While I've never been one to be complacent in my studies or development of my professional skills, a recent dinner series made me realize there is still so, so much for me to learn about the wine world. I proudly shout from the mountaintops that I know a little about a lot! Wine is a constantly evolving subject that I've always said is impossible to know everything about. I don't care if you're a Master Somm or Certified Wine Educator-----there is always more to learn. BB King said it best "The Thrill is Gone" and I don't want to ever lose that thrill when it comes to wine. Learning keeps things fresh for me as a wine professional. I love being able to gush over a region I just discovered or a new wine grape. That's kind of how this whole blog came about during its early years, honestly. The chance to learn more often comes about because I'm prepping for an event these days. BOY do I have a tale to tell regarding two regions in Italy: one I was deeply familiar with and the other threw me for such a loop, I'm surprised my head didn't twist off.
Italy was a region I fell in love with early on. The art of pairing wine & food is like breathing to them there. It's also my mutant superpower for those in need of a reminder. If you've ever done an event with me or met me in person, you know that I'll wax poetic about it. A recent event series with Mano Bella Artisan Foods (the supper club series in question) has given me the opportunity to revisit parts of Italy through a new lens. Starting with the region of Lazio, or more specifically, Frosinone (a small town within in Lazio).
"Once the learning stops, in the words of BB King, 'the thrill is gone' and I want to keep that thrill alive."
Lazio is an area that will be incredibly familiar for most wine professionals and experienced wine drinkers but will definitely be completely new for anyone outside of those two camps. Winemaking in the area of Lazio dates back to the time of the Etruscans in ancient Rome. Within their 30 DOCs, there are a mix of indigenous varietals that thrive in the region's combination of volcanic soils & maritime climate. The Italians are proud of their indigenous grapes (Sangiovese & Nebbiolo anyone?), but unfortunately, Lazio's native grapes don't sit in the forefront of our minds like those of, for example, Tuscany. Why is that? So glad you didn't ask but I'm telling you anyway!
The Nazis had a “scorch the earth policy” during WWII and decimated much of the original plantings in Lazio. When grapes were replanted, there was a bigger focus placed on international varieties like Merlot & Cabernet Franc, which makes sense considering the influence of tourism on the area. They would refer to these as “Super Lazios” in the same vein as Super Tuscans (see my Tuscany post for more on these). The grapes of Lazio include red grapes like Cesanese & white grapes like Malvasia.
The most important DOC, EST EST EST di Montefiascone, is famous for its white wine. The delegate of a German bishop was tasked with writing EST! (meaning "it is here") on the doors of any inns that had good food & good wine. The delegate found the white blend of Trebbiano & Malvasia found in this DOC to be particularly exciting. Those are your two usual suspects when it comes to the white wine of the area. I recently had a version of this blend from De Sanctis for the Supper Club and they opted for a blend of Malvasia & Bombino (even more obscure white grape of the area). Literally tasted like spring captured in a bottle: orange peel, geraniums & ripened peaches. It's a fitting partner for anything green like grilled asparagus or fresh pesto.
For red wines, Lazio's Roman roots truly shine through. The working man's grape of Cesanese is an ancient varietal that grows almost exclusively in the area. There are some bad interpretations of this grape floating around out there so be wary. It needs to be fully ripened to produce quality wines, otherwise it will be quite woodsy & green, and not in a pleasant way! A little TLC goes a long way with Cesanese. The best I've had veer towards more savory on the palate with a fruit structure that is slightly Syrah-esque & yields a glimpse of blue fruits. While they don't work with Cesanese, one of the biggest producers of Lazio is Famiglia Cotarella and one you should seek out if looking for some wines to act as an entry point to the region. It doesn't hurt that Ricardo Cotarella is also one of the most sought after wine consultants in the world, and behind some of their most famous wines, ha! While Lazio has the advantage of some easy entry points, the other region we will discuss, Calabria, holds no such ease.
"There's a joke in here about how many wine professionals it takes to change a lightbulb when it comes to the region of Calabria."
Y'all there have been many times in my career where I have been humbled, and trying to source wines for the most recent entry in the Supper Club Series was one of them. Celine (GM of Assorted Table), Josh (the owner), and myself were all sitting down for a good hour or so trying to cycle through our mental rolodex of wines we've had from Italy to see if any of us had a producer in mind specifically from Calabria. There's a joke somewhere in there about how many wine professionals it takes to screw in a light bulb----it was that kind of moment. Keep in mind there is likely over 3 decades worth of experience in the profession of wine when you mash all of us together. Librandi is the one producer that Josh had encountered, but was so distant in his memory it was hard to discern if the wine was of quality without tasting it for ourselves. Any thoughtful insight into the region clearly has to be formulated by sipping through its wines, right? Having to dig deep to understand a new region was thrilling for me because it reasserted that the learning process of wine has not stopped for me just yet.
Calabria is sitting in between two more well known Italian wine regions, Sicily & Puglia, so its giving Southern Italy vibes all day. One would assume that the wine varietals of the area would mirror in some capacity, and while they do, there are definitely some austere grapes in the mix. Just like Lazio had heavy influence from ancient Rome, the Greek have had their hand in the metaphorical pot of Calabria. Even more so in the area of Ciro where Librandi Winery is located. Librandi is technically a smaller producer, but they are the flagship voice for spreading the gospel of wines from Calabria. They've been making wines for over 4 generations and predominantly female led in the vineyards. It is their greatest wish that more people become acquainted with the history & traditions of winemaking in the region without trying to compare it to the more popular areas of Italy. While the climate, terroir, etc. fell in line with what I expect of a Mediterranean locale in the south of Italy, it was a specific red grape that jumped out to me as strikingly new.
Gaglioppo (gah-lee-oh-po) was thought to have been a gift from the Greeks to the area, but DNA profiling has since indicated that this grape is an Italian at heart AND potentially a love child of Sangiovese & an unknown grape. You have got to love the soap opera relationships of the wine grapes-----THE DRAMA. While thin skinned, this grape produces some highly tannic red wines. So it needs a little more time in the bottle to soften it out. The result is very Mediterranean with all the scents of fresh herbs & spiced fruits on the palate and slight whiff of bruised rose petals. You often will see some white wine varieties blended in this red to give it some more lift and levity.
I'm recapping this experience with these regions as a reminder to any who love wine: never stop learning. The beauty of this recent Supper Club Series with Mano Bella Artisan Foods was the opportunity to either revisit or discover a wine region for the first time. I got to feel the excitement and anticipation right alongside the guests while sharing my new discovery. It reminding me to keep the thrill alive during this journey through wine, food & hospitality, and it couldn't have come at a better time. So join me in raising a glass to Lazio & Calabria, and let's see how often they come up in convo the next time you are sipping some Italian juice!