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Mas Blanch I Jove and the art of wine

August 23, 2014 4:05 pm - Posted by Tracy in Drink

The isolated DO of Costers del Segre is the most westerly of the Catalonian DOs. Here, a small handful of wineries cultivate a scant 300 hectares of vines where there are more olives grown than grapes. The area’s high elevation – higher than that of Priorat – means that the cooler climate forces growers to pick at the end of October with the harvest occasionally lasting until late November/early December, depending upon the year. Sometimes, there is snow on the ground by then.

Among the few wineries operating in the region is Mas Blanch I Jove. Although this husband and wife team both come from farming families, they initially chose to start an iron company in 1975, which proved to be quite successful. But, despite their financial success, the family led a simple life, remaining close to home, never going anywhere. Then, in 1984, the family won an all-expense paid trip to London that forever changed them; it opened up their eyes to travel. They starting traveling from that point forward and have been to China, India and Canada among other destinations.

Yet in spite of expanding their horizons geographically, they have returned to their farming heritage with the launch of the Mas Blanch I Jove winery in 2006. The 750 acre estate is given over to olives more than grapes, but the small production (35,000 bottles annually) has meant that the family can stay focused. Starting with pre-phylloxera, ungrafted vines found in the area, they were able to take the cuttings and propagate them on rootstock for use in their organic vineyard, which is primarily planted to indigenous varieties. However, Cabernet Sauvignon, which they do have, while not indigenous, has been planted in the area since 1920.

Their Saó portfolio of wines, which they explained is named for the word that means the optimum conditions in the soil, includes the Saó Blanc (a white blend of Macabeo and Garnacha), Saó Rosé (Syrah and Garnacha) and three reds – Petit Saó (Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon), Saó Abrivat (also Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon, but from older vines) and Saó Expressiu (Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon).

The family has also been able to merge their twin passions of wine and art. Since their iron business still continues to provide a generous income, they are able to use funds from the winery to support “starving artists.” Having noticed that artists make very little money in pursuit of their dreams, they commission local artists each year. Accordingly, a walk through their vineyard is almost like walking through a sculpture garden since various sculptures are scattered throughout the estate. This passion for art extends to the wine’s labels, which are not only beautiful on the front, but also include interesting quotes on the back.

While the parents continue to work daily in the iron business, it is their children that have taken the lead at the winery. Specifically, daughter Sara has chosen to pursue winemaking as her career and looks forward to building her future in the family winery.

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There’s no place like Rhone

June 27, 2014 3:06 pm - Posted by Tracy in Drink, Learn

Situated in southern France, the Rhone Valley is among France’s most important wine regions, producing more quality (AOC) wine than any other with the exception of Bordeaux. Covering a large area (the region runs 125 miles long), the Rhone produces a wide range of wine styles from full-bodied, aromatic whites and deep-colored roses to powerful reds.

Among the best known appellations in the region is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, named for the Pope’s castle when the papacy was centered in Avignon. Producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are permitted to select from 13 different grape varieties, with the reds mostly focused on Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and, to a lesser extent, Cinsault. Although not as well known (since they account for only 5% of production within the AOC), the white Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are also produced from a blend of varieties, notably Grenache Blanc and Clairette.

This diverse selection of grape varieties is partially attributed to Joseph Ducos, a local winegrower who was instrumental in replanting the area’s vineyards in the wake of phylloxera. Ducos was owner of Château La Nerthe, one of the region’s oldest estates (dating to the 12th century).

Situated within the heart of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation, wine production at Château La Nerthe has been documented since 1560. Originally under the aegis of the Tulle de Villefranche family, Ducos purchased Chateau La Nerthe in 1870. Since 1985, the property has been owned by the Richard family and it is presently managed by Christian Voeux. The Chateau’s vineyards are 40 years old, on average, and have been certified as organic since 1998.

Chateau La Nerthe produces four wines: Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, Clos de Beauvenir and Cuvée des Cadettes, the latter being a name first used by Joseph Ducos and revived in 1986.

Chateau La Nerthe Clos de Beauvenir Chateauneuf du Pape 2010, Rhone Valley, France, $130.00
A beautiful blend of Roussanne, Clairette (along with a bit of white Grenache and Bourboulenc), this small special cuvee is produced from a small (2.5 ha) single vineyard. Fermented in used barrels, with 8-9 months on the lees, the wine is dry with medium+ acidity and full body; aromas and flavors of waxy, peach, floral, musk, oak linger in the wine’s long length. Chateau La Nerthe has been certified organic since 1998. Previous vintages of this wine could easily age 10-12 years, but with a shift to fermenting a percentage of the wine in oak (in addition to aging it in oak), it is expected that the wine can age for 15 years.

Chateau La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2010, Rhone Valley, France, $48.00
With a majority of the blend given over to Grenache Noir, the wine is rounded out with Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault and aged in a combination of oak barrels, casks and wooden vats. The oak is well integrated on both the nose and palate, offering notes of vanilla, wood and spice, along with black cherry, smoke and leather. Beautiful and complex, this wine can certainly age for a decade or more.

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Matua celebrates 40 years of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

March 11, 2014 5:17 pm - Posted by Tracy in Drink

Courtesty of Matua

Sure, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is hot right now; the NZ section in your neighborhood retailer is lousy with them and nearly anyone making wine in New Zealand these days has at least one in their line-up. But, despite its pre-eminence in today’s market, this grape variety has only been grown by the Kiwis for a few decades.

In fact, this popular grape owes a debt of gratitude to brothers Bill and Ross Spence for its Southern Hemisphere fame. The visionary duo first planted the variety in Auckland on the North Island in 1969 as a result of Ross’ studies at the University of Fresno, CA. Their first commercial production of Sauvignon Blanc was in 1974.

After studying viticulture from two separate hemispheric points of view – Ross in California and Bill at Massey University in New Zealand – the two brothers eventually established Matua Vineyard in 1973 in a tin shed on the North Island in West Auckland. From there, they went on to purchase land in Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, eventually establishing their largest vineyard holdings in Marlborough.

While the first set of Sauvignon Blanc vines were susceptible to disease and didn’t prove to be agriculturally viable, the Spence brothers went on to identify better suited clones and eventually identified the best material from which to plant a larger Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in 1978. By then, Matua had developed a solid reputation for its Sauvignon Blanc and other wines, winning numerous awards and acclaim.

In 2000, the Matua company was sold to Beringer-Blass Wine Estates, but the brothers remain actively involved with the venture. While Nikolai St George became Senior Winemaker as a result of the sale, Bill took on the role of Ambassador and Vintrepreneur.

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Bill at a recent press dinner held in New York. Tromping through snow piles and trying to maneuver around knee-deep, lake-size puddles at every street corner, I made my way to The Musket Room. Prior to the invitation, I had never heard of this restaurant, but I won’t soon forget its delicious New Zealand-inspired cuisine.

We started off with Matua’s signature Sauvignon Blanc, produced with a blend of fruit from the three valleys in Marlborough. As a result of this blending, the wine is very well balanced, with a good dose of fruit, herbs and minerality. At Bill’s recommendation, I had the foie gras appetizer, which was a lovely match for the lively acidity of the wine. The main course was accompanied by a Pinot Noir, also from Marlborough. The earthy aromas and flavors, coupled with beautiful red fruit, were a perfect complement to my venison.

Although Matua doesn’t produce a dessert-style wine, Bill graciously ordered the Vinoptima Late Harvest Gewurztraminer from Gisborne for us all to enjoy with dessert; a sweet ending to a lovely meal.

Describing them as “porch wines,” Spence encourages consumers to open these wines and enjoy them with whatever they wish to eat or simply on their own – no need to pontificate on aromas or flavors or worry about pairing principles.

Both wines, which are part of the Matua Regional Range, feature newly redesigned labels. With their vibrant turquoise blue backgrounds and a Maori symbol called a Ta Moko created especially for Matua, which means “head of the family” in the Maori language, the new labels speak equally to the heritage and future of Matua and its wines.

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Bertani Amarone: An island of tradition in a sea of change

December 3, 2013 4:21 pm - Posted by Tracy in Drink

 

Casa Vinicola Bertani was established in 1857 by brothers Gaetano and Giovan Battista Bertani, initially as negociants and then as winemakers. The winery has been at the forefront of agriculture and winemaking in the region ever since, developing a dry style of wine when everyone else was producing sweet wines as early as 1870. In addition, while the precise origins of Amarone are a bit murky, the Bertani’s are credited with creating the modern incarnation of Amarone della Valpolicella wine we know and love today, back in 1958.

As a small producer, Bertani strives to maintain its traditional style, eschewing fads and passing fancy. In this regard, although the Bertani brothers had originally planted the majority of their vineyards to the less fashionable Corvina, the firm never wavered in this decision despite Rondinella’s greater popularity; a decision that has served them well as Corvina is now recognized as being superior to Rondinella.

Moreover, they are returning to their own roots, releasing Secco-Bertani Original Vintage Edition 2010, complete with vintage packaging. As a faithful reproduction of this wine, it follows the initial recipe of 80% Corvina, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Syrah and has been aged for 12 months in traditional cherry or chestnut wood casks.

However, this commitment to tradition has not kept them from employing new technology to do so. In fact, Technical Director Andrea Lonardi stresses the need to conduct significant research to maintain this style, especially in the context of climate change. Consequently, in an effort to stay the same, they must do things completely differently. For example, they have changed their canopy management techniques to reduce the amount of light that hits the grapes in an effort to keep sugar (and consequently, resulting alcohol) levels lower.

Lonardi himself is relatively new to Bertani as well, having joined the firm in 2012. Although he grew up in Valpolicella, Lonardi spent many years at a large winemaking firm outside the region. However, upon visiting Bertani for the first time, he was immediately struck with the same sense of connection and awe he had felt when being at Chateau d’Yquem and Romanée-Conti.

With new talent and techniques being employed in pursuit of a traditional wine, Bertani seeks to maintain the same quality and style that was evident in a recent vertical tasting of its Amarone. Tasting select vintages of the Amarone della Valpolicella Classico from 1964 to 2006, the elegance, complexity ageability of these wines clearly rang through each glass.

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Pere Ventura: A man on a mission with God and grapes

October 21, 2013 9:32 am - Posted by Tracy in Drink, Learn

Growing up in the Penedès region of Spain, Pere Ventura Montserrat comes from a long line of winemakers and winemaking tradition. His great-grandfather helped produce the first bottles of Cava at Codorniu back in 1872, with subsequent generations continuing to make wine in the area. However, despite his family heritage, Pere felt called in a different direction. When he was 20 years old, Pere wanted to become a Catholic priest – a missionary of God.

But, fate had other plans for Pere. At age 57, Pere’s father suffered two heart attacks and needed his eldest son to take over the family winery. Heeding the call of duty, Pere followed in his father’s footsteps instead. Dedicating his life to grapes rather than God, Pere ably led the family business for the next 12 years. Yet, when the pressure from his five brothers became too much to bear, he ceded the company to them in 1982.

Firmly entrenched in the wine industry by now, Pere took the opportunity to launch his own business and thus, Pere Ventura Cava was born. In his devotion to the wine, Pere chose to produce the highest quality Cava, significantly exceeding the minimum aging requirements. Whereas regulations only require 9 months aging on the lees – all of Pere’s wines spend at least 14 months on the lees, with some aged as long as 30 months. This dedication extends to his focus on indigenous grape varieties such as the use of 100% Trepat in the Tresor Rosé.

Moreover, Pere’s ethos is infused throughout the company in his assertion that the only way to build a company is with the truth. Consequently, he places enormous pride on respecting the consumer through his control of all processes from soil to bottle to consumer. This commitment also means that the winery is a member of the Wineries for Climate Protection initiative and works to protect the environment by reducing its carbon and water footprints.

It is clear that Pere takes this responsibility very seriously, putting not only his name, but also a rendering of his handprint, on every bottle. And while he never became a Catholic priest, as a true believer, Pere has become a missionary for Cava, promoting both his brand and the quality of this sparkling wine around the world.

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Capezzana and Carmignano endure the test of time

October 10, 2013 1:31 pm - Posted by Tracy in Drink

“I’m not letting anyone take these two glasses,” Diane emphatically stated to the assembled group. Later on, Manos admonished the server, “Don’t you dare touch that glass…” The shortage of stemware and overly eager servers only underscored everyone’s infatuation with the Capezzana wines in general and their unwillingness to give up even one last drop of their favorites. So, just what was so beguiling in our glasses?

Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of Countess Beatrice Contini Bonacossi (or Bea, as we were instructed to call her), the journalists enjoyed a vertical of the Villa di Capezzana from the Carmignano denomination, along with several other Capezzana wines.

Situated northwest of Florence, the Capezzana estate’s winemaking history can be traced as far back as a document dated 804 in which it is described as a farm with wine and olives, existing much as it does presently. It was during the 1920s that Bea’s great grandparents bought the property and today, the family continues to run the estate, which now also features a culinary school and wine bar. However, the mainstay of the property continues to be wine, with a foremost focus on Carmignano, which itself can be traced back to the 13th century. Official protection was granted by Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1716 .

Initially established as a DOC in 1975, Carmignano was promoted to DOCG status in 1990, retroactive to the 1988 vintage. While less known than its Tuscan neighbors of Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano is also a Sangiovese-based wine, although it is unusual in that Cabernet Sauvignon has always been an important component of the wine. This harmonic blend of the indigenous Sangiovese with the Uva Francesca (the “French grape”) is attributed to Catherine di Medici who sent the Cabernet to her home town of Carmignano upon her marriage to the King of France in 1533. Today, denomination laws require a minimum of 10% Cabernet Sauvignon to a maximum of 20% permitted, with at least 50% of the blend comprised of Sangiovese.

The vertical tasting included wines from 2008, 1998, 1988, 1977 and 1968. The youngest wine was the year that Bea’s sister, Benedetta, took over as winemaker for the estate, while the 1998 was the first vintage in which the wine was produced without Canaiolo and 1988 marked the first vintage in which the wine had DOCG status. The 1977 was selected in place of the lesser quality 1978 vintage, but, thankfully, 1968 saw an excellent harvest.

After tasting through the full line up of Villa di Capezzana, the overall consensus was that the 1988 seemed older than its age, but was still appreciated. However, the real surprise was that the 1977 and 1968 both displayed more freshness than the 1988 and were quite coveted. Hence, Diane’s remarks mentioned above. Regardless of people’s individual favorites, the message was emphatically clear – Carmignano is an age-worthy wine, showing beautiful complexity and development with time.

Beyond the Villa di Capezzana, other standouts included the Trefiano 2007 (also a Carmignano DOCG wine, but from a separate property), Ghiale della Furba 2007 (a Super-Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) and the Vin Santo Riserva DOCG 2006. It was this latter glass that Manos refused to part with and of which Benedetta refers to as her fourth child, given the amount of attention it requires. With its caramel, honey, nutty and spice notes, coupled with excellent acidity, it was the perfect ending to a fabulous tasting, at which point we finally ceded our stemware to the waitstaff.

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The Italian region of Piemonte (Piedmont) is well known for high quality wines, but while Barolo and Barbaresco are its main calling cards, the region has a much broader range of wines that bring great pleasure to the palate.

Situated in the town of Canelli in Asti, Coppo Winery was initially founded in 1892 by Piero Coppo. Today, this family business is in the hands of Piero’s grandsons: Piero, Gianni, Paolo and Roberto. Having found their way in the world, the brothers found their way in the winery, gravitating toward their individual strengths. For example, Roberto recognized that he likes to work with his hands, not a computer, and admits that he has no talent to sell, choosing instead to focus on enology as a good blend of his aptitude and interests.

Although the town of Canelli is best known for its Moscato, the Coppo family has established a strong reputation for their other wines as well. Consequently, we kicked off the tasting with Gavi, produced from the indigenous Cortese grape. While the majority of the winery’s grapes come from its estate-owned vineyards, the Cortese is sourced from five hectares owned by a local dentist with whom the Coppo family has worked for 30 years.

Next, we turned our attention to Chardonnay. Although I initially questioned why Chardonnay was being planted in Piemonte, the discussion quickly revealed the affinity this grape has for the region’s cool climate and calcareous soils, similar to those found in Burgundy’s Meursault. Thus, the question quickly shifted. It was no longer “Why is it being grown there?”, but rather, “Why don’t more producers grow it?”

The Coppo family’s commitment to the grape is clear. Not content to merely produce Chardonnay, they produce three different Chardonnay wines: Costebianche, Monteriolo and Riserva della Famiglia. Overall, the Chardonnays were elegant with restrained use of oak.

More specifically, the Costebianche spends the least time in oak and displays nice minerality with good structure and very long length. In addition to its lengthier time in barrel (two months more than the Costebianche), Monteriolo is also bottle aged for eight months and is produced from a selection of four to five vineyards, with more obvious, but still integrated, use of oak on the palate. Consequently, it was creamier and fuller in style. The top of the line, Riserva della Famiglia, made from a single vineyard in Agliano, sees 20 months in French oak barrels, coupled with lees stirring. This wine was also full-bodied and creamy in texture, with pronounced aromas and flavors of damp earth, citrus, yeast and mineral characteristics, culminating in long length.

The brothers also have a strong passion for Barbera. A grape famous for its acidity and low tannin, the Coppos look to retain the grape’s freshness and food-friendly nature in the production of all of their Barbera wines. But, their dedication goes well beyond simply making good Barbera-based wine and, in fact, the family has been at the forefront of ensuring that high quality Barbera not only has a place in the market, but is recognized and rewarded for what it is.

Consequently, the Coppos were among a handful of Asti producers who came together in 2000 to discuss what they perceived to be a problem with Barbera. With Barbera d’Asti’s vast area of production and diverse soils and microclimate, the producers felt it was important to identify a more restricted area with tighter production regulations.

As a result, the Nizza denomination was created, with production limited not just by geographical boundaries, but also to vineyards with southern exposures, high elevation and high density plantings, along with low yields (even lower than those permitted for Barolo). These wines must be aged for a minimum of 18 months, of which six months are spent in wood. Moreover, while the general Barbera d’Asti denomination allows the inclusion of other grape varieties, this sub-appellation restricts production to 100% Barbera. In 2014, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza will officially became a DOCG, while the producers hope it will earn cru status in the future. [Please see Nizza e Barbera for more information]

At the least expensive end of the range is the L’Avvocata Barbera d’Asti, so named because the grapes come from land owned by a female attorney. Aged for six to eight months in a combination of oak casks and stainless steel tanks, the philosophy in making this wine is to have something ready to drink upon release. Just a little pricier, the Coppo Camp du Rouss Barbera d’Asti is made from 35-year-old vines and spends 12 months in barrel, followed by a year in bottle, before being released.

The flagship Pomorosso is sourced from 40-50 year old vines located in Castelnuovo Calcea and Agliano Terme. All 35 vineyards from these two areas are hand harvested and the grapes kept separately throughout the winemaking process, before being tasted blindly with the best plots selected for this wine. Surprisingly, despite the impartial selection process, the same plots are selected each year; as Roberto notes, “The soil always wins.”  We tasted both the 2009 and 2001 vintages of this wine, both of which were extremely rich and concentrated with nice fruit, well integrated oak and long length. However, my preference was for the 2001, which was still beautifully fresh in spite of its age and showing lovely development on the nose and palate.

Aged the longest (with 16 months in new French oak barrels), the Coppo Riserva della Famiglia Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza is capable of very long aging. The 2004 still displayed youthful character, with medium-firm tannins, and was smokier and spicier than the Pomorosso.

And, while Coppo proudly champions its Chardonnay and Barbera, they still produce great Moscato d’Asti, true to the tradition of the region. Thus, we ended the meeting on a sweet note with a glass of Coppo’s Moncalvina Moscato d’Asti. This lightly effervescent wine is off-dry with fragrant aromas of floral, peach and citrus, while still remaining fresh and cleansing on the palate.

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If Sicilian wines are still being incorrectly identified as emphasizing quantity over quality, another anachronism is that production by cooperatives automatically means poorly made wines. But, with MandraRossa’s intensive adaptation of technology and careful attention to every last detail, it’s clear that striving for quality isn’t restricted to family-owned wineries.

When I arrived at MadraRossa’s Casa Natoli, it was bustling with activity and after the relative quiet of being on my own since Monday morning, I was a bit flustered. But, after introductions were made by MandraRossa’s Brand Ambassador, Maria Isolina Catanese, I soon discovered how much I had actually been craving a full conversation in English. And, as my fellow guests were a group of restaurant managers from London, it wasn’t just English, it was English-English.

Built in 1830, Casa Natoli features the architecture of a typical country house and serves as home to MandraRossa’s cooking school. Ensconced in the Slow Food movement, the Kitchen Brigade at Casa Natoli prepared a multi-course meal featuring not just one, but several dishes comprising different varieties of artichokes (there’s more than one type of artichoke, who knew?), an especially bold move given that artichokes are often considered to be among the most challenging to pair with wine. Fortunately, the Fiano poured with lunch was indeed an excellent match.

After lunch, I was treated to a more formal presentation of the MandraRossa wines with a tasting out in the garden with the winemaker. The wines were quite lovely and the setting was simply heavenly. Then, the agronomist showed me their territory and provided additional details about their operations. Suddenly, we were back to speaking Italian, with the occasional translation from his more English-savvy colleague, when my requests for slower speech or repeated sentences proved insufficient to follow his meaning.

Named for the local district, MandraRossa was founded in 1958 and is part of Cantine Settesoli, which manages the largest single vineyard area in the whole of Europe. However, only the top 10% of Settesoli’s production goes into MandraRossa wines. Today, the cooperative has 88 members, who farm a total of 7,000 hectares. Among the most planted varieties are Chardonnay and Syrah, followed by Nero d’Avola.

The agronomist was keen to let me know how important it was to understand one’s terroir, explaining that they have spent significant time and effort to determine which varieties grows best where and then planting accordingly. In a further focus on quality, growers are advised by the agronomist when to harvest their vines and with which parameters to select their grapes. Moreover, harvesters are monitored by GPS, keeping careful tabs on what is going on within the region. Upon arrival at the winery (the cooperative maintains three), grapes are classified as A, B or C, depending on the quality of the crop, which consequently impacts the price paid to the grower.

Once the tour was over and I had checked into the hotel, it was time for dinner. The Brits and I all climbed into a van and were taken to a seaside restaurant where we kicked off the evening with an aperitif on the beach, just as the sun began to set. We were joined by a local dog (who likely belonged to the restaurant) and I somehow managed to step (barefoot) on a bumblebee (yes, ouch!), but the view was too stunning to worry about the pain for long.

Dinner itself was an exquisite array of fresh seafood, including raw gamberi (shrimp) that were so sweet, it was like eating candy. The Brits were a rowdy bunch to put it mildly, freely admitting to having been literally under the table the night before at Planeta’s La Foresteria. Thankfully, they were more subdued that night (perhaps too tired out from the night before?), although one woman proceeded to regale us with stories of her battle with Nutella addiction (she was joking, at least I hoped she was joking). And, when sorbet was served at the end of the meal, they were all anxious to convert them to sgroppinos (a slushy cocktail). The waiter was only too happy to oblige, bringing the entire bottle of vodka to the table and letting us pour at will. I declined the first round, but gave in on the second (if you can’t beat ‘em…and all that).

I encountered a similarly positive experience with another cooperative the following morning. Established in 1969, Viticultori Associati Canicattì, alternately referred to as CVA or simply Canicatti, is now home to 480 vinerons and 1,000 hectares. The vineyards are situated in the sunniest and driest part of Sicily, stretching out to the coast of Agrigento and comprising a wide range of altitudes from sea level to 600 m above the water.

As with MandraRossa, each vine is constantly monitored so as to identify the optimal moment for harvest. The vineyards are planted to both indigenous and international varieties, including: Catarratto, Inzolia, Grillo, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, as well as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

Given the cooperative’s proximity to the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), the winery has a unique relationship with the park. Consequently, I was blessed with the opportunity to taste through their extensive portfolio just steps away from Greek and Roman ruins. Led by Technical Director, Angelo Molito, we started with a lovely, slightly sparkling wine, Satari Frizzante 2012, before we tasted through a selection of still whites. We then shifted to a Nero d’Avola-Nerello Mascalese rosato blend. Next up were the lighter-bodied reds, including the Aquilae Nero d’Avola, their most sold wine.

Finally, we turned our attention to a mini-vertical of Aynat, the winery’s flagship wine produced in very limited quantities from low yielding, 25-30 year old Nero d’Avola vines and aged in barrique and bottle before release. I was astounded by the beauty, depth, elegance and age-worthiness of this wine, particularly when tasting the 2006.

Just outside the Park Authority’s boundaries, Canicatti has recently taken possession of 3 hectares of 20-25 year old vines, situated in the shadow of the Temple of Giunone. The fruit from these vines will make their debut at VinItaly 2014 in the guise of Diodoros 2012 – Nectar of the Gods. A blend of Nero d’Avola, Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese, the wine was first vinified in stainless steel in November 2012 and then, in May 2013, was transferred to barriques. Since the wine still has a full year of oak aging ahead, my preview tasting of a tank sample was an honor, but not a real assessment of what this wine will be upon release.

As we walked through the Diodoros vineyard, Angelo told me that the almond trees are strikingly beautiful when in bloom. I joked that I would be back in January to see them and, given the warm welcome I received that day, I’m almost convinced that if I were to show up on his door next year, he wouldn’t miss a beat before inviting me into his home and then taking me to see the trees.

While I would love to return to Sicily someday, I am pleased to know that there are many wonderful wines being produced by both families as well as by conscientious cooperatives, so that, at the very least, I can reach for a glass and be transported back to that very special week.

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Sicily – a part of Italy and yet it stands apart both literally and figuratively. As an island situated off the coast of Italy’s toe (Calabria), the region is physically separate, requiring a flight or ferry to get to or from there. Beyond geography, Sicily remains steadfast to its traditions and culture. My new friend, Federico Mammoli, of Firriato winery’s export department and originally from Rome, told me that when he first arrived on the island, he only understood about thirty percent of what people said to him, despite the fact that, of course, they all speak the same language.

As far as wine is concerned, agriculture is a big component of the economy and grapes have been cultivated here for centuries. Nearly everywhere one looks, there are vines and Sicily is responsible for an immense amount of Italian wines. Like much of southern Italy, the key word here was quantity, with quality a mere afterthought for many producers.

But that, to a large extent, is ancient history. Sure, Sicily still produces cheap and cheerful wines, most regions these days do, but while my formal exploration of Sicilian wine was admittedly confined to a handful of wineries, I was extremely impressed with what I found. There was complexity, depth and structure that I didn’t expect, revealing the significant quality and continued potential of Sicilian wines. And, throughout each winery visit, I was enamored not only by the wines, but also by the people and their passion and warmth.

The Rallo family, which owns Donnafugata, has been at the forefront of the renaissance in Sicilian wine for a long time. As early as 1851, the family first produced the Italian fortified wine, Marsala, where their winery is located. But, as the reputation of Marsala waned (as did much of its quality), Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo looked for other ways to better show off the potential of the Sicilian island. Taking a new approach, they chose to plant international grape varieties on the family’s estate in Contessa Entellina and launched the Donnafugata wine brand, borrowing the name from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), which takes place on Sicily.

During my visit, I had the pleasure of dining with both of Giacomo and Gabriella’s children — Josè and Antonio. One night, Antonio shared some of the family history with me, noting that one of the initial challenges was to teach the vineyard workers how to grow vines for the production of quality wine when they had been conditioned to grow solely for quantity. To solve this problem, the workers were given an opportunity to taste the wines side by side so that they would see what the impact of quality vineyard practices would have on the finished wine.

Once Donnafugata’s reputation with international varieties was established, the family turned its attention to local grapes. Today, the company grows 49 different varieties and is working on a project with the University of Milan to identify the best clones among the indigenous Sicilian varieties such as Cataratto. And, on the island of Pantelleria, where Donnafugata maintains 12 vineyards, totaling close to 70 hectares (170 acres), they are experimenting with various clones of Zibibbo. Today, Donnafugata is widely respected both at home and abroad and has helped to solidify Sicily’s standing as a producer of high quality wines.

Another family making its mark on Sicilian wine is the Sala family, whose winery, Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, is headed by sisters Annamaria and Clara. The two young women are relatively new to the wine industry, but can draw on the knowledge and experience of their father and grandfather, both of whom devoted their careers to wine. They sisters split the business duties among them and have brought in a winemaker to assist with production.

While many wineries boast stunning views, Gorghi Tondi has a particularly lovely one given its location within a natural preserve. Situated approximately 30 minutes south of Marsala in the Mazara del Vallo area, the 130 hectares of land were purchased by Annamaria and Clara Sala’s great-grandfather and were originally part of Prince Saporito’s hunting reserve. Thankfully, the land (along with its two karstic lakes, Lake Preola and Gorghi Tondi) was recognized in 1998 as a WWF Natural Reserve. Home to such vegetation as olive trees, dwarf palms and wild orchids, the reserve is equally attractive to herons, swamp hawks, mallards and other species, adding to the uniqueness of the place.

The winery itself was built in 2000 in the center of this agricultural area, with the first vintage produced in 2005. Now, nearly a decade later, Gorghi Tondi has a diverse portfolio, drawing inspiration from the Arabic culture (Rajah), general location (Meridiano 12) and proximity to the reserve (Coste a Preola as well as Sorante, which means a bird about to take flight) in naming its wines.

The range and quality of the wines was impressive, especially with the top wines, which they refer to as their Cru-level wines. However, it was their embrace of the Grillo grape variety in all its glory and many guises that really caught my attention. This cousin to Sauvignon Blanc makes its first Gorghi Tondi appearance in their Palmarès Spumante Brut; a second in the winery’s entry-level wine (not tasted); a third in the Coste a Preola Bianco, its premium label; and then again in Kheirè, among its Cru-level wines. A final appearance is the Grillo d’Oro, a botrytis-affected dessert wine. All whites (not just those produced with Grillo), with the exception of the Grillo d’Oro, are produced solely in stainless steel.

While it hasn’t happened overnight, the concerted effort and continued emphasis on quality has had a significant impact. In 1994, only 20% of all wine produced in Sicily was bottled in the region – the rest left in bulk. Today, nearly two decades later, 70% of wine produced within the region is bottled as Sicilian wine. As Antonio Rallo was quick to point out that such progress is the result of many small families working together. Recognizing their shared interests and common goals, a formal group was created in 1998 with an eye toward changing the image of Sicilian wine. And, although they still have a way to go, it is clear that they are succeeding, one family at a time.

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Discovering Sicily: A Visit to Tasca d’Almerita

July 6, 2013 3:21 pm - Posted by Tracy in Drink, Travel

If a wine region can claim to have a first family in its midst, then no doubt the Tasca d’Almerita family would find itself among the top of Sicily’s list. In the 1830s, the two Tasca d’Almerita brothers bought the Regaleali estate, turned it into their home and launched the family business. But, it wasn’t until the 1950s that things began to really change. Choosing to become a pioneer in shifting the conversation about Sicilian wine from quantity to quality, it was Count Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita who focused on improving Sicilian wine through experimentation in the winery and the vineyard.

Among Giuseppe’s first successes was Bianco Regaleali, a white blend of Inzolia, Cataratto, Grecanico and Chardonnay, which sports an unusual bottle shape –similar to a flute d’Alsace – immediately becoming well recognized for its quality and establishing the Tasca d’Almerita’s reputation as producers of fine wine. This was joined by the Rosso del Conte – a special reserve of Regaleali Rosso, produced from 40 year old Nero d’Avola vines. His Nozze d’Oro was first crafted as a gift to his wife in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary – a true labor of love – blending Inzolia and Sauvignon Blanc. When the wine was met with such critical acclaim, he decided to continue to produce the wine beyond the anniversary celebration and it remains a company flagship.

Guiseppe’s son, Count Lucio, followed his lead, looking to plant vines at different and higher altitudes, where it was much cooler. Lucio was also the first to plant international varieties, namely Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, during the 1980s, a choice he initially hid from his dad. It wasn’t until the wines were crafted and bottled that he gave Giuseppe a taste, still not revealing their origin until after Giuseppe had offered his seal of approval. The Chardonnay made its debut in the family’s portfolio in 1985 and continues to garner high praise as does the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Today, while Count Lucio remains president of the family-run winery, his two sons, Giuseppe and Alberto, serve as vice president and managing director, respectively. When Giuseppe and Alberto joined the family business, Lucio made it clear that if they began to fight, he would immediately step in and tell them what to do. The threat seems to have worked since they continue to work in harmony to this day.

Regaleali now stretches over 500 hectares in the heart of Sicily and I reached the historic estate in the late afternoon, with time to rest before dinner. But, if I thought that the remote location would mean peace and quiet, I was sadly mistaken. A German restaurateur who is a client of Tasca d’Almerita had brought his all male group of friends to visit the winery, coincident with my stay. While I was warned that the group was there, it didn’t prepare me in the least.

The light teasing, which I could easily handle, began with the appetizers, eaten in the courtyard, while enjoying the Tasca d’Almerita Brut sparkler. Later, we moved indoors to escape the evening chill and bawdy jokes were told. But, like the appetizers, this, too, was only a taste of what was to come.

The next incident involved a fox (no, really!). At some point, during the meal, Regaleali’s Hospitality Manager, Sasha Stancampiano, asked me if I wished to see a fox. A bit perplexed by the question, I followed him outside, where, to my surprise, a fox was hanging out in the courtyard. It turned out that the fox visits regularly and, given that they’ve taken to feeding her, I am sure she will return.

After dinner (and many glasses of wine), the Germans began to sing. An impromptu game of Name That Tune was scrapped when the internet connection proved to be too slow to stream music on Yoni Annet Westerndorp (Brand Manager Europe)’s iPad, but the Germans continued to sing. Suddenly, there were four middle-aged German men belting out Bye, Bye Miss American Pie and dancing around the table. I wasn’t sure which was more surprising – their eagerness to sing or the fact that they even knew that particular song. Other songs and similar renditions followed (as did several more glasses of wine). I tried to decline at least a few glasses, but eventually gave up trying and simply took fewer and smaller sips. As midnight approached, it appeared that the dancing was about to shift from AROUND the table to ON the table, at which point Yoni, Rossella Marino Abate (an intern at Tasca d’Almerita) and I said goodnight to the gentlemen, half expecting to find them still there at breakfast, and headed off to our respective rooms.

After breakfast, which was blissfully song-free (save for the iPhone video of last night’s antics), winemaker Laura Orsi, who has been with Tasca d’Almerita since 2004, led me through a formal tasting. She shared that careful attention is paid to replanting the vineyards, with 15 hectares removed and replanted annually. However, she further emphasized the need to work well in the winery to maintain quality and included an analogy regarding zucchini. Unfortunately, as my notes simply read “zucchini example,” this wisdom is now lost to me.

Once the tasting was over, Yoni and Rossella provided me with a comprehensive tour of Regaleali, visiting a number of vineyards including the vines planted back in the 1950s. The self-sufficient estate also boasts one of Italy’s best culinary schools established by Count Lucio’s sister, Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza and, during our brief visit to the school, we had the opportunity to sample some tuna sashimi.

Beyond Regaleali, the Tasca d’Almerita family owns Tenuta Capofaro on the Aeolian island of Salina, which is focused on Malvasia; the Tascante estate on Mount Etna, home to Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio; and has expanded its production through joint ventures with the Whitaker Foundation in Mozia (close to Marsala) where they grow Grillo, and with Sallier de la Tour at Monreale, which is situated near Palermo and particularly suitable for Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

The Tasca d’Almeritas also maintain the 15th century Villa Tasca in Palermo, where Giuseppe and Alberto grew up. Here, former owner, the Duke of Camastra (then governor of Sicily), built a beautiful Italian garden on the estate. Later, the garden was reconstructed in the French style, with irregular paths and scenery designed to inspire artists and composers such as Wagner who composed the third act of “Parsifal” there in 1881. While vines were previously planted near the estate, they were removed during Palermo’s urban expansion of the early 1900s.

I met with Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita at Villa Tasca that afternoon. Taking me on a behind-the-scenes tour, Giuseppe led me around the stunning garden, stopping to show off the manmade grotto where he used to bring girls when he was a teenager thinking that they would snuggle closer to him due to fear of the dark. Then, we headed inside so I could see the beautiful architecture and furniture of the villa.

Although the Tasca d’Almeritas still live at Villa Tasca, an area within the villa, which sleeps up to 8, is available for rent. A quick internet search reveals a rental price of $19,000-$25,000 per week, depending upon the season, which is not only completely out of my budget (ever!), but is even more laughable given that my own selection of accommodations in Palermo cost only $60.00per night, inclusive of breakfast.

I departed Villa Tasca and prepared for my final night in Palermo, where I had the pleasure of dining with Simona Governati and Salvatore Spatafora from Gran Via Società & Communicazione. They had been encouraging my use of Italian, but offered their assistance with the menu if I needed it. I spotted an interesting menu item and could translate all, but one, word in the dish description – fasolari – choosing to order it anyway. Once I was served, Salvatore pointed out the fasolari on my plate, which, at least to me, resembled a large clam. Since my dish already had small clams known as vongole in it, I borrowed the skills learned regarding suffixes (“-one” makes things bigger) to invent the word “vongolone,” which Simona and Salvatore found to be hilarious. Either way, dinner was delicious and I had a lot of fun before we walked back to my hotel and said goodbye. The next morning, I was off to the airport, where it was tears in place of last night’s laughter as I bid arrivederci to Sicily.

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