Montepulciano: Italian grape name and appellation pronunciation project


Above: Alfonso’s video camera captured winemaker Stefano Illuminati (of the Dino Illuminati winery, Abruzzo) speaking “Montepulciano” at Vinitaly a few weeks ago.

If Merlot (mehr-LOH) is the easiest European grape name for Anglophone consumers to pronounce (and is consequently America’s favorite variety), then Montepulciano (MOH-te-pool-CHEE’AH-noh) is the most confusing and one of the most challenging.

The last time you were on a date and you wanted to impress your dinner companion, did you impress him/her by ordering the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (VEE-noh NOH-bee-leh dee MOHN-teh-pool-CHEE’AH-noh)? Or perhaps you eloquently illustrated how Montepulciano is at once a place name (the name of a township in Tuscany where Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is produced) and a grape name (the name of a variety grown and vinified primarily in Abruzzo but also elsewhere in Central Italy)?

I know that you didn’t order the Merlot!

Above: Dino Illuminati, Stefano’s father and the winery’s namesake, is one of the wonderful avuncular characters of the Italian wine world — larger than life and always bursting with life and energy. His 1998 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo blew me away when I tasted it a few months ago in Chicago (photo by Alfonso, Verona, April 2011).

The bivalence of the topo- and ampelonym Montepulciano often leads complacent wine directors to include bottlings of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in their “Tuscany” and “Sangiovese” sections. This oversight often tragically eclipses the many wonderful expressions of Montepulciano that come from Abruzzo (anyone who has ever tasted the 1979 Montepulciano by Emidio Pepe knows just how incredible these wines can be!).

Do Bianchi isn’t exactly the blogosphere’s leading resource for dating advice. But, then again, Tracie P probably wouldn’t have given me the time of day if I didn’t know the difference between my Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and my Vino Nobile di Montepulciano!

The Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project got a greatly appreciated shoutout from Eric the Red last week on the Times dining blog. Thanks again, Eric! Remember: friends don’t let friends pronounce Italian grape names and appellations incorrectly! ;-)

The wonders of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: 1998 Illuminati Zanna

In these heady days of single-vineyard Barolo and Barbaresco with designer labels, lieu-dit Brunello with astronomically impossible scores, and the coveted-by-conservative-elites and dreaded-by-liberal-populists Super Tuscans (if, in the course of my research for my upcoming Friuli trip, I come across the expression “Super Whites” one more time, I’m going to heave), we often forget an earlier chapter in the renaissance of Italian wines when grapes like Aglianico (ever tasted a 1968 Mastroberardino Taurasi?) and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Montepulciano Nero (1979 Pepe, anyone?) stood proudly side-by-side with their Tuscan and Piedmontese counterparts.

“Montepulciano d’Abruzzo,” wrote Burton Anderson in 1980 (Vino, p. 368), “ranks among the ten most prominent DOC wines of Italy.” (The appellation was among the earliest to receive DOC status, long before the DOCG-system was implemented, in 1967.) Two years later, in Italy’s Noble Red Wines, Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman infer (erroneously) that Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a clone of Sangiovese Grosso and classify it as one of Italy’s three noble red grapes, together with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese (see the opening lines of chapters 13 and 14).

Last week, on a freezing night in the Goose Island neighborhood of Chicago, at a dingy BYOB Cuban joint called Habana Libre, I met up with three men I’d met over the internet, each bearing fantastic bottles of wine (mamas, don’t let your sons grow up to be wine bloggers!).

Phil, Nathan, and Lars and I got to know each other through wine-related social media (and Lars actually saw my French band play back in Detroit way too many moons ago). And this was the second time the de facto tasting group convened when I was in town. Many fantastic bottles were opened that night, including a brilliant Vouette et Sorbée NV Champagne Extra Brut Fidèle, an incredibly savory Willi Schaefer 2007 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett, and a Raveneau 2000 Chablis Vaillons (!!!) — all thanks to my hosts.

But the wine that I can’t stop thinking about is the Illuminati 1998 Montepulicano d’Abruzzo DOC Zanna (above).

Phil had found a small and forgotten allocation of 98 Zanna at a local wine retailer and he wisely picked up as much as he could (at an obscenely low price). I’ve tasted a lot of Zanna in recent years and Alfonso made a point of taking me to meet and taste with his good friend winemaker Stefano Illuminati a few years ago at Vinitaly — great guys, both of them.

But, man, I’d never had the chance to taste a Zanna at 12 years out! This wine showed bright, youthful acidity (the secret to its longevity, no doubt) and rich layers of red stone fruit and crunchy, salty red earth. As I munched on my delicious stewed pork and my lightly breaded and fried flattened chicken breast, the aromas and flavors of this wine danced like wild beasts on my tongue, with sweaty horse and bramble notes, evoking, in my mind, an era when Abruzzo was one of the centers of the intellectual outdoorsman’s universe (did you know that King Frederick II of Swabia, emperor of the Holy Roman empire, named the the region’s capital “L’Aquila,” meaning the eagle, because of his love of the art of falconry?).

An unforgettable bottle of wine, thanks to these dudes. But then again, that’s what you get for making friends on the internet!

Phil, Nathan, and Lars: THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Alla prossima… (and ya’ll know what I’m talking about)…

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…

Drinking great at the G8? No great moment in history without Spumante

tony the tigerYou might remember my post White, Green, and Red All Over: Obama to eat patriotic pasta at G8 from a month ago. The G8 summit began today in L’Aquila in Abruzzo and the Italian press is relishing the Obamas’s every move with great gusto.

As Franco pointed out today at Vino al Vino, there was even a post today at the ANSA (National Italian Press Association Agency) site that includes not only the official schedule for today but also the official bottles of wine and spirits to be given to Italy’s “illustrious” guests. G8 members will receive a “magnum of Amarone Aneri 2003 in a wooden box on which the initials of each of the presidents or prime ministers present has been engraved. All official lunches will begin with a toast with Ferrari spumante, [a wine] which is never missing at great appointments with history [sic; can you believe that?]. As an official gift for the illustrious guests, a highly rare ‘Ferrari Perle’ Nerò has been chosen [sic; the wine is actually called Perlé Nero], together with ‘Solera’ Grappa by the Segnana distillery. 1-3 p.m.: working G8 lunch on global economy.” (The post at ANSA’s English-language site did not include the wines or plugs.)

The American press doesn’t seem to be taking the G8 Summit and Silvio Berlusconi’s carefully choreographed hospitality as seriously as the Italian press corps. “Inexcusably lax planning by the host government, Italy, and the political weakness of many of the leaders attending, leave little room for optimism,” wrote the editors of The New York Times today.

With more humble tone, I was forwarded an email from the Dino Illuminati winery announcing that one of its wines had been chosen as the official wine for the luncheon and another for the closing dinner tomorrow. “We are sure You’ll like to enjoy,” it read, “the very good news with us: Our wine ZANNA Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG 2006 has been choiced as official red wine for the G 8 lunch of Wednesday July, 08. Besides, our wine LORE’ ‘Muffa Nobile’ will be the dessert wine for the G 8 dinner of Thursday July, 09.”

I guess Dino didn’t make the ANSA deadline.

In other news…

Check out our post today at VinoWire: Barbaresco producers speak out on Giacosa’s decision not to bottle his 2006. Giacosa claims that the rains of September ruined the vintage but our post reveals other points of view.