I look forward to hearing from Matt Kramer in his regular Wine Spectator column. He delivers “regular guy” sensibility with intellectual strength wrapped in an entertaining style. His cut-to-the-chase humility combines with child-like amusement when discovering sources of fairly priced, quality wine that are messengers for their place of origin. I mean wines that unleash vineyard identity, maybe a hint of unique rock or soil womb, whiffs of a cooling ocean breeze or wafts of a dry valley mistral, charming odors of stones or minerals baking in their personal angles to summer sun, or sometimes herbs growing close to a hillside’s sun-baked terrace. None of these qualities get masked or shifted to fit a more crowd pleasing market style. I share Matt Kramer’s weakness for these kinds of wines that taste like they can only come from their very own ancestral patch of irreplaceable earth.
This past month Kramer rang up my palate and pocketbook sensibility twice; first in his piece on the Loire in the November 15 Spectator and again leading a simple, pointed tasting of three wines made from indigenous Sicilian grape varietals last week in New York. Out of Kramer’s discoveries comes both (1) a buying strategy and (2) a specific wine that will reward anybody sharing this orientation for honest wine of high quality and fair value.
On the Strategy: Last month I had the great opportunity to taste through dozens of wines at a Loire Valley Wine Bureau event and shared my observation on the very real and honest character of the wines here in an earlier post. Kramer kicks around evidence of the emerging trend to make buying and indentifying wine simpler and also a strategy for reliably securing honest wines of high quality without any previous knowledge of the wines. In his recent column, “The One Word Wine Buyer,” he declares:
The answer- drumroll, please – is Loire….With only the barest amount of knowledge-and not great gobs of money, either-you can obtain some of the finest, most pleasurable, most original and individual wines made anywhere in the world today by invoking the word “Loire”. That’s data point number one.
Here’s data point number two: Find a good wine merchant. Getting good Loire wines requires a committed retailer….because Loire wines are not money makers. They are a labor of wine love.
The third data point is critical: Look for Loire wines that are declared on the label to be either organically or biodynamically cultivated. Not because organic or biodynamic is definitively superior. Rather, it’s because, as a cohort, these producers tend to be more rigorous and more committed to making genuinely fine wine. It’s a useful shorthand.
Kramer went on to test this approach, buying a few wines that fit these data points and came away with wonderful results, all wines under $25, without a clunker in the bunch. This was also my experience tasting wantonly through a wide swath of Loire whites and reds of varying varietals and locations. Just weeks before Kramer published his column, I conducted his identical experiment visiting Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge (a leading cheese and fine food importer and seller that shares this philosophy of honest wine making and recaps their approach to a small but select inventory here) picking up three Loire wines I never heard of but were biodynamically farmed. These wines all had character, charm, and a sense of their homeland elements. They were experiences to try and couldn’t be replicated by wine makers in other world geographies. Loire wines represent so much about the joy of wine as far as I am concerned.
Try out this three point buying strategy for yourself and share your results here.
On the Specific Wine:
Having just returned the previous day from Sicily, Kramer’s brain, palate, and nostrils were clearly filled with the Sicilian elements. He shared three wines made from indigenous Sicilian varietals and stories of vineyards irrigated with dew and Mt. Etna runoff. Wines that can not be duplicated anywhere else on the planet. The first two were reds selling for $35 each and were quite good and carried their unique qualities proudly. They were Benati Etna Rovitrello 2004 and Gulfi Nero d’Avola Sicilia Neromaccarj 2005 (the winemaker adds a “j” to every wine name since one of Gulfi’s first wines was called Rossobleo. The authorities objected because there a Mount Ibleo in Sicily and European wineries are not allowed to use place names as brand names. To get around it, they added a ” j” to rename it Rossojbleo and the tradition stuck.)
They were good wines, unique wines, pleasing wines. I would not hesitate buying them, but I think for the religious experience that Kramer seemed to get from these wines, you need to climb the mountain and walk the vineyard and connect the wine and its terroir in your brain.
But the third wine, a sweet wine, was of the highest quality and once you taste it you will urgently dial up your wine monger just as I did. For first time tasters like me, Carlo Hauner Malvasia delle Lipari 2006 will make Sauternes and Barsac fanatics take notice, sweet wine naysayers stand at attention, and the most experienced and dedicated fans of late harvest desert wines wonder how they went so long without tasting this magical nectar. Matt Kramer actually said that it could be the finest sweet wine in the world for him. That’s a large claim, but I understand how one could get there.
The wine sells for about $25 in the half bottle and is made and grown on the island of Salina just off the coast of Sicily. It is comprised of 95% Malvasia delle Lipari and 5% Black Corinth. The morning dew remains a source of water. The fruit dries out on mats for a few weeks after picking and before maceration.
I have now tasted the 2006 and the 2005 (found a 375ml of the 05 on the list at Cesca on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a little over $60) and both vintages underscore what is probably a characteristic representation of the wine. Both combine a silky, rich, nectar like consistency with flavors and aromas of specific fruits and herbs. Fruit and herb cocktail! The 2006 had apricot and peach combining with wild sagebrush aromas. The 2005 had a pronounced nose of dried oregano with a more citric grapefruit flavor sweetened by honey tones. The purity of these wines combined with their unique values that can only come from these specific varietals grown, picked, baked, and crushed on their homeland island off of Sicily to make a memorable and must have wine.
In an era where good wines come and go like passing buses and subways, there are only 5-10 wines a year that I taste and say I “must have” for my cellar at all costs. This is one of them. Try it and let me know what you think. And, by the way, thank you Matt Kramer.