Wednesday, February 09, 2005

9 February 2005 - Italian Whites, What's New, What's Good?

Where are the good Italian white wines? I'm not talking about clean and correct -- that's easy now, though it wasn't 20 years ago -- I'm talking compelling, interesting. Are they in the traditional places -- San Gimignano (the first DOC, in 1966), Soave (before Pinot Grigio the best selling Italian white in the USA), Orvieto? Mostly, no. Vernaccia di San Gimignano gets my vote as most-overrated wine in Italy. Soave and Orvieto have a couple of great producers (Gini, Tamellini, Pieropan in Soave; Palazzone and Barberani in Orvieto) and a boat load of ordinary producers who make wine as insipid as the forementioned Vernaccia. Most Pinot Grigio suffers from fatal insipidity (is that a word?) as well, with a handful of exceptions (Felluga being my current favorite). So, besides the few exceptions in the well-known areas, what about the rest of Italy? Here's a short run-down...

Vermentino -- a grape grown almost exclusively along the Mediterranean coast in Italy (espicially Sardinia, Liguria and Tuscany) and France where it is known as Rolle. Look for Santadi in Sardinia, Terenzuola and Gualdo del Rey in Tuscany.

Greco di Tufo -- the main white grape of Campania. My favorite the last couple of vintages is Ferrara.

Jermann -- This is not a grape variety, but a producer, in Friuli, who makes one of the greatest white blends in the world, Vintage Tunina. It has a little bit of everything -- Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, Picolit; and there's nothing quite like it. Vintage Tunina has been around since the 1970s, so it might suffer from over-familiarity or complacency, but it's still thrilling white wine, and the best of an amazing array from this great winery.

Franciacorta (especially Bellavista) -- Italy's best dry bubblies come from Franciacorta, in Lombardy -- it's the only place in the world of sparkling wine that rivals Champagne in style and quality. One of the greatest, most overlooked wine-producing regions in the world.

Prosecco -- A grape, unique to the Veneto, that is responsible for the most distinctive, delicious, lovable sparkling wine not made in the Champagne method or style. Hands down favorite is Nino Franco's Primo Franco, creamy, frothy, barely sweet, irresistably delicious.

There is more. In Italy, there is always more.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

1 February 2005: What about "corked" wineries?

Can a winery be "corked?"

TCA (trichloroanasol), the compound that causes "cork taint," or "corked" wine, is found in other places...wineries -- especially wineries with older wooden equipment. You see, TCA is created by an interaction between bacteria and a phenolic compound called trichlorophenol. Trichlorophenol is found in wood (and cork) that is cleaned and sterilized with chlorine. That interaction produces TCA. Evidently, older wooden structures in wineries that have been repeatedly disinfected with chlorine-based solutions are prone to be infected with the same bacteria that causes cork taint. The result is that the winery itself can be "corked" -- and TCA can get into the wine before it is even bottled!

About ten years ago Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa Valley was one of the notable wineries that had to confront this problem when large batches of their wines were found to be "corked." The winery, full of old wooden structures like barrel-stacking frames was checked for TCA and found to have significant levels in the winery's atmosphere. Removal of the suspect structures and implements solved the problem. Wineries, especially older ones with lots of wooden equipment, are, or at least should be, constantly monitoring for the existence of TCA -- many have, or are in the process of, removing all wooden structures and equipment, replacing them with different materials. By the way, oak barrels aren't cleaned with chlorine, so they're safe -- for now...

The good news is, unlike phylloxera or Pierce's disease, getting rid of TCA is possible, and the next generation of wine drinkers won't have to worry about it.

1 Febuary 2005: Screw Caps -- Simple!

Screw caps are going to replace cork, natural or synthetic, as the closure of choice for wine bottles. Simple. Imagine another food or beverage closure that causes 3-10% of the product to be spoiled -- it simply would be unacceptable. But that is the current situation with wine. Natural cork is sometimes tainted with a chemical coumpound called trichloroanasol (or TCA), which ruins the wine in the bottle that cork is sealing. Wineries have been researching the problem for about thirty years. Their conclusion: screw caps are the best closure for wine, both in the short and long run. So, what are the objections?

1. Screw caps aren't as romantic as corks.
Perhaps, but nothing is less romantic than opening, then tasting a "corked" wine. At the least, it doesn't have much smell or flavor at all, but no worry, the taint gets worse with aeration, so the second glass tastes worse than the first -- most people don't make it to a third glass. At the worst, it smells and tastes bad right out of the gate. And so many of us are so intimidated by restaurateurs and retailers that we won't reject or return the bad bottle -- so we're out the money for the wine as well as the romantic evening we were hoping would be enhanced by a nice bottle of wine.

2. Only cheap wine has screw caps.
This used to be true. Not anymore. In fact, some wineries are bottling their best wines with screw caps, leaving their "lesser" wines with corks until they can complete the conversion process from cork to cap.

3. What about long term aging?
Wineries were concerned about whether or not their wines would age properly or at all if closed with screw caps, however, studies have proven otherwise. In fact, wine seems to age at a slower rate when closed with screw caps, but age nonetheless. And with no funky smells or flavors to get in the way.

4. What about synthetic cork?
O.K. perhaps in the short term, but they seem to impart off odors and flavors over the long term. Besides, if screw caps are the best choice, why would you bother to use a closure that imitates natural cork? To save the corkscrew industry? To perpetuate the silly ritual in restaurants when we order wine?

5. What about wine service in restaurants?
What about it? Who needs it? If service staff doesn't have to worry about the bottle-opening ritual anymore, perhaps they'll have more time to actually learn about the wines they sell.

Any other objections you can think of? Let me know...