For her birthday — which occurred during one of our many May hot spells — my partner requested an Italian dinner with “one of those nice dry Italian whites.”
So, of course, I set off to find one. Or two. Or three. We do, after all, tend to celebrate birth week rather than simply birth day.
Davis is not, I have to admit, the very best place for seeking out unusual Italian wines. And, this being a special occasion, I was looking for the unusual. But I did manage to acquire a few gems.
The first one we drank on the birthday itself. Clare at the Co-op recommended it to me — a 2010 Sicilian white, Insolia, made by the Cusumano family. They were previously growers of grapes for bulk wine for other producers, but now Cusumano brothers Diego and Alberto are making their own unique wines to express a “new” Sicilian winemaking style.
Insolia is a grape native to Sicily. Once used mainly as part of the Marsala blend, the Cusumano brothers and others are using it to create vibrant, dry white table wine. This Insolia smells and tastes of tropical and stone fruits with a good mineral core and a full-mouth finish.
Lightly acidic, it went beautifully with our two savory courses — first a frisée-kale-herb salad topped with fresh peach slices (the peach nicely echoed in the wine) and smoked scallops. Next we had wild, local salmon baked in parchment and topped with crisped dill — accompanied by mint, parsley and garlic-stuffed artichokes.
The wine just kept getting better, never losing its nutty sunniness even in face of the rather strongly smoked scallops or the slightly bitter artichokes.
I doubt it would have complemented the dense apricot-almond-chocolate cake, but by the time the birthday girl blew out the candles, the bottle was empty anyway. A keeper, this wine is also an excellent bargain — on sale now for just $11 at the Co-op. Note: The bottle is sealed with a nifty glass cork, the first one I’ve seen. I struggled with it for a while before I realized that you just pop if off. And you can re-seal by popping it back on — assuming you have any left.
The second “gem” is a wine I mentioned briefly in my last column — a Kermit Lynch import called Grangia. Hailing from the Piemonte region, this light, crisp, blossomy wine is made with about 90 percent favorita and 10 percent moscato. I’d never heard of favorita before — recent DNA studies at UC Davis show it to be the same as vermentino, an Italian grape varietal that has seen a serious resurgence in recent years — including vermentino from our gold country.
(One particularly good example is the Uvaggio Vermentino from Lodi. Reasonably priced and low in alcohol, this wine is currently on sale the Co-op for $13. Check out Uvaggio’s other wines, too.)
Vermentino is sometimes described as halfway between a pinot grigio and a sauvignon blanc, but it has a fresh, fruitiness all its own. Likewise this favorita-moscato blend, which is made from hand-selected and hand-harvested grapes in the Tintero family’s organically managed vineyards. It’s a pale greenish, slightly effervescent wine that’s great fun to drink. Although it begins with a wisp of sparkling honey, it’s crisp and dry.
I’m a fan of Portugal’s vinho verde, especially in the summer, which is somewhat similar in its light, citrusy, fizzy zestiness. But Grangia is a bit more elegant and complex. And has a longer, drier finish.
It worked perfectly with our goat-cheese, garbanzo and sun-dried tomato pasta dish, but I can also imagine it with all sorts of appetizers, including soft cheese and sea food, especially oysters. An added attraction: It’s delightful on its own — a really impressive and unusual patio-sipper.
Our birth week Friday night pizza was topped with a sprinkling of amaranth greens and a lot of Lloyd’s plump, fragrant basil (which appeared, fortuitously, at farmers market for the first time that week — I had been impatiently waiting). We vacillated between another Italian white or, since Friday was a relatively cool day, a pizza red.
Happily, the Tintero family makes a rosso, too, so — very pleased with our Grangia experience — I decided to try a bottle of that. And I’m glad I did. It’s a splendid blend of mostly nebbiolo and barbara, with 10 percent each of dolcetto and cab franc just for fun.
Cherry and strawberry in both nose and mouth, this rosso is a bright, earthy, spicy, light-to-medium-bodied wine that’s about as food-friendly as they come. With its mild tannins and light acidity, it’s excellent on its own, too, but it didn’t “pop” until after the first tomato-y, cheesy bite. A perfect summer red.
Both of these Kermit Lynch selections are available at Valley Wine Company and both are, amazingly, in the $10 range. (You can also get the Grangia by the glass or bottle at Monticello.) It’s delightful to be able to drink this quality of wine at that price. In other words, you don’t have to wait for a birthday. You can, as I plan to do, celebrate summer as often as possible with these good bargains.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com