Italy Unfiltered: A Week of Food and Drink With the Country's Best Natural Winemakers
My affection for natural wine began in early 2005, with Jacques Puffeney’s flor-aged Savagnin, which I discovered while testing a recipe for sambal ikan bilis at my soon-to-open Manhattan restaurant, Fatty Crab. I was tasting wine for the opening list, and the marriage of spice and the sherry-like qualities of that wine stunned me. It rewired how I thought about wine and opened up a new world of flavors.
Fast-forward a decade. Fatty Crab may be gone (it closed in 2016), but natural wines are now a major movement. And my first taste has grown into an obsession: For four years, I’ve maintained an all-natural wine list at Fish & Game, my restaurant in Hudson, New York, and I host a natural wine festival in the Hudson Valley each November. So when my friend Ross Bingham, a former motorcycle racer turned wine importer, invited me along for a visit with his favorite natural winemakers in Italy, I could hardly refuse.
The trip took place during midsummer, with me as the second driver, shotgun navigator, trusted palate, and drinking companion. We flew into Milan and hit the road, swirling glasses from Lombardy through Tuscany and into Lazio and Campania, driving into a Mediterranean sunset with teeth dyed purple, pesce all’acqua pazza calling our names.
The Boot by the Bottle
Our trip was a tour de force of Italy’s natural winemakers, those eschewing synthetic chemicals in their vineyards and bottles. We’ve gathered the best wine discoveries and recipes from our trip. —Zakary Pelaccio and Ross Bingham
Fattoria Mondo Antico, Lombardy
This agriturismo and winery is situated in low-lying hills an hour and a half from Milan. There, Diego Tiraboschi and his father, Dario, focus their energies on the traditional grapes and wines of the region: Pinot Nero, Barbera, Croatina, and Moradella. The night of our visit, Diego’s mother made us dinner, preparing casoncelli alla Bergamasca, a dumpling-like pasta from the area that was stuffed with breadcrumbs, eggs, and bits of their salumi. We drank a proper amount of Moradella, full-bodied, earthy, and feral, made from a thick-skinned, inky grape that is all but gone from Lombardy. The meal drove home what’s so wonderful about natural wines: how they taste of the soil in which they were grown and how they make food better—and how food in turn makes them better still.
DRINK: Made from 100 percent Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir), the 2013 Fattoria Mondo Antico Pernione ($26) is a crisp, full-bodied Lombardian red, delivering ripe raspberry fruit, hints of chalk, and a clean, full finish. Croatina stars in the 2012 Fattoria Mondo Antico Agenore ($19), a single-varietal bottling. Stony but aromatic, it offers notes of cranberry, red cherry, and salt.
Al Podere Di Rosa, Tuscany
Paolo Giuli took us on a hike up and down the slopes of his hillside vineyard outside the town of Lucca, showing us the 75-year-old Trebbiano vines that had been planted in concentric semicircles. His theory for the pattern is it offers protection against rot—that is, the rot won’t travel down and across an entire straight line of vines, but will stop at whatever level of the circle it began. Giuli’s Chiesino Bianco is a slightly orange-hued blend of Trebbiano and Vermentino that’s a favorite of my wife, Jori, and Lila, our wine director at Fish & Game. It was a perfect complement to a dish of rabbit that had been slowly cooked with white wine and olives at Osteria La Brocca in the nearby village of Pietrasanta, where we had lunch on the way to our next stop.
DRINK: For an accessible orange wine, try the 2017 Al Podere di Rosa Chiesino Bianco ($24),a blend of Trebbiano and Vermentino, tasting of orange flowers, quince, lemon, ginger, and walnut. A blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Merlot, the 2016 Al Podere di Rosa Chiesino Rosso ($24), a light-bodied red, is redolent with ripe red and black fruit.
Cantine Riccardi Reale, Lazio
At Piero Riccardi and Lorella Reale’s cantina perched on a cliff in the small town of Bellegra, we drank in the soft breeze and the landscape of steep green hills. We also drank in Malvasia and Cesanese, wines made from two indigenous grapes. These are food wines, and our hosts treated us to snacks of crostini with fresh sheep’s milk cheese topped with olive oil, anchovy, and rosemary; ricotta made from local raw milk; figs that had been picked that morning; and a gorgeous pear crostata. Riccardi is a bit of a forager, and among the vines he’d found a variety of wild herbs and chicories, which made their way into the evening’s dinner: the bitter greens dressed in oil and salt, served with lamb braised with red wine and tomato. Both dishes paired brilliantly with some older, brooding vintages of Cesanese.
DRINK: Ripe plum and hints of smoke characterize the 2015 Cantine Riccardi Reale Collepazzo ($25), a single-varietal bottling featuring the Cesanese grape. The 2017 Cantine Riccardi Reale Tucuca Rosato ($19) is an aromatic organic rosé perfect for spring: all rhubarb and strawberry.
Cantina Del Barone, Campania
When we arrived at Cantina del Barone in Campania, we were welcomed with a platter of fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella. They were delightful with a cold glass of the crisp, slightly smoky Fiano di Avellino made by our host, Luigi Sarno, using native yeasts from some of the older vines in the region. It was a great example of how a wine can taste of a place. Ages ago, following the last great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the ground was piled high with ash. That ash was eventually covered by soil, but it still influences the region’s wines: According to Sarno, this layer of packed volcanic ash is found throughout Avellino no more than 2 meters below the surface. Local lore says it gives that hint of smoke to the wines made from Fiano.
DRINK: Fiano, a white grape that’s been cultivated in Campania for millennia, brings sage and lemon cream flavors and a hint of smoke to the 2017 Cantina del Barone Paóne ($20). Sarno planted vines from north to south to maximize sunlight on the plot that yielded the 2017 Cantina del Barone Particella 928 ($30), a 100 percent Fiano bottling. The result: a captivating wine with flavors of fennel, lemon, sage, and marjoram.
Il Cancelliere, Campania
The Romano family runs a winery in the heart of Campania that specializes in the black grape Aglianico, the noble grape of the region. For our visit, they set a table under a cluster of hazelnut trees, where we noshed on olives and homemade salumi while tasting verticals of their Taurasi. Taurasi is made from Aglianico, but to call it Taurasi, the wine must be aged for at least three years, with at least one year in barrels. When young, Taurasis are big, bold wines that explode fruit and earth and have a lumberjack’s grip. As they age, they soften in a way that lets you know all is right with the world. As the day went on, we were joined by the family’s nonna, who hand-rolled and cut tagliatelle that her grand-daughters then boiled in a copper pot heated over a wood fire and tossed with fresh porcini. This was soon joined by ring-shaped pasta with tuna and green pepper.
DRINK: Crisp acidity and a gentle finish make the 2016 Il Cancelliere Vendemmia ($17) an easy-drinking bottle. The 2012 Il Cancelliere Nero Né Taurasi ($56), on the other hand, demands more attention, offering dark cherry, smoke, and leather, with deep fruit leading to gentle raspberries, then a soft, tannic finish.