When I received an invitation to attend a wine dinner in New York earlier this week, the details were a bit fuzzy. Allusions were made to a group of renegade natural winemakers from Italy, conducting a fringe event in conjunction with the annual Fancy Food Show. They had contacted Terence Hughes, who was in attendance on behalf of his preeminent Italian wine and culture blog, Mondosapore, and his fledgling wine import business, Domenico Selections. Apparently, they’d asked Terry to invite along a blogger/journalist to cover the event. Quite honored that he’d thought of me, I made some quick adjustments to my work schedule, called in favors from a good friend and hit the road, intrigued by the opportunity and happy for the impetus to pay a long overdue visit to NY.
As it turns out, our renegade, fringe expectations of the event were somewhat mislaid. Not all organic winegrowers, after all, carry with them the stridently natural doctrines of Josko Gravner for instance, or the slightly wacky, Dr. Bronner-like approach to labeling and marketing of Paolo Bea. My expectation that we’d taste wines from a group of producers from throughout Italy was also off the mark.
The evening’s event was indeed focused on organic wines and did have a consortium element, just of a different scope than both Terence and I had anticipated.
Donata Venturini, head of the Venturini Baldini family’s estate Tenuta di Roncolo, was in town along with representatives of the Italian government sponsored consortium, PRO.B.E.R. (Association of Organic and Biodynamic Producers of Emilia-Romagna), to promote a wide range of organically grown products from throughout Donata’s home region of Emilia-Romagna. The group, through its three-year initiative called Biobenessere (essentially, “natural well being”), had sponsored a dinner, in the far from renegade setting of the Batali/Bastianich outpost Del Posto, prepared especially to highlight Ms. Venturini’s wines.
Venturini Baldini and the other quality minded wine producers of Emilia-Romagna have a tough path set out for them. When it comes to food, Emilia-Romagna is often cited as the gustatory capital of Italy. The region’s wines, however, often fall into the role of the ugly stepchild. Surrounded by Piemonte, Lombardia and the Veneto to the north as well as by Toscana to the south and west, Emilia-Romagna’s wines pale in renown to those of its neighbors. Then there’s the fact that the region’s best known wine is Lambrusco, represented first and foremost here in the states through the past days of glory and continuing brand influence exercised by the Riunite cooperative. Add to that the zone’s preponderance of off-dry, sparkling wines – both styles that often fall to fickle fashion here in the States – and you’ll begin to get the picture.
True to the traditions of Reggio-Emilia, Venturini Baldini predominately produces sparkling wines. We started with a non-vintage Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa Malvasia secca “Malvasia dell’Emilia,” slightly off dry in style and on the bubbliest end of the frizzante spectrum. The combination of bubbles and crunchy fruit typical of the region’s wines act as an ideal foil to zesty, fatty foods, demonstrated ably in this wine’s pairing with a plate of richly marbled Prosciutto di Parma. The aromatic character of Malvasia di Candia, however, is heightened even further through the wine’s bubbly delivery, resulting in a wine so highly perfumed of lemon balm and hothouse flowers as to make food pairing difficult. I have to join company with Peter Liem in wondering whether such an aromatic variety makes sense as a base for sparkling wine, even if the Charmat method creates fewer conflicts with Malvasia’s character than would the traditional method of sparkling wine production. The dolce bottling served with dessert was pleasant enough but did little to change my mind.
Where the quality of fruit and versatility shine is in Ms. Venturini’s red wines, which are a far cry from the ubiquitous soda pop style of Lambrusco. Her Reggiano Lambrusco Rosso secco, a blend of the traditional Lambrusco clones of Marani, Montericco, Maestri, Salamino and Grasparossa, was rustic, chewy and bright. Its blackberry, mulberry and bitter chocolate notes, carried on a brusquely frizzante frame, made me pine for a simple pepperoni pizza, though it worked more than adequately with Del Posto’s Garganelli al Ragu Bolognese. Its sibling, Vino Spumante di Qualità “Rubino del Cerro,” which includes the addition of a little Bonarda, delivered heightened elegance and aromatic finesse, along with more precise acid balance and delicate fruit. It was spot on with a course of pigeon and foie gras sausage. In spite of its greater breed, I took greater enjoyment from the simple pleasures of the basic Lambrusco secco.
The dishes at Del Posto, clockwise from top left, above: Antipasti; Prosciutto di Parma; Aragosta con Salsa Americana; Garganelli al Ragu Bolognese.
Below: Salsiccia di Foie Gras con Insalata d'Uva; Beef Tenderloin with Potato Crisps, Butter Lettuce & Spring Onion; Cioccolato e Pane.
The greatest pleasure of the night may have been Venturini Baldini’s Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa Marzemino Dolce, a medium-sweet, sparkling varietal Marzemino that tips the scales at 6% alcohol. It was fresh, lively and, surprisingly, a far better match than the Malvasia dolce with Del Posto’s tiny teacup of a confection called Citrus Fantasia. It was also a solid match with the richer dessert course of Cioccolato e Pane, much more so than the insipid Niepoort 10-Year Tawny Port that the restaurant insisted on inserting into the menu.
Venturini Baldini currently produces about 300,000 bottles annually, with the potential to double production in the future. 50 of their 200 hectares are under vine. All farming is certified organic. They have yet to establish a presence in the US market, a goal that was no doubt part and parcel of their mission in New York. Based on the quality of their Lambrusco, assuming the price is right, I’d say there’s prime opportunity for a handful of small to mid-sized regional importer/distributors, particularly in the US market areas that are crying out for a refreshing taste of potential talent from an oft demeaned wine region.