Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best Wines I Drank This Year, 2009

I imagine that New Year’s Day must be the slowest day in the year in regard to internet traffic on alcohol-related blogs. To curb the effects of this yet-to-happen-blogging hangover I’m posting the all-star list of 2009 wines today.

It’s time to take stock in our successes and our failures and to smile and grimace with new wisdom. 2010, still untouched, promises 365 days of possibility which you an either let wash over you or take by the scruff of the neck in search for opportunity. One opportunity that I look forward to in the upcoming year is drinking these wines again. Another is finding wines that are as good or better. I want to know what your favorite wine of 2009 is, so friends, family, and gentle readers, please leave comments telling about your best wine memory. Here are mine:

Top 10 Red Wines

#1 “Divoto” 2001 Apollonio Winery (Negroamaro/Montepulciano)
#2 “Vigna Elena” Barolo 1999 Elvio Cogno Winery (Nebbiolo)
#3 St. Emillion 1998 Chateau Simard
#4 “Suavitas” Salice Salentino DOC Riserva 2004 Ionis Winery (Negroamaro/Malvasia Nera)
#5 “Elegia” 2006 Consorzio Produttori i Vini Winery (Primitivo)
#6 Central Coast Petite Sirah 2005 David Bruce Winery
#7 “Notarpanaro” 2003 Taurino Winery (Negroamaro)
#8 “Cappello di Prete” 200 Candido Winery (Negroamaro)
#9 “Ottavianello” 2007 Botrugno Winery (Ottavianello)
#10 “Patriglione” 2003 Taurino Winery (Negroamaro/Malvasia Nera)

Top 5 White Wines

#1 “Galatina Bianco” 2008 Valle Dell’Asso Winery (Chardonnay)
#2 “Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio” 2007 Vinosia Winery
#3 “i Sierra” 2008 Taurino Winery (Chardonnay)
#4 “Alticelli” 2008 Cantele Winery (Fiano di Puglia)
#5 “Donna Lisa” Bianco 2008 Leone De Castris (Malvasia Bianca)

Top Rosé Wines

#1 “Fanali” 2006 Apollonio Winery (Negroamaro)
#2 “5 Roses 65th Anniversary” 2008 Leone de Castris Winery (Negroamaro)
#3 “Scirocco” 2008 Pirro Varone Winery (Negroamaro)

Best Dessert Wine

#1 Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG N/V Araldica Winery

Top Sparkling Wines

#1 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOC N/V Mionetto Winery
#2 “Sergio” Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOC N/V Mionetto Winery
#3 Proseccco di Valdobbiadene Vino Spumante Extra Dry – V.S.Q.P.R.D DOC N/V Santa Margharita Winery

Note on Rating: Unlike my usual rating system, which takes price into account, these wines are simply the best wines in regards to the 5-category rating system of Karen MacNeil: Expressiveness, Connectivity, Varietal, Complexity, and Integration.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Simplest and Best Mulled Wine Recipe

The holiday season has sapped posts from this blog, but it hasn’t done so in any other areas of my life. My writing goes well. Further, an onslaught of baked goods and mighty spirits has filled our Italian apartment, including croissants, Russian tea cakes, an apple crumble, a tremendous roast chicken with vegetables cooked in the drippings, and an American-style vegetarian chili with stovetop cornbread (if you’re interested in the recipes, just leave a comment or email [photo from here]).

I’m writing with a fantastic mulled wine recipe that only takes 2 minutes to prepare and is ready to serve the moment the wine is warm. The type of wine is not very important, suffice that it is red. If you’re looking to go the cheap route, I suggest the good ol’ jug wine Carlo Rossi or Almaden’s Mountain Burgundy. Here’s the recipe, you will need a tea ball:

1 orange
10 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
½ cup of sugar
2 shots of brandy or whiskey
1 liter of red wine


1) Pour wine into a pot and begin to slowly heat (do not boil, or the alcohol will evaporate). Zest ½ of the orange using a peeler and making sure that very little of the pith (white stuff) comes off with the peel. Try to take off large chunks of the peel so that you will be able to identify them easily when they are in the wine. Bludgeon the peel to release flavor.
2) Put peel in the wine and squeeze a little juice from the orange as well.
3) Put cloves into the tea ball and into the wine.
4) Add the cinnamon sticks, sugar, and brandy.
5) When the wine begins to steam it is ready to serve. Depending on your preferences, you may want to let the ingredients steep a while, add more of this or that, or simply pour it all into a mug and say Cheers to Our Enemies’ Enemies!

If there are any ingredients you add to your mulled wine that I’ve left out, I’d love to hear about them.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment, Experiment 3

Grape: Refosco
Mushroom: Shiitake

For this stage of the experiment, I left Puglia and tried a wine from the Friuli region (in the north of Italy, near Venice) made using the Refosco grape: Azienda Agricola Poggiobello's 2003 Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. On the mushroom side of things, I used “shiitake” mushrooms (quotes because the mushrooms in no way resembled the shiitake I find in California, yet the farmer calls them shiitake) to make risotto. I chose risotto because I wanted a dish that wasn’t smothered with cheese or any other dairy products that might mask the mushroom flavor and thereby create a better match with the wine, e.g. artificially. The experiment again is to pair wine with mushrooms, which have high levels of umami, a flavor that often makes wine more astringent, bitter, and tannic, and conceals good aromas.

The risotto was wonderful, and the mushrooms filled the kitchen with a scent of honey and wood. They had a very fleshy texture that reminded me of fish, lobster, and chicken all in one. I did use a little butter to finish the risotto, probably a tablespoon, and about 2 tablespoons of Parmesan.

The wine showed very little change when paired with the mushrooms and certainly no negative change. The wine was so masculine and even that it was like trying to stop a battering ram with mushrooms. I think that the only effects were positive: the strong flavors of black licorice and blackest of the black cherry were subdued slightly. Also, the wine’s finish was enhanced but an even and intense flavor of mushroom. Strangely, the mushrooms drew out the wine’s tannins, resulting in a more dynamic structure.

Because I do not like black licorice, I would not personally buy this wine again. However, the wine itself was respectable and pairs very well with the dish, so I recommend it as a good wine to pair with mushrooms.

Please comment with any questions. Salute!

Other Characteristics of the Wine: Deep nose of black licorice and watermelon. Medium body, which does not correspond with the wine’s overall heft. Flavors of black licorice, very black cherry, and freshly broken fruit, though not jammy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I guess I've been busy with the holidays, but don't fear, lots of Puglia-wine info on the way. The mushroom and wine-pairing experiment is still in full effect. Kristin and I have been drinking a lot of the highly-refreshing novello wines around here, but I'll soon be diving back into bottles that you can find in the States. More reviews, debacles, and photos soon. Salute!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Update on the Martini Sitch (-uation)

So far, all of the bartenders I have spoken with (which is three) say that there is no name in Italian for a regular ol' martini (gin/vodka and dry vermouth with olives, lemon, etc.). This makes it, in my experience, nearly impossible to order a martini in Italy. If you order a martini in a bar, you could get white, red, or dry Martini&Rossi Vermouth in a glass. If you order a martini secco (dry martini) it is made with 50% dry vermouth and 50% gin or vodka. It will likely also arrive with a straw, an ice cube, and a big slice of lemon. Sounds like Italy needs more Martini Hospitals (see below).

Kristin and I have learned the word for droplet and now have a favorite bartender who knows how to make excellent gin martini. Dropping the local olives, which are cured for as few as 3 days, into the cold gin is one activity that can completely distract me from the local wines. mmmmmm---!

In other news, we're cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 12 Italian friends tomorrow. I know we're early this year, but no one has this Thursday off around here---waddayagonna do? Making stuffing from scratch is proving to be rewarding, and Kristin's throwing in some of her cornbread. Finding a turkey wasn't all that difficult luckily, and, as we speak, I believe that it's still running around.

Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Make REAL Orecchiette Pasta

If you told me a year ago that I would be taken into the kitchen of two beautiful Italian ladies and taught how to make orecchiette pasta as their mothers and grandmothers taught them to make it, I would call you crazy. But last Saturday night, Kristin and I were given an official Orecchiette Lesson (Orecchiette is the traditional, ear-shaped pasta of Puglia) paired with a novello Primitivo made by Consorzio Produttori Vini in Manduria. Kristin and I had made orecchiette ourselves, but we followed an online recipe that had us doing more tricks and spending more time than necessary.

Debora and Margarita had it all planned. They made most of the pasta in advance--allowing it to dry for three to four hours--but saved a short roll of dough for us to practice on. To make the pasta dough, you use semolina flour, water, and a pinch of salt. I usually use a flour-to-water ratio of 4:1 (here's more on that). When your dough is ready, roll it out into long roll with a 1/2 inch diameter; similar to making gnocchi. Here's where the lesson began.

Debora and Margarita said to cut a piece of dough about a centimeter long from the roll. Using a butter knife, put one edge of the blade lengthwise on the far edge of the piece of dough. Put the index finger of your other hand on the opposite side of the dough, then pull the knife toward you, almost like you are spreading butter. The dough will roll over itself. After a little practice, Kristin and I got the knife to make an elongated indent in the dough. Next, pick up the dough and place it on top of your thumb, then use both index fingers to pull the edges down around your thumb to create a hat-shape. And that's it.

The beauty of this method is that you do not need to press the dough three times as some recipes suggest, and you all also achieve the corrugated texture of traditional orecchiette without using a grooved board specifically designed for making orecchiette (I mean, whose gonna buy one of those?). The texture comes from the spreading/tearing of the orecchiette with the knife.

The meal was fantastic (above: Kristin was sad when her "little ear" looked more like a nose). Our friends Marco and Marco (aka Tom and Jerry) started us off with Pugliese polpette (meat balls) and the Primitivo. The Primitivo was Amabile, which means that it's sweet, but it paired very well with the tomato sauce and cacioricotta that went over the orecchiette. The second course was involtini, made with veal, Parmesan cheese, and parsley, which had been cooked in the same sauce. This ensured that the flavors of the primo and the secondo were inseparable. Stewed peppers with balsamic vinegar were served on the side. Again, the Primitivo paired wonderfully.

Like all great dinner parties, we ended with a game of golf. That it was Wii Golf made it all the better because midnight was long gone and it's no fun trying to find your ball in the dark. Please comment with any questions you may have. Salute!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment

The first true night of the experiment has passed and not without surprises. The challenge again, is to pair different wines with different mushrooms—the difficulty being the umami (a type of flavor released when mushrooms are cooked), which counteract wine aromas and heighten wine textures such as astringency and bitterness.

For the first experiment, I paired a lovely, light and juicy novello wine (nothing special, just some jug wine make from local Negramaro and Malvasia Nera grapes, see above) with homemade, mushroom-stuffed mezzalune (half-moon pasta) with a mushroom, white wine, and garlic sauce. My girlfriend and I thought that using wine in the sauce might help balance the mushrooms for pairing however, after tasting, I am certain that cream or cheese would be more successful.

Because we drank wine before we tasted the mushrooms, I cannot judge the immediate effects of the wine's flavor on the food. But I clearly noticed after a few bites of the pasta that the young, juice-like character of the wine was disappearing: The brightness of the nose was almost gone, and the finish, which had been very succulent, was shortened. My opinion was that the mushrooms clearly effected the wine negatively, but the wine still tasted good. Also, the wine did not negatively effect the mushroom pasta.

However, by the end of the meal, the wine had lost almost all of its youngness and its fun character. It was flat and fruitless. Quite simply, the dish had murdered the wine. The tannic character of the wine, which had been practically non-existent before, was enhanced so that it finished with a bitterness.

The Verdict: Pairing a light novello-like wine with mushrooms results in a limp, pathetic wine. The wine never tastes bad, and it does not seem to make the food taste bad (at least, not in the way that a cheese doodle can make a Cabernet Sauvignon taste bad). I need to pair my next mushroom dish with a beefier wine, one whose fruit and body can match the negative effects of the umami.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Mushroom Show in Mesagne's Castle

Part of The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment

The town of Mesange, in Puglia, celebrated its plethora of local mushroom varietals--both poisonous and edible--by covering long tables (set up in the basement of its beautiful castle) with the brilliant and sometimes creepy fungi. It was truly amazing to be able to see all of the different varieties and to know that they all grow naturally in the surrounding area (A friend went specifically to train herself to be better at identifying mushrooms when she goes out hunting). The mushrooms were labeled:

Edible but Without Value

The mushrooms spewing black goo didn't require the "Mortale" sign card beneath them: No way I was pairing them with a Chianti!

I was pleasantly surprised the next day, when walking down the street, to come across a stand of mushrooms being sold out of someone's front door that was almost as impressive as those at the castle. I quickly bought around 2 lbs for 4 euro and rushed home to show my girlfriend Kristin. "They're blue," she exclaimed!

When I returned home later that evening, Kristin surprised me with homemade sagne (a twirly pasta from Lecce) with a mixture of the mushrooms with a white-wine cream sauce.

We tested out a local novello wine made from Negroamaro and Malvasia. The wine is sfuso wine, and we bought 3 liters for 4 euro. It is very good everyday drinking wine. It tastes so fresh, so fruity, and so grapey that I think it will be a good wine to test against umami. But last night, we simply enjoyed it. Tonight, we will pair it with homemade mushroom mezzalune (literally, half-moons), which are similar to ravioli. In particular, I will be looking for any lessening of aromas and enhancement of unwanted flavor textures. Talk to you soon---

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment

It's mushroom season in Puglia, and I feel like I'm in somekinda medieval fairy tale about witches because of all the colorful and daunting fungi I see. Serious: very Grimm-brothers. I walk down the street and come across large tables covered with mushrooms of all shapes and sizes that the locals have foraged and are selling at 7-8 euro a kilo (around 10 dollars for 2.3lbs). It is a taste of the ancient traditions in this part of the world. Since many of the local mushrooms are poisonous, those who pick them must be trained (I assume) by their parents to know which are edible. And lucky me, I get to go mushroom crazy.

After polishing off a few homemade arancini (deep-fried risotto balls that I made with wild mushrooms) for lunch, I thought about the difficulties of pairing mushrooms with wine. Since there are hundreds of mushrooms, there are hundreds of flavors to match, but there is another difficulty: When cooked, mushrooms release umami, which are known to reduce wine aromas and heighten wine textures, such as acidity, tannins, and bitterness. It strikes me as strange that one of my favorite foods, one which I pair with wine regularly, is one of the top ten most difficult foods to pair wine with. Further, I want to test the ability to prepare mushrooms with wine-based sauces.

So, during these next few weeks I will experiment with different mushrooms, recipes, and wines, including novello wines (similar to Beaujolais), Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo/Zinfandel, and possibly a Barolo. I might consider a Pinot Noir or two since so many people rave about their ability to compliment mushrooms, but I will mostly stick to Italian wines. If you want to share any of your own mushroom and wine pairing experiences, please feel free. Salute!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Photos of this Summer's Vineyards, Puglia, Italy

Now that the season for grape growing is over, I thought I'd offer some photos to take you back to those ripe months of August and September. Today is the first day of the Salone del Vino Novello, a five day celebration of Puglia's new wines. I cannot wait to try these refreshing wines and to talk with winemakers about the harvest.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fall Vineyard Slideshow from Puglia

Fall has overtaken Puglia, and though the leaves on the olive trees are not changing colors, the vineyards have erupted. The leaves turn orange and their veins are surrounded by a rich blood-red.

As this year's harvest drew to an end, I began to collect the opinions of local winemakers in regards to quantity and quality. Over the next couple weeks, as I sample more novello wines (literally new wines) and discuss the results of the harvest, I will put together a 2009 Puglia Harvest Report to offer an objective perspective on the 2009 growing season.

Since Puglia is one of the largest growing regions in the world (if Puglia were a country, it would be the 7th largest wine-producing country in the world) the report covers a significant land area and will account for it in three ways:

1) First-hand accounts from winemakers
2) Barrel tastings
3) Eye-witness experience (you don't think I was interviewing winemakers and bicycling through vineyards daily with my eyes closed)

So check back for updates.

Having grown up in New England, I would love to hear the fall foliage in your area. How's fall treating you?

Monday, November 2, 2009

My Sister Finished the NYC Marathon

If you're not at work then it's time to break out the Prosecco (or, if you're boss is chill, you might want to make the suggestion): Ashley "Little Sister" Bamman has completed the marathon in 4 hours, 37 minutes. Thank yous to everyone who helped donate to the cause. Salute!

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Good Martini In Italy? Forget It.

As I grow more familiar with Italian culture, many of the facets of Italian life that I once thought impossible have turned out to be true. When I visited my first bar in Rome and saw that very few of the people in it had drinks, I assumed it was a quiet night. Then I saw the same scene again and again; streets filled with people but nearly void of beverages.

Later, I went to a friend's for a delicious, simple dinner of homemade pizza, and his friends were going on a beer run. Yes, I thought to myself, I've found a crew that likes to drink. They were taking orders and I said that I'd like two 66cl beers. "Just for yourself," was their exclamation. I said yep, and when they returned they had four beers total, and six people shared the two beers that I didn't drink--all by myself.

What finally proved to me that Italians do not drink was a little cocktail research. I was writing an article for EuropeUpClose travel guide about pre-dinner drinks in Italy, but all I could think of were wines, white vermouth, campari and soda, and the Negroni. I did my research and discovered that Italy has barely invented a single cocktail. This makes their wines even more important, but doesn't do much for you if you're from the mixology sector of the drinking world.

Now, the Negroni is one of my favorite cocktails, whether touted by members of elite art movements or not, but it's never going to replace the martini, and let me tell you folks, you're more likely to find fresh-squeezed banana juice than a well-made martini in Italy. The last one I ordered was 50% white vermouth, and served with two straws, a lemon slice, and one big ice cube. After reading one of the most touching and beautiful posts I ever read, written by Italian Wine Guy, I got an inkling that I wasn't the only person shocked by bad martinis in Italy.

So, as it stands, I'm glad to have found a Scottish drinking buddy for Friday nights. I'm equally glad that Italians have put some much of their alcohol-related creativity into producing impeccable wines.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It was one of those sad days when it felt good to be sad. On Thursday, after 8 debaucherous days of rather intense wine drinking, our good friends waved good-bye and hopped aboard a nighttrain to Florence. Jael and Mandi were visiting my girlfriend Kristin and I from Hawaii. Jael is a college friend--one of those guys that you thought might be dead by now, but who, against all types of sound reason and unprejudiced logic, somehow became a lawyer. Though we only went to school together for two semesters before he went back to Hawaii and we didn't see each other again for nearly five years after that, we've somehow stayed close. When he happened to be heading through San Francisco for the Rock The Bells concert a few years back and crashed at my place, it was enough to convince me that I needed to visit him in Hawaii.

Kristin and I headed west--even further west--and spent an amazing month in jungle-bound treehouses without electricity and such. There I met Mandi for the first time and found myself happily perplexed by the beautiful, fast-talking, good-cooking Mainland girl who knew enough about wine to keep us talking until late in the night. Mandi, Jael, Kristin, and I averaged four bottles of wine a night while gorging ourselves on Mahi-Mahi and Opah with avocado-pineapple salsa and I think we signed some kind of pact to all marry each other if we weren't already married to each by the age of 35.

We repeated the luau Italian-style this time. Tons of cooking in our villa and, well, again roughly four bottles of wine a day on average. We rode bicycles through vineyards and Jael got to eat grapes from the vine for the first time. We visited Apollonio Winery, where Winemaker Massimiliano Apollonio gave us a tremendous tasting (that evening we rode 15 bottles of wine home on four bicycles). Massi took us on an intimate tour of the facilities and let us try the recently released 2004s (the winery never releases red wines younger than four years old). Later in the week we visited Sergio Botrugno at Botrugno Winery in Brindisi and drank his wines on the roof of the winery, overlooking the western side of Brindisi Bay. Sergio gave us a detailed, step-by-step tour and explanation of how he makes his wines. For me, the most interesting thing I learned was that he does not always add sulfur to stabalize his wines (a common practice completed during the pre-fermentation process in most cases, which protects the wine from turning in the bottle because of bacteria). Instead, he works at very cold temperatures to kill most of the unwanted organisms in the wine, then if, after intense testing, he discovers high levels of organisms, then he resorts to sulfur. He remarked that "it is not a matter of believing that sulfur is bad, it's that I prefer not to use it."

Being able to share wine with good friends is perhaps the best capability of wine. That Mandi and Jael love a good red as much as Kristin and I resulted in multiple 3-5 hour dinners where we mixed conversation about the marrow of life with your-momma jokes (and worse: your grandmomma jokes). That they love a good bottle of Prosecco even more than Kristin and I--though we do love Prosecco--resulted in perfect pairings with buttery mussels and mozzerella balls stuffed with ricotta.

Strange how thankful these times make me feel. Cheers to your own times... Your own bottles of wine and your own all-night luaus.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Best of the Best Wines from Puglia, Part 3: Other Reds

"Other Reds"

The first three reds here are tremendous reds that demonstrate the best that Puglia has to offer, however you might notice that they do not receive the highest ratings. Just quickly, I’d like to mention that my ratings take the price of the wines into consideration. Valle Dell’Asso’s “Piromáfo” is a tremendous wine, but at 13.50 euro I could purchase almost three bottles of Consorzio Produttori di Vini’s “Lirica.” Is it three times as good as “Lirica”? In my opinion: No.

Valle Dell’Asso Winery
Rating: 6
Available in U.S.: ?
2003 “Piromáfo” (100% Negroamaro)
13.50 Euro

A wine that truly evolves as you drink it. 1st glass: nose of chocolate, coffee, dried cherry, and cedar. Flavors of almond, bitter almond, and bitter finish. Nose opens to more chocolate (chocolate covered coffee beans) and raisin. The acidity is striking and each sips tastes alive. This wine exhibits Karen McNeil’s definition of complexity, because there is something undefinable about the nature of it. It is also expressive: You can taste that the winemaker gave the wine a lot of its character. The finish is smooth, verging on cola and sweetness. The sweetness stays reserved, but the cola is too strong at times.

Mocavero Winery
Rating: 7
Available in U.S.: Yes
2003 “Santufili” (100% Primitivo)
16.50 Euro

Click for my review.

Ionis Winery
Rating: 6
Available in U.S.: No
2004 “Suavitas” Salice Salentino DOC Riserva (Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera)
20.00 Euro

The bottle seems to weigh a ton and is characteristic of the wine inside. Nose of almonds, shoe polish leather, sour black cherry, and wet embers. Flavors of dried cherry, pipe tobacco, leather, dried fruit leather. Mouthfeel of course satin and warm milk. Finish pulls back and then spice fills in and in until you can’t stand it, and the tannins give character rather than being dry. A quote: “recently polished fireman boots trudging through a recently extinguished fire.” Wow.

Leone de Castris Winery
Rating: 5
Available in U.S.: ?
2007 Copertino DOC
4.50 Euro

One of Leone de Castris’s low-end wines, the Copertino DOC is stable, dark, and juicy with the main flavor component of tar. An aggressive wine, it pairs very well with complex dishes, and should not be drank alone. Medium body.

Consorzio Produttori di Vini Winery
Rating: 6
Available in U.S.: No
2008 “Neama” (100% Negroamaro)
4.50 Euro

Aged in stainless steel, Neama has the character of a rustic wine and the tastes of the grapes themselves clearly come through. Clean and simple with red fruit.

Azienda Monaci Winery
Rating: 8
Available in U.S.: ?
2005 “Sine Pari” (100% Nero di Troia)
5.00 Euro

The Nero di Troia grape is the closest thing to Cabernet Sauvignon that I’ve found in Puglia Sine Pari is the most balanced and least aggressively tannic Nero di Troia wine that I've had. That it was only a 2005 was surprising. Dark fruit and cloves. Dusty, astute tannins make it great for tomato-centered dishes and meat dishes with complex sauces. Full bodied.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Best of the Best Wines from Puglia, Part 2: Primitivo di Manduria DOC

Here are two of my all-time favorite Primitivo di Manduria DOC wines (I’ve also listed a firecracker I accidentally put in my mouth, which I then decided I liked). The Primitivo di Manduria DOC requires that the wine be principally made from the Primitivo grape, but I have been unable to find the exact percentage. Does anyone know what the minimum necessary percentage of Primitivo is for a wine to qualify as Primitivo di Manduria DOC? To obtain the DOC label the Primitivo grapes must be grown around the city of Manduria and I believe that the wine cannot have an alcohol percentage lower than 14%.

Racemi Winery
Rating: 9
Available in U.S.: Yes
2006 "Felline" Primitivo di Manduria DOC (100% Primitivo)
7.50 Euro

At first, a jammy nose of blackberry and blueberry had me comparing it with California Zinfandel, particularly those made my Wellington Winery in Napa Valley. However, as the wine opened the nose became dusty and chalky, reminding me of evening strolls through Manduria’s rocky countryside: It is the best of both worlds. The wine changes thoroughly as it opens. 1st glass had an unpleasant bitterness and felt tight, but both of these qualities were gone in the 2nd glass. In their place, flavors of earth and dust and dark fruit. It is beautifully rich, balanced, and chewy. Medium body.

Consorzio Produttori Vini Winery
Rating: 9
Available in U.S.: No
2006 “Lirica” (principally Primitivo)
5.50 Euro

I was bias against this wine because it is mind-bogglingly well advertised around Puglia, but when I finally got around to tasting it I realized my mistake. While well known in Puglia, Lirica is sadly unavailable in the United States. A dark nose of leather, plum, and smoke succumbs to juicy, red-fruit in the mouth. The wine practically explodes with finesse: juicy and approachable while dark and confounding. Round, soft tannins. Medium body.

Soloperto Winery
Rating: 6
Available in U.S.: No
2003 “Rubinum” (100% Primitivo)
4.00 Euro

A bizarre wine, the nose on the BOTTLE is pancake syrup, but the scent disappates in the glass: aromas of smoke and cherries. Tastes of very dark fruit and chimney brick. Ends with a little wino sweet/alcohol flavor, but nothing to complain about for the price. However, at 17% alcohol, the wine is heavy and, well, shall we say, a bit dangerous.

Some of the Best Wines in Puglia

I've been lucky to stumble across some great and surprising wines in the last month or two, making this round of The Best Wines in Puglia particularly explosive. First, I don't know who it was that said that Puglia cannot make fine white wine, but Valle Dell'Asso's Galatina Bianco proves that this myth is clearly outdated. Also, I've also zeroed in on the Primitivo di Manduria DOC and found two all-time favorites.

The rest is pure legs, but they a bit too long for one post. I'll include a list of Primitivo di Manduria DOC in my next post, and "Other Reds" in the post following that.

NOTE ON RATING: As you may know, my wine ratings reflect a balance of price and quality. It is a 1-10 rating system, and the wines that display the most expressive and unique characteristics while maintaining fair prices will receive the highest scores.


Consorzio Produttori di Vini Winery
Rating: 6
Available in U.S.: No
2008 “Serene” Bianco (80% Fiano, 20% Verdeca)
4.50 Euro

A fun, fruity wine that exudes summer. Unripe pineapple on the nose and equally in the mouth. Very wide in flavor, light bodied, a gentle pinch of acidity through the nose on the finish; a gentle lime pith. It pairs well with Hawaiian style BBQ, Thai salads, pad Thai, and spicy foods, reminds me of Schug Sauvignon Blanc (Non-Reserve), from Sonoma Valley, one of my favorites.

Valle Dell’Asso Winery
Rating: 9
Available in U.S.: ?
2008 Galatina Bianco (100% Chardonnay)
6.50 Euro

A very impressive wine: High-quality California Chardonnay came to mind immediately—particularly one cool-morning tasting of Williams Selyem’s Chardonnay in Napa Valley. The Galatina Bianco has a nose of pear, butter, petrol, and flowers. Tastes of toast, good bubble gum, pavement, and minerals, and is very clean, with a balanced acidity. It has a long, long finish, and is medium dry, reminiscent of Alsatian Riesling. One of the best wines I’ve drank from Puglia, and definitely the best white so far.

Cantele Winery
Rating: 7
Available in U.S.: Yes
2008 “Alticelli” (100% Fiano)
6.50 Euro

Nose of rich butter. Tastes of nice toast balanced with acidity, making it a great match for seafood. Though the wines made with Fiano in Campania are often noted for a light lemon flavor, there is no lemon in Cantele’s, though a little lime pith comes on the finish. One of the most elegant Pugliese wines made with Fiano that I’ve tasted. Medium body.


Pirro Varone Winery
Rating: 6
Available in U.S.: No
2008 “Scirocco” Rosato (100% Negroamaro)
5.00 Euro

The most striking element of this rosé is a wonderful, round orange flavor that really showcases the Mediterranean terroir. It is accompanied by a citrusy acidity that strikes across the tongue and even the back of the nose. A great gentle and dry wine, it pairs well with any picnic, fruit salad, or seafood risotto.

Cantele Winery
Rating: 5
Available in U.S.: Yes
2008 Rosato (100% Negroamaro)
5.00 Euro

A wine that is solid and reliable, it has a quiet nose of strawberry. Flavors of strawberry and citrus. Very acidic and quite dry, Cantele’s rosé will offend few palates but will unlikely surprise anyone either.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Spots of the Leopard: Q&A with Winemaker Francesco Mocavero

I-Italy Magazine has published an article with interview I wrote on Mocavero Winery. I spoke with Winemaker Francesco Mocavero and discussed how this year's harvest is shaping up. Worth a read for anyone interested in Puglia's terroir and local winemaking methods. Salute!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Chicago Sun In Chianti

Just got word that The Chicago Sun Times picked up an article I wrote on wine tasting in Chianti. I originally wrote the article for Europe Up Close. I've always held the Chicago Sun Times in high esteem and I am exceptionally happy to receive their attention. Maybe they'll offer me a job?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Wine Spectator and Matané Winery's Primitivo di Manduria

In September's issue of Wine Spectator, the magazine rates a wine from Puglia, Italy. It was an unexpected pleasure to see Matané's 2007 "Il Matané" Primitivo di Manduria listed under "Other Red" and given 90 points. I was especially interested since I've never visited Matané Winery or drank any of their wines. The strange thing is, I can't find one smidgen of online information about them. Does anyone know anything about Matané Cantina, specifically where I can buy their wine in Puglia?

A Marathon Runner's Wine Diet

My little sister is running in this year's New York City Marathon, scheduled for November 1st. During her visit last week she was determined to not only eat pizza and biscotti in Naples, but to run daily for an hour or so. Obviously she had some difficulty fitting her training in sometimes, but one day, to prove her backbone, she ran up and down the Adriatic Coast while the rest of the fam lay around in the sun. The incredible part was that we'd all ridden 7 miles to the beach on bikes in the first place. Whew!

Running a marathon requires more than the ability to run 26.2 miles it turns out. To qualify for the marathon, for example, you must be able to run it in around 3 hours. These spots are saved for the world athletes like Brazil's Marílson Gomes dos Santos or England's Paula Radcliffe. The only other way to enter the event is to win by lottery--the odds of which are similar to winning at Powerball--or to run for charity. My sister has chosen the latter route, which is not free of pitfalls.

Running for charity doesn't just mean raising a few hundred dollars, it means selecting a charity from a pre-determined list and signing a legally-binding document that says that you will raise $2,500 dollars or else pay the total yourself. My sis is doing pretty well, but is only around the half-way mark. With one month left, she's juggling some serious responsibilities at work, extensive daily training, and the job of raising $1,300.

My little sister's done made me proud. Her determination has inspired me to hit the bike trails harder and more often. She's even convinced me to cut back on my wine intake in order to save a little to donate. If you've got a spare $20 and want to donate, just click here. Like my sister said, "If 5 people all donated 20 dollars...." Use her ING NYC Marathon entry #, which is 404328, and her last name: Bamman. The charity is Team For Kids, which donates money to schools in New York and South Africa for exercise-related activities and nutrition programs.

As for her wine diet, she kept it to a maximum of two glasses of wine a night, and refrained completely more than once. When I ran cross country in high school, I made it to state finals by staying out all night and drinking massive amounts of coffee in the morning. She's taking a more logical approach. If you have running experience, what's your wine regiment? Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Puglia Benvenuta Vendemmia 2009

Last Sunday was Benvenuta Vendemmia, a wine event that celebrates the grape harvest. 13 of Puglia's wineries opened their doors for the event, and provided visitors with tours, tastings, and traditional food. The cost of entry was 5 euro, which included a wine glass that you can take home. Since every wine event in Puglia provides a take-home wine glass, Kristin and I have more glasses than you can imagine.

The event wasn't Puglia's best showing, though it did offer me an excuse to take my family (who were visiting from Maine) into wine country and sample wines made from the Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes. The event featured mostly well-known wineries rather than the best wineries, so our options were slim. We visited Leone de Castris, Due Palme, Paolo Leo, and Consorzio Produttori di Vini.

At Paolo Leo I got to get my groove on with Billy Vulcomo, who was singing traditional Italian ballades interspersed with the Rolling Stones and Lenny Kravitz. It was the first time I'd picked up a guitar since leaving the States 8 months ago, and it was a blast. I usually play death metal, so remembering the chords to a pop song took me a second, but then good ol' Wild Thing came to mind. The classical, acoustic guitar, which had an E string where a D string was supposed to be, rang out just fine and Billy improvised some vocals while my dad belted the true words. Everyone at the tasting go into the song and it felt pretty great. Man do I miss my guitar.

Paolo Leo's 100% Negroamaro "Orfeo" and 100% Chardonnay "Battigia" were both served and enjoyed. The striking label on the rosato (pictured above) was fun, and the wine had an equally striking color that verged on neon red. It was a bit too tropical for me however.

Julia Roberts Took My Pizza Away

When my family was visiting I took them to my favorite pizza place in the world, Antica Pizzeria "Da Michele" in Naples. The place is legendary and, in my mind, there is not other pizzeria in the world that makes Neapolitan-style pizza. I once asked Sergio Condurro, who is usually situated behind the cash register, what makes Da Michele's pizza so good. He responded, "Five generations of secrets." Ok, I thought, that'd do it.

Unfortunately, when I excitedly approached the restaurant with my family--my mouth salivating and my mind blistering with anticipation--I found the street sectioned off all around the pizzeria: It was Hollywood, ruining my lunch. The Naples polizia, camera crews, lighting crews, and management of all levels were running about in anticipation of an afternoon rainstorm that was encroaching the city. When I asked a nearby guy holding a walkie-talkie what was up, he said that Julia Roberts was inside and that Da Michele was closed for the afternoon.

It all started with Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Eat, Pray, Love, which includes a section when she visits Da Michele. The book is now being made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. When the rainstorm exploded, the camera crew and Julia Roberts left, but Da Michele didn't open its doors. The restaurant did, however, promise to be open for lunch the following day. My family and I walked across the street to Trionan, whose pizza is good but lacks the thinness, chewiness, special olive oil drizzle, and impeccable tomato sauce of Da Michele.

The next day, the line to Da Michele was up both sides of the street and the wait was 30 minutes but at least it was open. The pizza was as good as always, especially without Julia Roberts anywhere in sight.

For an in-depth guide to Napoli-style pizza, check out my article for Europe Up Close. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Harvesting Grapes in the Rain

I took a brief vacation from By The Tun because my family is visiting. There was a lot I wanted to show them. September in Lecce seems to be a mix of warm winds, gentle rain, ferocious thunderstorms, and sometimes even blue skies. It's unpredictable, which makes it hard on the grape growers who want get their grapes into the wineries at their peak.

When I was a teenager, I harvested blueberries in Cherryfield, Maine; known to many as "The Blueberry Capital of the World." For three weeks each August I broke my back in the fields (I'm not sure if I could do as well now as when I was 15), and when it was all over, I had a good amount of money to spend on CDs, school clothes, and eventually, my first car. Rain was my enemy, because it meant that the raking crews (so called for using large rakes to pluck the berries) would be sent home and we wouldn't make any money that day.

Most winemakers in Puglia are in the middle of harvesting their Primitivo grapes. The Chardonnay, Verdecca, and Fiano are long finished, and the Negroamaro will be harvested after the Primitivo. Rain makes it difficult to stay on schedule. It also heightens the threat of mildews and parasites. Fortunately, the rains this year are often short and are sometimes followed by a drying sun. These were the rains we prayed for when raking blueberries: all we had to do was hide beneath a few empty boxes for 20 minutes then we could get back to work.

Last Sunday was Puglia's Harvest Celebration, known as Benvenuta Vendemmia, but the rains were not short or gentle, though they did come and go. Just a few minutes of those harsh rains were enough to soak a field to the point of no return. The workers had to pack up their things and head home for the day. Sometimes it's as complicated as getting large mechanical harvesters stuck up to their axels in mud, such as those used by the massive Due Palme winery in San Marco. But it can also be as simple as wet feet and low visibility that puts a winery behind schedule.

The harvest in Puglia should conclude around the 2nd week in October. I'll be speaking with winemakers throughout the region to provide you with the latest news on the 2009 vintage. Enjoy your fall!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Grappa Made from Olives

One thing I couldn't fit into the olive oil article, was an interesting experiment of the adventurous Dr. Raffaele Cazzetta: A grappa distilled from olives. It was unlike anything I'd drunk before, somewhere between a dessert wine and a bitters (think Fernet Branca or Ramazzotti only with more alcoholic punch), and was really quite good. It had a decadence level that surpasses most spirits, and I couldn't drink it regularly. This is likely a result of being a bit oily, and I know this sounds unattractive, but it's actually a really delicious characteristic, reminiscent of chocolate syrup. As an exotic and truly unique experience, it hits the mark.

Oh the wonderful and strange experiments we do... Hats off to Raffaele at Cazzetta.

My Burning Desire for High-Quality Olive Oil

QUICK NOTE: I go inside Cazzetta olive oil factory and partake in an olive oil tasting lead by Slow Food specialists to learn what constitutes high-quality olive oil. Check the article here. Published by I-Italy Magazine.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wine Pairing with Official Bolognese Sauce

After drinking a bottle of Azienda Monaci's Simpotica--rich, chalky and beefy--at the Roof Garden Atlavilla restaurant, I wanted to try their other wines. My friend Andrew was still visiting from California so he, my girlfriend Kristin, and I decided to make traditional Bolognese meat sauce with homemade pasta using the official recipe. To pair with this meaty dish, I wanted a tannic, smooth wine using the Nero di Troia grape, and Azienda Monaci creates a wine that features the grape, 2005 "Sine Pari" (90% Nero di Troia, 10% Negroamaro).

Sine Pari is one of the most balanced and least agressively tannic Nero di Troia wines that I've had. That it was only a 2005 was surprising. It paired very well. When the Sine Pari ran out we opened one of most famous Primitivo di Manduria DOC wines, Consorzio Produttori Vini's 2006 "Lirica" (100% Primitivo). Full of juicy red fruit, the wine was very good. The nose was leather, plum, and smoke and the tannins were very round and soft. So, to say the least, I was greatly surprised by two wines that I wasn't expecting that much from. Azienda Monaci's consistency is currently at 100%.

The Bolognese sauce didn't turn out so well. I'd eaten Bolognese sauce in Bologna a few months ago and it was incredible: the main surprise was that the sauce seemed to be composed primarily of the juices and fat of the meat, not tomato, as it is served in most restaurants in the United States. Our sauce was a little lean, and I think it was a result of Puglia's style of meat, which focuses on the lean cuts.

At the butcher, we asked which meat makes the best sauce. The butcher said that every Italian has their own opinion because different areas of Italy produce different cuts and flavors of meat. We should have known this, of course, because it is one of the greatest elements of Italian tradition: Keep it local. He told us the best cut for a Leccese sauce and we took it home with some pancetta. In the end, the sauce and homemade pasta were delicious, but not perfect: The sauce wasn't the meaty and--dare I say--greasy sauce I had up north. Next time, I might try hamburger meat. I was really against the idea but I think that Lecce puts all its fat in its hamburger. We'll see. Thanks for reading. Salute!

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

Looking for a rare and unusual wine to sip with Christmas dinner or on New Year's Eve? It's easy to throw cash at a well-known bottl...