Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thunder Storms and Neon Signs

Yesterday I visited Cantele's winery in Guagnano (part of the Salice Salentino DOC) in preparation for an upcoming interview with Paolo Cantele for i-Italy Magazine. Umberto Cantele, the man who oversees Cantele's blooming commercial success, gave a full tour to show off his impressive state-of-the-art, carefully cared-for production facility, complete with gravity-propelled transit and underground aging rooms. The Cantele family, whose history in the region begins in the 1950s, constructed these facilities in 2003, and their production has since grown along with their wine ratings.

The weather in southern Italy has been extreme this week, from erratic thunderstorms to hail and floods. The title of this post is the name of an album by Wayne "The Train" Hancock that seems to sum it up. Kristin and I decided to dare the weather anyway and bicycle the 25km from Cantele back to Lecce. We took a train there (bicycle transportation is provided free on all regional trains in Puglia). It has been a week of extremely expressive and beautiful skies, the damp smell of heat and rain, and thunder so loud it sets off car alarms. All of this is wonderful for the grapes.

Umberto Cantele is an individual who likes to engage life through minute particulars. I asked him what the differences and similarities are between Primitivo and Zinfandel and he began by pointing out that there are three different Primitivos even within Puglia: Primitivo di Manduria, Primitivo di Gioia, and Primitivo of Salento. The first two are DOCs, the last is an IGT. Umberto's goal is to exhibit the typicity, the characteristics unique to an individual vineyard, of Cantele's Primitivo. Through their wines, he wants to express the land, the year, and the food of the region.

For example, Cantele also produces a Fiano, a white grape usually associated with Campania—in particular, the wine called Lacryma Christi. Cantele is unique in its cultivation of white grape varieties in a red-dominated region. Umberto thinks that the Salento region is perfect for the Fiano grape and my tastebuds agree; it is a supremely balanced wine. Umberto loves the variety for its elegance, but also because it goes extremely well with gamberoni crudi, or raw shrimp, a specialty of nearby Gallipoli. This can be seen as the beginning of an explanation of the differences between Campania and Puglia Fiano wines.

It made me realize that when you taste an particular Italian region's wine you are, to some extent, also tasting its food. It also made me realize, that as a young person, I know nothing. Maybe after forty years I'll know something. Probably by age fifty-five, but maybe not. Some people live their entire lives without learning anything. Socrates, for one.

Umberto knows the soil of the land that he grew up on. He knows how the vegetables taste that grow from that soil and he knows how they should be prepared. Even better, he knows the grapes that grow from the soil, how they are prepared, and how they should taste. Kristn and I got caught in a rain storm on the ride home at around 15km. It caught us by surprise and soon we were laughing at ourselves and kissing on the side of the road. Cars honked and we ran for shelter beneath a few trees. Life teaches you as you go; the important thing is to know how to roll with the punches.

For Umberto, this rain, so late in the season, signifies a potentially incredible year.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Gazpacho, Apollonio, and the Meaning of Kindness

Right before a thunderstorm struck, Kristin and I sat down to a light afternoon refresher of homemade gazpacho and Apollonio's Unfiltered rosato, 2007 "Diciotto Fanali" 100% Negroamaro. I had to chop the veggies by hand (no blender available) for the gazpacho and the zen of the activity--the enduring repetition--made me think of how kind Italy has been to Kristin and I.

It began three years ago when we visited the tiny town of Atrani on the Amalfi Coast. We met everyone in every business in the tiny main piazza within the first hour of being there, and several of the business owners made gifts of their products and gave us a delicious lunch. Of course we have gone back since, and again the feeling of community and kindness pervaded. Since Kristin and I speak Italian on a basic level, the people we meet share their kindness without even really knowing us. We respond with elemental phrases of appreciation and two of the widest smiles you've ever seen.

The Apollonio rosato was itself a gift from winemaker Massimiliano Apollonio, who is widely regard as one of the top 5 winemakers south of Rome. We had scheduled a tasting the day before yesterday and afterwards he offered us the bottle to take home. We were on bikes and had 5 kilometers to ride but that would never stop us from taking home one of the most interesting rosati we've tasted. I imagine Massi enjoyed the image of us touting his wine away on the windy road between his vineyards.

Before I talk about the traditional "Diciotto Fanali," I will tell one more story. Down the road is our wine guy who we met three years ago and who has always sent us packing with good wine. We trust his opinion. We had recently broken a series of wine glasses and needed to purchase new ones and asked him to recommend a good store. Instead, he took us into his storage room and pulled out a few cases of glasses, asked us which we liked, then gave them to us. We couldn't pay for the glasses (he wouldn't let us) so we bought a bottle of Candido "Immensum." When we drank the rosato yesterday using the new glasses, let's just say we had a lot to cheers.

Massimiliano Apollonio creates so many wines that my head spins. He loves to experiment. He studied oenology and worked under winemakers in France and Spain before coming back to his home and working on his family's winery. His story is long and I hope to interview him for i-Italy Magazine, so I'll keep you posted. His "Diciotto Fanali" rosato is made in a traditional method I'd never seen before, in which the skins of the grapes are kept in with the wine until it is bottled, resulting in a rosato that is not rose in color, but an orangy fuschia. It is an incredibly unique, and, from my perspective, untraditional rose. It exhibits the Salento terroir well because it tastes like summer. Really. It reminds me of fields of dry grasses. I resisted saying this for some reason, but it seems right. It was nice to see Alfonso Cevola thinking similar things.

It has a nose of roses, embers, and honey suckle. It has a wealth of individual flavors that combine to create much more than their individual qualities but which include honey, a light toast, apricot, and the illusion of the sweetnesses of pear, apple, and raisins. It is not as acidic as many Puglia rosati. Definitely not a light bodied rosato. The best part is that the wine's intensity tapers off and then returns for a large, viscous finale.

The kindesses we've been experiencing as of late have made me want to return the kindness. For me, I think it's important to return the kindness to people who I do not know well, but who I feel have a positive energy. Being kind to friends is only natural, but to extend that kindness to people we know less, that's something beyond normalcy, that's killer. Hope you're having a good day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Best of the Best Wines from Puglia

Kristin and I are firm believers in Italy’s Aperitivo, a long happy hour that includes traditional snacks of all kinds, and we have been drinking more wines than I’ve had time to report. After long days of writing, we sit down to tarallini, a light, olive oil infused cracker that looks like a miniature bagel, olives, salami, etc. and a new bottle of the best Puglia has to offer. So here’s the best of the best Puglia wines. I believe that you can find most of these in the United States. They should run between $9-20 dollars. If you have any specific questions don’t hesitate to write a comment or send me an email.

Apollonio Winery
- $15-$20

2001 Salice Salentino DOC (80% Negroamaro, 10% Malvasia Nera di Lecce, 10% Malvasia Nera di Brindisi)

An extremely expressive wine, I tasted so many interesting flavors, from blackberry to tobacco, that I didn't mind that it was mildly sweet. The sweetness adds to the size, the grandiose character of Salice Salentino wines, making the Apollonio a forerunner in the DOC.

Candido Winery
- $15-$18

2005 “Cappello Di Prete” ( 100% Negroamaro)

This wine is so good that I've drank it twice in the last week. It is not overly extracted and has little fruit. As the wild pepper photographed beside it reveals, it has a nice pepperiness that stands out. The foremost quality is cedar, giving the wine an old but friendly quality that prompted K to call it a "dad wine," meaning a wine that you would buy for your father and that would almost certainly meet his approval. Right now it is vying with Cantele's 2006 Teresa Manara 100% Negroamaro for the best red wine Negroamaro to display Puglia's terroir.

Cantele Winery
- $9-$13

2004 Salice Salentino Riserva DOC (80% Negroamaro, 20% Malvasia Nera)

Cantele's wines are slightly more reserved than some Puglia wines. The are, in general, less fruity. The Salice Salentino is not the most expressive around, but it is reliable and perfectly balanced. Dark fruit, smoke, dried cherry, and a killer price makes it a steal. Here's what Wine Spectator wrote.

Cantele Winery
- $18-$25

2006 “Amativo” IGT (60% Primitivo 40% Negroamaro)

This wine is at the top of Cantele's line and combines the two grapes Puglia is known for, resulting in a medium-bodied wine and expressive flavor. It is very dark, begins with choke cherry, moves into anice and chocolate, then rounds out with soft spice. It is great with food and should be allowed to breathe for 45mins-1 hours.

Leone De Castris
- $16-$18

2008 “65 Anniversary Five Roses” IGT (100% Negroamaro)

This is Italy's oldest rose and, in my opinion, the best wine to exhibit Puglia's terroir. It has a complex structure that most roses simply cannot achieve. Think of something like a cross between a Pinot Noir and a Sauvignon Blanc. Great for red wine drinkers looking to chill out. It has strong acidity that makes it perfect for food pairing. Its bouquet is almost indescribable with some smoke and tulips. It tastes creamy at first, then some lime, a cutting acidity, and ends with tiny tannins. The finish is powerful and long and another example of why it is called The King of Roses.

Bortrugno Winery
- (alright, probably can't find this one in the U.S.)

2007 Salento Rosso IGT (100% Ottavianello)

Ottavianello is the same grape as the French Cinsault, and Bortrugno's is atypical of most of Puglia's wines. Before sipping, it has a bouquet of violets. It has complex tannins that are so soft that they keep the wine from being particularly dry or giving that intense fuzzy-feeling of some bone-dry Chianti. This is the closest thing to Petite Sirah that I've found in Puglia.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Absinthe 35 On Italy's Southern Shores

Late last night our friend Kabir arrived from Czech. Republic. My bud lives in Boston and just graduated from MIT, so he's using the downtime to see new parts of the globe. We woke up first thing this morning to take in an Italian mass, then we hit the road to the beach. It was a beautiful day for biking and that Adriatic Sea was a perfect blue. During the evening ride back, we took a detour and found somebody's impressive herb garden growing among some of the stone ruins that dot the countryside. Basil, rosemary, thyme, chili peppers, and chives were caught in the shadows of the dilapidated stonework. And now we're back, and Kabir has surprised Kristin and me with a few gifts from the north.

First, Bundner Fleischspezialitaten, or, like, something that looks like prosciutto. We're going to serve his Fleish-thing alongside Taleggio Cademartori, an Italian brie-like cheese. Then Kristin's making Pesto alla Genovese (over homemade linguine) in true mortar and pestle style, followed by my arancini, or risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella. Our friend also pulled out Czechvar, which most people know as the original Budweiser. Finally, he whipped out Absinthe 35, the real deal, and man am I excited to try it in like... well, a couple minutes.

Before I go away and enjoy this stuff, I'm going to say that there's a lot of hearsay about absinth, particularly about the mystical wormwood and the quality of the stuff sold in America. This hokum actually bores me to death and others have dealt with it better, so I'm just going to tell our story. My friend went into a respectable spirits shop in Prague that specializes in absinthe and asked for "the best." The guy gave him Absinthe 35. To drink it, the store owner said mix 4 parts water to 1 part absinthe. He said to take a sugar cube on a spoon and pour the water over it and then discard the sugar cube. He also said not to drink too much because it makes you go blind.

Absinthe 35 declares that it has Thuyon in it, and defines thuyon as "euphoria." I don't know how you bottle euphoria without being metaphorical, but this stuff is 35mg/kg, hence the inclusion of 35 in the name (I imagine). According to the store owner, you shouldn't drink so much that the alcohol drowns out the thuyon. So, here we go. I'll be back in a few (10:11pm, Sunday).

Well, 12 hours later (10:46am, Monday) and I'll say that Absinthe 35 provided me with the best absinthe experience I've had. First, it tastes smoother than many absinthes, which sometimes taste too herbal for me, almost like chewing licorice bark or something. But Absinthe 35 was menthally, and actually went well with the Fleischspezialitaten, which had a great taste slightly darker than prosciutto, and cheese. It was a palate cleanser in that it tasted like I just brushed my teeth after every sip. I recommend drinking it with salty foods if you want to pair it with anything.

Its effects were more of a high than a drunk. It was heady and we all agreed that we were thinking way more about what we were thinking than we'd ever think while drinking regular alcohol. It made us feel slow, like we were behind. Our speech turned into audible drivel, and summoning the energy to open our mouths properly seemed almost boring. I, personally, had the experience of getting completely uninterested in what I was saying about half way through each sentence and regularly failed to complete my thoughts.

For those wishing for a hallucinogenic experience, sorry to tell ya that's not what we found. Thuyon is a great high that is nothing like being drunk, but we didn't see anything like elves or tracers. But if you do--that's fine. And don't hesitate to write about it in the comments section! Cheers!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Cantine Aperte In Salice Salentino

Here's a link to an article I wrote for i-Italy Magazine on Cantine Aperte, a two-day wine tasting/party held in Italy at the end of each May. Hope summer's kicking into full gear in your part of the wine world. (To the right we have a picture of my friend Sky Kelsey, who was visiting from Palo Alto, California. I took it toward the end of the night. Man, what a blast.) Salute!

Oh, and ignore the following:

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Copertino: The City And The Wine

I just returned from an evening bike ride to Copertino, which is both a city in Puglia and a DOC that focuses on the Negroamaro grape. Riding along the old roads of the Italian south has gripped me, partially because of the crops growing alongside, from grapes, to chicory, to olive trees, etc., partially because I want to explore, but mostly because of the people I meet. And tonight I got more than I bargained for.

Above is proof that you never know what you'll find.

Downtown Copertino, 12km from Lecce, is medium-sized for the south of Italy and home to Marulli Winery and Cantina Sociale Cooperativa Di Copertino. On the outskirts of the town, but within the DOC, are Apollonio Winery, Azienda Vinicola Mocavero, and Azienda Agricola Giovanni Petrelli, to name a few. The first time I came here I was traveling by car and arrived at the ghost-town hour of 3pm, when everyone's either inside eating or alseep. Amazingly, my friends and I met a man who got his buddies at a salumeria to open up and make us sandwiches.

This time my girlfriend and I arrived around 7pm, when everyone's sitting around in the piazza (not a free seat anywhere) drinking beers and watching the sun go down. For the most part, it's old Italian men. I found my new friends piling snails onto a scale and asked if I could take the picture. They were happy to oblige and when I told them I was visiting from California, "Joe" (on the right) reminded me that there's a Cupertino in SoCal.

My girlfriend and I needed to ride back before nightfall, but they wouldn't let us leave without sharing a drink of wine so we went into the nearest bar. It was a festive mood and everyone wanted to be in a picture. The part was that when I showed them the pictures on the screen, several kinda shrugged like Is that all.

Alright, I lied. The best part was the moscato that Joe bought for us, the kind man he is, and then showed us how to drink Italian-style. I'd always found it interesting. When you go to an Italian bar, which serve both coffee and alcohol, you usually stand at the counter, and I'd witnesses people ordering beers or glasses of wine, slugging them back in one or two gulps, then leaving. And so it was. Joe had almost nothing left after the cheers, and Kristin and I followed suit, though we had quite a bike ride ahead.

The people in Copertino made our night wonderful and for that I thank them. Multiple more offers for drinks were presented, but we had to get biking. If it weren't a matter of basic safety there would have been no prying me away. I'll be heading back to Copertino soon, to meet up with the guys and report on the wines.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Puglia Terroir, part 5

Now that you’ve heard my opinion here is a list of wines that I think exhibit the region’s expressive terroir, so that you can see what you think. I said goodbye to a couple friends visiting us from California this morning and it was sad to see them go. During their visit they partied hard at Cantine Aperte, drank - shall we say - copious amounts of vino, and, from what they reported, loved what the winemakers are producing here. Their happiness is just one more reason for me to continue sharing the wines of Apulia with English speakers. I hope you enjoy the following:

Cantele, 2006 (or older) “Teresa Manara” Negroamaro
Leone De Castris, “65th Anniversary Five Roses” rosatto
Taurino, 2003 “Notarpanaro”
Apollonio, 2001 Salice Salentino
Candido, 2005 "Cappello Di Prete"Negroamaro
Torrevento, “Vigna Pedale” Nero Di Troia
Cantine De Falco, 2006 “Bocca Della Verita” Primitivo
Conti Zecca, “CANTALUPI RISERVA” Negroamaro
Conti Zecca, Primitivo
Castel Di Salve, “Santimedici” Negroamaro

As a second part of the post I'd like to offer a series of professional opinions concerning Apulia's terroir. Refining our concepts of words is an endless process, but the best way to deal with tricky terms, such as terroir, is to see how people use them. After all, I’m just one guy trying to describe the indescribable qualities of wine. It’s a big world.

Emilio Pedron, for Wine Business International:

‘Versatility’ is what appeals to many of northern Italy’s producers. As mono-varietals, the southern varieties show greater terroir character. When blended, such as Primitivo with Cabernet Sauvignon, they show more international character. It's the best of both worlds.

Michael Edwards on the Castel Del Monte DOC's terroir:

At altitudes of 1000 to 1400 feet, the soil is deep with ' limestone elements. Further up the slopes it becomes rocky with threads of darker soils, so the vines can find their moisture and protection from heat even in the hottest summer.

Great interview with winemaker Massimiliano Apollonio by Tom Kelly for Small Vineyards Imports:

TK: Ah, yes, what about that soil — with such a dark, brick red color?
MA: It is largely medio impasto (clay) and argila scula —in Puglia the earth is very rich in iron. Also, for the first two meters, the topsoil is very rocky — good for drainage and minerals. In northern Puglia, it’s a very different world — even rockier, so that they can’t even grow grapes. There are places where nothing grows except olives.
TK: What about under the topsoil — what happens down deep?
MA: Underneath the topsoil is a very flaky, porous stone. Like tufo, this stone is extremely soft and workable, sometimes as fine as dust — sometimes, we find huge caves hollowed out underneath the earth!
TK: So, is that what makes dry-farming possible in such an arid environment?
MA: Assolumente. The natural water table lies very deep, but the grape roots can easily navigate the soil (see Vine Training). Also, you would not guess it, but there are lots of rivers and deep wells in Salento; our region’s aqueducts are famous.
TK: Besides the sun, what influences your grapes above ground?
MA: Of course, we have the sea winds — this is very important for keeping the grapes dry. Without it, the humidity is like the Amazon. Years when there’s not enough wind (like 2005), the grapes can literally rot on the vine.
TK: If I didn’t know better, Massi, I’d say you quite enjoy your life.
MA: (grinning): I think, yes. We are lucky. We are very, very lucky.

Antinori’s Renzo Cotarella:

Negroamaro shows the best terroir expression in Salento. Although a difficult varietal, due to its generous yields, it is quite versatile. Witness Antinori’s Fichimori, a refreshing, light red and the cherry flavoured Calafuria rosé.

Mark Tarbull:

To experience earth and sun in perfect balance, look for the 2004 Salice Salentino Rosso Riserva from Apulia, Italy. (NOTE: too bad Mark here doesn't tell us what winery or rosso riserva he's talking about.)

Kristin Kluvers for Small Vineyards Imports:

Because the natural water table in Salento averages about 80 meters deep, grapes roots may have decades of searching to do! The translation: dramatic wines that not only reflect the hot climate with their dense fruit, but also serve as gateways to terroir: leather, tobacco leaf and dusty red brick can often be discerned on both the nose and palate.

Jon Rimmerman Garagiste on 2005 Felline Alberello Rosso Salento IGT:

Alberello lies in Manduria, an emerging area to the west of Lecco in the above mentioned heel of Italy’s boot. One would think this is a torrid climate but you have to keep in mind two factors - the heel is surrounded by sea on three sides and elevation gives a large portion of the land mass a far more moderate climate than 100-200kms to the north where the inland heat can reach 100 on a regular basis. In contrast, Italy’s heel is almost like a Mediterranean island, where sea wind influences the climate as much as the sun.

The first time I tasted this wine was in Italy and it sold for an incredulous $6-7 (or something like that). I was so surprised at the freshness of fruit and lightness of being I actually drank half the bottle (the wine is only 12.5-13.0% alcohol as well). A style such as this is one of the most difficult to pull of as you cannot sacrifice the terroir and history of the indigenous grapes of Puglia (with their round, ripe, juicy qualities) but you also don’t want any heaviness - a very difficult achievement, especially at the $10 level where attention to detail is typically a law of diminishing returns.

The Felline accomplishes all of the above and it represents the lovely, artistic side of Puglia with aplomb - no manipulation, hand picked fruit and a feminine touch that give loads of delicious red berry qualities and flavor to burn - It’s even better with a few hours of air. A breath of fresh air for a region that is on the precipice of reinventing the wheel - all with natural methods and a light hand.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Puglia Terroir, part 4

Cantine Aperte was an absolute blast. I report on it for i-Italy Magazine and as soon as they publish the article online I will post a link. While tasting the region’s best Primitivo I was once again reminded of just how different the wines are from Primitivo’s so-called cousin, Zinfandel. Sometimes DNA and a 14% alcohol content is all that you share with your relatives.

Terroir may be the major reason why referring to Primitivo as “being the same as Zinfandel” is blasphemy. California’s terroir is completely different, and wines made with Primitivo in Puglia sometimes have a sweet, thick quality that California winemakers would never go for. I don’t personally find this style of Primitivo appealing, but I can imagine others who would and I can imagine some flavor-intense dishes where these wines would perfectly clatter in with the shmorgesborg. Particularly spicy curries, roast duck with a red cherry compote, or lamb with a fig-balsamic reduction.

Many Puglia winemakers make Primitivo in a less sweet style and with an incredible softness, and these were the wines I appreciated at Cantine Aperte three days ago. This quality is called “morbido” in Italian and refers to a silky, satiny mouthfeel that characterizes Pugliese wines. The long, intensely hot growing season allows the dark grapes of the region to practically cook inside their skins, and this imparts smoothness in the wines. I was greatly impressed by the following Primitivo:

Cantine De Falco:
2006 “Bocca Della Verita” IGT Primtivo

Leone De Castris:
2007 "Villa Santera" DOC Primitivo di Manduria

2006 IGT Primitivo

Zinfandels in California also have a wonderfully spiciness that few Primitivo are able to reproduce, not that Pugliese winemakers want to reproduce it of course. I am confused by the Pugliese wineries that are labeling their wines “Zinfandel.” I understand that it sells wine, but it just isn’t accurate. Researchers are still trying to figure out just how much of Zinfandel’s DNA is the same as Primitivo’s, and until we figure that out, I’m going to look at them as fourth cousins.

One last note, Cinzia and Marika just posted an informative article on Puglia’s Primitivo that describes the differences of the wines even within Puglia. Click here to read a local perspective.

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