Monday, March 26, 2007

Protecting Appellations, A couple of Salads and More: Being the 132nd issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and I'm sorry to be late with this. To begin with the sites, the latest on Italian cuisine is an illustrated recipe for Agnello Scottadito, grilled lamb chops, with a salsa alla diavola, or hot sauce. It's quick, easy, and quite tasty. The latest on the Italian Wine Revue is my writeup of the 2007 Chianti Classico Anteprima. Some very fine wines were presented!

Protecting Appellations
Returning to Cosa Bolle, the Chianti Classico Consorzio recently announced that it has joined a number of other wine producing regions in signing a petition requesting international recognition of appellation names.

The movement actually got started last year, with the winemakers of Napa Valley, Oregon, Washington State, Walla Walla Valley, Champagne, Porto, and Jerez signing a declaration stating (among other things) that some areas of the world are uniquely suited to winemaking and people do associate the names of said areas with wine, the goal being to "join together in supporting efforts to maintain and protect the integrity of these place names, which are fundamental tools for consumer identification of great winegrowing regions and the wines they produce."

This year the winemakers of Chianti Classico, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, Tokaj, Victoria, and Western Australia have joined the founding seven, and to be honest I hope the movement snowballs. One might think it would -- after all, the signers of the petition want a wine whose name involves a place, say Burgundy, or Chianti, or Champagne, be made in that place, and not half way around the globe from it -- and this does make sense.

However, the idea faces opposition on a number of fronts. The most obvious is winemakers elsewhere, especially California, who use more renowned names to help sell cheap knockoff wines, for example California Burgundy or California Champagne; the practice is legal (in the US) because the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines the knockoff wines as "semi-generic," which implies that it considers the true Burgundy or Champagne to be types of wines (akin to red or sparkling) rather than specific wines from specific places, and this in turn gives an idea of the mindset of the American regulators.

But things are changing; the Consorzio's press release mentions that the California Supreme Court ruled last year that a wine with the word Napa on the label must be made with grapes (minimum 75%) from the Napa Valley, and that the US Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.

A step forward, though the going is not smooth: The Bronco Wine Company, which lost the ruling, is now selling a Napa-based wine for $ 3.99 at Trader Joe's. This is probably not what the folk who are trying to make Napa something special had in mind, but at least the wine is now tied to a place, and they have begun to label their wines correctly.

Other producers are instead objecting that since they have the word "California" on their labels, consumers know they're not getting true Champagne, Burgundy, or Whatever when they buy the wine, and there's therefore no reason to change practices. This is disingenuous; if the consumers weren't recognizing the foreign names the producers wouldn't be putting them on the labels.

It is true that developing a new name from scratch takes time and effort, but one can phase into it -- winemakers in Alsace, faced with loosing the rights to the word Tokay (the EU ruled it should be limited to Hungarian wines), gradually changed their wine from Tokay D'Alsace to Tokay Pinot Gris D'Alsace to Pinot Gris D'Alsace, and consumers took it in stride. The makers of California Champagne could do the same, and as an added bonus, would be able to export their wines to areas that recognize appellation names -- in particular, Europe.

The other major source of opposition to the recognition of appellation names is the food industry. The Consorzio that oversees the production of Parmigiano recently went to court to keep German cheesemakers from registering a knockoff they call Parmesan as a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Denomination of Protected Origin, the food equivalent of an Appellation).

At least they were successful; Canada is blocking Prosciutto di Parma because a Canadian food company registered the word Parma in 1958, and now Canada is saying that the prosciutto producers of the city of Parma who want to put the word Parma on their prosciutto labels for sale in Canada are infringing upon the rights of a Canadian company. That Parma is a place name, and that Parmensi have been making prosciutto since the dawn of time (they offered Hannibal prosciutto, to celebrate his victories over the Romans) makes no difference. However, as the Napa ruling shows, things may be changing. I hope so.

Protection Involves More Than Just Appellations
Moving in a slightly different direction, while it is important to protect and recognize Appellation names abroad, it is just as important to protect and preserve the areas where fine wines and foods come from. Many of these areas are quite beautiful, and close to major population centers, and this can lead to serious problems: Indiscriminate development can do all sorts of damage.

For example, paving over areas that had been forest or field increases runoff, which results in increased erosion and flash flooding downstream, population increase increases the demand for water (in short supply in much of Italy) while stressing the environment in many ways, and then there are simple aesthetics -- many of the new housing tracts and industrial parks are eyesores. To combat the problem in the Chianti Classico area, which is looked at with great interest by those who would like to provide suburban housing for the populations of Florence and Siena, the Chianti Classico Consorzio established the Fondazione per la Tutela del Territorio del Chianti Classico Onlus a number of years ago.

Their track record has been mixed; some towns in Chianti have understood the need to limit the volume of new construction, while others have instead embraced the developers, mushrooming frightfully. San Casciano, about 10 km from Florence, is an especially good example of the latter; they've added miles of new roads packed with houses, and also transformed former industrial buildings into housing, without (it seems from the outside) thinking about how to strengthen the town's infrastructures; the upshot is that if everyone from the new areas heads into the Centro Storico (which used to be delightful) at once they can't park, and the streets are so packed that it's difficult to walk. This is what people left Florence to get away from.

At least San Casciano is just dealing with population. The Chianti Rufina area, one of the wildest and most unspoiled sections of Tuscany, is instead threatened by plans to build a garbage incinerator on the banks of the Sieve River, which bisects it. This is a dreadful location: The Val di Sieve is quite narrow, and will trap whatever emerges from the smokestacks, while getting the trash to the incinerator in the first place will paralyze traffic and increase air pollution further. The local population is up in arms -- they fear that tourism will collapse and property values plummet if the thing is built -- and we shall see what happens.

Tuscany isn't the only part of Italy with problems, however. The Valpolicella, a strikingly beautiful network of valleys just north of Verona, is under a similar assault from developers, who have begun to pour cement in quantity; among the victims so far is a court near the only Palladian villa in the Province of Verona -- it has been replaced by new houses. According to Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, who makes some of the finest wines in the region, the mayors who are allowing this belong in Hell with the Ignavi, those who lived doing neither good nor bad because they lacked the moral strength to take a side. He of course has, and has set up a foundation to defend the territory. They're just starting out, but do have a couple of sites, and

Preserving appellations is a cause well worth supporting, because if Italian agricultural areas fall under the sway of the developers, we will loose not just the products and the beautiful places, but also the way of life that brought us the products in the first place.

Baccalà and...
Moving in a very different direction, we're still in the midst of Lent, which is not -- as many think -- a specific time of penance (though if one wants to do penance nobody is going to object). Rather, it's a time for spiritual renewal in preparation for Easter. And renouncing meats and rich foods? This ties in with the spiritual renewal; the Church is asking people to renounce out of respect for Jesus's suffering on the Cross and to share the privations suffered year-round by the poor.

I've gotten several requests for baccalà of late, and they would certainly qualify as Lenten dishes. We'll start with a Roman recipe, for Baccalà Alla Trasteverina, which is easy and will be heart-warming at this time of year.

To serve 4 you'll need:

  • 1 3/4 pounds (800 g) soaked baccalà (see for instructions on selecting and soaking baccalà)
  • A scant pound (400 g) onions, finely sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • An anchovy, boned and rinsed
  • The juice of a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) flour
  • 1 tablespoon plumped raisins
  • Salt to taste

Rinse the baccalà, remove the skin, and pat it dry. Cut it into pieces, flour them, and fry them, turning them carefully once, in a pot with just a bit of oil until golden. Drain the pieces well on absorbent paper.

Preheat your oven to 420 F (210 C)

Add a little oil to the pan if need be (there should be a couple of tablespoons) and sauté the garlic clove; when it is golden add the onions. Season with salt to taste, and add the capers, raisins, and pine nuts. Add the anchovy too, and stir it about until it dissolves.

Turn the onion mixture out into a baking pan, and arrange the pieces of baccalà over it. Pour the pan drippings over the baccalà, put the pan in the oven, and cook for a few minutes. Upon removing the baccalà from the oven, sprinkle the lemon juice over it, dust it with the parsley, and serve at once.

The wine? White, and Frascati would be a good choice.

Next, a baccalà and potato salad from the Veneto that will be nice when it's a little warmer out -- in the past it would have been a summery dish, because that's when string beans are in season, but now, thanks to freezer bins, we can enjoy it year round. To serve 4:

  • 1 1/8 pounds (500 g) soaked baccalà (see for instructions on selecting and soaking baccalà)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • A slice of lemon, preferably organic
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • A bay leaf
  • 2 medium sized potatoes
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) string beans (frozen will be fine)
  • A small bunch of parsley
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • 1/4 cup pitted black olives
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the baccalà into pieces about 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Put them in a pot with two inches (5 cm) cold water, the lemon, and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer the fish for 20 minutes, then drain the pieces, and filter a few tablespoons of the broth.

Boil, or better yet steam, the potatoes separately; when a skewer penetrates easily peel them and duce them.

Cook the green beans too, in lightly salted water, until done but not overly soft.

Peel the garlic clove and mince it with the anchovy filets, capers, and parsley. Put the mixture in a bowl and add to it 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the olive oil, 2 tablespoons fish broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

Combine the potatoes, baccalà, and string beans in a salad bowl, add the olives and the sauce, mix gently, and serve.

A wine? White, and Lugana would be nice.

Last thing: Vinitaly, Italy's major wine trade fair, will be held in Verona this week, from Thursday through Monday. If you're in Northern Italy, it's a fascinating event. See

This time's proverb is Calabrian: Miegliu ccù autri spàrtari ca pèrdari sulu: It's better to divide with others than to lose alone.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find them on the IWR site, through Access to the online archives is via subscription -- in other words there's a yearly charge that helps us to offset our costs -- and includes extras of various kinds, including illustrations and links to other resources. IWR subscribers automatically have access to the Cosa Bolle archives.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where It's Going, Traditional/International and More: Being the 131st issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! To begin with the sites, the latest on Italian cuisine is an illustration of how to chop onions and herbs (by hand). I know this sounds obvious, but a great many people reach for a chopper or blender, neither of which does as good a job, and both of which take much longer to clean up after. The latest on the IWR is a vertical of Cantalupo's Collis Breclemae, a beautiful single-vineyard Ghemme.

Where's it Going?
This year Sale e Pepe, one of the major Italian cooking magazines, is celebrating its 20th birthday, and in addition to a picture of a ring cake with candles on the cover, they've picked a recipe per year to reprint. The selection is fascinating, and shows what an Italian food person, who takes the standard dishes, e.g. maccheroni alla Bolognese, pizza, pasta e fagioli, tortellini, and so on, for granted, finds interesting, and perhaps innovative.

Fruit in savory dishes, for example risotto with a terrific abundance of strawberries, or veal with kumquats, both in the late 80s, and a pork crown roast with pineapple, in 2002. Fruit has always played a part in Italian savory cooking; what's different here is that the fruit is fresh, rather than the dried fruit one can encounter in elegant, very traditional north Italian roasts, or in south Italian dishes that draw from Arab traditions. They also reveal an openness to new ingredients; kumquats were virtually unknown when I moved to Florence in the early 1980s, and the pork crown roast with pineapple (another relatively recent import) is in a sweet and sour sauce that is an obvious nod to oriental traditions. A further nod to foreign cooking traditions comes with the curried chicken proposed in 1995, which is authentic, though it does call for curry powder rather than the individually ground spices that would be difficult to find in much of Italy.

Ingredients that suddenly became the rage, with a nod -- in 1989 -- to arugola, which found its way just about everywhere, including pasta with arugola and bacon, a simple dish that draws upon the common Ligurian custom of cooking vegetables with the pasta (string beans and diced potatoes are especially common additions to the pasta pot), and then seasoning everything with a sauce; here the sauce is very simple, diced bacon sautéed in oil, and shavings of Parmigiano. The end result is minimalist, savory, and though some might find it dated now, quite tasty. While savory dishes continued to be minimalist in the 90s -- there's also a Cornish game hen stuffed with spinach and roasted with bay leaf and diced pancetta -- desserts could be quite showy, and for 1993 they picked a strawberry meringue wife Elisabetta remembers very well.

These are all dishes that fit well within the traditional Italian meal; the pasta is obviously a first course, while the meats would be second courses, and the meringue would be dessert.

They also pick a number of things that would not, and in doing so recognize that Italian life has changed tremendously in the past 20 years; the number of people who eat out or eat light during the day because they have to get back to the office in the afternoon has increased substantially, and in 1996 they present what they call a Panino Mediterraneo, or Mediterranean sandwich, a triple-decker with all sorts of greens and a little fish that will be substantial enough to assuage hunger pangs, but not so rich that the diner is unable to get back to work.

They also take stock of the tremendous expansion fast food joints have enjoyed in Italy over the past 20 years, and for 1999 suggest a double cheeseburger. With all the fixings: onion, shallot, lettuce, tomato, cheese, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard, and even pickles. If made with care it will be quite good, and it shows that Italians are anything but monolithic in their view of foods: On the one hand we have Carlo Petrini, who, after discovering a McDonald's under the Spanish Steps in Rome, founded Slowfood, an organization that is making a determined (and successful) effort to preserving traditional foodstuffs, recipes, and agricultural techniques, first in Italy and now world wide. And on the other we have people who note how full those McDonalds restaurants are -- even in areas tourists don't visit -- and suggest how to best use the freshly pressed hamburgers that now occupy a significant portion of the meat section in most Italian supermarkets.

To come back to the question of where we are going, in many directions at once. On the one hand there is a renewed interest in traditional dishes, which Sale e Pepe's editors touch upon with several of their recipes, especially the rich Zuppa Inglese, or English Trifle they drew from Artusi for their 2006 recipe. And on the other there's a great deal of curiosity with respect to new ingredients and cooking techniques, both in restaurants and in the home; almost every Italian city now has shops that sell either African or Oriental ingredients, and the ethnic sections of supermarkets, which simply didn't exist when I moved to Italy in 1982, are expanding steadily. And finally, the foods are adapting to reflect changes in lifestyle, and in doing so greatly increasing the variety one can choose from. It's an exciting time to be following Italian food.

Some of the recipes:
The strawberry risotto is quite similar to one I have on Italian cuisine; with respect to it they omit the celery, use slightly fewer strawberries, and add a third of a cup or so of cream, rather than grated cheese.

Vitello al Kumquat, or Kumquat Veal
Interesting, and very easy to prepare:
  • 1 3/4 pound (800 g) veal fesa -- the cut used to make scaloppini -- in a single piece; boneless veal roast will work
  • 2/3 pound (300g) kumquats, washed, patted dry, cut in half, and seeded
  • A shot of brandy
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • A little broth (unsalted bouillon will be fine)
  • A bay leaf
  • A sprig of rosemary
  • A few sage leaves
  • Olive oil, salt, and white pepper
  • Butcher's twine
Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C).

Tie the meat so it will keep its shape. In the meantime, heat a quarter cup of olive oil in an ovenproof dish, and when it is hot brown the meat on all sides. Season it with salt and pepper, and with the rosemary and sage.

Sprinkle the brandy over the meat and cook over a brosk flame until it has evaporated. Next, add the white wine and continue cooking, turning the meat occasionally, until almost all of the wine has evaporated too.

Add the kumquats and the bay leaf and transfer the meat to the oven. Cook for about 75 minutes, turning the meat occasionally, and spooning the drippings over it more often; should it look to be drying out, add a few tablespoons of broth.

When it is done, remove and discard the herbs. Let the roast sit for a couple of minutes, and then slice it, Spoon the sauce over the slices, ring them with the kumquats, and serve at once.
A wine? I'd go with a white from Friuli, perhaps a Chardonnay.

Meringata di Frutti di Bosco, or Berry Fruit Meringue

This looks beautiful, and if you have some experience with a pastry bag, is quite easy to do, though it does take a while. You'll need:
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2/3 cup (125 g) granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups (250 g) powdered sugar, of the kind without vanilla added
  • 1 cup (250 ml) whipping cream
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) fresh raspberries
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) wild strawberries, hulled
  • 1/4 pound black currants
Combine the granulated sugar and a cup and a quarter of the powdered sugar. Add half the mixture to the egg whites, and beat them to very firm peaks with an electric mixer. When the sugar/whites mixture is firm and shiny, slowly beat in the remaining mixed sugars.
While you are doing this, heat your oven to 212 F (100 C). Also, take a cookie pan and line it with oven parchment.

Fill a pastry bag with a smooth nozzle with the meringue mixture, and use it to make two 8-inch (20 cm) diameter disks, and one 1-inch wide ring that is 8 inches in diameter; dot the ring with dots of meringue (if you switch to a star-shaped nozzle you will obtain a pretty decorative effect). Cook the meringue in the oven, leaving the door partially open, for three hours.

While the meringue is cooking, see to the filling: Blend half the raspberries. Beat the cream with the remaining sugar, and when it is soft and fluffy incorporate the blended berries.

Put one of the disks on a serving dish and spread a third of the cream over it, dotting it with the fruit, especially around the edges. Set the second ring over the first, spread another third of the cream over it, and dot it with more of the fruit. Put the ring atop the disks, put the remaining fruit in the center, and use a pastry bag to add the ring the fruit with the remaining cream. Chill the meringue in the refrigerator until it comes time to serve it.

Panino Mediterraneo

This sandwich sounds a lot more involved than it is. You'll find just about all the ingredients in the deli section of the supermarket.
For the sandwich you'll need:
  • 3 slices Tuscan bread, lightly toasted
  • 2 slices grilled eggplant
  • 3 slices grilled bell pepper, of the colors you prefer
  • 4 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • A hard-boiled egg, sliced
  • 2 canned sardines, drained
  • 4 pitted black or green olives, halved
  • A clove of garlic (optional)
And for the sauce:
  • 2 fresh basil leaves
  • A couple of sprigs of mint
  • The leaves from a sprig of thyme and a sprig of marjoram
  • Half a garlic clove (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon pickled capers
To make the sauce, blend everything together. And then see to the sandwich: put down the first slice of bread, and arrange half the ingredients over it, and sprinkle them with half the sauce.

Lightly rub the second slice of bread, top and bottom, with garlic if you want to, lay it over the ingredients put down so far, and top it with the rest of the ingredients. Sprinkle the remaining sauce over all, top with the last slice of bread, and that's it. I'd go with a light, crisp white wine.

Spaghetti Frittata
Here's a last thing, which will be nice come picnic season, and is a good way to use up leftovers, if you have them. If you're instead starting from scratch, you'll need:
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) spaghetti
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) chopped tomatoes (canned will be fine)
  • 1/2 pound (220 g) mozzarella
  • 4 eggs
  • 5-6 basil leaves
  • 4 sprigs parsley, minced
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) spicy Italian sausage
  • 1/2 cup mixed freshly grated Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano
  • A clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Set pasta water to boil, and while it's heating heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pot; add the garlic, and when it has become golden add the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer for 10 minutes. Then add the basil.

In the meantime, slice the mozzarella and drain it well. Peel the casing from the sausage and slice it too.

By now the pasta water should be boiling; salt it and cook the spaghetti.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl and add to them the parsley and half the cheese mixture; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the pasta, run it under cold water to cool the strands, and combine them with the egg mixture.

Heat the remaining oil in a large non-stick skillet, spread half the pasta mixture over it, and then spread the tomatoes, cheese, and sausage over the pasta. Cover the tomato mixture with the remaining pasta, cover the skillet with a lid that doesn't have a lip, and cook for 5-6 minutes over a low flame, or until a crust has formed at the bottom of the frittata.

To turn the frittata, grip the handle of the skillet with one hand, and hold the lid firmly against the skillet with your other hand, using a potholder lest you burn yourself. Lift everything, and flip the skillet and lid; the frittata should come free from the skillet, resting with the unbrowned side down on the lid. Turn the skillet right side up, slide the frittata into it, and return it to the fire to brown the other side. This will be nice hot, with a tossed salad and a white wine -- perhaps a Falanghina -- or cool, and if cool will be a very nice addition to a picnic.

Traditional and International, or Modern Italian Wine: What am I talking About?

When I discuss a wine I will often classify it as either traditional or international, which are fairly precise concepts in Italian wine journalism. But if you're not Italian, you may have no idea of what they mean.

Traditional, as you might guess, is a wine made from varietals traditional to the area in which it is produced, say Sangiovese and Canaiolo for a Chianti Classico, or Barbera, Dolcetto, or Nebbiolo for a wine from Piemonte's Langhe.

The differences begin in the vineyard, with the harvesting: Everybody aims for top quality fruit, but traditional producers are not as likely to overripen their grapes, at least not intentionally (in a very hot year it will happen) -- many keep an eye on grape sugar levels, and when they reach the point that will give a wine of x percent alcohol, they harvest.

After harvesting the grapes are fermented, either in steel tanks, cement vats, or upright wooden containers, with temperature control to keep the must from getting too hot if the winery has it, and most now do, and pumpovers (when the must is pumped over the cap of grape skins and such that rises to the top of the tank during fermentation) or pushdowns (when the cap is pushed into the must) to increase extraction.

Following fermentation a simple wine of the kind to be released young is kept in tank (steel or cement) for a time prior to bottling, while more complex wines are aged in botti, which are large casks (high hundreds to thousands of liters), generally made of Slavonian oak. The young wines don't have any oak at all, while the more complex wines, e.g. Barolo, Brunello, or Amarone have comparatively little, because the surface area of the cask is small with respect to the volume it contains. In other words, there won't be much in the way of vanilla/cedar aromas on the nose, and in terms of color the wine will be fairly pale, and tending towards garnet -- no poured ink. On the palate it will be fruity, with lively red berry fruit and (perhaps) quite a bit of acidity, while the tannins will be from grape, and will be lively in youth, tending towards velvet with time. Not much in the way of pencil shavings nor cedar in the aftertaste, which will likely be fruit driven.

In a nutshell, with respect to the international style, traditional wines tend to be brighter, with more marked acidities, fruit that's ripe, but not overripe unless the vintage was very hot, and have more aggressive tannins, especially when young. Problems? One is determining what is a traditional varietal. In most of Italy, if you mention Cabernet or Merlot, people will nod and say, "French." And they are, but the farmers of Carmignano, outside Florence, began working with Cabernet in 1720, while the vineyards around Lucca are full of cuttings -- Syrah, among others -- brought home by merchants in the 1800s.The situation is similar in many parts of northern Italy, where foreign varietals were introduced more than a century ago. Vines that have been in an area for this long have become, as far as I'm concerned, local.

The other problem that can arise with traditional wines is an attachment on the part of the winemaker to equipment that is, yes, traditional, but also just plain old. Specifically, though botti, the big oak casks, have a much longer lifespan than the small oak barrels used by the modernisti, they do eventually reach a point where they begin to impart off aromas and flavors, what are known as puzzette (little stinks). A stink is a stink, and not a tradition, but you still can come across traditional wines aged in casks that should have been changed long ago. Fortunately they're not as common as they once were.

Wines of the international style, which is also referred to as "moderno" by some journalists, much more closely resemble the wines made elsewhere in the world -- Bordeaux, California, South America, and also Australia, and were indeed introduced in the 60s and 70s in large part to appeal to international markets. At least that was the initial goal; now they enjoy a great following in Italy too.

With respect to traditional wines, international wines differ in a number of respects. One of the most important is the varietal makeup; whereas traditional wines are made from varietals that have long been grown in a given area, international wines often contain significant percentages of newly introduced French varietals, in particular Cabernet and Merlot, though now people are also working with other varietals, including Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Pinot Noir. Some appellations, for example Chianti Classico, allow the inclusion of French varietals, while others do not; in many areas where the primary appellation doesn't allow them, there will be a catchall appellation that does, e.g. Langhe DOC for the Barolo-Barbaresco area, or Sant'Antimo for Montalcino.

The other major difference between the traditional and international styles is wood use, and indeed the use of small oak -- 225 liter French barrels, called barriques -- in many ways defines the international style: the surface area of the barrel is large with respect to the volume of wine it contains, and as a result the wood has a tremendous impact upon the wine, imparting vanilla and cedar aromas, stabilizing color, which tends to be darker and more purple, and smoothing the wine, providing velvety tannins that have cedar or vanilla overtones, while also reducing the overall acidity.

With respect to traditional wines international wines tend to be richer, softer, smoother, and thus more approachable. They also tend to be less unique, because the wood, unless it is very deftly used, acts as an equalizer, smoothing the wine over and giving it something in common with all the other wines in the world that are aged in small oak barrels.

This is of course the goal behind the style, but is also the reason that as you drink more Italian wine you may find your preference shifting from the international style (if that's what you start with) to the more traditional style: there's more to discover in the traditional wines, where the grapes are going it solo, and in doing so revealing aspects of their varietal character and the terroir that produced them, rather than performing a duet with oak. In short, though there are some notable exceptions to this generalization, traditional wines tend to have more character. Because of this, though there are international style wines I greatly enjoy drinking, I tend to prefer the traditional style, and have more traditional than international bottles in my cellar.

This time's proverb is Piemontese: Chi veul savei la vrita' c'a i ciama a i ciuch e a le masna' -- He who would know the truth should ask drunks or children.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Vintage Impressions, Cézanne & More: Being the 130th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

To begin with the sites, I've been doing housekeeping and adding a few recipes to Italian Cuisine, but nothing really fundamental. For the latest, see On the Italian Wine Review, I've posted my reactions to Casanova di Neri's Cerretalto, which was one of the most distinctive Brunelli poured at the Brunello presentation held last week. And, while I'm at it, need to make a correction. I Initially said last year's Cerretalto was Wine Spectator's wine of the year. A mistake, because Casanova di Neri did win the award, but with the 2001 Tenuta Nuova Brunello. The next time someone tells me something of this sort I will verify it before I repeat it, but in the meantime the mistake is mine and mine alone.

Addio Aurelio
Next, some sad News: Aurelio Settimo, who founded the winery that bears his name in La Morra in the 60s, has left us. I always enjoyed his wines, his Barolo especially, and he will be missed. Condolences to his daughter Tiziana, in whose capable hands the winery now is, and to her family.
Franco Ziliani has written a nice farewell, in Italian alas.

Chianti Classico, Nobile, and Brunello: Preliminary Thoughts
I spent much of last week tasting the new releases of Chianti Classico, Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino, and as always it was a fascinating experience.

We began with Chianti Classico.
This was the largest of the tastings, with more than 300 wines being poured. This is much more than I can hope to do well in the two days we were allotted, so I decided to taste mostly Chianti Classico D'Annata, the vintage wine. Some producers were presenting their 2005 vintage, and others their 2004, so that's what I had. I'll discuss how I selected which wines to taste when I put up the tasting notes, but wanted to say a few things about the vintages.

2005 was, well, Tart: Bright, lively, and acidic also come to mind as descriptors, as do scrappy and light. It was a wet, cool summer, and the wines are neither as full, nor as concentrated, nor as balanced as better vintages. This said, it wasn't anywhere near as wet or as cold as 2002, and though the wines are light, I found many to have a pleasing brambly grace to them. It's not a memorable vintage, at least for the quickly released Chianti Classico D'Annata, but these are eminently drinkable wines that will work very well with foods -- they're the classic bottles you set out while your diners are passing the platter of grilled meats around, and by the time the platter is making its second round, the bottle's empty and you need to set out another.

2004 is a very different animal. The wines are a year older, and therefore have that much more maturity and poise, but the vintage was also better, with more sun and warmth that led to greater ripeness and concentration; the resulting wines are quite elegant, with beautiful balance and poise, and though they will drink very well with foods now -- slightly less rich fare than the 2005 -- they will also age nicely for several year. In other words, it's a vintage to look out for.

Next, Nobile di Montpulciano.
They're coming off two very difficult vintages -- 2002 and 2003 -- so I was quite curious to see what 2004 would bring. The vintage, like the 2004 Chianti Classico vintage, was much better balanced, and as a result differences in winemaking philosophy were readily apparent. In particular, there seem to be two currents in Montepulciano at present; one that is fairly traditional (for want of a better term), which produces lively, elegant wines with ripe red berry fruit, brisk (but not overpowering) acidity, and a vibrant tannic structure to provide support. These wines I found quite elegant, and think they will become very nice with time. In short, something to seek out, and set aside.

The other winemaking current is, well, I wouldn't call it international, but rather soft: Big, strongly extracted wines that are extremely soft, with overripe fruit flavors (in many cases very overripe) and tannins that are ample and lax. There is acidity in some of the wines, and where present it does provide direction, but in many cases the direction is more tannic, and derives in large part from wood. These wines feel very much like the 2003 vintage, when the summer heat and dryness cooked the grapes, but the conditions weren't like that in 2004. So it's a conscious decision on the part of the winemakers to work with very ripe grapes, perhaps in pursuit of greater extraction and color. If you like the style you will like them, but I found them to be too soft and too settled, and also fear that they won't age well for long.

And finally, Brunello di Montalcino.
Here we had the 2002 Brunello, and the 2001 vineyard selections. Since I liked the 2001 vintage I tasted last year, I began with the vineyard selections, and tasted through them all. As one might expect, there were highs and lows, but my overall impression was quite positive. There are some excellent wines to be had, and they will age very well. In other words, fine wines for special occasions.

The 2002 vintage is a very different story: A few of the largest producers, who could pick through a large volume of grapes to make a small volume of bottles, produced acceptable wines, as did a small number of small producers. But the vast majority of the winemakers would have done well to follow the lead of the few who decided just to make Rosso in 2002.

Put simply, the 2002 Brunello di Montalcino is a wine that's Non all'Altezza, as Italians say -- it doesn't meet the standard. Sample after sample was lacking in fruit, presented unusual, in some cases off-putting aromas, lacked structure, or presented combinations of structure and aroma that were frankly improbable -- overripe fruit, for example, which only makes sense when you realize that the laws governing Italian winemaking allow what's known as a taglio migliorativo: winemakers can blend up to 15% of one or more other vintages of a given wine into a specific vintage of said wine to shore it up. For example, one could add 1997 and 2001 to the 2005, and here I suspect many producers tried to shore up their weak 2002 wines with a robust shot of 2003. Unfortunately 2003 has a different set of problems -- it was a very hot, dry vintage that yielded many heat-struck wines -- and combining the two vintages simply made a wine with two sets of problems rather than one.

The bottom line is that the winemakers who took everything that was supposed to be 2002 Brunello and sold it as Rosso di Montalcino probably had the right idea; I did find a few wines that were pleasant -- wines made by people who didn't try to compensate for Nature's stinginess with oak, concentrators, or other-vintage additions -- but they tended to be uniformly light, and not what one expects from what should be the flagship of Tuscan appellations, if not of all Italian appellations.

I'm sorry to come down so hard on the vintage, but if I were to fork over a hefty sum for a 2002 Brunello (there is some talk of reducing the prices, but not by much) I would be tremendously disappointed. And if I had no other experience with the wine, after buying a bottle of 2002 I would also write it off as completely overblown.

Fortunately, the 2001 Brunello is still here to enjoy, and if you should happen upon a bottle of 1999, that vintage is shaping up to be spectacular.

Cézanne: The Master was once very Florentine
Not because he came to Florence -- when the French artistic elite failed to understand him in the late 1870s, he retired to Provence, where he lived in isolation, and died an embittered old man in 1906 -- but because a couple of wealthy Americans who lived in Florence were the first to recognize his genius, and assembled the most important early collections of his work. Their names were Charles Loeser and Egisto Paolo Fabbri, and while Charles is primarily remembered for his collecting, Egisto's story is more interesting:

Egisto's father and his uncle (also called Egisto) left Florence for the US in 1848, and while Egisto's father was moderately successful, his Uncle Egisto became a friend and associate of J. Pierpont Morgan, with a 15% holding in the Bank. When Uncle Egisto retired in 1885 he decided to return to Florence, and brought the family with him -- his brother was dead, but he had a sister-in-law and many nieces and nephews. Some of the nieces married Italian nobles (one became Marchesa Antinori), while the younger Egisto, who had already painted with Weir, La Farge, and others in the US, continued to paint, and moved to Paris with his sister Ernestine, where both studied with Pissarro.

Egisto also met the great dealer, Henri-Louis Ambrose Vollard. Vollard had paintings by Cézanne: Egisto bought all he could, 16 between 1896 and 1899, and even tried to visit the old man, who said no, but expressed astonishment that someone should like his work so much.

Egisto returned to Florence with his paintings following the death of Stephanie, his model and companion, and hung the works in the dining room. Both he and Mr. Loeser were quite jealous of their Cézannes, showing them only to those they thought would appreciate them (Charles kept his in his bedroom, and a young Winston Churchill, who also painted, didn't understand them).

Following the recognition of Cézanne's importance as the father of modern painting in 1907 (the year after his death) interest in the American collections in Florence increased, and both Charles and Egisto lent their works to shows, in particular the first major show dedicated to the Impressionists, held in Florence in 1910.

People's priorities change with time, however, and in the 20s Egisto converted to Catholicism and withdrew to the town of Serravalle, not far from La Verna, where Saint Francis received his Stigmata: He rebuilt the Parish church, helped the townspeople, and established a school of Gregorian chant that is still with us today. Important things, but expensive too, and to finance his projects he sold much of his art, including his Cézannes. Charles instead left his to the White House (Jackie Kennedy especially liked one), and by 1950 just about all had trickled away.

A lot has come back, now, albeit briefly, in a show entitled Cézanne a Firenze, which has just opened in Palazzo Strozzi, and will continue until July 29. Though there aren't as many Cézannes as there once were (they've brought together 22 in all), it's a fascinating show, because they also explore the personalities of the collectors, especially Egisto, with a number of works by his American teachers and contemporaries, and also several of his paintings, which are technically well done, though it's obvious that he was a follower more than an innovator (it's also interesting to see that despite his love of Cézanne he wasn't particularly influenced by him, while his sister instead copied one, and her copy is here too).

Egisto makes obvious sense, while Pissarro, the impressionist Cézanne was closest to, and with whom he painted before returning to Aix-En-Provence, is a pleasant surprise: His paintings are beautiful, and help remind us what Cézanne's impressionist contemporaries were up to -- to a degree working more with light than the volumes Cézanne finally concentrated on. And finally, there are several paintings by the Macchiaioli, the Italian -- Tuscan, especially -- contemporaries of the Impressionists. The word macchia means spot, and their work does bear a superficial resemblance to the Impressionists, in the way they dabbed and spread the color onto their canvasses, but their interests were different, and much more centered on capturing the human condition -- farmers in the fields, the aftermath of battle, bringing the cattle home, and so on. Oh yes, there's also a portrait of a gardener by Van Gough, which was owned by Ardengo Soffici, a Tuscan poet and critic, and which was, like the Cézannes, not understood by the Florentines who saw it in the 1910 show mentioned above.

Bottom line: I'm not sure I would make a special trip to see this show. However, if I was already planning to visit Florence, I would make certain I saw it. It opens several windows onto the past, all fascinating.

For more information, see the show's site,

I had planned to do more, but this has gone quite long enough.

This time's proverb is Tuscan: All'entrar ci vuol disegno, all'uscir denari o pegno -- You get involved (with something) by choice, but to get out costs money or sacrifice.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
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