Italian Wine Scholar: Tackling This Boot Was No Small Feat

Nobody likes a braggart or a know-it-all.  If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know I can’t stand this type of personality and have even created a WSET Irritation Scale to evaluate them.  (Yes, I’ve been told that sometimes I take things too far).

Unfortunately, we (mostly women) are often so fearful of looking too egotistical that we don’t celebrate our accomplishments.  We downplay our successes, or qualify them by saying something like “I’m just a good test taker” or “I can memorize facts, but don’t retain them very well.” (I’ve uttered both of these phrases many times over).  Why is it so difficult to say “hey – I’m really proud of myself, I did this: [fill in the blank here with your awesome accomplishment].”  (Hubs Note:  And yet you don’t have any problem telling my friends that you kicked my ass in law school).

I think we need to be better at sharing our wins and encouraging each other to do the same. So, with that, I’m going to give it a shot- here goes: I passed my Italian Wine Scholar exam with Highest Honors!  I studied my ass off for this certification and I am thrilled with my results.

IWS certificate

And, because I’d like to see others succeed, here are some tips that will hopefully help other students rock their Italian Wine Scholar Unit 2 exam (my Unit 1 exam tips can be found here):

1. Study the glossary!

There were several questions relating to these terms and I know I answered at least one of them incorrectly.  Now I will never forget that Baglio is the name for a Sicilian farmhouse.  (However, the degree to which this particular question relates to wine knowledge is debatable IMO . . .)

2. Memorize this equation: The percentage of the text dedicated to a region = the number of exam questions on that region.

This may seem obvious, but it will help you schedule your time more efficiently if you keep this in mind.  You’re better off focusing a majority of your studies on Toscana, Sicilia and Campania than knowing all the little nuances of Molise or Basilicata.  And besides – you can use my outlines as a good starting point for both of those regions! 😉

For me, I found it best to tackle a larger region over the course of a week and then follow this up with a day covering a smaller one.  Being able to knock out a more minor region in such a short period gave me a much needed sense of accomplishment when I felt I was dragging.  Which happened more than I’d hoped!

3.  Read the answers carefully!

I know most people say read the question carefully, and clearly you should do that too, but Calabria and Campania were both options for a few questions.   Maybe it’s just me, but throughout my Italian Wine Scholar studies I would get these two regions mixed up.  Make sure you know which one you’re talking about!

4. If you don’t know the answer, move on and come back to it.

You very well may find a clue to the answer in a later question or something might trigger your memory.  This happened to me with an exam question on Verdicchio – I skipped it and a question later in the exam helped me recall the answer.  And don’t stress out too much if you have to temporarily skip a question – having an open and relaxed mind will make it easier for you to recall the information you need. (If that sounds like Headspace to you – it is!  I always do a short meditation the day of an exam . . . consider that another study tip.)   (Hubs note:  With the dogs.   She meditates with the dogs.  I don’t even know how this is possible).

5.  Don’t underestimate Sardegna.

I left Sardegna until last and, frankly, didn’t spend much study time on this region.  I figured that since it was an island, and not even the most “important” one, that there wouldn’t be many exam questions related to it.  However, I should have heeded my own advice above regarding “size of the chapter = exam importance” because based on this theory – about 8% of the exam questions would be related to Sardegna.  And although I didn’t count, there probably did end up being somewhere between 7-9 questions on it.  Thankfully, I read and reviewed Sardegna the morning of the exam so I was able to at least recall specifics relating to the island’s grape varieties.

And finally, this is not really a “tip” but something to keep in mind throughout your studies: enjoy learning.  After over a year of being in the Italian Wine Scholar program, I am so thankful to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Italy.  You don’t need a certificate or a pin to prove anything.  But if you have one – be proud of it.  I am!

 

Brunello di Montalcino: the Rembrandt of my Wine World

Early during the first quarter of my freshman year at college, I decided I wanted to major in art history.  I was a couple months into an Art History 101 class and could clearly envision my future as curator for some fabulous museum or gallery, or possibly work for one of the big auction houses like Christie’s.  Even though this was my first ever art history class – I just knew that this was what I was destined for.  I excitedly called my Dad to inform him of my plans – and after our brief discussion, I hightailed it to the business office to declare my major in Business Administration.

To this day, my art history classes remain some of my most favorite.  They made me look at the world like I hadn’t before – and in a way I haven’t since.  Starting with ancient art – from ornate Egyptian tombs to Greek architecture to Roman marble sculpture.  Then the Renaissance with the David and Mona Lisa.  Next came the utterly fascinating, over-the-top religious works of Bosch and El Greco.  My art history course worked its way through each era and I found myself in awe of them all . . . and then we got to the work of Rembrandt and – well, I didn’t like it.

Was his work groundbreaking?  Was he able to capture people in their daily lives like no artist had before? Was his work influential to countless others?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Is he considered by many to be the best painter that ever lived?  Absolutely.

I’m not debating these assertions – all I’m saying is that I personally didn’t care for his work.  (And for the record – I still don’t).  I thought it was dark and dreary.  He did a lot of self portraits that all ran together in my mind.  Nothing about his work spoke to me.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t want his work hanging in my house (Hubs Note:  Yeah…..that was never an option in the first place).  I’d rather have a calming Monet landscape or fun and colorful Matisse:

Right about now you might be asking “That’s all well and good, but WTF does Rembrandt have to do with Brunello di Montalcino?”

Patience . . . I’m getting there.

In the vast world of wine, there are certain wines that are considered to be “classics” or “benchmarks” of their respective varieties.  Wines such as Burgundy (Pinot Noir), Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), Barolo (Nebbiolo),  and Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese).

Brunello di Montalcino (hereinafter “BdM”) is considered by many to be the highest quality and most pure expression of Sangiovese.  It’s been called Tuscany’s grandest wine zone by Jancis Robinson. It was one of Italy’s first DOCs (1966) and later one of its first DOCGs (1980).  To qualify as a DOC/DOCG, several hoops must be jumped through – such as establishing geographical boundaries, permitted grape varieties grown, and limitations on yields.  For a more detailed explanation of these terms – read this short article by a Master of Wine.

Unlike many other Tuscan wines, BdM is not a blend – it is made from 100% Sangiovese.  Specifically, the Brunello clone that is grown exclusively in the region.  BdM has the longest aging requirements in all of Italy: a minimum of four years (2 years in oak, 4 months in bottle) before it can be released to the public.  These wines are full bodied with high tannins and acidity, and very long lived.

BdM is held in high regard by enthusiasts, critics, students and collectors alike.  When a classic BdM is served – words like “majestic”, “elegant” and “oh holy shit this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” fall off tongues.  Except for mine – because I don’t like BdM (insert blasphemous gasps here).

Now before you members of the Brunello Brigade come after me with pitchforks, let me explain.  Like with Rembrandt, I’m NOT claiming that BdM is crap nor am I saying that I cannot appreciate BdM. What I am saying is that I, subjectively, don’t care for it.  I would love to find a BdM that changes my mind.  Believe me, I’ve tried!  Over the years, I’ve tasted many – particularly during my studies for the Italian Wine Scholar and at the recent Master class I attended led by Master Sommelier Peter Neptune  where we tasted 11 different BdMs.

Valdicava 1997That evening, the wines tasted ranged from a 2013 Camigliano BdM to a 1997 Valdicava BdM.  There were BdM from 2001 and 2010 – both highly rated vintages.  All 11 wines tasted were very high quality and from top producers such as Altesino, Donatella Cinelli Colombini and Salvioni.  I appreciated these wines, and was particularly amazed at how their structure held up over the years.

But did I like them?  No, not really.  Why?  Well, for starters the tannins were overwhelming.  They usually dominate in a BdM’s youth, but are still over prevalent (for me) in an aged BdM.  And even if I can get past the Hoover suctioning tannins, I don’t particularly enjoy the taste of BdM.  While I’m definitely not a juicy fruit bomb lover, the orange peel/medicinal cherry/tea leaf flavors I find in BdM aren’t appealing to me either.

And it’s not that I don’t like Italian wines.  I love Barbera, Aglianico, and Etna Rosso.  And I actually really enjoy Rosso di Montalcino – more than most Brunellos in fact.  Even though Rossos are usually from younger or “lesser” vineyards, have few restrictions on production (no oak aging required!) and are way less expensive.  I know this is like saying I’d prefer to wear Tory Burch shoes as opposed to Manolo Blahniks, or that I’d rather drive a Chevy truck than a Tesla – but both of these examples are also true (Hubs Note:  She drove a Chevy truck for a decade).

However, like a Rembrandt painting that I don’t want in my house, I don’t want a BdM in my glass.  I’d rather have a dozen other wines instead.  And on that note, I’m going to go pour myself a non-BdM and leave you with this awesome outline on Montalcino.

 

Italian Wine Scholar: One Exam Down, One Exam to Go!

This past Monday I (finally!!) took my first of two exams in pursuit of the Italian Wine Scholar certification.  This first exam focused on the wine regions of Northern Italy, as well as general information about the entire country (history, geography, soils, viticulture, etc.).  The second exam will be focused solely on Central and Southern Italy.    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m tackling the IWS primarily because Italian wines are my Achilles heel and I’m going to need to know this country inside and out for my WSET Diploma studies.

Since I opted for self study as opposed to an instructor led course, I was scheduled to take the exam online where a proctor takes over my computer remotely (to ensure there aren’t any hidden notes to cheat with) and watches me via camera the entire exam.  While learning the names of dozens of grapes I’d never heard of like Timorasso and Marzemino, and memorizing a myriad of DOCGs, DOCs and IGTs, might sound challenging – I think the most stressful part of the whole experience for me was setting myself up on Skype and Adobe Connect the day prior to the actual exam.

First, I accidentally called the proctor on Skype while sitting in front of my screen in . . .  well, let’s just say I was wearing something that I wouldn’t wear out in public as I had just gotten up from a nap.  Thankfully, she didn’t pick up – so I dodged that bullet.  But then I DID somehow leave a recorded message where you can hear Hubs in the background yelling “[insert my very private petname here] what’re you doing?” and me responding dopily “oh, just trying not to make a complete ass of myself in front of my examiner!  Tee-Hee!” (Yes, I actually did say TEE-HEE).  I’m not sure if this message was deleted despite my best efforts.  But at least my proctor was classy enough not to say anything to me about it the next day.  (I think she was British, and thankfully they’re into etiquette and manners.)

Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on my whole exam experience, besides not leaving the technical setup to the last minute, I’ve realized there are several things that I wish I would’ve done differently for my first exam.  At least I’ve got a “second chance” (so to speak) with my second exam, which I’ll be tackling early next year.  So I plan to follow these helpful tips:

1. 10 Months is Waaaaay Too Long to Spend Studying for this Exam!  I started my Italian Wine Scholar self-study course back in January – TEN MONTHS AGO.  While I’m not making excuses, I did get derailed by some pretty big life events since then: moving from my beloved Washington state to Southern California, starting my WSET Diploma classes, and learning that the upcoming season of The Walking Dead will be Rick Grimes’ last.  However, even after taking all these factors in account, I still should have completed my IWS exam sooner.  For the second IWS exam – I’m giving myself three months of study time: November through January.  Take the exam in early February, and move on!

2. No Multi-Tasking!  One Exam at a Time.  I love multi-tasking – I get half as much done in twice as much time.  And that was definitely the case here.  I tried to study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 2 Diploma exam at the same time.  That didn’t work overly well for my brain, so I thought I’d try it again (what’s the definition of insanity?) and study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 5 Diploma exam.  Surprisingly, this wasn’t optimal either.  I’ve learned my lesson: for the next month, I’m focusing solely on my Unit 5 studies until exam day (November 7th).  After that, I’ll jump into IWS Central/Southern Edition.

3. Use the Wine Scholar Guild Online Materials.  The Wine Scholar Guild online resources are a wealth of information that I just did not take enough advantage of for my first exam.  There are practice quizzes, flashcards, maps and short overviews of each wine region – a wine geek’s dream!  During the last week of my studies, I tried to frantically make my way through some of these – and I’m glad I at least did this as some of the questions from the practice quizzes were quite similar to those on my exam. (Those of you planning to take the IWS exams – make a mental note of this!)

4. Don’t Focus So Much on %s.  I spent a lot of time and brain space memorizing the various %s of permissible grapes in certain blends.  Now, I’m not going to say that there weren’t any questions on this, but certainly not as many as my studies would have warranted.  I would have been better off focusing on major bodies of water and synonyms for Nebbiolo instead (another mental note!)

5. More drinking!!  This one should be easy enough to do.  During my studies, I did manage to go through several bottles of Italian wine – but there’s always room for improvement!  When there was a question about these grapes or appellations on the exam, and I was confident of my answers –  in part due to the fact that I’d previously sat down with a glass (or two, or three) of the wine.

Linus and IWS

So, now I’m going to put my IWS to rest for awhile. I’m heading off with Hubs to our first ever Wine Bloggers Conference this weekend!  Stay tuned!

Editors Note: as I was putting the final touches on this post, I received this email from the Wine Scholar Guild with my exam results.  Now I’m thinking I should just do everything the exact same way for my second exam!

IWS Results
96%!!!! 🙂

 

 

Italian Bubbles: Moving Beyond Prosecco

When it comes to Prosecco, I believe there are three types of people: those who love it, those who turn their noses up at it, and those who will drink it . . . but only if Champagne isn’t available. I fall pretty firmly into the last category.  Given a choice, I’d almost always opt for Champagne – unless I’m mixing my sparkling wine with orange juice (Helllooooo Boozy Brunch!!)

For many, sparkling wine is a commodity – completely interchangeable.   And that’s totally fine.  Others (present company included) are a bit more selective about their bubbles.  For me, I really like what autolysis* brings to the party so, if Champagne isn’t available I’ll look for a label that says “methode traditionalle” or “methode champenoise” – which indicates that the wine was made in the traditional method* – in other words, the same way that Champagne is made.  Prosecco, on the other hand, is produced by what is referred to as the tank method.*

*I realize that these terms are total winespeak for any relative newbies who might be reading this, so if you’re not exactly sure what those corkdorky terms mean – here’s a (very) quick debrief:

Traditional Method.  Once the base wine is finished, it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.  To accomplish this, a bit of yeast and sugar are mixed together, added to the base wine, and then the bottle is sealed up.  As in the first fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugar and produces alcohol and CO2 – but since this is happening within a sealed bottle, there’s nowhere for the CO2 to escape to.  So it remains in the bottle – creating the sparkle.

After the sugar is consumed, the yeast dies 😦 but its work is not yet done!  Dead yeast cells are referred to in winespeak as “lees.”  The wine “rests on the lees” for a period of time after the second fermentation is complete and this is where autolysis occurs.  Autolysis is essentially the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells . . . and if your eyes just glazed over by reading that sentence you’re not alone!  I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this myself.  Yet another scientific concept that I’m struggling with. :-/  The duration of autolysis can be anywhere from a few months to several years – the more time spent, the more yeasty/bready characteristics in the resulting wine.  Usually, lees aging needs to be at least 18 months in order for the wine to show any autolytic characteristics.

Tank Method (aka Charmat Method).  With this method, the second fermentation takes place in a large pressurized tank as opposed to inside the bottle.  The tank method is cheaper, faster and requires less labor than the traditional method.  It’s also used with more aromatic grape varieties like Glera (the primary grape of Prosecco) and Riesling (used in German Sekt) since there isn’t the degree of lees contact – which can overwhelm the delicate fruitiness of these varietals.  While you still get bubbles with the tank method, the resulting wine is much more fruity and fresh.  You don’t get as much (or any) of those yummy bread dough, brioche aromas that you do with the traditional method.

While Prosecco is Italy’s best-known sparkling wine (and best-selling at over 220 million bottles a year!), the country also produces a handful of sparklers made in the same method as Champagne.  And, typically, at a fraction of the cost.  Here are three traditional method Italian sparkling wines that are great alternatives (NOT substitutes, because in my opinion – there is none!) for Champagne:

Franciacorta DOCG.  This region released its first traditional method sparkling wine relatively recently – 1961.  Since then, Franciacorta has enjoyed immense success with their wines and is currently producing over 17 million bottles annually (with the bulk of this being consumed by locals – only around 20% is exported).  In 1995, Franciacorta became the first DOCG in Italy exclusively for traditional method sparkling wine.

Franciacorta is located in Lombardia and has a significantly warmer climate than Champagne.  This translates to riper fruit flavors in the glass and a lower overall acidity.  (Tip: look for “brut nature” or “zero dosage” versions of Franciacorta if you want to maximize acidity).  Interestingly though (to me anyways!), non-vintage Franciacorta is required to spend a minimum of 18 months on the lees – which is 3 months longer than Champagne’s minimum requirement!

The grapes used in Franciacorta are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir), and Pinot Bianco.  The latter is being used less frequently as it doesn’t add much longevity or energy to the wine.

For more info – here’s my outline on Franciacorta.

Trento DOC.  These wines hail from the Trentino region located in northeastern Italy.  Sparkling wine production started here in the early 1900s here thanks to Giulio Ferrari who believed the area had the potential to compete with the wines from Champagne.  And while these wines are produced in the same method and use the same grapes as Champagne (the holy trifecta of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) they taste incredibly different.  You’re likely to get aromas of peach, apricot, candied lemon and orange peel from Trento sparkling wines – with maybe a hint of biscuit character if they’ve been aged longer than 3 years. They tend to be fuller bodied with a level of richness to them.

Compared to Prosecco and Franciacorta, Trento DOC has a rather small production – 8.5 million bottles in 2010 (of which the Ferrari house produced nearly 60%) and the bulk of it is consumed locally.  Which might help explain why I haven’t been able to get my hands on one of these . . . yet. 😉

Alta LangaAlta Langa DOCG.  This area is becoming increasingly important for traditional method sparkling wines produced in southern Piemonte.  Although it is a large appellation overall, the actual area under vine is just over 250 acres (roughly 1/3 the size of Central Park).  And Alta Langa production is quite small – just over 600,000 bottles per year. Both planted acreage and production are expected to increase, however, as popularity of this region’s wines has soared in recent years.  And with good reason – they have some pretty strict requirements as far as what goes into the bottle and, as a result, are producing some delicious bubbles! 

Alta Langa vintageAlta Langa DOCG wines are made from a minimum 90% of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir.  And, unlike Champagne and the other regions mentioned above, there is no “non-vintage” production here.  All Alta Langa wines must be vintage dated and spend a minimum of 30 months on their lees.  So you’ll definitely find more of those yummy bready aromatics in wines from this region. 

I hope next time you’re thinking bubbles you’ll give one of these a try.  If you do, please let me know what you think! 🙂   Want to learn more about wine and bubbles?    Click the link to the right and subscribe to this blog!!!   

 

Drinking Outside the Box: 5 Northern Italian Wines to Check Out

In life, most of us tend to stick to our comfort zone.  The same route home.  Our favorite coffee mug in the morning.  Cozy sweats and re-runs of a show we’ve already binge watched a few times (I’m certain that I’ve seen every episode of Sex & the City at least four times).  And the same varietals in our glass of wine.  Even when ordering at a restaurant we’ve never been to before, or visiting a new wine store with endless options, we’ll probably choose something we know – rather than something we don’t.

Since I started studying for the Italian Wine Scholar exam a few months ago, I’ve come to realize how many grape varieties there are that I’ve never even heard of – let alone tried.  (Italy itself has at least 350 different native grapes!)  Hubs and I have gradually started working through some of these grapes – mostly to positive results!  Proving that when I allow myself to branch out beyond what I’m comfortable with – my frequent Pinot Noir or Washington state Syrah – I expand my palate and my mind, but also my wine cellar. 😉

So, I’m encouraging you to “drink outside the box” and try something new as well.  Next time you’re at a restaurant or wine store with a carefully curated Italian section (particularly from the North!) – nix the Nebbiolos, pass on the Pinot Grigios and Proseccos, and give one of the following wines a shot instead.  You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. 🙂

italianwineregions
Map courtesy of the always awesome Wine Folly

Cortese/Gavi.  Cortese is the grape and Gavi the location in Southeast Piemonte where it’s been grown since at least the early 1600s.  Cortese performs particularly well in Gavi and throughout the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed immense success.  However, in the same manner that other popular things have been WAY overdone – the Real Housewives series (did we really need DC?), the zombie apocalypse, “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank]” – lots of producers jumped on the Gavi bandwagon and tons of meh wines were the result of this massive overproduction.  Thankfully, Gavi has recovered and was elevated to DOCG status in 1998 – Happy 20 year Anniversary Gavi!  Same year as me and Hubs. 🙂

Gavi DOCG wines must be made from 100% Cortese.  These wines are usually crisp and refreshing with minerality and a striking lemon zest character.  And while it’s best known for still wines, Gavi is also produced in a variety of sparkling styles as well.

The Gavi we had recently was from Broglia.  Impressively, the estate has records of its vineyards going back to 972!  The wine was slightly riper on the palate than I expected – with flavors of ripe apple and Meyer lemon along with Cortese’s trademark minerality.  Some wines from this region can be nice little porch pounders for the summertime (or 10 months out of the year down here in SoCal), but this one definitely had more complexity and depth.

Northern whites

Arneis.  This white grape is native to the Roero hills in Piemonte and was saved from near extinction in the 1960s by two prominent producers in the area: Vietti and Bruno Giacosa.  Today, in large part thanks to these two, plantings of Arneis are around 2,400 acres.  Arneis is a challenging grape to grow – it’s prone to poor and irregular yields and tends to drop acidity rapidly when approaching full ripeness – which often isn’t until late September.  So, it’s no surprise that “Arneis” in local dialect translates to “difficult personality.”

When in the right hands, Arneis produces fuller bodied wines that are subtly perfumed and complex with aromas/flavors of white flowers, stone fruit and pear.  The wines are typically fresh and floral and should be consumed within a few years of release.

We had an Arneis produced by one of its rescuers – Bruno Giacosa.  The wine was definitely delicate in the aromatic department, I was getting yellow fruit (apples, pears) and some floral notes.  On the palate it was zesty with a slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so, finish.  This would pair amazingly with grilled fish or lighter/herbed pasta dishes.  Or a big ol’ pile of prosciutto.

Ruché.  This will undoubtedly be the most challenging of the five wines to find.  Ruché is a rare, aromatic red grape likely native to the town of Castagnole in Piemonte, where it has been grown for centuries.  Today, there are only around 250 total acres planted to this grape in Italy and it is rarely found elsewhere.

In 2010, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG became the first (and only!) delimited area dedicated entirely to the Ruché grape.  Wines from this DOCG must be made from at least 90% Ruché (with Barbera or Brachetto making up the balance).  Ruché based wines are typically intensely perfumed with aromas of roses, red fruit and spice.

I recently sampled a Ruché from Montalbera – an Italian producer hugely supportive of and dedicated to the grape.  The wine was one of the most unique wines I’ve ever had.  Incredibly pale in the glass, it looked like it should be delicate and subtle – yet it was anything but.  The wine was full of aromas of cherries, tea leaves, orange peel and spices with very prevalent acidity and tannins and a lengthy, bitter finish.  If you want to try something truly different, Ruché is your wine.

Lagrein.  (rhymes with “wine” – easy to remember!) This red grape is can be found predominantly in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Northeast Italy.  Lagrein is late ripening and needs significant warmth and sun to ripen fully – so it seems somewhat counterintuitive that it would be grown in an area that’s bumping up against the Italian Alps.  However, this region has 300 days of sunshine per year and a warm growing season, so Lagrein thrives – and it’s delicious!

Lagrein makes up about only 8% of total grape plantings in Alto Adige and around 1,200 total acres.  There are also a few California wineries that produce a Lagrein (although I haven’t run across any of these yet).  Lagrein produces fuller bodied, rich, darkly colored wines with higher tannins and acidity and often a bitter finish. The wines are frequently packed with aromas of berry fruit, violets and a savory/meaty component.

We had a Lagrein from Castelfeder, which is located in Alto Adige. This wine was somewhat reminiscent of a Northern Rhône Syrah for me – violets, charred black fruits, smoked meat.  This was Hubs favorite of the two reds, probably because he’s obsessed with smoky anything since he recently purchased a new smoker. 🙂

Lambrusco.  Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region and is essentially an umbrella term covering several distinct varieties all within the Lambrusco family.  Some of the more common ones you’re likely to see on a wine label are:

  • Lambrusco di Sorbara – produces the lightest version of Lambrusco and is considered to be the benchmark style
  • Lambrusco Salamino – the most widely planted of the Lambrusco varieties
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa – produces fuller bodied and more tannic wines

Unfortunately, most of the Lambrusco that is exported is sweet, characterless and mass-produced (kind of like my old college standby Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill – yes, dear reader, my introductory “wine” was Boone’s, please don’t judge me).  Classic Lambrusco wines are dry (or very slightly off-dry) with refreshing acidity, fizziness and flavors of bright red berries and spice.   To find this style of Lambrusco, your best bet is to look for DOC or DOP on the label – indicating that the wine was made according to stricter production standards and that the grapes come from a specific geographical area.  Other terms to look for include:

  • Secco, Amabile or Dolce – these mean dry, medium-sweet and sweet
  • Frizzante – lightly sparkling
  • Spumante – fully sparkling

LambruscoHubs and I sampled a few different styles of Lambrusco, ranging from a rather flat and nondescript juicy red wine, to a delicately effervescent wine with black cherries and spice, to an incredibly aromatic sparkler full of dried black fruits.  My favorite by far was the 3rd (the Medici Ermete) and it was incredibly delicious with our barbequed burgers!

So, let’s see . . . that’s 5 native Italian grapes down, only around 345 left to go! 😉

Oh – and I purchased the majority of these wines at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, CA (which I will be frequenting frequently because it’s the most awesome wine store EVER!!)  But if you’re having problems finding any of these, Hi-Time ships!

Barbera

I’m a Pacific Northwest wine girl.   Give me my Willamette Pinots and Walla Walla Syrahs all day long – they’re my woobie, my comfort zone, my home.  Outside of the United States, I have put a stake in the ground in France.  I’ve passed my French Wine Scholar exam, been inducted into the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, spent two weeks tasting in the French countryside, and stocked my wine fridge with more grower Champagne than I care to admit.

All of this brings me to Italy.

I don’t know much about Italian wines and I sure the hell am not comfortable with the ungodly number of DOCGs (74), DOCs (332) and IGTs (118). I mean, seriously, that is – to quote Hubs most eloquently – a “metric shit ton” of information for a single wine producing country. So to get me out of my comfort zone and expand my palate I took a deep breath and signed up for the Italian Wine Scholar exam.

Unlike the French Wine Scholar exam in which I was studying – for the most part –  regions and grapes I at least had some degree of comfort with, with the IWS I feel like I’m starting from scratch.  Sure, I know about Dolcetto and Nebbiolo – but Freisa or Bosco?  Truth be told, before the IWS course I’d never even heard of these grapes!  Thankfully the good folks at the Wine Scholar Guild graciously indicated “need-to-know” areas in the textbook so I’m not cramming my brain with minor details that won’t be on the exam. IWS know this

My primary reasons for pursuing the IWS certification are twofold: (1) learn more about Italy in preparation for my WSET Diploma (starts in May!); and (2) get out of my comfort zone and expand my palate.  I definitely tend to gravitate towards Syrah and Pinot Noir with regularity . . . too much so to be honest.  If I can discover a few other go-to wines during my IWS studies, that would make all of these outlines and flashcards worthwhile (I think).  Also, by almost every conceivable measure Italy is the largest wine producing country in the world – so, you know, I probably ought to be conversant about their grapes!

Fortunately, early on in my IWS studies I “re-discovered” Barbera which was a little like seeing an old friend on your first day at a new school.  I’ve had it several times before, but always socially, never as part of my academic pursuits, which I honestly think makes me appreciate it even more.  It’s a classic, “everybody loves a comeback” grape.

While Barbera’s exact origin is unknown, it’s believed to have existed in the Monferrato region of Piemonte (Northwest Italy) since the 7th century.  So essentially, about a thousand years before Cabernet Sauvignon came into being!  Currently, Italy is home to almost 85% of the world’s Barbera plantings with approximately 52,600 total acres.  To put this into perspective, Italy’s Barbera production is roughly equivalent to every single grape grown in the entire state of Washington (see “metric shit ton” reference above).

Barbera used to be produced en masse and hailed as “the people’s wine”, with much of it being – to quote Miles – “quaffable, but far from transcendent.” Over the past 20+ years, Barbera has had a dramatic upgrade in its image and is no longer constantly playing second (or third) fiddle to other Italian red varietals. Producers are planting Barbera on more prized vineyard sites. Yields are being kept in check by careful pruning. And finally, to balance its crazy high acidity and diminished tannic structure, more producers are opting to age Barbera in smaller oak barrels as opposed to the traditional large neutral casks. This often results in a wine that has a layer of spicy complexity, mellowed acidity and a delicious combination of lively red fruit with vanilla notes.

When I was visiting my Dad during the holidays, we went on our traditional wine-tasting afternoon in the Red Mountain AVA (which he is fortunate enough to live practically next door to).  While at one of our favorites, I noticed an older vintage of Barbera on their shelves.  Knowing that there’s less than 100 acres of this grape grown in the entire state, I was curious what my home state’s version of this wine would taste like compared to the Italian classic.  Here are my thoughts:

Kiona BarberaKiona Vineyards 2010 Barbera, Red Mountain, WA.  14.5% abv. Medium ruby-garnet colored.  The aromatics make me think of a delicate Cabernet – red currants and an almost vegetal note (I tend to get this with a lot of Red Mountain wines).  This seriously smells like our friend Paul’s bourbon soaked cherries that he gave us a few years ago and we haven’t actually tried yet because I’m afraid I’ll be on my lips after having just one!  Lots of secondary and tertiary aromas here as well – spice, charred oak, coffee, sandalwood.  The wine is medium bodied and acidity is definitely pushing high.  There’s a little bit of heat from the alcohol, noticeable but not overwhelming.

Cantina del Pino 2015 Barbera, Barbera d’Alba, Italy. 14.% abv. Color here runs a little more ruby-purple.  This wine smells pretty – roses, black raspberries and cherries, pomegranate, but the aromatics are not nearly as strong or complex as the Kiona.  On the palate, lots of the same juicy fruits with round/smooth tannins.  This wine is very straightforward – it’s tasty, but there’s just not a lot going onBarbera d'Alba.

While I enjoyed both, I surprised myself by preferring the Red Mountain Barbera over the classic Barbera d’Alba.  The d’Alba was simple – very sour fruit driven with not a whole lot else going on.  Nonetheless, both tasted delicious with my pizza!  Barbera pairs wonderfully with a variety of foods – tomato based dishes like pasta or pizza, BBQ chicken or charcuterie.

Try it out for yourself – and check out the outline on Barbera!