I first encountered vino cotto in Ortona at the Ristorante al Vecchio Teatro. I was spying the cooler of Abruzzo wines in the restaurant when I saw a large hand blown bottle of wine. I asked chef Armando Carusi what it was. “It is my grandfather’s vino cotto,” he said. And he proceeded to pour me a glass.
As I sat back down at the table, another winemaker looked over at me and asked what I had. When I told him, he said, “They don’t know how to make vino cotto well. They make it the old way. My vino cotto is better; I need to send you a bottle and you will know what really good vino cotto is,” he blustered.
Indeed the grandfather’s wine was from another time. It was sherried, and acidic and almost bitter. But it felt so real. I imagined this wine would serve as a wonderful digestive for the meal I had just had and I thanked the chef for the pleasure of the glass he shared with a stranger. It was really one of those sweet moments one gets when one strays off the tourist trails.
My second encounter was a week later, in Basilicata. Paolo Montrone, who oversees operations at Terre degli Svevi's Re Manfredi winery, had us at the winery as guests for lunch. His wife and two other women cooked an unforgettable feast of fresh vegetables, pasta and two kinds of meat to go with a gorgeous Muller Thurgau/Traminer white blend, an off-the-charts beautiful Aglianico rosé and a vertical of Aglianico going back to 1998. Wow, I was in heaven, and my reward was Aglianico. Then an amazing display of cookies and pastries were presented to the table.
I left my heart in Re Manfredi
Paolo, who resembles a well-fed Tony Bennett, stepped away from the table and minutes later appeared with a carafe of warm red wine. From Aglianico grapes, he brought his version of Vincotto (as they called it in Basilicata). This time the wine was deeper in color (not a surprise, seeing as Aglianico is a heavily pigmented and polyphenolically rich grape). I had stepped away from the table to take a picture and when I returned I saw that he had served everyone.
When I asked Paolo for a little glass to try as well, he looked at me funny but in a 1/1000th of a second kind of way. As I took the wine up to smell he looked a little nervous. And as I went to taste the wine I could sense even more trepidation, coming not just from him but from the rest of the locals in the room. Thank God I can sometimes sense these 1/1000th moments, and I drew the glass away and set it down. I then picked up one of the cookies and procceded to dip it in the warm, sweet elixir. The room melted in ease, assured that I wasn’t some American yokel who didn’t understand their customs. Dumb luck on my part, but a lesson, once again, to me, not to underestimate the traditions and the customs but to work to always be open and available for an autochthonous experience.
In Donizetti’s L'elisir d'amore, the elixir is a bottle of Bordeaux. I couldn’t but help laugh last night at the joke. The traveling salesman, Dr. Dulcamara, pawns a bottle of French wine off on poor love sick Nermorino. Thinking he has gotten the mother of all love potions, Nemorino proceeds to carry the farce of the opera out to its happy conclusion. But I was thinking all the way home, how my Dr. Dulcamaras pressed these ancient wines upon me and how they indeed cast a spell upon this equally love sick traveler. In love with Italian wines and sick that folks back home will rarely get a chance to see and taste and feel and smell such wonderful wines in such a rich and enchanting country.
Maybe we’ll have to do something about that in the future.