Italian wine still groovin’ in Austin

April 24, 2014

stella retica arpepe

“Around New York,” wrote Eric “the Red” Asimov last month in the Times, “no Italian-accented wine list can be considered in vogue these days without at least one of the excellent Valtellinas from ArPePe.”

(Check out Eric’s excellent overview of Nebbiolo and some of his favorite labels in the U.S. here.)

Ever since the historic Valtellina winery ArPePe began making its comeback a few years ago in Manhattan, its wines have become a sine qua non for hipster Italophile wine directors across the country.

I’m happy to report that Austin has become one of the epicenters of this nouvelle vague.

I had a chance to taste through the wines during a quickly planned trip to the River City yesterday. The 2006 Sassella Stella Retica (above) was the highlight in the flight that was poured for me at Vino Vino, my client and the best little wine bar in the Texas capital.

(Stella Retica is a place name, btw; check out this Alpinist post on the Via Stella Retica in Sondrio province, not far from the winery.)

It was interesting to talk to the folks at Serendipity, who brings the wine into the state, and the supplier rep, who told me that all the wines are made in chestnut casks. There’s one cement vat in the winery, he said, and it’s one of the biggest in Italy. But it was decommissioned many years ago after ArPePe ceased to be the only cooperative winery in the appellation. Today, it’s used as a reception space, he said.

housemade mozzarella

Later in the evening, I made it down to my favorite pizzeria in Texas, Bufalina, where my buddy Steven Dilley serves the entry-tier ArPePe by the glass.

That’s his housemade cow’s milk mozzarella (above) that he uses exclusively to top his pizza. It’s never refrigerated, he says. It was delicious as was the Margherita that I shared with my good friend Billy Mann who happened to be in town on business.

I awoke very early this morning and drove home in time to spend some time with the Parzen girls: I head out tomorrow for California and then NYC and so every moment with them is precious.

But I’ll rest easy on my trip, knowing that Italian wine is alive and doing well in the Groover’s Paradise.

The Chianti Classico that keeps me up at night

April 23, 2014

best chianti classico

Ever since I first tasted them a few years ago, the wines of Giacomo Mastretta at Porte di Vertine in Gaiole in Chianti have always thrilled me. They offer one of the most elegant yet real expressions of Chianti Classico today.

In an appellation where historical marketing missteps (remember the 1970s?) and a widespread misguided desire to refashion the wines in the image of Americankind, Giacomo’s wines stand out in a crowded field of mostly anonymous and homogenous bottles.

But when I had the chance to taste with him at the winery a few weeks ago, it wasn’t his superb 100 percent Sangiovese 2010 Riserva, with its rich earthy overtones, that has kept me up at night.

No, it was his 2012, a wine from a challenging vintage in Italy, that really blew me away.

sangiovese color

The 2012 vintage was a warm one, said Giacomo. August was very hot and heavy rains at the end of the month weren’t enough to cool the vines and keep the fruit from becoming overripe.

He didn’t make a riserva that year. Instead, he blended all of his Sangiovese, together with small amounts of Canaiolo and Colorino, as his Chianti Classico.

I loved this wine. It was bright and fresh in the glass and the fruit, while ripe, wasn’t overly concentrated or sweet. And the wine’s acidity and restrained alcohol sang in harmony with its flavors.

But the thing that really impressed me was how it reminded me of my first encounters with great Sangiovese in the late 1980s, before the second wave of U.S.-bound Chianti eclipsed traditional values in the appellation.

I can’t recommend it enough. Like any good winemaker faced with a challenging vintage, Giacomo made less wine from the troubled 2012 harvest than he would have normally. But, man, what a wine!

To quote Villon, this is the Chianti of yesteryear… today…

On deck for tomorrow: two great Amaro that I tasted on my trip…

Barolo 2008 a vintage to look out for & Albarossa the Nebbiolo hybrid that isn’t

April 22, 2014

fenocchio barolo villero

From the 2008 Barbaresco by Gaja to the 2008 Barolo by Bartolo (Maria Teresa) Mascarello that I’d tasted previously, I was already inclined to have high hopes for Langa wines despite the challenges of the vintage.

Abundant rains in the late spring caused a lot of problems with fruit set in Piedmont and many used the word “bizarre” to describe the climatic progression for the harvest.

Asti and Monferrato faced some serious issues in terms of production decline but growers in Langa, especially those with top parcels, managed to produce some superb fruit, even though many of them made less wine that year.

After the first day of the fair, when our palates were still fresh, Giovanni offered to treat us to a bottle of great Nebbiolo at the Trattoria Gasparo in the historical center of Brescia where I stayed during the fair and where Giovanni lives.

The owners had really beefed up the wine list since my last visit and as Giovanni read through the labels, I stopped him at Fenocchio, one of my favorites and a wine that people in my tax bracket can afford to collect.

The 2008 Barolo Villero by Giacomo Fenocchio was already very generous in its expression of fruit and it had that distinctive earthiness, dark yet elegant, that I dig in his wines.

Giacomo has never swayed from the old-school style of these wines and they represent a wonderful “first kiss” for wine lovers who are trying to attain a greater understanding of Langa Nebbiolo (especially his Cannubi). This is a wine that merits more attention from U.S. collectors.

barolo ravera principiano

At the fair, Barolo producers where showing their 2010 bottlings. It was a good to excellent vintage for Piedmont, although Italy in general suffered from late, heavy rains in August.

The 2010 Barolo Ravera by Ferdinando Principiano was smokin’ good. Although still very tight in its evolution, there was no “green” here: gorgeous acidity and brilliant fruit (however restrained by the wine’s youth) popped in this wine.

Prinicipiano’s wines represent such great value and I can’t understand why American collectors haven’t discovered them yet. Damn, I love these wines. I can’t wait to see how they evolve.

albarossa banfi

I was geeked to finally taste a bottling of Albarossa with my friend Lars Leicht of Cru Artisan, the new prestige portfolio from Banfi.

Not much of this hybrid grape is planted in Piedmont. It was created in the Veneto by fascist-era ampelographer Giovanni Dalmasso, a giant of Italian viticulture, in 1938. He believed that he was crossing Nebbiolo and Barbera.

But more recent study of the variety, which was first registered in Italy in 1977 and then authorized in Piedmont in 2001, has revealed that it’s actually a marriage of Barbera and Nebbiolo di Dronero, which is not Nebbiolo but rather Chatus, a rare clone of Ardèche found mostly in France but also in Alpine Piedmont (see José Vouillamoz’s entry for Albarossa in Wine Grapes; it is “not Nebbiolo at all,” he writes with his signature sternness, “but a synonym for Chatus,” a fact that was brought to light by research published in 2009).

Ampelography aside, I really liked the 2011 that Lars poured for me. Its color was brilliant, with electric violet notes along the edges of the glass. On the nose it was fresh with confident red and berry fruit and in the mouth its alcohol was restrained and the fruit ripe but not overly so.

There are just a handful of houses that grow and vinify this grape (Chiarlo is the most prominent) and beyond the nerdy appeal, I found it to be really approachable and delicious. I’d love to see what it can do at the dinner table.

On deck for tomorrow: a vintage-challenged Chianti Classico that floored me…

Best artisanal beer and best burger I tasted on my April trip to Italy

April 21, 2014

Facebook friends: you can see photos from Lila Jane’s baptism here.

best micro brewery italy

Anyone who’s ever attended the annual Italian wine trade fair, Vinitaly, in Verona, knows that after a day of tasting wines nonstop, you crave beer. I’m not sure why this is. But it’s widespread phenomenon among trade people who are tasting and spitting wine all day at the fair.

This year, my fair was more about schmoozing than it was about tasting but I still managed to get in 40-50 wines every day I was there (in years past, when I would go on buying trips, I would taste up to 90 wines a day, spitting all the while, of course).

By the Tuesday night of the fair, our palates were completely fried. Our teeth were stained purple and our gums were numb from tannin.

So Giovanni and I decided to go out for a beer and burger in Brescia, where I was staying and where he lives.

A lot of folks don’t realize that there is a beer and brewing renaissance happening in Italy right now. Artisanal beers, natural beers, “extreme” microbreweries, and a lot of downright delicious beers. 32 Via dei Birrai is probably the most well-known label in the U.S. But in Italy, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of microbreweries that find their way to market.

I really loved the Rurale by the Birrificio Montegioco (from the village of Montegioco in Alessandria province, Piedmont). It showed a wonderful balance of citrus and herbaceous notes with a peppery finish. It had rich texture and an overall wholesome character that really took it over the top for me.

best hamburger italy

It paired beautifully with the Hamburger Rustico at the Bar Torre d’Ercole in the historical center of Brescia.

I’ve written about the new wave of hamburger mania in Italy today.

Milan may be its epicenter. But Brescia, where the quality of beef is marvelous and where locals love to indulge in steak and hamburger, is another flash point in the Italians’ burger mania.

The quality of this beef was great and it was perfectly grilled: crunchy on the outside, with a charcoal note; rare to medium rare inside with just the right amount of fat to keep it juicy and tasty.

The rustico at the Bar Torre is stopped with melted cow’s milk cheese (I’m not sure which Lombard cheese it was), arugula, and onions that had been caramelized with juniper berries.

Bacon is optional and the server asked us if we wanted “bacon,” using the English term even though we were speaking in Italian.

The Italian beer revolution actually began more than twenty years ago in the Veneto (I remember well because I was touring with my cover band there then).

But even five years ago, it would have been difficult to find a burger of this quality in Italy.

All in all, a great way to end another long day at the fair with one more day to go.

I’ll start posting on the wines I tasted tomorrow, I promise!

Thanks for reading… Buona Pasquetta, as the Italians say! Happy day after Easter!

Happy holidays, everyone! A special Easter for the Parzen family

April 18, 2014

best colomba easter cake italian

Above: a Colomba di Pasqua, the “Easter Dove,” a traditional Italian Easter cake by Iginio Massari, one of Italy’s favorite pastry chefs. My friend Laura Castelletti, the vice-mayor of Brescia, Italy, graciously shared it with Giovanni and me last week while I was visiting their city.

It’s going to be a very special Easter for the Parzen family this year.

This Easter Sunday, Lila Jane will be baptized by her grandfather, “pawpaw,” Rev. B, at the Wesley United Methodist Church, where he presides as Pastor, in Orange, Texas, where Tracie P grew up. Lila Jane will be nine months old on Tuesday.

methodist pastor

Above: Rev. B holding Lila Jane in our garden at the new house in Houston.

I wish you all could have seen the grin on Rev. B’s face when we decided that Lila Jane would be baptized this Easter Sunday.

“We haven’t had an Easter baptism in a long time,” he said with his contagious smile.

This spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the season represents, no matter what your beliefs: delivery from bondage, redemption, renewal…

Just as the vine begins again to bud and flower each year, the yearly cycle of life reminds us to take stock in what has come before and what lies ahead.

Nature reflects our rhythms because, after all, no matter how removed we are from her, we are inexorably linked to her syncopation. All of the springtime observances derive, ultimately, from our connection to her.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wine, Easter and the Passover: the miracle of the grape vine

April 17, 2014

giotto marriage at cana

Above: Giotto’s “Marriage at Cana,” 14th century (image via Wikipedia).

We all know the story of Jesus turning water into wine at Cana, as recounted in the Gospel According to St. John.

The miracle is significant, of course, because “it is the first of the seven miraculous signs by which Jesus’s divine status is attested, and around which the gospel is structured” (Wikipedia).

But therein is also another miracle, a human and much more mundane one. According to Jewish tradition, a marriage cannot be performed without a blessing over the wine. Had Jesus not transformed the water into wine, there would have been no marriage that day.

Anyone familiar with Jewish liturgy knows that a blessing over the wine and a sip thereof is a fundamental element of nearly all Jewish ritual. Neither wedding nor circumcision can be performed without wine; the Sabbath cannot be welcomed without wine; a young person cannot become Bat or Bar Mitzvah without wine.

Here’s the short version of the blessing “over the wine,” the Kiddush or sanctification:

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine” (click here for the complete Sabbath Kiddush).

Why was wine so important in Jewish liturgy at the time?

Please click here to continue reading my post for the Boulder Wine Mechant.

And Happy Easter and Hag Sameach to all!

Wines that Italian wine bloggers liked at #Vinitaly @Intravinocom

April 16, 2014

Please also check out Alfonso’s post on the newly unveiled upper-tier Chianti category Gran Selezione. Definitely worth reading.

vinitaly verona 2015

Above: yes, it’s true, that’s what Vinitaly is really like (image via Intravino).

The blogging team at Italy’s most popular wine blog, Intravino, takes a lot of shit from the Italian wine establishment.

Many say that its content can be overly sensationalist in nature (and, as for most Italian food and wine blogs, it can be at times).

Others accuse it of subversive tendencies.

I, for one, am a fan of subversion and often partake in it myself.

Like it or not, over the last few years, Intravino has emerged as Italy’s most widely followed wine blog. It has an extremely loyal following that easily outpaces that of the mainstream wine media who cultivate an online presence.

And each year at Vinitaly, Intravino hosts a lovely meet-and-greet event, where nearly everyone, from nearly every walk of the Italian enoblogosphere, gathers for a glass of wine (it was hosted by the Franciacorta consortium this year).

Yesterday, the Intravino editorial staff published a multi-author post on its stand-out wines at Vinitaly 2014 (in Italian).

Read the Google Translate version here.

Italians’ favorite (Italian) wines don’t always align seamlessly with American’s favorite Italian wines. In fact, Italians are often nonplussed by the wines that American media embrace as “best” or “authentic.”

You might be surprised by some of the wines that you’ll find among the Intravino editors’ picks. And I hope you’ll check it out (especially if you’re an importer looking for new properties).

As Intravino’s Foucault-inspired motto goes, un altro vino è possibile: an other wine is possible (space between an and other is mine).

Thanks for reading. I’m still catching up and catching my breath in the wake of my trip. But I’ll begin posting my favorite wines from the fair starting next week. Stay tuned…

Arrivederci, Roma. Now it’s time to head home…

April 14, 2014

castel sant angelo rome

The rain wasn’t going to stop me from strolling around Rome yesterday.

Ever since my early years as a student in Italy, the Eternal City has always thrilled and fascinated me. And even though I’ve visited countless times, Rome never fails to inspire me as it shares its ceaseless beauty.

jeremy parzen blog

This trip has been a good one: my days at the fair in Verona were productive and my travel was seamless.

Thanks to everyone who hosted and tasted with me.

I have many tales to tell and many wines to share.

But now it’s time to pack it in and head back to Texas where I belong.

Thanks for following along… I’ll see you on the other side.

man ora ti porto al bar dove faccio colazione sempre @TerraUomoCielo #Brescia

April 12, 2014

Giovanni, to me, this morning in Brescia:

Man, I’m taking you to the café where I always go for breakfast.

piazza della loggia

Saturday markets in Piazza della Loggia.

Read the rest of this entry »

Leaves of grass: Primo Franco & the “battle for Prosecco” @NinoFranco1919

April 11, 2014

Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants…
—Walt Whitman
preface to Leaves of Grass

herbicide vineyard

Above: Primo Franco stops to chat with a Prosecco grower in Cartizze.

Spring has come early to Proseccoland (as it has across Italy). And as I drove from Cison di Valmarino (where I stay with my good friends at the Villa Marcello Marinelli) to Valdobbiadene yesterday, I saw many grape growers cutting the grass between the rows of their vineyards.

In other vineyards, there were brown stripes between the rows: they demarcate the use of a crop dessicant (or defoliant), a form of herbicide.

For every “green” vineyard, there seemed to be a “striped” vineyard, as it were, on either side.

Last year, Alfonso wrote about the “Battle for Prosecco” (a post I highly recommend): with each passing vintage, it seems, that struggle and the challenge to preserve what is unique and wholesome here only intensifies.

As legacy Prosecco producer Primo Franco (above) noted as we drove back to the Nino Franco winery after lunch yesterday, the use of desiccants in the vineyards results in the effetto saponetta or bar of soap effect: when the grass is killed by a dessicant and a crust of dead leaves of grass is formed and as result, the soil absorbs less rain water.

Primo stopped along the road to praise a grape grower who was trimming his grass by hand, unlike his neighbor who had used desiccants (see the photo above).

“My cousin is an idiot,” replied the grower, referring to his next-door neighbor. “I’ve told him not to do it like that. But he doesn’t listen.”

best restaurant prosecco

Above: anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows that I rarely drink wine at lunch. But how could I resist a glass of Primo’s San Floriano, my favorite among his crus. The pairing with tagliatelle and asparagus was rivaled only by the pairing with the view from the Ristorante Enoteca Salis in Santo Stefano. The nose on that wine is gorgeous.

As Alfonso wrote in his post last year, there’s a lot of money at stake in Prosecco, where sales have rivaled and even surpassed those in Champagne in recent years.

Prices of land in Cartizze, the most famous of the Prosecco crus, are higher than Napa Valley, one grower told me a few years ago as we sat atop his family’s parcel in the famed designation.

But grape prices, even in Cartizze where only Prosecco DOCG is grown, are now being driven by the fact that fruit costs in the Prosecco DOC, which lies in the Piave river valley below (and beyond), are much lower.

English-speaking end consumers don’t recognize the distinction between the DOC and the DOCG and as a result they generally reach for the cheapest Prosecco on the supermarket shelf.

This phenomenon, which has only expanded in the years since the DOCG was created in 2009, ultimately prompts growers to cut corners in order to compete with their fellows on the valley floor.

And those dead leaves of grass are an expression of that struggle.

wine tours prosecco

Above: my beloved Veneto, my beloved Proseccoland. This is my Italy, the Italy where I feel most at home. I speak like they do. I eat like they do. I’m saddened to see what is happening here.

All is not lost in Prosecco and although some battles have been lost, the outcome of the great war has yet to be written.

Primo — a man whom I admire immensely and whose legacy has shaped the tastes of our generation — is fighting a valiant fight.

Last year’s crop was so good, he told me, that he and his winery could have bought fewer grapes for their projected production.

But he bought the same amount as he regularly does: “In order to protect our land,” he said, “we have to protect our growers.”

As he stopped along the road yesterday to chat with that grower (above), I couldn’t help but think of the above passage from Leaves of Grass. Primo is this appellation’s Whitman — in more ways than one.

I have so much more to tell about my trip and my Vinitaly tastings. I have just three more appointments to go between today and tomorrow. And then on to Rome for one night before heading back to Texas. Thanks for following along and please stay tuned…


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