Banfi Enrichment Trip Day 4 – Amarone – Not Just for Dinner Anymore and the Lambrusco I did not Know

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Photo Courtesy of bolla.com

We spent much of Friday morning in the Bolla vineyards.  Our initial discussion focused on the natural methods for pest control that Bolla uses in the vineyards .  Devices that resemble a red piece of wire are attached at srategic locations throughout the vineyard. These devices are are laced with pheromones that prevent olfactory communication between the sexes.  As each species of insect releases a unique pheromone, specific undesirable insects can be targeted.  Thus, reproduction of the targeted species can be significantly reduced while desirable species are unaffected.  The results of this treatment were translated by Lars as “Sexual Confusion”  (This same idea came up again in the Maremma, so I think the translation was accurate.)

Insect populations are monitored at collection sites throughout the vineyards to determine the efficacy of the treatment.  These methods are employed in the Bolla vineyards and by independent growers that are under contract with Bolla .  Bolla’s enology department distributes a bulletin to its partner growers that guides them through the prescribed process of vineyard management.

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We drove up the hill to visit a vineyard which is the source of some of Bolla’s more prized grapes for Amarone production.  Here, we toured the warehouse where the grapes are stored after harvest for drying.  The vineyard tour was interesting, as it was the first place that we saw terracing and a pergola training system employed.

Stone used to separate split in vine Pergola-trained vines in the Hills of Verona Terraced Vineyards in the hills of Verona

We also inquired about some vines where we noticed rocks inserted between splits in the trunk.  We learned that the splits occur in older vines and could become an area prone to disease.  The rocks were inserted in order to separate and aerate the area between the split, thus allowing the exposed area to heal.  This low-tech solution allows an older vine to continue to thrive.  Even so, after around 40 years, vines are replaced.  (Fortunately, I’m not a vine)

We were instructed on how to distinguish the different grape varieties in the vineyard.  Subtle differences in leaf shape were the primary means of identification.   Even after this detailed lesson, I am quite sure most of us would leave identification of the vine up to the enologists. (I am not an expert, but I slept near a vineyard last night..)

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From the Bolla Vineyards, we headed to Verona to visit the Sartori winery.  We arrived at the beautiful estate where Andrea Sartori greeted us.  The Sartori winery, was unlike other wineries we had visitied, as it was located in the middle of a city.  Andrea explained that the winery was once isolated and the city grew up around it.

Satrori is a mid-sized facility with a two-story fermentation area.  The “caves” house numerous concrete tanks that are built into the walls.  Pipes and tubes are everywhere and are used to move wine to and from different areas of the winery.  At one end of the caves, there was an area where a few concrete tanks had been removed.  The open space was converted into a library of bottles from many older vintages.  Everyone searched for vintages that held some significance to them – Birthdays, anniversaries, etc.

Sartori Tasting LineupWe concluded our visit with a tasting guided by Franco Bernabi, consulting winemaker.  Franco is a true “flying winemaker” (or a fast-driving winemaker) and consults with aAmarone DOCG number of producers in Italy.  The wines of Sartori are sleek, modern, and precise, a hallmark of the Bernabi style.  They provide a notable contrast in style to the Bolla wines.  The Regolo Ripasso, which I did not taste when Franco and Andrea visited Houston last year, was a standout.  The normale  Amarone 2010 that we tasted was the first to carry the DOCG designation.  Corte Bra, a single-vineyard bottling from 25-year old vines and I Saltari from 50-year old vines were excellent.  It would be great to revisit each in around 10 years.

Andrea Sartori, Lars Leicht, and Franco Bernabei

We left the winery and sat for a wonderful lunch with Franco and Angela in the hills of Verona.  The restaurant provided beautiful vistas of the surrounding countryside while a cooling breeze passed through the open windows of the terrazza.  We started our meal with one of my favorite wines that Sartori produces, the Ferdi.  Ferdi is a white wine made from the Cortese grape usine the same drying technique employed the production of Amarone.  I fell in love with this wine when I tasted it in Houston as detailed in my previous post.

Porcini Cropped Ferdi Cropped 2 Amarone Overload Cropped

We had another “ah ha” food moment with a salad of seasonal porcini mushrooms and a local pecorino cheese.  Dressed with a little olive oil, it was divine.  We were also treated to a special “Amarone” pasta.  The pasta was made from flour and Amarone, no eggs.  The meat inside was beef braised in Amarone and the whole dish was topped with an Amarone reduction  – Amarone Overload!!

Our first Amarone was a 2004 I Saltari.  It was a wonderful opportunity to gauge how the I Saltari would age.  At nine years, the wine had mellowed and integrated nicely, but was definitely on a trajectory for a long life. We also sampled a special 2009 Amarone bottling to commerate the Centenario  1913-2013 of the Verona  Arena.  It was dense and layered, but could definitely use some time in the cellar.

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Both Amarones were served in a special glass designed to allow you to get your nose into the glass as you were actually drinking, so as to heighten the experience.   It was the coolest concept in stemware that I have seen in a long time.  We finished up with a homemade apricot brandy over ice that was stored in an empty Grappa di Amarone bottle that was labeled by hand “Albicot”.  Sweet and light.

We were stuffed and buzzed as we shook hands, air-kissed and expressed our gratitude for a lovely visit and meal.  Everyone slept on the bus as we headed for Reggio Emilia.

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Shortly before we arrived at our hotel, Lars opened a bottle of Riunite.  As we sipped Lambrusco from our plastic cups, Lars told us the story of Riunute, the Lambrusco I did not know.

Lambrusco was first introduced to American consumers in 1967.  Some or you may remember the ad campaign “Riunite on ice, so nice”.  Just in case, here is a reminder.  You will see that this was a different time…

Americans quickly fell in love with Riunite.  By 1976, it had become the #1 wine imported by the US, a position it held for 20 years!  This prolonged and steady stream of profits enabled Banfi to expand and grow into the empire that it is today.  Here in the home of Lambrusco, Emilia Romagna, we were drinking the same basic Riunite that you’ve seen on the shelf of every grocery store and wine shop you’ve ever been in…and It was everything it was intended to be, unpretentious, delicious and refreshing!!

After freshening up briefly at our hotel, we boarded the bus and headed toward Albinea Canali, Riunite central headquarters.   I think we were all looking forward to tasting a variety of Lambruscos.  With our entire group being wine geeks of varying degrees, we all knew that Lambrusco was more than just an off-dry fizzy wine. However, due to limited availability, most of us had not sampled a wide variety of Lambrusco.  The truth is, save for the ubiquitous Riunite, (Somms love the word “ubiquitous”) there really isn’t much else in the way of Lambrusco widely available in the US.

After touring the vineyards and winery, we were seated for dinner.  The first wine thatAncestrale Cnali we were served got all of our attention.  It was a dry Lambrusco made in metodo ancestrale.  Per my expert Lambrusco source, this wine should be referred to as Lambrusco Ancestrale or Lambrusco Frizzante Secco.  Wines made in this way are partially fermented in a tank.   Additional unfermented must is added to the wine prior to bottling.  A secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The carbon dioxide naturally carbonates the wine.  This carbonation process it the same method that is used in the production of Champagne.  However, in metodo ancestrale, the bottle is not disgorged (i.e. the yeast is not removed from the bottle).

For this reason, wines made in this way are often cloudy.  While most of these wines finish dry, without stringent control on the ratio of yeast to sugar, bottle variation ranging from dry to off-dry is common.  The wine we were served was quite dry with great acid.  It was paired with a local Proscuitto and Salame.  It was a great start.  We were already geeked!  Production is small, so I’m not sure if this wine will make it to the US.

The next two wines were Riunite bottlings.   Both were dry.  Ther first was served with a ricotta-filled ravioli dressed with Parmesano Reggiano, the second with a Lambrusco infused risotto.  With each dish, the dryness and acid of the Lambrusco cut through the creamy elements of the dish and refreshed the palette.  We also had Lambrusco with another very rare meat course.  It all made sense.   We finished with two sweeter bottlings, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the dry Lambrusco we were served.  This dinner experience was exactly what I had hoped for.

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What Lambrusco needs is a few good somms to get behind it and reintroduce it to the wine consuming public.  I speak with people every day that are seeking to extend and enhance their wine experience.  In the proper context, Lambrusco makes as much sense as any wine available on the American market today.  Any restaurant serving a brunch could offer a Lambrusco by the glass.  Don’t call it Lambrusco, call it “Canali Sparkling Red”, for example.  It is a hand-sell, but don’t you think your patrons would appreciate it?  The margin for profit exists without having to fleece your patrons.  People are flocking to Prosecco, why not Lambrusco?

Hey somms – With this experience I am thinking how cool it would be to organize a Lambrusco dinner to reintroduce wine enthusiasts to this underappreciated wine.

We topped off our dinner with a sip of a Nocino Riserva.  A liqueur made from a base of fermented green walnuts, locally grown of course.  It was sweet – nutty, delicious.  We finished our night with a shot of Fernet back at the hotel.  Into bed for another short night.

Si Si Si, so the somm said…

We were in for a shock to the system tomorrow.  Stay tuned for the Cheesemaster, the Gentleman, the Mad Butcher, and Extremely Drunken Somms.

Banfi Enrichment Trip Day 3 – Gamba Cooperage, Vigne Regali, Bolla Wine Dinner, and Movie Stars

IMAG1690 At 8 AM on Thursday, we boarded the Sprinter and headed towards Monferrato to visit Cross-section of a tree with stacks of wood seasoning in the elementsthe Gamba Cooperage.  Gamba is a 7th and 8th generation family owned and operated business that has been producing wine barrels for over two centuries.   Their techniques combine cutting-edge technology with old-world craftsmanship.  Almost all of the wood used in the barrels is French oak. It always hand-split and air-dried.  It is widely agreed that the gentle effects of the seasons – sun, rain, snow, heat and cold are the best way to season the wood that will be used in wine barrel production.  This slow, natural process helps to polymerize tannins and eliminate green phenolic components.  Staves are hand-split so that the natural grain of the wood is not interrupted over the length of the stave.  This results in a yield of only one cubic meter of stave per five cubic meters of wood.  This is why barrels Cross-section of how a tree is divided to create stavesmade from hand-split staves are so expensive. After trimming, a process by which the staves are planed wider in the middle and narrower at each end, the staves are heated over an open flame to soften them for bending.  As the staves bend, the trimming draws them together and metal rings are applied by a hydraulic machine to hold the staves in place. Afterwards, the barrels are toasted.  We could feel the heat coming out of the barrels as they rested after toasting. Preparation for the barrel heads is done by a computer- controlled milling machine.  No nails are used to hold the heads in place.  Once the heads are installed the barrel is planed on the outside and the final rings are installed.  This is a somewhat watered-down version of all that happens.  But the idea is, that making a fine wine barrel is a lengthy process that requires care and craftsmanship at every step.

Heating the staves for bending Planing the outside of the barrel Computer operated millingThe laser milling maching at work Rows of just-toasted barrels Hydraulics for installing rings A funky shaped barrell will cost you dearly An example of some of the historic techniques for making barrels Additional example of some of the historic techniques for making barrels Old logo brands Tools of the tradeBarrel sizes illuminated in the Gamba Museum

Banfi uses Gamba barrels almost exclusively.  In fact, Gamba produces the wooden portion of the hybrid stainless/wood fermentation tanks that are used in the production of Banfi’s Brunellos. (I will revisit this when we get Montalcino) Their list of clients around the world is impressive.

We also toured an on-site museum that detailed the history of the cooperage dating back to when all steps of the process were done by hand.  The fabrication of barrels is and intensive process even with the technology that is employed today.  So, it is truly amazing to see the craftsmanship that was required to accomplish this feat in the past. I noticed that all the lighting in the museum was LED.  When I inquired about the choice of LED lighting, I learned that Gamba produces nearly 100% of the power it needs to run its facility from solar and waste from the barrel-making process.  Very cool indeed.

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Photo from Banfi Vigne Regali Websit

We left Gamba and headed to the Vigne Regali Winery in Strevi.  Vigne Regali is the IMAG1728Piemonte branch of Banfi.  Rosa Regali Brachetto, Principesa Gavi, and L’Ardi Dolcetto are some of the more familiar wines that are produced here. (Click here for the Legend of Principesa Gavi). This is a production facility with bottling lines, packing machines, and warehouses stacked high with cases of wine ready for transport.  However, it is also home to Banfi metodo classico sparkling wines, the Banfi Brut from the Trento DOC and the Aurora Rose from the recently elevated Alta Langha DOCG.  We toured the cellars where bottles of both are aged for a minimum of 24 months on the lees and hand riddled.  Considering the fact that each of these sparkling wines are treated in much the same way as NV Champagne, they provide an amazing value.

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The real surprise at Vigne Regali was “La Lus”, a red made from Albarosso, a cross of Nebbiolo and Barbera.  The goal of the cross was to combine the structure of Nebbiolo with the "La Lus" in the glass.  Notice the colorfruit of Barbera.  Upon tasting from both the barrel and bottle, this wine is a winner!  “La Lus” is deeply colored with a fruit-forward style anchored on a frame of velvety tannins.  Aromas of dark fruits, tobacco leaf, and chocolate follow through on the palette.  There is a hint of French oak on the finish.  The wine is approachable and delicious.  Production is currently small at just over 1000 cases.  I hope some will find its way to the US, and especially – Texas!!  I will update the availablility of this wine when I get more information.

Prior to leaving Vigne Regali, we were treated to our last Piedmontese meal.  It was not surprising to find carne cruda and “tuna-ed” veal roast on the table again.  The selection of cheeses again was wonderful.  If you are ever in Piemonte, order the cheese.  You won’t be disappointed.  We also had a selction of season vegetables prepared in a variety of ways.  The meal was paired initially with the Aurora Rose and Principesa Gavi. (We revisited the Aurora Rose often at the Collupino Farmhouse).  We segued into the “La Lus” and then a glass of Moscato d’Asti to finish.

The Buffet at Vigne Regali

Photo by Barry Himel

All in all, it was a great sendoff from Piemonte. We headed to the Sprinter for a nap on the way to Veneto.

Our accommodations in Verona were at the Corte Forte winery, which was backed by hills covered in vineyards.  We took a couple of minutes to freshen up in our rooms and gathered in the garden for an al fresco aperitif with Bolla Prosecco while we waited for the Bolla team to arrive.

The dinner at Corte Forte was hosted by Bolla winemaker Christian Srcinzi and provided some of the first “ah ha” food moments of the trip.  We were already excited that we would be sampling some Amarone.  We had no way of knowing the great food that was on its way as well.  Our service was provided by a mother-daughter team, with the mother apparently doing much of the cooking and the daughter heading up service. The highlights of the meal were a seasonal zucchini blossom stuffed with a ricotta cheese mixture and finished with a fresh tomato sauce, wow!  The Bolla “Tufaie” Soave Classico Superiore from the previous course and the Bolla “Le Poiane” Ripasso that accompanied the zucchini course were excellent. Then, we then had another instant hit on my end of the table – a ravioli of sorts filled with ricotta and topped with black truffles.  This dish was the BOMB!!  The chef offered (Well…maybe we mentioned that we might want more.) The chef obliged and three of us shared two additional servings.

Stuffed Squash Blossom

Photo by Barry Himel

Ravioli topped with black truffles

Photo by Barry Himel

A duck course followed as we moved into the Amarones.  The duck was stacked four inches high.  After the pasta, we realized we should pace ourselves as we had learned our lesson at the Rosso home the previous night.  After we devoured so much of the pasta course Mama Chef saw our plates and in broken English asked “You don’t like-uh the Duck-uh?”  We did our best to explain and compliment the chef in an I don’t speak Italian/I don’t speak English exchange. I hope she understood.

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We finished the evening with a retrospective of Bolla’s top Amarone.  We had a ’96, 2000, 2007, and 2008.  There was much debate at the table, first about whether you pour vintages left to right or right to left.  I can’t remember what was decided, but it caused quite a ruckus with the servers.  The second debate was regarding our favorite vintage.  It seemed we were equally divided between the ’96 and 2000.

Lots of glasses Bolla Dinner

Quote of the night:  “If everyone likes you, you are irrelevant” – Christian Scrinzi

I’m not sure how it got started, but someone at the other side of the table got the idea that everyone in our group resembled a movie star.  Another debate ensued.  Barry became Toby Maguire, a Bolla associate from Spain that sat next to us, Penelope Cruz, Lars was Charlie Sheen, Ben Roberts – Matt Damon, I was Chris Noth – Mr. Big from Sex in the City, Dominique was Katie Holmes, but became Dominatrix when she told us about the stiletto heels she wears at work, Melanie was Amy Schumer, Kim Beto was Clive Owen, Greg Tresner was Phillip Seymor Hoffman.  This set the tone for the rest of the trip.  We had officially bonded.

Meet the “Movie Stars”:

Matt Damon Katie Holmes Charlie Sheen Mr. Big Cropped IMAG2017 IMAG2018 IMAG2003 IMAG2001

Early the next morning, we were awakened by a booming thunder and hail storm.  I looked  outside my window to see a rushing torrent coming down the street outside our building.  It provided good conversation over breakfast and coffee prior to our leaving to Reggio Emilia to tour a dairy where local cheese is produced.

Banfi Enrichment Day 1 and 2 – Training Day in Barolo and Barbaresco

After 15 hours of travel on Friday, I am back in Houston from my Italian odyssey.  In a short time, I saw more of Italy than I would have ever imagined.  Our trip began last Tuesday, July 9th when Ben Roberts and I departed Houston at 11AM to rendezvous in New York with Lars Leicht of Banfi and six other sommeliers from around the country.

Our transatlantic flight was with Alitalia in Magnifica ClassMagnifica

I cannot think of a better way to travel.  Each of us had a POD with a fully reclining seat and personal entertainment system.  We were served a multi course gourmet dinner with a far above average selection of Italian wines.

After an eight hour flight, we arrived in Milan.  At the airport shop, we enjoyed an The Sprinterespresso and a shot of Fernet.  This set the tone for the trip.  We boarded our Mercedes “Sprinter” and headed out towards Piemonte.  Not far into our trip, I heard and felt a banging in the wheel well underfoot.  I suspected that the tire was unraveling.  We stopped and my suspicions were confirmed…We had a blowout.

Photo by Barry Himel

Photo by Barry Himel

We pulled into what can best be described as an upscale truck stop called “My Chef”.  What we thought might be a brief stop turned out a long detour.  We learned the difference between “summer” and “winter” tires.  Summer tires were installed on our vehicle.  As it turned out, our spare was a winter tire.  The problem is that the summer and winter tires require different bolts.  There were no bolts for the winter spare on board.  Fortunately, “My Chef” had beer, wine, and a serviceable buffet.  A bottle of Lambrusco and Italian beers from the “My Chef” fridge were our first beverages outside the Milan Airport.

We had to take a slow ride on the defective tire to another gas station to get our bolts.  We soon discovered that every gas station has a bar and an espresso machine.  We enjoyed another espresso and a beer while the spare was installed.  With the delay, we missed our visit to Bel Sit winery and headed directly to Barbaresco for the first of what would be many fantastic meals.IMAG1650

We saw our first vineyards as we approached Barbaresco.  The mood lifted as this IMAG1638signaled we were about to sit down to a proper meal.  We arrived at the Trattoria Antica Torre, which sits in the shadow of an 11th century watchtower.  Our meal began with what would be a recurrent dining theme during our time in Piemonte.  Carne cruda is raw ground veal, nothing more.  Many eat it plain.  Some prefer to season it with lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper, a sort of “build your ownIMAG1642 tartare” sans the egg  I was hesitant at first, but my purpose was to experience local cuisine and wine.  It was certainly fresh, and tasty when seasoned…It was acutually quite tasty.  We were also served a “tuna-ed roast” – a sliced veal roast that is dressed with a mayonnaise based “tuna sauce”.   The fresh, unpasteurized cheeses were delicious.  With a little honey and the fresh local bread, they were impossible to resist. – Some of the best I have ever tasted.

Antico Torre Wines Cropped

Our wines were true to form and perfectly complimented the foods they accompanied.  We had two Barbareschi (i.e. plural of Barbaresco) from Giuseppe Cortese, a producer that our waiter recommended.  The highlight, a 2005 Rabaja was drinking beautifully and outshined a 2001 Rabaja Riserva from the same producer.  The surprise of the bunch, however, was a Langhe Freisa that Lars pulled from the list.  Freisa is a red grape indigenous to Piemonte.  Recent DNA profiling at UC Davis has revealed that Freisa has a parent-offspring relationship with Nebbiolo.  Ours was served chilled.  It was dry, slightly fizzy and savory.  Delicious!

Giovanni Rosso Barolo HeaderThe soils of Vigne Rionda

We departed Barbaresco and headed toward the estate of Giovanni Rosso in Barolo. The steep aspect of Vigne Rionda Proprietor and winemaker Davide Rosso produces wines from the Crus La Serra and Cerretta, along with a Serralunga bottling with fruit from several different vineyards.  We toured his vineyard and an impressive new facility he is construction that will increase the estate’s production capacity to 350,000 bottles.  The big news, however, was the recent acquisition of an important and historic Cru, Vigne Rionda.  This vineyard has an interesting history which is detailed on the Giovanni Rosso website. With vines planted in 1946 by Davide’s grandfather Amelio Rosso and a treacherously steep southern aspect, this vineyard has great potential.  2011 will be the first vintage produced by Davide.  Barrel tastings were impressive.

Barrels tastings of young Nebbiolo are challenging, they are fiercely tannic and acidic.

Barolo Barrel Tasting.  Photo a little blurry - But, we were too

Nonetheless, we tasted through everything Davide had resting in his winery.  We were all beginning to succumb to the jet lag that came in waves.  I was feeling like I had been at sea and returned to land with my “sea legs” still under me.  By the end of the tasting, we were in varying states of coma and trance as we returned to the Rosso home for a home-cooked meal by Davide’s mother Ester.

This being our first official dinner in Italy, we had no idea what we were in for.  We Mama Rosso making Crudagathered on the terrace of the Rosso home which overlooked a number of the Crus in Barolo.  Davide sabered a Magnum of Bollinger and we enjoyed Champagne as Davide’s mother Ester put the final touches on dinner.

The meal was multiple courses, beginning with – You guessed it – Cruda.  Mama Rosso made a delicious handmade pasta with a tomato veal sauce.  With each course, we moved up through successive bottlings of Giovanni Rosso Barolo.  Being unfamiliar with Italian tradition, several of us were duped into additional helpings of pasta thinking that was all that was being served at dinner.  Surprise!! A roast course followed, and then salad!  Davide opened a bottle of 2008 Rionda for the finale.  While Davide did not make the 2008, he wanted us to taste the potential of the Rionda Cru – A gracious and much appreciated gesture. I wish I could describe it in detail.  But after the “Big B’s” –  Barbaresco, Barrel tastings of Barolo, Being stuffed with Ester’s wonderful home cooking, and having slept only 4 hours in the last 48…I really liked it!

This bottle must be empty

Fatigued and full of food and wine, we retreated to our hotel in Alba and settled in for what would be the first of many short nights.  Lars taught us the phrase, “Sono Satzio” – Loosely translated: I’m full (satisfied).