Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2008 Lo Duca Mamertino (Italian frizzante chardonnay)

Or, Julius Caesar's favorite wine, by way of New Berlin, Wisconsin.

The back label says -- and I adore Italian wine labels -- "Bottled by S.A.S. GEBO - TENUTA AMALIA -- VILLA VERUCCHIO -- ITALIA -- DA -- BY ICRF 11013 RA -- ITALIA. Imported by LO DUCA BROTHERS, INC. New Berlin, WI. ITALIAN FRIZZANTE CHARDONNAY -- VILLA VERUCCHIO, ITALY."

It was delightful and delicious, with a chardonnay's fresh apple flavors, but without a serious chardonnay's (sometimes tiresome) banana syrup and wood effects. Sweeter than not, but offering the tongue an interesting zip of dryness at the end; the bit of sparkliness (frizzante) was just refreshing enough to complement a warm summer's day and a light meal. Thoroughly enjoyable, and not appalling to the pocketbook -- it was on sale for about $10.

Now about Julius Caesar. That same back label says that Mamertino was first commissioned by Caesar in honor of his being elected Counsel of Rome. I think we want a very scholarly-looking [sic] after that word. He was elected Consul, surely. And did people, even the very greatest people, commission special wines to be custom made for them, many thousands of years ago? Anyway how do we know Caesar's Mamertino was our own modern chardonnay?

Perhaps when enjoying such nectar it's ungracious to cavil at details. But press on. The website offers a little more solid information about Caesar's wine: "Mamertino," it seems, has always come from Sicily, from an area of the island named for ancient inhabitants (the Mamertini), who enter the historical record as winemakers as of 289 B.C. ItalianMade goes on to say:

This wine was deemed so good that it was served at the banquet for the celebration of the third anniversary of the consulship of Julius Caesar. Caesar mentions this event in his book De Bello Gallico [The Gallic War]. Strabo, the great Roman geographer, claimed that Mamertino was the best wine of his time, while Pliny the Elder placed it fourth among 195 wines. Elsewhere, Martial wrote: "Give the Mamertino whatever name you want; give it perhaps the name of the best of wines."

No less than four great Roman authorities all agreeing on the worth of ancient Mamertino must signify something impressive. Today, Mamertino di Milazzo D.O.C., in Sicily, is one of those official denominazione di origine controllata which Italian law recognizes as places where particular important wines are made from particular grapes, albeit in this case it seems, not chardonnay; if it were a D.O.C.G., a denominazione di origine controllata e garantita, it would be a place whose wines were further guaranteed to present to the wine drinker particular characteristics, such as a flavor coming from a legally mandated aging process. Although "mere" D.O.C. wines can hold themselves to fine quality standards, too. (So can even "merer" I.G.T. wines. I.G.T. stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, and represents a guarantee of sourcing and production less traditionally strict than the D.O.C. levels which promise you that your Chianti, say, is an authentic Chianti. An Italian wine that is only permitted to declare itself "IGT" may nevertheless be, as ItalianMade says, a very fine merlot from "Tuscany." And did we mention that the European Union changed its wine labeling laws as of 2008? The website Wine Education Ireland reveals all, and assures us the consumer won't notice the changes on labels much until possibly 2010 or after. What a relief.) carries on, exploring Mamertino proper:

Nowadays, Mamertino di Milazzo D.O.C. is produced in four varieties: white, red, Calabrese (or Nero d’Avola) and Grillo-Ansonica. As further proof of their excellent quality, the first three of these varieties also have a Riserva appellation that calls for 24 months of aging, six of which in wooden barrels.

So, perhaps if Caesar wanted a taste of his special anniversary treat, he could venture to whatever aisle of the local liquor store stocks Sicilian D.O.C. wines. For our part as we go on caviling at details, we might also want to know whether our frizzante chardonnay Mamertino, brought to us courtesy of the Lo Duca brothers of New Berlin, Wisconsin, has any relation at all to Caesar's inventory in that aisle. It seems, as we say in the vernacular, not so much.

The source of our bottle, Villa Verucchio, or do we say simply Verucchio? -- is a town roughly in north-east-central Italy -- such a challenge, to site oneself on a peninsula -- near Rimini, in the Emilia-Romagna region. Quite a distance from Sicily ancient and modern. Tenuta Amalia, the estate whose image graces the front label, has a Rimini address, and claims an interesting history. It was a residence of Carolina Amalia of Brunswick, the unfortunate wife (and cousin) of the prince regent, later King George IV of England. These two royals did not get along, to the extent that he called for a strengthening brandy upon first meeting her, barely endured cohabitation, separated from her as soon as she managed to produce one child, and then exiled her for twenty years. She retaliated by behaving in eyebrow-raising fashion in Europe, among Italians especially. Her trial for adultery before the House of Lords the moment she returned, and her attempt to crash his Majesty's coronation the next summer (1821), were the most delicious scandals of the time. (For more, see Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830.) Tenuta Amalia's website is mum about what exactly was going on during Caroline's proprietorship of the place; in the early 20th century an operetta singer and senator's wife named Gea della Garisenda owned it, and "restored it to its original splendor." That seems nicer, and her profile in the photograph is very regal.

I suspect that the connections between our Mamertino and the identically named D.O.C. in Sicily are therefore nil. I suspect that the bright people at Lo Duca Brothers -- the company sells consumer electronics and musical instruments as well as wines and cooking oils -- realized that throwing Caesar's cloak, as it were, over a friendly, sweet wine would catch the American consumer's eye, give him a name and a bit of history to remember, and keep the company out of Italian legal trouble regarding the whole D.O.C.-no wait, it's not a D.O.C.-thing. The wine seems meant to be uniform and approachable from year to year: the 2007 version was made from trebbiano, my version from chardonnay, but both were kept fizzy and fun. Andre Domine's huge book Wine incidentally records that the Emilia-Romagna region is known for its frizzante styles.

All told, this wine and its label provide an object lesson not only in a few kickshaws of European history, but in what European wine production and labeling laws do. They help tell you exactly what you are drinking, but it takes a little experience to decipher the labels and especially to learn to see what isn't there. All the details that more serious and traditional wines carry, details assuring you, once you know the code behind them, of location, permitted grape variety, required vinification methods, necessary aging, and yes, historical background, are missing from this Mamertino. We know it's from Tenuta Amalia, but apart from that, it is permitted to say nothing about itself except that it's a "Product of Italy." The missing details matter more, the more money you want to spend and the more precisely you know what you want.

Interestingly, one of the biggest changes coming to a shelf near you, thanks to the recent changes in EU wine laws, is that European winemakers may now begin to add the name of the grape to their labels. That will be helpful for you and me, but imagine a serious collector, willing to spend money and knowing what he wants, looking (probably appalled) at his Barolo or his Petrus and seeing that each now helpfully says "nebbiolo" and "merlot" about itself.

Just like our Mamertino brightly announces, in bold capitals, "chardonnay." The smart people in New Berlin, Wisconsin may be way ahead of the curve here.

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