October 2011

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Sicily as Soccer Ball of Italy

Image h/t to Italian Week

Saturday Morning Sicily
Sicily for me is the soccer ball that Italy is punting into Africa. The ancestral home of New York’s toughest mafiosos and not much else. With such a cartoonish understanding, it’s time to start with some color on Sicily.

Fun facts on Sicily. Wikipedia Style.
1) Largest island in the Mediterranean. Size-wise, it’s triangular Vermont sailing off the southern tip of Italy, close enough to Tunisia to take an overnight ferry.
2) Syracuse, that ancient Greek city that historians will recall from the historian’s historian tale of alliances in the Peloponnesian War, was actually a Greek colony that sat on Sicily.
3) Many of the Christian martyrs killed in the Colosseum were Sicilian as Christianity took hold in Sicily long before it became fashionable (or permissible) in Rome. Sicily had a long history of fighting back against their Roman leaders.
4) Agriculture is today the principal driver economically (volcanic soil’s really rich and Mt. Edna is as volcanic as it gets), with oranges, pistachios reflecting a hundred-year Arab rule. Apparently, the Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Normans, Holy Roman Emperors and French all brought no fruit when they each ruled Sicily.
5) Sicily produces more wine than New Zealand, Austria and Hungary combined. Think about that the next time you see wines sorted by country in your local wine shop.

Wine Map of Sicily

Nobody makes better wine maps than this guy - click through for beauty incarnate

Nero’s from Sicily?
So what kind or wine does a triangular island version of Vermont produce? The only wine from Sicily I’ve ever really seen on Italian menus is Nero d’Avola, a red grape that sorta tastes like Shiraz. Thanks to Nero d’Avola we winos can take that enormous tome of Italian wines that nobody has any idea how to decipher, flip through some pages like we know what we’re seeing and select a red bottle of wine called Nero d’Avola. Hooray! Victory! The villagers cheer as we defeated the Italian wine list! Nero d’Avola has that great blend of fun, delicious and Italian enough to lend some credibility to the meal we’re about to eat.

Down the Sicilian Rabbit Hole
Sicily’s more than a one-grape wonder though. Inzolia, today’s grape of note, is just one of a couple dozen different grapes that Wine Virtuosity (the blogosphere’s Madeira Maven and extremely knowledgeable, amusing wine guy) sampled on his recent 21 part series on Sicilian wines. Correct – that is a 21 part series, that makes Ken Burns look like a dilettante. And there are still others that exist too! Fun sounding wines like Zibibbo, Grillo and Primitivo. Just saying them out loud will make a child laugh.

Inzolia – today’s grape – is a white wine that grows on the west side of Sicily (near where you take the ferry to Tunisia!). It’s not my favorite grape, much like Chardonnay isn’t my favorite grape, and it shares some of those similar round, oily characteristics that make the wine crazy popular. People with “I <3 Chard" shirts should be very about this grape when they can locate it in that enormous encyclopedia of Italian wines that comes with dinner. With my overriding bias for hugely lean, nearly anorexic wines, this grape had an uphill battle from the beginning. And if we're looking at a menu and Chardonnay and Inzolia are both listed, Inzolia's going to win (except maybe against Naked Chardonnay). This Inzolia’s got that citric promise that presumably comes from Arab oranges grown in Sicily.

My five second tasting notes said – Citrus nose of lemon and lime with some oily smell but round body of cantaloupe, mango and a little pineapple. Extreme acidity with a pretty long finish for a white (even though it’s a thin finish).

Detail Up!
Liotro Inziola 2009 from Sicily (the western part), Italy

Random Googles:
* Inzolia doesn’t leave Sicily much but when it does, find it in Tuscany under the pseudonym “Ansonica.”
* Pronounce it “In-SOUL-ia” with that extra umpf in the middle to make it sound truly Italian.
* Marsala (of famed Chicken Marsala) is a dessert wine made in Sicily thanks to a confluence of 18th century cultures (read its short genesis story here). Inzolia, along with Grillo and Catarratto, are the grapes that provide the Marsala building blocks.

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Swiss Family Wine
Never really thought that Swiss wine would remind me of my dad and his brother, both men in their 50s who behave like teenagers when they get together. This is a fraternal duo who still prank call co-workers with Kennedy accents on special holidays. This is a fraternal duo who still laugh about spinning their youngest brother on the whirly-stools at McDonalds to make him dizzy and nauseous so he wouldn’t be hungry and they could eat his fries and happy meals. Predictably, the youngest brother is now a thin engineer who develops electric engines to replace internal combustion engines that rely on repetitive spinning motion. Coincidence or utterly predictable consequence? Only the engineer can say.

Photo by Kaboodle (Halloween Fun Purveyor)

Blame the Milkmaids
Swiss wine though has little to do with vintage McDonald’s, GM’s hugely successful Volt engine or brotherly sing-alongs. Swiss wine has to do with weird, unexportable grapes that are available in Switzerland only thanks to voracious Swiss milkmaids and inexplicable yodelers. At least, that’s the reason this wino believes the Swiss refuse to export their wines. Notice that it’s not the high price of the Swiss currency, the world’s most expensive prices or the fact that they’re landlocked and the size of West Virginia – it’s the fault of the milkmaids and yodelers.

Suprise – there is such a thing as Swiss Wine
Swiss wine (when available) has a few surprises with it. Random indigenous grapes that nobody else grows such as Humagne Rouge (today’s featured bottle), the surprisingly unrelated grape of Humagne Blanc, a Petit Arvine, Cornalin (the parent to today’s wine) and probably lots of others that are even rarer and can’t be found even in everyday supermarkets on one’s lunch break.

West is Best – for wine
Humagne Rouge is practically unknown anywhere outside of Switzerland and even in Switzerland, it’s really only in that region around Geneva in West Switzerland known as “Valais” that it’s somewhat known. This is a region that’s one wrong turn from the route of the Tour de France and straddles that lower part of the country near Geneva (American for “Geneve”). Most of Switzerland’s wine comes from this area, likely due to its lower altitude and proximity to France where all wine is consumed immediately and in enormous quantities.

View Tour de France 2011 in a larger map

Voulvez-vous boire avec moi, Moulin Rouge?
Humagne Rouge, as the “Rouge” name implies, is all about the color red and Nicole Kidman trying to play a French whore (ah-hem: “courtesan”) in red makeup. Spoiler alert: Ewan McGregor and Humagne Rouge are still together at the close of the movie. And yes, true to its name, Humagne Rouge is a grape that makes a pretty dark, really red wine that goes well with venison and soul-crushing lost love in French bordellos.

Photo by Wildsound, with assistance from Nicole Kidman

Quaffing Cherries
Why then does this obscure Swiss grape with overtones of lost love and excessive makeup remind me of my dad and his brother? If not obvious already from that description already, it has to do with the taste. Quaff back a glass of Humagne Rouge and you’re hit with cherries – not just normal cherries, but sweet cherries, then black cherries and then sour cherries at the end. And if you’re in Switzerland, you’re probably pretty close to ridiculously good chocolate. So you’re drinking your glass of Humagne Rouge with a bar of dark chocolate in one hand.

Gently Used Gifts Only
And if you’ve ever been to Dad and Tio Steve birthday, Christmas or Kennedy-themed parties, you know that there’s only one acceptable gift: chocolate-covered cherries. In a box, probably with one or two missing. This wine with that chocolate is pretty much that memory gift-wrapped, then unwrapped, then missing a cherry or two, then gifted.

image h/t photohead

Near full box of chocolate covered cherries. We’re talking Dad and Tio Steve sharing their Christmas gifts without anyone eating a couple cherries out of the box – an unheard-of feat! OK, maybe only a couple missing but certainly more than half a box remain.

Tasting-wise, it’s a cherry smell, then with loads of black cherry. Slightly sweet taste with moderate tannins that grow deeper throughout but still a light body. More wild blackberry later on that has some krækiber (pronounced “craigberry”) and other wildberry pungency – medium finish, not lasting crazy long or falling off a cliff like a coyote either. Kinda different in a good way with bit of sour cherry at the end. Drink quickly before your brother steals it.

Detail Up!
Humagne Rouge 2010 Valisiana from Valais, Switzerland (13.5% alc.) – sorry guys, no link. Find it at the really-fun-to-visit Coops. Perhaps Zurich’s best value lunch or dinner or wine store.

Google Randoms:
* Humagne Rouge (not related to other known Swiss grape Humange) is the love-child of an unknown grape and Cornalin (a vigorous Swiss grape also grown in the Valais canton)
* Valais is Switzerland’s largest wine canton.
* 1 person has liked Humagne Rouge on facebook. Ed. note: it wasn’t me but you can be the second.

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Colorino wine label

Wine with Pizza
Colorino – not exactly a well-known grape. This wino had never heard of it before noticing it on a menu at Motorino (arguably NYC´s best pizza, although Nick´s gets my vote). When friends visit you in New York (hola xime), it´s these kinds of places that you have to show off – not just Wall Street, the High Line and the insufferable mayhem of Times Square. So Exacto and I met up after work with xime-amiga to show off one particularly tasty restaurant in one particularly food-friendly neighborhood.

Easy to Pronounce
Motorino thankfully had a pretty fun and reasonable wine list, and Colorino sparked immediately attention thanks to its easy-to-pronounce grape name. Colorino, it turns out, is both easy to say and easy to remember. “Colorino” means colored and for a dark grape with red flesh (yes, that´s right – they exist!), colored makes perfect sense.

Red fleshed grape

Photo by Lane Greer, Oklahoma State University.

Red, Red Grapes
So, red flesh in grapes? Yeah, didn´t know that was a thing either. Most grapes that get turned into red wine have white flesh with a dark skin that turns the white flesh into red wine. However, there are a few grapes that manage to be red through and through. These are the despised and eminently mockable The Ohio State University (Go Blue!), the lackluster Cincinnati Reds or the recent Big Ten debutantes, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. All red, all the way through – for better or for worse, but mostly for worse.

Teinturier – seriously?
Colorino isn´t exactly the most famous of these red-fleshed, red-faced grapes. That honor goes to Alicante Bouschet (one of Portugual´s awesome grapes). Apparently, red-fleshed grapes are at least common enough to have their own unpronounceable French word – “Teinturier” – which includes Colorino, Alicante Bouschet, Saperavi and Dunkelfelder. Probably others too.

What I thought… Medium body, medium dry, blackberries finish, blueberries taste. Ate it with pizza and worked really well.

What experts think (since apparently we drank VERY different wines)… scents of ripe red berries, sweet flowers and pepper; taste is full bodied, with intense fruit and chocolate flavors and a very fine finish. Pairs with grilled food, pasta, meat and soft to medium cheeses (apparently, not with pizza – except it´s delicious that way).

Detail Up!
100% Colorino from 2005 La Spinetta Il Colorino di Casanova from Pisa in Tuscany, Italy

Random Googles:
* La Spinetta means hill in the local Piedmontese language (sidebar: there´s a language in Piedmont other than Italian?). Not sure why a place in Tuscany is using a language from Piedmont but sure, they make good wine so no complaints.
* Colorino is often used as a blending grape in Tuscany where it goes into the pot with Sangiovese. Think inky Petit Verdot in the Bordeaux blend and you´ve got the right idea of how it works in the Tuscan countryside.
* Colorino shows up in those blending amounts of 5-10% in Chianti and also in Vino Nobile di Montepulcino, two of Tuscany´s most famous wines.

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