Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Great Tour of some Grand Wines

Reading through Joseph Bastianich's latest book, Grandi Vini: A Opinionated Tour of Italy's Finest 89 Wines (Clarkson Potter, New York, $24.99), is almost as rewarding as sitting down with a winemaker at his cellar or home in Italy and tasting one of his finest releases. You're not in Italy, but you might as well be, given the author's insights combined with his mixture of history, personality and elegantly simple wine descriptions.

Bastianich is one of America's foremost authorities on Italian wines and only someone who has studied this subject for so long could write a book as valuable as this. He currently owns more than a dozen Italian restaurants in New York City and also owns wine estates in Friuli and Toscana in Italy. He grew up working for his parents (everyone knows his mother Lidia) at their Buonavia Resaturant in Queens and then moved on to embrace Italian wines with the help of a nearby wine retailer.

Bastianich was able to travel to Italy, at first with his parents and then on his own and it's clear from this book how enamored he became with the country, its wines and foods. Grandi Vini is more than just a listing of dozens of great wines (though it's an impressive list), it also serves as a travelogue across the Italian peninsula, giving the reader a look into the complex and fascinating world of Italian viticulture.

The famous wines and producers, such as Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Biondi-Santi and Gaja are listed as you would imagine. But what I'm most impressed with are the lesser-known wines the author has included, wines that deserve much more attention than they currently receive. These include such outstanding wines as the Giuseppe Rinaldi "Brunate -Le Coste" Barolo, the Fontanafredda "Lazzarito -La Delizia" Barolo, the "Monte Fiorentine" Soave Classico from Ca' Rugate and the "Vorberg Riserva" Pinot Bianco from Cantina Terlano in Alto Adige (I must admit that I'm thrilled to see these wines in the book, as the are all personal favorites of mine as well).

In case you're one of those wine lovers that only thinks of Italy for its big reds, such as Barolo, Brunello and Amarone, you'll love learning about its notable whites from Friuli, Marche and Campania among others as well as gorgeous reds such as Taurasi, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Gattinara, to name only a few. Of course, there have been many fine books that have documented the story of Italian wines, so this is not groundbreaking material, but perhaps only someone as familiar with Italian wines and as passionate as Bastianich could have told this tale so eloquently.

The book is titled as "an opinionated tour" and there are many valuable observations on specific wines and producers. Basianich notes how Edi Keber changed the history of Collio with the introduction of his Collio Bianco, a blend of several local varieties. He writes, "Edi and 80 out of 120 producers in Collio believe that a wine named Collio, crafted from historic and native varietals (sic), is the only future for this tiny border wine region making the best white wines in Italy and perhaps in the world."

An even stronger opinion is revealed in the author's text on Bruno Giacosa, the famed producer of Barbaresco and Barolo. "Bruno Giacosa," the author writes, "has remained almost the only winemaker in Piemonte who is still able to make great wines with other people's grapes." Where else would you read a comment such as that?

As for the chosen wines themselves, Bastianich has opted for a balancing act, as is the proper course for a book on the best Italian wines. Of course, Barolo, Amarone and Brunello are well represented, but there are also several examples of Taurasi, Soave and Chianti Classico as well as classical made sparkling wines from Lombardia and Trentino along with notable reds such as Nero d'Avola and Aglianico del Vulture. The style of the wines vary as well, from traditional to the more modern; writing about Barolo, the author confesses his love for traditional wines, yet also praises the ultra-modern approach taken by Roberto Voerzio.

Finally, I love the writing style Bastianich uses for the descriptions of his wines. This is not a book filled with words such as "opulent", "austere" or "dramatic", but rather words that make these wines easy to understand. For example, discussing the Ca' Rugate "Monte Fiorentine" Soave, he writes, "In the mouth, the wine is round, juicy and elegant. Despite never having seen wood, this wine has body, well-balanced acidity and structure." This is a summary everyone can understand and given the enormous range of Italian wines in general, the author's decision to simplify things and not talk down to the reader is a welcome one.

The combination of history, opinions and insights into particular producers Bastianich has met over the years makes this book a valuable entry in the Italian wine world. Highly Recommended.

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