Cesanese, Cerasuolo, Ruche, Chiavennasca…


When I teach my Italian Wines classes I like to throw in at least one obscure wine that I am sure no one has ever heard of (or better yet, one that I have never heard of, and have to learn myself!).  For my last Southern Italian Wines class, I added a Cesanese to the mix.  I had never tried one and since it is the only grape with a DOCG status in the Lazio region, I decided it certainly deserved a place in the night’s line-up.

The one I poured in my May Southern Italian Wines class was the:

Principe Pallavicini Amarasco 2006 Lazio IGT. Cesanese 100%.  This wine is an opaque magenta and smells intensely of honey!  Such a strange aroma for a rich red wine, but it worked.  And everyone liked it.  It has a rich cherry and spicy kirsch middle with fresh acidity and a peppery, subtly dry finish.  The 40 year old vines are grown at 250 meters in elevation, very near to the Prenestina hills southeast of Rome.  I can’t find it anymore but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the next vintage!  (It doesn’t have the DOCG status, I guess, because it isn’t from the specific demarcated region.)  ★ ★

I try to avoid it, but given the huge capacity of knowledge that one has to acquire to even begin to understand Italian wines, I am inevitably asked a question that I cannot answer in class.  This time my favorite question was, “So what food would you pair with this a Cesanese?”

Er, …uh, …well, my humble response was that I could make something up given the structure and body of the wine but the best approach would be to see what is commonly offered in the area.  I quickly offered that given the acidity and lushness of fruit, probably various pasta dishes from creamy to tomato-driven could work.  I knew Rome was famous for different sauces.  This was somewhat sufficient but I knew there was a better answer.

The next day I opened my June issue of La Cucina Italiana magazine.  It had been sitting untouched for a week because I had been spending all my spare time preparing for the class.  And there it was, page 55!  Staring me in the face was a photo of the Principe Pallavicini Amarasco right on the shelf with a slew of other bottles (of Cesanese probably), above a Lazian shop owner, slicing up la porchetta (in the form of a whole pig) in his Porchetteria!  Damn!

So drink Cesanese with la porchetta.  Yeah, I wouldn’t have thought of that.  So I set out to discover this pairing.

I found another Cesanese at my new favorite wine bar, Enoteca La Storia in Los Gatos, owned by my Italian friends, Joe and Mike.  http://www.enotecalastoria.com/

I knew they’d pick out a good one so I grabbed it.

Corte dei Papi Colle Ticchio 2008. Cesanese del Piglio DOCG. Cesanese 100%.  This one is a little more ruby-red than the other and it smells nothing of honey.  It smells of graphite, burnt brown sugar, and smoke with tart raspberries and blackberries.  The texture is as smooth as glycerin.  The sweet coffee-like tannins come out alongside a glycerin smooth finish.  (It reminded me of a rich Dolcetto but without the crazy tannin structure.)  The next day it had a more mellow aroma of strawberries, concrete, oregano, and smoke, and really opened up with more spices.  ★ ★

The recipe offered by the magazine, comes from a New York restaurant called Porchetta (what else!?) that is well-known for their porchetta sandwich.  The Italian recipe involves de-boning an entire pig and slow-roasting the entire animal in a wood-fired oven, something for which most of do not have the resources.   So I gave the NY version a whirl.


I will say the paring was good but I am not much of a pork eater.  The shoulder is very fatty but if you cook it right, it offers different textures, making it an ideal cut for sandwiches.  I buttered and grilled some bread, added garlic, pan-fried the already-cooked meat (as I had prepared according to the recipe and let sit), and assembled sandwiches, drizzling the meat with a balsamic reduction.

– Cerasuolo di Vittoria

Another of my recent Italian wine explorations involves Sicilia’s only recognized DOCG region: Cerasuolo di Vittoria.  DOCG status was just granted in 2005. The wine is defined by its place of origin and must be comprised of a defined percentage of two grapes, Nero d’Avola and Frappato.  I review a couple of different ones in previous entries.



But the one of recent acquisition is my favorite!

Gulfi Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2008. Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG.  Nero d’Avola 60%, Frappato 40%.  Fairly light cherry red color with violet in the rim. It is fragrant, smooth, delicate, and meant to be drunk young.  It reminded me of a Mencia from Spain because of the subtle spices and fragrance.  ★ ★ ☆

I made a simple, light white fish “stew,” which can be found here:


Stay tuned for a review of their 100% Nero d’Avola coming perhaps sometime soon…


Usually when I go to Italy I end up buying a bunch of wine that I won’t be able to drink for another 10 to 20 years.  So during my last trip in April, I decided to change things up and buy some wines I could enjoy over the summer months.  One of the bottles I selected was:

Montalbera Societa Agricola L’accento 2006. Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOC. Ruché 100%.  I was searching Alba for a Crivelli Ruché (which I had had at Vinitaly) but couldn’t find it – only this one.  The Ruché grape makes a rich fruity and spicy wine with a canonical rose aroma.  It is a contemplative wine.  This one offered me no shortage.  An ethereal bouquet of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ripe and dried cherries, roses, freshly cut pine, and an herby spice, like arugula.  In the mouth it offers sweet cherries and a pine oil.  The finish is smooth and spicy with chalky tannins and a refreshing taste of Goji berry.  ★ ★

I tried this wine out with one of my favorite Lebanese recipes for “Kefta.”  I needed something exotic and it worked out very well.


2 lb ground beef or lamb (I use turkey)

1 cup finely chopped onion

½ cup finely minced Italian parsley or mint

1 tsp salt

½ tsp ground pepper

2 tsp cumin, 1 tsp allspice, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp rosemary (optional)

In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Knead well with your hands and chill for one hour. Preheat a grill on high, and oil a grill pan.  (It looks like a frying pan with holes in it and is intended for use on a grill.)  Form mixture into 1-2 inch diameter balls.  Place them 1 layer deep in the grill pan, turn heat to medium-high, and grill with the lid closed for about 5 minutes. Check, turn, and continue every 3-5 minutes until browned.  Serve with tzatziki.

Chiavennasca e Barbera

Last and unfortunately least is the Chiavennasca.  This is the northern Lombardian synonym for Nebbiolo, specifically Nebbiolo from Valtellina.  I picked up this bottle from the Triacca winery in December.

Triacca Sassella 2006. Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Chiavennasca (Nebbiolo) 100%.  The notes on the back of the bottle said it should be aged for 6-10 years but it wasn’t very expensive so I didn’t really think they meant it.  I thought four years would probably suffice.  Well, I don’t know if two more years would get rid of the smell of rubber.  It certainly has plenty of that, along with a touch of rose and stones – but mostly rubber.  It is quite tart and leathery and doesn’t really evolve in any interesting way over a couple hours or into the next day.  I don’t think I like this winery.

But I think I shall end on a positive note.  Back in February I gave a scathing review to the Scott Harvey J&S Reserve Barbera 2007 (white label), saying it might as well have been an overly-alcoholic Zinfandel.


But on the night I opened the Triacca Sassella and discovered I could not drink it, I decided it couldn’t get much worse and grabbed:

Scott Harvey Mountain Selection Barbera 2007. Amador County. Barbera 94%, 6% Syrah 6%. (red label.)  This is the one I remember liking!  Vanilla, apricot, green banana peel, and clove with a juicy cherry flavor, cranberries, and mint.  A sweet dusty finish with good acid.  It was good on the second day too.  This wine spends 21 months in French oak (as opposed to the Reserve, which spends 24 months) and as it turns out, the Reserve actually has about 20% Zinfandel in the blend.  No wonder I thought it tasted like Zinfandel!  I’ll stick to the Red Label.  Plus it’s a better price at $18!  ★ ☆

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