2 Nov 2012

Power with Responsibility: Bastianich at Bibendum

ROCK 'n' roll in appearance, and relaxed in manner, Wayne Young hosted a tasting of the wines of Joe Bastianich’s Friuli vineyards upstairs at Bibendum. Until his body “began to break down” under the stress, Young spent five years as Bastianich’s cellar rat, learning the science behind the pure tasting but preened drink. These days, he is Bastianich’s special envoy and official “storyteller”. He told one blogger he was in “Special Ops”.
Young, stroking goatee beard, talks warmly of Joe Bastianich’s mother, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, the Pula émigré turned revered cook, author, television presenter and coast-to-coast US restaurateur. Eventually eschewing meat balls and chequered table cloths, she brought authentic, regional Italian cuisine (and wines) to New York in the 1970s, and due to perilous sounding business decisions, now owns several Italian restaurants in the US in partnership with daughter, Tanya and her son, who has significantly bolstered the family empire with Seattle-born, Italian food expert, Mario Batali.
Convinced white wines from the region can compete with the best in the world, Joe Bastianich set about finding the perfect property in Friuli in 1997, although the winery wasn’t established until 2006. Located in Cividale del Friuli, town of which has medieval origins, the discreet premises look towards the alps and a punchbowl of a vineyard fringed by terraces. At the mercy of the Northerly Bora winds, the climate is distinctly cooler than Bastianich’s other, the original holding at Buttrio/Premariacco. That is influenced by the sea’s warmth. Young mentions that between sites, grapes can show up to 10 days difference in ripeness as a result.
It is the region’s calcareous marl which confers such quality to the white grapes, says Young, stoniness providing great drainage, clay retaining moisture, and the brittle, cracking nature of the soil overall allowing vines to burrow deep. Although the region has pre-Roman origins when it comes to wine making, Venetians “left wine to the peasants,” explains Young, preferring to import wine from the South in barrels in favour of poly-culture at home.
Wines shown exhibited a restaurateur’s understanding of drinking refreshing wine with food – you can call the style power with responsibility (ie. the balance gleaned from betwixt the two diverse vineyards).
The tasting begins with Vigne Orsone from ‘”stressful” vintage 2010, when pickers only managed to harvest one third of a normal year’s grapes (100kgs) in an average day. With what Young calls a “licked copper penny” note, this instalment of Orsone is made from the fashionable in Italy Ribolla Gialla. Next, from a clean vintage “so hot that the vines shut down before thunderstorms woke them up again,” Vigne Orsone Friulano Colli Orientali 2011 has a hint of bitterness, feint honey and pert acidity. The grape was formerly known as “Tocai Friulano” until Hungary formerly occupied the term in 2007. Perhaps Young’s assertion that colder vintages, which require more effort, survive better in the long term could be tested on this wine?
Thirdly, Vigne Orsone Sauvignon Blanc Colli Orientali 2011 is made from a grape dubbed the region’s “secret weapon”. More Loire than New Zealand or even Alto Adige in style (the latter being sown on granite). “New Zealand Sauvignon can, unlike this, lack presence on the palate,” comments Young. A sommelier at the tasting mentions this version reassesses their faith in the grape.
Named after the ever-present wasps attracted to ripe grape, Vesper Bianco 2010 follows (45% Chardonnay, 45% Sauvignon, 10% Picolit). Young mentions that this is the wine Joe Bastianich wants to rival the world’s assumed best, and that, of the 2006 (served alongside), he is happy to pitch it against any 2006 white Burgundy. The blend is clearly ageing well – not an attribute often touted of the wines of this region – and is subtly bevelled by oak. “You can go all the way through a meal with this,” says Young, “from aperitif to roast pork.”
Young quotes the tale of Bastianich’s immense weight loss to show how determined a man he can be. Indeed, the account of how the 265lbs obese man, told to reform his unhealthy habits by the doctor or die, sheds 50lbs in one year to run a marathon two years in a row, before undertaking the Iron Man triathlon in the third year (in 12.5 hours) shows a certain resolve.
Finally, the only red of the day (Bastianich produce but 15-20% of red in Friuli) suggests a hint of tobacco. Poised, it is made from 50% Merlot, 30% Refosco and 20% Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, although native Schiopettino ("gunshot") rendered nearly extinct by the once exotic international varieties which trespassed its territory, is being brought into the fold too. It is hand-picked and then hand-crushed in a basket press “by an old slob like me” jokes Young.
Joe Bastianich also has winemaking interests further South in the Maremma. “La Mozza” is founded with Mario Batali. Particularly of note is the Syrah Alicante and Carignan “Super Med” wine. Agricola Brandini in Piedmont is Bastianich’s third venture (a joint venture with Oscar Farinetti). In addition to winemaker and restaurateur, Bastianich is a judge on MasterChef USA and MasterChef Italia and acclaimed author. With wine expert David Lynch (wine director then general manager at Bastianich and Batali's restaurant Babbo), Bastianich co-authored Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy and Vino Italiano Buying Guide. Bastianich’s entertaining memoir, “Restaurant Man” was released in May.