Thursday, June 25, 2009

Calabria: The Epiphany

There has been discussion in Italy about the future of wine in Calabria. In brief, there are two camps: one to maintain a more traditional use of the native grapes for the wines of Ciro and one which seeks to elaborate the appellation with the use of more international grapes.

Calabria is where my mom’s mom came from. She left a poor region, which had just been devastated by a terrible earthquake, early in the 20th century. Calabria has been abused by organized crime and tribal urges. It is a beautiful place. The wines are hard to sell, but when someone tastes a Gaglioppo or a Montonico they become enthralled with the fruit and the texture and the echo of the earth from where they spring.

Can Cabernet help bring wealth and fame to Calabria? Who knows? When a wine like a Ciro or any number of wines from Calabria tries to make it in America, it is a combination of energies. When the Statti’s or the Librandi’s come to America, the wines are well received and people love them. And surely these two wines often represent different styles and philosophies of winegrowing in the region. The connection isn’t always because of a review or a score. Sometimes it is the personal touch that these people bring to the selling game. So it’s not as easy as Cabernet or no Cabernet, native yeasts or designer yeasts, French barrique or chestnut botti. It’s just all simple and black and white.

When I first went to Calabria in 1977 and visited my family in Bucita, it was harvest time. I’ve written elsewhere about that experience on the blog. I didn’t elaborate on the experience but now I would like to do so.

Many have had a wine that was an epiphany. If you haven’t yet had it, be patient, you will. In the past, when someone would ask me what my epiphany wine was, I’d search back and come up with all kinds of examples. The 1964 Monfortino. The 1935 Taylors Port. The 1974 Heitz Martha’s. The 1961 Lafite. The 1953 Petrus. The 1928 and 1929 Haut Brion. The 1928 D’Yquem. The 1968 Sassicaia. And so on.

But the wine that really was the one that turned the light on for me had been put up in a used beer bottle with a crown cap. It was in the wine cellar of my family, the one at the top of this post. My cousins brought me down in the evening after the meal, when the children had been put to bed and the women upstairs were busy (always) making something. We’d go into the cellar and empty bottles so they’d have them for the new vintage. They were not wealthy, but there was a lack of raw materials, so nothing was ever wasted. They weren’t poor. They had a washer and a dryer. Back home in those days, we didn’t. And they had a better car than I had. And a TV. We didn’t have TV because we didn’t want one. But the cars were old 1962’s, a Corvair and Falcon wagon. So to me my cousins were doing well. They just didn’t have enough bottles.

We sat down and after drinking a couple of demijohns of stout red wine, about 5 of us, one of the cousins went to a cabinet and brought out this little bottle of golden, murky wine. It was a Greco or a Moscato, I don’t remember the grape. But it was a late harvest dessert wine. My family loves sweet things. Those wonderful figs that are baked in their leaves, the cookies, chocolate and fruits, dripping with honey-sweetness. And by the way they unlatched the little cabinet and brought out the wine, I could sense this was important.

I loved how they accepted me. All too often everyone is too darn busy or angry to give a damn about anyone except for themselves. But in 1977 things were different. Things were slower. Not as many people lived in their own little reality bubble. No phones, no email, no blog rage, no tweet-spies. Just the sun in the morning, a day of work, two meals, a nap in the afternoon and in the evening after the last meal and the occasional passeggiata, a venture into the wine cellar. And here we were.

The wine: I still remember the smell. It was like the flower of a jasmine. Sweet, honey, a little edge of bitter, and the floral blousy exposure. The last thing I smelled something that wonderful was the perfume on the neck on my girlfriend when we were fourteen.

The taste: was a wisp of fruit, not enough acid to matter, but nothing awkward or out of balance. This was a wine pure and natural as it had been made for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It connected me to all of the people that had come before and made me feel like finally I had been born to something that I was meant to do, something I loved. It was my entrance interview that the god of wine had arranged with my cousins. It was test and celebration, certification and baptism all rolled up in one. It was the choice that was being given to me for a vocation of a lifetime.

And now, entering into the fourth decade of this work. All around us there is tension and stress and warehouses and wineries filling up with wine. Where will it go? Who will drink it? How will we ever get it all out of the cabinet in the cellar and turn on the light for all those many souls for whom the epiphany awaits?

As it has been since the days of the Chaldeans making wine for the Egyptians, so it is 4,500 years later. One precious bottle at a time.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this -- my mother's family is from Catanzaro and Cosenza & I always enjoy reading about the culture. Incidentally, I hope they don't convert to international varieties but rather embrace their unique traditional wines. How many cabs do we need?

Marco Longobucco said...

Nothing quite like the smell of night blooming jasmine. Fato jobo bono, amico.

Anonymous said...

Ed. note:

Hey, my friend,
You made me shiver and I am not that kind of person that shivers.
This thing you wrote is more detailed than a picture, more perfect than the borders of an egg. You make it personal, like all the most important thing for self conscious human beings and you made me think, once more if it was necessary, that you are a perfect baby sitter for a humble little big thing like a bottle of Librandi Cirò Rosso Classico. Grateful like only a Calabrian can do
Paolo Librandi

Unknown said...

Great post, AC! And I didn't realize they had donkey trainers in Calabria, too! Go figure... ;-)

Bob96 said...

Wonderful post, and relevant as Calabria's being pushed as the next wine/food/tourism "place" by the region and gov't. My guess is that gaglioppo, greco, nerello, mantonico, and other lesser varietals might be enough as a base, and hope so, since I love them all. My family's from Reggio Calabria (Cittanova) and we visit cousins, often enjoying homemade cold zibibbo from Bagnara, or a damigiana of soft red malvasia nera a tavola. Drinking a Mantonico Passito from Stelitano on the jasmine-scented Ionian coast is a permanently joyful memory. Salve.

Avvinare said...

Great post Alfonso. You just reminded me that I need to write up my tasting of Calabrian wine from Vinitaly. I am glad to see Calabria getting some play. I have never seen the sea so crystalline as at Scilla, up the coast from Reggio and where of Greek mythology supposedly resided. A truly remarkable region. Glad to see it getting attention on your site.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Grazie Tutti for the nice comments!

DoBi - you can read Old Calabria here:

Tracie P. said...

very other-worldly imagery, both visual and verbal!

will you take me and 2B one day...?

i can smell that cellar already.

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