Monthly Archives: February 2016
Italy, like no other place on earth for its food, is also like no other place on earth for its wines. In the US we are just beginning to understand how the wine making history, terroirs and microclimates of the various wine regions of Italy, have contributed to an abundance of so many wonderful wines. It is almost impossible to wrap one’s head around all the amazing wine possibilities that Italians have lived with all of their lives and for centuries.
Indeed, the entire country of Italy from one corner to the other is layered in the ancient history of winemaking and the appreciation of the beauties of living and enjoying good food paired with wonderful wine. To give you an idea of how much Italians know and understand the ancient wine making business, there are 500 grape varietals in Italy that can be made into a multitude of wines as varied as Proseccos, to dessert wines, to rich full bodied reds and creamy, soothing, light whites. In France, there are only 15 grape varietals that compose French wines. So for every Italian wine tasting I go to like VINO 2016’s tasting that featured over 125 wine exhibitors in the Hilton Midtown grand ballroom on February 8th-9th, I enjoy sampling wines from Italy’s different regions. Slowly, but surely I am learning about the multitude of grapes, their terroirs and microclimates which have produced some of the most incredible Italians wines that pair wonderfully with lip-smacking, delicious, quality Italian food.
VINO 2016 is preparing me for visiting Italy again to visit relatives and to visit some of my most favored wineries whose wines I’ve tasted recently. Some are featured on this blog; others are featured in my Blogcritics posts: the exemplary Slow Wines like Cantina Della Volta and Badia A Coltibuono and Slow Wines from the Piedmont like those from The Fiorenzo Nada winery, Carussin winery and the Cà ed Balos winery, and the storied, amazing Tuscan wines of Pietro Beconcini, These represented regions in the North. I also sampled wines from Abruzzo (see the post on this blog of the story of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and winery Valpeligna Vini) and Puglia in my first post about the Negroamaro and Primitivo wines from Cantina Sampietrana produced from their wonderful organic Alberello bush vines.
After attending workshops on wines from other regions at VINO 2016, I went to the grand tasting in the ballroom and spent some time learning about Puglian wines from Stefano Civino who represents Cantina Sampietrana. One wine I didn’t discuss in my previous post about Cantina Sampietrana is their amazing 52 Brindisi D.O.P. Riserva 2012 (see photo). It is an award winner, a beautiful red statuesque wine, with moderate fruit and earthy palate, barely noticeable tannins and sumptuous, lasting finish. Paired with spicy meats and full flavored cheeses and salumi it is a knockout. I figured it would be best to let Stefano Civino discuss for himself Cantina Sampietrana and an exemplary vintage of this marvelous blend of Montepulciano (20%) and Negroamaro (80%) via Wine TV with host Jessica Alteri.
VINO 2016, Italian Wine Week, is an unforgettable event that occurs once a year around the first part of February. This year VINO 2016 took place at the Hilton Midtown, NYC (February 7-9). It is a festival of Italian wines where producers, importers, retailers, journalists and wine educators gather to learn about Italian wines and sample some of the marvelous vintages that are being produced throughout the 20 regions of Italy. This year there were approximately 125 producers represented and since I cannot get to all of them though I would have liked to, I had “a little help from my friends” who made recommendations.
My friend, wine connoisseur Chris Black, who hails from Hungary, suggested I stop at a exhibitor he enjoyed, Cantina Sampietrana, a cooperative which produces wines from Puglia. The region of Puglia is Italy’s heel and Southwestern most province. Its coastline fronts the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. I have never been to Puglia, but I have tasted delicious Puglian wines and knew I would not be disappointed by the wines from Cantina Sampietrana. Chris was right to send me there as the wines I tasted were superb.
Co-op representative, Stefano Civino who joked that he is “the face of Cantina Sampietrana,” told me that his father is a wine producer and member of the cooperative which was established in 1952. Stefano himself has extensive experience in the wine making business, not only from an international sales and marketing standpoint, but he actually goes into the vineyards. He told me he joins his father in various aspects of vine development; for example, he recently helped to prune the vines. Not only does this exemplify the expert’s desire to remain in touch with the land and vines, it manifests the passion to understand and experience all aspects of expert cultivation which helps to produce top quality wines.
Catina Sampietrana (whose location is the historic centre of San Pietro Vernotico, a little village in between Brindisi and Lecce in Puglia), produces both reds and whites from mostly indigenous varietals. What makes these wines wonderful? The type of cultivation that requires working with the vines by hand as they grow in bushes, and the bio-dynamic growing techniques; the vines are certified organic using NO Monsanto pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. I talked to Stefano at length; he knows a great deal about wellness and eating organic, clean food to promote a strong immune system. Of course drinking clean, delicious wines paired with clean food is an important part of good health.
I tried the Tacco Barocco Negroamaro 2013, which is 100% Negroamaro grapes made from 50-year-old Alberello bush vines. It is deep red with the fragrance of wild berries. Its oak aging from 9-12 months adds a note of spices to the velvet smooth elegance on the palate. The 2013 Salento IGT has a lasting finish; the tannins are mildly present but flavorful. As a red I would drink it with appetizers of Prosciutto di Parma and mild to sharp cheeses. It would go well with pasta and meat sauces, steaks, and grilled meats and vegetables.
Next was the Tacco Barocco Primitivo (meaning early) 2014 which is 100% Primitivo grapes. The 2014 Salento IGT is ruby red. Refined in oak for 9-12 months, it has a deep, rich, spicy nose and is layered and mellow with a hint of deeper texture on the palate. The tannins are not overpowering and give this wine an expressive finish. It would go great with slow cooked roasts, braised, savory meats, quail, wild boar and moderately sharp cheeses.
The Vigna Delle Monache Salice Salentino DOC Riserva 2011, a fuller bodied wine and quite delicious is made from 100% selected Negroamaro grapes. It has a darker ruby red color. Aging in French oak barrels for 12 months and in bottles for two years adds to the stature of the wine. Its bouquet is of black cherry with a scent of pleasant vanilla. The palate is velvety and profound with a lasting finish.This would go great with well-seasoned earthy dishes, roasts, savory game, poultry, pork and spicy salumi or Grana Padano cheese.
When I go to Puglia, I do plan to stop at Cantina Sampietrana and sample the next sequence of these wines vintages and try some of their other wines. They have tastings and if you call before hand (see the website information or contact your tour guide and arrange a visit), you will have a fun time and be assured that all the vineyards you are looking at are cultivated with passion, assiduous care and astute attention to sustainability and zero negative environmental impact.
The last day of VINO 2016, Italian Wine Week at the Hilton Midtown, NYC (February 7-9) I ran into Chris, a friend and wine connoiseur. This was in the grand ballroom where over 125 Italian wineries and their representatives were exhibiting their wonderful wines. During such amazing tastings, I try to feature one or two regions of Italy and concentrate on their wines. But I always know I am giving the other wineries short shrift. So many wines, so little time! It helps when a friend covers one area and I another and we swap notes.
Chris recommended I stop at Valpeligna Vini and try the 2010 Montepulciano which he really favored along with meeting the two brothers Marco and Giuseppe Iacobucci who were representing the wine cooperative that produced the wines. When I stopped by to see if I agreed with Chris, I spoke to Roberto Polidoro who told me an interesting story and cleared up a few facts about the wines we associate with Montepulciano that for me, Frances Mayes made famous in her book Under the Tuscan Sun.
Did you know that Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is a particular grape that evolved in Abruzzo (the province running from the Appinnines, East of Rome to the Adriatic coast), and it is not to be confused with the wine referred to as Montepulciano, actually Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a Tuscan wine which is a meld of Sangiovese and other grapes? I did not. Italy has over 500 indigenous varietals that are found in the twenty regions of Italy. To give you some perspective, France has only 15 varietal grapes. So when one begins to learn about the great wines of Italy, you will learn amazing stories about the evolution of their many, many grapes and you will want to continue learning about them once you begin to get your “feet wet,” and try another grape varietal or blend which is at the heart of another superb Italian wine.
This is the interesting story about the Montepulciano grape varietal, which did NOT originate in Tuscany, even though it takes the name of the town of Montepulciano in the province of Siena. The grape that grew in Tuscany in the area of Montepulciano was the Prugnolo grape varietal. Prugnolo was cultivated around Montepulciano, Siena since the Renaissance. All the European Renaissance courts from Venice to Paris adored Prugnolo. However, it was around the XVIII century before the French Revolution in 1789 that the Mazzara Nobility had the Prugnolo grape transplanted in the Peligna Valley because of the appropriate climate, soil and other features. The farmers and vintners in the Peligna Valley liked the wines produced by the Prugnolo, but didn’t use that appellation; they used a short-cut to name it, like saying “that Montepulciano grape.”
It has been documented by travelers at the time (Michele Torcia) of 1792 that the grape referred to as “Montepulciano” was being grown everywhere in the Peligna Valley. The irony is that the nature of the micro-climate, the soil, the suns and winds and the cultivation techniques impacted the Prugnolo and actually changed the life blood of the grape’s morphology and thus evolved a completely different grape varietal which those of the then Abruzzo-Moliese (now Abruzzo because the two provinces split in 1963) region were growing. They referred to it as “Montepulciano.”
Thus, who would think that from the Prugnolo, a different grapevine evolved and it was the familiar named grape varietal, Montepulciano. After the split of the provinces in 1963, it became Montepulciano D’Abruzzo because the Peligna Valley and other areas in Abruzzo are where the Montepulciano grapes are grown.
The full-bodied, bold character of the “that Montepulciano grape” is best realized in the Peligna Valley where Marco and Giuseppe Iacobbuci and other vintners combine their efforts in their cooperative, Valpeligna Vini. And I must say the wine of the Montepulciano D’Abruzzo D.O.C. is sensational and very different from the Tuscan Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a blend.
I tried the Don Peppe 2010. Its color is dark, deep ruby red. There were lovely notes of black cherry melded with vanilla. It was complex and layered and had a long, strong finish. The tannins were not overwhelming but balanced. Such a wine is great with Grana Padano and other sharp cheeses, salumi, and of course, red meats, roasts and pasta.
Italian wines like the Italian people themselves have within them an amazing story to tell. If we remember that all of Italy’s peninsula is a phenomenal food and wine region (I like to say you can’t get a bad meal in Italy), with the evolution of grape growing morphed by nobles and peasants alike, by monks and clergy who were diligent vintners. The wine tradition goes even further back to the ancestors of today’s Italians, for example, Etruscans, Samnites, Greeks, Romans because often the wine which was fermented, was SAFER and more delicious to drink than water. Indeed, there are similarities to today and upon doing a bit of research, it is amazing what one discovers: the more recent Montepulciano D’Abruzzo grape varietal is a welcome, wonderful addition to Italy’s indigenous varietals.
For me the story of this grape represents the ingenuity of vintners and how they are constantly developing and enhancing their vineyards with improved techniques to tease out the finest most luscious quality wines. As an added note, this does not involve use chemicals (pesticides, herbicides) over a thousand of which are banned in the European Union. The Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is strictly the morphology of the terroir, the microclimate of the Peligna Valley, the sun, wind and rains of the region as it develops from year to year and enjoys its enriched life. These wines of Valpeligna Vini are all bio-dynamic. They are grown with the passion and tender care of the vintners whose vineyards are on the Maiella hillside in Abruzzo. For further information check: Valpeligna Vini.
Slow Wine 2016 is in its 5th year touring the globe with stops in Asia, the USA and Europe. Traveling in the US, Slow Wine Guide’s editorial team and select winemakers went from west to east moving from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin and New York before they will be heading over to Europe.
Many New Yorkers are proponents of the Slow Wine Guide. They have come to expect excellent wines based on the Slow Wine mantra of good, clean, virtuous wines whose winemakers employ sustainable agriculture, use little or no pesticides or herbicides and engage in traditional time worn techniques using centuries-old indigenous grapes from the various regions of Italy.
Judging from the turnout at the Highline Ballroom, February 3rd, distributors, wine educators, retailers, sommeliers and others in the industry were anxious to become acquainted with exceptional slow wines produced from every region of Italy. A number of the producers were present in NYC rounding out the last of the US tour. Most of the winemakers I spoke with appear in the Slow Wine Guide which was available for purchase during the incredible tasting of reds, whites, dessert wines, and sparkling astis. The Slow Wine Guide features the best Italian wines as determined by Slow Food editors. The guide is also an App and is available for download on the App Store for iPhone. The App, like the guide hard copy, tells the story behind the producers, their vineyards, and Italy’s wine-producing regions.
This walk around tasting featured many small-scale winemakers who are using traditional techniques. Following through on their ancestral history and the bio-dynamic changes that have been occurring over the decades since the concept of “Slow Food, Slow Wine” emerged and was implemented, the producers work with respect for the environment and terroir. They make sure to safeguard the incredible biodiversity of grape varieties that are part of Italy’s heritage.
Winemakers who embrace the Slow Wine Guide symbols and standards are truly coming into their own. I talked to a few sommeliers and educators associated with culinary institutes. They agreed with me that when the producers began to convert from the chemicalized agriculture to bio-dynamic and sustainable tenets, the wines they initially constructed were not very good. However, as winemakers shared information and worked to perfect their techniques over the last thirty years, today the wines they produce taste out of this world. For me of vital importance is the added assurance that the agriculture used to produce the taste is sustainable. Most of the wineries have US distribution.
Some of the producers whose tables I visited were from the Piedmont region of Italy, with Turin as its capital, a place where some of my ancestors are from. In north western Italy, the Piedmont is a region whose wines I was not familiar with. What I found particularly interesting is that the Langhe wine making zone in the Piedmont has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That added protection will hopefully maintain the flora and fauna of the area for decades and will protect the vineyards and producers from land raids by developers.
Some of the winemakers whose exceptional wines I tasted included wines from producer Renata Bonacina of the winery Cà ed Balos. The dessert wine Moscato d’Asti was particularly drinkable. Another winery from the Piedmont is Bruno Nada’s Fiorenzo Nada, whose son Danilo is following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. Danilo introduced me to two delicious red wines. From Bruna Ferro’s winery Carussin, Luca introduced me to two lovely red wines. Representatives of the consortium of wines from PiedmOnTop introduced me to wines from four different vintners.
There were two other wine regions I sampled wines from: Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, both whose regional wines I tasted before this event, though I had not tasted wines from these producers which were just great. From Modena in Emilia-Romagna is the winery Cantina Della Volta whose “prestigious cellar is old in origin but modern in conception” according to the Slow Wine Guide 2016. And from Tuscany was a type of wine that I drank years ago at family gatherings but I thought was boring: Chianti. Chianti has been revolutionized. It overshadows many of our West coast reds for drinkability and agricultural integrity. When I tasted the offerings of Badia a Coltibuono, I was impressed. Slow Wine states that the winery is “a paragon of good Italian viticulture and has been certified organic since 2000.” All of their efforts to work sustainably have produced some incredible Chiantis. After having turned up my nose at this type for years, Badia a Coltibuono as made me a convert to be on the lookout for more amazing Chiantis like those of this winery.
This year’s Slow Wine 2016 was an exceptional event. Because of the tenor of what it means to produce the fruit of the earth without harming the vines, the terroir and environment, I am persuaded that these wines are finally achieving a level of quality that conventional wines produced with chemicals will never attain. I am sorry that I couldn’t get to each vintner, but I do have the Slow Wine Guide to keep me apprised of the offerings of great Italian vintages that have been produced in a growing style that most wine lovers will come to expect over time because the wines are incomparable.
Continually, Europe has been way ahead of the United States with regard to sustainability, local food sourcing, the rejection of radiated foods and the labeling of GMOs. Unlike the US, Europe has banned over 1000 chemicals which appear on a blacklist as toxic for people and the environment. To have such chemicals (herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers) used in the production of agriculture and husbandry (antibiotics, growth hormones, processed feed), is anathema to most countries in the European Union. Because Italians are assiduous keepers of clean food and wine, the quality of the food Italians experience daily has superb taste, nutrition and cleanness. To have wines which exemplify the same value and worth as their food makes complete sense and complements a daily lifestyle that shows an appreciation for life and beauty. Would that we were to follow the European and Italian Slow Food and Slow Wine example.
This article first appeared on Blogcritics.
One of the best kept secrets in Manhattan for enjoying a night of rollicking, hysterical fun, lip-smacking sumptuous pizza and a bit of wine to restore one’s nerves during a hectic work week is Commedia dell’Artichoke at the Gene Frankel Theatre. Presented by Frances Black Projects in association with CAP21, the production is a hyper blast party of stupendous fun which runs until February 6.
Commedia dell’Artichoke is a ripping comedy like no other you will see in the city for its inventiveness, extemporaneous joyride, audience participation and prescient, trending humor. It’s conceived by the ingenious team of Frances Black, Carter Gill and Tommy Russell, who have honed their artistic statement into a whimsical whirlwind, a compendium of ancient and modern social satire about how the wealthy stick it to the classes beneath them and how the working classes push back with resilience, humor and verve. The show boasts Devin Brain at the director’s helm who skillfully guides the unique performance art of Carter Gill, Alexandra Henrikson, Tommy Russell and Shannon Marie Sullivan. All of these actors are scintillating.
Over the course of the evening, Gill, Henrikson, Russell and Sullivan broadly portray 10 characters in the Commedia dell’arte style, with grotesque masks, antic characterizations and hyper-mannered behaviors. Not only are the actors superb comedians with expert timing, they sing and dance with sheer abandon. The show has an extemporaneous feel, added to by the audience participation: anything can happen. Surprising moments are completely appropriate to the winding, picaresque storyline.
The beauty of the production is that the silly absurdity of some scenes allows the actors’ musical breakouts, which prompt our unexpected laughter. And that ebbs into somber thoughtfulness about the wisdom of what we have experienced; this is expert, clever, comic pacing. We appreciate the pithy jokes about “The American Dream-nightmare,” trending political slogans, social media topics, gender loops and much more. The humor is sardonic, darkly funny, socially meaningful. All makes complete sense, and you have the time of your life romping in the intellectual brilliance and ridiculousness of these characters who “know the score.”
The original musical numbers are beautifully integrated, with appropriate accompaniment by band leader and multi-instrumentalist Robert Cowie. The music helps shape the plot dynamics and organically evokes the scenes. The actors/characters bring Cowie into their ensemble as their dutiful “conductor” of fun. He good-naturedly accompanies/instigates the songs, fanciful tunes and dances.
This “gypsy” music echoes the ideas of love and empathy. In a deus ex machina rescue, the villain, Adam Smith’s “Vile Maxim” incarnate, La Capitana (portrayed with audacious, Trump-like ferocity by the operatic Alexandra Henrikson), is deflected from enacting dire financial doom upon our hero, Carter Gill’s brash, endearing everyman and pizza “entrepreneur” Pulcinella. As the production concludes, hope and a stay of financial execution are achieved for another day. All ends well in the perfect unity of comedy.
If I had to explain to you specifically how we arrived at this superb finale, I couldn’t. The journey is labyrinthine, fraught with diversions and robust antic scenes from Pulcinella’s conflicted life, leading back to the beginnings when Pulcinella, whose pizza we have enjoyed, explains his New York City dreams to become a “self-made man.” With gyrating plot arcs which double back on themselves, vignettes which make sense in their nonsense, and brilliant jokes that kill as they are tossed off like salad leaves for you to either graze on or disallow, this is as close to Commedia dell’arte style as you will see in our savvy, super-cool city.
Scenes spiral out from protagonist Pulcinella and his retinue. The conflict pounces on our poor hero in the form of villain Capitana and her sycophant lackey Tartaglia. Capitana, a crazy caricature of the stereotypical mannish woman boss, signifies the American nightmare of the business class that will stop at nothing to make American business “great,” “big” and “hard” again in order to blow away China (the sexual allusions are funny).
In keeping with these undemocratic notions, Capitana must wipe out Pulcinella and develop the area (her projected store possibilities are riotous) into “greatness.” It is a displacing event all too familiar to real-estate-pressured New Yorkers. Along the way, we meet other Commedia-style “stock” characters in Pulcinella’s life, modernized but with their Commedia flavor (thanks to Commedia consultant Christopher Bayes) present. The comic scenario has been ramped up to satirize urban life, mega-developers vs. the little guy, crazy cultural tropes, corporate business models, etc.
The hijinks are nonstop. And as you enjoy the entertainment, you also swallow the characters’ irony about our city’s social infirmities: its hyper-development, its classism, its intransigence against democratic wellbeing for all. We laugh as Pulcinella comments about having to work and work and work some more and work your butt off and do more work, ostensibly to make it to the first rung up the ladder of success.
And as for climbing up into the clouds where the Bloombergs and Trumps abide, there’s always a Capitana to toll the financial death knell or pour acid into one’s bleeding bank wounds. These types manifest the cryptic financial screed of being “bigger and better” (as Capitana does to Pulcinella) by raising the rent to “one dollar more than you can afford.” Though it isn’t stated, the message is clear and we have come to know it as brutal irony: “It’s nothing personal, just business.”
The actors’ high energy spins out other rapid-fire scenes about the ridiculousness of who we choose to love, the zany relationships we become involved in, and a guy’s proper etiquette toward a gal. Such pointed jokes ground us in ourselves. The sharp humor brings us to the remembrance that in the theater as in life, we are in this together. As we laugh, we encourage each other to enjoy the journey. We can control some things, but other events just unfold. We dare not stand in the shadows nor miss the passing parade or the fun will dissolve. Just dive in and don’t consider how it will turn out because what you prepare for won’t necessarily happen in the ways you expect.
Pulcinella’s artichoke pizza is one of the better pizzas in the city. You certainly do not want to miss his hard work and the effort it took to concoct his super recipe of deliciousness and fun. The production is comic genius. The show should be extended or brought back again in another venue. See it while you still can. Commedia dell’Artichoke will be at the Gene Frankel Theatre until February 6.