January 2011

Well, here’s a reasonably priced and winsome little red wine to drink with pizza (as we did last night) and pastas, hearty winter soups and braised meat dishes. It’s the Evohé Viñas Viejas Garnacha 2009, from Spain’s Vino de la Tierra del Bajo Aragón region, which, I have to say, is a new one on me, and as my seventh grade teacher Miss Simpson told our class almost every day, “Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn no other way.” The wine is made by Bodegas Leceranas in Zaragoza and imported by Vinum International in Napa, Ca., but in reality Evohé is one of the brands on the vast roster of Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. (Franzia has at last conceded to the Forces of Modernity and allowed a website where you can see how vast this roster is, and I recommend that you do.) Anyway, evohé — ay-voh-hay — is an ancient Greek word of greeting and evocation, much like its Latin cognate “Ave,” used in the Bacchic rituals to hail with exuberance the return of the god of wine and disorder to his ecstatic and generally disorderly followers; remember that in The Bacchae of Euripides the mad and maddened Maenads tear King Pentheus of Thebes limb from limb. That’s a heavy burden of myth, history and lexicography for a straightforward and tasty wine to bear, but such is the case, in my crammed mind at least. Anyway, Evohé 2009, which sees no oak, is pure grenache from start to finish, and, Mama, that’s all right with me. The color is a beautiful black cherry hue with a magenta rim; the bouquet is bright, ripe and vivacious with notes of blackberries, blueberries and black plums that seethe with lavender and licorice and sleek slate-like (say that three times fast) minerals. In the mouth, much is the same, with these luscious black and blue fruit flavors taking on wild touches of mulberry, briers and violets, all plushly set into moderately dense and finely-milled tannins allied to lively acidity. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink now through 2011 or into 2012. Very Good+. About $12, a Raving, not to say Dionysian, Bargain.

Image of Maenads doing a number on King Pentheus from a fresco in Pompeii (commons.wikimedia.org)

The Grand Tasting event held on the third day of VINO 2011 offered such a magnitude of producers, labels and brands that I decided to limit myself to the wines of Lombardy, an area in which I do not have much experience. Compared to regions like Tuscany, Trentino Alto-Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giuila, the Veneto and increasingly Apulia, Lombardy lacks name recognition and marketing value for the American consumer, and of course every winery in Italy, not to mention every other wine-producing country and region in the world, wants to sell wine in the United States of America.

Lombardy nestles right in the center of northern Italy, between Piedmont to the west, Emilia-Romagna to the south and Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto go the east; directly north is Switzerland. Lombardy is home to several of northern Italy’s celebrated resort lakes — Garda in the east, Como in the west, Iseo in the middle — and to the country’s major industrial and fashion center, Milano. The other important cities are Brescia, Pavia, Cremona and the incredibly quaint Bergamo, dense with Medieval atmosphere, where LL and I spent one night in the Summer of 1996 with a cat we rescued from Umbria. Lombardy has 15 DOC producing regions, 3 DOCG regions and 13 IGTs. These are categories created and governed by the grape-growing and wine-making regulatory arm of the Italian government. The abbreviations stand for Denominazione di origine controllata; Denominazione de origine controllata garantita, a theoretically higher category with stricter controls and “guarantees,” and notice that I say “theoretically”; and Indicazione geografica tipica, for a wine that does not fit into the traditional grape heritage of a region or vineyard area.

Here are summaries of three wineries some of whose products I tasted at this multi-faceted event, two from Garda and one from Franciacorda. I’ll look at other estates in a post coming soon to this blog.
“I hate wood,” said Lucia Zuliani, and I thought that was a damned fine way to start our conversation. She and her brother run this estate, which was founded by their ancestors in 1589 and is now part of the Garda Classico DOC. I tasted just two of Azienda Agricola Zuliani’s wines, but this is a producer that I hope finds an importer in the U.S., if only to introduce American consumers to the red groppello and marzemino grapes. The fairly obscure groppello is something of a specialty in eastern Lombardy, though it is also found in Trentino. Neither the Zuliani Groppello Riserva 2007 nor the Donna Lucia Rosso Superiore 2007 see wood aging at all. “I want the wines to be fresh,” said Zuliani, “and I want the personality of the producer in the bottle, not the inside of a barrel.”

The Groppello Riserva 2007, which ferments and ages in cement tanks lined with glass, is indeed fresh and vivid, very spicy and a bit exotic, with dark, seductive aromas and flavors of black currants, mulberries and blueberries wrapped, in the mouth, in plush, dusty, graphite-laced tannins and bright, lively acidity. The structure and character are here to allow drinking through 2015 to ’17. I have no idea what a retail price in the U.S. would be, but this would offer great value if it were under $25. Donna Lucia Rosso Superiore 2007 is a blend of 60 percent groppello with the remainder made up of barbera, sangiovese and marzemino grapes. Again, there’s more than a touch of exoticism, along with a tremendous sense of depth and dimension in this wine packed with finely-milled tannins that lend weight and substance but also an irresistible sort of talc-like softness. Donna Lucia is a more serious wine than the Groppello Riserva, but it gains seriousness not by having French barriques thrown at it or by utilizing cabernet sauvignon grapes but through the nature of the grapes themselves and in a winemaking process that trusts the vineyard and grapes to do their job.
West of Lake Garda is the industrial city of Brescia, and just west of Brescia lie the rolling hills of Franciacorta, Italy’s premier region for sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, the process that produces the all-important bubbles. The elevation of Franciacorta to such status happened with lightning speed, at least as time is reckoned in the slow seasonal progress of making wine; vineyards and winemaking in the region go back to the days of the Roman Empire. Until the early 1960s, sparkling wine was unheard of in the region; it took the vision and determination of a young winemaker named Franco Ziliani, who produced Franciacorta’s first sparkling wine in 1961, to ignite the phenomenon. Franciacorta received DOC ranking in 1967, its regulations specifying that the sparkling wines had to be made by the metodo classico, the first such requirement in Italy. In 1995, DOCG status was conferred on Franciacorta’s sparkling wines; still wines are now produced under the Terre del Franciacorta DOC.

Az. Ag. Fratelli Berlucchi is owned by five siblings, Francesco, Gabriella, Marcello, Roberta and Pia, whose grandparents established the vineyards. While the family makes a couple of pleasant still red and white blends under the Terre di Franciacorta DOC — chardonnay and pinot blanc for the white; cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, barbera, nebbiolo and merlot for the red — the heart of the production is a series of metodo classico sparkling wines of which I tasted three.

The Fratelli Berlucchi “25” Brut (non-vintage) is the earliest of the family’s sparkling wines to be released, the “25” referring to the number of months that elapse between harvest and selling the wine. Made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, harvested a bit early to maintain acidity, this is a charming and immediately appealing sparkling wine with a lovely bead, though there’s nothing frivolous about it; there’s plenty of size and substance, a beguiling balance between crispness and creaminess and roasted citrus flavors, spice and toasty qualities. (About 6,600 cases) The Berlucchi Brut Rosé 2006 is comprised of a 70 percent blend of chardonnay and pinot blanc with 30 percent pinot noir made as a rosé wine. From its shimmering pale copper color, to its tempest of tiny glinting bubbles and its crisp, dry, minerally nature, this sparkling wine epitomizes elegance and refinement. (About 2,500 cases).

The flagship product for Fratelli Berlucchi is the Brut Casa delle Colonne, now from the 2001 vintage. It’s a blend of 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent pinot noir from the estate vineyards Mandola and Tre Camini. This is a world-class metodo classico sparkling wine, utterly suave, confident and mature, surprisingly delicate and transparently structured for its age and displaying a reticent amount of roasted almond, jasmine and cinnamon toast qualities laved over deep reserves of limestone-like minerality. (About 983 cases)

Fratelli Berlucchi is looking for an importer in the U.S.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ One tastes a lot of wine, you understand, and some is terrible, some merely bland, some really good or even excellent — and then there’s the wine that sneaks up and blows all conceptions to hell and back. Such were the wines of Ca’ Lojera di Tiraboschi, an estate situated to the south of Lake Garda in the Lugana DOC for white wines. The only grape allowed for this DOC, created in 1967, is trebbiano, of which Oz Clark, in his Encyclopedia of Grapes (Harcourt, 2001) says, ” … boredom is the state most often induced” by the grape. There are, however, different sub-varieties of trebbiano, and one capable of more expressiveness and character is trebbiano di Soave, also known as trebbiano di Lugano. The fact that so many Soave wines are innocuous and insipid is not so much the fault of the grape as it is a result of huge yields and allowing the vineyards to spread into inappropriate geography. In Lugano, matters are regulated more thoroughly or perhaps more thoughtfully or at least by some producers, among whom are Franco and Ambra Tiraboschi, the name of whose winery means “Ancient House of the Wolves.” It’s a small estate, only 14 hectares, about 36 acres; all their wines are made from estate vineyards.

Innocently, I sniffed and sipped and squinched around in my mouth and spit out about a tablespoonful of Ca’ Lojera Lugano 2009. Lord have mercy, what a powerhouse of stones and bones that practically grabbed me by the collar and demanded to be taken to the nearest oyster. Yes, the wine is very dry and very crisp, steadied by towering acidity and fathomless limestone- and shale-like minerality, though with some swirling in the glass I teased out hints of roasted lemon, baked pear, sage and dusty acacia. This is made in stainless steel. Next came a taste of the Lugano Superiore 2006 — yes, four years old — and my first note was “whoa, ferociously dry!” Again, though, with some coaxing, the wine gently unfurled and unfolded touches of lemon and lime peel, a kind of leafy/brambly quality and hints of grapefruit peel, lemon balm and limestone. The Lugano Superiore ages more than a year in small oak barrels, yet somehow avoids feeling woody or overdone; in fact, it’s a model of crystalline clarity and natural intensity. Finally, there was the Lugano del Lupo 2006, a late-harvest wine made from grapes affected by botrytis yet fermented to dryness (and only 14 percent alcohol). We’re back to all stainless steel with this wine, which evinces tremendous vibrancy and presence while managing to balance innate delicacy and elegance with its sense of power. In my brief encounter with this beauty, it peeled back layer upon layer of ripe and dried citrus flavors, almond and almond blossom, waxy white flowers and bee’s-wax, and a slightly grassy dusty herbal character. The Ca’ Lojera Lugano 2009 will drink nicely through 2013 or ’14; the Lugano Superiore ’06 could also go to 2013 or ’15; while the Lugano del Lupo 2006 seems ageless, though realistically it should retain its vitality through 2015 or ’16, well-stored.

Small quantities of the wines of Ca’ Lojera di Tiraboschi are imported to a few states in the U.S.

I wanted to describe in more detail the wines presented at the seminar in Friulian white wines Monday at VINO 2011 because they possessed such prominent varietal character and intensity. Five are imported to these shores; of the other three information was unavailable. I’ll follow the order of tasting. I have appended a map of Friuli Venezia Giulia (borrowed from broker-wine.com) to give you some idea of where its wine regions are.

Livon-Tenuta Roncalto Ribolla Gialla 2009. The vineyard is in the region of Collio, whose steep hillsides are right up against Slovenia. The wine is made from 100 percent ribolla gialla grapes; a comfortable 12.7 percent alcohol. Pale straw color; beguiling aromas of roasted lemon, bee’s-wax, acacia, limestone and gun-flint; in the mouth, lemon and toasted almond, lovely soft, round texture snuggled into bright, vivid acidity and a powerful limestone element; a bracing spicy mineral-laced finish with a hint of almond skin bitterness. While the information sheet we were given at the seminar states that the wine is made in stainless steel, the producer’s website says 60 percent stainless steel, 40 percent barriques. Excellent. The price seems to be about $20.
Imported by Angelini Wine Ltd., Centerbrook, Conn.

The Comelli Sauvignon 2009 is from Colli Orientali del Friuli, that is the “Eastern Hills of Friuli.” This region abuts Collio on the northwest and extends along the Slovenian border and inland. The wine is 100 percent sauvignon blanc; the alcohol level is 13 percent; all stainless steel. Pale gold color; penetrating minerality (gravel and limestone), sage and tarragon, damp stones, lemon with a touch of lime peel; taut, crisp and vibrant, dusty citrus, a bit of orange rind, slightly leafy, very dry, leaning toward austere with a chalky finish. An engaging and elevating sauvignon blanc. Very Good+. Price unknown.
Imported by Peter/Warren Selections, New York

Here’s a pinot grigio of a quality you likely have not before encountered. The Lis Neris “Gris” Pinot Grigio 2008 is from the Friuli Isonzo DOC, which, as you see on the map above in green, lies just under Collio and curves around in a rough C-shape. The “Gris” in the wine’s name is not a reference to pinot gris, as the grape is called in Alsace, but means “cricket” and is the name of the vineyard whence the grapes derive. The color is a radiant medium-gold. The bouquet is spicy, appealing and seductive, with notes of roasted lemon, verbena, dusty acacia, lime peel and dried thyme. The wine ages 11 months in used 500-liter French tonneaux — that is, larger than barriques — so the influence is soft and subtle, lending the wine almost a haze of oak and mild woody spice and a winsome suppleness of texture. While there are citrus overtones, in the mouth this pinot grigio emphasizes taut, vibrant acidity and prominent minerality is the damp gravel and shale range. No, this is no Mom-and-Pop pinot grigio; it’s the real deal. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink through 2013 or ’14 and see how it develops. Excellent. Prices seem to be about $25 to $30.
Imported by MHW/LIS NERIS, Manhasset, N.Y.
Let’s just say that I have a real crush on the Forchir “Campo dei Gelsi” Pinot Bianco 2009, from the Friuli Grave DOC region, which, as you can see on the map that I have thoughtfully provided for your viewing pleasure, is by far the largest region in Friuli Venezia Giulia. This single-vineyard pinot bianco ferments in stainless steel and then ages in what the winery calls “mid-size barrels” of seven hectoliters, that is, about 185 gallons; compare that with the standard French barrique of about 59 gallons. The color is medium straw-gold; beguiling aromas of camellia and honeysuckle, spicy peach and pear, a hint of greengage and a touch of something green and leafy and herbal round off a wonderful nose. In the mouth, this is all stones and bones, a combination of suppleness and nervy energy, tender slightly woody spice and crystalline acidity, buoyed by reserves of limestone and shale. Alcohol is a refreshing 12.8 percent. Excellent. No importer and price unavailable.
The grape now called friulano used to be tocai friulano until the bureaucrats at the EU decided that consumers would confuse generally dry, crisp wines made from tocai friulano with the sumptuous Hungarian dessert wine called Tokay; I know that I was certainly flummoxed by the uncanny resemblance! So government brings about change, though I notice that on the websites of many producers in FVG the name tocai friulano lingers, perhaps from pure nostalgia or else from neglecting their sites. Anyway, the Valentino Butussi Friulano 2009, from Colli Orientali del Friuli, is made all in stainless steel and carries alcohol content in the sweet spot of 13.5 percent. The color is medium straw-gold; the bouquet is clean, fresh and appealing, with hints of peach, pear and tangerine wrapped about limestone. The wine is quite dry and crisp, leaning toward austerity because of the dominance of limestone and chalk elements. Nicely attractive without being compelling. Very Good+. No importer and price unavailable.

The wines of La Tunella, an estate in Colli Orientali del Friuli, are imported to the U.S. by Quintessential, in Napa, Ca., but the Valmasia 2009, a stainless steel wine from from 100 percent malvasia Istriana grapes, does not appear to be among them; at least it’s not mentioned on the company’s website. Let’s hope that it will be added to the roster. This is a superbly attractive wine, pale straw in color and with a seductive bouquet of lavender and acacia, dried orange rind and cloves, roasted lemons and pears and a hint of lime-laced grapefruit. That last term indicates something of the dynamic liveliness and crisp tartness of the wine, which possesses, nonetheless, a texture of almost talc-like softness and fleshy mobility balanced by a tremendous limestone quality; the finish brings in spice and dried flowers. Lovely purity and intensity. Excellent. Price unknown.

Thoughtful indeed is the Petrussa Pensiero 2007, a Vino da Tavola from Colli Orientali del Friuli made completely from verduzzo friulano grapes. With 40 percent of the grapes affected by botrytis, the “noble rot,” this wine is a tawny/golden amber color with a light tea hue around the rim. It ages 18 months in French barriques. The bouquet is extraordinary, a heady amalgam of roasted peaches, orange zest, light maple syrup, orange blossom and oolong tea. Yeah, “yikes” is right. Not surprisingly, the wine is dense and viscous, honeyed, sumptuous, yet its dried fruit/toffee/almond brittle character is animated by tremendous acidity and profound limestone-like minerality. This could go 10 years easily. 700 bottles were produced. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. No importer; price unavailable.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ In Colli Orientali del Friuli, Picolit is a DOCG for sweet wines. Aquila del Torre’s Picolit 2007, which spends 12 months in barriques, is made from picolit grapes dried three or four months in wooden boxes. The color is medium amber with brassy tints. The staggering bouquet features roasted peaches, crème brûlée, pomanders, hot stones and honey. Like honey or liquid money, the wine flows slowly across the tongue, a dense, viscous concoction lavish with baked apple, pineapple upsidedown cake (with that touch of opulent sweetness married to something slightly astringent) and toffee-almond butter. Yet its cleanness and freshness, its zip and vigor form an almost dynamic poise with its sumptuous nature. Alcohol is 13 percent. There’s a decade or 12 years of life here. Excellent. Price not available.
Imported by David Vincent Selections, Union, N.J.

It’s deep-freeze cold out in the streets of New York, but it feels pretty warm in the Waldorf Astoria, the venerable hotel where the Italian Trade Commission is holding its third annual wine trade show for importers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurant wine managers and the press; I’m in the latter group. I and my fellow bloggers were invited by the ITC to post to our sites and do social media posting during the three-day event, airfare and hotel paid for; that’s called full disclosure.

The primary factor to remember about VINO 2011 is that while it’s hugely informative and educational — the range of wines to taste is mind-boggling; the seminars are revelatory — the primary goal is the business of introducing wine producers to potential importers and wholesalers or, in the case of producers that already have representation, of re-introducing and sustaining interest. To help the 80 Italian wineries or producers at VINO 2011 that don’t have representation in the United States now, the ITC, “the government agency entrusted with promoting trade, business opportunities and industrial co-operation between Italian and foreign companies,” has set up a temporary importing and, for states in the Northeast, distributing entity that will speed contacts, simplify paperwork and ease some of the complicated bureaucratic details. What a smart move! Can you imagine the government of the United States actively working to promote American wines in Europe or South America or Asia?

Anyway, we learned about this temporary importing scheme at breakfast this morning, right after I lost my black Ray-Ban prescription sun-glasses (still not found!) and before there was a fairly massive walk-around tasting of wines from the 80 producers at VINO 2011 hoping to find an importer. There was no way to try everything or even a reasonable fraction at this tasting, because I had a press conference to attend at 11, so I just hit a few tables. I quickly learned that some Italian winemakers are still enthralled with French barriques to the detriment of their wines, which they call “modern” and “cosmopolitan,” while others reveal a healthy respect for wood and the manner in which it can shape and subtly influence a wine. I tasted a primitivo from the producer Cignomoro in Apulia that hit 15.1 percent alcohol — can anyone say “California zinfandel”? — and a Vernacchia de San Gimignano 2009 that was close to superb from Azienda Agricola Campochiarenti. This estate also makes a traditional and lovely Chianti Colli Senesi 2009 (from the Siena area) that blends 80 percent sangiovese grapes with 10 percent canaiolo and 10 percent ciliegiolo, colorina and other indigenous grapes; this ages a few months in 20-hectoliter Italian oak barrels, 20 hectoliters equaling a tad more than 528 gallons. If I were a wine importer, I would book the wines of Campochiarenti; I’m just sayin’.

The press conference was titled “The Future of Italian Wines: As Seen from the Point of View of Leading American Wine Professionals.” The line-up of panelists was impressive: Moderator was Elin McCoy of Bloomberg News; panelists were Jon Frederickson, who specializes in wine marketing for Gomberg, Frederickson & Associates; Leonardo LoCascio, the legendary Italian importer for Winebow; Cristina Mariani-May of Castello Bandi and Banfi Vintners; Tyler Colman of the Dr. Vino blog; and Sergio Esposito, founder of Italian Wine Merchants, a store in New York that specializes in luxury labels.

I won’t summarize the remarks of each speaker, but overall the mood was optimistic. Some of the figures bruited about were that in the 21st Century imports of Italian wines to the U.S. increased by 25 percent over the previous decade, that in 2009 Italy for the first time surpassed France in exports to the U.S., and that Italy’s market share of wine in the U.S. is 33 percent. This is all very impressive and a testimony to vast improvements in Italian wine production and marketing in the past 30 or 40 years.

Another important statistic is the fact that the per capita consumption of winein the U.S.A. has increased to 9.6 liters — woo-hoo! — which means that every man, woman and child in our fair nation drinks slightly more than — are you ready? — one bottle of wine a month. Get back! That’s per capita, however. The reality is that only about 30 percent of American consumers actually drink wine at all and that a core group of 21 percent of wine drinkers consumes 90 percent of the wine. That’s not good, and all wine producing nations that export to the United States, not just Italy, as well as producers in America have to figure out how to market their products and get them into the hands, the minds, the hearts of the millions of American citizens that don’t drink wine, especially the essential and potentially profitable segment of 21 to 35-year-olds, the Millennials and “Eco-Boomers” (this was Frederickson’s term, which I had not heard before).

After a quick lunch and a return to my room to do some writing, I went to a seminar called “A ‘Grape Escape’ in Friuli Venezia Giulia: A Tasting of Friulano and Other Great Regional White Wines,” that is to say in Italy’s extreme northeastern region. The seminar, during which we tasted eight absolutely lovely white wines, each made from a different grape, was moderated by author, journalist and former English professor Tom Maresca, who, in addition to his other accomplishments, possesses the best mustache in the American wine-writing racket. White wines in FVG are not blended, so each wine we tried was 100 percent varietal. The grapes, some of them fairly obscure to American consumers and one almost too familiar, were ribolla gialla, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, pinot bianco, friulano (formerly tocai until it ran afoul of the EU), malvasia Istriana and verduzzo friulano. I’ll have more to say about these wines in an separate post, because they deserve to be treated in more detail. Suffice to say that everyone I talked to thought that this seminar was a terrific success, and I agreed.

Tomorrow: seminars on the wines of Montefalco, in eastern Umbria, and on social media in wine marketing; a large tasting of Tuscan wines; and the event’s grand dinner. That should keep me busy.

I recently tasted through a range of wines from Owen Roe — the winery is in St. Paul, Oregon, and produces wines from Oregon and Washington — and found many of them designed for consumers with iron palates to bear the weight of immense tannins, along with towering purity and intensity; these stylish wines are clearly made for the long haul or the motorcycle gang’s picnic. One wine from Owen Roe that is more accessible is Sinister Hand 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington, a blend of 70 percent grenache grapes, 26 percent syrah and 2 percent each mourvedre and counoise, according to the label; the winery’s website cites slightly different percentages. The grapes derive from the Six Prong Vineyards in the Columbia Valley’s Horse Heaven Hills region that lies along the Columbia River in south-central Washington.

Sinister Hand 2009, I’ll come right out and say, is a lovely example of how a Cotes-du-Rhone Villages-style wine can be intelligently made with grapes from the right vineyard in the correct location. The color is glowing medium ruby with a hint of darker ruby/cherry at the center. The bouquet builds slowly through layers of spice, dried flowers and fruit both ripe and dried: cloves and cinnamon, lavender and violets, dried red currants with spiced and macerated red and black cherries and a hint of wild mulberry. The wine ages 10 months in French oak barrels, only 17 percent of which are new, so the influence of wood is warm, subtle and supple. An edge of shale-like minerality penetrates this warmth and the wine’s spicy black and red fruit flavors with a cool tinge that leads downward to areas of briers, brambles and moss and a bass ground in tannic walnut shell, though all elements are so well-balanced that the tannins feel almost transparent. The essential acidity that binds these factors I have to describe as beautifully vibrant and authoritative. A deeply satisfying wine, with 14.6 percent alcohol but not a blockbuster in any sense. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $24, but I paid $30 in my neck o’ the woods.

Readers, I’m safely ensconced at the Waldorf Astoria, whence I will be posting through Wednesday as I attend VINO 2011, a huge show of Italian wines with many different seminars, workshops and tastings. The Italian Trade Commission asked me and a dozen other bloggers about vinous subjects to use our blogs and social media skills to broadcast our impressions of the event and what we do and see and taste and learn. This should be fun, and right now I’m looking forward to meeting some of these mysterious bloggers whose names and words I know but upon whose faces I have never gazed. And I’m looking forward to tasting gallons of great wines, one sip at a time, of course, and always most judiciously. BTW, it’s cold as Pluto’s big toe here in New York and I’ve heard rumors that a Big Storm is on its way. If you have to be stuck someplace, the Waldorf Astoria ain’t a bad place to be. The official website of VINO 2011 is here.

Last night LL made what is probably the best risotto I have ever eaten. And since the wine I chose to match this paragon of ricely beatitude was smack-dab on the money, we had a pretty damned perfect meal.

It was one of those nights of looking around the kitchen, the refrigerator and the cabinets to see what was on hand. We had about a cup of leftover diced butternut squash, so LL broiled that until the pieces had nice blackened edges. She sauteed some chopped shallot and then a few sliced hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, stirred in the rice and some white wine, let the wine evaporate and then began the process of slowly incorporating the chicken broth, a ladleful at a time. Toward the end, she folded in the butternut squash and a handful of chopped parsley and then — pure genius! — about a tablespoon of white miso to give the dish a deep, savory bass note. Readers, it was wonderful, with layers of complementary yet slightly contrasting scents and flavors bound in the creamy, not quite chewy rice.

I opened a bottle of the Hugel “Classic” Pinot Gris 2006, from the venerable firm of Hugel et Fils, founded in the town of Riquewihr in Alsace in 1639. The grapes derive from nearby vineyards secured by the family through long-term contracts and also from a selection of declassified grapes from Grand Cru vineyards on the Hugel estate. The Hugel “Classic” Pinot Gris 2006 is made all in stainless steel and sees no oak. The wine is a lovely medium straw-gold color with a faint green cast. Subtle aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, quince and pear, crystallized ginger and a back-note of woody spices are woven with a strand of smoke and baked apple. In the mouth, the wine is satiny and mellow, slightly honeyed in aspect yet completely dry, with flavors of apple and nectarine and a hint of green grapes, all enveloped in a spicy, smoky haze that opens to a touch of barely mossy earthiness. The texture feels almost cloud-like, and the acidity, while lively enough for some vivacity, is soft and accommodating. What a treat! And the synergy with the risotto was amazing! And I’m using too many exclamation points! Drink now through 2013 to ’15, well-stored. 13.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About — here’s the clincher — $15, though you see prices on the Internet as high as $24; somebody’s making a killing. A Raving Bargain.

Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York. A sample for review.

Wine Guerrilla produces about 5,000 cases of zinfandel-based wines from Sonoma County’s Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys. The three examples I tried recently reveal a deft hand at the helm, so that while the wines are ripe and sometimes high in alcohol, they’re also nicely balanced and integrated. (All right, two out of three, as you will see.) In fact, the absence of over-ripe boysenberry tart elements and alcoholic heat/sweetness while yet being filled with flavor and spice made me wonder if these zinfandel wines resemble the 19th Century zinfandels for which California was once famous. Another gratifying aspect is that the colors of these wines are surprisingly moderate, if not light, in contrast to the deep, dark purple/black hues favored by producers of thunderous, blockbuster zins. These wines are unfiltered and unfined. The labels are colorful and intriguing. Samples for review.

The Wine Guerrilla Adel’s Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Dry Creek Valley, is an exemplar of balance and restraint while offering all that is good, beautiful and true about the zinfandel grape. It is, by the way, the winery’s first 100 percent zinfandel wine; all the others have been and are field blends. The color is radiant medium red cherry/ruby; aromas of smoke, cloves, new leather, black currants and black cherries are highlighted with notes of sage and black pepper. One feels on the palate a finely woven fabric of spicy nuance and supple texture that envelopes flavors of black and red fruit — with a touch of wild plum and mulberry — and hints of mocha and earthy briers and brambles, all framed with subtle, slightly chewy tannins. Those who favor zinfandels that run over their taste buds like a motorcycle gang on its way to a beer bash may not appreciate this style, but it’s my notion of what zinfandel ought to be. 170 cases. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $30.

There’s no question that the Wine Guerrilla Conte Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Russian River Valley, is more emphatic than the Adel’s Vineyard model. This is a warm and spicy blend of 83 percent zinfandel, 12 percent petite sirah, 2 percent each carignan and alicante bouschet and 1 percent grenache. The color is medium to dark red ruby with a black cherry hue at the center; a bouquet of ripe raspberries, mulberries, blackberries and plums is permeated with smoke, tobacco leaf, lavender and licorice and a distinctly roasted and fleshy quality. The wine is ripe and juicy but very dry and far more minerally, in the slate-shale range, and earthy-mossy than its cousin, though the texture is weightier, so dense and chewy that it’s almost viscous. Still, there’s nothing overpowering here, nothing heavy or obtrusive, and the wine slides through the mouth like liquid velvet. 238 cases. 15.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.

I found the Wine Guerrilla Forchini Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2009, Dry Creek Valley, more problematic than its stablemates, solely because, to my palate, the alcohol level throws it a bit out of balance, particularly on the finish. Made from vines that are more than 100 years old, the wine contains about 95 percent zinfandel grapes with dollops of carignan, petite sirah and alicante bouschet. The immediate impression is of lavender and licorice, blueberries, blackberries and blue-bluer-bluest plums, circumscribed by walnut shell and wheatmeal and a broad element of fruit cake and brandied cherries and raisins. The whole enterprise is cast in the mold of powerful spice, black pepper and deeply macerated and roasted fruit flavors ensconced in a dense, thick, chewy structure. The finish is not hot, but it comes through as rather sweet and almost unctuous; yes, I’m sure devoted fans of the style will love it, but I feel a discordant note at the conclusion. 240 cases. 16.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $35.

The cookbook we were working from called the dish a “Winter Vegetable Cobbler,” when, basically, it was a pot-pie. The vegetables were carrots, potatoes, onions and parsnips, bathed in vegetable broth and capped with real pastry of flour, butter and a touch of milk, patted and rolled out by me; a vegetarian but not vegan production. The recipe included no seasoning except salt and pepper, so LL pepped the sauce up with some horseradish; next time, we’ll add a little thyme or oregano — and a bit of diced ham. Still, the “cobbler” was tasty and satisfying on a chilly night, and we’ll make it again.

I opened a bottle of the Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, a notably juicy, smoky, funky pinot that contains 4 percent syrah and aged six months in French oak barrels. This is a deeply spicy but not strident or overwhelming pinot noir that deftly balances moderate tannins — a little dust, a little slate-like minerality — with a sense of macerated and softly dissolving black cherries, currants and plums highlighted with a piquant note of mulberry. Perhaps it’s the dollop of syrah that lends the wine its peppery and earthy qualities, though it’s definitely pinot through and through. The finish brings in a tad more weight on the palate, more spice and a closing bell-tone of blueberry, um, cobbler. Winemaker, of course, is Rick Sayre. Drink now through 2012. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review.

Technically speaking, as occasionally I am wont to do, a cola beverage is one that contains an extract of the nut of kola trees — Cola nitida and Cola acuminata — native to African rain forests. Kola nuts are popular in Central and West African countries, where they are chewed for their slightly narcotic effects — the nuts have from 2 to 3.5 percent caffeine — and in fact form part of the social fabric. They were an important ingredient in Coca-Cola, invented in 1886 in Columbus, Ga., by John Pemberton. In fact the world-iconic if not cosmic brand-name Coca-Cola could stand for “cocaine-caffeine,” though cocaine, derived from the leaves of the coca plant, was eliminated from the formula in 1903. Nowadays, however, few cola-type beverages, perforce non-alcoholic, contain actual cola extract, being made primarily from “cola flavorings,” citric acid and a few spices, particularly cloves and vanilla.

The motivation for this brief disquisition lies in my recent exposure to a new product from Virgil’s, whose excellent root beer I extolled in a post last August. The new product (at least in this market) is Virgil’s Real Cola. Here’s the list of ingredients:

Purified carbonated water, unbleached cane sugar, clove bud oil, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cassia oil, orange and lemon oils, lime juice (less than 1%), phosphoric acid. Contains no preservatives and no caffeine. Gluten free.

Virgil’s soft drinks — the brand is owned by Reed’s Inc. — do not use high fructose corn syrup, universally found in soft drinks made around the world because it’s cheaper than sugar, though HFCS is linked to obesity. Anyway, the lack of caffeine in Virgil’s Real Cola would seem to deny its assertion to being “real,” in the sense that Coca-Cola is the “real thing” in its embrace of caffeine-ness. I have never been a fan of either Dr Pepper — the period after “Dr” was eliminated in 1950 as a typographical distraction — or Pepsi-Cola or RC Cola, and Virgil’s Real Cola, which I tried three times, tastes to me like a combination of those soft drinks, so I was not impressed. Virgil’s Root Beer, on the other hand, is terrific, and perhaps once a month, if I’m in Whole Foods or Fresh Market, I’ll indulge in this guilty pleasure.

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