Vino Calabrese:  The Wines of Calabria

Vino Calabrese: The Wines of Calabria

Calabria, a region of Southern Italy, is not as well known internationally for its wines as many other regions, but has a rich tradition of producing incredible table wines, mainly reds.  Being in the far south, at the toe of Italy’s boot, the warm, dry climate and hills with volcanic soil are ideal for producing dark, full-bodied red wines with high tannins.  Approximately 90% of the wines from this region are red wines.  The most common varietal in Calabria is the Gaglioppo grape, the primary grape used to produce Ciro, the only wine from the region with appreciable international familiarity.  Ciro may also contain up to 5% of the white grapes Greco Bianco and Trebbiano. Today, most of the wine from Calabria is produced to high alcohol content and sold in bulk to co-operatives for blending with Northern Italian wines.  To lovers of big reds, that seems to be a waste of a potentially great wine.  I have tasted Ciro, and in my opinion, it is one of many really great Italian wines on its own, and is a great choice to pair with red meat, pasta with red sauce, and sharp cheese.

 

Other commonly used reds from Calabria include Gaglioppo, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Greco Nero, Magliocco and Marsigliana.   None of these grapes are as well-known as the Nebbiolo grape that is used in producing the fine Italian Barolo, but these grapes make great wines in their own rite.  Because Calabria is historically among the most rural and least industrialized regions of Italy, the export market is relatively undeveloped, and most wine makers produce and distribute their wines locally.  My family in Italy has a long history of small-scale wine making and local sales in Sersale, the town pictured on our wine bottles.  Our family in Lawrenceville has established our winery to replicate as closely as possible the wines produced by the Talarico family in Calabria.  Because southern Italian grapes are not grown in the US, and we insist on producing our reds from grapes (as opposed to juice, where the benefit of fermenting on the skins is eliminated) that don’t do well sitting on a loading dock in Newark waiting to be cleared by customs, we use the grapes available to us that closely resemble the wines of our family.  Our Vino da Tavola, made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, our Montepulciano, a wine grown primarily in Abbruzzi in Central Italy, and Tannat, originally from Southern France and Spain, closely resemble the wine of our ancestors.  In the fall, we are adding Teroldego and our Rosso Alpino, a blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera, Northern Italian grapes that share the full body and high tannins of Southern Italian reds. 

 

The white grapes from the region are Greco Bianco, Malvasia Bianca and Trebbiano.  These varietals are less unique to Calabria, and are widely grown throughout Central and Southern Italy.  The Greco Bianco is an amber, full-bodied white, and is primarily produced as a sweet wine.  The Malvasia Bianca and Trebbiano are light, refreshing wines with a hint of citrus flavors. These are the primary grapes used in the Roman blend, Frascati, that is one of our more popular whites.

 

While we do offer some of the more common wines at Papa Joe’s Wine Cellar, Malbec, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and sweet Moscato, for example, we take special pride in our less common varietals, especially those that adhere to our objective of offering wine and cuisine that one would experience at a small family restaurant in Calabria in an authentic setting.

Ice Wine: We Call it Ghiacciato: We are Probably the only Winery that Does.

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What do you call a German sweet wine that is harvested after a frost to concentrate the sugar and acid when you pride yourself in making primarily great Italian and Southern European dry wines?  If you are Papa Joe's Wine Cellar, you call it Ghiacciato.  Everyone else calls it ice wine, or the German eiswein.  it is possible that ice wines date back to the Roman Empire in the first century A.D.  It is more likely, however, that the grapes dried on the vine before freezing.  Those wines were more likely what would be considered today to be late harvest wines, where the grapes were allowed to dry, or raisin, on the vine, taking advantage of Bortyris cinerea, or noble rot, to dry the grapes and concentrate the sugars before the grapes froze.  Winemakers who make ice wines, on the other hand, depend on an early hard frost to freeze the grapes before the Bortyris growth progresses appreciably.  In this case, the concentration of the juice is a result of pressing hard frozen grapes, thereby limiting the concentration of juice in the final product. 

True ice wine more likely dates back to 1794 in Franken, Germany.  The first frost came early before a considerable proportion of the harvest was completed.   The remaining grapes were pressed frozen, and the resulting wines had a high sugar content and were very flavorful.  The wines were popular, and by the mid 19th century, eiswein became a staple of the Rheingau region of Germany.  The first North American ice wine was most likely produced by the Inniskillin Winery in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario in 1984.  Currently, Germany and Canada are still the major producers of ice wines, although over the past 20 years or so, the practice has proliferated in the Finger Lakes and on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in New York and Pennsylvania and in wine growing regions of the upper Midwest, where early frosts are common.  Our own ice wine is made using Vidal Blanc juice from Presque Isle Wine Cellars in North East, PA.   Presque Isle presses the grapes naturally frozen and distributes the fresh juice to wineries and amateur wine makers.

The grapes for ice wine are pressed at approximately 20 degrees F (-7 degrees C) to yield a concentrated juice where only 10-20% of the juice is pressed off the grapes.  For this reason, ice wine tends to be on the pricey side, generally being sold for $50 for a 375 ml. bottle (split, or half bottle).  We sell ours for $28, a relative bargain, but still considerably more expensive by volume than any of our other varietals.  The fermentation process is relatively slow because of the high initial sugar content and relatively low pH.  German and Canadian standards for ice wines require  a residual sugar content of >12%  (compared to our Moscato at 6%) and total acid content of >1% (compared to most of our whites at .7-.8%).  The high acid content does serve to offset some of the sweetness.  

The most common grapes used for ice wines are naturally those that thrive in colder climates.  White ice wines include Vidal Blanc, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and Chenin Blanc.  Reds include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ice wines, being fruity and extremely sweet, pair well with desserts that aren't excessively sweet and with enough fat content to balance out the sweetness of the wine.  Good pairings include cheese cake, ice cream or gelato,  and white chocolate.  They also pair well with soft mild cheeses like Brie. 

Sauvignon Blanc: The Most Reliably Good White Wine

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Sauvignon Blanc originated from the Bordeaux Region of France.  The varietal is indigenous to Southwest France; the name can be loosely translated as "wild white."   In addition to France, Sauvignon blanc is grown widely in the southern hemisphere in Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and in Canada, Washington State, California, on the Lake Erie shoreline and in the Finger Lakes.  Some Sauvignon Blanc is called Fume' Blanc, particularly in California, where Robert Mondavi coined the name in reference to Pouilly-Fume'.  Most Sauvignon Blanc is dry, although it is commonly blended in the production of dessert wines. 

Sauvignon Blanc cultivated in cooler climates has higher acidity and green pepper notes with some tropical fruit.  Warmer climate Sauvignon Blanc tends to develop more tropical fruit character, as well as lime, green apple, and peach.  Our Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the Suisun Valley California by Lanza Musto Vineyards, is characteristic of the warm climate grapes, and is a crisp, refreshing wine that pairs especially well with chicken, fish, cheeses, and vegetables when served chilled. 

Like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes aged in oak to add complexity.   We forego the oak aging, producing a fresher, fruitier, more refreshing wine.  Personally, we prefer reds when we are in the mood for a complex wine, and prefer whites when we seek fresh, crisp, refreshing chilled wines.  The reason that Sauvignon Blanc is often thought of as a reliably good wine is because there is not the same temptation to make the wine something that it may not be.  Chardonnay, on the other hand, is often treated more like a red, with oak aging that adds complexity.  While that may result in what many oenophiles consider a "great white," it also may result in a complex but mediocre wine.  Sauvignon is a simple, elegant, crisp wine with moderate acidity and citrus notes.  While some may not consider it "great" (a matter of opinion) when made from good fruit by a good winemaker, it is reliably a very good wine.  When making a good wine, the winemaker must not only understand what the varietal is, but also what it isn't.

Our Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent choice, especially when chilled, with a variety of cheeses, fresh vegetables, and a white fish on a summer day.

Tannat: the Biggest of the Big Reds

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Tannat is a red wine grape that originated in Madiran, a village in Southwest France, and spread into the Basque region of Spain.  French and Spanish immigrants brought Tannat to South America, where it was grown in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and most prominently in Uruguay, where it is considered the national grape.  There are also vineyards in Australia, South Africa, and the Italian region of Apulia, as well as in California, Oregon, Arizona, Maryland, and Virginia in the US.

Although Tannat is grown in a considerable number of countries, it is generally not common outside of France, Spain, and South America.  Throughout the US, it is not particularly prevalent in wine shops, but is generally obtainable.  Our winery, Papa Joe’s Wine Cellar in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, is the only Pennsylvania winery that produces Tannat.  Our Tannat is grown by Heringer Estates in Clarksburg, CA in the Sacramento Valley.  To be honest, 3 years ago we had never heard of Tannat, until a friend went to South America, drank some, loved it, and told Katie and Beth that we had to try it.  We found some from Uruguay and were sold on the first sip.  It wasn’t easy to find, but we found Heringer’s and contracted 1 ton per year for 3 years.  Our great friend and grape supplier Ron Casertano at CFP Winemakers shipped it for us.

Tannat can best be described as a “big red,” very dark, almost black, with high tannins.  Ours is a bigger red than those from Uruguay, where most are a little lighter bodied and lower in tannins, and is similar to the Madiran Tannat.  Tannat is not for everyone, but those who like a big red really love it.

Depending on where it’s grown, the flavors vary appreciably.  Ours has an unmistakable blackberry flavor, with more subtle notes of clove, plum, and leather.  The oak aging does soften the tannins, but the boldness remains.  In spite of its relative obscurity, Tannat is among our best sellers.   Like the Madiran Tannat, some winemakers opt to blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, or Pinot Noir to soften the bold tannins, but others, like us, love it and would never think of diluting the character of this unique wine; it is awesome just as it is.

Tannat pairs well with fatty meats like sausage and brisket, a thick steak, lamb, or preserved meats like soppressata and prosciutto.  Strong aged cheeses like sharp provolone, gorgonzola, and havarti are good choices, as well as Italian red sauces.  Vegetable pairings include asparagus and artichokes.  Many believe that artichokes don’t pair well with many wines, because the cynarin in artichoke makes the wine taste sweet, flabby, and boring.  The boldness of Tannat more than overcomes that tendency.

Tannat is a hidden gem that we consider ourselves very fortunate to have found, and Papa Joe’s is proud to serve it by the glass with our family recipes at Piazza Talarico, by the bottle to go, or often both.  Tannat leaves an unmistakable impression on lovers of big reds like us.  

Added Sulfites in Wine - Controversial, but not Among Wine Makers

The most common question we are asked about our wines is if we add sulfites.  Like virtually every commercial winery, yes, we do add sulfites.  It is not at all uncommon for people to attribute the occasional wine intolerance to added sulfites, but in reality, sulfite intolerance is very uncommon.  Sulfites are present in all wine; the fermentation process produces sulfites in as high of a concentration as 20 parts per million, whereas added sulfite seldom results in a concentration of greater than 70 parts per million.  By comparison, dried fruits often contain in excess of 600 parts per million.  The point is that if one can eat a handful of raisins without any problem, but gets a headache from a glass of wine, the culprit is not sulfite, but one of the many other substances present in what is, by any measure, a very complex beverage.

Very few winemakers refrain from adding sulfites to their wines for one simple reason: it is possible to make a good wine without sulfites, but it isn’t either easy or reliable.  Sulfites are essentially preservatives, providing antibacterial and antioxidant properties.  Having made wine for over 35 years, most as an amateur winemaker, I have made some very good wines, a lot of mediocre wines, and a few bad wines.  I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that it’s not really that hard to make a good wine if the winemaker follows two simple rules: use the best grapes available and don’t screw up.  As an amateur winemaker, every subpar wine I ever made was a result of one of two factors:  the grapes I used weren’t always the best, or I failed to use enough sulfite at the right time.

With the recent trend in our society toward natural or organic foods, it is logical that some winemakers would go the natural route and market their products as organic.  The problem with this approach is that there is a tradeoff, and in this case that tradeoff is the very likely presence of “funky” aromas and “mousiness” in sulfite-free wines.  These results aren’t universal, but are a regular occurrence.  Some (not very many) winemakers contend that sulfite-free wines have added complexity and “strangeness” and that these characteristics are desirable. I disagree, as do the vast majority of winemakers.

While the use of sulfites are virtually universal among winemakers who aspire to produce great wines, as one would expect, there are many different opinions as to how much sulfite is enough, how much sulfite is too much, and when are the optimal times to add sulfite.  Some add sulfite immediately on crushing to kill any wild yeasts before adding lab yeasts, while others like to wait until primary fermentation is complete before “sterilizing” the wine.  Some add as little as they believe will serve their purposes, while others prefer to err on the high side.  Personally, we have varied our approach over the past few years after discussing sulfites with a number of other winemakers, and have settled on the scientific approach. We vary our sulfite addition based on the pH and alcohol content of the wine.  Less sulfite is needed at a lower pH (more acidic) and with higher alcohol concentrations.

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One of the great things about winemakers is that, as a group, they readily share their expertise, even with potential competitors.  There are many expos, wine-sharing events, seminars, etc. where winemakers freely compare notes.  At one such event, we had the opportunity to share one of our wines with the owner of the vineyard and winemaker that supplied the grapes.  When he tasted the wine, he asked “Is this ours (meaning from their vineyard)?” when we informed him it was, he replied “you didn’t add enough sulfite.”  We really appreciated his honest and direct criticism.  While our wine was good, he tasted a subtle fruity flavor that wasn’t optimal for this particular varietal.  The fruitiness could have been a result of a different strain of yeast or one of many bacteria that make subtle changes in the character of wine. I could claim that our wine had a complexity that theirs didn’t, but in reality, I agree that theirs was better. Among the choices that a winemaker makes is matching a laboratory-produced yeast with a varietal that enhances desirable characteristics, such as aroma, taste, mouth feel, etc. of that particular wine.  If a winemaker goes to the trouble of using the optimal yeast, it only makes sense to obliterate as many contaminating microorganisms as possible, to allow the optimal yeast strain to produce an optimal product.  Luckily, the differences were fairly subtle, and our wine was very good.  The results could have just as easily been a very mediocre wine.

The bottom line is that to produce the best wine, the vast majority of winemakers agree that the addition of sulfite is not optional. The key is to add enough but not too much to produce the best product, adding enough being considerably more important than not adding too much.  True sulfite sensitivity is uncommon to rare, and the only known reaction to sulfites is similar to asthma, not headache or stomach upset.  The vast majority of good wines, and ALL great wines are supplemented with an appropriate amount of sulfites.  There are always trade-offs in life, and choosing an organic wine is one of those trade-offs.  The consensus opinion among winemakers is that the risk of adverse effects of sulfite in a very small segment of the public is miniscule compared to the potential pleasure of drinking a really great wine.        

Frascati: The Wine of Popes

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Frascati, a light white wine grown exclusively in the Lazio region of Italy near Rome, is a relatively lesser known wine in the US that has a long rich history in Central Italy.  Named after the town of Frascati, originally the ancient town of Tusculum, 25 km southeast of Rome, the Frascati designation dates back to the 5th century, B.C.  The Romans called it the golden wine, not only because of its color, but also as an indication of its quality.  In the 16th Century, Frascati became known as the "Wine of the Popes" as it was said to have flown out of the fountains of Rome to celebrate the inauguration of Popes Clement X and Innocent X.  

The Frascati DOC is exclusive to its area of origin near Rome, and consists of a minimum of 70% Malvasia (Bianca di Candia) and Trebbiano, a maximum of 30% Greco and Malvasia (Del Lazio), and a maximum of 10% various local white grapes, including Bellone and Bambino bianco. In the late 1980s, Frascati was fairly popular in the US, but a few mass-producers who encouraged some vineyards to increase yield at the expense of quality caused the Frascati brand to suffer.   Those mass producers have since largely abandoned the market, leaving primarily low volume, higher quality producers to rebuild the image.  The rebuild is still a work in progress, although the quality of Frascati available has vastly improved. 

Frascati is a fresh, crisp, refreshing wine with an unmistakeable citrus flavor from the Malvasia grapes and some floral notes from the Trebbiano grapes.  Our own Frascati is imported as a fresh juice from the Lazio region.  The vineyard does not reveal the exact makeup, but judging from the fresh citrus flavor of our Frascati, I suspect that it is at least 60-70% Malvasia (Bianca di Candia).  Our Frascati is especially suited to be served cool to cold in the summer, is a great wine to sip on your patio (or better yet on our piazza),  and pairs well with white meats like chicken, fish, and even pork, antipasti, pasta with cream sauces or carbonara, and deserts.  Personally, I have found (by mistake) that Frascati pairs perfectly with butter pecan ice cream or gelato.

Montepulciano, an Uncommon Common Wine

Montepulciano, or Montepulciano di Abruzzo is, in my opinion, a very under-appreciated wine in the United States.  While very good Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots are ubiquitous throughout our region, a good Montepulciano is uncommon, if not rare.  At Papa Joe's Wine Cellar, we just began to produce our Montepulciano in 2015, but it has rapidly become one of our favorites, and a favorite of our customers.  While we appreciate our more common varietals, we really enjoy producing a great wine that few other wineries in our area offer.  As one who believes that great wines are not limited to Bordeaux and Barolo wines, etc. it is rewarding to produce what we believe is a stand-out among common table wines.  Many wine connoisseurs believe that the greatest value among wines is to be found among wines in the $15 -$25 range, and we agree.

Montepulciano is an Italian varietal, grown in the central and southern provinces in Italy.  It is rarely grown in northern provinces, being a warm weather grape that has a tendency to ripen late, and may not ripen to an optimal degree in cooler climates.  After Sangiovese, Montepulciano is the second most common wine grape grown in Italy.  The vast majority of Montepulciano is grown in Italy; in the US, the availability of this varietal is extremely limited.  We were able to procure enough for 250 liters in 2015, and 500 liters in 2016, but were unable to produce any in 2017.  We hope we will be able to again produce Montepulciano in 2018.  Currently, our Montepulciano is grown near Lodi, CA in the Central Valley.

Our Montepulciano is a medium bodied wine with low  tannins and low acidity with a deep burgundy color.  It has earthy and tobacco notes and plum, chocolate, and black fruit flavors.  We also expose it to oak aging, enhancing the complexity.  It pairs well with the fattier cuts of pork and sausage, as well as ground beef and brisket.  Fatty fish, barbecued chicken, lamb, and certainly pasta with tomato sauce also go well with this varietal.  Sharp cheeses like Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano, sharp Cheddar, Manchego and Fontina, as well as eggplant, roasted vegetables, pasta carbonara and pizza are also ideally paired with Montepulciano.  In our opinion, pairing is very subjective, and the suggestions above are far from exhaustive.  Personally, I love it with chicken piccata, although classically a Sauvignon Blanc would be far more popular among connoisseurs.

Those like us who really appreciate the many great common table wines of the world always enjoy a good Montepulciano.

Expansion of the Wine Industry in Pennsylvania

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Recent changes in Pennsylvania liquor laws have resulted in rapid expansion of the winery industry in Pennsylvania.  Our winery, Papa Joe's Wine Cellar, is but one of the many new wineries to open in the past few years.  There are now well over 200 limited wineries in the state.  Historically, the vast majority of wineries were operated in conjunction with a vineyard, but with loosening of regulations, many of the newer wineries purchase grapes rather than growing their own.  Expansion of the sources of grapes nationally and even internationally has greatly increased the variety of Pennsylvania fermented wines available to wine lovers.  

Even within varieatals, the region in which the grapes are grown causes fairly dramatic differences in the final product.  In the United States, eastern grown grapes tend to have a lower sugar content and a higher acid content.  these characteristics are a result of a shorter growing season and less variation between day and night temperatures during the growing season.  We have found that it is invariably necessary to add sugar before fermentation of eastern grapes to produce a stable wine with 11% or greater alcohol content.  That is not a negative, even for a dry wine, since added sugar is essentially the same as the sugar present in the fruit.  When producing a sweet wine, it is uncommon that even grapes grown in warmer climates will retain enough residual sugar after fermentation to appreciably sweeten the end product, so back sweetening (adding sugar after fermentation) is generally necessary.  Eastern grapes also have a tendency to be of relatively high total acid content, often above 0.8%, which results in a fruity and acidic flavor.  This characteristic is an asset to sweet wines and even some dry whites, but many dry red wine drinkers consider a high acid content to be less desirable, and many eastern dry reds are blended to minimize this aspect of wines.

The character of west coast wines also varies considerably among growing regions.  While sugar content is invariably sufficient to result in a wine with 11-16% alcohol, acid content may well need some adjustment to attain a low enough pH to resist spoilage.  Wines with a high pH tend to have an "earthy" character as opposed to a more fruity character.  While that may sound to the novice like an undesirable aspect of wine, earthiness is a highly sought after trait, and many so-called world class wines are described in this manner.  High pH wines require more sulfite addition to maintain their quality throughout the aging process.  The most variable characteristic of west coast wines is the intensity of color.  Red wines grown in the warmer regions of the central valley tend to be lighter in color and body than those grown in the more temperate areas, like Lodi, the Napa, Sonoma, and Suisun Valleys, and Oregon and Washington.

While the above discussion is far from complete, and will be expanded upon in future posts, suffice it to say that with the recent expansion of areas of origin of Pennsylvania produced wines, it is now easier than ever for a wine lover to find a local winery that offers a wine that will satisfy virtually everyone's personal taste.