Sartori Luncheon, Great Reds, and a White You Should Taste

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With the work of harvest and winemaking from the previous vintage in the rear view, springtime is when winemakers and their marketing troupes hit the road to meet, greet, pour, and tout their wines.  For me, spring is tasting season, as opportunities abound to revisit familiar wines and discover new ones.  Today, I attended a luncheon with Anrdrea Sartori and winemaker Franco Bernabei of Sartori Winery in Verona.  The luncheon was also attended by our hosts, Lars Leicht, Tim Ryan, and Joe Janish of Banfi ; and a small group of local wine writers and bloggers.

We tasted a Pinot Grigio, a “special” wine from the Garganega grape (More below), a Pinot Nero, a basic Valpolicella, an entry level Amarone 2010, along with Corte Bra 2007 – a great vintage from a single-vineyard site with 25 year old vines and “I Saltari” 2001, a wine produced from 50 year old vines.

I arrived late to the luncheon, so I pounded the Pinot Grigio in true patio spirit. We tasted the Valpolicella and Pinot Nero between courses.  Each was a well-made wine that reflected the conscientious approach of winemaker Franco Bernabei.  The Amarones were paired with a lamb ragout over rigatoni.  The pairing brought out the best of all three Amarones, each creating a different profile.  This was a great illustration of how different wines can change the character of a dish, or vice-versa.  Based on the vintages sampled and the reputation of the producer, it is not surprising that all the Amarones were excellent.

Much is written about Amarone, Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco.  Even the most casual Italophile has had some experience with at least a few of these great Italian reds.  I would never dedicate and entire blog entry with another report of great wines consumed, unless I felt I could impart some useful information.   I prefer to relate my discoveries and, hopefully, lead you to your own.

With that said, I shift my focus to Italian whites.

I have seen many Italian winemakers known for producing fantastic reds show great pride and enthusiasm when introducing their whites.   These whites from red wine country are often overlooked by consumers, or simply lost in the shuffle.  Often, these wines show better at the table with a meal than they would at a walk-through tasting.  (Go figure) So, our luncheon was the perfect setting to introduce the wine that was the biggest surprise of the day.

sartori_ferdi-168x450“Ferdi” is a Veronese IGT white made in the Amarone style from the Garganega grape.   According to Franco, the grapes for this wine are picked early, while they are still under ripe.  The idea is to capture acidity that will maintain freshness in the finished wine.   As with Amarone, the grapes are air-dried to concentrate sugars and intensify flavor.   Both oak casks and stainless steel are used for fermentation.  The wine is then aged on its lees for around 7 months.   A hint of residual was left to enhance the fruit character and balance acidity.

The “Ferdi” did that very cool thing that many Italian white wines do with food.  Despite its fruit character and hint of sweetness, it became savory.  Franco made it a point that we would revisit this wine later.  After tasting through the Pinot Noir, the Valpolicella, and the Amarones, Franco requested fresh glasses for the table.  Waiters re-poured the “Ferdi”.  The revisit made the point that Franco intended.  The “Ferdi” did not fade, but rather, refreshed the palette.  After the Amarones, the sweetness of the wine seemed more pronounced.  As this was the case, the wine performed as a light dry dessert wine…Very cool indeed.  FYI, the “Ferdi” retails for around $17.

If you refer back to my blog “When in Romecantina-valdadige-pinot-grigio-ramato-doc-515717” which highlights my first encounter with Frascati, you will understand where my growing fascination with the whites of Italy as food wines began.  Currently, I am turning people on to Soave from Veneto, Insolia and Grillo from Sicily, Vermintino from Sardegna, Friulano from the Grave, and most certainly, Frascati to name a few.  Frankly, it is a shame that many people never get beyond Pinot Grigio when sampling Italian whites.  However, even Pinot Grigio can be surprising.  Try a “Ramatto”, a copper-colored Pinot Grigio made with skin contact to extract the “Grigio” from the Pinot.  For the most part, when it comes to Italian whites, most will be best appreciated with food.  A little experimentation will add life to your cuisine.  As the world of wine becomes a smaller place, the underappreciated Italian whites may be one of the last frontiers.

When in Rome – Mauro Merz and Frascati

When I received the email regarding a luncheon at Sorrento with Mauro Merz, winemaker of Fontana Candida, the invite mentioned that the luncheon would include a tasting of back vintages of Frascati. I must admit, I was both intrigued and skeptical. Back vintages and Frascati are two things that you wouldn’t expect to hear in the same sentence. My intuition told me that this would be a learning opportunity, I immediately signed up. If n hing else, I would enjoy a great lunch.

The First Tasting Flight

Our tasting began with a 2010 “Terre dei Grifi”, a 2010 “Santa Teresa, and a 2004 (Yes, 2004) Santa Teresa for comparison. The ‘10s were fresh with good acidity and a streak of minerality. The 2004, was amazingly fresh had developed a delicate hint of lychee that was reminiscent of a dilute Gerwurtztraminer. We were told that these wines could develop over a period of more than ten years. Nice enough.

Our first true revelation came as we filled our plates with the likes of grilled vegetables, mushrooms with crabmeat, carpaccio, Salmon on toast, and prosciutto with melon. We soon realized that the food didn’t matter, Frascati was like a chameleon. The character of the wine changed with every combination of flavors and blended harmoniously! The initial seriousness of the group melted away and Serendipity ensued. (Pairings)
The second flight of our tasting was a vertical 2007-10 of ‘Luna Mater’ the flagship wine of Fontana Candida. Luna Mater means “Mother Moon”. The name pays homage to the biodynamic practices employed in the vineyard. The wines were consistent (The tech notes are virtually identical). There wasn’t a whole lot of difference among the vintages, save for the slight rounding of acidity in the older wines. After the first flight, we weren’t surprised that the Luna Mater proved no less adept at complementing our greatly varied selection of lunch entrees.


Luna Mater consists of 50% Malvasia di Candia, 10% Trebbiano Toscano, 20% Malvasia del Lazio, 10% Greco, and 10% Bombino. Mauro produces this wine with great care, employing a combination of three winemaking techniques. The grapes are hand-picked and separated into two batches. The first batch is cooled and gently pressed to extract maximum aromatics. The second batch is destemmed, cooled, macerated on the skins for varietal character. A few days later, a small selection of grapes is added to the fermenting must and undergoes a semi-carbonic maceration. (As with Beaujolais). Mauro mentioned that some berries were allowed to dry prior to pressing, but this is not mentioned in the tech information provided.
All wines of DOCG Frascati are a blend based on Malvasia, with Greco added for aromatics and viscosity, and Bombino added for acidity and freshness. Two clones of Malvasia are cultivated: Malvasia di Candia is a high-yielding clone that is is preferred by producers that choose to focus on volume production. Malvasia del Lazio, while lower-yielding, produces wine with more flavor, finesse, and the desired levels of alcohol. Malvasia del Lazio is being progressively replanted with the goal of enhancing the quality and perception of the DOCG.

As our entrees were cleared, Mauro had one more surprise for us. He presented us with a treat he brought over from Italy that currently is not available in the US. It was a sweet Frascati called Canellino. The wine was light…and sweet, and again fairly innocuous. But as before, Mauro had a demonstration planned. Upon pouring the wine, waiters followed with plates full of biscotti. Without speaking, Mauro picked up his biscotti and proceeded to dip it in his wine glass while saying, “In Rome, this is how we drink Canelloni. Once again, this was a revelation and the wine was truly transformed. My gut reaction told me that the combination reminded of Bananas Foster. Whatever the flavor, we all found the combination irresistible. So much that we had two additional plates of biscotti delivered to our table before we had eaten our fill.
Our luncheon ended with Mauro telling us that in Rome Frascati is known as “the legless wine”. This due to the fact that while deceptively light on the palette, Frascati packs and alcoholic punch, usually around 14%. Unsuspecting diners often rise at the end of a meal to find they have “lost their legs”. I am sure his intent was to warn us before we rose from the table. With that, our group said our thank-yous and goodbyes and left legless and enlightened.