The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Expert Picks: Mascarello and Gravner

Two expert selections from John Camacho Vidal

CamachoI like different wines for different reasons but I have my favorite producers, the ones that I get excited about when I see the bottle and know that I’m in for a treat. This week I was lucky enough to taste wines from two of my absolute favorite producers, a Barolo from Bartolo Mascarello and a Merlot blend by Josko Gravner.

I like Old-World wine, wine that has been made the same way for generations, and when it comes to Piemonte and Barolo, Bartolo Mascarello is a name that is synonymous with that tradition. Although a slew of modernist winemakers emerged in the area showing different personalities of the majestic and noble Nebbiolo grape and wanting to make Barolo more approachable, Bartolo Mascarello believed that “Barolo is a wine of patience and it has an ancient, glorious past that cannot be forgotten.” The estate is now run by his daughter Maria Teresa, who has also resisted the temptation and pressures of commercialization and continues along the traditional path, making gorgeous wines that would make her esteemed father proud.

Many people believe that clay amphorae were the first vessels ever to hold and age wine, and historians have verified that winemakers have used this ancient practice for more than 4,000 years. Josko Gravner is a producer who has turned his back on vinification equipment like stainless steel, temperature controls, and barriques, tools that he himself helped pioneer in the area of Friuli. Now he has embraced working with ancient techniques, using amphorae for aging and combining bio-dynamic winemaking with more traditional methods like extended maceration on the grape skins.

Bartolo Mascarello Barolo (Hand Painted Label) 2008 $379.00

This wine greets you with a nose full of red fruit mixed with violets and eucalyptus, and with some twirling in the glass, spice, licorice and a slight tarry earthiness come out. The palate is tight right now with a silky mouth feel and bright acidity that come together mid-palate, leaving a nice, clean, lingering finish. Drink 2018-2038.

Gravner Rujno 1985 $399.00

This wine is still fresh and vibrant. The color is deep ruby purple with a slight orange tinge on the rim that is barely noticeable. The wine is bright and elegant, with black cherry, spices, hints of cocoa and tar, sour cherry and leather all making appearances. The palate is silky with tart, fruity acidity. Woodsy tannins start to sneak in on the mid-palate. It climaxes in a beautifully sweet finish with a bit of heat, and lingering herbal and chocolate notes. Drink 2016-2024.

It’s National Artichoke Heart Day!

What should you use to toast your artichoke?

artichokes_bkgrdIt’s National Artichoke Heart Day. A member of the thistle family, artichokes are delicious, if sometimes prickly. I’m a big fan of their mealy, rubbery, fibrous texture, and their slightly sweet, herbaceous flesh that’s reminiscent of fennel. Rarely have I encountered an artichoke I haven’t enjoyed eating. I like them small and fried, big and steamed, chilled with hollandaise, hearted and pickled. I like them mashed into tapenade, stuffed with breadcrumbs, barbecued in the Spanish style, even turned into liqueur, as they are in Cynar, an aperitif made by Campari.

I love artichokes, but they are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. For one thing, artichokes contain cynarin, a compound that makes food taste sweet, and putting them with red wine makes the wine taste weirdly metallic. Like green beans and asparagus, artichokes can be the death of wines. But, as the adage goes, what grows together goes together, and from Rome to Sicilia, artichokes are a mainstay of Italian cooking.

I turned the question over to IWM’s authorities to see how they handle the thorny issue of pairing artichokes and wines.

Francesco Vigorito:

Sardinia is big into artichokes, so maybe a Vermentio di Galura for white, or you could also go for a Punica if you’re looking for a red. If you do floured fried baby artichokes with a squeeze of lemon, then a sparkler to cut through the fry would be nice. Maybe something with a good fruitiness to it like the Barone Pizzini’s Rose Franciacorta, the slight sweetness in the wine should cut the artichoke quite nicely.

 

Crystal Edgar:

As a rule of thumb with wine and food pairings, the stronger the acid in the food, the more challenging the pairing. Vegetables like artichokes, asparagus spinach and other bitter greens are rather acidic but can be tamed by adding sweetness and/or richness, which helps to mute the acidity. Without going to sweet on the spectrum, I would recommend Pinot Gris from Alsace or Oregon, Friulano from Italy, Grüner Veltliner from Austria or another weighty white with some residual sweetness.

Garrett Kowalsky:

Pairing artichokes with wine is always a difficult task. Many times I opt for other beverages, but that is not always an option for my clients. My suggestion is to pick a high acid white with little to no oak. A bottle like that will be less likely to be thrown off by the strong flavors in the food. Think Sauvignon Blanc, or if you really prefer Chardonnay, then lean towards the wines from Chablis. Finally, don’t forget some of the delightful bottlings from Italy like Verdicchio and Vermentino.

John Camacho Vidal:

I have played around with different wines to pair with artichokes and have found that a very dry, high acid wine or a Fino Sherry with floral notes always does well. I’m also a big fan of orange wines, and I think they pair great with artichokes. I suggest clients they try their favorite artichoke dish with Gravner anfora white. Gravner’s oxidative quality mixed with the wine’s fruit will really bring the flavors together.

 

How Should You Toast Your Artichoke?

Tackling the thorny issue of drinking wine with artichokes

artichokes_bkgrdIt’s National Artichoke Heart Day. A member of the thistle family, artichokes are delicious, if sometimes prickly. I’m a big fan of their mealy, rubbery, fibrous texture, and their slightly sweet, herbaceous flesh that’s reminiscent of fennel. Rarely have I encountered an artichoke I haven’t enjoyed eating. I like them small and fried, big and steamed, chilled with hollandaise, hearted and pickled. I like them mashed into tapenade, stuffed with breadcrumbs, barbecued in the Spanish style, even turned into liqueur, as they are in Cynar, an aperitif made by Campari.

I love artichokes, but they are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. For one thing, artichokes contain cynarin, a compound that makes food taste sweet, and putting them with red wine makes the wine taste weirdly metallic. Like green beans and asparagus, artichokes can be the death of wines. But, as the adage goes, what grows together goes together, and, from Rome to Sicilia, artichokes are a mainstay of Italian cooking.

I turned the question over to IWM’s authorities to see how they handle the thorny issue of pairing artichokes and wines.

Francesco Vigorito:

Sardinia is big into artichokes, so maybe a Vermentio di Galura for white, or you could also go for a Punica if you’re looking for a red. If you do floured fried baby artichokes with a squeeze of lemon, then a sparkler to cut through the fry would be nice. Maybe something with a good fruitiness to it like the De Conciliis Selim—the slight sweetness in the wine should cut the artichoke quite nicely.

David Gwo:

​Veggies are tough to pair because bitter notes can be present and fruit-driven wines can accentuate that bitterness. Grüner Veltliner works well with vegetables and vegetarian dishes because the wines inherently possess “grassy” notes that blend with green veggies like artichokes. In addition, the wine’s minerality and cracked white pepper notes add an extra dimension of complexity to the pairing. Other options could include less fruit-driven rosés, but, typically, reds aren’t going to work and neither are very fruit-driven whites.

Crystal Edgar:

As a rule of thumb with wine and food pairings, the stronger the acid in the food, the more challenging the pairing. Vegetables like artichokes, asparagus spinach and other bitter greens are rather acidic but can be tamed by adding sweetness and/or richness, which helps to mute the acidity. Without going to sweet on the spectrum, I would recommend Pinot Gris from Alsace or Oregon, Friulano from Italy, Grüner Veltliner from Austria or another weighty white with some residual sweetness.

Garrett Kowalsky:

Pairing artichokes with wine is always a difficult task. Many times I opt for other beverages, but that is not always an option for my clients. My suggestion is to pick a high acid white with little to no oak. A bottle like that will be less likely to be thrown off by the strong flavors in the food. Think Sauvignon Blanc, or if you really prefer Chardonnay, then lean towards the wines from Chablis. Finally, don’t forget some of the delightful bottlings from Italy like Verdicchio and Vermentino.

John Camacho Vidal:

I have played around with different wines to pair with artichokes and have found that a very dry, high acid wine or a Fino Sherry with floral notes always does well. I’m also a big fan of orange wines, and I think they pair great with artichokes. I suggest clients they try their favorite artichoke dish with Gravner anfora white. Gravner’s oxidative quality mixed with the wine’s fruit will really bring the flavors together.

Emery Long:

Emery Long offers a recipe along with his wine pairing.

Artichokes are one of my favorite vegetables to prepare and serve. They provide a wonderful combination of savory, bitter, and earthy flavors. The tender artichoke heart is a delicacy as each plant only produces a few buds per plant and takes a full season to bring to fruition. One of the tragedies in cooking them are that most cooks discard most of the plant and keep only the tender heart, yielding only half of a serving—and the prickly spines hurt for days after piercing hands and fingers.

In an effort to utilize the entire vegetable and make the pain worth it, I find it very rewarding to save the trimmings and soak them in acidulated water, then put the trim through a food processor. Take the pulped artichokes and place them in a pressure cooker and submerge them in cool water, then cook for about 35-40 minutes to produce a delicate artichoke broth. Strain this broth, and poach the artichoke hearts delicately in this broth both to impart more flavor to the artichoke heart and re-enforce the broth.

Now to put the vegetable to use. I would begin by gently sweating a handful of sliced onions in a pan on low heat. Once the onions are translucent, add the poached reserved artichoke hearts to give them a bit of color. Then add the broth to the pan and gently bring down to a low heat being careful to not overcook the artichoke. In a separate pan sear a trout filet skin side up, add a whole clove of garlic and a hearty sprig of thyme to the pan. When the skin begins to crisp, minding the garlic not burning, add a small amount of butter to the pan to release the skin of the fish. Take the seared fish and put the crispy skin facing up and the flesh down in the pan with onions, artichoke hearts, and artichoke broth. Gently simmer the fish in the broth until fully cooked through.

Gently place the cooked artichoke hearts and onions in the bottom of a shallow bowl, rest the trout on top of the artichokes and gently spoon the delicious artichoke broth over the fish and garnish with a piece of crispy prosciutto and finely minced parsley.

I would pair this spring dish with the unique Villa Sparina 2013 Gavi di Gavi. This delicious Piemontese wine has a beautiful balance of bright acidity and floral aromatics. The minerality in the wine will complement the savory artichoke hearts; the acidity will meld with the flavor and aroma of the broth; and the accent of the crispy prosciutto will enhance the texture of the crispy trout skin and contrast the fresh and dry finish of the wine. Villa Sparina has been producing the Cortese grape for centuries and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t frequently enjoyed with the regal artichoke.

Romancing the Wine

Learning to let go and love the mystery with Gravner

The hands of Josko Gravner

The hands of Josko Gravner

It’s no secret that I love the wines of Josko Gravner. I find them to be mysterious, wondrous things. They try my skills with words, ultimately showing how badly words will always fail when confronted with an ineffable physical experience. The best analogy I can summon—and it’s an egregious failure—is that they feel like drinking wet, salty, silk velvet, but only if that velvet is shot with stars and imbued with magic.

There is wine, and then there is Gravner, in my opinion. I know I’m not entirely alone in this distinction, but I also realize that I am in the minority. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Josko, to attend a seminar that was led by Sergio Esposito and featured seven vintages of his Ribolla, and, later, to have dinner with him and his daughter Mateja. I don’t speak Italian; Josko doesn’t speak English. Frankly, just being in his presence and hearing his words as translated by Sergio or Mateja was enough.

Wine is something that we often try to understand by categorizing it, by affixing metaphoric labels, or by describing the way it was made. In this way, the way humans come to hold the mystery of wine in our heads is a lot like the way that astronomers come to hold the secrets of the stars, planets and moons in theirs. It’s an awful lot to ask one small human to hold the entire cosmos in his or her head, but break it down into galaxies, solar systems, and orbits, and we can begin to get a grasp.

A great wine is much like this process. This past week, NY Times wine writer Eric Asimov addressed this question with his post, “The Romance of Wine.” In this piece, he juxtaposes the nitty-gritty queries he receives on a daily basis—when should you drink a 2010 Barolo? What do you pair with spicy food—with the inexpressible experience of drinking wine. Asimov writes:

Great wine by its nature is mysterious, unpredictable and perhaps ultimately unknowable. We understand a lot about it, and yet so much is unresolved. How does a wine express a sense of place, subject to minute differences of terroir? How does it evolve and become complex with time? I embrace these and many other uncertainties, which requires me to give up the illusion of omniscient expertise that is so often conferred to wine writers.

The key word in that passage is “unknowable.” Because wine is a living thing, it changes and it shifts, it morphs and it mellows, it lives and it dies. A supermarket wine may not achieve the Pinocchio apotheosis of being “a real boy!” but drinking a wine like one made by Josko Gravner, or Mascarello, or Biondi-Santi, or Fiorano, or any number of great producers feels like getting to know a person. Like a person, these wines are unpredictable, and like a person, they are ultimately unknowable.

In conversation, Gravner says that he doesn’t understand all the questions about his protocol. He grows great grapes, he puts the grapes in a giant clay jar, he keeps them there. After some time, he removes them and puts them in a big wood vat, he keeps them there, and after more time, he puts them in a bottle. That’s more or less it. What Gravner knows—and what most of us have yet to comprehend—is that the protocol is not the wine. The protocol makes the wine, but the wine itself is mystery.

Appreciate it, and embrace the romance. It’s a very beautiful thing.

What to Pair with Josko Gravner’s Incredible Amber Wines

Bold wines require bold choices

gravner glassesWhite wine with red meat? I say yes—when the wine in question is made by Josko 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 a great privilege of meeting Josko this week at an event hosted by Domaine Select, tasting through seven vintages of 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.

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