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    Thursday
    Jun162005

    Ca' Rome Barolo and Barbaresco

    Everything is in its place: each item in perfect order and sparkling clean in a perfect combination of art and science. “Everything is special here,” says Romano Marengo “The wine, the lights and me”

    Everything is indeed special at the Ca’ Rome winery located just outside the town of Barbaresco where the Marengo family: father Romano and his son and daughter, Pino and Paola make some of Langhe’s most elegant wines. The small winery is both a museum and working winery as the walls are carefully decorated with winemaking artifacts from the Langhe zone in a beautiful combination of art and functional design. This is one of the cleanest and most thoughtfully organized wineries you will find anywhere and all this attention to detail is reflected in the superb quality of their wines.

    After thirty years as an enologist Romano realized his dream of having his own estate and Ca’ Rome was born in 1980. The family produces wines only from their own vines and only in great years. Recently the Marengo’s sold off their entire production from 2002 as not up to their standards. It is impossible to buy a bottle of Ca’ Rome that is not of the highest quality.

    Romano and his enologist son, Pino, make wines at Ca’ Rome that are refined, elegant and extremely complex: not the kind of wines that hit you over the head. These are wines that grow and expand on the palate into a perfect harmony of the power of nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco with a restrained elegance that is hard to describe, but an experience to taste. These wines dance across your palate — not take it prisoner.

    The Barolo and Barbaresco wines of Ca’ Rome are traditional in style with most of the aging taking place in large 25 hectoliter barrels of Slovenian oak. Their color is textbook nebbiolo showing a translucent brilliant ruby with garnet hints and the flavors realize the promise of these beautiful tones. However, winemaking at Ca’ Rome is not 100% old-style as about 30% of the nebbiolo is aged in 225 liter French barrels. This touch of new oak adds a layer of complexity to these wines without adding a bit of new oak flavor.

    The Marengo family is fortunate to have some of the best vineyard locations in the Langhe with Barbaresco vineyards in Rio Sordo and their “cru” Maria di Brun and Barolo vineyards in two of Serralunga d’Alba’s finest locations: Cerretta and Rapet. The character of each vineyard shows clearly in their wines and is accentuated by their light touch in the cellar. Considering the prices of Barolo and Barbaresco these days the wines of Ca’ Rome are tremendous bargains. Also highly recommended is the excellent Barbera d’Alba La Gamberaja from vineyards in the Serralunga zone and their soon to be released 2003 is about as good as Barbera gets. “It’s perfect,” comments Romano with a sly smile.

    He might be right.

    Tasting Notes:
    2000 Ca’ Rome Barbaresco Maria di Brun ($65)
    While most winemakers are more enthusiastic about their 2001 wines, winemaker Pino Marengo is smitten by the pleasures of his 2000 vintage offerings. One taste of this wine and you understand his enthusiasm for the vintage. The color is a glittering light ruby with garnet and orange hints. The rich nose is very complex with layers of good Cuban cigars and tar blended with plums and bitter cherries. The wine is powerful, yet extremely balanced without a hint of over-ripeness. The finish is packed with bitter tar and baked cherry fruit. How can a wine have tannins so intense, but so refined at the same time? I would suggest at least five more years of aging before enjoying this excellent Barbaresco.

    1999 Ca’ Rome Barolo, Cerretta ($60)
    Radiant light ruby with garnet. This brooding nebbiolo has a hard mineral/iodine note that blends with the aromas of dense tar with ripe spiced plums. The texture is wonderful seeming lean at first then expanding into a concentrated blend of dense wild berries, licorice and tar flavors. The finish is incredibly long with sweet tar flavors requiring a toothbrush before they go away. The tannins are still intense at this point and I would wait until at least 2010 before pulling the cork on this stunning wine. This wine is probably available at some great prices as retailers make room for the hyper-hyped 2000 vintage so keep an eye out and if you see a deal grab every bottle you can.

    Friday
    May202005

    The Outstanding Selections of Jens Schmidt

    MontecastellijensThe room is packed with wine lovers clutching oversized wine glasses. Behind each of the dozen or so tables covered with wine bottles stands an Italian winemaker busily pouring their wines into the mob of outstretched glasses in front of them and trying explain in their best English their vinous creations. Through the crowd darts the energetic and passionate Jens Schmidt, owner of Montecastelli Selections. Each of these producers are part of the Montecastelli portfolio - his selections. Jens seems to be at every table at once as he tries to convey his passion for these wines to each of the consumers attending.

    The sold-out tasting is at Sam’s Wine Warehouse in Chicago, one of the world’s largest fine wine retailers. It is not easy for new importers to get their wines into such a high profile store, but almost the entire Montecastelli catalog is represented on the wine racks at Sam’s - a tribute to their quality and the sharp palates of Sam’s Wine Director Todd Hess and Italian Buyer Greg Smolik. Hess and Smolik are looking over the crowd at the tasting with satisfaction as each guest departs with shopping carts laden with the delicious Montecastelli wines. Their customers are sure to return for more as these wines will taste even better at the dinner table.

    Jens and Ruth Schmidt have come a long way in a very short time. Montecastelli was only founded in 1997 and their American importing company was born in 2002, yet they have established themselves with some of America’s most demanding retail buyers and are distributed in 22 states. They have accomplished this with only two tools: a dedication to quality and old-fashioned hard work. Montecastelli is the name of their home and farm in Tuscany where they have restored an 11th century monastery. Here they produce their excellent olive oil and have also established a lovely agriturismo. They are living in reality what so many thousands only dream about.

    One thing that is certain when tasting through this portfolio is that all of the wines are absolutely delicious to drink. They are modern wines, yet they pay homage to traditional winemaking and never let modern methods overwhelm the integrity of the vineyard. Jens describes his palate in this way, “Technically speaking I value cleanliness, fruit and natural balance of acidity. I disapprove of even only small amounts of Bret (brettanomyces-a winemaking fault that is sometimes considered acceptable in small amounts), oxidization and lack of acidity. However in our wines I am looking for more: To make things unique I always look for character and integrity. Integrity is the combination of the vintners approach and individuality confronted with the things in nature he cannot change: history, climate and soil type. Character is emerging as a unique expression of the vintner findings over time and his ability to listen and taste.”

    Indeed each wine in the Montecastelli portfolio is a wine of character.

    Recently tasted wines all of which are highly recommended:
    Cesani, Toscana (2002 Chianti Colli Senesi, 2001 Ireos, 2000 Luenzo, 2002 Sanice); Cima, Toscana (2001 Montervo, 2001 Romalbo); Col Vetoraz, Veneto (Prosecco di Valdobbiadene - Brut, Extra-Dry, Cartizze, 2001 Millesimato); Collelceto, Toscana (2001 Rosso di Montalcino); Destefanis, Piemonte (2000 Nebbiolo d’Alba); La Rasina, Toscana (1999 Brunello di Montalcino, 2001 Rosso di Montalcino); La Tenaglia, Piemonte (1999 Barbera del Monferrato Tenaglia e’, 2000 Barbera d’Asti Giorgio Tenaglia); Le Fonti, Toscana (2001 Chianti Classico, 2000 Vito Arturo); Novaia, Veneto (2000 Amarone della Valpolicella, 2001 Valpolicella Cantoni); Palazzo Bandino, Toscana (2002 Chianti Colli Senesi, 2000 Bandinello); Perticaia, Umbria (2000 Sagrantino di Montefalco); Pira, Piemonte (2001 Dolcetto d’Dogliani -Bricco Botti and Landis, 2001 Barbera - Fornaci and Briccobotti, 2000 Nebbiolo d’Alba Bricco dell’Asino); Ronchi, Piemonte (2000 Barbaresco, 2001 Barbera d’Alba, 2001 Dolcetto d’Alba); Terre del Sillabo, Toscana (2001 Sauvignon, 2001 Gana); Torre Quarto, Puglia (2001 Guappo Rose, Bottaccia Uva di Troia, Quarto Ducale and Tarabuso Primitivo)

    Retailers with extensive selections of Montecastelli wines:
    North Berkeley Wine Merchants (Berkeley, CA); Sam’s Wine Warehouse (Chicago); Italian Wine Merchant (NY); E and R Wines (Portland); Hi Time Cellars (LA); PJ Wine (NY); The Wine Merchant (St. Louis) and Whole Foods Markets in New York, San Francisco, Portland, Santa Fe, Seattle, Cary NC, and Atlanta.

    Thursday
    May192005

    Poderi Colla - traditional innovation

    “Elegance, finesse, balance,” these are not words that many use when describing Burgundy, but for Barolo and Barbaresco words like powerful, tannic and potent are more common. However, for me, elegance, finesse and balance are the exact characteristics that describe the experience of nebbiolo at its finest. These characteristics are why lovers of either of these great mono-varietal wines also tend to love the other although they taste nothing alike. “Elegance, finesse, and balance” describe an experience not a flavor.

    All to often, both Langhe winemakers and the press seem enamored of power. Giant, potent wines from the 1997 and 2000 vintages have received glowing notices at the expense of more refined and balanced vintages like 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2001. Yet fine nebbiolo is not about size, but the tightrope it can walk between intensity and delicacy. Few wineries make wines that walk this tightrope as well as Poderi Colla.

    Poderi Colla combines the talents of Federica Colla and Tino Colla, respectively daughter and brother of Langhe winemaking legend, Beppe Colla, who serves as winemaking consultant extrordinare. The Colla family originally brought Prunotto to fame and founded Poderi Colla after selling Prunotto to Antinori. “Elegance, finesse and balance,” are Tino Colla’s words when asked to define their wines and I could not agree with him more. Just as the wines of Prunotto were among the finest produced in the 1960’s and 1970’s, today the wines of Poderi Colla are among the finest wines produced in the Langhe today.

    Tino Colla sees the greatness of nebbiolo as coming from having a unique dimension, a “third dimension” as he puts it. That third dimension is the emotion that truly extraordinary wines can evoke. Most wines are two dimensional, but greatness comes from this third dimension and it is his goal at Poderi Colla to bring this experience to their wines. The soul of the Colla wines comes from their three outstanding vineyard locations:

    Dardi le Rose, in the Bussia zone of Monforte in Barolo. The wines of this vineyard have been made by Beppe Colla since 1961. Bussia is not a vineyard, but a sub-region of the Monforte zone, just east of the Barolo commune, that includes such grand vineyards as Dardi, Pianpolvere and, in Bussia Soprana: Cicala, Gabutti, Colonnello, and Romirasco. All of which can appear under the Bussia name. The Dardi vineyard produces the most classic of Barolo wines, a style that requires significant bottle aging to release its full personality. The Dardi vineyard is at an altitude of 300 to 350 meters and is planted only with nebbiolo (60% michet and 40% lampia) in a perfect south, south-west exposure. Skin contact during fermentation is about 15 days. Aging is only in large casks of French and Slovenian oak for 24 to 28 months.

    Roncaglie, in the Barbaresco commune of the Barbaresco zone. Beppe Colla has made wines from this vineyard since 1956. The Roncaglie vineyard is in the heart of some of the Barbaresco commune’s finest vineyards. Located in the southwest corner of the Barbaresco commune, near the border with Treiso, the great vineyards of Roncaglie and Roncagliette forum an upside down “U” of perfectly exposed vineyards that would be a lot more famous if Gaja had not chosen to call his two vineyards located here Sori Tilden and Costa Russi instead of using the actual vineyard names. These vineyards produce some of the richest wines in Barbaresco combining depth of flavor with exotic aromatics. Besides the Barbaresco Roncaglie, this vineyard is home to the Barbera d’Alba Costa Bruna, Dolcetto d’Alba Pian Balbo and the Langhe Chardonnay Pian Martino. The vineyard is between 240 and 280 meters above sea level. For the Barbaresco, skin contact during fermentation is about 15 days and aging is only in large casks of French and Slovenian oak for 12 to 14 months.

    Cascine Drago, located just outside of Alba near the Barbaresco zone was the property of Luciano Degiacomi, an old friend of Beppe, who ran the estate as a labor of love to feed his passion for wine. Degiacomi sold the property to the Colla family as he knew they would continue using the vines he had planted to make the finest wines possible. Here is planted nebbiolo for their Nebbiolo d’Alba along with riesling, freisa and the pinot noir vines that make the excellent pinot nero, Campo Romano. From these vineyards comes the dolcetto and nebbiolo for their blend Bricco del Drago, the original super-Piemontese blended wine. The vineyards here are between 330 and 400 meters in altitude.

    Tino and Federica describe their philosophy as a commitment to “naturalness and originality”. Originality may seem a strange claim to make for wines so traditional in method and character, but in today’s world of wines made for judging, not drinking, the refined wines of Poderi Colla may indeed be original. These are wines made with as little human intervention as possible, even the anti-mold sprays used by most wineries are avoided in their vineyards, which are farmed in an organic style.

    “Most of today’s wines are very similar, albeit obtained from very different climates and varieties: dense, dark wines with high alcohol content and loads of wood, oftentimes difficult to drink or match with food. We, on the other hand. wish to go in an entirely different direction, seeking not excess and forcibly “international wines”, but balance, finesse and original nuances. Our wines are not high-tech. They are man-made, with a strongly human element and outstanding concentration thanks to terroir and fruit and (no thanks to wood and machinery) and very sophisticated components. They are wines to be enjoyed with food, not to make a superficial splash at tastings,” say Tino and Federica.

    One of the key aspects of the style of Poderi Colla is their obsession with picking their grapes at optimum ripeness - not over-ripeness. The super-maturity that mars so many Baroli and Barbaresci is the antithesis of the Colla style which features balance and complexity not power. “We don’t want a jammy nose,” says Tino Colla. “The passito flavors of Amarone are not correct for Barolo and Barbaresco.”

    The wines of Poderi Colla are among the finest wines produced in the Langhe and the Barolo Dardi Le Rose and Barbaresco Roncaglie are a must-buy for anyone interesting in collecting wines for long-aging that exhibit the pure beauty of the nebbiolo grape. While the winemaking in the ripe 2000 vintage is to be commended for its restraint, the glories of the 1999 and 2001 vintage are very clear and the Colla’s have produced stunning wines in these fine vintages.

    Tasting notes:

    1999 Poderi Colla, Barolo, Bussia, Dardi Le Rose ($55)
    Bright scarlet/ruby with hints of garnet. Translucent. Smoky, dried porcini aromas slowly open into tart raspberry fruit. Closed and intense on the palate with layers of flavors: mushrooms, leather, cherry and raspberry. The finish is concentrated, long and very tannic. Truly an outstanding, classic wine destined for long- term greatness; this wine needs at least ten years of aging and can benefit from more patience in good storage conditions. A classic Barolo that collectors should seek out. (Rating A++, a must-buy worth a special search of the market)
    2000 Poderi Colla, Barolo, Bussia, Dardi Le Rose ($55)
    Brilliant ruby, garnet, Just translucent. Deep ripe plums mixed with leather and dried roses on the nose. Big and rich on palate with a warm alcohol punch. A deep brooding wine with layers of bitter licorice and tar blended with sweet ripe cherry fruit. The finish is very concentrated and still closed with firm tannins made sweeter by ripe fruit and a warm, ripe richness. Perhaps the most ageable 2000 I have tasted and certainly among the most interesting. One of the few I would rate above an A. (Rating A+, outstanding)
    2001 Barbaresco Roncaglie ($48)
    Brilliant scarlet with orange garnet highlights. Quite translucent. Expansive, elegant wild flower highlights blend with an exotic spiciness and a firm, mineral tinged bittersweet raspberry fruit. A complete, pure nebbiolo on the palate. Firm black licorice, bitter tar and iodine touches intertwine with light hints of cassis and black truffles expand on the palate and grow in the firm, still angular finish. The tannins are still aggressive in the finish, but everything you could hope for is there and clearly this will be a grand wine in ten years or so. Classic in every aspect. (Rating A++, a must-buy worth a special search of the market)
    2001 Campo Romano, Pinot Nero, Langhe DOC ($26.00). Bright scarlet/ruby with just a touch of garnet. Translucent. Layered complex nose. Ripe spiced plums and strawberry aromas broaden into dark wild cherry. Racy and complex on the palate with wave after wave of flavor. Ripe cherry and wild strawberries expand into complex tar, porcini and oak flavors. Still a bit lean and closed on the mouth and nose but very promising. The finish is long and spicy with apparent but well integrated tannins. (Rating A, excellent)
    2002 Nebbiolo d’ Alba ($24)
    Brilliant light scarlet with orange hints. Quite translucent. The nose is layered with delicate fresh cherry fruit and bitter tar with a smoky porcini highlight. Elegant, balanced and restrained on the palate, it is already drinking well for such a firmly structured wine. The finish has plenty of grip, but is shows a silky gracefulness. Drink now and over the next several years. Aged in large casks for 10 to 12 months. (Rating A-, excellent)
    2002 Barbera d’Alba, Costa Bruna ($24)
    Brilliant bright ruby, just translucent. Fresh, lively cherry aromas with a nice spicy touch. Very clean and lively on the palate with a brilliant, juicy finish. Drink this wine while young and fruity. A nice effort from a difficult vintage. Aged in large casks for 10 to 12 months. (Rating B+, very good)
    2000 Bricco del Drago, Langhe Rosso ($30)
    Bright ruby with hints of purple and garnet highlights. Just translucent. Brilliant bright cherry fruit blends with earthy warm aromas on the nose. Forward ripe fruit with a sudden hard mineral impact. The finish has a dense ripe plum fruit blended with a firm tannic punch and a warm roundness. A unusual blend of clean sweet fruitiness with warm, brooding earthiness. The only Colla wine to see any barrique aging, some of which are new and aging ranges between 12 and 18 months. 85% dolcetto and 15% nebbiolo(Rating A-, excellent)
    2003 Dolcetto d’Alba Pian Balbo ($14 - Best Buy)
    Brilliantly purple with ruby highlights. Just translucent. A fantastic dolcetto packed with mouth watering fruit. Expansive bright plums and cranberries on the nose lead to lively deep sweet cherry flavors with a fine mineral backbone and bitter tang. The finish is filled with warm raspberry fruit brought alive by a zesty acidity. Just plain delicious. drink now and over the next several years. Aged only in stainless steel. (Rating A-, excellent)
    2003 Freisa, Langhe DOC ($14)
    Freisa does not get any better than this. Brilliant bright ruby with purple highlights. Tooth jarring acidity explodes into deep sweet plum and blueberry fruit flavors. The finish is zesty with cassis highlights. A little gas is left in the wine for even more liveliness. Drink as soon as you can! (Rating B+, very good)
    Wednesday
    May182005

    Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato

    AgataruchenavotaRuché just doesn’t taste like it comes from Piemonte. It is a graceful wine, elegant and floral with a body more defined by its lively acidity than its soft, round tannins. If there is a wine in Italy to relate to fine Beaujolais it is most certainly not the tart dolcetto, which is often referred to in that context, but the refined smoothness of ruché can be more than a little reminiscent of a Fleurie or Chènas. Of course, ruché is not Beaujolais and has its own distinct character, but as most people have not tasted this delicious wine it is a fair way to set a point of reference.

    Ruché now sports its own DOC, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato, and this small zone in the hills just outside of Asti is responsible for all the production from this rare variety. Now that DOC status has been awarded to this region you can expect to see production expand perhaps making ruché easier to find. This is one of those wines that one sip is likely to inspire gulps and case purchases. Ruché is pure forward fruit flavor.

    Ruché is a bit of a mystery vine. Local wisdom says it is an ancient variety probably indigenous to the Monferrato hills. Even the origin of the name is unclear with some claiming it came from the name of a local monastery while another source points to a resistance to a particular vine disease. Whatever the case, little documentary evidence exists and the history of ruché is more folklore than fact.

    Cantine Sant’Agata is making an exceptional assortment of ruché wines and excellent wines from Asti’s two other important red wine vines: barbera and grignolino. Founded in 1916, the present generation, Franco and Claudio Cavallero, produces 150,000 bottles of wine from their own vineyards, which total 30 hectares. Other than a small amount of chardonnay all their vines are indigenous and all their wines are of excellent quality and value.
    Tasting Notes:
    2003 Cantina Sant’Agata, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato, ‘Na Vota ($19)
    Brilliant ruby with a just a touch of purple, quite translucent. Smooth, forward ripe cherry vanilla nose with a bitter tinge. a touch of cassis and lovely hints of wildflowers and violets. Firm and fresh on the palate with flavors that expand and grow mirroring the forward yet complex fruit and flowers of the bouquet. In the finish the cassis dominates carried by a refreshing acid zip.(89) The warm 2003 vintage produced particularly rich versions of lesser known Piemontese varietals like ruché. grignolino and freisa and you should keep an eye out for them as they are now in the market. They also offer a special selection ruché, Pro Nobis, to continue the Beaujolais reference, it is to regular ruché what Moulin-a-Vent is to normal Beaujolais. It has all the characteristics of the ‘Na Vota on steroids. I will confess I prefer what I consider the more balanced ‘Na Vota, but I am probably in the minority on that choice with most consumers preferring the chunky Pro Nobis.

    A John Given Selection-Imported by John Given Wines (Northeast and other states)
    Imported by Siema Wines (southeast and other states)
    and other importers including: Wine Appellations

    Tuesday
    May172005

    Sottimano - using wood with grace

    SottimanobasarinNebbiolo purists argue that using barriques for Barbaresco and Barolo is to destroy a grand tradition, but the Sottimano family in Barbaresco is proving that barrels themselves are not the enemy: it’s what winemakers do with them. In a small village just outside of Neive in the Barbaresco zone is the tiny Sottimano cellar where Rino and Andrea Sottimano, father and son enologists, quietly produce some of the Barbaresco zone’s finest wines.

    Tasting their wines is proof positive that barriques can be used to produce nebbiolo while still maintaining every nuance that a vineyard can give a wine. Inspired by both the distinct characteristics of their four (soon to be five with the addition of Basarin) nebbiolo vineyards and the diverse “terroir” wines produced by Burgundy’s finest winemakers, the Sottimano family does everything possible in the vineyard and cellar to bring out the character that nature gives their vineyards, the wines from which are each bottled under their own names. The results of their efforts speak for themselves in four superb Barbaresco wines that are excellent vintage after vintage.

    The Sottimano family now releaased their 2001 vintage. As excellent as the 2000 vintage wines are, the 2001 vintage looks to be an almost perfect vintage combining all the aspects required to make great Barolo and Barbaresco producing wines with every facet in harmony and balance and with fruit ripeness alone not being the major definition of personality. The 2001 vintage is for enthusiasts who love the both the power and idiosyncrasies of nebbiolo. In other words, if you prefer the austere pleasures of nebbiolo to the jam of shiraz, 2001 is a vintage not to miss and it challenges 1996 as the most classic vintage of this string of excellent vintages. As Andrea Sottimano noted during my recent visit there, “You have to love the purity of nebbiolo to love the 1996 and 2001 vintages.”

    The four 2001 Barbaresco releases from Sottimano are superb across-the-board, with each offering unique characteristics that are fascinating to compare as the wines are made in exactly the same way with their differences coming from the vineyards alone. Their wines spend their first year (the exact number of months depends on the vintage) in new, small French oak barrels then is racked into older small barrels for the last year of wood aging. This first passage in new oak helps “set” the beautiful colors and structure of the Sottimano wines, but as they are then moved into used barrels the oak flavors are a highlight and not the main theme. In fact, when tasting the 1996 Curra with Andrea it was hard to believe the wine had spent any time in barrique as no overt oak flavors marred the beautifully developing nebbiolo fruit. “I want people to think about the vineyards, not the barrels I used,” explained Andrea. Four of the Sottimano Barbaresco vineyards fall within the Neive commune (Fausoni, Curra, Cotta, Basarin) while Pajore, one of the zones most respected vineyards, is located in the Treiso commune.

    It is difficult to choose which Sottimano wine to drink as part of the pleasure is comparing the characteristics and development of the individual vineyards, but everyone has their favorites and for their current releases I will give a slight personal nod to the floral and spiced refinement of the Pajore in the ripe 2000 vintage and the smoky, deep black fruit intensity of the Cotta in the more structured 2001 vintage.

    However, for drinking today, I am going to recommend the graceful and refined 2001 Fausoni not as the “best” Sottimano, as that choice is a personal pleasure,  but because of the special characteristics of this vineyard. The need to age Barolo and Barbaresco is always a problem for restaurants and those without wine cellars and the natural characteristics of the Fausoni vineyard combined with intelligent vineyard techniques and winemaking used by the Sottimano family, produces a nebbiolo that can be drunk with pleasure in six or seven years - as always, when it comes to Barolo and Barbaresco the term “forward” is relative. The 2001 Fausoni Barbaresco is a rich ruby with garnet hints and is radiantly translucent. It is a graceful wine with a tannic punch at this early stage, but is already showing the classic “balsamic” character of vineyards in the heart of the Neive commune. Andrea Sottimano recommends at least 5 or 6 years of aging, but certainly more patience will be rewarded.

    While it is one thing to make good wines in great vintages it is another to make good wines in difficult years and the excellent potential of the problematic 2002 and 2003 vintages still resting in barrel in the Sottimano cellar are a tribute to the winemaking skills of Rino and Andrea.

    “What is most important is my terroir,” explained Andrea — a statement that truly lives in his wines.

    A Marc de Grazia Selection - various importers including:
    Michael Skurnik - New York

    Thursday
    May122005

    Rising Star: Mazzolino

    Exciting New Wines from the Oltrepo Pavese

    MazzolinonoirbottleWines from the Oltrepo Pavese have never gotten much attention outside of Italy - actually outside of Lombardy for that matter. This was for good reason and the light, often fizzy wines of region were only good for cheaply quenching the daily thirst of Milano and Genova. However, even the Oltrepo Pavese is not immune to the quality revolution sweeping over Italian winemaking.

    Tenuta Mazzolino is blend of French and Italian culture and vines. This is easy to understand because you can easily have lunch at Mazzolino and dinner in France. The estate was purchased by the Braggiotti family in the 80’s and under the leadership of Sandra Braggiotti they have invested heavily in replanting vineyards and building a new winery. She then imported French enologists Jean Francois Coquard and Kyriakos Kynigopoulos as her winemakers and together with agonomist Roberto Piaggi they have created a formidable range of wines produced from chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and the star of the group pinot nero (pinot noir).

    Recommended wines:

    -Mazzolino: A bright, fresh and fruity wine from the local bonarda vine (their one nod to indigenous varietals). Fermented and aged only in stainless steel to preserve the zesty, fresh cherry flavors of this grape.

    -Corvino: A complex and clearly varietal 100% cabernet sauvignon. Brilliantly colored and full of sweet fruit flavors. This is a forward wine that drinks well now and over the next 3 to 5 years.

    -“Blanc” and “Noir” are the top wines of this estate. “Blanc” is an elegant and multi-faceted chardonnay that is a cross in style between Burgundy and Sonoma. Toasty oak aromas are evident in the nose and on the palate, but do not overwhelm the well-structured fruit as only 25% new oak is used. “Noir” is their premier wine and one of the most interesting pinot noir wines in Italy. The fruit is clean and brilliant yet offers layers of earthy complexity. Like the chardonnay this wine is a hybrid of Burgundian and New World styles. Once again only 25% new oak is used so the oak is a compliment to the lovely fruit, not a dominating flavor.

    Monday
    May092005

    Barolo, Tenimenti Fontanafredda, La Rosa, 1999

    FontanafreddalarosabottleLike Bordeaux and Burgundy, Barolo is a complex patchwork of communes and vineyards where sometimes the space of only a few meters changes the character of the wines produced. In Barolo and Barbaresco these differences were often lost as production was dominated by large producers who bought grapes from throughout the region and labeled them as simply Barolo or Barbaresco.

    However, the explosion of estate bottled wines in Alba has been changing this and slowly-but-surely the market is becoming aware that there are differences between nebbiolo grown in Serralunga d’Alba and La Morra - just as there are recognized differences between St. Julien and St. Estephe or Corton and Volnay.

    The commune Serralunga d’Alba is on the eastern edge of the Barolo zone and the sandstone soils produce some of the most tannic and structured of Barolo wines. At the northern tip of Serralunga, as it reaches towards Alba, sits the great La Rosa and Gattinera vineyards that surround the historic Fontanafredda estate. This estate is indeed part of Barolo history and some of the earliest Barolo wines produced came from these cellars – a tradition that dates back to 1878.

    However, the greatness that was Fontanafredda had gone into hibernation until it was rescued by the bank. That’s right the bank – Fontanafredda was acquired by Immobiliari S.p.A, Gruppa Bancario Monte dei Paschi di Siena, who has also invested in two Tuscan wine properties, Poggio Bonelli and Chigi Saracini. This influx of capital and leadership has launched Fontanafredda on the road to reclaiming past greatness.

    As one of the largest and oldest estates in the region they had a core of outstanding vineyard holdings - most notably La Rosa and Lazzarito in Serralunga d’Alba and La Villa (a sub-section of Paiagallo) in the Barolo commune to build upon. Under the leadership of Director General Giovanni Minetti and winemaker Danilo Drocco the entire Fontanafredda line has seen marked improvement, but what is most exciting is the introduction of a range of single vineyard wines from their classic vineyards which they have called Tenimenti Fontanafredda. This important range of wines includes offerings from all the important DOC and DOCG zones of the Alba and Asti region. Each is a single vineyard selection and the stars are, of course, the three Barolo selections; La Rosa, Lazzarito La Delizia and Paiagallo La Villa. The Tenimenti Fontanfredda releases make this estate once again a producer that should be considered by anyone who loves Piemontese wines and the 1999 La Rosa is a wine that deserves consideration from serious collectors.

    Tasting Notes: 1999 Tenimenti Fontanafredda, Barolo, La Rosa
    Bright ruby/scarlet with just the lightest hint of orange. Just translucent. The aromas are an exotic mix of ripe dark fruits and leather with hints of dried porcini mushrooms. Smoky ripe plums show in the nose and on the palate are followed by layers of dusty burnt cherries and bitter oranges that are still held in check by firm, hard tannins that are somehow surprisingly round in their intensity. The finish is restrained by its intense tannins, but the powerful complex fruit flavors are already starting to show through. Tasted over a four day period and the wine was still fresh and showing no oxidation on the forth day. Decidedly a wine for long-term cellaring. Imported by Wine Wave
    www.fontanafredda.it

    Sunday
    May082005

    Nebbiolo d'Alba, Bricco dell'Asino, Pira, 2000


    Much is made of the Barolo Wars between the new and old style in Piemonte. One thing for sure,   if you love the new oaky style of Barolo you have to pay a lot for your pleasures. It seems the lowest prices in the modern style start around $50.00. No, Pira Nebbiolo d’Alba is not a Barolo, but the vineyard is just outside the DOCG and for around $30.00 this Nebbiolo d’Alba offers depth and complexity that can rival some of its more famous and expensive neighbors.      

    Nebbiolo d’Alba is often misunderstood as a kind of declassified Barolo or Barbaresco, but they are in fact distinct DOC’s. While the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC surrounds Barolo and Barbaresco one cannot become the other. Declassified nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco becomes Langhe or Piemonte   Rosso — not Nebbiolo d’Alba. It is clear that there are vineyards in the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC that can produce wines of the same character and depth as some Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards. They may not surpass wines from the likes of Brunate and Cannubi, but the best vineyards can clearly deliver wines of great character. Bricco dell’Asino is showing the promise to be one of these vineyards.

    The Pira family acquired this estate in the 1960’s, but it was the arrival of GianMatteo Pira that launched this estate towards top quality wines. The Pira estate has become famous for their extraordinary Dolcetto wines from the Dogliani zone. Don’t confuse this estate with the excellent Barolo producer, Luigi Pira, in the town of Serralunga d’Alba. This Pira estate is located right on the border of Monforte d’Alba and Dogliani and so is allowed to produce wines with both the Alba and Dogliani place-names. GianMatteo’s dark and powerful Dogliani Dolcetto wines are among the best  of Piemonte and now, with the 2000 vintage, he is making a Nebbiolo d’Alba worthy of serious attention. He has aged this wine 100% in barrique and the toasty oak flavors will please fans of new-style Barolo.      

    Tasting Notes: Brilliant scarlet, hints of ruby and a touch of garnet. Just translucent. Spicy ripe plums with layered sweet vanilla oak. Smoky, charcoal aromas add complexity. Firm and structured on the palate. Loaded with ripe plums and cherries with a distinctive tang of chewing tobacco. Starts out medium bodied, but then expands magically in the mouth into an explosion of tannins, tobacco and wild dark fruit flavors. A really delicious wine to drink. With short term aging - 2 or 3 years - you will have a great bottle. A Jens Schmidt Selection, Imported by Montecastelli Selections.

    Saturday
    May072005

    Morellino di Scansano, Poggio Argentiera, Bellamarsilia, 2003


    • Poggioargentierabellamarsil2003 Poggio Argentiera, Bellamarsilia, Morellino di Scansano, Tuscany ($19) Morellino is the name of both a type of cherry and the local name of sangiovese in the booming Scansano zone of southern Tuscany. Poggio Argentiera has emerged as one of this Scansano’s best wineries and produces two excellent wines: Capatosta, the top of the line, and Bellamarsilia for those that just can’t wait to pull the cork. Bellamarsilia is a rich, forward deeply fruity wine that offers more than a little complexity. It is a deep ruby although still just translucent and is packed with the cherry fruit flavors that gave the wines of Scansano their name. The ripe, delicious fruit flavors continue into the long  satisfying finish. This is a wine designed for drinking while it is young and zesty. However, this is no simple everyday red, but a substantial wine that is an excellent value. A Neil Empson Selection-Imported by Empson USA.
    Tuesday
    May032005

    Chianti, Rossetti, Tusco 2001

    • Rossettitinolinda2001 Rossetti Chianti, Tusco ($12) There should be a lot of red faces in Chianti after they taste this wine. How do Tino and Linda Rossetti (pictured above) do it? Vintage after vintage this winery produces a range of tremendous values. Their 2001 Tusco Chianti offers more substance than many wines with more famous names and much higher prices. Whenever you spot this wine on a restaurant’s wine-by-the-glass list you know that the buyer is doing their homework and is interested in delivering good wine at fair prices to their clients. The 2001 Tosco is a brilliant ruby and is just translucent. The nose is full of ripe plums and bitter cherries with a nice earthy touch to add complexity. It is firm and lively on the palate with lovely bittersweet cherry fruit and a clean, fruity finish with just a light touch of tannin at the end. Invest in cases of this charming Chianti to enjoy with all sorts of grilled meats this summer. A Jens Schmidt Selection - Imported by Montecastelli Selections.
    Sunday
    May012005

    Barolo, Francesco Rinaldi, Barolo, Cannubbio, 1996

    A really gorgeous mix of bright scarlet with radiant garnet that foretells of the elegant pleasures to come. Lean and dusty on the nose with hard bitter licorice and dried rose aromas slowly opening into ripe deep bitter cherry fruit. The initially hard attack on the palate grows into a graceful yet assertive blend of tannins, sour cherry, ripe raspberry and a lively mint with a leathery touch. The finish walks a tightrope between tense tannins, bitter black fruit flavors that grow into an almost juicy, yet delicate fruitiness.

    I just purchased this bottle off the shelf in Portland (E and R Wines) for $60 and I can’t help but  wonder why anyone is buying the 2000’s while there is so much great wine from other vintages available. I just grabbed the last two bottles of 1996 Produttori dei Barbaresco Riserva Pora at a local gourmet grocery for $36. Everywhere I go there are bargains like these wines. Let the Wine Spectator readers grab up those fat 2000’s and spend time looking for the 96’s and 99’s scattered throughout the USA.

    Tuesday
    Oct052004

    Milano's Boccondivino

    IT’S ALL about textures, colors, and smells. A bit of this changes that. A touch of that gives you this. It’s the way you put it together that makes it art. 

    Art inspires collectors and great art inspires collectors with passion. People that strive to find the unique and exceptional. Searching through the countryside to find that new artist or bearing the expense of acquiring the work of an old master. One day their collection becomes so significant that it is too important for one person and cries to be shared with the world. 

    There’s a collection like this in Milano and it is open to the public for their pleasure and amazement. The neighborhood is plush. The massive grey stone walls of the palazzi are only broken by giant heavy wooden doors towering thirty feet over the pavement. Once in a while as you walk along the street you can sneak a glimpse through the open windows into the luxurious apartments above and peek at the well-tended giardini though the tall gilded gates. This is a neighborhood where you feel underdressed if you’re not wearing a coat and tie to walk the dog. 

    The museum that houses this collection is unremarkable in this stately neighborhood. Only a small sign and a warm light from the window is there to guide you. Don’t let the understated exterior fool you. Inside rests some of the greatest art that Italy produces. Best of all it tastes as good as it looks. 

    This is Boccondivino — a ristorante that is not about what they cook in the kitchen, but is all about the collection they have assembled of the finest affettati (cured pork products), formaggi (cheeses) and vini produced in Italy. They seek out the creations of artists and blend them into a symphony of flavors, textures, aromas and colors. The conductors at Boccondivino are the father and son sommelier team of Luigi and Fabrizio Concordati. When you eat here there is no menu and the first course, a colorful pinzimonio, is already waiting. You are more than welcome to pick your own wine, but why bother when the Concordatis are there to lead you through the evening. Boccondivino means a divine mouthful, and they do not disappoint. Boccondivino is a beautiful frame for artwork created by others. 

    The ristorante is warm and woody with an elegant casualness. Every evening Boccondivino is packed with boisterous Milanese dressed in everything from Armani to blue jeans — well, some of the blue jeans are Armani (this is Milano after all). On the sideboards sit carefully arranged platters of ultra-thin slices of affettati, and the heavily laden cheese cart looks rich and decadent in the golden candlelight. While there is one cooked course that arrives at your table, it is more of an intermezzo between the meats and the cheeses than a star in its own right. Be prepared: your eating capacity is about to be challenged by the irritatingly slim Italians around you who will clean every bite from each of their plates. 

    In a restaurant you normally interact mostly with the waiter and just a bit with the sommelier. At Boccondivino, the sommelier is your only guide for the evening. The waiter simply delivers the courses. Your host and companion will either be the distinguished Luigi, or the enthusiastic Fabrizio. Either will arrive at your table with his silver tastevin sparkling in the light, sporting the Italian Sommelier Association blue blazer and red tie. They have selected every delicious bite you will experience during the evening and will carefully explain each with respectful understanding of the artisan who created it. There is only one choice to be made. Do you pick your own wine or do you surrender all control? For the Concordatis, seeking complimentary combinations from their collection is their passion. With pleasure, I place myself in their hands. 

    The pinzimonio waiting at the table is the perfect start. Without asking glasses of frothy, fruity Prosecco Brut arrive. Pinzimonio is the Italian version of crudites or dipping vegetables. However, they are not cut into bite size bits, but served whole and arranged in a bowl with the skill of a florist making arrangements for the Ritz Carlton. At Boccondivino each vegetable in the arrangement is a piece of fine art, hand selected one-by-one for both beauty and flavor. On each plate is an empty dipping bowl that you fill with fragrant extra virgin olive oil, a splash of Balsamic vinegar and a generous grinding of fresh pepper and salt. Brilliantly red tomatoes, luminescent green celery, radishes, bright white heads of fennel and crisp carrots are waiting in the bowl to be cut and dipped in the peppery oil. This signals the end of your low fat experience for the evening. As the vegetables are whisked away a platter of crostini spread with chicken liver pate arrives, but that is not the special part. In the center of the platter is a bowl of burro salato di Alto Adige, an extra creamy, salted butter from a small dairy in the mountains of Alto Adige. It is to be spread on the toasts to add another layer of richness to the liver. Fabrizio arrives at our table with a bottle of 2001 Arbiola Monferatto Bianco. A blend of 70% sauvignon blanc and 30% chardonnay aged in barrique. He seems crestfallen when we tell him we have tasted the wine before. This is an event that will not reoccur the rest of the evening. The wine is oaky with pronounced sauvignon herbalness. It is a little heavy-handed for me, but a good match with the crostini. Before the crostini have disappeared, a plateful of palline di formaggi arrives. These are small, breaded and deep-fried balls of Taleggio and Gorgonzola. They are rich with just a hint of the pungent flavor of Gorgonzola — another good match with the wine. 

    Platters of affettati arrive in the dining room and Fabrizio deposits red wineglasses on the table. Now it’s getting serious. The waiter arrives at the table with the first platter and repeats the process seven more times before our first tasting of affettati is complete. Fabrizio returns with the red wine: 2002 Stefano Mancinelli Lacrima di Morra d’Alba a bright fruity, fresh wine from le Marche. On our plates are Lardo di Trentino, Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Mortadella, Coppa di Piacenza, pancetta and Salame di Felino. The brilliant fruitiness of the young wine matched with the salty affettati is amazing. Each pushes more flavors out of the other. Every razor thin slice of meat is astounding, melting in your mouth and growing in flavor as you slowly savor each piece. The Salame di Felino at Boccondivino will spoil your palate for other salame forever. 

    Affettati includes the whole range of cured pork products made in Italy. Every part of the pig is used and each region has its unique specialties. It’s dangerous to be a pig in Italy. It’s impossible to imagine an important meal without a full range of these meats being offered as antipasti and they are the foundation of the wonderful panini (sandwiches) which are the real fast-food of Italy. Even the smallest grocery store will have a broad selection and your order of prosciutto will be carefully sliced and wrapped, almost gift-like, to be sure that it arrives at your home in perfect condition. 

    Some major types of affettati are: 

    - Prosciutto Crudo: a salt and air cured uncooked (crudo) ham that is considered the pinnacle of flavor and elegance in affettati. The most famous types range from the most delicate to the fullest flavored — San Daniele from Friuli, Parma from Emilia Romagna, and Norcia from Umbria. Outside Italy when you ask for prosciutto this is what you get. 

    - Prosciutto Cotto: a cooked (cotto), usually boiled ham. Smoked (affumicato) versions are also produced. 

    - Pancetta: this is the same cut of pork we commonly call bacon, but pancetta is produced by different methods. Regular pancetta is cured not smoked, and it is rolled into a sausage-like shape. Smoked pancetta is also produced and is similar to American bacon, but is meatier. Speck is a meaty pancetta produced in Trentino/Alto Adige. It is smoke and herb cured and more closely resembles Prosciutto Crudo than regular pancetta. 

    - Lardo: falls in the pancetta family, but because I like it so much, I will give its own spot. Lardo is fat — that’s it. It is the pure fat portion of the bacon cured in salt and herbs and then served very thinly sliced. It melts on your tongue like soft butter. I have not yet checked the American Heart Associations daily recommended portion of Lardo, and no, this is nothing like the American lard that you buy in a tub and that my grandmother used to make her extraordinary pie crusts. 

    - Bresaola: salt cured beef from the mountains of Valtellina in Lombardia. Very lean. 

    - Coppa: salt cured, and air dried pork from the neck and shoulder. Coppa is traditionally produced in Lombardia and Emilia Romagna. It is meaty with a rich, red color. 

    - Mortadella: really a sausage, but often included on a plates of affettati. Delicate, pink and creamy in texture it is made from pure pork which is laced with slices of fat for richness. Sometimes pistachios are added for and additional flourish. True Mortadella is only made in the area surrounding Bologna. That is why Americans call their bland imitation of Mortadella bologna — what baloney. 

    - Salame: there are more types of salame than there are regions of Italy. Everyone has their specialty. Salame is usually made from pork, but there also many varieties made from wild boar, donkey, venison and horse. All are made with cured meat and fat. The differences in styles are dependent on how finely the meats are chopped, the ratio of fat to meat and the seasonings used. Salame can also be smoked.

    At Boccondivino there is not one course of affettati, but two. The second is reserved for smoked meats and it is served separately to prevent the smoky aromas from overwhelming the flavors of the more delicately cured meats. The waiter soon arrives with three more platters. A smoked ham, Speck and a smoked pancetta. These are rich, pungently smoky meats and Fabrizio arrives with just the wine to handle them. The 2001 Forti Terre di Sicilia is a ripe yet fruity blend of nero d’avola and cabernet sauvignon. The smoked flavors of the meats combine with the ripe, smoky flavors of the wine in perfect harmony. Just when you think you are done, he returns with the Prosciutto Crudo di Norcia, an exceptionally rich and salty cured ham from the famous town of hog butchers, which he slices — by hand — at your table. 

    This is an affettati tour de force. Where to go next? Perhaps a refreshing intermezzo like risotto con Gorgonzola and pappardelle con radicchio, Speck and cream. As your last plate is taken away a new plate arrives where your waiter deposits healthy (using the term loosely) portions of each rich dish. To loosen our palate with these piatti, Fabrizio arrives with the 1998 Goretti L’Arringatore, Colli Perugini from Umbria. The stiff backbone of this sangiovese blend cleaned our palates of the previous courses and contrasted beautifully with the voluptuous choices on our plates.

    As you finish the last bite suddenly you remember the cheese cart and sure enough new plates and wine glasses arrive at your table. The first cheese course is truly a cream course. Three fresh cheeses grace your plate: Ricotta Pugliese, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana and the decadent Burrito di Andria — the cream laden fresh cheese from Puglia. No new wine is brought for these treasures; they are just too delicate and rich. 

    Yet another round of plates arrives simultaneously with the overloaded cheese cart. Like the wine you can choose or they can choose. If they choose they only ask, “Dolce o piccante?” Directly translated as sweet or spicy, the question means a choice between mild or pungent cheeses. At this point pungent was the only choice and my selection included Tomini di Castelmagno from Piemonte, aged Bitto de Morbegno from Valtellina in Lombardia, Forni Fossa di Talamello from Marche and a milky golden chuck of Parmigiano Reggiano that reminds you that, in fact, this is a cheese made from milk instead of that rock hard stuff they export. So as not to let down the cheeses, Fabrizio pulls the cork on a 1999 Masi Grandarella — their new quasi-Amarone. It is made from a blend of late harvested and dried refosco, carmenere and corvina, making it sort of a super-Venetian as they call it on the back label. It is a big wine (15.5% alcohol) with a touch of sweetness and huge fruit flavors go well with the full flavored cheeses. Still, it is no Amarone. 

    Just when your palate screams for help due to sensory overload, a medley of zesty fruit sorbetti (green apple, peach and lemon) arrives to sooth. Not a minute later, Fabrizio arrives with a bottle of the golden Taramis Vino Liquoroso from Sicilia. Its rich sweetness and warm flavors (16% alcohol) make the perfect dunk for the plateful of almond and walnut biscotti that arrive with the bottle. 

    After much needed espressi the grappa arrives. The potent Pagura Riserva, distilled from a blend of refosco and cabernet, weighs in at a full-throttle 50% alcohol and sends a crescendo of warm feelings to every remaining nerve in your body that still has the strength to feel. 

    Then after only four hours it is over. Both Concordatis arrive at your table for a review of the evening. There is not much you can do other than applaud them as you would applaud a chef who enters the dining room after a spectacular achievement. 

    With a bit of effort you rise from you seat and wander out into the cool of the Milano night. There are no glimpses of the apartments now. All the shutters are tightly closed and it is dark, gray and calm. The walk feels good after the hours of eating and drinking and somehow the palazzi seem even more regal in the dark. 

    I love art. 


    Friday
    Apr302004

    Franco's Grappa

    Friday, April 30, 2004

    MY ENTIRE mouth is going numb. I can’t feel my cheeks and my tongue is starting to tingle. I am ready for the drill.

    But there is no drill. I have just tasted a grappa. Well it’s not a grappa yet, but something that’s going to become a grappa. I’m getting a lesson in grappa from one of Italy’s finest grappa makers Bruno Pilzer and he has just given me a taste of the pure distillate of pinot nero straight out of the still. At this point it is almost pure alcohol and considering its potency it is round and flavorful — at least until it knocks out all the nerve endings in your mouth for five minutes.

    Grappa comes from humble beginnings. Frugal farmers could not waste a thing, not even the grape skins, stems, and seeds (pomace) left over after the grapes were pressed for wine. But making grappa is not easy. Well, making good grappa is not easy. You have to get the leftover solids to ferment and then you have to distill them. The potential to make something that can make you go blind is high and then, even if you can make a grappa that won’t rob you of your eyesight, it’s likely to taste as though you’re drinking rubbing alcohol steeped with old grass cuttings.

    While busily typing away at home I begin to feel a little light-headed and I soon begin to notice a strange sweet, warm, floral smell filling the house. Soon there is a knock at the door. There’s my neighbor Franco smiling broadly. “Come, come quickly,” he says excitedly. “The grappa is starting to come.”

    He leads me into his garage and the aromas become overwhelming. Scattered around the floor are empty plastic bags that have been full of the fermented red grape skins that he went that morning to buy from nearby wine cooperative that sells them to home grappa makers. In the center of the room is a large stainless steel tank with a gas jet furiously burning underneath, out of the top comes a narrow tube that passes through a pail of cold water. At the end is a small spigot out of which drizzles a small stream of clear liquid that is dripping into an empty four-liter wine jug. It is now 9 a.m. and he started at 6 a.m. and the boiling and dripping will go on until early evening. Franco dips a stick into the liquid and then touches it to the flame and it immediately explodes into a bright blue flame that burns hotly for at least a minute. “Good, good,” he says, obviously pleased with the pyrotechnics. “That means it’s pure,” he explains.

    Franco has been making grappa in his garage for five years now. “The first year,” he confides. “I gave it all away as Christmas presents because I was a little afraid to drink it.” However, these days he drinks it and so do his guests. Dinners with them are always followed by the arrival of a huge jug of grappa Bianca (white or un-aged grappa) at the table. It is potent stuff with no water blended in and is not recommended for grappa novices or those who still have taste buds. A portion of his production is blended with wild herbs and sugar to make a grappa morbida (soft), while to another jug he adds pieces of oak beams he got from an old building somewhere to make a grappa gialla (yellow — referring to the color the wood gives the grappa). The wood pieces actually do give the grappa a rich caramel color and a rounder flavor.

    I am sure that not a day goes by where Franco does not enjoy just a bit of the production of which he is so proud. Personally, I think it best to avoid homemade grappa on a daily basis — or even on a monthly basis.

    There are thousands and thousands of home grappa makers throughout Italy. The coarse, raw spirit they produce is the tradition of grappa and the reason it has such a bad reputation. Years ago the public was accustomed to the uncivilized flavors of homemade grappa and many of the early commercial producers made a product with the same harsh flavors, but at least they had the huge benefit of being safe to drink.

    Poorly made distillates are high in methanol, a dangerous poison. Only with careful distillation can you reduce methanol to safe levels — a good reason to avoid homemade grappa. Today the Italian government strictly controls the sales of pomace for home grappa production to protect people from themselves. Theoretically home production is limited to three liters per year — a law frequently and flagrantly ignored in the grand Italian tradition.

    The history of grappa makes life complicated for the great grappa producers of Italy. When produced with care, skill, and passion grappa becomes one of the most refined and elegant spirits in the world. Without this care it is the digestivo version of a Molotov cocktail.

    The mountains of Trentino are heaven for amateur photographers. You can point your camera in almost any direction and take a breathtaking photo. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows in front of my camera frame a view that stands out even in this area known for mountain views. The room itself is spotless. In one corner stands a complex, brightly sparkling arrangement of shining copper pipes, tanks and gauges. In these gleaming, spectacular surroundings the Pilzer family creates some of Italy’s finest grappe: one drip at a time.

    During the harvest brothers Bruno and Ivano Pilzer and their father Vincenzo can barely leave the distillery, one of them is there twenty-four hours a day and they have been known to sleep on cots next to the still: making great grappa has to be a passion.

    “Distilling is not a simple craft,” explains Bruno. “It is an art based on knowledge, patience, skill and vision. For us, to distill with care and passion shows respect for all those who came before us. We have the desire to innovate, the experience of having produced excellent results and the ambition to improve. This is the philosophy of our family.”

    Contrary to the image of a product made from leftovers, the grappa of Pilzer and other top producers are distilled from carefully harvested selections from specific outstanding vineyards whose growers agree to handle their pomace in precisely prescribed ways. The best vineyards for grappa are in cool climates where the grapes mature slowly and have higher acid levels. That is why the finest grappa producers are located in Trentino/Alto Adige, Friuli, Veneto, Piemonte and Val d’Aosta. All of this means distillers seeking superb quality can pay more for pomace than some wineries pay for grapes.

    Once the grapes are pressed the race is on to get the pomace distilled. Exposure to oxygen robs the grape skins of aromas and creates other off-flavors in the grappa. Evaporation is also robbing the pomace of liquids and as no water can be added before distillation this is a critical issue. Top quality producers like Pilzer will have the pomace processing at their distillery within hours of pressing.

    The process for making grappa from white grapes and red grapes varies significantly. When a winemaker makes white wine the grape skins and juice are separated (pressed) before fermentation. Therefore the distiller must let the skins from white grapes ferment before distilling them. Red wines are fermented in contact with the grape skins so the pomace the grappa maker receives has already fermented. In addition, these red grape skins have also picked up flavors from the new wine. The lighter pressings employed by top winemakers today means more juice or wine remains with the pomace and a more elegant, aromatic grappa can be distilled.

    These differences mean that grappa from white varietals has different characteristics than those from reds. Grappa from white grape skins is more floral, perfumed and fruity. Red grape skins bring more complex aromatics and firmer, more defined flavors.

    The next step is even trickier. It is easy to see how they distill brandy: you put the wine into the still and heat it until it turns into steam that is then condensed. For grappa mostly solids go into the still. The liquids to be turned into grappa are trapped in the skins and must be slowly released. Too much heat means the skins at the bottom of the still will start to burn and your entire batch will be marred by the burned flavors. It is a process that needs great skill and attention.

    When the spirit finally starts to come from the still all the skill, art and science available to the distiller must be used to create the haunting aromatics of fine grappa. The first liquid to come out of the still is full of impurities because they vaporize at lower temperatures; this is called the head and contains the methanol among with other unpleasant components. The last liquid out of the still is call the tail and contains water and other impurities. It is only in the “heart” or middle of the distillation where you find the finest alcohol and aromatics. The more of the head and tail you throw away the more refined your grappa will be: it is an expensive choice.

    Finally the grappa is aged either in stainless steel for grappa Bianca or in oak barrels of varying sizes and woods for grappa gialla for a minimum of six months. During this period small amounts of pure water are slowly blended in to adjust the alcohol levels.

    What makes grappa unique and one of the worlds great spirits is the incredible aromatics that dedicated master distillers can extract. Like wine, with training you can distinguish between grappa made from different varietals — many times by the aromas alone. “What makes grappa unique,” remarks Bruno Pilzer. “Is that the aromatics are so pronounced that you can still sense them even though the grappa is already in your stomach. The aromas rise back up. This makes grappa the perfect digestive.”

    Italians treat grappa with the indifference that comes with having something around you all of your life. Most grappa is ordered in restaurants and bars generically, grappa secca or a grappa morbida, without thought to a name brand. Much grappa disappears into steaming cups of espresso called caffé correcto as a midmorning bracer on a cold day. In fact, serious and expensive grappa is something no one would have thought of just a few decades ago.

    Benito Nonino changed all that in the 1960s when he took over his family’s grappa business that had been established in 1887, but was in fact older as his great-grandfather, Orazio Nonino, had already be traveling through Veneto with a portable still for years. Benito was the first with almost every innovation in quality grappa production in Italy. He was the first to distill individual vineyards separately, first to bottle vintage grappa (1967), first with single varietal grappa and the first to introduce an acquavite d’uva, which he called Ué, the word for grapes in Friuliano dialect. Although this firm has grown in size they have preserved their quality — an unusual situation.

    Acquavite d’uva may look like grappa, but it is not because it is distilled from whole, un-pressed grapes. The high degree of juice creates a spirit more delicate and fruity than grappa, but with similar mouth feel. Most of the top distillers produce both grappa and acquavite d’uva and its creation has added a whole new dimension and style to the category. Today there are even specialists, like Maschio in Veneto, who concentrate on acquavite d’uva. Their Prime Uve, from prosecco and riesling, is a wonderful example of elegance and purity of fruit. Many producers also distill acquavite from various fruits. These will surprise you for the clarity of fruit aroma and flavor the distiller can extract from the fruit. The Maschio Prime Arance, made from the juice and pulp of Italian oranges, is like biting into an orange with a kick.

    Another innovator has been Jacopo Poli who, as well as making extraordinary spirits, revolutionized the industry with his beautiful crystal bottles, but beware: beautiful and elaborate bottles are no guarantee of high quality. Poli made their success by putting the highest quality grappa, acquavite d’uva and brandy in their elegant bottles. Their success created an avalanche of bottles that are more expensive than the spirit they contain.

    For traditional grappa that is distilled with great care there are few better examples than Nardini in Veneto. Their grappe still have that warm, herbal spiciness that is lost by many of the modern producers in their search for smoothness and elegance. The small touch of rusticity in their grappa makes them an interesting contrast to spirits like Nonino. Nardini is a large firm and their grappa should be easy to find.

    Now that grappa has become a bit chic many famous wine producers have their own grappa. Most of the time they do not distill it themselves, but contract with a professional distillery who has the equipment and experience necessary to produce high-quality grappa from their wine pomace. Antinori, Banfi, Badia a Coltibuono, Cerretto, Gaja, Jermann, Masi and Ornellaia are just a few famous wine names who offer their own grappa.

    Even with all this effort and dedication the first sip of grappa can be a bit intense for the uninitiated. Like most spirits, grappa can be an acquired taste. The best place to start your grappa experience is with spirits produced from highly aromatic white grapes like traminer and, most of all, moscato giallo. The gentle fruit flavors and sweet fruit aromatics of moscato make it not only the best starting place, but a favorite of experienced grappa lovers.

    The beauty of grappa lies in its complex mélange of haunting aromatics. The balance and delicacy of grappa and acquavite d’uva made by companies like Pilzer, Nonino, Poli and Maschio is unique and is unrivaled in the world of spirits.

    Oh no, here comes Franco with the jug.

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