Terlato launches next chapter in Pinot Grigio story with Italy’s Simonit & Sirch

They wear plaid and are forced to check their pint-sized chainsaws in their luggage when they travel. They are the SVU – Special Vine Unit – not the investigators of crimes, but rather the investigators and proponents of healthy grapevines.

The Friuli-born Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch met in high school, having spent their childhoods running around their respective village farms, both clearly at home in the outdoors. After attending viticultural school, they worked at the Istituto Agrario, went on to other posts and then renewed their acquaintance several years later when they noted that what they had been taught in school wasn’t actually working in the vineyard.

The duo spent considerable time researching and observing what was going on and ultimately developed their trademarked Simonit & Sirch pruning strategies, which seek to promote sap flow and reduce pruning wounds (which are susceptible to disease).

Interestingly, in an age when the words “natural” and “organic” are bandied about as being superior, we tend to forget about the importance of the role of humans in the vineyard. Vineyard pruning practices have not been a major focus; however, as Simonit and Sirch discovered, these practices can limit the health and life expectancy of a vine.

Accordingly, their intervention techniques improve the overall health of the vine, eliminate potential weakness and, when necessary, they eradicate disease with the aforementioned mini-chainsaws. Further, their approach concentrates on saving prized, older vines, which have the capacity to extract the characteristics of the soil, as opposed to the more common alternative of grubbing up diseased vines and replacing them with new plants that will take years to develop quality grapes.

Now they have become celebrity pruners, traveling the globe to save the world’s greatest vineyards and preserve their longevity. As a result, they have a robust client roster that reads like a wine list at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Sometimes they can’t believe it themselves. When famed Sauternes producer, Chateau d’Yquem, came calling, they initially thought it was a prank call!

Several years ago, the pair were introduced to Bill Terlato through a mutual friend, kicking off what was to become a fruitful partnership. At the time, Terlato was ready to write the next chapter of his company’s Pinot Grigio story and was looking for great grapes.

Terlato’s father, Anthony Terlato, was responsible for launching the Santa Margherita brand in the U.S. back in the 1970s, but, despite the profitability of the lengthy Terlato-Santa Margherita partnership (now dissolved), Terlato had become disillusioned with the product. A victim of its own success, Terlato felt that the wine’s quality had diminished over time as quantity was increased to accommodate growing demand. He believes that a product becomes commercial, rather than artisanal, when you make hundreds of thousands of cases.

While the original intent was for Simonit & Sirch to simply supply the contacts for Terlato’s project, they saw the opportunity for their hometown region – Friuli’s Colli Orientali – to gain the global exposure they felt it deserved. Colli Orientali is known for crafting some of the best Pinot Grigio in the world, but, since the region is made up of many, small growers who produce many wines with limited production, it is very difficult for them to get traction in the market.

Thus, the viticulturists decided to participate as full collaborators with Terlato. They underscore that what makes this particular wine project different from others is that not only is the quality of the wine evident, but it is scalable. a situation which Terlato describes as “1 + 1 = 3; We [Terlato] bring the marketability on a global basis.”

Overall, the goal is to produce “Grand Cru quality” Pinot Grigio that is evocative of its place, with both character and ageability. Speaking highly of this much-maligned grape – thanks to the glut of insipid Pinot Grigio on lists and shelves – Simonit stresses that, as a relative of Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio has good genetics and has the capacity to produce excellent wines.

In general, the fruit is sourced and hand harvested at low yields from 20-to-40-year-old vines grown on marl and schist soils on hillside plots. Recognizing the subtle differences among various soil types and microclimates, grapes from different plots are vinified separately and then blended together to produce a balanced and complex wine. As Terlato explains, “We want something distinctive, with complexity, salinity, minerality and length.”

Vintage variation is evident and, while they hope Mother Nature will be kind to them each year, such variation is not discouraged or covered up. The first vintage of the project was 2014 (although they produced Friulano in 2013), which proved to be a challenging harvest. The 2015 vintage was more bountiful, permitting them to expand their reach, which they are growing cautiously, primarily targeting on-premise accounts.

Present production stands at 40,000 cases and Terlato believes that a maximum output of 150,000 cases is feasible before the quality is compromised – a far cry from the current Santa Margherita case production of 700,000 annually.

Time will tell how this newest Pinot Grigio chapter will end, but so far the wine has been well received in the market.

Channeling Jimmy Buffet with Montes and Kaiken Wines

As Jimmy Buffet crooned, “It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes [when] nothing remains quite the same.” While he was singing about life in general, Buffet might have been speaking about the differences between Chilean and Argentine wine. OK, not really, but the emphases on latitude and altitude were apparent at a recent tasting of Montes and Kaiken wines. Presided over by Aurelio Montes, Sr. and Aurelio, Montes, Jr., the father and son team shared the fruits of their respective labors as we tasted a collection of their wines from these two countries.

A pioneer in wine, Aurelio Montes, Sr. earned his degree in agronomy and went on to co-found Viña Montes in 1988. This Chilean winery set the bar for Chilean wines and helped introduce them to the world at time when people had never heard of Chile, let alone knew the country produced wine.

This father of five was eager to have his son, Aurelio, Jr., follow in his footsteps and was loathe to leave it to chance. Thus, the two traveled to the Napa Valley when Jr. was only 15 years old. During the trip, he visited UC Davis and met Robert Mondavi and other key figures in the Napa industry, which cemented his interest in wine. Moreover, he encouraged his father to focus exclusively on top quality wines.

Upon their return, Sr. looked to new territories in Chile, finding land in Apalta on which to plant his vineyards and launch the Alpha line of high end wines. Here, he embraced the maritime climate, planting Bordeaux varieties, and concentrating on growing premium grapes and crafting premium wines. This shift proved to be quite successful and the Montes name became well respected in the industry.

However, not content to rest on his laurels, Aurelio, Sr. was lured by the stark contrast of Argentina’s vineyards beckoning just over the steep Andes peaks. Its continental climate, unique soils and elevations were equally well suited to grape growing, but with distinctly different challenges than those he faced at home in Chile. Thus, he eventually established Kaiken in 2001, giving him two wonderful worlds in which to produce wine.

Meanwhile, thanks to the success of that first Napa trip, Aurelio, Jr. completed his agronomy studies in 1999 and began building his resumé with stints at Rosemount, Cape Mentelle and Franciscan Estate, before returning to Chile. But, he had to earn his place in the family business, honing his skills at Viña Ventisquero before joining Montes in 2007. He first worked in Apalta and then led the winemaking team at Kaiken from 2011 to 2015. Not surprisingly, Jr. acknowledges that, “Making wine is hard work; we are not magicians.”

More simply, he suggested that, “The job of a winemaker is twofold: half of the job is to make wine and the other half is to understand what the consumer wants.” In this regard, he has worked in five different countries, understanding what is good, learning from other areas and taking that experience and expertise home with him to make better wine.

In illustration of their combined knowledge and expertise, we tasted two Chardonnays from the two different “neighborhoods.” Introducing his cool climate wine, Aurelio, Sr. spoke about playing with proximity to the Pacific Ocean, thereby moving along the same latitude to change the character of the resulting grapes. His Chardonnay was very fresh with bright acidity and predominantly citrus notes.

Similarly, Aurelio, Jr. described his manipulation with the height of his vineyards above sea level to slow down ripening and retain acidity, ultimately producing high altitude Chardonnay. While still quite balanced, his Chardonnay was lower in acidity and displayed riper fruit and slightly more oak.

We then focused our attention on Cabernet Sauvignon with the Chilean version being leaner and more elegant whereas the Argentine Cab was fruitier with a richer, rounder style that was more muscular with riper tannins. While Cabernet Sauvignon is not usually associated with Argentina, Aurelio, Jr. argues that the grape can do well there; it simply hasn’t been planted in the right places. He suggested that as an industry, Argentine producers need to do a better job of identifying the best terroirs and planting vines, but also acknowledged that Argentina’s emphasis on quality wine only came about in the past 15 years.

Turning the tables, we next tasted Malbec, which is much more linked to Argentina than to Chile. Aurelio, Sr. jokingly explained that he was jealous of the success that Argentina has had with this grape and decided to produce his own version at home. His Malbec was fresh and lean, with less spice and intensity than the Argentine version. Yet, the Kaiken Ultra Malbec was still an elegant wine with ripe black and blue fruit and herbal notes, thanks to the extreme terroir of his 1500 m vineyard that Jr. calls “wild black horse of the mountain.”

With their long tenure in wine, the two winemakers are not without their desire to experiment. For Sr., it was a Rhone-style blend of Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre (Outer Limits CGM); for Jr., a varietal Cabernet Franc, which he described as being more feminine compared to the “macho wines” Argentina is known for.

Their aspirational wines include the Montes Alpha M, which was Sr.’s attempt to craft a Bordeaux blend as good as one from Bordeaux. By the accolades given in the room, it was clear that he has succeeded with this sophisticated and complex blend. Likewise, the Kaiken Mai is a beautiful Malbec sourced from a heritage vineyard planted in 1910 that has been saved from the encroaching condo development in the Mendoza area. Although 97% of this vineyard is planted to Malbec, a handful of other grapes such as Semillon, Criolla, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are still mixed in among the vines.

Finally, we closed with a mini-vertical of Taita, a visionary wine named for a term of endearment used for a beloved father, denoting respect and devotion. Dry-farmed on a vineyard with calcium-rich soil (thanks to the detritus from a previous glacier), the wine is primarily made up of Cabernet Sauvignon and is aged for a long period of time before release. My favorite was the 2007, which was still quite structured, but displaying some development on its tenth anniversary.

But, in the end, despite discussions of latitude and altitude, it is all about the wines you like. A common note made during the tasting was how each wine was beautifully made in its own right, but would have greater or lesser appeal depending upon one’s palate preferences. Such thoughts underscore Sr.’s statement that, “You get more human than technical about wine as you get older.”

Plus, as Jimmy Buffet also reminded us in his tune, “With all of our running and all of our cunning, If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”

Thankfully, both gentlemen readily laugh. Aurelio, Sr. shared an anecdote about that fateful trip to Napa during which Aurelio, Jr. proudly purchased an inexpensive pair of shorts that he proceeded to wear throughout the week, only to discover at the end that they were actually a pair of underwear. Apparently, Chileans only wear briefs; it must be a longitudinal thing.

List of Wines Tasted

  • Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2014, Aconcagua Costa, Chile, $20.00
  • Kaiken Ultra Chardonnay 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $20.00
  • Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $20.00
  • Kaiken Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $20.00
  • Montes Alpha Malbec 2014, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $20.00
  • Kaiken Ultra Malbec 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $20.00
  • Montes Outer Limits CGM 2015, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $25.00
  • Kaiken Obertura Cabernet Franc 2014, Mendoza, Argentina, $35.00
  • Montes Alpha M 2012, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $98.00
  • Kaiken Mai Malbec 2013, Mendoza, Argentina, $70.00
  • Montes Taita Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $249.00
  • Montes Taita Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $249.00
  • Montes Taita Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Colchagua Valley, Chile, $249.00


Miner Family Winery: The Cool Miners’ Water

With their name proudly displayed on every bottle of wine they produce, the Miner family has made a name for themselves in Napa Valley wine. Founder Dave Miner initially launched his career in the software industry, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Robert Miner, who was among the co-founders of Oracle Corporation.

Dave continued to pursue his uncle’s passions when he took over as President of Oakville Ranch Vineyards, which Robert had established in 1989. While Oakville Ranch continues to remain in the hands of Robert’s widow, Mary Miner, Dave went on to found his own winery, Miner Family Winery in 1996, after meeting his future wife, Emily, who served as Tasting Room Manager at Oakville.

Ten years later, Dave and Emily’s efforts were duly rewarded when Miner Family Winery was honored as a Top 100 “Winery of the Year” by Wine & Spirits Magazine.

The Miner Family wines were initially crafted at a custom crush facility, but, by 1997, the pair had hired Gary Brookman on as winemaker and spent the following two years buying a building, excavating caves and releasing their first wine. In 2008, the winery was able to become energy-independent, running exclusively on self-generated solar power.

Interestingly, while they have spent considerable time and effort focused on their facility, the fruit for their wines is generally sourced from other people’s vineyards, some of which, like Hyde, Stagecoach and Garys’ Vineyard, have become extremely well known.

A wide range of wines are produced, including those from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone varieties. In a fitting tribute to uncle Robert, the winery’s flagship Bordeaux-style blend, Oracle, was launched in 2004. Today, Miner Family Winery wines continue to earn critical acclaim and have been served at several White House dinners. Yet, the wines remain reasonably priced and accessible.

Miner Family Winery Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley (CA), US, $30.00
As a high quality, well-made wine, this is an oaked Chardonnay for the haters out there. Aromas of apples, spice and pear greet the nose and persist on the dry palate; overall, it is really enjoyable with complexity and elegance.

Miner Family Winery Wild Yeast Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley (CA), US, $50.00 Produced with only indigenous yeast cultures, this wine offers up yeasty, nutty characteristics on both the nose and palate. Despite spending 16 months in 70% new French barrels, it is well balanced with integrated oak, showing slight development and culminating in long length.

Miner Family Winery Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands (CA), US, $60.00
Beautiful aromas of floral, cherries and a hint of herbs are displayed on the nose while rich, concentrated, ripe cherry flavors are joined by wet leaves and a kiss of oak on the palate.

Miner Family Winery Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley (CA), US, $75.00
From the Krupp Family’s famed Stagecoach Vineyard, this wine is redolent of red and black fruits, coupled with spice notes.  The full-bodied palate delivers firm tannins, with rich blackberry and spice along with long length.

It’s Complicated… but does it have to be?

Each year, dozens of high school and college teams gather together to compete in building complex machinery to complete simple tasks. This national competition, held in celebration of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, encourages the creation of far-fetched contraptions to accomplish straight-forward tasks such as hammering a nail or turning a page.

See the Rube Goldberg website for this and other images.

These machines take a circuitous route to getting things done, instead of simply moving from Point A to Point B, there are quite a few stops along the way.

In the context of the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, such round-about, comical approaches can be a lot of fun, but why do we seem to take a similar tack when explaining simple concepts about wine to our students?

As a refreshing antidote to encyclopedic tomes, Tom Stevenson has written “a [wine] book for people who don’t want to read about wine.” Stevenson’s newest book, Buy the Right Wine Every Time, The No-Fuss, No-Vintage Wine Guide, offers a simple, straightforward approach and focuses on wines that are generally inexpensive, widely available and consistent from year to year.

This is a distinct departure for Stevenson, who is well known for writing the (encyclopedia tome and) go-to-guide, World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparking Wine. Presumably much more at home drinking the likes of Bollinger and Taittenger, for this project, Stevenson found himself tasting Barefoot and Turning Leaf and seems to be impressed with these and several other big brands.

The first part of the book emphasizes wine by style, while in the latter section (referred to as the “A-Z of wines”), individual wines are listed alphabetically (naturally) with a few key elements included:

  • What is it?
  • What does it taste like?
  • If you like this, then try with confidence…

The very first entry in this section is the Adami Prosecco Bosco del Gica, which Stevenson rates as Recommended. (His other ratings are To Die For and Highly Recommended). As a consumer-oriented wine book, I would say it is Highly Recommended.

Interestingly, or at least of interest to me as a wine educator, while the label clearly indicates that the wine is Prosecco Superiore DOCG (and not just Prosecco DOC), Stevenson makes absolutely no mention of this fact in his text.

And, in the wine style section, none of the wines listed include the appellation or even country of origin. Truly a case of less is more.

Truthfully, having worked with the Prosecco Superiore consortium, I feel a duty to explain and clarify the differences between the two, but in all honestly, does the average consumer really care as long as the wine tastes good (to them) and fits within their budget? As much as I hate to admit it, the answer is no.

Yet, I do not advocate for a full abdication of complex principles; merely, for the use of clear explanations when they are necessary and appropriate. In this regard, detailed dissertations on appellation laws might be best left for trade training, but significant concepts that link wine and place should be explored, keeping context and audience in mind when guiding such conversations.

Similarly, at a recent seminar on “Why Terroir Matters,” author and educator Marnie Old questioned whether we should be using the term terroir with consumers, noting that discussions of “dirt” tend to turn people off.

In response, Bordeaux merchant and estate owner, Edouard Moueix suggested that, “[Terroir] is a term that was invented to describe something that can’t be easily defined,” but was adamant that terroir is indeed vital to the dialogue on wine. Instead, he proposed that we need to do a better job illuminating this term for consumers to help them understand how terroir distinguishes one wine from another in its identity as well as to clarify that it does not, in fact, mean “dirt.”

Admittedly, a tall order, but as a wine educator I am up for the challenge. What do you think?

Discovering Sicily: A Mediterranean Jewel in Italy’s Crown

2013-05-11 08.39.15In May 2013, I had the precious opportunity to spend a week visiting the beautiful island of Sicily, exploring its land, meeting its people and tasting its wonderful wines. This is my story.

I  stood in line at the Palermo airport, crying. Not loud wails, just silent tears rolling down my face. But, as it was my seventh visit to Italy, the intense emotion was as surprising to me as it was to anyone else who might have noticed. I felt a deep loss as I prepared to leave Sicily. In less than a week this region had somehow wrapped itself around my heart and refused to let go. I wanted to attribute this visit’s difference to my slightly improved Italian language skills, but I knew that this didn’t do it justice. There was something else – something that permitted conversations to by-pass small talk and dive right in to what really mattered; getting to know one another and feeling safe to share. I had become attached to the spirit of the island, with its fusion of Arabic, Spanish, Norse and Italian heritage, and to the spirit of the people who inhabit it.  I took a deep breath, blinked back the tears and boarded my plane knowing that I had been given a wonderful gift…

[Read the full story as a PDF: Discovering Sicily]

Sicily – a part of Italy and yet it stands apart both literally and figuratively. As an island situated off the coast of Italy’s toe (Calabria), the region is physically separate, requiring a flight or ferry to get to or from there. But, beyond geography, Sicily remains steadfast to its traditions and culture. My new friend, Federico Mammoli, of Firriato winery’s export department and originally from Rome, told me that when he first arrived on the island, he only understood about thirty percent of what people said to him, despite the fact that, of course, they all speak the same language.

As far as wine is concerned, agriculture is a big component of the economy and grapes have been cultivated here for centuries. Nearly everywhere one looks, there are vines and Sicily is responsible for an immense amount of Italian wines. Like the rest of southern Italy, the key word here was quantity, with quality a mere afterthought for many producers.

But that, to a large extent, is ancient history. Sure, Sicily still produces cheap and cheerful wines, most regions these days do, but while my formal exploration of Sicilian wine was admittedly confined to a handful of wineries, I was extremely impressed with what I found. There was complexity, depth and structure that I didn’t expect, revealing the significant quality and continued potential of Sicilian wines. And, throughout each winery visit, I was enamored not only by the wines, but also by the people and their passion and warmth. I felt so welcomed in a way that felt much differently than any other press trip that I didn’t want to leave… Hence, the tears at the airport.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish…

Island Capers

Reserve in a reserve

True Cooperation

Valley of the Temples and Nectar of the Gods

Crazy with a fox (and Germans)

Recommended Wines

Discovering Sicily: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish…

Kamens Favignana Tufa Quarry BeachesEarlier in the week, it was a beach scene like any other as the smell of fresh fish and salt water permeated. The sky had clouded over, the not-quite-summer air had turned cool and towel-wrapped children waited with their parents for the ferry back to the mainland. Only, this wasn’t Sag Harbor or Block Island; instead, we were on Favignana in the Egadi Islands, 45 minutes from Trapani, Sicily – an island off the coast of an island.

The island’s history dates to prehistoric times, but the only visible historic remnants date to medieval times when Swabians constructed the Castle of Santa Caterina at the top of the island’s only hill, from a pre-existing tower originally built by the Saracens.

Alternately called La Farfalla (the butterfly) due its shape, Favignana is named for the Favonio, a local westerly wind, which made its presence known, as I was shown around Firriato’s latest project. The Trapani-based winery was first established in the 1980s by Salvatore Di Gaetano, who is now joined by his wife, Vinzia, in running the family business, but while Firriato’s 320 hectares of vineyards are spread out over six Sicilian estates, it was the five hectares planted six years ago on Favignana that they were most excited about sharing with me. This selection of vines is the first and only vineyard to be planted on the island in 50 years.

Although Favignana is known for its twin industries of tuna and tufa, today’s islanders rely on tourism to make their livelihood. Yet, while the island is hospitable to tourists, it is less so to vines. The tufa-sand soils provide their own challenges, while the namesake wind necessitates that vines are bush trained using the alberello (little tree) method. At only several inches off the ground, the obvious need for hand-harvesting prompted me to commiserate with the vineyard crew, sensing the back-breaking work required (I certainly wasn’t inspired to volunteer).

Similarly, bamboo fencing tempers the wind and reduces the effect of salt water, which would otherwise burn the vines’ tender leaves. Their agronomist, Giovanni Manzo, advised that Zibibbo – a local clone of Moscato d’Alessandria (Muscat d’Alexandria) – is among the more resistant plants, which explains why these were planted closest to the sea.

But, despite these obstacles, the island’s climate also has a favorable impact. A high diurnal shift helps grapes develop good acidity and perfume. Meanwhile, the wind minimizes humidity, and subsequently, mildew, so much so that the operation is almost entirely organic.

Focused on indigenous varieties, the vineyard is planted to Cataratto, Grillo, Zibibbo, Perricone, and Nero d’Avola, with grapes shipped back to Trapani for production since its size doesn’t warrant the construction of a winery on Favignana. But, while these wines are currently labeled as IGP Sicilia, Firriato hopes to create a new Favignana-based DOC for them and will submit an application after the third vintage (2013) in keeping with legal restrictions.Kamens Favignana Alberello

After my vineyard orientation, Federico and Giovanni took me to lunch. But, before I had my fill of locally-caught, tonno rosso (blue fin tuna), swordfish and other wonderful seafood, all of which was simply prepared and delicious, we tasted through the Firriato wines, including two produced from the vines I had just seen.

In typical Sicilian style, we capped off the meal with a cannoli dessert and then indulged in some coffee to keep us awake. Post-lunch, the taxi driver did double duty as both driver and tour guide, having lived on the island his entire life. He showed us around, noting various points of interest and historical buildings. We stopped at an abandoned quarry that now functions as makeshift seaside cabanas and plays host to beach bathers. I was struck at the brilliance and clarity of the blue water below. Then, we climbed back in the car and headed to the port, the bright sun fading just as we arrived and joined the families as we all waited in earnest for the next boat.

Discovering Sicily: Island Capers

Kamens Pantelleria Damusso The next day, fighting off jetlag and a general lack of sleep, I struggled out of bed early (5:30 AM) to meet Laura Ellwanger from Donnafugata’s Public Relations department. That morning, Laura and I flew further afield (closer to Africa than to Italy) to another Sicilian island – Pantelleria, joined on our early morning flight by the daily newspapers. But, while the news may arrive a bit late, this sybaritic slice of paradise has long attracted the well-heeled with their well-endowed pocketbooks – including Armani who arrives each summer via private yacht – in stark contrast to Favignana’s laid-back tourists.

Also unlike Favignana, Pantelleria has a more continuous vinous history. Here, vines commonly average 40-50 years old, with a few remaining ungrafted vines thought to be over 100 years old as I saw at Donnafugata’s vineyards. Initially arriving on Pantelleria in 1989, Donnafugata now owns vineyards in 12 districts on the island, totaling close to 70 hectares (170 acres).

In addition to vines, the island is also known for its capers and, since I had never seen a caper bush, Laura made sure to take me to a caper garden, which was a treat to see. Interestingly, in terms of cuisine, this is not an island of fisherman, as Pantelleria’s rocky coastline makes it challenging to easily put boats in and out of the water. Consequently, fresh fish is less abundant here. However, rabbits are quite plentiful and often find their way onto the menu.

Home to even fiercer winds, Pantelleria’s Arabic -derived name means “Daughter of the Wind,” and its vines are also alberello trained. This practice has been adapted to olive and citrus trees on the island, with dwarf-like orchards dotting the landscape.

Another feature of the landscape are walls made from dark, volcanic stones that line the narrow roadways, define property borders and undoubtedly gave rise to the island’s nickname as the Black Pearl of the Mediterranean. The stacked stones revealed a patchwork of plots, stemming from very fragmented land ownership, and some seemed to have been abandoned given the overgrown vegetation, possibly due to their exceedingly small size.

Kamens Pantelleria Pantesco GardenBut beyond their proprietary function, these walls protect the grapes from the whipping winds and reduce erosion while their composition of pumice and lava release much-needed humidity during the heat of the day. These same stones were used to build a Pantellerian Garden, the oldest evidence of which date to 3000 B.C.E. As they do in the vineyard, the stones of these circular enclosures give off sufficient moisture to sustain a centrally-planted orange tree despite the limited rainfall and lack of irrigation. Such gardens are a mark of wealth and prestige, but also hold the promise as to how such technology might be adapted in other rain-starved climates, which is why the winery has donated its garden to the National Trust for Italy (F.A.I.) and collaborated on a study with the University of Milan.

The garden is situated in Khamma where Donnafugata maintains a winery, necessary since production of its Ben Ryé, with its prestigious Passito di Pantelleria DOP, must be completed entirely on the island. The labor-intensive harvest is quite protracted spanning six weeks from beginning to end as different plots become ripe and ready for harvest in turn. Selected grapes are dried on mats in the sun and wind for three to four weeks, during which time they lose moisture and increase intensity and sugar levels. Others are picked a month later and pressed immediately, with the dried grapes destemmed by hand and then added to the this fermenting must in batches, resulting in a luscious dessert wine with sufficient freshness. Yields are extremely low at 1.6-2.4 tons per acre (4.0-6.0 tons per hectare).

The winery’s other prized Zibibbo grapes are vinified on the island to produce Kabir, a Moscato di Pantelleria DOP, while the younger grapes are sent to Marsala to make  Lighea, a dry and refreshing wine that carries the IGP Terre Siciliane designation.

Tasting this latter wine at Khamma, I fantasized about enjoying it on the deck of a dammuso, a Pantellerian traditional white-domed house, while on holiday, but alas, it was once again time to return to the mainland.

But, the Rallo family, which owns Donnafugata, is known for much more than its award winning Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria and has been in the wine industry for much longer than their time on Pantelleria. As early as 1851, the family first produced the Italian fortified wine, Marsala, where their winery is located. But, as the reputation of Marsala waned (as did much of its quality), Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo looked for other ways to better show off the potential of the Sicilian island. Taking a new approach, they chose to plant international grape varieties on the family’s estate in Contessa Entellina and launched the Donnafugata wine brand, borrowing the name from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), which takes place on Sicily.

During my visit, I had the pleasure of dining with both of Giacomo and Gabriella’s children — Josè and Antonio. One night, Antonio shared some of the family history with me, noting that one of the initial challenges was to teach the vineyard workers how to grow vines for the production of quality wine when they had been conditioned to grow solely for quantity. To solve this problem, the workers were given an opportunity to taste the wines side by side so that they would see what the impact of quality vineyard practices would have on the finished wine.

Once Donnafugata’s reputation with international varieties was established, the family turned its attention to local grapes. Today, the company grows 49 different varieties and is working on another project with the University of Milan to identify the best clones among the indigenous Sicilian varieties such as Cataratto.

The concerted effort and continued emphasis on quality is significant in its impact. In 1994, only 20% of all wine produced in Sicily was bottled in the region – the rest left in bulk. Today, 70% of wine produced within the region is bottled as Sicilian wine. But, Antonio was quick to point out that such progress is the result of many small families working together. Recognizing their shared interest and common goals, a formal group was created in 1998 with an eye toward crafting quality and changing the image of Sicilian wine.

Discovering Sicily: True Cooperation

Italy 2013-05-08_231If Sicilian wines are still being incorrectly identified as emphasizing quantity over quality, another anachronism is that production by cooperatives automatically means poorly made wines. But, with MandraRossa’s intensive adaptation of technology and careful attention to every last detail, it’s clear that striving for quality isn’t restricted to family-owned wineries.

When I arrived at MadraRossa’s Casa Natoli, it was bustling with activity and after the relative quiet of being on my own since Monday morning, I was a bit flustered. But, after introductions were made by MandraRossa’s Brand Ambassador, Maria Isolina Catanese, I soon discovered how much I had actually been craving a full conversation in English. And, as my fellow guests were a group of restaurant managers from London, it wasn’t just English, it was English-English.

Built in 1830, Casa Natoli features the architecture of a typical country house and serves as home to MandraRossa’s cooking school. Ensconced in the Slow Food movement, the Kitchen Brigade at Casa Natoli prepared a multi-course meal featuring not just one, but several dishes comprising different varieties of artichokes (there’s more than one type of artichoke, who knew?), an especially bold move given that artichokes are often considered to be among the most challenging to pair with wine. Fortunately, the Fiano poured with lunch was indeed an excellent match.

After lunch, I was treated to a more formal presentation of the MandraRossa wines with a tasting out in the garden with the winemaker. The wines were quite lovely and the setting was simply heavenly. Then, the agronomist showed me their territory and provided additional details about their operations. Suddenly, we were back to speaking Italian, with the occasional translation from his more English-savvy colleague, when my requests for slower speech or repeated sentences proved insufficient to follow his meaning.

Italy 2013-05-08_247Named for the local district, MandraRossa was founded in 1958 and is part of Cantine Settesoli, which manages the largest single vineyard area in the whole of Europe. However, only the top 10% of Settesoli’s production goes into MandraRossa wines. Today, the cooperative has 88 members, who farm a total of 7,000 hectares. Among the most planted varieties are Chardonnay and Syrah, followed by Nero d’Avola.

The agronomist was keen to let me know how important it was to understand one’s terroir, explaining that they have spent significant time and effort to determine which varieties grows best where and then planting accordingly. In a further focus on quality, growers are advised by the agronomist when to harvest their vines and with which parameters to select their grapes. Moreover, harvesters are monitored by GPS, keeping careful tabs on what is going on within the region. Upon arrival at the winery (the cooperative maintains three), grapes are classified as A, B or C, depending on the quality of the crop, which consequently impacts the price paid to the grower.

Once the tour was over and I checked into the hotel, it was time for dinner. The Brits and I all climbed into a van and were taken to a seaside restaurant where we kicked off the evening with an aperitif on the beach, just as the sun began to set. We were joined by a local dog (who likely belonged to the restaurant) and I somehow managed to step (barefoot) on a bumblebee (yes, ouch!), but the view was too stunning to worry about the pain for long.

Dinner itself was an exquisite array of fresh seafood, including raw gamberi (shrimp) that were so sweet, it was like eating candy. The Brits were a rowdy bunch to put it mildly, freely admitting to having been literally under the table the night before at Planeta’s La Foresteria. Thankfully, they were more subdued that night (perhaps too tired out from the night before?), although one woman proceeded to regale us with stories of her battle with Nutella addiction (she was joking, at least I hoped she was joking). And, when sorbet was served at the end of the meal, they were all anxious to convert them to sgroppinos (a slushy cocktail). The waiter was only too happy to oblige, bringing the entire bottle of vodka to the table and letting us pour at will. I declined the first round, but gave in on the second (if you can’t beat ‘em…and all that).

A Tale of Two Vintages

SAUV_BLANC_2012_web_1024x1024New York wine producer, Macari Vineyards, recently released the newest vintage of its Katherine’s Field Sauvignon Blanc – 2012. Produced from 100% Sauvignon Blanc fruit sourced from the winery’s estate in Mattituck on the North Fork of Long Island, the wine is made entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve the fresh fruit character of this grape.

Since I had a bottle of the 2011 remaining in our cellar, I decided to taste the two wines (2012 and 2011) side by side to see how vintage variation and extra aging (for the older wine) might impact what I tasted in the glass.

Not surprisingly, the 2012 had a more pronounced nose given its (relative) youth, but the 2011 was still quite fresh despite its additional year in bottle. Instead, I attributed most of the difference between the two wines to their respective vintage conditions.

The 2011 growing year was among the wettest and rainiest in Long Island’s history, making it challenging to combat mold and mildew in the vineyard as well as to coax the grapes to full ripeness. Likely given these conditions, the citrus and herbaceous aromas, which are typically inherent in cool climate Sauvignon Blanc, were more prevalent in the 2011 vintage wine. With its slight age, the acidity in this wine seemed to have rounded out and a hint of earthiness was evident on the palate.

Conversely, during the 2012 season, Long Island was blessed with warm, dry days, which meant that grape maturity was achieved more easily. Thus, while the 2012 wine displayed notes of white grapefruit, it also offered some floral aromas and tropical fruit on the nose and palate. In spite of the warmer weather, this wine appeared to be more tart, likely due to its more recent bottling, and also offered some minerality.

I enjoyed the opportunity to evaluate these two wines together, closely comparing and contrasting their individual characteristics. And, although I slightly preferred the 2012 to the 2011, I certainly did not feel that the 2011 was over the hill, and, in fact, might have preferred the 2011 instead, if I had tasted the wines with food.

While it is more difficult to find previous vintages in the market, Union Square Wines & Spirits does appear to have the 2011 in stock. The newest release should be more readily available at retail (SRP $23.00) and is also available for purchase at the winery.