Winemaker rethinks Italian convention
By Randal Caparoso
How good a winemaker is Riccardo Cotarella? So good, that on top of his own vineyard and winery known as Falesco in Italy's Umbria and Lazio regions, there are 53 other wineries employing him as their consulting winemaker. Most of them are also in the center of Italy, but six are in France; including two chateaux in the famous region of Bordeaux.
Why so many? Because he can. His skills are in demand because virtually all his wines selling for as little as $7 and as much as a $75 share the common qualities of great aromatic intensity, flattering textures and more layers of flavor than previously thought possible.
And make no mistake: Traveling winemaker consultants do not carry around broomsticks and magic wands. They do what they do by applying a sensitivity to grape growing, and a sure-handed feel for bringing out the best out of these grapes through a stickler's winemaking principles.
In every Italian winery I recently passed where Riccardo has left his mark, I have heard his name spoken with a reverence reserved for Socrates, Confucius and Gautama. He quietly prods and challenges his clients to attend to every detailed step of the winemaking process, and they respond by ascending to heights that amaze even themselves. No wonder, as Italy's Gambero Rosso magazine puts it, he practically qualifies for sainthood.
So what exactly is it that Cotarella has done for Italian wines? In the latest Gambero Rosso, Cotarella says that he aims for wines that are "very rich and soft ... finer and more drinkable." When he began to actively consult a little less than 10 years ago, he sought to "break loose from the thin wines that were the norm," striving for an almost exaggerated roundness and drinkability.
The significance of this is that most wines from Italy which are not made by Riccardo Cotarella are still thought of as light and spare. Typical Italian whites verge on wateriness, and typical Italian reds bear a remarkable resemblance to shoe leather. The experts, of course, still tell us that this is the "style" of Italy, and that it's this very thinness, or sharp, astringent leatheriness, which make Italian wines taste so wonderful with food.
Well, you can fool a lot of people all the time, but not Riccardo Cotarella. If anything, his genius is that he has convinced both Italian winemakers and drinkers of Italian wine that there is absolutely nothing wrong with, say, an Italian white wine made from Grechetto that has more of the solid, crisp, minerally and melony taste of the Grechetto grape than that of insipid, lemony water. That it's OK for Italy's Sangiovese-based reds to have the lush, red cherry and tea flavor of the freshly crushed Sangiovese grape, and for Italian-grown Merlots to have the juicy rich, soft flavor of the Merlot grape. To heck with shoe leather. Who wants to drink that with food?
Now for the best part: It is very possible to find Cotarella-crafted wines in many retail stores and restaurants in the United States. This revolutionary (for Italy) style is, after all, very much in tune with the American palate for soft, fruit-driven wine. The difference being, this softness is embellished by distinctions reflecting the Italian origins of Cotarella's material, unlike the indefinable, canned fruitiness of so many New World wines. Here is an introduction:
- Falesco, Grechetto 1999 ($13-$16) The first thing to remember about white wines made from the Grechetto grape is that they are not Chardonnays not fat, not oaky or overripe.
They are, however, cool, crisp, and lively; qualities to which Cotarella adds nuances of sweet pear, licorice and slivers of peach in his Falesco bottling. There is almost an Asian sense of harmony and restraint, with that quiet intensity.
A wine, in fact, which many American wine critics could never "get," enslaved, as they are, by the idea that big is better, and loud carries the big stick which it most certainly never does the context of the lighter, more refreshing foods many of us are eating today.
- Falesco, "Vitiano" 2000 ($10-$13) This is the quintessential Cotarella red; as friendly in price as it is in taste. Unbelievably so. The Vitiano is a three-way blend of Umbria-grown Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Sangiovese contributes delicately sweet, red berry aromas with scrubby, anise-like qualities; the Cabernet, a firm grip and herby, minty bottom note; and the Merlot, a plump, round, juicy flavor in the middle. Rarely will you find so many layers in a wine so invitingly gentle.
- Falesco, Umbria Merlot 1999 ($11-$14) The Umbrian style of Merlot, as defined by Cotarella, is dense and dark, coating the glass and then the mouth, yet gloriously soft, flowing, cohesive. The French oak quality smoky, vanillin, elegant is not ungenerous, but there is black cherry fruit aplenty, spilling out over a tautly lashed ring of tannin. Such a deal!
- Galli & Brocatelli, Sagrantino 1997 ($19-$24) This winery, in the Montefalco township of Umbria, is one of Cotarella's most recent projects, and it specializes in the rare and unusually small-berried varietal called Sagrantino. Lovers of thick, bulging, muscular reds could make a fetish out of this wine, with its gooey rich aroma evincing black licorice and berries, and earth-toned nuances that transition from truffle to chocolate.
On the palate, a fistful of flavors; luscious fruit strapped down with tannin, finishing with smoky, roasted coffee bean-like intensities.
- Sportoletti, "Villa Fidelia Rosso" 1999 ($25-$30) It's almost a shame that the American press has recently "discovered" this red wine made by the Sportoletti family from their chalky, stony hillside plantings outside of Assisi which has turned it into a rare experience in more ways than one.
A blend of mostly Merlot (70 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (20 percent) and Cabernet Franc, this is a wine that ebbs and flows on the palate with meaty, toothsome, tannin-lined flavors that are also steeped with a lush, layered, almost sweet, cassis-like intensity wrapped in vanilla beans. A literal river of sleek, Italianate red wine flavors.
- La Carraia, "Fobiano" 1998 ($35-$40) What a name, what a red wine; grown within the township of Orvieto, once known only for its mild and friendly white wine (called Orvieto).
During the past 10 years, Cotarella has turned La Carraia into a "serious" Merlot (of which the Fobiano is 70 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon estate, on the par with the best of Bordeaux and Napa Valley; but this doesn't keep it from being dreamily soft and luxurious, draping itself across the palate with thick, velvety folds of black fruit and sweet oak. A wine with as much heart as strength.
- Falesco, "Montiano" 1998 ($40-$45) From Cotarella's oldest estate plantings in the hilly Lazio region, this is his piece de resistance: 100 percent Merlot meaning a pure, unbridled, palate-ringing juiciness.
Everything is here the enthralling red and black fruit aromas, the soft yet meaty density, tannic muscle overlain with silky flesh, a proud elegance keeled by unabashed sensuality.
Almost a state of mind rather than simply a red wine made indubitably for drinking!
Randal Caparoso is the corporate wine buyer for Roy's Restaurants.