The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Snowy Days and Winter Whites

Why one writer is pouring orange wines this winter

gravnerLike Olivia Pope, I do not stow my whites as winter comes. I may enjoy curling up on the couch with a glass of Brunello and a plate of cinghiale salami, but I have a hard time letting go of white wines. Winter, however, calls for a heftier white than what I’ll pour on a hot summer night. This is when skin-contact wines, or orange wines, make their entrance.

Stay with me here. “Skin contact” even sounds warm, and “orange” conjure the toasty glow of a fire. Orange wine is a style that I’m very fond of for myriad reasons. These wines sit in an unusual position; they come about when winemakers treat white wine grapes with the same kind of protocol that they treat red wine grapes. In this, they’re the inverse of rosé wines, which treat red grapes like white.

It’s not merely the weirdness of so-called orange wines that draws me to them, however. Weirdness is a factor; I’m drawn to the unusual and strange and the unconventional. It’s also that orange wines confound expectations. Everything about drinking a white wine tells you to expect a certain prescriptive set of sensations and flavors—even leaving room for a range of producer styles, grape varieties, vintage variations and regional differences.

Orange wines confound those expectations. There’s white wine freshness and red wine tannins. There’s white wine fruit—citrus, tropical, white-flesh or otherwise—and there’s red wine thrumming of earth, underbrush and wildness. There’s white wine scent and red wine weight. And on top of all of that sensory confusion, there are aspects that only orange wines have, a strange oxidative, sometimes caramelly, often funky-dirty-woodsy quality.

My very favorite skin-contact wines come from Josko Gravner. His Ribolla Anfora and Anfora Breg drink like liquid kaleidoscopes, shifting at every turn to reveal unexpected nuances of spice, of wood, of wildflowers, of seawater, or of ripe fruit. I’m also deeply fond of Radikon, who makes wines that hang in the mouth with a velvety heaviness. I’ve long been a fan of Paolo Bea and Giampiero Bea’s project Monestero Suore, and both of these Umbrian producers do great work with orange wines. And I’m very excited to try the Loire Valley’s Nicolas Joly, whose super-natural Chenin Blancs approach the holy grail standard: whites that drink like reds. All these wines show best when they’re decanted, just below room temperature, and served with food—qualities that make them perform very much like red wines.

And like red wines, these skin-contact wines warm you from the inside, help conversation sparkle, and make you linger before leaving to go into the cold.

It’s the Great Pumpkin Pairing, Charlie Brown!

What to pour when you’re eating jack-o-lantern

Picture of the animated Halloween classic snagged from People Magazine

Picture of the animated Halloween classic snagged from People Magazine

So you’ve finished carving out your Halloween pumpkins, and if you like to cook or bake, you’re likely going to make some delicious pumpkin-based foods. Of course the next thought that comes to mind after you’ve made your signature pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, or whatever your signature pumpkin dish may be is this: “What wine can I pair with this?”

Luckily, we’ve already done all the tasting research and it turns out that a wide variety of delicious dessert wines make the perfect compliment to pumpkin. Pumpkin is inherently sweet and most foods made with pumpkin will have varying degrees of sweetness to them. That’s why dessert wines are the clear choice. You could theoretically do white or red wines as well, but they would not only have to be very fruit driven, but also the flavors would have to mesh well with the flavor of the pumpkin. Not easy. Check out these proven selections:

2007 Castello della Sala Muffato della Sala 1.5L

(Umbria – Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto, Traminer, Riesling)

This is an Italian interpretation of Sauternes made by the great Antinori estate Castello della Sala, located in Umbria. The estate’s Chardonnay Cervaro della Sala has been received with international praise and so it decided to follow up with an equally impressive dessert wine. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it’s as good as the legendary dessert wines from Sauternes (which are Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc based), but in my opinion, the Antinori family did a pretty good job. “Noble Rot,” a.k.a. Botrytis, forms on the grapes used to make this wine just like Sauternes. On the nose and palate you get lots of tropical, stone, and citrus fruits (i.e. guava, apricots, nectarines), along with floral and honeyed components, and the presence of the ever famous botrytis spice. While a magnum might seem excessive, this is perfect for large get-togethers, and great to have for the upcoming holidays.

The smaller, and thus less expensive, 2008 Muffato bottling will be arriving soon—with plenty of autumn to spare!

2001 Quintarelli Recioto della Valpolicella Classico

(Veneto –  Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Croatina, Sangiovese)

If you like to enjoy the finest dessert wines with your pumpkin, look no further. This is the legendary Giuseppe Quintarelli, a.k.a. “Master of the Veneto.” Quintarelli is known for his epic Amarone and his entirely unique Alzero, a wine that is made in the appassimento method but using Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Quintarelli’s wines are completely mesmerizing and entirely compelling; few wines deliver the sheer enjoyment while tasting the way his do. The Maestro himself based away a few years ago, which makes vintages that he was involved in making that much more desirable. Recioto is a dessert wine made with the same grapes used in his Amarone, except fermentation is terminated early leaving behind a degree of residual sugar, which provides the sweetness. Notes of chocolate, mocha, coffee, plums, and a multitude of other flavors constantly evolve in the glass while you sip away. If you are going to enjoy this with pumpkin, make sure it’s something captivating, otherwise this may steal the limelight.

Of course, some people like their pumpkin dishes to be savory, like pumpkin risotto or pumpkin ravioli. If you’re one of these folks, you might like to pair these dishes with one of Josko Gravner’s amber wines, like his Breg Anfora or Riolla Gialla.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Expert Picks: Gravner and Il Palazzone

Two expert selections from Perry Porricelli

1972I was helping my good friend (and client) go through his cellar last weekend and we came up with quite a few beauties—many of which I helped him to procure (what a shock!). He’s not much of a white wine drinker, but a few years ago, I talked him into trying Gravner and the rest is history. Though we found some wines that were ready to drink right now, we also came upon many wines that were just a little too young to be drinking right then—but we tried a few anyway. My friend’s first love will always be Italian reds, so we enjoyed a 2006 Brunello from IWM fave Il Palazzone.

Drinking now:

Gravner 2005 Breg Anfora $89.99

We pulled a bottle of 2005 Breg, and it was off the charts! Amber to orange in color, this wine had all the complexity and structure of a red. The wine’s citrus and red grapefruit nuances along with honey and minerals were just mouthwatering. We drank half of it then put it aside and finished it two hours later. What a remarkable, unique wine!

For the cellar:

Il Palazzone 2006 Brunello di Montalcino $99.00

One red that stood out was Il Palazzone’s Brunello 2006. This had the traditional Brunello earthiness and bright red cherry flavors mixed in with pepper, spices and a touch of mushrooms—the only issue is that you can tell the fruit was holding back. It only offered a partial picture of what this wine will grow into in a few years. After returning to the wine in a few hours it really started to open up. Delicious now but better in five years!


Orange, Oxidized, Ketchup and Rioja, the Top Five Wines of 2013

Our Events Sales Manager picks her peak wine experiences from 2013

vin santo barrelI’m very lucky to work in this industry and taste as many wines as I do. I’m exposed to countless producers, both those storied and those lesser known, all makers of stellar wines. With all the variety I’m privy to, it’s exceedingly difficult to choose my top five of the year, but after a lot of thinking, I’ve managed to whittle it down. In ascending order, these are my top five wines of 2013.

5.  1998 Gravner Breg Anfora

When Sergio first introduced me to Gravner, I’d yet to have an “orange wine” and I was completely blown away by the flavor and complexity. I have been a Gravner loyalist ever since. Typically, I’ll enjoy a bottle of 2003, as the 2005 is still too young to drink, but I did have the opportunity to taste the 1998 and it was even better than anticipated—warm, balanced and beautiful—it’s always hard for me to choose descriptors because the wine changes so much from the time it’s opened, to when it hits your glass, to when it touches your palate, from first to final sip.

4. Vin Santo from barrel in Florence

There’s really no way to describe this but a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To see the mats where grapes are dried, to touch the family crest on the barrel and to be able to have a sip from said barrel—there’s really nothing more to say than perfectly golden.

Chateau Auson3. 1947 Chateau Ausone St. Emilion Grand Cru

Ketchup is my main tasting note here, and this is one of the oldest wines I had all year. I had the pleasure of attending a Christie’s pre-auction dinner and sampled this beautiful wine. It was part of an auction lot that was originally purchased for around $36 a case in the early 1950’s.

2. 1987 R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Tempranillo blend

I’m always excited to find a birth-year wine that I enjoy, especially because I am mostly relegated to California Cab for my birthdays. I was very excited to find this one on a wine list and it was quite delicious. Tobacco, smoke, some red berry skin, a lot of sweet cherry. Perfectly ready to drink and not over the hill in any way.

rioja blanco1. 1996 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Reserva Blanco 1998 Viura, Malvasia

Aged, oxidized and delicious, this wine was my absolute favorite of the year. It was on the by the glass list at Ai Fiori for a while and I would always go to visit my former roommate and savor this wine. Not everyone likes oxidized wines, but they are some of my favorites, and this year, an oxidized wine was my favorite wine. The toasty, honeyed apple skin character is really not matched by anything else.

It always interests me the way my tastes change from year to year. Not only that, but I’m fascinated how my favorite wines also change in structure and taste. Most years, all of my favorites are red; sometimes I go through sparkling phases; other years I can’t get enough Syrah. Of course, what I’m exposed to has to do a bit with wine trends, and those trends in turn influence my favorites, but I’m always willing to try something new and what’s recommended to me. Being open to wine from all producers and in all its forms allows you to not only open your palate, but also to open your mind to new producers, regions and grape growing techniques. The wine world is ever evolving and we must evolve with it, lest we miss out on an incredible wine.

Honorable mentions: Conterno Dolcetto 2011, many of the Poulsards I’ve had throughout the year, and Andre Clouet 1911 Champagne.

Southeast Asian Fish en Pappillote

A delicious warming recipe for cold winter nights

imageI have often heard it said that the best things you cook are a result of just rummaging about your kitchen and using what you have on hand—or better still, when you stay in season and you use what looks best in the market that day. This mantra is what I kept in mind when I came up with the recipe below. I used the ingredients I had on hand and created a spin on a cooking method what the French call en papillote, that’s to say, fish cooked in a sealed package in the oven, either the traditional method in parchment, tied with twine or wrapped in aluminum foil. What I think sets this dish apart is the fact that I used Southeast Asian inspired ingredients, rather than the usual lemon, herbs and white wine.  My inspiration for this recipe comes from a Thai soup called Tom Kha that has a similar method of blending all of the soup ingredients before adding to a stock base and adding your choice of protein, such as shrimp or chicken.  My favorite part of the whole experience is the amazing aromas that fill the kitchen, first when you blend the sauce and as you are cooking the fish in the oven. The ginger, soy, lime and chili among other various elements seem to jump out of the plate and gives you a hint of what you are about to enjoy.

I’d advise using a firm-fleshed fish like salmon or sea bass as either will hold up well to braising in the rich sauce. More delicate fish like flounder or tilapia would work too, though you run the risk of it flaking into the sauce. This is entirely up to you though; if what you want is the sauce taking center stage to the fish, go for delicate, if you want to really taste the fillet, salmon is the way to go. I chose salmon.

Besides the wonderful aroma, I am a huge fan of the way in which the heat of the chili is offset by the fish sauce, lime, soy and herbs. What you get isn’t as spicy as it is warming and inviting, which is perfect for this time of year when there is a chill in the air.

Southeast Asian Fish in Parcel

1 inch fresh ginger

2 spring onions

1 large clove garlic

1 or 2 fresh chili, deseeded (Serrano or Thai birds eye)

1 tsp ground cardamom

1 tbs fish sauce

1tsp soy sauce

2 kaffir lime leaf (bought dried or frozen)

Handful fresh cilantro or parsley

1 fresh lime, juiced

2 tbs. vegetable oil

A few drops of water as needed

2 filleted pieces of your fish of choice (salmon, flounder, sea bass…)

Put all of the sauce ingredients in the blender and blitz until smooth (you might need to add a bit of water to help everything blend). If you cannot find kaffir lime leaves, lime zest works too.

Place your fish fillet either in parchment paper (tied with kitchen twine) or aluminum foil. Pour the sauce over the fish and seal the package. Place in a 375 degree F oven for 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fillet. Serve over rice or with naan bread.

As for wine pairing, I’d say white wine, though with such strong flavors, you need something that can hold up to this sauce. For this reason, I’m going to suggest the white wines by Josko Gravner. Yesterday at IWM, we presented an offer on his wines from the 90’s through to 2005. What is so special about Gravner’s whites are that they drink like reds. They are rich and sumptuous. are hefty in their mouthfeel, which I think would pair wonderfully to this intensely aromatic dish. If you haven’t had an opportunity to try a Gravner, I would highly recommend it because they are really one of a kind. The palate is full of stone fruit, honey and zinging minerality along with a touch of citrus.

I would also recommend the wines of Hofstätter, from Alto Adige, such as the estate’s Gewurztraminer. The gutsy flavors in a Gewurztraminer provide a harmonious level of body and aroma to hold up to the sour notes in the fish sauce and lime. Alsatian winemaker Zind-Humbrecht makes a Pinot Gris Clos Saint Urbain that gives fantastic notes of minerality, citrus and nutty taste to counterbalance the herbaceous sauce.

Why not give winter a warm welcome? Embrace it rather than fight against it. Give this a try when what you want is a winter warmer with lots of flavor and when you want to experiment with serving fuller-bodied, spicy white wines.

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