Ribot the horse that united Italy & gave the world Sassicaia

Looking forward to Piero Incisa della Rocchetta’s visit to Austin in a few weeks, I was reminded of the night that he and I had dinner in New York back in 2007, not long after I launched my blog.

To this day, Piero calls me “Dr. Bianchi” (he’s a super cool dude, btw).

Here’s the post on our dinner and conversation and a remembrance of the great thoroughbred Ribot, a horse who — for a brief moment — united post-war Italy in its cheers for his triumph. I’ll see you after the Labor Day holiday…

sassicaia super tuscan

Above: “Orietta Incisa Hunyady with Ribot, after his second victory in the Arc de Triomphe, 1956.” (Sassicaia, the Original Super Tuscan, Firenze, Centro Di, 2000, p. 32)

Piero Incisa della Rocchetta is at once everything you would and would not expect him to be. On the one hand, he is the scion of one of Italy’s most historically significant families, an Italian noble, the face of one of Italy’s most important wines, and one of his country’s leading “cultural ambassadors,” as it were. On the other, he is a thirty-something Italian, extremely hard-working yet very easy-going and personable, self-deprecating and sensitive to the people around him, keenly aware of his station in life yet down-to-earth, funny, and fun to be around. When we sat down for dinner the other night at Babbo, I wasn’t sure if he’d be interested in talking to someone like me — especially in the light of the fact that his family’s wine is the most famous barriqued wine in Italy and that I am an outspoken (however unimportant) critic of the use of new oak in Italy.

I believe we were both surprised by the other: he, to meet an Italophone American who knew so much about other aspects of his family’s history beyond the famous wine; I, to discover a winemaker acutely conscious of the role his family’s wine has played in Italian wine history but also a wine lover who despises the overblown, overly concentrated, and extracted style of some of his would-be peers.

“My grandfather [Mario] planted Cabernet,” Piero told me, “because he grew up drinking wines from Bordeaux and he wanted a wine to pair with the rich French and Piedmontese food he was accustomed to eating.” People always think of his family as being Tuscan, and, of course it is in part, he explained, but the male line comes from Rocchetta Tanaro in Piedmont (historically, Piedmont, once ruled by the house of Savoy, has always been Francophone and Francophile). So it was only natural his grandfather would plant Cabernet and experiment with making a Bordeaux-style wine (Mario Incisa della Rocchetta began to manage the now legendary estate in Tuscany after he married Florentine Clarice della Gherardesca, whose family once ruled the Tuscan coastline).

When we touched upon the thorny issue of new oak, he flatly told me that he can’t stand the jammy, concentrated, highly alcoholic style of most Super Tuscans and he pointed out that only in 2003 did Sassicaia’s alcohol content creep above 13.5%. The figure, he told me, represented the warm vintage and not anything they had done differently in the cellar. We agreed that many of the overblown Super Tuscans are impossible to drink with food and he remarked that Sassicaia was conceived as a wine to be consumed at the table.

Sassicaia is a misunderstood wine, he said, especially in the United States. “Most Americans consider 1985 and 1997 [in which warm temperatures prevailed] to be among of the greatest vintages for Sassicaia,” he told me. “But years like ’88 and ’98 really brought out the delicate bouquet in the wine.” In fact, he revealed, his grandfather hoped to achieve superior bouquet and not the forward fruit that other Super Tuscans have become so famous for.

Piero’s eyes lit up when I asked him about Ribot, his family’s legendary race horse, trained on their estates in Piedmont and Tuscany, arguably the most famous race horse in history. “Most people don’t realize,” he said, “that winemaking is just one small part of what my family does.” During the 1950s, when a still war-torn Italy was trying to put itself back together (literally and figuratively), Ribot and his triumphs were a point of pride that all Italians could share.

Piero divulged that trainer Federico Tesio never thought that Ribot would be a winner. “He didn’t believe that Ribot was handsome enough,” he said. It was his grandmother, Clarice, who knew that the stallion would be a champion.

Just as Ribot bolstered Italian pride at a very delicate moment in the country’s history, Sassicaia laid the groundwork for the current Italian wine renaissance by showing the international community that Italy could produce world-class wines. In 1968, when it was first released commercially, Americans thought of Italy as a land of straw-flask and fizzy quaffing wines. Today, Italian wines have nearly eclipsed French dominance in the American market. I can’t say that I am big fan of Sassicaia (those of you who read my blog know I prefer the indigenous grapes of Italy and that I don’t like barriqued wine). But my little brush with history that evening revealed that the people who make it care deeply about their wine… and their country.

Two extraordinary expressions of Sémillon in Houston & baby lobster with hazelnut sauce @TonyVallone

From the department of “there are worse jobs in the world”…

chateau lavilla haut brion

On Tuesday night, thanks to the generosity of a Houston collector and wine writer, I had the opportunity to taste one of the most extraordinary white wines I’ve ever had, the 2005 Château Laville Haut Brion blanc.

So many collectors generously taste me on their Italian lots but few bring out the French for me.

I was impressed by the delicate oxidative note on this wine, which was more pronounced when first opened but lingered gently as the wine opened up and revealed its stone fruit and sublime minerality.

What a thrilling bottle of wine!

brokenwood semillon

From the sacred to the profane…

After dinner, I headed to my favorite Houston wine bar, Camerata, where David Keck poured me another expression of Sémillion, this one from Hunter Valley, Australia.

I don’t remember where Jancis Robinson said that Sémillon is Australia’s great gift to the wine world but her observation leapt to mind as I tasted this fresh, bright, mineral-driven wine. And the even better news is that I can afford it!

David changes the btg list at Camerata on a daily basis but this is what he was pouring on Tuesday when I dropped by.

Camerata has swiftly become the Houston wine scene’s flash point for its renewal of learning. And I had a blast swapping stories with another one of my favorite Houston wine professionals, Sean Beck, whose lists at Back Street Café and Hugo’s are always winners for me (Hugo’s, btw, is one of the best Mexican restaurants in the country and Sean’s superb wine list there takes it from A to A+ for me; Champagne and ceviche, anyone?).

best lobster houston

Wednesday morning found me at Tony’s, meeting with my good friend and client Tony Vallone, who insisted that I try a new dish that he was debuting that evening: garlic basted baby lobster tail with orzo, creamed hazelnut, and an antelope jus.

The the combination of ingredients in this dish was as surprising as it was stunningly delicious.

The thought of hazelnut and seafood evoked Piedmont, where Ligurian and Langarola flavors often mingle.

Tony and his team are doing such cutting-edge work and I’ve had so many incredible, unforgettable meals there (and I say this as someone who dines regularly in New York, Los Angeles, and Italy).

And Tony’s encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cuisine always puts my own to the test (literally!). Our weekly kibitz is always a highlight for me.

tony vallone houston

The dude is a national gastronomic treasure, up there with Alice Waters, Darrell Corti, Danny Meyer, and Sirio Maccioni.

Why the local media there penalizes him for having been around so long (since 1965) and for his immeasurable success is a mystery to me.

But hey, what do I know?

Tony, I have the deepest respect for your gastronomic knowledge and I cherish our friendship… I love you, man.

Franciacorta terroir (and a little Pinot Nero porn for your hump day)

franciacorta terroir pinot noir nero

Above: Franciacorta dreaming. This photo and the one below were taken today, August 28.

Writing “on the run” this morning from the road but just had to share these photos sent to me this morning by my friend and client Silvano Brescianini, who reports that they’ve begun picking the Pinot Nero in Franciacorta.

In the image above, you can see the morainic hills (glacial debris) that violently shoot up from the landscape. The subsoil that lies at the foot of those hills is part of what gives Franciacorta it’s uniquely salty, mineral-driven character.

You can also see the clouds, owed in part to the maritime influence of nearby Lake Iseo: the clouds help to keep the fruit cool during these last days before harvest, helping to create the nuanced aromatic character of the wines made there.

pinot noir italy nero porn

Above: Feast your eyes on those Pinot Nero babies!

In the wake of a cold and rainy spring, harvest has begun late in Franciacorta.

“The 2013 harvest will be remembered as a vintage defined by late-ripening,” wrote Silvano in a press release issued by the Franciacorta consortium (he’s the vice president). “This works to our advantage because the grapes are picked when temperatures are cooler. This is fundamental for the evolution of the aromas and for obtaining the correct acidic balance.”

Read my translation of the entire document, including notes on the yields here.

In other harvest 2013 news…

This week, my friend and client Gianni Cantele has completed the Chardonnay harvest in Puglia.

And he picked some of his Negroamaro early to make a new sparkling wine (!).

And in Sicily, despite some rain and a few technical difficulties (a “sobbing fridge”), my friend Marilena Barbera has vinified her Bambina, a rosé from Nero d’Avola, a favorite wine of mine.

Harvest in Italy has only just begun. Stay tuned!

L’affaire Bressan, wine, and morality

fulvio bressan

Above: “Between racism, boycotts, and an Italian-style pillory, Fulvio Bressan [has comitted] social media suicide,” wrote Alessandro Morichetti on Italy’s leading wine blog Intravino on Friday. “Fulvio Bressan’s words — beginning with ‘dirty black monkey’ — were shameful and indefensible.” Alessandro, a high-profile Italian wine professional, was among the first to post about his shock in the wake of Bressan’s rant.

“We are not racists. She’s the one who’s black.”

That’s the first line of an article posted yesterday on the landing page of La Repubblica, one of Italy’s leading national dailies.

It’s an ironic reference to an infamous and now aphoristic joke, most often recited in Lombard dialect: “mi razzista? le lu’ che l’è negher!”

You’re calling me a racist? He’s the one who’s negro!

The utterance bespeaks some — and NOT the majority of — Italians’ uncomfortable and often violent feelings about race. And the Repubblica article chronicles the tide of racial epithets that have washed over Dr. Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s minister of integration and its first African-Italian minister, in her four months in office.

(Here’s a link to the best English-language coverage I could find. It’s not exhaustive but it will give you an idea of how widespread the issue is and how it touches nearly all walks of Italian life.)

“The method is always the same,” writes the author of the Repubblica article. “First an insult is hurled” at her. “Then, an apology is issued. Then atonement is announced and assurances are given that racism has nothing to do with it and that it’s a matter of political opinion.”

Sound familiar?

A lot has been said about Friulian winemaker Fulvio Bressan’s racially charged rant that appeared on Facebook on Thursday.

I recommend that you read ex-pat blogger Katie Parla’s editorial; Stefano’s comment on my coverage of the incident; Alder Yarrow’s reflections on Vinography; and, if you read Italian, please see the post by the Roman blog Puntarella Rossa, whose authors document a long string of racially charged epithets posted by Bressan on his Facebook.

But the person who perhaps said it best was our country’s leading expert on Italian wine, Antonio Galloni, who wrote the following in the Vinous forum: “I was deeply shocked, amazed and saddened to read these comments. Unfortunately, in Italy this way of thinking is not as unusual as one might think or hope.”

How do I feel about all of this?

I’ve written about these despicable and sadly widespread expressions of racism before.

And when my friends, Italian wine educator Hande Leimer and Katie Parla, who both reside in Rome, first wrote about the episode, I felt it was important for me to cover it as objectively as possible. And that’s why I merely reported about it and rendered a translation of the comments in question.

Anyone who knows me or follows my blog is well aware of my feelings about racism.

And let it suffice to say that Bressan’s wines have been disallowed from our home for many years now and I was not his friend on Facebook.

Why such backlash from wine professionals in the United States and Italy?

bressan boycott

Above: Morgan Pruitt, a friend and a U.S. wine professional whom I respect immensely, tweeted this photo yesterday. Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, a leading authority on the wines of Friuli, was perhaps the first to tweet that he would no longer offer the wines on his list.

Some Italian wine and food bloggers have suggested that the outrage is hypocritical and based in heavy-handed moralism (note the -ism).

If you examined the politics and racial attitudes of every winemaker in Italy, wrote one prominent Italian wine blogger, you’d have to lower your expectations (I’m paraphrasing).

Of course, most Italian winemakers — regardless of their feelings — don’t shout racial epithets at the top of their social media lungs as Bressan did.

I believe that the outrage here in the U.S. is based more in the disconnect between the way Bressan has branded himself here and his extreme views on race.

As one Italian-American wine professional commented on Facebook yesterday: “It’s rather ironic that this guy has made a name for himself through small regional U.S. importers that give their heart and soul to promote his wines to progressive restaurants promoting sustainability, farm-to-table sensibility, and small production wine lists.”

Bressan has worked aggressively in the U.S. market and many restaurant professionals have been stunned by the gap between the person they thought they knew and the person who has emerged on social media.

Will this hurt sales of his wines in the U.S.?

Anecdotally, I can tell you that here in Austin — where his wines are very popular among the hipster wine crowd — the wine buyers I’ve spoken to are not removing the wines from their lists.

“Oddly enough, a table byo’d tonight… Bressan rosé,” wrote the owner of one of Austin’s most popular restaurants yesterday in an email. “I didn’t spoil their drink with the news.”

There are plenty of Bressan fans out there who will never learn of this episode. And that’s fine with me. I feel badly about the hardship that Bressan has created for his importer and distributors in our country. But ultimately, this episode was his own making.

Just like the Brunello controversy, most wine lovers in the U.S. will never learn of this episode and those who have learned about it will soon forget.

But for some of us, as Alder put it in his bottom line, “Bressan’s wines will never taste the same again.”

Bressan: racist comments stir outrage on social media

fulvio bressan racist wine

Above: A screen capture of Fulvio Bressan’s Facebook, taken yesterday shortly after 3 p.m. CST.

Racially charged comments posted on Facebook yesterday by Friulian grape grower and winemaker Fulvio Bressan have sparked outrage in the online food and wine community.

In a statement evidently addressed to Italian integration minister Cécile Kyenge — Italy’s first African-Italian minister — Bressan offered his opinion on a recently implemented government program that provides temporary housing for undocumented immigrants.

A transcription of his post (subsequently removed by him) and an English translation (mine) follow:

    hei… sporca SCIMMIA Nera… io NON PAGO le TASSE per mettere i tuoi amici GORILLA in HOTEL… per favore portateli a casa tua, dove puoi fare la grande con i tuoi soldi… Ops… Non sono tuoi neanche quelli… perché te li danno gli Italiani… NEGRA MANTENUTA di MERDA…

    hey, dirty Black MONKEY, I DON’T PAY TAXES to put your GORILLA friends up at a HOTEL. Please take them to your house where you can be the big shot with all that money of yours. Oops. That money isn’t even yours. Because Italians give you that money. YOU SHITTY NEGRO GOLD DIGGER.

The post was first brought to the attention of U.S.-based wine bloggers in a tweet posted late yesterday by Italian wine educator Hande Leimer who works and resides in Rome.

In a Facebook note posted today, Ms. Leimer shared a screen capture of Bressan’s comments with Facebook users.

By the early afternoon in Italy, the note had generated nearly eighty comments. Most were by outraged readers who condemned Bressan’s statements.

“Dear Mr. Bressan, you disgust me,” wrote one Facebook user. “What you wrote about Dr. Kyenge is unspeakable. I too will boycott your wines. Vergogna [shame on you]!”

Chianti, a wonderful article by @EdChampagne, one of my fav wine writers

selvapiana 93

“I much doubt if Florence wine,” wrote Sir Peter Beckford in 1781 (Familiar Letters from Italy), “though Cosimo [de' Medici] III made presents of it to most of the Sovereigns in Europe, and though Queen Anne is said to have preferred it to any other, will please a palate accustomed to Claret, Champagne, and Burgundy. The most esteemed are the Aliatico, Chianti, and Monte Pulciano [sic]. That which you drink in England for Florence wine is Chianti — even to this, brandy is added at Leghorn [Livorno] to give it strength. No other will bear the sea. The common wine of the country I conclude is weak, as you seldom see a man drunk in the streets, and in good company, never.”

By the 1950s, perceptions of Chianti in Britain had changed radically, of course.

“To the Englishman in the street,” wrote Peter Dominic in The Wine Mine, a guide to the wines of the world published in Britain in 1959, “all Italian wine is ‘Chianti.'”

This wonderful example of synecdoche — where part of something represents the whole — gives insight into the legacy of Italy’s most recognizable wine brand.

Perhaps more than any other Italian category, the enonym Chianti is familiar to English speakers in the same way that Bordeaux (Claret), Champagne, and Burgundy resonate within Anglophone culture.

I’ve been thinking about Chianti this morning, in part because we’ve enjoyed a bottle of Selvapiana Chianti Rufina over the last two nights at our house; and in part because, earlier today, I came across a wonderful article on Chianti by one of my all-time favorite wine writers Ed McCarthy, “Chianti: Still Tuscany’s Flagship Wine?”

Ed is one of the most gifted tasters I’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping with.

I’ll never forget watching him call out the grape, appellation, and vintage of a Brunello di Montalcino that had been included as a ringer in a blind tasting of Xinomavro a few years ago in New York.

He’s also our country’s leading expert on Champagne and one of the nicest guys in the business.

I can’t recommend his article highly enough: it’s a beautifully written, concise primer on Chianti and it offers a shortlist of the best Chianti available in the U.S. today.

And you can probably already guess what wine he highlights as Chianti’s greatest value and best-kept secret.

Thank you, Ed. Ubi major, minor cessat.

The new Texas wine scene is exploding. In fact, there is life beyond “Napa Cab.”

perfectly sliced prosciutto

Above: Prosciutto at the newly opened Camerata wine bar in Houston. FINALLY someone who can slice prosciutto correctly!

“It’s hard to complain these days,” wrote Austin wine collector and restaurateur Steven Dilley the other day in an email.

It seems like yesterday that many of us would moan and gripe about the wines we couldn’t get here in Texas.

But today, it’s as if a new sun has risen over the Lone Star State.

Master Sommelier candidate David Keck’s Camerata in Houston is my new favorite wine destination in the state. It’s a true wine salon where all the local wine hip folks are hanging out (it’s the place where I saw not just one but two copies of Wine Grapes being passed around).

And by day, it’s home to the newly formed Houston Sommelier Association (I wrote about the new group for the Houston Press here).

Super cool joint…

clos roche blanche austin

Above: Clos Roche Blanche by the glass on our friend Mark Sayre’s list at Trio at the Four Seasons in Austin. Hell yeah!

Back here in Austin, Tracie P and I had our first night out since the arrival of Lila Jane (now four weeks old; thanks again nanna and pawpaw!).

After we enjoyed a glass of Clos Roche Blanche at the Four Seasons (a wine that Alice turned me on to many years ago now, enabling my interest in and passion for Natural wine), we headed over to the newly opened Arro, where not just one but two Master Sommeliers — Craig Collins and Devon Broglie — write the list and work the floor.

I knew roughly half of the lots on the all French list but would have gladly tasted/opened anything: when you see such intelligence in a wine list, your trust level makes it easy to be led blindly. And that’s what we did.

saint damien cotes rhone

Above: Slightly chilled Grenache paired with roast chicken and steak frites was just right.

The wine I’m still thinking about this morning was the Saint Damien Côtes du Rhône. But Craig, who was working the floor last night, tasted us on so many great things.

There’s never been such a focused and brilliant list in Austin. It’s a list that makes a statement.

And along with Steven Dilley’s list at Bufalina (which we also loved), Craig and Devon’s program stands apart for its ability to thrill the finely tuned connoisseur and neophyte enthusiast alike.

chef drew andrew curren

Above: Arro’s chef Andrew (Drew) Curren’s roast chicken was spot on last night.

Isn’t that what a wine list should do? Shouldn’t it forge a level of trust that it takes you outside of your comfort zone? That’s what it did for us and I just couldn’t resist a second glass of the Grenache.

When I moved here nearly five years ago to be with Tracie P, it seemed next to impossible to find a wine list that we could really dig into like the lists we’re seeing today.

Nearly every fine dining restaurant was dominated by “Napa Cab” (I still shudder every time someone says “Cab”) and Chardonnay, with the occasional Malbec thrown in the mix.

Mark Sayre at Trio at the Four Seasons in Austin still jokes about how I called him and “interviewed” him about his wine list when I was looking for a special place to take Tracie P for a romantic evening. At the time, Mark’s list and the list at Vino Vino (today, my client) were the only places Tracie P and I would drink wine in Austin. (Mark, a Master Sommelier candidate, is also writing the list at the excellent and überhip Lenoir, which we love as well, btw).

Today, there is just so much more groovy wine available to restaurant buyers and the new wave of Master Sommelier and Society of Wine Educators candidates has upped the performance level considerably (Scott Ota, also of Arro, recently won the “best sommelier in Texas” title at Texsom, the annual Texas sommelier conference).

None of this was even on the horizon when I first got here.

As Devon wrote to me the other day in a tweet, “we’ve come a long way, baby!”

David, Devon, Craig, Mark, Scott, Steven… We’re with you all the way…

Cotarella: “a harvest of ancient flavors” & dispatches from Vulture, Salento & Prosecco Country

dawn salento sunrise puglia

Above: Sunrise over the Salento Peninsula. Photo taken this morning by grape grower and winemaker Gianni Cantele.

“This weather has ancient flavors,” said famed Italian enologist Riccardo Cotarella (current president of the Association of Italian Enologists and Enotechnicians) in an interview with the Italian news agency ANSA.

“Like 30 or 40 years ago,” he added, there is “less heat” and there are “strong temperature variations” between day and night. “It can’t be but good for the vineyards. Now we need to watch the clouds and the sky. Hopefully, it won’t rain in coming days and it will be a perfect vintage.”

The interview was reported by Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro on the newspaper’s wine blog today (here’s a link to the ANSA English-language post; it doesn’t include the quote cited by Luciano).

Luciano’s post — his blog is a must-read for Italian wine trade observers — also includes quotes from grape growers and winemakers across Italy (Arianna Occhipinti among them). Although vintage forecasts can be a tight-rope act where wineries must balance marketing and realism, most are predicting a good-to-excellent harvest for 2013.

Harvest is coming later this year because of the cold temperatures and excessive rain of the spring. Those conditions delayed the vegetative process.

In Tuscany, some have predicted that harvest will come as late as October. And at least one, my friend Alessandro Bindocci at the Tenuta il Poggione, has compared the vintage to 1979.

My good friend Laura Gray also posts on weather conditions in Montalcino for the Il Palazzone blog. Check out this interesting comparison of rainfall in the 2012/13 vintages (prepared by the Biondi Santi winery).

The Cantele family, my friends and client, is enjoying classic harvest conditions in Puglia. Grape grower and winemaker Gianni Cantele even had time for a bike ride yesterday. “I have the best job in the world!” he writes.

My friend and client Luca Ferraro, who grows grapes and makes wine in Asolo (Prosecco DOCG), is anxious about forecasts of rain and hail.

“Welcome back from vacation!” he wrote today on his Facebook.

aglianico veraison

Above: Aglianico grapes in Vulture. Photo from last week.

Lastly, here’s a dispatch from my good friend Filena Ruppi who writes from the foothills of Mt. Vulture in Basilicata. She and her husband, winemaker Donato d’Angelo, don’t have a blog but the landing page of their website has a really cool slide show that gives you an idea of the growing conditions there. I love their wines.

    We are experiencing relatively warm temperatures as well as the providential rains of August: after the rain, a gentle north wind always blows. It’s ideal for Aglianico because the grape bunches are very closed and dense and otherwise, rain could bring attacks of rot.

    Some zones have been struck by hail but as you know, hail always strikes like “leopard spots” and this year we’ve emerged unscathed.

    There’s every reason to predict a good vintage but remember: we still have two months to go before harvest begins.

    Fingers crossed!

I’ll continue to digest and post harvest reports as they come in. Hold on to your seats!

And in the meantime, please check out Alfonso’s excellent post on the “social hierarchy” of grape varieties in Italy.

Life as a winemaker sure ain’t easy

dawn in the vineyard italy

Above: The workday begins at dawn for grape growers and winemakers.

As harvest in Italy begins, we are reminded by the harsh life of grape growers and winemakers.

Now, more than ever, the year’s work — and often the work of a lifetime, considering how long it takes for a vineyard to produce fine wine grapes — is on the line.

Their days begin at dawn and end long after the rest of us have finished dinner and settled in with our families for the night.

Today, I’ve posted translations for two of my clients, Bele Casel in the Veneto and Cantele in Puglia.

Up in the Veneto (northeastern Italy) grape grower and winemaker Luca Ferraro delivered a brutally honest post on the challenges he’s facing this year as he prepares for harvest (that’s a view from one of his vineyards above).

“After entire weeks of rain,” he writes (and I translate), “July has left us with problems of hydric stress.”

Down in the Salento peninsula (the southern tip of the heel of Italy’s boot), grape grower and winemaker Gianni Cantele’s harvest is already well underway. But a broken refrigerator and a repairman on vacation are just some of the problems he’s been having to deal with.

“Man, why oh why does everyone in Italy have to take their vacation in August!!!???” he writes in today’s dispatch.

I’ll continue to post updates from these and other wineries as they come up in the feed… Buona vendemmia! Happy harvest!

A new and extreme era of wine writing (and why it matters)

Buon ferragosto a tutti! Happy ferragosto, everyone!

bartolomeo bimbi

Above: “37 Grape Varieties” by Tuscan naturalist painter Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729). The painting was commissioned by Cosimo III de’ Medici. The painting resides at the Medici Villa Poggio a Caiano and was part of a series of paintings commissioned by Cosimo III to document the agricultural products of Tuscany.

A wine writer, close to the source, gently nudged me yesterday, pointing out a lapsus calami in a few of my posts last week (here and here).

Botanist and grape geneticist José Vouillamoz and Master of Wine Julia Harding, she noted, were co-authors — not co-editors — of the landmark work in contemporary ampelography, Wine Grapes (New York, Ecco [HarperCollins] 2012).

Errata corrige! I wanted to be sure to right this lacuna and (I hope that the authors will forgive my absentmindedness and chalk it up to the sleep deprivation that comes with having a newborn and a toddler in the home).

I’ve already sung praises of their remarkable book. The work is a true godsend to oenophiliacs throughout the Anglophone world and beyond. And it marks a new era of wine writing, where a new scholarly benchmark in ampelography has been delivered.

The contemporary age of wine writing has its roots (excuse the paronomasia!) in Italy’s renewal of learning: Renaissance agronomists and naturalists, like Andrea Bacci (On the Natural History of Wines, 1595) and Giovan Vettorio Soderini (Treatise on the Cultivation of Vines, 1600), were pioneers.

Many overlook Agostino Gallo of Brescia and his Ten Days of True Agriculture and the Pleasures of the Country House, 1564. His extraordinary treatise — wildly popular in its day and revised as the Thirteen Days and then again as the Twenty Days — offers what is perhaps the earliest detailed description of vinification in the Renaissance era.

In 1685 Tuscan naturalist Francesco Redi gave us the wonderful and also highly popular Bacchus in Tuscany, a panegyric poem devoted to the wines of his homeland. It stands apart from the oenophilic verses of the Latin poets inasmuch as it combines Bacchanalia and ampelography.

The British were among the first wine [b]loggers.

Travel writers like Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), Bishop of Salisbury, described wines and viticulture in seventeenth-century Italy (thanks to the advent of Google books, more than one wine blogger has found his reference to “natural wine,” an expression which denotes wine that has not been fortified).

Few remember A Survey of the great Dukes State of Tuscanie by Sir Robert Dallington (1605), wherein he describes Tuscany’s “diverse sorts of grapes” (see my post and transcription here; you might be surprised by what you find).

Today, oenography has taken extreme forms that no one would have imagined even fifteen years ago.

On the one hand, there are legions of “citizen” wine bloggers who post daily on their impressions of the wines they taste. They remind me of the sixteenth-century Petrarchists. At the time, Petrarch’s Italian poems were so popular that nearly everyone who could wield a pen wrote sonnets inspired by his work, from a courtesan in Venice (Veronica Franco) to Wyatt and Shakespeare. The ability to compose a Petrarchan sonnet was a gauge of one’s social grace, a phenomenon not dissimilar from the way we admire and praise one’s capacity to describe wine as an expression of social interaction.

On the other hand, new scientific tools — genetic and otherwise — have allowed the authors of Wine Grapes to bring a new standard of precision to the field. In our home, we consult the book nearly every day and like the Oxford English Dictionary or the Encyclopedia Britannica, it represents a supreme reference work, often delivering the last word on the many conundra that continue to plague ampelography.

Why have these oenographic extremes emerged? And why has so much attention — from the demotic to the erudite — been devoted to wine writing in the last fifteen years or so?

I believe it’s because wine represents one of the last agricultural products with such a deep and even quasi-spiritual connection to the land. In the globalized era, when we desperately seek authenticity in our nourishment, there are few foodstuffs that we can link so absolutely to the place where they were raised.

Wine offers us an escape from Marxist alienation and it aids us in soothing our longing, as Freud may have called it, to return to an organic state.

As I negotiate the epistemological implications of oenophilia, I can’t help but think of how lucky we are to live in this era of extreme wine writing. It’s a wonderful time to be alive and to taste…