Opening fifty-year-old wine with fellow forty-year-old and friend Jeff Grocott at Morandi.
A few weeks ago, good friend and fellow child-of-the-Summer-of-Love Jeff Grocott proposed that we drink a bottle of old Spanna by Piedmontese (Novarese) producer Vallana to celebrate the near completion of our nearly four decades on the planet. Jeff, a page-one editor at the Wall Street Journal, wrote a number of wine features and tasting notes when he was an editor at the WSJ Weekend Section. You have to subsribe to the WSJ online edition in order to browse/search old articles but you can find some of Jeff’s articles on the web. His story on wine storage, which appeared in syndication, is one of the most popular and it offers some interesting and solid insights into the myths/truths of cellaring. Jeff and I met a few years ago when I was doing media relations for a NYC wine merchant and have since opened and enjoyed many bottles together, including a Barolo Riserva (Red Label) 1990 Giacosa that my friend and colleague Jim Hutchinson generously poured for us in his apartment last winter (served with a Coda alla Vaccinara that Jim had cooked all day in his crock pot).
Jeff, who lives in the village with his wife Barbara, had spied the Spanna 1958 Vallana at the relatively new Morandi on Waverly at Charles St.
We were both reluctant to open such an old bottle at a place like Morandi: similar to the ever-popular Da Silvano, Morandi is a glamorous, star-studded (see our celebrity encounter below), pseudo-trattoria New York City cafeteria — not exactly the place you think of when it comes to old wine. The bottle was reasonably priced but what was its provenance? how had it been stored? what kind of wine service would we find at a bustling downtown “feed-em-and-turn-the-table” eatery on a hot July evening?
While the food at Morandi was unremarkable (typical greasy but well-dressed downtown Italian), the wine list offered some interesting Nebbiolo options, including a Barbaresco 1988 Produttori del Barbaresco magnum at a good price. I was also impressed by the Ligurian whites on the list and a few labels from Basilicata, unusual for a restaurant where wine-savvy diners are unlikely to be found.
Above: sommelier Rosario “Roy” Marino (right) tasted with me and Jeff (left).
As it turns out, where were greeted by Rosario “Roy” Marino, a Salerno native, who gave us a great table in the back, had set the bottle upright (at Jeff’s request) the night before, and produced excellent Burgundy-style crystal glasses and a crystal decanter for our table (before opening the Vallana, we ordered a glass of Donnas Rouge from Val d’Aosta, which Roy poured in the restaurant’s standard glass stemware).
Novara is a lower-lying, wine-producing zone found to the east of the Langhe Hills (Piedmont) were the more famous Barolo and Barbaresco appellations are produced. The Spanna DOC was created in 1969. In order for the bottle to be labeled “Spanna” (Spanna is the Novarese name for Nebbiolo), it must contain at least 85% Spanna (Nebbiolo). This wine was made before the DOC existed and thus was labeled vino da tavola (table wine; see label detail below).
Judging from the newish cork and clean label, the Spanna Vino da Tavola 1958 Vallana had been recently rebottled (and probably topped off with a little bit of new wine, as is the custom among many Piedmontese producers who keep reserves of older wine in their cellars).
Spanna has often been cited by wine experts (including the great Shelly Wasserman) as one of Italy’s greatest aging wines. Many people think only of Barolo (and Barbaresco) as cellar-worthy Nebbiolo. In fact, Nebbiolo grown in the Langhe was not labeled as Barolo until Ratti’s legendary 1971 bottling, while Spanna, Gattinara, Grumello etc. had already achieved fame as long-lived wines in the 1960s (for those who read Italian, I found this informative and moving account of drinking a bottle of 1964 Spanna discovered in the mud by rescuers in the aftermath of the 1969 flood in Novara).
I believe that Spanna’s longevity can be attributed — at least in part — to the addition of smaller amounts of less tannic, more acidic grape varieties. Vespolina and Bonarda other grapes are allowed in the appellation. Many have pointed to Antonio Vallana’s blending skills as the secret behind his remarkable wines.
The wine was fantastic: after the initial stink dissipated (not uncommon in wines this old), the nose opened up beautifully and the wine had gorgeous fruit, nice acidity, and perfectly softened tannins. The 1958 harvest is considered one of the great twentieth-century vintages for Piedmont and this nearly-fifty-year-old wine was powerfully elegant but retained some of the rustic character that you find in the naturally and traditionally made wines from Novara. We enjoyed it thoroughly.
As we were paying and preparing to leave, a party of three was seated next to us. Jeff discretely told me, “turn around and look who is sitting next to you.” Little did I know but the Edge was rubbing elbows with me. Wow… He was dining with two young women (I imagine one was his daughter). I wonder what they drank. I’m sure that Roy took very good care of them.