By Scott Graber
Some words, especially Italian words, are just fun to say. For example, “bellissima” and “molto bene” and “bambini.”
Right at the moment I’m sitting at the bar, at Hearth, sipping a reasonably generous pour of an Italian red called Sangiovese.
Sangiovese, pronounced san-geo-vay-say, is a great word to say. Being able to use that word in Beaufort, S.C., is some small consolation for not being able to say it in Italy.
Some years ago I was in Genoa walking the city with a Beaufort-born friend, Jim Thomas, and his wife, Paola. We were looking at the various palaces — called palazzo — in the old City. Jim was giving us the important families, the architectural details, and the dates the palazzo were built.
At one particular palazzo — perhaps it was Palazzo Ducal located next to the Piazza Matteotti — Jim gave us its date of birth. But Paola disagreed. She said it was older, much older.
“Paola,” Jim said, “I’m the architect here.”
“But Jim,” Paola replied, “I’m the Italian.”
After another five minutes of argument over provenance, we decided to seek out a trattoria and continue the debate over a glass of wine — un bicchiere di vino. And it was here, in this small, low-ceiling tavern, where I was introduced to Gavi.
Italy is well-known for its red wine — its full-bodied Barolos, Chiantis and Barbarescos. It is less famous for its white wines. But Cortese di Gavi, or just plain Gavi, is a wine produced on 4,100 acres in the Italian Piedmonte just north of Genoa.
Piedmonte is a region near the Alps, and near the Ligurian Sea, and consequently has a temperature that fluctuates. It can be sunny, warn during the day; then cooler at night. This, apparently, is a fluctuation that makes for a good grape.
Of course grapevines have grown on the Italian peninsula forever, probably starting with the Etruscans, hitting a high point about 100 years before Christ. At this point it was estimated that Rome consumed 47 million gallons of wine annually — about a bottle of wine each day for every citizen.
The Romans looked for hillside terrain in regions near a river. They knew there was a tendency for cold air to flow down a hillside and to pool in pockets of frost in the valley. So they grew their grapes on hillsides that got the sun — hillsides that would provide sufficient warmth to ripen grapes.
As Roman legions pushed into France, Spain and Germany they took their taste for wine and their pruning knives with them. As long as there were steep hills — steep enough to catch the sun and shield the vines from the northern winds — grapes could be grown; and wine could be produced; and evidence of these vine-trimming tools have been found near Roman garrison posts in Trier and Cologne.
The Romans didn’t understand the concept of bacteria. That knowledge would come with Louis Pasteur hundreds of years later. They didn’t know that the sulfites (in wine) killed most of the bacteria. Or that Lactic bacteria, responsible for fermentation, is a digestive aid. They did not know the alcohol content probably took care of Streptococcal bacteria.
But they must have sensed that wine was a lot better for the Legionnaires than water.
Virgil, the Roman poet, wrote about wine — particularly about the austerity and integrity of the Roman wine growers. Virgil’s contemporary, Horace, espoused the Epicurean view of taking life’s pleasures, including wine, in moderation. He also included tips about what wine should be paired with birthdays, special events and for everyday occasions.
And so I have this singular memory of a dark room, listening to an American man and his Italian wife debating the age and the merits of the Palazzo Ducal, thinking that this is the best wine I have ever tasted. And so began my own uneven, up and down affair with Gavi.
When I returned to South Carolina, I discovered that Gavi was seldom on anybody’s wine list. I discovered that it is produced in relatively small batches; and the Italians really like it, and consequently not much Gavi gets exported.
Several years ago — at an anniversary dinner at Palmetto Bluff — I discovered there was a Gavi on the wine list. I ordered a bottle and was instantly transported to that low-ceilinged trattoria in Genoa.
I know that I will never be able to separate the happiness of that night in Genoa, from the taste of those grapes; but making that distinction does not matter.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.