Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Vinitaly Day 5 ~ "With my mouth and nothing else."

Last day, Vinitaly. This has been one of the busiest Vinitaly’s I can remember in 30 years. I am completely overwhelmed with the relationships, the connections and the stunning wines many of my producer friends are making. But next year I have to bring some colleagues with me, because it is just too much for one person to try and tackle. But try I did, and I ran, not walked, this Vinitaly. Even the last day, which is traditionally a day to wrap things up (many of the producers have already left Sunday night), I found myself getting around and making one more visit, one more tasting. It was actually one of my best days, in the aspect of being able to talk to some of my friends. Aldo Vacca, looking tired, his eyes slightly bloodshot from manning his booth under the hot lights on the Piedmont Pavilion, poured some stunning wines. I will post about this soon. My friend Pino, pouring one last taste of Illuminati Brut as we share one more sip, one more story.

Two Barolo’s for €6.90 - That'll be US $4.70 per bottle, folks

I found an old hand, a gent, who has come up with a couple of interesting wines, an odd couple of sorts. A Barbara D’Asti and a Falanghina, both DOC’s that can sell well below US $10. And with the recent sighting of 2005 Barolo selling for under US $5, in Italian stores, I reckon there are all kinds of values lurking.

Many people told me the wineries are ready to deal. Barolo for $4.70. From a large, modern co operative. Now we’re talking “back to business.”

Hey, I don’t want to get my friends who are making fine artisanal small production wine upset. I understand their “fixed costs”. I understand the need to improve a winery and the land and the farm machines. I’m not sure a Lamborghini is a legitimate farm machine, unless of course it is the tractor version, not the 2 door sport coupe that goes 200 mph. But hey, they have it in Napa and in Bordeaux, and elsewhere. Wine is still emotion, it’s drama, it’s the big show. I just think there are millions of people we have yet to reach who just want to drink Italian wine, good solid, everyday kind of stuff that is still reachable, still within the grasp of us “little people.”

That said, my last stop, my very last stop at the stands at Vinitaly, was a wonderful way to finish the show. My palate was beyond scorched. I was ready to go home, pack, get a nice glass of Soave in a wine bar, wait for a restaurant to open (on Monday, no easy task) and get a little pasta, some fresh veggies, maybe some nice roasted fish and get on the plane back to Texas. And then I stepped up to the booth of Christoph Künzli. His estate, Le Piane, in Boca, is one of those magical stories. Sit back; let me tell you the story of how he saved the DOC of Boca from near extinction. And for my friendly sommelier friends reading this, if we can get any of these wines, you will want them.

Amongst rural communities and green pastures we pass through small stone bridges, old farms, tool sheds and the extremely thick forests alongside the road. Once, there use to be thousands of hectares of vines in this area, hundreds of years back...and if I hadn’t seen the aerial photos that show the village of Boca completely surrounded by vineyards...I never would have believed it.- Armando Castagno

Imagine this: you stumble into a village, an ancient wine region. At the turn of the century there were 40,000 hectares in production. 80 years later there were less than 700 left. An old man, making wine in barrels they still rested, year after year, going back decades. And these were beautiful, delicious, supple wines. These were treasures of the Colline Novaresi. This is what Christoph Künzli and his partner Alexander Trolf stumbled upon, this treasure trove of Italian wine history. The old man was Antonio Cerri. His heirs, what heirs? He was preparing to retire, in his 80’s. He was leaving this all behind, as we all must do some day. But he wasn’t quite ready to hand it all over to Künzli and Trolf. It took nearly ten years for these young men to assure the old man, this Obi-Wan of wine, that they would honor his life’s work. He would take them into his cellar and they would taste the ’47, the ’50. This liquid history I talk about on the wine trail in Italy, this was one of those places, like Fiorano, Monsecco, Voyat. Bygone bottles. I had heard about this place long ago, in Novara, in a wine shop. We were talking to an old guy in 1984, and he was telling us about this wine, Boca, up in the hills. His dialect was too hard to understand, but one of the young men in the store told us that he said, “There is an old man up in the hills making wine the old way, the ancient way. Making wine for the ages.” And that was all I heard. I was on my way top more important places, to Barolo, to Barbaresco. And we didn’t have time.

Christoph did have time and he found one of the Holy Grails of wine. But not only that, he saw the shrinking of the vineyard space, left to go back to wilderness, to forest, A terroir preserve for the future. Vision. Patience. Timing. Reward.

An image of a vineyard recalled a trellis system long gone from the training manuals of Montpellier, San Michele all'Adige and Davis. Called the Maggiorina system, where a vine is trained to form a cup of sorts, a grand receptacle in the vineyard. Sounding like something from “Avatar” and Pandora, this system has been resuscitated by Künzli, a system that, legend has it, was designed by Alessandro Antonelli, who was born in nearby Maggiora. Antonelli became famous for designing the Mole Antonelliana, a major landmark of the Italian city of Turin. A building was conceived and constructed as a synagogue and now housing the National Museum of Cinema. Interesting connections, I am intrigued. Hell, I am planning a trip just to go see this winery, this area.

The wines are small production and are in a premium price range by today’s economic standards. No they aren’t 2 for $9. More like $70. Ok, there is room for one more at my table. Especially with a story like this one.

And how were they wines? How do you think? After five days of tasting all kinds of wines, as I said with a scorched palate, these the last wines I tasted before I headed to Soave and to sooth my palate of soft white wines from the Veneto?

Let me tell you, these wines were beautiful. The Boca DOC, the “Piane” Colline Novaresi DOC and the “La Maggiorina” Colline Novaresi DOC, we tried, going back a few years. There are tasting notes on the site if you care for that sort of information. There are blogs as well; I’ll link the info here and here.

How rare, and how wonderful it was, on the last day, to come upon Christoph, this steward of history, carrying on, making the wines of Boca, in his simple way. Or as he said, "With my mouth and nothing else.”

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