But won't you be surprised to learn that I do not think that the wine of my people is better than the wine of every other people? I see I have perplexed, if not appalled you, familiar Reader. And what if I should go on to say that next to the French, I think my people perfect dolts when it comes to purveying their wine to you? I see I’ve now appalled you, if also amused you.
Well, let’s begin with my enthymeme’s unstated premise, namely, The wines and cuisine of a place are siblings. Engendered as they are by a common terrain and clime, a land’s cuisine and wines adapt to each other as they grow up together—call it syncretism, call it synergy, call it family. Likewise, growing up with my people’s food, I like their wine. Because I like wines that like my food, I like wines that don't mind tartness and pungency and savoriness. That also means wines that don't want center stage, but like jiving or jamming with food. My people drink wine with food, and not with just any food, but with meats. We have wine with antipasto, but water with pasta; we have wine with the meat dish, but water with the salad and fruit. On special occasions, we might have sweet wine with dessert, or spirits after, and that's pretty much it. We drink a lot, but we don't get drunk.
I like my reds pretty dry, pretty tart, pretty tannic but not too, to offset the oiliness and savoriness of my food. I don't like strawberries or red cherries in my wine; I like dark cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and plums. In the white, I love apples and pears. I like my fruit fresh or dried (like raisins), but not cooked (like jam). Flowers are okay, but I like herbs better. I like the cedar or balsamic notes of old wood, but not the vanilla or sweet spice of new oak. I like manly stuff like leather or tobacco or dark chocolate, but not exotica of the tropics or the East. I like earth and minerals, and earthy funkiness (think mushrooms, not feet), but not fur, sweat, or dung (can you blame me?). I don't like candy or chemicals either (what the hell are they doing in the wine, anyway?). I do like to tongue velvet and silk (okay, was that too much information?).
My whites I mostly like light and refreshing, just plain god-water. I can get interested in greater depths of fruit flavor on special occasions, but not in overlays of the winemaker's art. I'll tolerate a peach, but I'd much rather have a pear. You can't go wrong with lemons or almonds, but you do with pineapple or honey. Flowers are of course nice; grass is iffy. Earth, minerals, and toast are good; oak, butter, and vanilla are not. As for bubbly, I love it, and I love it dry, even though that's not Italian. I can't help myself.
It seems to me that there are more and more wines coming from New Italy (especially Umbria and Sicily) in the signature New World style of the Americas and Australasia, a style born of soils young and hearty, and climes as sun drenched and fair weathered as Eden's. But the wines I like with my Old Italian food are Old Italian wines. They're not buff, they're not sexy, but they have the layering of art that is long. If you like a glass of wine best after work as a cocktail with friends, or to relax while cooking dinner, or after dinner to wind down, then you probably like full-flavored fruit-forward wines that drink well on their own. That's not the way I drink wine, so it's not the wine I like. And that’s why I do not think the wine of my people is better than the wine of any other people. It depends on when you drink your wine, and with what. Wine is relational.
Now, if you’re not experienced with wine, you may be wondering, Are wines flavored? Wine just tastes like wine to me. Well, you need to work on that. But working on that doesn’t mean mastering terms of art. Talking about wine is impressionism. It’s a matter of putting words to your sensations, to name your likes and dislikes, so as to remember and cultivate them. It’s a question of waking from your sensory slumber and arising to sensory apperception, to take pleasure in your pleasure. Don’t be distracted by the chatter of experts and enthusiasts, never mind the prattling of snobs. Take your own experience as your measure. You need to own your own associations—so what if you like smelly socks? If somebody finds that weird, find someone else to drink wine with. An old Italian saying says, Dress according to others’ taste, but eat according to your own. The rest of us have to look at you, but only you taste what you taste, so you’re the expert on that. You just need to learn to put words to it.
You may be diffident of your ability to do so, but any naiveté with wine is far more likely a matter of inexperience than inability. I assure you that you’ll learn from experience. Take juices, for example. I bet you’d have little difficulty smelling the difference between orange juice and grapefruit juice, lemon juice and lime juice, apple juice and pear, pineapple and papaya—let alone not taste the differences. It’s simply that you have long experience with these scents and flavors. You can probably imagine how a foreigner who has never eaten these fruits might well at first mix up apple and pear. That’s how it is with wine. Don’t be impressed when someone can say what a wine is just from smelling it. It just means he drinks a lot, and if you want to be like him, drink a lot too.
And attend. As with food, you can eat and drink like a brute, with merely instinctual gratification, soul not attending, or like a rational animal, think on what you see, smell, feel, and taste. God brought the animals before Adam one by one for him to name. Why did God not himself name what he created? Rather he entrusted the naming to the one he would command to master the creation. If you are to be master of your food and drink—not to mention your pleasures—you need to name them.
Okay, okay, but why doesn’t wine just taste like grapes? Ah, a mysterious thing, that. A natural wonder. Grape juice tastes like grapes, but grape juice isn’t natural. It was invented after pasteurization, which can be used to kill the yeasts on the skins of the grapes, to prevent their working their wonder, a wonder willed by sive Deus sive natura (for the Lord has brought forth bread from the earth, and wine to warm man’s heart; oil to make his face glad, and bread to strengthen his heart). As soon as the grapes are crushed, be it by accident or by art, the yeasts begin to feed on the grape sugar, and before long piss it out as alcohol, eventually dying in their own piss. But if they’re good yeasts, it’ll be good tasting piss. (As I’ve said, let’s call each thing by its name.)
Left to itself, however, grape juice turned wine keeps oxidizing and eventually turns sour, which doesn’t taste so good, except maybe on salad with olive oil and salt. Sometime as late as the 16th century someone in Europe rediscovered (what ancient Greeks and Romans knew) that sealing wine bottles with the bark of cork trees slows down the oxidizing for as long as decades. What’s more, some wines emerge from slow oxidizing with surprising new notes and depths of flavor, and they are denominated “noble” or “fine” because of this potential. But those notes and flavors are not notes and flavors of grapes. They remind you of other things, and not just other fruits. They most often reflect, indeed distill, notes of their environs. Winemakers even stress vines on purpose, through pruning and drying, to force this draw on the terrain. The same grape variety, or even vine, will produce wines of notably different character in a southern and northern clime, in volcanic soil or seaside soil, in European soil and American soil. Delved into, a fine wine often manifests a veritable microcosm of sensations—if you attend.
Moreover, when the work of nature was taken over by the art of winemaking, human art introduced not only refinements of the natural process but also inflections and additions of its own. The most prominent inflection is that winemakers blend the juices of different grape varieties. Then by aging the blends in wooden casks, they superadd seasoning. I was once given a tour of Napa’s Paraduxx winery by the winemaker, and when he made me put my nose in three different oak casks, one of French oak, one of American, and a third of Hungarian, I was dumbfounded by the difference. I could easily see how it was like adding spice in cooking, like choosing between oregano and thyme, or nutmeg and cinnamon, or a blend. And as in cooking, there will be excess, defect, and the perfect mean. Thus is it that as important as the wine’s grape and place is its maker.
Excessive use of new oak is the thing I dislike in the so called international style of the Americas and Australasia. The overlay of vanilla, butter, honey, and sweet spice distract and detract from the wine’s native taste, like a woman with way too much make-up. Such overlay ruins the wine for me; feels so domineering and cloying, I often can’t make myself finish the glass. It also ruins my food for me, which is unforgivable. I love unoaked Chardonnay; can’t stand the oaked stuff. Granted, back in the day in Brooklyn, Old Italians drank California jug wine, not Italian wine—that’s what was at my father’s table every night, and all the rest of the family’s on holidays. But that wine was all vinified in stainless steel, and the frankness of California’s fruitiness was welcome to them and their food. My generation has repatriated wine-wise, at least on holidays. However, the New World European style blends, sometimes called “meritage,” seem to me the best of Old Word and New, in part for better restraint with new oak.
Fundamentals of Savor
To attend to all that a wine offers you, it helps to parse the parts of your experience of it: sight, smell, feel, and taste.
First, sight: look. Is it pretty—or not? If it’s red, is it purplish, ruby, or garnet? If white, pale, straw, or golden? Is it bright with light or deep with color? Does it have glints, highlights, or rims? Is it interesting—or not?
Now smell: swirl it to soak the sides of your glass with it. Put your nose in and breath in deep, once. Then stop and think. Does it smell a lot, or not much? Does it smell good? Of course it smells like wine, but what else does it remind you of? Does it have overtones of any fruits, flowers, or herbs? Of any animal, vegetable, or mineral? Of any person, place, or thing? If it smells like shit, say so (“barnyard” is the polite term).
Now feel: take a sip, but don’t forget to use your tongue—your stomach can’t taste, only your tongue and nose can. Cup the wine in your mouth before swallowing. How does it feel in your mouth, on your tongue, your gums, your cheeks? Does it feel big or hollow, heavy or light, smooth or rough, maybe velvety, maybe silky? Does it prick, bite, or burn? Does it pucker your mouth into a kiss, or make it water? Sexy, eh?
What does it taste like? Does it remind you of bright red strawberries or dark red raspberries, tart blackberries or sweet purple plums? Are the fruits fresh, dried, or cooked? Does it have any spice to it, any seasoning? Any associations of food you love or hate? Does it have an arc, a beginning, middle, and end to its taste as you swallow, or just one uniform flavor? Does it linger, or just disappear? Is its taste complex, merely genial, or elusive?
Do you like it? Say why.
Fundamentals of Nomenclature
Okay, if the factors to consider are starting to look overwhelming to you, you’re right about that. They can be. But don’t you let them. Aristotle says that a man who grasps the universal becomes master of an infinity of particulars. Master your universals, and the multitudinous details won’t confound you.
The first distinction is simple: different kinds of wine are made from different kinds of grape. Simple enough, if not for the confusion of tongues. The punishment befitting the ambitions of the Babelonians to build the highest tower around was the scattering of human languages, even to the present day (witness html). Some men name some wines from the grape from which they’re made, while other men name other wines from the place where they were made. New world wines are typically named from the grape varietals brought to them by their European settlers, and European wines from the places they came from. For example, the primary grape varietals of Bordeaux France are cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but wine from Bordeaux is most often called Bordeaux, whereas it’s called Cabernet or Merlot in California, Argentina, or Australia.
So, I lied to you. You will have to attend to something more than your own tastes and pleasure. You’ll have to memorize some stuff. But less than you think. The most prominent grape varieties marketed internationally amount to a dozen or so. For that matter, if you understand the difference between a grape name and a place name, you won’t have trouble when you come across an unfamiliar wine, because you’ll know that’s the difference to figure out. If you know the universal form of naming, the particular names won’t confound you.
Like people names, wine names have a general format. Just as people are presumed to have first, middle, and last names, though they’re seldom all used together, so wines can likewise be named from their maker, their grape, and their place. And just as people names can be complicated by hyphenated first or last names, or doubled or missing middle names, so too with wines. Then there are also nick-names, which a winemaker may give to one of his darlings in an excess of fancy or affection, or else which critics and consumers may give to the most coveted wines—the more famous you are, the less name it takes for people to recognize you.
Here’s a schematic figure for your imagination of the tripartite form your intellect needs to grasp. The first division is between a wine’s Name, Kind, & Place. Each of these three general forms admits of specific determinations:
NAME: of Maker / of Vineyard / of Blend
VARIETY: of Grape / of Wine
PLACE: Province / Region / Appellation
A label will always have the winemaker’s name on it, sometimes quite prominently, but occasionally not. If the maker thinks well of one his vineyards, he’ll make wine from the grapes of that vineyard alone, and put the Single Vineyard name on the label. If he really loves the wine, he may give it a brand or proprietary name, hoping you’ll love his blend well enough to like having a pet name for it too. Like first names and nicknames, such names are most individual.
Like last names, the names of the grape variety and wine variety may also be given by the label. Like a hyphenated last name, a variety name may also include a place name, whether the particular appellation, the more general region, or the most general province. The particulars are infinite, but if you can figure out whether the name you’re given is naming the wine itself, its variety, or its place, you’ll have a start on remembering it, if you want to.
At this juncture you have two ways to go, gentle Oenophile. You can either do an end-run around all this by making a short list of the wines you like and remember their names, without seeking rhyme or reason in those names, and refer to them as to favs and familiars. Or you can grasp the universal form of naming, and become master of infinite particulars, as often as you wish to, by knowing what else to ask for. There’s a kind of knowledge to knowing what question to ask that is superior to just knowing the answers. Knowing answers may be more useful, but knowing reasons is more masterful, because the answers are multitudinous, but the reasons overarching.
A problem for the novice oenophile is that Europeans much prefer their nicknames and local appellations to their grape names and regions. You’re far more likely to get all the name parts from a New World wine—Mondavi’s Napa Cabernet—than from an Old World wine—Chateau Petrus (i.e., maker of a famous merlot from Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation). But if you master the universal name form, you can search out the missing parts as desired. I may well introduce myself to you with only my first name, or only my last; you can inquire into the other parts of my name, or my nickname, depending on your interest in me.
The French are most clever at marketing their wine, knowing both how to hook you and confound you for maximum profit. On one hand, the finest wines of France are made from a handful of grape varieties. This keeps taste simple, for flavor as reliably recognizable as it is satisfying. If you like red wine from the large region of Bordeaux, it’s because you like the taste of cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes, as does much of the rest of the world, for these hearty grape varieties have been disseminated throughout the earth. If you like red wine from the small region of Burgundy, you like pinot noir grapes, a much fussier grape variety that can flourish only in particular parts of the earth. The wines made from both these grapes generally go by local place names in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but by their grape names elsewhere.
Now, once the French have you hooked on their grape tastes, they begin their confounding. They convince you that the parcels of land these grapes grow on and their microclimates so individualize the wine they produce, that they must be named and ranked very particularly, and priced accordingly, so that you may well have to pay exponentially more for a bottle of wine made from cabernet sauvignon grapes grown only yards from another bottle’s, each with its own disparately unpronounceable French name. Reputation once established, the smaller the supply, the greater the demand, hence the price—yet always cabernet and/or merlot, mostly. It’s masterful marketing, a masterful blend of recognizable simplicity and formidable variety. It’s perfect for the honor-loving who love to have what others thereby cannot, or to be on a first name basis with what only few know.
Now I’m by no means denying that there’s extraordinarily delicious French wine. I’ve tasted some of the priciest because of the generosity of my brother’s wine-in-laws, critics and authors whose flagship Wine for Dummies is by far the best introduction to wine I’ve come across. Like Socrates, its ridiculous visage belies depths of acumen. It’s smart, sensible, and bent on your enjoyment. These in-laws turned my brother on to the finest French Burgundy, especially from that pricey parcel, Vosne Romanée, and I was once so blown away by the aroma of one, it took me many minutes to recover enough self-possession to remember to take a taste. But they’ve also served me wine that mostly made me grateful I hadn’t paid for it—though I suppose there’s privilege in the opportunity to cop that attitude to wine of that price.
Be my attitudes as they may, the French are undeniably masters of the wine world, and their grapes have mastered the earth. In particular, Bordeaux’s red cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes are grown everywhere, as are Burgundy’s white chardonnay grapes; Burgundy’s red pinot noir grape is grown wherever it can, as well as the Rhone’s red syrah. These are the major players; you would probably recognize names of minor players as well, such as cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, and grenache. But it’s not just French grapes, but French tastes that dominate. Little French oak barrels dominate California wine-making, even though our land mass hosts more trees and kinds of trees than all Europe combined—you might think we could find a barrel wood all our own. Likewise, rules of thumb for what wine to drink and with what reflect French ways of eating and drinking. A traditional ban on any hint of garlic or tomato in food with the finest wine may well be a good rule for Bordeaux’s or Burgundy’s finest, but it does not apply to the finest of Tuscany or Piedmont, let alone South Italy.
Yet on the international market, Italian wines live in the shadow of French wines, and the ones that are most like French wines command most press and highest prices. But what true Italophiles like in Italian wine is the true variety of varietals behind the variety of names. There are parts of France like this too—for example, wine from the Rhone's Chateau Neuf-du-Pape appellation can be a blend of up to two dozen grape varieties—but these are not the most prestigious wines of France. Likewise, the most prestigious parts of Italy are like France’s, in that a noble grape or two is carefully cultivated in a region parceled into appellations that produce small supplies of highly sought wine. One could, for example, compare Piedmont’s nebbiolo grape to Burgundy’s pinot noir, as much for its viticultural fussiness as its effusive aromas; as much for its hyperbolic price as for its highly localized appellations, Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, et al.
Likewise, one could compare Tuscany’s san giovese grape to Bordeaux’s cabernet sauvignon. When wine made from san giovese is from the province of Tuscany, the wine will likely be named from legally designated place names more or less specific, such as Chianti or Chianti Rufina. A particularly famous variety of the san giovese grape that excels in southern Tuscany around the town of Montalcino goes by a name all its own, Brunello. However, grown outside these traditional areas, san giovese goes by its varietal name, such as San Giovese from Umbria.
Italy vies with France each year for producer of most wine in the world, though it also vies with Portugal for smallest wine producing country in the world. More significantly, Italy grows the greatest variety of grapes in the world—so many, some remain unnamed. Some grape varieties are indigenous, some imported so long ago (by Greek colonizers) that they’re naturalized, and some newly imported. Some areas of Italy are governed by laws that dictate how wines are made and named, while others are free to innovate. Either way, Italian fancy so loves to name each of its darlings so particularly, they sometimes forget to put basic information on the label for us feckless foreigners, such as the province of origin, never mind the variety of grape. That’s why the Italians are dolts besides the French. They’re feckless when marketing wines to the feckless.
One can try to excuse it. One can attribute the confusing disorder of Italian wine names to Italy’s embarrassment of vinous riches. One can attribute the celebrated creativity of Italian arts to a spirit of individualism, a cult of self expression. It has been observed that where centuries of orderliness in Switzerland gave us only the cuckoo clock, Italian disorder gave us the riches of the Renaissance. Notwithstanding, it’s a pain in the ass.
MONTICELLO’s Barbera d’Alba, for example, features the maker’s name, and the wine’s variety-name happens to include both the variety of grape (barbera) and the local appellation (Alba):
But nowhere does the label say Alba is in the region of Piedmont, nor is it obvious that barbera is a grape variety grown elsewhere (e.g., Barbera d'Asti) and not just a wine variety specific to Alba.
TAURINO’s Salice Salentino gives the maker’s name and the wine’s variety, but its variety name only indicates its province if you happen to know that Salento is the capital of Puglia and salentino the adjective of Salento (whatever Salice may mean):
Again, for BENANTI’s Pietramarina you can’t know from the label that it’s from Sicily unless you know Etna is in Sicily (and a volcano, by the way), nor know that it’s made from indigenous carricante grapes, unless you google it:
The wine, however, is extraordinary, though in short supply, so maybe the winemaker is counting on the snob appeal of your being one of the select few that knows this gem and the name it goes by. What can I say? Thank God for Google?
Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, eh? The best thing I can do for you is to model a chauvinism not merely ethnic or familial, but individual. I’ll answer Italian individualism with some of my own, by telling you which Italian wines I like from where and why. These are not the wines a human being should want to like. They’re the wines I like.
WINES I LIKE
South Italy’s Reds: Aglianico, Negroamaro, & Nerello
Surprise, surprise, my favorite red wine is made from the noblest (i.e. most age-worthy) grape of South Italy, aglianico. The etymology of its name is controverted: one story says the name is a corruption of hellenico, suggesting the grape was imported to the peninsula by ancient Greeks ; another says the name comes from aglio, meaning garlic, which I think is silly, even though what I so love about this wine is that it tastes like my people’s food, which does indeed love garlic. In any case, this grape has been cultivated for fine wine in recent decades more than in centuries past, for several reasons.
One reason is that before the advent of technology, in particular refrigeration, southern climes produced much wine but not much refined wine, because controlling fermentation and storage in the heat was often beyond human art. Northern climes were better able to produce wines of finer quality, if lighter heft. Of course, they had their own problems. At the extreme, the Champagne region of France regularly didn’t get enough sun to ripen their chardonnay grapes. When one desperate monk got the idea of sneaking some sugar into the bottles of his thin and sour brew, the secondary fermentation induced produced bubbles prized to this day, and priced accordingly. Art loves accident, doesn't it?
Down south, though, the wines were thick with sunkist saturation, and the ancient practice was to thin it with water, as Jesus did at the Last Supper. But the whole wide world of wine has been refashioned by technology. There’s actually less wine made and drunk now than in centuries past, but it’s much better wine, if more expensive too. By millennial standards, there’s very little bad wine in the world today, and southern climes are in a position to vie with northern for the very finest wines on the earth.
The potential of the aglianico grape to make fine wine shocked the wine world at an international wine tasting at the end of the last century, when the cognoscenti were taken by storm with a traditional Aglianico named from its hometown of Taurasi (in the appellation of Avellino, in the province of Campania, the land of my mother’s people!). That gave the newly entrepreneurial vintners of South Italy the impetus to cultivate the aglianico grape for greatness and export, from middle south Italy down to the tip of the boot.
And for testimony to how unbiased my chauvinism is, I don’t mind admitting that I like Aglianico from Puglia in the deep south, especially Aglianico del Vulture, better than the Aglianico di Avellino from my people’s native Campania, though the latter has the better reputation. The Aglianico from Campania is lighter and brighter; the ones from Puglia, more visceral and rustic. In fact, what I like about this grape is a certain noble rusticity. It has texture without coarseness, nip without bite, dryness without astringency. Yet, like my people’s food, it’s tasty. Its fruits are dark red, like raspberries, rather than light, like strawberries. They’re either fresh from the forest or dried. Its bouquet is of herbs. Its spice is peppery. It’s savory. I love it
I like the same qualities in negroamaro, the grape of the deep South, and Puglia in particular. The fruit of negroamaro is perhaps darker, wilder, and spicier than that of aglianico, and the wine perhaps more angular and assertive, perhaps less graceful at table for it, but not less genial, like your athletic brother. It tastes good with my food, standing up to the acidity of tomato and olive oil, the pungency of garlic, the sweetness of onion, the bite of oregano. Yet it’s gentle with the parsley and basil. A good friend to our food.
I can offer as further testimony to the integrity of my chauvinism, that it prevails even when I don’t mean it to. I have embraced aglianico with filial avidity, but I just can’t bring myself to like the renowned grape of my father’s people, nero d’avola. I don’t like wine made from it in the traditional way, and I like it even less made in the “international” style of New World wines, fruit-forward and saturated. The innovative vintners of Sicily are free of traditions and laws that dictate standards for North Italy’s traditional wines, and their innovations manage to command press and price, but I just don’t like the stuff. Its purple fruit seems dense to me, sometimes cloying, and overtones of celery can seem sour. It has glints, but not translucency. It’s smooth without being polished. My guests like it, but I don’t.
What I love from Sicily is Etna Rosso, and I loved its taste before I realized it came from the very neighborhood of my father’s people! (The volcano is in view of his family’s hometown, Riposto). I think it vindicates my chauvanism as unselfconscious. Like fine pinot noir from Burgundy or fine nebbiolo from Piedmont, the nerello grapes that grow on the volcanic soils of Etna produce wine effusively aromatic, not hefty, yet still complex, agrarian and yet still refined. The wine tastes to me the way cochineal looks. It’s deliciously red, quietly spiced, lightly tart. It’s graceful without pretension and gracious with dinner.
But I should own as misguided my attempts here to impose order on Italian wine through grape names. It’s downright American. In contrast to the New World winemaker's adolescent penchant for distillation of varietal character, Old World winemakers are proprietary blenders. The producer has been growing a mix of grape varieties on his estates, or else is a negociant buying grapes from such growers, and then blending them, like a cook, until they taste delicious. Then he puts a name on. Maybe it’s the name of his company, maybe a brand name for this blend, maybe the name of his estate or his town, maybe his wife’s name. To meet international demand for informational labeling, maybe he lists the grapes somewhere on the label, or hires someone to write up a little story on the back of the bottle. But maybe the simple truth is that his blend is his own.
Last night I tried a Monferrato Rosso I found on sale, imported by the American Kermit Lynch. I couldn't remember if the town of Monferrato was in Piedmont or Tuscany, and I neglected to notice that the back label included an estate address of 14010 Cisterna D'Asti (the Asti could have clued me in, because I happen to know where that is), and so I googled. What did I find? This:
Monferrato RossoWine is made by Alessandra Bodda at Tenuta La PergolaGrapes ferment in stainless steel.
Wine ages for 10 months in stainless steel before bottling.
• 2009 blend: 60% Barbera, 20% Croatina, and 20% Freisa
• 2010 blend: 55% Barbera, 20% Bonarda, 15% Freisa, and 10% Dolcetto
• 2011 blend: 60% Barbera, 25% Dolcetto, 10% Freisa, 5% Bonarda
• 2012 blend: 50% Barbera , 10% Dolcetto, 15% Freisa, 25% Bonarda
• 2013 blend: 50% Barbera , 20% Dolcetto, 15% Bonarda, 10% Croatina, 5% Freisa
•2014 blend: 25% Freisa, 20% Croatina, 20% Barbera d’Asti, 20% Dolcetto, 15% Bonarda
• 2015 blend: 28% Barbera d’Asti, 28% Barbera di Monferrato, 11% Freisa, 11% Croatina, 11% Bonarda
What does a chart listing year by year varying blends of 3 to 5 grape varieties with percentages tell me about the savor of this wine? Not much. Does it help me either anticipate or explain it? Not much. The chart strikes me as a sophistical blend of Italian alchemy and American scientism. Perhaps the most useful fact I learned from this website is that the importer Kermit Lynch likes this maker's blend. If I turn out to like Kermit's taste, that's a reason to try his other favs. I know that I share the tastes of Leonardo LoCascio, Marc DeGrazia, and Monsieur Touton, so I always try wines that have their names on the back label, whatever else the label may not say.
Aquinas says that the very variety of creatures better reflects the infinite goodness of the creator than the best creature would by itself. So maybe it's not that there's no mastering the intractable variety of Italian wine; maybe one needs to get over the desire to, and just enjoy the individuality.
Maybe, in fact, there's a dialectic one needs to pass through, wherein mere multiplicity must first be submerged into a manifold of universals, so that real individuality may emerge therefrom to take its stand as subsisting substance, the synthesis of merely formal essence and irreducible existence. —But then, for starters, don't I at least need to know what province the wine comes from, dolts! I can’t help wanting it—call me Americanizato.
The White Wines of Middle South Italy:
Campania’s Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, & Fiano di Avellino
I love the white wines of my mother's people, the golden whites of Campania. I think they rival the Chardonnays of France. They like the same sort of ballooned wine glass for the same reason, effusive bouquets borne by expansive aromas. These scents for the nose herald deliciously ripe fruit for the tongue, offset by citrusy acidity. The tastes pervade and perdure without domineering or cloying. These wines are ingenuously noble, generous and genial as the people that make them.
Falanghina stands to the other two as does the floribunda to the tea rose, i.e., an abundance of simpler blooms compensates for a more elegant one. Its fruit is friendly and upfront, but without aggression. Not yet well known, it's often a good value on the restaurant wine list. Fiano di Avellino is queen of Campania's three great whites. Its body is graceful in the way a fully mature woman’s is. The perfume of its golden fruit gains seriousness from mineral notes. It develops with aging that gives it polish and nuance. It is elegant in its self-possession. Greco di Tufo is knight to the queenly Fiano di Avelllino, offering companionable nobility. It shares the latter's earthy mineral underpinning, sometimes also adding almond to more lemony fruit flavor.
Delicious stuff, all.
Middle/Middle-North Italy: Tuscan Chianti
I like to say I like cabernet and san giovese blended better than either on its own. To my taste, the cherries of san giovese are too red and its acidity too tart, while the currants of cabernet are too concentrated—overweeningly dense in the hands of the Californian, severe and reticent in the hands of the Frenchman. But blended, the vices and virtues of each are offset and set off by the other. At the highest levels these blends have commanded international praise and prices, and earned the adulatory nickname “Super Tuscans,” because until recently they didn’t qualify for any legal designation better than “table wine,” although fetching the prices of the most expensive wines in the world.
In all this, the region of Chianti in Tuscany rather reminds me of Bordeaux. On one hand, it is trading on one great familiar and favored grape taste, primarily san giovese, and tradition and law have carved up the region in appellations from which producers command prices according to reputation. Some grow san giovese grape varieties that are nobly worthy of aging in wood to produce Chianti Riserva. In contrast, simple table-wine Chianti is really a different animal for lack of such barrel aging, a bright friendly friend to trattoria food. If you ask a snob what’s best to have with a Chianti Riserva, he’ll tell you wild boar. When I asked, “And if I don’t happen to have wild boar in the freezer, what would be next best?” he made no reply.
There’s no undermining the reputation of Tuscany, and there’s no need for me to. I’m quite content to drink the best Chianti when someone else pays for it, and there are now cheap blends of san giovese and cabernet or merlot I’m glad to buy on sale for variety’s sake. The most prized wine of Tuscany is perhaps Brunello di Montalcino, produced from the sub-variety san giovese grosso around the scenic town of Montalcino. If you have money, this is what you collect. Another san giovese varietal that makes a wine worthy a name all its own in southern Tuscany is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, or its humbler sibling Rosso di Montepulciano—not to be confused with Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo, even though it’s confusing (dolts!).
In the province of Abbruzzo, east of Rome, on the Adriatic, montepulciano names the grape variety that gives its name to the wine, whereas in Tuscany it names the place where the san giovese wine is made. The Montepulciano wine made in Abruzzo is food-friendly wine for food-loving people, as the Abruzzesi are, but in recent years the wine’s been copping too many airs for my budget. It used to be table-wine; now it’s priced for dinner parties. I can’t bring myself to take it that seriously. It would be like taking your little brother seriously. He might grow into it, but you just can’t do it.
Northwest Italy: Piedmont’s Nebbiolo, Barbera, & Dolcetto
Piedmont is at the foot of the French Alps, and that tells you all you need to know. I used to say that French is the worst spoken Latin in all Europe, until someone explained to me that French in fact evolved out of Italian, so now I say that French is badly spoken Italian proximately, and bad Latin remotely. Along the same lines, though I’ve never been to Piedmont, I figure it’s what French food and wine were before they went over the cliff.
The nebbiolo grape is capable of the same hauteur as Burgundy for similar reasons: this early flowering and late ripening grape is hard to grow anywhere outside the sunniest of the foggy hills of Piedmont (and a corner of Lombardy). At its best, the wine from these grapes need long aging, but when you do manage to make good wine out of it, its earthy perfume is legendary. It fills and turns your head. It’s heft is not heavy, but rather intricate. It tastes garnet, the way it looks. It’s coveted. It’s expensive. The best boast strictly regulated appellation names: Barolo & Barbaresco. But to my mind, the best bargains are the wines labeled Nebbiolo, because that means they don’t qualify for the legal designations that command higher prices for reputation. I figure some guy made it anyway because he thinks it tastes so good. I usually think so too.
Before Italian wine became as mercantilized as French, nebbiolo wines were holiday drink, and the daily drink of Piedmont was Barbera and Dolcetto, wine names taken from the names of the grapes they’re made from. But as more and more Piedmontese winemakers got the idea to cultivate these for export and profit, introducing wood-aging as well, these wines have begun to command dinner-party prices. You can still find cheerful Barbera at a bargain, but only with effort. You’re much more likely to get a guy at the store trying to convince you to pay over 20 or even 30 dollars. I’ve vowed never to be talked into a Dolcetto again—too bright red for me, too elusive. I’m wary of good Barbera, but not adverse. Its deeper red fruit is usually set off by manly notes of earth, wood, smoke; it has texture and grip, and it likes the savor of my food.
Northeast Italy [think Romeo & Juliet]:
The Veneto’s Valpolicella, Ripasso, & Amarone.
These are three names for the same. It just goes to show you what a difference a thing’s mode of existing makes to its essence. If you make wine from corvina in the usual way, it makes a wine like a friend you like to be with because he’s not so lightweight as to be boring, but not so complicated as to be demanding. He’s relaxing. That’s mostly the way it is with Valpolicella.
But if you think one day to dry those corvina grapes in the sun first (maybe because they hadn’t ripened enough one season?) and make wine from those sun-shriveled grapes, you come up with a deep red, rich, complex wine, layered with raisins and figs and compotes, yet with enough acidity not to cloy. For its very richness, however, Amarone is even more fit to be meditated upon on its own after dinner than at table with food.
But how about you mix in some of your Amarone, or else its lees, when making your Valpolicella? That’s called a Ripasso, and that’s great with dinner, especially Sunday dinner’s savory sugo and its savory meats. I love the stuff.
Italian Whites Sundry
I don’t understand what people like about Pinto Grigio, and so I don’t understand why they’re willing to pay as much for it as they do. Long before the now popular Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio was widely known, my father bought it by the case for under $5 a bottle for my sister’s wedding; nowadays it goes on sale for over $20! Okay, okay, I said I like my whites light, just god-water, but Pinot Grigio tastes to me like water all too human—little better than Trebbiano, if I may risk the insult. Both taste to me like wine for people who like to drink wine but don’t like it.
Pinto Grigio comes from the Germanic regions of Italy, so my prejudice against the pale plays in here. (I’ve bemoaned their putting apples in their food up there in these bytes before.) The Germans on the other side of the Alps excel at cultivating their light white varietals with Germanic precision, to extract the maximum of delicate varietal flavor and aroma, and there are Italian whites like this too—for example, Tocai Fruilano, which I love. But Pinot Grigio is no Tocai.
For daily drinking, I think you can’t go wrong with Umbria’s Orvieto, which offers serviceably clean fruit and aroma for white food. I lately picked up a Sicilian Inzolia for under $10 that satisfied in the same way, perhaps a little more deeply even. Piedmont’s Roero Arneis can render similar service, but with sometimes tinny tartness; Piedmontese Gavi is more sophisticated, but sometimes too dry for its fruit—to me, that is. Remember, wine is relational. Drink what you like.
Okay, that’s enough. There are many, many more wines of merit—I love Cannonau from the island of Sardegna (made from grenache). The joy of Italian wine is in such discovery. Go to it.
My Wine Glasses
Blogging offers a problematic illusion of confidentiality. It’s like the confessional: why does that little curtain make it easier to tell that priest on the other side of it your secret sins, even knowing he may well recognize your voice, or recognize you on sight afterward? [And why, by the way, are there no famous cases of priests breaking the seal of the confessional?] I say things to you in this blog and in a way I would never say them to you in person, and I don’t even know you. Why?
I occasionally come to my senses and grow momentarily uneasy about the unforeseeable repercussions of outing myself on the world wide web. Nonetheless, I suppose I will here mention to you my fetish for wine glasses. I have quite a few of them; I won't say how many. I'll just say, shape matters. I don't mean I think shape matters. I mean, shape matters. For that matter, size matters too, all sexual innuendo aside.
I’m willing to call this glass-thing a fetish so as to render it socially acceptable. Whenever you want to take something more seriously than others, excelling them by excelling in it, you need either to placate them or sequester yourself. People don’t like feeling inferior, so they won’t want to be with you if you feel superior to them; or else they won’t be able to resist cutting you down to their size; or else they’ll feel the very sight of you a reproach: The just man is a living condemnation of all our way of thinking, the very sight of him is an affliction to us.
I feel this way about vegetarians. If they have moral scruples about the justifiability of eating animals, how do they endure the sight of me doing so? Am I not the unjust man in their eyes? Am I not little better than a beast of prey, nay, worse, a criminal of conscience and reason? If not, how not? If so, why don’t they just eat with the righteous and leave me to my meat in peace? As for vegans, they seem to me little better than grass-fed cattle, so if I’m not allowed to eat them, why would I want them at table?
For fellowship’s sake, you best call your excellence a mania or malady. If you like your house very clean, best call yourself anal. If you like your table settings neatly squared off, call yourself compulsive. If you like to strip your broccoli, call yourself a fusspot. If you have a very large collection of very expensive wine glasses, best call it a fetish. Then they’ll indulge you generously, as it were. Condescend to them by letting them condescend to you—it’s the sociable thing to do.
[The alternative is letting them get away with stuff like, Oh my God, this is so delicious, I’m never having you over to my house for dinner; or when they show up with no bottle of wine for the dinner, No use carrying coals to Newcastle! Newcastle is not a restaurant and not a bank. Such a concession of excellence is not what you want. You want their condescension.]
If you want to get serious, but not excellent, you’ll need at least three kinds of wine glass. If you want to get excellent, you’ll also need each of the three shapes in two sizes. I could simplify matters for you by saying two shapes of one size will suffice, but I'd be condescending to you. You don’t want that. Or do you?
Now you might think the biggest, roundest glass would be best all around, for maximizing aroma. But you’re wrong. I don’t know why, I just know that you're wrong. Sometimes the aroma needs concentrating rather than dilating, and sometimes it needs first dilating but then concentrating. Likewise, the wine usually tastes best in whatever glass it smells bests, but why? Why would shape affect either smell or taste?
I don’t know, I just know it does, so you need at least three shapes, which I name from the outline of the bowl: the ROUND, the OVAL, and the STRAIGHT:
|STOZLE Wine Glasses|
Looking at the glass's profile, examine the sides of its bowl as it approaches the lip of the glass: if it balloons out like a globe, an upside-down cherry, or a tomato, it's a friend to Burgundy's pinot noir and its perfumed pals; if it arcs oval like an egg or bulges bulbous, then it likes rich and savory, such as Rhone's syrah; if the side of the bowl is more or less straight, it's the friend of sleek straight-shooters, cabernet & co., like good Bordeaux.
But I have betrayed my people to the French! Let's talk Italian. The straight-bowl, which makes you kiss the wine, is friend to the noble varieties of san giovese (for Chianti Riserva) or the South’s primitivo (a.k.a., Zinfandel). The balloon-bowl, which makes you greet your wine with a smile, favors the expansive aromas of Piedmont's noble nebbiolo or the South’s aglianico. The egg-bowl, which makes you pucker up to your wine, smooths and structures richness or spice, like the South's negroamaro or the Veneto's Amarone.
If the wine is big, it needs space to unfold into, lest it remain impacted, or else turn harsh, like a caged animal. However, if the wine is not big, it may get lost in a big space, lose its self-possession. Wine is relational. It has a relation to your glass as to your senses, and its relation to your senses is brokered by your glass.
[With so many different kinds of wine, how do you know which glass to use? I try them out. And then have three glasses to wash! Yes. And what happens at a dinner party for six, say, with a few different wines?.I have a lot glasses to wash. Takes me days. I know, it’s crazy, right? Who but me?]
Now I will not here play into Science Guy’s skepticism. I will keep the upper hand by simply insisting on the fact, no matter what he says. There are scientific theories out there that try to reduce the differences the glass makes to tasting wine by identifying different sensitivity zones on the tongue: as different glass shapes direct the wine to different zones, the theory goes, different tastes are accentuated or the opposite. But then another Science Guy comes along with another science experiment that shows there are no sensitivity zones on the tongue. And yet another Science Guy shows that if he deprives you of all sight, smell, hearing, and feeling, you can’t even taste the difference between red wine and white. Where there are two rabbis, there will always be at least three opinions. And where there are three Science Guys?
So I insist on facts without explanations. I can't tell you how many times a friend has told me that a wine they had loved at my house didn't taste nearly as good at their house. It's the glass, I'm telling you! (And maybe the food too.) I used to play tricks on people and serve them a select wine in two different glasses, then draw them out about why they liked the one wine better than the other, only to reveal to their amazement that it was the same wine in both glasses. The glass doesn't always make such a dramatic difference, but it does so often enough to make a difference. So, if it tastes good in my glass but not yours, don't say I didn't tell you.
My Wine Toys
My fetish includes toys. My friends give them to me. [These people look plenty respectable by day, I assure you.]
First, to prevent drips, there are devices as overdetermined as they are overpriced. I laugh with derision at them in catalogues, ever since I received as a gift from Switerland the cleverest little thing, far cleverer than a cuckcoo clock, a little foil disk that you roll into a cylinder and insert into the bottle neck, and by some geometrical miracle of quasi-conic curvature, the wine doesn't drip when poured. Its simplicity is beautiful.
Now, it's not brute-proof, especially if the brute is intent on showing it doesn't work, but for most intents, purposes, and guests, it does the job excellently. So imagine my delight when I found it hanging at my local Eastport Liquors, under the name Drop Stop.
But say the brute manages to stain your table cloth anyway? Then you need Wine Away, which is far away easier and safer than spot cleaning with bleach.
But the funnest toy of all is the Wine Clip, if only to watch Science Guy rolls his eyes right out of his head. It's a magnet that clips around the neck of your bottle and uses "the power of magnets to bring out the best in every bottle of wine ...." Okay, I'm a believer, but precisely because it doesn't bring out the best in every bottle of wine. That would be suspicious indeed.
The magnetic field created in the neck of the bottle putatively accelerates aeration and softens tannins. Now we'll give Science Guy several nanoseconds of pause when we point out to him the interesting fact that oxygen is one of the few gases susceptible to a magnetic field; I tell you, that will pull up his reflex response short for up to several nanoseconds. If you're fast enough, you might even be able to interject that this sort of magnetic technology is used in industry before he retorts, "But not in the neck of a bottle." I don't know about that (and neither does he, because he hasn't conducted any experiments, has he?). I only insist on facts: it makes a perceptible difference. No nanoseconds pass before he scoffs at that.
I don't in fact rely on the magnet for aeration. If the wine is either noble or tastes raw, I'll pour it out into a decanter (or any handy pitcher), to help oxidation along mechanically; or I might just pre-pour the wine into wine glasses at the table when I set it. Most wines these days need breathing because most are brought to market too young in anticipation of months of turnover time on shelves. Old-style Italian wines especially need airing, to bring out their fruit and soften their astringency; the old rule of thumb is three hours for Italian reds. Open it when you start cooking, and have a taste, for a controlled comparison with what it tastes like at table later with food. I sometimes even find I like a bottle of wine best with dinner the next day, after some 24 hours of breathing (re-corked, of course).
In any case, the wine magnet is a good occasion to talk about tannins in red wine, because that's where the Wine Clip clearly makes a difference to my maya. Tannins give me hope, for their bitterness and astringency make wine more complex, a vindication of sorts for bitterness and astringency. Tannins are in such food favorites as coffee, chocolate, and olive oil. In wine, they work like pepper or vinegar in cooking, to offset sweetness and fattiness. Red wine can taste fruity or flabby without it. You don't taste tannins; you feel them. They grip your gums, cheeks, and tongue. And as in matters amorous, they do so with more vigor than finesse in youth, and more finesse than vigor in old age. So the magnet putatively speeds up the aging process, again, as a good thing.
Well, it's often a good thing. But sometimes the magnet makes the wine flatter rather than better. And sometimes it makes no difference at all. Is that because the wine had few tannins to affect in the first place? Or were the tannins already softened enough? Can tannins get too softened?
No, I'm not taking that bait. I insist on facts without explanation. All I'm going to say is that, when my people's wine doesn't taste as good at your house as it did at mine, know that at my house it was magnetized, served in a glass that cost many more times than it did, and came hand in hand with my people's food. I have nothing more to say about it. [About time, eh?]
“Men are like fine wine:
Men on Women & Wine
“Women are like fine wine: