My favorite New York City steakhouse & Petrarchan Merlot

porterhouse steak new york

There are three regions of Italy where great Merlot is produced: Latium (Lazio), Friuli, and the Veneto. Yes, there are many famous bottlings of Merlot from Tuscany, many of them very expensive and many collectible. But when it comes to what I like to drink, these are the regions that deliver the minerality and the tar and goudron that I look for in expressions of Merlot.

These three are also the only regions where Merlot has a tradition that stretches back to the early post-war era. Remember: Sassicaia, originally produced in the 1940s and first released commercially in 1968, was and is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blend; Tignanello was a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend that appeared in the 1970s. Ornellaia and its Masseto came later.

Merlot was widely grown especially in Friuli and the Veneto in the years that followed the second world war. When you ask the people who live there why their parents planted Merlot? they invariably tell you that Merlot had always been grown there (at least as long as they can remember).

One of my all-time favorite expressions of Italian Merlot is produced by Vignalta in the Colli Euganei in the province of Padua. I feel an especially deep bond to the wines because they are produced in the area where my beloved Petrarch spent his last years (and where he transcribed the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, the subject of my doctoral thesis).

Here’s my post on our visit to Vignalta a few years ago.

Last night Greg and I shared a bottle of the 2007 Vignalta Colli Euganei Rosso (mostly Merlot with a smaller amount of Cabernet Sauvignon) over a meal at my favorite New York steakhouse, Keens.

The wine, aged in old tonneaux, was showing brilliantly last night and its acidity gave it a freshness that really took our enjoyment over the top. So good with the rare porterhouse.

Keens was wonderful as always and it was such a treat to bump into manager Bonnie as we left.

I’ll be eating my way through the city this week… stay tuned…

Colli Euganei, where Petrarch and great wine meet (and an unsung hero of the Veneto)


Above: Winemaker Luciano Gomiero of Vignalta (center), pioneer and unsung hero of one of my favorite appellations in the world, the Colli Euganei (Veneto). That’s my friend, the aptly named, Marco Tinello (right, the Veneto’s “best sommelier” 2008), who led our vinous journey to the Euganean Hills so beloved by Petrarch in mid-September.

There is no place in Italy that I feel more at home then the Veneto, where I spent many years at university and playing music. And there is no other place where my interests converge more mellifluously than the Colli Euganei, the Euganean Hills south of Padua, where my beloved Petrarch and great wines meet.

Petrarch took refuge in these hills toward the end of his life and it was here that he transcribed and edited his life’s work, including the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, his fragments of vernacular things, a songbook composed of 366 poems written for Laura.


Above: La Casa del Petrarca, Petrarch’s house in Arquà in the heart of the Euganean Hills, is adorned with frescoes inspired by the narrative culled from the Fragmenta.

Petrarch’s favorite poet was the Latin writer Virgil and there’s no doubt that Petrarch knew and appreciated the line so often repeated from the Georgics, Bacchus amat colles, in other words, Bacchus [the divine embodiment of the vine] loves hills.

To understand why Petrarch loved this immensely beautiful place and why it is ideal for raising fine wines, here are a few photos.


Above: That’s a view from the hills looking eastward toward Venice and the Adriatic.

The eastern plains leading to Venice are otherwise flat but south of Padua, the Eugeanean Hills rise up suddenly and violently from the flats.


Above: Petrarch wrote that the Euganean Hills reminded him of the Vaucluse where he met Laura.

The soil types range from volcanic to ancient seabed to calcareous clay and the different growing sites deliver rich mineral flavors in the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that have traditionally been grown there.


Above: Luciano ages all and vinifies some of his wines in recycled tonneaux and barriques — no new wood here! You could hear his 2009 Alpianae fermenting again (in other words, it had been fermenting on and off, depending on the temperature of the cellar, for more than a year!)

The Colli Euganei are best know for their red wines. Luciano doesn’t barrique his wines and you never find woodiness in them. His reds are defined by their rich, earthiness and minerality, tar and goudron notes. And while I’m not generally a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, I gladly drink his wines, which never show woodiness, and are extremely well priced (generally around $25-35 in the U.S.). I highly recommend them.


Above: The 2008 Sirio (dry Moscato) was stunning, with great minerality and fruit. BrooklynGuy would have loved it.

But the wines that truly fill me with emotion are his white wines, Sirio (dry moscato) and Alpianae (dried-grape Moscato Giallo) in particular. And the best news is that, like his reds, Luciano’s white wines are more than reasonably priced (the Sirio should cost about $20 retail).


Above: The name Alpianae actually came from a typo, Luciano told me. It was supposed be called Apianae, a reference to a name used by the Romans for sweet wines “belonging to the bees” (in the sense that bees are drawn to sweet wines, i.e., the best wines).

Luciano was the first to popularize dry Moscato in the Euganean Hills and he successfully lobbied the consortium and the Italian government to create the Colli Euganei Moscato DOC (previously you couldn’t write Moscato on the label). With the 2010 vintage, Fior d’Arancio (the local name for Moscato Giallo) will be the appellation first DOCG, also thanks to pioneer Luciano.

The Vignalta whites, including the dried-grape Moscato Giallo, are some of my favorite wines in the world. And I love how they are connected to a topos so imbued with cultural riches. Indeed, Petrarch’s transcriptions and collations during the last years of his life in Arquà (a stone’s throw from Luciano’s winery) are considered to by many to be the birthing of Renaissance humanism.

Like Bacchus, I love Euganean hills, too.

I posted on the fantastic lunch we had that day here.

Next up: my September trip to Italy continues with a series of posts from Friuli…