8 wines to go with your seasonal stews, ragus, and comfort foods.
There are certain eternal truths. The sublime harmony of earthy white truffles and nebbiolo wine, especially an aged Barolo, is one of them. The rightness of lamb with a fine cabernet is another. So too the pairing of winter stew with sangiovese, particularly a mature Brunello di Montalcino with layers of tobacco or leather behind its dark fruit. If that stew happens to be spiced with balsamic, juniper, or cinnamon, or comes with sweet side dishes like braised carrots or sweet potatoes, or if it’s a tangine with succulent chunks of meat slow-cooked with apricots or prunes, then Amarone’s the thing.
Winter is the time for comfort food, for slow food, which means it’s the time to fetch those special bottles from the cellar. Or, if you’re among the 90 percent of wine consumers who buy a bottle to drink that night, tis the season to splurge a little. (If not now, when?)
What follows are some winter wines from Italy’s most acclaimed regions for big reds: Piedmont’s Langhe hills, of Barolo fame; Tuscany’s Brunello di Montacino, the pinnacle of sangiovese; Tuscany’s coast, for French grapes under a Tuscan sun; and Valpolicella, land of Amarone. Each duo includes a splurge and a deal, because we know both have their time and place.
Barolo Brunate, Mario Marengo, $60
When snowflakes are flying and braised beef is calling, I reach for Barolo, the king of Piedmont wines. If I had my druthers, I’d pick a historic cru, one prized over the centuries as an ideal spot for ripening finicky nebbiolo. Brunate is among the most revered. A south-facing amphitheater protected from the wind, it’s a bowl of sunshine and warmth. Straddling the townships of Barolo and La Morra, this 62-acre vineyard shares the sub-zones’ characteristics—perfumed elegance, floral aromatics, silkier tannins—but it’s a heightened, full-bodied expression that brings everything into focus like a good, sharp lens. About eight wineries own parcels on Brunate, including Mario Marengo. Growers since 1899, the Marengo family started bottling a generation ago, and now Marco Marengo runs the show, assisted by esteemed enologist Beppe Caviola. Though Marengo owns only a few acres, their ace in the hole is old vines, planted from 1947 to 1957. Rich yet restrained, Marengo’s Barolo Brunate shows best after a few years of cellaring, when its tertiary aromas of earth, licorice, and spice emerge.
Perbacco Nebbiolo, Vietti, $26
Among Barolo aficionados, the name Vietti carries weight. They were pioneers of single-vineyard Barolos in the 1950s; kicked off the phenomenon of premium Barbera d’Alba after planting this humble grape on prime real estate, shocking locals; and remain leaders in terroir-focused wines. Their five Barolo cru are splurges indeed, all topping $150. Fortunately, Vietti also makes Perbacco, which fifth-generation winemaker Luca Currado dubs a “baby Barolo.” While not constrained to follow the lengthy aging requirements for Barolo, this beautifully crafted nebbiolo still gets special treatment. Its grapes come from the same vineyards as Vietti’s Barolo Castiglione, with vines averaging 35 years. It undergoes malolactic fermentation and two years maturation in a mix of oak barrels. In short, there’s the same TLC as with Barolo—but it costs less and is ready to drink now. Well structured, with generous red fruit and wafting spice, this is Langhe Nebbiolo at its most vibrant. Pair it with porcini risotto topped with white truffle shavings, and enter nirvana.
Brunello di Monalcino, Fattoria dei Barbi, $49
Want a Brunello with pedigree? How about one that’s been around since 1892, made by an illustrious titled family? That’d be Fattoria dei Barbi’s Brunello di Montalcino. Active in Siena since the last millennium and landholders in Montalcino since 1352, the noble Colombini family acquired this farm (fattoria) in 1790. Today Stefano Cinelli Colombini carries on. Like Montalcino’s most historic wineries, it’s located in Brunello’s original growing area: towards the top of the denomination’s towering 1850' hill and on its oldest soil, a nonfertile mix of stone and lime that’s ideal for restraining sangiovese’s natural vigor. The winery’s flagship blue-label Brunello comes from a selection of grapes that undergo two days of cold maceration to coax out aromas and color. A short passage through small and medium oak follows, then three years of aging in large casks. The result is a classic Brunello defined by suppleness and balance, plus all those luscious notes of cherry/berry, savory herb, and forest floor that Brunello lovers crave.
Rosso di Montalcino, Mastrojanni, $27
While you’re waiting for your Brunello to mature, uncork its little brother, Rosso di Montalcino. Wineries can release this fresh, young sangiovese just 10 months after harvest (versus five years for Brunello), and consumers can enjoy it immediately too. Styles range from simple to structured. One that hits all the right notes is Mastrojanni’s. The winery uses declassified Brunello as well as younger vines for their Rosso and matures it half a year in large casks. The result is a beautiful equilibrium between lip-smacking fruit and pleasing tannins, sufficient to provide backbone but not overwhelm. Like Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino is 100 percent sangiovese by law. A point of pride today, that rule was threatened last decade by winemakers itching to add merlot, cabernet, etc. to hedge their bets. (“Polluting it,” opponents said.) A vocal member of the resistance was Andrea Machetti, general manager of Mastrojanni for 25 years. After the winery’s founder died in 2005, the new owners—high-end coffee brand Gruppo Illy—smartly kept Machetti on. So the hits keep on comin’.
BOLGHERI & BEYOND
Caisarossa Toscana, Caiarossa, $75
If cabernet and merlot are your thing, look to Tuscany’s Tyrrhenian coast. Here French grapes thrive in alluvial soils and long sunlight reflected from the sea, while sangiovese takes a back seat. Cabernet was first planted in Bolgheri in 1945 for Sassicaia, which launched the whole Super Tuscan juggernaut. That township remains at its core, but surrounding areas are coming up fast. Thirty minutes north in the Val di Cecina one finds Caiarossa. Founded in 1998, the winery had its Cinderella transformation in 2004 after being purchased by Eric Albada Jelgersma, a Dutchman who owns two Grand Cru Bordeaux estates in Margaux. Cellars were built following Feng Shui; vineyards are certified biodynamic. The winery name alludes to Gaia, goddess of the Earth, and to the intensely colored red soil. Merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, sangiovese, petit verdot, and alicante were planted, and all go into the eponymous flagship. Deservedly found on many end-of-year Best Wines lists, Caiarossa is intense and polished, full of concentration and depth. It just cries out for a good, juicy bistecca.
Lagone, Aia Vecchia, $16
It’s not easy to find a good Bolgheri red under $20. Virtually impossible. That’s why we can thank our lucky stars for the Pellegrini family, grape-growers whose main mission in starting Aia Vecchia in 1996 was to create a Bolgheri wine at an everyday price. First wine out of the gate was Lagone, a classic Bolgheri blend made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc whose clones and rootstocks were sourced directly from Bordeaux. Aiding and abetting in this endeavor was Tibor Gál, the renowned winemaker from Hungary who’d spent the better part of a decade at Ornellaia—a supernova in the firmament of Bolgheri wineries—and worked with the Pellegrini until his untimely death in 2005. The flagship wine they developed is aged one year in French barrique and—surprise!—American oak. Medium-bodied and velvety, Lagone is loaded with plum and black currant, and backed by notes of cedar and spice. If there’s no cinghiale (wild boar) within reach, make pasta with a hearty ragú.
Amarone della Valpollicella, Tommasi, $80
To know Amarone is to love Amarone. Who can resist something so succulent, so hedonistic, so delicious? Of all dry Italian wines, Amarone is the most labor-intensive. First there’s the meticulous grape selection, where harvest workers snip substandard grapes off each cluster. Then there’s 100-plus days of drying the grapes in airy fruit lofts, reducing their volume by half. Only then, when the sugars are well concentrated and the physiology of berries has changed, are the shriveled clusters pressed. The end result is dry, but bears traces of that semi-raisinified state in flavors like black fig, dried prune, and cherry compote. One of the most storied names in Amarone is Tommasi, founded in 1902. “Our DNA is elegance over structure,” says Pierangelo Tommasi, part of the fourth generation. Traditionalists at heart, they age their Amarone in large, neutral Slavonian casks. Recently they decided to vinify their Amarone drier, starting with the 2012 vintage. “It’s easier to combine with food,” he explains. Buon appetito and pass the decanter!
Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso, Le Ragose, $22
An open secret among more frugal Amarone fans is Ripasso, a category of Valpolicella wine that borrows some secret sauce from Amarone to acquire richness and a bit of that raisiny character. It works like this: Once Amarone has finished fermenting and been transferred to barrels, fresh Valpolicella wine is poured over the damp skins that remain in the fermentation tanks. During a week-long infusion, the wine extracts dried-fruit flavors and alcohol from the Amarone lees. There are better and lesser Ripassos, of course. One stellar example comes from Le Ragose. This small winery was started by enologists Arnaldo and Marta Galli in 1969 on one of Valpolicella Classico’s highest hills, above the fog line, where they revived two abandoned vineyards. The family has a nursery too, and uses of some obscure local grapes in its Ripasso, a blend of nine varieties. The wine is brimming with Valpolicella’s characteristic cherry flavors, but goes darker, deeper, with more body, while retaining a bright acidity, striking a perfect balance between freshness and oomph.
Published in the Winter 2018 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.