Sunday, January 20, 2013

The 1st Best Italian Wine Tasting of the Year

January is traditionally a time I go to New York. The holidays are over, the year has been put to bed and then it is time to meet with suppliers and see where we have been and where we are going. My first trip this year started with something I have wanted to do for years – taste the Italian wine portfolio of Neal Rosenthal with the man himself.

One of my colleagues deals directly with Neal and so we had a half day in New York. The plan was for Neal to meet us at the airport and head straight to his warehouse.

I got in first to La Guardia where Neal was waiting by the curb with his venerable old Volvo. He flashed his famous smile; we spoke a few words of Italian and headed to work.

I had never met him but we had mutual friends. For me, this was one of those moments that make the business one of joy. Here is a man whose knowledge of wine is deep. Frankly his understanding of Italian wine is such that I am overjoyed to be around someone like him. Why? Italian wines are complicated; I think we have established that. But beyond the names and the confusion, there is the shiny golden soul of Italian wines. And very few people get that. Neal gets it. So we can talk at a level that I rarely get to talk.

I remember reading a story about Michael Jordan, who said that he would get on the court, when he was young, and play the bigger players, the better players, the more seasoned players. In order to take his game to a higher level he had to play with guys better than him. Neal Rosenthal is one of those guys to me. I’ve followed his career, read his book, now it was time to get on the court with him for a little pickup ball.

At the warehouse, there a selection of 33 wines from Italy. I could write about all of the wines but this post I’d like to concentrate on a few areas. A Veneto-Liguria venture for Bisson. Then the Ligurian wines of Bisson. A hike up to the Valle d’Aoste, the wines of the Colline Novaresi, followed by a jaunt south to Umbria and finishing in Calabria. We also tasted wines from the Valtellina, Piemonte and Tuscany, but for now this will be more than enough.

Lest anyone thinks I don’t like the sparkling wines of the Veneto, they need only put in front of me wines which have kept their pact with their region. In this case we have a producer from Liguria who understands the nature of extreme winemaking. And his collaboration in the Valdobbiadene is producing Prosecco and Glera with depth, clarity and character. Neal told us that the mission of Bisson is to preserve the best grapes of the region. The Prosecco, a col fondo style transported me to the hills of Valdobbiadene and renewed my faith in a wine I love too much to see what has happened to it in modern times. Great wines transcend their region and these sparkling wines do exactly that.

As we tasted the wines of Bisson’s Ligurian whites, I was in my little spot of Heaven. Years ago I made my first trip to the interior of Liguria and found a world that I immediately fell in love with. Dramatic landscapes, coastal influence, high altitudes, lots of wild life and white wine made for white wine lovers. High acid, lush fruit but not dripping with sweet, rich body and clean finish. Made for the food, made for lovers of seafood and vegetarians. Wines that nourish. We had three wines from Bisson. The first one, the Bianchetta Genovese “U Pastine” 2011 rushed to show us the herbs, oregano, what I would call a Ligurian garrigue, in that the smells and flavors of the land were encapsulated in the wine. Lily, citric, delicate, lovely.

The Bisson Pigato Colline del Genovesato 2011 had this wonderful stink that one can find in Pigato. It was austere lean and minerally, but it was also seductive in a very minimalistic way. It smells like the hills it grew up in, love it or not. I grew up near hills like that in Southern California, so it is music to my ears, nose and throat.

The surprise was the Vermentino – so much Vermentino from the West Coast of Italy is just too overripe and candied. Bisson’s Vermentino “Vigna in Trigoso” 2011 had a delicate honeycomb bouquet and golden color but the balance and complexity kept the wine from going over the top.

From Liguria we headed to the Valle d’Aoste. I have been a fan of wine from this area since I first had the 1961 Ezio Voyat Chambave Rouge. I have one bottle left in the old cellar, and really don’t know how it is doing. Neal tells me it’s doing just fine. We tasted wines from the Pavese and Grosjean wineries. From Pavese we started with the Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle 2011 and from Grosjean we tasted the Petite Arvine “Vigne Rovettaz” 2011 before we headed into the reds. For the reds we sampled from Grosjean a Torrette, a Cornalin and a Fumin. Having first been to the Valle d’Aoste in 2007, it was like another facet of the jewel I have come to know as Italy was revealed. These are not wines for beginners, for folks looking for a quick Pinot Noir fix so that can feel good about their hamburger. These are emotional wines, but also take some intellectual curiosity.

Neal said it best, essentially driving home that every wine he picks share a common thread. For me that thread is a finely tuned palate looking for unique particular character. That character has to tell the world outside what Italy is. Not meatballs, not lasagna, Italy. Not what everyone wants to know, by the way. A lot of folks want to go to Rome eat Fettuccine Alfredo, see the Pieta and move on to the next country. Neal’s Italy won’t let you off that easily. But it is entirely voluntary, no one need cross into these regions against their own free will. In the case of the Valle d’Aoste, it took me 36 years from the first time I went to Italy (and saw the Pieta before it went under the hammer of the mad man). But finally I made it to the top. That’s what these wines represent to me, not some fashion statement, but a climb to the peaks (virtually and literally) of Italian wine expression.

The Colline Novaresi is an area of Piedmont that gets bypassed by folks making a path to Alba and the land of Barolo and Barbaresco. I understand why. But you are so close, why not take a day and go see some of the producers of Ghemme, Boca, and Lessona. Prior to the boom of the fabric industry of Milan, and the fashion eruption in Italy that set the pace for clothing and design the world over, these now sleepy hills once bugled under the weight of the vines. People are finding out about them again, and the wines are wonderful. Different from their neighbors in the Alta Langa, but different enough to be interesting. We don’t all eat fish every day. Or meat. So why not?

We sampled only two wines, a Lessona 2006 from Massimo Clerico and a 2005 Ghemme “Chioso Dei Pomi” from Rovelotti. Neal confessed that the Rovelotti is “one of the great wines of the portfolio.” Elegant, dark fruit, supple, I was in. The last great Ghemme I remember was from Conte Ravizza’s Monsecco (which has also been resuscitated and Neal is bringing into the market again). The Lessona was old-school, musty but not dirty, light, anise, nice fruit, elegant. Really delicious. Yes I am a fan of Colline Novaresi since my first trip there in 1984. My last trip there a year ago to see Boca and Christoph K├╝nzli was a revelation. I look forward to going back to see Clerico, Rovelotti and more.

After a short break (we tasted wines from Piemonte and Tuscany) we headed to Umbria and Bea. Anyone who has read on this blog probably knows I am not a fan of what has become of modern Sagrantino. I think the saturated, brawny, Lance Armstrong style of Sagrantino is vulgar. I prefer the nod to tradition, even if it means the wine will be a little sweeter on the palate than the modern day Sumo-Sagrantinos.

Bea understands. Everything about what they do with red wine in Umbria strikes my 1970’s wandering hippie soul with a “Yes”. This is what the soul of red wine in Umbria is, not Cabernet, Merlot and Sangiovese blended to please the American lemmings. Bea is Umbria, the one I first saw in the caves, the hidden wines that they kept from the tourists. But this is no secret, it is available. Not for $10. But who want the cheap seats when it comes to something that should be considered some of the great red wines that have ever sprung from the bowels of the earth we call Italy. I am willing to pay for this experience. And Neal and company have the wine, albeit in small amounts. But this isn’t for everyone anyway. This is wine for folks who are not confounded by the diversity of Italian wine.

Last stop, Calabria. My love for this region is genetic. I understand her flaws. I know better than some folks who blindly want to relegate Calabria to some backwater stage for outlaws. Yes, here human nature can be as blind and as cruel as the rest of the world. But here the wines can also open up doors to worlds of wine one has never imagined. I have peered into the abyss of Calabria and will continue to do so, with pleasure, thanks to wines like Du Cropio’s 2005 “Damis”, a Ciro Rosso Classico Superiore Riserva.

I would have never imagined, in my days, that I would be sitting with Neal Rosenthal tasting his selection of wines from Calabria. To me that is a statement that this region has untapped treasures.

This is too long and I am sorry for that. But this is my time to show the beautiful side of Italian wine. I know I show the not so pretty underbelly of Italian wine from time to time. This is the shiny, beautiful stuff, the reason I still have hope.

That common thread that Neal looks for in all of his wine selections, it turns out, doesn’t have anything to do with common or ordinary or banal. It is about finding the fields and working ones way through the weeds and the stickers to get to the precious gems. Some of them may be unpolished and that is fine with me. Their native beauty is the thread in this man’s quest for wine. And mine as well.

Thank you, Neal Rosenthal, for your life in wine ad for sharing with any willing souls along the way.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, JP

No plans at this time - working with them in Louisiana

Yep, the wines are stellar -


scott haverstick said...

great insight but, as both a fan of sagrantino (as well as montefalco) and long time amateur bike racer, i don't get the reference to the sociopath lance armstrong.

Alfonso Cevola said...

"I think the saturated, brawny, Lance Armstrong style of Sagrantino is vulgar."

I think I'm being pretty clear, Will...

Bea doesn't fall into that category, btw

scott haverstick said...

if you mean "altered by illegal substances", then that's a pretty clever play on words.

na cica de vino said...

good stuff zio... that lessona is a star, mmm mmm

Kris said...

Thank you for this post! I love Italian wine but I cannot claim I am an expert, and I did not know much about Neal Rosenthal either, but your post has persuaded me to try and learn more about!

What I was most interested in while reading your post was your opinion about sparkling wines of the Veneto, which are my favourite ones, and Prosecco in particular is a wine that I really appreciate, because you can have it as aperitif, with fish dishes, with desserts and so on. But I had never thought about this wine from your point of view, and reading your post I understood that your words mirror the love and passion you have for Italian wines!

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