96 Gaja Conteisa wowed me, 99 Produttori del Barbaresco Asili humbled me (TY @KeeperColl)

November 19, 2012

Above: Some may be turned off by the oxidative quality of the Fiorano whites. I think they’re super groovy. This 1994 Sémillon was made when the old Prince Boncompagni was still on this earth. It had solid acidity and its dried stone fruit flavors and aromas were lively and rich.

One of the coolest things about what I do for a living is that collectors of Italian wine often invite me to taste their wines with them.

There is no one who does more to foster the Austin wine and food scene than the lovely Diane Dixon, whose Keeper Collection produces a series of events here each year, focusing on and featuring young sommeliers and chefs.

Above: Of all the Gaja wines from the 1990s, my favorite has always been the Conteisa, named after the “highly contested” (conteisa in Piedmontese) parcel where it is grown. There’s more Barbera in this wine than his other Langhe Nebbiolo (and unlike the more famous ones, it was never classified as Barbaresco). Great acidity, brilliant fruit.

She and her husband Earl are just really cool folks who recognize the importance of supporting our food and wine community.

On Friday night we convened at my favorite Austin wine bar where the owner graciously let Diane open a few bottles.

Above: Here’s my tasting note… !!!!! So youthful, so powerful, this wine is going through a “closed” period and while ungenerous with its fruit, it lavished my palate with its nobility and grace. I’m hoping Diane will let me taste it again in five years or so. What a stunning wine!

With every wine that was poured, Diane asked me to talk to our small group about each one. The story of the Prince Boncompagni and his moldy casks; Gaja and the reclassification of his Langhe wines at the end of the last century; Produttori del Barbaresco and how many Langaroli now call 1999 (and not 1996) the greatest vintage of the decade.

Somewhere between the Gaja and the Produttori del Barbaresco, I realized that Diane had thoughtfully created this flight just for me. It’s one of the coolest things about what I do for a living and it’s one of the coolest things about being part of the Austin wine and food scene.

Diane and Earl, what a thoughtful flight you put together for me! Thanks for everything you do for all of us…


Lacan, Petrarch, Nietzsche, Fiorano, and hieroglyphic wine

July 29, 2009

Above: I love this image of the 1994 Malvasia by Fiorano, snapped by Tracie B in her apartment the other day. It’s a quasi-film-noir take on a hard-to-wrap-your-mind-around wine. One of the things that intrigues us about wine is its mystery: who made it and how and why? A glass of wine can be like Lacan’s hieroglyphs in the dessert.

Twentieth-century linguist, semiotician, and father of late-blooming French psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan famously asked his readers to consider how they would react in the following situation (perhaps a great premise for an ersatz reality show?):

    Suppose that in the desert you find a stone covered with hieroglyphics. You do not doubt for a moment that, behind them, there was a subject who wrote them. But it is an error to believe that each signifier is addressed to you — this is proved by the fact you cannot understand any of it. On the other hand, you define them as signifiers, by the fact that you are sure that each of the signifiers is related to each of the others.

(This passage is often cited in explaining Lacan’s theory of the “precedence of the signifier,” in other words, the notion that the word or symbol or sign always exists before meaning does.)

In some ways, protohumanist Francis Petrarch said the same thing when he wrote that as a young man, he could read Roman orator Cicero’s writing and he was enchanted by the words, their sounds, and their elegance, even though he could not (yet) understand what they meant.

Above: Tracie B’s contribution to our dinner Saturday at Italian Wine Guy’s was her excellent carbonara. It paired stunningly with the vibrant 92 Fiorano Semillon. Carbonara is another example of a trace of the past that has lost its meaning. No one knows for sure the origins of the dish or they etymon of its name.

As with literature and writing (even writing on the wall), we sometimes assign meaning to things not because we know the meaning intended by their authors or creators but because we simply come into contact with them. Nietzsche wrote about this in The Twilight of the Idols as “the error of imaginary causes,” as in dreams, when, for example, external stimulus (like a canon shot, as Nietzsche put it, or perhaps the song playing on a radio alarm clock) enters our subconscious:

    The ideas engendered by a certain condition have been misunderstood as the cause of that condition. We do just the same thing, in fact, when we are awake.

What do any of these things have to do with one another, beyond me stringing together a seemingly arbitrarily compiled handlist of philosophical and epistemological musings?

Every wine wine we approach and draw to our lips is a mystery, a riddle of the Sphinx. Every glass of wine is Lacan’s desert hieroglyph, Petrarch’s Cicero, and Nietzsche’s waking dream — ay, there’s the rub… And so were the three bottles of Fiorano white that Tracie B and I opened with Italian Wine Guy over the weekend as our birthday gift to him (and a thank you for all that he’s done for both of us, professionally and personally, over the last two years).

Above: Deciphering Fiorano through the prism of Italian Wine Guy aka Alfonso’s superb stemware, paired with his take on petto di pollo alla milanese. Photo by Tracie B.

A great deal has been written about the fascinating wines of Fiorano (Eric’s 2004 article was the first piece about these wines in English) but I think that Eric put it best when he called them “bygone wines”: they are wines that will never be made again. In part because wine is no longer produced in that fashion on the Fiorano estate (outside Rome) and in part because today, few if any would ever consider making white wines intended for such prolonged barrel aging. They are a trace of another time and era in winemaking. They are “classic” inasmuch as they will never be made again. They are a mystery, a conundrum that keeps us thinking. We know they exist and have existed (and we will know that even after we have drunk them all). We know someone made them but we will probably never know what he meant by them.

All we do know for certain is that they’re delicious.


Fiorano 94 Malvasia and Il Postino

July 2, 2009

The story has been told many times but was first recounted famously in English by Eric: somewhere in the 1960s and 70s, the eccentric Italian noble, Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, prince of Venosa, developed what are still undeciphered methods of vinification and aging that allowed him to create unique, powerful, nuanced long-lived expressions of Malvasia di Candia, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc. The secret at the Fiorano estate (located in the region of Latium, just north of Rome)? Mold… mold on the covering the aging casks, mold covering the bottles aging in the cellar.

I’ve had the great fortune to taste the wines many times. The first occasion was when they arrived in the U.S. in 2005. They had been rebottled and relabeled expressly for sale in the U.S. market and they commanded and continue to command a price that reaches beyond my means. But, man, they were good and they still are.

Yesterday, my friend Susana Partida, owner of Salute Wine, who brokers the wines in Texas, generously brought a bottle of the 94 Malvasia to lunch in Dallas (she and I became friends because her sister Felice cuts my hair at the James Allan Salon in Austin!).

Above: We lunched yesterday at Adelmo’s in Dallas, the see-and-be-seen wine industry hangout, where the simpatico proprietor Adelmo allows trade to bring wine. Adelmo is originally from San Vincenzo in Maremma (along the Tuscan coast) and he grew up in Florence. It’s always great to taste with him and glean wine knowledge from his many years in the business. He sent over some pâté and crostini after he tasted the Fiorano with us — his recommended pairing.

Would the prince have called these natural wines? Probably not. But are they? I believe they most certainly are. When you drink these extraordinary (and extravagant) wine, you taste the hand of an Italian aristocrat who recognized the nobility of the grape and the place, who got out of Nature’s way and let her do her work.

This was a wine, as Tracie B put it last night over our dinner of quesadillas, that “speaks of a place, of tradition. It’s real and it’s a product of its environment and of the culture, not of technology and manipulation.”

Susana generously sent me home with a half a bottle (we each had a glass with our lunch) and Tracie B and I lingered over the wine through dinner and a movie: Il postino, also from the 1994 vintage. In my more militantly Marxist university days, I might have dismissed this poignant romance as cloyingly engagé. But now that I’m a “Brunello socialist,” I can openly say that I found the movie irresistibly charming and ingenuously touching. Maybe it was because I remembered what Brunetta said about Troisi’s performance, in his History of Italian Cinema (translated by yours truly). Troisi, he wrote, gave “the world his career’s most heartbreaking hymn to life and love.” Maybe it’s because Tracie B’s generosity of heart and her wonderful spirit are rubbing off on me… The answer probably lies somewhere between a glass of 94 Malvasia and a kiss…

In other news, more mazel…

Mazel tov, Ale! His Wine Advocate scores and reviews are in and Il Poggione’s current releases are enjoying high marks from Antonio Galloni. Any one who reads Do Bianchi knows how much I love Il Poggione’s traditional-style Brunello and it’s great to see the winery get the recognition it deserves. These reviews and notes are testament to Antonio’s love of terroir-driven Italian wine. Chapeau bas, Antonio. I’ve been a fan since the days of your Piedmont Report and I love what you’ve done with the Italian notes at WA.

Another Italian wine guy, whose palate I respect immensely, Tom Hyland, also posted recently on a vertical of Il Poggione here.


Call me crazy: white clam pizza and Nebbiolo

April 25, 2009

From the “life could be worse” department…

Above: Call me crazy but I paired cherry stone clam pizza and Nebbiolo the other day at Nonna in Dallas. It was delicious. The fruit in the 2005 Produttori del Barbaresco is showing beautifully right now and shows no signs of wanting to close up.

The San Diego Kid (that’s me, your resident wine cowboy) found himself in Dallas the other day, dusty and tired after a day of showing wine, with a six-pack of wine still slung around his back, his trusty companion Dinamite (the Silver Hyundai) beaten but not broken, and a bottle half-full of 2005 Produttori del Barbaresco still to be drunk. So he moseyed on over to the nearest saloon and parked his chaparreras at the bar at Nonna, where owner Julian Barsotti insisted he have the white pizza with cherry stone clams.

Above: Rock star owner and chef Julian Barsotti of Nonna makes some of the best pizza in Texas. He spent a season in Naples where he studied at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.

Julian opens the cherry stone clams first, reserves the juices, and then slowly wilts Vidalia onions with their juice and some cream until the onions literally melt and the cream and clam juice reduce to a thick sauce which he seasons with a mix of finely chopped herbs. Before firing the pizza in a wood-fired oven, he dresses the pizza with the clams, sauce, and a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano. I’m still a big fan of his Margherita but the white clam pizza was the best I’ve ever had this side of New Haven, Connecticut.

The pairing was as decadent as it was delicious. In Italy, I still pair my pizza with beer (as tradition dictates) but here in the Wild West, crazy things can happen.

In other news…

I couldn’t be there this year (but I was last year): the first couple of Italian-American food and wine Michele and Charles Scicolone hosted their second “bygone wines” dinner in New York. Check out Eric’s post here.

In other other news…

Today (April 25) is Liberation Day in Italy, commemorating the partisans’s triumph over fascist and Nazi rule in 1945 (Milan and Turin were liberated on this day).


Heading to Italy and Slovenia…

March 31, 2008

I leave today for Italy (where I’ll be attending the wine fairs and catching up with old friends) and then Slovenia (where I’ll be performing with Nous Non Plus). I’ll be taking a break from blogging but will post on my trip when I have internet access on the road and after I get back.

I recently had the good fortune to taste a flight of Fiorano Rosso going back to 1986, thanks to my dear friends Charles and Michele Scicolone. You can read about the wines at VinoWire and I’ve posted some pics from the dinner below. See you in a few weeks!

Over the last few years, I’ve drunk some great wine with my generous friend Charles Scicolone. A widely recognized expert on Italian wine, he’s taught me a lot of what I know — through the wines he’s opened for me to taste and his colorful anecdotes and memories of the many winemakers he’s known over the years.

Michele is a leading authority on Italian food and has published countless cookbooks and magazine features. I’ve been a guest in the Scicolones’ home a number of times but have never been served the same dish twice: Michele keeps a journal of her dinner parties, who attended, and what was served.

Michele made Anagni-style lasagne for the first course, a nod to the first red we tasted that night, Torre Ercolana 1990, which is made in Anagni near Rome.

Lamb — a quintessential spring dish — was served as the main course.

Michele blanched orange zest to create this elegant presentation.


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