Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Drinking In the Ears of Italy

Much has been made of the storied cultural and political rifts between southern and northern Italy. However, even within northern Italy alone, there’s a marked divide to be found. With influences trickling into the corners of the country from France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia, it can be difficult to recognize the local differences in language or in some cases even to know which side of the border you’re on at any given time. So it is in that context (with wine as a subtext) that I present the following.

You're not sure it's from Italy when...

  • there’s an umlaut in the wine region’s name.
  • the wine is produced by guys with names like Grosjean or Widmann.
  • much of the text on the label is in German.
  • much of the text on the label is in French.
  • a relatively obscure Italian variety is called by its even more obscure Germanic name.

And by way of demonstration, I present a pair of wines I’ve checked out in recent days, both of them unique to the northern corners of Italy.

Vallée d’Aoste Fumin, Grosjean Frères 2004
$34. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant, NY, NY.
The Valle d’Aosta – that’s the Italian spelling, mind you – is Italy’s smallest wine region. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, it’s an area where you’re just as likely to hear French or Piemontese dialect as you are to encounter textbook Italian. That’s reflected in the bottling of Fumin from Grosjean Frères, both in its use of French for the regional and winery names as well as for the clearly Gallic roots of the Grosjean nom de famille. The wine, though, screams northern Italy to me. Actually, what this most reminded me of is Lagrein – one of the signature varieties from the opposite corner of northern Italy – but with less punch and power. Mulberry and plum fruit commingled with cocoa and a hint of spice on the nose, following through on the palate with fairly plush texture and well-balanced acidity. On day two, the wine’s primary tendencies completely morphed into flavors suggesting maturity, while a sour minerality reminiscent of upper slope Burgundy crept up on the finish. Pretty cool wine, one I’d enjoy drinking more often if it were ten or fifteen bucks less expensive.

Südtiroler Vernatsch, Andreas Baron Widmann 2007
$20. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
In Alto Adige, aka the Südtirol, Italy’s northernmost wine region, you’re more likely to hear German than Italian, a trend obviously reflected on the labels of many of the wines hailing from the zone. Indeed, Vernatsch is the Germanic name for Schiava, the workaday red variety of the Südtirol. Andreas Baron Widmann (yes, he is a Baron) makes a version reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais crossed with the herbal, peppery streak present in many a Loire Valley Pineau d’Aunis. Snappy acidity and wild raspberry scented fruit make for a refreshing red, light of hue and body, perfectly suited to speck infused cream sauces or the light game dishes of the region. Reductive and smoky when first opened, it took some coaxing for the wine’s charms to become apparent, but appear they did.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the blogosphere…

Alfonso Cevola, scribe and general philosopher behind the pages of On the Wine Trail in Italy, recently issued an open call for submissions in response to the simple phrase, “You know it’s Italian when…”. It was one of those invitations I received, thought about, neglected to respond to right away and then proceeded to more or less forget about until too late. The opening portions of this post, intentionally presented in somewhat opposite form, are inspired by his theme, the diverse and often humorous responses to which he recently posted.


Do Bianchi said...

After all the years I studied, lived, and worked in Italy, I was blown away when I first traveled to the South Tyrol and found that they simply don't speak Italian there. When I visited Tramin (Termeno in Italian) for the first, I walked into a restaurant/bar and said "buon giorno," and they looked at me like I was crazy.

Great post...

Josh George said...

Perhaps the most interesting cool wine I had recently was the 2006 Baron Widmann Rot. There is no way anyone can mistake that Cab-Merlot for anything from France or the New World. Had it with a piece of plain roasted beef and a hunk of bread. Day three it was even better! It will grow hair on your back, a very primal, unsexy wine.

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Jeremy. Glad to hear the back story resonated with you.

Hey Josh,
"Rot" disappeared 'round these parts before I ever got the chance to try a bottle. I won't delay the next time it becomes available.

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