Rosé and a Garden Bench

You can drink rosé any time of the year, but part of its appeal is an association with the months when warmth and light are abundant, colors more saturated, and oceans become swimmable instead of foreboding. The brevity of the season brings with it an intensity and awareness that it is not to be squandered or missed. This connotes something different to everyone - for me, it's dinners in our city garden.

When our building needed a new roof, we had to pull our garden up. It was a timeworn treasure of sea grass, lavender and roses hauled from the greenmarket, a place where we eked out extra seasons from aging cedar planters with wood planks and metal brackets. The new garden is a different species entirely. It’s up to code, approved by engineers, and it can be dissembled and reassembled at will. It’s exquisite, although we miss the well-worn character of the improvised.

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While we were rebuilding, I read a book by the Belgian designer and antiquarian Axel Vervoordt called Wabi Inspirations, about the influence of Wabi aesthetics on his work. Wabi philosophy comes from Zen monks who sought solace and contentment in simplicity and restraint, monks who valued the beauty of imperfect objects in their most austere and natural state. Moved by the tranquility of Vervoordt’s spare reflective residential spaces, I contacted the gallery about a Wabi garden bench. The images they sent suggested the aesthetic of the humble and decaying was not limited to objects from the East. It could also be found in a Spanish wedding bench, a French pew, or the 18th century Piedmontese farmhouse bench that now resides in our garden. The garden’s porcelain tiles and the  bench are precisely the same color, but that is where their similarities end. One is the result of talented engineers replicating the look of aged cedar; the other exudes the kind of gravitas that comes from centuries of weathering the elements, evidenced in its irregular veins and raw edges. The difference in the materials brought to mind how we measure quality and character in rosé wines, a category where color is often the only common denominator. 

As with Wabi objects, the best rosés convey simplicity and refinement. They are unpretentious, yet have a story to tell, one with a beginning, middle and end. It might open with aromas of citrus and red berries, then offer a whisper of an impression of fruit on the palate, followed by a wave of refreshing acidity, and a long finish that speaks of either sea or stones, depending on where the vineyard is located. The wines will reflect their fruit source. A rosé made from pinot noir grown in Sancerre might be delicate, while one made with mouvèdre from Bandol is likely to be full of interior architecture.  

Daniel Ravier, the winemaker at the iconic Bandol estate Domaine Tempier once told me that making rosé is easy, but making good rosé is very difficult. This is because what distinguishes a rosé is not the region, grape variety, or price, but the scores of small decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar long before the bottle is opened. Even though certain coastal enclaves have burnished the image of rosé as essential to summer idle, there are pockets of excellence the world over: Domaine Bernard Baudry in Chinon, Chateau de Trinqueverde in Tavel, Finca Torremilanos in Ribera del Duero, Robert Sinskey Vineyards and Matthiasson in the Napa Valley, to name a few standouts.

In Provence, exceptional examples abound from jewel box wineries such as Clos Cibonne along the coast, Domaine de l’Ile on the island Porquerolle, Saint Ser at the foot of Mount Sainte Victoire, and Domaine Tempier. Beware of popular brands that have increased production exponentially rendering the wine you fell for a decade ago less than delicious. Exports from the region to the U.S. have experienced annual double-digit growth for more than twelve years. Some producers have cashed in on the strong trend at the expense of quality. Also, if a rosé smells of marshmallow, candy, pineapple or banana, or if after the first sip you perceive a chemical taste or hollowness where the flavor should be, throw it out. It’s either made from inferior fruit or has been manipulated in the cellar. Once you do find a rosé that pleases you, stock up early.  The coveted ones disappear quicker than June roses.

When it's warm outside, I pair rosés with simple no-cook dinners, such as beef carpaccio inspired by the Roman chef Sandro Fioriti. Ask your butcher to slice beef tenderloin into carpaccio. Arrange the carpaccio in a single layer on individual plates or a large platter. Top the beef with generous portions of shaved parmesan, shaved celery, and finely sliced cremini mushrooms. Finish the dish with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil , and serve it with your favorite market salad and crusty bread.  

Wishing you a peaceful summer.


10 Rosés

The Pirate of Dogliani

 The  San Fereolo Vineyards in Dogliani. (Photo by Joanie Bonfiglio)

The  San Fereolo Vineyards in Dogliani. (Photo by Joanie Bonfiglio)

Sometimes a wine refuses to play to type. Take Dolcetto. Conventional wisdom has it that this classic Piedmont grape makes soft, round and fruity wines meant to be consumed young, while your Nebbiolo is in the cellar maturing. Even the best examples are measured against these modest expectations. Yet after tasting San Fereolo Dogliani, a Dolcetto of structure, aroma, texture, earth and dark austere fruit, this paradigm no longer rings true. Unmistakably a wine of Piedmont, it had little in common with the easy drinking wines normally associated with the variety. It demanded a broader view of the grape’s potential.

The manager at Eataly Vino told me that the San Fereolo needs to be appreciated in context of wines from the town of Dogliani, a DOCG just south of Barolo at the foot of the Alps, where Dolcetto vines are awarded pride of place alongside hazelnuts trees and untamed forests. As I tasted other bottles from Dogliani, it was clear that Dolcetto di Dogliani is a darker, deeper and more structured creature than Dolcetto from its neighbors to the north. Still, the San Fereolo stood out. There was something beyond a sense of place that informed its remarkable depth. So I wrote a fan letter to the estate’s importer, Rosenthal Wine Merchants, and arranged to speak with the owner, the passionate iconoclast and accidental winemaker Nicoletta Bocca.  

Twenty-five years ago, Nicoletta was living in Milan and working in fashion and industrial design when her friend Alessandro Fantino, the owner and winemaker of the Barolo estate A&G Fantino, said, ‘I want to take you to one of the best places I have ever seen to live.’ He drove Nicoletta and her husband to Dogliani where at the crest of a hill covered with overgrown vineyards they saw a fantastic house in complete disrepair next to an octagonal church. ‘It was a dream place for people from Milano,’ she recalls.

Nicoletta's connection to the region ran deeper than agrarian fantasy. During WWII, her father fought as a partisan alongside the esteemed Barolo producer Bartolo Mascarello. The men stayed close and twice a year throughout her childhood she and her father would visit Bartolo to stock up on wine and food. For much of that time Alessandro Fantino was the Mascarello estate’s oenologist and vineyard manager, and the circle of friendship grew.

‘Promise me you won’t clear the Dolcetto vines,’ some of which dated back to 1936, Alessandro told her when she purchased the house. ‘We’ll take care of them the first year and then you can make a choice.’  

Life in the vineyard changed Nicoletta. Viticulture became a kind of Zen discipline. ‘In Milano, if you want to work late into the night, you turn on the light and you work,’ she observes. ‘Here you are not your own master. You are part of nature. You have understand what is around you and work only when the light and the weather permits, on the timetable dictated by the vineyard.’

In 2004, she studied biodynamics to deepen her knowledge of grape cultivation and the vicissitudes of nature, and she now maintains her vineyards according to its strict principles. The practice is essential to her, but also only a starting point, a means to pristine raw materials. ‘If you are working organically or biodynamically and think that is the goal, you are on the wrong path,’ she stresses. ‘Biodynamics help you take character from your terroir. It is a tool for having a wine that speaks about the place, grape and vintage.’

When you ask Nicoletta what sets the San Fereolo apart from other Dogliani, she launches into a description of her winemaking practices. Picking the grapes when the tannins in the seeds ripen; fermenting in large wooden vats using ambient yeast; macerating the juice on the skins for at least twenty days; leaving the wine in barrel on its lees for two years; and then cellaring the individual bottles for another four years before releasing the wine to market, ready to drink.

The regime is grounded in the dual nature of the Dolcetto grape. Translated literally, Dolcetto means ‘little sweet one,’ but it has two faces: one is the fruity side you taste when you bite into it, the other is the polyphenols and tannins that come from the seeds when they ripen. Nicoletta's winemaking practices are dedicated to harvesting the spicy earthy aromas that come from the seeds when the grapes are ready to be picked.

‘You have a choice,’ she says. ‘You can have a short maceration and a fruity wine that tastes like everyone else’s, or you can behave like Dolcetto is a serous wine and focus on extraction. For me, it’s like being in the ocean. You can’t run away from the big wave, you have to dive through it. I dive into the wine and accept all of its characteristics, then I find a new balance.’ The long maceration is the deep dive. The new balance is achieved through the extended time the wine spends in the barrel and the cellar before release, this gives the tannins and polyphenols the opportunity to soften and integrate leading to an elegant wine with restrained dark fruit, structure and persistence.   

'My colleagues complain that nobody understands Dolcetto,’ she elaborates. ‘But nobody is making the effort to show people that the wine can really be interesting.  It’s like being in love with a woman you fear doesn’t know you exist and giving up instead of fighting to get her attention.’

Nonetheless, Nicoletta’s uncompromising vision for Dolcetto is not fully rewarded in the market. Most consumers will pay more for a mediocre bottle of Nebbiolo fermented in stainless steel than the wine she dotes on, and will question why they should purchase her Dolcetto when examples from Alba can be had at at third of the price. Meanwhile, leading Barolo producers often sell fresh and fruity Dolcetto as entry-level offerings, at the same time they are buying prime Dogliani vineyards to make Langhe Nebbiolo, which is also more profitable that Dolcetto made under the Dogliani DOCG label.

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‘Nobody in Barolo said, we are going to say that Dogliani is not an important wine so that the farmers will be so poor that we can come and buy their land,’ Nicoletta reflects. ‘But that is what happened. Whenever I can get in the car and turn my back to Barolo I feel relieved. When I can no longer see Monforte d’Alba, I am like a pirate in the Caribbean with my ship!’

That's not to say Nicoletta has limited her efforts to Dogliani. Last winter, she attended a conference in Rocca Ciglié, a town in the Piedmont’s Cuneo province near Liguria. Set at a higher elevation and closer to the sea than Dogliani, Rocca Ciglié has been touted as prime vineyard land for Dolcetto since the eighteen fifties. The event’s purpose was to begin to revive life in the village and to find people to lease the town’s ancient vineyards, because its population is aging and its young people are moving away.  'I bought land,’ Nicoletta admits. ‘I arrived just in time. One year later and the vineyard would not have been there anymore. The man who was farming it couldn't go on being old and without help.’

‘Old vineyards are treasures full of the wisdom of plants. Losing them is painful,’ she adds. ‘I hope to do my best for this place and for the people who worked there long before I was born.’

In the fall Nicoletta harvested the grapes for her debut Dolcetto di Rocca Ciglié.  Given the high altitude and fresher temperatures, the tannins in the seeds were greener than she is accustomed to.  Still, she made a long maceration after which she tasted the wine. The Rocca Ciglié had lower alcohol and more aromatics than her Dolcetto from Dogliani, yet showed no signs of bitterness. Beyond the local climate, she attributes the difference to the region's ancient soils coming from a place deeper down in the ocean.  

It appears that the world of premium Dolcetto is about to have an important new reference point from Nicoletta Bocca, the Pirate of Dogliani. 

  


10 Wines Dogliani


Pot Roasted Leg of Lamb with Garlic & Olives

The dark earthy fruit and integrated tannins of the San Fereolo Dogliani complement this fork-tender lamb with a rich savory sauce of olives and herbs.  

Ingredients for 6-8 servings

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 whole leg of lamb, bone in and trimmed, 6-8 lb.
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 cup tomatoes, peeled seeded and chopped
  • 1 head garlic, cloves individually peeled and crushed
  • 1 bunch thyme, tied with kitchen twine
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 cup niçois olives, pitted
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade*  

Place a large heavy-gauge roasting pan on the stovetop so that it stretches across two burners. Warm the pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Season the entire lamb with salt and pepper. Once the oil is warm, add the lamb to the pan and slowly sear the exterior, turning occasionally until the roast is golden brown on all sides, about 30 minutes.

Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to take on a straw color, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the tomatoes, garlic, thyme and ¼ cup of white wine. Cover with a lid or heavy gauge aluminum foil and braise the lamb for 30 minutes, then turn the lamb, add another ¼ cup of wine, cover and continue cooking for another 30 minutes.  Repeat this for two hours, until all the wine has been used.  Add the olives, cover and braise for another 30 minutes. 

Transfer the lamb to a cutting board tented with aluminum foil and let it rest for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, over a low flame, whisk t1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable stock at a time into the sauce that has accumulated at the bottom of the roasting pan, until it has the consistency of a thick gravy. Season to taste with salt and pepper and transfer to a small bowl.

Slice the lamb against the grain. Arrange on a warm platter. Ladle just enough of the garlic and olive sauce over the lamb to keep the meat moist, and then pass the remainder of the gravy around the table for guests to help themselves.

*If you don’t have homemade chicken stock on hand, while the lamb is cooking combine 3 cups of water, a peeled carrot, a celery stalk and one leek, onion or shallot.  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes.  This stock will be far more flavorful then prepackaged chicken stock, unless you have access to fresh made stock from a specialty market. 

Sicily Between Two Moons

 Courtyard of the Planeta Winery in Menfi

Courtyard of the Planeta Winery in Menfi

The first time I visited Sicily was Christmas 2010. We stayed at a seaside villa at the foot of Mt. Etna surrounded by lemon orchards for a week that ended with a blue moon on New Year's Eve. My daughter was twenty months old and she wouldn’t walk. She’d only jump. She jumped through passport control and the Rome airport and for a seven days she jumped around the property's jasmine scented Arabic gardens. I think of that spot every time I taste an Etna Bianco, wines made from carricante, a white grape that has been growing on Etna for a millennium. The property was a visual tasting note, a snapshot of the citrus, slate and saline qualities that make the wine so refreshing and memorable. 

 Jumping     

Jumping  

 

We could not visit any of the Etna vineyards on that trip. All were closed for the holidays. Instead, we explored the mountain itself. A local volcanologist led us up to the crater’s rim. It was like walking on the moon, but with a view of the Mediterranean coast. By the time we reached the top, the wind had picked up to twenty miles per hour, the path had narrowed to two feet across, and the gradation of the drop had drawn close to vertical, at which point I fell to my knees and became intimate with Etna's gravelly soil.

As much as any winemaker talk, the trek burnished our ardor for nerello mascalese, the dominant grape in Etna Rosso. Not because the earthy, fruity, structured wines contributed immense pleasure to our post-hike picnic, and several meals before and afterward, but because we had personally experienced the brutal conditions under which these remarkable and nuanced wines flourish. Upon returning home, knowledge of Etna Rosso was a great souvenir, a gift that kept on giving. Bottles of Benanti Etna Rosso that could be had for less than twenty dollars, and once opened evolved in the glass for hours, led to the discovery of the more esoteric wines of Frank Cornelissen, and others.  

Still, when it comes to viticulture, DOC Etna is an island unto itself. The grape varieties and conditions on the mountain are unique in Sicily. In fact, bottles of wine from Etna are the only Sicilian wines that are not required to say Sicilia on the label. Around the world, Etna is quite enough. To get a more global sense of island's wine, it is necessary to take a closer look at nero d'avola, the juicy black-skinned grape celebrated for its role in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, particularly by producers such as Arianna Occhipinti and COS, in which nero d'avola supplies the base notes while frappato contributes vivacity and floral aromas.   

Every grape variety has a spiritual home, think nebbiolo in Piedmont. For nero d'avola it is DOC Noto in Sicily's Siracusa province. Poised on gently sloping hills in the southernmost corner of the island, a stone’s throw from where the Ionian Sea merges with the Mediterranean, light bathes Noto’s vineyards. Once the ocean floor, the soil is fossil rich, nutrient poor and adept at retaining precious rainfall. Nero d’avola vines struggle to grow in these environs as much as the nerello mascalese vines struggle on Etna. The result is elegant and distinctive wines with dark fruit, sweet tannins and aromas of jasmine and bergamot. Alessio Planeta, a seventeenth generation Sicilian and the winemaker at his family's five wineries on the island, calls nero d’avola from Noto, “the most Burgundian of Sicilian wines.”

 Noto vineyards at dusk 

Noto vineyards at dusk 

For all the majesty of the volcano, even on that first trip, my most vivid memory of Sicily remains the few hours we spent touring Siracusa. It wasn’t the Roman amphitheater or the rare Caravaggio tucked into a small chapel. It was the unmistakable quality of the light, and how looking out from the ancient city to the place where the seas merge, you could feel Sicily’s history as a crossroad of Greek, Roman, Spanish, Catalan and Arabic cultures. There was the sense of being somewhere both deeply European and indelibly connected to continents beyond the horizon. 

In the fall of 2015, I returned to Sicily to tour the Planeta's wineries in Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna and Capo di Milazzo. Once again, we started in Etna, where as a safeguard against lava flow the barrel room is outfitted with a tiny window and a telescope trained on the volcano. Once again, we drove two hours south to the province of Siracusa, this time to Noto. Once again, as I got out of the van I was overcome by the beauty of the light in that corner of the world. The glow at dusk made everything look as it were lit for an art film. I picked a ripe olive from a tree and put it in my mouth knowing it hadn’t been cured, yet thought it looked so plump and round, like a plum, it had to taste good. I was terribly wrong.  

In the winery, we tasted back vintages of Planeta's Santa Cecilia Nero d'Avola. The wines were silky with flavors of black cherry and smoke, they had aromas of white flowers and tension in the backbone. Over dinner we tried a lovely and slightly more delicate example from the boutique producer Terra delle Sirene. Unfortunately, Noto wines can be difficult to find in the U.S., but tracking them down is worth the effort. Planeta and Gulfi are the two most widely distributed high-quality producers. There are also a number of smaller wineries that can be found at specialty wine shops, a favorite being the Savino Nero Sichilli.  

 Modica in the Val di Noto

Modica in the Val di Noto

Wines are only one of Siracusa province's many draws. We stayed a day, but given the opportunity it is a region I could spend months exploring. The Late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Rebuilt after being razed by an earthquake in 1693, the majestic stone cities of Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Ispica represent the apotheosis of the late-Baroque architecture in Europe. 

Pastry chefs the world over covet Noto’s fresh almonds. In the heat of the summer, the almonds find their optimal expression at breakfast as locals begin their day with a cooling granita made from the prized nuts. The best granita comes from Caffé Sicilia on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Noto's historic town center.

Along the coast, the picturesque fishing village Marzamemi is home to the restaurant Taverna La Cialoma, where dishes made with local seafood embody the argument for simple preparations and the finest ingredients. If you prefer more artistry, Ragusa has six Micheline starred restaurants. 

The region is also celebrated for cherry tomatoes grown in the Pachino commune. The recipe below for Penne with Pesto & Pachino Tomatoes was delicious and full of nostalgia for the summer months when taught to me by the cook at the Etna villa in the dead of winter using supermarket produce. It takes on an entirely new dimension in July and August when tomatoes and basil are fresh and plentiful.

And, of course, there is the lure of the coast....

 Capo di Milazzo

Capo di Milazzo

We left Siracusa for Planeta's Vittoria winery, a historic walled property with mature trees and climbing bougainvillea located in the center of the island's southern coast, in a rundown area dominated by an energy plant and industrial agriculture. It was the harvest, and the winemaker Arianna Occhipinti joined us for a pizza dinner with her picking crew, a combination of artists and aspiring oenologists from across Europe who had moved in with her for the month because they admire her aesthetics and the purity of her work. As soon as she arrived, she took Alessio aside. She was worried about the rate of fermentation in the Occhipinti SP68, which was unusually slow. As they huddled, it was evident that the local winemaking community was collaborative and tight knit. After the pizza party, we tried to stay up to see the super blood moon. It seemed the perfect counterpoint to the blue moon I'd witnessed on New Year's Eve at the foot of Mt. Etna five years earlier. Moons remind us to be receptive, the special ones even more so. Both trips were far too brief, but the impressions gleaned had opened my eyes, my soul, to Sicily’s history and rhythms, the idea that it is many places and embodies a multitude of ideas and traditions, depending on where on the island you stand, and through whose prism you look. Most of all, it fostered a longing to return and a sense that once experienced, this is an island that stays with you in your bones. 


10 Wines Sicily


Penne with Pachino Tomatoes & Pesto

Serves six to eight as a first course

The bite of fresh pesto, the sweet tomatoes and the nuttiness of the grated cheese take on a creamy texture when emulsified by the heat of the penne.  Any high quality cherry tomato will be delicious in this recipe, but if you have access to Pachino cherry tomatoes, by all means use them.  

  • 2 1/2 lb cherry tomatoes, quartered 
  • 1 1/2 lb penne pasta
  • 1/2  medium white onion, grated
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 4 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed 
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper, ground
  • 1/2 tsp red (chili) pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup parmesan, grated
  • 1/4 cup pecorino, grated
  • 1/4 cup almonds, toasted and crushed

Place the quartered cherry tomatoes in a large mixing bowl.  Grate the onion and garlic over the tomatoes and gently toss. To make the pesto, quickly soak the basil leaves in cool water and pat dry with a paper towel.  In the bowl of the food processor with a sharp metal blade, combine the basil, pine nuts, black pepper, red pepper and salt along with half a cup of olive oil and half a cup of grated Parmesan. Pulse the mixture three to four seconds at a time to avoid blackening.  Scrape the edges of the bowl with a wooden spoon.  Add half remaining olive oil, pulse and repeat until you achieve a uniform creamy consistency.   Pour the pesto over the tomato mixture. Add the remaining Parmesan and Pecorino. Gently toss and let stand for thirty to sixty minutes. 

Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add the penne. When the pasta is al dente, remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon or pour it into a colander.  Place half the pesto in the bottom of a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the pasta and gently toss.  Add the rest of the pesto to the pot and once again, gently toss. Remove the pan from the heat.  Spoon the pasta onto a large shallow platter. Garnish with basil leaves and crushed almonds. Serve warm.