Lake fish & Franciacorta at the “dispensary”

best fish restaurant italy

Marinated coregone (Coregonus lavaretus, European white fish) served with an “ice cream marinade.”

When you really get down to the thick and thin of it, “there’s really nothing unique about the terroir of Franciacorta,” as one prominent producer told me when I was visiting there over the Thanksgiving weekend.

With its marittime influence (thanks to Lake Iseo) and its alternance of morainic (glacial-era) and calcareous subsoils, it is indeed an ideal place to grow acidity- and minearl-driven Pinot Nero and Chardonnay. But in fact, those conditions can be found in many spots of the pre-Alps.

italian perch

Gently fried perch (Perca fluviatilis) served over a potato “millefoglie.”

The tradition of sparkling wine there is owed to a small group of wealthy, industrialist landowners who began making classic-method wines in the 1960s (Franco Ziliani of the Guido Berlucchi winery was the first).

In my view, the thing that really sets Franciacorta apart as a producer of fine bubbles is the local, fresh-water cuisine there.

European white fish

Vittorio called this superb however simple dish “bread and salt” coregone fillets.

And there is no one who can rival the fresh-water fish mastery of chef Vittorio Fusari at his amazing Dispensa Pani e Vini (“Bread and Wine Dispensary”) in the village of Torbiato di Adro (in the province of Brescia).

The restaurant is a temple to locally sourced lake fish and sparkling wine (including many French labels).

Especially when Franciacorta is made in a mineral-dominant style, the pairing can be sublime.

barone pizzini brut nature franciacorta

We paired with Barone-Pizzini Franciacorta Nature. In my notes I wrote: incredible balance, very nuanced nose, some tropical fruit, some red fruit, extreme freshness in the mouth, great balance here.

I had the great fortune of being treated to lunch at the “dispensary” by colleague Silvano Brescianini of the Barone Pizzini winery during my recent and very short trip to Italy.

I love the intelligence and elegance of Vittorio’s cooking (I ate there once before, in 2008, with Franco and Giovanni).

And he expresses his devotion to local fisherman through the eloquence of his menu.

I can’t recommend his restaurant highly enough. This meal alone would have made the trip worthwhile…

Grape harvest in full swing Italy 2012

As Tracie P and I prepare for our fall trip to Italy, we’re watching harvest reports carefully.

Today, my friends at Berlucchi sent me these photos, snapped on August 8, the day they began picking.

It’s been a summer of prolonged high temperatures and rainfall has been scarce. In appellations where emergency irrigation is not allowed, growers will be facing some tough decisions in coming weeks.

I’m eager to talk to winemakers and to hear their thoughts.

We don’t leave for another few weeks and in the meantime, I’m just glad to be getting back to Austin for some family time after a week of working the California market with Zanotto. :)

So much to tell about my trip to San Francisco, all the cool folks I hung with, and the meals we shared… stay tuned!

An American in Brescia and “una fiera di merda”

Above: A repast of hard-boiled eggs, piada (savory Lombard flatbread, akin to Emilia’s piadina), housemade gardiniera, and “peperoni bresciani,” brined “peperoni lombardi” that have been tossed with extra-virgin olive oil and freshly grated Grana Padano.

It’s not easy to describe the utter fatigue that comes with Vinitaly — for the exhibitors and fair-goers alike. For folks like me and Alfonso (who’s been coming to the Italian wine trade fair for 30+ years), you make the trans-Atlantic journey and then you hit the ground running as you attempt to fit in as many meetings and tastings as possible from early in the morning through dinner and beyond.

On the eve of the last day of the fair, I headed with my good friend Giovanni (who showed his wines at the fair) to Brescia, where we decompressed over dinner at the Trattoria Gasparo and later back at Giovanni’s place with a bottle of Camossi Franciacorta (vinified and disgorged by him) paired with Francis Lai and Truffaut.

Above: Valtènesi (Garda) Chiaretto was one of the last DOCs to be approved by Italian authorities before the EU’s CMO reforms of the Italian appellation system went into effect. At dinner we drank Giovanni’s brother-in-law Luca Pasini’s Chiaretto, made primarily with Groppello and macerated with skin contact for “one night,” hence the wine’s subtitle, “vino di una notte.”

According to a press release issued by the fair’s organizer VeronaFiere, “Vinitaly won its gamble and earned the satisfaction of exhibitors, with an increase of professional visitors from abroad and especially from the Italian horeca (hotel/restaurant/catering) channel.”

There may be strength in record numbers but the truth is that the execution of the fair was thoroughly disastrous.

On Sunday and Monday, when attendance hit its peak, a mishap with the wifi network at the fair caused fair-goers to lose all cellular service. As a result, you couldn’t call, text, or message in any format.

And because, once again, the organizers failed to address parking and congestion issues, fair-goers and exhibitors spent up to 1.5 hours every night just trying to leave the grounds.

Nearly every producer I visited with told me privately, è stata una fiera di merda (it’s been a shitty fair).

But despite the logistical challenges, my personal Vinitaly was rewarding and I have many tales to tell.

And, thankfully, the aches and weariness of an American in Brescia were soothed by the bubbles and saltiness of Giovanni’s Franciacorta and a tune from the year that Vinitaly and I were born…

Today I’m in Tuscany for a few meetings and Saturday I head to Friuli for the COF2012 blogger project. Stay tuned…

Flute elitism in this day & age? Assessments from Franciacorta

Above: Many late evenings tasting Franciacorta and kibitzing with my good friend and extreme life force Giovanni Arcari in Brescia…

Franciacorta lover Franco Ziliani’s post this week on “Which Glass for Our Bubbles?” got me thinking fondly about my visit to Brescia and Franciacorta in October of last year for the European Wine Bloggers Conference.

Over the course of five or so days that I spent there, I drank sparkling wine from Franciacorta at nearly every meal and it was never served to me in a conventional flute. Nor was the question of what glass to serve Champagne-method wines ever even posed.

Above: At the restaurant Novecento in Brescia, our server — who wasn’t particularly wine savvy — poured Gatti’s Franciacorta Nature in Bordeaux glasses.

In Franco’s post, he quotes Champagne scion Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger (in a passage culled from a pseudo-advertorial post on Drinks Business).

    “Champagne is not only a wine but a symbol of love and generosity and if we forget that we are dead, and I am fighting that,” [Taittinger] stated.

    Continuing, he referred to a battle with “marketers” who, he said, “want us to drink Champagne in a wine glass.”

    “But we have a specific glass…”

The Taittinger quote brought to mind the infamous statement by Frederic Rouzaud of Cristal from a few years ago: we can’t stop them from drinking it…

It’s been many years since I’ve served Champagne or any other sparkling wine in a flute. In fact, I don’t even own any flutes: in my view and experience, the flute is the worst possible glass to serve any wine in because it obstructs the wine’s aroma, especially when your drinking a Pinot Noir-based wine that can tend toward the tannic and tight (we’ve even begun decanting certain sparkling wines at our house).

Above: The Lago d’Iseo in Franciacorta. I still need to post my notes from some of the interesting tastings I attended in Franciacorta in October. The photo, above, of the Lago d’Iseo gives you a sense of the Morainic subsoil and the maritime climate that give the wines their minerality and make them so fresh. Click the image for the hi-res version.

How do you serve sparkling wine at your house?

Some best bubbles and life beyond Prosecco…

Above: I took this photo earlier this year atop Cartizze, the most prestigious growing site for Prosecco, where the cost of land per acre is higher than in Napa Valley. In 1998, Tom Stevenson wrote that Prosecco is “probably the most overrated sparkling wine grape in the world” (The Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, reprint 2003).

Xenophobe and racist Italian agriculture minister Luca Zaia has infamously and nationalistically asked Italians to drink only Italian sparkling wine for their New Year’s celebration this year. His campanilistic call comes in part as the result of a backlash from last year’s nationalized television controversy when the announcers of RAI Uno opened Champagne during a televised New Year’s eve event.

Of course, Zaia is also infamous for the favoritism he’s shown for his beloved Prosecco this year. He even created the Prosecco DOCG, placing the humble Prosecco grape in the pantheon of the top classification, before Common Market Organisation reforms took effect this year.

Above: Italy produces such a wonderful variety of sparkling wines, from the humble yet beloved Prosecco to the often regal, zero-dosage Franciacorta. Franco and I tasted an amazing array of sparkling wines last year together at Ca’ del Bosco.

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Prosecco. And I love the place where it produced and the people who produce it. Just ask Alfonso: he remembers well how I guided us to Valdobbiadene from Trento earlier this year, without ever looking at a map, my Trevisan cadence getting stronger and stronger as my beloved Piave river and its tributaries came into earshot. You see, many years ago, I made my living traveling along the Piave river, from Padua to Belluno, playing American music for pub crawlers.

Above: One of the best champagne-method wines I’ve tasted in recent memory was this Franciacorta rosé by Camossi. Structure, toasty notes and fresh fruit flavors, bright acidity and fine bubbles, an excellent pairing for all the lake fish, smoked, pickled, and roasted, that Franco, Giovanni, Ben, and I ate one fateful night in Erbusco.

But there are so many wonderful sparkling Italian wines beyond Prosecco (Sommariva and Coste Piane are my two favorite expressions of Prosecco available right now in this country). Franciacorta is the first obvious destination but there are so many other producers of fine sparkling white wines made from indigenous and international grape varieties: champagne-method Erbaluce from Carema in Piedmont (Orsolani), Charmat-method Favorita from Mango in Piedmont (Tintero), champagne-method Pinot Noir from Emilia (Lini), Charmat-method Moscato known as Moscadello di Montalcino from Tuscany (Il Poggione), a rosé blend of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir from Langa in Piedmont (Deltetto)… Those are the first that come to mind but there are many, many others. Sparkling wines are produced in nearly every region of Italy, from the sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of Trentino and South Tyrol to sparkling Ribolla of Friuli and the sparkling Verdicchio of the Marches. Once, I even tasted a sparkling Nerello Mascalese from Sicily that had been vinified as a white wine (but I can’t recall the producer… please let me know if you know one).

Above: Hand-riddled magnums of Chardonnay for Ca’ del Bosco’s Franciacorta.

Why do we feel obliged to drink something sparkling on New Year’s eve, anyway? I’m sure the answer lies somewhere between the royal court of Britain, the Czars, Napoleon’s vinous invasion of Russia, and some enterprising Germans who set up shop in Champagne in the 19th century.

Tracie B and I still haven’t decided what we’re going to open on New Year’s but I’m sure it’ll be something good.

On deck for tomorrow…

Best Champagne and other French sparkling values by guest blogger BrooklynGuy.

And in the meantime, please check out Tom’s post today on “classy sparkling wines.”

Keeping the world safe for Italian wine

Above: Franco Ziliani and I tasted some fantastic Franciacorta together last September in Erbusco (before Tracie B convinced me to shave my mustache). Franco has been a great friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. I am proud to be his partner at VinoWire. Photo by Ben Shapiro.

Just keeping the world safe for Italian wine… that’s what we do around here.

It was one helluva way to wake up this morning in sleepy La Jolla — where Botox trumps micro ox — to find that the editors at had decided to publish our post on recent developments in Montalcino and subsequent reports by the Italian media.

I’m glad we got a chance to set the record straight and that I can drink my Vino Nobile tonight with Tracie B at Jaynes knowing that the world is safe for Sangiovese (or maybe we’ll drink the 2007 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, which is showing gorgeously right now).

In other news…

If you’re planning on attending the San Diego Natural Wine Summit this Sunday at Jaynes, please email the restaurant to reserve. We’re almost at capacity and we’ll have to turn people away if they don’t have tickets. Click here for details and to reserve.

I have seen Franciacorta future and its name is…

…Giovanni Arcari.

Above: Giovanni Arcari, the Bruce Springsteen of Italian sparkling wine. This man is crazy and I thank goodness for him.

We first met in September of 2008, when he, Franco, and I visited Ca’ del Bosco together, where we tasted 1979 Franciacorta by Ca’ del Bosco (owner of Ca’ del Bosco, Maurizio Zanella, was just elected president of the Franciacorta consortium, btw).

We connected again at Vinitaly, where we got thrown out of the fair for hanging around his booth after hours, drinking Franciacorta and eating salame.

Above: In March, Giovanni led a tasting of artisanal “grower-producer” Franciacorta bottlings at Ceri Smith’s excellent wine shop in San Francisco, Biondivino.

The last time I saw him, he still hadn’t launched his new blog, Terra, Uomo, Cielo (Earth, Man, Sky), “a small man, on a small plot of land, under a small sky.” The blog is now live and so I felt it time to share my vision of the future with you: Giovanni has spearheaded an innovative winemaking program and agenda in Franciacorta, consulting with grape-growers who previously sold their fruit to the large commercial producers of Franciacorta. In doing so, he has helped to create a new genre of grower-producers who make excellent hand-crafted, artisanal expressions of Franciacorta.

Above: Ceri Smith (left) with Giovanni at their March tasting in San Francisco. One of the things I like the most about Giovanni is that he doesn’t just help the growers to make great wines. He also helps them to market the wines. There’s no point in writing a song that no one will ever hear and while there are plenty of reasons to make wines that will never make their way to the market, Giovanni’s wines are too good not to share with the world.

That day in Verona, we tasted a number of bottlings by Andrea Arici’s Colline della Stella and the Dario and Claudio Camossi’s Camossi di Camossi, each tasting better than the last. When sampling these terroir-driven wines, you cannot help but be impressed by their freshness and their structure. The secret, Giovanni will tell you, lies in when the wine is disgorged.

Chapeau bas, Giovanni!

The wines are not currently available in the U.S. but you can find them at Vittorio Fusari’s excellent restaurant and food and wine shop, Dispensa Pani e Vini in Torbiato di Adro in the province of Brescia (Lombardy). Even if you don’t read Italian, check out the photos is this review of legendary chef Vittorio’s new enterprise.

Fine Wine’s Franciacorta tasting notes

Above: my POV when I tasted recently with Franco at Ca’ del Bosco in Franciacorta.

Tom Stevenson believes that Italy’s grandest sparkling wines are getting better and better,” write the editors of Fine Wine, “a conviction strengthened by a recent tasting shared with Margaret Rand and Franco Ziliani.” My friend and partner in VinoWire, Franco Ziliani joined two of Britain’s top wine writers earlier this year to taste through a wide range of Franciacorta producers.

The editors of the magazine were kind enough to share a PDF of this article, which includes tasting notes from their remarkable tasting. Click here to view.

Ziliani vs. Rivella: heavyweight title bout live from Siena, Friday October 3

Above: Franco Ziliani is one of Italy’s most revered and controversial wine writers and his writings have always been an inspiration to me — for their verve, erudition, and the hard-hitting truths he brings to the tasting table (photo by Ben Shapiro).

No, this bout won’t be broadcast from the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas. But it will be streamed via internet from the Aula Magna or Great Hall of the University of Siena on Friday, October 3, 3 p.m. local time: enologist and ex-director of Banfi Ezio Rivella (an outspoken proponent for a change in appellation regulations that would allow for grapes other than Sangiovese to be used in Brunello di Montalcino) and wine writer Franco Ziliani (a steadfast traditionalist and defender of Brunello made from 100% Sangiovese) will face off in an unprecedented debate on the future of Brunello. Other panelists include Teobaldo Cappellano (Barolo producer and founder of Vini Veri) and noted Italian enologist Vittorio Fiore. (The debate will be “streamed” live at and

Above: no, that’s not the rhino sported by the label of spoofulated Barbaresco. It’s a gravity defying ungulate that hovers above Ca’ del Bosco’s “gravity flow,” whereby the newly harvested grapes travel only by virtue of gravity as they are sorted, destemmed, and transformed into wine. Not only is Ca’ del Bosco a wonder of modern technology, it is also a objet d’art: works of art — ranging from Arnaldo Pomodoro to Igor Mitoraj to Helmut Newton — adorn the grounds and winemaking facility.

During my recent trip to Italy, I had a chance to taste with Franco in one of his favorite appellations, Franciacorta. Ben Shapiro, Giovanni Arcari (a Franciacorta winemaker and consultant), Franco, and I toured and tasted at the amazing technicolor dreamcoat that is the Ca’ del Bosco winery before we retired to dinner and confabulated late into the evening, lingering over Giovanni’s excellent Camossi Franciacorta rosé (would someone please import this wine to the U.S., Strappo?).

Above: a detail of one of the riddling racks in the Ca’ del Bosco cellar. Note the sediment in the neck of the bottle.

The highlight, however, was a stunning 1979 Ca’ del Bosco, disgorged à la volée by one of the winery’s technicians in the cellar. Comparing the ’79 to the recent vintages, it is clear that Ca’ del Bosco’s style has remained unchanged since its early years and these superb wines stand apart for their character, personality and terroir expression. Excuse the pun, but that wine was fly! (Brooklynguy would have loved its oxidized nose and intense hazelnut flavors.)

Above: one of the extraordinary Mitoraj sculptures on the grounds of the winery. Ca’ del Bosco does offer guided tours and tastings by appointment. I highly recommend it: the state-of-the-art winemaking facility is among the most impressive I’ve ever seen, much of the technology developed and patented by the winery itself.

Tornando a bomba, as they say in Italian, getting back to matters at hand… I’ll be publishing a report of next Friday’s Ziliani vs. Rivella face-off. Rivella has long championed changes in appellation regulations (in Piedmont and Tuscany) that would allow for liberal blending of international grape varieties. I regret that the current political climate in Italy appears outwardly amenable to such changes. I don’t believe that Franco and Teobaldo are the “last of the Mohicans.” But I do believe this unprecedented public forum represents a defining moment in what has become a national debate in Italy.

Don’t touch that dial…

Viva gli sposi!

Above: there was a wedding last night in the agriturismo where we stayed in Nigoline near Erbusco (province of Brescia). Newlyweds Sabrina and Emanuel partied long into the night. They seemed like really nice folks and didn’t mind a bit that I got in on the fun. Viva gli sposi! That’s Italian for mazel tov!

Believe it or not, one of the best places to get online in Italy is the Autogrill, the ubiquitous and beloved highway rest stop where the sandwiches are reliably good and the tchothckes abundant. (Does anyone remember Gregoretti’s contribution to the 1962 film RoGoPaG, “Il pollo ruspante”? It’s a wonderful Marxist study of the Autogrill phenomenon in economic-miracle Italy.)

Ben and I are on our way down to Rome and I’m posting today from an Autogrill.

Yesterday, Franco and I tasted some fantastic Franciacorta together.

So much to post and so much to tell… Stay tuned…