Oct 132016
 

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the first and oldest DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controlata e Garantita) in Italy, held a birthday party this weekend to celebrate fifty years of making wine under the stringent requirements of Europe’s appellation system.

As you might expect, the party featured fabulous regional cuisine, a multitude of wine personalities from around the world, and spectacular tastings of both modern vintages and bottles that harkened back to that day in 1966 when it all began. And the town was aglow with smiles and toasts.

The day began with a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Federation of DOCs, the organization that administrates all of the regional wines of Italy, followed by a tasting of Vino Nobile from vintages as far back as that original 1966. Stunning wines.

On the musical side there was a performance of original music for the DiVin Orchestra of Montepulciano, made up of instruments created exclusively from materials found in a winery, like barrels, for drums, bottles for xylophones and flutes, and even hoses and funnels for trumpets and trombones. A later concert with more traditional instruments featured an ode to Montepulciano, with text written by Mr, Contucci himself.

Of course, the town of Montepulciano began long before that. Its City Hall was built by the Medicis hundreds of years ago, and the town itself goes back more than 2000 years. Its strategic hilltop made it an important satellite between Rome and Florence, between the Vatican and the Medicis. Some of the performances took place in the charming theater that was built nearly two hundred years ago in the form of La Scala in Milan.

All of that history was on display this weekend. The main piazza of the town, where the Cathedral looms over one side, and the City Hall defends another, crowds of celebrants cheered and toasted the ceremonies. And a grand procession led up to the very top of Montepulciano, where the old Fortezza was renovated as the new home of the Consorzio di Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the now fifty year-old organization that manages the wine production for the region. The fortress, originally built to protect the town, now houses a glorious new visitor center built on the ruins of an Etruscan wine cellar, which are visible through the glass floor of the new tasting room.

Just below the piazza, the art museum proudly displayed its most recent discovery–a Caravaggio that had gone unnoticed as a part of the collection for many years, hidden behind a thick layer of dust. When a visiting expert peered carefully through the centuries of accumulation, there was huge excitement. It was, in fact, a Caravaggio. The painting now enjoys a private room in the museum–and rewards those who spend the effort to seek it out.

Much like Montepulciano itself.

Oct 272015
 

Hungary - Furmint

I spent the last week traveling through time. It’s not something that you get to do every day. And as you might imagine, it was pretty darn memorable.

My companions were an amazing group: Master Sommeliers Peter Granoff and Scott Harper, blogger Joe Roberts, and Debbie Zachareas of the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. Experts all, and veterans of many a visit to a famous wine region of the world. And yet this trip was different.

Part of it was the landscape and culture. We were in Tokaji; that legendary region of Hungary where even the language is from a different world—where last names come first, where every word changes depending on its use in the sentence, and where navigating a menu (Étlap, in Magyar) is as mysterious as the cabinet of Dr. Kaligari.

And then there were the wines. We began, as things always do, with dry wines made from the local grapes: furmint, to be sure, but also hárszlevelű, muscat, kabar, zéta, and kövérszőlő. Had many of those recently? The wines were fresh, lively, with great acidity and balance. We were charmed and impressed. In fact, cases, even pallets of wine were ordered for the shops and restaurants back home. They were delicious.

Then they pulled out the big guns: Tokaji Aszú wines made by adding buckets and buckets of botrytis affected grapes to the dry furmint wines. Suddenly the lightness and charm of the wines got wonderfully deeper and richer. Intense flavors, soaring aromatics, and finishes that I can still taste today, if I give myself a chance. We started with current vintages, and then worked backwards into wines that were twenty years old. The seemed fresh and full of vigor.

And five times we were invited to sample a wine historically reserve for the Emperor himself: Esszencia—the pure free-run juice of those Aszú grapes. Beyond nectar. Scott Harper said it best, when he noted that the wine in the glass seemed to be affected by a different level of gravity. Almost no alcohol, because no yeast could prosper in that soup of intense flavors and sugar levels approaching the ionosphere.

Quite an amazing journey. And I look forward to drinking some of these wines thanks to Peter, Scott and Debbie, who are making them available to us. No translation required.

Jan 162015
 
DSC_0317

Photo (c) Tracy Ellen Kamens

Although wine has been produced within Umbria for centuries, its reputation for high quality wine didn’t develop until more recently. Specifically, the region owes much of its current popularity to Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 2012 European Winery of the Year: Arnaldo Caprai. In 1971, Arnaldo Caprai, founder of one of Italy’s leading textile companies, purchased an estate in the region and planted Sagrantino, a minor grape variety at the time, but indigenous to the area. The grape was most commonly associated with its use by the Franciscan monks who crafted a sweet wine for use in religious observance.

With an ambitious aim, Arnaldo set out to make a historic wine with the production of a dry Sagrantino, but his first trials weren’t very good. When Arnaldo’s son, Marco, joined the winery as manager in 1988, he began to work with the University of Milan – a partnership that still continues to this day. This project focused on the need to truly understand the Sagrantino grape, particularly its structure and tannins. After 15 years of intensive study of the grape’s genetics, they were able to identify the three best clones, which they then patented and planted. Ultimately, producing high quality Sagrantino dry wines and fulfilling Arnaldo’s dream.

Currently, Arnaldo Caprai has 136 planted hectares planted to vines of which 40 hectares are dedicated to Sagrantino, planted on the best sites, especially hill tops. Sangiovese, Cannaiolo and other grapes fill out the remaining acreage. A specially designated vineyard is planted to 20 different varieties from which the best grapes are selected each vintage and then made into the winery’s Cuvée Secrete, first produced in 2012.

Among the winery’s viticultural endeavors has been its emphasis on sustainability. In 2008, Arnaldo Caprai launched its Sustainability Project, Montefalco 2015: The New Green Revolution. Eschewing the limited nature of organic viticulture, instead, the adopted protocols are evaluated for their collective social, political and environmental impact before they are implemented. In this regard, an agricultural machine was adapted to capture the chemicals used to protect the vines from mildew, and recycle them, thereby ensuring that the spray is used solely on the leaves and not dripping down into the soil. Further, while machine harvesting might be a reasonable option, the winery has chosen to continue to hand harvest its grapes to preserve employment opportunities for local workers.

Given the family’s textile connection, their textile and viticultural endeavors have been woven together. In 1992, Arnaldo Caprai Gruppo Tessile was joined by the creation of Cruciani by Luca Caprai. This new company focuses on cashmere and lace, most recently launching a subsidiary line Cruciani C in 2011. Specializing in crocheted bracelets, made of macramé lace, the concept of Cruciani C is to bring lace to a modern (and younger) audience. These multi-colored bracelets have become quite popular and the company has capitalized on this trend to raise money for various causes. A bracelet sporting a heart and grapes was designed to support Montefalco’s museum and the return of a letter, which documents Benozzo Gozzoli (fresco painter)’s love for Montefalco. Also, a bracelet with green circles acknowkedges Caprai’s commitment to the environment and its Sustainability Project, Montefalco 2015: The New Green Revolution.

May 302014
 

Artisan tableEntertaining seems to have come full circle. While intricately formal dinner parties are no longer de rigeur, the renewed focus on cocktail and dinner parties seems to imply that hosts have abandoned an haphazard approach in favor of paying attention to details and ensuring that their guests are well cared for.

This renewed emphasis on creating the perfect environment in which to entertain now extends beyond the home and into restaurants, where white plates have been banished in many establishments, which is fortunate for Jono Pandolfi. This ceramics designer has now become well-known for his dinnerware collaborations with notable chefs at high-profile restaurants such as 11 Madison Park and Nomad. You can dress your table with equally impressive style, thanks to Pandolfi’s joint project with Crate & Barrel.

Once the table has been beautifully set, adorning it with delicious food and fabulous wine is the obvious next step. At a recent event held at the Scott Conant Culinary Suite, a test kitchen space in New York’s Soho neighborhood for the noted restaurateur, the artful table brought a trusted name to the bottle and glass.

Known for its Extra Virgin Olive Oil (the #1 Italian Brand in the U.S.), the Colavita family has entered the world of wine production in partnership with Terlato Wines. In recognition that “Italy’s two most important food products are olive oil and wine,” the co-founders of Colavita USA (Enrico Colavita and John J. Profaci) were prompted to create their own brand of wine and looked to Terlato to help them realize their dream.

As explained by Giovanni Colavita, CEO of Colavita, the family approached winemaking the same way they approach olive oil production – identifying and working with the best producers throughout Italy. In this regard, the grapes for each wine are sourced from a specific region and are iconic of that region.

The collaboration and approach are certainly novel, but the selection of wines proved worthy of such an elegantly set table.

The current Colavita-Terlato portfolio includes four wines:

ColavitaColavita Pinot Grigio 2012, Trentino, Italy, $15.00
From northeastern Italy, this wine is fermented in stainless steel and is a young, fresh wine with bright acidity and nice citrus aromas and flavors.

Colavita Verdicchio di Matelica 2012, Marche, Italy, $15.00
Located in central Italy, the Marche region is known for the Verdicchio grape, which shows off the mineral characteristics of the calcareous soils, especially in the Matelica zone.

Colavita Pinot Nero 2012, Provincia di Pavia, Lombardy, Italy, $15.00
Lombardy is known for growing Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) for the production of Franciacorta, a Traditional Method sparkling wine. Here the grapes are used for crafting a well-made still wine with vibrant cherry and herbal notes. A truly fabulous Pinot Noir at this price!

Colavita Valpolicella Ripasso 2011, Veneto, Italy, $23.00
A blend primarily of Corvina (70%), with Rondinella (20%) and Corvinone (10%), this wine is made using partially-dried grapes – the ripasso in Valpolicella Ripasso – which adds richness and body to the resulting wine.

Oct 142013
 

 

Grapes on a Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

From walk-around wine tastings and dinners with winemakers to clever titles and cute comparisons, it’s challenging for wine public relations people to create something new and different for the press and trade. However, the folks at Complexity – New Zealand  have certainly succeeded with their Grapes on a Train event held in late September.

“All aboard!” came the shouts from the conductors as we assembled on the platform at New York Penn Station very early on a Sunday morning. We were about to embark on a unique journey, partially retracing the tracks of the famed 20th Century Limited.

Operated by the New York Central Railroad  from 1902 to 1967, the 20th Century Limited provided express service from New York to Chicago, making the journey in only 16 hours.  The passenger train was known for its high level of service, complete with its signature red carpet rolled out in the station platforms on either end. As journalists and sommeliers, we were similarly given the red carpet treatment when we entered the Hickory Creek train car, hooked up behind the regular Amtrak service to Montreal. This historic, Pullman car was part of the 20th Century Limited’s re-launch in 1948 and has now been restored to its former glory, used for private events held along Amtrak’s existing routes.

Given its remarkable history, the 20th Century Limited has been prominently featured in books and Broadway we well as movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.Thankfully, instead of being greeted by villains and spies, the group was welcomed aboard by winemakers from some of New Zealand’s top wineries.

Upon departure, we headed north past beautiful views of the Hudson River and fall foliage on our way to Canada. But, while the scenery was stunning, our true itinerary was New Zealand, as the winemakers presented several seminars with guided tastings.

The seminars were led by the winemakers, all members of the Complexity-New Zealand consortium. This portfolio crosses wine regions and emphasizes New Zealand’s high quality wines, with membership currently limited to 17 producers.   We kicked off the day with a general introduction to New Zealand – its history, its culture, its people and its land. With the stage set, we then moved onto the varietally-focused tastings.

Wines on the Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

 

Sauvignon Blanc with Brett Bermingham, Winemaker of Nautilus Estate and Tim Heath, Winemaker at Cloudy Bay
It’s nearly impossible to speak about New Zealand wine without mentioning Sauvignon Blanc as the grape that put New Zealand on the world stage. However, the discussion centered on the diversity of Sauvignon Blanc, looking at differences among grapes grown on gravels compared to those grown on clays as well as among the Wairau and Awatere Valleys situated within the greater Marlborough region. In this regard, clay soils provide more herbal/green notes and less tropical fruit. As New Zealand producers become more experienced and their vines become more mature, it is expected that more sophisticated styles of Sauvignon Blanc will be seen in the future. Among the most interesting wines tasted in this session (and perhaps of the entire event) was a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from 1996, which showed that although these wines are best enjoyed in their youth, they can provide complex aromas and flavors with age. Among the younger wines, I really liked the Mud House “The Woolshed” Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Aromatics Seminar with Rudi Bauer, Winemaker of Quartz Reef and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Less well known than Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic white varieties of New Zealand can be traced back to the 1980s when Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris were first planted. Rudi suggested that these varieties were more about purity of varietal expression than about winemaking, additionally emphasizing the link between aromatics and acidity. Rudi acknowledged that you don’t always know what you are getting from Pinot Gris, but with Riesling, the standard of quality is better. He felt that the reason Pinot Gris was way behind Riesling in its development was that the initial stock had come from Geisenheim, when the focus was on quantity, not quality. As progress is made, alcohol levels are coming down as are sugar levels. Consequently, Pinot Gris wines are becoming more food friendly to support cuisine along with a trend toward longer time spent on the lees, resulting in wines with more richness and texture. My favorite wine of the session was the Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris 2012 , Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand.

Pinot Noir with Matt Dicey, General Manager and Winemaker of Mt. Difficulty Wines and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Although Matt admitted that Burgundy is a reference point for Pinot Noir, he also emphasized the word, Tūrangawaewae, which is Maori for “where we stand,” an indigenous concept similar to that of terroir. Building on this aspect, he mentioned the regional and vineyard differences as well as the increased exposure to UV light in New Zealand as compared to vineyards in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, Central Otago fruit is credited with delivering darker fruit flavors, while Marlborough is generally more savory in style. With wines from both of these regions, the session tasting provided further confirmation of this diversity. My favorite was the Villa Maria Taylors Pass Pinot Noir 2010, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah with Nick Picone, Senior Winemaker of Villa Maria Estate
Nick referred to the wines in his session as “hidden gems,” suggesting that most people know a whole lot less about these wines than others from New Zealand. Turning first to Chardonnay, he noted that premium NZ Chardonnay is typically hand picked, whole bunch pressed and barrel fermented with good freshness and a purity of fruit. Wines from the warmer north are picked earlier and at lower sugars, while wines from the cooler south with have more lime and citrus notes, with intense minerality in those from Central Otago. When discussing Bordeaux style wines, which are best associated with Hawkes Bay, Nick attributed the turning point for this region to the establishment of the Gimblett Gravels. Finally, he spoke of New Zealand Syrah, which he described as being closer to the Rhône Valley in style than to Australia, despite the geographic proximity. I was impressed with the Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2009, Auckland, New Zealand.

After arriving in Montreal, we stopped at the hotel to freshen up before heading to an evening BBQ, held at a rented house in the Mont-Royal neighborhood. From the home’s rooftop, we could see the Olympic Park, but the fall weather pushed most of us inside where we proceeded to enjoy a delicious meal accompanied by an enormous selection of wines. Having been to New Zealand several years ago, I was especially pleased to see wines from Amisfield, Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga, all places we visited (and tasted at) on our trip.

The next morning, it was off to the airport for the flight home, packed with luggage and great memories of a fun and festive virtual visit to New Zealand.