Tuscan wine producer Ruffino, which celebrates its 140th anniversary this year, marked the occasion with a pizza party at Emily’s. The event featured a selection of seasonally-inspired cocktails, produced with Ruffino’s Prosecco, as well as a chance to pick one’s favorite pairing among the pizzas and wines.
Emily’s pizzas are categorized by color: reds (tomato sauce), pinks (vodka sauce), greens (tomatillo sauce) and whites (no sauce) and are self-described as Detroit-Grandma style pies. In this regard, they are square-shaped with thick, crispy crusts. And, more to the point, they are delicious.
Although I am generally gluten-free, I give myself a break on vacations and, having just returned from Cancun, chose to extend my GF reprieve to indulge; it was worth every bite!
Among my preferred pies were the Emily, a sauce-free pizza with pistachio, honey, and truffle Sottocenere cheese and the Madre, topped with tomatillo sauce, mozzarella and chorizo. These two pizzas were specifically paired with the Pinot Grigio and Sparling Rose, but we happily enjoyed them with the Chianti Classico.
Beppe D’ Andrea, global brand ambassador of Ruffino Wines, shared the history of the brand as well as that of another traditional Italian product — Margherita pizza. According to D’Andrea, this (now) classic Neopolitan pizza style was created almost 130 years ago in honor of Queen Margherita, who was dining in Naples at the time. Wanting to serve something special for the Queen, the restaurateur crafted an edible Italian flag — red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (basil) — on the spot and thankfully, the Queen enjoyed it very much. Emily’s kitchen sent out a sample of this style for us to try as well.
Similarly, Ruffino got its start by being favored by royalty. When the Duke of Aosta visited the winery in 1890 and tasted its wines, he was immediately impressed and placed an order right away. The barrel-aged wine was marked as having been reserved for the Duke (Riserva Ducale) and Ruffino became the official supplier to the Italian royal family. This Chianti Classico Riserva wine was first released commercially in 1927, permitting the masses and not just the monarchy, to buy it. Today, the wine still bears the Riserva Ducale designation and is in the unique situation of having Riserva on the label twice.
I have no tasting notes to share because frankly, I was too busy having a good time, eating pizza fit for a Queen and drinking red wines made for a Duke. But, I have had the Ruffino wines previously and they never disappoint. There is a reason that the winery has been in business for 140 years!
As Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly notes, national and international wine holidays are actually quite unofficial, but they are certainly a great excuse to drink wine and focus on a specific grape variety or wine category.
Consequently, International Merlot Day, which Puckette traces back to 2011, has a designated date of November 7 and is as good a reason as any to drink more Merlot, particularly if this grape isn’t in your usual repertoire!
No longer widely maligned, Merlot has found renewed favor, which it richly deserves and is among the most popular red varieties in the U.S. This great grape originally hails from France and is wonderful on its own or as part of a blend (especially the wines from Bordeaux’s Right Bank). Generally, these wines offer up red fruits, coffee and herbal notes, along with good acidity and soft tannins, but the wines will vary depending upon where the grapes are grown.
Merlot adapts well to many climates and has been transported from its ancestral home to almost every wine region across the globe. Within the U.S., the variety does well on Long Island and in Washington State and in California. Worldwide, there are an estimated 660,000 acres of Merlot planted, so there is definitely no shortage of Merlots to try.
To help you get started, here’s one option worth checking out:
Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot 2015, Washington State, U.S., $12.99 (SRP)
With an intense nose showing plum, coffee and meatiness, this wine is dry with very ripe fruit character, medium+ body, medium acidity and present tannins. Flavors of plum, fresh herbs and dried herbs dominate the palate, along with a hint of earth and spice. These latter notes add to the wine’s complexity and give it a fall-weather feel, which may be why it paired so well with roasted butternut squash.
If you still have friends in the anti-Merlot camp, it might be time to find some new friends or you could simply tell them, the devil made me do it.
Summertime and the living (and drinking) is easy…
Consequently, meals have ranged from glorious picnics in the park to the more mundane take-out burgers and fries. But, regardless of what Mother Nature brings, this time of year still has me thinking of lighter wines in the full complement of hues — red, white and rosé.
Drouhin La Foret Chardonnay 2015, Bourgogne, France, $15.00
Joseph Drouhin is a world-renowned Burgundian winemaker, with properties throughout the Burgundy region (and, more recently, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley) Produced in stainless-steel vats, with some of the wine seeing older oak barrels for a short period of time, this wine offers up aromas of smoke, oak, nuts, and apple. It is dry on the full-bodied palate with ripe apple and a hint of nuts, with medium+ acidity and good length.
Valdivieso Valley Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Leyda Valley, Chile, SRP $17.00
This Sauvignon Blanc hails from the maritime climate of Leyda, which results in good acidity. It sports a very herbal nose with bright acidity and medium+ body. It displays distinct citrus and herbal flavors on the palate, culminating with long length.
Ventisquero Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Casablanca Valley, Chile, SRP $15.00
Another Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, this wine one from the similarly cool climes of the Casablanca Valley, but with less herbal characteristics and more ripe citrus and tropical fruit aromas and flavors.
Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Gelblack Qualitätswein Feinherb 2015, Rheingau, Germany, SRP $30.00
Opened and shared during an indoor picnic (during our spell of fall weather), this was a crowd favorite thanks to its beautiful acidity, bright citrus fruit and minerality. There is just a touch of sweetness on the palate, with floral, citrus/candied lemon notes, lime zest and zingy freshness, culminating in long length.
Gratien & Meyer Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé, Loire Valley, France, SRP $15.00
This Cabernet Franc sparkler is beautifully pale salmon in color with a nose redolent of melon and cherries. On the palate, it is dry, with rich, ripe cherry, berry and vanilla notes, a creamy mousse and long length.
Capezzana Barco Reale di Carmignano D.O.C. 2014, Tuscany, Italy, SRP $15.00
An estate-grown blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Canaiolo and 5% Cabernet Franc, this wine offers notes of plum, cherry, spice and oak on both the nose and palate. It is medium-bodied with good acidity and was a nice red option for cooler summer weather.
Most of the hype surrounding Provence lately has been about its preponderance of rosé, which is only natural given that 89% of its production is pink and that its rosé sales have quintupled over the past five years. However, the region also produces some high-quality whites and reds as evidenced by a tasting with Château de Chausse. As the winery’s General Manager, Franck Bailleul proposed, “The reds from Provence are to be discovered,” and I agree.
Château de Chausse made its New York debut this June having been acquired by real estate developer, Charles S. Cohen, in 2016. As my friend Charles remarked, “It’s good to be rich.” Cohen made his money in real estate development at the helm of Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, developing properties in New York, Los Angeles, South Florida and elsewhere. A film buff since his teens, Cohen then added French film distribution to his portfolio (and presumably adding to his fortunes) with the creation of Cohen Media Group in 2008, before deciding that he would like to someday own a vineyard.
As he was quick to admit, Cohen knew his limitations and therefore sought out an estate not in Burgundy, but in Provence since he had always been in love with rosé. Shortly after making his intentions known, a brochure came across his desk and he was soon in pursuit of the Château de Chausse estate in the Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of Provence, close to the glitz and glamour of St. Tropez. After 30 years of ownership, the Schelcher family was ready to sell (and retire) and Cohen was eager to buy.
With well-stocked coffers (Forbes puts Cohen’s net worth at 2.8 billion), the watchword from Cohen to his new colleagues has been quality, a philosophy that permeates throughout the winemaking process, from the vineyards, which are all harvested by hand, to the redesigned labels. They are assisted in this latter effort by Cohen’s current wife, Clodagh “Clo” Margaret Jacobs, who knows more than a thing or two about luxury marketing, having brought Jimmy Choo shoes to the streets of Manhattan.
Aside from the Cohens and Bailleul, the winery is in the capable hands of Laurence Berlemont who quipped, “I came with the furniture,” when asked how the two had found her. In fact, her agronomy consulting firm, Cabinet d’Agronomie Provencale, had been hired by the previous owners and she has been actively involved with Château de Chausse since 2009.
Bailleul describes the 135-acre estate as both a dream and a jewel. Much of the property is given over to a protected forest, with only 37 acres of planted vineyards permitted. Consequently, the vines are surrounded by trees, shielding them from the elements. Moreover, Provence’s near perfect Mediterranean weather makes it relatively easy to grow grapes and the winery is on track to becoming certified organic by next year.
Interestingly, while Cohen expected to purchase a rosé-centric estate, Château de Chausse divides its production among reds (45%), whites (15%) and rosé (40% ). With a limited production of only 70,000 bottles annually, Château de Chausse wines will only be available in New York, Paris and Provence.
Château de Chausse Blanc 2016 Côtes de Provence, France
This 100% Rolle (aka Vermentino) is crafted from grapes harvested on two separate occasions, one week apart, yielding a wine with pronounced floral, citrus and peach aromas. On the palate, it is rich and round, with very ripe tree fruit, but beautifully balanced with high acidity, medium+ body and long length.
NB: Berlemont advised that this wine is capable of aging for three to four years, at which point, the wine will be redolent of apricots and almonds.
Château de Chausse Rosé 2016 Côtes de Provence, France
With its barely perceptible pink hue, this wine offered up berries and melon on the nose, which persisted on the dry palate. Good acidity.
Château de Chausse Diamant Blanc 2016 Côtes de Provence, France
This wine represents a new approach for the winery, which made a small (1,000 bottles) trial of fermenting and aging Rolle in barrel. The oak treatment is evident on the nose, with smoky and oaky aromas, co-mingled with citrus and tree fruit. Yet, despite the obvious oak, the barrel notes are well integrated on the palate and the wine itself is quite elegant.
Château de Chausse Rouge 2013 Côtes de Provence, France
Enigmatically, there was a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in Provence during the early 1990s and it accounts for 50% of this wine, with the other half being Syrah. Aromas of meat, spice and red fruit greet the nose, with red and black fruit, herbal and vanilla notes on the palate. Given their structure, Château de Chausse holds its reds back until they are ready to drink and consequently, 2013 is the vintage currently in the market.
Château de Chausse Rouge 2012 Côtes de Provence, France
Although it contains the same 50% Cabernet Sauvignon-50% Syrah blend as the previous wine, the 2012 is more Syrah-like in nature with more pronounced earth and leather aromas and flavors. It is still fresh and fruity despite its age, with long length.
Château de Chausse Rouge 2011 Côtes de Provence, France
The 2011 was starting to show some development on the nose with dried fruit and vanilla aromas. On the palate, the acidity was still bright and the tannins were well resolved.
Château de Chausse Rubis Rouge 2013 Côtes de Provence, France
The flagship Rubis, produced in small quantities (1,200 bottles) is essentially a monovarietal Syrah, but since AOP rules require the presence of another grape, it also contains 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a powerful, full-bodied wine with smoke, leather, meat and very ripe red fruit on the nose and palate, culminating in long length and a woodiness in the finish.
Château de Chausse Rubis Rouge 2010 Côtes de Provence, France
This older vintage of Rubis was still quite powerful with firm tannins and a darker fruit profile.
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.
Southern Italy beckons tourists to its rocky beaches and winding coast line. Just south of Naples, the famed Amalfi Coast runs from Sorrento in the north to Salento in the south, encompassing tony towns in between such as Positano and Ravello. But, the local wines crafted further inland are less familiar, which is an unfortunate oversight.
About an hour’s drive from the coast, Campania’s wine growing is centered in the north-central area of the region, near the towns of Avellino and Benevento. Here, the climate is vastly different from the Mediterranean feel of the coast, receiving over 200 days of rain, due to its location in the mountains. Home to Pompeii and Vesuvius, the region offers up volcanic soils.
The emphasis is on indigenous varieties with the main white grapes being the floral Falanghina; the structured Greco; and Fiano, which displays a little of each of the characteristics of the two. Fiano and Greco are both long ripening grapes, usually not picked until October, that keep their freshness despite the long hang time. The best examples of the Greco grape are those from the Greco di Tufo DOCG, so named for being grown in volcanic, chalk soil called tufo. Interestingly, the Greco vines were traditionally planted in separate vineyards (and consequently, on different soil types) from the Fiano vines, with early recognition of their unique terroir affinities, rather than being planted within the same field as was often done in the past.
Among the red varieties, the most prized grape is the indigenous Aglianico, which is best known for the Taurasi DOCG wines produced in the region. By law, Taurasi wines must be aged for a minimum of three years, including one year in barrel (and 4 years with 18 months in barrel for the Riserva wines). While this wine was frequently aged in small barriques, the more recent trend has been toward the use of larger-sized oak vessels.
With its reputation for producing full-bodied, powerful, concentrated, tannic wines, it is said that Taurasi is often called the Barolo of the South. But, when asked about this point when I met him several years ago, Antonio Capaldo, whose family owns Feudi di San Gregorio, suggested that, “Perhaps Barolo is the Taurasi of the North.”
More recently, I had the chance to catch up with Feudi’s young chairman and commercial head. One of the better-known names in the region, the winery just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Established in 1986 in Sorbo Serpico, within the Irpina region, Feudi di San Gregorio is named for Gregory the Great, reflecting the Roman, Greek and papal history of the area.
Among Feudi’s most highly acclaimed wines is its Serpico, crafted solely with Aglianico grapes and produced in limited quantities (only 10,000-12,000 bottles produced annually). Rather than use the Taurasi Riserva DOCG, in a nod to the Supertuscan movement, which saw the birth of fantasy names for many wineries’ top wines, Serpico, takes its name from the town in which Feudi di San Gregorio is situated. The grapes for the wine, harvested over a period of 20 days, come from a single, three-hectare vineyard of pre-phylloxera vines that range in age from 120 to 180 years. Antonio stresses that the pre-phylloxera nature of the vines is as important to the quality of the wine as is the vines’ old age. There are 80 to 90 different clones within this vineyard and the winery has selected 40 of these clones to use in propagating other vineyards.
Now that Feudi has built a strong reputation for its Campanian wines, the company has begun to look elsewhere for expansion. As a staunch proponent of Italy’s southern wine regions, the winery has recently made investments in Basilicata (having purchased Basilisco in 2010), Puglia (with two properties here) and Sicily, with five hectares planted on Mount Etna.
While Antonio is focused on building the business and promoting its wines, the agricultural aspects of Feudi are handled by Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch. Pierpaolo has been actively involved with the company since 2003 and became managing director in 2009, a post he still holds today.
Having first visited Feudi in 2010, it was a pleasure to reconnect with Antonio and his wines on the first summery day of the season in New York. The two stainless-steel whites and rosé are perfect summer sippers that offer up freshness, complexity and the opportunity to savor some lesser-known varieties, although they work well all-year round. And, while the reds can be enjoyed now, I would suggest you hold them for the fall and winter seasons, since they need time in the cellar anyway.
Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo 2015, Greco di Tufo DOCG, Italy, SRP $25.00
This is an angular wine, with excellent structure and lots of complexity. It offers up good acidity, a full body and concentrated flavors of apricots, peaches, a hint of nuttiness and a lovely salinity that remains in the long finish.
Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino 2015, Fiano di Avellino DOCG, Italy, SRP $25.00 The more feminine of the two, this wine is richer and rounder on the palate, with floral, pear and ripe melon aromas and flavors, culminating in long length. Antonio remarked that it is the more flexible wine with regard to pairing options.
Feudi di San Gregorio Ros’Aura 2016 Rosato, Irpina IGT, Italy, $14.00
Produced from Aglianico grapes, this is a medium-deep hued rose. It is very fresh with aromas and flavors of apricot and citrus, with long length.
Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi 2011, Taurasi DOCG, Italy, SRP $48.00
This wine is released five years after harvest, having spent at least 24 months in bottle before release. It is quite powerful, with red and black fruit notes, joined by oak, toast and minerality. The palate is structural with good acidity and dusty, yet ripe tannins and long length.
Feudi di San Gregorio Serpico 2011, Irpinia IGT, Italy, SRP $99.00
Complex aromas of smoke, oak, meatiness, red fruits and black fruits greet the nose. On the palate, the wine is powerful with lots of ripe, red fruit, and notes of smoke, toast, oak and minerality. It also manages to be quite elegant and pretty despite its power and firm tannins. Needs time to develop; Hold.
In an era of fast food and living life in the fast lane, we truncate words and distill whole phrases into three letters. With such high velocity living, we often lose sight of the good life and forget to slow down and take time to savor and enjoy.
Back in the day we were not always in such a hurry. In this vein, the upper class would take the Grand Tour and travel the world in search of new vistas and adventures. Among their various stops was the town of Asolo, which fittingly takes its name from the verb asolare, which translates as “to enjoy on the open air.” Upon my own arrival in Asolo, I was advised by the consorzio president that this was a precise state of mind in which to appreciate life.
In perfect harmony with this philosophy, we kicked off our visit with a welcome dinner featuring local Slow Food products. The Slow Food movement, founded in 1989, seeks to not only preserve local food cultures and traditions, but also to combat our fast food society, emphasizing food that is “Good, Clean and Fair”.
Situated in the Veneto’s Treviso province, Asolo has a lengthy history of savoring the good life. This picturesque town sits atop a hill with beautiful vistas in every direction. In fact, poet Giosue Carducci dubbed it, “The city of 100 horizons.”
Originally built in the fifth century BCE, the city was initially Roman, but it was during the Middle Ages that Asolo really made its mark. Whereas wealthy New Yorkers flock to the Hamptons and Bostonians head to the Cape, during this period, Venetians decamped to Asolo in which to enjoy the lazy, hazy days of summer. Here, the renowned architect Palladio and his contemporaries were employed to build grand palaces such as the remaining Villa Barbaro, which now serves as a museum.
As the saying goes, Asolo is Venice and Venice is Asolo, with a strong link forged between the two for centuries. Not only did they share a similar architecture, but the oak forests of Asolo supplied the wood to build the homes of Venice and to craft boats to protect the region.
These woods offer great biodiversity and are home to wild boars and deer. They are presently protected and now belong to the people of Asolo instead of being solely for the use of the Venetians as they were in the past. Today, local residents enjoy hunting, foraging and nature walks within this natural preserve.
Moreover, while Venice certainly maintains its prestige, Asolo built a reputation in its own right, thanks to Queen Caterina Cornaro. Forced to marry the King of Cyprus for political reasons, Caterina was eventually exiled to Asolo in 1489 and took the opportunity to transform the city on a hill into a center for art. She established a humanist, renaissance court of writers and painters within the city, attracting the top artisans of the time.
With Asolo firmly recognized as a destination for culture, as noted, the town became a much beloved stop on the European Grand Tour, with many staying on instead of returning home. In more recent history, artists and musicians continued to find their way to the town such as Robert Browning, Igor Stravinsky and Ernest Hemingway.
Presently, the town’s population has dwindled to 8,000 –with only 400 of them living within the city walls –thanks to high rents and a lack of modern amenities. But, it still remains a top tourist destination due to its heritage and beauty.
As elsewhere in the Veneto or anywhere in Italy for that matter, Asolo has a long history of grape growing and winemaking. The most historic accounts date to the Middle Ages when such activities were in the hands of the Benedictine monks. During the second half of the 14th century, the wines were highly prized, commanding a higher tax than others due to their perceived quality.
Despite this early fame, wine production languished for decades and it wasn’t until 1985 that the Consortium Vini Asolo Montello was founded. Today, this single consorzio protects three separate quality wine denominations: the initial DOC of Montello e Colli Asolani, which has existed since 1977; Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, created in 2009; and Montello Rosso DOCG, added in 2011. Within these three appellations, local producers can make a wide range of still, sparkling, white and red wines.
The consorzio’s 35 members (representing 85% of producers in the region) oversee a small territory comprising 20,000 hectares, of which less than 2,000 hectares (less than 5,000 acres) are planted to grapes. The majority of plantings, approximately 1,350 hectares, are given over to Glera, which is grown for Prosecco Superiore production. The Montello Rosso DOCG has a much smaller land allocation with only 250 hectares planted.
As its name suggests, the territory can be split into two distinct areas: Asolo hills and Montello plains. Between the two, there are soil differences, with more stones found in Asolo and a higher clay content existing in Montello. Yet, similar wind conditions exist on both hills and the same unique microclimate prevails, permitting olive trees to survive here, but not a mere 20 km away.
The area boasts of tremendous biodiversity, with varied flora and fauna abounding. In an effort to preserve this diversity, the consorzio has begun to focus on sustainable agriculture with an eye toward reducing the use of chemicals in the area and lowering the impact of farming on nature and on the workers, all while also conserving the wineries’ economies.
To this end, they have instituted new regulations that come into effect with the 2017 vintage that forbid the use of 18 dangerous chemicals that are actually still permitted under Italian and/or EU law. The consorzio has also developed a secondary list of substances that are allowed, but not recommended as a further inducement to minimize chemical use.
This nascent region is slowly finding its footing as it not only focuses on its sparkling wines, but also works to develop a reputation for Bordeaux-style reds and reclaims several local grapes. Given its youth and size, it is not surprising that there is a lot of cooperation among members as they experiment with old techniques and collaborate on new ideas.
Meanwhile, Consorzio President, Armando Serena, is supposed to be slowing down, having handed the reigns of his winery to the next generation. His wife is eager to have him home, but instead he violates his own rules, eschewing the injunction Asola! (Slow down!) and choosing instead to devote his time and energy to promoting Asolo.
Driving north from the Venice airport to the Italian region of Alto Adige, the scenery and topography abruptly shift as we arrive in the river valley. Greeted by snow-topped peaks, verdant mountains and Swiss chalet-style architecture, you would half expect Julie Andrews to suddenly appear and belt out songs from the Sound of Music. While there was no sign of Julie or the von Trapp family, this northern-most province borders both Austria and Switzerland and was under Austrian rule until 1919. And, to this day, both Italian and a dialect of German are the official languages.
Instead, the hills of South Tyrol (Südtirol) are alive with the sound of viticulture. When considered separate from Trentino, Alto Adige is the smallest of Italy’s 20 regions. Yet, despite its limited size, 98% of its production is at the Protected Designation of Origin level – the most of any Italian region – and the region is highly regarded for its white wines, which account for 60% of regional production.
With the Dolomites to the East and the Alps to the north, these mountain ranges shelter the area from the cold forces of the North, trap air from the lakes and limit the annual rainfall, resulting in 300 sunny days per year. Conversely, the strong Ora winds coming off nearby Lake Garda help to temper the summer heat. Given this duality of cooling and warming influences, Alto Adige is home to both Mediterranean and Alpine botany along with vineyards and apple orchards.
In fact, the steep slopes at the highest elevations (820 to 2800 feet) are given over to white varieties such as Pinot Bianco (aka Pinot Blanc), Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, while the lower, rolling hills are planted to reds (predominantly Schiava, Pinot Nero and Lagrein). The high-altitude vineyards benefit especially from the area’s wide diurnal shift, permitting the grapes to ripen fully, while retaining high levels of acidity. The region’s diverse soils include limestone, quartz and volcanic porphyry, which further retain acidity in, and add minerality to, the wines.
Despite the region’s diminutive size, it is divided among seven different subregions, with the largest and southernmost being Bassa Atesina. Here, within the small town of Tramin is the home of Cantina Tramin.
With deep roots in the Tramin community, this cooperative was originally founded in 1898 at the suggestion of the local priest. It later merged with the coop of Neumarkt in 1971, growing in size. But, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that things got interesting. At that time, the members of the cooperative made the conscious decision to pursue a quality agenda and, as a result, made significant changes in the vineyard and in the winery. More recently, Cantina Tramin undertook an extensive remodel of its winery and offices, which were designed by a prestigious, local architect, Werner Tscholl.
Coincident with the shift toward quality, Willi Stürz has been Cantina Tramin’s guiding light for 25 years. The local native joined the cooperative in 1995 and serves as both winemaker and Technical Director. His efforts were rewarded with the title of “Winemaker of the Year” in 2004 by Italian wine guide, Gambero Rosso. The affable man is clearly passionate about the territory and winemaking. He is allied in his endeavors by a small team, permitting them to work collaboratively with their 300 member-growers in crafting well-made wines.
One of the unique aspects of Cantina Tramin as a cooperative is that they are relatively small, with only 260 hectares under vine, representing 35% of local vineyards. Many of Cantina Tramin’s members hold only one hectare each, earning the majority of their income from apples rather than grapes; only 5% of members sustain themselves entirely on their vineyards. Throughout the year, Willi and his colleagues advise members on various viticultural decisions such as which vines to replant, when to harvest and how best to combat disease. Quality is continually the watchword with yields set at 30% lower than that permitted by DOC law.
Once the grapes reach the winery, the emphasis is on softer, but lengthier pressing, to maintain their intense aromatics. Although the oldest tanks are made from concrete lined with stainless steel, more recent tank purchases favored stainless steel tanks that can be divided as needed to accommodate various-sized fermentation lots. Meanwhile, red wines are fermented in large casks, with a preference for punch downs rather than pump-overs. The top reds – Pinot Noir and Lagrein – are aged in barriques, with all red wines now being matured for a minimum of two years, qualifying for Riserva level. Despite Schiava being the most widely planted red variety in the region, Cantina Tramin is less bullish on this grape. Today, the winery has become well regarded for its wines and, in particular, for its Gewürztraminer (see below). The wines are marketed in two ranges: Selection and Classic, with the best wines being those in the Selection range.
The Spice of Life
Viticulture in the region dates back as far as 500 BCE, thanks to the ingenuity of the indigenous Rhaetian people. Their precociousness shocked the Romans who arrived on the scene in 15 BCE finding evidence of wine stored in wooden vessels, while the Romans were still using amphorae. As a result of this Roman influence, the village of Tramin took its name from the Latin word for border and later gave its name to an indigenous variety grown in the area for centuries. With the German “er” suffix indicating origin from Tramin the grape was first called Traminer, and later earned the prefix of gewürz, which is German for spice.
As the area’s most historic and important variety, Cantina Tramin is keen to preserve and promote Gewürztraminer. Along these lines, the winery manages 57 hectares of Gewürztraminer vines, which represent 22% of the coop’s total plantings, more than double the percentage for the region as a whole. In general, the Gewürztraminer grape is known for its powerful aromas of spice, floral and exotic notes such as jasmine and herbal tea, along with tropical fruit and lychee. Given its name, the variety is frequently associated with Germany, but it also grows well in Alsace. Yet, despite these more well-known links with the grape, the variety understandably performs well in its birthplace. Specifically, the extensive sunshine results in higher spice notes, while the volcanic porphyry subsoil and calcareous topsoil promote perfume aromas.
Not surprisingly, Cantina Tramin knows how to handle this variety and produces several different wines that feature it, from its Classic Gewürztraminer to its Terminum late harvest dessert wine. But, the jewel in Cantina Tramin’s crown is its Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer.
As evidence of the success and acclaim of this wine, it has received more awards for its Gewürztraminer than any other winery in Italy and was awarded the Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) rating, not once or twice, but 23 times. And it was named by Gambero Rosso “as one of the 50 wines which have fundamentally changed the Italian wine scene.”
While the grapes bound for the Selida Gewürztraminer hail from steep slopes and honor the small-holdings nature of Cantina Tramin’s members, grapes for the Nussbaumer provide an opportunity for an elegant expression of an individual vineyard. Of note, Willi advised us that as a young wine, the Gewürztraminer grape is charming, but its elegance increases with age as it loses some of its spice, yet gains freshness.
Accordingly, a vertical tasting of the Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer provided a fascinating look at both vintage variation as well as aging potential of this wine. My favorites were the 2015, 2009 and 2003, but all of the wines were consistently good, with dry palates, nice acidity levels and beautiful fruit. Moreover, they all favorably lacked the soapiness that some Gewürztraminers have for me.
How Sweet It Is
In pursuit of its passion for Gewürztraminer, Cantina Tramin has recently expanded its Gewürztraminer range with Epokale. From the root of epoch – a period – the intent was to create a wine similar in style to those produced in the past, but have been lost with time. This traditional, semi-sweet wine was made from grapes from the same vineyard of Nussbaumer and is a late harvest wine.
First produced in 2009, this wine made its debut during our visit, after having spent seven years aging in an abandoned silver mine, which provided perfect conditions: correct and consistent temperature and humidity, which ensured that no tartrates were formed. Only 1,200 bottles were made.
To launch the release of the Epokale, we were provided with an opportunity to blind taste a selection of Gewürztraminers from around the world. We were told only the vintage of each wine and that the wines were being presented in ascending order of residual sugar, from driest to sweetest. Upon reveal, the wines were predominantly from Alsace, but with a German Spätlese thrown in for good measure. The Cantina Tramin wines were in good company with the likes of Zind Humbrecht Hengst Grand Cru and Trimbach. Four of the wines were the winery’s own: two vintages of the Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, Epokale and Terminum.
Although I didn’t know the identity of the wines, I was immediately impressed with the 2009 Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, which displayed brighter acidity than the 2015 Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer tasted immediately prior to it. Similarly, during the blind portion of the tasting, I really enjoyed the Epokale 2009. Another blind favorite was the Zind Humbrecht Hengst Grand Cru Late Harvest Gewürztraminer 2006, with its amber color, slight oxidative note, along with intense aromas and flavors of honey, burnt orange and orange marmalade.
Moriz Pinot Bianco 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $12.00
The Pinot Bianco grape variety has grown in the area for over 150 years. Aromas of pear and flowers. Slightly off-dry, bright and fresh, nice texture, long length.
Pepi Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $13.00
This wine takes its name from the two different micro-zones of the valley from which the grapes are sourced: Pezone and Pinon. Vinified for six to seven months entirely in large oak casks, this wine has a pronounced nose of herbs, citrus and smoke. The dry palate has high acidity, an oily texture and long length.
Stoan 2012, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $30.00
First produced in 2002, this white blend brings together a minimum of 60% Chardonnay, with Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Bianco as supporting players. At five years of age, this wine displayed some development, with a deeper gold color, honeyed, spice and tree fruit aromas. Dry, with high acidity, medium+ body, gorgeous and rich, complex, slight woodiness in finish, long length
Since 2014, white wines are given more time in large casks. Stoan is matured for a minimum of fifteen months, with additional time in bottle. This change was challenging at first since the winery didn’t have the wines available in the market, but now that the 2014s are ready, they are back on track.
Stoan 2015, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $28.00
According to Willi, this is one of the best vintages of this wine and he further noted that it provides a strong interpretation of the given vintage. With the lengthier aging protocol now in place, this wine was on the lees until August. It is woodier on the nose than the 2012, but the oak is not overpowering. Notes of floral, citrus peel, orange greet the nose with a dry, full-bodied palate that shows floral, apple, citrus and minerality, with medium+ acidity and long length. Can age for 10-15 years.
Selida Gewürztraminer 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $16.00
From an ancient, local word for barn, the Selida Gewürztraminer offers up pronounced floral and exotic musk aromas. It is dry, with medium acidity, and flavors of floral, tropical fruit, lychee and spice.
Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $36.00
*2015: Rich and complex with spice, tropical fruit and lychee, this was one of the best vintages in the past ten years, with very dry conditions during the ripening season.
*2012: Showing smoky notes with depth and spice, this was a less sunny year, but provided good freshness to the wines as a result.
*2011: Aromas and flavors of honey, wax, spice and roses with long length from what was a very hot year.
*2009: Pronounced nose of honey, perfume and lychee, with vibrant acidity and intensity on the palate; considered to be a balanced vintage.
*2005: With floral, tropical fruit and honey aromas, this wine was a bit light on the palate.
*2003: As the oldest, this wine was the deepest in color, with an intense and concentrated nose of spice, perfume and honey, all of which linger in long finish; it was a hot vintage, yet the wine is still quite fresh.
Lagrein Rosé 2016, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $8.00
We kicked off the trip with a light lunch in Verona, paired with the winery’s rosé, which was perfect with a range of dishes. This medium-deep pink offers up cherry and slight herbal notes. On the palate, it is dry, with a fruity attack, medium+ body and long length. A nice, food-friendly rosé.
Pinot Noir 2014, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $17.00
This wine is very earthy and herbaceous on the nose. On the palate, it is dry, with high acidity, flavors of cherries and herbs, culminating in long length.
Maglen Pinot Noir 2012, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $23.00
Showing slight development, with pronounced earthy notes, this wine offers up earth, ripe cherry and spice, along with medium acidity and long length.
Urban Lagrein 2011, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $22.00
A nose of dark red fruits, almost brooding in nature, with some vanilla and oak aromas. Dry, with medium acidity and firm tannins, the full-bodied palate displays dark red fruit and wet leaves, reminiscent of Cabernet Franc.
Epokale 2009, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, 50.00 €
Beautiful aromas of honey, spice and lemon peel persist on the viscous, medium-sweet palate, with balanced acidity and very long length.
Terminum, Südtirol/Alto Adige DOC, Italy, $80.00 (half bottle)
Another late harvest Gewürztraminer, this wine was among the winery’s first forays into high quality wines. Admittedly, I neglected to take formal tasting notes on this wine, but I assure you that it was delicious!