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After my class, my anticipation for the event grew exponentially; all quality Italian wines would be poured for the masses at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and I could not wait. I am not the biggest fan of large tastings (as I’ve alluded to this before in my Chateau Koivu article), being crowded out, mixed in with a majority that treat it as a time to furiously quaff rather than spit, trading the education for purely hedonistic delight. I could guarantee that a good-sized group of friends amassed from my tasting group and wine class would help ease my woes but nevertheless I was fearful of the tasting losing focus. My trusty group would also help me make sense of the overwhelming catalog of wines (red and white) after the big tannins decimated my taste buds and my teeth took on a darker shade of garnet. Oh yeah…this was Viva Vino!

The idyllic surroundings of the Skirball Center would play host to the tasting. A serene space that was a cross between modern and earthy, operating north of nearly all the bustle in LA, with ample space to allow a large group of people to comfortably taste and nosh. Just inside the venue, venders, vendors and importers had lined up tables, ready to showcase their products, introducing buyers and enthusiasts to assay wine that they might not encounter in any other setting. As the doors opened, people shuffled through, grabbing pens, booklets and glassware, beating paths to the nucleus of the tasting.

Once inside, our clique spotted our former teacher and consulted with him about which wine we should try first and if there was anything we shouldn’t miss. After accepting his advice, we made our way to our first producer—tasting the expressions of Sicily. We tried the Cyane—a hundred percent Muscato Bianco—Pollio Moscato di Siracusa DOC, the Solacium Moscato di Siracusa DOC before moving onto the reds like the Frederico IGT Sicilia Rosso which was a 100% Nero D’Avola. The Solacium Moscato stood out amongst its peers; it was crisp and lighter-bodied white, with a delicious nose of white flowers, Honeycrisp apples and some tropical fruits; it had a mouthfeel that packed moderate-plus acidity and a long, lingering finish. On the flip, the Nero D’Avola was fronting some cran-cherry notes in the nostrils and was totally dry, medium bodied red with moderate tannins and flavors of cherry, herbs, brush and some pepper on the buds.

We continued to Sardegna, moving through some Cannonau Di Sardegna with lots of cherry between sips and also some cocoa notes, but aside from the body being heavy, the finish was not as long as I would have wanted—at least on the three or four that I tasted. I was thankful for trying them all though. Our group leaped up to Piemonte in Northwest Italy, spending the most amount of time sampling an endless array of Barolos and Barbarescos, from various producers and sub-areas within the famous villages of the region.

Another standout for my palate was the noticeably brighter (ripe) cherry notes coming from the Eraldo Viberti Azienda Agricola 06 Barolo with medium acidity, soft, but ever-present tannins and a long finish that followed the nose and would not let go of the tongue; it showed well now. The wine felt young and decidedly fresh especially after tasting through countless austere examples that needed more age and would have benefitted by accompanying some Piemtonese cuisine.

Among all the Roero (Arneis), Valpolicella, Amarone, Sangiovese, Barolo and Barbaresco, my palate was thoroughly hammered. With the live band pumping out classic Italian tunes (at incredibly loud volume) and the wan lighting to make it incredibly difficult to see the real hue of the wine, the point of the tasting got away from me. I decided to close the complimentary notebook, sheath the pen, and just relax. Having friends to consult and laugh with during the tasting seemed to make all the difference because other aspects remained constant—the wines were not done justice, there were still a small amount of rude people, etc.—but in the end, it was not so much that Viva Vino became the new benchmark for wine events but rather an emphasis that it is imperative I travel to them with my friends. A lesson in self-discovery.

Marche sits humbly on the east coast of Italy, without the fanfare that seems to be hitched to the surrounding regions; yet, it is another storied locale that puts it own mark on olive oil and the vines. In my class last week we had some ambassadors of the region—winemakers and sommeliers—share their insight on the variances of terrain in a unique area sandwiched between Emilia-Romagna and Abruzzo along the east coast of Italy. This class would be a precursor to the Viva Vino Italian tasting the following night that I would be attending and an interesting avenue on my way to Five Hundred wines.

We began our download of information on the eastern-most region by learning about the temperate climate and the proximity of the Adriatic Sea that bears a heavy influence on the outcome of the grapes that are grown there—Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Verdicchio and Trebbiano. We also learned about the calcerous-rich soils and their contributing differences to the coastal vineyards and those further inland.

Most of us were not really familiar with the region and there was a good explanation for that: It was one of the last few regions in Italy to realize its potential in making quality vino. While it is true that winemaking has existed well beyond its nascent epiphany, Marche was an outlier of the major trade circuit carved through Milan to Naples and thus the grapes of Marche stayed local. Marche harbors many port cities, the most important being Ancona—the capital of Marche.

We tried a smattering of wines from IGT’s to DOC’s from Marche, being tutored through the details of the process of picking, crushing and fermenting the grapes, and their passage through oak, if there were any. We tasted:

09 St. Joseph Rosso Piceno

08 Syta –Syrah and Sangiovese mix

10 Curtes Offida Pecorino

10 Offida Passerina “Ampor” Marche IGT

10 Colli Pesaresi Bianco

09 Clos le Corti dei Farfensei

NV Gruet Brut Rosé

Their (our resident winemaker and posse’s) take on Sangiovese was surprisingly light but focused. Found in the Rosso Piceno—a blend of mostly Sangiovese and a smaller percentage of Montepulciano had really rich fruit notes (Bing cherry), tar and a little cinnamon spice that wasn’t from oak but inherent in the Sangiovese of Marche. The wine noticeably lacked in astringency, as I was accustomed to in Chianti—the Sangiovese rich blend of Tuscany that comes with a bouquet of toasted fennel, cherry and wood spices and heavy tannins that wick the moisture from your mouth; Marche’s rebuttal was markedly softer in mouthfeel.

The Syrah blend gave way to stewed tomatoes and pepper on the nose that transformed dramatically on the palate, it exposed vanilla from barrel aging, cocoa, blackberries and some darker fruits. It was full-bodied and sapid; I instantly began craving simple and understated Italian cuisine. A testament to the wine.

After the presentation that had me reminiscing of my times spent in Italy, the group of men from Marche departed, wishing us well. After the class we popped open a New Mexico Wineries Brut Rosé from Gruet to recapitulate the wines we had tasted in class and our thoughts on Marche. The presentation had disrupted our sweep of the-other-46-states-that-produce-wine-lecture (regarding the USA) but it did leave me closer to my goal—257 wines left to taste before next year.

My first genuine introduction to wine began with the vino of Italy, primarily the wines of Piemonte (translating as the foothills of the mountains), including Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Nebbiolo. The wines enthralled me… the heavy tannins in the red varietals were not off-putting but rather intriguing; the power of the wines was noticeable from the beginning. But it was only when I began to familiarize myself with the wines of other parts of Italy that I began to really understand their charming qualities. Fast forward four and a half years later and it had been a while since I had enjoyed some Barbera d’ Asti or Alba and Tuesday’s class would be harkening back to my roots, exploring the rustic nature of Piemontese wines as well as examining nearby regions like Valle d’Aosta, Lombardia and Alto Adige. It was looking good on paper.

Piemonte is located in the Northwest of Italy acting as the foothills to the Alps, producing some of the most famous wines from Italy like Barolo and Barbaresco as well as one of the most highly sought after food items—the almighty truffle. The surface area between those two legendary winemaking villages (Barolo and Barbaresco) is not all that far, fueling a major rivalry over the centuries. Both wines are made from hundred percent Nebbiolo, but, of course, the vines live in each respective region. There are some differences though, like the mandatory aging time between the regions. More pronounced variances occur between producers of each village; new school winemakers instituting new oak in order to create a contemporary style versus the traditional-minded winemakers who favor neutral wood barrels to craft an old-world wine. Both versions are revered for their chiseled structure, immense aromatics of rose petals, tobacco, cherries and anise and big-time palate delivery. Excellent food wines that embody fall and winter, boasting eHarmony-matching skills when paired with cold weather fare like roasts and truffles.

From Piemonte, we would depart, covering terrain to the Northeast like Lombardia and Alto Adige, where we would taste some interesting varietals between the two regions. Those two areas both incur cold, continental climates, harnessing the weather to create high acid white varietals. We tried Sparkling wines and cross varietals (Müller-Thurgau), getting nerdy with the wine selection like listening to way too much Ornette Coleman, or strictly grooving on the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It was very cool to say that I have tried one of only a handful of imported Erbaluce wines in the USA and while I am sure that I am not going to be requesting a case any time soon I was happy to try it.

In all, we tasted the following:

08 Erbaluce di Caluso DOC

09 Sandrone Dolcetto d’ Alba

08 G.D. Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo

06 Giorgio Pelissero Barbaresco

98 Conterno Barolo

NV Quattro Mani Franciacorta

09 Erste Neue Südtirol Müller-Thurgau

08 San Maurizio Cornalin Valle d’ Aosta

09 Lechhaler Teroldego Rotalino DOC

08 Convento Muri-Gries Lagrein Rosso

09 G.D Vajra Muscato d’ Asti

The tasting order was interesting, shuffling between white and red wines, quick palate adjustments were required and I was able to sift out a few gems like the 98 Conterno Barolo for its interesting aged notes of truffle, soy sauce and tobacco and elegance on the tongue with refined tannins. I could easily see the appeal for this wine despite its grand price tag ($175). I was also impressed with the Erste Neue Südtirol Müller-Thurgau with its powerful and youthful aroma intensity of ripe peach and apricot, portraying a simple flavor profile, that lacked acidity but was otherwise delightful; it was not a thinking man’s wine, instead a perfect supplement to the highly anticipated warmer weather of the Golden state.

On a side note, the NV Quattro Mani Franciacorta sparkling wine was a disappointment, most likely the bomb of the bunch. Coming off my recent high with Champagne, this wine offered limited aromatics, almost recalcitrant, barely giving off scents of toasted brioche and minerals and was even less alluring on the palate.

The tasting was one of my favorites; it rekindled my fondness for a part of the world that I hold responsible for igniting my passion for wine and it was also very tasty. Eleven bottles were knocked off the list on Tuesday, leaving 389 left on my righteous path to 500. My sojourn-by-bottle to the North of Italy marked the beginning and I am excited about the remainder of the trip down the boot of Italy and possibly to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Onward ho.

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