Friday, March 26, 2010

The All-Impressive Graticciaia

“You can taste the sun,” said Antonio, owner of Il Connubio restaurant, when describing it. “It does send a message to the rest of the world that Puglia is home to very distinguished wines.” said wine specialist Tom Hyland. “You will come back and thank me,” said the clerk at the wine store when he tried to slip the 48-euro bottle into my box without telling me its price. In the end, after hearing so much about Agricole Vallone’s “Graticciaia,” drinking it the other night was a relief: it actually is one-of-a-kind.


(It was a good night as you can tell from the label) Foremost, I wish I had more experience drinking Amarone, because Graticciaia is made using the recioto or rasinate process; I could then better compare and contrast the wines. Graticciaia is made of 100% Negroamaro grapes, which are picked at the very end of September. Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera are usually the last grapes to get picked in Puglia, but the Negroamaro used in Graticciaia are picked even later than usual. They are then laid out on grati, or mesh mats, where they dry until reaching the perfect ratio of sugar and acidity, resulting in a very concentrated wine.

I decided to drink Graticciaia after seeing it on Il Connubio’s wine list for 50 euro. I mean, if you’re gonna drink an expensive bottle of wine, you might as well pair it with incredible dishes prepared by chefs who have cooked Slow Food in Milan, Paris, and New York City. To see it for only 2 euro more than it is usually sold in wine stores sealed the deal. We drank it with a filletto of Argentinean beef with, naturally, a Negroamaro sauce, and a smorgasbord of roasted rabbit (I think I ate a testicle, which was kinda weird).

We let the wine breathe, decanted, for 45 minutes. The first sip was exciting. The wine is very complex, making it difficult to pinpoint specific flavors. But talk about personality! The wine was perfectly smooth and balanced except for a jolting spike of flavor that popped out about ¾ of the way through the sip. Then, just as quickly, the flavor spike pulled back to leave the mouth with a long, dark, rich, and silky finish. I’ve never had a wine shock me like this before, and the semi-sweet jolt of concentrated flavor was elating.

From the Amarone that I have drank, I can say that Graticciaia shares the concentrated character of Amarone, but that Graticciaia is clearly 100% Negroamaro. The grape pulls through its personality.

So, using Karen McNeil’s definition for complexity, this wine is complex in the way that a great piece of art is: something too beautiful to grasp keeps making you think about it.

Of course, this is not an everyday drinking wine. Graticciaia is only made during excellent years. And 2004 was certainly one such year. But if you ever get the chance, it is one of the best examples of Negroamaro that I’ve ever drank. Come to think of it, it’s one of the best examples of wine I’ve ever drank too.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wine and Metal

Like wine, metal is a lifestyle, not a hobby. This said, I have to take a break from the wine to talk about the new Mastodon album, Crack the Skye. I can't can't can't stop listening to this wild beast. The number of influences I hear in it is massive, and includes Ozzy Osbourne, Mike Patton, and Pink Floyd as well as the southern-fried rock of Soilent Green. Equally powerful in originality, this album takes progressive metal (or whatever you want to call it) into new territory through unmitigated musicianship; everything from banjo-picking to Slayer-solos to Isis-drones, funky, jazzy polyrhythms to Cannibal Corpse blast beats, and vocal styles galore: howls, nasal whines (Ozzy Osbourne), gut belches, and all-impressive-Captain-gives-the-order-to-charge-into-certain-death bellows. In short, this album makes me very happy and renews my faith in a band that lost my faith with Blood Mountain.

Album Highlight: It takes a very special group of musicians at a very special point in their careers to create a 13+ minute metal song that never once loses momentum.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I'm Writing for the 22nd Most Popular Travel Blog in the Universe!

Europeupclose.com. It's a sweet site dedicated to travel deals, insider traveler tips, and explorations into European culture. I've been writing two articles a week for the site for about a one year and it was ranked the 22nd most popular travel blog around this month. I'm stoked. If you get a chance, check it out.

Here are a few examples of the articles recently published:

Grappa: Italy's Own Liquor

Truffle Hunting in Italy Part 1 and Part 2

Lecce: A Top 10 City of 2010

The Cafe Culture of Athens, Greece

Thanks for reading. Salute!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tasting the Wines of Northern Puglia


After diving headfirst into the wines of southern Puglia and the Salento Peninsula I realize that I haven’t given the north its due, specifically the Castel del Monte growing region. While southern Puglia specializes in Negroamaro, Aleatico, and Primitivo, northern Puglia offers Negroamaro, Aglianico, and Nero di Troia. In general, Nero di Troia creates medium-bodied red wines with strong tannins, making it good for aging. Aglianico is grown throughout southern Italy, particularly the Basilicata region, which borders Puglia to the north, and it creates well-structured, medium to full-bodied reds. Some believe that Aglianico is the father of the noble Nebbiolo grape, which is used to create Barolo.

I decided to sample wines made by north-Puglia wineries Alberto Longo, Torrevento, Grifo, Torre Quarto, and Rivera. I also tried wines made by south-Puglia wineries with grapes sourced from the north: Cantele, Castello Monaci, and Azienda Monaci.

The stand out wines were Alberto Longo’s 2008 Negromaro, and Azienda Monaci’s 2006 Sine Die, made from Aglianico. Alberto Longo’s Negroamaro won for expressiveness, offering a particularly elegant and classy version of Negroamaro for 9 euro. The Sine Die wins all around for impressive dark character, firm structure, and being well-balanced. It costs around 15 euro. Cantele’s Aglianico (a new experiment brought to us by Umberto Cantele), Torrevento's 2005 "Vigna Pedale" Nero di Troia (100% Uva di Troia), Grifo’s 2006 “Augustale Murgia” (100% Nero di Troia) were also excellent.

My overall impressions of wines from northern Puglia are that Aglianico wines are delicious and that Nero di Troia are less versatile; at least, I haven’t tasted one that has been uniquely crafted. The northern terroir is different from the southern because it has more damp earth--rivers and streams--creating dark wines with a good cool juiciness.

One wine is worth mentioning for being especially disappointing: Alberto Longo’s 2004 “Calcara Vecchia” (Cab Franc and Merlot). I don’t think that Cab Franc grapes work well in this climate. With thin structure and one-note cranberry fruit, the wine was not the departure from typical Pugliese grapes that I had hoped for.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

How to Make REAL Orecchiette, Part 2

About the traditional method of shaping the “ear-shaped” pasta with great and impressive detail.

A few weeks ago, I was shown how to make orecchiette, an “ear-shaped” pasta traditional in Puglia, by two lovely ladies from Puglia. Many recipes give directions that include pressing each individual orecchiette three times. While this does provide a zen-like experience (along the lines of chewing a grain of rice 100 times), the women in Puglia kitchens don’t have time for this.

The technique that Margarita and Debora were brought up with involves rolling the pasta dough into a long cylinder then cutting off little pieces of dough. The little coin-shaped nubs are then shaped into orecchiette. Place the tip of a butter knife in the nub's center, then drag it through the pasta until the pasta rolls over itself (at this point the pasta looks something like a shell, and if you’ve ever eaten orecchiette in Puglia, you’ll often find pasta with this shape mixed in with orecchiette. It’s called trofie). Finally, you flip the shell-shaped piece of dough inside out on your thumb, gently pulling the outer-most edges.

Sound easy? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

Listen. I’ve made orechiette many times with pretty good success. Learning this new technique however, has truly tested my abilities. It takes practice. There’s no way around it--but once I got it down, it’s a much faster and more graceful method.


Above: Can you perceive the progression of sloppy to decent, left to right?

So here’s my advice, and a few tips.

Lay the coin-shaped piece of pasta dough on its side. Place the knife’s blade edge close to the top edge of the coin. Pull toward you almost like you’re spreading butter. Don’t worry if you cut through a few pieces of dough at first. If the dough is rolling over itself completely--and trust me, you’ll feel the difference when it rolls correctly--then you’ve carved out a good center.

When you flip the shell-shaped piece of dough inside out on your thumb, you shouldn’t have to do much smoothing or stretching. Because of the shell shape, you don’t have to pull down the entire circumfrance of the circular pasta, you can just squish the two main edges. If you’re spending a lot of time shaping the pasta on your thumb, then you should reevaluate your knife work.


The spreading of the dough with the knife blade results in a rough texture on the orecchiette (see above), which saves you from needing to go out and buy a ridged, orechiette board.

Don’t hesitate to comment with questions or to report on what you’ll be drinking with your pasta.

Dough recipe: for two people I use 1 1/2 cups of semolina flour, a pinch of salt, and a ratio of 1:4 water to semolina. That's it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cheap and Good: Castello Monaci’s “Liante” Salice Salentino

I have to give props to this dirt-cheap wine because it packs a lot of character. Costing around 4 euro, Liante is nicely balanced and expressive. It is versatile, and will pair well with pasta and tomatoes, beefy and light mushrooms, saucy chicken dishes, sausage dishes, pretty much all red-meat dishes, and pizza. It represents the character of the Salice Salentino DOC well, with a silky mouthfeel and friendly fruit. Its expressive character comes from a gentle almond flavor, both on the nose and in the mouth. Medium body, clean and dry finish, earthy. Another good offering from Castello Monaci.

Castello Monaci
2008 “Liante” Salice Salentino DOC
(Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera di Lecce)
Partially aged in oak.