Orange wine and other enological wonders

Wine tasting at SPQR

Once again, I find myself immersed in a world of Italian wine. I’m writing a book about modern Italian food and wine with two experts: Shelley Lindgren, wine director of A16 and SPQR, and Matthew Accarrino, the chef at SPQR. This is the second time Shelley and I have collaborated. The first project, A16 Food + Wine, took us to southern Italy. This time, we’re heading north. But just like A16, I find myself becoming lost within a forest of Italian wine information. And what a dense forest it is.

Italians don’t like following rules; they like creating rules that can they can later break or rewrite. This has led to a growing, and increasingly unwieldy, wine classification system.  For every budding DOC is a newly branded DOCG. There is also, plainly, a lot of wine to wade through. According to the UK’s Telegraph wine production in Italy now surpasses France. It is the world’s largest wine producer.

Wine at Cul de Sac, Rome
The real work is pinning down what’s actually in the bottle. Italy has a never-ending list of native grapes. That story, the one in which a forgotten grape’s existence had been whittled down to just one vineyard before being rediscovered and turned into a rare, exotic cru? In Italy, it is told nearly every year.

I’m not complaining. This is one of the reasons that makes Italy endlessly fascinating. And I have a pro as a guide. A couple of nights ago, I sat down at SPQR with Shelley to talk wine, taste wine, and pair wine with Matthew’s creative Italian menu. Some days, I love my job.

I still have a lot of information to process. But since the book won’t be out until fall 2012, I thought I’d share a few facts I’ve gleaned in the meantime:

Cesanese, a red grape from Lazio, makes a rockin’ food wine. Try it, especially the Damiano Ciolli Cesanese “Silene.”

Sagrantino, the local inky red grape of Umbria’s Montefalco (and made into Sagrantino di Montefalco), has unusually spiky leaves.

Ampelographers (people who study the origins of grapes) will try to tell you that every white grape in central Italy is  related to either Greco or Trebbiano.

Pinot Grigio is much more than a picnic wine when it comes from Friuli. I tried Vie di Romans‘ rich, round version with Matthew’s beet salad (below) and it was a knock-out pairing.

SPQR beet salad

A few years ago, Prosecco big-wigs decided that their main grape, Prosecco, could no longer be called Prosecco. The grape now has the more forgettable label, Glera. The only (well, nearly only) sparking wine that can be called Prosecco must come from Veneto’s designated Prosecco growing region (below).

Prosecco country

Speaking of Prosecco, a hectare of vineyard land in the Prosecco DOCG’s prized Cartizze area sells for 2.5 million euro.

The best for last: the most fun that I’m having this week has to do with so-called orange wines. Of course, they’re not really orange (nor are they called orange in Italy). Shelley prefers calling them “amber,” which is much truer to color. Essentially, they’re white wines made with skin contact. The effect: a completely postmodern, sherry-like, rich pour. They’re expensive, hard to find, and  aren’t for everyone. But I think that’s going to change. The wine below, a savory, slightly honeyed “orange wine” from La Castellada with Ribolla Gialla grapes, could lead to a tipping–tippling?– point.

orange wine at SPQR

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