Of Old School Primitivo & Making My Day

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If you drink wine long enough, and drink enough of it, you’ll likely run into a fallow period when your level of satisfaction and the number of WOW moments you encounter are few and far between. November was that sort of month. I hit the Clint Eastwood trifecta – the good, the bad, the ugly. Even the wines worth mentioning were, at best, drinkably acceptable. Nothing that made my palate thank me for opening the bottle. Not one wine that made my day.

Fortunately, as the calendar turned to December, my vinous spirits got a much needed and appreciated resurrection with a little help from my friends. Luncheon at a well-known Manhattan enoteca yielded an Andre Clouet NV 1911, a Blanc de Noirs blended from three excellent vintages of the mid-‘90s, of which only 160 cases were made; a pairing of two Barolos-a 2007 Bartolo Mascarello and Renzo Seghesio’s 1996 “Pajana” Gran Riserva; a 1998 Rioja Gran Riserva “904” from La Rioja Alta; and a 1987 Fiorano Semillon from the vineyards of an eccentric Italian aristocrat whose story is a tale for another day. Additionally, a colleague just back from a viaggio di vino in Tuscany shared a Castello dei Rampolla “Trebianco”, a truly bio-dynamic mix of three varietals fermented and aged in terra cotta amphorae.

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New Year’s Eve was the occasion to uncork what was the most intriguing and thought-provoking wine of what had already been as interesting and rewarding a stretch of imbibing as I’d had in years – Antonio Ferrari Il 1949, a 100% Primitivo with over six decades of maturity.

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To break down and describe the elements of this masterpiece would be a disservice, akin to dissecting the brushstrokes on a Van Gogh. There are moments when it’s better to let the wine tell its own story. Italians would refer to this extraordinary example of pre-modern winemaking as a vino di meditazione, a wine to savor unaccompanied by food, but which generates contemplation of the inherent veritas in vino.

As I sipped, and as the wine evolved from glass to glass, my thoughts turned to the year of its birth, of what Ferrari envisioned as he patiently aged the wine for decades before consigning it to bottles for further maturation. Of how the vineyards looked during the growing season, and the smell of the earth. The decisions that were made, and the labor involved, in nurturing the grapes from bud break to resting in large, old casks. It was a time before temperature controlled fermentation, before barriques became universal. A simpler time when a farmer’s understanding of the soil and its capabilities wasn’t analyzed and quantified on computer readouts. When nature expressed itself and wasn’t subjected to technological circumvention, and intuitive, hands-in-the-earth winemaking was the rule rather than the exception. An approach that produced wines that may have lacked polish and the artificial “finesse” all too common today, but had character and authenticity. I thought of all those who had a hand in the wine. Did they sample it in its youth? Did they live long enough to see what it became, or had they been outlived by their creation?

It seems like a lot to ponder, but that’s what an old, gracefully aged wine will do for you if you let it. It’s an artifact whose place on the historical timeline of viticulture gives us a sensory feeling of what wine was, a point of comparison to the present. Such a wine didn’t just make my day… it made my year.