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Italy 5: Big is Beautiful

Before we get too far into this: all of y’all who are drinking along, break out the ice bucket and the coupes, we’re drinking Contratto Brut!

I will admit every predisposition against large wineries and established brands. Generally, the advertising needs of an internationally recognized brand do nothing for the winemaking, and the production needs can run the magic out of a cellar faster than anything I can think of. But every once in a while, wineries can make a big splash with a relatively small production. And as is so often the case, I end up pleasantly surprised with the result.

Contratto is a big name. Founded in 1867, this storied cellar has made everything from Sambuca to Passito, and anything you can imagine in between. Its massive underground cellar has long stood as a line in the sand to Champagne’s alleged hegemony in the world of fancy fizzy things. But these days, the focus is on a small selection of Metodo Classico sparkling wines, and a few very good vermouths.

Some time ago, Contratto came under the care the legendary Giorgio Rivetti. An innovator in the world of Barolo, Giorgio is one of the few wine celebrities who deserves the praise. He is also fanatical about quality. And Contratto seems to have truly found the perfect balance between modern winemaking and classical methodology.

To say that the cellars are vast and impressive feels like a bit of an understatement. If you like bubbles, this has to be something akin to heaven. Seemingly endless tunnels are packed floor to ceiling with wine. But with the exception of a thoroughly modern bottling line, there is no army of computers and workers tending to the bottles. Instead, one man and his helper have managed the cellar since 1976. And he hand turns every single bottle. 100,000 bottles per year.

After seeing the very modern bottling room, we headed into the oldest part of the cellar for a tasting. If you’ve hung around the bar before, You know that I am a big fan of these wines. I think that they are the best of both worlds when it comes to the magic of bottle fermentation and small selection, coupled with the level of refinement we’ve come to expect in modern sparkling wines. It’s almost heresy to say that one of them is my favorite, they all have their own charm, but the rose war and absolutely lovely thing. Thank god they offer it in double magnum.

After our tasting we headed upstairs and had the rare opportunity to have a glass of wine with Gorgio Rivetti. They say not to meet your heroes, but he was every bit as passionate, humble, and pleasant as anyone I’ve ever met in the business. If you’re not familiar with the work he has done for Piemontese wines, and Italian wine as a whole, I’d encourage you to look him up. This guy is the real deal.

We had the afternoon booked at La Spinetta Barbaresco (Giorgio’s fantastic winery in the heart of the Langhe), so we figured lunch was in order. We ate at Ape, the company’s excellent wine bar and restaurant. The food was fantastic, and Elisa (our guide for the day) seemed to have an inexhaustible knowledge of every minutia of the company and its wines.

Contratto, then, was a humbling reminder that not all big brands are bullshit. And that passion is the real key to great winemaking. The rest of our day was spent at Spinetta. But in the interest of brevity and keeping things tidy, I have decided to write about it along with our trip to Spinetta Casanova in Tuscany.

Italy 4: Old Friends and New Vintages

Before we get started, now would be an excellent time for those drinking along to open the fabulous Boca in your Italy case. It loves a bit of air, so pay attention to how it opens up of the next half hour or so.

This trip has been as much about old friends as new experiences. With the last year weighing heavy on all of us, a familiar face and a bit of hospitality is a welcome reprieve from the constant fear and isolation so many of us have come to expect. And as such, a short drive up to Boca seemed like a very good idea.

Silvia and Renzo are truly delightful people. Running on a mixture of passion and obsession, they create one of the rarest styles of wine in the world: Boca. A blend of Nebbiolo, Vespolina, and Uva Rara (a type of Bonarda), all grown in some of the most unique soil in the world. The vineyards live high up in the hills, and can only be accessed by roads better described as goat paths. And are so remote, that they are dotted with little houses where the workers used to stay during harvest. We didn’t have time to make it up to the vineyards, but met at their office.

On top of their considerable winemaking talents, Silvia and Renzo seem to have Sherlock Holmes level instincts for finding great cheese and charcuterie. And are always happy to pair it up with some truly excellent wines. We started with their new white wine, a delightfully bright and grassy thing that, after tasting some with a bit more bottle ageing, we all decided would love some cellar time. And of course it was made from Erbaluce (which is quickly rising in my hierarchy of white wines).

We then cracked open a bottle of a wine I was very interested to try: the 2020 Fenrose Boca Rose. The 2019 had been the best rose I had ever drank, and I was eager to see what 2020 had done for this wine. For all of its many difficulties, 2020 has turned out to be an amazing vintage in Italy. And with lockdown being what it is, many winemakers were keeping a very close eye on the vineyards they were trapped in for the last year. I am happy to report the they have made the best of a great year, and come out with something truly special. It’s softer and more balanced than the 2019. And I can’t imagine a food pairing the this wine wouldn’t be spectacular with.

Finally, it was on to the reds. A blend that they only sell locally was first. I’ll spare you the envy of a description, but it will suffice to say that it was beyond excellent. But we were here on a mission.

Boca. That ambrosia which has eluded so many a Nebbiolo faithful. And I was with dear friends who make the very best one. The magic of Boca lies in the soil. A volcano that turns itself inside out ages ago, the “soil” is really more of a crushed pink stone. Its defining characteristics being that it is very porous (for excellent drainage), has an extremely high heat retention (this keeps the plants working longer into the evening), and is extremely acidic. It is this acidity that makes the Nebbiolo in Boca so special. Whereas most Nebbiolo is grown in alkaline soils, these vineyards can reach a pH of 3.2! To give you an idea, 7 is neutral and a lemon is about 2. This teaches the grape manners, and softens out some of its harsher traits.

Where the Magic Happens

Bring all of this together with microscopic production and winemaking that can only be described as obsessive, and you have the makings of something very special. The Boca from Garona is a symphonic. Bringing together the best of Nebbiolo, Vespolina, and Uva Rara. It stands in defiance of the massive reds that have come to so define the international wine scene. This wine is elegant and downright pretty. It moves around the pallet with such grace and vitality as to completely captivate the drinker. You may notice that there are less pictures than normal in this post. In all honesty, good company and great wine got the best of me, and I almost completely forgot about my camera. But isn’t that the best way to do it? Enjoy the rest of that Boca. I think the new vintage may be even better.

Italy 3: Wherein Nelson Finds Himself Mistaken

Allow me, for a moment, to summon what humility I can, and admit a prejudice. When I see a wine that is well known, consistent, and widely distributed, I imagine a modern cellar: rows of gleaming tanks, and beautiful botti. I know, as well as anyone, that much of the truly beautiful wine in the world comes out of what is best described as a dirty hole in the ground. But very little of it is every widely known, and even less ever makes it to Alabama. Boy did Franchino Gattinara make me look like a schmuck. Who would have known that behind this plain door, there was a time cellar making one of the most spectacular wines in the world?

My Friend Giuseppe is from Gattimara, or more properly, Lozzolo, and was kind enough to facilitate a meeting with Alberto, one half of the opperation at Franchino. We met at the Torre di Gattinara, an ancient tower overlooking the town. Alberto greeted us in english, but soon switched to Italian, by way of Giuseppe. He pointed out some of Franchino’s vineyards, and gave us a tour of the hill. To say that Gattinara is beautiful seems to be nothing less than treasonous understatement. If you believe in a god, this was where they showed off. Sunlight, hills, clouds, and the ever welcoming Piemontese meet in an alchemy beyond words.

After our rather proper introduction to the terroir responsible for the wines, we headed down to the cellar. Some cellars attempt to welcome their guest with a carefully crafted air of rustic winemaking; seeking at every turn to say “look how we haven’t changed” all while shuffling you past rows of modern equipment and gleaming stainless steel tanks. This is not that kind of winery. You enter through a simple wooden door off of a little piazza lined with trees. Once inside, you find a small courtyard with a tractor and a few fiberglass fermenting tanks. Alberto starts by explaining that everything is done by hand, a speech that I’ve probably heard from six hundred winemakers in one form or another. He then offers to show us his bottling room. We eagerly accept, and he opens a door to reveal an 8’X13’room with six hand bottling spouts and a manual corking machine. I’m not terribly surprised, as many winemakers have a mobile bottling line brought out once a year to save space or the expense of the equipment. I asked him if he had a bottling line brought in, or if he sent the wine off to be bottled at another cellar. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me that he, Alberto, bottled, corked, labelled, and packed ten thousand bottles a year, by himself. I hadn’t realized that when he said handmade wine, he meant it.

He led us through a small door into a very tight cellar stuffed with Botti. These would have been assemble in place as it would be impossible to get them into the cellar in piece. Close to the door, there was an old hand operated press. These are common decorations in Italian cellars, since everyone has them but almost none are in use. Alberto explained to me that this was still how they pressed all of their grapes. He and his uncle were of the opinion, and I tend to agree with them, that they had much better control with this type of press. Still, this makes their life so much more difficult.

We tarried in the cellar for a bit before going back upstairs to see the large concrete tanks (12,000lbs a piece, empty) that are use to naturally slow the fermentation process. After speculating about which one of us would have the hardest time climbing into the tank to clean them (I’m not as trim as I once was), we went up to his uncle’s dining room table to try the wine. For those of you following along at home with one of our cases, now would be a great time to crack open that bottle of 2015 Franchino Gattinara that we sent you with.

Again, this was the antithesis of the dog and pony show that so many wineries put on. One bottle of wine, the 2017 Gattinara, with the addition of one of Alberto’s personal bottles of 2015. But in that one bottle: magic. Gattinara has long been prized for its wine (far longer than Barolo), and the reason comes through with every sip. These are delicate expression of Nebbiolo. With a creamy soft body that is unmatched for the grape. Cherries and violets dance around the glass in a endless waltz aimed at captivating and delighting your tastebuds. And as with every great wine: sadness. Because with every sip, there is a bit less of it in the world.

Our visit was truly a joy. Alberto is an amazing credit to Piemontese work ethic and artisanry. I had come expecting some grand enterprise, but found a pair of humble winemakers doing things the same way as there great grandfathers had. On our way out, Alberto told me they were having some trouble getting wine out the door. Not selling the wine, that was never the problem with Franchino, but physically getting it on a truck. He explained that the truck can’t fit in the door, so he has to hand pack the boxes and load them onto the tractor, then take them down the street to load them into the truck. Next time you sip a glass of Gattinara, send a prayer Alberto’s way. Lord knows he’s earned it.

Italy No. 2: Finding Erbaluce

Exhausted, excited, and uncertain, it was time to venture out into Italy and try some wine. I was admittedly apprehensive. Would we be hassled by the police? What kind of reception would we have traveling to a country just now trying to dig its way back out of the trenches of the ‘Rona? One thing was entirely certain: it would not be like any other trip I had ever experienced. But I did have one consolation in the form of my friend Giuseppe. For those of you who don’t know Giuseppe, he is an exporter of a number of fabulous small producers in Alto Piemonte, and a dear friend. Some of you doubtlessly remember his trip to Opelika at the old Ampersand, and those of you who don’t will surely know the spectacular Boca from Poderi Garona that he’s sends us (more on that when we visit them in a few days), and is included in our Italy case.

He had sent Mary Katherine and I to the little town of Briona. A village of less than two thousand that is apparently well known for its rice. We arrived about an hour before the winemaker was set to arrive, so we took a walk around the town before taking our little convertible Fiat as far up the mountain as it would suffer (they own Jeep now, so it’s the same thing, right?). After our stroll and my completely expert off-roading in an entirely appropriate vehicle, we headed back to the gate of the winery.

We arrived to find a Sri Lankan woman tending to their little shop. Every surface that wasn’t covered with wine was covered with awards. She addressed us in Italian, and I made a genuine pitiful attempt at a reply. After a few minutes of trying to explain why we were there, I asked if she knew Giuseppe and that seemed to get us somewhere. She ran into the back and found Cecilia. She didn’t speak a lick of english, my italian is beyond awful, and our translator was moving between her second and third languages. But in wine there is truth, and passion is one hell of a translator.

She took us into the tasting room upstairs for a coffee (we were looking more than a bit jet-lagged), before taking us back downstairs into the winery. We entered through a small door to find an aging room with several Botti (the all important large slovenian oak casks that are central to modern piemontese wine making) and a selection of barriques. After we made our way through an explanation of some of their oaking regiments, it was onto the vinification area. I was genuinely amazed how many tanks they managed to squeeze into such a small facility. Wineries in Europe are often much smaller than their new world counterparts, but this seems almost immaterial to Italian winemakers. They are going to make what the want, in whatever space they have.

After a bit brief tour of their awards (seriously, these people beat the French in their own rose competition, see for yourself https://www.vignetivalleroncati.it/riconoscimenti/), Cecilia sent us with her oldest son up into the vineyard. The trees were thick, and the vineyard seemed to spring up out of nowhere. Nebbiolo, Barbera, Vespolina, Uva rara, and Erbaluce are the grapes of choice, and great care has been given to their placement.

Vigneti Valle Roncati is a true gem. Not because of the awards or the fanfare, but because there is such integrity in everything they do. They seem to make choice in a total vacuum; devoid of any outside influence. And the proof is in the glass. After the trip up to the vineyards, we returned tasting room to try their wines. Of course coffee came first, then a smattering of local salumi, with the Italians being particularly entertained with the fact that I knew what each of them were, and requested Lardo to go with it, which was excellent and soaked in Nebbiolo.

We started wit the sparklings, two positively mesmerizing concoctions of indigenous grapes. The bianco, 100% Erbaluce, was dry, grippy, and lavishly perfumed. And the rose? Hold onto your dicks, this stuff is easily the best Charmat method sparkling wine I’ve ever had. The mouthfeel on this wine is a masterclass in elegance, and the distinctively savory finish is addictively lovely. Seriously folks, if you see this, buy it.

Normally I hate having a truly great wine at the beginning of a tasting, few winemakers can play the whole eighteen, but this was just the beginning of what can only be described as a relentlessly good lineup. We moved onto the 100% Erbaluce white wine, tasting both the current vintage and an unbottled sample from the tank. This wine is a revelation. Erbaluce is often thought of by the wine world as a curiosity: a nice grape with a good story. But these were complex, elegant, structured, and criminally smooth. With three samples of wine, Cecilia had changed my entire perspective on piemotese wine.

It was already feeling like quite the tasting when we made it to the reds. Roncati grows only classic varieties of red grapes; Barbera, Nebbiolo, Vespolina, and Uva Rara. We began with the Barbera, a powerful wine with a decadent character. Uva Rara (a type of Bonarda) was next, it was rich and lush on the nose, but delightfully restrained on the pallet; this wine was begging for food. And one last stop before the Nebbiolo: Vespolina. Vespolina is a wine with a notoriously forceful character. Dark, tannic, and earthy, it seems to fly in the face of those detractors of the region who would complain that the reds are always too light. And this was a really excellent example of the breed.

Finally it was time to taste the Nebbiolo. I won’t beleaguer you with a play by play of each one, but rather offer a broad comment and insight, as it seems more appropriate. Nebbiolo has frustrated the greatest of vintners and winemakers. Everything you do to it has a measurable on the wine in the glass. And these are not subtle differences that you need to be some brilliant wine snob to catch, they are front and center. The best producers embrace this characteristic to make unique and varied wines with a strong sense of place. Roncati has done an excellent job by this measure. All of the wines have excellent body, alcohol, tannins, and acidity. But every single one is its own little expression of Nebbiolo’s seemingly inexhaustible variety of flavor. Were I to have to choose one, the Ghemme would be very high on the list. I was just so elegant. But I honestly don’t think I could, they were just all too lovely.

Our last adventure before setting out with Giuseppe was to take pictures. I let slip that I have recently started riding motorcycles, and that I enjoyed Moto Guzzi. This caused quite a bit of excitement, and the insisted that I came downstairs. That’s when they brought out the positively stunning Guzzi 250 you see in the title image. I was smitten, and overjoyed to snap some pics with such a beautiful old bike. After many long goodbyes, it was time to hit the road. Our wild ride through Italy, anything but over.

Italy no. 1: Getting there

No one thought Traveling during a pandemic would be easy. And the path to getting to Italy was a narrow one, but we made it. Probably the single most common question I’ve had over the last several weeks has been “how are you getting into Italy right now?”, Closely followed by “Can you even go anywhere?”. Hopefully, I can can help to clear these up and give y’all a bit of insight into how this whole experience has changed.

Several months ago, Delta airlines announced that they had been working with Italy to provide the first plights into Italy that would require no quarantine upon arrival. The routes would be JFK-MPX (New York to Milan), and ATL-FCO (Atlanta to Rome). These would still only be for essential travel, and the testing requirements would be strict, but the would save the travelers up to two weeks worth of quarantine.

Mary Katherine and I took the JFK-MPX route (I gave up on flying into Rome a long time ago, and it’s on the wrong end of the country). We had a connection from Atlanta to JFK, so that’s where out journey begins.

For anyone who has flown out of ATL, the experience is a strange one. For one thing, the airport is no longer 24hrs. We arrived at 3am only to find that the airport didn’t open until 4:30. Fortunately, southern hospitality is alive and well, and some construction workers let us inside to wait. Even after the airport opened, it’s difficult to describe just how sparse it felt to be in a place so obviously meant for a large number of people, but running at a fraction of it’s capacity.

Travel is always a series of gate keepers, and our first was the check in agent. She was nonplussed at having to check our bags at 4:30 in the damn morning, and informed us that we would need all of our required documentation for the trip in order to do so. This amounted to: a letter on company letter head giving the purpose for our visit, proof of employment, a copy of my liquor license, a list of people and places we intended to visit, an itinerary of our trip, and a negative PCR Covid test within 72 hours of our departure time. But after practically drowning this woman in evidence of the business chops of our trip, she finally relented and allowed us to check our bags.

Security was shockingly mundane. If it weren’t for the masks, you’d be hard pressed to know anything had changed. Further, after making it to the Delta sky club (always worth every damn penny) and settling in with a “complimentary” Mimosa, my fears of poor hospitality were thoroughly exercised. Delta has always had great hospitality, but they have really stepped up their game. I was so impressed with the sheer mass of information that every single employee had on the current restrictions and regulation.

Our flight to JFK was really just normal air travel with masks, screaming babies and all. I was surprised how full the plane was, but that’s neither here nor there.

JFK, on the other hand, was very different. For starters, I’ve always rejected the ‘rude New Yorker’ stereotype. But there were some prickly assholes at the airport that day. The gate agent when we landed was particularly rude, and left me thanking the man upstairs that I was born in dixie. We got our next covid test, a regular antigen rapid test, and went looking for a bite to eat. Normally, JFK is rife with cool places to eat or grab a drink. Not anymore. There were a grand total of eight food establishments open, with only two having seating available. After passing on a pizza place, we settled on The Palm. It’s always been a solid choice for quality, if a bit pricey, food in JFK. They also usually keep a decent selection of liquor. The food was still good, if hilariously overpriced ($22 for Jameson, anybody), but the men was severely impacted. Two appetizers, two entrees, no desserts, one salad. Sitting there and enjoying my Irish whiskey that was apparently made from unicorn farts and angel’s tears, it really sank in: We missed the worst of this whole thing. Everyone has been hit hard by this pandemic, but the large cities have seen the diversity of great food, retail, and culture that accounted for so much of their quality of life evaporate.

The last hurdles before we could board the plane to Italy were the EU entry requirements, and the Italian self declaration form. The form was straight forward enough, if a bit poorly translated. But my god, if you work for a government agency, allow me to offer a bit of helpful advice: NO ONE WANTS YOUR STUPID APP. Seriously folks, we get it, you have a bureaucracy to support. Just give us a regular ass form instead of making us jump through a bunch of hoops for what is, quite literally, just another way to fill out a form. After getting the above together and being given a magic QR code by the EU (governments love these damn things), every single passenger had to get their documents checked by mr. salty gate agent. All checked out, we were allowed to board. These planes run at decreased capacity, so it’s a much better experience. Bring a giant carry on, lean your seat back, and call a flight attendant for a drink, everything happens the way air travel should. And the flight crews for these flights are Deltas very best, so expect truly spectacular service. Seriously Delta, charge me double and make this the new normal.

Landing in Milan, we filled out a few more forms, and headed for the fastest Covid test I’ve ever seen (under six minutes), and that was all she wrote. We were free to wait for the rental car office to open, bicker about the wrong reservtion, and fight for our life on the Autostrada. But that’s a story for our next post.