Bustle and silence: A day at Les Chemins de Bassac
 
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It is so quiet here. I lean out the window and the only sound I hear is crickets and water trickling to the earth from late afternoon rains. France has so many little villages like Puimisson. One thousand people but hardly anyone on the street, a stray black cat, a man walking his three dogs. At the one bar in town the elderly proprietress smokes cigarettes outside her empty establishment. Catholic icons loom over empty streets, the mostly-full parking spaces along the narrow lanes give the impression of a place hastily abandoned. There is an impossibly French looking Mairie, an ancient stone arch, and hundreds of yards of beautiful weathered doorways and window shutters. Buildings are for sale. Where are the rakish bored supermodels? Much of the town looks ready for a Vogue photoshoot. Or maybe, where are Edina and Patsy? 

 

Impressive wind and rain battered Bruno and Thama’s house and winery for much of the afternoon. Shutters slammed shut like shotgun blasts, jarring to my outsider’s ears. They are outsiders, too, from San Paolo. And we sneaked up on them! Thama entered our visit on their calendar for a week after today. Our email communication was fractured and last-minute. She called us, frantic, while our car was speeding in the direction of Puimisson, twenty minutes away at most. There was really no turning back, we were at the start of the penultimate day of a two-week stint in France, busted schedules be damned. Thama was frazzled, halfway through a Heineken by the time we arrived. Bruno seemed fine! He went out for a couple baguettes, and arrived at their home a few minutes after we pulled into town. “Look, I’m French now!” he said, carrying his bread with the nonchalance of a native. Thama encouraged us to join her for a beer: it didn’t take much encouragement! With the finish line of our French excursion in view and (for once) not in the presence of total strangers, it felt like a decent time to relax. Their home is comfortable, thick walls turn the exuberant playtime of two young daughters into a pleasant dull murmur. 

 
 
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Post-beer we walked fifty yards down the street to the winery. It is a cavernous open facility with considerable old French country charm. Wood beams hang high above irregular stone walls. A long line of concrete fermentation tanks is navigated via a narrow metal gangplank. It’s a vast place, built for the 80-hectare previous life of Les Chemins de Bassac. Today the winery is a much more manageable 18 hectares. The previous owners continue to farm produce and cereals in Puimisson, and were helping Bruno in the cellar until the 2019 vintage. It’s his first year at the helm! And from what we tasted, the transition has been seamless. There is a greater focus on the fine detail of terroir now, fewer large batch cuvees, more of a spotlight on special parcels around the farm. It doesn’t make much economic sense to create a series of tiny wines, some as small as one barrel. But Bruno is energized by making special wine. For the time being he’s letting Thama fret about the financial aspects of their new path.  

 
 
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Bruno is taking a less-is-more approach, favoring wild yeast and minimal/no filtration. The wines have tartrates now, which is totally fine with me. Back at the kitchen table we greedily enjoyed glasses of new petillant naturel Pinot Noir and Viognier, both disgorged on the patio moments before drinking. The kids baked us a tomato tart: really lovely. A neighbor arrived and so we shared a glass or two more, as conversation drifted between French and English and Italian and Portuguese. Thama made a pork roast and Brussels Sprouts, perfect for the Isa Blanc. Soon the wine will be renamed Raiz, more signaling of the estate’s change in ownership and direction. It’s a nervy Roussanne/Viognier, more mineral than fat, perfect for the meal. After a brilliant blood red sunset and as people started to drift away from the table for quiet corners of the big old home, Thama expressed regret at missing her chance to make feijoada for fellow Americans. It’s lonely in the Languedoc at times, particularly for her primary school age daughter. Even Nina the elderly flat-coated retriever is a transplant from the USA, left at the farm by a sister who moved to Saudi Arabia. For a day we were a small colony of homesick travellers from the western hemisphere, bonding on stories of far-flung family and the newfound flavors of trapped-in-amber rural France. 

Thama implored us to stay another day, or at the very least to return next year with our kids. We have to be in Avignon very early to catch the TGV to Paris and to rejoin the relative homogeneity and comfort of globally connected places. Japanese toilets, Prada outlets, Italian wine lists in the 2nd arrondissement. The appeal of Puimisson is wrapped in the quiet of midnight. I hope to wander its silent streets again soon.

 
Jay Murrie
Catching up with Morella
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Manduria is experiencing some positive changes. There are two restaurants worth eating at. When Lisa and Gaetano arrived there were none. 

As we taste available wines in her rented garage-like winery, Lisa comments that it is probably not tourism driving change in Manduria. Primitivo tourism maybe. People are moving here. She worries that the appeal of unfettered country life in the relative cool of olive groves and bush vines outside Manduria will be diminished if new building encroaches on the open agricultural space. They are close to the Ionian sea. Today the coastal towns near Manduria walk a line between shabby and charming. Part of their appeal is the lack of appeal for global bourgeoisie seeking luxe travel. Pizza and gelato. Bad wine under an umbrella by the pier. Kids run around. There are nice things (mulberry trees, bits of ancient architecture, the cold waves) but nobody is abandoning Tolum or Taormina for Campomarino.  

As the name suggests, the Masseria del Sale is a former farmhouse in the countryside. We eat in the low vaulted stone dining room that was once a stables. Behind the restaurant is a garden full of palm trees and frogs. Attractive waiters in suits bring us first Champagne and then a series of antipasta including cured pork from Basilicata (Puglia doesn’t have a rich tradition of curing pork: it’s probably too hot) and then a lightly chilled bottle of 2013 Morella Primitivo Malbek and a massive sizzling T-bone, served extra rare. The meat is from Podoloica cattle, a Puglian specialty. The animals graze on scrubby terrain, giving their meat more flavor and a better texture. This steak was aged 45 days before being presented to us like a triumphal feast! Podolica cattle refuse to be milked. Dairy farmers in the area have to dress up in calf skin garb to extract scant smoky milk that is used to make rich ricotta.  

The wine is at its best, a balanced vintage served in its prime in appropriate stemware with the perfect meal. I am among a band of wine people who shy away from warm-climate Malbecs as a rule. This lunch showed that keeping an open mind requires understanding that the wine you drink with simple snacks or while being convivial is not the wine for fantastic steak in formal surroundings. Isn’t it good that we can have both? It’s exhausting to drink high alcohol reds regularly, equally so to drink spritzy funky low alcohol glou glou bottles that smell of used tea bags. Diversity: it’s cool! 

There are several new projects in the cellar at Morella that are very much in line with au currant wine thinking. A rose from Negroamaro was made in small quantities last year. Lisa said she made it mostly for locals around Manduria who need something refreshing to drink. It is likely that sufficient bottles of 2019 will be made to reach our shores. Un mese e mezzo is Lisa’s orange wine experiment. The wine is clean and more golden than orange/brown. She uses 60 mg/liter of sulfur, and is skeptical of natural wine dogmas that shun the stuff entirely.  

“It’s funny how none of the tasters at natural wine events want to talk about our work in the vineyards.” Morella uses biodynamics to farm their old bush vines. We talked about how it is eerily reminiscent of the 90’s new expensive barrique fetish period, where cooperage got more column inches than farming methods.  

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“You eat our grapes and you can taste the wine.” Here’s to healthy farming, judicious cellar interventions, and critical thinking.  

To that end, a taste of the 2015 Mondonuovo reminded me of the primacy of terroir in our work. The wine is from a parcel of very old vines Lisa purchased a few years ago, land distinctly more calcareous than the red soil sites surrounding her home. The crumbled white limestone makes wine with a measurably lower pH. Tart cherry and raspberry flavors and a bright texture will change notions about Primitivo. It’s always the soil. That said, measured pH in American red zinfandel from say the Russian River can also be quite low, even when the wines are 14% alcohol or higher.  

Jay Murrie
Rome to Campomarino

The Adriatic near Francavilla al Mare is turquoise today. The mountains between Rome and the sea jut up like teeth. Paolo is worried that I won’t arrive. He remembers six years ago when I went to Motta della Regina in Foggia instead of finding  his farm. I was so frustrated (this was before Google maps was trustworthy in rural Italy) that I almost abandoned working together. Now I’m embarrassed to remember this happened. But I have to be able to find a farm, to start working with it! It’s the way of the universe. Not fate. We must pay attention to coincidence, too.

Paolo is waiting for me under a line of trees that shade his long driveway. We talk about our children. His daughter is beginning university in the Netherlands this year, with a focus on liberal arts.

Seven thousand bottles of 2017 Agramante Cacce Mmitte di Lucera DOC were produced. Paolo’s two-man cellar team are bottling it when I arrive. They are dressed in blue coveralls, operating the small bottling machine in a space where I saw tomatoes being jarred the last time I visited the farm. Tasted from tank, the 2017 Agramante has nice dark fruit. Paolo says it’s his best ever. Good structure and acidity give the wine real promise, in my opinion.

The 2018 Motta del Lupo is ready. We are only waiting on the labels. From stainless steel tank it is very grapey but light on the palate, with excellent freshness: quite lively. It’s certainly better than the 2017, less spritzy because Paolo chose to wait to bottle in summer instead of spring. In 2019 there will be Motta del Lupo rosato, and sparkling, from Bombino.

Vineyard behind Paolo Petrilli’s home near Lucera, Puglia.

Vineyard behind Paolo Petrilli’s home near Lucera, Puglia.

The intense aroma of figs wafts through the cool shaded patio of Paolo’s home. In the foreground are vines, along the horizon rise mountains, the Gargano. We go inside, past the kitchen to the tranquil dark living room. At the dining room table we taste the 2018 Motta del Lupo from bottle. After 24 hours in bottle it is spicy, with very fresh berry aromas. Earlier we’d previewed a new label, requested by one of Paolo’s upscale London hotel accounts. I’ll miss the direct charm of the former label, but I’m a writer, I like words and empty space. The new label is better, more real, and certainly more fancy. It disguises that Motta del Lupo is a very affordable wine.

We tasted the reserve wines. The 2015 Ferrau (not imported by us, but good) bottling has more mature truffley woodsy complex aromas.

There are 10 Michelin three-star restaurants in Italy. Five use Paolo’s tomatoes. When lunch arrives at his table they are the star of a simple mezzi paccheri course, and feature prominently in a basil and mozzarella salad. With pomodori so fresh and flavorful, It’s hard to imagine needing more.

The 2015 Il Guerro (100% Nero di Troia) is intense. Dry, dark forest aromas. The wine may need a more complex meal as context. I’ll try again in winter.

A muddy dog always chases me from the farm. White, with dirty brown legs and underbelly. Is the beast angry that I am leaving? If so, that’s sort of nice. Past the gate I enter the modern agriculture of Puglia surrounding Foggia. The “Midwest” of Italy. Grain, mechanized, vast.

Campomarino. I made it for the sunset. I have happy memories of an afternoon on this beach. Tomorrow I’ll visit Morella, check in with Lisa, Gaetano, and Primitivo. Tonight I’ll watch packs of seniors and teenagers roam around a lost beach town in search of pizza and gelato, and listen to coastal wind carrying voices of faraway lonely dogs.

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Jay Murrie
Catching up with Cantina Morone

Rome to Guardia Sanframondi

I met Giovanni and Fulvy from Cantina Morone at Taberna Recina, a quiet restaurant near the San Giovanni cathedral. The food was excellent. Rigatoni Amatriciana, perfect fresh mozzarella, eggplant, tender mild tripa Romana. I had time beforehand. Puglian winemaker Paolo Petrilli, who like Giovanni lives in Rome part-time, says it’s impossible to be on time in Rome. “Nothing works! The bus. The metro. It’s not a city where you can work.”

As Giovanni Morone struggled across the capital from his day job as a stroke researcher and rehabilitation therapist, I went into a gem store to buy a souvenir for my six-year-old, who is obsessed with amber. At 8:30pm Taberna Recina was empty, which is a shame because the made-with-care food is uniformly excellent, and frames the continually improving wine of Cantina Morone. The six hundred bottles of col fondo Falanghina made last year aren’t enough for North Carolina, much less the world. The long maceration in amphora Malvasia is fine, dry, and precise: a complete and clean natural wine. The soon-to-be renamed grape Camaiola (currently called Barbera del Sannio, confusion with Piedmontese Barbera is inevitable) seems undamaged by the hours Dani Copeland and I spent harvesting some of the fruit for it in September 2017.

After a very satisfying first meal in Italy, I was led by Giovanni and Fulvy to a crowded part of the city to drink Aleatico made by Giovanni’s friend Andrea Occhipinti, at a bar called Santeria. It’s a fun place, subway tile, appealing oysters, a good range of natural wine. Because of the name I expected some kind of Afro-Cuban influence. Instead it was Edison bulbs, white marble, and craft distillates.

After midnight, long after my day-job compatriots had returned me to the doorstep of a hotel with beds perfectly well-suited to sleeping through these wee hours, I wandered over to a craft beer shop to get something cold and low-in-alcohol. Scruffy dudes hung around outside, smoking. The shopkeeper was friendly and knowledgeable, the selection international, with prominent place given to Italian craft breweries. I grabbed a couple beers and left, happy to be in a city that accommodates my ever-shifting diurnal/nocturnal pedestrian patterns.

Several days later, I made it to the actual Cantina Morone in Guardia Sanframondi, Campania. It was before dusk. Eleonora Morone (Giovanni’s sister) was waiting to greet me. She phoned winemaker Anna della Porta, who showed up in a jiffy. The three of us tasted a comprehensive selection of recent wines from the farm.

The 2018 amphora-aged  “Vassalo” is so clean that nobody will believe it’s a long maceration wine.

The 2017 Mariposa Fiano is father/farmer Pasquale Morone’s favorite. It has intense apple flavor, with some hint of alcohol on the finish. Gold color!! And some pleasantly meaty aromas, too.

The 2017 Albanora is a touch more saline. It shows the intensity of a drought vintage.

2019 is the international year of Falanghina, apparently. Four towns in the area of Guardia Sanframondi are mapping their vineyard’s soil types using drones. Among other things, they are looking for clear evidence of erosion, in order to farm more diligently. According to Anna della Porta, the vines around Benevento, Salerno, and Guardia are all in the same climate zone. Avellino is different. Higher, farther inland, more humid.

The 2018 Monaci Falanghina Benevento IGP was bottled one month ago. It’s a winner. It has a gram more total acidity than its predecessor. Bright, clean, fresh, saline: all my favorite markers for a wine of this variety in this area.

The 2018 Albanora was just moved from tank-to-tank a few hours ago. It was picked 10 days earlier than in previous vintages. The pH is 3.1. It indicates a new direction at the estate.

A photographer was taking pictures of Anna della Porta and Eleonora Morone earlier in the day, for a project highlighting women working in viticulture in Campania. Frustratingly, there aren’t many. They are both energetic wine professionals. I hope the project brings attention to their work.

After tasting, we had a great meal. Zucchini with mint. Pecorino di Capra aged under Piedirosso. Pascuale made the cheese. Excellent pasta, and fresh mozzarella di bufala (of course.) A large assortment of pastries, including sfogliatelle and baba rhum.  

Pasquale tells me there are 255 English-speaking foreigners living in Guardia Sanframondi. Recently the mayor threw a party to celebrate their contributions to the community. There was a parade, and bagpipes that went on until midnight. The foreigners spend money. Bars and restaurants are thriving. Nestled between striking green mountain ranges inland form Naples at least an hour, I find it puzzling that so many Anglophone residents congregated in Guardia. There is an impressive old stone fortress. The surrounding countryside is verdant, vines and vegetables abound. But these small pleasures are par for the course in much of Italy. Why Here? As I listen to Pasquale Morone’s description of the party in honor of the new arrivals from Scotland, Texas, and beyond, bowls of multicolored cherries, tiny sweet pelicella apricots, and the first ripe green mission figs of the season arrive at our patio table. All the fruit is from Pasquale’s trees.

I’ve determined that I should eat more fruit from gardens and small farms.

A strong wind blows napkins from the table. Night has fallen. We clear dishes into their immaculate new professional-grade kitchen (not a smudge to be seen in a room of stainless and marble tile) and I pour a last Lucano amaro for the hours before time-shifted sleep finds me. Seniors sit on balconies, watching life pass by on the street below. The breeze is restorative.

Unsurprisingly, I slept well in the guest quarters above the cantina. A cross breeze blew through the rooms, rattling windows. By 2am it was cool. In a couple hours Pascuale Morone would wake up and go to the vineyards, to tie new shoots to the trellis before sunrise. Heat will stop work in their fields before noon.

Back to those 255 English speakers in Guardia Sanframondi. It’s five percent of the population! The morning after our feast (ok afternoon) I wander around looking for them. I encounter only Italians. I’m going euro: no undershirt. There is a heat advisory and this mountainous part of Campania has anemic-at-best air conditioning. Heat is the topic of conversation at the bar/gelateria across the street from Cantina Morone. Free plastic cups of cold water accompanying espresso are greedily consumed, even refilled.

A chubby kid wearing a Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey T Shirt exited the appliance store across the street, and climbed into a battered blue Fiat. Three young women (maybe sisters) loitered on the curb beside a very similar car, and took turns going inside to pay phone bills or utilities. They arrived with a toddler riding shotgun in one of their laps.

I’d like to disabuse any notion that 95 degrees in the relatively low humidity of Sannio is comfortable. It is not. I applied deodorant more than once, and took a cold shower. A man is eating gelato shirtless on the balcony facing me. I dreamed of a trip to the cold sulfur springs in Talese Terme, even though a dip in their frigid bubbly waters means I will smell like eggs for the rest of the afternoon.

Old men still wear blue workmen’s trousers and white sleeveless undershirt/tank tops here. Old women still sit in plastic chairs on the sidewalk, dressed in black, or in faded floral house coats. Teenagers still dress in tight trashy flashy provincial apparel, sportswear, t-shirts with bizarre words in English scrawled across the fronts. It’s abundantly clear where you are. Mountains, icons of Catholicism, white delivery vans that bring freshly made mozzarella directly to your door.

I wanted a pizza but I’m going to swim later, so I eat fruit and taralli instead. I’m probably not overly hungry (I had a cream-filled cornetto and cereal flakes for breakfast) but I do need to normalize. Late nights with white wine. Jet lag. An abundance of interaction with foreign hosts.

So I’m eating a bowl of cherries for lunch. One goal is accomplished.

Sparkling stinky water at Talese Terme. It is very refreshing.

Sparkling stinky water at Talese Terme. It is very refreshing.

 

Jay Murrie
Finding Gemischter Satz and fleeing McShark: Austria April 2019
Weingut Zimmermann

Weingut Zimmermann

It’s so genteel. To wander, to take a streetcar to the near-suburbs, to vine-covered hills with the city center on the horizon. And then to give in while happy hearty Austrians in leather shorts serve farmer fare and bring restorative glasses of Gemischter Satz, or Riesling, or Gruner Veltliner. There are at least a dozen high quality wineries (and many ok ones) close enough for pedestrians to explore. To bask in sunshine, in courtyards mere feet from verdant abundant spring flora in irrepressible full bloom. To go for a stroll up hillocks made of loess soils that were not-too-long-ago (in geologic time) the banks of the Danube.

Where is that river, anyway? Maybe I should poke around some more. There are impressive museums in Vienna, and a thousand accouterments of refined indoor living available within strolling distance of this elegant hotel’s front door. Theaters, a hunting store with suitable rifles and attire for all stations of the landed gentry, an opera house facing a wurstel stand that serves sausages with cheese inside the sausage: still a genius idea. Bars everywhere playing jazz filtered through thick clouds of cigarette smoke, restaurants serving empanadas from Spain or vegetarian curries from Sri Lanka, wide quiet cobblestone streets lined by Haussmann-era palaces that at night immediately conjure The Third Man, Viennese Secession movement buildings made beautiful by the slightest of art nouveau touches, and in the same neighborhoods, mid-20th century quasi-Soviet concrete monstrosities sometimes still containing charming hidden courtyard gardens, ornamented with adjacently parked quirky Ladas in resplendent primary colors.

It’s a lot to ask for. Maybe more than one city deserves. It’s not hard to understand Vienna as the center of empire, all culture rolled upstream to this point. It’s easy to see Café Sperl as a den of zealots and philosophers, I’d talk for hours about literally anything to stay within its elegant booths looking out on passing streams of pedestrians dressed as students and construction workers and bees and flowerpots and most often as supremely confident stylish urbanites.

Today Vienna isn’t the center of anything. Its newfound provincialism occasionally pokes through the studied cool of the center city. Which is all the better for me. I’m too old, mismatched and threadbare to be comfortable in zeitgeist-y places. The tranquility, the space between people, the sound of streetcars and the ease of escape into little side-street universes make Vienna a favorite. I can drink in student bars at midnight (if I can hack through the smoke) and nobody minds my presence. Locals are even friendly. They aren’t over it, sick of tourist faces.

The Naschtmarkt still feels like Vienna’s front room. Families are enjoying large platters of beautiful grilled seafood. There are impressive displays of locally-made weinkase cheese, salami, so many kinds of ham. An overabundance of good local wine. Why not drink Knoll Smaragd Riesling with octopus salad? The dinner will cost less than a normal night out in my exponentially more provincial hometown. There are stands selling goulash and Medjool dates, seed cheese and pumpkin seed oil, rye bread, silken tofu, candy. I have to walk several city blocks before settling on any purchase. On a Monday in April many stalls close early, but a serviceably large block of the market remains open. People smoke (it’s a theme) and drink white wine, push strollers and shopping trolleys, meander, presumably home from work. What professions keep these elegant city dwellers occupied from 8 to 5? How many architects and designers could one small metropolis contain? Are bureaucrats in Vienna able to afford chic attire and asymmetrical haircuts? I have so many questions, and no local source for answers.

There are eyesores. Mostly poor attempts at franchises with English words-as-names, Rock and Roll Burger Bar, Charmy Wine Café, etc. Something about German as a first language seems to urge the misguided, almost-accurate, winceable misappropriation of our lexicon. My favorite/least-favorite is McShark. In Durham that would be a good place to eat fried fish. In Vienna it’s a hub for off-brand Mc-Geniuses to fix your Apple gear. It seems popular. I’m afraid of it. At the climax of my Third Man nightmare sequence, will it be a McShark tailing me through the city’s sewers and abandoned amusement parks?

Definitely yes.   

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Jay Murrie
Bikiniblick and the devil's pitchfork.

Winter is hanging on to Traben. Crossing the bridge from Trarbach on foot I’m pelted by cold rain. A handful of pizzerias, cafes, and shabby casinos are open, the wine shops and cellars of both villages facing each other across the lazy high Mosel are unremittingly closed. Stray dog walkers and joggers save the place from being entirely deserted.

For two decades at the beginning of the 20th century Traben Trarbach’s wine merchants were the most successful in Europe. At the end of this golden era they left behind clusters of beautiful art nouveau buildings, the bulk of which seem to have been converted into luxury hotels with spas, conference hotels, and sleepy restaurants. One particularly imposing stone structure is now a Buddha museum, full of metal statues of varying size and provenance. The building itself retains its original century-old architectural embellishment: improbable aesthetic dissonance.

There are star wineries in Traben today, Weiser-Kunstler, Martin Mullen. I’m not here to see them, and like the rest of this off-season riverside tourist stop, they appear devoid of activity. I’m in Traben to make sure Olaf Schneider ships me the last 350 bottles of 2016 Weingut O. Riesling hiding out in his tiny cellar. We meet in the late afternoon. He is tired, returning from a long day in Trier and wearing the dust of an ongoing construction project/new house that he recently acquired across the river from his home, in Trarbach. Olaf and his partner Simone Pollmann run an increasingly successful and wonderfully idiosyncratic boutique hotel next to their home, a building that must have been a stable at some point in history: a large painted black horse head juts from above the side doorway. Their economic success is threatening mine. I heard from the horse’s mouth that rumours are true. Olaf has sold his 2 hectares of vineyards! Tourism is filling their hotel, more each year, and the busy season for vignerons is the same as it is for hotelliers. I can’t blame him. Working the dangerously steep slopes he farmed is a young man’s folly. The new owner has plans to reclaim additional portions of the concave (a shape that’s hot during the day, cold at night: perfect for Riesling) hillside bordering Schneider’s Ungsberg and Bikiniblick vineyards. The former is terraced and ungrafted, over a century old, possibly the oldest vines in the Mosel. It produces tiny berries of otherworldly concentration. As the name implies, Bikiniblick overlooks the public pool at a distance of perhaps 200 meters. It’s vines are staked, and 60+ years old. On hills this steep poles are essential. To work a vineyard with wire trellises would mean positional repetition for the farmer: murder on the back. A staked vine can be worked from all sides. We are humans, not machines! Our bodies like diversity of motion.

Ungsberg and Bikiniblick.

Ungsberg and Bikiniblick.

From Weingut O’s precarious grey slate slope you can also see the oldest mini golf course in Europe. This town has everything. Except places to eat dinner. On a Tuesday evening, options are confined to a kabob shop (already ate there) and haute cuisine. The hotel Bellevue is perfectly frozen in time. Emily Post would approve of the silver service, the calm officiousness of the waiters, the timeless appeal of the menu. Venison consommé, dove cooked in a clay pot, braised ox with indescribably perfect mashed potatoes. The room is empty. I can hear old German voices drifting across the hall. There is a bar with red leather chairs and Belle Epoque paintings. The wine list is a tome containing every Mosel producer of interest. I began my meal with Martin Mullen’s Riesling trocken and ended it with an older Abtsberg Riesling from Maximin Grunhaus. Framed fading photographs provide border to the dining space and offer impressions of Traben’s golden age. So many unsmiling faces. A patriarch from the industrial age looks down from a place of prominence, painted in somber oils with no shred of embellishment. Stern, functional, unsentimental.

Our hello/goodbye moment with the wines of Weingut O. will begin in spring. One of the things I appreciate about wine is the reminder that everything is temporary. All estates pass into history. If they don’t they change. The morning’s conversation with Lars Carlberg and Johannes Weber at Hofgut Falkenstein centered on the topic of historic estates in their region (the Saar) that perhaps have gone off the boil a bit. Succumbed to success, turned their attention from farming to marketing. Isn’t it inevitable Olaf Schneider later opined, for a winery to take this path once they reach a certain size? Someone has to sell the wine. It’s hard to stay in the perfect moment forever. Hofgut Falkenstein are there, Weiser-Kunstler, too. The latter estate is making (in Lars’ opinion) the best wines in the Mosel today. But only 30,000 bottles. Olaf, who lives on the same street as Weiser-Kunstler, observes the wines are basically bottled and sold out on the same day.

Scant wine is the theme of my work in the Mosel. Hofgut Falkenstein can’t sell us all the wine we request. They are apologetic, doing their best, but global demand for their wares is rising. Johannes flew back from Tokyo the day before we met. They are critical darlings, conservatively rated (by people including me) as one of the top 10 wineries in Germany today. Not that it’s a horse race. Erich (Johannes’ father) began in 1984 with a vision and less than an acre of land. He struggled to bring a singular style of Saar Riesling to our attention. Ultimately it’s a traditional style, a courageous embrace of old cellar techniques and proper farming that creates wines with brilliant focus and shocking purity/transparency. His life’s work is paying off at last, and we are in the right place and time to share in the beauty of his/their work.

“It was cold until March when I was young.” Erich joins us from a moment. He is sweating from his work clearing a field close to the Falkensteinerhof. “Winter would be snow. Now it is rain.” He is suffering, a lumbar issue that started yesterday. “I’m being stuck with the devil’s fork!” He pantomimes a jab in the lower back, and comments the pain either comes from Satan, or his mother-in-law.   

Erich was born in Krettnach, a neighboring village where he now owns vines. His father was a railway man. His uncle had two daughters uninterested in vineyard work. So in 1984 Erich stepped in, and started farming a tiny sliver of land, barely .4 of a hectare.

We walk to the cellar behind their home, past Falkenstein’s patch of 30-year-old Weissburgunder, south-facing vines planted in grey slate. The cellar has a brand new grey slate roof. The artistry of overlapping fish scale tiles really impresses me.  In front of the cellar is a beautiful kitchen garden created by Erich’s wife from a piece of land where they used to grow Muller Thurgau.

Johannes Weber in the barrel cellar.

Johannes Weber in the barrel cellar.

The underground cellar is cold, and covered in mold. Johannes explains it is good fungi, if you spill wine on the ground in this space it will not turn to vinegar. There is noticeable airflow through the room, which is a relief. My fear of carbon dioxide in enclosed fermentation spaces has grown in recent years, based on a few dicey moments of oxygen deprivation.

Here’s a short summary of our afternoon tasting. Most of the wines are still in barrel. Everything at Falkenstein is excellent. We can’t bring them all to N.C. As I mentioned earlier, demand now outstrips supply at this estate. Contact your Piedmont Wine Imports sales representative today to secure last scant bottles still available from the outstanding 2017 vintage, or to reserve some 2018s (ETA summer 2019.)

2018 Pinot Blanc – Lean, linear, clean, dry. The wine fermented for a week and a half. It finished fermentation two weeks ago. Falkenstein always bottles off the gross lees (sur lie) with no filtration.

2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett Trocken (Egon) has a faint pleasant green note, followed by Meyer lemon, some rind flavors, and lovely salinity on the finish. Dry wine at it’s finest.

2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett trocken AP1 has more pronounced fruit, also more green apple and grip on the finish.

The wines are bottled via gravity. They don’t add CO2. Falkenstein wines are naturally spritzy because of gentle handling in cellar. “The less you pump, the better,” Lars said. “It feels right to do less.”

There are some new Slovenian 1000 liter barrels in the cellar. For a few years they will be used for Pinot Noir. “Eventually they break.” Johannes said Falkenstein only switches out barrels when older ones start to leak. Sadly there are not remaining barrel makers in the Mosel. Lars said that every vintage used to have several. But technology has taken over the production of most wineries in the region, and a room full of 1000 liter barrels is now anachronistic. Stainless steel is king in the Mosel. I can’t reconcile the absolute precision and clarity of the wines at Hofgut Falkenstein with the larger Mosel wine community’s movement away from these traditional methods. Erich and co. have retained the soul of Riesling without sacrificing purity or stability. 

“We studied in Geisenheim (Germany’s top wine university) but we work very well with our methods” Johannes stated. I commented that winemakers should be diagnosticians who apply a lifetime of learned knowledge and experience to their specific situation. Otherwise we might as well use robots to make the wine. We segue into a conversation about natural wine dogmas, injudiciously applied. It’s a trend the three of us all view with a rising sense of alarm. Good wine is made in a variety of ways and following a diversity of philosophies, but checking a series of boxes and wearing those (at times arbitrary) decisions on one’s sleeve veers close to the danger I fear at the heart of many ideologies. It divests the human intellect, our ability to adapt and synthesize information in the moment, from the winemaking process. To assume you can make wine in the Saar in the same manner that you would make it in Beaujolais or Puglia is absurd.

Back to the wine. 2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Sonnenberg Spatlese Trocken AP9 (Muny) has perceptibly more fruit weight (duh.) According to Johannes,“We always have low pH and high acidity. We don’t have to worry much (in the cellar.) We are not scared.”

2018 Riesling Krettnacher Altenberg Spatlese Trocken was still fermenting. Hazy unfiltered raw apple juice flavors and aromas. I can’t read this one yet. It will have a pH between 2.6 and 2.8: that really low!

2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spatlese Feinherb AP 11 is showing remarkable balance for a wine so young. It impressed me.

The 2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spatlese Feinherb AP23 is showing more forest berry fruit today. It has nice coolness on the palate.

2018 Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Spatlese Feinherb AP3 (Deutschen) old vines is normally a part of their AP3 bottling. Today the wine is focused, with spicy apple aromas the drift through the foreground.

2018 Riesling AP4 (Peter) has a hint of yeast/fermentation aroma at first, then becomes really clean, with red apple and perfect acidity. The vines for this barrel of wine are over 60 years old. It’s a notch up in terms of layers of flavor.

2018 Riesling Spatlese feinherb AP3 dials up the concentration. I’m riveted.

2018 Riesling Kabinett (Im Kleinshuck) is from a southwest-facing site and is the first fully fruity/sweet wine we tried. Forty grams/liter of residual sugar, 86 degrees Oeschle. According to Johannes, It was sunny and 20 degrees Celsius at harvest. They pressed the fruit to 1 bar of pressure, and then dumped the remaining juice (more coarsely pressed) to the co-op. Also (according to Lars) fruit from young vines, or parcels where they don’t like the grapes, get sold on to cooperative. “It’s painful, but necessary. We don’t make an entry-level wine.”

2018 Riesling Kabinett Euchariusberg (AP 12) has a pH of 2.6, and 45g/l rs. It is all old vines planted in a large south-facing block. It is a wine we will import. Bright acidity, and a really clean finish given the level of residual sugar.

2018 Kabinett Alte Reben (Gisela) was harvested at 88 Oeschle. Very vibrant. Once again, nice balance! Faintly lemonade, if lemonade was my favorite drink.

2018 Riesling Euchariusberg Riesling Spatlese AP14 (Furster) is a touch closed now aromatically. It hails from a special steep plot. On the palate the wine has really nice persistence, a long finish that goes on for ages and seems an appropriately lovely end to our tour of the farm’s Rieslings.

The 2017 Red wine has fine, chalky tannin. It’s drying at present, lean tart cherry/raspberry. I’ll start taking home bottles of this wine in autumn to consume with little birds and farmstead cheeses. The wine is evolving. Now they use whole cluster and foot-treading of the bunches before the 20-day fermentation. Johannes jokes about how hipster wineries would post pictures of this en vogue process to Instagram, when it is the hard vineyard work pre-harvest that really matters to the eventual quality of the wine.

It’s time to go. Lars is infamous at this moment for an article he wrote delineating farmer-wineries from commercial-corporate wineries in the Mosel. I look forward to reading it. There’s room for both kinds of winery (of course) but it’s important to disseminate the difference, and his position on the ground in the Saar is the right place to be doing this work. I don’t think notoriety will hurt him, or Hofgut Falkenstein. They are really nice people, hard to dislike. And they are doing the right thing for Riesling, to the benefit of us all.  

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Falkensteinerhof, built in 1901, extensively restored after a fire several years ago.

Jay Murrie
Tenuta degli Ultimi – autumn in the Veneto.


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“For once you aren’t arriving in the wrong season!” Sebastiano has been encouraging me to visit Conegliano away from the heart of bitter winter for years. “A proper tour of the area is now possible.” Harvest is over but only just, foliage and the occasional grape is still on the vine. His homeland is sunny and breezy.

I arrived at sunset. By the time we reach Al Castelletto for dinner it is decidedly chilly. From my perspective necessarily cold, because we’re about to get run over by a cavalcade of traditional workingman’s country fare. I’ll be sweating by the end of it, no matter how icy the room. This is a meal of retribution, for every eastern NC barbecue dinner I’ve inflicted upon unsuspecting visiting Italians. Chicken in a spicy yogurt sauce comes out first, along with some fried ham dumplings, a mixed greens salad (rare as a unicorn sighting in my travels in Italy) beef carpaccio, fritto misto with chicken nuggets instead of frutti di mare, baccala, polenta squares, turkey in gravy of all things, straight-up meatballs, more. It blurs. Next thing I know it is midnight and I’m drinking a brown distillate at the hotel bar, for purely medicinal reasons. It needs to burn through.

At sunrise I go for a run, through a cloud of school children heading for the large, columned Academia, through the centuries-old stone center of Conegliano, eventually up some frighteningly steep roads to the castle above it all, a lung-busting ordeal that does yield beautiful panoramas of the town and undulating hills that retreat to Dolomites on the horizon. The fortress above Conegliano looks particularly medieval: high stone walls, a chess-piece tower flying the Italian flag. The sun is rising across a circular cobblestone piazza lined by lollipop Seuss cypresses. It gives an austere white Romanesque church aura, luminescence.

The roads that circle the hilltop are steep and stony and windy enough that I slow to a trot and then a gingerly walk on my descent. Falling would alter my itinerary to include a tour of emergency rooms of the Veneto, an unappealing prospect. After barely half an hour I limp through covered arched walkways back to the painted faux-Michaelangelo façade of my hotel, cherubs, clouds, lutes, salvation from the cross. I’m exhausted, and ready to see Sebastiano’s vineyards from the comfort of a 4x4’s passenger seat.

And there is more climbing to do. The Conegliano-Valdobiaddene DOCG is a vertically inspiring place, conical hills lined like topographic maps by vines broken only by the occasional remote farmhouse, buildings that seem like hermitages in their inaccessibility and isolation. It’s dark under the shadow of these slopes, in rich green pathways lined by mossy stone walls improbably holding back so much earth. The vines haven’t started to yellow. The narrow gravel road is crowded by shoots and tendrils, invertebrate arms clawing at our windows. I use the wooden posts of trellises to steady short excursions into the verdant valleys of vines. You could get lost here in a highly manicured, overwhelming-to-the-senses collaboration of humanity and nature. This is impressive agriculture.

We stop at the church where Sebastiano wishes to be married (I believe the bride is as-yet unselected.) Its clock face is huge! Oversized I suppose, but probably necessary to be visible from settlements at the base of the hill. I peer through a vent and see a white marble alter and mahogany cross illuminated by sunlight. Rich reds and blues give the quite violent oil paintings contrast from the rather ascetic white stone walls and grey vaulting.

Sunlight makes hilltop quite warm. I’m getting thirsty! Luckily, Sebastiano knows a little place nearby where we can grab a snack. Osteria Senze Oste is a regional oddity, a self-serve, honor system “café” on a hillside surrounded by vineyards. Several large vending machines dispense Prosecco and more, if you want coffee or bread or salami or cheese you simply take it, and leave money in the cash box. I buy a crostata made with Raboso grapes, a loaf of white bread to support my growing collection of local cheeses, and a bottle of water. A collection of tired-looking cyclists were enjoying an early lunch when we arrived. From the look of them I’m glad we drove! Several scarecrows in fine autumn attire loom above the steep hills and dizzying switchbacks of Conegliano-Valdobiaddene that swirl around us. These slopes aren’t scenery casual wine fans associate with Prosecco, and maybe for good reason. On the car ride back to reality Sebastiano says that any producer in this area making less than half a million bottles of bubbly is considered small. The big wineries (Mionetto, etc) pump out millions of cases. It’s hardly an argument for terroir.

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Near the village of Collalto we meet the dog of Sebastiano’s brother, a friendly Australian shepherd charged with patrolling the fence line of the family’s large, gently sloping vineyard of Glera, Verdiso, and Bianchetta grapevines. It’s a quiet place bordered by a centuries-old farmhouse and barn. The dog seems happy to have company. I’m happy to discover that an inattentive harvester missed a significant amount of mild, ripe Glera grapes. I pick several sticky handfuls to snack on during our amble around the property. On this warm day at the edge of autumn it’s easy to feel why this is a favored site. I lose my coat and roll up my sleeves. Across the sunlit valley stands an ancient tower. Sebastiano ruminates on the constancy of the view, how ancestors would have looked across the landscape and seen the same fortification cleaving the horizon.

We stop by Sebastiano’s house, to borrow a cheese knife (for the road.) By the end of the day I’ll be on the Slovenian border. It remains to be seen if my appetite will ever return. At dusk I’ll be watching container ships making waves in the Adriatic. And eating cheese! New dogs, new vineyards, same fuel to keep this journey going.

Jay Murrie
Anglo-Italian deference. Contemporary Pizza at i Tigli.
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British people are debilitatingly bad at eye contact. The steward on my flight will not under any circumstances look at me. She is trapped three feet away, between her drinks cart and the next. I awoke at the moment she was handing my neighbor a wine bottle. I stared directly at her face as she served drinks to every person in a 270-degree arc around me. The mechanics of her craning neck to avoid locking eyes were owl-like or extra-human, an evolution. It’s a skill honed in a lifetime of walking the High Street searching for points on the ground or in the mid-horizon to look at, in grim defiance of greeting neighbors and strangers.

Similar professional optical focus was on display at I Tigli in Verona last night. The kitchen team are a study in singular intensity, knowing intuitively the movements and intentions of each other member, a skill marshaled through countless hours of near-contact. When a couple of the cooks bumped heads on the pull-down spotlights, proximate colleagues and injured parties barely flinched. The synchronicity continued. The pace of pizza production belies the attention and craft focused on each ingredient. I order from a short list of classics, which represent exceptional value. My first pizza is studded with wild mountain capers, the second is an anchovy pizza. The crust is big and holy, less ephemeral than the Neopolitan style. It strikes me as a valid take on crust, more wholesome perhaps, and certainly easier to work with. Toppings on the restaurant’s more creative pizzas are mounded to intimidating heights. The pizzas fly from the kitchen in the hands of a front of house staff that match my BA steward’s resolute avoidance of eye contact. They have a higher purpose. The pizza must land on the tables of this very full room while still hot.

I arrived at 7:30. It was quiet. Two Maseratis were parked outside. The host’s request that I return to the 20% full dining room in 30 minutes seemed arbitrary. By the time I was eating, I Tigli was transformed into a fascinating cross-section of Verona. There were a scattering of couples. Mostly, 8-18 tops filled the room. Several were solely one gender. I was seated at the one high bar table. A group of men in casual workingman’s polos occupied the other end of my table. I was facing the wine cellar. The selections are brilliant. Tight, intelligent, with range, vision, and a nod to localism. All a drinker could hope for. Binner, Germain, Terpin, Daniele Piccinin, Pra, Gaja, Pepe, Laherte, Maule, Egly, Gravner, Foradori. Maybe 50 wines, all priced at American retail. A master class.

I thought I’d order more food, but the ancient grain crust is filling. I’ll return for pizzas created with raw gambero rosso shrimp, fiore di latte cheese, rare tuna, mountain cheeses and meats, more.

The waiters fly past. They also smile the right amount, ask the right amount of questions, are friendly, not familiar. This is also a dream. I like people. I value a few words, to share moments of being human. But this team keeps focus and organizational shape. They don’t loiter at tables. They don’t have to curry favor for tips. We are in Italy, and they are dynamite professionals doing their jobs.

The room is at least 70% women. Two large parties are all women, and two other sizeable groups are 80/20 female. I love that the restaurant elevating perfect quotidian food isn’t overrun by dude bros. I am alarmed though at the amount of people drinking beer. Pizza loves wine, and I love I Tigli’s wine list. Beer is good, and Italy has found beer (first love really) during the craft beer renaissance. Italy is making better beer than ever before. But they are making better wine than maybe anywhere else on the globe.

Bravo to I Tigli. A rewarding experience. In the top 10 for my 2018 pizza travels. Two maseratis.

Chicken curry or veggie plate is my current predicament. I abhor industrial meat, but I do love a curry. Flavor must prevail. Trapped in a window seat, 5,000km from home, it’s enough to keep hope of a better future meal alive.

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Jay Murrie
Nicolini by the sea.
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The bora wind pins us to the hillside. “It feels like winter!” Rossana Nicolini dons a coat for our short tour of vines outside Nicolini’s home and cellar. Mother-and-son dachshunds Brigitta and Tristan dart around, playing, schooling each other. Giorgio Nicolini points to the house he was born in on the farm, still occupied by his father and sister. Scant rows of Vitovska, Refosco, and Malvasia fill spaces between sheds and fences on a slope that ends at the gulf of Trieste. Most of the vines were planted by Giorgio and his father in 1990: Vitovska vines are slightly younger. Piccola Nera and Borgogna Nera are planted here as well, close to a clubhouse the family use for Giorgio’s birthday celebration in November. The inside of the clubhouse has a small kitchen and tables covered in posters of sports teams from Trieste, mainly basketball. The local team is in Serie A this year. Eugenio played for them not too long ago. He remembers fondly traveling to tournaments in Vienna. The Austro-Hungarian influence is everywhere around us. Old parts of Trieste resemble Vienna by-the-sea. Wines have been grown here since Roman times. The clubhouse reminds me of the Heurigen in the outskirts of Austria’s capital city.

Today Trieste is a modern port city with 200,000 residents. The same size as my hometown of Durham. And that’s where the similarities end! A large container ship is unloading across the harbor from the Nicolini’s farm. Their land is at the northern end of Istria, a kilometer up the hill from Muggia, population 2,500. Slovenia is at the end of their driveway, 50 meters away. Croatia begins a kilometer to the south. The boundaries have been in place since 1945, the bordering nations were part of Yugoslavia during the cold war. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria loved the region and gave its inhabitants (and those of Alto Adige to the northeast) special dispensation to produce 600 liters of grappa per vineyard-owning family per year. Unlike grappa production in other regions that must be done at centralized distilleries, Nicolini produce their grappa in a small cellar under their home, and (also by distinct regional law) only from grape skins, no stems.

2017 was an exceptional year for Nicolini. Both quality and quantity were good at this tiny (perhaps two hectare) domaine. There are 300 bottles of the 2017 Piccola Nera left in cantina, plus 50 magnums. I’ll buy them all. The wine is bright red, tart, a tiny bit herby (rosemary?) It will be by favorite wine come summer 2019, if bottles stick around that long. “Good with fish soup,” Rossana notes. Exactly. I want a magnum of Piccola Nera in the kitchen of our beach rental in Ocracoke next summer. We’ll drink it with bouillabaisse full of every sea creature hauled into the working fisherman’s co-op in the morning. Rossana and I try to capture the Slovenian and Croatian names for this obscure grape, but she doesn’t speak those languages (nor do I!) When jolting along in rusty Italian gets old we can talk in Spanish, because the local dialect near Trieste shares Iberian syntax. She is quick to point out that all of Istria shares history and Venetian traditions, not just the Italian side of the invisible borders.

Speaking of borders, it turns out the “Ambrosia” Malvasia Istriana is grown on the Slovenian side. News to me! I was led to believe (not by the Nicolinis) that it was vino bianco instead of IGT wine because it was younger vines. Nope. It is grown Frisbee-throwing distance from the cantina, but outside the IGT’s boundaries, in a different nation. Ain’t bureaucracy grand? I’m happy to welcome our first (already in stock) Slovenian wine to the PWI portfolio. Piedmont Wine Imports: secretly selling Slovenian wine since 2014.

The 2017 Malvasia IGT is aged in big barrel, as big as it can be given the tiny quantity produced. It spent four days on the skins, before being bottled in April. The wine is a regionally-moderate 13.5%. The vineyard faces the sunny sea, a great heat sink ensuring consistent ripeness. It tastes of tangerine pith/skin, beeswax, and Christmas cake spices. Not surprisingly (given the terrain and culture of Istria) it would also be excellent with seafood, of the more robust variety.

A stainless steel Malvasia is also produced. The vines grow in clay with marine sediments. It is my favorite of the whites we tasted. Don’t get me wrong, I am philosophically predisposed to the use of large neutral wood vessels for fashioning wine. But the stainless version brings clarity to Malvasia’s iridescent aromatics. More tropical, like the fruit you’d taste along this coast from Trieste to Puglia. There are persimmons in Nicolini’s front yard. More citrus.

Next up is a Moscato named after Rossana and Giorgio’s son Eugenio. Dry, with aromas of honey and white flowers. It’s very tasty. It is more exotic than the name Moscato implies. I adore this grape, and think it is criminally misunderstood. It is also dizzyingly genetically diverse. Ancient and widespread, this grape once surrounded the Mediterranean. Carefully selected Moscato (or Muscat or Gelber Muskateller) delivers distinct and layered flavor. I think people are afraid to admit to liking something this delicious. People.

The final wine presented is the 2017 Refosco, an inky tannic red that smells exactly like just-ground black pepper. Giorgio says to drink it with venison. Somewhere between 200-300 bottles (all they have) will land in North Carolina this winter. It is earth and fire to Piccola Nera’s wind, sea, and sky.

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We taste unoaked grappa in the style preferred in Triete. They make 300 bottles. The distillate is enjoyable. Sharing something so scarce feels special. The mountain of tender, thin-as-parchment pancetta and craggy nuggets of stravecchio cheese holding down the table become essential. After the fruity young grappa we try a 2012 barrel-aged version, made in the style popular around Parma, Emilia. Italy even has fractuous opinions on grappa. Makes sense: look at whiskey in Tennesse/Kentucky! Grappa gets an (often deserved) reputation as industrial firewater. Nicolini is carrying forward an older tradition. The amber-colored distillate that marks the end of our lighthearted tasting spends two years in barrel and three in bottle before release. It is the antithesis of simple coarse grappas more commonly found in N.C. It is 54% alcohol: hang onto your hat!

Meat, cheese, and booze make stretching legs in the cool air outside very appealing. Just up the hill from Nicolini lives Mauro, an agriturismo proprietor who loves to bake cakes and listen to soft pop hits in his kitchen, while chatting with neighbors and guests. A nice guy. He named his agriturismo Villa Ambrosia after the Nicolini wine he prefers. His house has a large central fireplace in the living room, and big windows that face Trieste across the bay. Dusk and dawn are the best times to view the city. It twinkles and smolders and melts into choppy waters cut with parallel lines of breakers. Maybe it’s the grappa. The place seems simultaneously ordinary and magical.

The season for production from the grape skins begins on October 23, at 7:30am. Fortuitously I arrive on the 22nd. On the morning of the 23rd I steel myself with Moka pot espresso and Mauro’s homemade apple pie, and head for the still. It is copper, small-ish (the size of a large rain barrel) and was imported from Hungary in the 19th century. The moment I cross the threshold Eugenio hands over a Champagne flute full of grappa novello. Piles of partly-dried Malvasia skins fills baskets all around the room. I sniff and taste: it’s so grapey! Like popping a grape into your mouth, and finding it full of liquor. In spite of the hour I make short work of the grappa, and beg a bottle to share with friends (even you!) back home.

While Eugenio has a day job as a scientist in Trieste, I’m happy to see him at work in the cellar with Giorgio. This farm will continue father-to-son for another generation.  Selling and supporting their work is deeply rewarding for me. They are real Italians, characters, generous and kind.

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Jay Murrie
Carussin after the harvest. San Marzano Oliveto to Torino.
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Matteo’s house across the valley from Carussin is hard to describe. I like it very much, but there is a certain lack of creature comforts. Now that he lives there full time with his girlfriend things are improving. Their vegetable garden is impressively diverse and thriving, given that it is mid-October. Tomatoes, peppers, tobacco, nasturtium, spiny plants without names, there’s no doubt he is a man with a green thumb.

Mateo extended an invitation for gin and tonics in has half of the building. WOOFers have recently vacated the other half, where I will be sleeping. The tile throughout the large crumbling farmhouse is impressive, a mix of late sixties/super-seventies earth tones and bold patterns.

I caught up initially with Matteo on his tractor in a vineyard they use for Asinoi. A shallow plowing (30cm, not turned) of every other row of the field allows oxygen into the soil to aid the nitrogen-fixing legumes and clover that are planted to further structure the earth of the field. He shows me some rows of Ancellota that made fruit to darken the Completo liter-bottle vino rosso. The juice of Barbera is clear, the Ancellota runs blood-red. I popped a berry and stained my fingers. Only a few grape varieties have red juice like this.

I met Matteo’s girlfriend for the first time in the cellar. She was labeling bottles: boring work. She is from Mantova, Veneto. Now both Luca and Matteo’s girlfriends live on the farm. The family continues to grow.

After gin and tonics in their kitchen it’s time to drive back to Carussin/Bruna’s house for dinner. Luca, his girlfriend, and a friend with a three-year-old named Dante arrive. Bruna has prepared a simple feast, cooked salami, a tuna, white bean and onion salad, a 12-inch saucepan filled to the brim with locally-made agnolotti. We taste new vintages of Lia Vi and a Nebbiolo from Fara in the Alto Piemonte. It’s 11 percent alcohol and made in the style of Sisto/Felice: no oak, no sulfur, crown cap. Also there’s a new vino rosso Dolcetto, sturdy, ripe, 14 percent alcohol. The other end of the Carussin stylistic continuum.

After the feast it’s time for grappa. After the grappa it’s time for bed, for the finding of clean sheets stowed away by the retreating WOOFers in a wardrobe and choosing one from many available mattress options. In the morning there is hazelnut cake and espresso delivered by Matteo. They are thoughtful hosts, and I am grateful for being allowed to crash at their farm with very little notice.

It’s a perfect day in Torino. I should be on the autostrada to Veneto, but Bruna and the girlfriends are working at Torino Beve Bene, and I’ve been invited to tag along. The wide avenues of the city are swarming with joggers, cyclists, hikers, happy couples meandering along the Po. The tasting is held in a small event space in a leafy neighborhood close to downtown. It’s hipster enough, with vibrantly and expertly graffiti-ed walls, and sliding rusting industrial doors. A throng of maybe 100 winemakers hang around tables in the main room. Initially I’m more interested in the affineur selling aged Fontina, Toma, Gorgonzola, and Comte in the foyer. Also there is a vendor of pretty spectacularly delicious tripe, words that don’t often fall into the same sentence for me. It is served in a mellow tomato sauce with white beans. The tripe itself is perfectly tender, and not at all rubbery, a flaw which I fear is the global norm.

I enjoyed my stint as a wine civilian. Aimless wandering for enjoyment. When did I last attend a wine fair for the sake of enjoyment? The probably in the 20th century. Since I’m not shopping for anything, I stumble into a phenomenal young producer of natural Arneis and Nebbiolo, a man making maybe 7,000 bottles of each in a very refreshing, directly enjoyable style.  You may be seeing these wines in NC soon. Along with this newfound secret potential source there are fun farmers to be met all around the dolled up warehouse. Bruna takes me to a buddy of hers from Rocca de Carpento, a strong-looking tan woman with an awesome smile whose estate bottles big-boned dolectto and barbera from five hectares in Ovada that contain 45+ year old vineyards, organically farmed. Then I meet a man making Riesling (called Davero) and Syrah (named Grijer) near Vicenza, and improbably I enjoy them both!

Natural wine events are not inherently better or worse than “normal” wine events. But maybe I like the people more. The stereotypes are different. There are more intellectuals, more enthusiastic younger drinkers who probably also love Dead Moon and Sparks, and read books. And the whole thing feels less grossly commercial, more like community. I guess it means the big money isn’t here yet, in spite of the relative rise of natural wine in journals and on urban wine lists. I taste some stinkers: it’s about 50/50. But that’s pretty good, by any trade show’s standards. At a more industry centric event the stinkers would be boring, tired, slick retreads of dull, focus-grouped flavor profiles. Here the bad wines are flawed, they have scars and funk like a brackish pond. But the good wines are unfettered and alive. They still provide the thrill of experiencing a sip of undigitized reality.

I take my gooey aged Fontina and head for different hills, across the industrial plain of Lombardy/Veneto (a place Matteo accurately described as Mordor) to the surprising beauty of Conegliano. As regions change so does the weather. I’m happy. I packed sweaters. It would be deflating to take them home clean. And Sebastiano has a massive meal of Venetian grandma food planned, in a timeless countryside restaurant where everything passes before the ever-watchful eyes of a septegenarian matriarch, with 40 years of her life lived inside its rooms.

 

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More soon.

Jay Murrie