Sunday, October 30, 2016

Safe-cracking a memory vault in search of the unicorn wine

"Able was I ere I saw Etna"

Memory is an odd bedfellow. Even without the vicissitude of time or trauma it can be a transitory butterfly, flittering about and dropping from time to time upon the landing strip of the brain. Did I really catch that train to Calabria? Did we really eat the stomach lining of a monkfish? Did I really drink that wine?

Over a wonderful lunch prepared by a longtime friend and chef, Carlo Croci, in his restaurant , Bella West, in Ft. Worth and over an embarrassment of riches brought by Piemontese winemaker Franco Massolino, the conversation veered to the past and to long forgotten memories. Carlo and I have been trading wine and stories for longer than we both would like to admit. And along the way, some great wines have passed through our kidneys.


I had to leave the group for a short moment to fetch a spare battery for my camera. As I hit the outside and the piercingly bright Texas Autumn light, there was this brief flash. I have been experiencing those more often lately, since the car accident in Sicily last June. My doctor tells me it is PTSD related, stemming from a horrific event that the psyche is attempting to block out. Ocasionally I get flashbacks. But this one was different. It was over a bottle of wine, one which I had full recollection of tasting, almost down to the last drop, but for the life of me couldn’t remember the exact name.

Back in the restaurant, safely ensconced between Franco’s 2009 Barolo Riserva “Vigna Rionda” and Chef Croci's seared slab of Fassone Piemontese, the flashback passed. I returned to the present, with a gaggle of Barolo wines before me, pressing in for my attention. Work. Joy.

Over fresh pears, grapes and aged cheese, the conversation at the table again turned to the past. Of the many wines we’d had over the years. And why hadn’t we had lunch sooner? Why had too many years passed since we last did this? Promises to return soon, maybe even with one of remaining bottles of grappa we had distilled many years ago on his patio. A story for another time.

On the ride home, though, the thought of that wine started bugging me. Did I only imagine it?

All I remembered was the year, 1971, and the fantasy name, Gattopardo, and the place of origin, Sicily. And a vague notion that the red wine was made from the Nerello grape(s). Doing a web search, there are now all sorts of wines named Gattopardo, in homage to the singular novel written by fellow Palermitan, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Some consider it the greatest work of writing to come out of Italy in the 20th century. Hence the adoration and the occasional need by wineries to forge a connection with people who know not so much about Sicilian wine, but who might have read the book, or more likely, seen the 1963 film “the Leopard” by Luchino Visconti, with Claudia Cardinale, Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon.

After the web search offered no visible evidence of this wine, I went the analog route. Burton Anderson had a brief note in his 1980 groundbreaking book, “Vino,” where he made mention of the Barone di Villagrande estate in Sicily, on Etna, near the town of Milo. He wrote, “The Rosso and Rosato (which is called Gattopardo) are made from Nerello Mascalese at 80 percent or more with the possibility of Nerello Cappuccio at no more than 20 percent and local light grapes at no more than 10 percent. The rosé is to drink young, but the red is kept two or three years, most of the time in large old barrels in the Villagrande cellars, before going on sale. The Rosso can age extremely well, certainly a decade from some vintages, though from others it is best to consume within three to five years of the harvest.”

Okay, so a little more information, but problematic, as Anderson stated that the rosato was called “Gattopardo,” not the Rosso, according to how I read his passage. But the wine I had was red, it was a rosso.

So I dug into my personal papers and archives in search of more evidence. And that was where I found a note, an invoice of sorts, from one with whom I had done a bit of business in the 1980’s, Barone Armando de Rham and his Enoteca Internazionale de Rham. Armando has passed away since then, but his wife, Barbera, is still running the place. The letter, on page two, gave me the answer I had been searching for. A mind blowing laundry list of unicorn wines in today's right, there, on the 4th line item from the bottom, stated clearly a bottle, Villagrande – Gattopardo Rosso 1971, invoiced for 3,300 lire (about US $2.20, at the time). I know it sounds ludicrous for a wine that cost a little more than $2.00 to have assumed so much importance in my concussed little brain. But it persists to this day.


I had only one bottle and stored it in my wine locker for more than ten years. And then the moment came to pull it out from the close-knit community which it had spent the last ten years of its life with, in the cool, dark, quietness of the wine closet. I remember standing the wine up for a few days, as it had sediment.

The cork was not loose or crumbly; I pulled it out, sans drama, and decanted the wine into my Civil War era decanter, just for fun. And then proceeded to taste and enjoy the wine over the evening, or as long as the wine would stay vibrant and alive.

The color was rich, with some slight brick tinge at the edges. I remember how red the wine was. It wasn’t dark like Mouton or Opus One, but a deep, rich red. The aromas were multifarious, ranging from belladonna lily blossom to President Lincoln rose. All was harmonious in the olfactory sense, as if during these years the aromas had all made peace with each other and were getting along quite well, waiting for this moment to dance under the spotlight. And dance they did. It was like being on a mountain in the spring, under a full moon. Etna.

And then to the flavors. First sip was bright; the fruit was firm with no greenness. Not over-ripe. 1971 was a hot summer in Sicily (my first), but on Etna the harvest in the hills would extend the growing season into cooler days and nights, until picking time. There were plenty of passages to this little novella of a wine, many juicy pages, all waiting their turn.

On this night fortune shined down upon us. This was not a wilting rose of a red wine. It had something to say, and it took its time. This would be no “gulp it down before it fades” wine. This was “I am here, now this is what I have to say and I will say it in my cadence.” And so, we sat back and let the captain steer his ship.

Liquid, not thin, with no signs of adiposity that often accompanies age, especially a life lived well. There was an edge, a slight impatience with having waited so long only to have been opened up to a time no longer recognizable. “Who is this that has awakened me so soon?” The wine silently clamored in my brain. But it was too late. We had drunk the wine, one bottle, all of it. A generation had passed since the wine was born. Wine from Sicily, we had no track record as to their longevity. As an American, I thought I had been more than patient in waiting all those years. But, I wonder, could I have waited even longer?

Towards the end of the bottle of old wine poured from an ancient decanter, I noticed no signs of diminished capacity on the part of the 1971 Gattopardo Rosso from Villagrande. The old wine from an even older Barone, having been procured from another Barone, Armando de Rham, seemed like a gift from Italy's noble past to tell me that, yes, we made, and we still can make Sicily great again. It was one of the greatest wine experiences of my life, and I’ve had a few. On the emotional scale of 1-10, it was a 10.

I will probably never have an experience with that wine ever again in my life. As the fates would have it, I have been given another chance to go back to Sicily and to Etna, someday, in search of the greatness that permeates Sicily and her wines. Now, one of them is only a memory, of one of the most elusive unicorn wines, which we seek and occasionally stumble upon, on the wine trail in Italy.





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1 comment:

Marco Zafferana said...

Nothing mephitic here. Somewhat mythic, maybe, and from the fire circle of the legendary story telling tradition. You are channelling some molten material, amico.

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