Sunday, October 09, 2005

To taste or to drink, that is the question

Call me a heretic, but something has always struck me wrong-headed about blind tastings. In theory, of course, they bring a measure of objectivity to a notoriously subjective experience. They enable the taster to compare and contrast wines of a similar style or variety, to catch and savor the nuances of the wines sampled.

Schadenfreude being what it is, we do like to see pompous “experts” cover themselves with embarrassing pronouncements, as when they give high marks to a lowly wine and low marks to a world-renowned cru. I especially love it when they try to recover by, essentially, “re-reviewing” the wine—much the same way the New York Times will re-review a film that they had panned and that the world at large has deemed wonderful. Two stars to four stars—a wine rescored from 80 to 92—same thing, really.

But what if you are on totally unfamiliar ground? What if the variety is unknown to you? What if there are only a few bottles of a wine made by a particular vigneron? What if, as in a recent case, you are tasting an utterly new level of a familiar grape—in this case, an aged Montepulciano d’Abruzzo? And what if food is thrown into the equation, an addition that radically changes your experience with wine anyway?

Ah, food. Food is the reason I did my own re-review, in seconds, of a 1979 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo produced by Emidio Pepe. If I actually used a numeric scoring system—which I would never do—I would indeed have changed it from 80 to 92.

But far be it from me to be deeply analytical about a deeply sensuous pleasure.

Wrong train, right move

I like Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as an inexpensive but wholesome everyday wine. In response to my enthusings over a cheap-and-cheerful Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (for the record: Dario D’Argento, widely available in the US), a fellow blogger, Vittorio Rusinà of Turin, wrote me and asked if I had ever heard of Emidio Pepe, a small winery located in the province of Teramo.

I hadn’t but found them on Google and sent an email asking where their wines could be found in the United States. A few days later, I received a phone call from a lady in New York, Anne Cooling, who told me that she represented Vini Pepe. Anne invited me to her office to look at the DVD about Emidio Pepe and for a tasting of one or two of their wines.

Anne’s office turned out to be a beautiful Fifth Avenue apartment with a view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She told me that she was born in Molise and moved to Toronto as a small child, growing up in an intensely Italian quarter, and had always maintained close ties to her relatives in Molise, and the culture of that region. She told me that spoke no English till the age of seven.

Her knowledge of Italian led to her involvement with Emidio Pepe. One day about two years ago she was on a Metro North train in Connecticut. She heard a conductor struggling to explain to a young woman and her father that they were on the wrong train. Anne heard their Italian and got up to interpret. She got Emidio Pepe and his daughter, Sofia, onto the right train—and, in the course time, has helped them to acquire a new importer (the estimable Douglas Polaner) and a place on the wine lists of many of New York’s highest-rated restaurants. As Anne told me, “Some things are meant to be.”

Between Anne, the Vini Pepe DVD, and the winery’s web site, I got the following background.

Back to the future

Decades ago Emidio Pepe made decisions that led his winery into a specialized niche. He refused to follow the trend to what we might call overly engineered wines. His wines are made in a scrupulously traditional way. Organic farming is practiced, and no sulfites are used after vinification. The grapes are harvested and destemmed by hand, crushed by foot (no bare feet, a la I Love Lucy), and see no wood. They tend to be long-lived and, unusually for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, are aged in bottle for decades.

Now this is what I meant by totally unfamiliar ground. I had never tasted an aged wine of this variety. I had no basis of comparison, no benchmark. I had no idea of what I would be tasting.

Thank God it was not a blind tasting.

Actually, I had a small idea of what I’d be tasting. In “Vino Italiano,” the indispensible guide written by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, Emidio Pepe wines were damned with faint praise: “…You’ll often find the oxidative, balsamic notes overpowering the rosy, spicy fruit. Then again, maybe these just seem like flaws because no other wines taste quite like these.”

Hmm. What had I got myself into?

Anne and her equally gracious friend, Norman Brown, opened two bottles: a 1985 and a 1979. The 1985 was off. Really off. Norman said, “We were on vacation for two weeks, and it got very hot in here.” The wine was oxidized, tired, irretrievable. You could drink it, but you sure as hell didn’t want to.

The 1979 was good. I wasn’t sure how good. It did have some of the “oxidative, balsamic notes” described by Bastianich and Lynch. Still, it was intriguing, complex, definitely NOT off. I hadn’t tasted anything like it; it was identifiable as a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and graced with age, a combination I hadn’t tasted before. But something was missing.

Wine tasting as it should be

Anne brought in trays of food: prosciutto, olives, roasted peppers, bread and a staggeringly good :Parmigiano-Reggiano, courtesy of her family in Toronto. I was, as usual, ravenous. I ate. I ate it all. Then, when I tasted the wine again, something happened. The “oxidative, balsamic notes,” a fault to others, melded perfectly with the tastes of the salty, savory food. The wine ascended to some new level. It wasn’t merely “interesting” or even delicious, it was PERFECT. Its aged complexity raised the food to unanticipated heights, and the food raised the wine to such heights as well. The abbinamento, the pairing of food and wine, was stunning. I thought at the time, “I bet this is what Emidio Pepe was striving for. Not a 95 on a 100-point scale, but the perfect complement to simple, delicious, immensely satisfying food.” OK, I came up with all this blarney later.

My reaction at the time was wordless and, as I have said, deeply sensuous. But I do recall thinking, “This is why we drink wine. This is why we eat.”

And, though I’m a chronic complainer, for those few minutes I was deeply content.

30 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

good job in finding Emidio Pepe. I first learned about his wines in a major article in Porthos (www.porthos.it it's THE reference for Italian wines, for those who read italian, no advertsing, no points/stars/glasses at all) and got blown away when I tried them.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Terence Hughes said...

The Pepe wines aren't for everyone, though. I've read some very disparaging comments on some Italian sites and blogs--vinegary, spoilt, etc. You either like them or you don't. I wouldn't drink them as an aperitif unless lots of salty, savory foods were on offer.

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