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Gambling on Gravner

By Michael Schiaparelli · March 18th, 2009 · Fermentations
We recently ate at San Marco, a Mario Batali restaurant at the Venetian Las Vegas. The food was good and the service wonderful but the real star was the encyclopedic wine list assembled under the direction of Joe Bastianich, Mario’s business partner and wine director of their dining empire.

But Joe is much more than a restaurateur. He’s also an author (Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy with David Lynch), winemaker (Bastianich Azienda Agricola) and, most importantly, a tireless promoter of obscure Italian regional vino.

Over supper, we tried several wines, including a 2007 Medici Ermete “Concerto” Lambrusco Reggiano from Emilia- Romagna (the region from which my Nonna emigrated to the U.S.). Unlike the cloyingly sweet Lambrusco of old, this was dry and lively (vivace) with wonderful black cherry/plum fruit, snappy acidity and bracing minerality. It was perfect with our selection of fried appetizers and a great alternative to Prosecco.

We also enjoyed a vibrant, rose-colored 2006 Bastianich Refosco “Rosato” that was terrifically food-friendly: floral with red plum, ripe strawberry and watermelon fruit, it had a pleasing herbaceousness and a great streak of refreshing, citrusy acidity.

Then, the showstopper: a rare 2002 Gravner “Breg- Anfora” white blend from Friuli. Now, winemaker Francesco Josko Gravner is hardly a household name, but he’s earned a reputation as a pioneer and risk-taker in Northeast Italy’s Friuli region. He started his career by breaking with tradition to experiment with the latest technologies, producing crisp, clean, aromatic whites that (I’m told) were always a clear step up from the mass of subpar, uninteresting Italian whites available at that time.

But as Gravner got older, he became interested in producing wines using truly ancient methods employed by the Romans, Greeks and Mesopotamians. For instance, he ferments this wine for seven months on the skins in large, beeswax-lined clay amphorae buried in the earth to maintain consistent temperatures and then transfers the juice to oak casks for 40 months before bottling.

The amber color of the resulting wine at first appears oxidized. The nose, though, is intensely perfumed with notes of baked apple, clove, oranges, raw honey and spice. On the palate, it’s medium- to full-bodied with a peculiar waxy texture and loads of appley fruit accented by hints of bourbon, caramel and cinnamon. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever tasted — with the possible exception of Chateau Musar’s white wines from Lebanon.

But the strangest selection on a wine list loaded with obscurities was a lone supermarket red: “Layer Cake” Primitivo from Puglia. Our waiter told us it was a grudging concession to patrons wanting something familiar, simple, full-bodied and fruit-forward.

Personally, I find it odd that folks will overpay for something off a wine list that’s case-stacked at Kroger when they could try a rare gem they’ll never see again. I mean, especially in Vegas. Take a gamble; the payoff is spectacular.




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