Three Italian Varietals

Buongiorno paisans. With a last name like Zitarelli, alarm bells start ringing if it has been too long since I have offered Italian varietals. Sure, Cabernets are great with steaks and Syrahs lovely with stews, but is that really what you want with your tomato-based pasta dish? With your thin-crust pizza?

There’s a reason most Italian restaurants have wine lists dominated by Italian varietals. The wines evolved with the cuisine, and are hand-in-glove complementary. Tomatoes are extremely acidic, and their effect on the richer reds is to render them ponderous when served together. No; with this cuisine you want the glorious, rustic, acid-driven varietals of Italia:

2008 Cavatappi Barbera Boushey Vineyard

In Piedmont, Barberas (and Dolcettos) are everyday wines, consumed in their youthful splendor while the Nebbiolo-based wines (Barolos and Barberescos) slumber in the cellar. Actually I should be careful with my generalizations here. Okay, quick rant:

The past few years have seen some Barbera producers in Italy experimenting with more new oak, more extraction, and more roundness. The goal seems to be producing modern wines, world wines, from the humble Barbera grape. Well, excuse me while I gag. While I understand that everyone needs to make a dollar (or lira), sacrificing varietal typicity at the twin altars of modernity and score-chasing is a horror-show for any of us who care about the beautiful diversity of wine.

Okay, rant over, and fortunately, this is Barbera that tastes like Barbera. No surprise, considering the two men most deeply involved in its creation. These grapes are grown by Dick Boushey, notorious lover of acid, and cared for by Peter Dow, who launched Cavatappi out of the basement of Café Juanita in 1987. Originally, Cavatappi wines were exclusively available at Peter’s restaurant. Later, they became available to other restaurants. And even today, these wines are much more likely to show up on restaurant wine lists than at retail shops.

The Cavatappi lineup is a buried treasure trove, as far as I’m concerned, and this is one of the best values in the lineup. Because Barbera is hardy (it grows in just about any soil and any weather) and high-yielding, prices for these bottles tend to be quite reasonable. We previously offered a non-vintage bottling of this, which was a blend of 2005, 06, and 07 vintages. Today’s is single-vintage, single-vineyard, and represents an easy mid-week dinner wine.

Save the mental gymnastics for the ultra-complex weekend wines. This one is less about complexity and more about transparency and vibrancy. Mouthwatering in its acidity (par for the course with Barbera), it presents a core of smokey pie cherries, streaked with tar and espresso. This is a grin-inducing wine.

2005 Cavatappi Nebbiolo “Maddalena” Red Willow Vineyard

Here is a real rarity: new-world Nebbiolo. While it’s impossible to replicate the fog of the Piedmont, Red Willow Vineyard has proven adept at producing a Nebbiolo that can at least be confused with a Langhe Nebbiolo, if not one of the big guns (Barolo, Barberesco). Peter and Mike Sauer (the grower at Red Willow) did bury a bottle of Barolo beneath the vineyard block before planting it in 1984. Perhaps their juju was successful.

We offered the 2004 vintage more than a year and a half ago, and I was surprised to see frequent reorder requests in the intervening months; surprised because Nebbiolo is a different animal in many ways from other red grapes. The color is somewhere between pink, orange, and brown. The classic aromatics are tar and roses. The structure is massive (big acid, even bigger tannins). In sum, these couldn’t be further from cocktail wines.

As food wines go, there’s nothing like Nebbiolo. This one presents aromatics of licorice, red cherry, and damp earth. Awash in acid, this is high-toned, with rosewater, cherry, and orange peel. There’s enough bottle age here that the tannins have begun to soften up, but there’s still a pleasing chew to the back end of this.

Finally, for those of you in blind tasting groups, this is about as fun a wine to bag up as I can think of.

2009 Stella Fino Sangiovese

While we have offered Cavatappi wines before, this represents our first offering from Stella Fino. With Yellow Hawk Cellar shutting its doors last year, it’s nice to have another Walla Walla winery focused on Italian varietals.

Started by Matt and Marlene Steiner with the 2005 vintage, the winery produces a Pinot Grigio, a Barbera, and several Sangioveses. We’re starting with their Columbia Valley Sangio, which is two-thirds Pepper Bridge and one-third Vignes de Marcoux (adjacent to Red Willow). It’s a small-production (160 cases) delight, rustic and lively in turn. Aged in second-fill 500L Hungarian puncheons, this takes on the typical coffee-bean nuance of that type of oak. There are undertones of leaf and seed (anise?) to the red fruit, and this finishes with ripe, tasty tannins, all black tea and espresso.

First come first served up to 18 bottles total (mix and match as you see fit). The wines should arrive in a week or two, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: