The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Tomatoes, Summertime’s Simple Joy

A toast to summer’s best fruit

Nothing says "carpe diem" like tomatoes

Nothing says “carpe diem” like tomatoes

Tomatoes are a simple delight. Their taut skins straining under the pressure of their flesh, their seeds held captive in that singular tomato gel, their meaty husks strangely satisfying, you know, for a fruit—tomatoes make it look easy, especially right around now, late August, when in a good year we are knee-deep in tomatoes’ lambent hues. And, make no mistake: this year in the Northeast is a very good year for tomatoes.

In the best of all possible worlds, we eat them warm off the vine, as thoughtlessly as we eat berries or apples, depending on the size of the tomato. One step down from that, we find them ripe to almost bursting, and we slice them (serrated bread knives are the secret to cutting tomatoes without tearing their thin skins), plate them, drizzle them with olive oil and dust them with salt. You can go for baroque and add fresh mozzarella, ricotta or burrata, if you like. Sometimes the lily enjoys a little gilding.

My love affair with summer tomatoes began when I was a toddler. My great-grandfather tended a small garden at our family’s summer enclave on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I’d watch him garden, and I’d putter about the tomato stakes, taller than I, inhaling the tomato essence, that herbaceous acrid smell that fills your nostrils with its pointed scent. He raised beefsteak tomatoes, and we’d all eat them sliced on plates, their wet tomato guts oozing beautifully.

Like my great-grandfather, my mom grew tomatoes in her organic garden. She tried all manner of trellis, stake and tree to get the best results; at one point, she even let the vines grow upon one another, like long tendril puppies in a big pile. When we had bad harvests, which happened often in Vermont, she’d fill the larder with jars and jars of garlicky pickled tomatoes. Wrapped in newspaper and kept in the dark, a tomato will ripen slowly but perfectly—another tip for you.

Tomatoes, like berries, like peaches, like watermelon, are a fruit of summer. You can get them in the winter, but why bother? The waxy February representations of an August fruit is like eating a bad memory (on the other hand, canned and jarred tomatoes are things of lingering, useful beauty). The tomatoes of summer shout a cacophony of carpe diem. Seize the tomato and enjoy it. Chop it, mix it with extra virgin organic olive oil and salt, and spread it across garlic-rubbed bruschetta, and serve with an orange wine from Paolo Bea. Slice it, drizzle it with olive oil and balsamic glaze, and serve it with watermelon and feta, and put a nice, steely Amalfi Coast rosato on the side. Take a handful of the tiny tomatoes, cut them in half and swirl them with pasta, brie and olive oil, and serve with Cornarea Roero Arneis. Or just eat them from your palm, a saltshaker in your other, as my great-grandfather did. Nothing that good ever goes out of style.

Finding Balance in Your Wine

All about harmony between tannins, acidity and alcohol

A balanced mountain of Masseto

A balanced mountain of Masseto

For better or worse, wine professionals often use abstract concepts to describe concrete ideas. Words like “clarity,” “focus” and “balance” find their way into a lot of wine writing, and some wine-lovers may feel mystified by these terms. Today I want to focus on balance to see if I can clear up some industry jargon.

When wine pros talk about balance, we’re looking for harmony among a wine’s primary components. In the context of wine, the three primary “notes” that we’re looking for are tannins, acidity and alcohol. Let’s take a step back and briefly define these terms.

Tannin is an organic compound found in the skins, stems and seeds of the grape that imparts an astringent texture on the corners of your mouth; because more than one tannic compound appears in a bottle of wine, we usually say “tannins.” Found in red wines and skin-contact whites, tannins have a slightly bitter taste and are sometimes confused with the term “dry” because they feel astringent, or dry, in your mouth when you swallow the juice. Think about what it feels like to drink a strongly brewed cup of black tea; you’ll experience a similar sensation when drinking tannic wines.

A wine’s acidity is its brightness and liveliness. Think about squeezing a lemon over your food and the uplifting effect that can have on a dish’s flavor. The same is true for wine. In addition to contributing tartness on the palate, acid causes your mouth to water in a pleasant, refreshing way. Too much acid can cause a wine to be sour, while wines that lack sufficient acid can be dull and flabby.

Alcohol may not need as much of an introduction, but determining how much alcohol a wine contains isn’t always easy. The best way to approximate it is to take a big sip, swish it around in your mouth to coat your palate, swallow it and then exhale deeply. The level of heat you feel in your cheeks and on the roof of your mouth is an excellent indicator of that wine’s degree of alcohol.

For a wine to be considered balanced, these three crucial elements—tannins, acidity and alcohol—must exist symmetrically alongside one another at similar levels of intensity. One way of thinking about balance is to use the musical analogy of a major chord, with three discrete notes being played at once. If one note is played more loudly louder or softly than the others, the chord as a whole sounds wrong and this lack of balance between pitches is distracting to the listener.

Unbalanced wines can often feel disjointed or confused on the palate, and they can be frustratingly difficult to pair with foods. A prime example would be the excessive use of barrique aging in the production of many New World Chardonnays. This protocol can cause those wines to be dominated by notes of vanilla, toast and spice at the expense of acidity, freshness and varietal character. While these qualities may be desirable to some, those wines lack balance and therefore function better during cocktail hour than on the dinner table—among other attributes, acidity makes food taste better.

However, don’t mistake this to mean that all wines with unusually high levels of tannins or alcohol are necessarily unbalanced. Ultra-tannic wines such as Paolo Bea’s Sagrantino di Montefalco Pagliaro require higher levels of acidity to coat the palate and harmonize with the tannins’ textural effect. Conversely, wines bottled with some residual sugar, such as Antinori’s Muffato della Sala, will also contain a higher degree of alcohol, which helps prevent them from being cloying.

Whenever you taste a new wine, ask yourself this question: are the wine’s tannins, acidity and alcohol mingling seamlessly, or does one element stand out or shy away? You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll notice about your wine once you know what to look for. Repeating this one simple practice will improve your tasting and assessment skills while also deepening your understanding of your favorite wines. Report back and let us know what you discover!

Inside IWM, June 15-18, 2015: Drink It Up!

A look back at the week that was

The author with Paolo Bea in Umbria

John Camacho Vidal with Paolo Bea in Umbria

IWM has always believed that when it comes to wine, knowledge is more than power: it’s enjoyment. This week our blog was dedicated to deepening your understanding and love of wine. We began with the second part in our Italian white grape discovery series, this one looking at grapes from Drupeggio to Grillo. We ended the week with Julia Punj’s spirited guide to the cocktail known as the “Flip.” (While these adult beverages aren’t wine, we want you to love what you drink, even cocktails!) In between, Michael Adler poured out his love for Frecciarossa’s under $20 Riesling sparkling wine, and John Camacho Vidal gave you a guide to get the most out of your winery visits.

Our Experts were similarly motivated. Looking toward Bolgheri, David Gwo picked two iconic Merlot wines that he loves, one from Le Macchiole and another from Tua Rita. Will Di Nunzio finds that, as much as he gets caught up in the spectacle of new releases, sometimes unusual, obscure wines with great back stories pull him to the glass. And Crystal Edgar let her first love, Bordeaux, be her guide in her selection of a pair of St. Emilion vintages from Château Pavie.

Here’s to knowing–and loving–what’s in your glass, whatever libation it may be!

Making the Most of Your Winery Visits

A few tips from an IWM writer who really loves to visit wineries

The author with Paolo Bea in Umbria

The author with Paolo Bea in Umbria

Delving deep into your fascination with wine requires you to eventually visit a winery, preferably one that makes wines you love. I have been fortunate to visit and taste with some of my favorite producers, but in visiting unknown estates, I have also discovered new favorites. For me, visiting a winery was like connecting the dots. Not only are you able to see the source of that wonderful wine, but you also get to touch the soil and the leaves of the vine, taste the fruit off the vine, breathe in the air the vines breathe, and feel the sunshine that nourishes those vines. Experiencing these elements gives you an understanding of what people mean when they say that “a good wine transports you to its place of origin.”

Summertime is when most wine-lovers choose to visit wineries, and I wanted to offer a few tips that I’ve gleaned from my own trips to wine country. But do your research; there are so many things to take into consideration and so many choices to make that depend on your personality. You want to make sure you get the most from this often once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Plan Your Trip: When staying in wine country, it’s usually pretty easy to find a designated driver who will drive you, letting you stop to explore and to visit tasting rooms. But if you are planning a visit and want to go to a specific winery, call in advance. When I arrange a visit ahead of time, I find that the time flies and am content in staying pretty much the whole day. With summer coming I plan on visiting some local upstate vineyards as well as some down south, and I’m already making reservations.

The author with Quinto Chionetti in Piemonte

The author with Quinto Chionetti in Piemonte

Educate Yourself: Learn about the region you will be visiting. Learn which grape varietals grow there and what wines are the producers known for. For example Piemonte is known for Nebbiolo, which is used to make Barolo and Barbaresco, but producers craft a range of wines from these grapes in these sub-regions, and each one reflects the estate’s style and personality. The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy your experience; however, even if you know nothing, walking around a vineyard and drinking wine can be a lot of fun.

Take Care of Your Body: Take into consideration if you will be walking through the vineyards or just visiting a comfortable tasting room. Wear the appropriate clothing for outdoor activities. Have a nice, greasy breakfast—you will be tasting wine, after all. And bring water with you.

Moderation is Key: To further that thought, don’t overdo it (ie, don’t get drunk) Always be a good ambassador. Use the spittoon, and don’t drink what you don’t like. Pace yourself so you can enjoy the whole day.

Get Your GPS Ready: Research your destination carefully and make sure you’ve got it nailed. If you’re driving yourself, program your GPS before you head out to get your route straight. If you’re on vacation in a foreign country and you do not speak the language, you should have a guide or interpreter so you get the most from your visit. Agritourism is on the rise across the world, so you’re in a better position now than even a decade ago, regardless of where your vineyards may rest.

The author in a Montalcino vineyard

The author in a Montalcino vineyard

Think Like a Farmer: When you walk around the vineyard, make sure to look around—and ask questions. You will be able to see firsthand the soil the vines are planted in, the way the vines themselves are trained, how densely they grow, and what comprises the terroir. You’ll be able to smell the air and feel the direction of the sun. These elements help to connect the dots in creating a full, 360-degree understanding of the wine in your glass.

Planning is Winning (and Wining): If you plan your visit ahead of time, ask politely if you could meet the winemaker and if you can see the barrel room. Sometimes you can sample right from the barrel giving you the privilege to be among the first to taste a vintage before it’s even bottled. Winemakers like when you ask them questions, so ask away and learn all those little tidbits that make you appreciate the wine more.

Caveat Emptor: It’s really easy to spend money at winery visits. Once you start tasting, you start buying. I like to purchase something when I visit to show my support and appreciation for the winery, but it’s easy to get overly excited and buy up the whole vineyard. Remember: the wine will never taste as good as when you taste it at its source. That said, it still tastes pretty great.

The author in the barrel room of Canalicchio di Sopra in Montalcino

The author in the barrel room of Canalicchio di Sopra in Montalcino

Ask for Advice: Even if we ourselves don’t have any friends in the industry, we all know someone who has visited a winery, and these people are excellent sources of information because they have experienced a place first hand. If that’s not available, simply reach out to your friendly IWM portfolio manager for recommendations.

These are just a few points that you can expand on. Just remember: it’s not just about the wine—it’s about the whole experience. It’s about sharing your passions with passionate people. And it’s about adding to your body of wine knowledge, which only deepens your love of wine.

Go-to-Wine Tuesday: Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Ruscum 2011

A sinfully delicious under $27 organic skin-contact wine made by nuns

WH1911-2There’s no question that wine and religion share a common history. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, and theatre, had a literal cult following, and Bacchus, the Roman version of the same god, had likewise. The Catholic Church was pivotal to the quality and development of viticulture and viniculture, and it’s apparent all over winemaking. For example, Clos du Vougeot owes its start to the hard work of Cistercian monks, evident in the wine’s precision and quality. Pope Charlemagne in the ninth century reportedly so loved the red wines made in his land that his long white beard was stained red by the wine; his wife ripped out the red grapes to plant white grape varietals instead, thus creating one of the best Chardonnay vineyards in France—Corton Charlemagne—or so goes the legend. It’s likely not true, but it’s nice to think it is.

One connection between religion and wine that’s absolutely true is the estate Monastero Suore, run the nuns of the Cistercian order in Vitorchiano, about 90 miles north of Rome in Lazio. The estate is overseen by Giampiero Bea, the son of Umbria’s eminent artisanal producer Paolo Bea, who are both well known proponents of the Italian school of non-interventionist winemaking. Monastero Suore’s wine is evidence of that influence; its eighty Cistercian sisters work the vineyards and orchards organically in this beautiful, pristine, and quiet outpost.

A gorgeous amber-orange in the glass, Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Ruscum 2011 is an intriguing wine. The wine gracefully demonstrates a vivacious acidity, with subtle notes of mango, passion fruit, eucalyptus, and almonds on the mid-palate, culminating in a gorgeous mineral streak on the finish. It has a strong yet barely detectable backbone, a quality that stems from a meticulously made organic white wine. A blend of 45% Trebbiano, 35% Malvasia, and 20% Verdicchio, Ruscum is balanced, precise, and surprising. Only 4,000 bottles of this wine were made in 2011, and it delivers a massive value at less than $27.

bertot ruscum photoAlthough this food-friendly, skin-contact wine will complement lots of food, this ’11 Ruscum paired beautifully well with a mushroom risotto my wife and I enjoyed on Friday night. I used morel and royal trumpet mushrooms, along with tiny cubes of Jamon Iberico Pata Negra de Bellota, and of course plenty of aged Parmigiano Reggiano in this recipe. This was a mind-bending pairing that I didn’t want to end.

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