By Celia Strong
It may not be the “Yellow Brick Road,” but the theory is close. You may not remember the name of this wine, but you will remember the shape of the bottle and the color of the yellow glass, and that should be enough to help find it so you can buy some.
Our winery this week is known for having different shaped bottles. I’m not sure if it was a marketing decision to make it easier to find their wines, but since most wineries spend time and money on designing labels and thinking of memorable names, then it seems logical that they planned for exactly that to happen. You can imagine the brainstorming session: “Why not just make it easy? A different bottle. A distinctive color. Then customers can just ask for the white wine in the bright yellow bottle.” Very clever.
Our wine, in its yellow glass bottle, comes from northwestern Italy, specifically the Piedmont region. Located in the foothills of the Alps, this region shares borders with both France and Switzerland. Like most of the 20 wine regions of Italy, Piedmont has native vines. The ancient Greeks called the area “Oenotrua,” land of vines. There are many well known wines that come from Piedmont — Barolo and Barbaresco, made from Nebbiolo grapes; Dolcettos and Barberas, both red grapes; Asti Spumante, made from Moscato grapes; Brachettos, red wines that are sweet and sparkling; and, last but not least, Gavi, a white wine made from Cortese grapes.
For many years, before the white wines from northeastern Italy became numerous and popular, the white wines of Gavi were considered to be the best of Italian dry white wines. (Hopefully, after this week, some of us can think this is true.) Only about 30 percent of Piedmont land is suitable for grape planting. Despite that, the region has 42 DOC wines and 16 DOCGs. The Piedmont region produces more DOC/DOCG wines by volume than any other Italian region. Almost 84 percent of their wines are DOC/DOCGs. Our wine is the white Gavi.
Geographically, Gavi is a commune, or municipality, in the Piedmont Province of Allessandria. It is located about 62 miles southeast of Turin, the region’s capital. The area of Gavi was settled in Neolithic times, and, later, was most likely a Roman military outpost. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Gavi was captured by the Magyars and then the Saracens.
The name “Gavi” supposedly comes from the name of a Saracen princess, Gavia or Gavina, who lived in a castle where the commune is located. (There is a legend about this princess. She fell deeply in love with one of her guards, but was told by her father, Clodimir, King of the Franks, that she could not marry beneath her class. The two lovers ran away, across the Alps into nearby Italy and, for a while, avoided capture by the King’s troops. But, one night, having drunk too much of the local wine, the young husband talked too much and the King’s men found them. But, their deep love for each other so impressed the King when he came to get them, that he forgave them, blessed their marriage and gave his daughter the town where they had been hiding. And Gavi was established. And the white wine of the town was made famous.)
During the Middle Ages, Gavi was controlled by the Marquisses of Gavi, and, in 1202, it was sold to Genoa. During the First Genoese-Savoyard War, Gavi was attacked and fell under the control of French-Savoy troops for only 21 days. The Genoese took it back that quickly and decided to turn it into a fortress, building around the original castle. Eventually, the fortress became a penitentiary, and, later, a POW camp during World War II. Not much of the legend of poor Princess Gavia left.
Gavi white wine is made from the Cortese grape. (There are other varieties grown in Gavi, including Garganega, Grenache, Barbera and Pinot Noir.) Besides in Gavi, small amounts of Cortese are also grown in the town of Asti. There is written documentation of this variety being planted in Piedmont vineyards in 1659. In 1870, ampelographers (grape studiers) P.P. DeMaria and Carlo Leardi noted that Cortese was widely planted in the Allessandria Province of Piedmont and that the variety was hardy and resistant to grape diseases, produced large crop yields and high quality wines.
The grape has moderate acidity and light flavors. These wines are medium bodied with lime and other green fruit flavors. In cooler vintages, when the wines can be a bit overly acidic, malolactic fermentation and some barrel aging can temper the aggressive acidity. Gavi wine is a favorite in nearby Genoa restaurants where it pairs well with local seafood.
Cortese grapes make a couple of DOC wines and the Cortese di Gavi, the official name of this wine, a DOCG declared wine since 1998. These wines can come from 11 communes around Gavi, but wines made just from grapes grown in Gavi can be called Gavi di Gavi. Gavi wines made today are the same style as they were as long ago as 1876. Why mess with a good thing?
And, finally, we get to our Gavi from the winery Villa Sparina. The winery was, in the 18th century, a farming estate built by the Marquis Franzoni of Genova. Like many successful Old World wineries, Sparina honors their past and traditions while also looking for innovations to move them, and future generations, forward. Villa Sparina owns about 250 acres, about 170 of them planted with indigenous Cortese and Barbera grapes. Their wines are known for their fresh flavors, balanced structure, harmony and recognizable flavors of their “terroire.”
For our wine, in its yellow glass bottle with the funny shape, Villa Sparina grows the Cortese grapes in chalky, clay soil, in vineyards that are 800 to 1,000 feet above sea level. The vines are about 26 years old. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel, over three weeks, and malolactic fermentation is done to some of the wine. The wine is aged in its unique yellow bottle for three months.
This Gavi is a pale, straw golden yellow color. It has floral aromas with hints of peaches. Then, there are pear and lemon flavors with good minerality — all full and rich flavors. I guess it should go well with seafood.
So, our wine this week includes a legend of true love and a princess, and is made from a grape that we have never discussed before. It also has new, interesting flavors, just in time for the seafood we eat all summer. So let the yellow brick road lead you to Bill’s Liquor where Villa Sparina Gavi, with its specially shaped bottle in a unique bright yellow glass, is available for $15.99. Life is golden. Enjoy.