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)…

95 Raveneau Monts Mains (!) and my guacamole recipe

From the department of “dreams do come true”…

Our new friends Sonia and Steven came over for a school-night dinner last night and what a school-night it was! We were utterly floored by the bottle they brought over: 1995 Raveneau Monts Mains 1er Cru.

“I thought you might enjoy this,” said Steven wryly.

My goodness, what a bottle of wine! Such a nuanced nose of fruit and herbs, so steely and rich in the mouth. At 12.5% alcohol (according to the label), one of the most balanced and complete wine. Simply stunning. (Those are Tracie P’s rice balls in the photo btw.)

With Labor Day imminent, I’ve been wearing my Seersucker jacket all week and indulging in the foods of summer, including my guacamole (of which, I will admit it, I am extremely proud). The trick is to purge the tomato of its water before assembly. Check out the recipe below.

Steven’s from Texas originally and has recently returned to Austin: he and Sonia have a lot of big plans, culinary and otherwise… More on that later.

In the meantime, seems that Tracie P and me aren’t the only ones eating and drinking well this summer. Pastrami mia: I guess Alfonso gave up on his health kick when tempted with the pastrami of Shapiro’s in Indianapolis. I think I feel an acute case of pastrami envy coming on!

Happy Labor Day ya’ll!

Jar’s Guacamole*

American Spanish guacamole, adaptation of Nahuatl ahuacamolli, from ahuacatl avocado + molli sauce (OED online edition).

1 medium-sized tomato
1 bunch cilantro
½ white onion
1 jalapeño pepper
1 clove garlic
2 ripe avocados
2 limes
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
chili flakes

Finely dice the tomato and transfer to a colander. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt and allow the tomato to purge its water for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime, rinse the cilantro, dry well, and finely chop. Peel and mince the white onion. Deseed and finely chop the jalapeño. Peel and mince the garlic and combine all of the above ingredients, including the tomato (water purged), in a mixing bowl. Peel and finely dice the avocado and fold into the mixing bowl. Squeeze and strain the limes directly into the guacamole. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Add chili flakes to obtain desired heat (and/or use some of the discarded seeds from the jalapeño).

* Jar, my nickname from childhood, still used by my rock ‘n’ roll friends.