The Union of Authentic Grape Growers and Winemakers (and the best soppressa I’ve ever tasted)

Alfonso and I were dinner guests last night in the home of Stefano and Katerina Menti who live just above the village of Gambellara (Vicenza). They were hosting the first-ever meeting of the new Unione Viticoltori Autentici — Union of Authentic Grape Growers and Winemakers. The acronym UVA spells grape in Italian.

From left, clockwise: Eleonora Costa and her husband Luigi Armanino of Crealto (Monferrato); Nicola Ferrari of Monte Santoccio (Valpolicella); Stefano and Katerina Menti of Menti (Gambellara); Francesco Cirelli of Cirelli (Abruzzo); Alfonso; and my good friend Riccardo Zanotto, producer and distributor (Treviso).

Although Riccardo kept joking that the get-together felt like a meeting of Freemasons, you couldn’t help feeling that these young winemakers shared a sense of esotericism. After all, in a world dominated by the Zonins (literally down the road) and the Gajas (at the upper end of the scale), there’s not much place for authentic wine.

Everyone was showing their best wines and there wasn’t a loser in the bunch. But the star of the evening was Riccardo’s soppressa from Tuscany. It was easy to slice, like a conventionally made soppressa, but once on your knife, it was more like a chunky pâté — hands down the best soppressa I’ve ever had. “Pig. All it has in it,” said Riccardo, “is pig.”

I loved all the wines and wish I had time this morning to post my notes on each one but I’ve got to head over the fair now.

Two highlights were…

Stefano Menti’s gently sparkling lees-aged Garganega was the type of wine I wish Tracie P and I could drink every day. A balance of salty and bright citrus and white stone fruit, chewy and fresh… fanfriggin’ delicious.

And the old-vine Grignolino by Crealto was fantastic… Fresh and bright on the nose, tannic but sill very light in the mouth, definitely one of the top 5 expressions of Grignolino that I’ve ever tasted (and if you’ve only tasted commercial Grignolino this is a good benchmark for what traditional Grignolino can be).

Of course, you can’t have a meeting of a new secret society without a secret society dog…

I’m off to my first day at the Italian wine industry fair Vinitaly… stay tuned!

Dorona, a lagoonal wine (aàh Venezia aàh Venissa aàh Venùsia)

Above: The Bisol family is growing Dorona, a clone of Garganega, on the island of Mazzorbo, adjacent to the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon.

When Matteo Bisol passed through Austin the other day (and graciously posed and uttered grape and appellation names for my camera), he brought news of his family’s newest project: Venissa a cloistered vineyard and high-concept restaurant and agriturismo on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian lagoon (above).

For a few years now, the family has been growing Dorona, a clone of Garganega, a grape traditionally and historically cultivated in the Venetian lagoon for the production of urban — and in this case, lagoonal — wine (if you’re wondering how to pronounce the ampelonym Garganega, btw, you’ll find the pronunciation here).

Above: I wrote to Matteo’s publicist, who was kind enough to share this photo of Dorona. The ampelonym probably refers to the golden color of the berries.

Being a consummate Venetophile, I am entirely geeked to taste the wine (which will be released for the first time next year) but in the meantime I would like to make a clarification regarding the name of the estate and the project, Venissa.

Venissa is not an ancient name of Venice or the Venetian lagoon, as many complacent readers of press releases have erroneously claimed.

In fact, Venissa is an erudite paronomasia from one of the greatest works of dialectal poetry by one of the greatest poets of our lifetime, Andrea Zanzotto (from Pieve di Soligo, one of my favorite places on earth).

Above: The Veneto poet Andrea Zanzotto. Photo via Engeler.

It’s actually the name of a mythical figure from antiquity, a fictional daughter of the Roman emperor Claudius.

The name appears in Zanotto’s poem in Veneto dialect, “Filò,” composed for Fellini’s 1976 Casanova.

It is the second name in the triad aàh Venezia aàh Venissa aàh Venùsia, where Venice (Venezia) is likened to a temptress or evil woman:

    Eyes of a snake, eyes of a queen,
    head of fire that inflames the ice,
    we beg you: burst loose, break free,
    we implore you, everything implores you;
    show yourself above, rise up,
    let’s all pull together, you and us

    ah Venice ah Venissa ah Venùsia

Venùsia is the ancient name of modern-day Venosa, a city supposedly so-called because it was dedicated to Venus by its founder Diomedes.

(Here’s a link to a preview of the excellent translation of Filò, where the lines appear in the Veneto, Italian, and English. And here’s a link to some background on this work and its significance in the canon of dialectal poetry.)

With these lines, the poet partly alludes to Venice’s place in history as Western Civilization’s capital of prostitution.

I could go on and on (aàh Venissa, if only my professional life were devoted to poetry instead of wine!). But I’ll close this post and clarification with a wonderful passage that I found in a nineteenth century dictionary of Veneto dialect, in the entry for the word filò, which denotes an all-night gathering of women who stitch and sew as they gossip.

    Queste le xe cosse da contàr al filò!

    These are things [only suited] to be told at a sewing vigil!

How to make unsulfured wine (one man’s method) and are pharmaceutical yeasts unavoidable?

Above: Angiolino Maule didn’t know us from Adam and Eve when I called him in January asking if we could visit his winery and vineyards. By the end of the visit, we had become fast friends (sometimes it helps to speak Italian with a Veneto accent!).

If you follow along here at the blog, you know how much we love the wines of Angiolino Maule. They’re delicious and they’re affordable. And, in the words of the winemaker, they’re made with the utmost respect for Nature (with a capital N).

The story of how he went from factory worker to pizzaiolo to winemaker to Natural winemaker has been told many times before. The only thing I’ll add to it is that in an earlier time in his life, Angiolino was a gigging saxophone player and he loves music. When Tracie P, Alfonso, and I went to taste with Angiolino and family recently, the house was filled with music — speed metal, on the day we visited, preferred genre of son Francesco. The Maule family loves music and nearly every member plays an instrument and there were musical instrument strewn about the house. And you imagine our shared delight when, over dinner at Angiolino’s brother-in-law’s pizzeria I Tigli, we realized that famous Veneto jazzer Ruggero Robin is a close mutual friend.

Above: A stone wall in Gambellara reveals the volcanic nature of the subsoil. Note the wide pores of the red stone.

Although he also grows a few red grapes (more for professional pride than for any other reason, he said), his estate is about Garganega (if you have trouble pronouncing the grape, click here for the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project). His farming practices and winemaking methods are impeccably natural and he went to great lengths to explain to us how his growing sites are regularly tested for the residual presence of farming chemicals. Not only does the farmer have to eliminate the use of chemicals in order to grow Natural wine, he explained, the grape grower must also ensure that there is no chemical runoff from adjacent farms. He exclusively uses vegetal (as opposed to animal-based) composts to “re-pristinate” the nitrogen and carbon balance of his subsoils and he is actively engaging the academic community in an attempt — the first, he claims — to provide scientific evidence of how Natural winegrowing works.

Above: “When you take something from the soil, you have to give something back,” said Angiolino as he explained the application of vegetal compost to revive the microorganisms needed to achieve balance in his subsoils. While no one truly understand how the Natural chemistry works, Angiolino is working with university researchers to provide new empirical insight.

“We [Natural winemakers] are like the prostitute who marries the most upright boy in the village,” he told us, using an old adage to explain his expanding relationship with academia. “We need to make sure that the husbands’ shirts are ironed and that the children get to school on time so that the townsfolk will begin to take us seriously.”

But perhaps the greatest revelation that day was his method for unsulfured wine, i.e., wine to which the winemaker adds no sulfites, using only the natural components in the wine (sulfur is a natural byproduct of fermentation, btw) to preserve the wine and prevent oxidation.

The secret? He bottles directly from cask, using a syphon (a “straw,” he called it). He introduces the syphon into the cask through the bunghole and then lowers it to the center of the cask. He then begins to draw off the wine and bottle it directly. In this manner, he explained, the wine does not come into contact with oxygen and thus oxidation is avoided. (I know another winemaker in Slovenia who uses this method for bottling, although with a much more elaborate setup; you can guess who.) When racking (moving wine from one vessel to another), the resulting oxidation can only be corrected using sulfites, i.e., engineered SO2. (Sulfuring in wine is not a bad thing, btw… Over sulfuring wine is the bad thing. 99.999999999% of the wine you drink, even the finest wine, is sulfured. The truth is that without the use of sulfur, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy fine wine today.)

The other secret? Angiolino sulfurs the wine that lies at the bottom of the cask: at a certain point during the bottling process, enough oxygen enters the cask to cause slight oxidation and Angiolino minimally sulfurs that parcel to stabilize the wine. He rigorously labels his wines with a reporting of the alcohol, acidity, and sulfur content on the back label. Only his unsulfured wines report “NON CONTIENE SULFITI” (“does not contain sulfites”).

Above: Angiolino’s life and winemaking are about honesty. He is open and upfront about everything he does, feels, thinks, and believes. He talks very frankly about why he broke away from Vini Veri, which he helped to found, and how he regulates his VinNatur group with an authoritarian spirit. His wines aren’t for everyone. We love them.

There was another revelation that has been the subject of a lot of debate and discussion in our home.

At a certain point, Tracie P asked Angiolino how a Natural winemaker can avoid contamination by pharmaceutical yeasts, especially in an appellation like Gambellara, where industrial commercial winemaking dominates the landscape. “Is it possible,” she asked in her Neapolitan-cadenced Italian, “for yeast from the Zonin winery at the bottom of the hill to float its way up to your cellar?” (As lovers of Natural wine well know, one of the main tennets of the category is the exclusive use of native (also called wild or ambient) yeasts in fermentation.) If you’ve ever looked into Tracie P’s beautiful blue eyes, you know that it’s impossible to tell her a lie.

Angiolino paused and said, “that’s a very good question.” He paused again.

“When I first started making wine, I used cultured yeasts in my winery. The truth is,” he said, “once you’ve used cultured yeasts in any environment, they remain present. They never go away.”

Wow, this was a heavy moment for all of us. It called into question everything that we’ve been taught by the cultural purveyors of Natural wine. If only on an epistemological level, this revelation begs the question: is it even possible to make a wine using only native yeasts when pharmaceutical yeasts are present all around us?

In other words, is there such a thing as a 100%, purely wild fermented wine? Does the residue from previous vinifications (even Beppe Rinaldi conceded that he’s used cultured yeast on occasion) eliminate the possibility of a 100%, purely wild fermented wine? Does the yeast residue that travels on the shoes of a cellar worker contaminate a cellar forever?

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a big difference between the use of “killer” yeasts that impart specific flavors through widespread application during fermentation (think California style) and neutral yeasts, applied sparingly and with forethought, to encourage and speed fermentation (Consider that Bruno Giacosa and Mauro Mascarello openly and regularly use neutral yeasts and Aldo Vacca uses a cultured yeast called “Barolo strain” that replicates the native yeasts of Langa — I’ve asked each of them directly.)

Do Angiolino’s wines meet the Natural wine dogmatists’s lofty requirements? I believe they do. Is truly Natural wine, as they define it, possible? I’m not sure anymore. Do Tracie P and I tend to like self-defined Natural wines more than others? Most definitely. Is Natural wine more about being conscious of how commercial and industrial winemaking changed the world of wine in the post-WWII era than it is about oxymoronic dogma? The answer surely probably lies somewhere between the Zonin factory in the village of Gambellara and the Biancara winery at the top of the hill, where Angiolino makes “magical music in a glass” (according to the importer’s glistening marketese).

The only thing I know for certain is that I admire Angiolino immensely and we love his wines. I love them because they taste real to me. They taste of rocks and fruit. They taste like my beloved Veneto. The speak a language that I understand. And when Tracie P and I share a bottle, we are happy — even happier remembering Francesco’s speed metal that day.

Garganega: Italian grape name pronunciation project

In the course of just a week, I’ve received roughly twenty new audio files to post in the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project. Rest assured: I’m going to post them all (next week’s post will feature a “family” of grape names). THANK YOU to everyone for supporting this project and for the words of encouragement. :-)

In the meantime, it seemed appropriate to move forward with a grape name that represents a true tongue-twister… not just for non-Italophones, btw… even Italian folks have trouble with this one.

That’s Gambellara producer Angiolino Maule’s youngest son Tommaso in the vineyards. Tracie P, Alfonso, and I tasted with Angiolino and met Tommaso on our recent visit to Gambellara and Valpolicella. I’ll post my notes from the tasting tomorrow. So stay tuned!

Click here for last week’s post: Teroldego.

A new friend in Angiolino Maule and the future of Natural wine in Italy

Have you ever tasted a wine that thrilled you so completely and moved you so deeply that you felt compelled, as if by some magnetic force of the earth, to seek out the winemaker and vineyards where it was grown?

After first tasting his wines last year, that’s how I felt about Angiolino Maule and La Biancara, his family’s estate.

Two weeks ago, I called Angiolino out of the blue and asked him if I could bring Tracie P and Alfonso to taste with him (Alfonso arrived yesterday in Italy for the COF2011 project.)

Even though he didn’t know me from Adamo, he agreed to let us come and taste. Before we knew it, there was a sympathia and it didn’t take long to discover that we have a very close and dear friend in common, Veneto jazz great Ruggero Robin.

Angiolino’s wines are simply stunning, literally mind-blowing… We toured his growing sites, tasted, and talked about his new university research projects and his quest to bring hard science into the fold of the Natural wine world. And he revealed some of his breakthroughs in vinification without the addition of sulfites (more on that later).

Although the village is dominated by industrial, commercial winemaking, some of the upper slopes of the township of Gambellara in the province of Vicenza (above) are still blessed by gorgeous vineyards alternated with untamed woods. One of the most intriguing landscapes of my beloved Veneto.

So much to tell, so much to share… but it will just have to wait as Tracie P, Alfonso, and I head out for another day of tasting…

$1 oysters and zero sulfur Garganega? Hell YEAH!

According to its website, La Biancara’s 100% Garganega “Pico” is 100% sulfur free. And I’m here to tell you that it’s 100% friggin’ delicious. Pair that with $1 oysters during happy hour at The Ten Bells on the Lower East Side and you get the following tasting note: HELL YEAH!

I am so unbelievably slammed this morning that I don’t have time to post my thoughts on why The Ten Bells is the hippest wine bar in the U.S. (and definitely in the top 5 for me).

Hey, wait a minute! Is that Muddy Boots horsing around with Dolcetto producer Anna Bracco at The Ten Bells?

In other news…

I also regret not having time to post about the off-the-charts meal I shared with BrooklynGuy and BrooklynLady at Aliseo in Brooklyn (where else?) last night.

But lest Alfonso think he corners the market on great food photography, here’s a taste of what’s to come…

Eat your heart out, Alfonso!

Salacious secrets of Italian wine: rocks and manure at 3 pm Texas time

out and about

Salacious secrets: I forgot to mention in my post earlier today that you’ll be able comment on my answers and ask questions when I chat with Austin American-Statesman columnist Michael Barnes today at at 3 p.m. (Texas time). At shortly before 3 p.m., click here to visit his Out and About blog, register (if not already registered), and please weigh in.

I’ll be fielding all kinds of tough, hard-hitting questions, like why I like my Garganega to taste like rocks and my Nebbiolo to smell like manure.

I’m really looking forward to this new live interview format since I have “such a great face for radio”! ;-)