Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wine of the Week

Every semester I take my students to visit a winery so that they can see how much work actually goes into making one. One of the truest quotes I have ever heard is that once you go to a winery you understand why wine can be so expensive, in fact you wonder how it could ever be cheap. The winery I have been taking my "kids" to for the past couple of years has been Vini Pallavicini in Colonna, in the Frascati DOC zone. They also have vineyards in Cerveteri and they make a wide variety of varietal and blended wines, both DOC and IGT. And they do so at amazingly cheap prices, at least at the winery. Everytime I go I stock up, in the winter on their Bordeaux blend Casa Romana or the lovely sangiovese-based Moroello or their Amarone-style Amarasco. In the summer I fill up on their refreshing Frascati, whether their base or their higher-end Poggio Verde, or their 1670. This week's wine of the week is the latter, named after the year the winery was founded. A blend of 70% Malvasia Puntinata (the local, highly-prized version) and 30% semillion, the wine spends 10-12 months in large oak barrels on its lees, and another two months in the bottle before it is released. The result is a lovely, creamy yet still refreshing wine, with notes of tropical fruit, toasted hazelnut, and honey. The large barrels mean that the wine is never overwhelmed by the flavor of the oak, and careful vineyard and cellar management means the wine retains its acidity. It is wonderful with vegetable appetizers and crustaceans, lighter first courses as well as fish. I recently paired it with penne al salmone, and the creaminess of the dish was perfectly matched by the wine. While the wines are well-prices in restaurants around Rome, they can be a bit difficult to find in shops. The next time you're out in the Castelli, Pallavicini is well-worth a detour to stock up for the summer. At the winery nothing is priced higher than 15 euros, and on a sale I recently picked up a half-case of Frascati for 10 euros! Just the thing for impromptu barbecues on hot summer nights.

Friday, June 18, 2010


One of my all-time favorite summer wines is Vermentino. Of Spanish origins, the grape thrives along the hot, dry Italian coastline. Its most famous expression most likely is the Sardinian one, but the grape has long been well-established in Liguria and has recently been getting a lot of attention in southern Tuscany. I love it because it is one of those wines that are capable of transporting you; it actually evokes summer in a glass for me. Crisp, refreshing, green, herbal and salty, it is the perfect match to seafood.
For last night’s wine club we looked at 10 examples from the three regions mentioned above. Though for me benchmark vermentinos are young, fresh, and brightly acidic, my eyes were opened to older vermentino a couple of years ago in New York. I was in an Italian restaurant and I spotted a 1997 vermentino on the by-the-glass list. I spoke with the sommelier about it and he told me they had come across a forgotten case of it, and believing it to be bad, opened it up just to check. It was a revelation for them which surprised me as well. Still very much alive, it had wonderful honey, nutty aromas and flavors, and a still-present acidity. While we didn’t go as far back as 1997 last night, our vintages did range from 2009 to 2003.
Generally speaking the Sardinian and Tuscan versions were the most powerful, while the Ligurian examples, though still boasting impressive 13% and more alcohol levels, felt much lighter and more refreshing on the palate, and they were the most popular ones of the evening. The crowd favorite was our very first wine, which was also the least expensive. (Though with 10 wines, perhaps it was just the one everyone remembered best!) A Colli di Luni from Liguria, at just 7.50 euros it clearly presented the best value, although they were all well-priced with the most expensive wine coming in at 20 euros. The mainland wines tasted the most of the sea, while the Sardinian wines were more obviously fruity, with favors of green melon and golden apple. The older examples showed beautifully. The 2003 had an extremely long finish with lovely honeyed flavors while the 2006 was surprising in that it still tasted so fresh, much more so in fact than some of the 2008s. The 2006 was a fascinating wine that had powerful aromas of seaweed, tidepool, but also honey, golden apple, and a long, long finish that tasted distinctively of apricot. It may sound like a strange combination, but it worked wonderfully. Surprisingly, the least favorites of the evening were the wines from famous Super Tuscan houses: the Tenuta Guado al Tasso and Grattamacco. While still great wines, there was some stiff competition last night, and they were edged out.
Vermentino is not just a seafood wine; it is also a perfect match for pesto, another great example of, “what grows together, goes together”. Liguria is famous for their basil and the pesto that is made from it, and the local vermentino (and clone pigato, though local growers strongly disagree that they are indeed the same grape) has the powerful green and herbal aromas to stand up to such a strongly-flavored dish. Young, fresh cheeses are a great idea as well; last night I enjoyed the last of the wine with some fresh robiola that I had in the fridge. I could go on and on! In short, it is a great food wine. So happy summer and here’s to vermentino!

The lineup:
1. Colli di Luni Vermentino 2009 Lunae
2. Colli del Limbara Ruinas 2009 Depperu
3. Vermentino di Gallura Monteoro 2009 Sella & Mosca
4. Vermentino Bolgheri 2008 Tenuta Guado al Tasso
5. Vermentino Bolgheri 2008 Grattamacco
6. Colli di Luni Vermentino Cavagnino 2007
7. Colli di Luni Vermentino 2007 Giacomelli
8. Vermentino di Gallura Arakena 2006 Cantina del Vermentino
9. Riviera Ligure di Ponente Vermentino 2005 Lupi
10. Candia dei Colli Apuani Vigneto Candia Alto 2003 Cima Aurelio

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Italian Rosè

Pink is the new white. Last night’s rosè tasting was a lot of fun, and an eye-opener for many who had always associated rosè with the cloyingly sweet versions of the wine. Quality rosè in Europe though has always been dry for the most part, and is a wonderful choice this time of year.  Warm weather has finally arrived in Rome and mother nature seems to be making up for lost time by blasting us, and it has had me reaching for the rosè! Big red wine sounds so unpalatable, but sometimes you want more than a white. With rosè, you can get the body of a red with the thirst-quenching quality of a white. They often bring a spiciness to the palate that is a wonderful accompaniment to the peperocino-laced fish stews that abound along the Italian coasts, or the fiery foods of Calabria like ‘nduja sausage. Not too many whites out there could hold their own against all of that flavor and heat, but a good rosè will cool you down without being overpowered. 
Quality pink wine is made not by blending white and red wine together, but instead by allowing a limited skin contact time. (The one exception is pink bubbly, rosè Champagnes and other quality sparklers do indeed blend white and red together, which is just one component of the complicated assemblage  process involved.) Red wine derives its color from the skins, which is extracted during the fermentation process. Those skins also contain tannin, but the color is extracted first. Reds might spend weeks macerating with their skins, but depending on the grape variety you have and the type of rosè you want to make, a pink wine will spend somewhere between 12 and 48 hours. This usually  means tannin has not been extracted, so with rosès you rarely get the astringency that can accompany young reds. Colors can range anywhere from peach (made from white grapes) to bright cherry reds. The aromas are usually of bright fruit, sometimes with some spiciness with cinnamon or floral notes.
Tonight we looked at five Italian rosès, all from the south. I love northern rosès as well, but I wanted a more focused tasting this time. Overall we were very happy with the wines, especially when you consider the prices. Only one wine was 20 euros, and the other four all fell between 7 and 9 euros. The first two were a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo and a Salento Rosato from Puglia. They were quite similar in color and aroma, despite being from distinct regions. Both were a bit muted in their flavors but presented a nice, refreshing acidity, with the second wine perhaps being a bit more thirst-quenching. The Salento wine is one of the more famous Italian rosès, the Rosa del Golfo. This bottling didn’t quite seem to live up to its reputation. 
The next three wines were the clear favorites of the evening. The third was actually the oldest wine, a 2007, from Sicily. Often in a tasting you go from youngest to oldest, but I felt confident that the other remaining wines would be more complex and concentrated and I didn’t want it to be overpowered.  It turned out to be a wise choice. The wine was a blend of nerello mascalese grapes without the skins, together with the skins of nero d’avola grapes- a rather unusual method. It had wonderful citrus flavors of grapefruit  along with peach and hints cinnamon. On the palate its substantial acidity was well-balanced by the alcohol. Our next choice is perhaps the most famous of Italian pink wines, the Five Roses from Leone de Castris. Also from Puglia, this wine was a much more expressive example than the Rosa del Golfo. It had wonderful spicy aromas of cinnamon and orange zest and felt full and balanced on the palate. The final wine of the evening was a medal winner, the Grayasusi from Calabria. Made from the gaglioppo grape, it was the most complex of our wines. It had distinct aromas of red cherries and a smoky, buttery character to it. The last two wines were the favorites, and the Five Roses at 7.50 a bottle versus the 20 euros for the Grayasusi, offers the best value for money by far. Both though are excellent examples of the “pink stuff”, and are destined for different uses. The Five Roses is a classic rosè with bright acidity and primary aromas of fruit. The Calabrese wine has the complexity of a red, but a price to match. If the weather is as hot where you are as it is in Rome, think of rosè the next time you’re looking for a change. You just might be converted.
The line-up:
1. Montepulcianod’Abruzzo Cerasuolo 2009 Cataldi Madonna
2. Salento Rosato Rosa del Golfo 2009 Cantine Rosa del Golfo
3. Sicilia Le Rose 2007 Regleali
4. Salento Five Roses 2008 Leone de Castris
5. Val di Neto Grayasusi 2009 Roberto Ceraudo

Monday, June 7, 2010

Wine of the Week

The other day I met up with my girlfriends for a much needed catch up session. These are always fueled by wine of course, but for one of us (not me obviously!) who had just spent two weeks in the field in Africa, a glass of good red wine was just what she needed. As we’ve been friends for quite some time, I know her palate almost as well as I know mine. She prefers reds, but they must be soft wines, with smooth tannins, light acidity, and lots of fruit. Luckily we were at Cul de Sac, a great little wine bar with a huge wine list, so there were plenty of choices to suit her. Since this wine bar is  one of the few places in Rome with a good selection of foreign wines, I chose a red wine from the Douro region of Portugal. The area was made famous by one of the great fortified wines of the world, which is Port. Though I personally am a big fan of the rich, inky, chocolatey deliciousness in a glass that is this iconic dessert wine, its reputation has suffered with modern wine drinkers, perhaps because of the images of stuffy British gentlemen’s clubs the drink conjures up. At any rate, what has wine industry people buzzing lately are the dry wines from this area. Based largely on the same grapes that go into Port, they offer excellent value with the fruit and concentration of the fortified wine, without the weight and sweetness. We drank the Duas Quintas 2008 from Ramos Pinto. Over 100 grapes are officially sanctioned by the governing body for winemaking in the Douro, but the Duas Quintas blends together three that are considered amongst the best: Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Touriga Nacional. The wine is reminiscent of young Port, with spicy and black fruit flavors and silky tannins. Only 20% of the wine is aged in oak, the rest in stainless steel, so the wine feels modern and sleek without being overpowered by the wood. For those of you in Rome, this wine can be had for less than 20 euros at the bar, less if you take it away. For those of you elsewhere, if you can’t find Ramos Pinto, ask your favorite wine shop or restaurant for their favorite Douro non-fortified wine. And if you’ve got a sweet tooth, give Port another try too.
Cin Cin!