The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Go-To-Wine Tuesday

Frecciarossa Pinot Nero Sillery 2008

My fiancée and I were delighted to have my little sister visit over the weekend from Miami, FL.  Since she was completely shocked by the New York cold front, I felt it necessary to cook lots of warm, feel-good food for us to enjoy Friday and Saturday nights.  We ate delicious food and drank even better wines.  This set the stage for a Monday night feast consisting of a risotto recipe from the Veneto with red wine, radicchio, smoked mozzarella, and parmigiano reggiano; a succulent pork roast braised for three hours in white wine, leeks, and mushrooms; and a few pieces of cheese including a wonderful Piedmontese semi-hard goat cheese.  It’s a lot of food, but I’m a giant fan of leftovers, especially the kind that get better after a day or two in the fridge.

I needed a white wine that would be crisp, fresh, and clean but still have enough structure that it would stand up to hearty dishes and strong cheeses.  Frecciarossa Pinot Nero Sillery 2008 from Italy’s Oltrepò Pavese region in Lombardia was an excellent choice.  In the red category, Oltrepò Pavese has become one of very few Italian regions to establish a reputation for high-quality Pinot Noir, a grape that is notoriously difficult to work with.  Of this particular interest is the Sillery bottling, which is a pure Pinot Nero vinified as a white.  The wine demonstrated a beautifully strong yet subtle backbone that stands up to the rich, bitter, and smoky flavors of the risotto.  The wine also exudes light floral aromatics (classic traits from this producer) and exuberant white peach flavors that stood up beautifully against the pork. Something I found incredibly interesting was that the wine’s crisp and fresh qualities highlighted the grassy, herbal qualities of the olive oil that I served with bread. Pretty awesome for a wine under $25.00.

Although this wine would be awesome with simple foods such as salads, light soups, and all sorts of vegetable dishes, its ability to stand up to big flavors proved the wine to be a workhorse against leftovers.  The wine cleansed the palate and made every bite more enjoyable; in turn, the food made the wine taste great, whether that food is a Saturday night special occasion with a first course, or a Monday night of leftovers. Which, actually, is exactly what I plan to enjoy tonight.

All Roads Lead to Burgundy

Musings on Burgundy wines

There is an expression among us wine nerds that goes “all roads lead to Burgundy.”  So why do we say it, even those of us who worship at the altar of Italian wines?  The short answer is that some of the most complex, silky, seductive  and thought-provoking wines come from this region, and though they’re mainly crafted of just two grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these wines appear in many variations and styles due to the range of soil types, vineyards and producers.  Quantities are generally very small; some producers just own a couple of rows of vines yielding only several barrels from any given vintage.  The allure of Burgundy, for me, is in its profile and its mosaic network of vineyards.  It is the proverbial “iron first in a velvet glove”; these wines carry extraordinary amounts of flavor, finesse, elegance, complexity all on a very lean frame, rarely exceeding 13% alcohol. Burgundies are serious wines that deserve attention.

Burgundy is a fascinating wine producing region for several reasons.  First, and perhaps most importantly, is geography. Burgundy is long, narrow region in eastern France, just southeast of Paris. The best wines come from a sub-region called Cote d’Or, which is only about 25 miles long and less than 1.5 miles wide at some points.   The region experiences a continental climate with short, warm summers and long, cold winters, which make grape-growing slightly more difficult.  The region is prone to spring frosts, fall rains and cool weather, all weather extremes that delay the ripening process, hurt yields and affect fruit quality.  Of course adding to all these challenges, the Pinot Noir grape is a fickle one, being very prone to disease and infection.

Due to these extreme conditions, vintage variation is profoundly apparent and manifests itself in the wine.  There are always good and bad aspects of a vintage, but the best producers will always turn out a winning hand, regardless of the climactic hand they’re dealt.  This is why one of the most important things when selecting a Burgundy is to not only seek out reputable retailers but to also buy wine from well established producers that have a proven pedigree.

There is no other wine region in the world that has as diverse a terrior as Burgundy.  Within this small region there are hundreds of specific vineyards that all contain unique soil compositions.  Some with more limestone, some with more clay, some a balance of the two.  Generally where there is more limestone Chardonnay grows, and where there is more clay/marl, Pinot grows.  Even vineyards that lie right next to each other will turn out wines with different profiles.  For example, wines that are made from fruit at the top of a hill will taste different than wine made from fruit sourced at the bottom.

So now you are probably thinking, “Why is Italian Wine Merchants selling French wine?”   It was really quite easy to make this transition because all we had to do was apply the same criteria that we use to choose our Italian wines.  We stick to wines that are evocative of their land, producer and tradition.  Burgundy has a rich winemaking history filled with passionate producers that have been crafting fine, artisanal wine for generations.   Essentially, these producers are farmers at their hearts, and you can find them working the vineyard and cellar. Their dedication, work and passion show in their wines. In turn, these wines, although from a different country, represent IWM in its fullest capacity.  Simply put, we choose wines that inspire us, and we hope that they inspire you as well!

An Evening with Piero Incisa della Rocchetta

A look at a special event with a special winemaker

On Tuesday, we welcomed our friend Piero Incisa della Rocchetta back to IWM New York for a special winemaker dinner event in our Studio del Gusto. I’ve had the good fortune of toasting with Piero in Hong Kong and, recently, in Aspen as well.  I say “good fortune” because when I see Piero, we drink incredible wines, and I always learn something new.  It’s quite possible that the Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” character is based on an older version of Piero, who has great knowledge of many things.

As self-proclaimed winner of the “Ovaries Lottery,” Piero has always been around excellence in wine, which he acknowledges as a privilege.  But the privilege, as Piero shared with our group, was having the influence of his grandfather, Mario, who pioneered the growth of Cabernet in Tuscany in spite of naysayers.  In much the same way, Piero’s drive to create world-class Pinot Noir at his estate Bodega Chacra in the Patagonian desert in Argentina is seen by many as crazy proposition.  But the proof is always in the glass.

As we sampled multiple vintages of each of Piero’s old-vine Pinot Noirs, planted in 1955 and 1932, we were able to experience the variation in each vintage as well as gain a sense of how these wines develop. As he always does, Piero honored the vineyard workers whom he credits as the true winemakers. He suggests that terroir goes beyond the soil and consists of the people who contribute to every aspect of vineyard and cellar labor.  Those who wake up at 1:00 a.m. to light fires around the vineyard to contribute drying heat in a rainstorm themselves become an element of terroir that would not exist if the vineyard were left alone at all times.

Piero also taught our group the history of Tenuta San Guido and Sassicaia. When asked if Sassicaia is a Super Tuscan he declared that it has always been the Super Tuscan, for the phrase was coined by an English journalist to describe Sassicaia as something other than table wine.  Upon visiting the estate to cover the family’s horses, the writer was simply blown away by the wine.  Sassicaia had existed as a family drinking wine only in the 1940’s through the 1960’s until bottled for sale in 1968.  Today Sassicaia is its own one-wine D.O.C.G

After tasting 11 wines, I found the same underlying message as I’ve found at our dinners with Piero over the past two years.  Sassicaia is a brilliant wine and certainly those who join us to experience it in the company of the winemaker are pleased to see it illuminated by Piero.  But the wines of Bodega Chacra shine just as brightly when paired with Sassicaia.

Those who scoff at the idea of world-class Pinot being produced in Argentina are bound to make the same mistake as those who scoffed at Cabernet thriving in Tuscany.  I think our group on Tuesday night welcomes the scoffers.  That leaves more Chacra for us.

If you’re interested in joining us at our next winemaker dinner, we’re hosting Marco Fantinel on February 5 in New York City.

Go-To-Wine Tuesday (one day later…)

Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto 2008

When first asked to write about a Go-To-Tuesday wine, I found that my mind instantly raced in search of the perfect example. I began thinking of high end producers and how their second, third and sometimes fourth-label wines are often overlooked, but it was my colleague Tara who said to me “You should write about the 2008 Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto!” So here we are. And I can’t pretend to be anything other than really delighted.

From the pioneer Super-Tuscan wine estate, Tenuta San Guido, Guidalberto is a simple blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with a touch of Sangiovese (45%, 45% and 10%), and San Guido’s second label is a preferred drinking wine by many Bordeaux-blend consumers. Why? Is it just the name behind the wine? The price compared to its older brother Sassicaia or is it really that good? Yes, yes and yes.

In tasting this wine last night, I found that the estate itself has the best description: “un vino privo di spigolature!” – a wine with no corners! The best quality of this wine is how smooth it is. The Merlot and Cab nuances were immediately showing when I uncorked the bottle, but they mellowed considerably in the glass after just five minutes. While I was cooking my grilled chicken and vegetables, I would go back to my glass of wine. Sip after sip, I felt more drawn to the earthy and black cherry aromas; in fact, I nearly finished the bottle because it was so delicious that I didn’t feel the need to have food with it! This “drinkability” is a typical quality of San Guido’s wines, and one of the things that makes this particular Super Tuscan an incredible wine. As with many really well produced wines, it’s one thing to talk about it, and another thing entirely to experience it.

Ok, the wine is $50 a bottle, which means it’s not strictly a “value wine,” the usual topic of this Tuesday column. However, I think this wine is in direct competition with its older brother, Sassicaia, which runs about three times more, for it delivers smooth, tasty, Tenuta San Guido quality. It all depends on how you define “value,” and this was a bottle I enjoyed every moment drinking.

On Sexy Wines

Or an argument in favor of being seduced by language

Yesterday, wine writer Meg Houston Maker tweeted, “Wine writers who compare a wine to sex are probably having the wrong kind of sex.” This tweet was pretty popular among the wine Twitter world; it was retweeted, or replicated in other people’s Twitter streams, at least eighteen times. Apparently, a lot of people agree. I, however, do not.

My disagreement stems from a couple different places. First, I take umbrage at the concept implicit in Ms Maker’s tweet that there are two kinds of sex: the wrong kind (the kind being enjoyed by wine lovers who do liken wine to sex) and the right kind (the kind being enjoyed by everyone else). However, I realize I might just be splitting hairs in that umbrage. It’s likely that what Ms Maker actually meant was “good” and “bad,” and presumably those of us who understand wine in sexual terms are simply missing out. The point being, I suppose, that sex is so much better than wine that if we understand wine in terms of sex, our sexual experiences are sad at best, bad at worst, and we are to be pitied.

Certainly, were I to strip the two experiences of drinking wine and making love of all hyperbole and render them in cold, hard, purely literal cognitive terms, there’s no question that having sex is often superlative to drinking wine. I have, as most consenting adults will admit to having had themselves, had both good and bad sex. I have also had both good and bad wine. At least bad wine is less memorable. So while good sex is to my mind unquestionably better than even the most amazing wine, bad wine is absolutely preferable to bad sex. Which probably says a lot more about the importance of sex to the human psyche than it says about wine.

And this, actually, is what’s really important about the discussion of sex and wine. Ms Maker is not alone—in my travels of wine writing, I recall stumbling across a few blog posts that denigrate the use of erotic terms like “sexy,” “seductive” and “racy” in wine descriptions. Unfortunately, despite searching, I can’t find them, but there seems to be a movement afoot that descries unabashedly sensual terms when applied to wine. From what I can tell, people who dislike this kind of metaphorical language also often dislike it when wine writers use other figurative analogies—likening, for example, wines to specific people, places and experiences. I suspect these are people who find it most helpful when wine writers provide a clear analogical list of tastes, flavors and aromatics. (Ms Maker’s own wine reviews seem to hew closely to this style, for example.)

People who are familiar with my own writing for IWM know that I take my cue from our founder, Sergio Esposito, a man who is not shy about suggesting a wine is like a hug from a woman, a bolt of sunshine in the gut, a song by Ella Fitzgerald, or a rocket ship. He has no compunction calling a wine sexy or discussing the way it seduces a drinker. The problem, which I’ve written about before, is that when you’re trying to render a purely sensual experience in words, things get lost. The distance between flesh and reason is never greater than when you need to express sensation. And that, really, is one of the reasons why we rely on analogy, metaphor and figurative language. Wine might taste like berries in Balsamic vinegar or feel like a summer day in the park with your boyfriend; either way it’s a metaphor.

In his wine-writing book, A Hedonists in the Cellar, Jay McInerney says, “Wine is as serious or as frivolous as we choose to make it. Like sex, it has far too often been shrouded in mystery, hemmed in by taboo, obfuscated by technical blather, and assailed by puritans, although its enjoyment is, or should be, simple, accessible, and entertaining.” In this sentiment, McInerney deftly sums up my belief about wine writing: it should be interesting, pleasurable, and enlightening. Like sex. Or drinking. You know, activities we do best, most fruitfully, and most joyously, with people we care about.

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