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Wineaux: Warming from the inside out with Italian reds

By From page A7 | January 24, 2013

By the time you read this, the cold spell will no doubt have made its way to North Dakota where it belongs, and we’ll be basking in our seasonal temps.

I know this, but as soon as I see frost on the greenbelt, I hunker down and lay up provisions so we’ll survive that 10 feet of snow lurking somewhere north of us and waiting to pounce.

For the past several days I’ve been roasting squash, making granola, simmering broth, baking bread, juicing tangerines, caramelizing onions and sautéeing every stray green thing in the house. I even searched out a recipe for almond milk and whipped up a batch, half for the refrigerator, half for the freezer.

There was a lot of pulp left over so I dried it in the oven (any excuse to turn the oven on) and jarred it for rainy-day baking. I then made a big pot of leek and potato soup and started right in on a 550-page novel (“Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel — terrific!).

And I bought a case of ’09 Simas Family Capay Valley Red, our current house wine of choice. But, much as we love it, we can’t drink it every night; I had to stock up, therefore, on some good warming alternates.

I announced a couple of weeks ago that this might be the year of Italian wines, so you won’t be surprised to hear that most of these bottles traveled from my ancestral territory. A couple of them I knew already, like the Corte Lonardi I touted in last column. But two unknowns turned out to be splendid additions to our pseudo-cellar.

The first comes directly from Ma and Pa Leonardi land — the 2010 Sikelia Nero d’Avola. “Sikelia” (I learned from the label) was the ancient Greek name for Sicily and this is a delicious, earthy example of the island’s most famous native varietal. The grapes (10 percent of them syrah) came from two sites, one coastal, one at higher altitude — a combination that really works. The fruit — cherry, blackberry — is ripe and bold but still restrained enough to complement a variety of food.

We drank this fresh, young, slightly smoky Nero with anchovy linguine — and both pasta and wine made each other dance. I’m going to try the next bottle with spicy baked penne or wild mushroom risotto.

The second wine has an equally intriguing name — and equally elegant label — “Arcangelo,” after winemaker Nini Palamà’s father. Also from Southern Italy, this wine is 100 percent Negroamaro, a grape from the Puglia region usually used in blends. Like the Sikelia, Arcangelo is fresh and young, lush with plum and raspberry. It has good spicy tannins with a hint of smoke and dark chocolate.

At first sip I feared it would be a bit too fruity for my taste, but I was hooked as soon as I tried it with the cavatappi (my new favorite pasta shape) covered with a thick, spicy, long-simmered tomato sauce (yet another cold-spell project). It also would make a fabulous wine for a pizza or a hearty winter stew. And for the increasing number of folks interested in low-alcohol wine, you’ll be happy to learn that this full-bodied beauty is only 12.5 percent (the Sikelia is 13 percent).

We saved a quarter of the bottle to pair more daringly. I was sure that after a bite of very ripe Camembert it would, like most reds, taste dreadful. But no, it retained its lovely, bright fruit. It fared less well with a past-its-peak Pt. Reyes Blue, but it recovered quickly.

Like several other wines I’ve recommended recently — the Marchetti Verdicchio dei Castelli de Jesi, for example — Arcangelo is imported by Small Vineyard (Seattle) in their Discovery series.

Small Vineyard believes that the best wines come from small estates: “If you think about it,” they say in their promo material, “it’s a lot easier to make a great meal for five people than for 500, and winemaking is no different.”

So they choose family-owned producers who make small batches and use hand-picked grapes and sustainable growing practices.

I’ve noticed, too, that the varietals in these wines are native to their respective areas, so these importers are helping winemakers resist the temptation to dig up their unknown, unsung varietals and plant the popular — and ubiquitous — cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay.

The problem with wines from small, family-owned estates that make a very limited number of cases is that they’re usually expensive. But Arcangelo sells at Nugget for about $13 a bottle, a real bargain. The Sikelia, too, is around that price at both Nugget and the Davis Food Co-op. (Of course, my Simas Family Capay Red fits all the criteria of Small Vineyard, too, has only 12.6 percent alcohol, and sells for about the same price at the Co-op.)

Fired up about interesting Italians, I headed over to Vini to sample their wines from the boot. I was most intrigued by the Lacrima de Morro d’Alba, a full-bodied, 100 percent lacrima, an ancient indigenous grape of the Marche region east of Tuscany. Grown only on a few estates around the town of Morro d’Alba, lacrima grapes tend to produce a gamay-like wine with bright, fresh fruit, though area winemakers are now producing it in a number of styles — light, medium-bodied, full-bodied, oaked, unoaked.

“Lacrima” means “teardrop”; some speculate that the name refers to the tear-like shape of the grape, others that it refers to the tendency of the thin-skinned grape to split and drip.

This Marzaioloa lacrima smelled of rose petals and tasted of dark berries and spice. I haven’t yet tried it with food, but I imagine that it, like the other Italian reds I mentioned, would go beautifully with all manner of Mediterranean dishes, especially stews and anything with mushrooms. Another 12.5 percenter, it’s intense, delicious and unusual enough to surprise your guests.

Alas, Jeff just told me that he’s almost out of it (I’ll let you know when I find another source — let me know if you see it in your favorite wine shop). In its place, Vini (611 Second St.) will have four new small-vineyard Italians, including a Barola. I urge you to go taste them — they’ll warm you right up.

— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Susan Leonardi

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