Ungrafted classic-method Fortana, groovy Umbrian Sangiovese, and a favorite Australian in Houston

From the department of “in case you were concerned I’m not drinking well in Texas”…

It just goes to show the seemingly endless and encyclopedic breadth of Italian wine: until last week, I had never tasted a dry expression of the Fortana grape from Emilia. I had tasted a lot of sweet Fortana in Parma province: when vinified as amabile (sweet), the category is a classic pairing for Culatello di Zibello (and I believe the wine is also used to rinse the ham before it is aged). But last week I learned that dry Fortana is regularly produced in Ferrara province, where the sandy soils near the Adriatic allow growers to cultivate ungrafted (i.e., pre-phylloxera) vines.

Winemaker Mirco Mariotti was in town with his importer Ernest Ifkovitz of Portovino and his classic-method Fortana was nothing short of utterly delicious. I believe it lands in the U.S. with by-the-glass pricing. And Mirco’s website, I’m happy to report, is meticulously translated into English. Bravo, Mirco!

I can’t find any web presence for the winery or wines of Marco Merli, who told me that he is a resolute natural winemaker when I met him last week with Ernest and their Texas distributor Rootstock (also absent from the internets).

When I asked him about why he chose the path of natural winemaking over the shmate business (an Umbrian mainstay industry), he told me that he was inspired by the enologist he initially hired to help him make wines from family-owned vineyards.

“I disagreed with basically everything he did to the wines,” he said, “and so I decided to make them myself.”

Marco’s wines have sparked the attention of natural wine observers in Italy in recent years and rightly so: this monovarietal wine was lip-smackingly good, with that juicy red stone fruit character and zinging acidity that define great Sangiovese. I really loved it.

I was so glad to meet Marco and Mirco and taste these wonderful and soulful wines. For both winemakers, it was a first-time visit to Texas and they both seemed a little bit overwhelmed by the experience. But it’s so great to see courageous importers like Ernest bringing small-scale, thoughtful, and genuine winemakers to our state, where the two big distributors continue to expand their role as the Slugworths of wine.

I’m overjoyed that venerated Italian wine authority Alfonso Cevola, the Dallas-based Import Wine Director at Southern Glazer’s (America’s largest distributor), was wrong when he predicted in January of last year “the demise of the mid-size distributor… They have the lifespan of a tse-tse fly,” he wrote.

Gauging from its track record and the growing number of their wines I’m seeing in the Austin and Houston markets, it would seem that my friends at Rootstock are doing just dandy.

In other news, I was delighted to find this moderately priced bottle of 2015 Tyrrell’s last night at one of Houston’s best wine bars, Camerata.

We were all curious to see if the new wine director there, Chris Poldoian, could maintain the verve and continuity of his predecessor’s program. And I am happy to report that this artisanal-focused list continues to keep us drinking well.

For those who aren’t familiar with Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Sémillon, it’s one of those classic examples of what Jancis Robinson famously called “Australia’s gift to the wine world.” It was salty and rich on the palate with reserved layers of nuttiness and dry fruit that I believe will only continue to emerge as this long-lived wine ages. Great wine! And great to see it in the Houston market.

I’ll be taking a short break from the blog this week as I head to Italy for the Corriere della Sera’s Cucina Blog Awards ceremony in Milan on Saturday. I’m happy to report that my blog has been nominated in the “best wine and spirits” category and I’m psyched to see all my friends in the world’s fashion capital (and one of my favorite cities). Wish me luck and wish me speed! I’ll see you on the other side…

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