Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rhaetian Wines, Favorites of the Ancients: Alto Adige-Südtirol

Strabo, a Greek historian and philosopher, wrote that Rhaetian wine was highly esteemed. Pliny, a Roman natural philosopher, mentioned how Virgil praised Rhaetian wines as second only to the famed Falernian. Suetonius, a Roman historian, penned that Augustus Caesar claimed Rhaetian wine as his favorite above all others.

Can you still find Rhaetian wines, and if so, where?

The Italian region of Alto Adige - Südtirol is the most northernmost wine region in that country, bordering Austria and Switzerland, and sits amidst the Alps and the Dolomites. About twenty-five hundred years ago, this region was home to the Rhaeti, a confederation of alpine tribes, and they are known to have grown vineyards and produced wine. Around 15 B.C., the Romans conquered the Rhaeti, making this region a province of Rome, and continuing the practice of viniculture, especially as they found this region excellent for vineyards.

So, by drinking the wines of the Alto Adige - Südtirol region, you can drink wines of the terroir so highly prized by the ancient writers mentioned above, as well as Augustus Caesar.

I recently attended a trade tasting and seminar on the wines of the Alto Adige-Südtirol, which was moderated by Tim Gaiser, Master Sommelier. The rest of the panel included Judith Unterholzner, the Sales Director for Cantina Keltern and Erste+Neue, Harald Cronst, the Export Manager for Cantina Kurtatsch, and Gottfried Pollinger, the Managing Director of Nals Magreid, The seminar opened with their joint philosophy, "We live wine." Such a beautiful philosophy.

We were then presented with a bit more history, noting that in 1853, the first wine cooperative was established in the region and such cooperatives have remained very important. It wasn't until 1919, after World War I, that Alto Adige-Südtirol became a part of the country of Italy. The region attained DOC status in 1975 and in 2007, the Consortium of Alto Adige-Südtirol was formed. Currently, the region consists of approximately 13,300 acres of vineyards, planted at altitudes from 600 to 3,300 feet, and the soil is primarily volcanic porphyry. It is one of the smallest wine regions in Italy, only about 1% of Italy's total production, however 98% of their wines are of DOC/DOP quality, indicative of the high quality of their wines.

The Alto Adige-Südtirol has 7 subappellations, with about 70% of their wines produced by 12 cooperatives, 25% produced by 33 wine estates, and 5% produced by 100 independent wine growers. Production consists of about 60% white wines and 40% red wines. The primary white grapes include: Pinot Grigio 11.9%, Gewurtztraminer 10.7%, Pinot Bianco 10.2%, Chardonnay 10.1%, Sauvignon Blanc 7.5%, Muller-Thurgau 3.9%, Kerner 1.9%, Moscato Giallo 1.7%, Sylvaner 1.4%, Riesling 1.4%, and Gruner Veltliner 0.3%. The primary red grapes include: Schiava 13.7%, Lagrein 8.8%, Pinot Nero, 8.4%, Merlot 3.5%, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc 3%, Moscato Rosa 0.2%, and Other 1.2%. During the mid-19th century, international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon began being planted in the region.

The region has both Alpine and Mediterranean influences and is one of the warmest in Italy, with over 300 days of sunshine and large diurnal shifts. Annually, it receives about 32.5 inches of rain, and vines only need 26 inches so they receive the water they need despite all the sunshine and warmth. This is also a region that is well known for its apples, with over 8,000 growers, and it provides about 10% of all European apples. That is significant considering the tiny size of this region. It is also known for making over 90 different types of cheese!

In 2017, the Alto Adige-Südtirol produced about 3.1 million cases of wine, exporting about 1/3, and their main export markets are Germany, the U.S., and Switzerland. As such, they are very much niche wines which you need to seek out. Their wines tend to have pure, natural flavors and high acidity, and  nearly all of their wines spend some time on the lees. Cooperatives are significant, bringing together many tiny farmers, mostly organic, giving them plenty of flexibility and opportunity. To join a cooperative, a farmer must join with all of their vineyards. Finally, the wines of Alto Adige-Südtirol are great food wines and often very good values.

We then proceeded to some comparison tastings, two wines of six different grapes, three white and three red. Of these pairings, I'm going to mention my personal favorite of each comparison.

We began with Pinot Bianco, also known as Weissburgunder, which was first planted in 1852 and now comprises about 1334 acres in the region. Tim Gaiser stated that Pinot Bianco is the "perfect wine in the glass." The Alois Lageder winery, established in 1823, is currently owned and operated by the 5th and 6th generations, Alois and Alois Clements Lageder. The winery is also committed to Biodynamic agriculture. The 2016 Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco Haberle is made from 100% Pinot Bianco, from 21-49 year old vines, and the wine was aged for about 8 months in casks (85%) and stainless steel. With a 13$ ABV, this wine was elegant and complex, with bright fruit notes, from peach to pear, citrus to apple, and a crisp acidity. There are also some underlying mineral notes and a pleasing finish. An excellent summer wine, and which would pair well with seafood and vegetables.

We moved onto Pinot Grigio, also known as Rulander and Grauburgunder, which was first planted in 1848 and now comprises about 1554 acres in the region. It is the most planted variety however the locals don't consume it a lot. The Cantina Tramin winery was founded in 1900, and currently is a cooperative of about 650 growers and 1164 acres of vineyards. The 2016 Cantina Tramin Pinot Grigio Unterebner, made from 100$ pinot Grigio, was aged for 14 months in a mix of 30-40hl casks and 500 liter tonneux. At 14% ABV, it is a more full bodied wine, with citrus flavors, especially lemon, crisp acidity, and savory notes, especially on the finish.

For the final white, we went with Gewurtztraminer, an indigenous variety that is the oldest white variety documented in their records. About 1418 acres are planted, and it was noted that this grape produces the most sugar so it possesses a rounder mouthfeel and works well with spicy dishes. The 2016 Elena Walch Gewrutraminer Vigna Kastlelaz, made from 100% Gewurtztraminer, from 18-25 year old vines, spent about 7 months on the less in stainless steel. With a 14.5% ABV, this wine was extremely aromatic with intense spice notes, some floral elements and a backbone of minerality. Complex and interesting, this would be great with Thai to Indian cuisine.

Our first red grape was Schiava, of which I'll go into more detail later in this article. The Castel Sallegg winery, founded in 1851, is a family run firm of winegrowers, owned by Count von Kuenberg. Their winemaking philosophy is "be genuine." The 2017 Castel Sallegg Lago di Caldaro Scelto Classico Bischofsleiten, made from 100% Schiava, is a single vineyard wine that was aged for 4 months in stainless steel and has a 13.2% ABV. Light bodied, the wine has a nice depth of flavor, with more savory notes, subtle red fruit flavors and a spicy backbone. Very interesting and complex, this wine also has a long, lingering and satisfying finish.

Next we moved onto Pinot Nero, also known as Blauburgunder, which has been grown in the region since the 19th century and there are now 1095 acres of vineyards. The Colterenzio Winery, founded in 1960, is one of the newest cooperatives with 300 winegrowers and 741 acres. Sustainability is very important to them. The 2015 Colterenzio Winery Pinot Nero Riserva St. Daniel, made from 100% Pinot Nero, was aged for 12 months in 35hl casks and barriques, and has a 13.5% ABV. Made more in a Burgundian style, this wine was light bodied with lots of bright red fruits, including some sour cherry, and mild spice notes. Elegant and tasty, it would be a fun summer wine, and would go well with burgers and hotdogs.

The final red grape was Lagrein, occupying 1156 acres, which is an indigenous grape deeply rooted in Bolzano and its first documented mention goes back to 1318. The Cantina Bolzano was formed in 2001, from a merger of two wineries, Gries and St. Magdalena, and is now a cooperative of 220 growers and 864 acres of vineyards. The 2015 Cantina Bolzano Lagrein Riserva Taber, made from 100% Lagrein, was aged for 12 months in French barriques and has a 14% ABV. This is a fruity wine, with concentrated flavors, subtle spice notes and hints of violets. It is an easy drinking wine, which would be delicious on its own or paired with food.

I was especially taken with the Schiava wines. It is an indigenous grape, whose name derives from the word "slave," which was first documented back in 1195 and played a primary tole in the region during the 16th century. It is also known by the German names Vernatsch and Trollinger. Currently, though it has lost some popularity recently, there are about 1972 acres of vineyards, primarily in Bolzano, Merano, Oltradige, and Bassa Atesina. Schiava is said to be a workhouse vine (which may explain its name and derivation), fertile with lots of heavy vines, and more of a prima donna than Pinot Noir. It tends to be light bodied and easy drinking, with almost no tannins and light acidity. Time stated that it was the "best wine for breakfast, lunch and dinner," and is an excellent food wine, especially in the summer when it can be served with a light chill. Just note that you probably won't see the name of the grape on the wine label, just its appellation.

After the seminar, there was an open tasting of other Alto Adige-Südtirol including two additional Schiava wines, both which I tasted.

The 2016 Cantina Bolzano St. Maddalena Classico Huck am Bach, made from 100% Schiava, was aged in large oak casks, and has a 13% ABV. This was an intriguing and complex wine, with plenty of cherry and plum flavors, mild spices notes, a floral wisp, but also a meaty taste, with a smoky finish. Medium-bodied, the wine also had mild tannins and a lengthy finish. Quite delicious and would pair well with grilled meats. Highly recommended.

The Cantina Kaltern was a cooperative founded in 1900 that now consists of 650 growers and 1164 acres. The 2017 Cantina Kaltern Schiava, made from 100% Schiava, was aged for 4 months in stainless steel and large oak casks, and has a 12.5% ABV. It was light bodied, with prominent red fruit flavors, a spicy backbone and crisp acidity. It wasn't as complex as the other Schiava, but still was more than a simple wine. This would be a good wine on its own or paired with meat dishes, or even salmon and tuna.

Augustus Caesar was definitely onto something as the Alto Adige-Südtirol are compelling, food friendly, and delicious.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

2015 Chateau Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel & What is Tribidrag?

"The varieties most prized for wine are the Zinfandel, Riesling, Chasselas, Burger and black Malvasia."
--Daily Alta California, July 9, 1878 (referring to Napa)

Have you ever tasted a wine made from the Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag grape? You probably have, though didn't know it, because you're aware of the grape by a different name, Zinfandel.

The historical origins of Zinfandel had been a mystery for some time, with plenty of speculation and study efforts. Finally, DNA research, through an endeavor by Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor and geneticist at the University of California at Davis, and her team determined that Zinfandel is actually a Croatian grape, known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, Tribidrag and Pribidrag. The oldest known name for this grape is Tribidrag, extending back to the early 16th century, so that is the primary name of which it is now known. This term has roots in a Greek word which means "early ripening."

Within California, Zinfandel has long been a popular grape, as can be seen in the newspaper reference, from 1878, I earlier quoted. During the late 19th century, Zinfandel was one of the kings of the California vineyards, and there are thousands of references to it in newspapers of that period. Though nowadays, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have garnered much of the attention, Zinfandel remains an important grape in California.

I recently received a media sample of the 2015 Chateau Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel ($39), the famed winery which put California wine on the international map with its success at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. The 2015 vintage was tough, the end of a four year drought in California, one of the driest in history. However, Zinfandel is tough, a survivor, and thrives on drought conditions. During 2015, the drought in the spring caused vine stress, and then the hot summer led to an increased density and ripeness of the grapes. There were low yields but the grapes were impressive, leading to an impressive wine.

The wine is made from 100% Zinfandel, a blend of old and new vines, with the oldest having been planted in 1972 when Jim Barrett founded Chateau Montelena. The wine spent about 16 months in French, Irish and American oak, 15% new, and has a 14.5% ABV. This is one of the first wines I've seen using Irish oak. The wine has a dark red color, though still partially translucent, with an intriguing aroma of spice and black fruit, an alluring blend that will tantalize your nose. On the palate, the spice notes are initially predominant, merging into flavors of ripe plum, black cherry, vanilla, and a certain meatiness, with a smoky edge. The lingering finish presents some chocolate notes along with more spice. The wine is well balanced, complex, and absolutely delicious, especially paired with some dry aged steak tips.

Though this is a big wine, it isn't overly so, and the alcohol level is lower than a number of other Zinfandels which seem to be pushing 16%. I especially liked the meaty element to this wine, its more savage nature, which I haven't found in many other California wines. This wine earns a hearty recommendation, and is well worth its price point.

"The better the claret the less alcohol it contains, and our wine-makers have already reached, in the Zinfandel, a brand which is certainly as light and non-alcoholic as the best light brands of Bordeaux. If all the people of California drank Zinfandel, the temperance problem would be practically solved,..."
--Sacramento Daily Record-Union, July 15, 1882

Monday, June 18, 2018

Rant: Explore The Different, Don't Drink The Same

Last week, I attended the 2018 Vini d’Italia Experience, an Italian wine tasting event organized by the Gambero Rosso, a media company that produces a famous annual guide to Italian wines. The 31st edition of the Vini d’Italia "... is the result of a year of work by an expert team of 53 tasters who have travelled the country (including Switzerland’s Canton Ticino starting this year) visiting wineries, interviewing producers and tasting 45,000 wines. The book reviews 2,485 wineries and a total of 22,000 wines, noting wines of distinction with bicchieri (glasses). This year, just 436 Tre Bicchieri have emerged -- fewer than 1 percent of the wines tasted."

At the tasting event, which was held in Boston for the first time ever, there were 45 Italian wineries, offering about 125 wines for sampling. When you encounter so many wines at a tasting event, how do select which wines to taste? You probably can't taste them all so you need a game plan, an idea of which wines you will select and which wines you won't. This is a dilemma faced by both consumers and the trade at large wine tasting events. Hard decisions must be made.

Unfortunately, some people choose to sample the familiar, to taste what they know. At such an Italian tasting, they might stick to Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, and Chianti. They learn little from their experience, wasting the opportunity to expand their palates. They could drink those familiar wines at any time, almost anywhere. They might be their favorites, but that doesn't mean they couldn't acquire a new favorite. Only if they took a risk and tried something different.

Though there are over 10,000 known wine grapes, it is thought that there are only about 1400 or so in commercial production. I've probably tasted at least 400 different grapes, and I'm always seeking to add to that list. At the Vini d’Italia event, I found five wines with grapes that were new to me, quite a find. I tasted each of those wines because I want to expand my palate, to taste as many new wines as possible. I want to explore all the vinous world has to offer.

Of those unique grapes I tasted, most of them were produced by only a handful of Italian wineries, and in one case, by a single winery. Many of them were seeking importers, meaning the wines might not be available locally any time soon, if at all. This was a rare opportunity to experience these  grapes and if you failed to avail yourself of the chance to taste these wines, you lost out. And as these were also delicious and intriguing wines, you lost out even more.

Stop just drinking the familiar. Doesn't it get boring? Do you eat the same old things all the time, never venturing out of your comfort zone to try something different? Be vinous adventurous and seek out new and different wines, broadening your horizons. The world of wine is much larger than Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Compelling White Ragu From il Casale: The Recipe

As I posted earlier today, I recently attended a Tuscan-inspired wine dinner at il Casale Belmont, and was throughly impressed with their Fusilli fatti in casa con ragù "bianco" di carne e salamino di cinghiale (Handmade fusilli with "white" meat ragù and diced wild boar salami). This "ragu bianco" is traditional mostly in northern Italy, including Tuscany, and it is made with cream rather than tomatoes.

I previously wrote, "This was simply a perfect dish, with homemade pasta cooked just right, plenty of savory and tender meat, a touch of earthiness, and a cream sauce that added plenty of flavor. The sauce was neither cloying or overly heavy, and I could easily have devoured a couple more plates. Each bite was scrumptious and this dish probably will end up as one of my top ten dishes of 2018. It is rare to see a ragu bianco at local restaurants, and that really needs to change if this dish is an example of what can be created."

Chef Dante de Magistris and his culinary team at il Casale were generous enough to provide me the recipe for their White Ragu and have allowed me to share it with my readers. When I previously mentioned this dish on social media, it garnered some attention and people were certainly curious as to how it was made. So, now you can make this dish at home, though I still recommend you check out il Casale in Belmont or Lexington.

If you prepare this White Ragu, please get back to me about your results. And I will do the same, as I have definite plans to make this delicious recipe.

White Ragu alla Bolognese (Serves 10)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground veal
¼ pound pancetta, chopped coarsely
¼ pound mortadella, chopped coarsely
¼ pound chicken liver, chopped coarsely
1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 carrot, chopped fine
1 celery stalk, chopped fine
6 tablespoons good quality tomato paste
2 cups red wine
6 cups brodo or chicken stock, hot
2 cups heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large deap saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add beef, pork, veal, pancetta, mortadella, chicken liver and sage. Cook until all the meat is lightly browned. Drain excess fat and add onion, carrots and celery. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring until the onions are translucent and the carrots and celery are softened.
2. Stir in the tomato paste, and allow to cook with the tomato paste for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to high, add the red wine and allow the wine to reduce by ¾ the way. Add one cup of the hot meat broth. Cook, stirring occasionally to scrape up any residues sticking to the bottom of the pan, until all the broth has evaporated. Repeat this process twice more adding one cup of broth at a time. After the third cup of broth evaporates, add the remaining 3 cups of broth, lower the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered until sauce is thick approximately 2 hours.
3. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Add heavy cream to Bolognese sauce and allow to simmer for 2 minutes.
5. Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil, add the tagliatelle or your favorite pasta and cook until al dente. Strain pasta, toss with the bolognese sauce and a generous handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Though you can buy your choice of pasta to use with this White Ragu, I'm also including il Casale's recipe for their Tagliatelle pasta, if you are especially ambitious.

Tagliatelle pasta (Serves 10)

1 pound ‘00’ flour
10 egg yolks plus 2 whole eggs (total weight should equal 11 ounces)
1 tablespoon salt

1. Place the flour on a pastry board or in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour, crack the eggs into the well and add the salt. Using your hands, beat the eggs, drawing the flour into the eggs a little at a time.
2. When the dough begins to hold together and the eggs are completely absorbed into the flour, it is ready to be kneaded. If you are using a bowl, move the dough to a flat work surface to knead. Flour your hands lightly. Work the dough with your hands until it forms a ball. Knead for 5 minutes by folding the dough toward you and then pressing it away from you with the heels of your hands, rotating the dough at quarter turns between each fold. You may have to add a little more flour to the dough and/or your hands during this time if the dough starts to stick. After you have finished kneading, and the dough is nice and smooth, wrap it in a clean, damp dishcloth and let it rest for 20 minutes. Divide the dough into 6 pieces.
3. Using a pasta machine, run each piece of dough through the machine, starting with the greatest thickness and moving down to the next smallest thickness each time through the very last, thinnest setting. Allow the dough to rest for about 10 minutes after you have rolled it out, or until it feels semidry to the touch. Roll each sheet of pasta, as for a jellyroll, and cut the rolls horizontally into ¼-inch strips, using a sharp knife. Unravel these strips and you will have your tagliatelle. Allow the strips to sit for about 10 minutes spread out, on wax paper, or a floured dishcloth.

Buon appetito!

San Felice Wine Dinner at Il Casale: Chianti Classico to the "Little Fist"

Tuscany is a historically rich area, and many famous personages lived in, passed through and/or enjoyed the Chianti and/or Chianti Classico region. From the famed poet Dante Aligheri to the extraordinary Leonardo da Vinci, from Amerigo Vespucci (where we derive the name America) to Giovanni da Verrazzano (the discoverer of Manhattan), from Galileo to Machiavelli. Michaelangelo was especially fond of the wines of this region and gifted some of their wines to the Pope. Plenty of ordinary people have passed through this area too, including myself, and it was sheer pleasure to witness the beauty of the region and enjoy their compelling cuisine and wines.

Earlier this week, I was invited as a media guest to attend a Tuscan-inspired wine dinner at il Casale Belmont, showcasing the Chianti Classico and Brunello wines of San Felice Winery. Chef Dante de Magistris and his brothers, Filippo and Damian, co-own il Casale, an Italian restaurant which opened back in 2009 in Belmont on the site of a former firehouse. Belmont is their hometown and when the firehouse was in operation, it once made a call to a fire at the de Magistris home.

Chef Dante and his brothers have just opened a new restaurant, The Wellington, located across the street from il Casale. As Chef Dante and his brothers are rather busy with this new endeavor, Chef Daniele Baliani (pictured above) took the lead on presenting the cuisine for this wine dinner. Daniele has worked with Chef Dante and the entire team on and off for 24 years at both il Casale Belmont and Lexington. Daniele started his career back in 1987 and spent some time studying and working in Tuscany.

The demand for this dinner was so high that the restaurant shut down regular service for the evening, hosting only the wine dinner. Now, when you have so many people, over 100, all enjoying the same dishes, at the same time, there is always a slight worry that it will overwhelm the kitchen, and that your dishes will be less than hot when they reach your table. However, that was not the case at all, as each dish we enjoyed was at an optimal temperature. Their professional kitchen is obviously well experienced in dealing with such crowds and know exactly how to handle the situation. Overall, the dinner was superb, with excellent food, wines, and service.

The event offered a five course dinner, paired with Chianti and Brunello wines, and presided over by Marco Secola (pictured above), a native of Florence, Italy, and the U.S. East Coast brand ambassador for San Felice Winery. Besides speaking on the microphone, so everyone could hear his comments, Marco also made sure to stop by all the individual tables at least a couple times, for a more personal talk about the wines and the winery, including showing photographs of the beautiful estate.

The village of Borgo San Felice extends back to at least 714 AD though the Pieve San Felice, a church, traces its root back to the ancient Etruscans. A "pieve" was originally a rural church with a baptistery, though it later also referred to the larger community based around that church. Throughout the Middle Ages, the village of San Felice was frequently the site of battles between the cities of Florence and Siena. Finally, in the 18th century, the village became the noble of the Del Taja family, who were based in Siena. One of their descendants, Giulio Grisaldi Del Taja would become a founder of the Consorzio del Chianti Classico in 1924.

During the 1970s, the land and vineyards in San Felice were acquired by the Allianz Group, an insurance and investment corporation. They invested heavily into creating a state of the art winery, though ensuring sustainability was an important objective. They now have a total estate of about 650 hectares, extending over two territories, Chianti Classico and Montalcino. Within Chianti Classico, they own over 140 hectares of vineyards, as well as about 17,000 olive trees. In Montalcino, they own the Campogiovanni estate, with 20 hectares of vineyards.

They are also involved in experimentation, especially concerning the biodiversity of vines. In their Vitiarium, they have been cultivating and studying about 270 grape varieties for about 30 years, seeking those which might grow best in their terroir and trying to save others from extinction. This is impressive research, well needed, and their results could benefit many other wineries in Italy, as well as elsewhere.

We began the evening with an aperitif of a glass of 2016 San Felice Perolla Vermentino ($15), which is made from 95% Vermentino and 5% Sauvignon Blanc. The wine matures on the lees for a month and then ages in the bottle for an additional two months. The wine is fresh and crisp, with pleasant tastes of grapefruit and lemon, with hints of tropical fruits on the finish. It is an easy drinking wine, intended to whet our appetites for what was to come.

The next wine of the evening was the 2017 San Felice Perolla Rosato ($12), a blend of 65% Sangiovese and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, made in the saignee process. It had an alluring aroma and was pure deliciousness on the palate. Light bodied, crisp and dry, with bright red fruits (especially strawberry) and a savory touch. Refreshing and an excellent summer wine, it would also pair well with a variety of foods. And at this price, it is a very good value too. I plan on buying maybe a case of this wine to enjoy during the summer.

The First Course of the evening was Insalata di gamberetti con fagioli su bruschetta al pomodoro, olio al basilico (Rock shrimp salad with cannellini beans on tomato bruschetta with basil oil).
Tuscans love cannellini beans, and they were tender, enhancing the taste of this dish, with the small shrimp, bright tomatoes, and basil notes. A good blend of textures and flavors, this went well with the Rosato. Off to a very positive step.

The Second Course, and my absolute favorite of the night, was the Fusilli fatti in casa con ragù "bianco" di carne e salamino di cinghiale (Handmade fusilli with "white" meat ragù and diced wild boar salami). This "ragu bianco" is traditional mostly in northern Italy, including Tuscany, and it is made with cream rather than tomatoes. This was simply a perfect dish, with homemade pasta cooked just right, plenty of savory and tender meat, a touch of earthiness, and a cream sauce that added plenty of flavor. The sauce was neither cloying or overly heavy, and I could easily have devoured a couple more plates. Each bite was scrumptious and this dish probably will end up as one of my top ten dishes of 2018. It is rare to see a ragu bianco at local restaurants, and that really needs to change if this dish is an example of what can be created. (And the recipe for this fine dish will soon be made available!)

With the Fusilli, we had two wines, both Chianti Classico. First, there was the 2014 San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva ($25), made from 100% Sangiovese, which spent about 24 months in oak, 20% in small barriques, and 1 year in the bottle. It was made in a more traditional style, which is my preference, and was quite good, with good acidity, notes of cherry and black fruit, mild spice notes, and low tannins. It was delicious, but definitely does best when paired with food, especially meat or a hearty dish. To me, this is an example of a very good traditional Chianti Classico.

The second wine was my personal favorite of the evening, the stellar 2014 San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($50). In 2013, the Gran Selezione designation was created, intended to represent the pinnacle of quality, akin to a Grand Cru, and it has different regulations than the Riserva category. Gran Selezione must be at least 80% Sangiovese, the rest chosen from a small group of approved grapes. It must also be aged for at least 30 months, rather than the Riserva 24 months. This new designation has been enmeshed in some controversy but it appears to be here to stay and we should be judging the wines on their merits.

This Gran Selezione is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, with the rest a blend of indigenous grapes including Abrusco (for color), Pugnitello (for structure), Malvasia Nera (for aroma and fruit), Ciliegiolo (for aroma and fruit) and Mazzese (for spice). The wine was barrel aged for about 24 months, 50% in large Slavonian oak casks and 50% in 225 and 500 liter French oak barriques. It then spent about 8 months aging in the bottle.

This was a WOW wine, impressive and compelling. The aromas seduced my nose, giving evidence of the quality that I would find within the wine. On the palate, it was silky smooth, with plenty of complexity, including ripe plum, black cherry, mild spice notes, hints of earthiness, and wisps of additional flavors that seemed to flit in and out. Well-balanced, fine acidity, and a lingering, satisfying finish. It was the epitome of elegance and well worthy of the designation of Gran Selezione. This is a wine to slowly savor over the course of an evening, relishing each sip, finding new flavors within each taste. It is worth its price, and I bought two bottles during dinner. And I probably should have bought more. My highest recommendation!

The Third Course was a Quaglia Arrosto alle erbe aromatiche, cous-cous al pistacchio, molasse di melograno (Roast quail with aromatic herbs, pistachio couscous, and pomegranate molasses). Another excellent dish, the quail had tasty crispy skin, and was tender, flavorful and meaty, with few bones. And the nutty couscous was a fine addition to the quail. Quail definitely has a different taste than chicken, and the chef made a great choice in opting for it. Quail is popular in Tuscany and should be more popular locally too.

With the quail, we enjoyed the 2013 San Felice Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino ($65.00), made from 100% Sangiovese. The wine spent 3 years in Slavonian oak and 500 liter tonneaux, and then 12 months in the bottle. It was bold but elegant, with intense black fruit flavors, moderate spice notes, and moderate tannins. It was complex, savory and delicious. A fine example of what Brunello can offer. This wine will age very well, and didn't overwhelm the quail.

The Fourth Course was Wellington di manzo con spinaci, salsa al tartufo nero con gratin di patate tartufate (Beef Wellington with sautéed spinach, black truffle sauce and truffled potato gratin). This course was in honor of their new restaurant, The Wellington. The pastry was flaky and buttery, and the beef came out perfectly medium rare, enhanced by the subtle truffle sauce. The beef was tender and flavorful, meaty with a nice intensity. And the potato gratin was tender, cheesy and quite scrumptious.

Accompanying the Wellington was the 2013 San Felice Pugnitello ($55.00), made from 100% Pugnitello, an indigenous grape whose name means "little fist." This grape was nearly extinct but a vine was found on a small farm and sent to the University of Firenze in 1981. DNA testing indicated this vine had no known relationship to any other grapes. The University then collaborated with San Felice, which planted the vine, and it turned out Pugnitello was the most successful of over 250 grapes that San Felice had under experimentation. The grape acquired its name as the clusters resembled little fists.

San Felice's first release of a Pugnitello wine was in 2006, and they currently only produce about 500 cases of it each year. This wine spent about 18-20 months aging in 225 liter French oak barriques and then 8 more months in the bottle. It was made more in an international style. It has a deep, dark color and on the palate, the black fruit flavors are intense, accompanied by strong spice notes, vanilla, and hints of leather. It also has moderate tannins, good acidity, and is muscular yet still elegant with a long, long finish. It pairs well with beef and I certainly would like to try other examples of Pugnitello,  as at least a couple other wineries now make wines from this grape.

The Fifth Course, our dessert, was Cantucci tipici della Toscana....per intingere (Tuscan style almond dip in the Vin Santo) and Tartufi al cioccolato per la tavola (Chocolate truffles for the table). The biscotti, dipped in the wine, was pleasant though it was the truffle that captivated me, with its rich chocolate and creamy interior.

The San Felice Belcaro Vin Santo ($25.00/375ml) is a blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, which ages for 10-15 years in small, oak barrels. It is sweet, but balanced with strong acidity, and has intriguing Sherry notes, with flavors of caramel, dried fruit, citrus and salted almonds. A fitting end to this excellent evening.

I'll note that all of the San Felice wines are available from Cuvée Fine Wines, a Belmont wine shop located close to il Casala.

il Casale held an impressive wine dinner, delivering well on all levels. The food was compelling, the wines were interesting, and the service was exceptional. If you haven''t dined at il Casala before, then now is the time to change that. And you really should seek out the wines of San Felice, especially their Rosato and the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione.

Now, I need to check out the new The Wellington,