By Celia Strong
This week and next week we’re going to have to talk long distance because I am currently in Italy. The trip has made it much easier to choose our featured wines — if in Italy, think Italian.
Actually, this week’s wine is from California, but it is made by a family winery with an Italian heritage, and uses Italian grape varieties.
The winery is Ferrari-Carano, from Sonoma County. Don and his wife, Rhonda, Carano founded their winery in 1979 with an old farmhouse, a barn, and 30 acres planted with vines. In 1985, they released their first wine, a Pinot Noir. They continued to acquire more and more vineyards, over the years, and today they own more than 19 estate vineyards in five different appellations. Good vineyards produce good grapes. Good grapes make good wines. (Duh!) And, the Carano’s know what they have. As they have grown and expanded their holdings, they have also expanded the variety of wines they make. Enough variety so that they have put them into categories. Our wine is in their “Italian style” category. See, there is a connection.
Our wine is a white wine, a unique blend of many different varieties that is fragrant and light and refreshing. Because some of the grapes in this blend are new for us, I thought we could go through the list and learn a bit about each one. Here’s the whole list: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc (Bianco in Italian), Viognier, Semillon, Muscat Giallo, Riesling, Fiano Di Avellino and Pinot Grigio. But we can skip the grapes that we already know and focus on the new, unfamilar varieties.
The first new grape is Muscat Canelli. Actually, this is one of the Muscat family of grapes that includes over 200 grapes — many of them not closely related to each other. When we look at this family, the colors of Muscat grapes range from white/green skinned (Muscat Ottonel) to yellow (Moscato Giallo) to pink (Moscato rosa del Trentino) to almost black (Muscat Hamburg). Despite the particular skin color, all Muscat grapes, and all their wines, have a definite sweet floral aroma. The huge number of different Muscat grapes does suggest that it may be the oldest of all domesticated varieties. There are even theories that most other “vitis vinifera” grapes descended from Muscat. Some say that Muscat grapes date back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, about 3,000 to 1,000 BC. Others claim Muscat only goes as far back as the ancient Greeks, 800 BC to 600 AD. (Truly a big difference between the two time periods, but let’s face it, they’re both ancient ancient.)
The name “Muscat” has never been definitively explained. The most common theory is that it came from the Persian word “muchk.” Or the Greek “moskos,” or the Latin “muscus,” or the French “musc.” The Italian word for fly, “mosca,” is another possibility and my favorite version of the source of the grape name. Because these grapes all have aromas on the sweet side and flies are attracted to sweet things, fruit flies included, the grape name is tied to the attracted flies!
One last tidbit: In spite of the diversity in the Muscat family, a common trait in all of them is a floral, grapey aroma. This comes from a high concentration of monoterpenes; more than 40 different monoterpenes. This same compound is also in Rieslings and Gewurztraminers.
Back to our Muscat Canelli. In fact, this is the Muscat that makes Asti Spumante in Italy, which means we have heard of it even if we haven’t drunk any lately. Muscat Canelli is also known by several other names. Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains (white Muscat with small berries) is a fancy French name for it. Easier and more familiar is the name Moscato. Genetically, Muscat Canelli is related to a few of the 200 other Muscats. The Muscat Canelli name is most often used on the West Coast of the United States. Even though most of the wines we may be familiar with that are made from Muscat Canelli, or Moscato, tend to be sweet, often low in alcohol, and full of grapey flavors wrapped in a musky sweetness, this variety can just as easily make dry wines. With a bit more of its sugar fermented into alcohol, the musky grapiness remains, but not the sugar. Some wineries in California challenge their visitors to expand their views and tasting experiences, sort of like we do every week.
Muscat Giallo, the second Muscat in our blend this week, is the yellow Muscat, meaning its skin is more golden colored than the Muscat Canelli. This variety grows mostly in northern Italy where it is used to make dessert wines. The wines made from Muscat Giallo tend to be deeper shades of yellow with moderate acidity. In a blend, it can add not only color but an intensity to the whole of the flavors.
Our last — and before now unheard of — grape is Fiano. Fiano is a white Italian variety grown mostly in Campania in southern Italy and in Sicily. It even has a DOCG wine (since 2003) that it makes in Campania. Wines from Fiano are intensely flavored and very aromatic. In blends, Fiano adds weight and body to its wines, a fuller texture and floral and honey notes with hints of spiciness.
The key to a good blend is mastering the right grapes in the right quantities. They support and balance each other that way, and the finished wine is good no matter what the pieces and parts may be.
I suspect, with most of us hanging on to dry wines as the only acceptable ones, that some of the grapes in our Ferrari-Carano blended wine have made us wince, or worse. But, having faith is a good thing. And we have to shine a light onto this new wine — Ferrari-Carano Bella Luce (which means “beautiful light” in Italian). This is a lighter style wine that is fragrant and refreshingly crisp, meaning dry, not sweet.
Each of the varieties used in Bella Luce is grown separately, then harvested and fermented separately. Each set of grapes is gently pressed into stainless steel tanks where they must rest for 48 hours. Each is then racked into other stainless steel tanks for a cold fermentation. There is no malolactic fermentation, so all the fresh, crisp acidity is maintained. The wine’s acidities keep all the flavors especially bright. Only now, with each wine made, are they tasted individually and then, finally, blended. Bella Luce’s flavors are Muscat, honeydew, orange, melons, peaches, pineapples, apples, cream and lemon. Cream and lemon and vanilla come in on the lingering finish.
More than anything, this wine is a nice surprise. As an apéritif, with cheeses, light salads, shellfish, appetizers, pastas with light sauces (penne with salmon in a cream sauce), sushi, spring rolls, curries — the Bella Luce is really versatile when it comes to being paired with food. So, accept the challenge, get past the old notion of Muscat, try Bella Luce, and let the light shine on you.
Available for $13.99 at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island. Enjoy.