The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Bowl, the Stem and the Foot

A glance at wine glasses

The many faces of glassware. (Photo: Maya Borenstein)

Unsurprisingly, wine glasses have been around as long as wine, which is to say since the Bronze Age. For most of human history, humans drank their wine out of cups made of clay, leather, wood or metal—none of which are ideal conveyances for wine. Glass, not widely available until the Industrial Revolution, is the preferred material for the eponymous wine glass. Not only is it pretty—and let’s face it, wine drinkers do tend to like a strong aesthetic—but unlike other materials, glass doesn’t impart flavors to the liquid it contains. Thus glass, once the sole purview of nobility, is now ubiquitous. Where there is wine, in short, there is glass.

We have the French courts of the 17th and 18th centuries to thank for the exhaustive marriage of form and function that typifies the array of wine glasses today. As the tiresome bourgeoisie became able to buy their way into the upper classes, French aristocrats devised increasingly baroque etiquette as a means of separating themselves from the industrious common people, who were hot on their heels. Table manners, place settings and wine service were a way to put the populous in their place, and the creation of a glass for every wine (and a wine for every glass) was a great part of the division of class. It didn’t work, but every time we pick a big, bulbous wine glass for our Bordeaux, we are unthinkingly paying homage to the Sun King.

The modern wine glass has three major parts: the bowl, the stem and the foot. The foot provides a stable surface; the stem grants a gracious line to the glass and it provides a heat barrier to keep hot hands from gripping the bowl and warming the wine; the bowl offers the optimal air-to-wine ratio and channels aromas to the nose. White wine glasses have a more austere bowl, while red wine glasses offer a more voluptuous one. A wider, rounder bowl causes the wine to oxidize more rapidly, a quality generally more important to the enjoyment of red wine than to white–of course, once a generality is made in the world of wine, it must be discounted. For example, oaky white wines like Chardonnay should be served in wide, short glasses to enhance oxidation, if you’re a stickler to wine etiquette (and if you are, you know whom to thank).

The classic tumbler.

Much in keeping with the intent of the French aristocracy, you can find a dazzling array of glasses for pretty much every kind of wine under the sun. You can also, if you’re the more quotidian type, pare down the process to the wine glass essentials: a flute for Champagne, a modestly rounded glass for white and a taller, rounder glass for red. You can also do as the little old Italian men and drink out of wine tumblers. In any case, pretty much everyone agrees that the go-to glass comes from Reidel in Austria. It’s the industry standard, and it’s what’s in my cupboard (though, I do enjoy the little glass tumblers too).

At the end of the day, what matters is what you enjoy. If you like the pomp and circumstance of serving your Pinot Noir in the appropriate 35-ounce glass with a lip curled like a bracket, you should embrace it. And if you want to quaff your Frappato out of a vintage Tom and Jerry’s juice glass, you can do that too. Viva la difference (and la revolution).

Asking About Aspen

An Emerging Food and Wine Scene

Aspen: it’s where the rich, famous—and not-so-famous get away from it all. Affluence is a commonplace, but so are qualities like quirkiness, artistry and a general appreciation of fine living. After hitting the slopes or the shops on Galena Street, Aspenites are always game for outstanding food and wine. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Aspen is one of the most exciting new epicenters of food and wine in the US today. Time was nigh for IWM Cellars, newly open and nestled in the famed The Little Nell.

I’ve yet to attend the annual Food & Wine Classic, held in the posh ski town for the past 28 years, or dine at The Little Nell’s Montagna restaurant, but I know one thing for sure: Aspen is a vortex for culinary connoisseurs and experts in all things fine, so the opening of IWM Cellars seems a natural fit. Where there’s wine, there are wine collectors. And where there are wine collectors, there is a need for our fun, vibrant and professional services.

An active sister company to Italian Wine Merchants and IWM Hong Kong, IWM Cellars is increasing access to its services by opening its first retail flagship space. The showroom displays different IWM Cellars services and plays host to fine wine tastings and educational events. The Cellar Masters can provide information on buying strategies, help with bottle appraisal and even setup an alert system to let you know when to drink wine. The experts can also help with wine cellar design, analysis, organization, tracking and maintenance.

Available for those who want to collect wine online and at home, IWM Cellar View is a tracking tool to help individuals maintain a private cellar. A complimentary service, it lists wine pairing suggestions, allows you to review the price of each wine you collect, and organizes your cellar by variety, region, sub-region and classification—you can even access vineyard facts, ratings/scores and label images.

Locals and visitors unquestionably rank the Aspen fine dining and social scene at the top of their been-there/eaten-that lists. You have to ask, why wouldn’t a town with so much fantastic food at its fingertips want a wine collection to match? I can’t think of a reason, and I can’t wait to visit myself and see all that Aspen—and IWM Cellars—have to offer.

Sting Operation

Every little thing he does is magic in Toscana

Sting and wife Trudie Styler

Whenever celebrities start making their own wine, I tend to roll my eyes. It’s as if their oversaturated egos have merely found another outlet, for they rarely deliver on the quality. I admit that this gut reaction is not always warranted; Francis Ford Coppola has made some great Riservas, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan is gaining quite a cult status with his Arizona wines, Caduceus, and adult film star Savannah Samson has turned out some seriously respectable reds, Sogno Uno. Therefore, when I heard that legendary rocker Sting and wife Trudie Styler opened a food and wine shop at their Toscana estate, Tenuta Il Palagio, I did anything but shrug.

The couple moved to Italy in 1997 and have been growing produce and making their own wine for many years straight from their 900-acre estate, which dates back to the 16th century, in the town of Figline Valdarno, nearly 20 miles south of Florence. It turns out that Sting’s playing the gentleman farmer isn’t just a passing phase.

Since they started cultivating their lands, the couple has sold to a handful of outlets in the US and Britain, including London’s luxury department store Harrod’s. However, now their products will be directly available from the farm doors. The new shop will sell olive oil, acacia honey, vegetables, salami made from local boars, and other food grown by the couple on their land. Most interestingly, Sting’s wine will be available at the boutique shop.

Some of the Il Palagio offerings

The rocker’s biodynamic wine, produced on the property, includes a Sangiovese blend with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2007 vintage, and he also produced a 2008 Chianti. Sting recently told a local Toscana newspaper, Corriere della Sera, “If I don’t eat well, I can’t sing.”

I know how he feels, although I don’t think I’m a great singer.

Cheese, Please

The skinny on some of IWM’s favorite Italian cheeses

La Tur

As a server for the IWM Vintage Tasting Room and our Studio del Gusto events, as well as being a sales associate in the store, I’m required to learn the ins and outs of each cheese and wine pairing, which couldn’t be a more enjoyable work requirement. In the spirit of sharing this delicious knowledge, I’m giving you a thumbnail sketch of some of my invaluable on-the-job cheese knowledge.

First, here are a few common terms to remember as you venture into Italian cheese territory:

Fresco—fresh

Tenero—tender

Dolce—sweet

Duro—hard

Stagionato—aged/matured

Vecchio—old

Stravecchio—very old

Toma: this soft- to semi-hard cow‘s milk cheese comes from the high Alps of Valle d’Aosta and Piemonte regions of Italy.  It ripens like Brie to create a thick rind with a pale to golden yellow sweet paste on the inside. One of Piemonte’s traditional cheeses, it works especially well with Chianti, as well as local Valle d’Aosta wines such as Torrette and Piemonte’s Dolcetto and Barbaresco.

Bra

Caprino: derived from the word, “capra,” which means “goat,” this cheese is made from whole or skim goat’s milk. It can be made in the fresco (fresh) or stagionato (seasoned) styles. The Fresco only ages for three to five days, and therefore maintains a soft, creamy texture. Fiano, Falanghina and Asti Spumante are white wines that serve this cheese well, as do reds like Barbaresco and Beaujolais.

Bra: originating in northern Italy in the Piemonte town of Bra, this cheese is made with pasteurized or unpasteurized cow’s milk. The unpasteurized version is the traditional hard style that ripens for three to six months. During this time, the color darkens and the flavor intensifies. The other type, which is pasteurized, is sold after only 45 days of aging while the paste is still soft.

Robiola: deriving from the word “rubeole (ruddy) due to the hue of its seasoned rind, Robiola is made from a mixture of cow, goat and sheep’s milk and is a soft-ripened cheese from the Stracchino cheese family (Stracca means “tired”; cheeses from the Stracchino family are made with the milk of tired cows since it’s richer in fats and more acidic).  Robiola is tangy and has an intense aroma with subtle creamy flavors to compensate. Robiolas can be aged alone or wrapped in different kinds of leaves to absorb the flavors of the leaves, imparting complex flavors.

La Tur: my most favorite cheese on the planet, it is a bloomy, pasteurized mix of cow, goat and sheep‘s milk. It stands about two inches high and about two inches wide, cakey in texture, yet oozing towards the rim. It’s fresh but also tantalizingly funky. I love pairing this cheese with unusual, obscure varietals such as Frappato, Grignolino and Freisa.

Fontina: a cow’s milk cheese made in the Alps of the Aosta valley since the twelfth century, this cheese has stood the test of time and is one of the most popular and easy to distinguish Italian cheeses. Also made in Sweden and France, the Aosta valley stands as this cheese’s original hometown. Fontina is well known for its earthy and mushroom flavors, which pair perfectly with braised meats and shaved truffles.

Taleggio: a washed-rind cheese, this is another one of my favorites with its buttery texture, pungency and fruity flavors. This cheese goes best with young Nebbiolo wines and fluffy Italian loaf.

Toma

Pecorino Romano: produced primarily in Sardegna and very popular in the States, this cheese is made completely from ewe’s milk. Showing a slight sweetness with a buttery and nutty aspect, Pecorino is usually aged for eight months, making the texture just right—not too hard, not too soft. This flexible cheese goes superbly with most Italian wines, especially Chianti Riserva.

Gorgonzola Cremificato: Also known as “Gorgonzola Dolce,” this gorgonzola is creamier and sweeter than most other blues and a lovely complement to sliced pears. If serving it as an after-dinner treat, don’t forget to pair it with every blue cheese’s favorite dessert wine, Sauternes.

Callu de Cabreddu: also known as Cabrettu, this unusual cheese dates back 6,000 years. A Sardinian goat’s milk cheese that is ripened in a baby goat’s stomach, the flavors of Callu de Cabreddu are extremely strong and explosive.  It’s tough to pair this cheese with wine, because it’s so intense; I prefer this cheese on its own with some warm, Italian ciabatta bread.

As with the vast majority of Italian food, the adage “if it grows together, it goes together” works with wine and cheese as well. Check out the region, and if possible the township where your wine and your cheese originate. Chances are you’ll be on the right track. Or ask any of the IWM sales associates. We love to share our cheese expertise.

Spectacular Sangiovese

A thumbnail of an unsung superstar

The Sangiovese grape shares a rich culture with the Tuscan people. However, it often doesn’t receive the attention that it deserves. In celebrity status, its place is strictly on the “B-list” for most wine connoisseurs and professionals—though the grape’s reputation seems to be trending up. Sangiovese goes by many nicknames like Morellino, Ciliegolo and Prugnolo Gentile (just to name a few), and it comes in many shapes and forms.  Sangiovese seems to date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and oenologists suggest that the grape contains DNA from central and southern Italian varietals. In 2004, oenologist Jose Vouillamoz announced that Sangiovese’s genetic “parents” are a local Tuscan varietal called Ciliegiolo and a near extinct varietal from Calabria called Calabrese Montenuovo. For recollected history, though, Sangiovese has lived in Toscana.

Similar to Pinot Noir in many regards, Sangiovese easily mutates, and it’s quite finicky to grow and vinify. These traits have caused this somewhat mysterious grape much trouble, causing producers to misunderstand and mistreat the mercurial Sangiovese. Best known for producing quaffable, thin, pale, rough and acidic red wines, this grape seems to earn its disrespect. When put in the right hands, however, Sangiovese can produce robust, aromatic and smooth wines with great intensity and structure. It’s impossible to speak about Sangiovese without mentioning Chianti, because it’s as the base for Chianti that Sangiovese received its bad reputation. But in the last 20 years, as winemakers have come to privilege quality over quantity, that Chianti has undergone a rehab and now enjoys vastly higher quality levels, which has elevated the status of the varietal.

Sangiovese finds its best expression in the region of Toscana, but the grape isn’t just a grape to the Tuscan people or its winemakers: it’s a symbol of Tuscan history, culture, tradition and livelihood. When I traveled through Toscana as a wine student, I felt the people’s passion for this grape. It’s how they make money; it’s also their hobby, their passion and even their child in some instances. Few varietals own that kind of devotion, and I think that’s worth more than A-list status any day.

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