Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Woke up this morning/Got yourself the Vine…"

Only fitting as a tribute to the now-departed Sopranos that I give Italy some more space. Since the series focused on Italian expatriates, I thought I'd look at Italian expatriate wines. (OK, it's a stretch -- I needed a lead…sue me…)

What do I mean by "expatriate wines?" Many grapes are native to a certain region or country. For the most part, grapes prefer their original terroir. Wines from a grape's native region tend to be better examples of a particular varietal, but not always. Planting a grape in a different country’s soil sometimes yields an interesting result.

For example, malbec -- a humble blending grape in France -- took root in Argentina and became an excellent red on its own. Riesling, long of Germany and Alsace, takes on a very different character outside the Rhineland. Italian grapes largely don't fare well outside the confines of their motherland. Italian grapes tend to be persnickety -- requiring very specific climates and soils.

Luckily, there are always a few winemakers who have enough stubbornness and desire for particular wine styles to overcome a grape’s homesick tendencies. A few other places around the globe are now making good wines from Italian stock. For instance, Sangiovese -- the backbone grape of Chianti, is now cultivated somewhat widely in California. The results are quite interesting – try one next to a Chianti Classico and see what I mean. Here are a few other Italian grapes "out of their element" for your consideration:

Blue Fish 2005 Pinot Grigio Pfalz -- Pinot Grigio actually hails from Burgundy, where it is known as pinot gris. Much like the nomenclature of Shiraz and Syrah, winemakers tend to name their wines after the style the wine most resembles. Drier wines tend to be labeled "Pinot Grigio." Blue Fish is best known for making solid, inexpensive Riesling, but recently started experimenting with other varietals, including Pinot Grigio.

The wine has a soft nose of grapefruit and honey. The wine is medium-bodied and is quite dry. There's also some tart, tropical flavor. The finish is grapefruity and of decent length for a simple wine. I'd consider it a cross between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Grüner Veltliner. A dry, acidic wine is usually refreshing and food friendly. You could have this with a risotto, with some grilled chicken, or baked swordfish. You could also sip this one by itself on a warm day. $6-7.

Rancho Zabaco 2004 Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel -- In Italy, the Zinfandel grape is known as Primitivo. While the lineage of this grape reaches back to somewhere in Croatia, it came into its own in Italy’s Apulia region. Zinfandels (and no, not white zinfandel -- we've covered that…) are often big, alcoholic wines that are made specifically to be "fruit bombs." Some of them are a little more restrained -- but you're generally not thinking "subtle" when you’re quaffing zin.

I won't make any bones about it…I really enjoy this wine. Rancho Zabaco does three different, readily available zins. There's the "Dancing Bull" -- about $7-8 a bottle. There's the "Stefani Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel," setting you back $28-30. Then you have the “Sonoma Heritage Vines.” At $12 or so, it’s a huge step up from Dancing Bull and holds its own against most other wines. Scrape your couch cushions for a few extra bits and try it.

The Heritage Vines has a big nose -- sharp with blackberries and mint. The body, not unexpectedly, is big and bold with a nice balance of dark fruit and tannin. The finish is long and dry, with a nice cherry taste winding it all up. You going to put barbecue sauce on anything this summer? Get a bottle of this to go with it.

Goats Do Roam 2005 "The Goatfather" -- Goats Do Roam has been a favorite value pick of mine ever since I had it for dinner a few years ago at Francesca's in Lexington, KY. The Goatfather ("Goats do roam…capice?") is a "reserve" release from this South African winery. This wine is a blend on which the winemakers claim omerta. It's a mix of traditional vinifera (Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot) and a couple of Italian varietals (Barbera, Primitivo). The result? While the nose of The Goatfather doesn't exactly conjure images of an Italian trattoria, you do get some interesting plum and licorice scents. The taste is strong and earthy. Decanting is a must. There's a surprising amount of tannin here -- it reminds me a great deal of a petit sirah with the chocolate flavors therein. The finish is long and smoky, with plenty of tannin. Like most big Italian reds, this wine would be much better paired with food than having it on its own. This would be a great match with earthy, savory foods. Sausages, ribs, stews and root vegetables would be excellent with this. You'll find it for $12-14. Similar "Super Tuscan" Italian blends will run you $20 and up.

One last thought about the Sopranos -- I thought the last two episodes were some of the best television I've ever seen. As for the last scene -- yes, it was a little over the top. I never thought I'd read about the symbolic confluence of Journey lyrics, onion rings, the Latin Mass, and the difficulty of parallel parking an Audi within a single textual analysis, but it's now part of our collective memory. In one single cut to black, David Chase's series cemented its place in pop culture history, and Victoria Principal didn't even have to find James Gandolfini in her shower.


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