Monday, September 27, 2010

Dinner with a Biodynamic Winemaker: Cefalicchio of Puglia

Fabrizio Rossi is not a typical winemaker. (In fact, he doesn’t call himself a winemaker at all.) For a start, he’s an agronomist, with a background broader than viticulture. Fabrizio is also a soft-spoken man, a rarity among winemakers. Like most people who talk little, it’s worth paying close attention when he does talk because he has something interesting to say. And in Fabrizio’s case, he breaks the winemaker mould again in being much blunter about his wines than most winemakers I’ve met, as ready to talk about what didn’t go well as what did.

All this made for an interesting dinner for Michèle and I the other night with Fabrizio Rossi at the restaurant La Roma, featuring the wines of Cefalicchio from northern Puglia. The dinner was part of the Wines of Puglia week, organized by Antonio Mauriello and his DiVino Wine Studio.

Cefalicchio has been the Rossi Family’s estate for more than a hundred years and includes Biodynamic-certified production of wine and olive oil, as well as a hotel and restaurant, spa, and seminars on food and wine. But it’s only since 2003 that they have produced their own wines. (Before that, they turned their grapes over to a local cooperative for winemaking.) Perhaps Fabrizio’s blunt talk about their wines comes easy to him because he understands that experience in winemaking comes slowly over decades and generations, so expecting perfection after 7 years is unrealistic.

Our wine tasting started with the Vigne Alta 2007, IGT Puglia Rosso.  13.0% ABV. Made from 100% Montepulciano and aged in stainless steel. Aromas of sour black cherry, blackberry, dried herbs, and earthiness (mushrooms and wet leaves). With high tannins, the mouthfeel is quite drying and even a bit harsh on the finish. Fabrizio Rossi said that they left the juice on the skins too long during fermentation, which drove the tannin levels higher than they should be. The Vigne Alta was matched with Breaded Mussels baked with basil and lemon. I’m used to eating mussels with white wine but matching these mussels with red wine is typical in Puglia and it works surprisingly well. And the wine was better with the mussels.

Next was Canosa 2007, DOC Rosso Canosa.  13.5% ABV.  Made from Nero di Troia (65%) and Montepulciano (35%). Aged in stainless steel. Aromas of red and black fruits (mostly cherry), dried herbs and minerality. Medium acidity and certainly softer tannins than the first wine and better balanced. Some heat was evident on the nose. Matched with Orecchiette tossed in a tomato sauce with Ricotta cheese (and, I think, some chili peppers). Whatever the hot spice in the pasta dish was, it worked against the wine, pushing the heat up unpleasantly even though the alcohol level was still reasonable at 13.5%.

We moved on to Romanico Reserva 2005, DOC Rosso Canosa.  13.5% ABV. Made from 100% Nero di Troia. Aged in oak for 12 months. It’s wines like this that are turning me into a big fan of Nero di Troia, a variety that is native to Puglia. Nero di Troia was almost lost as a wine-producing grape (it’s difficult to ripen properly and tends to over-produce its foliage) but the Pugliese recently re-established it. Unfortunately, according to Fabrizio, the winemaking methods for Nero di Troia have been lost so it’s back to the starting point in understanding how to make a good wine from these grapes. But Pugliese winemakers are convinced of its potential to produce wines suitable for aging. I found aromas of raspberries at first, yielding to prunes and cooked plums, some floral notes, with hints of orange zest, liquorice, and spices. Good acidity and soft tannins, this wine is well balanced. Matched very well with a generous Braised Lamb Shank with seasonal vegetables, including rapini.

Our final wine was Totila 2005, IGT Puglia.  13% ABV. Made from Nero di Troia (50%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (50%). Aged 6 months in oak. This is what I think of as a “halfway house” wine, made for folks who aren’t quite ready for a Nero di Troia varietal, so they throw in some Cabernet Sauvignon with the Troia for the international market.  Fabrizio tells us that the blend for this wine is the top subject for rainy days at Cefalicchio.  (They have rainy days in Puglia?!)  What's the right proportion of Nero di Troia and Cabernet Sauvignon?  His own opinion is that they should reduce the Cabernet Sauvignon to 30 percent.  Aromas of red cherries and cooked fruits at first from the Troia, then the cassis and fresh herbal notes come in from the Cabernet Sauvignon, with vanilla and cinnamon from the oak. Right down the middle with suede tannins and medium acidity. Very good wine, but I prefer my Nero di Troia uncut. Matched with two cheeses – tangy pecorino and baked ricotta slices – and refreshing iced grapes.

A fun evening with unusual wines and delicious food. The 2005s are better than the 2007s but for a winery that’s less than a decade into producing its own wines, the potential is obvious. Buona Fortuna, Fabrizio e Grazie, Antonio!

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