Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Toasting 2022 with Italian Wine Pairings

Italian cuisine has a timeless appeal – and with so many rich sauces and ragus, tempting pasta shapes, airy pizzas, fresh fish, rich polentas, creamy risottos, and more, it’s easy to see why. Americans enjoy a lot of Italian food – in fact, one survey said that the average US consumer enjoys over 15 pounds of Italian cheese a year!

And Italian cuisine is perfect for dinner parties – for example, pasta recipes can easily be modified to serve more or less guests.  A fun entertainment idea for the new year is to host your own Italian night with a multi-course celebration featuring all Italian wines.

It’s always great to start the evening with something sparkling – a time-honored way to welcome guests as they enter your home in Europe.  The Ca Di Prata Brut Prosecco DOC ($16) is a great choice with crisp pear and apple flavors, lots of fine bubbles, and delightful acidity.  Passed trays of fresh salami and hard pecorino cheese (need inspiration on a building a cheese board? look here) would work well to start the evening off.

After everyone arrives, it’s time to sit down for the first course. A risotto with parmesan and lemon (see recipe here) is a crowd-pleasing first course that would match beautifully with the Barone Montalto Pinot Grigio 2020 ($12), a dry white wine with hints of citrus on the palate.  And your guests will be intrigued that this Pinot Grigio is not from northern Italy, but Sicily!

After the risotto has disappeared, it’s time for the main attraction – a roast loin of pork rubbed with olive oil and rosemary. The wine to pair is one of Italy’s iconic selections – a Barbaresco made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes. The Riva Leone Barbaresco 2017 is a perfect choice, as its complex flavors of dried red fruits and spice will complement the juicy pork wonderfully. At only $25, it’s a great value as well.

While some of your guests may say they don’t have room for dessert, they’ll certainly be persuaded to have a slice of this traditional semolina cake and a last glass of something lightly sweet. The Acquesi Asti Spumante ($18) is 100% Moscato from Friuli. Its lightly sweet flavor and lovely perfumed nose will create a sweet and sparkling ending to your night of Italian fun!

Monday, January 3, 2022

Celebrating Charming Abruzzo and Bordeaux Wines at Il Gattopardo

New York at Christmas time is a treat, and the same can be said about a meal at the midtown East restaurant Il Gattopardo, which specializes in southern Italian cuisine. I had the opportunity to attend a wine media lunch there where we sampled a wide range of wines from Abruzzo during the main courses as well as a trio of sweet wines of Bordeaux with dessert. 

The alluring combination of quality dry and sweet wines from two different EU countries is part of the Charming Taste of Europe promotional program, which doesn’t limit its celebration of European wine to a single area. 

While some Abruzzo wines are not as well-known as those of Tuscany or Piedmont, their wallet-friendly prices, delicious flavor profiles, and intriguing indigenous grapes should put this Italian region on wine lovers' radar. 

Our meal began with one such variety – the lively Pecorino grape. The Poderi Constantini Antonio Abruzzo Pecorino Superiore 2020 was a crisp wine with dried herbs on the palate, as well as notes of chamomile and a touch of minerality. Pecorino is a food-friendly white with a unique flavor profile -- worth seeking out as an alternative to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. 

With the first course of  spaghetti alla Chitarra, we sampled a white wine from the Trebbiano grape, the Masciarelli Tenute Agricole, Marina Cvetic, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2019, which had a crisp nose reminiscent of fresh cut celery with sage, green melon, and minerality on the palate. We also tried a rosata, the Valori, Abbruzo Talamonti Cerasuolo Rose 2020. This had more heft than many roses with a nose of cranberry, good structure, and tart fruit flavors. 

The second course of patate maritate (potatoes with sausage), was paired with the Francesco Cirelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2019, a biodynamic wine made in amphora. All Montepuliciano d'Abruzzo wines must contain at least 85% of Montepulciano grapes. This had powerful black fruit and balsamic vinegar aromas and deep flavors of black plums and black pepper, as well as perceptible tannin. 

The flavorful fish soup course -- “brodetto alla Vastese” – needed robust wine to match it, and the answer was two substantial reds. The Cantina Frentana Montepulicano d’Abruzzo “Rubesto” 2017 was a big wine with blackberry and caramel on the nose and lots more blackberries on the palate. The last Abruzzo wine was the Podere Castorani Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Casauria Riserva 2015. This wine had a savory rosemary nose and dried cherries dusted with sage on the palate. This wine is truly made with care – it’s harvested late (in November) and has a long maceration period of up to 30 days to increase complexity.

The light dessert course of lattacciolo was served with three sweet wines of Bordeaux. Although Sauternes is the most famous (and pricey) example, Bordeaux sweet wines come from several appellations in the larger Bordeaux area. The Chateau de Garbes “Cuvee Fut de chene” AOC Cadillac 2019 had a lovely honey nose with honeysuckle on the palate. The Chateau Fayau Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux 2019 also had honey aromas with a richer marmalade palate. The most luxurious selection was the Chateau Loupiac-Gaudiet AOC Loupiac 2017. The nose was full of ripe apricots and the wine had a rich texture and a long finish. 

Cheers to the Charming Taste of Europe for showcasing a large selection of delicious Italian and French wines in a fabulous, fun lunchtime tasting.  The wines we tried at Il Gattopardo from Abruzzo and Bordeaux are certainly worthy of your attention in the new year.



Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Intriguing Romanian Wines Have Appeal for Curious Wine Lovers

The world of wine seems to get wider all the time, as new countries offer exciting indigenous grapes to a curious American market. I recently attended a media lunch at Avra Estiatoria hosted by Marinela Ardelean, ambassador to the Open the Romanian Wine program. This eastern European country offers Americans unique varieties, sophisticated winemaking, and new flavors to explore -- all while boasting a winemaking tradition that goes back 6000 years. Romania has seven wine regions with nearly 500 wineries that grow 165 grape varieties. At this media lunch, Marinela only selected wines made from native grapes for us to sample. 

The first was a sparkling wine, The Iconic Estate's Rhein Extra Magnifique Brut. This off-dry sparkler with notes of lime was made in the traditional method of having a second fermentation in the bottle, similar to Champagne. 

Next we were treated to a duo of roses. The Iconic Estate Hyperion Rose Feteasca Neagra had an inviting nose of savory herbs and on the palate there were strawberries and good acid. The second rose was noticably paler in color and more intensely aromantic - with aromas of lychee and white flowers. This was from Domeniile Averesti, the Spectrum Busuioaca de Bohotin -- legend says this wine was drunk by Stefan the Great. The wine had a perceptible sweetness balanced by lime and cranberry on the palate. 

Our first red was light-bodied and fresh, La Sapata Babeasca Neagra from Crama Delta Dunarii. The wine offered a mix of berry flavors and a dash of balsamic in a refreshing wine that can be served slightly chilled. 

We moved on to The Iconic Estate Hyperion Feteasca Neagra 2016, a medium-bodied red with good balance of red and black fruit, acid, and tannin. 

The Avincis - Olt de Vie Negru de Dragasani had a deep garnet color, a rich tannic structure, black and red fruit, and a long finish - definitely a wine that can age but which was also delicious at its current state. 

The group of American media and wine professionals agreed that the Romanian wines we tried were deliciously food-friendly with the ample spread of Greek dishes we tried at Avra. They were all very palatable -- but also offered unique flavor notes and aromas. These nuanced differences make Romanian wines a great find for curious wine consumers who are looking for new taste sensations to explore.       


Monday, December 6, 2021

Discovering Oltrepò Pavese Northern Italian Wines

In northern Italy lies a wine region in the southwest corner of Lombardy, nestled between Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna – Oltrepò Pavese.  Although little known in the U.S., this Italian wine region is Europe’s third largest area for Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). Unsurprisingly, the region is on the 45th parallel, which Burgundy and Oregon – of course two of the world’s very famous Pinot Noir regions - share. I had the opportunity to taste through a number of this area’s wines with Susannah Gold, who is a brand ambassador for the region.

Wine has been grown in this area for two thousand years. Today, the region’s main grapes include Pinot Nero, Croatina, Barbera, and Riesling. 

There are a host of historic family wineries in Oltrepò Pavese that date back to the early 19th century – a rarity in Italy.  You'll find both large cooperatives and tiny wineries. One unusual aspect of the region is that many of the wineries are run by women.

One of the more noteworthy wines from Oltrepò Pavese is Bonarda, which is a blend of Croatina (from 85% - 100%) as well as Barbera, Ughetta/Vespolina, and Uva Rara.  Bonarda is often made in the sparkling style here – similar to the frizzante Guttornios in Emilia-Romagna.  I sampled the Bonarda from Calatroni Vini, which is bottled with the label Mon Carul. The name of the wine is Viggio. A light, friendly, sparkling red with lively red fruit flavors, this would work well with pizza and casual snacks with friends.

One noteworthy fact is that this is the only part of Italy that makes classic method sparkling wine, i.e. with second fermentation happening in the bottle, from Pinot Nero grapes. The rosé version is called Cruasé. The sample I tried from Mazzolino made a sophisticated impression, with persistent bubbles, a dried strawberry nose and palate with some baking spice on the finish – delicious with hors d’oeuvres and cheeses before Thanksgiving dinner.

Sangue di Giuda is a sweet wine blend of Barbera, Croatina, Uva Rara, Ughetta, and Pinot Nero. This wine is only found in this region. It has a lightly carbonated texture and a medium level sweetness – the alcohol is only 6%. Perfect for lightly sweet cakes or cookies, such as the Offelle di Parona of Lombardy. Susannah told us that, traditionally, every family would make this at home and offer it to guests.

Among the samples I tried was the La Versa Pinot Grigio 2019. La Versa was founded in 1905, and the winery joined a larger cooperative in 2020. The Pinot Grigio I sampled had a fresh nose of lime and was crisp on the palate with a zesty citrus profile, as well as minerality and good body.

Having only sampled a few of this small wine region’s varied bottles, I was left yearning to taste more of these interesting and delicious wines. I recommend putting Oltrepò Pavese on your list of new wine regions to explore.  



Wednesday, November 10, 2021

French and German Clink Different Wines Salute Sustainability During COP26

The #ClinkDifferent media campaign showcases German and French wines with their winemakers in an effort to create awareness for an American audience. Spreading the word about these wonderful wines is a good enough mission – but this time the idea of sustainability took the program up a notch.

On today’s media tasting, four passionate winemakers expressed their strong views on creating sustainability in the vineyard and winery and using agricultural practices that make winemaking better for the environment – and for the resulting wine. 

Johannes Hasslebach is winemaker for Gunderloch, a winery that has been in his family for six generations. He explained that they just finished their conversion to organic this year. He has been making an effort to bring biodiversity to the steep, rocky vineyards in the Rheinhessen.  Beyond his own winery, Johannes leads a sustainability initiative for a winegrowers organization known as the VDP (Verbrand Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter.)  The Jean-Baptiste Riesling Kabinett 2020 he presented was full of tangy lime notes, minerality, and fresh acidity.

Claire Villars-Lurton of Chateau Haut-Bages Liberal, said her goal for the wine is to express the complexities of the vineyard in the bottle. She acknowledged that it is difficult to be low-intervention with Bordeaux weather, but they have made great strides and have operated biodynamically for 15 years. She notes, “We have to improve all the time.” Claire presented a natural wine with no sulfites, the Ceres de Chateau Haut-Bages Liberal 2020.  The wine had cranberry and eucalyptus aromas. On the palate, this is a big wine with lots of personality and notes of cherry lozenge and blackberry.

Claus Burmeister makes wine at one of the oldest wineries in the world – Burg Ravensburg in the Baden wine region is 770 years old! When the event host noted that the alcohol on his Pinot Noir was below 13%, Claus said “We don’t need to power up our wines.” He believes in finding the perfect moment when grapes have ripeness that will give wine freshness and energy.  Claus is passionate about soil management and aims to increase the capacity of the soil in his vineyard to store water. When talking about his shift to organic winemaking, he notes that the natural fermentation (without use of commercial yeasts) works perfectly, and that the wines show more character and energy. His Burg Ravensburg Sulzfeld Pinot Noir 2017 offered dried cherries and sage on the nose, and on the palate there was more dried cherry and fresh herbal notes. The wine had well integrated tannins and a long finish.

Finally, Jean Baptiste Cordonnier from Chateau Anthonic in Bordeaux discussed how he has been passionate about rebuilding living soils.  Noting the important role of plants in taking carbon from the air, he says “We have in our hands part of the answer to global warning.”  He spoke enthusiastically of a garter snake coming inside from the property and how inspired he is to create a biodiverse environment among the vines. His Chateau Anthonic 2016 was one of the more classic in style among the four wines we tried. It had lovely dark blackberry fruit and hints of green peppercorn on the palate. The wine had a long finish and was a satisfying, big wine with a delicious, lingering finish. 

While many of us have attended to the serious climate news out of Glasgow over the past weeks, this conversation with winemakers who were so committed to sustainable practices was truly uplifting. The winemakers themselves had distinct personalities and their wines did as well. While the Ceres is not yet available in the states, the other wines we enjoyed are able to be purchased here.  Cheers to #ClinkDifferent for showcasing the important subject of sustainable winemaking in a fun tasting session.



Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Cultivating exciting biodynamic wines at Troon Vineyard

Troon Vineyard in Oregon's Applegate Valley has been a pioneer in biodynamic winemaking, and the winery's commitment to regenerative agriculture is evident from the moment you set foot on the expansive property. 

There is much science behind the process, but it feels like there's a little magic here, too. And I'm not talking about cow horns, although they certainly play a role. It's more the smile on the faces of the winemakers and vineyard managers, the happy wag of the tails of the big dogs, the way even the sun seems to shine a little brighter on the flourishing vines. Quite simply, Troon is a happy place. And the combination of biodynamics, talented winemakers and viticulturists, and happy magic combines to make some pretty exciting wines.   

I had the opportunity to visit Troon during the recent Wine Media Conference in August. As part of that group, I met a number of the people who are creating these low-intervention wines. One of the folks embodying the cheerful spirit of Troon is Craig Camp, general manager. Craig originally convinced the winery's owners to take this biodynamic journey, and he has witnessed the positive difference in the grapevines since they have. 

One of the first things that strikes you when you visit Troon, is the idea that this place is a farm, not just a vineyard. There are vegetable and flower gardens along with grapevines. Walking further, you see the large fenced area for sheep and the energetic dogs who guard them -- and who know when Craig is about to give them a treat. 

And the land is tended with respect. Biodynamic farming, an agricultural approach developed by Rudolph Steiner in the early 20th century, seeks to restore balance to nature. How do modern viticulturists apply these techniques? Creating biodiversity in the farm is one approach as is turning to natural solutions to solve vineyard challenges.   

But what about the wines? In short, they are exciting and delicious. There's a playful approach and new ideas are welcomed. Winemaker Nate Wall waxed enthusiastically about his new amphorae, which he told us give wines a different texture than those stored in stainless steel or oak.  

Winemaking styles can also be playful; Troon is making a Piquette, the trending, upcycled beverage that is low alcohol, slightly fizzy, and fun.  There's also a Pet Nat - the category that is slightly carbonated as the wine is bottled while still fermenting. The Troon version is Pet tanNat - a fun play on words, as the grape used is Tannat. 

Beyond these playful offerings, there are still wines that are wonderful expressions of the varietal grapes they contain, including Vermentino and Syrah from a range of vineyard sites. Blending wine is also important, and Troon is making white, red, and rose blends, too.  I've tasted Troon wines numerous times over the past years, and the quality is always very high. 

On the occasion of our visit, we were treated to a wide range of wines served with a fantastic, wood-fired meal prepared by the authors of Fire + Wine, Mary Cresslar and Sean Martin, who also own a catering busines, Ember and Vine. The smokey, delicious fare - all prepared outdoors - was a delicious match for the vivacious wines. 

Visitors to southern Oregon can stop by Troon's tasting room to sample and buy the wines. The winery also has a VRBO onsite for those wishing to relax among the vines.  

Of all the wineries I visited during my recent trip to Southern Oregon, Troon holds a special place for me. The combination of care of the land, innovative winemaking, and a happy spirit make this a wine destination to remember. 




Sunday, September 5, 2021

Albino Armani's quest for quality Pinot Grigio in Italy's Triveneto

As the 16th generation winemaker of his family, Albino Armani is passionate about the mountain-rimmed vineyards where he nurtures one of Italy's most important export wines - Pinot Grigio. 

His family owns 750 acres of vineyards in the Triveneto, comprised of Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. 

I recently attended a virtual tasting hosted by Albino where his passion for the wines of these regions was evident. In fact, Albino has served as the president of the Consorzio DOC delle Venezie. In that role, he was committed to winemakers elevating the overall quality of Pinot Grigio in the area, and he convinced 10,000 grape growers to reduce their yields by 40 percent! These efforts to improve quality were instrumental in the former area labeled by the government as IGT now qualifiying for the more prestigiuos DOC designation. As such, all the DOC delle Venezie wines are traceable and blind-tasted to assure quality. 

As we were introduced to the region, Albino told us that he feels the best Pinot Grigio is from the mountains. Pinot Grigio forms tight clusters that can be susceptible to mold and disease, so the breezy, elevated vineyard sites where his wine grapes grow are beneficial to this variety. 

In this tasting, we explored distinct Pinot Grigios from different parts of the region. What was so suprising is the differences among them! Albino says that the three regions in the DOC are like a mosaic, and oenologists can have fun seeing how grapes from the different soils express their terroir. 

Our tasting included:

Albino Armani Pinot Grigio delle Venezie - Lime, celery, and thyme on the nose. A fresh wine with lemon and herbs on the palate, minerality and good acidity. 

Albino Armani Pinot Grigio Friuli - Nose of chamomile, minerality, with white peach and apple and minerality on palate. The wine has nice texture and body. Albino told us these vines have to fight through rocks to get through to soil, which is only 7 percent of the earth in this area. 

Albino Armani Pinot Grigio Corvara, Valdadige - This single vineyard wine had an intense nose with camilla mixed with caramel. On the palate there was white peach, pear, minerality. The wine had good structure, minerality, and ample acidity. Albino told us that limestone rock walls above the vineyards reflect sunlight onto the grapes, increasing the ripeness. 

Albino Armani Pinot Grigio Colle Ara, Terradeiforti - This wine has a slight copper tint, reflecting that the grapes are macerated on their skins briefly (8-24 hours). The nose had candied ginger. The palate had pear and more ginger, and the wine had a prickling acidity and a long finish. 

One important note is that Albino is committed to growing grapes sustainably. One of the most important factors in enabling sustainable winemaking, according to Albino, is growing the right variety in the right place. For Pinot Grigio, he says that means having "wind, altitude." In fact, Pinot Grigio is a variety that needs some of the coolest temperatures among wine grapes. 

All the wines in this tasting ranged in price in the U.S. from between approximately $10 - $20 -- a remarkable value for the quality delivered. They are available at Total Wine among other retailers. 

The U.S. is the number one export market for Pinot Grigio, and it is our third most popular grape. Wine lovers would be advised to reach for one of the Albino Armani bottles to taste expressive, high quality Pinot Grigios that are a true value.