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Boulversé by the Bounty of Verona

By |  June 12 2008

But why resist? Real life, surely, lies outside your comfort zone. Unfamiliar wine cultures make you challenge your own preconceptions. Recent journeys have made me realize that if my regular supplies dried up I should be having more fun, not less. Even if the Champagne tap was turned off — which is not something I would have said even a year or two ago.

I look for bubbles (don’t you?) wherever I go. Recently this has included South Africa and Italy — not perhaps the first places you look in search of brilliant bottles of fizz. The trick, I find, is to stop looking for the precise flavor of Champagne. Habitual it may be, but essential? Are you so demanding with Cabernets that they all have to be Pauillac?

Resisting the temptation to linger on the first sip, quizzing it too deeply, I found 90 percent bubbly satisfaction in half a dozen South African sparklers and the same number in Italy. In South Africa, having played around with Pongracz, enjoyed Simonsig and Steenberg, liked VC Leroux, and been mighty impressed with Graham Beck’s Blanc de Blanc, I settled with a blend called Tanzanite that combined freshness and a touch of yeasty breadth to make an ideal sundowner. The threshold for what they have baptized méthode cap classique is pretty high and its exponents practicing hard. Far from feeling deprived, in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of new discovery.

In Italy it is so easy to call for Prosecco, and to accept its simple scouring action as the preliminary to the antipasti (there are always grissini, besides, and olives are not far away), that the decision to order a serious metodo classico is already a significant step. It is not a wide field. Berlucchi is the one you find everywhere (and I find perfectly acceptable). Ferrari from Trento is an easy one to remember and full of flavor. Ca’ del Bosco is probably the most ambitious. I hesitate between their new-coined, precise and bracing Brut Zero and their richer more complex prestige Cuvée Annamaria Clementi. The conclusion, in either case, is that Lombardy, or more precisely Franciacorta, on the final folds of the Alpine foothills near Brescia, makes ordering Champagne in Italy a conscious act of francophilia rather than what Hilaire Belloc called "sheer necessity."

It didn’t occur to me even once, while on holiday in South Africa, to order an imported wine. Not everyone, I grant, has the curiosity to keep pulling different corks wherever they go (or indeed an annual wine book to keep refreshed). But let me dispel any notion of sacrifice. Where I used to grimace at the thought of one of the musty earthy reds of the Cape, bottle one on day one told me that those days are past. The means have been mastered; now the choice is between styles.

I was challenged by a colleague in Italy (I was in Verona, at the annual wine fair, Vinitaly, where all Italian winemakers meet) to name an Italian white wine I could describe as fine. I confess I was taken aback. That’s not what Italian white wines do, I thought. They can tick all the boxes for charm, refreshment, varietal flavors; for balance and length, too. A few years ago, many of the boxes remained unticked. But then I went to a dinner oddly entitled "Bianco e Bianchi."

The Bianchi were all Friulian white wines — and the Bianco, Friulian asparagus, prepared in no fewer than 40 different ways.

Everything about the dinner was impressive: the setting, in the Gran Guardia palace opposite the Roman arena; the staging; the frocks; and certainly the ingenuity in handling the tender white spears. As one who believes asparagus should be green, I had my doubts: Blanching brings out the intrinsic bitterness — is this the way to sell your wine? With scallops, with truffles, with prosciutto, with grana, drizzled and peppered, and above all (my top dish), with a scrambled-egg sauce and a baby cheese soufflé, two hours of asparagus was less of a problem than I expected. The wines didn’t find it a problem either.

I’m told that Friuli (and its most famous district, Collio) boasts 17 white grape varieties. What it does supremely well, it seemed to me, is to blend them in various, not always obvious, combinations. We were drinking whites that had all aspects of finesse and only lacked, most of them, memorable character.

A memorable tasting

The high point of Vinitaly was a tasting organized by Civiltà del Bere, Italy’s principal wine magazine, of a dozen red wines considered the best of a very fine vintage the length of Italy: 1997. For once conditions were ideal from the Alps to Sicily. Wine Spectator assembled ten of these for a tasting in New York last year. Civiltà del Bere brought together 12, most of them in magnums, and with, in each case, its winemaker to present it. It was a unique opportunity to assess the best of Italy in its maturity. Should France be troubled? Should California?

My coups de coeur were not all the wines I expected. Piedmont was represented by only one wine, Giacomo Conterno’s Barolo Monfortino in magnums. To my surprise, it fell flat. Tuscany was a triumph for Italy’s answer to Bordeaux, Sassicaia, and also for its Antinori cousin, Solaia, as well as for Brunello di Montalcino, represented by Villa Banfi’s Poggio all’Oro.

"A very satisfying vintage," said Nicolò Incisa della Rochetta of Sassicaia, "but ’98 was better." Better was not easy to imagine; at very first sniff the nose was sweet, gentle, mature Cabernet, harmonious but intriguing. "Silky austerity" was my first impression of a palate that seemed all in the upper register, holding the note impossibly long, leaving plums and blackberries for sweetness (and licorice? I’m never sure about that).

It was fascinating to compare Sassicaia with Solaia, guided by Piero Antinori’s daughter Albiera. Solaia is the name of the stoniest part of the Tignanello vineyard in which 20 percent of Sangiovese complements 80 percent of Cabernets. That 20 percent is enough to make it taste entirely Tuscan: savory, stony, broader, and more male than Sassicaia; darker, strangely, in color, not mounting high in the palate but roundly filling the mouth, and just as long. I couldn’t say which of the two I preferred (it would depend, I suppose, on the dish).

Poggio all’Oro was slower to emerge than the Cabernets. What is the quality of Sangiovese that gives it more than transient attraction? It is inherently male, I think — rarely rising in flights of perfumed volatility, more low-lying on the palate, yet prickly with white pepper and its characteristic astringency. White-peppered strawberries, I jotted down, then finding something like tar in the long-ebbing finish. This is what Chianti would be if it could.

The other predictable champion, of course, is Amarone. I was intrigued to see it being bracketed with Port in a tasting of high-octane reds in our last issue. Masi’s Mazzano, the choice of Civiltà del Bere, was potent and elegant at the same time. It was extraordinarily dark in color and velvet-dense in texture, yet it smelled of fresh fruit baked in a pie — fruit with the sharpness of rhubarb, even. Refreshing and keen on the palate: an unusual combination that I loved.

My other coups were less predictable. I know little of Sagrantino except as a grape used in Umbria, especially at Montefalco, for what used to be sweet red wines. Marco Caprai changed all that in the 1990s. In 1997 the outcome was exceptionally happy: a wine both intense and generous, round rather than sweet, both smelling and tasting of blackberries, with a lick of cream but an underlying tannic drive.

From the same part of Italy, up to recently bereft of any first-class reds, came Montiano, a Merlot with no especially Italian antecedents, springing directly, it seems, from the creative imagination of a great enologist, Ricardo Cotarella. 1997 was only his fourth vintage (and this was poured from bottles, not magnums), yet it seemed one of the younger wines of the tasting and a direct tribute to Pomerol, with striking complexity, completeness, and length. Perhaps the Pomerol plums were on their way to pruniness, but it was an exciting new encounter.

Further south I would expect heat to be perceptible. In Sicily’s entry, Planeta’s first vintage of Santa Cecilia, it showed as a leathery finish to a wine that opened mint-fresh. In Sardinia’s, the Turriga of Argiolas, the smells of the garrigue, of cistus and herbal oils and balsam, announced a lovely and wholly Mediterranean red, joyfully heady, smooth, not leathery, and finally sweet. The final wine to jolt my preconceptions was a Bordeaux blend I could never have placed: San Leonardo from the southernmost Trentino, only a short distance north of Verona. In its cool herbaceous aromas it reminded me of Pichon-Lalande in a year of low power but sustained elegance; more astringent, perhaps, than any St-Julien, but undeniably fine.

What do I conclude, then, from this parade of where Italy had arrived a decade ago? That the parameters of quality are still expanding; that the capabilities of this country of many countries are still unknown; that Italy is endlessly creative (we knew that already) and will spew out original pleasures ad infinitum. They will always be impossible to follow, and tidy minds will continue to struggle. But which is more important: comprehension or appreciation? I had a strong feeling, bewildered by the bounty of Verona, that the massed ranks of wine writers tasting barrel samples at the same time in Bordeaux were looking in the wrong direction.

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