To Massey College for the annual Wine Grazing, where 100 junior and senior fellows of the graduate college get together to roam between the library and the Junior Common Room, tasting lovely wines and the delectable dishes matched to them. I’m honoured to be a part of the event, helping to choose and introduce the wines and figure out the food.
This year our theme was Italy, dalle Alpi in Africa – “from the Alps to Africa.” When Sabrina Bandali, head of the Massey College Wine Committee, and I started planning the evening, almost a year ago, we envisaged a neat and tidy, scientific comparison between the wines of northern Italy and of southern Italy. To put it into zoological terms, we would find the wine that filled the same gastronomic niche in either region and taste them side by side. But Italy has a way of interposing itself, muddling our precise northern intentions. Last summer, we came across a white wine from Tuscany – in the middle of the country – just where we had intended to fold our map – that would not be denied. Like an actress auditioning far too hard for a part, this bianco threw herself onto the table and began to emote until we had to include her. It was the same story for our dessert wine. I had cherished plans to pitch a northern recioto di Soave against a southern Zibibbo – but the same thing happened. Another ravishing Tuscan – more mature, undeniably eccentric, but no less mesmerising – bewitched us again. And then Sardinia shot up its hand, reminding us that Italy has islands too. So our tidy north-south plan turned into a fairly chaotic race around the country. In other words, much more Italian in mood as well as matter. And how could it be otherwise? There are more than 2,500 different grape varieties in Italy, with as many as 600 of them used in a serious, commercial way. I think we work with around 20 varieties in Canada. Choosing 10 Italian wines to represent the country was always going to be a challenge.
We started with a sparkling wine from the north – from Franciacorta in Lombardy, to be precise – a charming, ephemeral bubbly, Ca’ del Bosco’s NV Cuvée Prestige (agent: Lifford Wine Agency). There have been vineyards in Franciacorta, where the Padana plain suddenly bumps into the foothills of the Alps, since Roman times but the idea of using them for sparkling wine is only about 35 years old. Ca’ del Bosco was one of the pioneers, the creation of a teenager fresh out of oenology school, a young man called Maurizio Zanella. He had fallen in love with Champagne and didn’t see why it couldn’t be grown in Lombardy. Fortunately, his family was immensely wealthy – his dad one of Italy’s largest auto parts manufacturers – so the project came to pass, with Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco planted in tight rows in the French way and a cellar built where Zanella could mimic the méthode Champenoise. That’s what we drank last night – classic, fresh, crisp Franciacorta bubbly with a nose of green apple and melon, a soft supple mousse that doesn’t last long and a streak of minerality in the finish. It’s still a rarity in Canada, something the millionaires who own the country clubs in that part of Italy like to keep to themselves. We matched it with a parmesan crisp to catch the wine’s buttery, yeasty nuances, and a slice of fresh apple to mirror the fruit.
After that we divided the crowd into two groups of 50 and sent the first cohort up to the library to begin the Grazing proper. We started with Tiefenbrunner’s 2010 Pinot Grigio (agent: Rogers & Company), a stunner from the Alto Aldige, that amazingly beautiful area that used to be part of Austria until 1919. The Adige river has carved a profound valley through the Alps and temperatures get as hot as Sicily there during the summer but when you look up –up –up you can still see snow on the tops of the mountains thousands of feet closer to heaven. There are Gothic schlosses, and little alpine stuben where you can get lunch, and some terrific white wines. Vineyards have been planted there since pre-Roman times. Hilde and Herbert Tiefenbrunner started making wines at Schloss Turmhof in 1968 and today they are one of the great bastions of quality in the Alto Adige. This Pinot Grigio had a fairly subtle nose, like yellow plums, but there was so much more texture to it than one might expect – a creaminess balanced by tangy acidity. Those yellow plums are there on the palate too but then it suddenly finishes with an unexpected flourish of peppery spice.
Alongside the Pinot we poured Silvio Carta’s Badde Alva 2009 Vermentino from Sardinia (find it at Vintages). Vermentino is a lovely, lively, aromatic white grape that loves the climate around Corsica, Sardinia and the Ligurian coast, an enthusiasm it is easy to share when one recalls the sparkling Mediterranean, the cloudless skies and the landscape of yellow hills covered with a herb-scented macchia that gioves way here and there to olive groves and vineyards. Silvio Carta is a family firm based in the Orestano region on the western coast of Sardinia, a relaxed and easygoing place after the bustle of the Alto Adige.
For these two wines, the brilliant Darlene Naranjo, who is in charge of Massey’s talented kitchen, created something consciously simple, a jumble of boiled potatoes and fresh arugula stirred with grated Piave cheese and plenty of Olio Carli’s super olive oil. The peppery arugula and the oil picked out the citrus element in the Pinot Grigio beautifully while the less acidic Vermentino provided a richer liaison with the food. The crowd appeared to be delighted with the match.
Our second station also featured two whites, starting with Donna Chiara’s 2010 Greco di Tufo from Campania (agent: The Case for Wine). I love Greco di Tufo. It’s a deceptive wine, appearing rather shy on its own but proving surprisingly self-possessed when you pour it alongside food. We provided a salad of shaved squid and pine nuts liberally dressed with parsley, lemon and olive oil, and the wine rose to meet it. Donna Chiara does something unusual with its Greco, harvesting it late so there’s more flavour and body than usual – a tad less crisp acidity. It was a dazzlingly good marriage.
The other white at the table was Frescobaldi’s Castello di Pomino 2010 Bianco, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc from Tuscany (agent: Lifford Wine Agency). It’s fascinating to see how Chardonnay changes when it gets to central Italy. That uptight, chic, blonde Burgundian ice-queen in the Hermes scarf lets her hair down. It’s still a tightly woven wine but fragrant with peach and a good splash of oaky spice from Frescobaldi’s barrel program. We decided it deserved a salad of its own – grilled asparagus (that picked out the oakiness in the wine) tossed with mushrooms and fennel that isolated some unexpected herbal notes behind the fruit.
Many of our guests were waiting for the big reds and we plunged deeply in for our next station, whizzing back northwards along the autostrada to Piemonte and Barolo country – steep, up-and-down hills smothered in tightly planted vineyards that look like green corduroy from a distance, the deep valleys filled with white fog on autumn mornings. This is the land of white truffles and of many fabulous red wines, the king of them all being Barolo made from late-ripening, tannic, perfumed – amazingly complex Nebbiolo grapes. In very old age, Barolos are spectacularly beautiful – the colour of orange Victorian brickwork, fragile and heady with the scent of old-fashioned roses. Our Barolo, however, was revelling in the vigour of youth, Fontanafredda’s 2005 Serralunga d’Alba (agent: Noble estates Wines & Spirits). It had a robust acidity with lots of spicy tannins coming in at the end of the palate, but there was so much going on in terms of aroma and flavour – ripe cherries and old oak furniture, the smell of walking through oak woods on a warm afternoon. We served a rich dish of fresh pasta with dried porcini mushrooms and a cream reduction, topped with shredded prosciutto. The richness of the food and the austere structure of the wine cancelled each other out letting the mushrooms find their proper place among the woodsy aromas of the Barolo. A smashing fit.
Our second red wasn’t quite so well-balanced with the dish but it stood out magnificently on its own, Planeta’s Santa Cecilia 2007 Nero d’Avola from Sicily (agent: Halpern Enterprises). The ancient Greeks brought this grape to Sicily and it settled right in like a native, quite at home in the parched landscape, though it ripens very late, sometimes not until November. Back in the 1990s, when Diego Planeta and a group of other talented pioneers set out to revitalize the island’s wine industry, Nero d’Avola was a natural, native star for them to work with. Planeta bought land in the south-east, far from his own western estates, simply to flatter the grape and it responded beautifully. The wine is profound and opaque, almost black, full of the scent of black and red currants, oak and spice and shoe leather (though it’s Ferragamo shoe leather of the very finest quality), and underneath darker forces are at play – espresso and dark chocolate and a hint of burnt caramel.
Our next station presented two more red masterpieces, starting with Tenute Girolamo’s 2008 Aglianico (agent: Liberty Wines). Some say Aglianico is another ancient Greek grape; others that it was already here in southern Italy when the Greeks arrived. Either way it is the great red of the south – making Taurasi wines around Avellino and Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata where it grows on the slopes of the volcano Monte Vulture. Tenute Girolamo brought it over the regional norder into north-western Puglia into a green valley deep in the mountains. In its youth, this wine has been described as dark and feral like the howling of the wolves that still roam these central mountains. This one had mellowed a little but it still spoke of wild places – forests of juniper and smoky evergreens, bramble thickets and dried black fruits, pepper and spice, liquorice and dark chocolate. It has become one of my current favourite reds and I’m delighted it will be appearing at the LCBO any day now.
Up against it was a super Amarone Riserva, the 2005 vintage from Zenato (agent: J. Cipelli Wines & Spirits). I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about Amarone, how it’s pressed from grapes that have spent the winter drying out on trays, how the sweet, sticky juice slowly ferments itself dry without losing those ripe, raisiny flavours. The 2005 Zenato is a beauty, though it required a little palate-reconfiguration after those three dark, well-structured powerhouses – as if you had spent the evening listening to three very tall, stern and humourless maths teachers in their academic gowns, one after the other, and then suddenly came upon the English professor, sitting by the fire in an old tweed suit, smiling serenely… Do not be fooled! There is an intellect behind that warm and fuzzy manner. And the amarone provided the defining match of the evening, brilliant with our dish of juniper-spiked venison stew served with soft polenta and side orders of hot roasted chestnuts and peperonata.
And so to our finale, Badia a Coltibuono’s 2004 Vin Santo from Tuscany. Vin Santo is made in lots of places in Italy – I’ve had some brilliant ones in Udine, up by the Slovenian border, and some very strange specimens farther south – but Tuscany is surely its homeland. Like an amarone, it is made from dried grapes – but white grapes, usually trebbiano, malvasia and occasionally grechetto. The grapes are hung up in bunches for the winter rather than spread on trays, then they’re pressed and the syrupy juice goes into small barrels made of chestnut or oak where they are left to ferment very slowly, for years. Never topped up, there is loss to evaporation – the angels taking their share. It’s not unlike what happens to whisky. Yeasts die at 18 percent alcohol so that’s the strength these wines reach, usually, though not always, leaving plenty of sugar behind. Our version was simply magical, its nose suggesting everything from dried apricots and raisins to Scotch whisky, instant coffee powder and toffee. Darlene baked some almond-apricot biscotti to go with the Vin Santo and I urged our civil gathering to dunk them into the wine. I suppose it is indecorous to then try to suck the Vin Santo out of the sodden biscuit but it’s hard to resist doing so; better to just bite off the wet bit and enjoy it. I don’t really know why but it’s something that always gives me an enormous, almost visceral pleasure.
So the gathering ended but no one really wanted to go home. Roberto Martella, co-owner of Grano and Italy’s unofficial cultural ambassador, was there. He had been a huge help all year, suggesting wines and making key introductions to agents on behalf of the Committee – such a generous soul. Brunello Imports provided a loot bag of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta for everyone to take home. Any day now, we’ll start thinking about a theme for next year’s gathering.