Not that there haven’t been the occasional introspective moments. We happen to live in a wealthy part of the world, so the aftershocks of the economic quake that hit months ago aren’t felt as intensely. But one of my Italian friends admonished, “stay attentive” – we are not finished in this cycle quite yet. Folks in Abruzzo understand such things, having been rippled by the earth below their feet countless times, the last time almost a year ago when Aquila was almost leveled.
Surprise of the trip? An experimental wine from Illuminati, the Nico. I first had this wine in the 1980’s when Illuminati was making their charge up the hill to be seen as one of the leaders for quality wine from Abruzzo. Made from passito Montepulciano, this wine has been a laboratory for ideas from the Illuminati winery. It has also been the wine that the older winemaker Spinelli symbolically passed the baton to the younger winemaker, Capellacci. Now the wine, for me, has taken on a life of its own, the conversation is now between me and Nico, no longer between the generations of winemakers that are part of the history of illuminati.
Old friend and colleague Guy Stout was in the room this week when we tasted the 2003 Nico. At the first whiff of the wine, prickly and a bit wild, I walked over to Guy. “You detect a little volatile acidity?” I asked him. “ I do – a lot.” He said and smiled. The lack of “polish” made us both happy. Here was a wine with a life life that someone hadn’t styled into a pretty little high-test velvet bomb. Note to Barbera producers- take a walk on the wild side, free the Barbera- it’s working for some of the upcoming producers in Abruzzo. And we like the results here in Texas and America.
Stefano said it well, and this isn’t the first time I have heard it. He said, “Our grandfathers used to sell their grapes to Tuscany, to Veneto, to France. We don’t have time for that now. We need our grapes.”
We need our grapes. And while not every grape from Abruzzo is destined to be put in a bottle that says “Made in Abruzzo,” the young generation has a reason to be fiercely proud of their progress.
Yesterday as the minivan was carrying us from hotel to meeting, Stefano made a call to his friend and colleague Leonardo Pizzolo, who is also barnstorming Texas towns with his Montepulciano from Valle Reale. The two talked, will miss each other in Texas, one in Austin while the other is in Houston, I overheard the conversation they were having in Italian. Leonardo was seeing the wine lists with scores of Chianti wines on them, but maybe only one wine from Abruzzo. “How is it they can put so many Chianti’s on their lists and half of them are so awful. They don’t speak of where they come from.” Maybe Leonardo, because the wine in the bottle doesn’t come from Tuscany? Or maybe because too many people in Tuscany have lost their way?
Two days ago, sitting around a table in Houston with a group of young sommeliers we had that same discussion. “I just don’t think of Chianti as an interesting wine anymore,” one of them remarked. After a heated discussion that got into the styles and the areas, I think they are more confused about the style of Chianti because there are so many expressions of what Chianti is. And while we won’t solve the problems for Tuscany or Piedmont at a table in Houston (we’ll save that honor for the halls of Vinitaly in a few weeks) the discussion rages on.
The young sommeliers want to know more about the Italian wines, especially being exposed to young producers who are their peers, who have come up in similar times. And honestly, the experience of growing up in the last 20 years, where communications have flattened the world, where we get around more, have allowed for a closer sharing of the life experience, more so than ever before. Just look around you, people are plugged into their electronic tribes like never before.
And that, dear readers - especially anyone looking out, looking in on the ground at one the battlefields to save Italian wine from becoming “international” - that is what we have been meeting about here on the wine trail.
The bus leaves out of here in 45 minutes and I have to get packed and ready - we have a gig in Dallas @ 10:30 AM!