Monday, October 30, 2006

We're Back, Personal News, Drugs in Parliament, Gaja Vs. Barbaresco and More: Being the 124th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola, your things Italian news

Yes, Cosa Bolle in Pentola is back! What, you wonder, happened?

In April of 2004 we put our house in Florence on the market, and began looking halfheartedly for new digs because there didn't seem to be much interest in our house. However, at the end of September a guy appeared with check in hand, and all of a sudden our search became a lot more serious; Elisabetta and I spent most of October and November 2004 driving about with real estate agents, and at the end of November settled upon a place in Strada in Chianti. Then, we had to pack.

First the house in Florence, with more than 20 years of accumulated stuff, and then the house my mother left us in the US, which we also decided to sell -- it was a beautiful base for visits, but was simply too far away to be practical. More months passed, during which we opened a great many boxes, the things we shipped over from the US arrived, we gradually settled in, and somehow two years have gone by since the last issue of this biweekly newsletter. It's time to restart it, and we'll begin with the latest on the Italian Wine Review and About Italian Cuisine:

The most recent overview on the IWR is dedicated to Barbera, with the wines poured this summer at the 2006 Barbera meeting, while the most recent winery notes are dedicated to Campriano, a very traditional Chianti Colli Senesi producer. Upcoming are an overview of the Valcalepio wine region and Franciacorta's Azienda Villa.

On Italian Cuisine, I am working on a picture gallery of fresh Mediterranean seafood -- it's a work in progress, but if you like fish I think you'll find it useful.

The Politics of Drug Tests
If you follow Italian politics, you will likely know that Prime Minister Berlusconi and his center-right coalition lost the general elections this spring by the finest of margins (and not quietly; Mr. Berlusconi demanded a recount and went so far as to write other European Heads of State a note on Italian Government stationary saying he'd be back as soon as the votes were tallied).

Prime Minister Prodi and his center-left coalition won, again by the finest of margins, and now they are attempting to hammer out a 2007 budget that will bring Italy's deficit back in line with the EEU's requirement that no member state's deficit be higher than 3% of its GNP (Under Berlusconi, according to EEU economists the deficit had increased past 4%).

There are two ways to reduce a deficit: Cut spending and increase taxes, and Prodi's government is doing both, either directly, or indirectly, by shifting the cost of services to local governments, and as you can imagine, they're stepping on a great many toes and other vested interests in the process. As a result there have been howls from both sides of the aisle, and Italian MPs have proved quite willing to talk about the proposed budget to anyone with a mike in hand.

So when a pair of newscasters for a program called Le Iene set up a booth outside Parliament and asked the MPs who were coming out of the building for their opinions, 50 lined up, and didn't think twice about letting the make-up person touch them up.

Perhaps they should have, and also recalled that Iena means Hyena, because the make-up person used a drug-swab to wipe the sweat from their brows. Drug-swabs are made by the same people who make breathalyzers, and reveal the use of a variety of what we might delicately call "controlled substances" in the 48 hours prior to the swabbing; the Iene didn't look for opiates, since some prescription drugs, for example those used to treat urinary tract infections, can give a positive reading for opiates, but did look for cocaine and cannabis. And found that fully a third of the 50 MPs interviewed tested positive -- most for cannabis, but 4 for cocaine.

Howls from the MPs, who claimed that the hidden drug test was an invasion of their privacy, and I suppose they have a point, though Le Iene's drug swabber simply put all the swabs in a box without labeling them, so there's no telling who tested or didn't test positive for what, and we won't know unless they agree to be tested again.

In other words, I think the howls were a smokescreen used to distract from a much more important problem: fully a third of the 50 MPs (there are 625 MPs in all) who happened to come out the door and agreed to talk do drugs, and this simply shows how ineffective the draconian anti-drug law the Italian Parliament approved this spring are.

One might argue that the doped up MPs were the ones who voted against the law, but one would again be erecting a smokescreen: the truth is that a significant fraction of the legislature doesn't believe in a law it passed. Given this, one really cannot be surprised if a significant part of the population doesn't either (25% of teens according to one study I saw, and about 14% of those aged 15-34 according to another, have used drugs in the past year). Actually, the percentages of drug-using teens and young adults are lower than that of the legislators, but this doesn't change the fact that the law should be reconsidered. It's not working in Italy, and I wonder what the results of surprise drug tests outside other European or North American legislatures might be. Quite likely similar, and this would invite serious reflection on the prohibition strategy.

Gaja Vs. Barbaresco
Stepping off the soapbox, this week L'Espresso presented its annual wine guide, which is assembled under the able direction of Ernesto Gentili and Fabio Rizzari. In introducing the volume, Ernesto said that while there aren't as many great wines as there have been in past years, mostly because many producers are now presenting the 2002 and 2003 vintages of their flagship wines, he has noted a significant increase in the quality level of what's known as "vino base," or the basic inexpensive day-to-day wines. More good bottles with excellent quality-to-price ratios, and this is a good thing.

The reason for going to the presentation of a wine guide is of course to taste the wines that won the awards, and after Ernesto finished speaking we all trooped into the adjacent hall, where sommeliers were awaiting us. Just about everyone lined up to taste Giacomo Conterno's 1999 Barolo Riserva Monfortino, the only wine to achieve a perfect score of 20/20 (it's the second wine to achieve a perfect score in the 7 years L'Espresso has been publishing the guide), and though I'm certain it was superb, I was drawn to Gaja's 2003 Sorì Tildin Langhe DOC.

Why? Because it was one of the Barbarescos with which Angelo Gaja forged his reputation as one of the best and most innovative winemakers in Italy, if not the world. However, in 1997 he declassified it and his other single vineyard Barbarescos -- Sorì San Lorenzo and Costa Russi -- to Langhe Nebbiolo DOC for reasons that have never been clear to me; there were rumors that he was cutting his Barbaresco with something other than Nebbiolo -- the malicious said Cabernet -- a practice strictly forbidden by the Disciplinare governing the production of Barbaresco, and some people suggested that he decided to declassify because Langhe Nebbiolo can contain up to 15% other varietals, at which point he no longer had to worry about being nailed for fraud. It is possible, because he does now say that he adds 5% Barbera to all three wines -- in the past adding a little Barbera to raise the acidity of a Nebbiolo was common practice in Piemonte -- but he has always denied adding Cabernet to the wines, and to be frank his decision to declassify still makes little sense to me. One usually steps up -- and Barbaresco is Barbaresco's top wine -- not down a level to the catch-all appellation.

In any case, I tasted it: The 2003 Sorì Tildin is deep ruby, with a clean, rich, fruit driven nose that has jammy black currant fruit laced with cherries and deft oak and underlying spice. Enticing and elegant in an extremely international key; it shows great polish but I wouldn't necessarily associate it with Barbaresco. The palate reflects the nose, with rich, surprisingly vegetal berry fruit -- Nebbiolo can be quite vegetal, especially if it's a hot vintage (like 2003) and the vines were stressed, so vegetal doesn't mean Cabernet -- supported by cedar-laced tannins that flow into a long green tannic finish. It's woefully young, and needs at least 2-3 years to get its bearings. It's also very good, though I'd have to say in an anonymous oak-driven way: It could be from anywhere. In short, it's a wine that you will buy if you want to drink a wine by Angelo Gaja, and if you do you will like it, because it's good; even if you are a traditionalist you will find things to enjoy. Score: 2 stars; it's a very good wine. However, if you want to enjoy an expression of the hills of Barbaresco, there are other options I would choose first. Which? Since I was at the presentation of the Guida De L'Espresso, I tasted the other Barbareschi Ernesto and Fabio chose to recognize.

Azienda Agricola Falletto Barbaresco Asili 2001
This is made by Bruno Giacosa, one of the Grand Old Men of the Langhe; it's a pale garnet hue that's much more in keeping with Nebbiolo than Sorì Tildin's ruby, with almandine rim and black reflections, and has a considerably more rustic bouquet with balsam and animal tang mingled with spice and wet underbrush and underlying berry fruit. Considerable backbone to it, and its animal nature is something I have found in Giacosa's wines before. On the palate it's rich, and elegant, with powerful berry fruit supported by clean sweet tannins that still have a youthful splintery burr, and flow into a clean berry fruit finish with tannic underpinning. It's elegant but very young, and needs 3-4 years to really come into its own, though it will already be nice with a rich stew or a porterhouse steak.

Castello di Neive Santo Stefano Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Pale almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is delicate, with rosa canina and some sea salt mingling with spice and slight tar. Quite a bit going on in a lacy key. On the palate it's graceful, with elegant slightly tobacco laced red berry fruit supported by tannins that are just about velvety and flow into a clean savory finish. Quite deft in a very traditional key, and will drink nicely with roasts or stews, though I would give it another year to develop. If you like the style, it's well worth seeking out.

Produttori del Barbaresco Vigneti Rabajà Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Pale almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is rich, with deft herbal notes mingled with spice, warmth, red berry fruit and some sea salt. Quite a bit going on, and it feels quite young. On the palate it's rich, with full, powerful berry fruit supported by steely tannins that are becoming velvety, though there is again a feeling of youthful skittishness to them, and it all flows into a clean slightly tannic finish. Great depth, but underaged; it needs another year or two, and if you have the patience to give it a decade or more it will be extraordinary.

Produttori del Barbaresco Vigneti in Pora Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Lively cherry ruby with almandine highlights and rim. It's much readier than the Rabajà on the nose, with rich red berry fruit supported by some herbal notes and underlying tar, with fresh mint as well. On the palate it's full and smooth, and again much readier than the Rabajà, with ample red berry fruit supported by fairly sweet supple tannins that do reveal youth in the finish. By comparison with the Rabajà its tannins are laxer and less steely, and this difference will become more apparent with time; it's more approachable now, and I think will be less long-lived. Lest you think I'm saying don't buy it, it is also pleasant, and will contribute greatly to a meal featuring a hearty roast or a rich stew.
2 stars

With the exception of Produttori del Barbaresco's Vigneti in Pora, I found all of the other wines, and especially Giacosa's Asili and the Produttori's Rabajà to be much more in keeping with what I expect from a Barbaresco, displaying great elegance, backbone, and a certain slightly lofty distance of the sort I associate with Grace Kelly somehow. Continuing with the great actress similes, Sorì Tildin is more in the direction of Marylin Monroe. Beautiful, but more immediate and with less depth. I know some will say that the differences are in large part vintage derived -- 2003 is fleshier and softer than 2001 -- but I'm not so certain they're not attributable to philosophical differences. We will find out when the 2003 Barbareschi are released.

Winding down, a warning: Halloween, with all of its treats, is rapidly approaching, and if you were to go trick-or-treating in Italy, you might come home with a bag or two of candied nuts called Addormenta Suocere -- literally Mother-In-Law Sleep Inducers, the idea being they're so good your mother-in-law will eat many and fall asleep.

They're very good and last week my mother-in-law recently ate quite a few hazelnut addormenta suocere we bought at Impruneta's Fiera di San Luca. She subsequently had kidney pains, but we didn't associate them with the addormenta suocere until we ate some hazelnut addormenta suocere ourselves this weekend and Betty had kidney pains. She thinks it might be the oxalates in the nuts causing problems, but in any case, if you do get a bag of candied hazelnuts either as a treat or for some other reason, go easy on them. As an added bonus, they'll last longer!

This time's proverb is Tuscan: Il Re va dove puó, non dove vuole -- The King goes where he can, not where he would like. Next time I'll discuss some of the discoveries made at Torino's Salone del Gusto, which will be held this weekend, oddness in Palermo, and more.

All best,

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
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