urban botanical milan #milanobotanica @LinariaRete @SpigaSt cc @TerraUomoCielo

Those of us who work in the wine business rarely go to Milan. But I try to go every chance I get: not only is Milan where many of my friends from Padua university days live and work (in the publishing industry), it’s also one of the most thrilling European cultural capitals, one of the best places in Italy to eat seafood (surprising but true), and now the subject of a microblog devoted to the city as botanical garden.

The author and curator is one of my oldest and dearest friends in Italy, Stefano Spigariol.

You can follow the microblog via #MilanoBotanica or by visiting the Facebook of Linaria, a Milanese publisher and non-profit environmental activist group.

Those are snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) in the photo above. And the map that will lead you to them below…

Here are some hedge-apples (Maclura pomifera)…

And here’s the map…

The wonderful project has received a lot of attention from both literary and gardening circles in Italy.

What fascinates me about it is how it speaks to a theme that pervades the twentieth-century Italian narrative: the natural alienation (estrangement) of citizens who migrate from rural areas to major urban centers.

While I grew up in a big city and have lived in big cities all of my life, many of my Italian friends — like Stefano — left small towns in rural areas to study in major metropoles. Stefano’s taxonomic “discovery” of urban botanical Milan represents a subversion of such alienation, however fleeting.

It’s a great project and I’m looking forward to following along…

happy babies in Italy at restaurants

Earlier this week, my song-writing partner, who was visiting us in Austin, treated Tracie P, Georgia P, and me to dinner at one of the River City’s most swank and high-profile restaurants.

The food was great as always (if you know the Austin dining scene, you are familiar with the restaurant); the waitstaff sharp, precise, professional, polite, and highly informed; and the wines by-the-glass and sake by-the-glass selection excellent.

There was just one thing missing: the boundless warmth and affection that Georgia P had become accustomed to during our trip to Italy.

No, there were no rolled eyes or mumbled editorials. The staff at said restaurant was professional and thoroughly courteous.

But we couldn’t help but notice that Georgia P was disappointed when she wasn’t greeted with the shower of attention that she received at every restaurant where we dined in Italy.

I took the photo above at the restaurant Lab 52 (no website) on the famous Rotonda a Mare in Senigallia (Ancona), where we shared a meal with our new friends Alessandro (left) and Silvia from the Pievalta winery in nearby Jesi.

One of the highlights of the meal, btw, was crescia, the classic savory flatbread of the Marches (Le Marche) topped with Prosciutto di Carpegna.

Traveling in Italy as a parent was a new and thrilling experience — in many ways.

But the best part was watching Georgia P light up as restaurateurs and patrons made a fuss over her and competed for the reward of her sweet laughter and smiles.

Just look at her face in the photo at the top of this post! You can see how much she enjoyed sitting at the table with us (and, of course, we enjoyed it more, too, because we were never worried that we were disturbing our hosts or fellow patrons, save for a few grouchy Germans)…

In the post-Berlusconi age, Italy and Italians face a number of challenges — some of them touching the very heart of their identity.

But there are some things that, happily, remain unchanged there. Like the pure, unmitigated joy of watching a baby slurp up long noodles tossed with clams and tomato sauce.

For all the obstacles that lie ahead — in Europe and here at home — I, for one, thank goodness for happy babies in Italy at restaurants…

Buon weekend, yall!

The beauty of Sangiovese in Morellino di Scansano

New York-based and Italocentric wine industry publicist Susannah Gold and Morellino di Scansano growers association president Giacomo Pondini led a tasting of seven expressions of Morellino di Scansano yesterday afternoon at Tony’s in Houston. Here are my highlights from the luncheon event.

According to its back label, the 2010 Morellino di Scansano by Roccapesta is mostly Sangiovese (Morellino) with a small amount of Ciliegiolo.

I loved the wine (look at the color!). From what Giacomo told me, its a newish winery launched by a Milanese entrepreneur who recently acquired an estate in Scansano. The aging is large cask and cement (music to my ears), he said.

It wasn’t my favorite in the flight (see below), lacking the focus it needs to achieve true greatness. But Roccapesta clearly has the right stuff: the materia prima is there and the attitude and approach are 100% right on. I’m really looking forward to following this winery and winemaker as they evolve.

If you’re pouring Roccapesta, please call me!

The 2010 Morellino di Scansano Brumaio by Pietramora is 100% Sangiovese and 150% awesome and delicious, one of the best expressions of Morellino that I’ve tasted in recent memory.

Just cast your gaze upon the gorgeous color of this wine!

It really captured what — to me — is the essence of Morellino: extreme freshness and dark berry fruit combined with a gentle gamey quality that evokes the maquisla macchia — of the Maremma.

I can only wonder if the proprietary name of the wine, Brumaio, is an oblique reference to Napoleon, who spent his last years in exile on the island of Elba off the Tuscan coast.

Brumaio, from the Latin bruma, is an ancient word for the winter solstice. But it’s also the name, brumaire in French, of the second month of autumn in the French Republican calendar.

Of course, it could also be an allusion to Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

But I digress…

It probably refers to the bruma (also called brumaio), the morning mist that covers the vineyards of Maremma in the fall as the grapes ripen.

Thanks again, Susannah and Giacomo, for bringing some great Morellino to Texas and for any excuse to revisit one of the greatest works by Marx!

Tufo (tufa) vs. calcareous, expressions of limestone in Italy

Above: Samples of tufaceous (left) and calcareous (right) subsoils from Jesi. Click the image for a high-resolution version.

One of the most exciting winery visits on our recent trip to Italy was with winemakers Alessandro Fenino and Silvia Loschi at the Pievalta winery in the heart of the Castelli di Jesi.

The roughly ten-year-old winery is the first and only Demeter-certified winery in Jesi and the wines are truly stunning in their ability to deliver bright, balanced acidity with a breath-taking range of fruit and minerality.

We loved the wines and we loved Alessandro and Siliva, with whom we became fast friends (more on them later).

Above: My favorite wine was the entry-level Dominè (named after a local tavern keeper), made from grapes grown in calcareous soils. It was lighter in body and fresher than the more structured San Paolo Riserva, Tracie P’s favorite, grown partly in tufaceous soils, more tannic and unctuous and deeper in its minerality. Both wines were superb.

When you taste the wines with Alessandro and Silvia, Alessandro produces soil samples from their growing sites. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate the differences than the photo I snapped above and in the different expressions of Verdicchio that they bottle. (PLEASE FEEL FREE to grab the high-resolution version of the photo by clicking the image above and post it wherever you like.)

Not to be confused with Loire valley’s tuffeau (according to the Oxford Companion to Wine; in French, the Italian tufo is rendered as tufe or tuffe), “calcareous tufa [or tufo is] ‘a porous or vesicular carbonate of lime, generally deposited near the sources and along the courses of calcareous springs’ (Page Handbk. Geol. Terms, 1865),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Calcareous, on the other hand, comes from calcaire, “French word for limestone, a rock largely made up of calcium carbonate, which may in English be described as calcareous” (Oxford Companion to Wine).

Central and southern Italy are rich in tufo. You’ll find tufo covering the Piazza del Campo of Siena when the Palio is run. Many believe that Tuscan tufo is what gives Vernaccia di San Gimignano its distinctive minerality.

Of course, there’s also the famous (however tiny) village of Tufo in Campania, where Greco di Tufo is grown in tufaceous subsoils.

And these are just a few of the examples of how limestone expresses itself through tufo in Italy.

Note how the tufo in the photo above is friable. You can see the dust it produce just by being handled, however gently. It’s one of the subsoil categories that makes Italy such a unique place to raise wine.

50 Best Italian Wines (?)

It would be pleonastic for me to address the myriad reasons why “top” lists — 10, 50, 100, the number doesn’t matter — are inherently useless in any putatively empirical assessment of wine.

Such indices, even when presented as genuine and well intentioned, serve only the purposes of marketers, advertisers, sellers of advertising space, and those whose lives are driven by a desire to maximize consumer goods.

And just like a schoolchild who aimlessly believes that highlighting a passage in Manzoni’s The Betrothed with a yellow pen will aid her/him in a mnemonic quest, authors of such lists inadvertently delete scores of wines from their ledgers the way said child quickly forgets the unhighlighted passages — not seeing the forest for the trees.

Today the world of Italian wine is reeling from the publication of an Italian-grown “Best Italian Wine Awards,” presented yesterday in Milan by the organizers (click here for a blog post depicting the scene).

The list, which can be viewed here, surprised many Italian observers of the Italian wine industry and I believe it may surprise you as well.

Among the Italian wine bloggers I follow, no one protested Valentini and G. Mascarello in pole position.

But some were puzzled by some glaring omissions, like top Italian wine blogger Franco Ziliani who noted the absence of any of Angelo Gaja’s wines. Now, if you follow Franco’s excellent blog, you know that he’s no fan of Angelo Gaja’s wines. But as he points out (rightly), this could only be considered an “eccentric” oversight.

And beyond Gaja, there are many others missing and many bizarre entries.

With academic interest and for the record, I point you to the list here.

Otherwise devoid of cultural, societal, intellectual, or epistemological value, the list does represent a cross-section of marketing forces in Italy today (as do the “prize” selections).

Quintarelli effect & a secret of Ripasso revealed (Nicola Ferrari’s Monte Santoccio)

“Wealth is determined not by how much money you have but by how you manage your time… One of my goals is to offer my clients traditional wines at reasonable prices.”

This was how young winemaker Nicola Ferrari, founder and owner of Monte Santoccio in Valpolicella, described the ethos of his wines and his approach to winemaking when he and I tasted his wines together in the Veneto a few weeks ago.

Nicola is the second Valpolicella producer to emerge from the Quintarelli bottega. The first was Luca Fedrigo of L’Arco (see my thread on Luca and Quintarelli here).

Both spent the greater part of their formative winemaking years working side-by-side with Quintarelli, while Valpolicella master “Bepi” (as he was known affectionately to all) was at the peak of his career (Quintarelli succumbed to a long battle with Parkinson’s disease in January of this year).

It’s unusual to hear a young Italian winemaker describe her/his wines in such socially conscious and ideologically aware tones. And it may be even more surprising to some in the light of the fact that Quintarelli’s wines are among the most expensive on the market today, accessible only a small subset of wine lovers who have the means to afford them.

But Nicola (like his counterpart Luca) is no ordinary Italian winemaker: he’s a member of a dwindling number of producers who have been anointed by the “greatest generation” in Italian wine — the “masters” who oversaw the Italian wine renaissance of the last three decades (I’m thinking of Dante Scaglione, Maria Teresa Mascarello, Augusto Cappellano, not necessarily in that order).

I loved the wines, across the board: old-school, large-cask aged Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso, and Amarone, perhaps not as finely focused at Quintarelli from the 1990s and early 2000s but gorgeous and brilliant, with a nervy (if sometimes unruly) acidity that will serve the wine well in the cellar.

And Nicola is true to his word: according to WineSearcher results, you can find his Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso for just $25 at Wine House in LA (and the Amarone for $62; thank you, Lance Montalto!).

The stunner for me was the ripasso.

“The secret that Bepi taught me,” said Nicola, “was to age the wines on the Amarone lees for an extended period of time. Most [commercial] producers use short aging times. As a result, they get extremely bright fruit in the wine. By using longer aging on the lees, the lees actually start to reabsorb the tannin and some of the fruit. That’s the secret to the elegance in Quintarelli’s Valpolicella.”

But Quintarelli doesn’t write “ripasso” on his label, I pointed out.

“He never wrote ripasso but he always used ripasso for his Valpolicella,” Nicola told me.

Nicola studied education and community activism at the University of Verona before he turned to winemaking and our conversation spanned from his favorite memories of Quintarelli to his first experience with the writings of Primo Levi (one of my favorite Italian authors).

I couldn’t help but think of the enormous disconnect between the way Quintarelli’s legacy is perceived in the U.S. and the way that young people view him “on the ground” in the Veneto. Regardless of the elitist ethos projected on to Quintarelli by his north American purveyors, he is still considered a populist winemaker in the Veneto and is only spoken of in adoring and affectionate terms.

Perhaps by (direct) osmosis, Nicola’s managed to capture some of that soulfulness in the bottle…

Why Antonio Galloni matters now more than ever

Antonio Galloni (left; image via Corriere.it) has been on my mind the last few days.

In part because I turn to his writing repeatedly for his observations on vintage characteristics and site typicity. In part because his extreme and truly supreme knowledge of Italian wine inspire me. In part because the genuine and unmitigated exhilaration of his Twitter feed reminds me every day why I love what he does and what I do for a living. And in part because the Citizen Kane of wine blogging took a very cheap — and despicably hypocritical — shot at Antonio this week.

Unmentionable wine blogger — who will remain nameless here lest we drive more traffic to his petty hissing — accused Antonio of conflict of interest in an upcoming tasting he’s leading. My feeling is that even if there were a conflict of interest (and there is not), who cares and who could possibly be hurt by a vertical tasting of Solaia (even though I personally don’t care for the brand)?

In a recent where-are-the-snows-of-yesteryear post on his blog, self-described “old fart” wine writer (and all-around jolly fellow whom I enjoy and respect immensely) Tom Maresca bemoans the current generation of wine writers, winemakers, and wine sellers (cfr. the ballade des dames des temps jadis).

“There are no more Luigi Veronellis or Giorgio Grais,” he writes (ignoring the fact that there is still a very healthy Giorgio Grai), “no Edoardo Valentinos, and all too soon there will be no more Franco Biondi-Santis. Pioneers like Renato Ratti and Giacomo Bologna are long gone, as are retailers as passionate and devoted as the still-lamented Lou Iacucci – that is now a rare breed indeed.”

I can’t fault Tom for his Jeremiad: as north Americans have discovered fine wine over the last three decades, the wine business has become big business and the larger-than-life, “greatest generation,” selfless figures that he refers to are being replaced by the Zonins, Antinoris, and Lucio Mastroberardinos of this new and brave world.

And that’s why Antonio Galloni matters more than ever.

A Berklee-educated jazz musician, a Milan-trained tenor, a successful finance executive, and — in my view — the leading expert on Italian wine today, Antonio is a true renaissance man for a new chapter in the history of wine connoisseurship. (Few remember, btw, that Voltaire made his fortune in finance before turning to philosophy.)

The culture of wine writing has shifted dramatically in the last ten years and I believe that Antonio’s model of superbly informed writing balanced by his business acumen (expressed through the many high-end consumer tastings that he leads throughout the country every year) represents the new generation of Anglophone vinography.

When House and Garden closed wine writer Jay McInerney’s legendary $75K expense account in 2007, the move represented the end of an era. At the time, there were scores of wine writers making a living purely by writing and not “monetizing” their intellectual property. Today, you can count their number on one hand.

Even our good friend Alice Feiring has begun to monetize her career following the example of Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, Jr. (and I highly recommend her soon-to-be-published Natural wine newsletter and Kickstarter campaign to you; I’m a subscriber).

Just like the world needs Alice, so the world needs Antonio. And I thank goodness for both of them. Let’s not blame them for monetizing their intellectual property. Let’s praise them for following a brave new path in a brave new world…

Brunello pres moves to allow emergency irrigation

Brunello growers and bottlers association president Fabrizio Bindocci (above) is appealing to the Italian agriculture ministry to reinterpret current appellation regulations and allow emergency irrigation without revising legislation.

As I wrote on Friday for the Houston Press, one thing was achingly apparent during our recent two-week trip from northernmost Italy to the tip of the heel of the boot, traveling through ten of Italy’s twenty regions: prolonged heat and drought have seriously impacted growers and winemakers over the last decade and their acceptance of climate change is no longer subject of debate but rather resignation in the face of an unavoidable truth.

Last week, Angelo Gaja issued the following statement:

    Climate change — marked by prolonged summer heat and drought — is the cause for the sharp drop in Italy’s grape production for 2012. It was also the reason behind the light vintages of 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011.

    Now, as a result, another scarce year adds to the lack of wine from previous vintages lying in Italian cellars. In the space of just a few short years, we have shifted from a situation in which Italy perennially produced a surplus of wine to the current shortage.

And on Wednesday, Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello growers and bottlers association (Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino) wrote that “To make great wines, one needs healthy grapes at the right point of ripening. For this reason, we are passing through the vineyards of Sangiovese harvesting, selecting the bunches that have suffered the heat, and leaving still the whole grape bunches to ripen. [The 2012 vintage] is surely not an easy vintage, with a reduction of production not yet predictable but surely of 20%.”

Off the record, among the score of growers and winemakers I talked to over the last two weeks, many compared 2012 to the disastrous annus horribilis 2003, when unrelenting heat and drought decimated Sangiovese vineyards in Montalcino, the first in a series of warm-hot vintages that have challenged growers and producers of fine wines.

In Montalcino, the situation is aggravated by the fact that emergency irrigation — irrigazione di soccorso — is not prescribed by appellation regulations.

Above: For growers with ideal vineyard sites, like Laura Brunelli (Podernovi-Le Chiuse di Sotto [Montalcino]), the quality of fruit is excellent. The problem is that there will be less of it in 2012 (as for Bindocci’s Il Poggione). Even Laura conceded that she would have irrigated this year in certain spots if the appellation allowed it.

In the light of the warming trend, Fabrizio has been lobbying for many years (since 2003) to change the appellation regulations and allow for emergency irrigation.

When I met with him a week ago Saturday, he told me that he is currently preparing a request for “clarification” from the Italian agriculture ministry.

Apparently, the appellation regulations make no mention of emergency irrigation (or whether it is allowed or not).

“In another time,” he told me, “irrigation wasn’t included in the appellation because it could have been used to inflate yields. That’s not an issue today: our members consistently deliver yields far below the maximum requirements, which are already low. So the question is no longer quantity but rather quality. By allowing irrigation in vintages like this, we could help to raise quality for the entire appellation.”

Bindocci’s move, if successful, would also eliminate potential bureaucratic delays and headaches: now that EU technocrats in Brussels have to rubberstamp any changes to appellation regulations issued by Rome, a whole new layer of red tape has been added to the process.

“If the minister declares that, according to the letter of the law, irrigation is legal because it is not referenced in the regulations, we could potentially begin right away,” although the Italian government summer recess, which just ended, would seem to preclude that possibility at this point.

A deux ex machina from the Italian government would also resolve another set of local and political issues for the growers association (and these are my words, not Fabrizio’s).

“No one wants to be the first,” said one grower, “to irrigate without the government’s authorization. Theoretically, they could try to since the appellation doesn’t state whether it’s allowed or not. But no one wants to be the first.”

Sparkling Verduzzo & seafood grill @ Do Fogheri (arrivederci, Venezia)

What an incredible trip it’s been, in so many ways. But most of all because it was Georgia P’s first (and it was our first as parents).

We spent our last night in Venice at an airport hotel.

I didn’t expect much for the trattoria across the street, Do Fogheri (the two hearths, one outside for summer, one inside for winter). But we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was a locals-only place, with fantastic grilled fish and wonderful 11.5% alcohol sparkling Verduzzo — old school, all the way. We loved it. And it was the perfect meal for our last night in Italy… arrivederci, Venezia, my old friend, arrivederci Italia…

Of course, we’re happy to be heading back to Texas after two weeks on the road. Georgia P has had a great time and we’re blessed with a baby who loves to sleep in the car.

One of my best friends ever and my roommate from my first year at the university of Padua (1987), Steve, came out to meet Georgia P and join us for dinner (he lives with his family in nearby Padua). It was great to see him and share the joy of Georgia P’s smiles and laughter (and her love for bigoli al ragù).

I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next days and will see you on Tuesday after the first day of the Jewish new year.

Thanks for following along, everyone, and sharing this unforgettable trip with us. I have so much to tell about the winemakers we spoke to and the new wines we discovered.

In the meantime, may G-d bless you and may your new year be filled with health, sweetness, and happiness.

L’shanah tovah, yall. See you in a few days…