I have been writing. Quite a bit, it seems. The latest addition to the Italian Wine Review is a look at the 2009 Carmignano Vintage presentation, while the latest additions to Italian food are recipes, which I won't list, and new shots to the Fruit and Vegetables Gallery: we're up to 92 shots! I didn't expect it to get this big but I keep finding new things to add.
Turning to Cosa Bolle in Pentola, Bergamo's Valcalepio appellation is one of the more particular Italian appellations: rather than concentrate on autochthonous varietals, they decided to use the so-called Taglio Bordolese in their wines: 25-60% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder Merlot for the reds, and 55-80% Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay, plus the remainder Pinot Grigio, for the whites. You might wonder why an Italian appellation would choose to work with French varietals, but the French varietals have long been grown in northern Italy, and the wines, especially the vini d'annata can be quite nice. With the red Riserve things are a little more uneven, with some people bulking up their wines more than I might like, at which point finesse gives way to lumbering qualities.
A few years ago they brought together all of the appellations that allow Merlot-Cabernet blends for a general tasting, and that was quite interesting. More recently, however, they have organized en event called Emozioni dal Mondo, a competition featuring Merlot-Cabernet blends from around the world (primarily Italian, though this year there were also Eastern European, South American, and South African wines). The tasting was held in the Palamonti, a gym dedicated to rock and mountain climbing run by the Sezione Bergamo of CAI (Club Alpino Italiano). A beautiful, and frankly unique setting for a tasting; should you want to go climbing in the Alps, or anywhere else, it would also be an excellent place to train.
One Grand Gold Medal was awarded, to a wine from the Abruzzo -- the Azienda Masciarelli's Merlot Marina Cvetic IGT Colli Aprutini 2006, followed by a great many Gold Medals. No Silver, because the OIV regulations organizers followed say no more than a certain percentage of the wines entered into a tasting can be awarded medals. Here the average quality was high enough that the percentage was reached before silver medals could be awarded. A very interesting event, and if you want to see the list of award-winning wines, check the Emozioni Dal Mondo's Elenco Premiati.
Cornello dei Tasso, and The Postal System
After the tasting, some of the judges boarded a minibus to go visit a few wineries. The rest of us boarded a much larger bus and rode up into the Alps behind Bergamo; the initial few km of the Val Brembana (formed by the Brembo River) were decidedly nondescript, with an abundance of relatively recent construction jumbled together on the valley floor, but after going through a few tunnels the construction started to thin, and in the space of a few more km (and more tunnels) we were at the bottom of a V, with mountains climbing all around us.
At Camerata Cornello we tuned off the main road and climbed through a series of switchbacks. The bus let us off by a steeply sloping meadow, and we walked down the modern paved road to where it stopped at a parking garage built for the residents of Cornello dei Tassi, who live a little further on, down the old Via Mercatorum, the medieval commercial route (a wide, well packed trail) that followed the flank of the valley due to an impassable gorge on the valley floor. The Via Mercatorum passes literally through Cornello -- the ground floors of the buildings on its path are porticoed, allowing people to pass under them -- and as a result Cornello was an important stopping point where merchants could rest their animals and themselves, and if the weather was bad enjoy some shelter. They could also trade, and talk, and we will return to this.
The town of Cornello can easily be seen in the space of an hour -- the porticoed section is about a hundred yards long, and the other major local attraction is the parish church, a XII Century Romanesque church dedicated to Saints Cornelio and Cipriano. To reach it, go through the porticoed section, turn right, and climb to a parallel lane. The church's façade is simple rather sever stone work, and you'll note that the tower is slightly out of kilter. Inside there are many frescoes dating to the XV-XVI centuries depicting people of all walks of life. Some are quite nice, but the one that really caught my eye is to the left as you enter: Sant'Elvio, the patron saint of Maniscalchi, or blacksmiths, who -- since he is saintly -- simply removes the horse's foreleg, to affix the shoe to the hoof without worrying about what the animal is doing. A miracle, and then he reattaches the leg when he has finished. Beautiful.
As I said, the traders who stopped in Cornello also talked, and it didn't take long for the scions of the Tasso Family, one of the leading local families, to wonder if those who were talking might also want the services of a courier to send missives forward or back. So, in the XIII Century Odone De Taxo set up such a service. It proved successful, but one can only have so much success if one works from a town in an Alpine valley. So part of the family moved to Venice, and managed to become the Official Couriers for the Venetian Republic. They did well, and one branch of the family moved to Rome, where they became Maestri delle Poste Papali -- the Papal Postmasters.
Others instead entered into the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, and again did well: In 1512 the Emperor Maximillian bestowed a title upon the family, with a coat of arms featuring a badger (tasso) and a postal bugle, enriched by the Imperial Eagle. They also worked for Maxiimillian's cousins, the Kings of Spain, and for several centuries various branches of the Tasso Family (part of the German branch became Princes of Thurn and Taxis) ran the postal system throughout much of Europe, establishing routes between hundreds of cities and precise schedules.
They became fabulously wealthy, and continued to provide postal services throughout Europe until well into the 19th century, by which time the various European governments had realized that government-controlled national postal systems were perhaps a good idea. Indeed, when the European governments met in the 1850s to discuss postal matters, the Tasso Family joined them at the table, and subsequently issued stamps for its routes, which continued to function until 1866, when the Prussians unified Germany and nationalized the German postal system. At this point the Tasso family ceded its operations to the various national postal systems and turned its attentions to other ventures.
Not bad for a family that started out sending packets up and down an Alpine valley! And they are well remembered in Cornello, which changed its name to Cornello Dei Tassi, and hosts a small but fascinating museum dedicated to the Tasso family and the postal system they established, with stamps, letters, portraits of royal sponsors, and much more.
And why is Cornello now served by a mule track rather than a paved road, you wonder? Because in 1592 the Venetians, who ruled Bergamo at the time, overcame the obstacles on the valley floor and built a new, easier to travel road called the Via Priula. Cornello became isolated, and while this did mean hardships for generations of its inhabitants (an Abbot who visited in 1899 spoke of poor mountaineers who spent their summers working in France, to earn enough to survive the winters), because of the isolation the town remains unchanged, and is one of the best preserved Alpine trading villages anywhere. And well worth a visit.
Alcohol Levels in Wines
Moving in a very different direction, I recently went to a presentation of the current (2007) Chianti Colli Fiorentini Vini d'Annata, or vintage wines. As is always the case at presentations of this sort some wines were better than others, but there were several that were quite good. However, there was also a problem: A vino d'annata, or vintage wine, is a wine that's made to be drunk upon release, or fairly soon thereafter - though some of them can and do age quite well, they're wines intended primarily to be set out and drunk. Only thing is, here, with one exception, they were all 13.5% or more alcohol. This is a strong wine, and not the sort of thing one would usually think of quaffing with maccheroni alla bolognese or a burger.
In their defense they were nicely balanced, and the alcohol wasn't that evident, but it was there. In vintage wines. Why? While people do talk about global warming raising the sugar levels of grapes (higher temperatures make for riper grapes with more sugar, which in turn makes for wines with more alcohol), 2007 wasn't a particularly hot summer. Yes, there were hot spells, but it was nothing like 2003, when the thermometer stayed pegged above 99 (38 C) from late May through September. So what is the answer?
I think it's something called maturazione polifenolica, or polyphenolic ripening, which has become all the rage with Italian winemakers over the past few years. You might think a ripe grape is a ripe grape, and while this may have been true in the past, it isn't quite as easy any more. There are two ways to judge grape ripeness: Sugar level, and the ripeness of the tannins contained in the skins and seeds.
Sugar level, which is what was traditionally measured, is straight forward: the wine maker keeps track of sugar levels, which rise as the grapes ripen, and when they reach the level necessary to yield a certain percentage of alcohol in the wine, say 12%, starts to harvest.
In polyphenolic ripeness, what is measured is the ripeness of the compounds that give wine its color and structure, with special emphasis on how smooth and sweet the tannins are; the idea is to obtain a wine with sweeter smoother tannins that is also richer and more concentrated. And on paper it seems like a very nice idea. However, polyphenolic ripening tends to lag behind sugar ripening. As a result, while the winemaker waits for the tannins to smooth and soften sugar levels increase enough to yield a wine with 14 or more % alcohol. And at the same time, grape acidity, which decreases with increasing ripeness, falls through the floor, while the flavor cast of the fruit shifts away from red berry fruit such as cherries, strawberries, red currants, and such, and more towards prune and plum.
The end result of polyphenolic ripeness is wines that do have smoother softer tannins, and more concentration, but are also much less acidic, more settled (prune and plum are more settled than red berry fruit, at least for me), and much (much) more alcoholic.
In short, they're not as pleasant to drink, if not difficult to drink, the sort of wines that people swish and swirl while saying vaguely complementary things about ("nice concentration, silky smooth" and so on) but then leave in the glass. And, because they tend to seem fairly sweet, due to the ripeness of the fruit, the lack of acidity, and the high alcohol levels (which are perceived as sweetness) they are much more difficult to pair with foods than less alcoholic, zestier wines.
By way of comparison, wines made from grapes harvested when the sugar levels translate to 12% or so alcohol tend to be much brighter, with livelier acidities, tannins that are a bit more aggressive, and fruit that is brighter. In short, they are fresher, and I find them much more inviting to drink.
Because of this, I am eagerly waiting for the infatuation a great many Italian winemakers have with the concept of polyphenolic ripening to end. The result will be wines that are fresher, more enjoyable, and easier to pair with foods.
Returning to the Chianti Colli Fiorentini presentation, the wine we found to be the freshest? It was the Azienda di Uggiano's La Casa di Dante Alighieri Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2007. A wine made from grapes harvested with an eye more on sugar levels than polyphenolic ripeness: The fruit was lively, with red berries, the acidity was brisk, and the alcohol content was 12%.
This time's proverb is Pugliese: La bbona ngudene rombe u martiidde, A good anvil will break a hammer.
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com
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