Friday, May 29, 2009

Italian Wine Terms

When tasting in Italian wineries it doesn't hurt to know how to talk about wines in Italian. The good people pouring the wines will appreciate it and who knows what you might learn once you've engaged in conversation. Below is a list of the wine-related terms I use most when talking with Italians about their wine. If you pull one or two of these out at Cantine Aperte (or whenever), I guarantee you'll make a good impression.

Basic Wine Terms

red - rosso
rose - rosato
white - bianco
dry - secco
sweet - dolce/amabile
soft - morbido
bright - vivace/vivo
dark fruit - frutta scura
tropical - tropicale
pineapple - ananas
vanilla - vaniglia
berry - bacca
plum - susina
apple - mela
cherry - ciliegia
velvet - vellutato
mineral - minerale
good acidity - buona acidita
body - corposo
light - leggero/lieve
medium - medio
balanced - equilibrato
strong/powerful - forte
oak - rovere
barrels - botti
small oak barrels - barrique
stainless steel - acciaio inossidabile
earth - terra
tannins - tannini
spices - spezie
grape harvest - vendemmia
grappolo - bunch
grapes - uva

and of course, the best Italian exclamation: bellissimo!

Basic Phrases

What type of grape?
Que tipo di uva?

How long is this aged?
Per quanto tempo e invecchiato?

This is good.
Questo é buono.

This is excellent.
Questo é ottimo.

I like this wine.
Mi piace questo vino.

I don't like it.
Non mi piace.

It tastes of...
Ha sapore di...

and of course: Grazie!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How To Rock Cantine Aperte

Puglia's wine season kicks off with Cantine Aperte, a four-day event when the wineries open their doors to the public. It culminates on this Sunday, the 31st. This is a great event for visitors from abroad because MTV (Movimento Turismo del Vino) plans everything for you. Don’t worry about scheduling appointments or locating hard to find vineyards on even harder to find maps, Puglia does it all for you this weekend. Because MTV's information is all in Italian, I've listed the most important information below to help you get the best out of the event.

Just a quick rundown on the concept: 50 wineries across the Salento peninsula, mostly free wine tastings, live music, snacks, food pairings for a few euro, and free tours of vineyards. I'm focusing on the Salice Salentino and Guagnano area, with a quick stop to Manduria and the coast.

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know:

1) Here is a map of participating wineries (something I’ve been dying to find for a long time).

Wine Map
2) Here are their addresses and, if you've got a little Italian, basic info on tasting.
3) Most wineries are free but a few charge. A very few.
4) Rent a car in advance! Apparently they often run out. Hertz is having a deal if you are in the Taranto area. If you are in the Lecce area and don’t know where to rent a car, just shoot me an email. Unfortunately, I cannot help with other locations.
5) Renting a car is the best solution, though you can go to the one winery in Manduria by train and perhaps wineries in a few other cities. Best to ask at a tourist office on this one. I have also heard that bikes are a good way to get around. However, I haven't tried it and it's still debated.
6) Wineries are in high gear this week, and likely will be open if you want to taste on days other than Sunday, 31st. However, they will likely be closed between 1-4 in the afternoon.

In my next post, I list some of the most common wine terminology in Italiano with translations. That way you can talk in Italian about these wonderful vini!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Puglia Terroir, part 3

In this post I will discuss the uniqueness of Pugliese wines; what makes them different than any other wines in the world; what characteristics are a result of the environment of the Salento peninsula; everything else that terroir implies. This concept is absolutely massive so I will begin with a joke.

Have you heard the one about the American who visits a small Italian village on the coast? She rents a boat for a day captained by an older Italian man, and at one point asks:
“What is an average day like for you?”
“Allora,” he begins, “I wake up, have my espressini and pasticiotto, then take my boat out to sea for the day. Afterward, I come home, eat dinner, make love to my wife, then go to sleep.”
The American ponders for a moment then says:
“Have you ever thought of buying another boat to expand your business. There is a potential market.”
“What would it do for me,” he asks.
“Well, if you bought another boat you would double your income.”
“Ok, and then what?”
“Then you could buy another boat and even hire a few people to captain them for you, and you wouldn’t even need to work on them any more. You could move to the city, say Rome, and buy an apartment, and run your fleet from there.”
“And then what?”
“Well, you could then have someone else take over for you and then you could retire to a small village by the sea...”

The terroir of wines from the Waremme region in Belgium have been introduced by remarking that Beethoven was born in Waremme, so why can’t a joke reveal as much? Terroir is an artistic discussion of the relationship between different countries, regions, and environments all over the world conducted through wine. The Salento life - the philosophy, the tradition, the jokes, the foods - has created an easily discernable terroir.

I think the native grape Negroamaro, in both reds and rosatti, viz. rosès, is the best place to begin tasting the region’s terroir. The grape has a history of over 4,000 years in Puglia and, as I argue in an article for i-Italy magazine, it has a close relationship with the farmers who have populated Puglia for centuries.

Negroamaro is capable of being very soft in texture, deeply structured, rich and sometimes bitter, it has great aging potential, and I doubt if any other region of the world would have the environmental qualities necessary for making this troublesome grape yield great wines. That’s probably why I have not heard of winemakers in any other area of the world growing Negroamaro. Often mistranslated as “bitterest of the bitter,” Negroamaro actually combines Greek and Latin roots to mean “black, black,” meaning the blackest of the black. It has a thick dark skin that shelters the inside of the grape from the intense, heavy sun and rot.

When talking about reds made with Negroamaro, the wines are incredibly juicy, sometimes sweet, and the sun-baked skins impart a wonderful leatheriness that comes out in bottles five or more years old. I think that the new methods of heavily oaking these wines is creating a flavor of vanilla that clashes with the already jammy character. For an example of the characteristics of a specific wine made with Negroamaro, read my review of Taurino's Notarpanaro here.

The rosatti are truly unique in the world of
rosè because of an intense structure. The world market for rosès is small and I think Puglia’s rosatti are the type of wine that could change this. With a backbone and a depth, the acidity cuts cleanly through a hot day, cleanses the palate when paired with even complex dishes (in a way that many white wines cannot in my opinion), and the winemakers do not have sympathy for sweetness. These dry rosès are anything but one dimensional, with aromas of wild flowers and sometimes smoke. The best rosatti that I have tried, Leone de Castris’s 65th Anniversary Five Roses, is available in the United States, but you'll have a hard time going wrong with any rosatto from Salento.

In my next post I will explain why it is blasphemy to refer to Primitivo as “being the same as Zinfandel." You guessed it, it's all about the terroir.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Puglia Terroir, part 2

Today in Lecce, it's cloudless and the sun is bearing down. There's a thin haze along the horizon and a strong, cool wind. Puglia is making a name for itself, particularly in regard to terroir, thanks to a winning combination of several unique and totally contradictory environmental qualities. It’s kind of insanely awesome to consider all of the environmental factors affecting the grapes down here. Plus, a bottle of Pugliese wine displaying this powerful terroir usually costs only 5-10 euro. A beautiful terroir for that price? Who wouldn’t want to know about it?

The Puglia region (above map found here), more or less the proverbial heel of Italy, has a dry Mediterranean climate, receiving over 330 days of sun every year. The northern half of Puglia is hilly, while the south is flat. Because it is only around 30 miles (48 km) wide, parts of Puglia have a climate similar to that of an island. It is its unique cooling breeze that keeps the sun-drenched grapes from rotting on the vine, and this is just one of the idiosyncracies that allow for the production of high-caliber wines in an area otherwise like the Arizona desert.

Puglia is divided into four grape-growing regions: Daunia, Murge, Messapia e Valle D’Itria, and Salento (listed from north to south).

The Murge region includes the best-known DOC in Puglia, Castel del Monte, which has rocky, limestone-rich soil and numerous groves of oak and pine. It is a lush, green region, and some of the higher altitudes, some of which reach 1400 feet, get quite cool at night. Limestone meets darker soils here, which signify a higher level of moisture in the soil than in the south.

The Messapia e Valle D’Itria region, which is further south, is the origin of the Primitivo grape. The cool crosswind from the Ionian and Ageatic Seas begins to pick up here.

The southernmost region, Salento, has the most interesting environment, and not just because it's the region in which Lecce and I are located. At first glance, the area is very sandy, very hot, and nicely breezy. The soil is made up of primarily of moderately loose clay and is rich in iron. But there’s more beneath the surface: Piettra Leccese, or Lecce stone.

Famous among sculptors, Lecce stone (found nowhere else on earth) is very soft when excavated—which allows for the production of detailed Baroque sculptures and architecture throughout the city—but then dries and becomes very hard, viz. long lasting. This stone is a type of limestone, and below Salento’s surface lie extensive watercourses, which means that groundwater is deep (around 80 meters sometimes) but plentiful—a good thing for the olive trees and the grapes that grow here. Pugliese Winemaker Massimiliano Apollonio says that he’s unearthed “huge caves” on his vineyards.

So, brilliant red clay, underground rivers, Lecce stone, mold-creating heat, and mold-fending breezes are just the beginning of the terroir in Puglia. Then there’s the helping hand of tremendous winemakers.

In my next post I will discuss some of the characteristics displayed by wines that have this terroir. But one last point, which I think it helps greatly, when thinking about terroir, to remember: Grapes and the land that they grow in are not two distinct things. The grapes are the land. In the best cases, so is the wine.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Puglia Terroir, part 1

It’s a beautiful rainy day in Lecce, Italy where the spring has been characterized by a balance of thunder and lightning storms and hot baking days of sun. I look outside at the lush green of the wisteria growing on the balcony and then envision the sandy-tan soil it growths forth from. Then I realize this might be the best approach to understand a region’s terroir.

For me, the term terroir is the hardest to grasp of all wine terminology. So many wine elitists talk about it mystically that I sometimes think no one knows what it actually means. Terroir is a wine region’s environmental factors, so it shouldn’t be subjective, yet wine writers regularly mention it with clout and without explanation. This has become, regrettably, standard.

Originally a French concept, it signifies all of the environmental characteristics imparted to a wine that represent a specific location in the world (don’t let the Latin fool you, it has roots that go way deeper than soil). The beautiful, rocky terrain of Cote du Rhone is perhaps the clearest visual example of a location with a particular terroir. I mean, look at it : It’s hard to believe anything can even grow (above: photo from here). Terroir involves everything from philosophy to calcium and a lot more than a little of the unnamable: The qualities in wine that enthrall our minds though we have nothing to logically say about them. This quality naturally boxes in the reality of terroir, but terroir can be learned nonetheless. Just because you can’t think about it doesn’t mean that you can’t experience it.

The first question is: Must you walk among the vines to understand region’s terroir?

That's too restrictive. You like those wines because you like those wines; the terroir comes gratis. But I certainly believe that visiting the region will significantly shade in the wines.

So you’re in the vineyard. What do you look for? Next time you go wine tasting, before rushing out of the heat and into the air conditioned, thirst quenching tasting room, take a look at the vines you parked next to. What does the soil look like? Are there other things growing around them? Is the area hilly or flat? To fully grasp these elements of terroir one could begin on a molecular level, or they could just see if the soil is sandy then compare the taste of the wines produced there with the taste of the wines produced somewhere with rocky soil. This is the beginning of terroir.

I am dedicating this week to the terroir of the Puglia region and posting pretty pictures of wine that I’ve drank. More Puglia-specific information in forthcoming posts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Taurino Winery's 2003 Notarpanaro

At the Apulia Wine Convention in Lecce, Italy, which I wrote about here, I tasted Taurino Winery's Patrigione, a red wine made from the Negroamaro grape. Full of rich, leathery, locked inside a dark room on a sunny day brooding over Nietzsche integrity, it was one of my favorite wines at the event. I picked up another of Taurino's wines last night, called Notarpanaro, to see how it compared.

First off, I'd like to have you consider what is likely the most important aspect of wine for you, the characteristics you find most appealing in a wine. If you could design your ideal wine, what would it be? Feel free to share you Frankenwine in the comments section.

So what's my ideal wine for sipping on a balcony soaked in the evening's light while watching the swallows dip and dive their way through the orange-pink light? Well, it might be something like Notarpanaro. I like structure, dark fruit, and a long finish combined with the unique juiciness I've discovered thanks to the Negroamaro grape and the methods of winemaking found in Puglia. There's a good reason why Taurino was one of the first Pugliese wineries to hit the United States market.

Taurino makes their Notarpanaro using the same grapes as their Patrigione, only the Notarpanaro uses 15% Malvasia Nera and 85% Negroamaro while Patrigione uses 10% Malvasia Nera to 90% Negroamaro. Malvasia Nera is a very rich and dark grape variety commonly found in the Puglia region and most regularly used for blending (however, I've been impressed with the unblended Malvasia Nera wines I've tasted). Negroamaro is the region's most popular grape, and it dates back over 4,000 years. In the best wines made from the grape the wine is very dark, sometimes bitter, but infused with an approachable juiciness. The Notarpanaro, which should be decanted or allowed to breath for at least half an hour, had a nice cedar woodiness to it, an intense satin mouthfeel, a high note of bright choke cherry, and a full, rich body. What else could I ask for on a beautiful spring evening? Hope this post finds you well. Have a drink for me. (click the image below to see the swallows that grace the Puglian skies every evening)

Here's a bit about where the name Notarpanaro comes from as stated on the winery's web site:

The Taurino family have always been wine - growers and the heart of their farm is the estate "Notarpanaro" which in the last century was known as "Notare Panaro". In a legal deed dated November 22th, 1817 which concerned a change in tithes, one can read: "...the land Notare Panaro, part of the territory of Mesagne, is governed according to the tithe system. The tithe must be paid to the Most Exellent Family Mugnozza, and in their name Mrs. di Virgiliis changes the income of the foresaid one hundred and eighty - four and a half "tomoli", into a monetary rent, just as prescribed in the royal decrees of June 20 th, 1808 and January 17th,1810 Mr. Longo was offered, in the name of the foresaid, thirty silverducats a year, to be paid on July 15th every year.For the landowners this rent is to be free from any deductions or levies already decreed or still to be decreed by the Sovereign..."

Why I’ll Never Open A Winery

As our lives progress, the simplest things sometimes get lost, but it's the simple things, such as wine and food, that I find ground me. In a recent blog post, wine marketer extraordinaire Alfonso Cevola eloquently relayed the story of visiting a winery in Italy, the complete version of which is well worth reading. In it Alfonso tells of a 95-year-old woman who has worked on the vineyard 6 out of every 7 days since she was very young. Alfonso raises the discussion of finding one’s self in the world. She must have heard the vineyard call her, he ruminates.

This discussion of finding one’s place in the world was put into perfect focus when I read another bit of handsome writing by Christine Muhkle later that day, about La Quercia’s prosciutto farm in Iowa. Prosciutto maker Herb Eckhouse, whose prosciutto is served in top restaurants around the world, in particular A16 (one of my favorite places for Italian food in San Francisco), found his calling because "he was eating prosciutto in Parma with a friend who said, 'You know, if you make something this good, you’re going to make a lot of people happy.' A ham-shaped light bulb went off, Eckhouse recalled."

When you put these two concepts together, life seems to slow down. It’s wonderful to recognize our limits, because through them, we recognize our abilities. What we’re best at is what we know. And when what we know is useful to others, then we’ve really got something going. And while it may seem incredibly killer to be the top movie star in Hollywood or the next best whatever, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that we can be that VIP on a local, and practical, level.

Wine in particular can make many people happy, and there have been times, probably after two or three glasses, that I’ve daydreamed about starting a winery. But I know it’s not for me. Though I was raised on a farm and I know something about wine production, I also know that there are others out there who know more, and for whom winemaking runs in the family. But also important is the fact that the market is flooded with wineries, and I think it’s time for weeding out rather than planting.

No, I’ll stick to the writing. And drinking, of course.

Because that’s where I think I can help.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why Don't American Wineries Produce Inexpensive Wine?

It appears that even People magazine is talking about the wines in Puglia. Of course, they appear alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard who were recently married in the Italian city of Brindisi, but at least the editor decided include the name of the winery featured at the wedding, Castel di Salve (don’t think I’m reading People by the way—Kristin was kind enough to pass the knowledge along).

I have yet to taste Castel di Salve’s wines but I've been told that they have a beautiful winery and will soon report. Their photogallery offers a nice preview. The above is a photo I took of the coastline near Depressa, where the winery's located. The photos below show the state of Puglia's vineyards about a month ago, and I still haven't found out what they're doing. Can anyone tell me what the cloths are used for? As for Brindisi, the city and I have a rocky past, and I’m pretty sure than it’s primary claim to fame is being the dying place of the poet Virgil. However, Brindisi, itself a DOC, is surrounded by the Squinzano, Salice Salentino, Ostuni, and Moscato di Trani DOCs, which are creating powerful, and yet, inexpensive wines. (At the end of the post I have included a list of the primary grapes grown in each region.)

Having so many Pugliese wines at maximum accessibility has gotten me thinking about how one comes to have preferences. Sometimes, for example, when tasting at a specific winery it is important to set your preference sensors on high, that way you can figure out which bottles to take home and which to leave right there in the cases. However, more commonly, we do not necessarily choose our preferences. For example, we buy a bottle of this or that to take home for dinner and our selections are regularly based as much on that evening’s meal as anything else. And then, over time, we accumulate a small number of favorites. These wines were too good to ignore. Almost usurping our will, we think of their flavors, bodies, and finishes. And so, we are haunted in the most pleasant way by these wines, and we pray that we remembered to write down the name of the winery, the name of the wine, and the year.

That is how several select Pugliese wines have been for me over the years. When I first tried Soloperto’s 2001 Primitivo di Manduria in 2007, I couldn’t believe the 5.99 price tag that corresponded to one of the softest and most approachable wines ever. It’s Puglia’s ability to create juicy reds that are still dark, are still leathery, that really stands out in my mind. Too bad Soloperto's 2006 cannot live up to its 2001.

Though the Apulia Wine Convention gave me a tour de force, the local wines I drink regularly are more economic, making me wonder why America cannot have similar wines. Coppi Winery, which produces varietals of many of the best known grapes in the region, such as Primitivo, Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera, and Malvasia Bianco, consistently surprises me for its relative high quality in regards to its price. Sure, a little sweetness and several steps from ideal, but there is no equivalent to their wines in America. What I would like to see happen in the States would be a growth of inexpensive wines in the market. We are a beer and spirits nation but why not substitute the Budweiser 30 rack with a wide selection of $3 and under wines? Coppi, coming in at 1.99 euro, is only one of the many inexpensive wines around. La Cacciatora and Cantina di Casteggio both produce magnums (1.5 liters) for 3.50 euro. Mottura produces a very good Salice Salentino for around 2 euro. If it needs to come from Italy, then perhaps it should: Import these wines and you can still sell them for less than the wines of most United States.

And there’s still the untapped (pun intended) concept of sfuso. The stories our fathers and mothers have shared of driving down the road in Italy and coming up what looks like a gas station but, gasp, it’s not petrol coming out of those hoses! Every town in Italy has at least one wine shop that offers sfuso wine at around 1.50 euro a liter. Mine is Antica Masseria, which has a very good rosatto and Primitivo di Manduria for 1.30. So, why can’t we?

- Negroamaro
- Primitivo di Manduria
- Primitivo di Manduria
- Sangiovese
- Susumaniello

Moscato Di Trani

- Bianco D’Alessano
- Francavidda
- Impigno
- Notardomenico
- Ottavianello
- Susumaniello
Salice Salentino
- Chardonnay
- Negroamaro

- Negroamaro
- Sangiovese

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