Just back from Italy with wines from the Marche (“MAR-kay”) region located on the eastern side of central Italy, on the Adriatic coast, I returned to California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger.
I brought two different bottles of Verdicchio from Tenuta dell’Ugolino. Verdicchio is a popular white wine in Italy but is not well known outside the country. I also brought two other little known Italian varietals, from the Madonnabruna winery, one called Passerina and another called Pecorino (which is not to be confused with sheep’s milk cheese!)
Dan Berger says that there are a lot of Italian white wines that are all delicious, and quite different among them. Italy is known for reds. They have been making wine for so long, yet in the past, some of their white wines did not travel well and did not have a high profile on the export market. The Italians liked to use concrete vats, for fermentation, which can’t control temperature. Now they use stainless steel. They taste a Verdicchio wine, which is a grape whose name means “green” since its skins are quite green. Dan says this wine needed stainless steel to make a wine that is exportable. This is the most popular white wine in Italy and it’s fabulous. There is no such thing as Chardonnay in Italy (there is a little –ndr) but Verdicchio is everywhere. The winemaker produces two Verdicchio wines, one from about 1200 feet elevation, so cold nights and warm days. Dan says it is a fresh, light, fruity wine, and is delicious. Only in the last decades are the Italian whites this good. There is also one called Passerina, and yet another called Peccorino, (also the name of sheep’s milk cheese).
Steve asks me about Prosecco. There is a lot of Prosecco made in the northeast, but the best is DOCG from Valdobbiadene. Dan says that the Italian Prosecco producers produce their wine fast, to compete with the Spanish Cava, as an alternative to more expensive French or Italian sparkling wines.
These wines are available now on my website.
Listen to the full episode here:
Ornella Molon and Loris Traverso joined me on the radio with hosts Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger. Ornella Molon and her husband, Giancarlo Traverso are two of our producers in the Veneto and Friuli regions of Italy.
Loris explained how his parents started in the wine business in 1982. Neither his father nor his mother had a background in wine. When his grandparents gave them a vineyard when they were married in 1977, they started making wine, first for friends and then professionally. When they registered the winery as a business in 1982 at the Chamber of Commerce in Treviso, it was the first time that a woman was put in charge of the company. People were skeptical of a woman in that role, but Ornella has had great succeess and in Loris’ words, “My mom would say that she had to prove herself at the winery.” She says it was hard but it was good because she had to prove herself to everyone. Her advice to other women in the wine business is, “keep fighting, show who you are, and show everyone your value.”
They are located in Treviso, a small city about 30 minutes from the city of Venice, in the Veneto region. Their villa and cantina, centuries ago, was the summer home of the Doge of Venice (English pronunciation is “dodj” and the Italian pronunciation is “DO-jeh”).
Dan agrees with me that it is the small producers in Italy make these very fine wines. The larger producers in Italy are the ones who supply American supermarkets and those wines are nothing like these. Dan Berger explained that American supermarkets do not stock the kinds of wine that we import. Our wines are in some local restaurants (Riviera, Franchetti's, and Ca’ Bianca) and at Oliver’s Markets. They are also at Bottle Barn.
We first tasted a Rosato, which is Italian for Rosé. It is a 2017 and has light bubbles. This Rosato is made from Cabernet Franc, which is a very common varietal in northeastern Italy. It is very dry and has very thin bubbles. Dan explained that you can taste the wine with the bubbles, then wait a while and the bubbles will go away, the wine is equally interesting but different.
The next wine is their newest release, a 2017 Pinot Grigio from their second label and cantina, Vigna Traverso in Friuli (in northeast Italy next to Slovenia). Steve asked Dan how this Italian Pinot Grigio differs from the ones from California. Dan says that here, we start with much riper grapes, so we get more "florality" and are more alluring in the aroma department. However they have less acidity. Then there are two Italian styles, mass production and also cold climate small production. This is one of those cold climate wines that would go well with food.
Loris told about the vineyard. Ponca is the name of the kind of soil, called marl in English. They do not use any barrels here. They only use French oak for their red wines. Loris also explained that his mother and father each have a vineyard and winery. His father found and acquired a winery in the Friuli region in the early 1990s. They produce about 8000 cases per year, which is a fairly small production.
The next wine is a Raboso which is a unique variety indigenous to the Veneto in the area around the Piave River, where their cantina and villa are located. This is a 2012 vintage. It has strong acidity and it would go well with anything in a red sauce. It is hard to compare this to any kind of American wine. It was known as the traveling wine. Before refrigeration, the wine would last in the casks on long voyages.Ornella described Raboso as a varietal unique to the Piave region of the Veneto, which carries with it the history of the territory and its people. It is a very late ripening grape and is the last to be harvested every year. It makes wines of great distinction.
Loris added that Raboso never was affected by phylloxera, the plants are very strong. The skins are thick and crunchy, so they are the last ones that mature and they are the last of the harvest.
Listen to the complete episode here:
Thanks to Chris DiMatteo for providing content and technical assistance.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius (Monte Vesuvio) in AD 79 blanketed the region in volcanic ash and rock, and it also created one of the most unique viniculture regions in Italy known today as Campania. We journeyed into the province of Avellino in Campania in April in search of the "Barolo of the South"- Taurasi- crafted from the ancient varietal Aglianico. After landing at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and pointing our rented cinquecento south on the E45 for two hours, we were navigating the country roads around Avellino and hill towns of Taurasi and Tufo. Vineyards of the ancient varietals Aglianico, Greco, and Falanghina blanket the hills at remarkable elevations—400-500 meters above sea level.
The Irpinia district of Avellino has three DOCG appellations named for its respective commune- Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo. The unique terroir of each creates distinctly different cultivation zones for these varieties. We had our sights on two of the wines this trip—the big red Taurasi, which is crafted from 100% Aglianico, and the well-known white Greco di Tufo. There are also 14 protected designations of origin, DOCs. Two wines from these appellations were also on our wish list—the red Irpinia Agliancio and an elegant white known as Falanghina.
We found what we were looking for in Montemiletto, a town and commune in the Avellino province named for its ancient historical significance of once being the base of a Roman army, hence its name "mountain militia". The Norman castle of Leonessa stands today on the highest point of the town center.
(Castello Leonessa in Montemiletto)
Since ancient times, families in the commune grew Irpinia vines and produced wine for personal use. I always look to the local experts for recommendations on producers, and who best to offer an opinion on the finest producers in the commune than the town elders who can be found on park bench in the historic center of town, the Centro, just below Castello Leonessa.
(My panel of experts in the Centro of Montemiletto)
Following self-introductions and a riotous discussion about my search for the finest wines in the area, I left this meeting with a unanimous endorsement of the De Santis Family at Macchie Santa Maria. This was very fortunate since I already had a meeting arranged with the family for later that afternoon. Macchie Santa Maria is an artisan, family winery steeped in the rich traditions and history of Montemiletto, where for generations, they have cultivated the native varietal vines to produce wines for personal consumption. Today, winemaker Oreste De Santis draws from the experience of three generations to craft Irpinia wines that display the best characteristics of these local varietals.
So, what should you expect from the wines of Campania? Not surprisingly, the local winemakers consistently pointed to the unique and diverse soils of this area as a major determinant of the wine profiles. These characteristics were determined nearly two thousand years ago when Monte Vesuvio blanketed the soils rich in clay with volcanic ash (tuff) creating a type of clay-tuffa. The roots of the vines must run deep in search of water. The mediterranean climate provides for warm days and cool nights. And, at an elevation of 400-500 meters, snow commonly blankets the dormant vines in the winter months. It is not unusual to find Aglianico vines 200 years old and still used in production.
("Old vines of Aglianico and clay-tufa soil in vineyards of Nativ Cantina)
Look for Greco di Tufo to show an intense straw yellow, almost gold, color in the glass, distinct almond notes, and a fresh 'minerality' on the finish. Falanghina will show high acidity giving it a crisp finish and notes of ripe fruits and wildflowers. The big red, Aglianico, expresses bold tannins, savory notes, complex layers of dark fruits, and a long finish. These are wines that when young can be tannic, brash and irreverant; however when handled and properly refined, Taurasi earns its reputation as the "Barolo of the South" and provides a uniquely rich, smooth and complex wine experience.
(Aglianico vineyards in the foreground, Commune of Taurasi in the background)
Great wine! What am I drinking? I often hear this from clients unfamiliar with Italian wines. They closely inspect the labels but see nothing that they recognize as the name of a grape varietal that has crossed their palate before.
Traditional California wine labels prominently place the variety, e.g. Zinfandel, in a grand font where your eyes can instantly lock on. Add the winery name, vintage, perhaps the appellation, and you essentially have a complete brand label. As California winemakers have begun to embrace blending, the varietal name has been replaced with a provocative “fanciful name”, and the labels have become less recognizable.
So what makes old world wine labels so intimidating for some? Old World (France, Italy) have tightly controlled “classifications” that dictate labeling requirements. Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino di Nobile Montepulciano, Valpolicella…. all are highly recognizable terms by enthusiasts with experienced palates in Italian wines. And, the names are displayed prominently, and proudly, on the brand labels. If you’re not familiar with these wines, you won’t realize that these terms are names of the classified districts and define the wines. For example, Barolo, the King of Wines and the Wine of Kings, is the famous district in the Piemonte region where these wines originate. Barolo wines are some of the most reknown red wines of Italy, and often most expensive. They are crafted only with 100% Nebbiolo grapes from the district; yet, nowhere on the label will you find the varietal “Nebbiolo”. You just have to know that is the varietal for Barolo wines. Similarly, Barbaresco (Nebbiolo), Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese), Vino di Nobile Montepulciano (Sangiovese), and Valpolicella (blend of ancient varietals) are proudly flying the designations of their famous districts and not the varietals. And that’s mostly true, but not always. For example, Barbera d’Alba is named for the varietal grape—Barbera. In this case it carries the appellation designation as well so you don’t confuse it with its neighbor Barbera d’Asti. Taste the two wines side-by-side and the differences will be permanently etched on your palate, as they have strikingly different characteristics. Classified wine labels frequently contain additional information such as the vineyard designation, or cru, and whether it has been sufficiently aged to carry the “reserve” designation.
Let’s take a closer look at a label and we’ll translate. Corrado De Anglis Corvi produces a reserve big red, Montepulciano, from the Abuzzo region in the classified district of Colline Teramane. Corrado has also given this wine a “fanciful” name, Elévito, in memory of his parents.
Montepulicano is commonly confused with another Italian wine—Vino di Nobile Montepulciano. Why the confusion? There is beautiful medieval town in Tuscany by the same name as this varietal that is grown extensively in the Abruzzo region; however this town if famous for another big red, Vino di Nobile Montepulciano comprised with 100% Sangiovese fruit. Confused yet?
Recall that the Italian wine classification scheme has four tiers. The top two tiers of control are DOCG-Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, and DOC-Denominazione di Origine Controllata. As you experience wines from the lower tiers, IGT- IndicazioneGeografica Tipica, and VDT-Vino di Tavola (aka table wine), labeling requirements are relaxed and you will notice a great deal less information included on the labels.
American wine enthusiasts have eyes trained to the familiar --Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. Much of the mystery in Old World wine labels comes down to a lack of familiarity with the hundreds of varietals grown outside the U.S.. It’s a big, bold wine world out there; so don’t pass up any opportunity to experience a new wine. You don’t recognize the label? Then pour a glass and get to know a new varietal. Cin!
The 2015 harvest has come to an end; and while it is too early to make any judgments about the quality of the vintage, it appears to have been an excellent growing season and harvest. Nearly all districts in Northern Italy reported experiencing a cold, wet winter and moderately wet spring. As I traveled the small country roads in the Barolo and Barbaresco at the end of March, I was drenched in downpours and remarked at the amount of standing water on the saturated soils. The ample moisture prepared the vines well for the relatively high temperatures in June and July. Flavio Sobrero at Azienda Agricola Sobrero Francesco in the Barolo commune of Castiglione Falletto, reports it was an excellent growing season with outstanding fruit coming form their Pernanno, Valentino and Piantà vineyards. Fabio Corsi at Le Marognole echoed those thoughts and shared images (shown) of handpicking the robust Valpolicella fruit and placing them directly in wooden racks for their "appassimento" processing. Roberto Corsi, Fabio's father, commented to the family that he has never in his life seen a special growing season like 2015. Tuscany experienced an extremely warm, dry summer that led to an early harvest (vendemmia) but exceptional fruit. Carlo Cantalici is expecting an exceptional vintage for the Gallo Nero of the Classico district. Carlo commented, "This harvest has been one of the most beautiful in the past 10 years! 2015 will be a year to remember as a great vintage!."
Indeed, it is early to come to any conclusions about the 2015 wines, but it is not too early to start building anticipation for what appears to be an exceptional vintage. In the meantime, the 2010 vintages are showing exceptional qualities, and many of our favorites have already been arriving. The 2010 Le Marognole Amarone is showing to be a very big vintage that will only continue to improve with a few more years of age. The 2010 Cantalici Chianti Classico Baruffo Riserva is one of the finest Chianti Classico wines available. Internationally known wine journalist Dan Berger rated Carlo’s Classico wine as “exceptional”. The 2010 Poggio Apricale Brunello di Montalcino from Luca Brunelli just arrived this past week. Luca earned a 93 point rating from Wine Spectator for his 2010 Brunello's from his Marotoccia farm. Fabio Sobrero’s 2010 Barolo “Ciabot Tanasio” (WS 92, WE 93) recently arrived and is already showing outstanding complexity and a structure that make it a wine for aging as well. Fabio’s 2010 Barolo Pernanno Riserva is still bottle aging and will not be released until December 2016. I barrel tasted with Flavio in March, and it was already showing qualities similar to the great vintage of 2006.
So we will have to wait to sample the first wines of the 2015 vintage. The 2015 Chianti Classico should be released this time next year, and the riserva six months later. In the meantime, there are fabulous 2010 vintages waiting to find a place on your table and in your wine glass.
Fall in the Langhe, Piemonte
Photo shared from Ristorante Le Torri, Castiglione Falletto
I always considered myself a “red” drinker. You know the type. I drank only reds because whites didn’t offer my palate the depth of character, body, and complexity offered by the reds. You may be a member of the same club. I was a member for decades, that is, until I met some old world Italians. The chance meeting happened in the Langhe in 2013. If you are not familiar with the “Langhe”, it is an area in Italy’s Piemonte region, in the province of Cuneo, and considered as the area south and east of the Tanaro River. The area is known for its spectacular beauty, and famous for its cuisine, especially its cheeses, white truffles, and, of course, its wine. This is the area world renown for great reds—Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Alba. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) opened its arms to the Langhe in 2014 by designating it a World Heritage site. You get the picture. It’s incredibly beautiful and culturally rich region! This “red” guy was visiting the area to find a Barbaresco when this chance meeting occurred, and shortly after, I surrendered my membership card from the red-only club.
I have to thank Luisella Chiola at Azienda Agricola Fontanabianca for introducing me to old world whites with their 2012 Langhe Arneis. I was immediately drawn to its pale yellow hues in the glass. Its floral nose was inviting, and its soft, smooth mouthfeel left a richly complex finish of fresh fruit on the palate. This was like no other white I had ever tasted! And, so it began, my awakening to old world whites.
Arneis is grown primarily in the Piemonte region. It was called Arnesio at the beginning of the 20th century. The name eventually changed to Arneis. In the Piemontese dialect, the word arneis is also used to describe a “rascally” individual, someone with whom it is difficult to get along.
The following year I was introduced to Trebbiano, while exploring the Abruzzo hills near Ascoli Piceno. Corrado De Angelis Corvi poured a 2012 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo “Fonte Ravillino” into my glass and my palate was bathed in this liquid gold nectar that stimulated all the senses. Again, it was a beautiful expression of the unique terroir of its birthplace, the Colline Teramane district of the Abruzzo.
Trebbiano is a large family of whites that frequently takes the name of its region of origin. It is the “most planted” white varietal in Italy (source: Italian Wine Central, 2010 data).
My journey continued with the whites of Friuli-Venezia Giulia; and, each time, I was met with luscious varietals that delivered complex aromas and tastes that I had not found in new world whites. Pinot Grigio is perhaps the most widely imported Italian white to the states. Arguably, you will find the most interesting Pinot Grigio from the small, artisan producers of Friuli and Alto Adige regions. Here is a great example of a varietal that will deliver a tremendous range of aromas and flavors depending on the local terroir. Igor Erzetic at Azienda Agricola Branko in the Collio district introduced me to a classic 2013 Pinot Grigio from this small valley that neighbors the Slovenian border. This is a fruit forward white with subtle aromas of sundried hay, walnut, and stone fruits. It delivers a warm plush mouthfeel with discreet acidity to provide a clean, pleasing finish. And, just a few kilometers south in the neighboring Colli Orientali, Stefano Traverso’s 2013 Vigna Traverso Pinot Grigio delivered an equally fabulous but very different tasting experience. This is a complex, well-balanced white that delivers a classical, old world Pinot Grigio experience to your palate—floral aromas, slightly bitter but refreshing and pleasing earthy finish.
Pinot Grigio: The variety was originally imported from the Burgundy region of France where it is known as Pinot Gris. It is widely found in Northern Italy in Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Aldo Adige regions. The color of the clusters can vary from bluish-gray to yellow.
The northern most wine regions of Italy—Trentino Aldo Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia—are world renown for the quality and variety of white wines. One of the most well known and widely available in these regions is Friulano (also known as Tocai Friulano). Indeed, I found it offered in every trattoria I visited in the Friuli. Igor’s 2013 Collio Friulano delivers all the unique characteristics this varietal has to offer—vegetal aromas with hints of bitter almonds and refreshing acidity on the finish. I dare anyone to find a similar varietal in the new world.
The diversity and number of Italian whites is remarkable and possibly overwhelming. Ian D’Agata lists over 80 white varietals in his book titled Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press). For those wine enthusiasts who are developing their bucket list, consider adding the tasting of all 80 native Italians to your list. You will need to plan extensive travel through the Italian wine regions to find them; but, in the meantime, there is a great tasting experience to be found with the few that are available here. You will find depth of character, body (yes, even in whites), and complexity that are frequently missing from new world whites. Don’t misunderstand me. I still love the reds as well; and there is always be a place for reds in my cellar. Nothing goes better with roasted red meats or a bolognese sauce than a red. So with all due respect to the reds, I have come to appreciate the diversity and complexity that the old world whites offer. To all of the members of the “only red” club, there is a time for old world white wines.