Wineaux: Nuns making heavenly wine

By June 15, 2011

Sister Agnes Marie started me, at age 6, on my reading and writing life. Sisters Perpetua, Mary Ascension, Agneda, St. Ida, Mary Virginia and Gertrude Joseph taught me much of what I know about being an assertive, cranky woman in a male-dominated world.

While I rant about the poisonous state of the Catholic Church, I think of nuns (despite their reputation as tyrants) as in some ways the necessary antidote.

Even more fascinating to me than the teachers I grew up with are the contemplative nuns who carry on ancient monastic traditions in creative, contemporary ways. I spent a few years of my life monastery-hopping in lieu of taking more traditional vacations, and though I admired the Trappists at Gethsemane and the Primitive Benedictine monks at Christ in the Desert and Mount Savior, it was the Cistercian nuns, or Trappistines, at Whitethorn who most fired my imagination.

Years after those visits, I even wrote a novel (“And Then They Were Nuns”), which I set in an entirely fictional women’s monastery in the Sierra Nevada.

Imagine my delight, then, when Garrett Pearce of Rosenthal Wine Imports introduced me to “the nun wine.” While we take for granted wine, liqueur and beer projects of male monastics (in fact, it was the monastic institutions that kept Roman viticulture alive during the Middle Ages), the women — at least in modern times — have tended to support themselves with altar breads, fruitcake, confections and cheese.

There are exceptions, of course, like the Abbey of St. Hildegarde in Germany that produces an herb liqueur.

Now a Trappistine monastery in Lazio, about 60 miles north of Rome, the Monastero Suore Cistercensi, has taken up making commercially available wine from the old vines on their property. They make only two, both white blends — the Coenobium and the slightly more expensive Coenobium Rusticum.

I tasted the ’09 Coenobium with Garrett and couldn’t get it out of my mind. Both delicious and mysterious, it tasted different with every sip. While perfectly dry and wonderfully minerally, it tasted intensely fruity, but I had a hard time pinning it down further — Melon? Peach? Apricot? Fig? Hazelnuts? Pear? Apple? All of the above?

When someone suggested fennel and mint, I nodded at that, too.

I hated to finish off my sample, in part because its golden color looked so beautiful in the glass, in part because I wanted to see what else would emerge. With more air. With food.

So I tracked down a bottle (although it was the ’08) and generously gave it to my partner for her birthday. I did suspect that she’d share — especially if I concocted a worthy meal to accompany it. I made it simple — two terrific cheeses, a loaf of homemade sourdough bread, a big mixed green salad, a small piece of smoked wild salmon.

We sipped the wine slowly all though dinner and marveled at the layers and layers it revealed.

One of the secrets to the wine’s complexity: a long soak on the skins (Rusticum gets an even longer soak and is, I hear, almost orange in color). Another secret: the old vines that have never been sprayed or touched with commercial fertilizer. In fact, the wines are made with only wild yeast and without additives of any kind.

The consulting winemaker on this holy project is Giampiero Bea, who, with his father Paolo, is a famous proponent of non-interventionist winemaking, a “naturalista.” I can imagine the Beas’ delight when they were introduced to these virgin Trebbiano, Verdicchio, Malvasia and Grechetto vines.

I can’t wait until I can find the 2009, which — slightly more acidic and more structured — I liked a bit better than the ’08.

I don’t usually spend an entire column on a singe wine, especially not one that costs more than $20 and that you have to drive 25 miles to buy. But how could I resist this serendipitous combination of two of my obsessions?

“Coenobium,” by the way, comes from the Greek koinos, “community,” and means, simply, a monastery, so this exotic-sounding name is actually as unadorned and unmanipulated as the wine itself.

If you happen to be heading west and dining at Chez Panisse, you can order a glass. Otherwise, if you feel like a splurge, head east to Corti Brothers and snag one of their few remaining bottles at the entirely fair price of $25.

If that drinks up most of your weekly wine budget, you can pick up a couple of $5.99 bottles of Vino Della Casa, an Italian white blend as simple as Coenobium is complex but also delightful and fruity — perhaps a better choice to drink cold on a hot afternoon.

The Coenobium should, I think, be drunk just slightly chilled, and it would be a waste to use it as a thirst quencher.

Build a dinner around it. I can recommend the goat-cow-sheep-milk, soft-ripened Italian cheese La Tur (at the Davis Food Co-op) for starters. Maybe followed by endive wrapped in prosciutto and baked in cream or a very fresh piece of Bodega Bay cod, lightly sautéed and topped with herbs and a splash of Yolo Press lemon-infused olive oil.

The medium-body and warm, almost oily mouthfeel of Coenobium will stand up to — and nicely complement — smoky and earthy flavors. Mushrooms come to mind.

Whatever you decide, don’t forget to toast the good sisters who tended the vines and let the grapes be.

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

Susan Leonardi

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