"" What's She Eating Now?: Italian Wine: The Grape Unknown

Monday, December 14, 2009

Italian Wine: The Grape Unknown

Guest post by friend of the blog and walking wine encyclopedia, Keith Levenberg. This piece is the third in a series of introductions to different wine regions. You can find his knowledge dropping on Germany here and France here.

The most important thing I learned about Italian wine was probably the first thing I ever read about it, in one of those wine-for-dummies kind of books. This book showed a map with all the winegrowing regions of the world shaded in red, which barely amounted to a few freckles on the map even in places synonymous with wine like France. But the whole boot of Italy was red from top to bottom. The text proceeded to note that most wine-producing countries, including France, had a few dozen major grape varieties; in Italy, there are hundreds.

The second most important thing I learned about Italian wine was at a bar in Asti, one of the most inexplicably dreary and depressing towns I’ve ever encountered in a wine region. (The weekly market in the town square of Beaune is a gastronome’s paradise; the weekly market in the town square of Asti featured t-shirts and socks.) Stuck there alone with nothing to do in the twilight zone between lunch and dinner, I sat down at an outdoor table and ordered a glass of Roero Arneis, a refreshing picnic-style white. Before serving the glass, which cost the equivalent of maybe three dollars, the waiter delivered a plate of prosciutto, sausage slices, and cheese, which he proceeded to replenish for as long as I sat there. Even with a cheap glass of arneis in the afternoon, it was simply incomprehensible that I should be drinking wine and have nothing to eat.

The third most important thing I learned about Italian wine was from the chapter titled “Bella Figura—The Italian Love of the Beautiful Gesture” in Matt Kramer’s book about the wines of the boot. Bella figura is the term that describes all those subtle ways Italians show a little style and panache. Kramer writes about how some winemakers will use a fancy label or a heavy bottle to project their bella figura; others will make a bella figura out of their slick modern winemaking (or, contrariwise, out of their intransigent refusal to engage in any slick modern winemaking). The whole idea of the bella figura sounds like another one of those romantic myths hack writers have concocted to make Italy seem so nauseatingly idyllic... and sometimes the idyllic Italy of myth is exactly the image the bella figura is designed to project, like those cheap Chiantis in straw bottles, or the pastoral imagery on a label like Monsanto’s.

Those three things—the head-spinning diversity, the obligatory marriage with food at the table, and the various quirks and flourishes in service of style—tell a big part of the story about Italian wine today. Let’s take a little tour.

The first stop is usually Tuscany or Piedmont, the regions that feature Italy’s most recognizable names (Chianti Classico and the three B’s—Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco). But I’m going to take a detour, because while Barolo and Barbaresco account for many of Italy’s greatest wines, they require bottle age; any Barolo worth drinking tastes like sandpaper until it’s at least fifteen years old. Instead, look north to Gattinara or the Valtellina. The reds there are made from the same grape as Barolo and Barbaresco and are often wrongly assumed to be inferior just because they’re cheaper. But Gattinara was once regarded just as highly, and should be again. The best examples—i.e., Antoniolo’s Osso San Grato and Travaglini’s Riserva—have a suppleness to their texture even when young that Barolos need many years to acquire, and feature the typical flavors of nebbiolo cast in an intense minerality vividly evocative of the volcanic mountain soil in which they’re grown. The Travaglini bottle makes for a striking bella figura, too.

From there, one can go west to the Valle d’Aosta, where producers like Grosjean make beautifully elegant reds from obscure grapes like fumin and familiar ones like pinot noir, or east to Alto Adige and Trentino. Alto Adige might be guilty of a mortal sin in unleashing Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio on the world, but the region and bordering Trentino also produce two of Italy’s most distinctive reds in lagrein and teroldego. The most serious examples have an intensity of fruit that’s almost overwhelming and capable of K.O.’ing many New World heavyweights, but the fruit is augmented by equally intense tarry and smoky flavors that feel so literal it is almost impossible to believe they came from grapes. Try Foradori’s Granato and Abbazia di Novacella’s Lagrein Riserva Praepositus the next time you’re feasting on a brontosaurus.

Other brontosaurus-worthy reds are grown down south in the volcanic mountain soils of Basilicata and Campania, where aglianico makes the kind of wine you could imagine the Marlboro Man drinking. But my favorite wines from that zone are probably the falanghina and piedirosso from La Sibilla, the former a white that tastes like vinified oyster shells and the latter one of my desert-island reds. The flavor is usually so intensely gamey it tastes positively succulent, and its ungrafted vines give it a seamless, graceful mouthfeel that most wines at ten times the price could never even hope to achieve.

Returning to the north and continuing east brings us to Friuli and Brda, which actually straddles the border with Slovenia. If quirky winemaking practices can be made into a bella figura, this might be Ground Zero. Here, you will find producers like Gravner and Radikon, who make “orange” wines—whites fermented on their skins (which, for mysterious reasons, happen to be the perfect wines to drink with sea urchin). Instead of aging his wines in steel vats or oak barrels, Gravner uses open-topped amphorae buried to their necks in the ground. Just as quirky but perhaps more charming is the sparkling wine from Movia that requires you to disgorge it yourself (see below video).

But maybe it’s in Sicily where the guru of oddball winemaking resides. Here is how the J. Peterman-esque retailer Garagiste describes one of Frank Cornelissen’s bottlings: “What started as the fluid from a refermenting compost heap has turned into Frank’s most famous and widely consumed ‘wine,’ the Contadino. A mix of every indigenous old-vine grape he has (red and white), the original Contadino 1 was never intended to be consumed, sampled by journalists by accident as the run-off from his plastic tank of cuttings, branches, soil, leaves and grapes that had fallen off the vine. The tank was supposed to be used for compost, but a group of writers mistakenly opened the spigot on the bottom of the tank and poured the cloudy liquid into stems. This was the ‘ah ha’ moment for Cornelissen—the juice from his compost heap was unlike anything any of them had ever tasted—it was revolutionary in its relation to wine and the rest is history. Fast forward a number of years and the original compost heap formula has been modified but only in terms of cleanliness – the original concept is the same: grapes, twigs, leaves, pieces of bark and volcanic earth all co-mingling in an incredible cauldron of orange/pink liquid that teems with tobacco, cumin, cinnamon, citrus peel and tangerine.”

I think I’ll have to take his word on that one. But if any of the above wines seem confounding and strange, they are practically mainstream compared to some of the eclectica on offer at Santa Monica’s Wine Expo, where maestro Roberto Rogness likes to point out he carries several thousand wines, and only one merlot.

Keith Levenberg blogs about wine and food whenever the mood strikes at http://pickyeaters.blogspot.com/.

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