When I met my friend M for lunch in Milan en route to our friend's wedding in Florence, I became immediately distracted by a wine I'd never previously encountered: an obscure Emilia-Romagnan white called Ortrugo.
I've never lived in Italy and I don't speak the language. But I've managed a high-end Italian restaurant in the US, I've bought Italian wine for several restaurants, I've read numerous books on the nation's wines, and I've toured a fair portion of it firsthand, from Ivrea to Puglia. So most of what I encounter there feels more or less legible. Especially wine lists: to walk into an Italian restaurant in Italy and fondly recognise the names on the wine list is, ordinarily, a great comfort.
M and I were wedged into a table at La Vecchia Latteria, an historic vegetarian spot that had come recommended by a jazz guitarist / wine geek friend in LA. Wines available were neither extensive nor expensive; the waiters didn't seem to know a thing about them. They barked out the usual counsel reserved for moron tourists ("You like red? You like white?"). But I was still on a disembarkment-high from Malpensa,* delighted to see my old friend M, and besides, one great thing about white wine in Italy is that the obscurities are often so inexpensive as to constitute no risk whatsoever. (In case of disaster, there's always Peroni.)
I learned later - largely from Kyle Phillip's comprehensive 2009 post on the Ortrugi available to taste at Vinitaly that year - that the Ortrugo grape is also vinified in still and fully sparkling versions. That almost nothing else has seemingly been written about the grape since then is not a great sign for its producers in the Colli Piacentini, who apparently have brought the variety back from near-extinction over the past few decades.
I can see why they'd have difficulty popularizing the grape. The bottle my friend and I shared - a 2011 frizzante from the large cooperativo Cantina Valtidone called "Luceo" - was really an ideal afternoon wine: low-alcohol, precisely calibrated, blooming with delicate white floral aromas and a trim lemon-apple-scallion accord. It was like listening to Vashti Bunyan on a porch with no lawnmowers around.
But it's also representative of a category of wine that most export buyers are rightly suspicious of: delicate Italian whites, many of which are famous for being a lot less delicate one year after the vintage, neglected on wine shop racks from Santa Barbara to Boston. (Timorasso, Naschetta, Forastera, almost all Tuscan white wine... Although, to be fair, Naschetta has zero personality to begin with. And some Tuscan whites have enough oak on them to survive nuclear winter.) The pleasures of these wines, fleeting by nature, are too often cooked off in transport or withered with premature age by the time one tastes them in export markets. This is not to mention the delicacy of the bubbles in the "Luceo" we had, even a slight decompression of which would make the wine taste mealy, rather than crisp.
M and I both regretted later not trying any actual cheese at La Vecchia Latteria. Instead our waiter hard-sold us on a not-cheap platter of mixed things from the oven (Piatto Forno Misto), all of the components of which were tasty enough, but neither remarkable nor healthy by any stretch of the imagination.
Still, it's refreshing to encounter a vegetarian restaurant not catering to its clientele's health concerns. And we found out the place has live jazz at night, which in retrospect might go some way to explaining why my jazz musician wine geek friend recommended it. He may not have been thinking of the wine at all.
And yet: that lovely Ortrugo, a fine example of how Italian wine, like the whole confounding nation, rewards continual exploration.
* Does anyone else find the name of Milan's airport slightly unlucky? To ears accustomed to French it sounds sort of like 'poorly conceived,' which is a frightening thing for an airport to be.
La Vecchia Latteria
Via dell'Unione, 6
Tel: +39 02 874401
Tel: +39 02 874401
A great 2009 run-down of Ortrugo by Kyle Phillips @ ItalianWineReview (Although I find it very amusing that he goes on to thank the Enoteca Regionali Emilia Romagna for the photos they provided him, when said photos are basically just worthless regional ClipArt.)
Some 2011 notes on Ortrugo @ Exalted Rations
Some good photos of La Vecchia Latteria @ TheChicFish
More photos of jazz at La Vecchia Latteria @ CompletementFou
Not Drinking Poison In Rome:
N.D.P. in Roma: Da Enzo
N.D.P. in Roma: Freni e Frizioni
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Restaurant
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Bakery
N.D.P. in Roma: The Jerry Thomas Project
Not Drinking Poison In Piedmont:
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Osteria dell'Unione, Treiso, then Bruno Giacosa, Neive
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Saint Peter's Country Chapel
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Stefano Bellotti & Cascina degli Ulivi, Novi Liguri
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Trattoria della Posta, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: G.D. Vajra, Vergne
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Giorgio Barovero, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Case della Saracca, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Walter Porasso at Bovio, La Morra
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Vinoteca Centro Storica, Serralunga
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Roberto Conterno, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: La Cantinetta, Barolo
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Francesco Rinaldi e Figli, Barolo
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Capella di Sol Lewitt, La Morra
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Osteria La Salita, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Solativo Vinosteria, Ivrea
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Luigi Ferrando, Ivrea