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.

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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.

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.