The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

IWM’s Secret Wine Cellar

The IWM difference–our temperature-controlled cellar and our cellarmen

Most IWM clients have never visited our cellar. They just know that their wine magically arrives in the dumbwaiter, gets tenderly wrapped by a sales associate, placed into a happy maroon box, and that’s it. But below the wooden floor of the IWM showroom sits a magical wonderland of wine and cellarmen. This is their story.

This picture shows your hypothetical bottle of Barolo. You want to buy it because it does look lovely on the shelf and you know it’ll be tasty; however, you don’t get this actual bottle of Barolo. Yours comes from the cellar, and your IWM sales associate sends the order downstairs, where it is received by one of several workers.
The workers downstairs in the cellar work really hard.  They don’t just fetch your bottle of wine (and mine); they also catalog, unpack, pack up, organize and otherwise keep the warren of the cellar in manageable order. It’s tight and cold in the cellar.  Shelves are crammed with bottles, making the space seem smaller than it is. The fans are loud and there are many, many boxes.

The boxes are, frankly, drool inspiring. If you look at this picture of Gaja and Sassicaia crates and don’t feel lust in your heart, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

Likewise if this picture of shelves of Dal Forno don’t make you feel a bit like snatching and running..

The best part of the IWM cellar–other than the proximity of that much wine–is the link between the cellar and the store: the dumbwaiter. There’s a childlike wonder inherent to dumbwaiters, a kind of now-you-don’t-see it/now-you-do household prestidigitation. I also love that the IWM dumbwaiter is crafted from an Ornellaia box. It’s perfect that wine arrives in the casing of one of the most enchanting Super-Tuscan wines. Look down the shaft of the dumbwaiter and seeing the wine and the workers. It’s not quite seeing the White Rabbit or the Keebler elves, but it’s magical all the same.

Enjoying the Amber Wines of Josko Gravner

Friuli’s food-friendly, mysterious, magical wines

Gravner's "orange" Ribolla Gialla

Gravner’s “orange” Ribolla Gialla

White wine with red meat? I say yes—when the wine in question is made byJosko Gravner. These magical golden wines from Friuli are fascinating on their own, and they’re even more enticing when paired with food. They are some of the most versatile wines I have ever tasted. Not only do I enjoy partaking in these wines but also I take great pleasure in playing with spices, herbs, textures and proteins to bring out different flavors and nuances in these special wines. Similar to great red wines, Gravner’s Ribolla promise vitality and are destined to live a long life through their acidity and tannins.

Friuli’s Josko Gravner is an iconoclastic producer; he’s ever evolving and constantly refining his embrace of a “new-old” approach in his winemaking. Gravner’s passion for perfection through experimentation changed his philosophy; today he strives to achieve great wine through great simplicity, retaining the unique character and of each vintage, the integrity of his grapes and most importantly the “life” that exists in each amphorae and bottle of wine.

I had once had the privilege of tasting through seven vintages of meeting Josko Gravner and tasting through his prized Ribolla Gialla, 1998 through 2006. These mysterious Ribolla wines aren’t always instantly scrumptious; instead they slowly draw you in, evolving with time. Drinking them is similar to the feeling I get when a book or a movie starts slowly then gradually draws me in, and next think you know I’m hooked. These cerebral Ribollas require an open mind and time to observe and appreciate the life that each bottle has to offer.

The majority of the time people pair wine to go with their food; however, when a bottle of Gravner is involved, I believe it should go the other way around. Indigenous to Friuli, Ribolla is a somewhat obscure grape, but Gravner’s natural approach and use of amphorae give the wines weighted layers of earth, fruit and spice. When I think of pairings for Gravner’s indescribable amber wines, I immediately go to foods that will play off their texture, fruit and spice, while matching their weight and intensity. I encourage you to try it with anything from a simple steak and eggs or oven roasted chicken to French cassoulet, mushroom risotto, adobo pork, veal blanquette or ossobucco. The bottom line is to have fun and indulge all of your senses to experience the full breadth of what these special Ribolla wines can offer.

All About Franciacorta DOCG

What’s so special about Italy’s only méthode champenoise sparklers

Bottiglia e calice di franciacorta, or bottle with Franciacorta DOCG label, from Wikipedia

Bottiglia e calice di franciacorta, or bottle with Franciacorta DOCG label, from Wikipedia

In the province of Lombardia, south of Lake Iseo, lying in the low hills between Bergamo and Brescia is the 3,500-acre DOCG region Franciacorta, home to Italy’s only méthode champenoise sparklers. Sparkling wine requires two fermentations–and while the first is always in a vat of some kind (traditionally wood or clay, now most often stainless steel), vintners have a choice about where they carry out the second. Most of the sparkling wine made in Italy is made by the Charmat, or autoclave, method where the secondary fermentation takes place in a stainless steel vat, but the vintners in Franciacorta carry out their secondary vinification in the bottle as winemakers do in Champagne, France, hence the term méthode champenoise. The resulting wine is very much on par with Champagne, though as the producers themselves would be quick to tell you, it is not a copy of Champagne.

However, there is a sense of perhaps protesting too much. The winemakers of Franciacorta do more than just accept the French method of producing their sparkling wines; they embrace French grapes and the French system of sparkling classification. Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir are the varietals that comprise the vintages of Franciacorta, and not coincidentally they are the grapes of choice for Champagne. Similarly, DOCG rules employ French terms for their wines–nowhere on a bottle of Franciacorta will you find the word “spumante”; in fact, it’s forbidden. You will, however, find the terms “Extra Brut,” “Brut,” “Sec” and “Semi-Sec,” and you’ll find the designation “Rosé” rather than “Rosato.” This implementation of non-Italian terms can make the marketing, finding, and even introducing of Franciacorta wines difficult, but their bouncy bubbles, happy acidity, elegant structure and proper sparkling “feel” to make quick converts of wine drinkers.

While it’s likely that French grapes are not new to the region, the production of sparkling wine is. Despite receiving its DOC status in 1967, Franciacorta had only been making its now emblematic bubblies since just after WW II; although the region had made primarily only still red wines until 1950, by 1995 it had proven itself well enough to receive DOCG elevation. In many ways, however, the terroir is perfect for sparklers. Situated in a natural bowl that looks across Lake Iseo to the Alps, Franciacorta has lower temperatures than the rest of the very fertile Lombardia. In addition, its gravelly, glacial moraine both forestalls ripening and imparts a piquant acidity to the wines. Certainly, the explosion of producers in the once-sleepy area attests to its viability.

The DOCG rules for Franciacorta are among the most comprehensive in the entire system. This stringency means that there is very little identity crisis in Franciacorta. There are rules for cultivation, rules for harvesting, rules for fermentation, rules for ageing, and rules for labeling. It is simply a machine of organization. But given that méthode champenoise requires labor-intensive processes and a concomitant amount of money to fund it, this regimentation is neither surprising nor detrimental.

Essentially, there are three main types of Franciacorta: Brut, Rosé, and Satèn. Each comes in two varieties, one regular and one millesimato, a kind of superiore; the regular version is aged for 25 months, the millesimato for 37. The Brut, which also appears in Extra-Brut, Sec and Semi-Sec versions, is comprised of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco; the Rosé of Pinot Nero (at least 15%) and the remainder either Chardonnay or Pinot Bianco; and Satèn, which is another word for Crémant, or a version that has a lower concentration of carbon dioxide and is thus less fizzy, is comprised of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco.

The best way to get to know Franciacorta is, of course, to enjoy some. IWM offers a wide array of this unique Italian sparkler, and we’re particularly fond of vintage bottles from Ca’ del Bosco, as well as the more wallet-friendly wines from Barone Pizzini. Franciacorta is a the ideal way to toast to new adventures, with all the sophistication of Champagne and all the style of Italy!

Pairing Wines with Springtime’s Bounty

How to get creative with ramps, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus and more

Fiddlehead ferns, one of spring's most evanescent pleasures

Fiddlehead ferns, one of spring’s most evanescent pleasures

Spring and summer usher in a new batch of colorful vegetables, some of which throw a curveball when it comes to pairing them with wine. Now is the time to flex your creative muscles! It’s notoriously challenging to find proper wine matches for artichokes and asparagus; however, roasted root vegetables, stewed beans and earthy mushroom dishes lend themselves quite well to wine. From my experience, when in doubt pull out the bubbles, orange wine, sake or sherry.

I’m taking myself back to my days in culinary school, to offer these basic principles for creating great pairings:

Powerful flavors in food and richness call for powerful wines. Lighter food flavors require lighter wines. Spicy, salty, or smoky flavors in food welcome lighter, fruity reds, and off-dry to semi-sweet whites. You can pair food with wine by creating complementary pairings, where the food tastes like the wine (tomatoes with fresh herbs, olive oil, and olives paired with fresh, bright herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc). Or you can go the opposite direction with contrasting pairing where the food and the wine have opposite flavors and textures (for example, roasted asparagus with hollandaise paired with a vibrant sparkling wine).

Another consideration is how the dish is cooked. Roasting and caramelizing brings out the richer, sweeter flavors in vegetables. Steaming or sautéing can keep the flavors light and bright. Braising will bring out some of the deeper, more brooding and complex aspects of a vegetable or legume. Other components in a dish, from fresh herbs to spices, can also affect what you might pair with your vegetable of choice, so consider options at both ends of the light white to dark red wine spectrum.

Ok time to jump right in! Here are some tricky veggies with wine pairings that will almost always work together:

Artichokes: Artichokes are challenging because they contain a chemical acid called ‘cynarin’, which makes everything taste sweeter — especially the wine. To counter this I recommend serving a dry Fino sherry, smooth Soave from Italy, or a vibrant Txakoli from Spain.

Asparagus: A rustic vegetable that contains compounds like asparagusic acid, which, in case you were wondering, is an organosulfur carboxylic acid. Go for something citrusy, herbal and unoaked. For instance, you might choose a Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé from France’s Loire Valley; Grüner Veltliner from Austria; Alsace Riesling; Italian Sauvignon Blanc; or even unoaked Chardonnay, especially from a cooler region like Oregon’s Willamette Valley or Chablis from France.

Avocados: They are rich and sexy, and they work beautifully with voluptuously herbaceous, grassy and fruity whites, such as Torrontes from Argentina, Chardonnay from France or Italy, Albarino from Spain, or Moschofilero from Greece.

Mushrooms: Sure, there are a number of pairings here, but as far as a standouts go, you only need to remember two words and one wine: Pinot Noir. The earthy mushrooms and the fruit of the Pinot make for the “divine” contrast.

Nettles and Fiddlehead Ferns: These are some of the most highly sought after spring vegetables! These special veggies pair well with a soft, slightly fruity white like Pinot Gris from Oregon, Viognier from southern France, or Pinot Blanc from northern Italy.

Ramps: Make sure to avoid wines with a lot of oak/vanilla notes and wines that are super floral. You want a bright wine with green apple acidity and a hint of grassiness, arugula, or pepper to go with the bright, green, funk flavors in ramps. My picks are Friulano or Pinot Grigio from Friuli, Italy.

Olives: Because of the saltiness and briny flavors, Sake, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, dry rosé from France, Italy or Spain and/or bubbles are the way to go.

The enjoyment of thoughtful wine and food pairing comes into play when you have special fresh market products on hand whose virtues you want to showcase and savor. That is the essence of the garden cook’s mission—to capture flavor at its peak. Why stop short of the beverage? By its very nature, no other liquid flatters the earth’s bounty better than vino, so cheers!

What to Pour with Your Easter Ham

Balancing fruit and acidity is a challenge–here’s how to meet it

IMG_2225I love celebrating Easter. In addition to all of the religious ceremony, my family celebrates with a feast—a veritable cornucopia of dishes and dressings as far as the eye can see or the table can handle. At the center of it all, as with many families, sits a large, glistening, succulent ham. (A couple of years ago, the NY Times offered a helpful article on how to pick out a good ham.) It’s a tradition, and it makes me very, very happy.

But the eternal question is this: what wine do you pair with a ham? I am glad you asked. Here are a few ideas kicking around my head to bring home this weekend, and one wine immediately popped into my head. The 2014 Sartarelli Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi for under $18. I would be shocked if you had not already heard me sing the praises of the region of Le Marche and what its  doing with the Verdicchio grape. In my humble opinion, this remarkably refreshing yet detailed and crisp grape is poised to be the Next Big Thing in Italian Whites.

As for the red selection, you need a wine with bountiful fruit. Trying to combat the savory meat with a tannin-laden wine will end in your cursing the decisions you’ve made. Your bottle should be bright, vibrant and relatively devoid of mouth-puckering tannins. I have picked up a few bottles of the Domaine Faiveley Mercurey 2012 Clos des Myglands for just under $60. It’s dense and rich; juicy raspberries explode from the glass and match the festive mood of the occasion. Velvety tannins work in harmony with the dish to result in an altogether charming experience.

Here’s wishing you all a very Happy Easter. Enjoy the time you spend with your family!

P.S. I would like to leave you with a favorite poem of mine regarding the joys of pork.

ODE TO PORK

I wouldn’t be here
without you. Without you
I’d be umpteen
pounds lighter & a lot
less alive. You stuck
round my ribs even
when I treated you like a dog
dirty, I dare not eat.
I know you’re the blues
because loving you
may kill me—but still you
rock me down slow
as hamhocks on the stove.
Anyway you come
fried, cued, burnt
to within one inch
of your life I love. Babe,
I revere your every
nickname—bacon, chitlin
craklin, sin.
Some call you murder,
shame’s stepsister—
then dress you up
& declare you white
& healthy, but you always
come back, sauced, to me.
Adam himself gave up
a rib to see yours
piled pink beside him.
Your heaven is the only one
worth wanting—
you keep me all night
cursing your four—
letter name, the next
begging for you again.

—from Dear Darkness

Kevin Young

Distinguished Poet and National Book Award Finalist

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