This year’s 2011 edition marked the 20th anniversary of the Merano Wine Festival, the swanky wine fair held each year in the fairytale village of the festival’s namesake, Merano, at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains in the Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy. In the guise of VinConnect’s Italian director, I had the opportunity to attend this marvelous event held from 4-7 November.
I set out from a very rainy Milano at about 6:30 a.m. to make sure I made it in time for the opening of the old vintages. The organizers of the festival are clever you see, they save the really good stuff for the last day to make sure people don’t skip out early. Consequently, Monday was the day for the Annate Vecchie, or Old Vintages. Each participating winery presented one old vintage, at least 10 years of age, the selection varying with the oldest of the lot dating back to 1967. It’s not often that one has the opportunity, even those of us in the wine business, to taste so many library wines all in one place, so I was pretty excited about this occasion. It’s truly fascinating to see how a wine develops over five, ten, twenty years, taking on different nuances, softening, becoming more complex. It’s like taking a peek into the soul of the wine.
I’d been once before to the Festival in Merano, and several times in this area of Alto Adige, but I’m always captivated by the charm of this little city situated along the Passirio River, with its picture perfect streets, Mediterranean gardens and exceptional gastronomic and enological tradition.
The fair is housed each year in the Kurhaus, an absolutely stunning building from the late 1800’s, one of the most beautiful examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the Alps. The original project for the building was commissioned to Josef Czerny at a time in which Merano was a popular spa resort, receiving frequent visits from members of the Austrian aristocracy. The ornate Kursaal and Rotunda were added in the years between 1912 and 1914 by Viennese architect Friedrich Ohmann. The Kurhaus now houses various exhibitions, conferences, gala dinners, concerts, workshops and other events throughout the year.
After purchasing my ticket, leaving my coat, and collecting the hefty guide-to-producers book, I headed upstairs to the grand Kursaal, where I first encountered a group of Piedmont wineries. I have a particular affinity for Piedmont. Nebbiolo was my first true love when it comes to Italian wine. Aloof and perhaps even a bit difficult at first, with patience, this grape variety reserves an unmatched elegance and allure. Alba was also my first real casain Italy, and where I had spent the past six years, working for one of the area’s top wineries. Though I’ve now become “Milanese” by adoption, and marriage, I always feel at home among the producers and wines of Piedmont and am always happy for an opportunity to say hello to friends and colleagues…and taste the wines.
My first stop was Prunotto, where Emanuele, the export manager, was pouring the 1998 Costamaiole Barbera d’Asti from a magnum. Though many of us perhaps don’t generally think of Barbera as a wine for aging, this 13-year old wine was still superb! As I made my way through the maze of more fantastic wines like the 2001 Gaiun Martinenga Barbaresco from Marchesi di Gresy, Roberto Voerzio Barolo Cerequio 2001 (don’t get that opportunity every day…), Vajra, Aldo Conterno, I stopped to chat with Andrea Farinetti, winemaker at Giacomo Borgogno & Figli.
The Farinetti family, the folks behind the internationally famed Eataly project, purchased the Borgogno winery in Barolo in 2008, completing a renovation of the historical cellars and adding a delightful tasting room and wine shop. Though amongst the youngest in the crowd, Andrea’s enthusiasm and wine knowledge was impressive as he talked me through the various vintages, explaining the characteristics of each particular year, what went on in the cellar, and the resulting wines.
Borgogno is also one of the few wineries in Piedmont to have kept an extensive cellar of library wines. In excellent vintages, 20,000 bottles of Barolo are kept aside to be released after 20 years. I was able to taste the 1982 Barolo, considered an outstanding vintage, which was just that…outstanding. An intense ruby red with garnet-orange colored reflections, a complex nose ranging from dried roses to prunes, black pepper and leather, tar… Perhaps the most notable characteristic was the amazing acidity of the wine, after almost 30 years, the wine was still fresh! Soft, silky tannins caressed the palate, concluding in an incredibly persistent finish.
Somewhere along the way, caught up in chatting or looking for a pen, I placed my tasting glass (for which I’d left a €10 deposit at the entrance), on the table. When I turned back to pick it up for the next taste, gone! I guess I should have sprung for the €15 wineglass holder (basically a little cotton sack, with the Merano logo, that hangs around your neck). I’ve already got a drawer full of similar variations of this, perhaps useful though incredibly unfashionable, object from numerous other tastings and events, and to be honest, I have no idea what to do with them! If I was more crafty, I guess I could make a sort of patchwork quilt or something or maybe I’ll through a wine tasting party and give them out as favors… In any case, holding tight to my new glass, I made my way to the upstairs gallery to Tuscany.
Stopping by to say hello to a few of my new friends from recent Tuscany visits, Tua Rita, La Massa, Le Macchiole…, I paused to taste at Petrolo, a small producer in the enchanting, even if lesser known, Valdarno, just outside of Chianti Classico. I had met the owner, Luca Sanjust, a couple of months ago at a tasting in Milan and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the incredibly charming winery and estate in October. Representing the winery this time, however, was Stefano Guidi, the winemaker, reserved and soft-spoken, yet clearly passionate about the wines and the region. Stefano was pouring the 1999 Torrione, predominantly Sangiovese, also from a magnum. Though I am new to Petrolo’s wines, I continue to be impressed.
You’ve probably noticed that organic and biodynamic seems to be all the rage in wines these days – well, it’s caught on in Italy as well. However, most of the wineries employing these practices have been doing so for years, they just weren’t necessarily telling people about it. Anyway, it’s become such an important topic that the entire first day of the Festival, cleverly entitled “bio&dynamica,” organic and dynamic, was dedicated to these nearly 60 wineries. Querciabella, Fontodi, Duemani (the new winery of famed Le Macchiole winemaker Luca d’Attoma and his wife Elena Celli, producing beautiful expressions of Cabernet Franc and Syrah) are just a few of the wineries that are known for their organic or biodynamic practices.
One of my favorites is Castello dei Rampolla in Panzano in Chianti. This estate has been experimenting with biodynamic farming since the early nineties, and though is not technically certified, all the activities, both in the vineyards and in the cellar, are carried out according to lunar phases and the biodynamic calendar. The wines are absolutely lovely, and since I first met Maurizia di Napoli Rampolla, the estate’s owner, together with her brother/winemaker, Luca, I continue to be drawn to this winery. I visited Castello dei Rampolla about a month ago, turning up unannounced, after having driven back and forth on washed out dirt roads for at least 45 minutes looking for the “Castello,” in desperate need of the ladies room, and at the mercy of the (apparently very dangerous) guard dog, who had somehow come untied. Anyway, since that day, I’ve felt a sort of connection with Maurizia, and I love the modest approach she and Luca have taken to making truly stunning wines. I tasted the 1985 Sammarco (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Sangiovese) – as charming as the dei Rampollas.
The day absolutely flew by and before I could believe it, it was nearly 5 o’clock, closing time. I popped by a few more producers in Alto Adige, an excellent Passito and Marsala producer from Siciliy, De Bartoli, and a couple of Maison du Champagne, for good measure. Hoping to find a quick snack before headed back to Milano, I made a pit stop at the Culinaria area, a veritable smorgasbord of delicacies from balsamic vinegar and olive oil to cheeses, breads, sweets, chocolate…and Koppert Cress. This Dutch producer of “micro-vegetables” was the hot spot, featuring leafy greens of all different flavors from spicy red pepper, to oyster, and sparkling water – an ideal palate cleanser after a magnificent day of tasting!
Overall, I’d say a pretty good day – I’m already looking forward to next year…