Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Treasure Trove

I’ve made 40 trips to Italy and during those visits, I’ve been able to meet so many wonderful people throughout that beautiful country. For me, this is the best way to learn about the wines of a particular region or country; head there and meet with the people who grew the grapes or harvested them or made the wine in the cellar. Pairing the wines with local foods has been icing on the cake. I wouldn’t trade these journeys for anything in the world.

However, there are still some great wines from Italy I’m managed to miss while I’ve been over there. You just can’t be everywhere, so there are some famous bottlings I’ve never had, as a particular producer didn’t participate in a wine fair or tasting and I didn’t get the time to visit him or her. When that happens, I’ve had to taste them at events in this country. It’s not Italy, but the opportunity to try these wines is too good to pass up.

Recently, I had the good fortune to catch up on some great Italian wines I wasn’t that familiar with when I attended the Domaine Select Grand Tasting, held at The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. This was the 10th anniversary of the company, founded by Paolo Domeneghetti and his wife Allison. Together with a committed team, thay have assembled an outstanding portfolio of artisan Italian estates (they also represent some great producers from Germany, Austria, France, Chile, Argentina and a few other countries). Here are just a few of the Italian producers they represent: Massolino, Fontanafredda, Villa Sparina, Il Palazzone, COS, Le Macchiole and J. Hofstatter.

If that wasn’t enough, they also have some true gems that I think are among the best wine estates in the world. Foremost among these is Soldera, the great Brunello estate operated by Gianfranco Soldera, who labels his Brunello di Montalcino as Case Basse. Soldera is committed to traditional winemaking, in the sense that he ferments and ages his wine in large wooden casks – no small oak here. Yet, he also ages his wines for various periods of time, usually surpassing the minimum time frame necessary in Montalcino. Thus while the current release of Brunello from almost every Brunello producer is the 2004, the newest release from Soldera is the 2002 Riserva. I sampled that wine at the event along with the 2001 and was truly amazed at these wines. Both offer great varietal purity; these wines are all about red cherry fruit with light cedar and spice notes – no toasty vanilla notes in these bottlings! Soldera’s 2002 is clearly the finest Brunello I’ve tasted from that rather dull vintage, while the 2001 Riserva is a spectacular wine, with great concentration of fruit and textbook structure. All of those producers that think they need to wow consumers with flashy wines need to taste these bottlings. Why go for the instant gratification of super ripe fruit and big oak when you can make a wine in this fashion? Thanks to Gianfranco Soldera for making these wines and thank to Domaine Select for tasting them out.

I also tried one exceptional white wine I’ve never had before and it was quite rare; the 2005 Vitoska from Vodopivec aged in amphora. Vodopivec specializes in this rare variety, grown in the Carso district of the Friuli region. This zone is located in the far southeastern reaches of Friuli between the Adriatic Sea and the border with Slovenia. This is natural winemaking at its most intense, as the grapes are kept in contact with the skins for six months in amphora pots buried underground. Afterwards the wine is then aged in large casks for two years; the final result is magnificent. This is a richly textured white with an explosion of pear and melon fruit on the palate and a rich, lengthy finish with bracing acidity. It’s quite a statement and it’s a testament to the philosophy of brothers Paolo and Valter Vodopivec and of course, the growing area of Carso.

Both the Soldera and the Vodopivec were served later that evening at a superb dinner at the Four Seasons; the Brunello acompanying Filet Mignon, while the Vitoska was paired with Brooklyn Ricotta Ravioli (yes, you read that right!). Each course was served with four special wines from the portfolio of Domaine Select, so the filet was also matched with the Le Macchiole Paleo (Cabernet Franc) along with two other wines while the ravioli could be tasted with the unique 2003 Ribolla Gravner, an “orange” wine if there ever was one (I’m referring here to the cult craze of wines such as the Gravner, which have very deep color; the orange hue is not a flaw in the wine.)

In closing, thank you to the vintners who made these special wines and thank you to Paolo and Alison Domeneghetti for arranging this wonderful day and congratulations on ten successful years!

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