The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Inside IWM, August 4-7, 2014: Places and Peoples Edition

A look back at the week that was

Vineyards at Rioja

Vineyards at Rioja

We began this week with a look at Fontodi, one of our favorite estates in the heart of Chianti Classico, and we ended it with Robin Kelley O’Connor’s snapshot of Rioja. This bookending more or less summed up the theme of the week, which is how much the land matters in the making of wine. We looked pretty specifically at the land in Francesco’s explanation of minerality, and we celebrated it with Jessica’s rave about Aldo Conterno 2010 Langhe Rosso.

Our experts concentrated slightly more on people, beginning with David Gwo’s selection of two wines from Vincenzo Abbruzzese’s Valdicava. Francesco focused on people’s enjoyment with his picks of two under $25 Burgundies–and they are gorgeous! RKO wanted to make sure the red wine lovers in the house stay happy this summer, so he picked a delicious Barolo and a delicious Brunello. And Garrett wants you to get your summer party started, so he selected two magnums, one great Prosecco and one amazing Barbera.

We hope you enjoy yourselves with people you care about, wherever you may find yourself!

Raising a Glass–to Wine

A meditation on wine’s unique place in human life

Will and Kate cupcakes

Will and Kate cupcakes

Today is Kate Middleton and Prince William’s second anniversary. Traditionally, it’s the cotton anniversary; the contemporary gift is china. Just under 23 million Americans watched the wedding here in the States. I watched it in Montalcino, Italy, at a party at Il Palazzone, surrounded by British ex-pats and a few Italians.

Il Palazzone’s Estate Manager, Laura Gray emigrated to Montalcino from Scotland, and she had invited her British friends to celebrate the nuptials. Marco Sassetti, Laura’s husband and the estate’s General Manager, had set up long tables under a tent and a giant television hooked into the Skynet coverage. An eclectic group of people—one wearing fez that matched his velvet coat; others wearing tea dresses and floofy hats—gathered to eat bangers and mash, drink an eye-popping collection of Brunello, and celebrate this royal wedding.

I had traveled from my apartment in Liguria to join the party. It was a singular event, not only because royal weddings come every forty years, but also because I was here, the lone American, in this strange land watching a ritual that I had only the faintest concept of. It was a mille feuille of cultures, and I felt like I was reading a palimpsest: one text overlaying another, creating a textured experience where one element (cupcakes decorated with pictures of the happy royal couple) was inextricable from another (the inability to get the program in English for the first hour or so).

Marco, Kate, Will and Laura at Il Palazzone

Marco, Kate, Will and Laura at Il Palazzone

Pondering this Kate-and-Will anniversary, thinking about how I—and so many millions of others—bore witness to their wedding, and remembering watching with this group of people, it occurs to me that time and wine have a unique relationship. The first level is how we so often use wine to celebrate life’s milestones. We toast at weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. We share bottles of wine at holidays and special meals. Wine is a given.

But there are other levels too. Wine is one of the few things that you can consume when it’s decades old. You might freeze a part of your wedding cake, and you might take a bite of it a year later, but that’s about it. Wine, however, doesn’t just have the capability to age; it also can transform, mellow and grow better with age. Wine is the only comestible that mirrors human maturity. For that reason, it holds a place in our hearts and our imaginations.

I spent just under six months in Italy in 2011, and I saw Il Palazzone vines when they were just budding, when they were sending their delicate little tendrils toward the sky, and when they were brown and hibernating in the impending winter. I’m looking forward to drinking 2011 wine because I was there. I smelled the earth and the wind, and I felt the same sun on me that shone on the grapes.

The guests at Il Palazzone's royal wedding extravaganza

The guests at Il Palazzone’s royal wedding extravaganza

This too makes wine special; it’s a reflection of the year that was. Each vintage is different, just as each year is different. It tastes of the snow, the rain, the sun and the soil, and the mixture of these elements will vary each year. It might be the same grape variety grown in the same vineyard, the wine made by the same people, crafted in the same way, but it always tastes different. It’s like children in that respect, a product as much of its nature as it is of its nurture.

Before I became a wine person, I measured years in hemlines and rock songs. Now I think about the glasses I drank, the vineyards I’ve visited, the botti I’ve tasted from. When I drink a wine that’s decades old, I feel the weight of the intervening years. I imagine the hands of the person who made it, their youth and their vitality. I see the tail fins of the ‘50s or the giant shark-faced gas-guzzlers of the ‘70s. It’s time in a bottle, and that makes it special.

Time seems infinite. It’s not. Thankfully, we have wine to celebrate time’s shiny points and to recollect time’s passing. It’s an amazing thing, wine, a perfect marriage of human ingenuity and nature’s largess.


The Sleepy Science of Wine

Looking at wine’s effect on your body

Maxfield Parrish’s Sleeping Beauty

Here is question that I often get asked, being the only wine nerd in my family: I sometimes drink a glass of wine and get pretty sleepy afterward. What is it about wine that makes you tired?

This question, in some ways, stands for everything that wine represents, and its simplest response also answers all wine questions: wine affects everyone differently. It makes a lot of people tired, but many people also feel invigorated, those like me, for instance. Drinking a glass of wine, be it cheap jug wine or  high-end juice, creates a personal experience for your mind, palate and body.

Of course, simple answers rarely give satisfaction, and thus we look to the more complex. Alcohol—all alcohol—is a depressant.  Ethanol, the principal alcohol in wine, inhibits the activity of the central nervous system pure and simple. This in turn, makes you feel “down” and sleepy.

Some other people blame their wine-related sleepiness on sulfites. While sulfites are sometimes added to wine to help preserve it, they’re also added to cold cuts, hot dogs and other preserved meats. Sulfites in wine also occur naturally; they’re just there, a byproduct of fermenting grapes. Many people blame the sulfites in wine for a host of woes like headaches, allergies, hangovers and sleepiness. It may or may not be the sulfites that make you tired because, as I said before, everyone is different. Maybe hot dogs make you sleepy too.

There may be additional research that suggests wine’s role as a soporific. A few years ago, Italian scientists tested eight varieties of grapes for melatonin, the sleep hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland in your brain.  These scientists found large levels of this hormone, or a possible melatonin-like compound, in the skins of the grapes.  Nebbiolo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese had the highest amounts.  However, there is skepticism from other scientists that the compound found may not actually be melatonin. Clearly, more testing is in order.

If you find yourself getting tired because of wine, try to eat something before you drink as to slow the absorption of alcohol into your system. Or just drink near your bed. There are worse things than drinking a glass of wine and taking a nap.

On Young Palates and “Young” Palates

No matter the age, every wine drinker deserves a good education

It just may be that youth is lost on the young—at least when it comes to wine tasting. Unconvinced? Consider this: the human palate peaks at 11.  Now ask yourself what you could taste then that you can’t taste now.

Andrew Jefford writes in the Decanter titled “Understanding Young Palates” that “Palate acuity peaks when we are eleven; after that, it is a long, slow slide downhill. Older wine-tasters don’t like to admit it, but their senses are never as acute as they were in younger years. Age’s trump card is experience and memory: you can fit things into a context younger tasters don’t have, and dredge the memory bank for sensorial similitudes.”  However, while age is relative, and while there is a difference between actually young palates and figuratively young palates, there’s no question that all palates require a gentle education.

It’s a truism that Americans in general have very young palates, hence the oceans of cheap white and pink wines (notice I did not say Rosé) that unfortunately fill grocery stores nationwide.  Case in point, Pinot Grigio is the number one Italian import into the United States.  Can Pinot Grigio be delicious when produced by the right hands?  Of course it can.  Can it achieve greatness when designed to have residual sugar, low acid, and a $10 price tag for a beginner American palate? That, however, is unlikely (though we’ve got one). And thus the oceans of Pinot Grigio being drunk by Americans may not be very bad (it’s tough to find a really bad Pinot Grigio, as this article points out), but it’s not necessarily very good either.

I recognize there is a starting point for everyone.  I know I didn’t start off with Giacomo Conterno Monfortino, or Grand Cru Burgundy, but after some education, experimentation, and fun, sometimes expensive, exploration, I now enjoy a rich, satisfying wine experience.  I remember in the fall of 2001 when I was in engineering school I sneaked behind my advisor’s back to take Wine Technology.  The class kicked off with Rieslings and finished with six week’s worth of French wines.  My only wine experience had been at family parties.  I had a very young, very sweet inclined palate.  That class, ten years and a few thousand different tastes later, I now have not only a passion for wine, but a solid career in it.

Although now in my thirties, my palate acuity is past its peak, I must agree with Jefford that my experiences, findings, and explorations have solidified my “memory bank’s sensorial similitudes.”  I have faith that we Americans in general, being the number one consumer of wine in the world by volume, will evolve within the next generation (or two) into a more polished, more discerning market overall.  New Yorkers have an almost unfair advantage when it comes to wine access, as New York is a wonderful wine city.  On any given day there is a wonderful wine tasting event (especially on Saturdays in our own Studio del Gusto).  It is also home to some of the Western hemisphere’s most discerning and vast wine lists.  Regardless of your age or wine level, I encourage all to constantly learn, explore and, most importantly, enjoy wine.

Hong Kong Gets a Kick from Champagne

Exploring the thrilling world of Grower Champagne

 “Champagne is only from Champagne” was chanted before each course during last week’s Grower Champagne dinner at Lagham Place’s Michelin two-star Cantonese restaurant, Ming Court. This event was put on by the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, one of the growing wine organizations in Hong Kong. Given the rate of growth in the Asian wine market, it is exciting to see smaller “boutique” producers now being pushed into the limelight – one example being the Grower Champagne movement. (Yesterday, the New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote an excellent article and a blog post about the movement in Aube; read them for more background information.)

Grower Champagne, also known as “farmer fiz,” can be identified by the letters R.M on the back label (R.M = Récoltant-Manipulant) noting that these farmers grow and produce Champagne from grapes grown only on their own estate. Many of the most famed Champagne houses (Moët, Mumm, and Bollinger to name but a few) purchase the majority of their grapes from farmers throughout the region and do not express a specific sense of place within Champagne. Although the bubbly wines are what make these farmers famous, it is the still wines that I find to be the most intriguing and mysterious. These bottles can be rather difficult to find, so when you do stumble across a good bottle, you can bet your sweet bippy that it will be a special experience.

For me, the highlights of the evening were the 1996 Andre Beaufort Ambonnay Grand Cru and the 2008 Egly Ouriet Ambonnay Rouge “Cuvée des Grands Cotes” (yes, they do make red wine in Champagne). As expected, the 1996 Beaufort was marvelous, but it was the young red Grand Cru that especially sparked my interest. Located in the small village of Ambonnay, Francis Egly owns approximately a mere 8 hectares of vineyards, the majority of which are in Ambonnay.  All of the vineyards are classified as Grand Cru and have the reputation for producing some of the best Pinot Noir based Champagnes, and in this case incredible stand-alone Pinot!  Most of the vines average between 30-50 years of age, which gives the wines gorgeous concentration and depth. Tasted blind, this Champagne had a nose that would have taken me to Grand Cru Burgundy; aromas of wild strawberry, sweet smoke, black cherry and earth rose from the glass, teasing my senses. Without getting too mushy, I will just tell you that it was a beautiful wine that came close to out-shining fellow Champagne superstars.

The menu was creatively paired showcasing traditional Cantonese preparations and a handful of exotic ingredients. Chilled abalone and sea blubber (otherwise known as jellyfish) were paired with Chartogne Taillet’s Blanc de Noirs, deep fried prawn coated with salted egg yolk with Ulysse Collin Extra Brut NV (a Jacques Selosse disciple), roasted goose webs Chiu–Chow style with the 2008 Egly Ouriet Ambonnay Rouge and finally “shark’s fin crystal extravagance” with the 1996 Andre Beaufort Ambonnay for dessert. I cannot properly describe this dessert, so I will let the picture speak for itself.

Hong Kong is full of constant surprises that make eating and drinking in this city always thrilling. It is inspiring how the community in Hong Kong embraces the celebration of wine and food no matter the form or flavor. It is an exciting time to be a part of the wine movement in Hong Kong, and I look forward to seeing further progression and expansion in the wine market. Grower Champagne wines have only recently made their entrance in Hong Kong and I am excited to see that will be next.

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