Thursday, July 30, 2009

Truffle Huntin', Homemade Wine, and My New Column

Puglia just cannot stop celebrating it seems, and almost every week there is a new festival to go to. I've got my dancin' shoes on too, because I've published my first post in my new column, Sipping from the Heel, written for i-Italy Magazine. This first post is mostly Puglia Wine 101 so if you've been following my blog you already know most of it. My new column will be jam packed with interviews with winemakers, wine-country photographs, tasting notes, and winery profiles, and I'll be following the 2009 harvest so keep an eye out.

Two days ago I was pleasantly surprised to find myself truffle hunting with Giuseppe Lolli, head of the The Friends of Truffles Association, in Puglia. I thought we were just going over for an espresso and then he loaded his truck with his dogs and we set out to a nearby olive grove. Walking in the hot day with Kristin and my new friend Ugo, I was surprised to learn that truffles grow year-round in Puglia, and it only took half an hour for Giuseppe's dogs to find eight or nine medium sized truffles. Then, we headed back to drink some homemade wine.

Giuseppe grows Pinot Noir grapes, which is highly unique for Puglia, and creates a damn good rustic red. We drank it in his wine cellar which is, appropriately enough, located underground one of his vineyards. He's a crafty guy, Giuseppe. His vineyards are particularly beautiful because he grows many of his vines seven feet off the ground. As we walked beneath them, I asked him why, and he said, "For parties!" I greatly admired Giuseppe for the way he's made his life suit him. He has a wonderful wife, a wonderful restaurant, wonderful dogs, wondorful vineyards, and he knows how to find truffles. I mean, what else could you ask for?

Drinking his Pinot Noir was a treat. I don't know which harvest it is from and he didn't tell me any of the tricks he used to make it, but I could tell a lot just by tasting it. It tasted so close to the earth that I knew it wasn't aged in barrique. For a Pinot it was quite large in body, so maybe he blended it with Malvasia Nera, but it still had significant typicity. In short, getting to taste a wine like this shows one how important it is to use high quality fruit when making wine: without any bells or whistles, all you've got in your mouth is grape.

Giuseppe was kind enough to send Kristin and Ugo packing with a couple bottles of his sparkling Chardonnay too.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Is Anyone Really Intimidated By Wine?

I mean, really? A bottle of alcoholic grape juice? We've drank something similar to wine since pre-school if I remember correctly... I just don't buy that Americans are actually self-conscious or, let's just say it, frightened by the concept of wine. Sure, once a long time ago it was the drink of the elite, the counts and the barons--people who could store wines for ten-twenty years in good conditions--but most of today's wine isn't made like that, and this fact in itself proves that no one's intimidated by wine: The wine-buying public isn't Old World. (Photo of Legendary tattoo artist Rick Walters)

We like friendly wines that can be drunk young--for example, most Zinfandels begin to fall off after eight years in the bottle--and that's what we buy. How many times have I heard people say that the one thing they aren't looking for in a wine is that it is dry. Today's palate prefers exciting flavors, uniqueness, an approachable character, and a silky smoothness. In short, we look for the same qualities in our wines as we do in our friends. And who'd lock their friend in a basement for ten years?

So, if I hear one more wine writer gush about making wine accessible to a fearful public, I'm going to send them a bottle of Salice Salentino to show them that it's already been done. Look at the facts: More people are drinking wine in America than ever before. And most people consider themselves relatively knowledgeable about the wines that they are drinking. Like most things, you can take it as far as you want to. You could study enology and put your refractometer into a newly opened bottle of Primitivo. You can read this incredibly funny, intelligent, and enlightening blog post by Arjun on the molecular facts of sulfur and sulfites in wine.

The truth is, winelovers are often people who enjoy the good things in life, and I don't think that this characteristic is closed to anybody.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cheap But Good Wine

Maybe it's because wine has always been a part of Italy's culture, or maybe because Italy's wine production did not originate under Capitalism, but Italy has something very basic that America lacks: table wine.

For those who like to drink wine with dinner on a regular basis but who are not capable of dropping $10-$30 a night, there are few solutions gracing the American grocer's wine shelves. Two-buck Chuck gets the job done, but why is it the only palatable wine sold for under $3? Besides Italy's vino sfuso, better known as "gas station wine" because it is stored in large tanks, pumped from hoses that look like gas pumps, and usually fills jugs large enough to be gas tanks (and it runs 1.10 euro a liter), Italy provides the customer with a wide range of inexpensive wines, particularly in Puglia. While they are not fine wines, they are, in fact, just fine.

It was never the intention of Dionysus to only share his wine with the elite. Wine is crushed fruit left in a bucket for a while. Through the ingenious minds of winemakers throughout history it has become something near to art (and certainly used by artists for inspiration: “Drunker than poet on a payday” as they say). But show me a rich artist—

Balance is the key to good wine, and for some, balance is the key to a good life. No one should have to drink mediocre wine all the time, or expensive wine all the time. I want a great wine to be a celebration. I want good wine to complement my dinner. Here are some good wines.

Wines for 4 dollars or less in order of quality:

1) Vecchia Torre – (3.50 euro)
Rating: 9

2006 “Salice Salentino” DOC (90% Negroamaro, 10% Malvasia Nera)

Exhibiting all that a Salice Salentino can be, the wine is also uniquely expressive. Nose of dark fruit and smoke. The mouthfeel is soft and leathery, almost suede. It is aggressively bright and equally deep and complex. It does a remarkable job of balancing seemingly contradictory flavors. Dry, it is good with roasted meats.

2) Coppi Winery – 1.99 euro
Malvasia Bianca

3) Coppi Winery – 1.99

4) Vecchia Torre – (4.00 euro)
2007 100% Negroamaro 13.5% alcohol

5) Cantina Sociale Coopertiva Di Copertino Societa Cooperativa Agricola – 2.90 euro

6) Muller Thurgau – 1.79 euro (OK, not from Puglia, but very good)
2009 “Perle Fini”

7) Vecchia Torre – (3.50 euro)
2008, IGT 100% Chardonnay

8) Vecchia Torre – (3.00 euro)
2007, “Briose” (Frizzante/Fizzy) IGT (Bombino, Chardonnay, and Trebbiano)

9) Cantina Sociale Coopertiva Di Copertino Societa Cooperativa Agricola – 2.90 euro
2008 “Cigliano” IGT (Chardonnay and Malvasia Bianco)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Best of the Best Wines of Puglia

As I’ve tasted more and more of Puglia’s best wines in search for those that balance unique and expressive qualities with low prices, a few things have become clear. First off, Puglia winemakers have an impressive ability to create fine wines that cost less than $4. My next post will extol these wines and wineries and provide a list of my favorites. Secondly, many of the wines that cost between $10-$30 dollars a bottle offer outstanding characters—and right after I’d gotten so used to seeing the $30 mark as the opening price for wines in Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley. And thirdly, you still have to be careful. Some of the wines in Puglia are over extracted and unbalanced, likely as a result of a wine-making history that I discuss here.

I’ve decided that it’s time to create a rating system for the wines I share on this blog: 1-10. For now, it’s simply going to rate the balance of uniqueness and expressiveness with low prices. For example, with Apollonio’s 2000 Divoto, even though it was my favorite wine this month, it did not get the highest rating because it is also more expensive that other wines. The idea here is to share wine, not stock a cellar. Please feel free to leave a comment or email me for more details.

Apollonio Winery - $29 - Buy Here
Rating: 7

2000 “Divoto” Rosso Riserva DOC Copertino (70% Negroamaro, 30% Montepulciano)

Winner of this year's Vinitaly Grand Gold Medal award for the 2001 vintage, Divoto begins with an incredible, full, and complex nose of plum and cracked pepper. The complexity brought me back sip after sip to experience the wine with awe. It has some of the best spice I’ve ever had, like drinking hot chocolate with chili pepper: It is aggressive. Great with lamb, steak, or duck with thick, elaborate sauces, the wine combines the incredible tannins of the two grapes excellently, leaving the mouth feeling clean, even after so much character.

Apollonio Winery - $11
Rating: 9

2007 “Fanali” Rosato (100% Negroamaro)

Made in the old tradition (winemaker Massimiliano Apollonio never takes the grape skins out until bottling), the wine is more amber than rose colored. It has a nose of roses, embers, and honeysuckle and full, viscous body. It tastes of honey, light toast, and apricot. It has the unique characteristic of tasting like the fruity tips of the tastes of fruits, like the sweetness of pear, apple, and raisin. The wine’s flavors all pull back then return in force for a long finale. The long and short is that it tastes like sun, like summer, on an emotional level.

Castello Monaci - $11
Rating: 5

2007 "Emera" IGT (Chardonnay and Verdeca)

Verdeca, a grape native to Puglia that is used to make white wine, has often disappointed me by being too bubble-gummy and bitter, but Emera wonderfully balances it with Chardonnay. The wine succeeds at tasting like the Mediterreanian, with a crispness paired with orange. Instead of bitterness, the pith of orange and lime makes it perfect for seafood. A little butteriness also helps. The wine ends a little clunky, however.

Bortrugno Winery – (Sorry, can’t find this one in the U.S., proof that Italy keeps some of its best wines for itself – 7.00 euro)
Rating: 7

2007 “Arcione” Brindisi Rosso DOC (85% Negroamaro 15% Malvasia Nera di Brindisi)

With a big nose of a dank Napa tasting room and dark currant, it tastes just are massive. The Negroamaro provides a softness to the full body that almost makes it levitate before it is swallowed. Sometimes, with a full mouth, the mouthfeel is absence, and somehow this is good. Upon swallowing, a gush of dark fruit lasts for minutes: A very long finish. Great with food with even tannins.

Cantele Winery – $21
Rating: 6

2006 “Teresa Manara” Rosso (100% Negroamaro)

A wine that shows Negroamaro’s similarity to Petite Verdot, it has a nose of licorice and butter cups and the first flavor on the tongue is violets. A soft, balanced spice comes from all corners of the mouth. Full bodied and very thick. A slight bitterness is apparent on the top of the mouth. A “tough as nails” wine, it does not share the softness of many wines focusing on Negroamaro. The finish is long and gently and gradually leaves the mouth with the spice lingering yet a little more. Good with complex sauces and meats.

Castel di Salve - $9
Rating: 4

2007 “Santi Medici” IGT (80% Negroamaro, 20% Malvasia Nera di Lecce)

Castel Di Salve is known for creating a reliable product and this wine is a wonderfully safe wine that will please many palates—including those new to Pugliese wines—but it is not very expressive. Well balanced, nice dark cherry and plum. Offers the characteristic softness of the Negroamaro grape.

Feudi di Guagnano – $10
Rating: 2

2005 Rosso DOC Salice Salentino (80% Negroamaro, 20% Malvasia Nera)

The nose is the nicest part of the wine, with juicy fruit and strawberry. In the mouth, the flavors become watery and the wine lacks structure. No tannins, and very little finish other than a stickiness that leaves the mouth feeling mucked up.

Cooperativa Agricola Santa Barbara - $8
Rating: 4

2004 “Barbagli” IGT (100% Primitivo)

A very dry, dusty nose or “dry taste of romantic skies” to begin, the wine then moves into green bell pepper with an overall herbaceous, biting quality. Very luscious and very soft: It tastes balanced like a well aged wine even from 2004. The finish is crisp but not austere. Good for those who like bell pepper in their wine.

Vecchia Torre – (An great winery that again does not export to the Unite States. Or anywhere for that matter. 5.00 euro)
Rating: 1

2005 Leverano DOC Riserva (70% Negroamaro, 30% Montepulciano)

Aroma of charcoal, barnyard, like rotted dark fruit. The taste is burned blueberries, root beer, and vanilla; a disappointment from one of my favorite wineries. The wine is not balanced or reliable: It changes with each sip but doesn’t evolve. Pairs well with aggressively killed animal.

Vecchia Torre – (3.50 euro)
Rating: 9

2006 “Salice Salentino” DOC (90% Negroamaro, 10% Malvasia Nera)

Exhibiting all that a Salice Salentino can be, the wine is also uniquely expressive. Nose of dark fruit and smoke. The mouthfeel is soft and leathery, almost suede. It is aggressively bright and equally deep and complex. It does a remarkable job of balancing seemingly contradictory flavors. Dry, it is good with roasted meats.

Cantine De Falco - $9
Rating: 2

2006 “Salore” Salice Salentino DOC (80% Negroamaro, 20% Malvasia Nera)

A nose of wet embers, peat, bark, and red fruit with notes of licorice and chocolate, the flavors are intense and over the top, from violet and lilac, to burned wood. The finish tops even this, with strong tar and aggressive tannins; too aggressive to drink by itself and too aggressive to pair well with most meals. For a winery a highly respect, this is a miss.

Leone De Castris – $8 - Buy Here
Rating: 4

2008 Messapia IGT (100% Verdeca)

Nice lemony nose and summer flowers. A medium body with a cleansing, refreshing acidity. Flavors of unripe pineapple, it is a slightly bitter. Great for summer salads with fruit.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Snobbery and the Form of Wine

Form is like your opponent's stomach; it cannot fake you out. When writers talk about form, it quickly becomes a confusing topic verging on mystery. Perhaps it is easier to pinpoint the form of wine. When considering this, it is easy to fall prey to the assumption that structure and body compose the form of wine, however, it is too limited. Form is not a quality, it is the shape that qualities take. So then, is shape not the form of wine?

Some like to drink wine from Riedel glasses, some prefer Ravenscroft. Wine Spectator recently reported that Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, President of Taittinger Champagne, prefers his champagne from the bowl-shaped goblets rather than tulip glasses; the added weight of their folklore (that they're molded from a woman's breast) raising the form of his champagne into the realm of the erotic. Some like to drink wine straight from the bottle and others like any vessel at hand, provided that it does not leak. I prefer glasses that match the wine's grape variety and quality, as well as the situation in which it is drunk. The ultimate form of wine for me (as if I could dictate the form of wine!) is this: a bottle poured into four even glasses.

The most important part is not that it is poured into Riedel glasses, though it'd be nice, or that it is the most exemplary bottle out there, thought that'd be nice too. What matters most to me is that it is shared with good company (and, as a second thought, that there are more bottles available after the first).

All this got me thinking about the form of my wine writing and what characteristics it might embody, and I think that, above all, I want to write about reasonably priced wines for people who demand unique and expressive flavors. What could be better really? We are in a poor economic situation, but that isn't the main point. For me, the main point is that I care more about living a good life than I do about making money, ergo I want some serious bang for my buck. I wonder how many people who buy Taittinger's 1998 Brut Blanc De Blancs Comtes De Champagne for $219 share it with friends?

So, while magazines like Wine Spectator, which I do highly respect, will aim their articles toward annual saleries just out of reach of most of their audience, I will not. I'll probably write for below your annual salary, but I promise the wines will exhibit worthy qualities. The form is up to you.

My next post will review the good, the bad, and the ugly of the recent Puglia wines that I have drank.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

4th of July/Notte Bianca Update

Massive amounts of unexpected fireworks aimed more or less into our apartment.

Best Inexpensive Wines for 4th of July

Well, I realize the 4th is just kicking off in the U.S. as I write this. I've already had breakfast, my espressi, and lunch--but that doesn't mean I won't be eating hot dogs a little later (yes, they have hot dogs in Italy--the buns come with American flags on the package). To celebrate the 4th in a foreign country would be lacksidasical if Lecce weren't having Notte Bianca: A night when the entire town stays awake until dawn partying. At this moment there are stages being set up in every piazza in town that will feature live music.

To rock the fourth my own way, I've indulged in a nice wine tasting at La Casa del Primitivo di Manduria (an unexpected detour on the way to breakfast), celebrated Palin's ridiculous resignation, and am now listening to the band Mastadon's Leviathan: an album that sets Melville's Moby Dick (not verbatim) to their unique blend of heavy metal and southern rock. Anyway, let's get you some wines to pair with the grill that won't kill your wallet.

No matter where you shop, Primitivo and Salice Salentino wines will be less expensive than most wines. Their expressive characters make them great accompaniments to the 4th. It helps to have a Trader Joe's. Its the truth. Their selection of Primitivo and Salice Salentino is decent and few range over 4 bucks. These are wines that will hold up to ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, and even a vodka lemonade. Tuscan Moon's Sangiovese is another good match. Sans TJs, Cantele's Primitivo, Salice Salentino, and Negroamaro are sold in most wine stores, including BevMo, for around $8-10. For white, I'd head to New Zealand for Geisen's Savignon Blanc, a wonderfully crisp wine that'll pair well with fruit salads, pasta salads, macaroni and cheese, and popsicles and that won't break the bank.

Happy 4th Everyone!

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