Italy

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.

What Does A $500 Wine Taste Like?

29 November 2016
Maple & Ash

Maple & Ash

There is a widespread suspicion that high-end wines are something of a con, even among high-end winemakers themselves. I recall a swanky Bordeaux tasting I attended where I chatted with the owner of a Sauternes winery. He did not mince words about trophy wines: “You know, to be perfectly honest, I never buy wines that cost more than 50 or 60 euro. That’s maybe $100? Anything that costs more than that is bull****. When you buy wines,” he gestured towards the room, “that cost $300 or $800, you are not buying the wine. You are buying the label. I want to buy only the wine.”

Because I have limited experience with wines in the $300-$800 price bracket, and because it suited my own prejudices, I was inclined to believe him. What could you possibly get for $500, say, that you couldn’t in a $250 bottle? Would the $500 wine be twice as good as the $250? And of course, the $250 should theoretically be twice as good as a $125 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $62 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $31 bottle, which should be twice as good as the $15 bottle that I typically have on my rack at home.

Which means that a $500 bottle should, with that kind of quality, literally make my head explode with joyous rapture. Literally. I mean blood-on-the-ceiling joyous rapture explosion.

Fortunately for the condition of my head, wine tends to occupy a more logarithmic scale, which means that though there will indeed likely be a gigantic leap in quality from an $8 bottle to a $15 bottle and again from a $15 bottle to a $30 bottle, the returns start to diminish as wines become more expensive. So how could a $500 wine be worth it?

Gaja wineYou do get something for all that expense. At a recent tasting in Chicago’s Maple & Ash restaurant, I had the fortune to sample three $500 wines in succession. Well, two $500 wines and one $535 wine. I observed the room during the tasting, and many of the men (the guests were almost exclusively men) did indeed appear to be enraptured. I must admit I felt some shivers of delight myself, as I tried them.

These were wines by Gaja (pronounced guy-a), one of Italy’s most formidable wine families, which has vineyards in Barbaresco, Barolo, Bolgheri and Brunello. But it’s the Barbarescos that fetch top dollar. Or more accurately, the Langhes. As I learned from The Oxford Companion to Wine, which devotes an entire column to Gaja, Angelo Gaja thought that his coveted single-vineyard wines had hurt the reputation of his traditional Barbaresco, which is blended from multiple vineyards. So, as is common in unnecessarily complicated Italy, Gaja now sells its most expensive bottlings under a basic catch-all appellation, Langhe DOC, instead of the ostensibly more prestigious Barbaresco DOCG.

At the tasting, I tried the 2013 Gaja Barbaresco, a blend of 100% Nebbiolo grapes from 14 different vineyards around the town. Barbaresco, incidentally, was for ages not an especially popular wine. “Barbaresco did not enjoy Barolo’s connection with the House of Savoy and the nobility of the royal court in Turin,” The Oxford Companion explains, “and suffered in relative commercial obscurity until the efforts of Giovanni Gaja and Bruno Giacosa in the 1960s demonstrated the full potential of the wine.”

It’s difficult now to imagine that Barbaresco was once the ugly duckling of Piedmont. If anyone has any lingering doubts about Barbaresco’s potential, Gaja’s example will smash them into pomace. I loved the 2013, even in its youth — the dark-red fruit aroma had a savory note underneath, as well as a floral overtone. The wine moved gracefully from ripe fruit to white-pepper spice to supple, dusty tannins. It is an absolutely beautiful wine, with poise and elegance, but its suggested retail price is only $240, and we’re not here to talk about bargain Barbaresco. Let’s move on to the pricey stuff.

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

But first, why are these wines so pricey, anyway? Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation in her family to work at the winery, presented the wines we tasted, and she provided part of the explanation: Gaja takes great pains to create healthy vineyards, using its own compost, seeding vineyards with a mix of plants from local meadow in order to improve biodiversity, introducing bees, and planting some 250 cypresses to serve as a refuge for small birds, among other measures. “The birds eat grapes,” Gaia Gaja told us, “but they also eat harmful insects, so we have to be generous.”

And, of course, making top-quality wine is expensive and labor-intensive. Gaia Gaja noted that the winery doesn’t hire many seasonal workers, relying more instead on full-time staff. “Seasonal workers know agriculture,” Gaia Gaja explained, “but not Nebbiolo vines.” The winery decided to train people and keep them on staff, ensuring that its workers really got to know the vineyards and how to coax the best fruit from them.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the price is simply that there is limited supply and high demand. Gaja, as evidenced by the family’s numerous appearances in The Oxford Companion, is a wine giant, and when a name has great renown, that name drives up the prices (that’s why I usually write about more obscure wines — they’re what I can afford).

Gaja’s wines, however, are more than just a name — they have the quality to back up their hype. Let’s examine the evidence:

2013 Gaja Sorì Tildìn, suggested retail price, $500: “Sorì” is a local Piemontese word indicating a desirable vineyard. The aroma of dark-red fruit is rich and forward, and that big fruit continues in the taste. This wine is powerful, with immense fruit, lively acids and youthful tannins. Deliberate and slow-building white-pepper spice marked the finish. That slow build was a delightful surprise, and although the wine felt youthful and bold, it moved from flavor to flavor with impressive finesse.

2013 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo, suggested retail price, $500: This wine was one of the first single-vineyard bottlings of Nebbiolo in the region, first sold in 1967, and as such, it helped put Barbaresco on the map. It had a rather dusky, hooded, dark-red fruit aroma, marked with some spice and some purple flowers. Again, this wine tasted big and brawny, with dark-red fruit flavors quickly moving to white-pepper spice and strong (some might say “tough”) tannins. It needs a little longer to mature, but even now, in its headstrong youth, it exhibits finesse as it shifts gears from fruit to spice to tannins.

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

2013 Gaja Costa Russi, suggested retail price, $535: “Costa” is the Italian version of côte, or slope. Here the dark-red fruit in the aroma was accompanied by some meaty notes as well as an overlay of violets (as I write this, I realize that combination sounds rather horrifying, but actually it’s thoroughly enticing). This wine had the slowest development of the three. It took its own graceful time to unfold, moving from concentrated fruit to focused acids to sneaky tannins. They started softly at first, and it wasn’t until I was in the thick of them that I realized their power.

What all three wines have in common is great finesse. It might be difficult to imagine, but when you taste a wine that has it, finesse is unmistakable. It’s like riding with an expert driver in a manual-shift car. Anyone who knows how to drive a stick can get you where you’re going, but the journey is ever so much more graceful and enjoyable with an expert maneuvering the gears and clutch.

But are these wines worth it? That depends. Let’s say you make about $50,000 a year, and you think $50 is an affordable splurge on a bottle of wine. To make a similarly affordable splurge on one of the three wines above, you would have to be making $500,000 a year.

If you are indeed one of those high-earners, these wines won’t disappoint. They offer a seductive and life-affirming combination of richness, power, balance and finesse. I loved tasting them. They put me in a brilliant mood for the rest of the day. I practically skipped home.

But would I spend 1% of my yearly earnings to purchase a bottle? I think I’ll have to settle for a ride in which I feel the gear shifts a bit more.

When To Decant, When To Aerate, And When To Just Back Off

15 October 2016
My empty, dusty decanter

My empty, dusty decanter

Dinner last week at my parents’ house got me thinking about decanting. I brought a 2009 Brunello di Montalcino, to pair with the beef tenderloin my father was whipping up. We opened it and poured ourselves small tastes, not only because of the wine’s youth (seven years, while old for most wines, is fairly young for a Brunello), but because wine streaked the cork from top to bottom. Air might have come into contact with the wine, oxidizing it.

Fortunately, the wine remained intact, but the tannins still felt tough and the fruit tasted tightly wound. Because we planned on eating in about 15 minutes, I decided it was time to decant. Or, more accurately, since my parents don’t own a decanter, we decided it was time to attach a little plastic nozzle to the bottle which helped aerate the wine as it was poured.

The wine unwound a little faster than it would have just standing in the bottle, and it ended up pairing beautifully with the beef in mushroom gravy. The ample but taut red fruit combined with lively spice and somewhat softened tannins to clear the palate after each rich, beefy bite.

I follow this procedure — tasting a little bit first — with any wine that I suspect might still be in the throes of youth. There is no other way to determine whether a wine needs to be decanted or not. You may very well find other wine writers who tell you that such-and-such wine always needs to be decanted, but don’t believe them. Even if they have an authoritative-sounding book.

Wine Folly CoverLast year, for example, when I reviewed the otherwise commendable book “Wine Folly” by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, I discovered, in large font and all capital letters at the top of page 27, the title, “AERATING WINE TO IMPROVE FLAVOR.” The introductory paragraph described decanting as “magic,” and farther down the page, there was this criminally misleading assertion: “All red wines can be aerated.”

This is nothing short of absolute nonsense. Decanting an old wine is the vinous equivalent of asphyxiating your grandmother with a pillow. I still smart at the memory of a foolish waiter at a Chicago BYOB restaurant breaking the cork on a 1986 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the remaining cork piece into the bottle, and then decanting it through a coffee filter. When I saw what he was doing at the waiter station, I stopped him in his tracks, but the damage to the half of the wine he decanted was done. It fell flat, lacking the liveliness of the portion remaining in the bottle.

But it’s not just old wines that will suffer from decanting. Try decanting this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau, and you’ll get an even nastier surprise than usual when you taste it. In the unlikely event that it had some structure in the first place, you’ll have aerated it into oblivion. You also won’t do yourself any favors by decanting an expensive but delicate Pinot Noir, nor that unoaked red that precisely maintains its balance.

Taste first. If the wine tastes unpleasantly tight — if it makes you pucker a bit and/or the tannins rasp the buds right off your tongue — decant if you’re in a hurry, or simply let it stand open a bit. If you automatically decant, you’ll miss how the wine develops and changes in the glass over time, and that’s one of wine’s great joys.

VelvThe decant-first-ask-questions-later philosophy is so insidious that entire companies have devoted themselves to finding ways to introduce ever more oxygen into your wine, as I discovered at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California. The latest aeration contraption, demonstrated for us at the conference, is called Velv™.

(Full disclosure: Velv™ sponsored a lunch for conference attendees.)

As the Velv™ website describes, “Unlike decanting and aeration methods that rely on ambient air, Velv™ Wine Oxygenator uses 99.5% pure oxygen to bring wine to its flavor peak in just minutes.”

It’s not actually air that changes a wine’s flavor profile. Oxygen, specifically, is what causes the chemical reaction in the wine. But air is only 20.95% oxygen, which suddenly makes a decanter seem wildly inefficient compared with the pure and ruthless Velv™.

This wand-shaped device has a canister of oxygen in the handle, and at the tip, a “micro-diffuser” that you stab into your glass or bottle of wine. The machine forces tiny bubbles through the diffuser, ensuring that the wine has maximum contact with the oxygen.

I observed the Velv™ in action at the conference, and as I watched, I heard the sales representative say the most remarkable thing to one of my fellow bloggers: “After six minutes, [the Velv™] took all the gravel and the dirt and the ugliness out of a Bordeaux.” I stood there, mouth agape, as I transcribed the conversation in my notebook. I wonder what that Bordeaux winemaker would think about all that “ugliness” — some might call it character or complexity — being removed from his or her wine.

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

I later related the conversation to a friend at the conference, who asked, “Why would you want to turn a Bordeaux into a California Merlot?”

California wines, incidentally, did not escape the violent bubbles of the Velv™. The sales representative went on to enthusiastically describe how the machine “…can also blow the oak and butter out of a big Chardonnay.”

Of course, the other way to avoid oak and butter flavors, which some people legitimately dislike, is to purchase an unoaked Chardonnay. Most wine shops carry at least one these days. Then you’ll be able to taste the wine as the winemaker intended it to taste, and you’ll have saved yourself $250 to $300.

The Velv in action, inserted into a Menage a Trois

The Velv in action, inserted into a Ménage à Trois

Distressing sales pitches aside, the only way for me to determine the effect of the Velv™ was to experience it for myself. The sales representative poured me two tastes of a 2013 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, one velved and one not.

He recommended trying the velved version first. It still had lots of dark fruit to it, and more surprisingly, the tannins still dried my tongue right up. I thought they might feel a bit softer after all that oxygen.

Then I tried the non-velved Cabernet. Wow. The fruit was all there and the tannins felt similar, but the wine tasted spicier. The Velv™ had removed that key component of the Cab — the spicy quality in the middle — and with the spice intact, the wine felt more balanced. I much preferred the Mondavi with its midsection not blown to bits with the Velv™ blunderbuss.

In short, should you decant your wine? Probably not. Should you spend $250 on a device to literally gas your wine? In the name of all that’s good and holy, no.

I’m sorry, Velv™ sales representative. I guess I owe you lunch.

Chianti Reconsidered

22 February 2016

Andrea Cecchi Chianti ClassicoFor many of us of a certain age, the word “Chianti” evokes fat bottles in straw baskets, bought not for the cheap wine inside so much as for the bottle, which made a great candle holder. Even today, that stereotype has yet to entirely disappear. Those in search of a great wine might pick up a Super Tuscan, perhaps, but I suspect fewer would look to a wine labeled Chianti Classico. Chianti may be Italy’s most famous wine region, but its name is not necessarily synonymous with fine wine.

The Italians have only themselves to blame for that, I’m afraid. In the 1960s, the government updated the DOC regulations for Chianti Classico, the traditional heart of Chianti and the source of most of the region’s best wines. The bureaucrats of the time decided that the best way to promote the economic health of Chianti Classico was to increase the quantity of wine produced and sold. Quality was of secondary concern. Whereas regulations previously allowed a certain percentage of the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes in the Sangiovese-based blend, now the rules required that the blend include 10 to 30 percent of the white grape juice. Fortunately, a number of growers decided to focus on quality instead, planting international varieties and selling what proved to be critically acclaimed (and expensive) wines as lowly Vino da Tavola.

The topsy-turvy situation was a bit of an embarrassment to regulators, of course, and finally in 1996, Chianti Classico became its own DOCG region as opposed to just a sub-region of Chianti. Yields were restricted, the required percentage of Sangiovese was increased, and the white-grape requirement was scrapped. But it wasn’t until 2006 — just ten years ago — that white grapes were banned from Chianti Classico, as the World Atlas of Wine explains.

Andrea Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di FamigliaI relate all this at length because I suspect that many people remain unaware of the recent changes in Chianti Classico. The wines now coming out of this region merit serious attention, a point that was driven home to me at a recent tasting with winemaker Andrea Cecchi.

I had expected to write only about his wines from Maremma, a region with far less fame than Chianti Classico, and therefore more appropriate for this blog dedicated to the unusual (you can read that post here). But the Chianti Classicos Andrea poured proved so surprisingly delicious, I felt bound to write about them.

His Chianti Classico is his winery’s best-seller in the United States, and after trying it, I can see why. A blend of 90% Sangiovese with the remainder composed of the traditional Colorino and Canaiolo varieties, the 2012 Cecchi Chianti Classico ($21) had a bright and cheerful aroma of red fruit, notably strawberries and cherries, and a hint of star anise. The wine filled my mouth with dark-red fruit, but like the other Cecchi wines I’d already tried, this Chianti Classico had distinct dryness to it. Some light spice in the middle led to some supple tannins on the finish. This was no rough-and-tumble Chianti. The wine had real elegance.

Those who prefer their wine with some oak should instead consider the 2009 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia ($41), which is produced only in favorable vintages. This wine, composed of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, sees 12 months of aging in barriques (small oak barrels). It smelled of fresh red fruit, but I also detected a raisin note in the aroma. The fruit felt really rich on my tongue, and thank goodness it did, because it had to balance the ample oak that followed. The tannins were wonderfully round, in spite of all that wood, and overall effect was quite refined. The oak notes made it an excellent pairing with some savory prosciutto, which also gave the fruit an extra shine.

Andrea Cecchi COEVOLast, Andrea poured the 2011 vintage of his Super Tuscan, a blend of 60% Sangiovese from Chianti and 20% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot from Maremma. The name, COEVO, which translates as “contemporary,” was chosen “because it conveys the value of time,” according to the tech sheet I received. I could tell from the aroma that this was a wine to be reckoned with. The deep, dark-fruit aroma had a striking freshness underneath, conveyed by a tobacco note.

I took a sip of the wine, and Andrea started saying something or other about it that was probably important, but I didn’t hear a word he said. It was just me and this absolutely gorgeous wine. The fruit was positively sumptuous — rich and round — and just enough spice perked up to keep it in balance. The wine moved seamlessly from one flavor to the next, culminating in the slow and steady development of exquisitely fine-grained tannins.

I can just picture it now, as I write this. What a shame I only had a small glass! I’ve never really considered spending $106 on a bottle of wine, but the 2011 COEVO might convince me to do just that.

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