by Zoltan Szabo

Well, I don’t know where and how to begin, but I must, first and foremost, and shamelessly, admit my serious appreciation for Italian gastronomy and wines. Which started long ago, while a child back in native Transylvania, and when my mother made me a pizza using local and fresh-picked tomatoes from our small backyard garden and slices of home-grown pork sausages, and saying that “once you’ll taste a slice of real pizza somewhere in Italy and compare”. Which I did, years later. Not wanting to compare, I discovered much similarity between the ideology of making dishes using the freshest, in-season, clean-grown ingredients in a somewhat rustic, rural, home-cooking-at-its-best fashion. To me, that’s what Italian cucina is all about. It slightly differs from one region to another region, from a restaurant to another, from a chef’s interpretation to another’s, but brings to the table long-lived gastronomic traditions with the desire of preserving national identity and cultural-sociological values. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said “Tell me what you eat and I tell you who you are”. And this somewhat philosophical statement applies big time to Italian cucina and people and, of course, to other classic cuisines, like Greek and Transylvanian / Hungarian and so on.

Back home a pig is butchered and every half inch of it used, and that goes for a calf or a cow too. I was reminded of this by the superb Bollito Misto alla Piemontese I had with Michele Chiarlo at the very old and so cozy Ristorante del Belbo da Bardon in San Marzano Oliveto, A plate of boiled veal tongue, veal cheek and pig’s face served with cubes and balls of really spicy mostarda jelly, green and red sauces. We drank a bottle of the 1996 Chiarlo Cannubi Barolo with it, and I was in heaven.

Michele Chiarlo

Michele Chiarlo

I may be too old school to say, but to me it makes sense to grow and make your food with what’s available right by your house. Italy is the creator of Slow Food and its global movement, and this pure and sincere vision is getting adopted more and more, everywhere, by smart and health-conscious people who are also extremely proud and most passionate about thinking local. Wine and grape growing falls brilliantly into the picture here, as I do strongly believe that local foods taste much better with local wines, and this has been proven crystal-clearly with many, many occasions throughout my visits to the Niagara Peninsula or elsewhere, to other classic gastronomic regions across the world, includung my mother’s kitchen.

Molecular cuisine just does not “cut it” for me. I simply don’t understand why you would change or alter food, traditional eating habits and gastro-mentality. Why would you seek, investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients? Its followers perhaps seek sensationalism by doctoring real food which, by the way does not need to be explained. Food should be simply eaten, shared and enjoyed. Amen!

I ask myself: why do I love cheese so much? A personal favourite is Brânză de burduf (somewhat salty with sheep’s-milk cheese, sweet castelemea  – it is cut into small pieces, salted and then hand-mixed in a large wooden bowl, the mixture is then placed in a sheep’s stomach, or into a sheep’s skin that has been carefully cleaned and sawed on the edges, or in a tube made of pine bark). I wish that more Toronto restaurants get cheese trolleys like the one at Auberge de Pommier. I hear that Anton Potvin of Niagara Street Cafe has great, artisan cheeses.

Cheese Trolley

The cheese trolley of my dreams

Ristorante Lalibera in Alba (where Chef Michael Smith shot for a Food Network episode last year) I had a fantastic tray of local cheeses, including Bra Duro, Rocca Verano, Pallegrina, Tomino del Melle, Tallegio, Raschera, Braciuk, Gorgonzolla Naturale, Castelmagnio and Tume, some very rare cheeses made of old and high altitude cow, sheep and goat’s milk, some made from fresh milk, some aged cheeses, served with mosto cotto, Barberesco grapes skin marmalade. What a way to finish the ends of a couple of bottles of delicious reds, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Alfiera 2006 Marchiesi Alfieri and Barbera d’Alba Vigneto Punta 2006 Castiglione Felletto.

My grandfather and father both were consummate torkolypalinka lovers. No wonder why I am mad about a good dash of grappa for digestive, or sometimes just as shot on its own with a short little espresso. Marolo is an Alba-based grappa producer and I truly believe that is one of the finest distillers of all Italy, producing herb-infused grappas as well. Watch out when you try Marolo’s Liquore Grappa e Camomilla, made by infusing chamomile blossoms in Nebbiolo grappa, aids digestion to be sure of, sweet and smooth, and at least 40% alcohol (so take the TTC) Also superb is Marolo’s Grappa di Barolo Bussia and Grappa di Barolo 15 ANNO. Other fav grappas include the delicate Gaja’s Grappa di Barbaresco Bricco Albano; Berta’s Grappa Giovane Nibbio Primavere: Sibona’s chestnut cask aged and fine cognac-like Grappa di Barolo 20 ANNI La Dimenticata: Masi’s so pure and sweet and pretty Serego Alighieri Grappa di Amarone; Adagio’s Giori del Trentino Garra invecchiata 15 ANNI which was a birthday present for me; also had a really good Lagrein grappa with Alois Lageder, made by a nearby distillery; and Bottega del Vino del Verona’s private label Grappa Divinacce di Reciotto Amarone which was equally memorable as meeting larger-than-life character and restaurateur extraordinaire, Severino Barzan, the owner of now having a NYC location Bottega del Vino, apparently with the Clintons and Rockefellers among regulars. What a superb evening and dinner that was in Verona. My gratitude goes to the lovely Sara Valitutto and Giancarlo Voglino of Instituto del Vino Italiano di Qualita – Grandi Marchi, these two outstanding individuals had orchestrated an unforgettable itinerary, fantastic winery visits and extraordinary dining experiences. Bravo!

Alois Lageder

Alois Lageder

Anyway, dinner at Bottega del Vino in Verona was incredible, had Tortino di Melanzane alla Parmigiana con Burratta, baked aubergines with burratta, a mixture of fresh cheese and spun dough. Sfilacci di Cavallo to follow, dried-cured and shredded horse meat with arugula, olive oil and lemon. Risotto all’Amarone which was to die for, and Chateaubriand al Rosso di Montalcino, rare and bloody (good!) just the way I like it. And drank plenty of private label Amarones, where Barzan was very much and hands-on involved to select the vineyards and such. He told me that “Amarone is the wine philosophers philosophise” and he also spoke about its ancient Roman origins. The restaurant Antica Bottega del Vino in Verona is part of the city’s history given its location in a historic building dating back to the 1500’s, with its wine cellars built on Roman times walls, with more than 30,000 bottles in it boasts a Wine Spectator grand award list.

Later, I had small lunch and great conversation with Sandro Boscaini at Masi headquarters in Gargagnago di Valpolicella. Lunch was also attended by Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri and Professor of Economics Rea of Milano’s renowned Bocconi University. Boscaini said that when it comes to Amarone “the organoleptic changes that happen to the grapes and the wine throughout appassimento, that’s the most important aspect” of it. “Amarone is a modern wine with an ancient heart” and that “the illusion of sweetness makes Amarone so unique”.

Learned that the Masi Prize was created to recognize individuals from all walks of like, like fashion and arts, for promoting wine culture, so in the headquarters’ cellar I walked the Walk of Fame Sunset Boulevard of current and past recipients of this prestigious award, among them Donald Ziraldo.

Alois Lageder served gulyas for lunch which was so tasty, reminding me of my homeland. Sudtirol used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is nowadays a very wealthy autonomic province of Italy. Lageder, a Demeter-certified biodynamic producer, built a brilliant winery, nestled into tall mountains with picturesque views, from all sustainable materials to create a holistic, bio-designed environment. All renewable energy here, no oil, no gas; thick walls to reduce need of energy, energy provided by solar power station: there’s a healthy and natural ambience here, the winery is also a micro-museum of modern and contemporary art. Lageder has experimental plantings of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Syrah, Tannat, Mourvedre, Assyrtico and Sangiovese. In the cellar music is played, Bach’s “Master of Harmony” to be precise, dimmed light creating an astrological feeling, and a wine tunnel and pipe spreads the music all across the mountains, so in suveraine silence it could be heard from miles. Zen, baby, that’s what it is: reducing speed of life, it’s all fair and healthy, perfectly integrated into the cosmos, and let me not begin with biodynamic grape growing and its principles

Ca’ del Bosco winery in Franciacorta, Lombardia reminds me of an airport-like building. 25,000 square meters is its size, impressive indeed, surrounded by really well kept vineyards. There’s contemporary art around the property, statues and other works, a small artificial lake and a soccer field (where wine media and winery workers play at annual tournament, usually followed by grand feast). Owner Maurizio Zanella has great taste, a lot of creative fantasy and money, of course. There’s a huge, 300,000 litre stainless steel tank in the middle of winery, built on a helicopter base, and the rest of the winery built around it. Looks like a space shuttle launcher. The corridors in the winery have dimmed, psychedelic lights, staff walks around wearing white jackets, look to me like scientists part of a top secret space program. And there’s a real life-size rhino hanging in the winery, the work of known local artist, symbolizing winery, and its owner’s, philosophy. When first hung, it had not too many winery worker fans, so one of them sprinkled manure underneath… Anyway, I had a great birthday lunch here with Maurizio Zanella and Marco Magnaghi, owner of Bice restaurants in NYC and Tokyo.

Some wines I tasted…

2009 Moscato d’Asti Nivole, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
This is hands-down my favourite Moscato, sweet tropical fruits, floral aroma accents, rich and juicy over the palate, also so fresh and so pleasantly effervescent, the finish so long, very sexy, an all occasions Moscato, I’d drink it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Michele Chiarlo told me the story of senior Cappellano, a pharmacist from Monforte d’Alba in the 1880’s who first made Barolo Chinato, fortifying Barolo and adding sugar, also infusing herbs like quinine and others. The NV Michele Chiarlo Barolo Chinato is aged for a minimum of 7 years, 24 different herbs are used according to an old recipe, and is divine with bonnet, a traditional Piemontese chocolate pudding with Amaretti.

1996 Barolo Cannubi, Marchesi di Barolo, Piemonte, Italy (Magnum)
A classic, traditional-style Barolo, tar and roses and truffles, at its peak, silk-soft, so drink now, perfect with bagna cauda and brasato di Barolo.

2005 Barolo, Pio Cesare, Piemonte, Italy
Nebbiolo grapes for this Barolo come from six different vineyards located in six different villages. Aromas of black fruit, tar, deep spice and floral. Full and ripe and with the long finish displaying obvious – yet to further integrate – tannins, so it needs two or three years to soften a bit, a great wine nonetheless. 100,000 bottles produced.

2005 Barolo Ornato, Pio Cesare, Piemonte, Italy
This is a serious single vineyard Barolo, made in top vintages only, the “cru” is located in Serralunga, a commune with a terroir known to give structure and aging potential to the wines. Another classic, heavy-weight, tannic muscle-packed Barolo here, well balanced by a lot of fruit, with minerally notes on the finish. Hide it in your cellar for a few years. 7,000 bottles produced.

2004 Barolo Cerequio, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
Dried cherries, potpourri, plenty of exotic spice and leather aroma and flavor nuances here. Approachable, drinking so well now actually, try it with veal ravioli.

2005 Barolo Tortoniano, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
Grapes come from La Morra, grown in yellow marl and magnesium-rich soils. Red berries, red plums, rose petals, leather and spicy aroma accents. Full and dry and masculine, so much potential here, this wine is just a baby right now, not even showing well and somewhat closed right now, time will show its real “face”.

2005 Barolo Cerequio, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
Bright nose with red berries, very pretty floral, exotic spice, truffles and herbal, mineral accents. Full and so well balanced, intense and powerful, yet elegant, a complete Barolo, got to love it.

2005 Barolo Cannubi, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
The Cannubi vineyard has sandy top soils to and extent of about 35%. This is a softer-style Barolo, broad and smooth over the palate, black plums and blueberries, black olive and truffle, sour-minerally notes, leather and dried tobacco aromas and flavours characterizing it. A big wine for sure in a non-aggressive manner, great indeed.

2001 Barolo Riserva Triumviratum, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
To warn you, this is not a wine for the novice, learner or student…Old school Barolo here, juice macerated on skin for longer than 30 days. Loaded with minerallity, leather, spice, tobacco and barnyard, horse saddle aroma accents, this wine just got it all, rustic to be sure of. Flavours also include dried cranberries and tomato paste. The texture is divine, velvety, and long-long finish. Made in special vintages only, 3,000 bottles produced.

2005 Barbaresco, Pio Cesare, Piemonte, Italy
Blend of grapes sourced from different vineyards. Red cherries, currants, roses, tar and spicy. Full, raw and tannic right now, all elements are in place, it’s just a matter of time to come together. 35,000 bottles produced.

2005 Barbaresco Il Bricco, Pio Cesare, Piemonte, Italy
Il Bricco is a hilltop single vineyard in Treiso. This is a pretty seductive Barbaresco. Bright fruit, cranberry and maraschino cherry, exotic spice and dusty floral notes, a touch of suede, silk-soft, so elegant, excellent with costoletta di agnello dell’ Alta Langha.

2006 Barbaresco Reyna, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
Reyna means queen in Piemontese dialect. Grapes for this superb vino come from the villages of Barbaresco and Treiso, grown in iron-magnesium containing soils. The wine received 16 months of aging in traditional 5,000 L casks. Pure nose here, cherries, pomegranate, red flower petals, red peppercorn, sour-mineral and soft leather. Full bodied with gripping tannins at first, but mega-fruit coming on the finish smoothening it.

2006 Barbaresco Asili, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
Deeper, more black fruit and much richer and complex, also rustic bouquet, a traditional-style, dramatic wine compared to Reyna, rigorous, dusty, but non-obtrusive tannins give it structure, the finish is spicy, leathery and a minute-long.

1996 Barolo Cannubi, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
The bouquet shows cherries and cranberries, spicy truffles, dried porcini and mineral notes. So far really well aged Barolo, so I prefer drinking it now especially when eating traditional bollito misto with it.

2006 La Court Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Nizza”, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
Nizza is a top Barbera producing site with South–South West facing slopes and rich, calcareous clay and magnesium-containing soils. This wine was fermented in large oak cask and aged in barrique and botte both. Black cherry, plums, chocolate, light-roast coffee, leather, deep spice and savoury, minerally aroma notes on the nose. Medium to full bodied, fresh and juicy with a well structured tannic component and sour blue fruit accents on its finish. An outstanding, multi-layered Barbera that should be decanted, or aged for 4-5 years before consumption.

2007 Barbera d’Alba Fides, Pio Cesare, Piemonte, Italy
Grapes for this wine are sourced from the Ornato estate in Serralunga. This is a deeper, richer, meatier-style Barbera, fleshier and black fruit-packed, savoury-spicy. Just a bit sturdy right now, oak yet to integrate and astringency of tannins to soften, a wonderful wine in the making here nonetheless. 5,000 bottles produced.

2008 Piodilei Chardonnay, Pio Cesare, Langhe, Italy
Grapes come from Barbaresco (go figure the Langhe designation on label…) and are grown in tortoniano elvetiano, glacier-alpine, clay-limestone soils. Fermented 100% in new French barrique. Apparently it was upon the advice of Robert Mondavi that Pio Cesare planted Chardonnay back in the early ‘80s. Tropical fruits, candied lemon, smoke-toast-brioche, nutella, oak-driven right now to be sure of, medium plus bodied with great acidity and oak-spice, minerally finish. 14% alc. Needs two years or so to start showing well. The winery makes another Chard, L’Altro, labeled as generic Piemonte, with much less barrique fermentation and aging involved, so less oaky and also less intense, very pleasant nonetheless.

2004 Fornaci di Tassarolo Gavi, Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte, Italy
One of my favourite Gavis in a long time. Tassarolo is the name of the commune where the Fornaci vineyard is located, and the vines bearing the fruit for this vino are more than 80 years old. Lots of candied fruit, honeysuckle, wax and mineral aromas. Almost full, still so fresh, very expressive over the palate, and with a very long sour lemon, honeycomb-flavoured finish. Can easily further age for at least another three to five years. Goes so well with carne crudo with a drizzle of fine extra virgin olive oil & squeeze of lemon.

2001 Carmenero, Ca’ del Bosco, Lombardia, Italy
Yes, it’s Carmenere, Vino da Tavola, and the 2001 is the current and available vintage. The label is depicting a wolf dressed like sheep, this grape until recent years was mistaken with Merlot (in Chile) and Cabernet Franc (in Lombardia). Currants, plums, herbal, cumin and Moroccan spice aromas. Medium to full bodied and so much alive, with plenty of fruit left, dusty tannins, there’s an interesting leafy, spicy-peppery-vegetal nuance in the background. A wine of quality way above my expectation.

2004 Pinero, Ca’ del Bosco, Lombardia, Italy
Pinot Nero del Sebino is indicated on the label, Sebino is the nearby lake’s old, Latin name. Bright red berry fruit, so fresh and juicy, with hard for me to describe aroma and flavor accents, it certainly does not compare to any Pinot from anywhere, it is clearly a cool climate wine with upbeat freshness and delicacy.

1993 Millesimato Brut, Ca’ del Bosco, Franciacorta, Italy
I could not believe how fresh this sparkler still is, and so much real Champagne-like, with nutty, toasty notes, orange toffee and active effervescence. I have tasted it along the ’98 and the currently available ’05 vintages and it certainly stood out, just a really well made and complex, traditional method bubbly made from Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco & Pinot Nero, aged on lees for at least 40 months. The ’05 vintage obviously is much fresher and as I learned, its disgorgement was done by an ultra-sophisticated and until now unique nitrogen machine. Ca’ del Bosco’s non-vintage sparkling is labeled Cuvee Prestige, aged less on lees for a minimum of 27 months, and it’s so fresh and zesty, lemon bomb, tiny-so-many-perky-little bubbles, elegant. The ’98 is drier, nuttier with an underlying sherry nuance and a grip of acids, ready to be consumed now. And there’s a special label, Anna Maria Clementi, aged on lees for at least 6 years, which I have yet to taste.

2006 Rosso di Toscana, Podere di Bello Ovile, Serego Alighieri, Toscana, Italy
This is a wine made by the Serego Alighieri – Masi venture in Montecucco in Tuscany. Grapes are Sangiovese and Cannaiolo with minor amounts of other indigenous Tuscan grapes. Dante, the father of the Italian language, comesfrom Tuscany originally. Cherries, plums, leather, cinnamon, classic aroma notes here. Medium plus bodied, fresh and soft with a touch of bitter chocolate – dried cherry flavours on its finish.

2006 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Costasera, Masi, Veneto, Italy
Single vineyard Amarone, the Costasera, its slopes are facing West. Closed a bit, needs a little time to come together. It has 35 gr./L dry extract, slow-cold fermented to gain higher glycerol content (botrytis too contributes to achieving higher glycerol levels). The appasimento technique is applied for a minimum of ninety days here. Black cherry, plums, spicy – herbal, bitter chocolate aromas. Full with sweet extract and tannins galore, the finish is long and warm.

2004 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Vaio Armaron, Masi, Veneto, Italy
Aged for three years in fusto Veronese and for a further four months in cherry wood barrels. Plum jam, maraschino cherry, dark chocolate, exotic spice and herbs. Complex, but not overblown, sweet too, with dusty tannins, and the finish providing accents of bitter chocolate and so-very-pleasant tummy-warming sensation. Get it for Valentine’s Day.

2004 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva di Costasera, Masi, Veneto, Italy
Other than the three classic grapes of Valpolicella this Amarone also has a small percentage of indigenous Oseleta blended in it. (Oseleta is a really small grape – bunch with large seeds, gives an unheard-of 40% dry extract, and only 40% wine per kilogram of grape. Masi has an experimental vineyard where 48 different ancient, indigenous grape varieties are grown, different clones of white and red grapes, with the aim of brining back these old varieties and preserve winemaking culture). Made from all “reserve” grapes, appasimento for a minimum of 120 days. Full-weight, sweet and juicy, with superb balance, and with underlying bitter-herbal-mineral-spicy flavours, will age up to even 20 years in my opinion. 20,000 bottles produced.

2008 Moscato Giallo Vogelmaier, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
Moscato Giallo or Goldmuskateller is closely related colored version of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Such beautifully perfumed bouquet here, floral, tropical, muscatty and mineral. Fresh, juicy and delicate with a long and dry finish.

2007 Rosenmuskateller Moscato Rosa, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
This is a very rare and pretty unique dessert wine. Juice macerated on the skin for about five days which gives the wine additional strength. Smells like roses, it’s sweet and delicious, and the finish is dry due to refreshing seam of acids. It is also closely related colored version of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. 3,000 half bottles produced.

2000 Lagrein Lindenburg, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
The Lagrein grape is a descendant of Teroldego, and related to Syrah, Pinot Noir and Dureza. The name suggests its origins lie in the Lagarina valley of Trentino. It was mentioned as early as in the 17th century, in records of the Muri Benedictine monastery near Bolzano. The nose of it reminds me of a mid-term-aged Bordeaux, cassis, spicy, dried herbs, tar and musk. Somewhat rustic, yet different and exotic, very much lively despite its age, its palate still juicy and its finish long with interesting, meat and garrigue notes.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon COR Romigberg, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
There’s 7% of Petit Verdot blended in it. Blue fruits, currants, crushed stone – mineral aromas and flavours. Medium to full, so well structured and very elegant, yet to fully develop. (I tasted it along the ’89 vintage which was graciously aged and still kickin’). Impressive wine, needs to be decanted. 600 bottles produced.

1998 Pinot Noir Krafuss, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
Dried cranberry – cherry – berry, spicy, mineral, earthy, with a bit of leather and bret. Savoury and soft over the palate, drinking so well, at its peak, matured and complete. Tasted the ’06 vintage too, an obviously much brighter and fresher Pinot, with supple texture and great intensity.

1995 Cabernet Lowengang, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
Two Cabernets plus Carmenere and Petit Verdot in the blend, grapes from 100 years old vines. Spicy, dried fruits, earthy, mineral, tobacco leaf and tomato paste, gamey. Dry and softened up, drinking just very well right now, with leathery, black olive tapenade accents in the background of the palate and on its finish. It was a great experience to compare it to the ’05 vintage, a very elegant wine with much time ahead of it. Both these wines are made with great sensitivity to express a sense of place, terroir, origin. Biodynamic too.

1997 Sauvignon Lehen, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
Fully developed, but not done yet, with aromas and flavours of caramelized pineapple, quince and gooseberry preserve, spice and wax. Yet there’s still freshness to it. The finish is long and tart. Tasted the ’08 too, a vivid and much zestier, stoney – minerally version, of course.

2008 Muller Thurgau, Alois Lageder, Sudtirol – Alto Adige, Italy
Fruit comes from the village of Tramini, about 7 KM away from the winery. Great in its simplicity, a straightforward Alpine climate white, with lime, mineral notes to it, fresh and clean, and very food versatile.

Find out more about super sommelier Zoltan Szabo at