Coda di Volpe: Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project

With preparation for the arrival of Baby P and work at full speed in the crush of autumn, life’s been a little chaotic lately…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted in the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Series. And so I was thrilled when Wine State of Mind and Pizzeria Biga mentioned on the Twitter that they’ve found the videos useful.

Yesterday I called one of my favorite Campania producers, Paola Mustilli, and asked her if she’d contribute a few videos. Thanks, again, Paola, for the videos! They’re awesome!

Her Coda di Volpe entry is just the first in a series of Campania grape names she sent me and I decided to post it as the first because I’m still thinking about Coda di Volpe after reading Fringe Wine’s excellent post on the variety.

There’ll be others to come before the Christmas holiday. So please stay tuned and thanks again for speaking Italian grapes!

Buon weekend, yall!

The Art of Pairing Wine with Thanksgiving @EatingOurWords

My post today over at the Houston Press.

Yes, folks, it’s that predictable time of year when everyone posts their Thanksgiving wine recommendations. Among the literally hundreds of blogs and feeds that I follow, one of my favorites this year was Eric Asimov’s [Eric the Red’s] “What Can I Drink at Thanksgiving Besides Wine?” There are a gazillion interesting posts out there: Just search for Thanksgiving wine (not in quotes) in Google Blog Search and you’ll find a trésor of inspired suggestions.

One of the common themes is the challenge that the Thanksgiving meal poses for the would-be sommelier: With so many dishes, with such a wide variety of ingredients, aromas, and flavors, and with so many cooks in the kitchen, what one wine can you recommend?

But there’s another relevant (and in my view, equally important) question we should ask: With such a heterogenous group of people gathered for the all-American holiday, what wine will pair well with both the food and the guests?

My brothers (one in his fifties, the other in his forties) are both high-powered attorneys, and they like highly alcoholic Zinfandel and oaky, tannic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. My mother [Mamma Judy], who remains forever young in my heart, likes wines that are lighter in body, with gentler alcohol and tannin. The extreme concentration (or extraction, as we call it in wine parlance) of a classic “Zin” or “Napa Cab” would not only overwhelm mom’s palate, it would also overpower her digestion, especially on a day when we all tend to overindulge.

The following 10 wines are available in the Houston market. They are not samples sent to me by a publicist or distributor. They are wines that my wife Tracie P and I drink and serve in our home. They are wines that we can afford, and they are wines that we share with people we love. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Click here for the wines and the rest of the post…

Carema: violent beauty and stunning wines (best Thanksgiving wine for 2011)

Tracie P and I won’t be heading to Orange, Texas for Thanksgiving this year because we’re about 5 weeks away from our due date! We’ll miss Thanksgiving with Mrs. and Rev. B but I made sure that they have some good wines for their holiday meal. Back here in Austin, this is what we’ll be drinking…

Earlier this year, when my friend, publisher, and wine industry insider Maurizio Gily suggested that we visit the village of Carema before heading to the European Wine Bloggers Conference, it was hard to contain my excitement. As a devout lover of Nebbiolo, I have sought out and drunk Carema whenever and wherever I could: known for its intensely tannic nature, the bottlings of 100% Nebbiolo grown in the hillsides of this pre-alpine village, with its morainic mountains that pop up in the landscape with a beautiful violence as you drive north from the freeway (moraine: “A mound, ridge, or other feature consisting of debris that has been carried and deposited by a glacier or ice sheet, usually at its sides or extremity; the till or similar material forming such a deposit.”—Oxford English Dictionary)

Before we headed to the Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema vinification facility and tasting room in the middle of the village, Maurizio, his colleague Monica, and Italian wine marketer Wineup and I hiked the trail that leads from the town up through the pergola-trained vineyards — yes, pergola-trained! (Check out Wineup’s excellent photos here.)

Pergola training has thrived here for a number of reasons, explained Maurizio. Because of the appellation’s unique geographic and topographic elements (i.e., elevation combined with violently steep slopes, extreme temperature variation, and healthy ventilation thanks to the morainic valley), the pergolas help to keep the fruit cool (thanks to shading) under the warm sun of summer and to keep the grapes warm in the case of early frost.

You really have to see the village and its vineyards to understand how it works…

You can click on the image above for a larger version: as you can see, the terraced, pergola-trained vineyards (planted exclusively to Nebbiolo) are situated on the eastern side of the valley, where the sun beats down in the late afternoon. This combination of the nutrient poor morainic soil, excellent exposure, good ventilation, and the local grape growing tradition is what delivers these incredible, age-worthy wines. (That’s the village of Donnas, Val d’Aosta, in the distance, btw.)

The other reason that pergola training has endured here is the fact that the terrain itself restricts the use of machinery: the vineyards are literally sculpted into the side of the mountains and the only way to work them is by hand. The pergola also allows the growers to employ integrated farming and it wasn’t uncommon to see other crops planted beneath the canopy. Italy’s top wine blogger Franco Ziliani calls the viticulture of Carema “heroic.” This is land where, until the advent of modernity (in the 1960s), life survival was extremely difficult and the terrain challenging. Every grower needs to exploit his vineyards, explained Maurizio, to the greatest extent possible.

Once we made it back to the village and the winery, I wasn’t surprised to find large-format, Slavonian oak casks (like this 1,550 liter beauty). Although the winery does age some wine in barriques (say it ain’t so!), the greater part of ever vintage is destined for large-cask and stainless steel aging.

Growers association president Viviano Gassino had double-decanted an amazing flight of wines for us to taste: 87, 90, 95, 99, 00, 03, 06, and 07.

The 1987 was beautiful: A bit of disassociation, slightly browning (I wrote in my notes), but very alive and tannic; rich fruit but still very tight.

The 1999 stunning: Gorgeous acidity, really bright, with an amazing balance of body and tannin united around rich berry fruit. Maurizio and I both noted more focus in the winemaking style from 1999 onward.

The 2006 was another highlight for me and reminded me of the 1999 in a younger expression. This is what we’ll drink for Thanksgiving this year, at Aunt Holly and Uncle Terry’s house here in Austin.

Simply put, Carema is one of the most amazing appellations I’ve ever visited: for its violent beauty, for its unique confluence of geographic and topographic elements, for its perfectly viable anachronism, and for the outstanding wines it produces.

But the most incredible thing is that you can find the 2006 Carema by Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema in the U.S. for under $30 (2007 is the current release but there is still some 2006 in the market).

I love love LOVE these wines and they are my Thanksgiving pick for 2011 (even though they’re not available in Texas, I’ve managed to evade the authorities and sneak a few bottles in).

Thanks for reading! To get a better sense of the topography of Carema, here’s the slide show that I hurriedly created the week of my visit just over a month ago…

Baby P news…

It’s a very special moment in our lives right now: putting the final touches on the nursery, making weekly visits to our OB/GYN, installing the car seats…

We are all happy and healthy and despite the discomfort in the final weeks of our pregnancy (we’re about 5 weeks away from the due date), we’ve been enjoying this special time of grace for us.

Tracie P is so beautiful and words cannot express the joy of watching her carefully fold all the baby clothes and arrange each little sock in the drawers of Baby P’s new dresser…

There’s gas in the car and extra toothbrushes are packed for our trip to the hospital. We don’t expect to be heading there anytime soon… but we’ll be ready when the moment arrives…

Tracie P, I love you so much… You are such a beautiful mamma…

10 Tips for Holiday Wine Shopping @EatingOurWords & Venison Carpaccio @CanteleWines

My post today over at the Houston Press is devoted to 10 Tips for Holiday Wine Shopping.

The one tip that they wouldn’t let me put in my post: don’t ever buy La Spinetta! (just kidding)

Seriously, I’ve been having a lot of fun posting for Eating Our Words and my editors are the best…

And over at the Cantele Wines blog, I posted my translation of a wonderful recipe for venison carpaccio and polenta medallions topped with braised pork skins and chopped walnuts by one of my favorite Italian-language food bloggers, Appunti Digòla.

I really loved the way author Stefano Caffarri composed this recipe and his humor. Great stuff…

Buona lettura, yall!

Best California Chardonnay I’ve ever tasted: Donkey & Goat Untended 2010

When my buddies Yelenosky, Erickson, and I tasted this wine together last week at Jaynes Gastropub, the three of us were simply floored by how friggin’ delicious it is.

Donkey & Goat 2010 Untended Chardonnay, made from a 30-plus-year-old abandoned and “un-grafted” vineyard in Anderson Valley, California.

As you can see from the image, the wine — the product of spontaneous fermentation — is unfiltered. Beautiful, bright acidity, 12.7% alcohol (YES!), brilliant citrus notes, and a freshness and drinkability (as the Italians say) that made this wine disappear with extreme celerity.

But the thing I loved the most about this wine was how pure it is — ideologically and sensorially.

In a world where “California Chard” is a brand created through aggressive manipulation of the grape variety, this wine’s purity spoke to the true nature of Chardonnay as a relatively neutral medium for expressing the place where it is grown and the winemaker’s interpretation. In this case, the winemaker’s transparency — literal and figurative — allows the wine to express everything that has gone into it: just place and grapes. I can’t recommend it highly enough (especially for wine lovers and trade who are trying to wrap their mind around what Chardonnay really is).

Thank you Donkey & Goat for this wine and thank you Amy Atwood for turning me on to it. Love it…

The folks at Jaynes had flown me in for one night last week (my last plane ride of the year! yeah!) to lead a guided tasting of Italian wines for a corporate client. (I’ll post about an interesting experiment I conducted during the nearly 4-hour long tasting next week.)

Jayne shared her excellent mozzarella-stuffed arancini with me. And their newborn daughter Romy shared her contagious smile…

Tracie P and I are in the final weeks of our pregnancy and I’m very happily grounded, with no more travel scheduled until 2012.

We’re so lucky to have so many friends and relatives who have recently had kids: the hand-me-downs are great and more than anything else, it’s wonderfully reassuring to share the experience with our friends as we deal with the discomforts and the anxiety that the last weeks of pregnancy can bring.

I’m so proud of my beautiful Mamma P: she’s such a great mother to Baby P and she’s so courageous (in our birthing classes, they give us a taste of what’s in store).

It’s so true what people say: having a child will change your perspectives in ways that you cannot imagine until it happens to you. We’re living that every day.

And just when I thought I couldn’t love Tracie (Mamma) P anymore, I find that my love continues to grow as she bravely and so graciously carries our little girl.

I wish yall could see her… she’s just so beautiful…

No Berlusconi but sadly still Barrique

Bartolo Mascarello’s famous label, “No Barrique, No Berlusconi,” a now iconic image that empowered wine as an ideological expression. Photo via Spume.

The great 20th-century novelist, poet, essayist, and politician Leonardo Sciascia employed Sicily as synecdoche for Italy in his novels Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl, 1961) and A ciascuno il suo (To Each His Own, 1966). The works were parables of what he would later call the “Sicilianization” of Italy: a phenomenon whereby the Sicilian model of bureaucratic and political bankruptcy and clannish self-interest had contaminated the entire Italic peninsula as the nation first tasted the sweetness of prosperity thanks to the “economic miracle” of that decade.

Today, as I joyously read the news that Berlusconi has pledged to resign, I am reminded of Sciascia’s parables. In many ways, Berlusconi’s 17-year tenure as Italy’s leading politician is a parable of the Italian nation’s overarching abandonment of the social ideals that emerged in the period immediately after the second world war, when social and economic equality, dignity, and liberty were paramount in the hearts and minds of Italians who had suffered through the tragedy of fascist and Nazi domination. The memory of those wounds was still vibrant in 1994 when Berlusconi first took power. Today, the generation that embraced the humanist ideals of Italian post-war communism has greyed. And the greed and moral bankruptcy embodied by Berlusconi will remain as the legacy that has reshaped Italy and swept away the renaissance of Italian greatness — in design, technology, fashion, cuisine, etc. — of the decade that preceded his reign.

His tenure corresponds neatly to the tragic Californianization of the Italian wine industry that took shape in the 1990s when scores of Italian producers abandoned the values of the generation that had made wine before them.

Berlusconi may be on his way out. But, sadly, barriques are here to stay.

In the face of the European debt crisis and the social and economic turmoil that has gripped Italy (my first love) and Greece (my new love) — “Crisis in Italy Deepens, as Bond Yields Hit Record Highs,” New York Times — it’s been difficult to write about wine here on the blog.

Tonight Tracie P and I will raise a glass of traditionally vinified Nebbiolo to Italy’s future… and tomorrow I’ll pick it up again…

Frondisti and malpancisti, interesting Italian political nomenclature

With all the talk of Berlusconi’s imminent fall, the Italian media often mentions the so-called frondisti (the rebels in the Berlusconi coalition) and the malpancisti (literally, those who suffer from stomach aches).

The frondisti take their name from the frondeurs of 17th-century France: the Parisian mobs who used slings (fronde in Italian, frondes in French) to hurl stones and other missiles “to smash the windows of supporters of Cardinal Mazarin,” minister to the French monarch (above, left).

“In 1644, Mazarin tried to prevent [the city of Paris from] growing further and to raise taxes by fining those who built houses outside the City Walls. This policy produced widespread resentment. The Fronde began in January 1648, when the Paris mob used children’s slings, frondes, to hurl stones at the windows of Mazarin’s associates.” (From the Wiki.)

An early documented use of malpancista dates back to 2004. It refers to members of a political alignment who express dissent or disagreement. Their “stomach ache” belies a change of heart (heartburn?).

As Italian journalist Aldo Grasso recently noted, a stomach ache is generally relieved by a visit to the toilet.

My advice to Berlusconi? Vai a cagare…