It's A Small World -- Or, Cal-Ital Parte Seconda

Last week's post received some great and insightful comments. Thanks very much, wonderful readers, for sharing your own expertise and experiences. It's always a pleasure to interact and learn from others. I'm so happy the blog can foster that personal engagement in its own small way -- isn't that part of what wine's all about? Keep the comments coming!

This past week, I was responsible for the secret meal, and I had a plan in the wings. Last week's Mario Batali-inspired recipe reminded me that I had a Batali trick up my sleeve, too. A Babbo recipe I'd stumbled across months ago; saved in a folder somewhere on my computer; and promptly forgotten -- but now, it was time for it to shine.

Love in a Bowl

Bucatini all'Amatriciana. Doesn't it just roll off the tongue? This dinner marked the first time I'd made it, and it instantly established itself as the essence of Italian comfort food -- simple, hearty, with layers and layers of flavor stemming from the freshest ingredients -- and plenty of love. 

Pancetta, garlic, onion, red pepper flakes, fresh tomato sauce, parsley, and some seriously toothsome bucatini.

As we ate, I thought of my great-grandmother Josephine, a tiny, dark-eyed Siciliana whom I never knew. Undoubtedly, her cuisine was different than this tomato-infused staple of Amatrice in Central Italy; this meal served to nourish tired shepherds returning from the mountains. Still, though, some familial sense stirred. Perhaps it was the bucatini, the traditional pasta of Sicily.

Age Is More Than Just a Number

But what about the wine? Jody had opened it a bit before dinner so we could have some time to taste and evaluate. It's not so easy to garner delicate wine aromas when pancetta and garlic are simmering -- and since I was tasting blind with the goal of figuring out what this secret wine was, I wanted some time with it before dinner.

It was apparent this was a wine with some age; definitely older than we usually drink. The wine was slightly cloudy, and light burgundy-colored with an amber rim. As I tracked the evolution of the bouquet over 15 minutes or so, I wrote:

"Dusky violets, deep blackberry, rosehips, earth. On the palate, cardamom and violet. Perhaps an older New World? It's aged, but still has something of the Cali exuberance to it. Restrained, subdued, experienced -- but there's that definite spark."

My initial gut reaction was 1997. But I thought it had Pinot Noir characteristics, and couldn't picture a California Pinot Noir of the time holding up that well, for that long. 2004, I guessed aloud. California cool-climate Pinot Noir -- Russian River, maybe?

1996(!) Ridge Carignan, Oat Valley Vineyard, Cooley Family Ranch, Sonoma County, CA. 13.1% alc.

Well! According to the back label, these vines were 80 years old in 1996 -- a true remnant of California's winemaking history, when Carignan was widely planted and blended into the popular red wines of the 1930s-60s. In researching the Oat Valley Vineyard, I can't find any evidence that any of it's still planted to Carignan. Ridge still makes a 100 percent Carignan for its wine club, but the fruit -- since at least 1999 -- comes from Sonoma's Buchignani Ranch (and they're spelling it Carignane, the American way, on the label now).

The cork, I heard, was very uncooperative. It did its wine-protecting job well, though!

Pairing, Brought Home

Carignan. Bucatini all'Amatriciana. The words, like the pairing, beautiful on the tongue. Was it our imagination, or did the wine begin to taste more and more Italian as we drank it with the food? The flavors blended in a seamless, rustic perfection, as though they were, somehow, meant to be together.

It turns out Carignan isn't commonly found in Italy so much these days -- except in Lazio. Lazio, the Abruzzese town near Amatrice, where the shepherds wearily made their way down the mountain and home to a lovingly prepared, hot bowl of bucatini all'Amatriciana. And, more than likely, a glass of locally made carignan.

In vino, veritas.