Sunday, May 18, 2014

Italian White Wines for Collectors – Aging with Honor

Recently, there has been a thread that is developing on these posts. One post, Old Wines for Young Sommeliers, looked into a world the younger generation might consider for their future enjoyment. Another one, White Wine for Red Wine Lovers, focused on white wines from Italy that might be enjoyable to folks with a disposition for red wine. Along the way folks asked me about white wines from Italy that age well. Then another friend sent me a column from Kerin O’Keefe of the Wine Enthusiast, entitle Aging Gracefully, about Italian wines that counter the notion of pronto bevere. It was a short piece, and though the wines written about were definitely age-worthy, the piece wasn’t long enough (probably by design) to get into other specific wines that I find (or want to find) in my wine closet. Let’s talk about some of those wines.

The oldest white wine in my closet is no longer white. It has aged into a beautiful, mellow claret-in-sunset color. From the 1936 vintage, it is an Est!Est!!Est!!! from Lampani G. B. & Figli, bottled in 1939. It came to me in the early 1980’s from an auction in Ft. Worth, Texas. It is amabile, hence probably not proper for this post. But is has lived for almost 78 years, so it gets its place in my cellar. Who knew something from so far away and long ago would survive? But is has.It is from the year my mom and dad were married. When my mom comes here next month to celebrate her 100th birthday, maybe we should open it up.

Not far from that oldster, there are bottles of Verdicchio di Matelica from La Monacesca, going back to the 1980’s. I’ve had great success with aged Verdicchio, both from La Monacesca and from Garofoli in the Jesi district. Those who know me, know I love Le Marche. These wines develop a nuttiness, almond and pistachio. The texture has a layer of creaminess to mingle with the acidity. They develop, especially when the wines are not manipulated so much. And the wines are not terribly expensive, like some of the white Burgundy wines that were once thought to be ageworthy.

Let’s talk about Gavi. Several months ago, Maria Rosa Gazzaniga passed away. Her passing was briefly noted in the Italian press. In America, nothing. She wasn’t an Aldo Conterno or a Giuseppe Quintarelli or an Antonio Mastroberardino. She was a woman who worked quietly, making white wine in Gavi, Tenuta San Pietro. Anyone who has had her white wines from the 1970’s or 1980’s was in for a special moment. Aged on the lees, organically farmed, these wines were lean and rich at the same time. I ran across a cluster of them in a special cellar in Florence and brought them home. The 1976, which we opened after 20 years, was bright and clear, a triumph. Considering that 1976 wasn’t held up as a particularly great or even good vintage, it was for me an indication that Maria Rosa had stepped in a direction her (mainly male) peers weren’t going. She was looking deeper into the wine, and those wines were looking back. Now she belongs to the ages, like her wines.

People, they all dream different dreams, don’t they? Several years ago, while visiting Chiara and Giorgio Soldati, they showed a wine that they were very excited about. If anyone here needs reminding, Mr. Soldati had the vision for Gavi as a world-class wine, in a time when red wines, especially from Italy, were fighting to climb that mountain. Now, all these years later, many folks have reached the summit. But Soldati dreamed about his white wine up there on top. Tis past visit, he and Chiara showed me their special project, GdeiG D’Antan. The wine comes aged, ten years, from the winery. All the hard work has been done. It is up to the collector to keep it longer. It will keep. But one must budget for a wine like this. What am I saying? This is a winery that has a track record. We’re not talking white burgundy prices. For my budget, I have placed bottles of their flagship wine the “black label” Gavi dei Gavi, as I have done for years. Still, a wine for which funds must be allocated. But I know when I put the wine in my, cool, dark little closet, something will come from it. I have white Burgundy’s from the 1980’s that haven’t been so lucky.

I was disappointed Ms. O’Keefe didn’t have space to mention the white wines from Campania. I am sure editorial and space concerns didn’t allow for any more wines. Pity. We have known for many years the graceful aging ability of Fiano, and even Greco. Trends and fashions in the wineries of Campania have muddled those notions, but there are producers who still make their Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo for the long haul. My benchmark is still Mastroberardino, as their wines from the 1970’s and 1980’s can still be found in the collections of those fortunate to be sentient at the time and have a little cash for them. Often the wines sold slowly, so they were closed out at bargain basement prices. I know of a little cellar in West Texas where there is a cache of great Fiano and Greco from the days when Antonio Mastroberardino was in his winemaking prime. It was there that I learned that I love Greco more than Fiano. But it is a relative matter. It’s not that I don’t love Fiano, I do. The wine develops a sweet cream texture and has that volcanic buzz in the background. Very exciting wine, even if appearing to be very calm at the time. The Greco is a little livelier, to me. The spice, the fruit, the nuttiness, the mineral component, like a great fritto misto, all the pieces and parts work together so well. And so deliciously.

Even though this cannot be the last word on these matters, this is getting long. So one more, and then we go our own ways.

Last week, in Houston, there was a special tasting of older wines from Alto-Adige. It really merits its own post. And it will. Someday. For now, I need to talk about Pinot Bianco, or what they called it when most of the wines we had that night were made, Weissburgunder. The tasting was put on by Cantina Terlano, and it was a tour de force for white wine from anywhere in the world. We had ten white wines (nine from Alto Adige and one a “ringer” from Burgundy).

I have a tenuous relationship with Pinot Bianco. When I was young and broke and going out to a “continental” restaurant (before Italian places were so commonplace) Pinot Bianco from France was the only wine on the list that I could afford and enjoy.

Alto Adige Pinot Blanc is another creature. It isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t the wine of last resort. It is front-stage and center. And it ages beautifully. The 2002 “Rarita” developed a delicious spice. Slight cinnamon. Sour/sweet. Citric. I kept coming back to this wine. The 89 Terlaner (a Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay blend) was woven with spice and balance with a long finish. Still a pup.

The 1955, a blend of 70% Pinot Bianco and 30% Chardonnay was a bit closed in the beginning. When it opened it, it blossomed into a lovely look into the past, like a vinous Viewmaster. This brought the 50’s back, if only for a moment. I could not imagine how the younger folks at the table might have been stirred by this time-travel wine. For my part, I was once again a child, lolly-gagging in a field of wild flowers, flying my 19-cent kite while my mom and nonna were picking flowering wild mustard greens.

White wine that ages well is not for everybody. Some people just don’t like the secondary, tertiary (or the unintended) attributes that develop with long aging. Just like aging for humans, it’s not all pretty. But along the way something can happen. And while we cannot live forever, old wine allows us to travel in time and put off the inevitable, if only for an evening. One can never have too many of these wines in one’s collection.

(ed.note: Even here, space and time limitations didn't allow me to include white wines from Friuli and Sicily, Perhaps a Part II?)

written and photographed (with the exception of the Viewmaster shot) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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