There are over 800 distinctly different varietals in Italy, most of which are completely unknown to us mortal wine drinkers. Apart from the sheer number, one potential reason for many people not knowing even important varietals is that in most cases they do not appear on the label. This is the case in many old world appellations across Italy, Spain, France and even other countries. Appellations in Europe carry a much heavier “brand name”, partially because not only do they enforce what grapes the wine makers must use, but in many cases also the style of wine making is regulated. DOCs, and DOCGs in Italy are fairly strict and if you want to put “Barolo” or “Chianti” on a label, it better adhere to the local rules or else…

Today’s wine is from the Cesanese del Piglio DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). The predominant grape in Cesanese del Piglio is not surprisingly the Cesanese di Affile, a fairly obscure Italian varietal virtually exclusively grown in this small appellation right outside of Rome. The varietal is said to be just as hard to cultivate as Pinot Noir, which makes these wines quite expensive, I would say a bit overpriced for what they are. Giovanni Terenzi‘s Vajoscuro is one of the best examples of this region, of course outside of the Torre Ercolana, the cult wine I described in an earlier entry. Unlike the Torre Ercolana, this wine is 100% Cesanese di Affile, so if you want to find out this grape’s potential, I would recommend this wine.

When you open the bottle the first thing you notice is that it smells like an old wine cellar. I am pretty sure my bottle is not corked, it is the natural aroma this wine exudes. As many Italian reds, this Cesanese is quite high in acid, but you taste a load of blueberry with a tobacco and leather undertone. For the first hour or so after opening you get a massive amount of tannins, which tend to subside after it has been open for several hours. I think it is too heavy on the tannins and it is better to open it up and decant it a few hours before consumption. You will taste the characteristics of the wine much better this way. The body is on the lighter side of medium and you barely notice the oak, which makes sense as it only spends about 10 months in French oak. It is best to drink with game dishes, or if you insist on pasta, definitely pick something with a meat sauce. I could also see it well paired with strong hard cheeses.

Name: Vajoscuro, Cesanese del Piglio, 2003

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: ~ 20 euros

Got it at: Enoteca Lo Schiaffo Di Tagliaboschi, Anagni, Italy

Vajoscuro, Cesanese del Piglio, 2003

This wine must be among the best values I have ever had. If you are in the US, you can get this for about $9! Here in Europe it is still a good value, but in spite of the fact that we are a single market and the largest wine market in the world, it retails more than in the US, between 10 euros to 10 pounds according to wine-searcher. So unless you are in the UK, where for some reason you cannot get this wine for anything under an arm and a leg, I would consider this to be one of the wines to get stocked up on.

Cannonau is the same varietal as Grenache in France. In fact this grape is indigenous to Sardegna and was only later planted in France. Granache likes hot climates such as the South of France, parts of Spain and of course in Sardegna. This wine brings out the intensity from the Cannonau grape, both in the aroma and on the palate, it is well rounded, substantial, very fruity with ripe plums, berries. It spent 3 years in oak, and I am sure it can age at least 10 more years in the bottle. The 2004, which was just put on the market, is ready to drink already, but I could see it becoming more velvety and smooth over the next few years. But at these prices who puts wine away…

Sardegna is home to some of Italy’s best values, right along with Sicily. Sella & Mosca is leading the value pack with this one as far as I am concerned and they are also not surprisingly one of the largest producers in Sardegna with about 160,000 cases a year. I need to see if their other wines are similarly good quality and value. If anyone has tried them let me know.

Name: Sella & Mosca, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, 2004

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: 10 euros

Got it at: Rothschild Supermarket, Budapest, Hungary

Sella & Mosca, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, 2004

There are two regions in the world that use this phrase labeling their wines. Both are absolutely fantastic and both are among my favorites. One of them is the Tokaj region of Hungary, which produces some of the best dessert wines in the world. The other is the Barolo region in Piemonte, Northern Italy.

Barolo is arguably the most highly prized of Italian wines. It is generally quite a fruity, big heavy wine with lots of tannins. In some ways it is the Italian equivalent of Bordeaux, though in actuality, the nebbiolo grape that is used in Barolos is more similar to Burgundy’s pinot noir. Nebbiolo is just as finicky and hard to grow as pinot and it requires similarly cold nights and sunny days. It is also as many sided as pinot noir, wines made from nebbiolo can have completely different tastes, such that you would have a hard time determining that the varietal is identical. You will also not find it in many places outside of Piemonte and a little patch of Sardegna. Some wine makers have recently experimented with nebbiolo in California but I do not know of other regions.

There are two schools of making Barolos, if you will: traditional and modern. Traditionally they left the grape’s skin on during the fermentation process, which lasted a long three weeks. This process extracted a huge amount of tannins from the skin of the nebbiolo, which is a varietal that is already extremly high in tannins. As a result, traditional barolos were literally undrinkable for the first 10-12 years, which is about how long it took them to start to soften up. During this time, according to traditional methods, the wine spent at least 4-5 years in large Slavonian oak barrels and then continued to be aged in bottles. Barolos are, as a result, some of the best aging wines in the world.

The new school is quite different. Partially to cater to modern taste and partially because of market pressures to get to sell wines earlier than the required 10-12 years, many wine makers in the Barolo region have changed the old methods. These days the fermentation process is much shorter and the aging is no longer in large Slavonian oak casks, but predominantly in small barriques from France. The French barrique softens the wine quite a bit and because the skin is only left on for a shorter period during the fermentation process, the tannins are not as dominant. Still, Barolos must age at least three years, mostly in oak barrels, and five years if the wine is labeled Riserva. As a result, modern Barolos are drinkable after a few years. They also taste much different, much heavier and complex than traditional ones.

Tonight we tasted a modern Barolo from the Prunotto wine house (vintage 2001.) This wine spent 24 months in small oak barrels, combination of French and Slavonian, and then another 12 months in bottles before it was put on the market. The wine is bone dry, still very high in tannins, full of black fruit and liquorice. As soon as you smell the wine, it hits you over the head. Once you taste it, the wine just takes over. It is one thing to call this a big wine, sure, but it is aggressive. It dominates everything else that may be hitting your taste buds and not just when you drink it but for many minutes afterwards. Barolos are different. They really are a category by themselves and this Prunotto is a fine example of that. Pair them with heavy meat stew, a fillet mignon with gorgonzola, or game such as wild boar or something else that stands up to it. You will feel like a king.

Name: Barolo Prunotto, 2001

Rating: 9 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: 33 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Barolo Prunotto, 2001

While most of this blog is about wine, occasionally I talk about other liquid beauties. This one is about an interesting grappa we picked up in the small village of Anagni, an hour outside of Rome. I used to really dislike grappa primarily for its harsh, alcoholy taste that I can only appreciate in a loud bar on a Friday or Saturday night (presumably because other sensory experiences overshadow the horrible taste.)

So about 6 months ago we were hanging out in one of our favorite Italian restaurants and the Italian sommelier asked if we wanted to finish the meal with a shot of grappa. We declined. No thanks, the veal was amazing and frankly I do not want to kill my money’s worth AND pay for it. He asked what we did not like in a grappa, went back to the bar, brought back 2 full shot glasses and was insisting though that we try his 80 proof “gasoline”. While I never liked grappa, I figured at this point there was no way back. At least I did not need to pay for ruining my dinner.

He asked that we just simply sip on it and try to appreciate the taste. I was amazed. The grappa was smooth, it did not have any overpowering alcohol taste, it was full of fruit and left a beautiful finish in my mouth. The grappa that changed my mind about grappas was Moscato Poli. The experience was an eye opener and yet again in my life I learned not to judge and generalize.

Ever since that night I have been seeking out other grappas I may like. I had some limited success, though I admit I have also found some not so good ones reminiscent of the ones I have had in the past. Last time we went to Italy I had to ask for expert help and get a recommendation from a local Enoteca about interesting grappas. The chief of the shop told me that if I have never had one, I must try a Prosecco Grappa. A Prosecco Grappa I asked? Is it bubbly like Champagne? It turns out that while most of the Prosecco varietal is used to make sparkling wine, like they do with other varietals, the grape and especially its skin is also used to make grappa. Because most people associate Prosecco with a Champagne-like bottle, the Prosecco Grappa also comes in a similar shape.

The gentleman described the grappa as soft, flowery, aromatic and his words “for her” pointing at my wife. He was not far off in the description, though I am not sure what he meant by the last part as she drinks me under the table most of the time 😉

The grappa was (yes it is unfortunately gone) Grappa Prosecco di Valdobbiadene from the Marzadro Distillery. The distillery is the middle of Prosecco vineyards at the foot of the snowcapped Italian Alps in the Trentino region of Northern Italy. This part of Italy is so close to Austria that you have a mix of Germanic precision and Italian La Dolce Vite in people, architecture and wine. This grappa feels and tastes like that. At the end of the day, how many grappas have you seen in a Champagne bottle? If you can get your hands on it, even if you do not like grappa in general, I highly recommend trying this one.

Name: Grappa Prosecco di Valdobbiadene

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Heavy

Price: 21 euros

Got it at: Enoteca Lo Schiaffo Di Tagliaboschi, Anagni, Italy

Grappa Prosecco di Valdobbiadene IGrappa Prosecco di Valdobbiadene II

The Treasures of Rome

November 1, 2007

Lazio, the region around Rome, is not quite as famous for its wines as other regions of Italy, such as Campania, Chianti, Veneto or Barolo. Most of the fame here is generated by whites, perhaps the best known among them is Frascati, which comes from a village by the same name a few kilometers outside of Rome.

This is not to say there are no decent producers of red wines in Lazio. There are several, and they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, behind their brothers in Tuscany or Piemonte. One of these fantastic producers is Colacicchi in the quaint village of Anagni, about an hour south of Rome. Colacicchi is owned by Francesco Trimani, who also owns one of Rome’s best wine stores.

Colacicchi’s Torre Ercolana has achieved a sort of cult status in Lazio over the last decades. It is hard to get, expensive, and absolutely world class. The wine is a blend of the local Cesanese di Affile and the international varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Think supertuscans and you are not that far away. Velvety, complex, a load of fruit, just absolutely perfectly balanced.

I picked up a bottle of this beauty and some other local treasures at a small enoteca in Anagni. Unfortunately we could not visit the winery, but got a taste of the gorgeous land around. I would love to go back to visit with some of these lesser known, but amazingly talented winemakers of the region. Life is too short!

Name: Cantina Colacicchi, Torre Ercolana, 2000

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 40 euros

Got it at: Enoteca Lo Schiaffo Di Tagliaboschi, Anagni, Italy

Cantina Colacicchi, Torre Ercolana, 2000

Campania’s Little Gems

October 30, 2007

I first learned about Campania’s wines in A16, a neighborhood restaurant in the Marina district of San Francisco a few years back. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I had barely heard of Campania beforehand. Campania is a major region in Southern Italy boasting Naples, the largest city in Italy south of Rome. It is also the home of the Amalfi coast, Pompei and fantastic wines made from the Aglianico grape.

Because by the time I had the chance to travel to Campania I had learned quite a bit of its wines and tasted about two dozen different reds I very much looked forward to visiting the region and get to see some of its wineries. Wineries in Southern Italy are nowhere near as commercial as they are in Northern Italy (at least compared to Tuscany or Piemonte) and this means less of them have English speaking staff and even if they do, you need to call ahead and make appointments. Well, me being absurdly hard headed, I did not call ahead. I chalk it up to pure luck that we ended up not only visiting but also staying overnight at the Agroturismo (sort of like a bed and breakfast) of one of the region’s prestigious wine houses, Mustilli in Sant’Agata dei Goti.

At the Agroturismo we had a chance to taste some of Mustilli’s wines and bring back home a couple of bottles. One of these was the Mustilli, Conte Artus, vintage 2003, a perfectly balanced blend of Aglianico (50%) and Piedirosso (50%). In case you have never heard of the grape Piedirosso, which I have not, this is also a varietal typical to Campania. It is also one of 3,000+ varietals found in Italy, so if you have not heard of it don’t sweat it.

I tend to think Aglianicos are fantastic, but I get a bit too much acidity in most, which renders these fantastic food wines (especially with tomato based pasta dishes) but they are not to be had alone. I am not certain if it is because of the Piedirosso grape, but this wine was definitely more drinkable standalone than typical Aglianicos. It was a bit heavier than other Campania wines I have had with a bit of a dark cherry tone both in the taste and in the color. Other than that, I do not remeber anything to write home about it. Its bigger brother I tasted at the winery, the Briccone Vino da Tavola Rosso Mustilli was in a different category. There is still a bottle of that in my wine rack so watch for a write-up in the next month or so.

Name: Mustilli, Conte Artus, 2003

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Body: Medium to Heavy

Price: approx. 10 euros

Got it at: Mustilli Winery, Sant’Agata dei Goti, Campania, Italy

Mustilli, Conte Artus, 2003