The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Expert Picks: Fiorano and…Fiorano!

Two expert selections from John Camacho Vidal

CamachoWe collect wine for different reasons and one is that the wine’s vintage holds sentimental value. Be it a birth year or anniversary, it’s nice to open a bottle that commemorates an event or a memory. Through the years I have been able to acquire bottles of my son Lucas’s birth year, always choosing wines from producers who are special to me and whose passion shows in their wines. This past Sunday I opened one of these special birth year bottles for Lucas’s graduation from UNC Chapel Hill. It was a special moment and I needed a special wine.

I have always been fascinated by the wines from the Fiorano Estate in Lazio made by the prince of Venosa, Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi. The story of how the Prince meticulously tended his vines and then later burned them down to ensure that his legacy gives a fairytale-like explanation for why these wines are a rarity. Their scarcity makes them more special, but even if you don’t know their backstory, these wines are majestic elixirs in a bottle. If you are not familiar with the story of the Prince and his wine, I encourage you to read about it.

To celebrate Lucas’s graduation, we had a family dinner at Lantern, a local Chapel Hill restaurant. The chef was the 2011 winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef for his unique marriage of Asian flavors and North Carolina ingredients that he sources from local farms and fisheries. We were all looking forward to a great meal, and I brought the 1994 Fiorano No. 46 Bianco and 1994 Fiorano No. 47 Semillon to pair with it. The wines showed spectacular with the family-style dishes accented by Asian spices, making the evening even more enchanting.

Fiorano 1994 No. 47 Sémillon $124.00

This Fiorano shows a golden yellow hue and offers a nose full of melon and honey tones followed by caramel mixed with apricots and kumquat. Airing the glass gives you baked green apples and slight tropical notes. This Sémillon has a soft, creamy palate with slight tangy acidic minerality with lingering sherry-like notes of almonds on a nice, soft, long, mineral-inflected finish. Drink now and for the next decade.

Fiorano 1994 No. 46 Bianco $165.00

This Bianco was a little brighter than the Semillon with a nose of apricot and crushed stones mingled with melon and honey. With air, the wine opens up layers of herbal notes followed by soft peach and tropical fruits. The palate is crisp with a soft, balanced acidity that lingers nicely on a long, nutty, tangy finish that does not let go. Drink now to 2041.

Expert Picks: Ferrando La Torrazza and Fiorano

Two expert selections from Crystal Edgar

Crystal 2014Spring is officially upon us—at least that is what I am telling myself here in New York. It’s time to bring out the whites wines to welcome the warmth! Today I am excited to introduce two wines that dwell far off the beaten path. I do love a nice, crisp Chablis, Sancerre, Friulano, Gavi and other bright and refreshing whites; however, I like variety. Seeking a bit of adventure, I find myself reaching for unique producers, grapes, or styles of wine. Here are two of my favorites, an Erbaluce, which can be enjoyed anytime, and a Fiorano, which requires more attention and a few very good friends to share the magic with.

Ferrando La Torrazza Erbaluce di Caluso 2012 $19.99

This fresh, dry, mineral-driven wine is produced exclusively from the Erbaluce grape in the northernly Canavese region. Technically part of Piedmont, Canavese is located at the frontier of the Valle d’Aosta, the very edge of Piedmont, an area renowned for its steeply terraced vineyards, which offers distinctive character and quality to the wine. The Erbaluce grape is an ancient white variety that originates in these alpine foothills. This ‘12 has a bright acidity, an elegant underlying minerality, and a complex structure that makes it the ultimate flexible wine. This wine is delightful to enjoy with a range of fresh seafood and antipasti but also acts as the perfect aperitif on a warm day.

Fiorano No. 47 Semillon 1988 $149

Last night I tasted this “cerebral” white from 1988 with a few clients, and once again, I fell in love with the fairytale of Fiorano. Of all of the white wines that we offer, Fiorano’s Semillon might just be the most unique and complex, carrying one of the best wine stories ever told. It’s hard not to contemplate the notions of death, myth and legacy while approaching Tenuta di Fiorano, a sprawling noble estate southeast of Rome and bordered by the Via Appia Antica. “The greatness of Fiorano is a secret shared by a few,” wrote Burton Anderson in “Vino,” his 1980 guide to Italian wine. This statement has remained true because there are not many bottles to go around! The elderly proprietor, Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, the prince of Venosa, decided to tear out his vines and abandon his estate to live in a hotel, where he spent his final years. He passed away in 2005, and the last of the remarkable wines he made was produced in 1995. There may never be more wine made like this (although Allegra Antinori is revamping the estate—fingers crossed!), so now is the time to get your hands on the few precious bottles that still remain in our cellar! Enjoy it now or over the next few years with roasted seafood, pasta carbonara, mushroom risotto, quiche, or a simple croquet monsieur.

Diving into Passion, Part 4

The perplexing Prince and his haunting wines

This blog post is the fourth and final entry in my blogging of Passion on the Vine, the memoir of IWM founder Sergio Esposito. You can find the first three parts here: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

After an entertaining tour of Italian wine producers, Sergio continues his adventure of the Italian countryside and brings us to Chianciano Terme, a mineral water oasis where Italians go to relax and rejuvenate.  He shares with us secret days with his son Sal—chasing frogs, hunting for wild berries and stumbling across tiny self-sustaining farms and vineyards, as well as sharing Easter Monday fish feasts on the seashore filled with boisterous family and conversation.  Sergio never fails to enchant his readers and make them salivate with lengthy, descriptive paragraphs of his everyday cuisine.  But the most inspiring and unusual experience he shares with us is his encounter with the madman, the myth and the legend: the winemaking Prince.

Sergio was enjoying his last free week in Italy on the Amalfi Coast, in Positano to be exact.  All ready to take it easy and enjoy his free time, Sergio gets a call from his friend Andrea Carelli.  Andrea tells him that the legendary Luigi “Gino” Veronelli requests his presence at a very important lunch in Umbria where they would taste vintage Malvasia made by an eccentric, introverted Italian prince.  Umbria, being a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Positano, was certainly out of the question, Sergio objects, yet he lets Carelli’s argument prevail. Sergio agrees to take the day to visit and taste the wines (which he was almost 100% sure would taste like overly sour white-wine vinegar).

Prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince of Venosa, was a descendant of a 1000 year old line of Italian royalty, same bloodline as Popes Gregory XIII and Gregory XV.  He inherited his family estate, Fiorano, as a young man.  He was introverted when it came to his political duties as prince, but he was quite interested in his land and agriculture.  He would help harvest wheat and vegetables, and he made simple country wine that he would sell to his locals.

In time, he became quite the wine connoisseur and began collecting and amassing a plethora of vintage wines.  The one wine that changed the course of his life was a 1946 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino.  He became great friends with Tancredi of Biondi Santi, due to his interest and sheer enthusiasm for his brilliant wines.  Tancredi became a colleague and ally, helping the Prince plant French varietals and guiding him during the beginning of his wine journey.  In years to come, they continued to collaborate and schooled each other in very intricate and complex wine-making techniques.  For his own enjoyment, the Prince ultimately produced a red Bordeaux blend, a Semillion, and wines made from Malvasia di Candia, which was indigenous to his land.

By chance many years before, renowned wine critic Luigi Veronelli was perusing the countryside of Lazio and literally stumbled across the Fiorano estate.  He bonded with the Prince, and as he was facing his own mortality, Prince Ludovisi gave Veronelli the grand task of finding his precious wines a home with people who would fully appreciate them.  The Prince very rarely sold his wines and was very protective of them—protective to the point that most of his bottled wines had rarely been touched.  When Veronelli explored Prince Ludovisi’s stone cellar, he found not a couple hundred bottles as expected, but over 10,000 bottles, all covered in a thick, white mold.  Before his death, Prince Ludovisi destroyed his vineyards so that no one else could produce wines from his noble plantings.  These 11,000 bottles were all that remained of the Prince’s passion. Veronelli took seriously the Prince’s trust of his wines, and he hunted down Sergio knowing that he was one of the few people on the planet who would grasp the strange beauty of the Prince’s unusual white wines.

Sergio expresses his first taste of the Prince’s Malvasia: “I inhaled and felt it: a twitch in my arm, a tightness in my throat.  The wine was alive.  Everything faded from the room—the background noise, the glasses clinking, the tones of conversation, all color and movement.”  The rest of the Prince’s wines continued with the Malvasia, and each wine made a very distinct impression on Sergio that day. Like Fiorano’s whites that strangely get brighter in color as they age, so too does this anecdote gleam in brightness; it almost puts the rest of the book in high relief, as if all of Sergio’s experiences built to this one moment when he discovered something new, something strange and something gorgeous.

Sergio purchased 11,000 bottles of Fiorano, which are currently on sale here at IWM, purchasable by anyone truly interested and can appreciate the essence of these magnificent wines.

And with this story, I have reached the end of both the book and the writing about it! As someone who is intensely intrigued by the subject of wine, I’ve found that learning about all these producers has been an exceptional one.  Many people talk of the fact that traditional wines might someday fall out of interest due to the wine-market being so much geared for immediate consumption, but after reading this book and realizing how intimate and artistic the practice of winemaking can really be, I realize that nothing can replace a wine made by a master of his trade.  Everything has its place, whether it’s mainstream industrial winemaking that churns out reliable and consistent product or true artisans who express themselves through their lives’ work.  There is so much more to think of now when looking at a bottle of wine because I realize how much time and effort go into bottling this wonderful, ineffable thing that is alive and continues to grow over time.

I urge you to pick up your copy of Passion on the Vine and enjoy your own encounters with these fascinating characters and the unique happenings of a man devoted to life, love and wine, pretty much in that order.