Wine Review: Menti & Marabino, Natural Italy

20 08 2015

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

If you are a massively wine-obsessed civilian, you have probably had at least a passing thought about it.  I can think of a half dozen wine friends off the top of my head with whom I’ve had the conversation.  You know something about wine, you have a particular love for a particular region, you’ve found a lesser-known producer or two there whose wines aren’t currently brought in to your jurisdiction…what if I just imported them myself?  I could be a wine agent on the side…who WOULDN’T want to buy these wines?

Small importer, statement wines.

Small importer, statement wines.

Of course, it takes much more than a passion for wine and an idle dream to make a go of it in the wine import world, an extremely competitive sphere full of others who have been at it a long time and know what they’re doing.  This is why I am behind a keyboard right now instead of combing Washington State and Oregon for hidden gems.  But I have the utmost respect for the people who do take the plunge, who put their money where their mouth is and find a way to step a little bit further into the world of wine.  Maxim Atanassov is one of those people, populating the white collar world by day and crusading for all-natural biodynamic Italian wines on evenings and weekends through his agency Vino Al Vino.  He has assembled a tight-knit group of producers from the southern and eastern edges of Italy who share a steadfast mission to let the land do the talking and a hands-off approach to winemaking.  I got the chance to try two bottles from the white side of his wine portfolio, and they proved to be some of the most interesting wines I’ve ever been asked to review.

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2013 Menti Roncaie Sui Lieviti

This wine starts the discussion for itself – just look at it.  It’s hazy.  You can’t see through it at all.  There are massive amounts of sediment, both on the bottom of the bottle and floating through the wine.  The ullage (the air gap between the top of the liquid and the bottle closure) is massive.  And, to top it off (literally and figuratively), it’s closed with a crown cap, like a Budweiser.  It is the craziest looking bottle of wine I have ever seen.

Have you ever seen a wine that looks like this?

Have you ever seen a wine that looks like this?

Now, let’s unpack why it is how it is.  Giovanni Menti is a 4th generation family winery in the Veneto region of northeast Italy, home of the famous Italian white Soave.  They work with a limited number of grapes, including the noblest white that forms part of the standard Soave blend, Garganega, but they showcase that grape to the fullest extent, producing multiple different bottlings that show different sides of it.  All of their wines are fully organic, biodynamic and fermented using natural yeasts ambient to the winery – nothing from outside of the vineyard or winery is added to the wine, even sulfur dioxide gas, with which almost all wines are dosed during and after production to prevent oxidation.  These types of wines, with the focus on the purity of the vineyard and a “nothing added, nothing taken away” approach to their creation, are commonly called “natural wines” and are somewhat in vogue at the moment.  You don’t normally get to call a generations-old traditional Italian winery on trend, but here we are.

IMG_3139This particular rendition of Garganega is made sort of like Champagne:  first a base wine is created and bottled, and then a second fermentation is induced inside the bottle, which is capped so that the carbon dioxide created from the fermentation is trapped inside, leading to the sparkling bubbles we all know and love.  However, there are a couple of production differences between the Menti Roncaie and your standard Champagne (ignoring that  Champagne is not legally permitted to be made out of Garganega).  First, while the secondary fermentation in Champagne is induced by the addition of fresh yeast and sweet unfermented juice, the extra fermentation here is caused by the addition of what is described as Albina juice, or Garganega resin, which contains both natural vineyard yeasts and inherent sugars, meaning the wine stays fully natural even through the carbonation process.  Second, with Champagne, once the secondary fermentation yeasts have done their work, the dead yeast cells (or lees) are removed from the bottle after a period of maturation and before it is corked and sent to market; here, those lees remain inside the bottle and are the culprit behind the Menti’s haziness and massive sediment deposits.  In fact, the “Sui Lieviti” part of the wine’s name means “sur lie”, or “on the lees”.  These lees help keep the wine tasting fresh and young and improve the creaminess and silkiness of its texture, although the benefit is offset somewhat by them looking slightly gross.  Don’t drink with your eyes on this one.

(First Ever!) Crown Cap Rating: 6/10 (For closure originality, and yellow.)

(First Ever!) Crown Cap Rating: 6.5/10 (For closure originality, and yellow.)

I was instructed by the wine’s spec sheet to gently shake it before opening so that the lees could re-integrate with the wine and reduce the amount of sediment.  I did.  It exploded when I popped the cap.  Be careful with this direction.  Once I mopped up a bit, I noted the Menti’s crazy, cloudy muted lemon colour, oddly fading to an almost clear water white at the rim of the glass.  The initial aroma was almost beer-like:  yeasty, malty, chalky, cheese-rind-y, with a wisp of golden apple fruit and a lingering suggestion of citrus sweetness, like a just-emptied glass of grapefruit juice.  But what a pleasant surprise on the palate:  fairly understated levels of petillance (bubbles), a silky smooth creamy mouthfeel, a clear refreshing dryness, without any discernible sugar at all (there is in fact no residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation #2) – and it tasted like wine!  Fairly neutral, the Menti had the nuttiness I associate with Garganega, hints of biscuit/baking powder, lemon and pear fruit and lovely palate-scouring acidity that rode the bubbles and provided instant refreshment, leading to a complex brioche-like finish.

To me the flavours of this wine are secondary to the textural sensation of drinking it.  It is built to be an easygoing palate aid during mealtimes, and the combination of its blank canvas flavour profile, rich mouthfeel, tongue-scraping acid and quietly active bubbles – not to mention its low, gulpable 11% alcohol – makes the Menti Roncaie a simple and awesome match for a wide variety of foods.  It would absolutely rock with sushi, and the spec sheet says that it’s also a “wow!” with pizza, which is about as far away from my sushi suggestion as you can possibly get – the hallmark of a versatile wine.  There’s certainly some visual weirdness to get over here, but it’s well worth doing so.  The more I drink this, the more I like it.  Prepare to be fascinated.

88 points

$20 to $25 CDN

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2014 Marabino Eureka

You will be thankful to find out this far into what has turned into a mammoth post that there is less to say about Vino Al Vino’s second white, which is not to say that it is any less worthy than the first; it is just more recognizable to the casual drinking public.  We go from northeastern Italy to the southern island of Sicily, and to a grape whose familiarity can often breed contempt:  Chardonnay.

FullSizeRender-107While Sicily is experiencing a bit of a wine renaissance at the moment thanks to its stable of unique indigenous grapes (with which this producer is extensively familiar), it can also bring the world the comforts of home with a range of international plantings, and Chardonnay does fabulously well here.  Marabino is a relatively new winery, established in 2002 and based in the southeastern corner of Sicily; like Menti, it is a fully organic and biodynamic producer making completely natural wines even without the addition of sulphur for oxygen protection.  (As an aside, I personally see nothing wrong with a judicious use of sulphur dioxide, which is in tons of foods, like dried fruits, in substantially higher concentrations than in wine.  When done poorly, to prove a point, natural wine can be a disaster.  When done well, like with these two bottles, it can be a fresh perspective and a worthwhile voice in the wine community.  I am very interested to see where this movement will go in the future.)

The other thing to note about the Marabino Eureka Chardonnay is that it is unoaked, vinified with its skins and then aged in stainless steel.  There has been a proliferation of unoaked Chardonnay on the market as a backlash to the massively oaked Franken-Chards of years and fads past, but I suppose there is a synergy of sorts between the ideals of natural wine and freeing the flavours of Chardonnay from oak manipulation.  At 12.5% abv, this is another restrained white that will not dominate your dinner.

Cork Rating: 3.5/10 (Sort of dull, almost composite-looking.)

Cork Rating: 3.5/10 (Sort of dull, almost composite-looking.)

For a 2014 wine without oak influence, the Eureka was an amazingly deep, burnished gold colour – and it wasn’t remotely oxidized, even with a lack of sulphur protection.  Instead, it was lively and peppery, but somehow also almost crystalline, on the nose, with frozen honeycomb, white peach and honeydew aromas accented by flowers, green herbs and ginger.  I would recommend (which I almost never do) drinking this slightly warmer than your standard whites in order to allow it to express itself fully, as it is a subtle wine with a deft touch; this is no beat-you-over-the-head Chardonnay.  There was a creamy softness to its texture and a nuance, delicacy and lightness to its approach, making it seem simultaneously lush and lithe in the mouth.  Its understated flavours of Asian pear, nectarine, wet grass and (I swear to god) Canada Dry (ginger ale, for you non-Canucks) were carried by quietly assertive acidity into a pleasantly clean, if not overly lengthy, finish.  This is a Chardonnay to open if you’re done with Chardonnay, and a wine that will get you thinking.

89 points

$30 to $35 CDN

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