I have recently returned from another really lovely trip to Italy. We spent more than a week in the Val d’Orcia, which lies to the south of Montalcino and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All in all, it was a really welcome break and super time spent with family and good friends.
Among many a great Brunello, I drank, as I always do, plenty of house wine—vino della casa—both white and red. I really appreciate these wines because they are simple, of the region, go with the region’s food and are totally refreshing. They also embody, indeed, codify an idea of mine—that wine is a grocery and not a luxury. While I could use this blog to write about what is going on in Brunello, and indeed I have an opinion (like, our government is absolutely insane to ask producers to provide DNA evidence of Sangiovese purity), I want to instead discuss these vini della casa.
When I started going to Italy 20 years ago, the red house wines were all that I describe above—a simple drink that refreshed the palate and fostered a meal, conversation and fun. The restaurants really took care with them; often, the vino della casa was made of local grapes by a local friend of the house. The wines often possessed little in the way of color but instead had tons of charm and that element of being local that allowed them to pair so well with the local cuisine. What grows together goes together, right? I happily consumed a great deal of these local reds with many a smile and wonderful memories thereof.
Another memory of this time is that one seldom ordered the bianco de la casa. These white wines were often poorly made and oxidized, because at that time, many small Italian producers couldn’t afford the modern (and expensive) equipment to control fermentation temperatures and create an oxygen-limited environment, which help preserves the wines' fruit and keeps them from oxidizing.
Flash-forward 20 years.
The bianco de la casa is a whole lot better than it ever has been. This makes sense, as modern winemaking techniques have become more widely available and utilized, so more producers are able to keep their simple whites clean, fresh and free of premature oxidation. That’s the good news.
It’s the other side of the coin that I find totally disturbing. On more than one occasion, I found that upon ordering the house white, the wine that was delivered appeared to be the house pink. When poured, the wine was indeed white, but the glass pitcher that held it was actually stained from the house red, thus disguising my white as rosé. I should have viewed this as red—a red herring. Reason being, upon ordering the house red, what came to the table was more like the house blue.
Yup, tragedy had struck. The wines were no longer the charming, gentle reds I had once enjoyed. Instead, my palate was convinced that the house had been over-run by international grape varieties, roto-fermenters and too much new wood (likely chips.) The result was deep blue—literally in the glass, and figuratively in my mood.
I pondered what might have happened and how so. Perhaps all of those international grapes that invaded these shores and came to pollute so many Tuscan wines I have loved have finally fallen out of favor, and there is now nowhere to bury them except in the lowest common denominator, the house wine. Or is the situation even more dire, and people actually prefer these blue wines—which, to my palate, possess none of the charm, refreshment value or ability to pair with cuisine as their forbearers did. Left with the empty, stained decanter, I remain blue.
Greg Neidballa — Chicago, IL USA — May 28, 2008 6:40pm ET
Richard Betts — denver airport at present — May 29, 2008 1:02pm ET
Scott Oneil — UT — May 31, 2008 12:47pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — June 2, 2008 1:21pm ET
Valery Starr — Missouri — June 21, 2008 9:18pm ET
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