Saturday, April 16, 2011

Vinitaly 2011 Day Two: Italian sparklers lead global surge

1. Carpene Malvoti Prosecco in honor of President Obama's Inauguration Day
2, 3 & 4. Sparkling Italy tasting area at Vinitaly 2011
5. Sparkling Italian Pavilion at VeronaFiere

Part Two-Vinitaly 2011: Italian Sparklers bubble to front row on world stage

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Verona, Italy—Italian sparkling wines are captivating the palates of wine lovers everywhere and are fast becoming the number one choice of wine drinkers around the world. That fact became evident in a series of tastings on Day Two of Vinitaly 2011 in the massive VeronaFiere convention center, where a cavernous space between two of the center’s ten exhibition buildings were devoted to nothing but “Sparkling Italy.”

Prosecco sparkling wine has become the most widely known and has risen sharply in popularity in markets outside of Italy, particularly in the United States. Mistakenly, the word Prosecco has become the generic term for all Italian sparkling wines among American drinkers. They are unaware that Prosecco is actually a protected designation under Italian law and is made exclusively from the native Glrea grape, formerly known as Prosecco. The first Prosecco to reach U.S. shores was sweet and barely distinguishable from the better-known Asti Spumante sparkling wine produced in the Piedmont region of Italy. Improved production techniques have resulted in a number of very high-quality drier sparkling wines that are barely distinguishable from their counterparts in France.

Currently, Mionetto is the largest importer of Prosecco in the U.S. market. It ‘s flagship varietals, Mionetto Prosecco Brut, is a very reasonable $9.99 and is quite good for the price. That may account for the fact that since its introduction in 2000, it has reported double-digit increases in consumption almost annually. Mionetto’s other sparklers, Brut Vadobbiadene Spumante ($12.99) and Sergio Prosecco (the brands’ top of the line at only $18.99), still remain stunning values when compared to their competitors. Mionetto is a family-owned company, based in Brooklyn, New York. The Mionetto family has become the nation’s leader in terms of educating the public about Prosecco and is thus, the brand leader in the U.S. market. Now, other Italian sparklers are set to step out on the world stage, and what better place to strut their effervescent stuff than on the global platform that is Vinitaly!

I arrived at VeronaFiere straight from a nearly ten-hour Alitalia flight to the Sparkling Italy pavilion between buildings 8 and 10, where a premiere tasting and celebration was underway at Carpene Malvoti, where it unveiled its special “1868” Prosecco in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Unity of Italy, which became an underlying theme and cause for many celebrations at this year’s edition of Vinitaly. The entire line of Carpene Prosecco’s fall within the $11-$18 range and represent some of the finest from Italy’s Veneto region. Their Prosecco’s are noted for their mellow citrus flavors and a light orchard fruit nose that recalls white peaches and pears. That’s perfect because the juice of white peaches is the primary blending ingredient with Prosecco, of the popular Bellini, similar in purpose and popularity to the Mimosa in the U.S., which is flavored with orange juice. Carpene Malvoti is among the leaders of the Prosecco movement toward a drier wine, with almost no residual sugar. The “1868” tasting was combined with some velvety Norwegian salmon, but this reporter spotted several imbibers downing forkfuls of a Strudel like affair offering with a semi-sweet Marsala flavored custard filling. Romano Chietti, founder of Siena Imports of San Francisco, which imports Carpene Malvoti to the United States, informed me that their Prosecco was now a part of U.S. history. A special edition of 200 bottles of its Prosecco DOC di Valdobbiadene Cuvee Extra Dry was served to the then new President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama at a Celebration Dinner, held on the eve of the official Swearing-In ceremony on Capitol Hill, organized at the National Press Club for the Arkansas Society. Guests included former President and First Lady Bill and Hilary Clinton. The thousand guests dined on a pheasant and duck dinner after a toast of Carpene Malvoti Prosecco Extra Dry, poured from the special edition bottles, which featured a stylized portrait of the President-elect, who also received a bottle of the special Prosecco. There are only three bottles remaining, and this reporter was privileged to drink from one of them!

Italian sparkling wines, in general, are one of the “hot spots” in the wine universe. Exports are growing exponentially in the United States in spite of the financial meltdown. The growth of the Prosecco sector alone, is leading the surge.

Italian sparkling wines are made from a whole host of grape varieties, with Prosecco,the most common and the most popular. Some 600 wineries make Italian sparklers in 18 wine growing regions. That means roughly 400 million bottles were made this past year and about 40 million of those, figuratively, are heading to a bottle shop near you!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Old wine dynasties break new wine ground at Vinitaly Verona 2011

1. VeronaFiere convention center in Verona, site of Vinitaly 2011
2. Sharron A. McCarthy, CSW, Vice President-Wine Education BANFI
3. Lamberto Frescobaldi with Dwight The Wine Doctor
4. The Grand Tasting Hall in the Old City of Verona

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Verona, Italy—This picturesque, historic city was the setting for the wine industry’s largest presentation of fine wine on the international stage. The 45th Vinitaly closed with more than 150,000 visitors in attendance, with a third of them traveling internationally from Germany, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Austria and Eastern Europe. Major attendance from Russia, China and Hong Kong was also noted.

“Despite the dramatic events affecting Japan,” said Giovanni Mantovani, CEO & Director General of VeronaFiere, organizers and sponsors of Vinitaly, “attendance by Japanese buyers held steady.”

More than 4,000 exhibitors from 23 countries filled more than a million square feet of convention space in the VeronaFiere’s ten-building exhibition center, with an overflow of technical exhibitors and purveyors of olive oils and specialty food products filling tents encircling the massive property. The exhibition area was so vast that trolley cars were utilized to transport visitors. The sheer size of the event confirmed Vinitaly’s status as the largest exhibition for the wine business and culture, exemplified by this year’s motto: “The World We Love.”

“Vinitaly is set to change its dates,” the President of VeronaFiere, Ettore Riello declared during the Inauguration Ceremony. “This is an important decision that extends the days dedicated to business and also seeks to meet the needs of caterers, chefs and wine bar and restaurant owners, since the new schedule (Sunday through Wednesday, rather than Thursday through Sunday), is better suited to their weekly closing days.”

Old and new producers presented their wares side by side in elaborately constructed booths and display areas. Focused tastings and on-site premieres lent a festive atmosphere to the proceedings. The list of names of some of the most legendary wine producers were prominently displayed throughout the exhibition halls, as wine producers put their newest and best foot forward. “This is where we have our best opportunity to create excitement on a world platform,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, scion of the noble Italian family which produces Marchesi de Frescobaldi wines of Florence. The family legacy dates back to the time of the Medici’s.

The atmosphere at Frescobaldi’s wine tasting area was intense. Set in a display area constructed as a replica of the family estate, Lamberto appeared for a brief moment to share his latest releases. Speaking excitedly about the winery’s latest releases, his spirits were buoyed by the surge of interest among industry professionals for the new, elegant wines he was offering.

The Frescobaldi family and Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi winery are set to release two more joint venture wines-a Pinot Grigio and a Sangiovese bottled under the Danzante label. The joint venture already makes two other Sangiovese-based blends: the high-profile Luce ($63, and a personal favorite, as it is so food-friendly), which is made from grapes grown at Frescobaldi’s Castel Giocondo estate in the village of Montalcino in Tuscany, and Lucente (a steal at $26), which is sourced from various vineyards throughout Tuscany. Both offer a tour de force of intense fruit flavor, balanced with a mild acidity that creates a lingering sensation on the palate. Danzante ($10-“dancing,” in Italian) is made from grapes sourced outside the Tuscany region. Pinot Grigio comes from Venezia, in the north, and presents a crisp, melon and citrus flavor with a beautiful golden straw color. White wine lovers will find this versatile wine just the right accompaniment to summer salads and seafood. The Sangiovese ($10) is from the Marche region, one of the latest to come out of the shadow of neighboring Tuscany to gain worldwide acclaim. According to marketing spokesperson Nancy Light, the wines are designed to compete with similarly priced, popular wines, such as Santa Margherita and Gallo’s Ecco Domani line of wines. The two Mondavi-Frescobaldi wines are newly available on the shelves of most popular wine shops, with about 40,000 cases available in the U.S. Winemaking is overseen jointly by Tim Mondavi and Lamberto Frescobaldi.

Castello Banfi continued its Pursuit of Excellence at its expansive tasting area, also designed to replicate its massive castle estate. The massive medieval stone castle expresses the timeless poetry and elegance of Montalcino and the stunning Tuscan landscape.

Sharron McCarthy, CSW, is Vice President of Wine Education for the 65-year-old Long Island, NY based company. Best known for its popular Riunite Lambrusco, the company has since achieved landmark status as #3 on Wine Spectators “top 100 list” for its elegant Brunello di Montalcino DOCG ($58), 100% Sangiovese wine from its Tuscany estate. Three generations of the Mariani family have built Banfi into America’s largest importer of Italian wines.

“We’ve been a real trail-blazer in the industry,” McCarthy said as she shared copious tastes of the vineyards latest releases at one of their private tasting tables inside the castle-like structure. You’re probably most familiar with our Vigne Regali ($26) sparkling wine, which is a real popular favorite during the Holidays and around Valentine’s Day.” Vigne Regali comes from estate’s vineyards in Piedmont. Brothers John and Harry Mariani acquired the historical winery known as Bruzzone, known for specializing in sparkling wine production since 1860. The sparkling wine, with its distinctive deep, Ruby-red color, is dedicated to Metodo Classico production, whereby each bottled is hand-riddled while resting inverted on pupitres which allows the yeast to collect in the neck of the bottles while they lie resting inverted. The meticulous process imparts character and intense flavor to the wine. The surrounding barrel room, which was recently renovated and adorned with artistic elements also plays host to the maturation and refinement of Banfi’s other Piedmont wines, Barbera ($43) and La Lus Albarossa (2007-$24). Both have exceptionally rich flavors that proudly represent their region. The price/value quotient is quite high considering the intensity of flavor.

Winemaker Matteo Rocca of Rocca Vini Superiori had perhaps the most poignant story to tell of the afternoon. “I am presenting by 2009 Donna Anita Tarantino Rossa ($32), which is named in honor of my mother.” The Rocca family has been involved in the wine industry since 1880. Their vineyards and estate in the heart of Salento, near the splendid Ionian coast, is a monument to their passion for winemaking.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cantinetta Piero and Hotel Luca: The road to Tuscany winds through Napa Valley

1. Pizza with Egg from the wood burning brick oven at Cantinetta Piero
2. Brick oven
3. Diners enjoy the Salume "bar"
4. Artisan Salume aging locker
5. Open plan kitchen at Cantinetta Piero
6. Chef de Cuisine Craig di Fonzo

Hotel Luca: The road to Tuscany winds through Napa Valley wine country

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Napa Valley—Cantinetta Piero restaurant in Hotel Luca is one of those off-the-beaten path finds that will have you scratching your head and wondering if you hadn’t entered some kind of time and space warp and landed in the heart of Tuscany. The hotel and restaurant, although relatively new boasts 200 year old Italian roof tiles and 300 year old Italian courtyard floor tiles as part of its construction, and the kitchen, ably headed by master Chef de Cuisine Craig di Fonzo, is an alchemist’s laboratory where local fresh produce, meats and seafood are transformed into tastes and smells that conjure up daydreams of basking in fields of fresh rosemary under the Tuscan sun.

I knew I was in Roman heaven when I noticed the wood burning brick oven and proceeded to find freshly braised octopus with house made Calabrese sausage and toasted couscous as a starter, a variation of a dish I had not experienced since my last sojourn to the region to attend VinItaly wine expo in nearby Verona. “The octopus are special ones that I import from Italy,” Chef di Fonzo told me in a later interview. “They’re slow braised in Muscadine grape juice and then served with toasted Italian couscous.” Italian Prosecco (I guess that was redundant), Non-Vintage by Villa Sandi ($12.99) had just the right combination of bright fruit and an elegant finish that allowed the rich flavors of the octopus and the slight nutty flavor of the couscous to shine through.

A second Antipasti of Cozze al Forno, pristinely fresh mussels, roasted in the aforementioned brick oven, with white wine, garlic, parsley and a smattering of chili was a perfect melding of texture and flavor. The silky mussels with the whiff of fresh sea air and smoke lingering over the rich broth were just the right consistency for sopping with crusty, house made Italian bread. I was tempted to cry Abbondanza! (Enough), but the promise of scaling further culinary heights proved too tempting.

The remainder of the meal with its accompanying wines from the restaurant’s expansive yet focused list of Napa Valley and Italian vintages, was a tour de force of the art of the chef.

Next came a true marvel, a Chef’s Selection of house made and imported Salume, aged meats, which could be seen hanging in a specially constructed glass enclosed aging locker which dominated the wall on the southern end of the elegant restaurant. I was most intrigued by the Wild Boar, which was locally sourced and the Speck, imported from Sudtirol, Italy and Prosciutto imported from San Daniele, Italy. Black Stallion Napa Valley 2009 Chardonnay ($38), with its layered aromas of citrus blossom, white chocolate and flavor notes of toasted almonds and apricot, was the perfect accompaniment to the rich, full bodied flavor of the meats. The wine, from the nearby Oak Knoll District, is a perfect example of the elegant, well-balanced Chardonnays that make the Napa Valley world famous.

The Gran Vino pan roasted Whole Fish was the specialty of the day and arrived in the pan with Tuscan Kale, roasted beets and baby carrots. Sonoma Duck Breast, roasted in the brick oven, was bathed in sour Amarena cherry reduction with caramelized Jerusalem artichokes and carrots simmered in orange juice, then pureed. Groth Napa Valley Pinot Noir 2009 ($29.99) has the type of subtlety and perfume that lets the wine, and the accompanying food, speak for themselves. The aroma and complexity allows the flavors of pure raspberry, bitter cherry and a touch of red licorice to shine beyond the silky, lush finish. There was a bit of creaminess on the palate that worked well with the slightly gamey Sonoma duck.

I was quite full after the copious main dishes, but couldn’t resist diving into one of Chef di Fonzo’s creations, Chocolate Budino, a Sicilian bread pudding made with fresh shaved and melted chocolate, house made caramel and Sicilian sea salt, topped with whipped crème fraiche. I could have used a room at the intimate Hotel Luca, but they were all booked for the weekend. Next time!

Cantinetta Piero

6774 Washington Street (between Madison and Pedroni), Yountville, California 94599