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.

Whites

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.

Rosati

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?

New Article on Eater.com: Why Haven’t American Truffles Taken Root Yet?

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