Nicolini by the sea.
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.
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.