December 2008

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.:
January 2009

December 29

a sample from my cellar
Venue: my dinner table

Inspired by Claudio and Giuseppina, I trawl through my collection of bottles and find a one with an adhesive label that reads: Ca’ del Bosco “Carmenero 1997” in anteprima. I am interested in the Carmenere grape variety at the moment. Deep, dark ruby. The wine is firm and full. On the nose there is a very attractive sprinkle of black pepper over a very creamy sensation of ripe berry fruit. Excellent balance between fruit, acidity and tannins. A very attractive and satisfying wine. Now off to the gym to peddle away on the stationary bike so that I can fit comfortably into the dinner dress I will be wearing at the Baker Street Irregular’s Sherlock Holmes birthday dinner to be held in New York next month. I lived in NYC for 9 years and love going back to see pals.
December 28

Lunch at Giuseppina and Claudio’s
Venue: Their fine kitchen (another kitchen that fills me with envy)

Giuseppina and Claudio work in a bank and have a true passion for fine food and wine. It is a pleasure to dine at their place. To eat: Slices of roast beef, mashed potatoes and kraut (that is excellent – not too vinegary…just cabbage-y enough), followed by a fine parmesan cheese and pandoro (another Christmas cake – this one studded with tiny pieces of chocolate, nuts and raisins), then nuts. To drink: “LA Fleur” du Chateau Armens 2001 (St. Emilion Grand Cru), “Tell me what you think of this stuff,” says Claudio handing me a glass (and knowing full well that I would like it). I am still trying to pin down that indisputable – something – that says : Bordeaux. The “idea” that forms is furry, blurry and round and yet very specific for me. But it is a sensation-flavor that defies an easy one world identifier. I know it when I smell it. It opens doors in my memory. But I do not know how to describe it to other tasters. It is one of those things you know from experience. (I used to broker Bordeaux to private clients when I lived in London, and went to first growth Bordeaux tastings every week when I lived there). Then we had 2000 Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru. From Geantet-Paniot. Its texture gives me great pleasure. I love silk on the palate. Then Claudio opens a 1995 Chateau Pichon Longeville – a lovely undertow of tobacco. Fresh hazel nuts swirl through a warm, full fruit. Shoe polish come to mind (again, for me, this is not a bad thing…only an identifier. And again I would not use this in a tasting note published in a magazine because it is not a standard identifier…it is a personal identifier.) I find myself describing sensations – always a good sign. Just for the intellectual pleasure, Claudio opens a 1995 Sassicaia. It is a burlier wine. Very tightly knit fruit – a spikier texture. What is so wonderful about all great wine it that they are all of a piece – a tightly woven bolt of flavor that unfurls on the palate. The Sassicaia is not as smooth as the French wines (but it is still a fine wine, it just has a different style). For me the wood is just a tad rough on the back palate…but – hey – I am not a fan of hard wood. I prefer it when the wood is an element that enhances the fruit and is not identifiable as a marked separate element). But all and all the wine is lovely. And then… Arrighi Elba Aleatico Due Mila Sei: spearmint on the nose quickly followed by dark berry fruit. A flush of freshness. Opaque dark ruby. High-toned. 1,500 bottles of this wine are made. It does not do it for me. I appreciate that it is well made but it does not make my heart sing.

Then we are off to Ugo’s annual “Happy Birthday Cinema” showing of silent films: two fragments of silent films based on Charles Dicken’s novels and – Oliver Twist, featuring wonderful Jackie Coogan. Afterwards, the audience (perhaps twenty people) meets in the lobby of the little Teatro to nosh on leftover Christmas cake and odd bottles of wine served in white plastic cups.
December 24

A Neapolitan Christmas Eve dinner with the Genovese Clan
Venue: Papa e Ciccia in Verona

Our pal Geppy Genovese has very kindly invited Michael and me to join his family for a traditional Neapolitan Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant owned by one of the Genovese clan. Although Geppy and his brothers have lived in or near Verona for decades, they are still Neapolitan at heart. “If you want to know what Christmas is like, “ says Geppy “You have to go to Napoli…the lights…the food…” 18 adults, 4 children, 4 Barbies and a My Little Pony attended the meal. Nonna Concetta, who is 88, supervised the purchasing of the ingredients and the preparation of the food. “I have had this same meal every Christmas of my life,” confides 23 year old Silvia, Geppy’s niece. “Right now in Napoli everyone is eating exactly what we are,” adds Geppy. “It is always fish on Christmas eve and meat on Christmas day.” We start with Minestra di Natale (a kind of broccoli soup), spaghetti with clams and shrimp, then platters of steamed fish and Insalata Rinforzante (peppers, anchovies, black and green olives in a sharp dressing), then come the platters of fried fish (sole, eel, shrimp and squid) and then an array of dessert cakes, platters of dried fruit and bowls of nuts. The wines? Well, we all had a glass of Prosecco as an aperitif and Soave with the meal. “Neapolitans are eaters not drinkers – not like the Veronese,” says Geppy.

The background music is Ray Charles. “Great choice of music,” says Geppy. “You know that on their second album, Animal Tracks, Eric Burden covered 5 Ray Charles classics. I still remember seeing the Animals when they performed in Italy in 1967. I still have my ticket – autographed by Eric Burden. Man, what a great singer he is. I also saw the Stone that year. They did a Satisfaction that lasted for 20 minutes!”

We are introduced to Geppy’s mother-in-law, Ornelia, a very attractive woman in her seventies. “She has written three books! The last one she published herself and she took it round to all the book shops in Verona. She has sold 500 books so far. That’s not bad for just Verona,” says Geppy. It certainly isn’t. If she keeps up at this rate she will overtake the sales of many of last year’s Booker Prize nominees. The subject of her latest book? “I speak with dead people,” says Ornelia. “I have always been able to do it – since I was a child. My latest book is about my life and the things I have learned from the spirit world.” Her profession as medium has taken her to the White House in Washington D.C. On that trip, in 1981, she regressed a couple of Nobel Prize winners. “They were very interested in finding out about their past lives.”

Silvia (Geppy’s niece, remember?) tells me that I am responsible for changing her life. What did I do? About a year ago I told her that she should choose a career that she enjoyed rather than sticking with a plan she had made when very young. Silvia is fluent in English (Her first foreign language is Portuguese, and she speaks a smattering of other languages). “I thought about what you said and I realized that what I really like to do is communicate with people!” She has decided not to become a simultaneous translator (where basically you sit in a closet connected to the outside world – the conference, seminar, marketing presentation – by a headset and a microphone.) She can do this…but being a translator in the closet is not the kind of communication that Silvia craves. She has found a job organizing courses for translators (“And they are paying me!”) while she finishes up her university degree.

Nonna Concetta has been given a thick stack of scratch and win lottery tickets, which she works away at between courses. At the end of the evening she has won 28 Euros!

After dinner we head off to our pals Ugo and Steffi’s for our traditional Christmas festa…around 2:00 A.M. Ugo’s twins hand out the presents. By 3, we are walking home through a deserted Verona. A fine scrim of fog hangs over the city.
December 19

Lunch with Katia and Lucio Gomiero
Venue: Their warm kitchen

I see a row of Madeira bottles and tell Lucio I have a collection of older vintages at home. He offers me a taste of what remains in the bottle of a 1905 Sercial that he opened the night before. I love the headiness of vintage Madeira, a tawny nutty flavor. Lucio steams fish with a little onion, a splash of sparkling wine and a dash of soy sauce.

Dinner with Katia, Lucio and Franco
Venue: Dal Mario at Montegrotto Terme

Before dinner we tasted several barrel samples that promise some superb wines for the future.

Wines at dinner: Vignalta 2007 Chardonnay Colli Euganei A bolt of silk, almost creamy

Gemola 1997 (Merlot, Cabernet Franc) There is a hint of fresh shoe polish (which for me is a very positive thing. I would never write this in a tasting note for publication because it would be misinterpreted. Shoe polish is a personal signifier that I get on really fine Merlot wines.) With the steak it absolutely blossoms on the palate. After an hour in the glass it gives scents of fresh tobacco yet retains its richness and fruit. A very fine wine.

Arqua 2004 A velvety richness, yet lively on the palate. Well-knit – a tight weave of dark berry fruit – like the juice of raspberries and black currants blended together. After two hours it is still opening up. Too young to drink now.

2006 Alpianae Colli Euganei Fior d’Arancio. A bright amber-yellow with pale orange highlights. Very bright. Sweetness lifted on fresh acidity. Freshness unfolds on the palate revealing an elegant weave of fruit: mandarin oranges, dried apricots, along hints of sage and acacia honey.
December 18

The Colli Euganei Dinner with winemaker Franco Zanovello
Venue: Trattoria Da Sgussa in Faedo di Cinto Euganeo

Nice place. Small, beamed ceilings, exposed stones, pleasant waitresses. Franco, who knows that I like to taste wines made from unusual local varieties, has kindly brought some experimental wines for me to taste. Pinello (from the 2006 vintage) has a cooked apple fragrance that carries on to the palate. At present there are perhaps 50 vines of this ancient variety planted in the zone. Franco has the idea of making it the base for a sparkling wine. The other white is Pedevenda from the same vintage. It is grown in the Colli Berici. It is a bit spiky on the finish. It would be interesting to try a fresher vintage. The third variety is Turchetta (also 2006), a deep, dark opaque red. A nice astringency. “It is not aromatic,” says Franco. “But it has a minerality which is unusual for a red.” Its flavor can be described as brambly, mulberries. “Wild strawberries,” says Franco.

We drink two of Franco’s wines with dinner: Villa Alessi Nativo 2005 A very elegant wine. A refreshing liveliness on the palate, a juicy flavor. After one hour in the glass, it maintains its lovely, lively flavor. The fruit is a silky bolt of ripe fruit: black cherries, raspberries, with a nice undertow of blackberries.

The second wine is Villa Alessi Flameo 2003. (Cabernet, Carmenere, Merlot plus some Barbera and Raboso.) Full, heavy, rich. A dark spicy woodiness. “I am in love with this wine,” declares Tony, the naturalist with whom we are dining.

“These are the two faces of the Colli Euganei,” says Franco.
“Are their markets where one is more popular than the other?” I ask.
“No, there are people who like one more than the other. Those who prefer the power of Flameo often don’t recognize the elegance of the Nativa. The important thing is that each has its fans.”
December 17

The sun is shining – this lasted for three whole hours. No, there is no fancy lunch or dinner to attend. But the fact that the sun is beaming brightly outside my window for a few hours is worth noting after the month of rain we have had. As long as we are here: for lunch we had tortellini filled with ricotta boiled together with fennel slices in chicken broth, and then dusted with parmesan cheese. To drink? Nothing.
December 16

The Castelnuovo del Garda lunch
Venue: Caffè Dante in Verona

I open my email to discover that the book I wrote with my colleague and friend Edwin Soon, Matching Wines with Asian Food: New Frontiers in Taste, has won an award as best book on matching wine and food and is now in the running for The Gourmand World Award for “The best book in the world on matching food and wine”. Whooppeee.

The day is grey and rainy. Fighting the wind and rain, I walk to the Caffè Dante for a lunch hosted by the Castelnuovo del Garda cooperative winery. The other guests at this annual event are always the same jolly bunch of amusing Italian journalists. There are 14 of us all together – of whom 8 are journalists. I walk in to the dining room and see Igor. (Remember Igor, who had had a job offer from an historic Verona restaurant?). Well, he starts at of the Caffè Dante on January 20th. Hooray! “I feel like a guy who has played on a farm team and finally gets promoted to the major leagues,” he said. “There are so many ways I want to change this place. It has a wonderful, colorful history that needs to be stressed…but mainly this restaurant must become a warmer, more inviting place. I want to change the décor (which is at the moment pastel kitsch), the menu, the staff (at this point the sommelier pouring the aperitif freezes), but mostly I want to change the wine list.”

The aperitif is a Bardolino Chiaretto (rosè) Sparkling Brut – a lively transparent ruby red, a strawberry tinged flavor, very refreshing and easy to drink. The food was not the best…the Risotto all’Amarone e zucca (pumpkin) was horrid. It tasted of black pepper, nothing else. Igor has his work cut out for him here. The other wines: Bardolino Ca’ Vegar recalled the fresh, easy drinking styles of yesteryear. It was the kind of wine to take on a picnic. I did not like or was indifferent to the white wines (a bland Lugana and a blander Custoza Spumante Extra Dry). The Passito Bosco del Gal Remenato Bianco di Custoza (made from Garganega and Fernanda – a local name for Cortese di Gavi) reminded me of mushy peas…which is not a bad thing. It was a simple, straightforward sweet wine that helped wash down the apple strudel.

Snippets of table talk: “In 1990 in Verona a Bardolino costs twice as much as a Valpolicella.” “It was Soave and Bardolino who paved the way in the American market – not Valpolicella!”
December 13

The Spiedo di Natale lunch given by the Franciacorta producer Villa.

This is one of the few fixed points in our Christmas season – I love these people – Paolo and Roberta and the charming people who work with them. As you have probably gathered, I get my share of business lunches and dinners…and usually they are just that: professional meetings conducted over food – no matter how much bonhomieis spread around in an attempt to disguise the fact that we are gathered to do business. At Villa, I actually feel at home, really welcomed, invited because I can be a lively guest and not because I might be useful to them.

We drive up with Fabio (Piccoli) and Clementina (Palese, who has a superb palate and, though a serious person, indulges my sense of humor un po’ inglese). We had the aperitif – Villa Brut Zero 2003 (from jeroboams) in the cellar. A large silver punch bowl filled with crushed ice to keep the bottles at a crisp serving temperature. Plates of tiny pizzas rounds, batter-dipped deep fried vegetable slices (very like Tempura), puff pastry filled with a bit of sausage, etc. The lunch was held in the upstairs dining room of the winery. There were perhaps 100 guests. Every year the menu is the same. Rich chicken broth with liver and small pasta pieces, meat cooked on a spit (spiedo), platters or polenta and roast potatoes followed by panettone (the local Christmas cake).

At the start of the lunch our Paolo Pizziol makes a little announcement. “Usually,” he says. “We serve our current vintages but we decided to serve some of the older vintages from our cellars today.” These are words that stir the souls of wine tasters. The wines: magnums of Villa Franciacorta Brut 2001, magnums of Gradoni 1998 and, for me, the highlight Villa Franciacorta Rosè Demi-Sec – softness on the palate, subtle spices. It was drunk with small grilled birds (rather Hieronymus Bosch in looks) and grilled pork ribs. Wonderful!
December 10

Sandro di Bruno winery lunch
Venue: Baba Jaga, a restaurant in Montecchia di Crosara

We trudge through the pouring rain to a bus. Our bus driver is little Maria (she is under 5 feet tall and has had one tough life, which she will happily relate to you with a cheery smile on her face as she drives her big bus up difficult country roads. What a jolly little woman. Un personaggio, as they say in these parts. She also drives the Soave and Durello Consortiums.) It has been raining steadily for seven days. I got an email from my pal in Venice.

She and her husband own a house on the Grand Canal. Every year during Venice’s “high water” season, their ground floor is flooded. This of course means that the crafty and sinister rats of Venice start looking for higher ground. In her case this means her living room and bedroom. She is a vegetarian-wouldn’t hurt any of God’s creatures-type of person. How was she to protect herself from these brazen (and I cannot stress how brazen the rats in Venice are – that city is theirs and they know it!) varmints? In the toy section of the Chinese gee-gaw shop on the corner she bought a plastic “laser” gun. It sends out a fierce red shaft of light that – Hallelujah – frightens the rats…at least for now. (I will not delve deeper into how adaptable and resourceful rats are.) At any rate, it is still raining – hard.

We are headed for the Sandro di Bruno winery. Sandro Tasoniero started the winery in 2002. The winery is, in a sense, a tribute to Sandro’s father Bruno, who died when Sandro was young. Hence the name Sandro di Bruno (Bruno’s Sandro). He is the only producer who makes a still Durello that I actually like.

Little Maria wheels us up a narrow road to the little town of Montecchia di Crosara. A sharp turn takes us up a hill where a long string of fairy lights markets the top of a hedge. The sky is dark and threatening and the lights give a bit of reassurance. We arrive at the fabled Baba Jaga restaurant (one Michelin star, I believe. It is named for a Russian witch – apparently because it had an appealing sound.) Some 25 years ago, Sandro had worked at the restaurant helping his pal the chef-owner. The food is superb. We start with shrimp wrapped in a thin strip of zucchini and cooked on the grill, beside them are mashed potatoes – whose wonderful texture comes from being mashed with only olive oil and a little broth. The potatoes are topped with diced (and very delicately) smoked salmon. The truffle risotto is creamy and delicious. The slices of beef were soft – just brown on the outside. The smell of butter rises from the serving platter of roast potatoes. Everything was superb – the lunch started at 1pm and finally wound down at 4. I sat next to Maria Grazia (who, I discovered is as tall standing up as I am sitting down…it was a shock to realize that I was looking her straight in the eye for the first time…after knowing her for years.) Back at Sandro’s winery we tasted barrel samples of his Pinot Noir, which is excellent…elegant, silky.
December 5

Durello’s Venice during High Water Fest
Venue: Enoteca Buso Durello in Venice

Through driving rain, we set off for Soave, where we board the bus that the Durello Consortium has laid on to take us to Venice. There are perhaps 6 journalists on the bus, the rest of the jolly crew is made up of producers of Durello wine and the office staff of the Consortium. Durello, for those of you who do not know (and frankly, there is little reason why you should, as production levels are low and export to foreign markets has only just started take hold) is a still or sparkling white wine made from the Durella grape (yes, the name ends in an “a” when it refers to the grape and “o”. Michael the linguist explained that uva (grape) ends in “a” and is feminine, while vino (wine) ends in “o” and is masculine.) The venue is a tiny place just past the big parking lot where the buses drop off visitors to Venice. It consists of two small rooms…guests spill out on to the sidewalk. They cluster under the awning, while rain splashes down. It is basically a party. I went because I like Aldo, the director of both the Durello and the Soave consortiums. Platters of oysters and bruschetta disappeared instantly but are quickly replenished…dishes of risotto and pasta circulate. The wine? I have never been a big fan of Durello….but…it is getting better and I think the producers have started to find their way with this grape. It is usually very acidic and has a slightly floral nose (nothing too aggressive) and is therefore very well suited for sparkling wine production. In fact, in recent years, a glass of sparkling Durello is edging out Prosecco as the aperitif of choice at certain local bars. What can I say? It rained. People laughed. Snatches of songs were sung. There was a bit of weaving to and fro on the way back to the bus. A good time was had by all.
December 3

Uno Stile nel Tempo – Amarone
Venue: Locanda Le Salette in Fumane (a small town in Valpolicella)

My favorite Italian sommeliers (Fabio Poli and Marco Aldegheri) invited me to this very interesting tasting. Four dynamic and very independent-minded Amarone producers each showed 2 vintages of his wine – Allegrini (2001 and 1995), Bussola (1999 and 1990), Speri (2003 and 1997) and Viviani (2000 and 1998). Because I feel strongly about what has taken place in recent years in terms of style for Amarone (I feel that some producers are destroying the wine’s reputation by “dumbing it down”), I think my favorite sommeliers rather hoped that I would start an argument: Italians love polemica. The restaurant manager (also sommelier) at the venue is Igor, who a few weeks earlier had hinted that he might be leaving to manage “an historic Verona restaurant”. We shall see.

But back to the tasting.

Let’s cut to the chase – the Viviani wines were superb. Of the 2000 Casa dei Bepi Amarone I wrote: Cherries, warm, textured – a fine blend of flavors – cherries, spice, and raisin. A satisfying finish – full and vibrant. Of the 1998 – which was the outstanding wine of the night for me – I wrote: A wonderful texture – like heavy silk. An exciting amalgam of ripe cherry fruit, a sprinkling of spice, a pleasing undertow of dark bitter cherry flavor. A very fine wine. It gives….you feel that you have real wine in your glass.

Speri’s Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano Amarone 2003 was very good considering 2003 was a difficult year. It was light but solid. I will for the first time, officially go on record as saying that I just don’t get Bussola’s wine. I like him as a person. I know that he is passionate about his wine. I respect him. But his Amarones do not give me the same kind of pleasure that I get from Vivani’s wines. This is just a matter of personal taste. Bussola’s wines are very good…they just do not do it for me. Allegrini….well, I guess I may as well take the plunge and say that I think that Allegrini is not producing top flight Amarone (according to my tastes) anymore. They have changed the way the wine is made (shorter drying times, lower alcohol, etc) and have basically taken the backbone out of the product. I am sorry about this because, again, I like the Allegrinis. Nice, intelligent people. Their 2001, was, for me – like “cherry cough syrup”. That said, I thought that the older vintage – the 1995 Amarone was excellent – dense, nice notes of appasimento (raisiny), broad cherry fruit, a heady, rich weave of fruit, zingy acidity and a dusting of warm spiciness.

After the tasting we were given plates of the best Risotto all’Amarone I have ever tasted in my life.