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Exploring Italian summer wines with Madonna’s Chris Connolly - PHOTOS

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

In the world of wine, there are varying levels of expertise. One tier of expert may be able to speak eloquently in front of like-minded wine lovers—spurting out terms like legs, head, tannins and flinty—but would be wholly lost in front of wine amateurs, heightening the divide between the wine elite and those looking for a simple evening buzz while reading “Game of Thrones.”

That’s where the Buffalo.com team comes in. To be frank, we needed an expert to clearly explain wine to a bunch of inexperienced, not-particularly-affluent alcohol enthusiasts. While we graduated long ago from Arbor Mist, we still don’t dabble far beyond the Pinot Grigios, red and white Zinfandels, Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs of the world.

Chris Connolly, owner of Madonna’s at 62 Allen St., Buffalo, provided us with an Italian summer wine tutorial—an under-appreciated alternative to common French or California wines frequently found in Western New York restaurants and bars.

After spending 18 months getting his footing by taking over Cafe 59 across the street, Connolly acted on a passion that was instilled during his youth: wine.

Madonna’s opened in late fall 2012, highlighting inexpensive, largely unfamiliar Italian wines intended to be enjoyed by the bottle with simple foods. In other words, the emphasis isn’t always on typical Italian summer wines like Pinot Grigio, Prosecco or Spumante that have maneuvered into the American mainstream.

That’s not to say customers can’t bring their own wines to Madonna’s, but a $10 corking fee encourages drinkers to be adventurous. Connolly explains that he keeps between 30 and 35 varieties in stock at a given time, regularly rotating the choices by what’s in season, what he thinks tastes best and what’s available from the tiny—and sometimes very remote—Italian wineries he purchases from.

“Italian wines are often a great value for the quality, having neither the marketing cachet of French wines nor the popularity and mass availability of California wines,” Connolly wrote in an introductory pamphlet he gave us. By sampling an obscure wine, you’ll not only feel cultured and knowledgeable, but you won’t shell out an excessive sum of money, either.

The owner isn’t interested in the typical “3x” markup price that many Buffalo restaurants and bars adhere to—he’s simply pushing a hobby that was introduced by his wine-loving parents in Massapequa Park on Long Island. And to a certain degree, it’s not the easiest hobby to push in a market that’s quite saturated and dominated by familiarity.

A few misconceptions exist about Italian wine that seem to give it an unfairly negative reputation, Connolly notes.

For instance, a dubious assumption that the taste of all wines benefit from extensive aging leaves Italian wine selections—which mostly hail from 2010 to 2012 at Madonna’s—as second-rate to the uninformed sipper.

As Connolly notes, Italian wines are not aged extensively, thus limiting the oak flavor which typically makes the wine taste heavier. Instead, bright, summery and fresh tastes are released—favoring the warm weather season—from both varietals (wines created from just one variety of grape) to blends. 

Speaking of blends, if you want to get particularly technical, there are strict regulations on how Italian wines are assembled and how the grapes are produced—as traditional classifications (IGT, DOC and DOCG) allow a consumer to determine the quality, complexity, standards and even regional influence.

Regardless of complex classifications and various cultures represented in Italian wines, there’s reason to be excited about sampling these in Buffalo. Not only is it a break from the norm, but it’s tapping into a trend that’s enamored beer drinkers over the past 10 years—there’s real joy that can be found through adventure and risk taking.

“People are generally more willing to try [new wines] if they’re explained to them,” Connolly said. 

Buffalo.com’s Katie and Julia (pictured above right and joined by Connolly in header) accompanied me to Madonna’s earlier this summer, where Connolly showcased six different Italian wines. Here’s a brief rundown of each:

Dogajolo Bianco from Carpineto, Tuscany—2012 (white)
Grape composition: Chardonnay 40 percent, Grechetto 30 percent and Sauvignon Blanc 30 percent.

Interesting fact: The Dogajolo Bianco is aged in steel to maintain its fresh taste and acidity—a stark contrast to the effect that oak has on the fermenting process. For more on the basics of aging in stainless steel rather than oak barrels, read the basics here.
What it tastes like: Bright citrus and green apple, herbal notes, lime and slight honeydew.

Buffalo.com novice translation: Katie noted that the Dogajolo Bianco had a bit of a “green apple punch” in addition to an “herbal, grassy flavor.” Our interest was piqued when—i.e. we became very preoccupied when—Connolly demonstrated how to properly smell a wine. Breathe in deeply through your nose but keep your mouth open at the same time. Try it.

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Orvieto Classico from Melini, Umbria—2011 (white)
Grape composition: Procanico 45 percent, Verdello 20 percent, Grechetto 15 percent, Malvisia 10 percent, Drupeggio 10 percent.

Interesting fact: Grown in clay at 1,000-feet, harvested by hand and fermented in steel. Also, this was the second straight blend featuring Grechetto, a low-yielding varietal and adds a rich flavor.
What it tastes like: Hints of green and chalk, but gentle and clean on the finish.

Buffalo.com novice translation: “It tastes like raisins in a good way,” Costello remarked. The Orvieto was notably dry with a “nutty pistachio” flavor, Connolly said—a description I don’t think we could have come to ourselves. The history of Orvieto wines is long and reasonably interesting—apparently an Italian Renaissance painter requested to be paid annually in this style wine.

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Friulano, Conti Formentini Furlana from Collio, Italy—2011 (white)
Grape composition: Friulano 100 percent—our first varietal of the afternoon.

Interesting fact: Connolly noted that the Friulano isn’t purchased very frequently, and therefore it isn’t always in stock. “If you don’t buy it, it won’t be there,” he admitted. The Madonna’s owner added that, while he relies upon a few different wine sellers, there’s still a battle over certain wines because of scarcity and extremely long “holds” on production.
What it tastes like: Floral and balanced with a hint of bitter almond.

Buffalo.com novice translation: Very similar to a Chardonnay, the Friulano isn’t as acidic as we expected, even though Connolly said that the varietal is typically picked young. The floral notes were admittedly tough to pick up on, and this one wasn’t one of Ben T.‘s personal favorites (then again, I have a hard time appreciating dry wine in general).

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Negroamaro, Castello Monaci ‘Maru’ Salento from Puglia, Italy—2010
Grape composition: Negroamaro 100 percent

Interesting fact: The grapes from this varietal are harvested by hand at dawn, and less exposure to the sun actually makes the Negroamaro a slightly fruitier red wine. “The guy who gets up earlier gets the less bitter wine,” Connolly noted, perhaps passing along an old Puglian proverb.
What it tastes like: Black fruits and spice on the nose with soft tannins.

Buffalo.com novice translation: While it was a little tough to differentiate our first varietal from the earlier blends, the Negroamaro was a little misleading in that it smelled fruitier than it tasted. “It’s cleaner than most reds I’ve tried,” Costello added. Connolly had showed us previously how to swirl the glass to determine whether or not it has “legs”—or residual sugar that clings to the side of the glass—and the Friulano had legs for days, you could say.

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Moscato d’Asti, Michele Chiarlo from Piedmont, Italy—2011 (white dessert)
Grape composition: Moscato 100 percent

Interesting fact: Grapes are used when fully ripe, then fermented to a low alcohol percentage to amplify the sweetness.
What it tastes like: Floral and bright with warm peach and apricot flavors. Delicate frizzante.

Buffalo.com novice translation: “You can smell the bubbles!” a slightly buzzed Costello spurted. Connolly claimed there’s “no such thing as a bad Moscato,” and the wine was spritzy and very sweet. Almost a sparkling juice, the Moscato boasted peach, apricot and honeysuckle flavors. An exceptional dessert wine that was right down Ben T.‘s alley.

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Brachetto d’Acqui, Ca Bianca from Piedmont, Italy—2011 (red dessert)
Grape composition: Brachetto 100 percent

Interesting fact: Given as a gift to Cleopatra by Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the wine was said to “unleash the passions of her lovers.” There’s an abundance of bad Brachetto, Connolly admitted, as the process of cold maceration (known more frequently as ‘cold soaks) doesn’t always yield positive results.
What it tastes like: Roses abound, as do strawberries and cream.

Buffalo.com novice translation: “Fun, fruity and unusual,” the never soft-spoken Costello noted. The Buffalo.com crew noted a slight “vanilla cream” flavor in the fizz, and it was sweet enough to be wine’s version of strawberry shortcake. Ben T. eagerly tried to persuade Connolly for several more glasses, to no avail.

TAGGED: chris connolly, dessert wines, friulano, italian wines, madonna's, moscato, negroamaro, varietals, wine

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