Sunday, April 20, 2008

Your Pace or Mine?

It was 2:30 in the afternoon and we were just finishing lunch in the hills above Trento. The phone buzzed, it was Giulio. “I’m just leaving Guido’s and heading towards Franciacorta, where are you?” I lied and told him we were on our way.

Fifteen minutes later, after our goodbyes, we slipped down the hill and found the autostrada towards our next appointment. We were running a little late.

On the highway it was raining lightly, so I looked to keep the speed down below 150 km/h. But it was a straight shot, downhill, against the traffic, and we wanted to get to L’Albereta no later than 4:30. I would probably "need" to push the Bee-em-voo a little, nothing over 160-170 km/h, tops.

As luck would have it, with only one turn around, we crept onto the manicured grounds of the hotel. We were to be guests of the Moretti family, who own this little gem. L’Albereta is part of the Relais & Châteaux, a collection of very fine hotels and restaurants around the world. After five nights on a too-small straw bed and a shared bath (Vinitaly), I was more than ready for a little coddling.

Our pace, since the end of the fair, had slackened only slightly, and we were getting ready to kick it up a notch going into Piedmont. As usual, I had over booked winery visits. But really, in this game, playing on the sidelines and treating it like a vacation doesn’t cut it back home. And yes, there were many more estates I drove by and felt awful about passing.

We were met by Giulio and Terra Moretti director, Roberto Barbato. They both looked like they had just enjoyed 18 holes of golf and were ready for the 19th hole. But we had a winery to visit.

Erbusco, between Bergamo and Brescia, and in the heart of Franciacorta, is where the Moretti family also own Bellavista and Contadi Castaldi. That’s a little like owning Roederer and Duval-Leroy. Lots of eyes looking at everything you do. Glamour and high expectations, and a fickle lot of trend-followers waiting to glam onto the next big thing. Sparkling wine in this tradition is determined by years of patience and perseverance in dark, dank cellars, not a smoke filled cat-walk in Milan. Odd, how the two have somehow hooked up.

The face of Contadi Castaldi is Mario Falcetti, who has been there almost since day one. Mario is still a young man, but he strikes me as genuine and warm, and very savvy. It appears that the folks at CC have a lot of fun, while managing to be a serious wine producer.

America has been slow to awaken to Franciacorta. I remember 20 years ago struggling to sell Ca’ del Bosco. Then again, 20 years ago it was all more of a struggle than it is now.

I find that interesting, in these challenging times, that a premium item like a Franciacorta appears to be easier to sell now. I think the explosive acceptance of Champagne in the US has thrown the spotlight on other quality producers across the globe. Now, with Champagne heading precariously towards their own possible Brunello-gate, with expansion of the appellation, it seems ripe for the folks in Franciacorta to stake their claim to some of the world market for the fine bubbles.

After visiting the cellars Mario and his winemaking team led us through a tasting of the Contadi Castaldi wines. It was there they showed to us their newest baby, Soul.

Soul is a Saten, similar to a Cremant. This one was from the 2000 vintage, and had just recently been disgorged after 72 months on the yeast. What I noted was an intense wine with a degree of depth normally reserve for still wines. The fruit was almost syrup-like, not cloying, layered. And at the end there was this little kiss of roasted coffee. The last time I remember having that sensation was in a magnum of 1964 Salon, back during the Reagan era. The Salon was one of the more memorable moments of that period of time.

The tasting done, Mario had another commitment and we said our farewells. But he is a good “connector” between the land and the shark-filled seas of commerce.

Francesca Moretti was opening a new casual restaurant and we were invited to the opening. But, the restaurant was not ready. So we were re-routed to a round table at Gualtiero Marchesi’s restaurant at L’Albereta.

I remember first eating at Gualtiero Marchesi’s namesake restaurant in Milan in 1984. Those were in the heady days of Nouvelle cuisine and Marchesi was leading the attack from Italy. We’re way out of trattoria and comfort food when we talk about this stage. This is food as art, carefully orchestrated in the kitchen and on the plate. No complaining here, for this is a way to see natural ingredients elevated in solo performances. Here asparagus is performing an aria, there truffles are counter-pointing with fois gras in a duet.

Performance, drama, luxury and when it is all said and done, a happy and full belly, dancing to some mellow techno-beat sounds in the background.

The maestro ambled over to our table in civilian garb. He was the conductor now; tonight, the kitchen was no country for old men. Now he exudes wisdom with his warmth, and it was interesting to see him interact with the young Francesca, whose family reigns over this kingdom.

A few words about this. Someone in Francesca’s shoes could be a wealthy little spoiled kid, bossing around famous chefs and feeding from the trough of the family wealth. But I don’t perceive her in that way. What I see is a very serious young woman who understands the responsibility of success. What do I mean by that? When you have three or four wineries, several Relais & Châteaux, a construction company that is pervasive in Italy and unlimited possibilities for the future and you see yourself as a servant-leader, that speaks volumes about the level of intent and engagement this family has with the land, their employees and ultimately their destiny. This is a historical period for Italian wines and from what I can see the Moretti family understands the historical context and their duty to be curators of that pageant of accomplishment.

Risotto with gold leaf. It wasn’t the first time I had enjoyed this from the kitchen of Gualtiero Marchesi. It might not be the last. It was like a little gold bow that wrapped that last 24 years up in a circle of the continuum of the wine carousel. Maybe it was the wine god’s way to wrap up the last generation (and me with it) or perhaps it was just a nice plate of risotto with a lovely glass of Franciacorta.

As I headed back up to my room with a bed that more than fit (and a bathroom that I could have put all of my Vinitaly room into) and a window with a view, the bell tower struck midnight. I would have eight hours to turn back into myself, before heading towards Piedmont. There, waiting, were all the young lions, ready to devour us, or conscript us into their pride of Nebbiolo.

Hakuna matata!

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