Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Naked Vine Italian Wine Primer

Ah, Italian wine. Love it. Love it. Love it. As the foodie that I am, I’m hard pressed to come up with wine that goes better with a meal than Italian wines. After all, one of the few things that Italians do better than making wine is cooking, and because they’ve been making wine as long as they have, winemakers in each region have been tailoring wines to cuisine for centuries.

As such, each region’s wine varieties tend to be fairly consistent as far as the basic flavor profile goes. I wouldn’t choose to drink a lot of them on their own for one reason or another, but line up some steamed mussels next to an Italian pinot grigio or a Sangiovese with marinara-sauced pasta and you’ve got yourself a little slice of heaven.

The trick, though, is figuring out which of these heavily vowel-labeled bottles is the right wine. Like France, Italy’s gotten a little bit better about putting the names of grape varietals and/or descriptive blurbs in English on the bottle for the “ordinary American consumer.” For the most part, however, the traditional convention still holds. The names on the bottle are generally the producer and the region. The grape is often nowhere to be found. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent most of my pre-Vine life thinking that “Chianti” was a grape varietal instead of a region in Tuscany.

Further confusing matters are exceptions to this rule. Some Italian wines do put the name of the grape on the label as a matter of course. The name of the grape is usually followed by the name of the locale, so you’ll see wines like Moscato d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, etc. The first one, for instance, translates as “The Moscato (grape) from Asti (the town).” You’ll even run into “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo” vs. “Vin Noble di Montepulciano.” The first is a fruity, easy-drinking table wine made from the Montepulciano grape. The second is a somewhat complex Sangiovese-based wine from the town of Montepulciano.

But why? Why stick to an antiquated, confusing system of nomenclature, especially now that the world has grown much more wine savvy? Why not just label the bloomin’ bottles with whatever the heck is in there?

The answer?

Two thousand.

There are at least 2,000 indigenous grape varietals in Italy. Gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of all the grapes in the Boot that go into their bottles of yummy would be next to impossible. So, how do you know what you’re getting?

The Italian government simplified matters for us a little. They created a classification system somewhat similar to the ones in France. If you look at most bottles of Italian wine, you’ll see “DOC” or “DOCG” somewhere on the label. Without going into too much detail, the DOC/DOCG designation shows that a wine was made in a certain region using pre-determined methods containing certain grape varietals. This usually aligns with the geographic region, but a grape will sometimes be included in the designation if the varietal is a specialty of the area – like the aforementioned Moscato d’Asti, et al.

In my experience, Italian wine is an experience where you largely get what you pay for. This isn’t to say that there isn’t really good inexpensive wine from Italy. Think about it this way -- if you blindly choose $30 Bordeaux, there’s a chance that you’ll end up with a wine inferior to the $10 dollar one on the rack nearby. Italian? $15 Chianti will be perfectly drinkable, but also usually consistent with its brethren of the same price point. If you splurge on a $30 bottle, you can usually tell a difference in quality (although you may not feel that difference was worth the extra moolah).

There are hundreds of DOC/DOCG growing regions, but many of them are extremely small and you probably won’t run into them very often. Here are some of the more common regions and DOC/DOCG designations you’ll run into at the local wine stores for your reading and drinking pleasure…

Region: Campania
Common wines you’ll see: Taurasi, Fiano, Falerno
Major grapes: Aglianico, Piedirosso, Primitivo (red); Falanghia (white)
General info: Campania is the region around Naples. The best known wine from there is a robust red called Taurasi made from the Aglianico grape. Fiano is a seafood-loving white and Falerno is another big wine made from Primitivo (Zinfandel). Much of the rest of the wine from there has traditionally been known as fairly generic, although it’s improved greatly in recent years.

Region: Tuscany
Common wines you’ll see: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vin Noble di Montepulciano, Rosso di Montalcino, Rosso di Montepulciano, IGT Toscana
Major grape: Sangiovese (red – not many whites in Tuscany)
General info: Ah, Tuscany – home of some of the most famous reds wines in Italy. Most Tuscan reds are backboned by the Sangiovese grape. Brunello di Montalcino is also Sangiovese, but a specific clone of that particular grape. There’s also “Vin Santo” – a sweet dessert wine. You’ll also find “super Tuscan” wines that are bigger and heartier. These are almost always Sangiovese blended with a non-indigenous varietal like merlot or cabernet, often to please an American palate. If you see “IGT Toscana” on the label, it’s probably a Super Tuscan of some stripe. The wines tend to be very flexible, since Tuscan cuisine is some of the most varied (and delicious) food in the world. However, in my opinion, these wines are not the best to drink by themselves. They need food to show their full potential.

Region: Piedmont
Common wines you’ll see: Barbaresco, Barolo, Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Asti, Moscato d’Asti, Gavi
Major grapes: Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato (red); Cortese (white)
General info: Piedmont is the mountainous region in the northwest corner of the country. The bulk of Italy’s hearty reds come from this region – especially Barolo and Barbaresco. They’re some of the most famous of the world’s wines. Barbera is a big, juicy red and Dolcetto is a lighter, acidic red – both of which make excellent everyday wines in their “generic” form. The versions from “named” places (like Barbera d’Alba for instance) have more complexity. Gavi is a crisp white made from the Cortese grape (not to be confused with Dan Cortese) which makes an interesting contrast. Piedmont wines are built to stand up to heavier meats and sauces. Even the whites handle cream sauces easily. There’s also Moscato d’Asti – a low alcohol, sweet sparkling wine which may be the best brunch wine in the world.

Regions: Sardinia & Sicily
Common wines & grapes you’ll see: Cannonau (red); Malvasia, Vernacchia, Verdicchio, Moscato (white)
General info: The islands of Italy usually end up putting the names of the grapes on the label, so you can generally run with those. Both islands, especially Sardinia, produce quantities of dry, crisp white wines made from Vernacchia, Malvasia, and Verdicchio that go perfectly with shellfish. Sicily produces a huge amount of dessert wine. The most common red is made from Cannonau, which is currently getting a great deal of publicity for its hypothesized life-extending properties. Cannonau is similar to Grenache and often makes for powerful wines, but on the islands, they’re made in a much lighter, more aromatic style.

Region: Veneto
Common wines you’ll see: Bardolino, Valpolicella, Soave, Prosecco
Major grapes: Corvina, Sangiovese (red); Prosecco, Garganega (white)
General Info: The region around Venice cranks out a huge amount of wine. The reds are usually blends backboned by the Corvina grape. These reds tend to be some of the lightest bodied in the country. Many are often served slightly chilled, much like Beaujolais. There’s actually a “Bardolino novello,” made in a similar style as Beaujolais Nouveau. The whites, like Soave are usually fruity and more or less dry. The Valdobbiadene district is the home of Prosecco, Italy’s most famous sparkling wine. It resembles Spanish cava in many ways. Interestingly, with all the light reds produced in Valpolicella, it’s also home to the most powerful red wine in Italy: Amarone. Amarone is made from raisinated grapes, which yields a concentrated, potent (upwards of 15% alcohol), tannic, tasty wine.

There are 14 other major wine growing regions in Italy and literally hundreds of DOC & DOCG designations. It’s worth it to explore. Ask for your Italian wine expert at your local store. There’s usually one major “Italophile” in every shop. They’ll usually steer you correctly. But for basics, this should take care of you for right now. Hope it helps!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kinkead Ridge gets some notoriety

Our friends of the Vine at Kinkead Ridge Winery get some well-deserved international kudos:

Internationally-recognized, award-winning Kinkead Ridge Winery will be featured in Opus Vino, an illustrated wine reference book ($75) which will be published in the US, UK and Australia in November 2010, with foreign language editions in 2011 and 2012. Only two Ohio wineries are featured in this book, which features 4,500 international wineries.

The winery (904 Hamburg Street, Ripley, Ohio) will re-open for the release of the 2008 red wines on Saturday September 4 and Monday September 6. The vineyard will also be open to the public (4288 Kinkead Road) on these dates, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The new releases are the 2008 Kinkead Ridge Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot. The winery will also be open on September 11 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and will then close for harvest until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

For more information, visit the website at or call 937-392-6077.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Festival of the Vine

(To be published in the Dayton City Paper.)
The demand for red wine in Lincoln Park was low this weekend.IMG_0935
Fraze Pavilion’s annual Festival of the Vine always brings out a crowd for sampling wine, kicking back to some cool jazz, and enjoying a shady afternoon. This year, however, with humidity approaching Evergladesian levels and heat indices to make Carl Nichols rethink his retirement, most of the crowd at the festival looked to be avoiding big mouthfuls of tannin.
However, the heat couldn’t stop the groove. A passing thunderstorm caused a brief scramble for shelter at one point, but for most of the afternoon, a steady diet of cool jazz and cooler wine kept the laid back attendees as comfortable as possible in the shade.
This year’s Festival of the Vine mirrored the previous ones. “Like in previous years, we want folks to get a chance to try a bunch of different wines, and hopefully they’ll find something that they like,” proudly stated Kevin Bratton of Heidelberg Distributing, provider of the 35 or so wines available during the evening. “We want to make sure that people get a chance to try things from everywhere. We’ve got New World – largely North American wine,” said Kevin, “We’ve got Old World wines and a sparkling wine tent. And we’ve got an Italian tent because of Claudio.”
This is a good strategy. With that many options, people will probably find new favorites. Festival of the Vine isn’t the kind of event where someone will be able to really *taste* different wines. What they will do is find out what wines are good to slug on a hot day, and that’s a good idea. On a 90 degree day, discussing nuances of torrontes vs. sauvignon blanc isn’t going to be a conversation I’ll want to have, but a “Yep. This helps me forget the heat for a second.” is.
The aforementioned “Claudio” is Claudio Salvador, importer of all the wines in the Italian tent and chief winemaker of Firelands Winery in Sandusky, Ohio. The same weekend as Festival of the Vine was “Toast of Ohio,” another wine festival in Northern Ohio. “I’ve got my crew up there taking care of that. I wanted to come down here!”
Claudio told me that he wanted to showcase some of his wines that were probably unfamiliar to many of the folks at the festival. “We like bringing wines in that people don’t necessarily know. They’re going to know them very soon. Everyone has Pinot Grigio, but with the whites, people haven’t usually tried Gavi or Grecho. Grecho, for instance, is originally from Greece. The Grecho is a very aromatic varietal. People think that it’s the ancestor of Sauvignon Blanc and such.”
Claudio said that he is planning to return to Dayton in November with some of the winemakers from the wines he was showing. “We’re going to do some dinners, which will all be just fantastic. We’re still figuring out exactly where we’re doing them.”
At Claudio’s recommendation, I gave the La Balle Grecho Basilicata a try. One a day like this, the crispness was a welcome respite from the heat. Fruity, acidic, and with a little bit of honey – I could certainly have imagined myself under one of the trees, wrapped around a bottle of the stuff.
I sampled a few of the other wines around the concourse as well. The Monticello Albarino was a refreshing quaff, as was the Grenache-based Belleruche Blanc, a white from the Rhone region in France. I also snagged a glass at one point of the Barefoot Brut sparkling wine. Despite the good banter at the tasting table – the conversation far outstripped the bubbly. The music outstripped both. 
Besides, doing heavy wine tasting isn’t the point of an afternoon IMG_0931like this. I’ll definitely lean towards relaxing and good jazz. As my newest friend “Ron from Atlanta” put it, “The wine doesn’t matter to me. I’m here for the music, man. I came up here for a family reunion. I heard [Nate White] was playing, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss him. He’s smooth!”
“Oh, and this weather y’all are having? It’s like springtime! I feel right at home.”

Monday, August 09, 2010

Wine Festivals -- a couple to choose from...

In case you're looking for something to do this weekend in the state of Ohio (or thereabouts), you've got a couple of options.

First off, Fraze Pavilion in Dayton is hosting the annual Festival of the Vine on Saturday the 14th. The festival starts at 1:00 in Lincoln Park, just outside the Pavilion itself. A free jazz concert runs until 7:00. There will be  over 30 wines for sampling and purchase by the glass. A ticketed concert featuring Jeff Golub, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum and Peter White begins at 7pm. Your intrepid wine columnist and the Sweet Partner in Crime will also be wandering the grounds. For more information, click here.

For those of you in the more northern reaches, the Toast of Ohio Wine Festival is this week from Thursday through Saturday in Sandusky at the Sandusky Bay Pavilion. The event "features twelve Ohio wineries, gourmet food, live musical entertainment and an artist's showcase." Admission to the event is $5 -- which includes a souvenir glass and two tastings. For more information, click here.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Cincinnati’s Hidden Gem – The Summit

(Cross-posted at The Man Who Cooks.)
“I don’t think this is the second floor.”
The Sweet Partner in Crime and I were wandering the halls of a Cincinnati State classroom building, looking for The Summit – the restaurant that’s the centerpiece of the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State where we were going to meet our friends Mike and Shelley. Music and the laughter of students having some kind of event on a Saturday night (which was cool to see at a community college) filtered down the hall, but there was no sign of a restaurant.
We discovered that we’d accidentally pulled up a floor short, so we climbed one more flight of stairs and found a small sign pointing us down a hall past a closed-up snack bar area typical of what you’d find in just about any student union on any college campus in the U.S. The hall was lined on either side with darkened (but impressive looking) test kitchens. Around another corner and there we were.
So, what is The Summit? It’s a fine dining restaurant largely run and managed by the culinary arts students. As such, it’s located in the academic building on Cincinnati State’s campus where the students get their training. We arrived and were greeted with a smile by the manager, Donna Schmitt, who poured us our first round of Albariño while our table was prepared.
We were lucky enough to be seated at the “Chef’s Table” beside a large window opening into the kitchen, so we could see this eager bunch of twentysomethings honing their skills. Having spent decades in the world of the academy, I know how important it is for students to get real-world, hands-on experience. Even though I’d heard really good things about the place, I still had it in the back of my head that these were chefs-in-training. I wondered just how good a student-run high-end place could be.
I don’t wonder any more. It’s good. Real damned good.
What the place lacks in décor, it more than makes up for in service and quality. The Summit’s dining room is little more than a large open room with 30-40 tables. There’s not a lot in the way of fancy décor – but we were there to eat after all, not stare at pictures or admire faux paint. Our server (name) informed us that the menu was left intentionally vague so that patrons would ask questions so as to give the waitstaff practice in discussing the ins and outs of each course. (There was only one minor bobble in the service – we had to ask for water.)
We also had a visit from the chef de cuisine, Matt Winterrowd (a former compatriot of both Jean-Robert de Cavel and David Cook of DaVeed’s), at one point. He gave us a unique experience. Have you ever been dreamily devouring a course at a restaurant and asked about the details of the preparation? Most chefs I’ve met are more protective of their recipes than mama wolves are of their pups. When the chef came to the table, we asked him about the preparation of this insanely good morel mushroom appetizer that three of the four of us ordered. Instead of being vague, he basically walked us through the entire progress – starting with the two stocks (mushroom and chicken) that he used as a base for the sauce and moving step-by-step through the prep. (Needless to say, there will be some replication attempts as soon as I find some good ‘shrooms.)
So, what did we have? Three of the four of us had an appetizer of morel mushrooms creamed in an Idiazabal cheese sauce with shallots and fresh oregano. Orgasmic, off the charts good. The SPinC was the outlier with a very solid choice – probably the best soft shell crab I’d tasted outside of Baltimore. It was presented with a salsa of black beans, lime juice, avocado, and chilis.
For entrees, Shelley and the SPinC had sockeye salmon topped with a parsley-based pesto in a roasted tomato sauce with roasted fennel and potato gnocchi. The SPinC greeted her meal with reverent silence for several bites, which is far from the norm for her while diving into good food.
Mike had handmade pappardelle pasta in a cream sauce with prosciutto, parmesan, and baby peas. As simple as the dish was – the freshness of the ingredients made the entrée memorable. Mike said it was “about best tasting pasta” he’d ever had. I hold Mike’s cooking skills in high esteem, so this is serious praise.
As for myself, I tried the “teres major,” which was a cut of beef I’d never heard of, much less tried. It’s sometimes called the “shoulder tenderloin,” and isn’t used often. It’s from the front of the cow rather than the rear. It looks like a very small filet and it’s sliced thin. Served up next to a cauliflower and porcini mushroom mash, grilled asparagus, and an absolutely scrumptious sauce that I embarrassingly cannot remember, I certainly enjoyed myself.
The four of us split a delicious artisanal cheese plate for dessert. There was a Tuscan Pecorino, a “Humboldt Fog” goat cheese, Mahon (another hard cheese) from California, and Maytag Blue – a delicious stinky number from Iowa.
Additionally, the SPinC and I split a “black and blue” – a blackberry/blueberry cobbler with browned butter topping some handmade ice cream. Mike and Shelley had angel food cake stuffed with strawberries and thyme with a buttermilk icing. By this point, we were beyond stuffed, but we were floating on a culinary cloud of goodness. And the cost? For the entire meal plus wine (they’ve got a very solid wine list, too), we got out of there for under $70 a person, including tax and tip.
This was one of the best dining values that I’ve experienced in Cincinnati – but there were less than a dozen tables occupied over the course of the evening that we saw. My guess is that the setting – finding one’s way through a college campus to get to the restaurant – discourages a number of people. It shouldn’t.
If you’re someone who needs five-star décor to go with your food, then the Summit isn’t for you. If you’re someone who appreciates good food and would enjoy a relaxed evening with friends where conversation and food can be the centerpiece, then you really owe it to yourself to give this place a try. Go. Quiz the servers, ask a bunch of questions, and enjoy. I can almost guarantee you a good experience.