Skin-Fermented Fiano from the Volcanic Highlands of Campania

What a week for wine! As indicated earlier, I was in New York for the latter half of last week for VINO 2010, a massive conference of seminars, tastings, meetings, dinners and the like, all celebrating the contemporary world of Italian wine in the US. I’ll get to details of wines tasted at the event, as well as notes from the panel I participated in, later but first a little indulgence.

One of the more notable wines I tasted all week was a fiano from Calitri, in the Irpinia highlands deep in inland Campania. Think the other side of Mount Vesuvius and you’re about right. Head south a little too, through the raw farmland, mountains and ancient Germanic castles on the road to Basilicata.

Don Chisciotte 2006 Fiano Campania IGT is a an unusual take on one of this region’s most promising indigenous white varieties from the father-uncle-son team of Michele, Pierluigi and Guido Zampaglione. Made in a natural style — ie, organically farmed, with no additions of yeast, enzymes, or chemicals; limited use of sulfur — it’s also fermented on its skins, where it acquires a distinctive golden-orange hue.

(Above: Skin-fermented fiano and a bowl of just-fried hushpuppies. Note the similarity in color.)

I met Guido Zampaglione this past year at ViniVeri in Verona where he was pouring wines from Tenuta Grillo, his winery in Monferrato. Don Chisciotte is a project Zampaglione started with his father and uncle at their family’s Il Tufiello estate in Calitri, where they’ve long been growers of organic wheat, oats and sunflowers. Two hectares of fiano vines were planted in 2001, at an altitude of around 800 meters (2,600+ feet). The high-altitude viticulture in this part of Italy is part of what makes the region so thrilling.

This ’06, found at Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan, is an unusual wine — not for everyone, but certainly interesting. and worth checking out. On top of apple/ stone fruit flavors and the gripping texture from the skin fermentation, we noticed a curious spice component, sort of like curry. Pretty groovy stuff.

Production is quite low — apparently there’s around 5,000 bottles produced — but it’s the kind of thing that will attract attention, and apart from Antece from Bruno De Conciliis, it’s the only skin-fermented fiano I know about (though I’m sure there are more).

For more about Il Tufiello and Don Chisciotte, check out the farm’s blog. Also, Jamie Goode weighed in on the 2007 vintage of this wine a couple weeks ago.

Are Italian Wines More Likely to be Corked?

(Above: What I had hoped would be a delicious bottle of 2005 Castell’In Villa Chianti Classico was ruined by cork taint.)

Seriously. This question would often plague me during our marathon tastings at Wine & Spirits. Say what you will about tasting a lot of wines at once, but I can’t think of any better method for noticing how many wines come up as corked. And I don’t mean just flawed or otherwise muted — there are plenty of those — but straight up murdered by TCA.

And you know what? When I’d be tasting Italian wines the number of corked wines seemed outrageous. Like anywhere from three to five in a group of 35 wines, compared to say, one, maybe two corked bottles during a comparable tasting of North American wines. And I’m not talking about inexpensive values here (these actually fared better, at least during my tastings), but higher end wines often bearing a DOC or DOCG marque.

So what gives? Is the cork industry unloading crappy corks on the Italians? (I can’t verify this, but I’ve heard from several people that Austrian wineries used to complain about getting shafted by cork producers, and that’s one reason they’re so behind screw caps and the sexy Vino-Lok.)

Do Italian wineries skimp on their cork purchases? Interestingly, Italy seems to lag behind other wine producing countries when it comes to embracing alternative closures. In fact, the Italian wine industry insists on the use of cork. As one importer in the Bay Area put it to me the other day, his Sardinian producer had problems with cork taint and then started to experiment with screwcaps and other closures for his Vermentino di Gallura. Now that Gallura is DOCG, he’s been forced to switch back to cork under the new appellation regulations.

Or has the worldwide boom in wine led to too much pressure on the cork industry, and now invariably there are good corks and bad corks on the market? Or is some combination of all of the above?

These are just my observations, but in the course of many tastings over several years, it was impossible not to notice this many corked wines. And to see such a high number associated with the wines of a particular country is just annoying.

Transparency and Authenticity in (Italian) Wine

Not much blogging recently — sorry, between getting started with Revel Wines, looking for a new apartment, and a rather large writing assignment (there’s something about that project here), I’ve had a lot on my plate.

To add to that, I’ve been invited to speak on a panel at the upcoming VINO 2010 in New York. It’s an interesting topic — Transparency, Traceability, and Wine: the Italian Appellation of Origin System — and one that promises a lively discussion.

The series of recent wine scandals in Italy have no doubt inspired the theme, and I think it’s an important topic to bring up at an event that bills itself as “the biggest Italian wine event ever held outside of Italy.” But there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind: issues of transparency in appellation laws are not particularly relevant to the average American consumer of Italian wine. Consumers have enough to worry about when it comes to deciphering a wine label as it is, and I tend to think most people take what’s on the label at face value.

(That being said, fraud deserves to be called out and punished. And when it comes to the mess in Montalcino, I agree with the sentiments expressed on the t-shirt pictured below.)

I think we all recognize that Italy’s appellation laws fulfill an important role in codifying specific requirements and limitations when it comes to wine. But I’d be curious to hear from wine folks out there what your customers — the average consumers of Italian wine — think. Do they trust Italian wine any more or less than another wine from somewhere else in the world? Do they seem concerned when there’s a scandal? Do they care that a producer in Montalcino can’t cut their sangiovese with merlot and label the wine Brunello, yet a producer in nearby Greve can do that very thing and still call the wine Chianti Classico?

Let’s put the idea of that question another way: after the scandal in Montalcino, did you see a noticeable dip in Brunello sales?

This is only one aspect of the problem, as I can see it. Regardless of what’s done on the Italian side to safeguard appellation rules and prevent fraud, on the American side I see that the need for informed importers, retailers, sommeliers and concerned wine geeks is stronger than ever. Without those folks keeping watch and building trusting relationships with their customers and friends, who’s the market going to trust? And in a market that seems to crave the authentic in nearly every aspect of the eating and drinking experience, building trust is everything.

(For a perspective on the need for authenticity, or at least the feeling of authenticity, in food and wine, be sure to check out Jonathan Kauffman’s excellent 2009 article “…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of German Butterballs: What Locavores, Wine Geeks and Indie Rockers have in Common.”)

Out of Balance

Is it me, or was that kind of a nasty summer? I’ve been trying to keep a positive mind but then circumstances seem to conspire and throw everything out of whack – either personal or some wider social context. Between notable deaths, ongoing wars, economic anxiety, that tea-bagging/town hall silliness and a host of other issues, it’s enough to make you want to cocoon up and not leave the house.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of shit throws me way off-balance. It’s even affected the way I taste wine, which feels weird to say, but why not? It is my livelihood after all, therefore important.

This latest round of frustration comes via Italy, where two letter bombs were thrown at a crowd of young people gathered outside a gay bar just up from the Coliseum. There’s a report in English here. As Towleroad observes, there’s been a string of anti-gay/homophobic attacks in Italy recently; beyond the letter bombs, there was an arson attack on Rome’s popular gay club Muccassassina (the club was closed at the time), a stabbing outside of Rome’s summertime gay festival and an assault in Naples. Not that the US is a shining example, but Italy has a nasty case of homophobia and this news doesn’t help. A bright spot: The attacks have been widely condemned, and there have been public protests.

Here’s a report (in Italian) following the bomb attacks in Rome (via Towleroad):

I’m reminded of the terrible incident earlier this summer in Israel when a gunman attacked a gay and lesbian youth center in Tel Aviv, not far from where some friends of mine live. I didn’t see much coverage of the attack in the American news (why doesn’t that surprise me?) but the BBC has good coverage, including reports of subsequent protests, here.

I know, nothing to do with wine. But then again, we’re talking about being out of balance, and that has everything to do with wine.

Of course, it’s tempting to just say to hell with it all, turn to the bottle and drink up.

Grumble, grumble.

Onward into the Fall, may better times lie ahead.

VinItaly 2009: Some Impressions

There’s a new post up at Wine & Spirits with some of my impressions from the recent wine fairs in Verona, including VinItaly and Vini Veri. It’s a q&a format although how I managed to squeeze in time to answer everything during a recent marathon tasting of Italian wine in New York is beyond me. Anyway, one of the things that struck me most during this past trip to Verona is that the region in early April is a lot like the Edinburgh during the Festival and Fringe, which I had a chance to experience during my university days at St. Andrews (just up the coast from Edinburgh).

The Festival was once a singular theater/opera event happening every year in August; over time a festival Fringe developed that has since become larger than the original Festival. The net result is a massive cultural happening — mostly theater but really every kind of performance, including music, film and even bagpipes — that takes over the entire city for two weeks at the end of summer.

Verona is now sort of a vinous equivalent, with the natural wine fairs Vini Veri (which was greatly expanded this year) and Vin Natur, as well as Summa, which happens about 90 minutes outside of town in Alto Adige. A busy time to be sure, but also an amazing opportunity to taste some incredible wine and talk directly with producers, making it well worth the effort to get there.

(Click here to read the post at Wine & Spirits.)

Amarofest in Verona

One of the great things about VinItaly is that producers often have a little something special at their stands beyond the latest vintage. Sometimes there are older wines, other times it’s a full-service lunch (which is most welcome). And for some producers, the secret stash includes an exotic amaro.

I love amaro: From the power of Fernet Branca to the herbal complexities of Braulio, it’s obvious that I’m a fan. And Italy’s full of the stuff, most of which isn’t available in the US (nor the rest of Europe or the various Italian provinces), so on recent trips I’ve taken to bringing a bottle or two home in my suitcase.

(I rationalize this from a practical standpoint based on the simple fact that a bottle of amaro last much longer than a bottle of wine, hence it’s worth the effort to schlep it home.)

Here’s one of Italy’s great amari, available only from where it’s made at Abbazia di Novacella in the far north of Italy, just near the Austrian border.

Klosterbitter

Kloster Bitter is made from the cones of tiny Alpine pines that have been macerated in a neutral spirit and then distilled. Unlike most amari it’s neither colored nor sweetened, and so it feels lighter in texture. As you can see, too, it’s awfully pretty in the glass. I bought a bottle last November at the winery; that’s nearly finished and happily I picked up a new one on this last trip.

Another find was the Dolce Amaro, made from an infusion of 12 herbs and then sweetened with honey, all from the island of Favignana (part of the Isole Egadi), north of Sicily. It’s a side project at Statti, based on a recipe developed by Dr. Umberto Rizza. Wild suff, with pungent aromas of thyme and camomile, and a lasting peppermint flavor that totally cleared the jetlag out from my sinuses. Perhaps a little harsh to drink, it could have benefited from an ice cube.

DolceAmaro

*Note: For a primer on various Italian amari, check out this article I wrote last year for the SF Chronicle.

*Double Note: Jon BonnĂ©, with whom I nearly killed off my last bottle of Kloster Bitter, suggested that we start a Twitter campaign to get the stuff imported to the US. Abbazia di Novacella is brought in by Vias Imports, so hopefully they’re reading this.

Pic Post: VinItaly, ViniVeri & Verona

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or at least a glass or two of wine…

Tuscan pavillion

Above: An aerial shot of the Tuscan pavilion, always one of the most busy — and ostentatious — at VinItaly.

le presi 2009 t shirt

Above: Brunello producer Le Presi makes a new t-shirt each year for the fair. This year, the theme capitalized on Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes, we can!”, modified to reflect the traditionalist approach in Montalcino. Note the card referencing, well, female admirers. It’s common at winery stands during VinItaly to employ models in swimsuits to promote wine; I chose to think of this note as a comment on that behavior at the fair, though for all I knew, these guys were serious.

(Check out last year’s t-shirt here.)

refreshing

A much needed refreshment following the Vini Veri tasting. Glassware by this point was difficult to come by, but the pinot gris was tasty all the same!

dscn2239

Natural wines: A blurry photo, but two delicious Italian wines not so widely available in the US.

dinner

Somehow I got my hands on a magnum of the excellent 2006 Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Cos, which we drank at dinner after a long afternoon at Vini Veri. Delicious!

waiting for campari spritz

Waiting for our round of Campari spritz the morning after several days at VinItaly and Vini Veri. The spritz — usually with Campari or Aperol mixed with soda — was everywhere in Verona this year, and it proved to be a reliable pick-me-up when fatigue set in.

banks of the adige

From the banks of the Adige in Verona: “Irene ti amo”

Whoever she is…