’re going to a grappa tasting, and the response will likely be “Ugh.” Go on to say that the tasting is at 9 a.m. over breakfast, and the response will likely be some sort of attempt at an intervention. In my defense, there is, in fact, a long tradition of drinking grappa at breakfast (or at least with espresso), as evidenced by Caffè Corretto, or “Corrected Coffee.”

Actually, no one I talked to expressed any concern whatsoever about my tasting spirits at breakfast (I’m not sure if that’s good or bad). But grappa… that concerned everyone. This northern Italian spirit distilled from grape pomace — the stems, seeds, skins and pulp — has a reputation for rusticity, to put it kindly. Indeed, for a long time, it was a spirit of the poor, created from the leftovers of winemaking. A “refined grappa” was an oxymoron.

I was lucky. The first time I tried grappa was in Venice at a bar just off the Fondamente Nove, about 15 years ago. It was a Grappa di Amarone — even then I knew that Amarone was something special. The bartender approved of my choice, and I still remember its rich raisiny quality mixed with alcoholic fire. I also purchased a slender bottle of delightfully floral Moscato grappa to bring home.

At the time, I didn’t know that varietal grappas were a relatively new creation, invented by the estimable Nonino distillery (traditionally grappas are blends of various grapes). Nonino first distilled a single-varietal grappa in 1967, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the distillery created “the first Cru single varietal Grappa: not by chance this time but as the result of their love for their work, study, research and experimentation,” according to the company’s website.

“We go against the rules for grappa,” Elisabetta Nonino told me over a breakfast of avocado toast. “The rules are very bad. They are all against quality.” Grappa is not Cognac. You really have to choose your producer carefully. And I can’t imagine that there are many producers which take more care with their grappa than Nonino.

Elisabetta Nonino

First, there are the stills. The distillery contains no fewer than 66 pot stills (12 for each member of the family, plus one for each niece and nephew, Elisabetta explained). Why so many? Nonino produces numerous single-variety grappas as well as various fruit brandies, and all the fruit is distilled fresh, making a big difference in terms of flavor. That means the stills are in use only nine or 10 weeks each year, during the harvest season, but during that time, each is required.

Second, Nonino removes the grape stems from the pomace, distilling only the pulp, skins and seeds. This extra step adds to the refinement of the grappa.

Elisabetta grew up in the distillery, learning the art of grappa production from observing her family at work. Her parents told her, “First learn to distill, then study whatever you want.” But her heart was always with the family business, even as she studied Political Science at the university. “It took longer than usual to graduate,” Elisabetta said. “‘I can’t take my exams in April,’ I told my professors. ‘No no, that’s Vinitaly!'” If the grappas I tasted are any indication, she made the right choice for her profession.

The traditional Nonino Vendemmia grappa, made from a blend of Prosecco, Malvasia and Pinot Noir, has a fresh, slightly raisiny aroma and ample raisiny flavor. It remains smooth on the tongue for quite some time, delaying the alcoholic power until the last moment. It’s spicy, but classy. I noticed that when I smelled this grappa, it didn’t burn my nostrils at all — nor did any of the others I tried.

Even more interesting was Il Merlot di Nonino grappa, which started with a lush texture and lots of raisiny fruit before moving to clean, alcoholic spice. But I really fell for Il Moscato di Nonino grappa, which brought back memories of that trip to Venice. I loved its aroma, reminiscent of lily of the valley, as well as its slow development on the palate. It moved gracefully from smooth and perfumed to powerful and spicy. It cut right through the fat of my pork belly eggs Benedict.

On Elisabetta’s recommendation, I tried making some cocktails with the Moscato grappa later at home. You can find plenty of interesting grappa cocktail recipes on the Nonino site, but in order to really let the grappa come to the fore, I wanted as simple a cocktail as possible. First I tried the Moscato grappa with some fresh lime, but I preferred the roundness of fresh lemon juice. Two parts Moscato grappa, one part fresh lemon and a healthy dash of simple syrup (or a couple of teaspoons of sugar) makes for an exceedingly delicious drink: round, citrusy and just a touch floral, with a pleasantly raisiny aftertaste.

I also sampled some barrel-aged grappas, akin to French Marc. The Noninos take no shortcuts here, either, keeping their aging cellars under lock and key, controlled by a government official who records each entry into the facility. When the Noninos tell you that your grappa was aged, say, a minimum of three years, there is no question that it was. The distillery has documentation to prove the fact.

Aged one year in barriques, Il Chardonnay di Nonino grappa had the classic raisiny aroma, but there was a vanilla note in there, too. It tasted rich and balanced, starting almost sweet, with a touch of cream and a bit of wood, moving to a spicy build-up followed by a freshly herbaceous finish. What a delight.

Made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Schioppettino grape pomace, the Riserva grappa is aged between three and 18 years in barriques. Its aroma had more wood to it, underneath notes of dark fruit. After a rich start, a note of fresh tobacco took over followed by a spicy midsection and a lift of green herbs. The finish, marked by notes of wood, vanilla and caramel, seemed to go on and on.

Italy has a knack for turning food and drink that was originally popular with peasants into something fit for royalty. Nonino’s grappa happily fits right into that tradition. Next time you’re out to eat at a nice restaurant, check the spirits list to see if the bar offers a Nonino grappa. It makes for a surprisingly elegant digestif, and not just at breakfast.

Note: The grappa tastes and my pork belly eggs Benedict were provided free of charge.

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