Vine Path Blog 5/19: From Italy With Love
If you’ve been following us on Instagram then you’d have probably picked up on the fact that we just took a sick road trip through northern Italy courtesy of our friends over at Matchvino, one of MA’s most exciting boutique Italian importers. We shared a lot of long car rides, amazing views, mind blowing meals, and way, way too much wine, if there is such a thing. We managed to bring back some tasty new things and we’re super excited to get to share them with you this month!
We first arrived in the sleepy little town of Desenzano on the southern tip of Lake Garda. It was a Sunday and everything was calm. There were Swans dancing around the boats in the harbor, bicyclists jetting down the cobblestone streets, and tourists lazily walking around in the Mediterranean sun. We caught a beer at a restaurant around the corner from our hotel and marveled at all the clementines that we’re bursting out of the trees planted along the boardwalk. This was the last moment of peace we had on this trip. For the rest of the week we’d be driving six hours a day, tasting an uncountable number of wines, staying up way too late, and trying to navigate the labyrinthine nightmare that is VinItaly.
VinItaly is the largest wine convention on earth, given how enormous and important Italian wine is this should come as no surprise. The convention lasted three days and was spread out across a truly gigantic spread of land. There are over ten buildings organized by region and jam packed with tens of thousands of winemakers, international buyers, importers, sommeliers, and every other kind of wino you’d expect to find. Our schedule was a blinding whirlwind of appointments with winemakers who each forced us to try dozens on dozens of bottles. The situation was sensory overload, with so many wines I’m not even sure I can remember them all but there are some that break through the noise and make you think, “now here is something to remember!”
Our first moment like this was when we ran into our old friend Gabriele Scaglione, the coolest man in the Langhe. While a lot of producers in the Langhe can seem like obsessive artists or stuffy businessmen, Gabriele is an energetic goofball and his wines show that same energy. His Nebbiolo is no less serious than anyone else’s but there is a way in which his attitude has translated into the bottles. They’re textural, sensual, satisfying, and best of all, fun, a thing that many wines lack these days. They’re the kind of wines that work just as well at a house party or a Michelin starred restaurant and that’s why we love them. We brought back his Langhe Nebbiolo because it’s the best value in Nebbiolo from this region and it’s a ton of fun. The current release of this wine is from 2015 because it’s takes that long for this wine to smooth out and settle. The result is a Nebbiolo without crushing tannin, a Nebbiolo with finesse, balance, and freshness for days.
After meeting with Gabriele we escaped the convention and drove off in the direction of Soave to the east where we were to have dinner at the Tessari family’s winery. We’ve been working with the wines of Tessari for years and we’ve always been huge advocates. Here they work exclusively with the white grape Garganega in the Soave Classico DOC. These people are the real deal.
They’re three generations deep in their family winery project which was started in 1933 by Antonio Tessari in a little shack of a winery on the hills. Through the tireless efforts of his grandchildren, Antonio, Germano, and Cornelia, the family was able to expand production and grow the winery into the kind of project that can last for generations on generations. What the Tessari’s are doing is building a legacy and demonstrating what their terroir and their local grape can do. For them this is an uphill battle since Garganega is not exactly a household name. Oh well, less for those who don’t know and more for us I suppose. We’ve brought back a unique wine of theirs, their ‘Avus’ sur lie sparkling wine. This is a vintage sparkling wine made like a Champagne however they don’t disgorge the yeast that conditioned the bubbles in the bottle and while it’s arcane it’s also a sparkling Garganega made just as their Grandfather once made it. For the Grandchildren, this is the wine that they make as a tribute to him. Against common wisdom, to serve this wine you have to agitate the bottle first to incorporate the yeast so that when you pour a glass it comes out with a bit of haze to it and while that may seem strange it truly fills out the experience and contributes complexity and texture to the wine. Be advised though, do not shake it too hard unless you prefer to drink your wine as it drips off of your ceiling!
Next we set course north to Alto Adige. This denomination is nestled in the erratic mountains and valleys of northern Italy along the Austrian border and it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. Surrounding you in all directions are these enormous peaks stretching over a kilometer in height and jutting straight up out of the earth. One wonders how anyone ever got here in the first place let alone planted a vineyard on the side of the cliffs. We settled in the resort town of Bolzano in a hotel right across the street from the famous abby and winery if Muri-Gries where monks have been tending to a walled in vineyard of Lagrein as a service to god for lord knows how long. This is an extreme place that produces some extreme people, the kind of people that aren’t afraid to look you in the eye or say what’s on their mind.
Culturally this place is quite weird. Not too long ago this was Austrian territory so the folks here are tall and blond and speak both German and Italian with a unique accent that blends the two together. It’s not like the rest of Italy, the style here is much more medieval, brutal, and gothic. Perhaps the piece of architecture that best demonstrates the sensibilities of the people of Bolzano is the new winery of Cantina Bolzano, the most important co-op in the region. It’s not easy to describe it, much easier to show it.
Cantine Bolzano was established in the mid 20th century when the two largest co-ops in the St. Magdalener denomination merged. Today they are a collective of 220 growers around St. Magdalener and Sudtirol. We met the cantina’s fearless leader Claus who took us on a tour of the vineyards. It’s hard to paint a clear picture in words of just how extreme this kind of farming is. At the Kleinstein vineyard, one of the Cantina’s best vineyard for Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay, we were constantly struggling to keep our feet on the ground. At this vineyard, like many of these vineyards, the vines are planted on slopes that can be as steep as 45 degrees and that’s why co-ops are historically important here. In the past it was logistically impossible to put a winery on these slopes so the local farmers would band together and produce their wines at a facility in the valley as a collective. Some people shun the modern co-op today choosing to instead venerate the grower producer however I imagine that many of those people still happily buy produce from co-ops at their local farmers market. As Claus tried to emphasize to us, the philosophy of the co-op is to create a collective project that lifts up all members in the effort to make the best possible wine. A socialist’s dream!
We brought back two wines from Cantina Bolzano, their Huck am Bach and Kerner. Huck am Bach is an antique style of light red wine from this region made of Lagrein and Schiava. The red grapes of Bolzano are grown at a lower elevation, much of which is planted in the valley floor so they can reap the benefit of the naturally warmer climate. Huck am Bach is intensely aromatic, smelling of white pepper and salami, while giving way to bright red fruit on the tongue. It is hands down the best cheese and charcuterie red we know of. The Kerner is another regional specialty. This grape is quite obscure but tastes utterly delicious. Like all the aromatic grapes of the region, it’s planted on the steep slopes high up on the mountain side where it’s cool enough to get the proper level of ripeness. The wine is crispy and lean with loads of citrus rind and potent acidity. With summer around the corner, this is going to be your new best friend.
Our last trip was to visit Enzo and Claire at Poggio la Noce in the quiet town of Fiesole outside of Florence. This is not a famous place for vineyards in Tuscany in fact it would surprise most Italian’s to learn that there are any wineries here let alone one of the best producers of Sangiovese in all of Italy. Enzo and Claire started this project a few years ago when they bought and renovated the estate. It’s a remarkable place situated on the south facing side of a tiny valley up in the hills. Cool air is funneled through the valley creating perfect conditions for the numerous wild olive trees and the vineyards. Enzo and Claire are deeply committed to organic agriculture and hands off winemaking. They don’t use any treatments in the vineyard at all choosing instead to plant cover crops they turn into fertilizer, flowers to attract predatory insects to deal with any pests, and the cool breeze of the valley to prevent the development of mildew. You can tell by looking at the vineyard just how much they care about it and coming from the rolling hills of Chianti where it was mostly dead earth between the vines this was a sight for sore eyes.
Sangiovese is trickier than most people give it credit for. Sure, it grows everywhere in Tuscany and produces quite a lot of grapes but the quality of those grapes varies immensely. It’s also a difficult grape to handle in the cellar since it’s naturally high in tannin and acidity. In order to make a truly stunning, balanced, wine that still has its freshness retained is quite the winemaking challenge. That’s why we’re so impressed with the Sangiovese of Poggio la Noce.
These wines, while structured and serious, still have bright, fresh fruit and popping aromatics. They’re the kind of wines that are delicious today and will continue to be delicious at every stage of their lives and that is the sign of a truly world class bottle of wine. We’ve brought back Gigetto (but there will be more to come from these two) their entry level Sangiovese from their younger vineyards. The wine is only aged in neutral large oak to soften the tannins without letting to much oxygen into the wine, which would ruin the aromatic complexity and bruise the freshness of the fruit. What you get is a powerful, closed up wine that needs time to breath before you drink it. If you can wait a couple of hours, your patience will be rewarded big time.
We found a lot of beautiful things in Italy for sure, and we brought back all we could this time around but there are other things we’re excited about that we found on this trip and we’re hoping to be able to bring them in soon. As a wine region, Italy is amazing like that. Everywhere you turn there seems to be an exciting new thing that you’re utterly oblivious too. Nowhere else on earth can you find such diversity and variation in grape variety, geology, climate, farming, style, or winemaking practice. Raise a glass for Italy! Cin Cin!