May 2011

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Bartender Enthusiasm
When a bartender gets excited about a wine, it’s time to listen. When a bartender starts giving tastes of his homeade limoncello and gushing about a new wine he just got in, it’s time to order that wine.

Best. Photo. Available.
Vermentino, the wine that the bartender loved, is an Italian wine. Typically. They also make some in the southeastern part of France next to Italy where they call it Rollé and really don’t export it much. Principally, that’s why the bartender was so excited – you don’t find this Vermentino every day! He’s correct – looking online, the vineyard has no website, there’s almost nobody who’s mentioned this wine and there are exactly zero photos of it. Apologies for the photo – it’s literally the best on the web.

Arc of History
Vermentino, despite its Italian ascendancy, has hovered around that Spanish-French-Italian arc of the Mediterranean for at least 700 years. Nobody’s quite sure where it originated on that arc but today it’s most firmly established in Liguria, Sardinia and Piedmont – the parts of Italy closest to France. Provence, Corsica and (increasingly) Languedoc-Roussillon – the parts of France closest to Italy are producing quite a bit of Rollé as well, and even the US in the 1990s started planting some due to its easy growing. While pretty unknown at present, if bartenders keep talking up this wine with such energetic aplomb, expect to be seeing much more of this grape on the menu in future years.

Lots of flavor – mostly apple, smells sweet but isn’t really – surprisingly, it’s tart with lots of acid.

Detail Up!
2009 L’Alycastre Vermentino by Domaine De La Courtade in Provence, France

Google Randoms:
* Vermentino has the best nickname, which Piedmont people use to describe it – “Favorita”
* Sounds like Australia’s hip to the Vermentino scene – they know it can grow in regions too hot for most whites.
* Mario Batali’s restaurant recommends this wine. Liked this place even before finding out about Batali’s Traverse City connection

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Bual v. Boal – Nobody Cares
Bual or Boal, there doesn’t seem to be a wrong answer. Brits call it Bual, the Portuguese call it Boal, but since the Brits have been intimately involved with Madeira since about the time of the previous Elizabeth, people don’t seem to care much. Both names are used to identify the second-sweetest grape grown on the island of Madeira (#1 sweetest grape is here), which is off the coast of Morocco but is very much Portuguese.

Madeira off Morocco
Why is Madeira a part of Portugal? Partially due to Portugal’s glory days back in the 16th century when its caravels (thank Sid Meier’s Civilization for that term) roamed the world, dropping in on Goa, Angola, Mozambique, Rio and Malacca. Partially due to the same reason that England controls the Falkland Islands just off the tip of Antarctica – they’re willing to fight anybody (especially Argentina’s 1982 junta) to remain in control of those islands.

Confession Time
But back to Bual – it’s not exactly my favorite. There – it’s confessed. Despite making Madeira, which is categorically awesome and having loads of fans in the tiny world of Madeira lovers, Bual always seems to be too over-the-top to me. He’s the guy who responds to the email list after the conversation’s over with that one extra reply. Too much buddy – should’ve left it as it was.

My sister can corroborate this fact too, possibly because she’s the only other person who says “Too much buddy,” and also because she tried two of the Madeira grapes with me. Both the Boston Bual down below and the non-noble Tinta Negra. We both preferred the ignoble grape to the noble Bual, which I like to think suggests our American distaste for aristocracy.

Too Young?
Could be it’s a problem of young Buals (Madeira Maven thought the same till he tried really old ones), but of the couple of Buals that have reached my throat, they’re too much to handle on their own. They need the promise of dessert to calm them down and make them behave (think: children). Maybe it is a matter of youth after all.

Two different tastes of the grape and two pretty different yet somehow related impressions of too much acidity/structure. First up, the preferred of the two – Boston Bual Special Reserve. Carmel nose, apple taste, slightly sharp finish with lots of pear.

Then, the Cossart Gordon 5 year Bual. Smells like oranges and a little like pepper spice. Tastes very acidic with another shipment of oranges to the tongue.

Detail Up!
Boston Bual Special Reserve – one of the creative RWC Historic Series Madeira. Well worth checking out as the gateway to Madeira-dom (h/t for image).

Cossart Gordon 5 year Bual – oldest of the (small number of) Madeira houses and part of the same family that turns out Blandy’s and Leacock

Google Randoms:
* Malmsey > Bual > Verdelho > Sercial, the sweetness order of Madeira (“My Bottle Vesuviates Sweetness” is the mnemonic device).
* Bual is a white grape that turns out the darkest shade of all the Madeira wines. Strange to be sure.
* Bottle of 1834 Bual can be yours today if you have an extra $980 sitting around your den. To put it in perspective, Abraham Lincoln turned 25 that year.

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Southern Italy’s Pinot Grigio
Falanghina might be Southern Italy’s answer to Pinot Grigio. Of all the white grapes in Italy, Pinot Grigio is the one that has taken the world by storm over the last decade. It consistently ranks in the Top 10 wines sold and people love to drink it, despite wine pros telling them it’s terrible and they should love less popular wines. Think of them it as the the Yankees, both for its popularity and for the hatred it stirs up among those who root for well, ANY other team.

Mets to the North’s Yankees
Falanghina really fits the Mets role perfectly. It’s from the south of Italy (like Queens to the Yankee’s Bronx), has huge acidity just like Pinot Grigio, and keeps getting talked about like it’s going to be a serious contender THIS season.

As far back as 2002 (pretty much the stone age of blogs), people on the wino-world were talking about what an amazing and breakout wine Falanghina was going to be. “Eat it with fish! Taste that acidity! You like Naples, right? It comes from Campagna – that’s where Naples is!” Sadly, like the Mets, it never quite materializes and those in Queens head home early to their beer gardens while the Yankees go on to win Championship #27.

Rediscovered. Again.
People keep rediscovering this grape and for good reason. Some of us really love extra-acidic wines where you could bleach your hair with a glass of the good stuff sitting out in the summer sun. Falanghina allows that to happen and when paired up with fish, you’re talking immediate ceviche that even the Chileans admit is delicious.

Horace Hair
Others of us love all kinds of history nonsense where we can think Horace and Pliny sat around with a glass of Falanghina and bleached their hair at the beach just like us. Whatever the attraction, keep rooting for Falanghina to make its big break-out this season and maybe this year will be the year. It’s not like it’s the Cubs.

Detail Up!
Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina 2009 from Campagna, Italy (h/t for the image)

Minerality, green apples, acidic – light body. Mostly lemon in that acidic binge.

Google Randoms:
* In 700 BC you could have asked for a glass of “Falanghina” and your bartender would have known what you meant. That’s how little the word “Falanghina” has changed.
* Italian lawyers, much maligned for being lawyers Italian, proved instrumental in bringing Falanghina back to glory. Grazie Lawyer Avallone!
* Fah-lahn-GEE-nah is best pronounced as a Welsh Christmas carol. “Fa la la la la, la la la la.”

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Geh-hurts. Tra-Meaner. Wine that sounds this tough and inscrutable gets passed over on the menu all the time. Puzzling out why it’s skipped over on the menu is easy enough to understand when you pronounce out the five-syllables required to ask for this grape.

Imagine if Lolita had begun with “Geh-hurts. Geh-hurts. Tra-Meaner.” Might as well call her Mildred – not exactly illicit connotations jumping to mind when you hear your great-aunt’s cane in the hallway. Not to mention how difficult it would have been for Nabokov to describe his famous paramour: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Try describing Gewurztraminer that way – it gets pretty comical, pretty fast.

Strangely enough, Gewurztraminer is your great-aunt Mildred in those really old photos on the wall. She’s young, all smiles and playful in a pre-WWII (pre-Humbert) way. We’re talking white wine, yellow (not clear) in the glass, hugely aromatic (second to only one) and the first choice for BYO dinners at Asian restaurants. Even that ugly “Gewurz” prefix has a pretty meaning in German – “perfumed.”

West Coast Sample (WA) – Pretty dark yellow color, a round full body like a peach, sweet on the tongue and tastes like lychee and apple (Red Delicious variety – thanks michigan upbringing)

East Coast Sample (NY) – Honey smell and honey taste with some floral stuff thrown in. Starts with full body, long middle, finish falls a bit flat.

Detail Up!
Montinore Estate 2006 Gewurztraminer from Willamette Valley in Washington, USA.
Anthony Road 2008 Gewurztraminer from Finger Lakes in New York, USA.

Google Randoms:
* Gewürztraminer – rarely spelled right. Umlaut optional
* Traminer is a really old, mostly forgotten (other than Geh-hurts) grape aristocracy occupying the former Hapsberg lands.
* Lots of new grapes have spawned off from Gewurztraminer thanks to breeders’ tinkering. Traminette is one to try – it recently became Indiana’s signature grape.

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Confusion over Corvina
Corvina just doesn’t sound like a wine grape. Walk into a grocery store and the only “corvina” you’ll be finding will be over in the fishy-smelling section where your local fishmonger will instantly know it’s a Chilean Sea Bass you’re looking for (what was called, in another era, the Patagonian Toothfish – understandably, they changed it). Walk into a Portuguese restaurant and ask for the “corvina” and your waitress (possibly named “Corvina”) will instantly bring you Corvina on a platter. Just don’t ask for a bottle of Corvina – everyone will be very confused.

Veneto, Land of Ancient Wines and Feuds
Only in an Italian restaurant that specializes in food from Veneto, the northeastern part of Italy, will your order of “a Bottle of Corvina” bring smiles and appreciative hand gestures. In Veneto (and not many other places even in Italy), people cherish the Corvina and make all kinds of magic with it in wines. This is a region with a long history of wine-making dating back to the Romans (one of its valleys literally means “Valley of Many Cellars”) but most people know it as the site of Verona – home to Romeo & Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets, Mercutio and Benvolio, the Nurse and the Friar, (the Corvina and the Rondinella?).

Famous Amarone
Veneto is one of the early adopters of the “straw wine” process, although not the first, and the Venetians have been winning crazy praise for the last 50 years with their big Amarone dessert wine. Amarone, despite its noodle-sounding name, is probably the most famous dessert wine from Italy, and Corvina features as its largest grape contributor in that final, raisin-y blend.

Detail Up!
Corvina 2009 “Torre del Falasco” by Valpantena Winery in Veneto, Italy (h/t for the image)

Really dark red color, fruity (i thought blackberry but others said cherry) with medium body with a little licorice finish and medium-strength tannins.

Google Randoms:
* Valpolicella, an affordable ($12-18) wine also from Veneto, counts Corvina among its majority shareholders (often in the 70% range)
* Corvina performs best in volcanic soil that resists the cold well – thinking there are parts out west in the US where this could work post-volcanic wonders
* Corvinione, once thought to be Corvina until scientists discovered that they’re actually two separate grapes, wasn’t discovered until 1993. Kinda exciting.

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