Friday, December 6, 2013
By Joe Appel
Acidity, that crucial element in keeping a wine refreshing, balanced and an interesting complement to food, is a risky word to use in selling a wine, since something that tastes "acidic" doesn't sound like any fun. (Acidity is necessary for food as well: Think how greatly a dish is improved by a spritz of lemon or dash of vinegar.) So, people who describe wine for a living think of euphemisms for "acidity": "Bright," "zippy," "crisp," or they fudge it with "lemonade-like," "lemon square," "lime-tinged."
But a whisper of "acidity" is a sweet nothing compared to the taste category that dare not speak its name: "Bitter," a term with immense reserves of negative connotative power.
Just saying the word screws one's face into a frown and hardens one's outlook, onomatopoeia kicking in. Who would want something associated with medicine, persimmon skin or grapefruit peel in their glass? (Most pros say "bitter almond"; the mention of nuts softens the blow.)
Sought or not, though, bitterness is present in some terrific wines, and its usefulness and intrigue have been brought into exceptional clarity as I've spent the past few weeks exploring wines made with the Verdicchio grape.
Verdicchio is grown almost exclusively in the hilly Marche region of central Italy, spread widely across the Castelli di Jesi and Matelica DOCs. Castelli di Jesi, closer to the Adriatic in Ancona province, is the larger, better-known source of Verdicchio, but it's also the one with milder climate, higher yields and, though exceptions have grown in number recently, a greater emphasis on quantity over quality.
The Matelica DOC is one-tenth Jesi's size, at higher altitude and further inland in Macerata province, occupying a basin of mineral-rich calcareous soil created millions of years ago as the salty sea receded. The DOC has stricter yield limits than Jesi as well, and several of the better producers consider even those too high, imposing their own lower hectoliter-per-hectare ratios. This generally concentrates flavors, and imparts greater richness to the wines.
But as anyone who has grown tired of candy-like wines from the larger Australian or Spanish producers can attest, "flavor concentration" on its own is not nearly as important as which flavors are being concentrated. With good Verdicchio, the flavors I love almost thumb their nose at the very notion of fruit.
Dry just short of drought-like, and like most noble wines little interested in charming you, these emphasize salinity. Each one does slyly insert a touch of fruit – but just enough to keep you loyal to the rewarding realm of the bitter.
Fontezoppa Verdicchio di Matelica 2010, $12 (Easterly): This is the wine that first got me interested in Verdicchio. So slate-y, reedy and salty, it's like a Mosel Riesling without any residual sugar. Granite, warmed by the sun: That's this wine. The requisite touch of fruit? Here it's a handful of dried apple rings. Austere! Bitter! But a pearlescent mouthfeel surrounds the spanking rocky glint.
Marchetti Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, $14 (Mariner): In the traditional feminine-curved amphora-shaped bottle, this Verdicchio expresses the classic Jesi profile: Sunny, delicate and smiling, even though it's a wry smile.
It's an exception to every slight I've ever suggested toward Jesi wines, because while it's noticeably more giving and open-hearted than the more abstemious style exemplified by Matelica, it's still just so bracing. (Maurizio Marchetti uses up to two vines per bottle of wine.) The sly insertion of Meyer lemon – pith, juice, rind and all – is the basis for a long finish, and reason to pay consistent attention.
Umani Ronchi Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2010, $20 (Central): Now we're onto something else entirely. Umani Ronchi, a storied winery in Jesi, has focused on Verdicchio for a long time, hewing to low yields and indigenous yeasts to produce truly exemplary wines.
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