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A Traditionalist's Thoughts on Italian Wine

A Traditionalist's Thoughts on Italian Wine

Charles Scicolone (December 23, 2007)
Charles Scicolone
Making Traditional Wine

Italian Wine As It Should Be


            On my first trip to Italy in 1970, I could not believe how delicious everything tasted.

 Most restaurants did not have menus or wine lists, yet I ate and drank so well.   Deciding what to order was easy.  The waiter would ask, “pesce o carne?” and would not say another word until he got a response.  The next question would be “vino bianco o vino rosso?” followed by “acqua minerale, gassata o naturale?”  The food was simply prepared and made from the finest local ingredients.   The vino della casa was made locally.  You could not find a better combination.   On that trip, I discovered the genius in the simplicity of Italian food and wine.


            Many wine producers around the world today make wine that does not go with food.  I even heard a producer (not an Italian) say “we must break the tyranny of wine and food.”  They use modern methods to get more concentrated flavor from the grapes and a higher alcohol content.  Then they put the wine into small barriques (225 liter barrels of French or American oak) which gives the wine a flavor of vanilla, butter, oak, and toast.  The flavor of the grape is masked by that of the wood.  These wines have a standardized taste and bear no relation to the place where they originated.  The wines do no go with food in general and certainly not with Italian food.  This makes no sense to me at all. 


            When it comes to Italian food and wine, I am a traditionalist.  Like Italians, I only drink wine with food.  I want the wine to reflect the terroir (place) from which it came and to join with the food in a perfect combination.  Ask an Italian producer who makes these modern international style wines what he drinks at home and the answer will be something like those delicious wines I remember from my earliest visits to Italy.  Ultimately, what producers drink and what they sell has to do more with the market than with their own tastes.


      Peter Hellman, wine writer for The New York Sun, attended one of my wine classes, “Charles’ Greatest Hits.   He wrote the following article entitled A Traditionalist’s Top Ten Italian Wines for his Urban Vintage column Wednesday, May 2, 2007.  It perfectly expresses my feelings about wine.







            Personal taste in wine is, for most people, blessedly apolitical. That's not true of Charles Scicolone, the wine director of the all-Italian bottle shop Vino on East 27th Street and of the restaurant I Trulli. I have no idea for whom Mr. Scicolone casts his ballot on Election Day, but when he votes for Italian wine, he stands somewhere to the right of Silvio Berlusconi, Barry Goldwater, and

maybe even Jean-Marie Le Pen.


            Mr. Scicolone disdains "modern" winemaking practices of delivering plumped-up flavor impact via super-ripe grapes, high alcohol, and plenty of new oak, often augmented by high-tech interventions in the winery. He refers to such wines as from "the dark side" — Darth Vader wines.


            Darkest of all in Mr. Scicolone's eyes are what he calls "barrique" wines, which have luxuriated — possibly even fermented — in new 225-gallon oak barrels rather than the far larger, relatively flavor neutral wood vats called botti that are traditionally used in Italian winemaking. "Barriques impart nuances of oak, vanilla, and butter flavors that overwhelms a wine's natural fruit," he said

last week at Vino. "There is a chemical compound in the barrique that is the same as in the melted butter product that is poured onto popcorn at the movies."  In Italy, the bathed-in-oak style was pioneered by the so-called super-Tuscan wines, notably Sassicaia and Tignanello.


            What kind of wines does Mr. Scicolone like? "I'm looking for the least amount of interference in the winemaking process so that the flavor comes from the wine," he said while he presented the 10 red wines he calls his "Greatest Hits" — all Italian, of course. Overtly fruity flavors are unwelcome in his top 10. "You'll pick up flavors in these wines from the umami category like soy, mushroom, and balsamic vinegar," he said. "Or the more masculine flavors: leather, mortadella,

cedar, barnyard, even chocolate." He also looks for an enlivening current of acidity as a foil to rich foods and as an aid to aging — rather than barriques.  So firm is Mr. Scicolone's taste in wines that he stopped going to one of his favorite spots, La Pizza Fresca Ristorante on East 20th Street, because its extensive wine list was overloaded with barrique wines. "The owner called me to ask why I wasn't showing up any more," he said. "When I explained the problem, he invited me to bring my own wines to the restaurant." Mr. Scicolone is once again a customer of La Pizza Fresca.


            His predilection for the wines of tradition is not absolute. "The most revolutionary thing in winemaking since the Egyptians is cold fermentation to preserve the flavors of white wines," he said. "It's a modern technique — that of which I approve."


            Charles Scicolone's Top 10 (available at Vino, 121 E. 27th St., between Park and Lexington Avenues, 800-965-8466,


1. Le Muraglie 2001, Ezio Voyat, Valle d'Aosta ($36) Pale-colored and tangy, this wine is an offbeat blend of petit rouge, gros vien, dolcetto, and fumin, grown in an alpine corner of Italy bordering France. A fresh wine I found myself wanting to drink again.


2. Colle Picchioni 2002, Vassallo, Lazio ($42) "These hills near Rome are the best place to grow cabernet sauvignon and merlot," Mr. Scicolone said, "even though I am one of three people in the world who believes this." I'm afraid I'm not one of those three people. A touch of bell pepper complicates the deep flavor of this firm wine.


3. Aglianico Riserva 2000, Tenuta del Portale, Basilicata $19.55) "Aglianico can age a very long time," Mr. Scicolone said. This was an impressively full flavored wine that, for me, lacked nuance, although it would stand down a winter stew.


4. Carmignano Riserva 1996, Villa di Capazzana, Toscana ($48) A gentle blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon. "Beginning in the late 1990s, the winemaking changed and the wine was over-barriqued," Mr. Scicolone said. "That broke my heart. With this vintage, you're drinking the last of history."


5. Grato Grati 1982, Villa di Vetrice, Toscana ($38) This wine is produced in the Chianti Ruffina zone, but Mr. Scicolone says it is kept in large botti so long that it must be disqualified from carrying the zone's seal. Nevertheless, a wine gentled by a quarter-century of life, but not faded.


6. Il Dragone 1990, Dezzani Barbera d'Asti ($36) "My favorite wine with pizza," Mr. Scicolone said of this wine made from barbara, a high-acid grape Mr. Scicolone acknowledged that this bottle had faded, although he said that a bottle consumed a week earlier had been superb.


7. Ghemme Breclemae 1996 Cantalupo, Piedmonte ($50 The autumnal flavors of the neb biolo grape dominate this aromatic, tannic wine. Inhaling it, Mr Scicolone said, "I get a nervous twitch for risotto with white truffles with this." Amen.


8. Barolo 2001, Bartolo Mas carello, Piedmonte ($80) An imposing wine filled with coffee tar, and cedar essences. Some Barolo producers have gone modern, but this one, Mr. Scicolone said, "remains a complete traditionalist."


9. Tradizione del Nonno 2003, Pichierri, Primitivo di Manduria ($38) Darkest by far of the top 10. Sweet and thick. "It goes with the heaviest food you can think of," Mr. Scicolone said His choice: "Venison with a prune sauce."


10. Amarone della Valpolicel la Classico 1999, Bertani ($86) Made from grapes airdried during the winter after harvest, amarone is typically a powerhouse wine.  Along with the requisite rich flavor, this one had a surprising delicacy.



If you want to see what I drink at night and more of my Views on Wine go to


This blog is written by Jeremy Parzen, PhD, an expert on all things Italian. 


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