Tasted any Ramandolo lately?

Northeastern Italy’s rich tradition of dried-grape wines stretches back to the height of the Roman empire, when the acinaticum of today’s Soave, Gambellara, and Valpolicella reigned as one of Western Civilization’s earliest “celebrity” wines.

With all of today’s talk of and favor curried by so-called Natural wines and their “back-to-our-heritage” ethos, we often forget that the earliest paleo-European wines to emerge with celebrity cache were among the most manipulated of that era. The purposeful desiccation of fruit intended to obtain a more concentrated wine with higher alcohol content and greater levels of residual sugar cannot avoid (however obliquely) reminding the informed observer of the “dropped fruit” and “hang time” employed by the Californian chemists who produce Ovaltine-inspired grape-flavored beverages with 17+% alcohol.

The roughly two dozen (yes, that’s it, count ’em) producers of Ramandolo cannot trace their roots back to Roman times but they can point to documents scribed in the high middle ages when their sweet, dense wines were coveted and praised by at least one Roman Pope (Gregory XII). Centuries before the villages of Cialla and Corna di Rosazzo would earn their fame for the production of fine white wine, Ramandolo (which only recently joined the Colli Orientali del Friuli consortium) was renowned for its unique confluence of warm maritime ventilation, a natural shield from inclement weather (the Alps), chilly winters that naturally and gently stabilized the wine, and a sturdy and industrious townsfolk who express the hardships of mountain living in perseverance and patient enology.

On the last day of our Colli Orientali del Friuli blogger project, we traveled to the appellation of Ramandolo (in the northernmost, isolated subzone of the appellation) and got to taste 12 wines by 12 producers (roughly half of the entire body of wineries), all wines I had never tasted before, of which none (to my knowledge) has representation in the U.S. market.

Production levels are extremely small here. Eyeballing the anecdotal figures given to us, the average surface area planted to Verduzzo (the main grape variety) per winery is 4-5 hectares, with most weighing in with 1-2 hectares.

What sets these wines apart from their relatives in the Veneto (or their very distant relatives in Tuscany) is the fact that Verduzzo is an intensely and uniquely tannic white grape. While the majority of labels we tasted that day were dominated by invasive toasty oak (imparted from barrique aging), the best wines allowed the bitterness of the tannins and the sweetness of the residual sugar to play a gorgeous counterpoint harmony in the glass. Where I often find even some of the best dried-grape Moscato to be one-dimensional (think Sicily, think Piedmont), these wines — when done right — show depth and seductive character.

My favorites of the 12 wines tasted were Daniele Gervasi (my top wine), Maurizio Zaccomer, and Andrea Comelli, who also tasted us on an experimental botrytized Ramandolo (in one instance accidental and in another induced by wetting the grapes and covering with cellophane).

Like Rumpelstiltskin, the producers of Ramandolo seem to have awaken only recently to discover that the globalization of wine and globalized tastes might afford them a space in the market to sell their wonderful wines for the high prices they demand. They’ve got a long way to go but our experience on the ground there seemed to indicate that they are working together toward a shared goal of launching the Ramandolo “brand” on the international market. With such small production and such a tightly knit small community of winemakers, their solidarity is surely the only path toward that objective. I hope they make it because the wines can be stunning.

Tasted any great Ramandolo lately? I have…

A Natural wine ante litteram: Ronchi di Cialla

Long before anyone ever dared to utter the N word on a blog or in dogmatic marketese, there was a bookish Olivetti typewriter salesman who decided to give up his comfortable job shilling macchine da scrivere, opting instead to make wine from native grape varieties, native yeasts, and chemical-free integrated farming in the Colli Orientali del Friuli. That man was Paolo Rapuzzi (above) whose winery, Ronchi di Cialla, began producing Schioppettino, Refosco, Picolit, and Verduzzo — four of the native grapes of Friuli — in the village of Cialla in the early 1970s.

Of the quindecemvirate of wineries we visited during the blogger team’s stay in the Colli Orientali del Friuli, there was none in situ that I was more excited about. I first began to frequent the wines of this historic estate in the late 1990s in New York, where I happened to stumble upon a forgotten allocation of its wines at Vino. Stretching back to the 1980s, the wines were impressively fresh and they had that classic juiciness and spicy note that makes Schioppettino such a fantastic food-pairing wine.

Founder Paolo and his sons Ivan and Pier Paolo walked us through a remarkable tasting, including 2005, 2001, 1995, and 1985 (all of which are current releases, btw). The 2005 was very generous with its fruit, while the 2001 and 1995 were more closed and tannic. The 1985 sang gloriously in the classic tulip-shaped glasses that the Rapuzzi family recommends for service of their wines.

Over the course of my stay in Friuli, no fewer than three persons told me that their respective families were the authors of the revival of native grape varieties in Friuli. I’m sure there’s a grain of truth in each of their hagiographies. But no family is more closely associated with the revival of Friulian native rootstock than the Rapuzzi. In fact, some of the rootstock offered by the hegemonic Italian nursery Rauscedo is surnamed by Rapuzzi, like the “floral abortion” Picolit that Paolo resuscitated.

By the 1970s, when he began making wine, most producers had started using a newly developed clone of Picolit that did not “abort its flowers.” While the newly developed clone delivered much higher yields (and lowered the cost of making Picolit), the traditional “biotype” was ideal for making dried-grape Picolit, he explained, because its natural floral abortion led to less buds and more naturally concentrated fruit. He planted and cultivated his Picolit for 10 years before it produced fruit and then he applied what could essentially be called a massal selection to the plants that ultimately were chosen for the Rauscedo rootstock and that are still used today to make Paolo’s Picolit (50% dried grape vinification, 50% classic vinification).

Cialla is one of the three sub-zones of the Colli Orientali del Friuli and is a monopole, owned by the Rapuzzi family. It is blessed with immense beauty and idyllic tranquility. Our visit with Paolo — a colorful and warm personage, who rests his hand on yours when he speaks to you — was probably my favorite of the trip. In the hour we spent with him (with me interpreting for the group), he never once used the word “natural.”

“We grow are grapes without pesticides or herbicides,” he told us, “and then we try to intervene as little as possible, letting the land of Cialla express itself in the wines.”

No need, in fact, to call this wine “natural”: res ipsa loquitur.

Verduzzo Friulano Bianco: the basics

The following post is my abridged translation of the entry on “Verduzzo Friulano Bianco” in Vitigni d’Italia, le varietà tradizionali per la produzione di vini moderni (Grape Varieties of Italy, the traditional varieties for the production of modern wines) by Antonio Calò et alia, Bologna, Calderini, 2006. This is the second in an educational series on the grape varieties of the Colli Orientali del Friuli, posted in conjunction with the COF 2011 aggregate blog.

Synonyms (documented and/or otherwise plausible): Verduz, Verduzz, Verduzo, Verduza, Ramandolo.

Erroneous: Verdisio, Verduzzo trevigiano, Verduzzo di Motta.

Origins (Historical Notes): An ancient grape variety of Friuli, cited by Acerbi (1825) who notes that a grape called Verduz had been cultivated in Friuli in the province of Udine for more than 100 years. It is mentioned in the 1879 Bolletino Ampelografico (Ampelographic Bulletin) as one of the white grape varieties of Friuli. In 1939, Poggi noted a distinction between two types of Verduzzo, a “green” clone which has all but disappeared and a “yellow” clone which was probably derived from the former. Besides these two clones, there is another found in the Ramandolo area (province of Udine) called Verduzzo “raçsie” with semi-loose [semi spargolo] clusters.

Environment and cultivation: Verduzzo is not particularly difficult to grow. It likes hillside vineyards with good exposure, low fertility, and dry climate. Production for this grape is high and constant. Medium-open training systems and medium-long pruning are ideal for this grape variety. It tolerates hail better than most.

Sensitivity to Disease and Other Issues: light sensitivity to powdery mildew, sensitivity to moths, high tolerance to botrytis thanks to its thick skin.

Alcohol Content: 9-15%
pH: 2.5-3.5
Acidity: 5-10 grams per liter

Verduzzo Friulano Bianco produces a wine that is rich golden yellow with a pleasant vinous aroma, relatively tannic, full-bodied, sweet, fruity, with honey notes. Two types of wine can be obtained using this grape: a dry white wine and a sweet semi-viscous dessert wine (Ramandolo) following exposed drying on the vine or drying in an enclosure.

The variety is used exclusively for vinification. It is commonly blended with other grapes to obtain a finer, drier, and more delicate wine. It is grown primarily in the province of Udine but also in the provinces of Pordenone and Gorizia. It can be used in the production of the following DOCs: Colli Orientali del Friuli, Friuli Annia, Friuli Aquileia, Friuli Isonzo, Friuli Latisana, Lison-Pramaggiore, and Piave, and it can be utilized in a variety of ways.

More wine and cinema, Italian and Italian (and thoughts on ya’ll vs. y’all)

san dona del piave

Click here or on the image to view a short documentary (infomercial) about wines produced in the Veneto, made in 1969.

A lot of folks commented and/or retweeted my post from the day before yesterday, on Wine in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Thanks to all for the link love! :-)

This morning, I poked around in the Archivio Luce website (the Istituto Luce was founded by the fascists to create propaganda films, LUnione Cinematografica Educativa or The Educational Cinematic Union) and found this clip from 1969 about the “ichthyic wines,” i.e., the seafood wines of the Veneto.

The short film (essentially an infomercial for the Canella winery in San Donà del Piave) is interesting for a lot of reasons. Tocai, Verduzzo, Merlot, and Cabernet from the Veneto (Tocai and Verduzzo to pair with seafood, Merlot and Cabernet with roast meats and game), are top exports to the gourmets of the world, says the narrator. But the thing I find the most fascinating is the music and the chipper style and feel of the film — reminiscent, however distantly, of the feel of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Watch the clip and let me know your impressions.

In other news…

Thanks to all the folks who retweeted yesterday’s post! :-)


I wanted to post another picture of Tracie B’s peepaw and meemaw (above) since Tracie B pointed out to me that peepaw wasn’t smiling in yesterday’s photo (it was the only one I could find with a glass of orange wine in it).

He just turned 90 and well, you don’t ask a lady her age, but the two of them are pretty amazing: peepaw may not be as spry as he once was but they both get out to all the family functions (meemaw drives) and they enjoy all the festivities, food, fixings, and the wines, too…

Honestly, there are not a lot of options for fine wine in Orange, Texas, and Texas retailers do not ship within the state. It is legal for out-of-state retailers to ship here but few have jumped through the hoops that allow them to do so. If Lunar made it to Orange, Texas, on the Lousiana border, it was ’cause Tracie B and me brought it! :-)

Thanks for reading!

In other other news…

In recent months, I’ve received a lot of comments (even some ugly ones) about my usage of the expression ya’ll. I addressed some of the linguistic issues and implications in this often heated debate in a comment thread the other day and would like to repost it here for all to consider. Thanks for reading!

“My thoughts on the (often heated) ya’ll vs. y’all debate.”

@TWG and IWG the ya’ll vs. y’all question has become contentious at times! There’s no doubt in my mind that the “more correct” inflection is “y’all” since nearly everyone agrees that the expression is a contraction of “you all”. I also believe it is the more correct inflection because it is the more common: orthography and the “correctness” of language are determined by usage and frequency. There are more occurrences of “y’all” than there are of “ya’ll” and so “y’all” wins as the “most correct.”

Having said that, a little research reveals that the earliest inflection is “yall”, written without the inverted comma denoting the elision (btw, an entire chapter of my doctoral thesis is devoted to the history of the inverted comma and its early usage to denote elision in the transcription of poetry in incunabula in 15th-century Venice tipography — no shit!). It appears in transcriptions of early 20th-century African-American (read “black”) parlance. So, technically, the most correct form is “yall”.

Having said that, “ya’ll” is an accepted form and I’m not sure why it evokes so much ire among observers. I, for one, will continue to use “ya’ll” because I like the way it mirrors the dialectal pronunciation of the vowel cluster, where the greater aperture of the “a” seems to take precedence in the enunciation of the contraction and elision.

Language is by its very nature a balance between idiolect (a language spoke by one person) and dialect (a regionally inflected and mutually comprehensible corruption of a standardized linguistic code).

In other words, “ya’ll” feels just right to me and I know that everyone understands it. So, as they say, if it ain’t broke? ;-)

Clearly, I’ve spent some time thinking about this.

A guilty pleasure: Quintarelli 1998 Valpolicella

There was one day during my stay in Verona for Vinitaly when I managed to escape the prison walls of the fairgrounds and enjoy a stroll down the main street of a small Italian town, eat a sandwich, have something refreshing at a the counter of a bar, and chat with the owner of a fantastic charcuterie and wine shop, Francesco Bonomo (above).

The town was San Martino Buon Albergo (on the old road that leads from Verona to Vicenza). Alfonso Cevola (above) and I stopped there for a brief but much-needed hour of humanity on an otherwise inhumane week of too much travel and too many wines. That’s Alfonso munching on a panino stuffed with Prosciutto di Praga, baked and smoked ham (that we bought at the first food shop we visited).

One of the more interesting bottles displayed on Francesco’s shelves was this bottle of 1973 Barolo by Damilano. Now just a collector’s bottle, its shoulder was pretty low and Francesco agreed that the wine is surely sherryized. Francesco let me photograph the bottle using my phone (I didn’t have my camera with me) but he was careful not to disturb the bottle’s patina of dust, of which he was particularly proud.

I wish I could have taken a better photo of this wines-by-the-glass list at the little bar on the main square of San Martino: Cartizze, Verduzzo (sparkling), Soave, Fragolino, Bardolino, and Valpolicella by the glass? All under 2 Euros? The answer is YES!

Francesco presides over a modest but impressively local collection of fine wine, including an allocation of 1998 Valpolicella by Giuseppe Quintarelli, the gem of his collection. I rarely bring wine back from Italy these days but the price on this wine was too good to pass by.

However coveted and mystified in the U.S., Quintarelli is one of the most misunderstood Italian wines on this side of the Atlantic, in part because its importer is one of the most reviled purveyors in the country (his infamously elitist, classist, snobbish, monopolistic, extortionist attitude are sufficient ideological grounds for not consuming the wine here).

I’ve interviewed Giuseppe Quintarelli on a number of occasions by phone and his daughter Silvana is always so nice when I call (and, btw, they happily receive visitors for tasting and purchase of their wines). I love the wines and was thrilled to get to taste this 10-year-old Valpolicella with Tracie B on Saturday night: she made wonderful stewed pork with tomatoes and porcini mushrooms for pairing (with a side of mashed potatoes). The wine’s initial raisined notes blew off quickly, giving way to a powerful, rich expression of Valpolicella. I tasted the wine repeatedly in 2004-2005 and I was impressed by how its flavors and aromas has become even more intense.

Francesco was so proud of his Quintarelli. He told me that he sells it at just a few Euros over cost because he just wants to have it in the store and wants to be able to share it with his customers. It was great to bring back a little Valpolicella to Austin and my Tracie B, direct from the source and sourced from someone who understands it for what it really is.

Post script

Alfonso gave me this nifty “wine skin” to transport the bottle back stateside. It seals tidily, so even if the bottle breaks in your suitcase, you don’t risk leakage. Happily the bottle made it back intact.

In the olden days, you used to be able to take bottles on the plane and you even used to be able to bring your own wine for drinking. Alice developed this system for smuggling natural wine on to the plane (happily, no Cavit Merlot for her!).