" Ancient souls must relive the wine in the time it was born in order to bring it forward."
At the Merano Wine Festival there was a little jewel box of a room filled with all types of gold and ruby dessert wines. It was embarrassingly empty of people. It was also almost impossible to get to, hidden behind a parlor with famous and important wines from France. I’m not sure how many people found their way to the room with the sweet wines. For those who did, it was like finding Madame Pillaud’s perfume shop in Menton.
Outside, the wind was howling off the freshly snowed mountains. Inside, the sun steamed the room to a frothy warmth, one that required taking off several layers of jacket and sweater. The opened bottles of dessert wines were a Greek chorus juxtaposed with the morose Italian vendors who were vying for the attention of those few who found the secret door to the room. I looked at one wine, resembling a murky mess of primal goo, and commented with a facial gesture resembling one who had just peered into the face of Gorgon.
As the room steeped, the olfactory sensation created from the polyphony of the wines was intoxicating, if not a bit disconcerting. Imagine going to a dance where there are all manner of beautiful and unattached creatures who all long to dance with you. It was too much.
I put three wines on my dance card: a late harvest Marzemino, a Sagrantino passito and the murky fellow, a ménage of Grecchetto, Malvasia and Trebbiano.
I was really trying to wrap my head around these dessert wines. How did they come to be accepted, in older times, as wines that went with food? What was the reason, the meaning of these wines? Was it like the cheese and the salumi, a way to preserve food products for a time in the future?
I have been down into the ancient tunnels below the town of Orvieto, where the brown, reclusive bottles slumber far from modernity. Wine catacombs, but the wines are not dead or decaying. Merely waiting for a time when someone will bring them out into the light.
This day in Merano was one of those moments.
You Give Me Fervo
The Marzemino, from the Astoria wine estate in Crocetta del Montello. I was interested because Donato Lanati is involved with the winemaking. Lanati teaches and consults for wineries such as Frattina, Librandi, L'Abbazia di Santa Giustina, Palari and Pietra Porzia. They had me at salve. Two nights before, we sat next to owner Giorgio Polegato at the Ristorante Laubenkeller. Giorgio loves to eat, what you’d call a “good fork”. So as we pulled up to their booth, I recognized a man who knew his way around the Italian table. Fervo, as it is called, is in this squatty little bottle, very posh. I am sometimes suspicious of cute bottles from the Veneto – they know only too well how to market items from the living workshop of Venice. But I closed my eyes, opened my nose and took a plunge. Inside the bottle was this sanguine sensation, visceral in the thick texture. Dense. It had the most beautiful shade of crimson going towards cyan along the edges, like the light through a stained glass window. I’m still tasting it, some memory alongside my palate tugs at me.
What to do with such a wine? Drink it at the end of a meal, of course, with figs soaked in brandy and then covered in bittersweet chocolate. In ancient times, with what food? Game, such as deer, or with andouille or Pizzoccheri, like we had at Sale e Pepe in Sondrio.
Very gothic, plush velvet, scarlet and embers.
The Milk of Paradise
Sagrantino passito from Antonelli San Marco in Montefalco. The lady behind the table was one of the few females in the room. Her gaze was hypnotic, perfect for sales. I see Umbria and their wines as having a lot of female energy. My California roots are showing? In any event, the dark one at the Antonelli booth was ladling Sagrantino Passito into the chalice. It is one of the primal wines of central Italy.
I read recently about Sagrantino passito being the original wine of the area. Making Sagrantino dry would come centuries later, along with the heavy bottles and high price tags. This was tasting the history of the wine; this was meeting face-to-face with the ancestors. This was a moment to bow on one knee before taking a sip.
Lights down, music to a low chant, with only the heat from the candles. Once inside, the wine turned my palate towards the pagan. We had landed in Xanadu: the sacred river, the pleasure dome, the caverns measureless to man and the sunless sea. The milk of Paradise.
What to do with such a wine? Try roasted meats with a high fat content. Pork would be perfect. Or if a dessert is needed, go to your local church and pilfer some of the communion hosts, pre-sanctified. Dip them in a wild honey and dust them with cinnamon. If you must have the Body to go with the Blood.
The Big Muddy
Rhea Passito of Carlo Massimiliano Gritti from Umbertide – the trinity of Grecchetto, Malvasia and Trebbiano. This was my cloudy mire of aboriginal slime. It had me grimacing as if I had just lost a stare down with the demon. It wasn’t that it was horrible. Au contraire. It was a shock. This hall of sweet wines was filled with clean, clear, diamond points of nectar, and here we were faced with chaos that was rich and unctuous, from a time when it was the only wine in the world. Gravner could only hope to make a wine with this kind of depth, coupled with an attraction that was molecular.
“Will you write about my wine?”, the hopeful young Italian asked me. I assured him I would. But it wouldn’t help him sell it. This was a wine from another time, another language. It would be like asking the Americanos to read and understand ancient Greek. But that is a wail for another chorus on another day.