Category Archives: Italian Wine

Happy New Year! Again!

It’s almost lunar New Year, which finds revelers around the world ushering in the Year of the Rooster.  And with any cultural celebration of this kind, you will need friends and family, food and wine.

My favorite rooster is pictured on a bottle of Chianti Classico, the gallo nero or black rooster. The black rooster on that bottle of Chianti Classico is one of the most widely recognized emblems of a quality wine. But that wasn’t always the case.

Back a century or two, winemaking in Chianti was pretty much a free for all.  Canaiolo was the main grape variety with lesser amounts of Sangiovese, Mammolo and Marzimino in a supporting role.  Somewhere along the way, Malvasia and Trebbiano, both white grapes, were added to the mix to soften the wine and make it more drinkable.

The region really didn’t have any guidelines for the “recipe,” so in the early 1900s, the government stepped in to help by classifying the area to decrease the huge amounts of faux Chianti produced.

They did this by acknowledging Chianti as both a wine region and a “recipe”.  Then as all governments are wont to do, they passed many laws requiring winemakers to meet certain criteria if they want to put the name Chianti, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata  e Garantita (DOCG) on the label.

In 1996, another major regulation modification brought about colossal change to the grape varieties permitted. The minimum percentage of Sangiovese increased from 75% to 80% and could be as much as 100%.  In addition, the other twenty percent could be other native red grapes, such as Canaiolo, Mammolo, Colorino or even non-native varieties, such as Cabernet, Syrah or Merlot.  As of 2006, white grapes are no longer permitted in a Chianti Classico.

Those stringent regulations included minimum alcohol levels, any new vineyard may only be used after its fourth year, yields must be less than 3.34 tons per acre, production is limited to 6.6 pounds per vine , seven months minimum barrel aging, for Riservas, 24 months minimum maturation with at least three months bottle aging and the most interesting and perhaps comforting, before bottling, the wine has to pass a chemical exam and approval by a tasting panel. Makes one kind of feel like royalty.

A few years ago, the Consorzio Gallo Nero organized the Chianti Classico 2000 Project to modernize viticulture and improve quality. This was sorely needed because during the 20th century, clones of Sangiovese, of which there are a boatload, were planted more for quantity than quality.  When replanting, many growers planted whatever was available not taking into account the extreme soil and climatic differences around the region.

The project took 16 years to complete, 16 experimental vineyards, five research cellars; ten meteorological stations installed to track micro- and macro-climate patterns.

Hundreds of clones were identified. A few Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino clones were chosen because they were less susceptible common viral diseases, had smaller berries, thicker skins, and more open bunches.

Those clones are now producing some delicious Chianti Classicos. Look for the 2013 vintage to accompany your next plate of pasta. Or Sausage Pizza, or Spaghetti and Meatballs, or Rigatoni with Bolognese Sauce, or Wild Mushroom Risotto or Potato Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Sauce.

Chianti Classico refers to the oldest area, the classic region. It’s located between Florence and Siena and is the hub of the Chianti region within the larger Tuscan region.

Like spokes surrounding the hub, are seven other Chianti zones, each with its own particular soil, climate, and regulations. They are Colli Aretini, Colli Forentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Montespertoli and Rufina. On their labels are their Chianti names such as Chianti Colli Senesi (the hills of Siena) or Chianti Colli Forentini (the hills of Florence).

But enough of Italy, let’s talk about Washington State. There were about 400 tons of Sangiovese harvested in 2004. It’s a prolific but difficult vine, likened to Pinot Noir.  Through the years planting increased and by 2015 tonnage was up to 1, 300.

It’s planted in some of the best vineyards in the Wahluke AVA, Red Mountain AVA and scattered around the Columbia Valley AVA.

Cavatappi’s with its red wine stained label, to the best of my recollection has been around the longest, some 30 years. Leonetti, Walla Walla Vintners, Five Star, Tagaris, and Kiona have also been producing for some time with at least 75% being Sangiovese and perhaps a touch of Cabernet in there as is done with the Super Tuscans.
Smaller, newer wineries fermenting Sangiovese in no particular order are Sequim’s Wind Rose Cellars, Vino la Monarcha from Victor Palencia who also fashions Jones of Washington’s Sangiovese, Latah Creek out of Spokane, Brian Carter’s has a little Cab and Syrah added to his Sangiovese, Helix by Reininger, Maryhill Winery along the Columbia River sources Sangiovese from Elephant Mountain Vineyards in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, and Walla Walla’s Five Star Quinque Astrum, which is Italian for five star.
The Rosé of Sangiovese by Barnard Griffin has won gold numerous times and Waterbrook makes a pretty rose colored tasty one too.

Interesting note, the origin of the word Sangiovese is Latin for the blood of Jove. Jove or Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, is best remembered for the exclamation of “By Jove! I think I‘ve got it!”

Tomatoes and Barbera

Tomatoes are such a versatile fruit of the vine. It’s the tomatoes high acidity that really sets it apart from the rest of the vegetable crops. With tomatoes, I like reds with equal parts acidity, fruit and tannins. Those favored reds to have with tomatoes all have their roots in Italy, Barbera, Chianti and Sangiovese.  barbera
Chianti is a blended wine with a preponderance of Sangiovese. Sangiovese is Italy’s most widely planted grape with vineyards in Tuscany being the most heavily planted to the grape. There you can drink Chianti, Brunello, Vino Nobile and Super Tuscans, all made with Sangiovese.
But with tomatoes, I reach more towards Barbera. Second only to Sangiovese in production and versatility, it’s naturally high in acidity so it does very well in warmer climates, like Italy, California and Eastern Washington.
Barbera reaches its zenith in the Piedmont region where you can find labels stating Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba. It also does best on the well-drained, limestone slopes of Asti and Alba in northwestern Italy.
Even the warmer sites in Eastern Washington, Sonoma Valley and the Sierra Foothills produce some fantastic Barberas. This acidity complements the fruit flavors and the wines are ripe, bright and tangy, a perfect match for Ann Vogel’s Tomato Tarte Tatin.
Barbera is a dark-skinned variety found in several Italian wine regions, including its native Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Puglia, Campania, Sicily and Sardinia. Barbera can be both on its own or blended, usually with that other Piedmonte grape, Nebbiolo.
Like so many Italian grape varieties, Barbera has an interesting history. It was recorded in the cathedral of Casale Monferrato archives where leased vineyards were planted to Barbera between 1246 and 1277. Barbera was well regarded for its “rustic yet generous” character.
It was a favorite among army officers, who considered the wine a “sincere companion” and helped them maintain their courage in battle. Also cited in a Società Agraria di Torino document in 1798, there you can read the first definitive list of Piedmont’s grape varieties.
This varietal’s bright and cooperative nature has made it equally popular in California. Barbera is the sixth most planted red grape in California, but is rarely bottled alone. Loved for its color and acidity, Barbera is usually blended to tame other varietals into better balance.
So where to start with Barbera? I would highly recommend Italy’s La Spinetta Barbera d’Alba or d’Asti, Prunotto Barbera d’Asti Pomorosso, Sandrone Barbera d’Alba, Seghesio Barbera d’Alba, Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne or d’Asti, or Voerzio Barbera d’Alba.
Early California planters and producers of Barbera were Martini, Seghesio, and Sebastiani. Sebastiani was winning awards for his Barbera in the 1930s.
But in this century, I’d choose a Montevina Amador Barbera, Sobon Estate Amador Barbera, Seghesio Alexander Valley Barbera, Shenandoah Sierra Foothills Reserve Barbera or Renwood Amador County Barbera.
Cavu Cellars Barbera Rose, Facelli, Maryhill Winery, Stomani Cellars, and Wind Rose Cellars all produce Barberas from Washington grown grapes.
Bon Apetito!

Weekly Wine Defined – Gavi

Gavi is a full bodied Italian white made from the Cortese grape. this grape has been around for some time, it’s roots can be traced back to the 1600s.

It is produced in the vineyards surrounding the town of Gavi in the Piedmont region. It was given DOC status in 1974 and production more than tripled in the next 25 years.

What makes this grape unusual is where it’s grown. Piedmont is red wine country, home to big Barolos, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Dolcetto and Barbera. And yet, the region boasts two of today’s most popular white wines, Gavi and Moscato d’Asti.

Gavi’s aromatics are floral with a bit of lemon and apple. The fruity flavors are crisp green apple and melon with mineral notes and tangy citrus finish. It’s  best served chilled with a broiled red snapper with an orange-fennel garnish or fillet of sole with sautéed zucchini and almonds.

An Evening in Italy

Last fall Brynn put us up on the auction block for a fundraiser for her sorority. It was to  raise money for a scholarship and we have this unique and sought after talent: cooking, wine pairing and cleaning up.

We quickly decided on an Italian theme since it is so popular and there are so many Italian wines to choose from. Our goal was to wow them with dinner, and introduce them to some unique Italian wines.

The evening began with a classic antipasti called Bagna Cauda which literally translates to  “hot bath.” The bath is made of garlic and anchovies steeped in olive oil. This is served with little chunks of asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and Pugliese bread.

The diner dips the vegetables into the hot oil while using the bread to catch any drips, and then mangia, mangia! Two wines were served with this dish: a white, Italo Cescon Pinot Grigio from Veneto ($13) and a rosso, Pico Maccario Barbera d’Asti ($14).

The Pinot Grigio from the Venice area was crisp, floral with good weight. The Barbera was perfect, lots of fruit with a hint of herbs and very good acidity. The acidity is typical of this grape variety and a perfect foil to the olive oil.

The pasta course was cheese ravioli in brown butter with sautéed mushrooms and toasted garlic. The wine, Villa Caffagio Chianti Classico 2009 was so smooth, with depth and great flavors of cherries and herbs. It was well balanced and had a wonderful silky finish. It can be had for around $19.

Brodetto, or the soup course, was a spicy potato kale served with a Tuscan red. We chose the Tuscan red to be served after the Chianti Classico because we wanted to show the Sangiovese grape from the same area in a different way.

We poured a Villa Antinori Toscana Red 2009. To have Chianti on the label a wine must meet the strict regulations governing the region. Any number of technicalities prevent the use of Chianti on the label including the wine does not have the required 80 percent Sangiovese; the fruit is
sourced from vineyards outside Chianti; or there are additions of fruit to the blend that are not allowed.

For the main entrée, Chicken Saltimbocca in Marsala flanked by roasted acorn squash, sage-scented cannellini and Chard, we served two wines: Montresor Valpolicella 2009 and Catina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2010. Valpolicella is a blend of grapes, Corvina, Rodinella and Molinara from the wine regions surrounding Venice. The Montepulciano is the grape from the Abruzzi area which is located at the calf on the Italian boot. Both are rich and fruity in their own way and sell for around $12 each.

Dolce was a Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake which was wonderfully matched to the Risata Moscato d’Asti 2012 ($13). Moscato d’Asti is the Muscat grape, one of only two white grapes grown in the Piedmonte region of NW Italy. In this case, the wine is slightly fizzy or frizzante as the Italians call it. It was a match made in heaven.

Weekly Wine Defined – IGP

But, but… Isn’t it supposed to be IGT? I recently bought an Italian wine with IGP on the label and wondered if it was a typo.
We’ve all seen the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) on Italian labels for many years; it’s the designation for wines that don’t meet the stricter requirements of DOC or DOCG designations. So, it could be anything from a Super Tuscan to a Toscano Rosso.
The DO (Denominazione di Origine), DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) are designations of origin and quality according to Italian wine law. These designations, instituted in 1963, require wine be produced within the specified region using defined methods and a defined standard to be labeled with a DOC or DOCG.

IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) is the updated version that complies with EU law.

What to Drink – La Carraia Sangiovese

La Carraia Sangiovese Umbria 2010

Umbria is fairly unique in that it is one of two landlocked regions in Italy. The other 18 regions all border on the sea.

But in landlocked Umbria just southeast of  Tuscany, La Carraia was founded in 1976 by two families. One of the founders was an Italian marketing and production entrepreneur. Before long, La Carraia began producing bulk wines for a couple of top estates, Ruffino and Rocca delle Macie.

Today the winery owns almost 200 hundred acres near the heart of the Orvieto Classico region which is planted to the allowed grapes of Grechetto, Trebbiano, Verdelllo, Drupeggio and Malvasia.

This Sangiovese is a brilliant ruby red color fermented in stainless steel with a lot of punch downs, then aged in oak for 3 months. It has loads of  juicy plum and berry fruits on the nose. The plush fruit carries through on the palate with blackberry, plum and hints of herbs and spicy oak. Full bodied with crisp acidity and smooth tannins.

This wine is a bargain at just under $9.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,

that’s Amore!  from Dean Martin’s song, That’s Amore!

The grand Amore day is just around the corner, and here are a few wine  meat balls    ideas to help you get organized. It’s an Italian theme for a romantic dinner either homemade or an evening out.

One of the loveliest of Italian grapes is Sangiovese. This darkly colored grape gets its name from the Latin, sanguis Jovis or blood of Jove. Jove being the king of gods until Christianity came along.

Italy’s love affair with Sangiovese is proven by the fact that it is the most widely planted red grape variety in Italy. In the romantic Tuscan region, Sangiovese is the grape or the base of some great wines from Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti to Morellino di Scansano.

Ever wondered about the makeup of a Super Tuscan?  Generally, these upscale wines from Tuscany allow blending Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah. These tend to be expensive ($$$) and long lived.

Other Italian wine regions planted to Sangiovese and very affordable are Lazio, Umbria, Marche and the Island of Corsica. Outside of Italy, Sangiovese has put down roots in California, Washington and Australia where its naturally high acidity is an asset in those  hot climates.

Sangiovese is a thin-skinned, slow ripener. So slow in fact, some vineyards aren’t ready for harvesting until well into October. This extended growing season makes for richer, more concentrated aromas and flavors.

The characteristic Sangiovese flavors are dark cherry and black stone fruit framed with savory notes of tomato leaf and dried herbs. There are many clones, the most prevalent Sangisovese Grosso, is known for its high acidity, sweet and savory flavors and mild tannins.

Brunello di Montalcino is Tuscany’s most famous wine. Brunello from the Sangiovese Grosso clone, is from around the hilltop town of Montalcino where the vineyards radiate down the hillsides from the town.

Although it is not release until it is five years old, Brunello is, with more age, fantastically aromatic, smooth with dark fruits and hints of savory herbs. It’s the perfect marriage with Osso Buco, a traditional Italian dish.  This slow and delicious dish of braised veal shanks would surely melt anyone’s heart.

The absolute best Brunello is from Vasco Sassetti. Others to look for would be Biondi Santi, Frescobaldi or Banfi. Brunello di Montalcino averages around $50 to 75.

That would be my dream dinner for Valentine’s Day so here’s another ideal scenario: Spaghetti and Meatballs. Picture two Dalmatians at a Chianti Classicocheckered tablecloth out the backdoor of an Italian restaurant sucking down the same noodle. It’s a classic scene and an entrée best served with a bottle of Chianti Classico.

The traditional Chianti blend was 75 to 90% Sangiovese with a bit of Canaiolo (10 to 30%) and 10 to 30% Trebbiano and/ or Malvasia.  Today, a new law has reduced Canaiolo to 10% and permits up to 10 % non-traditional grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot.

Chianti Classico is situated between Florence and Siena, the inner zone within Tuscany’s Chianti district. Isole y Olena, Gabbiano, and Ruffino are all likely candidates for the seductively simple spaghetti and meatballs with a lovely price point right around $15.

And for that sweet ending to a luscious meal, Ann Vogel’s recipe for Tiramisu must be accompanied by Vin Santo. It’s a style of Tuscan dessert wine made from dried Malvasia or Trebbiano grapes. The best way to describe it – it’s like the kiss of an angel.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Weekly wind defined: Brunello di Montalcino

Mary writes:

Brunello di Montalcino is an Italian red wine produced around the town of Montalcino in Tuscany. In 1980, Brunello di Montalcino was designated as a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). It is one of Italy’s more expensive wines.

Brunello di Montalcino is made from 100 percent Sangiovese. When it comes time to ferment, Brunellos have an extended maceration period. This allows for more color and flavor to be extracted from the skins.

After fermentation the wine is aged for three or more years in neutral Slavonian oak casks. Most producers then separate the normale and riserva bottlings at this point. The normale bottles are released four years after harvest and the riserva six years after harvest.

What we’re drinking: Barbera, a lot of it

Mary writes:

In northwestern Italy’s Piedmonte region, Barbera is the everyday wine for family dinners. Barbera is the second-most planted red grape in Italy. It’s planted in other parts of the world also, most notably California where Italian immigrants settled, but other parts of the globe too.

Inside Piedmonte, Alba, Asti and Monferrato are the DOC or DOCG regions for Barbera. In the DOCG region of Alba, for some of the best Barolos, the Nebbiolo grape gets the best vineyard sites. Barbera is relegated to the leftover vineyards. This was the natural order for Piedmonte, where Barolo is king with wines that are aged and sold for big bucks — Barbera is the family-friendly dinner wine.

I first tasted the memorable Cigliuiti Barbera d’Alba one hot Northwest summer day many years ago. It became my summer wine, the wine to drink with the tomatoes fresh from the garden. Barbera is gorgeous with juicy red fruits and herbs and natural, lively acidity even in hot climates. For me, it was synergistic with tomatoes. Tomatoes dressed with a little chopped onion, balsamic vinegar, a shave of Fontina and a drizzle of olive oil is my choice for an accompaniment to the wine.

My great affection for Barbera led to Barbera being introduced to the “Blind Wine Group” I formed. The group recently blind tasted eight Barberas, seven from Alba and one from Washington.

Here’s how it works: Everyone brings a bottle of Barbera and a plate of appetizers. The host brings two of the same Barbera. Bottles are brown bagged, numbered and served. Tasters are looking for the duplicate wine.

The structure of Barbera comes from its crisp acidity, which keeps it fresh and cuts through rich fatty foods. If the acidity is out of whack, Barbera can be harsh. But given a tomato, the wine is perfect.

Wines we tasted are as follows:

  • Michele Reverditto Barbera d’Alba 2010: very balanced, aromatic with cherry, cedar; medium-full bodied, tart cherry flavors with a pleasant bitter herb finish.
  • Bricco del Tempo d’Alba 2010 DOC: Lots of fruit on the nose, great taste of bright red fruits with an earthy finish.
  • Viberti Bricco Airolia d’Alba Superiore 2010: Bricco is Italian for hilltop where this vineyard is situated. Grape and almond aromas with grapey and cherry flavors that finish long and smoothly.
  • Maccario DOCG Barbera d’Alba 2011: Dark ruby color with a red fruit based aroma with a floral hint. It’s smooth with black cherry and vanilla flavors. 13.5 percent alcohol.
  • Renato Ratti DOCG Barbera d’Alba 2010: Rich in body and in color, warm and robust, pleasantly tart.  Spent six months in French oak barriques which concentrates the flavors.
  • Podere Ruggere Corsini Barbera d’Alba 2010: Juicy, rich, purple red with bright plum flavors in a mouth-filling style. Very lively acidity.
  • Maryhill Columbia Valley Barbera 2008: Vanilla and spice balance the tart cherry, red berry fruit flavors. Full bodied with a smooth finish.
  • Maccario DOCG Barbera d’Alba 2011: Aromas of cherries and violets, velvety mouthfeel, concentrated bright cherry and blueberry flavors.

The favorite of the tasters was the second bottle of Maccario with the Reverditto a point behind. Four of us picked the duplicate wines, including yours truly.

Other cheeses to try with fresh tomatoes and a glass of Barbera would be Cambozola made from cow’s milk that’s a blue veined soft-ripened triple cream cheese.

Gorgonzola is the classic Italian blue veined cheese, made from unskimmed cow’s milk. The crumbly texture and tang sing with the fresh tomatoes.

Tonight’s dinner: Grilled pizza and Washington Barbera

We love summer, not just because we love the sun but also because the dry weather and lingering daylight gives us an excuse to use the grill — not that we technically need an excuse.

Ann Vogel’s pizza on the barbecue is a great idea — you get to have a family favorite (or at least a favorite for our families) but your house, already hot from the day’s sun, doesn’t turn into a sauna because of the oven. And you have minimal clean up.

Plus, there’s just something about the flavor that the grill imparts on food that gives it a little something extra.

So what wine do you want to drink with your grilled pizza? Think about the toppings you plan to use. Are you thinking pepperoni, sausage, fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes? And then there’s the smoky flavor from the grill to consider.

If we made this pizza, we’d choose a Barbera to wash it down. There is not a huge selection to choose from of this Italian grape in our county, but we know you can find it because we recently participated in an informal blind tasting of seven Barbera wines.
Each attendee to the tasting was responsible for bringing a Barbera.

Brynn brought a 2008 Barbera Classic from Maryhill Winery and a Barbera d’Asti. We wanted to taste the Maryhill because we wanted to see how a Barbera made in Washington stood up to the Italian competition.

After pairing it with pepper-crusted dry salami and a fresh tomatoes and basil penne pasta, we knew this is the wine we’d choose for grilled pizza.

It was interesting to hear people’s opinions about this wine while tasting it without knowing where it was from. At least one person noted Asian spices and was relatively confident the wine was from Italy, but made in a “New World” style. Meaning the wine was fruit-forward and potentially had some winemaker manipulation at play to produce its fruity character.

It became one of Brynn’s favorites of the day because of its hints of vanilla on the finish and raspberry notes through the middle. It also had a slight smokiness, which would pair well with the grill flavors.

This might be hard to find in Kitsap, but if you’re interested the Port Orchard Fred Meyer has a few bottles. Wine steward Diana Walker said the wine was ordered by accident, so act quick and pick up a bottle. It is also available from the winery. It retails at just under $18.

Or you could pick up a few bottles with a visit to the winery  in Goldendale. With a natural amphitheater on its property and spectacular views of the Columbia Gorge and Mt. Hood, a trip to the winery would make a fun weekend getaway. The winery has a summer concert series. Upcoming shows include Daryl Hall and John Oates Aug. 17 and Willie Nelson Aug. 24. Visit Maryhill’s website for more information.