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« Fall Wine Discovery Wraps Up With Champagne, Classic Rioja | Main | Wine Discovery Week 4: The Wines of France »

Exploring Italy with a Special Guest: Wine Discovery Week 5


Monday night marked the penultimate class in the Fall Wine Discovery Series at Levity. This has been an incredibly fun course to teach, with a great core group that has been augmented by drop-in attendees. Over the last five weeks, we have covered a multitude of topics, ranging from the basics of wine tasting, to the influences of the winemaking process, to the concept of terroir, to an overview of the wines of France. Each of the classes has built upon the material covered in the classes before it. This past Monday, armed with the knowledge accumulated over the previous four weeks, our core group of wine explorers embarked on an overview of one of the world's most complex wine producing countries: Italy.

It is impossible to do justice to the entirety of wine production in Italy in a single evening. The country is comprised of over 300 DOC zones, and more than 800 distinct grape varietals can be found within Italy's borders. Nonetheless, in last night's class, we covered the basics of Italian wine, including the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), which governs wine production in Italy, and is even more restrictive than France's analogous AOC. Other terminology relative to the classification of Italian wines such as Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), and Vino da Tavola (VdT) were also explained.   

Wine Discovery at Levity with Rafael Flores of Artisanal CellarsExplaining the basics of Italian wine is always fun, but the true highlight of last night's class came in the form of a special guest. As much as I love talking about Italian wines, I could not have been more thrilled when Rafael Flores, founder and owner of Artisanal Cellars, accepted my offer to join the class for our discussion of Italy. I have known Rafael since 2007, when I was working at Norwich Wine & Spirits in Norwich, Vermont. Rafael had founded Artisanal Cellars earlier that summer, and I came to know him from his visits to the shop. Along with Peter Rutledge, owner of Norwich Wine & Spirits, Rafael was a formative influence in my early wine education, and I have a tremendous respect for his wine knowledge. Along with Austria and France, Italy was one of the three countries whose wines Artisanal Cellars distrbuted when the company was founded in 2007. As a distributor, Rafael has established lasting connections and friendships with the producers of the Italian wines he represents, and those connections and friendships added a special element to our discussion of Italy last night.

As we discussed the principal grapes and wine regions of Italy, we enjoyed wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Abruzzo, Montalcino, Barbaresco, and Asti, and were treated to stories and pictures of Rafael's trips to those regions, and his interactions with the makers of the wines. Whether he was explaining the unique terroir of Masut de Rive's location on the Isonzo River in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, as we enjoyed their Fruilano, or showing pictures of the Bucci family's home and vineyards during our tasting of the ethereal Collematoni Rosso di Montalcino, Rafael personalized the wine making process in a way that only someone intimately familiar with the process could. His commentary highlighted the familial nature of small estate wine production, and placed special emphasis on the hard work that is required to produce wines in this manner. 

The class reaffirmed my affinity for small production, family estate wines. When you stop to think about it, despite all the controversy surrounding natural wines, expressing a preference for wines made with minimal intervention in a natural style, is a logical extension of the organic foods movement that has swept the country over the past few years. I'd much rather enjoy a wine that was made by a winemaker who was constantly in the vineyards, who harvested the grapes by hand, and selected the best grapes to use in their wines, as opposed to a commercially produced wine that made use of machine-harvested, pesticide-treated grapes, and manipulated the wine to compensate for a lack of care in the vineyard. The small production wine might cost more, but the added costs (which cover the expenses associated with hand harvesting, manual destemming, etc.) are borne out in the added quality and complexity of the wine.

It should be made clear that the additional expense associated with small production wines is not always exorbitant. The most expensive wine in Monday's class was the 2006 Ada Nada Barbaresco “Elisa” which generally carries a retail cost in the upper-$40 range. However, DOC regulations stipulate all Barbaresco must be aged for two years before it can be sold, so there are economic factors beyond the producers control influencing the price of the wine. Beyond that, when you consider that "Elisa" is Ada Nada's premier Barbaresco, that it is only produced in exceptional vintages, that the grapes used in the wine are sourced from small section of the estate's Valeriano vineyard (and are hand harvested), and that production is generally limited to around 7,000 bottles, a price point in the upper-$40 range doesn't seem all that unreasonable.

However, it is the familial component of these wines that is most special. There was something very refreshing and inspiring about hearing Rafael describe the winemaking operations at a winery like San Guiliano, where husband and wife duo, Giulio and Mariella Pastura, are responsible for nearly all of the estate's operations, both in the winery and in the vineyards. Also heartwarming was the tale of the Ada Nada Barbaresco “Elisa”, which is named for winemarker Gian Carlo Nada's granddaughter. Yet, there was a moment of sadness when Rafael announced that Gian Carlo had passed away about one month ago. When it comes to small family wineries, the passing of an owner and winemaker is especially significant, as occassionally, there is no succession plan. However, Rafael noted that this was not the case at Ada Nada. 

"His daughter, Analisa, is handling the cellar operations, and her husband, Elvio, is constantly in the vineyards," Rafael said wistfully. "The estate is not in jeopardy."

Rafael stated that while Gian Carlo's passing had affected him at a personal level, there was solace to be found in the fact that his memory would be preserved in the wines that had been his passion. Each time a past vintage of Ada Nada is opened, and with each new vintage that his children craft in the family's style, his legacy will be preserved. In the end, that is what is special about wine.

The wines from Monday's tasting are as follows:

This coming Monday, November 26th, will mark the final class in our Fall Wine Discovery Series at Levity. We will enjoy Champagne, and a celebratory review of the topics covered in the class. For a chance to win free admission to the class, take our latest quiz!

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