When I saw that my nearest Total Wine outlet was offering for a limited time a 20% discount on Italian wines, I lamented that it’s been four years since I was last in Italy and rushed off to buy a couple of mixed cases of wines from all parts of the Italian peninsula. Nearly all were labelled by grape variety, and I made sure that my white and red selections represented a broad cross section of Italy, from the Veneto in the north to Sicily in the Mediterranean. That included my favorite regions — Piedmont and Tuscany — but also the Marches, Alto Adige, Orvieto, Apulia, and a range of classic Chiantis. Placing these bottles in my cart made me long for another drive down the backbone of Italy crisscrossing the regions that produced these varied wines.
Out of the Piedmont, home to the noblest of Italian grapes, Nebbiolo, in Barolo and Barbaresco, I brought home a few Dolcettos, “the little sweet one,” a light red likened to the French Beaujolais in character, and Barbera, making sure that this rich, spicy red had been grown in Alba so as to be 100% Barbera. (Barbara d’Asti, for example, may be blended with any number of other varietals.) The white Arneis takes me back to the Roero Hills which link Italy to France and proves that red wine country can really create zesty white wines.
Well-crafted Pinot Grigio brings freshness, crispness, and length when its not one of the commodity mass-produced bottlings aimed at international markets, so I took pains to select those from the Veneto and the Dolomite lake country up north.
Of those with place names — Chianti and Orvieto, for example — rather than grape names, I took only those designated DOC (denominazione de origine controllata, guarantee of originality) or classic. From Sicily, the country’s largest wine producer, I found DOC Neros, deep-colored red wines representative of the slightly more than only the two percent of top classified wines produced on the Mediterranean’s largest island.
Vernaccias from Tuscany, Trebiannos from Orvieto, and Montepulcianos from Apulia rounded out my stay-at-home tour of Italy, so now we head to the grocers for shell fish, risottos, zamponies, calamaris, and prosciuttos. Salute!
A friend of my daughter’s asked her one day how long she could keep a 1980-something bottle of Dom Perignon. My daughter relayed the question to me. Before I could offer the customary explanation that a vintage Champagne — especially a Dom Perignon — could easily endure a couple of decades if properly stored, my daughter told me the lady had said the bottle had been in her refrigerator for at least five years, maybe longer.
Probably all of you have been told that the best way to chill Champagne, any wine for that matter, is in a pail of ice water for a few minutes, that the fridge is a poor alternative and that keeping it in the fridge for any length of time will sacrifice its freshness.
All of us who use wine always have a few bottles we keep for special occasions. Sometimes a year or two or more pass before we make the decision to use them. And we have all had the sad experience of having kept them too long. Not always. We have also had the thrill of tasting a twenty-year-old Claret of a fine vintage stored exactly right. That thrill results from the quality of the wine that went into the bottle, its provenance while in bottle, and, not to be overlooked, the state-of-mind as the cork is extracted.
That said, I confess to having all too often waited too long for that special occasion for that special bottle. And when asked how long a certain bottle can be kept, I can make an educated guess but I just don’t know.
So it was with the Dom Perignon. I wasn’t there when the lady served it, but it was reported back to me that the wine was delicious, bubbly, and golden. See, I just don’t know.
A few days ago my wife dropped a zip-lock bag on my desk and walked away without saying a word. It was part of her every-once-in-a-while clearing out of her art studio. The bag contained about 50 or 60 wine labels.
Like many people getting started with wine, we used to collect labels, but that was a long time ago. It stopped being fun when we began to see how hard it was to get some labels, how they began to accumulate if you didn’t organize them right away, and when it became obvious we were getting a lot of the same labels because of our tendency to use the same wines over and over.
Back then we made notes on the labels, what we thought of the wines, with whom we shared them, how we used them. For several years my wife used them as holiday cards, artfully attached to tag board. But as time went by, we made fewer and fewer notes and hurried our empty bottles to the recycle bins, labels and all.
I was surprised that she still had such a collection. (So was she.) None of them contained notes, and most of them were labels without vintage years on them, especially those from France and Italy where vintage years are often affixed separately from the actual label.
Nonetheless, as I leafed through them, memories leaped out of the past. The earliest date was 1968 — a rather poor vintage year in Europe — a Silvaner natur from the Sommerhaueser Steinbach — a village I had helped the First Infantry Division occupy many years earlier. There was Roditis rose we had bought on our first car trip through Greece, reminding me of getting lost in Thessalonika. The most recent label was of a 1997 Monticello Chardonnay from Barboursville Vineyards, where we first realized that Thomas Jefferson had died much too soon, that his dream of producing good wine in Virginia was really possible.
A 1973 Chateau Rausan-Segla took me back to my first trip through Bordeaux with a plan to write about my experiences there. A 1986 Chateau Haut-Segottes, a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru reminded me of its producer, Madam Andre, the first female wine maker I had ever met and whose wines we had used throughout the 1980s. The 1996 Tempranillo Coronas by Torres told of our last visit to the Penedes, nearly twenty years ago.
And so it went. Enjoyable as it was, lovingly fingering our way through these labels, neither of us felt compelled to start once again removing labels and pasting them or boxing them in some sort of accessible album. Yet, I encourage any of you who have never done so, to consider saving your labels for a while. They will evoke memories. As I often say, wine is the only beverage that generates conversation about itself. It also inspires a tear or two from time-to-time as it recalls friends and colleagues who also shared some of these memories and who are no longer with us.
We shall keep this zip-lock bag a while longer.
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