It was my good fortune last week to run into Erica and Joe, a couple of Utah wine brokers, during a lunch at CafÃ© Trio. I was seated at a table adjacent to theirs and'since location is everything'was invited to sample a few of the wines they were tasting at Trio.
The occasion of the aforementioned lunch and wine tasting was a visit from Tony Ciccarelli, the Los Angeles-based senior vice president of Empson (USA) Inc., a company specializing in Italian-wine imports. Founded by Neil and Maria Empson and dedicated to the wines of Italy, Empson is headquartered in Milan, which is where Ciccarelli spends much of his time. Since Italian wines and their arcane systems of labeling and designations have long been baffling to me, I used the opportunity to pick Ciccarelli’s brain a bit and to sip a few wines that his company imports. Luckily, he was gracious enough to meet me for a day of skiing at Deer Valley Resort, where over lunch at the Royal Street CafÃ©, he provided a crash course in Italian vino.
To begin to summarize Ciccarelli’s knowledge of Italian wine here would be impossible. He knows enough to write a book or two. Indeed, his knowledge of wine is far-reaching enough that he was invited to create and stock a wine cellar for actor Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), and he sips wine, smokes stogies and plays poker with Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. When I asked how Connery wound up in that crowd, Ciccarelli says that Mr. 007 considers himself an honorary Italian.
Although I can’t solve the mysteries of Italian wine here, I can tell you about a few of the Empson wines available, or soon-to-be, here in Utah. One of the best bargains in sparkling wine in the state has to be Prosecco di Conegliano ($15.75) from the Canella family winery located in the Veneto (Canella is virtually synonymous with Prosecco in Italy). Made from 100 percent Prosecco grapes, this silky-textured wine is relatively low in alcohol and is crisp and delicate. Peach, apple and pear aromas delight the nose and this wine’s oh-so subtle sweetness makes it a great aperitif. Don’t let the price fool you. This wine is so good that Riedel created an exclusive crystal glass for Canella. The wine is well worth the extra couple of bucks it might cost over less memorable Proseccos.
For a bigger rush (and a bigger splurge), pick up a bottle of Bellavista’s Franciacorta Cuvee Brut ($37.95) sparkling wine. It’s made in Lombardy from 80 percent Chardonnay and a 20 percent blend of Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero by winemaker Mattia Vezzola. It’s a full-bodied, austere sparkler that would pair well with smoked salmon or the best caviar you can lay your hands on. Try Bellavista the next time you’re in the market for a quality sparkling wine a tad less expensive than most French Champagne.
Another great Italian bang-for-the-buck is Promessa Rosso Salento ($9.95). Promessa means “promise” in Italian'and with this wine’s intense fruit, low-key oak, ripe tannins and low price, it promises to be a big hit among the $10/bottle wine crowd. The same might be said for A-Mano Primitivo. Made entirely from old-vine Primitivo (ancestor grapes of Zinfandel), this $11.95 wine is amazingly food-friendly, approachable and bursting with fruit. Made in Puglia, A-Mano Primitivo is produced with California-style technology combined with Apulian terroir and tradition.
But maybe the biggest eye-opener during my visit with Tony Ciccarelli was discovering the delectable Terre di Tufi ($21.95), a super-Tuscan white blend of Vernaccia, Chardonnay, Vermentino and Malvasia. Oh my â€¦ “Sur lie” fermentation in French oak results in a sinfully sexy and exotic wine bursting with pineapple, vanilla and brioche, all with a firm, food-friendly acidity.