Thursday, April 29, 2010

I led a wine tasting the other day…

I led a wine tasting the other day at an English school in the south of Italy. It was my first time choosing wines, developing my spiel, and fielding questions, and I think it went pretty well. I began with a 50-euro budget for 30-40 people, and managed to squeeze 14 wines from it, at an average of 3.50 (nowhere else but in Puglia is this possible). I knew all of the wines except one, which turned out to be a mistake (more about that in a moment). The most interesting aspect of the event was that suddenly realized what an unfamiliar thing a wine tasting can be in the south of Puglia.

First of all, I've read more than once that the region's bars and restaurants significantly outsell wine with beer and spirits, so wine just isn't on many people's minds. It's more of an accompaniment to food for old people than an artform. One young guy told me that we needed to break out the beer, and it took me by surprise: Hadn't we already broken the wine? Apparently the good ol' Bohemian idea of a jug of wine and a book of poetry wasn't going to go far in this situation.

I devised a few games to get the competitive spirit going and to entice people to test out their palates. The first game involved two unknown wines, and you had to guess which was made using oak barrels and which using stainless steel tanks. Next, which wine made using Negroamaro and which using Primitivo. I thought it was a good way to get things going, but it turned out that most people were only interested in the first wine of the night, a Riesling from the Friuli region, and this simply because it was sweet.

Sweet wine and Puglia have frolicked hand in hand for centuries and it's only now that winemakers are getting serious. I think that sweet red wines, unless designed to be drunk with dessert, tend to obscure the natural flavors of the grape. It is local tradition that will likely remain local, and which had me fielding the question, “Which one’s the sweetest,” like a million times.

The one wine that I hadn’t tasted before was a Dolcetto D’Alba, and because I’m usually a fan of Dolcetto and because it was the most expensive bottle I bought I thought I was playing it safe. Unfortunately it was a double loser both because I had to explain that it wasn’t a sweet wine and because it tasted atypical for Dolcetto.

The second game I devised was to guess which of two wines was made in France and which in Italy. In the end, about 8 people got into the whole game concept who seemed genuinely interested in testing out their own senses. Five bottles of wine were left untouched, and four or so mostly full. It was very rewarding to speak with a few folks who had a real interested in wine, and who knew how to ask the right questions, but it seems that winetasting in Puglia is still an unusual concept. Wine is too common place, too obvious to consider an artform.

(Above: Artichoke season in Puglia)

As the world continues to become interested in wines from Puglia, perhaps this will change. The winemakers are already making world-class wines. One of my primary goals right now is to create an organized structure to help travelers taste wine in Puglia. The wineries are definitely into it, as I’ll follow up in my next post. Salute!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Review of Artificial Wine Breather

My first experience with the Artificial Wine Breather (AWB) was in the Chateau St. Jean tasting room in Napa Valley. The guy behind the bar asked if I’d like to see it in action and the effects were obvious. I forgot about the AWB for a while, then my thoughtful sister gave me my very own AWB, made by Vinturi, for Christmas. Wine Spectator had named it a #1 Christmas gift for winelovers.

I decided to test it out on a few older wines as well as a few wines that typically need breathing, including a 2003 “Elegia” Primitivo di Manduria Riserva and a 2006 “Augustale Murgia” Uva di Troia. In short, as far as practically goes, two thumbs up.

The great thing about the AWB is that it works. Instead of waiting 30-40 minutes for a wine to open, I can drink it immediately. In today’s high-powered, no bullshit society, that’s what we need, isn’t it? I don’t have 30-40 minutes to breathe, so why should my wine?

Joking aside, it’s really fun to compare two glasses of wine and guess which has been run through the AWB. Most wines, though not all, are unwound, more aromatic, more flavorful, and have smoother textures.

I call the experience “artificial” because, at the end of the day, it feels strange to decant a wine and then pour it through this funny looking tube. The effects are excellent, but the process is strangely mechanical. So, straight up, if you don’t have time to decant your wine, the AWB is awesome. If you want to have some fun and compare tight and unwound wines, the AWB is killer. But maybe you should chill out?

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Best White Wine in Italy?

Colli di Lapio’s 2008 Fiano di Avellino is an exceptionally well-concentrated wine that was recently called the best white wine in Italy by Gambero Rosso (Italy’s version of Food & Wine Magazine). I discovered it thanks to wine writer Tom Hyland (breaking news: Tom recently tried and reported on the 2009 at Vinitaly). As I was in Naples, I thought I’d try to find one of the few remaining bottles in Italy.

I went to Enoteca Dante in Naples, located in Piazza Dante. The salesman said, “Do you really need this wine? I have lots of other whites made with Fiano. How about this one?” But my girlfriend and I remained firm: We want the 2008 Colli di Lapio. It turned out the shelf was empty, but the salesman made a call. “How many bottles do you want?” One, we responded. He disappeared into the back of the store, cell phone plastered to his ear. A few minutes later he came out red in the face with a bottle of Colli di Lapio in his hand. I like to imagine that he broke into the storeowner’s private stash, securing one of the last bottles of the wine in all of Italy (and the world) for us.

So, is it really the best white wine in Italy?

It was Easter, and our hotel had a kitchen. We decided to cook up Spaghetti con Vongole e Cozze, or spaghetti with clams and mussels. After cleaning the shellfish and submerging them in seasoned water, we opened the wine.

Yep. (Above: A view from our hotel room, with the wine and Mt. Vesuvius)

I cannot think of another wine in Italy that compares to Colli di Lapio’s 2008 Fiano di Avellino DOCG (100% Fiano). I am hardly an expert when it comes to having a countrywide perspective of Italy’s whites, but this wine is awesome. A complex nose of pineapple and even more complex layers of flavors that come to a climax (much like Vallone’s imprecable Graticciaia, which I recently tried) about ¾’s of the way through each sip. I really want to find a name for this effect. It’s like sticking your finger into a light socket. A warm metallic taste that comes with having your mind blown.

It’s reported to cost $26 in the United States, and I found it for 12 euro in Naples. It’s worth either price, and I don’t say that lightly. If you can’t find the 2008, the 2009 is just around the corner. Salute!

The story of a single sip: slight scent of pineapple, creamy beginning that gives way to a rush of tropical citrus with pin pricks of acid, then a veritable explosion of complex flavors (too many to name or distinctly pick out), and finally, a pithy, bitter finish that ends clean and dry.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Definitive 2009 Puglia Harvest Report

After interviewing 11 wineries, it’s time (click here for PDF version).

In the sweaty months of July and August, as half of Italy descends on Puglia’s white sand beaches, the grapes cling to the vines in a stand-off against dehydration and parasites. The sunlight in Puglia, the primary contributor to the terroir of the region, is both the winemakers’ greatest friend and greatest enemy. Will prices rise because of low yields, or drop due to low demand? Which grape varieties thrived and will likely produce good wines, and which failed? These are the most important questions concerning the 2009 harvest.

The humid heat of August was oppressive as I walked among the tree-like vines of Primitivo, the grape that shares its DNA with California’s Zinfandel. Most of the winemakers I spoke with were afraid of attacks by peronospora, oidium, and Botrytis cinerea, powdery molds caused by high moisture levels that destroy otherwise promising grapes. In the south of Puglia you find the Salento Peninsula, a strip of land 26 miles across, home to Puglia’s best-known growing region, Manduria. Attacks from parasites are usually deflected in this area by a strong, cool wind that whips off the Mediterranean Sea and across the thin peninsula, but in 2009 an uncharacteristic summer rain had put the health of the vines in jeopardy. The rain lasted from June 20th-July 7th in most areas, and it cooled the grapes so much as to slow their maturation. Rains at the very beginning of the growing season, back in April, had affected the initial germination of the grapes, and fewer flowers had turned into fruit. The sun, which usually threatens to over-ripen the grapes, hadn’t ripened them enough.

The harvest began one week later than in 2008 in order to give the grapes more time to mature. “The harvest this year is marche di leopardo,” reported winemaker Francesco Mocavero of Mocavero Winery, “which means ‘the spots of the leopard.’ It is a local saying that means that there are some areas yielding interesting, good-quality grapes, and there are others that are not.”

The grapes that thrived in the 2009 growing season were those that naturally mature the fastest. Primitivo, the region’s most important grape from a business perspective, is named for its ability to develop early: primo means “first” in Italian. The region’s undervalued white grape varieties were also coming through, particularly the Chardonnay and the native varieties Verdeca, Malvasia Bianca, and Fiano. “Chardonnay, Fiano, and Primitivo are having success because of good phenolic maturation, which was not affected by the June rain,” says enologist Elio Minoia of Valle dell’Asso Winery. Sommelier Angela Venturi, Castel di Salve’s winery guide, reports that the “Santi Medici Bianco” (60% Verdeca 40% Malvasia Bianca), is “very balanced, not too alcoholic, fresh and crispy.” Tenute Rubino reports success with the Vermentino grape, which is a newly planted variety on the Rubino estate. Likewise, the quality of the Malvasia Bianca fruit—the white grape most commonly planted by the winery—is high because of even maturation.

Strangely, the very rains that threatened to ruin the 2009 vintage ultimately turned around and saved it . . . in spots, at least. “The reserve waters that accumulated during the autumn period, winter period, and spring period have allowed the vines to resist well in the hotter months of June, July, and August,” says enologist Angelo Maci of Due Palme. This enhanced the phenolic maturation—the maturation of the acids in the grape skins, which gives wine “good tannins,” resulting in positive qualities such as structure. This suggests that small, select productions of this year’s Primitivo wines will be good for aging. Almost every winery I spoke with is reporting small yields of excellent-quality Primitivo.

“The first svinature (devattings) of the Primitivo di Mandura DOC lead us to anticipate a good quality of future wines with square acids,” reports Racemi Winery. The winery is located in Manduria, an area with particularly rocky soil, and it looks like its terroir came through in the end. “On the whole, we can say that the year, which had hardly promised anything good . . . demonstrated the ability to improve in very little time, maintaining faith in the saying small but good.” I anticipate that many of Puglia’s Primitivo wines, especially those made in Manduria, will start becoming really interesting in 2014–2015.

Other wineries offer contradictory results, with Leone de Castris and Valle dell’Asso reporting Primitivo grapes of less concentration. As enologist Marco Mascellani nicely summed up, “In definition: 2008 wines are more concentrated and austere; 2009 wines are less concentrated but softer.” I expect the Primitivo wines from the southern part of Salento to be better young.

At the end of harvest, yields were way, way down overall, with Due Palme reporting a reduction of 50% from last year’s production. Tenute Rubino, at 10%, reports the least reduction. Most wineries report that yields are down by 30%. This is because the region’s most representative and widely planted grape, Negroamaro, is slow to mature, and it did not fare well in 2009. Negroamaro constitutes at least 70% of all the grapevines in Puglia, and it is usually the last grape harvested. This year, hordes of low-quality Negroamaro fruit were left clinging to the vines, and as a result, most winemakers will not make reserve wines in the 2009 vintage. Besides reserve wines, low yields of Negroamaro primarily affect vino sfuso, the region’s un-bottled pump wine, which fills the homes of the locals. Finally, Negroamaro is the primary grape used to make Puglia’s rosé wines, which are some of the best in Italy.

The question I posed to winemakers was whether low yields would result in higher prices. For now, it looks like most prices will stay the same. This is fortunate, considering that there will certainly be a lower production of rosés this year, which would suggest higher prices. Puglia is already recognized for creating inexpensive wines. Enologist Mascellani of Leone de Castris, a winery that has been around since 1665, isn’t afraid to bide his time. The most important thing is “not to be too anxious to age the wine—not to push the process along—and to try to commercialize the wine when it has developed further, which will likely be slightly earlier than other years.”

I’d like to focus the rest of the report on Puglia’s lesser-known grape varieties: Aglianico, Ottavianello (the grape better known as Cinsault), and Susumaniello. Winemaker Gianni Cantele of Cantele Winery is one of several Puglian winemakers experimenting with Aglianico. The grape is capable of producing excellent wines, as proven in Basilicata and Campania. Says Cantele:

The grapes we use are partially sourced in Salento, but the main quantity comes from northern Puglia, in the Foggia area. The reputation of this area is not very good because it produces many average wines. However, in the last years a few growers are changing their views on viticulture, and a pleasant surprise will come from that area soon.

The main difference between northern and southern Puglia, in regard to growing conditions, is altitude. The north is higher, resulting in moister soils. Most of its rivers and streams are above ground, whereas the southern part of the region is fed by underground rivers that have carved into the limestone, the primary component of the area’s soil.

The last two grapes, Ottavianello and Susumaniello, have an ancient history in the Puglia region, and perhaps this history helped them adapt to this year’s difficult weather. With the exception of Chardonnay, non-native and international grape varieties suffered in comparison to the native varieties. This year, many wines made with foreign varieties will not be produced, including Castel di Salve’s “Il Volo di Alessandro” (100% Sangiovese).

This year’s Ottavianello is reported by Botrugno Winery, one of the leading producers of the grape, to have normal-sized yields of impressive quality. This is likely because it is one of the first grapes to mature. Susumaniello, even though is one of the slowest grapes to finish maturing, managed to have a good phenolic maturation. Winemaker Luigi Rubino reports that the rains in June and July naturally protected the grapes from the heat, saving the winery from having to use irrigation.

I won’t end this report definitively. This is one wonderful component of technology: the ability to continue dialogues. Feel free to contact me with questions and comments. It is difficult to find objective, firsthand accounts of this region’s wine scene, particularly in English. I am publishing this report just a few days before the beginning of Vinitaly, the largest wine event in the world, in order to give distributors, sommeliers, and wine writers a sampling of firsthand accounts of the 2009 growing season in Puglia. I’m interested in hearing your impressions of Puglia’s wines, particularly how all of these environmental factors taste out of the bottle.

I would like to thank the winemakers, enologists, and winery representatives who gave me their time as well as the information that helped me to write this report:

Winemaker Massimiliano Apollonio, Apollonio
Winemaker Gianni Cantele, Cantele
Sommelier and Winery Guide Angela Venturi, Castel di Salve
Enologist Angelo Maci, Due Palme
Enologist Sergio Botrugno, Botrugno
Enologist Marco Mascellani and Commercial Director Salvatore Ria, Leone de Castris
Winemakers Francesco and Marco Mocavero, Mocavero
Winemaker Piero Ribezzo, Pirro Varone
Winemaker Gregory Perrucci, Racemi
Winemaker Luigi Rubino, Tenute Rubino
Enologist Elio Minoia and Commercial Director Ezio D’Oria, Valle dell’Asso

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