. Vite Vinifera De Vino's Blog: April 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Basta Parliamo di Vino Ora

With all of the politics and red tape surrounding wine these days, it's easy to lose track of a pure love for the juice itself. It has been a while since the last time I actually wrote something about WINE - real wine, not just the idea of it. So, I guess it's time to do so again.
I'd like to start by touching a few sensitive subjects; first, that winemaking is not an exact science; there are a lot of options in the wine world and most of the time one option does not exclude the other. Exemplary of this is the concept of style: specifically, modern style or traditional style. You can favor one over the other or like both for different reasons, but there are certainly great wines in both categories.
I experienced this conundrum on Monday when I met up with some friends at Il Posto Accanto and opened up a bottle of La Fiorita Brunello Riserva 2001, Domaine Dujac Vosne Romanee Les Beaumont 1997 and Diesel Farm Nero di Rosso 2003.
The Burgundy was traditional, while the Pinot Noir from Diesel Farm was more modern and the La Fiorita, somewhere in the middle. So we started decanting the Brunello, uncork the other two bottles and sipped some Cascina Morassino Barbaresco 1996 to begin.
The Barbaresco was also in a somewhat more modern style, displaying a darker color although there were no flavors of wood. It was still vibrant and powerful, the acidity was markedly high, giving the the sign of a still-long aging potential; once again, a great example of why the 1996 vintage for Nebbiolo from Piedmont was one of the greatest ever experienced. Next it was La Fiorita's turn. 2001 was an exceptional year for the Brunello, so much so for La Fiorita, in fact, that they only bottled the Brunello Riserva, which implies one additional year of maturation before being released to the market. Sangiovese, like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned grape that is highly subject to weather and diseases, and thereby grows well only in specific conditions and altitudes. In Montalcino, those conditions are met and Sangiovese from there can reach incomparable complexity an length. La Fiorita showed us exactly how; elegant on the nose and in the palate, fresh violet and cherry scents were bursting out of our goblets; very drinkable and perfumed with just enough minerality to make us think it akin to an elegant women with little to no makeup. This was a treat - I associate most Brunello to an old grumpy farmer with coarse hands and very little will to talk, translating to wines that have big shoulders (tannins structure) where layers of flavors sit and rest, releasing their perfumes a little bit at a time. Our lady instead was polite enough to answer our questions but still maintaining a secret and mysterious aura, and the nectar was sort of a Mata Hari. From one feminine beauty to another, the third bottle we poured was the Domaine Dujac, a fabulous example of Burgundian style. Light red color with purple reflections, and a nose with firm violet and minerals, full in the palate again with violet, wild strawberries with the addition of a herbal note of thyme and green pepper, again very perfumed, elegant and feminine. The last bottle of the night was the Nero di Rosso 2003, Pinot Noir from Marostica in Veneto, bottled by Diesel Farm, owned by Renzo Rosso (also the founder of Diesel Apparel). With an intense nose (2003 was a very hot year) and dark shades of purple, it seemed to be a monster wine at first glance. Incredibly, on the palate the wine was very well-structured and maintained elegance and drinkability, thanks to the acidity the wine retained despite the hot weather. Little flavors of wood at the beginning were detectable over a strong bed of herbal spices scents; the wine changed a lot in the glass, the vanilla flavors left giving space to long violet aromas.
Another fun night was about to end, with an orgy of flavors still in my mouth - it was, as often happens with good company, wines and food, a great experience because in the end, we remember that the wine world is not based in exact science. It needs the atmosphere to be complete, creating different experiences in different contexts.
Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Some Considerations On The Scandals

A lot of wine-related controversy has been coming out of Italy: Brunello di Montalcino cut with non-authorized grapes, and very cheap wines tainted with dangerous acids, just to name a few issues. Although the Brunello affair had monopolized the attention of the media, it seems to me that is quite a bit less dangerous to drink small percentages of "non-authorized grapes" than substantial quantities of muriatic acid. I'm puzzled by the response given by the Italian Agriculture Minister regarding the tainted juice, which clarified questions from the UE by stating: "there is no threat for the public health; the problem was connected to the addition of water and sugar and the rest were common vinification procedures." The Minister also said that "small percentages of ammonia and muriatic acid are commonly used to activate the fermentation." What???? I spent many years in the wine world and never once heard of muriatic acid as a fermentation activator. I've heard about yeast, about a proper temperature and enzymes to encourage fermentation, but never acids. Maybe I just visited wineries that do not use a common vinification method - who knows? Regardless, what is disturbing is that the judges and investigators involved do not feel the same way the Ministry feels. They actually arrested Mr. Castagna, the scandal's perpetrator, for Agricultural fraud, and for putting public health at risk. Many others were indicted for the same felony, had their facilities seized in Puglia and Veneto, where the wine surrogate was created, prompting the police to refer to this scandal as one of the biggest food adulterations ever discovered in Italy. The Minister, on the other hand, is emphasizing the discovery of the Brunello affair and the utility of the "Vendemmia Sicura" (safe harvest), as though they arrested another big shot of the mafia.

Why is that?

The first answer that came to mind was the obvious, though awful answer: the cheap wine is a product for poorer people, and who really cares about their health anyway, right? It's not really a big problem if several thousand people get cancer from drinking what is essentially non-wine, as long there is a business of several hundred million Euros behind it. Let the indigent people die, right? Sadly, I think the problem lies exactly there - the Italian government cannot afford to admit and invoke consequences for such a large-scale crime. It would thrown certain sects of the economy into chronic anemia. There were an estimated 50 million bottles and tetra packs of fraudulent wine made and, according to the police, it is almost impossible to recall all of them. That said, it is in their better economic interests to amplify the Brunello scandal, which is barely a scandal to begin with. The point being, it serves as an innocent cover for (or at least a diversion from) the public attention to the real threat, so businesses might carry on as usual.

The other question is this: why didn't the Minister reveal the names of the wineries involved? The problem lies in the fact that the tainted wine was sold in bulk and then bottled by different estates, so the wineries probably bought the wine without knowing that was tainted. This leads me to believe that the estates involved in this scandal are most likely big names, producers who buy wines from all over and then bottle it under their name and sell it as a quality product for 2 euros at the supermarket... a 2 buck chuck type of philosophy. I must say, there are a lot of similarities, the key difference being that here in the States, it is legal to add sugar to must and call the resulting mixture "wine"; in Italy, it is not, so the ruthless criminals involved in this grand-scale scandal decided to use the dangerous acids to "break" the sucrose and turn it into glucose and fructose, which are naturally present in the grapes. Since those sugars are a key ingredient in the fermentation process (sugar will turn in alcohol), they have a product that can pass off as wine as well - and most importantly, it's LEGAL.

To tell the truth from an insider's perspective, the fact that not everybody in Montalcino uses 100% Sangiovese for their Brunello is no new news. It's just as well-known that not all Champagnes are made with grapes from the Champagne region, and that you can find small amounts of Barbera in some Barolo. The fact that it is common to augment such integrity-based wines does not make it right to do so - in fact, producers who DO make wines that are false to their classifications are still cheating, and deserve to be reprimanded. I don't have any sympathy for those who say that they were forced to add other grapes because of the taste profile of certain critics or what the market requires - if you like to please the crowd you can always bottle an IGT wine and follow whatever trend the market asks for in an honest way. Or, maybe we could all decide that it is allowable to use small percentages of other grapes and still label the wines as single varietals, like in the USA. Either way, I hope that this time, my fellow countrymen will learn the lesson, although I'm not sure they will, because as a good friend always says: "Italians love to cheat - it's in their DNA to do so." The problem is that because of few lowlife greedy people (actually the word I would like to use starts with "B," ends with an "S" and has "astard" in the middle) who are often protected by those in power, the reputations of too many honest people are compromised so it does eventually look like cheating is indeed, all we do.
My only hope is that sooner or later we can get rid of those "parasites" so that the honest people are able to continue to provide good products without the unfair competition that cheaters represent.
Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Meet the Makers: Roberto Cipresso Part 3

The Wine Station in Torrenieri Montalcino

Here it is, as I promised, the 3rd and last part of Cipresso's interview...

G: I know that you are pretty wanted. What is it that makes you pick a winery and what makes you leave it?

R: Well! The winery has to have some credentials that are not only the ones linked to the capital the owner has available, but also to the potential of it. It’s important to have a favorable terroir but mostly it’s important that the ambition of the winery be equal to its potentials. All this works very well. Then, another important element is to evaluate if the winemaker is a connoisseur and can become my accomplice because to make a superior wine you are always incurring big risks and often the winemakers can become the scapegoats of the situation. When does it end with a winery? Well, it can end because of an altercation, I do not know. It has, also happened. Normally, though, a consulting relationship comes to an end when the terroir has been explored, the winery is well trained and it has now the need of a relation of friendship and confrontation more than one of development. In addition to that, I’m afflicted by a grave illness which is boredom, and I can’t think to stay with the same winery for life because I have to constantly look for new incentives. Some wineries know about this, therefore, the friendship has become so deep that, in order to avoid losing the adrenaline that I need to work for them, every year they come up with something new and this is good for them, but mostly it is good for me, because when I have a lot on my plate I can also give the best of me. It seems strange. (laughs).

G: Let’s talk about your personal cellar, which wine do you have in there that is dearest to you: vintage and label, and which is the wine that you do not have but that you would like to have?

R: Oh my god! I have a lot of wines, and some of them are very special. I love Bourgogne but I love also like older Bordeaux. A wine that I have and that I observe and would like to drink every day, but desist from doing so is a Chateaux Mouton Rothschild ’82. This is one of the greatest wines of my life and I still have one bottle of it. Then, I have some of my wines, historical ones, like Ciacci ’90, wines by Pian Rosso, La Fiorita ’93, the vintage, the Mosclapado, the Pignolo of Dorigo, basically some very important wines but hmmmm…

G: The wine that you would like to have?

R: Probably a wine that I would like to have is one that I already drank, damn it! It is wine that I already drank and I do not have anymore and I regret. A Chardonnay Botrydis ’91 by Regaleali, for instance, is a wine that has left me speechless or, something like a Leoville Poyferre 1900; I drank it and I wrote a book on it. Then, a wine that I would like to have…damn! I would like them all! All of the best wines!

G: (laughs) you’re not the only one. There is why the passion for wine can become a very expensive one. To end our interview, I know that you are pretty busy, an advice for who enters the world of wine: what is the first thing that they should do?

R: Well, they would have take some time and some vacation because there is nothing better to understand wine to go and visit the winemakers, to spend time with them, listen to them and try to understand what risk means in this world where nature is not so generous like today people want to make you believe. Nature is treacherous and every morning each winemaker wakes up hoping that there be no hail, no wind and no frost. Therefore, you need a little time to understand the wine under the labor point of view and of the respect for it. Then, you need to drink wine, and a lot of it. Life is too short to drink bad wine; therefore, you need to drink only good wine. Finally, you certainly need to read. However, you cannot do only one of these things. You cannot just read, just drink o just go around cellars, because to hit the mark you need to be able to do all three of them.

G: As far as reading goes, I can personally advise your book: Il Romanzo del Vino (The Wine Fiction). We didn’t talk about it. Let’s spend some words on it. Il Romanzo del Vino truly is a fiction. On a technical level you write about things that are correct but its main essence is this fiction. This is the beauty of it: the fact that you explain difficult concepts in an original way. How did you come up with this idea?

R: Well, after so many years in this profession I’ve gathered a drawer, more than a drawer of notes, labels, but not only about the wines and the terroirs, also about the people in the wine field. The people in this field are a little special. I laid them on a table and I had a friend help me who’s an expert in writing, Giovanni Negri. So, a book was written and I didn’t believe that it could become so famous in such a short time. I hope soon to be able to propose it to the American market. This book called Il Romanzo del Vino more than a ”romanzo” is a real story, because fictions are made of fantasy. This is a true, romantic story enclosed in nine first chapters because these are all trips among the wine, the people, the history, the culture, the passion, the effort, among the emotions but also the blasphemies, because winemaking is something that is very real, very raw and very special. I tried to narrate it in a more comprehensible language, outside of the usual frames the ones that are too didactical, too fancy or too “oaked” as you would say with a glass in your hands, and searching for a more romantic formula that could be interesting, real and accessible under all aspects. This is a book that can be read even by a non-drinker.

G: Roberto, thanks a lot for your time. I wish you’ve had a pleasant visit here in New York, and I hope you’ll come and visit me the next time you’re in town.

R: Thanks to you too.

I like to thank Gilda Galiano for helping translate this interview.

Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Would You Care For a Glass of Muriatic Acid?

The following story is today's news, but in reality , it's old news - a piece that L'Espresso published on their site today. (click here for the translated version)
Yet another scandal is scuffing Italy's reputation. After the "adjusted" Brunello fiasco, and the Mozzarella scare (in the end the EU tests came back negative), it became apparent that GREEDINESS has become one of the biggest problems the modern world is facing - the alarming and disconcerting realization that our supposedly "guaranteed" products may very well have been tampered with for the sake of a larger profit margin. The latest scandal has been discovered by the Guardia di Finanza, one of the Italian police agencies. According to the Guardia, a prosecutor and 2 judges, the issue at hand is very disturbing; 70 million liters of wine (which would fill 93 million bottles) have been found to contain only a small percentage of actual must (tests found between 20 and 40% of it).
The rest of the wine's content was composed of sugar, water, muriatic acid and sulfuric acid (widely used in liquid plumbers). Needless to say. the people who are exposed to this deadly mixture will most likely develop different types of cancers. There are 8 wineries who have been implicated so far, and 20 more are under investigation; one of them was already involved with a methanol-tainted wine scandal 22 years ago, a fiasco that killed 19 people and left another 15 blind. In winemaker Bruno Castagna's facilities, the police have discovered 60 Kg of sugar (sucrose) and large quantities of muriatic and sulfuric acids next to the tanks, a find which put the detectives on the right trail to uncover perhaps the biggest food adulteration fraud ever to happen in Italy. The sad part is that similar adulterations are made almost everywhere in the world - probably not to the extent of using such dangerous acids, but regardless, a product that is supposedly made from grapes to be composed mostly of something else is despicable. It is particularly sobering to remember that big corporations are in this field for profit that has to grow every year in order to satisfy the shareholders. It is shameful that that goal is now being sought out through dishonest means that compromise the basic integrity and quality levels that should be required for every eatable and drinkable product.
Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How to Beat the Recession

There is a big debate within our borders regarding whether or not we are in a recession. The reality is that the US economy is not in a good shape to say the least, and the average level of spending is declining. I feel the repercussions of that in the store, where I'm paying against the strong Euro which is pushing the prices up, creating a dangerous gap between retail costs and the money in people's pockets.
So what should one do in order to maintain the quality of his healthy habits without going broke?
The first suggestion is simple: STAY AWAY from Bordeaux. The top quality Chateaus are amazing, as well as some second and third growths (Leoville Barton is a splendid example of my theory) - but if you could find a few deals in those categories six months ago, chances are, they too are almost untouchable today. The above-mentioned Leoville Barton went from being in the $50 range no more then 3 years ago to well over $100 on the shelf today. And in most of the wines below that level, you'll start to see the "high-tech" wines; the ones that are part of the "Constellation" philosophy. Like McDonald's, they might taste good, but they are not expressive nor are they experientially satisfying. Burgundy is still holding up its quality standards, but the prices are prohibitive. That region in particular would not allow, for morphological and historical reasons, the discussion of higher production levels, so the amounts available are very limited. And since the wines are sought out from all around the globe, the prices are pushed up to the moon, and rightfully so, I might add. So where should one go in France for quality that won't break the bank? I would look for Rhone, Cahors, Sancerre (a good Sancerre Rouge is better then an average Burgundy and cost less) The wines I believe are still fairly priced, considering that today because of the note exchange we are paying 60% more than we were 6 years ago. But with a keen eye, you can still find a good selections of Cotes du Rhone, and other more obscure appellations for under $20 on the shelf.
In France there is also still the Champagne phenomenon - a small, tough region in the north that still manages to have monster productions, lower the overall quality of the non-vintage products, and after all of that, still claiming a shortage of it, resulting in the prices doubling over the course of just a few months. Want an example? Here's a good one: the wholesale price of the Laurent Perrier Brut NV in April will go from $174 to $ 204 for a case of six and from $ 510 to $ 990 for the Grand Siecle La Cuvee (these prices are published with the State Liquor Authority and are both the 1st case price). So if the 30% increase in price for the NV Brut can be justified buy the Euro's unstoppable strength (although there was another increase of 20% in September) the close to 100% increase for the Grand Siecle cannot be. As an alternative, sparkling wines from Italy, especially Piedmont, Lombardia (Franciacorta) and Trentino have the potential for very serious quality at a fraction of the price of Champagne (this category doesn't necessarily include Prosecco, which is not made using the traditional Champanoise Method). An additional similar alternative can be found in Spain as well, with some of the better quality Cava.
In Italy, most economy-related things are better off than they are in France - but still some of the more sought-out wineries can charge an arm and a leg for a bottle. If you compare the best from Barolo, Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino could be a good example, which sells for little over $ 300 retail. For the best from Burgundy, Romanee Conti and Henry Jayer sell for well over $ 300, and in some cases, they're getting closer to four figures. And while you can find great quality in the $40-$50 range with wineries like Fantino, Rocche dei Manzoni, Eraldo Viberti and many others, but then again, it cannot be the wine of choice in a moment of crisis. Once again I would look at different "Denominazioni." A Carema or a Gattinara has a more down-to-earth price point, while maintaining a good level of quality. I think it's better to spend $29 for a great Carema than 30+ for an average Barolo. Even if you have an occasion where you cannot live without Nebbiolo but your budget is $20, Valtellina is the place you want to look. A good Rosso di Valtellina can be found in the $15-$20 range and in some cases tastes better then the 20+ dollar Langhe Rosso from Piedmont. A similar argument can be made for Tuscany and Veneto and if your taste is open enough you can also substitute the wines with monumental stigma with something coming from a not-so-well-known wine region, like Abruzzo, Marche, Umbria, Apulia, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia. The same thing is generally true for the rest of the world as well , regarding where you can find great wine without inflated prices. Argentina's prices are stable, because the peso is the only currency in the world that has depreciated against the dollar in the past year. So my recession remedy suggestion is this; don't lower your quality standards. Instead, try choosing a less expensive, little-known denomination, but spend the same money on a higher quality wine.
Buona Bevuta a Tutti