The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Grace in the Gravner

The magic of music meeting wine

Listening to music changes the way we perceive things—even, or perhaps especially, wine. I clearly remember last April when I met my friend at his rock studio here in Hong Kong. I got to the studio (equipped with a full stage, premium sound equipment and instruments for seven) and was shown the enormous wine cellar on the other side of the room, insulated from vibration and in perfect condition. I understood the way John Kinsella felt in Field of Dreams when he asked his son, “Is this heaven?” and was told, “No. It’s Iowa.” For one Sunday, I thought heaven was located in the Chai Wan district of Hong Kong.

As the house band started playing its repertoire of mostly Eagles ballads, we sat back and enjoyed a few finer Champagnes. The set list picked up, and the growing bass thrummed in sync with our move into a deeper Bordeaux. A well-timed guitar solo found me taking longer with each sip and blocking out everything but the Fender Stratocaster and Château Lascombes. The evening concluded, I returned to earth, and I filed this epiphany in the back of my mind; however, not long after, another music/wine synergy occurred.

“Lover You Should’ve Come Over,” the seventh track off of Jeff Buckley’s album Grace was playing in my apartment. I had a glass of Josko Gravner’s 2002 Ribolla Anfora in hand and was sipping. It felt as if the wine transformed into Buckley’s voice in amber, liquid form. Gravner’s wine has often struck me as artistic: fully alive, ever-evolving and somehow always striking the right chord. Like Gravner’s wine, Buckley’s voice is unfiltered and pure. I’ve never heard another singer pull off this song like Buckley, and I can’t help but note that there is only one Gravner.

Finding common threads in music and wines is easy if you think about your favorites. But having it occur spontaneously—and being perceptive enough to notice when it does—is an unexpected reward and an infinite pleasure. And if you do have a wine pairing for Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or Pearl Jam’s “Black,” I’d love to know.

Big Bottles

The who and the why of large format wines

I’ve always been fascinated by those behemoth wine bottles, the Magnum (1.5 L) or the Jeroboam (3 L). Recently, I learned that there are other large format bottles in existence, and each ever-more enormous bottle takes the name of kings and leaders from the Hebrew Bible.  The reason for this nomenclature is unknown, but it’s an exciting bit of information for wine geeks and history aficionados alike.  Here’s a brief run-down of the most popular large format bottles, their sizes and their names:

Magnum (1.5 L) comes from the Latin “magnum” or “magnus” in neutral form, meaning “great.” It is definitely always great to have a Magnum of wine around for opening!

Jeroboam (3L) was appointed king of the northern Israelite Kingdom of Israel after ten Israelite tribes revolted against their former king Rehoboam for raising taxes.  (Isn’t that always the reason for revolts?)

Rehoboam (4.5 L), named above, the son of Solomon and the king whose people revolted when he raised their taxes.  His successor, Jeroboam, founded a separate kingdom known as Israel, and Rehoboam continued as ruler of a realm known as Judah.  Rehoboam and Jeroboam’s kingdoms were in a state of war during Rehoboam’s entire seventeen-year reign.

Methuselah (6 L) is commonly known as the oldest person mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, and he supposedly lived 969 years, dying on the 11th of Cheshvan of the year 1656, aka seven days before the Great Flood. The Bible states that God delayed his famous flood in honor of Methuselah and to give his people adequate mourning time before they were all washed away.

Salmanazar (9 L) is also known as Shalmaneser, a King of Assyria mentioned in the second Book of Kings.

Balthazar (12 L), a figure from the New Testament, is widely considered to be one of the three wise men who attended the birth of Jesus.

Nebuchadnezzar (15 L) was a ruler of Babylon mentioned in several different books of the Bible; he is most famous for conquering Judah and Jerusalem and is credited for the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He was an egotistical leader who sent the Jews into exile and was cursed by God for seven years for his pompous ways.   Interestingly enough, Saddam Hussein considered himself the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar. He spent millions of dollars reconstructing ancient Babylon, ordered images of Nebuchadnezzar and himself to be beamed side by side during a laser light show in Baghdad, and even had a replica of Nebuchadnezzar’s war chariot built.

More than just their names and their ever-increasing sizes, large format bottles also depend on the wine region and the type of wine.  For instance, there is the Piccolo, the name for a 187.5 ml bottle for Champagne; however, when this size bottle contains wines other than Champagne, it’s known as a “Pony.” Another exclusive bottle is called the Marie-Jeanne, which is used only in Bordeaux and holds 2.25 L of wine.  One of the most unusual and intense bottling would be the largest bottle in existence, called the Melchizedek. It is a massive bottling used only for Champagne and carries a whopping 30 L of bubbly!

Radikon, from Friuli, has designed their own delicate necked bottles to hold their biodynamic wines.  They also decided to use .5 L bottles to replace .750’s and 1 L bottles to replace a magnum.  Radikon believes that one liter of wine is the perfect amount for two people to enjoy, and half liters are perfect for couples who want to enjoy both a red and a white with lunch or dinner.  These bottle sizes aren’t new, but they are unique to still whites and reds.

Large formats are great for collectors because these wines are rare, collectable and exciting to open.   These bottles also help wine to age really well because there is a relatively smaller air-to-wine ratio, slowing the aging and helping to preserve older vintages that would have passed their peak in regular sized bottles. Big, really big, and super-gigantic-enormous bottles of wine really won’t keep well unless stored in proper temperature controlled space, so our IWM large format offerings are best for serious wine collectors or wine lovers who are immediately celebrating special events.

One more thing, if you need help remembering the order of the large format bottles, just use this handy mnemonic device: My Judy Really Makes Splendid Belching Noises.

Prosecco Earns its Place

Looking at the new DOC and DOCG

Perhaps more than other wines that have successfully established their identities, Prosecco is a wine in transition. While it has been around since ancient Rome, the wine is finally achieving the status its pedigree and history demand.  Effective April 1, 2010, the term “Prosecco” refers to a specific place: Veneto and parts of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the northeastern corner of Italy. These two regions, along with nine other specific provinces, geographically define the current Prosecco DOC. While Prosecco is actually the name of a town near the city of Trieste in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the wine’s major grape, formerly known as Prosecco, will now go by the ancient name of Glera, a name unfamiliar even to the people within the region.  However, only the name has changed; Italian Prosecco has always been made with Glera, though lesser known varieties have figured into the wine’s composition in rather negligible amounts over time.

The incorporation of the new DOCG classification (Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore) ensures that wines from the two most prominent zones will face stricter controls and be given the highest guarantee. Comprised of fifteen communes (or townships), the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene zone is a hilly region with very steep slopes that require vineyard operations to be performed by hand, a practice that has been in place for over three centuries. In addition to the general designation, wines that derive from a single hillside will, in conjunction with standard DOCG labeling, include the term rive, which refers to the finest vineyards and those receiving favorable exposure.

According to Decanter, these “new regulations will also regulate yield for both the new DOC and DOCG zones should be reduced. The DOC will show the most drastic decrease – from the current 180hl/ha to 126hl/ha. There will also be a small reduction in yields in the DOCG zone, from 95hl/ha to 90hl/ha.”

What all this tech talk means for wine consumers is that we can expect a rise in the quality of Prosecco—that’s good news for us. Full of refreshing acidity, pleasant aromatics and delicate flavors of peach and green apple, Prosecco is a perfect sparkler for summer. And its reasonable price point and easy-drinking nature doesn’t hurt, either. However, because of these recent changes, Prosecco may become a more serious wine.

While Prosecco hasn’t carried the same prestige or fastidious production as Champagne— where secondary fermentation is carried out in bottle (méthode champenoise) as opposed to stainless steel tanks (the charmat method)—with the spanky new DOC/G areas and the accompanying raising of standards, it has a reason to take itself more seriously—even if it remains a seriously fun wine to drink!

Finding a Summer Red in Barbera

Finding a Summer Red in Barbera: a wine the people know best

As we slide into the warm belly of the summer, I’m searching for a good summer wine. These hot days call for a picnic in the park, a day at the beach, or a clambake with friends—and wines whose friendly dispositions don’t require reflection, intellect or patience. I want no brooding Barolo or demanding Dolcetto. I want an easy-going bottle whose refreshing zing will take the sting out of the sun, and whose happy palate will make summer food sing.

And yet, there’s a rub. I’m not a huge fan of white wines. I get the beauty of the white, intellectually; I can appreciate the white wine’s crisp lines, elegant layers, and wafts of almond, citrus, lily and salt. But I’m not always in the mood for white, and to be honest, I’m an unapologetic carnivore. Enter Barbera, a red and one of the best underdog wines (and I do love underdogs).

A grape of astounding flexibility and breadth, Barbera is one of the two most planted red wine varieties in Italy (the other is Sangiovese). Barbera grows throughout Italy, but mostly in Piemonte, where it appears in eleven DOC designated areas. Barbera earned the nickname “the people’s wine” because of its high popularity and historically low cost. Low in tannins but very high in acidity, Barbera is a fruit-happy ruby-red wine. Barbera’s structure comes from its tangy acidity; therefore, Barbera complements a wide range of summer food, though it stands up especially well with grilled steak—yummy, yummy hot-off-the-grill, sizzling and delightful steak. An added bonus, Barbera stands on the value-conscious side of the aisle.

A red with jaunty acidity, lots of flavor,and low cost that complements meat? I’m all in.

The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague puts the wine in perspective: “Barbera has always been considered a bit of a consolation drink. It’s the wine most drinkers turn to while waiting for the region’s greater wines to mature—or one’s fortunes to improve. And yet Barbera at its best is charming and graceful.” The people have spoken, and they have said, “Barbera.”

This weekend, I’m lucky to be heading to Fire Island where the sun, the sand, the salt, a gorgeous patio and a fabulous grill await me. I’m not packing much, but I’m definitely bringing a couple of bottles of Barbera, perhaps the Hilberg Barbera d’Alba Per Allesandra. It’ll go great with my vintage Norma Kamali bathing suit and my rack of lamb.

Nero d’Avola

Finding a past in Sicilian wine

Of partial Sicilian decent, I’ve always been fascinated with the southernmost part of Italy’s boot. My grandfather, Don Pasquale, was born in America, but his father and family, the Marinos (yes, like the famous Italian ices), have their roots in Sicily. My grandfather’s extended family came to America, and while some moved down south, the rest remained in New York City—in the Bronx to be exact. My grandfather served in World War II, met my grandmother in England, and five children later, the rest is history.

Soon, I’ll be journeying to Sicilia and to the rest of Italy. In the meantime, I’m exploring Sicilia right here at home via the region’s most important red grape, and varietal wine: Nero d’Avola. Whenever I scan a wine list or find myself in an interesting wine shop, I look for Nero. Nero is fast becoming a wine that I know I’ll enjoy. Often compared to Shiraz, it’s dark and full of plums, peppers and silky tannins. Even more wonderful, it’s always modestly priced and it’s an easy fit with most dishes. Moreover, this varietal holds a special connection for me. I recently grabbed two glasses of Nero at nearby NYC wine bar, Bar Veloce, and tried one of IWM’s own Nero-Merlot blends, Buceci. It was delicious, and drinking it, I dreamed of Sicilia, the lands as I imagine them, and my ancestors.

My grandfather passed away in 1998, but his love of wine lingers. I feel fortunate that he took the time to infuse me with his love of wine; it’s something I’ve held onto until this day. My grandfather and I were close, so I feel lucky that there’s still some family in Sicilia, whom I never really got to know because I grew up in New York. One day soon I’ll search for my Marinos, sit down with them over some granitas, or other Sicilian dishes, and some glasses of smooth Nero d’Avola. We can drink, eat, and catch up. It’s been awhile.

I’m going to go on exploring more wines, but I’ll always make sure I throw Nero d’Avola in the mix, for grandpa. It reminds me of him and of my roots.

« go backkeep looking »