The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Praising the Unappreciated Wines

Choosing the delicious obscurity











The "obscure" Riesling

After reading Jane’s recent blog post about the wine bar Terroir and its new location in trendy Tribeca, I was eager to give it a try. Not only am I obsessed with Terroir in its original East Village location, but when I heard there was another, even bigger Terroir only minutes down the 4-5-6, I was ecstatic.  Terroir’s “Summer of Riesling,” wherein it’s offering only Riesling for its by-the-glass whites, exemplifies how committed the bar’s owner is to being an advocate for this misinterpreted variety. Riesling is my most favorite white wine of all, but try telling someone who drinks oaky Chardonnay from Napa that they have to order a glass of that “ultra-sweet, boring” white from Germany, and you will see a striking response.

The Rieslings my friends and I tried at Terroir were diverse, unusual and enthralling. Enjoying glasses of the oft maligned Riesling got me thinking about some of the lonely white, Italian grape varieties that get overlooked in the face of their showier cousins. Take Pigato, for example. Grown on terraced vineyards and boasting notes of flowers and a salty minerality, Pigato—one of my favorite obscure varietals—is indigenous to Liguria and is a relative of the more popular Vermentino variety.  Hardly anyone has heard of it, and it’s yummy.

Malvasia, also known as Malvoisie and Malmsey in France and Britain, originates from ancient Greece and produces wines high in alcohol with some residual sugar. Most Malvasia is meant to be drunk within one to five years, although the Prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, of Fiorano fame, managed to create some superb and shockingly well-aging Malvasia wines. There’s also the late ripening, very vigorous Garganega, which grows in the Soave Classico region and is known for its light aromatics of lemon, almond, spice and appears mostly in blends. Paolo Bea’s Santa Chiara is a great place to try a complex blend, including 20 percent of the Garganega grape.

It’s easy to step into the known. It’s easy to drink that oaky Chardonnay, and there are times that call for the known quantity. However, drinking Terroir’s Rieslings, reflecting on the unsung Italian varietals, delighting in the less appreciated, I also see the beauty in the obscure. They’re new, they’re different and they’re just, well, so cool.

Shifting Perspectives

looking at vineyards from both sides now











I recently finished Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw,” a collection of his essays from The New Yorker. This collection focuses mainly on perspective—the other perspective.  In the titular piece, Gladwell examines why a feisty dog may be calm for one person and uncontrollable for another.  He writes his essay by looking not at the owner’s but the dog’s own experience to help us understand how we can better relate and communicate. In this way, Gladwell flips perspective from the customary to the unordinary, or what I have called “the other” perspective.

Prompted by this unusual article, I took Gladwell’s line of examination and applied it to wine. I think it’s fair to say that a vineyard will react differently to the different people who care for it.  I look at the producers who work with biodynamic wines, and I can tell you that those winemakers are obsessive about their relationship not only with the vineyard but also with everything and everyone surrounding the vineyard.

This holistic sense must be what Movia’s Aleš Kristancic means when he talks about capturing the positive energy of “happy chickens” who “wear sunshine glasses and smoke Marlboros.” It’s Aleš’ surprising, yet very effective, way of saying that everything we put into our bodies brings an energy with it. If we can nurture positive energy, we will receive the benefits, and if we’re cultivating grapes, this positive energy means that we’re honoring the vineyard and its surroundings as we grow. Further caring for all things around the vineyard explains how Aleš’ Sauvignon Blanc offers Mojito-like levels of mint on the nose, along with generous basil. It’s what grows around the vineyard, and it becomes part of the terroir.

As a typical skeptic, I’m a bit surprised to find myself to be writing about transfers of energy and happy chickens—writing about a vineyard’s being a living thing with its own fickle personality feels like describing the fictional island on Lost. However, my positive experiences, visiting local herbalists when sick here in Hong Kong, as opposed to using only western medicines, as well as undergoing some tremendous Chinese tea crash courses have supported my growing interest in all things natural. I suppose you could see it as a change in geography causing a change in perspective.

That said, I don’t see myself making any massive life changes; for example, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll give up McDonalds and go vegan anytime soon. But my conversations with Aleš, my remedies from my herbalist in Aberdeen, and my exposure to Gladwell’s “other perspective” have certainly given me plenty of reason to be more open minded about the vineyard, the producers, and those unusual perspectives. And, above all, it’s helped me appreciate how the great winemakers are often the most considerate communicators with nature, happy chickens and all.

Rocking it Artisanal Style

An adventure in cheese and wine











Our fondue starter.

My work friends and I decided to go to Artisanal Bistro in midtown for a wine and cheese extravaganza after work this past Wednesday night. We started out sharing the Gouda and Stout fondue served with pieces of bread, potatoes, green apples and kielbasa. The cheese was incredibly creamy and smooth, and the Stout provided the right amount of kick to enhance the flavor. It was the perfect beginning to our evening and kept us hungry enough for the main event of the night: our wine and cheese pairings. Artisanal has a separate menu for their wine and cheese pairings with twelve different choices, all with different themes. There were four of us in total, and we each ordered a different pairing. Just to give you an idea of how many wines and cheese we tried, the full list from our dinner is below (I had the Sinful Experience):

SINFUL EXPERIENCE

Cheese:

Délice de Bourgogne (Cow, France)

Robiola a Due Latti (Cow/Sheep, Italy)

Langres (Cow, France)

Wine

Bourgogne Aligoté Olivier Leflaive ‘07

Riesling ‘Vom Schloss’ Graf Hardegg Austria ‘08

Fréderic Lornet Crémant du Jura Arbois France NV

FEISTY REDHEADS

Cheese:

Taleggio (Cow, Italy*)

Prima Donna (Cow, Holland)

Bleu d’Auvergne (Cow, France*)

Wine

Pinot Noir Walnut City Willamette ‘08

Garnacha ‘Old Vines’ Atteca Catalyud ‘08

Cab Sauv./Merlot/Syrah ‘Claret’ Newton Napa ‘07

FROMAGER’S SELECTION

Cheese:

Pierre Robert (Cow, France)

Monte Enebro (Goat, Spain)

Époisses (Cow, France)

Wine

Domaine Chandon Blanc des Noirs California NV

Graves Chateau Haut Selve ‘06

Jurançon ‘Cuvée Jean’ Chateau Jolys ‘04

AROMATIC CHEESES

Cheese:

Affidélice (Cow, France)

Livarot (Cow, France)

Shropshire Blue (Cow, England)

Wine

Riesling Kabinett Markus Molitor Mosel ‘07

Jacquère St. Boniface Apremont ‘08

Malbec/ Cab./ Syrah ‘Clos de Los Siete’ Mendoza ‘07

My first pairing was a direct testament to the adage “what grows together goes together,” for both my cheese and wine were both from Burgundy and they were sublime together. The cheese was very creamy and started to ooze on the plate as it warmed up. It was a little tangy, so it went very nicely with the smooth Aligote. Next I had the Robiola (one of my favorite Italian cheeses) paired with a Riesling from Austria. The Riesling was semi-dry, yet the wine’s natural apricot and peach aromas really accentuated the Robiola. Last but not least was the Langres, the stinkiest of the cheeses, placed in a small dish to contain the ooze and to ensure that I could salvage every last yummy bit. It was served with a Rosé from France from the Jura region between Burgundy and Switzerland. They produce some very interesting varietals there, and this Rosé was made of 95 percent Poulsard and 5 percent Pinot Noir. The acidity and bubbles of the sparkling wine helped cleanse my palate and cut through the bold flavors of the cheese.

Luckily, because my friends were so generous (or maybe because Artisanal gave us so much cheese) we all got to taste each other’s cheeses. I tried twelve cheeses that night, not including the beginning fondue. If the same group of us goes back two more times, we could potentially finish the entire tasting menu. Looks like I’ll be eating a lot more cheese in the foreseeable future, something I feel pretty good about.

New Crossroads

Where wine and music meet











The main stage at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival.

For me, enjoying great music and quality wine is as good as it gets, so to continue my journey to find the best tunes—and wines—I trekked to Chicago in June for Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. The festival, started by Eric Clapton in 2007 to help fund his Crossroads rehab facility in Antiqua, is a chance for some of the greatest guitarist to get to together, collaborate and jam out on stage. This year, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, Steve Winwood, Vince Gill and ZZ Top were part of the lineup.

I was there ostensibly, because I wanted to meet my longtime client and friend, Robert Carone, owner of Upstaging, a lighting, transport stage company. Carone, along with Fender’s Paul Jernigan, put together this year’s festival and invited me out. He’s been a client for the past four or five years and knows what Italian wine he likes. Give him your Soldera and your Conternos, and he’s a happy man. He often says, “Perry, just pick out what I should have,” and I do just that. From the top Super-Tuscans to the finest Barolos, Carone wants the best. He purchases wine for his cellar and also to give to his clients, often gifting promoters and management (Eric Clapton’s crew included) with some of IWM’s finest bottles. At this year’s Crossroads fest, IWM wines were not part of the main bar—the festival’s guitar sponsor, Fender, took over all the food and bar posts—but we still managed to enjoy some great Italian wines together before the show.

Son James (l) with Upstaging's Robert Carone.

Chicago was a blast. I saw an old friend, listened to some great live music and had a chance to spend some quality time with my son James who came along for the ride, though mostly to check out the guitars. A budding guitarist, James marveled at the vintage Fenders on display at the festival. He even got to meet the legend himself, Eric Clapton, as well as Steve Jordan, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and others. The real highlight was when James got to play a Billy Gibbons model Fender and jam with Los Lobos backstage. Watching him, I wish I played guitar too.

James with guitarist Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos.

Those vintage Fenders really left an impression on me. The long rows of them, gleaming and gently curving, each with its own personality and history, was a beautiful sight, and it, perhaps strangely, made me think of wine. People who really appreciate music, really get into it and understand it also seem to know the joy that comes from a classic guitar. It’s the same with wine. Those who really understand wine and have held a special bottle in their hands know its potential. What Crossroads reiterated to me was that some of the best guitars—and wines—will always grow in beauty and value over time.

A Tale of Two Bottles

a summer spent with people and wine











As a writer and a misanthrope, I spend much of my time alone, brooding, typing and occasionally, writing. But this past summer, I’ve been unusually social. I attended dinners, parties and weekends away, all pleasant obligations that require me to purchase and proffer a bottle or six of wine. This past summer, the social summer of 2010, has been defined by two specific bottles of wine: Di Conciliis Falanghina 2008 and Valle Dell’Acate Il Frappato 2008.

Neither of these bottles is particularly chic—they both come from southern Italy, areas windswept and arid, not lush, romantic regions like Toscana and Piemonte—so I wasn’t buying to impress a wine snob. They’re not expensive; both retail in the low $20 range. They’re not crafted from well-known varieties; rather, both Falanghina and Frappato are little-known indigenous grapes. They’re not big, fruity, international wines; some people might not easily understand either bottle. Not endowed with the qualities given to most hostess gift wines, the wines I chose are small, delightful, slightly eccentric and cheap—and I love them.

I’m not very good at describing wine in customary wine discourse. I could say that the white Falanghina has a white peach and lychee palate and a bouncy acidity or that the red Frappato has a lovely bright cherry color, a nose of raspberries and a charming, lissome body, but I’d sound disingenuous. That’s not how I think of these wines. It’s now how I remember them, and it’s not why I cart them by the case out to Fire Island.

Instead, I’d say this: the Falanghina always reminds me of a really pretty girl who is a lot snarkier and smarter than you first thought, and the Frappato always makes me think of eating berries on Central Park’s Great Lawn with the love of my life.  Regardless of how I think of the wines—with analogies to fruit and flowers or in metaphors of people and experiences—I’ve enjoyed spending time with these wines, and I’ve liked them enough to introduce them to the people I love.

Summer is ending, and even a curmudgeon like me starts to feel nostalgic. My nostalgia too has become embodied in these bottles. Though the Falanghina may have begun in Campania and the Frappato in Sicilia, they’ve become forever attached to my summer here in Manhattan, on Fire Island and in Vermont. Though they’re wines, they feel like friends. I’ll miss them when they’re gone.

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