January 2016 Wine & Cheese Club: Wines of Northern Italy

We’re going to start the new year preaching to the choir: The great thing about wine club is having a trusted source putting a new wine in your hands, saying “here, you need to try this.” This is really advantageous in exploring the lesser-known corners of Italy. For many of us, the regions, sub-regions, and varietals blend together on the label, leaving us wondering “what the heck is inside this bottle?” We aren’t going to start at the very beginning here, with Italian Wines 101- we’re diving headfirst into some fantastic and obscure new finds, as well as a selection that lives in the shadows of more celebrated neighbors.

In a break from the past, we’re giving the notes for all three wines to all members this month. It’s worth reading about the wine you’re not receiving- we have some particularly interesting, unusual wines this month all around. Everyone receives the Barbera. Those of you who receive two red wines also receive the Brachetto, and those of you with a white wine receive the Tovè Bianco

This month, welcome a fresh new group of members, many of whom received their club membership as a gift last month. Welcome, and we hope you find many new favorite wines in the months to come!

Red Wine Only: Sottimano “Maté” Dry Brachetto 2014
Last month, we plied you with a dry wine done in an off-dry style (Black Bubbles sparkling Syrah). This month, we flip that around and show you a typically sweet wine varietal done dry- and done right. The Sottimano is one of the few estates to produce a dry, still version of Brachetto. If you want serious geek factor in your wine, look no further.  This wine is much more than a novelty act though, as it has nuance and surprises to keep you paying attention as you sip. We tasted many, many wines in December, and this is one we still remember.

It comes from a tiny 1.1. hector vineyard is located in the zone of Treiso. That’s near Barbaresco, and just North and West of Alba, where our Barbera is from. It is made in a rustic style, in that they use only indigenous yeasts, and the wine is not fined or filtered (processes that clarify the wine).  Like the Barbera, the fermentation is performed in stainless steel tanks.

This is a young wine, and it is intended to be consumed young. It’s a light, youthful style that still delivers layers or nuance. We don’t often like to toss a bunch of flavor adjectives at you, but this wine definitely encourages it: Aromas of perfumed rose and violet.  As the wine breathes and unfolds there’s more rose, dried cherry, strawberry, raspberry- balanced with soft tannins and a bright, almost refreshing acidity. Perhaps you’ll detect these same things, or perhaps you’ll get something different. The point is, it’s a remarkable wine that seems to encourage a lot of adjectives from whoever tries it!

White Wine: Marco Cecchini Tovè Bianco 2012
To be honest, while we find Italian white wines to be vibrant and refreshing, we also find them to be generally light and unremarkable- wines great for a hot summer day, but not so great for contemplation. With wines from Friuli, in Northeastern Italy, this is not the case. Culturally, the region has much in common with Austria and Germany, inviting favorable comparisons for this wine.

At first, our staff of four was evenly divided between loving vs. ignoring this wine. Chris, who does the wine buying and writes these notes, didn’t think much of this one at first taste. Lucky for us, we had the chance to revisit it over the course of a day (a definite perk of the job). What was at first a tangy, pithy grapefruit summer wine turned into something completely different- musky, spicy, with a wonderfully lush texture. The lesson: don’t drink this too cold, and let it breathe. Go ahead and try a little right away, but give yourself time to watch it unfold. We’ve had a few wines made with this varietal recently, so watch for more of them on our shelves.

So…what IS the varietal? This is where we give you the esoteric, guest-wowing bits of trivia about this wine: As best we can tell, Italy doesn’t have an official name for this style/varietal of wine. Until recently, it was called Tocai Friulano. But Hungary, concerned that the grape Tocai was being confused with their similarly-pronounced (and world-renowned) Tokaij, sued Italy and others to stop using Tocai in naming other wines.  The Italian Tocai couldn’t be more different than Tokaij, but the courts have spoken.  It appears that the region is still undecided on an official name for these wines, so expect the confusion to continue a bit longer.

All Members: Cascina La Ghersa Barbera d’Asti “Piage” 2013
Our addition of a Barbera is twofold: (1) You need to know about this varietal, and (2) if you already do…well, you’ve never tasted one quite like this! Barbera is primarily grown in the Piedmont region of Northwestern Italy, near the French and Swiss borders.  The sub-regions of Asti and Alba are where most exports are grown. However, these areas didn’t make their name with Barbera- they did it with the grape Nebbiolo, out of which the machismo-filled Barolo and Barbaresco are made.

Barbera likes the same soils as the big boys, but it ripens quicker and has high acidity- making it a good option for those winemakers who need to make a wine quickly, while they wait for those other guys to age for a few more years. Barbera is relatively lighter bodied, and tannins don’t play a major role in the structure of its flavor.

This particular wine is probably the best example of a wine in an Old World style* that we have featured in quite some time. This particular vineyard (the La Ghersa’s “Piage”) is chock-full of calcerious limestone and clay. What’s more, the wine never touches oak during the winemaking process. It’s fermented in stainless steel tanks, and is then aged in concrete vats. As a result, all of that funky clay minerality takes over, the concrete vats accentuating the qualities of the land in which the grapes grew. If this were a white wine, the soil and winemaking process might express itself as “wet stone” or chalk. In a red like this, we simply call it “earthy”, but it’s an earthiness very unlike, for example, the organic qualities of mushroom and hay.  This wine also undergoes a process called malolactic fermentation, which gives it a richness in texture, despite the neutral conditions under which it was aged.

This wine is made with grapes that are sustainably farmed, with no herbicides or pesticides. You won’t find a USDA organic certification on the label, but La Ghersa adheres to the cleanest, purest forms of agriculture possible. (If you want to know more about why you don’t find many certified organic wines on our shelves, ask Chris next time you’re in. The reasons are too lengthy to print here!)

Cheese pairing: Aged goat cheese with thyme
We said this is a good pizza wine, which was our inspiration for this pairing. The thyme cozies up to those funky aspects of the wine, pulling out some herbaceous elements and rounds off the edgier parts. As this is an inherently lighter wine, goat cheese works here- they match acidity levels, neither one jumping out or smothering the other.

*Particularly for our newer members: you’ll see we often engage in a comparison of Old World/New World wines. Many others have explained this distinction, but in a nutshell we put it like this: while all wines are worthy of tasting with your full attention, wines in an Old World style are generally intended to go with food, and New World wines have a more fruit-forward (although not sweet) style that we call “cocktail wines”- wines that go well/best all by themselves, and can be too heavy/high alcohol to drink regularly as part of a meal.

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