The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Memories of Liguria

A lesson in terroir

When I hear “Liguria,” I have a few images pop to mind: Pesto Genovese, Pigato, Cinque Terre and just-off-the-boat seafood. But what really comes to mind is the inextricable nature of all these images. With its beautiful landscapes, interesting wines and super-fresh cuisine, Liguria, a crescent-shaped coastal region in the northwest of Italy, demonstrates the epitome of the word “terroir.”

During my one-year stay in Italy, I learned about the wines of Liguria.  I’d heard that Cinque Terre was a scenic place on the coast of Liguria, and I made it a point to go see the land, drink the wine, eat the food and talk with the people.  Cinque Terre means “Five Lands,” and indeed there are five villages that make up the region: Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso al Mare, Manarola and Riomaggiore.  Cinque Terre, the epicenter of Liguria, is best known by its coastal mountainous trail that can be several hundreds of meters high, and when walking, you’ve nothing but some wires to prevent you from falling to the rocky ocean bottom. This is why you must leave the wine drinking until after the hike.

Many vineyards in Liguria are literally chiseled out of the coastal mountains and rest precariously on terraces.  Heat radiates off the rocks and adds extra ripeness to the grapes, something that would not normally be achievable in these higher climes. Not only are these vineyards on steep slopes that allow for good drainage, but they also benefit from cool sea breezes that provide air circulation, which keeps the grapes dry and prevents molds and other forms of rot from developing. The refreshing, cool nights near the coast help the grapes retain their natural acidity, and the proximity to the sea can impart a savory quality to the wines. The region’s dominant white grape varieties, Pigato and Vermentino, thrive in these conditions, and while they’re often considered the same variety, they do portray different flavor profiles.

July is a pretty hot time of year in Italy, and it was exceptionally hot when we decided to go to Liguria. The sun’s rays reflect off the rocks and radiate outward. The heat is good for the grapes, but it’s not that good for me.  All I could think about was getting to the next town to sample some of the local food and wine.  Thankfully, some clouds came rolling through and showered us with rejuvenating rain. This, however, made the rocky walking surface slippery and slightly more fun.  I made it safely from the southernmost town, Riomaggiore, past the second town of Manarola and then into Corniglia.  This is not as simple as it sounds as there were close to 400 hundred zigzagging steps needed to get into Corneglia. Still, I made it safely.

After the climb, it was definitely time for food and wine. I found a restaurant with a good view and a nice wine list.  I ordered some crudo that consisted of raw local fishes.  I don’t remember the types of fish, but they were awesome with the house white. The light, refreshing and crisp character of the wine was a perfect complement to the delicate flavors of the crudo. Next I had Pesto Genovese; Genova is the Capital of Liguria and this basil infused dish is everywhere.  I paired this dish with a Pigato from one of the local producers.  The wine’s savory, fresh character and aromatic profile played up both the freshness and the aromas of the pesto. This Pigato also paired well with the main course, an assortment of seafood that included mussels, clams, calamari and prawns lightly poached in a simple garlic and parsley broth.

After a white-wine-and-seafood fest I needed something sweet. Fortunately, Liguria makes a dessert wine that is unheard of—unless you’ve been to Liguria and have tasted it. This beloved artisanal wine is called Sciacchetrà, and it’s both rare and expensive. This sweet wine from Cinque Terre is composed of several indigenous white varieties that include Bosco, Vermentino and Albaroa. The grapes are hand-harvested and left to dry in cool ventilated area until the proper dehydration level is reached. Then, the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed. The must is fermented until the wine contains about 14 percent alcohol, leaving residual sugar and a refreshing vein of acidity. Not cloying sweet like many dessert wines, this wine retains its acidic backbone due to the region’s bracing terroir.

After walking three towns and eating a big dinner, I decided that the best route out of Cinque Terre and back to Florence was by train.  I didn’t have the energy to hike another two towns, but my mission was accomplished, and I was more than satisfied. Visiting the region, I learned that the wines, the food, and the land of Liguria are not to be missed. The heat, the light, the ocean breezes all converge to create Liguria, and my memory of the place remains tied to the region’s exceptional wines.

Putting the “Father” in Father’s Day

Step away from Home Depot

It’s June—graduation time, BBQ time and time to go to Home Depot and pick out the shiniest power tool to celebrate Father’s Day—or that’s what the typical route would be. A complement to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day originated in the early 1900s as a holiday celebrating fatherhood, male parenting and even the forefathers of the United States. The holiday is typified by advertising for masculine tokens such as tools, grills, lawn care accoutrements and anything requiring an electrical socket, gas power or batteries. As I have grown older, I’ve become more bothered by how we celebrate fatherhood based on dad’s ability to put together bunk beds, his love of watching football in high definition or his way with charring meat. Dads have many sides, and I believe we should look at more of them than just the stereotypical ones.

I began to meditate on the notion of the male identity when I read William Grimes’ piece in the New York Times this past week about the re-release of Bernard DeVoto’s book The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (first released in 1948). This book seems particularly relevant because of the popularity of shows such as “Mad Men,” a series that is relentlessly committed to historical accuracy and that takes a hard-lined nostalgic look at man’s role in society, the workplace and the home. In his piece, Grimes addresses the importance of a man’s ability to select and prepare a proper cocktail and suggests that it’s almost on par with grilling and handiwork in defining who a man is. This recent preoccupation of mine caused me really reconsider Father’s Day this year—how to celebrate the day and the importance of a relevant and original gift.

Sergio’s recent e-letter captured the sentiment of the holiday; he sees it as a celebration of some of the forefathers of Italian wine, as well as Italian wines that are commonly labeled as masculine. While I am certain that my dad would have a lot of fun with a new iPad or circular saw, I’ll be giving him something that we can enjoy together, perhaps a bottle of Barolo from Bartolo Mascarello’s estate, where his daughter, Maria Teresa makes the wine now. I recognize that my gift is not wholly selfless, for I know that my dad being the man that he is will share the bottle with me. However, I do know that he will enjoy plenty of it himself, and I know that it speaks more to the man he is far more than anything I could buy from Home Depot.

Comparing Apples and Oranges

Searching for fairness in wine scoring

When we use the simile that comparing two things is like comparing apples and oranges, we’re saying that there’s too much similarity between two entities to make a fair comparison. It comes down not to the individual merits of a nice Fuji apple and a lovely blood orange; it comes down to taste. And thus it often seems to be the case when we talk about wine. Yet unlike apples or oranges, people often ascribe a numerical value to wine. And, more importantly, many of us base our wine buying decisions on that number.

Red Bordeaux and Muscadet from the Loire are like apples and oranges.  Only when we look at these fruits from an objective standpoint can we then determine which one is “better.”  In an ideal world, we could use a known set of standards to analyze each type of wine, and then we could make an overall assessment of quality.  Of course, we then get the thorny issue of what makes a wine “quality,” but this kind of assessment is exactly the activity of wine critics who ascribe numbers to indicate the success of a wine.

For example, we constantly see first growth Bordeauxs getting scores of 100, but why don’t we ever see a Muscadet receiving a score of 100?   Scoring systems aim to be as objective as possible, but invariably they are not.  The first growths of Bordeaux are an expression of the finest wines the region has to offer, so in that respect they should receive a high score. However, why can’t the best Muscadet or Cabernet Franc achieve a score of 100 if it too is the best its class? Scoring should be expressed in terms of “varietal” or “regional” expression, if you will—especially if scoring is really objective and not merely an empirical fantasy.

Let’s return to the comparison of apples and oranges. You have a perfectly round, sumptuous Navel orange and next to it a gleaming, mouth-watering Delicious apple. Which one is better? It’s a hard question to answer, but now consider this situation. The apple contains unripe spots and is bruised in some places. When you bite into it, you discover that it’s soft and pulpy and lacks crispness. The orange, however, is uniformly sweet, plump and flavorful with a perfect tinge of acid. Now which is better? Clearly the orange is better because it lacks qualitative faults. If the situation was reversed and the orange was dull, dry and shriveled, and the apple was perfectly sweet and crisp, then the apple would be better. Both fruits have certain characteristics that ascertain their quality: their color and physical presence, the texture and feeling in your mouth, and their acid/sugar balance.

Wine is no different. It’s possible to rate wine from an objective standpoint, but only when you compare the qualitative factors, not the elements that make the wines different. Of course, you may choose the blemished and pulpy apple over the world’s greatest orange, but you should realize objectively that the orange is of better quality.  This is the reason why a less-than-perfect Bordeaux can receive a better score than a top-notch Musacdet.  Clearly, sometimes the blemished apple is being chosen. And other times, the perfect orange doesn’t stand a chance.

It’s not a fair world of apples and oranges, or Bordeaux and Muscadet. But it should be.

La Vie en Rosé

Summertime Wines

My favorite time of year is here: Rosé season is finally upon us. I look forward to this moment every year—the warm weather, the picnics, the general improvement of everyone’s mood; and the deliciously refreshing, happy pink-colored wines. Still, I find myself getting a little sad for Rosé, because so many people snicker at it, pooh-pooh its inclusion on a wine list or wrongfully refer to all pink-colored wines as “white zinfandel.” I am a proud lover of Rosé. Don’t judge me!

Given its pleasure potential, Rosé is extremely underrated. Part of the low opinion of Rosé stems from the misconception that all pink-hued wine is cheap, mass-produced and thoughtless. This, in fact, is not true. Today, there is a vast array of quality Rosé produced throughout the Old and New Worlds. France’s warmer, southern regions produce and consume a large amount of Rosé, most often made of the Grenache and Cinsault grapes and crafted particularly in Provence, Southern Rhône, the Languedoc DOC and Roussillon. Spain is another major player on the Rosé field, where it’s known as Rosado (lighter pink versions) or Clarete for (for darker pink or light reds). Pink wines are called Rosato in Italy, and some of my favorite are made from the Nebbiolo grape. Recently, I tasted a very interesting Pinot Noir Rosé from Oregon.

The most common method of making Rosé wines is to use a short maceration of the juice and the skins of dark-skinned grapes after crushing. Producers macerate just long enough to extract the color. The juice and the skins are then separated by draining or pressing, and the juice is then fermented in the same fashion as white wine.

Much of the bad press surrounding Rosé stems from a time when white wines reigned supreme, and the practice of inserting the descriptive word “white” before or after the name of darker-skinned grape names (such as in White Zinfandel or Cabernet Blanc) gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s in California. It’s all about the marketing, and people thought that giving these pink-colored wines jazzier names would help them hold their heads high alongside the other noble wines of the world. Fortunately, marketing trends change, and producers are once again embracing the proper nomenclature for these wines: Rosé.

I’ll be honest. I’m out for Rosé converts. I encourage you to embrace Rosé during this season that lends itself so perfectly to consuming this wine. It’s also worth noting that a lot of good Rosé on the market is affordable, and it’ll soon be appearing on shelves all over the place. Sip a glass or three on a hot summer day. I defy you to tell me that there’s not a more pleasant experience under the sun.

High Alcohol Wines and Spirited Debates

A question of balance

I‘ve just finished reading the Lettie Teague Wall Street Journal article about high alcohol wines. Lettie—who, full disclosure, used to write for Italian Wine Merchants—explores the legal questions of these wines, their relative values according to sommeliers and experts, and their taste. She reaches the conclusion that these wines have “flavor and intensity and they were immensely pleasurable, “and she suggests that this alcohol is not unlike fat in meat: it adds flavor.

I then read Dr. Vino’s follow-up article in response to Lettie’s article. What’s immediately clear is that the subject of high alcohol wines, wines with over 14% alcohol, is a hot topic today. In his post, popular blogger Dr. Vino takes Lettie to task over her claims, her sources and her “hypocrisy.” Let’s just say that both writers seem to be fairly impassioned about their stance on the issue.

Reading around on the internet, I soon saw that there are very strong opinions on both sides of the argument: on one hand, there are outstanding sommeliers and wine aficionados that champion the lower alcohol wines, and on the other, there are the experts who find high alcohol wines to be too big, too full, too fruity and too garish. The primary pro-high alcohol argument is that they are more balanced— and the primary anti-high alcohol argument is that high alcohol wines aren’t balanced enough. Balance seems to be the underpinning of either polemic, which seems a tad counter-intuitive.

There are some commonalities that every wine expert, even Lettie and Dr. Vino, can agree on. For example, we can acknowledge that wines with low alcohol often seem to possess a more elegant style. Often these wines can present a greater level of complexity.  Sometimes they appear better balanced. They do pair better with most food, and often they evolve into even more impressive wines as they mature. But do these points necessarily make them better wines?

In considering the two opinions, I’m left with a rather simple question: Why do we need to decide that one style is superior to the other? And why do we need to suggest that high alcohol wines are poorly made, insignificant and to be avoided at all costs? Perhaps we can get back to a more simple reference point which is that many of these high alcohol wines are delicious. Do we need a better reason to represent these wines on our wine lists or in our personal collections? The answer to this question may be the root of the answer.

There are many wine lovers who approach wine in a manner that is exclusive, which is to say they contend that they understand the product better, have more experience than the rest of us and, therefore, their opinion is superior. This is rubbish. Wine is meant to bring people together. It’s meant for people to share and more than anything it is meant for people to enjoy. There are times when we simply want something that makes us smile and makes us feel more relaxed; there are times when balance doesn’t even enter the equation. One of the wines mentioned in the article was a Martinelli Zinfandel.  The Martinelli family are among the finest farmers anywhere. Their Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, Chardonnays, and Gewurztraminers are always delicious. (For that matter, their apple juice is among the best I have ever tasted.) High alcohol, low alcohol or in the case of the apple juice no alcohol, Martinelli wines taste as good. Another example of these high alcohol wines would be Larry Turley’s Zinfandels. Do I care that they are complex? Absolutely not. I also don’t care if they’re simple. I merely care that they’re good.

I believe that any collection has room for both styles of these hotly contested wines. Indeed, I’d go on to argue that in my world there is a need for both high alcohol and low alcohol wines. I’d happily take a seat in the audience, enjoy a glass of both styles, and listen to both sides of the argument. I’d delight in seeing each presenter twist and turn with the vehement presentation of his or her argument’s points. And at the end of the discussion, I’d leave content that I had an opportunity to experience two fine glasses of wine and hear two fine orators. It’s win-win; it’s wine; and if it’s an argument or a wine made well, it’s all good.

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