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It never really feels like spring in New York until the farmers markets start to fill up with fresh vegetables that haven't been held over the winter. Not that there's anything wrong with kale and beets, but after a long, cold, desolate season I always crave some fresh produce. Asparagus is the real highlight of the spring for me, but I also look forward to things like fiddlehead ferns and rhubarb. The only drawback is that these first crops are not always easy to pair with wine, asparagus being a notoriously difficult partner on the table. The bitter flavors of the vegetables tend to make many wines taste off, while the tartness of rhubarb is hard to match in dry wines, especially when the rhubarb is cooked with sugar. Italian wines can also show some of the same traits; the whites can be slightly bitter and the reds can have aggressive tannins or too much acidity to be easily quaffed. We have a mantra at the store that many wines, especially Italian wines, are part and parcel of the table, that they can really only be understood in the context of food. With spring in full swing it is a perfect time to examine a few more unusual Italian grapes that really shine with this season’s bounty.
The flavors of asparagus, green and grassy without sweetness and a slight earthy twinge, throw off most wines, especially when dressed with lemon. Fiddlehead ferns are often more difficult with a similar flavor but also a slightly nutty or bitter finish. A tried-and-true strategy is to pair them with a crisp, aromatic white wine that isn't sweet. The challenge is to find the balance, a wine that won't overwhelm the dish but has the acidity to stand up to lemon or a vinaigrette used as dressing. For more simply prepared dishes Blatterle, a grape that is only grown by a handful of producers in Alto Adige, is a great choice. Nusserhof produces a wine that shows delicate tones of lemon verbena with fresh green herbs that match the flavors of asparagus perfectly. A traditional choice for asparagus and egg dishes would be Vespaiolo, an aromatic grape native to the Veneto that is often made into sweet wine. Contra Soarda makes a dry Vespaiolo that is something I reach for every spring. It has soft floral aromatics, loads of orchard fruit, zesty acidity and a rich texture on the palate that just sings with more indulgent asparagus dishes. Timorasso is another great choice for spring vegetables. The grape is native to Piedmont and is marked by thick skins that tend to give the wine a golden hue and deep flavors even without skin contact during fermentation. The Oltretorrente Timorasso is lovely, produced from vines in the Colli Tortonesi in Piedmont’s south, the wine shows honey and ripe peach on the nose with crisp acidity and a dry mineral finish. Try it with asparagus dressed in hollandaise or with fiddleheads paired with richer foods. All of these wines will also pair with more subtle spring vegetables like peas or leafy greens (especially the Blatterle).
Rhubarb, whether it is in pie or used in savory dishes, is not something that pairs intuitively with wine. The slightly green, incredibly tart flavor is usually tamed by cooking with plenty of sugar which takes most dry wines out of the running. For rhubarb pie I can’t think of a better wine than Rovero’s Brachetto. Brachetto is a sweet, slightly sparkling wine that is typical in Piedmont and is a picture-perfect match for rhubarb pie: marked by effusive strawberry fruit, bright acid, and a bold red floral tone. Simply put, it is delicious and it plays on the beauty of rhubarb with strawberries. One of my favorite spring treats is pork chops dressed with a rhubarb compote, the tart rhubarb is refreshing with the fat of the chop. I usually pair it with a full-bodied, fruity Italian rosato like Bonavita’s Faro rosato from northern Sicily. I’ve never made a secret of my love for this wine because it is so versatile when pairing with food. Produced from Nerello Mascalese and a local grape called Nocera, it has enough acidity to stand up to rhubarb and is bold enough for a pork chop, not to mention that it is delicious to boot. Another strong choice would be Corte Pagliare’s Lambrusco rosato made from Lambrusco Sobrara, a very lightly-pigmented Lambrusco grape that tends towards the tart side of the spectrum. This vintage is juicy and fresh, with plenty of acidity and a slight herbal tone that is a perfect match for savory rhubarb dishes. Rather than standing up to the richness of a meat dish, it will refresh the palate without clashing with rhubarb.
There are plenty of other great choices to pair with a haul from the farmers market in spring but I think these Italian wines are all well worth a try. Of course, you should not feel limited; try these wines with fish, chicken, duck, cheese or anything else that strikes you. The important thing is to be open-minded when it comes to unusual or unfamiliar wines! Andy Paynter
As an aside, anyone interested in learning more about the wide range of Italian grapes out there should pick up a copy of The Native Grapes of Italy, by Ian D’Agata. It is an incredibly detailed examination of the diversity of Italian grapes covering everything from genetic profiles and vineyard characteristics, to typical flavors and recommended producers. It has been, and continues to be, a vital resource for my personal journey through Italian wine (including background research for these emails).
In the realm of obscure Italian grape varieties, Blatterle takes the cake for rarity. With a total of three producers and no more than 1.5 hectares planted, the variety isn't even recognized by the Italian government and therefore can’t be listed anywhere on the label. Nusserhof is the largest producer of Blatterle in the world, making around 40 hectoliters annually of the stunning B….... cuvée. Vinified with native yeast on the skins, gently pressed, and then rested in steel, the winemaking is intentionally straight forward to better showcase the variety. The nose is complex, with layers of yellow flowers, chlorophyll, fresh green herbs, yellow peaches, and lemon verbena. The palate has some density but is lifted by bright acidity and crisp flavors of citrus and pithy stone fruit with a very dry finish. I think it is a perfect match for spring vegetables prepared simply; think asparagus dressed in lemon and olive oil or a salad of pea shoots and goat cheese. Andy Paynter
Contra Soarda consistently produces excellent Vespaiolo wines in the Veneto, and the 2017 vintage is the best I’ve tasted yet. Vespaiolo derives its name from the wasps (vespa) that feed on the grapes as sugar accumulates later in the season. The wines are often made into a passito style sweet wine but this wine shines as a rich, dry wine with bountiful aromatics. The vines are planted on a decomposed volcanic soil at high density to limit yields, and are fermented with native yeast in steel. The nose is quite effusive with scents of apple blossom, white peach, orchard fruit, and ripe citrus. Fairly full on the palate with a rich texture, the initial flavors of juicy apple and peach give the impression of sweetness which is lifted away by high acidity and a mineral finish. Intense and refreshing, this wine would pair well with asparagus and egg dishes, scallops, shrimp, washed-rind or fresh cheese, or with a vegetable risotto. Andy Paynter
Oltretorrente has produced a wonderful Timorasso since they were founded in 2010 by Chiara Penati and Michele Conoscenti. The vines, planted in 1996, are tended organically with biodynamic practices and the grapes are vinified simply: the bunches are pressed whole-cluster and fermented with native yeasts in steel, resting on the lees for 8 months to lend texture and complexity. A touch golden in the glass, the wine shows strong aromas of ripe peach, honey, beeswax, and yellow flowers. The palate has some weight with a smooth texture, plenty of acidity, and rich stone fruit over a chalky mineral backbone. Simultaneously rich and crisp this wine would bring levity plus flavor to starchy winter foods.
Giovanni Scarfone, the driving force behind the stellar Bonavita estate in Faro Sicily, has made another stunning rosato from the 2017 vintage. Easily my favorite rosato every summer, (a category in which competition has become increasingly heated in recent years) the Bonavita rosato is produced from Nerello Mascalese with the inclusion of around 20% Nocera from a small vineyard planted in 2010. Despite only being macerated for around 12 hours, it has a deep ruby hue and the nose is redolent of zesty citrus fruit, bright cherries, wild mountain flowers, and hot stones. Quite full for a rosato with lots of acidity, noticeable tannins, and buoyant mineral flavors, the wine is both tart and smooth and is seriously refreshing. I think it is a born match for seared tuna steak dressed in orange and fennel but it will pair with all sorts of food. Try it with all of your spring and summer favorites and stock up before it's all gone! Andy Paynter
Dry Lambrusco rosato still seems to be a bit of a rarity, which is baffling when excellent examples like Corte Paglieri’s rosato are available. Corte Pagliari Rosato is a very traditional style of Lambrusco; made from organically farmed Lambrusco Sobrara grapes, it is re-fermented in bottle rather than tank and is made without the addition of sulfites. A deep bronze-hued ruby, the aromas of the wine practically jump out of the glass showing rhubarb, ripe cherries, and citrus zest with a deep violet floral tone. The palate is crisp and balanced with a very delicate bubble and very low tannin, notes of peaches, juicy strawberries, and a slight minty tone. While not suited pairing with the richest foods, this would be a perfect match for soft cheese, bitter veggies like fiddlehead ferns, fatty fish, roast chicken, or pork chops with rhubarb compote. Andy Paynter
Brachetto has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. The wine is usually made in the same style of Moscato d’Asti -- the fermentation is stopped when alcohol is still quite low and some of the CO2 is captured to create a slightly sparkling, sweet wine. Farmed strictly organically, the fermentation is arrested with filtration rather than large doses of sulfur (as is common for sweet Brachetto) to limit overall additions to the wine. The wine has opulent strawberry fruit and red flowers on the nose with a lively sparkle and creamy texture braced by bright acid and plenty of sweetness; it is a truly carefree wine that is a joy to drink. Try it this spring as a natural pairing for rhubarb pie, with strawberry shortcake, as a sweet pairing for prosciutto and melon, or as a dessert in and of itself. Andy Paynter