03 Trinchero Barbera and burgers for Memorial Day

Natural winemaker Trinchero (Asti, Piedmont) has always been one of my favorite producers of Barbera. The 1996 Barbera d’Asti [single-vineyard] Vigna del Noce ranks up there with the greatest bottlings of Barbera I have ever tasted.

And so when I spied a bottle of the 2003 Vigna del Noce at the Houston Wine Merchant, I couldn’t resist picking it up — despite the fact that 2003 was a notoriously difficult vintage because of the extremely hot summer.

Tracie P and I finally opened it over the Memorial Day holiday and paired with some griddle-fired beef sirloin burgers.

The wine — vinified with native yeast and raised in traditional large casks — was hot in the glass, with a lot of alcohol for this house (due, undoubtedly, to the nature of the vintage). But it still had that bright, bright acidity that you find in old-school Barbera. The black fruit and berry flavors were chewy and rich and once the alcohol blew off, I thoroughly enjoyed the wine with my burger.

The wine wasn’t perfect: I found the alcohol out of balance with the fruit and acidity. And it probably should have been opened a few years ago.

But as we Piedmontophiles drink the last of the 03s lying around, I couldn’t help but admire this wine for being true to its place and its vintage.

Sometimes a wine is great… for not being so great…

Wine blogger gagged: advocatus diaboli dixit de gustibus non est disputandum

Above: Ignazio Giovine (center), owner and winemaker at L’armangia (Canelli), was one of the most interesting and nicest persons I met (and spoke to at length) in Asti earlier this month. As the interpreter that day, I wasn’t able to take photos and so I lifted this photo from the website of a Danish wine seller (left), Carsten Rex, who reports detailed tasting notes in English for Ignazio’s wines.

One of the disadvantages I faced on my recent trip to Asti for Barbera Meeting was that I simultaneously juggled the roles of meta-blogger, wrangler, and interpreter. As a result, there were many instances I wasn’t able to take photos and notes for my own blog. Another odd — surreal in certain cases — was that as interpreter for the group and for many of the winemakers we visited, I was not only gagged but also forced to be the literal mouthpiece verbatim for nearly all of the winemakers and enologists we visited. At one point, after a exhausting session of translating a heated debate during one of the conferences, Jon said to me, “wow, man, that was surreal: there you were, speaking to the crowd, saying things I know that you completely disagree with.”

My job there was to convey, transmit, relay the message, without any editorializing (for the record, I was trained formally as an interpreter when I worked for the Italian Mission to the United Nations back in 2003 and served as the Italian foreign minister’s personal interpreter; during that time, I translated for Kofi Annan and Colin Powell, just to name a few).

I wish I would have been able to spend more time with winemaker Ignazio Giovine (above) of L’armangia. I can’t say that I’m the biggest fan of his wines but I can say that I’m a personal fan of the man. Following our visit, he and I had a chance to chat at the evening tasting, where we had a fascinating conversation about wine, partisans (both his and his wife’s parents opposed the fascists), and the current state of Italian politics today. His wines are very well made, although they do not appeal to me personally. But I am a big believer that the objective quality of a wine is also derived from the people who make it (above and beyond my personal tastes). Ignazio’s radical opposition to the use of native yeast stirred some controversy between him and the group. (And my now good friend Thor, whose writing I admire greatly, wrote an interesting and polemical piece on our visit with Ignazio.) I think I did a fine job of translating for Ignazio but I wish I could have been a participant and observer that day instead of interpreter.

According to a report that I recently synopiszed over at VinoWire, the German and Swiss markets grew or remained stable for the sale of Italian wines in 2009, while Britain and the U.S. dropped significantly (not in volume but in gross sales).

Ignazio makes his wines almost exclusively for the “Nordic” market, as it were, like the Dane above, who is a big fan of Ignazio’s wines. Wasn’t it Sheryl Crow who said, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad…”

If Ignazio makes wines that his customers like, is that so wrong? Let me play the devil’s advocate and say: de gustibus non est disputandum. In other words, if it makes you happy…

Italy’s barrique stainless steel revolution

Above: Cory posed for me in front of an old large-format chestnut wood cask, once used to age Barolo at the historic Fontanafredda winery in Serralunga d’Alba. I highly recommend a visit there. The winery represents an important piece in the historical puzzle of the first Italian wine renaissance that began in 19th-century Italy.

One of the more interesting elements to emerge from my recent trip to Piedmont was one enologist’s observation that Italy did not undergo a “barrique revolution” in the 1980s but rather a “stainless steel revolution.” One of the results of the new trend of stainless steel aging introduced in Italy in the 1980s, he claimed, was that small-cask, French-oak aging soon followed as a natural and necessary corollary. Made from an impenetrable and inert substance, stainless steel vats do not allow for oxygenation of the wine. As a result, he claimed, the use of barrique aging expanded in Italy. The smaller cask size oxygenates the wine more rapidly and the more manageable format helps to maximize cellar space (among other efficacious aspects of the now overwhelming popular French format).

Above: Owner and winemaker Giovanni Rava at La Casaccia in Monferrato showed us this “vat,” carved into the tufaceous subsoil, once lined with glass tiles and used for vinification of Barbera (in the 18th century), now used to store barriques.

The day we visited the Marcarino winery and spoke with enologist Mauro de Paola, I was interpreting and so wasn’t able to take notes and photographs. And I will agree with colleague Fredric that beyond Thor’s account of the visit there couldn’t be “a more fair or thorough explication of our visit to this puzzling property.” (I will say, for the record, that I loved Paolo Marcarino’s wines, however manipulated the process to achieve no-sulfite-added expressions of Barbera and Cortese.)

Above: This patent, for “botti di cemento [cement casks],” dated 1887, is believed to be evidence that Fontanafredda was the first to use concrete vats to age wine in Italy.

A 1982 visit to Napa by Giacomo Bologna, Maurizio Zanella, and Luigi Veronelli is widely considered the “eureka” moment that led many of Italy’s foremost producers to begin fermenting in barrique (Zanella) and aging in barrique (Bologna). (I have written about in one of my favorite posts here, and Eric wrote about it here.)

Above: Cement vats used to make one of my favorite wines in the world, Produttori del Barbaresco. Stainless steel is also used today at the winery, even for some of its top wines. In the 1980s, a lot of Italian winemakers shifted from glass-lined and varnish-lined cement aging and large cask aging to barrique aging (not at Produttori del Barbaresco, however).

I had always assumed that Angelo Gaja had begun using barrique aging around the same time as Bologna (whom many credit as the first to use new cask aging in Italy). But when we visited and tasted with Gaja on our recent trip, he told me that his winery began experimenting with new, small cask aging in 1978. (I have a long backlog of posts but I’ll get to our Gaja visit, which was, as you can imagine, immensely interesting.)

Above: One of Gaja’s barrique aging rooms is dominated by this fantastic Giovanni Bo sculpture, an extension of the well, no longer in use, in the courtyard of the winery.

Honestly, I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with De Paola’s assessment that the advent of stainless steel is what made barrique aging necessary in Italy. But I do think that the introduction of stainless steel and barrique, together with a California-inspired approach to cellar management (prompted by the emergence of the Napa Valley fine wine industry) are all elements in the current renaissance of Italian wine (whether you prefer traditional- or modern-style wine). His observation that “stainless steel was the true revolution,” in my opinion, is a fair if atypical assessment: it’s not that Italian producers decided one day that they should age their wines in barrique.

Barrique and stainless steel were both part of the new and contemporary era of Italian wine.

So much (too much, really) of the wine we tasted during Barbera Meeting was dominated by new oak but we also tasted some fantastic stainless-steel aged and large-cask aged Barbera that really turned me on.

In other news… Man and husband cannot live by Barbera alone…

Last night we paired this wonderful Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo with Tracie P’s excellent slow-cooker braised pork chops smothered in cabbage. Check out the recipe and tasting notes here…

The Enosis “wonder” glass, the “entry-level” Barbera, and a couple of Barbera comments worth reading

Above: At Il Falchetto, we tasted in Donato Lanati-designed “Meraviglia” (“Wonder”) glasses by the Enosis laboratory. The ring in the middle of the balloon is intended to preserve and concentrate the wine’s aromas. That’s Scotsman and spirits wine writer Bill McDowall, left, with Barbera 7 members Stuart and Whitney. If you ever meet Bill, be sure to get into his good graces and enjoy his ever-present flask. ;-)

During one of the afternoon sessions of Barbera Meeting 2010, the Barbera 7 tasted at Il Falchetto, where we all liked the winery’s mid-level, as it were, single-vineyard Barbera d’Asti Superiore Lurei, which is aged in large cask. The winery’s flagship Barbera d’Asti Superiore Bricco Paradiso, which is aged in new, small French cask (barrique) didn’t impress me as much. Pretty much across the board, you would see the same thing, even at the wineries I liked the most: the entry-level and mid-level Barberas were juicy and fresh, with the bright acidity I love, while the flagship “important” Barberas tended to be oaky (often judiciously so, in all fairness, as in the case of Il Falchetto) and concentrated, with restrained acidity.

In other news…

My last two posts generated a couple of interesting comments worth re-posting here. In the first, Barbera 7 member Thor offered his transcription of Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould’s polemical observations, uttered on that fateful, snowy night in Nizza last week.

    I was scribbling as fast as I could, and had Arnould as saying:

    “Why so much oak? Why so many uninteresting tannins? My quest is to find a wine with fruit, freshness, and tannins that are interesting and not dry, and…[there was a pause here, and while my memory is that he said “maybe” I did not write it down]…a little oak. If you think that putting oaky barberas on the market is a good idea, you only join the rest of the world in making big, oaky wine.”

And, in the wake of yesterday’s post, Londoner, organic grape grower, respected enologist, and Tuscan winemaker Cristiano offered a reality-check technical point-of-view:

    However when talking about acidity in Barbera, one should remember just how fierce this can be. One thing is taming slightly the acidic character of these wines and another is completely obliterating that zippy side, that works so well with food. Although not completely correct in technical terms but gets the message across: a wine with high acidity is one that has over let’s say 6-6.5gr/l (expressed in tartaric acidity), there are some Barberas that can have naturally over 12gr/l of acidity,now that wouldn’t do, would it ? It’s a question of common sense. I am however completely against the use of oak in Barbera.

Thanks, everyone, for reading and for all the insightful comments.

Tracie P are taking the rest of the day off and we’re going to enjoy some of the groovy SXSW festival that transforms Austin into the musical epicenter of the world…

The Barbera 7 ends its journey at the legendary Felicin in Monforte

The Barbera 7 ended its week-long tour of tastings and winery visits in Asti and Langa with some old Nebbiolo at the legendary Da Felicin in Monforte d’Alba. The last wine we opened together was a 1978 Franco-Fiorina Barbaresco, a bygone bottle, to borrow Eric’s phrase. Not everyone agreed with my assessment of the wine but I thought it was fantastic (Frank and Charles would have loved it, I’m sure, for I have drunk many old expressions of such great Nebbiolo with them).

Owner, chef, polyglot, and showman Nino Rocca’s food was excellent last night. His asparagus with savory zabaglione was superb.

His cooking is colorful and creative, riffing off the Piedmontese canon, like these tajerin dressed with ragù and new garlic.

The décor at Felicin is elegant 19th century, the atmosphere warm and jovial, and the cellar… aaaahhhh… the cellar… That’s an artist label 1989 Bartolo Mascarello created especially for the restaurant. A little out of my price range… but, wow…

Nino and his wife Silvia are extremely sweet folks. He and I like to joke that he looks more Jewish and I look more Italian…

Come valanga scendo come tormenta salgo (I descend like an avalanche, like a blizzard I climb). Nino showed us how partisans used to leave messages for one another by scribbling notes on the back of paintings so that the Germans wouldn’t find them. The text on the back of the frame he showed us was the motto of the Alpine battalion “L’Aquila” (“The Eagle”) when it fought for the liberation between 1944-45.

Bye-bye, Barbera 7, I’ll miss you guys. It’s been an incredible week and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support — professional and personal. You’re the best…

From left, clockwise: Thor, Whitney, Cory, Fredric, Stuart, me, and Jon.

I’ve been gone for a week now and the homesickness is really beginning to get to me. One more day of meetings and then an evening in Milan with friends… I can’t wait to hold my sweet Tracie P in my arms and tell her over and over again how much I love her…

The Marchioness of Monferrato

Above: Yesterday we “tasted” the terroir in a cellar in Monferrato at one of my new favorite wineries, La Casaccia. The unique, sandy tufaceous subsoil of Monferrato is what gives the wine its outstanding minerality and savory flavors. As per Monferrato’s tradition, La Casaccia’s cellar was literally excavated out of the subsoil. Remarkably, the crumbly walls need no support.

Long before I really knew much about Italian wine, other than the fact that I loved it, I was intrigued by the wines of Monferrato.

As Boccaccio recounts in the first day of his Decameron, when the king of France called on the Marchioness of Monferrato: “Many courses were served with no lack of excellent and rare wines, whereby the King was mightily pleased, as also by the extraordinary beauty of the Marchioness, on whom his eye from time to time rested.”

The wines of Monferrato were already famous by the middle ages and long before the current renaissance of Italian wines, Grignolino and Barbera grown in Monferrato enjoyed wide fame and graced the tables of nobility and clergy.

Above: I also really loved the wines of Marco and Giuseppina Canato, children of share croppers who now grow and vinify excellent Barbera and Grignolino and run a homey bed and breakfast. Just look at them! You can’t help but adore them.

I don’t have time this morning to post any further, as I have been re-posting vigorously over at Barbera2010. The Barbera 7 are a loquacious bunch!

Above: I also loved this single-vineyard Grignolino “Tumas” by Scamuzza and the inimitable Laura Bertone, who paired her groovy, mineral-driven wine with oysters!

I’m exhausted after 3 days of interpreting and blogging and tasting. I miss Tracie P terribly, and in the spirit of honest blogging (something we’ve been talking about a great deal, here in Asti), I cannot conceal that a very good friend of mine has broken my heart… Yesterday was a tough day but the Barbera 7 rallied around me, with cheer and words of support, and sweet messages from my beautiful wife through the night assuaged the hurt…

How can you mend a broken heart?

The Barbera Boys and Girl make headlines in Italy

That’s my fellow “Barbera Boy” Fredric Koeppel reading one of the articles that has appeared about the “bloggers” who have come to Asti to taste Barbera. Photo by Thor Iverson.

It seems that the novelty of our visit here in Piedmont has raised a few eyebrows. Yesterday in the local edition of the Italian daily La Stampa and today in the national edition, headlines have appeared, talking about the “Barbera Boys.”

This morning, the third day of Barbera Meeting, we’re tasting Barbera del Monferrato and I’ve been frenetically reposting the others’s posts on our aggregate blog, Barbera2010.com.

Above: Last night, we read the article that appeared in the national paper when it came online using my Blackberry. Photo by Cory Cartwright.

I didn’t have time this morning to translate the entire article but here’s what I was able to do… More later… and More on the heated exchange that occurred last night between Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould, my good friend Charles Scicolone, and legendary winemaker Michele Chiarlo. Suffice it to say, sparks flew, and I’m not talking about volatile acidity. Please check out Barbera2010.com for updates.

Here’s the link to the entire article in Italian, “Barbera Meeting: this wine is good and I’m going to write about it on my blog.”

    Most arrived with their notebooks in hand and their laptop computers to take notes. These tasters were invited to the province of Asti to take part in “Barbera Meeting,” a conference open to food and wine writers, a tasting and debut of Piedmont’s Barbera…

    The tasters have 120 labels available to them. “Four days organized (and financed) by the Province of Asti to attempt,” says alderman Fulvio Brusa, “to reach beyond the borders of the province and seriously share our wines with the world.” It’s going to take some courage: this year, the invitation has also been extended to the bloggers, the “irreverent” plumes of the web.

    Since Monday, six Americans and an Englishman have been filling up the pages of their blog, http://www.barbera2010.com, with lively notes. They’re doing so in real time, as they taste the wines, together with their impressions of their trip, praise, and criticism. They also include their photos: the last one today, a photo of Nizza Monferrato covered with snow. It’s also possible to converse with them in real time: “Today alone, we’ve had nearly 1,000 page views from America,” says Jeremy Parzen at the Enoteca in [the town of] Canelli, where the delegation was invited to attend a conference led by viticulture experts, including [professor and enologist] Vincenzo Gerbi and Michele Chiarlo.

    It’s the first time in Asti, Monferrato, and the Belbo Valley for the “Barbera Boys,” as they call themselves. “I’ve been to Alba many times,” confessed Jeremy, “but this area has proved a surprise.” He offers some advice: “Don’t let Barbera become a Californian wine. Let the wine speak for itself, with the voice of its terroir. Have faith in the wine and have faith in yourself.” …

    Have a good time surfing the web!

The bloggers are coming to Barbera (history in the making?)

Above: The Torino local edition of La Stampa published this article today on Barbera Meeting 2010 and the novelty of having a group of American bloggers present. Click image for a PDF of the article or become a fan of Barbera Meeting on Facebook for the whole text.

There was an inherent dichotomy drawn in the opening line of an article published today in the Turin edition of the Italian national daily La Stampa. “The blogger-tasters have landed,” read the title, “and live wine scoring has arrived.”

Gone are the “excellent palates” and their insiders-only tastings, wrote journalist Fiammetta Mussio in the opening line: “Goodbye to tastings attended by excellent palates and ‘trials’ behind closed-doors. The bloggers have arrived in the Barbera vineyards.” It would seem that the latter, according to Ms. Mussio, precludes the former.

The department of shameless self-promotion informs me that I should be thrilled to hear myself called “una delle ‘penne’ vinicole più pungenti d’America” (“one of the most pungent wine ‘plumes’ in America”). I wonder if that means I stink. Or perhaps it means that my writing stings its subject matter. Either way I’m flattered.

As hard as it was to say goodbye to Tracie P (not a month since our return from our honeymoon and just a few weeks after our move into our new home together), I am truly excited to think that the trip and adventure that lie ahead of our group of American wine bloggers are being treated a something of a novelty in Italy. The organizers of the event and our sponsors have told me that this is the first time American wine bloggers have been invited to an event of this size and importance in this capacity: we’ll be blogging the tasting is quasi-real-time.

That’s all I have time to write for now… It’s time to get on that big ol’ jet liner.

I miss you already Tracie P!

Leaving on a jet plane for Barbera (and recent good stuff in San Antonio)

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go…

Above: Whole fish at Andrew Weissman’s Sand Bar in San Antonio.

It’s hard to believe but it’s true: tomorrow I’ll be leaving again for Italy, just three weeks after our return from our honeymoon there and our move into our new home, a little rental on the northwest side of Austin.

Above: Josh Cross’s Duck burger topped with foie gras at Oloroso in San Antonio.

Life has been so rich and flavorful lately, as the wine world seems to regain its footing and I can only thank my lucky stars for all the interesting projects I’ve got lined up for 2010. It’s a wonderful time for me and Tracie P (née B) but I know that the glow I feel is for the joy that she has brought to my heart. When she smiles at me, it feels as if the whole world smiles at me as well.

Above: A marinara with marinated, fresh anchovies at Doug Horn’s Dough Pizzeria Napoletana in San Antonio.

I feel so fortunate that I’m getting to travel to Italy for the second time this year — and with a group of really cool bloggers. We’ll be posting about our tastings and adventures in the land of Barbera over at the Barbera2010 blog. (Today, we posted an awesome guest spot from McDuff, one of my favorite wine bloggers, who wasn’t able to join us in realtime.)

Above: Alfonso and I enjoyed a bottle of Barbera last night in San Antonio at Il Sogno.

Once upon a time and a very good time it was. I can’t help but thank my lucky stars for this special time in our lives. I’m so happy to be surrounded by loving folks these days and all the good things that are happening work-wise right now. As my friend Slava back in New York used to say, I should “suck a lime.”

But it’s going to be awfully hard to board that plane tomorrow. I know I’ll be back soon but it only gets harder and harder to tell that lovely lady of mine good-bye. I’ll miss her terribly…

All my bags are packed I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’ it’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’ he’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome I could die

Oh babe, I hate to go…