February 2009

My job is to taste wine and food. Yes, yes, I know (everybody says it): it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it. As such, I am invited to dine out and taste fairly frequently. I have decided to share my uncensored notes on these occasions with you for the following reasons: 1) it will give you an insight into what the life of a wine taster-wine writer is like and 2) it will give me an opportunity to write about wines, foods, oddities, Italy and people in an informal way.:
February 2009

28 February 2009

Annalisa’s Birthday
Venue: Osteria Al Carroarmato (Verona)

Annalisa owns the Carroarmato and has been my best Italian friend for 15 years. With plates of salami and cheese we drink sparkling wines.

Muratori Saten Franciacorta soft on the palate, as a Saten should be. Saten is the word used for cremant-style sparkling wines in Franciacorta). Very easy. Palate-cleansing acidity on the finish.

Ferrari Perle creamy mousse that is very pleasing on the palate. The nose and palate are linked by soft sensations of apples and creaminess. An idea of strawberries emerges. Very nice.

Steffi and Ugo arrive. Steff had just bought a copy of Tutto Sherlock Holmes. I had given her a book on learning English that featured a Sherlock Holmes story. She sat down with her dictionary and read it…and love it…and was so pleased that she went right out and bought the stories in Italian so she could read them more easily. I have made a convert. I am so pleased.

Simone (a.k.a. D.J. Simone or Don Simone, because he comes from Sicily) works for Annalisa and has impeccable taste in music. The background for our toasts is the Hungarian group Csokolom. “Molto energetic”: is Annalisa’s review. The violins are pure and warm and the singer – a women – has a wonderful timbre that suits the violin. She is like another instrument at times. Simone gallantly gives me the C.D. at the end of the evening.

Our pal Geppy stops by. On Monday he goes to Milan for the fashion shows – he owns a clothing shop in Veorna. “Armani became rich with T-shirts and jeans made in China. Not high fashion,” says Geppy.

27 February 2009

I receive an email from Jim, a man in Milwaukee. He writes that he works for Bob at the Renaissance Bookshop. Bob had seen my name in the Wall Street Journal and (since he does not have a computer or a cellphone or any of the mod-cons) he asked Jim to find me on the internet. When I was in Milwaukee I wrote television documentaries for the PBS station. Writing is a lonely job, so I went to the Renaissance one afternoon and offered to work part-time in exchange for books – no money just books. This was an offer that Bob could not refuse. The bookshop was (and, I think, still is) housed in a former furniture warehouse. Imagine three vast, slanting floors filled with piles of books. I felt like an African explorer when I was on the upper floors sorting through crates and cardboard boxes. I read Muriel Spark for the first time sitting on an upturned milk crate on the 2nd floor of Bob’s. I still have most of my wages from this work: a copy of Part of a Long Story by Agnes Boulton, Eugene O’Neil’s first wife and a very nice (third edition) of Ah, Wilderness.

26 February 2009

Bucci Rosso Piceno “Pongelli” 2007 Saturated dark ruby. An appealing fragrance of ripe red berry fruit shaped by zesty acidity. This sensation is carried through onto the palate, where it unfolds and expands. A satisfying, richly fruity finish, with an intriguing, barely perceptible hint of coffee. Very nice wine. Also very versatile for food and wine matching.

25 February 2009

Igor (of the Caffe Dante) sent me an email. He writes: “Your website is very rich and complex, like a Barolo smells!”

24 February 2009

I buy the Dolly Parton Love Songs CD. She gives a heart wrenchingly theatrical performance of “I Will Always Love You”.

On Saturday afternoons , when I was a child, Daddy would sit in his Lazy Boy Recliner while I sat cross legged on the wall-to-wall carpet and we would watch the Porter Wagoner Show. Lanky Porter would sing duets with voluptuous Miss Dolly. I remember one outfit she wore had a butterfly appliquéd on the bodice. With each powerful breath Miss Dolly’s butterfly would seem to take flight. “That little gal can sing,” said Daddy. Daddy was right!

23 February 2009

Tasting of Romagnan wines and a few French wines
Venue: Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche

A fine venue. Floor to ceiling windows – light and open spaces, views of a sculpture filled courtyard.

Here are the notes of some of the wines I tasted, in no particular order. (In fact, I tasted very little, having done a full tasting the day before. I did, however, have a complete visit to the museum – wonderful. I still remember the look on my mother’s face the day I told her I wanted to be a professional potter. Ah, but that is another story….)

Fattoria Zerbina Marzieno 2004 Vibrant ruby color. A full, forth-coming nose. Fresh cherry filled fragrance. This wine is magnificent. I swallow. I usually spit. It is very rare for me to actually let a taste slip down my throat. But this wine was just delicious. I sometimes use the word “Yummy” when I find a wine I really like and Italians will invariably ask me what the word means. I tell them it means delicious and satisfying – but warn that only women and children can use the word.

Delamotte Champagne Blanc du Blanc 1999 Fresh, fruity, surprisingly broad and appealing. I am used to a more linear style of Champagne but the appeal of this wine is undeniable.

Fattoria Zerbina Albana di Romagna Passito Scacco Matto 2006 Fresh. A precise note of Noble Rot on the nose. On the palate: mandarin, pineapple, green tea. Rich clean and vibratingly fresh on the finish. Great finesse.

“This is an excellent year for Noble Rot,” says Cristina G.

Fattoria Zerbina A.R. Passito 2005 A broader, fatter style than the preceding wine. Like juicy bubbles of luscious fruit (mandarin, tangerine, and apricot) bursting on the palate.

22 February 2009

Convito di Romagna Le Terra di Sangiovese zone visit and tasting
Visits: Fattoria Zerbina and Drei Dona

I will not tell you about thermal excursion, exposures, clonal selection or training methods…this isn’t the place for that kind of information. Instead I will tell you about children and animals! Cristina Geminiani (winemaker and owner) of Zerbina has 4 large, shaggy, eager, tail-wagging, black dogs. Her small children played with a fairy tale castle made of wood, plastic knights on horseback, a blue-gowned plastic princess and a jester or two. A very nice scene to behold.

At Drei Dona there are 10 dogs – 8 foundlings, 1 son of a foundling and a very attractive, white, sweet-tempered dog of a specific breed. One of the foundlings is called Machi. This is short for “Ma chi sei tu?” (But who are you?) These are the words uttered by Mr. Drei Dona when he opened his front door one morning to find her sitting on his front step. We also visited the Drei Dona stables – at least a dozen horses, a Shetland pony mare and her 20 day old son. It was the best dog and pony visit I have ever experienced.

Venue: for the tasting the Hotel Vittoria dining room (Faenza in Romagna)

2 vintages of each wine were presented. My identifier for Sangiovese is “cherry near the pit” – that means cherry flavor that is narrow and slightly sour (In a good way!). Also often there is silky texture when the wood is kept under control.

These are the notes of the wines I particularly enjoyed tasting.

Drei Dona Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva “Pruno” 2005 – Fresh, well knit – all of a piece. Sprightly. Attractive sour cherry fruit. A warm, spicy overlay of wood.

Drei Dona Sangiovese di Romagna 2008 – Bright beetroot sheen. Fresh, well-knit. The components are so precisely woven together that they create a satisfying whole. (Think tapestry.) Soft on the attack. Must try this when it is ready.

Fattoria Zerbina Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore “Pietramora” 2006 – A vibrant color – ruby with beet root highlights. A very tight weave of silky fruit on the nose and palate. Warm, soft tannin embrace the palate (this is often called “grip”). Satisfying. This is Fine Wine.

Fattoria Zerbina Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore “Pietramora” 2006 – Beetroot. Again. Tight weave that bodes well. A superb creamy cherry fruit and an undercurrent of warm, spiced wood. A wonderful weave of sensations. This is Fine Wine.

Tre Monti Sangiovese di Romagna “Thea” 2006 – Bright. Strangely soft on the palate but an intriguing flavor nonetheless. Sweet ripe cherry fruit.

Tre Monte Sangiovese di Romagna “Thea” 2008 Barrel Sample – Beetroot with fuchsia overtones. Bright. A thick-ish rod of fruit, vibrating acidity. Very young (obviously). Worth trying when it comes on the market.

Tre Monte Sangiovese di Romagna “Petrignone” 2008 Barrel Sample – beetroot color. Purity on the nose- creamy fruit sensations. Attractive – an interesting amalgam of sensations on the palate. Worth trying again to see how it develops.

Dinner with Producers and 20 journalists

Venue San Domenico (in Imola, Romagna)

One of Italy’s top restaurants (Michelin stars). The décor is like that of a well-to-do Italian home. We troop down to the long narrow cellar. It is composed of 4 small rooms. Cobwebby bottles galore. Here we have the aperitif and some pretty fabulous little snack-ettes.

One of the journalists bends low over a tray sitting on the edge of a table. His nose is less than 6 inches from the display of fishy things. He examines each in turn, then picks one up and pops in his mouth…keeping his shoulders hunched and his head within inches of the tray. He chews in this position. He does this act three times and then moves on to repeat the ritual over other plates of snacks. I am strangely fascinated by this bizarre behavior. Most civilized human beings will reach down and take something from a tray, step back so that others can approach the tray and then eat their chosen morsel. Michael says that perhaps he is just near-sighted and too vain to wear spectacles. I am not so kind in my assessment: I think he has slipped over the line from eccentric to insane. This is not based solely on his appalling eating habits.

And now let’s eat.

The bread: brioche-like rolls and a flat bread which Sergio Navacchia (of Tre Monti) tells me is called stregata. Michael describes them as Romagnan popadoms.

Slices of pheasants, a cube of goose liver and a dab of thick apple sauce, decorated with a slice of dried apple.

Uovo in Ravaiolo “San Domenico”. An egg boiled inside a ravioli jacket, served in a pool of butter. Wonderful but wicked. Somewhere I read (possibly in Kitchen Confidential by A. Bourdain) that the reason people find the food so satisfying in restaurants is – butter. Most home cooks are so cholesterol sensitive that they often substitute butter with margarine or omit it all together.

Guancialino di Vitello di Latte I am not much of a meat eater. But those who tried this said it great. All I could think of was how much I would like to bring it home to Stanley.

Desserts were phenomenal and too many to list. The outstanding one for me was crystallized orange slices.

Dinner Wines:

Fattoria Zerbina Pietramora 1995: A licorice undertow, silky, fresh, mature fruit. The idea of violets. Still appealing and youthful.

Fattoria Zerbina Pietramora 1990 Clay, tar, silky. Still an elegant wine but it is on the verge of its decline.

Drei Dona Pruno 1997 Again there is this silky texture that for me says good mature Sangiovese. Silky texture + cherry-near-the-pit flavor = Sangiovese. After 20 minutes it is even nicer.

Fattoria Zerbina Scatto Matto 1998 Pineapple vibration. An impeccable balance. Honey would be too simple to say. Fresh, youthful. It could go on for another 20 years.

Dinner conversation:

Sergio Navacchia: “I’m the founder of the winery and soon I’ll be gone. I started it with my wife as a hobby. She’s been gone twenty years. So, it was the greatest joy for me when my sons decided to devote themselves to the business. My son David has a degree in Law so he had another career when he decided to join Tre Monte.”

21 February 2009

I Grappoli del Veneto, del Trentino e Dell’Alto Adige This is a tasting of the wines that received top awards from A.I.S. (the Italian sommelier society) .
Venue: Palazzo Gran Guardia (Verona)

There are 129 wines on show. No, I do not taste them all. I usually go to these big tastings with a specific tasting plan in mind. (For example: only a particular grape variety or a particular style of wine). Once that assignment is done, then I taste other wines. If I have this kind of plan it makes the tasting more valuable to me. By that I mean that I concentrate on specific characteristics and am better able to deepen my understanding of a grape variety or the evolution taking place in a particular zone (and, hence, understand where the wines of the zone are heading). I am not a promiscuous taster.

Here are some of the wines I tasted listed in alphabetical order:
Begali Amarone “Monte Ca’ Bianco” 2003 A softness on the nose that carries on through the palate – a green note. The wine is aged in barrique and represents a “modern” style. It is produced only in good years. I usually like Begali very much. I will try this again at the next opportunity.

Borin Colli Euganei Cabernet Sauvignon Riserva “Mons Silicis” 2005 Grassy. It lacks the vivacity of some of the other wines of the zone. A bit hollow on the middle palate. Perhaps it is a duff bottle. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and try the wine again on another occasion.

Ca’Lustra – Colli Euganei Merlot Sassonervo Zanello 2006 – Rich, almost candied. Satisfying. Concentrated yet elegant.

“It is a wine to drink and enjoy. Not one to ponder,” said Franco Zanovello, the winemaker, with becoming modesty. Ca’Lustra – Girapoggio Zanovello Cabenet 2006 – Linear yet within that narrow corridor there is rich, fresh fruit. “Nice grip,” says Michael. I like the vivacity of Zanovello wines

I ask Franco why the name Ca’ Lustra does not appear on the front label. He explains that there are two lines: Ca’ Lustra and Zanovello. The Zanovello wines are definitely worth looking out for. Excellent.

Corte Sant’Alda Amarone 2004 This is the real deal. There is potent cherry fruit, vibrating acidity and ever-changing swirls of wood spice. Long flavorful finish.

Dal Forno Valpolicella Superiore “Vigneto di Monte Lodloletta” 2004 The color of beet juice. Still very closed. A nice tannin whirl on the palate.

La Montecchia Colli Euganei Cabernet Sauvignon “Ireneo” 2006 Spiciness on the attack. Lovely soft berry fruit. A creamy finish.

Le Vigne di San Pietro Refola 2004 (A Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend – the Cab. has been semi-dried for 1 month before pressing) Elegance. Compact fruit, closely knit, an aura of richness, with an attractive hush of menthol throughout. Long finish. Superb wine.

Viviani Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Campo Morar” 2005 Silky cherry fruit. A nice snap of freshness. Very satisfying. A fine silky weave of cherry fruit and zesty acidity.

Viviani Amarone “Casa dei Bepi 2003 A wonderful cherry nose continues on the palate. Elegance with silky concentration. Soft tannins shape the flavor. Superb.
Music note: Look for Karima Ammar. She sang a song called Come in Ogni Ora on television last night and she was simple superb. Great Voice. Her first CD comes out shortly. Worth finding.

13 February 2006

Our pal Illias drops in on his way from London to Athens.
Venue: Hostaria La Vecchia Fontanina

The apple and Durello risotto is superb. The wines were nothing to write home about.
Table Talk: Illias told me that Dolly Parton wrote the immortal “I Will Always Love You”, a song made famous around the world by Whitney Houston. Illy said that I had not really heard the song until I had heard it performed by Dolly. I am not on a hunt for the song.

11 February 2009

The Valpolicella estate I visited in January has sent over three cases of samples.
Montezovo Ripasso Valpolicella Supeiore 2005 Dark, near opaque color. A very broad fruit-filled nose with a sprinkling of warm spices. Also broad on the palate. The cherry-ripe plum provides a satisfying sensation. A nice wine. Later I had a glass with a beef stew.

5 February 2009

Tasting Evening with wines from (Agostino) Vicentino
Venue: Al Bacaro dell’Arena (in Verona)

The restaurant this evening features the wines of Agostino Vicentini and his wife Teresa Bacco. The menu has been matched with the wines. “We’re eating stuff from the Lessini mountains tonight,” said Agostino as I sat down across from at the table reserved for friends.

The first wine is 2007 Soave Classico

– a fresh, floral nose. Green-gage plums. The palate follows the nose – always a good sign. Well-balanced. After 10 minutes in the glass the wine is still elegant firm and persistent. This too, is a good sign.
Montezovo Ripasso Valpolicella Supeiore 2005 Dark, near opaque color. A very broad fruit-filled nose with a sprinkling of warm spices. Also It is served with salami rounds on bread, assorted sliced meats and julienned vegetables under sweet vinaigrette. Also (fabulous!) thin-crust pizza topped with cheese from the Lessini mountains and mushrooms, with a touch of truffle cream.

“The antipasti are so good that you may eat too much,” says Agostino. “ You have to pace yourself tonight. This is only the beginning.”

The second wine is 2006 Soave Superiore “Il Casale”.

The rich ripe perfumes (of acacia, gentle hints of apricot) opens up even more after 10 minutes. Almost creamy on the palate. Full fruit filled finish. Ripe. Elegant freshness and balance. The creamy idea continues throughout. After 20 minutes it just keeps getting better.

“I use only stainless steel. Never wood. I want my wines to represent the territory. Wood would mask that,” says Agostino.

We taste the 2007 Soave Superiore “Il Casale”. A richness, a minerality. After 20 minutes it is richer and silkier. “It’s still young,” says Teresa.

“With the 2007 I wanted to change the style so I picked earlier,” says Agostino.

The wine is served with thick noodles ,topped with Porcini mushrooms and a sprinkling of freshly grated (at the table) truffle.

“With this dish,” says Agostino. “The 2007 goes perfectly.”

I like Agostino: he is a farmer. He really does work the land. He grows cherries and other fruit as well as the grapes he uses in his wines. I will admit here that I have a soft spot in my heart for wine producers who actually work their land. Somehow when I am confronted with a rich, chicly dressed lady or gent who lives in Rome or Milan but who has kindly decided to drop in at the winery to show the journalists around – well as nice as these people can be – I don’t get the feeling that they care about their products in quite the same way as a farmer does. There is not the visceral link that comes from getting your hands dirty, from seeing your vines change day by day throughout the growing season.

We are also served potato gnocchi with clarified butter and grated smoked ricotta. This dish reminds me of baby food for grownups. It does not work as well with the wine as the pasta.

2004 Valpolicella Superior “Idea Bacco” The name is a little play on words, Bacco being Italian for Bacchus and also Teresa’s maiden name. Firm, ripe cherry perfumes and flavors on the palate. He never uses new wood. Round, satisfying, alive in the mouth. A balance between acidity and flavor that delights.

“I want to make a great Valpolicella. Everyone is putting their best grapes into Amarone – I use them for my Valpolicella,” says Agostino. Hooray! Is what I say to that.

The wine is served with rounds of pork bathed in a wine sauce. Not a success. The sauce is too winey and does not really enhance the meat. This turns out to be a good thing because I ask if I can take my meat home to my dog (only a foreign journalist can get away with this. An Italian would die of shame if forced to ask for leftovers. ) So, small Stanley gets my meat and Teresa’s and some of Agostino’s too. (When I take it home, I wash off the sauce and Stanley is delighted!)

Recioto Bianco made from semi-dried Garganega grapes. Balance – the hallmark of any good sweet wine. Acidity lifting the silky cap of fruit. Greeny gold. Cleans the palate, leaving a rich sheen of fruit.
Served with a cheese plate.

We discuss wines that evolve with time – always the sign of a great wine. “Just today,” says Agostino “the wine buyer of a noted restaurant in the centro storico of Verona asked me if I had any 2008s!!! I had to tell them that the 2008 was still in tank. It would not even be bottled until April. What can you do with people like that?”