The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Visiting Umbria’s Paolo Bea

A look into the life and the cellar of one of Italy’s great winemakers

unnamedIWM recently offered a quartet of new Paolo Bea releases, which makes it the perfect time to revisit John Camacho Vidal’s visit to this iconic winemaker’s estate.

When I visited Italy in 2014, I planned on attending the 35 Enologica di Sagrantino in Montefalco, a tasting of Sagrantino. I love the wines of Umbria and, wanting to learn more about Sagrantino and the wonderful wines it produces, I took advantage that this tasting was being held during my time visiting to attend. I was also excited of the possibility of seeing the Paolo Bea Estate. Like many people I was introduced to the region and to Sagrantino through his wondrous biodynamic wines.

unnamed-3My friend Barbara, who runs a tour company based in Perugia, was able to call ahead of time for me and arrange a visit. Needles to say my visit to Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea was amazing and unforgettable. We were met by Sergio, who has been working at the winery for over a decade. He was very apologetic because it turned out that on that day the bottling machine, which goes from producer to producer, happened to be available and they were in the process of bottling and corking wine. We got a tour of the new winery, which was planned and designed by Giampiero, Paolo Bea’s son, who is in charge and, according to Paolo Bea, has taken the winery to the next level. All aspects of Giampiero’s design take the wine into consideration and the winery was constructed with materials from the surrounding area that provide natural ventilation, humidity and temperature.

unnamed-2As we went from room to room and stared in awe at the various barrels both wood and steel, we got an opportunity to taste the grapes that were being dried to make Bea’s famous Passito, and as we walked further down to the cellar we heard the clinking of the bottling machine. We were also able to witness the entire family busy reaching for bottles of wine from the assembly belt and quickly but diligently place them in crates where they will rest for another two years or so. When we walked down to the final level, Giampiero greeted us with his son and walked us through the rest of the cellar and the process.

unnamed-5After our tour of the cellar and watching the bottling process in action, we followed Sergio to a tasting room a few yards from the winery. There we sat down and I was able to taste through all of the Paolo Bea wines. All of them were spectacular.

unnamed-4Giampiero stopped in again and we chatted about the wine and his philosophy; after about 10 – 15 minutes Paolo Bea himself walked in. I’m not really the kind of guy that follows sports and I didn’t understand why people would freak out when they saw their favorite athlete, actor or artist, but when I saw Paolo Bea ‎walk in to greet us I felt goosebumps. I stood up to shake his hand and everything I wanted to say to the man just went blank. I mumbled a few words and he gave me a hard handshake and a hug. I presented him with some coffee that I brought from Colombia just for this occasion.

unnamed-6We tasted the rest of his wines together. Both Paolo and Giampiero grabbed a bottle and signed the label for me and gifted it—it felt like getting a rock star’s autograph. When I returned to New York, I nestled these bottles in the back of our wine fridge, where they will stay until I celebrate a very special occasion. I always say that there is no better way to taste a wine than to taste it with the person behind the wine. Not only did I have the opportunity to taste these wines at the source but also I was able to taste them with the people responsible for what’s in the bottle. After our tour and tasting it took me a few hours to come down from the excitement.


A Brief Look at the History of Valentine’s Day

The holiday has a questionable past

Lupercalia as painted by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Lupercalia as painted by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Valentine’s Day is this week, and here the truth: Valentines Day is, was, and always will be a completely fictitious holiday. It is so grounded in fantasy that it makes the Easter bunny look real. The name, Valentine’s Day, supposedly comes from a Catholic saint, but he never existed. Finding St. Valentine is kind of like playing “What’s My Line” with three obscure saints, all called Valentine, all martyred at some point during the third century A.D., none of whom had anything to do with romantic love.

This holiday of love has its origins when in 426 the Catholic Church wanted to tame the savage beast of Lupercalia, a Roman holiday of love wherein would-be lovers engaged in a precursor to the ’70s swingers key parties and picked their partner’s name out of an urn, or merely celebrate as naked young men ran through the streets swatting women with leather thongs, depending upon your interpretation and time period. In the mid-fourteenth century, Valentine’s Day moved from the 15th of February to the 14th, the day when France and England celebrated the pairing of birds for mating season.

However, it wasn’t until 1847 when Esther A. Howland, the heir to a greeting card fortune, put those commercial wheels in motion and made the first mass-produced Valentine’s Day card that the Valentine’s Day we now know and love (and by love I mean love/hate/love) began.

The cynics among us may want to relish this tidbit, the Greeting Card Association has an “Esther A. Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary” honoring those people who can find a new way to make us buy highly colored, usually sentimental paper products. It should be noted that 85% of the Valentine’s Day cards purchased are bought by women. This is something that doesn’t make me particularly proud of my gender.

The sales of Valentine’s Day cards run second only to sales of Christmas Cards, but Halloween cards are taking a strong upsurge, symbolizing to the most cynical of us that Valentine’s Day, like mummies, vampires, and other ghouls, always returns. No matter how much or how often we try to kill it. We might as well give in and embrace the monster, I suppose.

I am of the sort who, almost by default but certainly by nature believes that Valentine’s Day is, aside from the delightful blank check to eat as much chocolate as you like, kind of beside the point. We should, if we’re lucky enough to find it, celebrate love daily and in our own ways.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with opening a lovely bottle of AmaroneChampagne or romantic Super Tuscan and sharing it with a friend on Valentine’s Day. Or just having a glass yourself. After all, as Oscar Wilde wisely said, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

Cheers to that.

Red Wine Grapes: Cabernet Franc to Croatina

The second in our series looking at the grapes that comprise Italy’s best loved red wines!

Last summer, we took a look at Italian white grape varietals (here’s the last installment of the white grape series with links to each part), so it feels right to take a wander through red grapes this winter. This winter, we’re detailing the red wine grapes of Italy. From the well-known to the obscure, this alphabetical list offers insight into the grapes that make your favorite Italian red wines. Here is the first installment, Abbuoto to Brachetto, in case you missed it!

Cab_Franc_grapeCabernet Franc (cab-er-nay frahnc)

Cultivated primarily in Friuli, Cabernet Franc has been growing in Italy for almost two hundred years. Recently, its use has fallen off somewhat in favor of its offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon (the other parent grape to Cabernet Sauvignon is Sauvignon Blanc). Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is a varietal that provides wines with great structure and balance. Lower in tannins and acidity than its more famous child, Cabernet Franc tends to be more aromatic and herbal. While winemakers in Toscana differentiate between the two types of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, winemakers in the north of Italy often forgo the full name and simply call it–and Cabernet Sauvignon–by the name “Cabernet.”

Cabernet Sauvignon (cab-er-NAY soh-VEE -n’yon)

Cabernet Sauvignon may very well be the world’s most cultivated grape. This varietal’s easy balance between tannins and acidity makes for wine that has great structure and longevity, and its palate that ranges from berries to herbs to tobacco lends itself to a wide variety of terroir and viticultural interpretations. Like its parents, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is originally a French grape that has grown in Italy for nearly two hundred years. While Cabernet Sauvignon used to be limited to northeastern Italy, it is now cultivated throughout Italy. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon has a strong presence in Toscana, where it forms the basis for many Super Tuscans, most notably Sassicaia in the Maremma zone. Except for those in Toscana, Italian winemakers often label both Cabernet Sauvignon and its parent Cabernet Franc as simply “Cabernet.”

A lovely illustration of Canaiola

A lovely illustration of Canaiola

Canaiolo (kah-nah-YOH-low, kah-nay-YOH-loh, kah-nah-YAW-low)

If a wine is a play, then Canaiolo is a supporting player. Though Canaiolo once was widely grown, it has yet to regain the ground it lost during the phylloxera epidemic of the early twentieth century. Today Canaiolo generally serves as a component in wine. This grape is primarily cultivated in Toscana where it adds dark crimson color, black cherry fruit and a slight woodiness to Chianti. Canaiolo also grows in Le Marche, Lazio, Liguria and Umbria, where it appears in its white incarnation, Canaiolo Bianco, to add some heft to the area’s whites, specifically Orvieto.

Cannonau, also Cannanou (cahn-nah-NOW)

Originally planted in Sardegna when the island was occupied by the Spanish in the fifteenth century, Cannonau has fully assimilated into Italy’s viticulture. The dry, sunny, windy climate of Sardinia is perfect for this thick-skinned, flexible varietal. Known elsewhere as Granaxa, Garnacha, or Grenache, Cannonau also grows in grey and white versions, though its black grape is most common in Italy, where it is primarily cultivated in the south. Most often used to make a full-throttle wine of bright, dark red, with a spice-laden palate of blackberry and chocolate, Cannonau also appears in light rosés, fortified wines, and desert wines.

Ripening carignano

Ripening Carignano

Carignano (kah-ree-NYAH-noh)

Poor Carignano. So often maligned, Carignano is busy rehabilitating its image. While some people claim that beyond the grape’s brutal tannins, punishing acidity, and extreme bitterness, it has nothing going for it, others suggest that with careful cultivation this high-yield though extremely finicky vine can provide high-quality berries with a copasetic balance of tannins, acidity and flavor. Cultivated widely in Spain and France and called Cariñena, Mazeulo and Carignan elsewhere, in Italy Carignano grows almost exclusively in Sardegna. Like its fellow Spanish transplant Cannonau, Carignano came to Sardegna with the Spanish invasion in the early fifteenth century. Requiring a hot, dry climate with long, sunny days in order to ripen, this grape seems tailor-made for the south of Italy and for Sardegna in particular. Carignano appears in red wines characterized by a palate of mulberry, plums and currants; it also makes a soft rosé wine with a heady floral nose; and it even shows up in a semi-sparkling incarnation.

Cesanese (cheh-zah-NEH-zeh)

This grape appears in two main types, the larger berried Cesanese Commune and its clone Cesanese d’Affile. Grown predominantly in and around Lazio, these grapes are the components of three of Lazio’s DOC productions. Cesanese grapes can be made to produce dry, sweet, semi-sweet and frizzante wines; when made into dry wines, Cesanese’s herbaceous, plum-skin acidity can make a beautifully ageing, spicy wine. Traditionally, Cesanese wines are drunk in the fall to celebrate hog slaughtering.

Chiavennasca (kyah-vehn-NAHS-kah)

This grape is a clone of Nebbiolo, the varietal that forms the basis for Peimonte’s Barolo. Chiavennasca grows predominantly in Lombardia, where it often is used to make lean, taut white wines when macerated without skins. In the Valtellina DOC, the grape goes through a process called “sforzato,” wherein the grapes are partially dried before maceration in order to create a glycerin rich, intensely aromatic wine.

Ciliegiolo (chee-lee-eh-JOH-lo)

This ancient varietal gets its name from its cherry-like aroma and color. Low in acidity, Ciliegiolo is often found blended with Sangiovese in Toscana to make Chianti and other wines; its soft, round character makes it an ideal candidate for balancing grapes that have an assertive profile. While some ampelographers have argued that the varietal came from Spain, others suggest that it very well could be indigenous to Italy, and in fact the grape might be one of the parents of Sangiovese.


Colorino on the vine

Colorino (kho-loh-REE-noh)

Given its name, Colorino’s primary use of adding its deep beet-like hue to lighter hued wines probably would not surprise you. Appearing most prevalently in Toscana to provide balance in headstrong Sangiovese wines, Colorino is also cultivated in Umbria, Le Marche, Lazio and Liguria. However, it appears that Colorino might no longer be merely a supporting grape; Colorino’s high tannins, earthy notes and palate of soft apples and berries have induced winemakers in recent years to begin experimenting more freely with this varietal.

Corvina (cor-VEE-nuh)

This thick-skinned black grape is found almost exclusively in the Veneto, where it almost always appears as the star of a blended wine. Although there are single-expression Corvina wines, it features most prominently in Bardolino, Valpolicella and Amarone. The first two are light drinking wines, but the last is a serious full-bodied wine made by drying the Corvina for around 100 days before vinification. Characterized by its sour cherry finish, Corvina’s high acidity helps the ageability of its wines, even its Riocoto, or rosé, expressions. Corvina sometimes also goes by the name Cruina.

Croatina (kraw-ah-TEE-nah, kroh-ah-TEE-nah)

Croatina is a fine grape by any other name–and that other name is Bonarda, which shouldn’t be confused with Bonarda Piemonte or the Argentinean Bonarda that is really the French Corbeau. Croatina is grown almost exclusively in Lombardia. Its deep-purple fruit provides a soft, round palate enlivened by light, vibrant fruit and finished with a compelling acidic bite. Often, it appears in blends such as Barbera or Gutturino.


Why Chianti Classico

The reasons why Chianti Classico should be on your table

All signs point to Chianti

One of my favorite styles of wine is Chianti. It’s a versatile wine that can exhibit bright and vibrant fruit, but can also burst onto the palate with deep berries and a silky elegance. Because of these qualities, I often suggest my clients pick up and enjoy Chianti, or even cellar it for a few years before reaping the benefits of their purchase. Getting people to follow my suggestion is not always an easy task, however, and I often hear the silence of apprehension on the other side of the phone or in person.  “But, why?” they ask.

For many wine drinkers, the mere mention of “Chianti” rouses thoughts of straw-covered bottles set upon red-checkered tablecloths. Yes, decades ago many producers in Chianti made wine of less than admirable quality. It was light, without much structure or aging potential, and it was cheap. But this is the past and we live in the now, and times have changed. Over the past twenty years, the region has strived to improve the overall quality of the wines being produced. Through investment in equipment, the estates’ protocol, and improved vineyard management, Chianti’s producers have shown us that this is a region with some very special terroir, and it undoubtedly has the ability to impress the world with their offerings.

Currently, the designations in the region are Chianti, Chianti Classico (both of which refer to geographic location) and Riserva, which refers to the age of the wine. After all of the hard work of the past generation though, the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico, the ruling body who sets the standards for Chianti, felt as though they, as a winemaking region, were, as a Decanter article reported, a “pyramid without a top.” To address this, the Consorzio decided to add a fourth designation, one that would sit above Riserva, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. This designation adds new restrictions such as production per hectare (52.5 hl/ha) and the length of time the wine must be held before release (30 months).  It is also seen as a move that will help distinguish the region and the outstanding wines that it produces in the ever-growing international market.

If you are curious as to what Chianti might work for you, check out the link to IWM’s site or call your portfolio manager. Life is far too short to write off a region based on past mistakes, only to discover their greatness later on. If you have been hesitant to enjoy Chianti in the past, I implore you to dive in. To those fans out there already… you know exactly what I am talking about.

Toasting the New Year with Prosecco

What will be in your glass tomorrow night?

Prosecco_Flutes jpegProsecco seems to be hitting its stride. In fact, as New Year’s Eve arrives, lots of sparkling wine drinkers are reaching for this Italian bubbly, and for many reasons. One of the main reasons is Prosecco’s price point; you can get really fantastic, organic bottles priced in the $20 and under range. This means it’s easy to afford wine for you and your guests to enjoy, and given that Prosecco clocks in at around 11% alcohol—less than Champagne—you can drink more of it.

Sales of Prosecco have shot up in recent years as consumers discover the value-oriented alternative to champagne; in fact, Prosecco’s sales have outstripped those of Champagne. Prosecco’s light body and citrus flavor profile makes it easy to drink at any time, and that’s just one reason why Prosecco has gained popularity of late. The other reason is that Prosecco has definitely upped its quality in the past twenty years, in part because of changes in DOC regulations.

Since April 1, 2010, when the current DOC regulations became effective, the term “Prosecco” refers to a specific place—the 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 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, commonly known as Prosecco, also goes 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. Composed 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.

A wine that dates back to ancient times, Prosecco is Italy’s most emblematic sparkling wine. Made with the Charmat method that, unlike in Cava and Champagne, has its secondary fermentation takes place in a vat, Prosecco is beloved for its refreshing acidity, pleasant aromatics and delicate flavors of peach and green apple. It’s a lovely alternative to Champagne, whether on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day brunch, or any time a sparkling wine seems to fit the festivities.

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