Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dinner at Alto and Old Vallana Spanna

Even if like me, you are an ignoramus when it comes to Italian wine, if some one asked you to name the places where the finest wines made of Nebbiolo come from, you would say Barolo and Barbaresco. But it wasn't always this way. As Jeremy Parzen, a scholar of many things, including Italian wine, can tell you, Barolo and Barbaresco emerged in the 1970's as the places where the finest Nebbiolo wines were grown. Many great wines were and continue to be made in other parts of Piedmonte.

Antonio Vallana is one of the producers who made fine Nebbiolo wines in the '50s and '60s. His family's wines were brought to the US about a decade ago and have since been discovered by the Italian wine loving community. I drank one of them two years ago at a dinner in Portland the first time I met Peter Liem. Re-reading what I wrote about the wine, it seems as though I liked it.

Not too long ago my pal Levi Dalton invited me to a dinner hosted by Chris Cannon, one of the owners of the restaurant Alto. Levi is the head Sommelier at Alto and he organizes truly ridiculous wine dinners from time to time. To be invited at all is a rare treat, and in an absurdly generous gesture, I was the guest of Chris Cannon and the restaurant. It began like this - Levi asked me if I knew Vallana Spanna.

I said that I drank one once, but that I didn't know the wines. Levi found this to be amusing and perhaps a little hard to believe.

But then he said "No really, you're okay Brooklynguy. Want to come to a Vallana Spanna dinner?"

Yes, yes I do. This wasn't some ordinary dinner - there were some heavy hitters at the table. I'm talking about Eric Asimov, Jaime Wolff, Chris Cannon, John Slover, and Michael Wheeler, to name a few. What an opportunity - to sit down with these and a few others who know so much about wine, and to drink a load of old Vallana Spanna together. Here are the wines the Levi poured:

Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Spanna del Piemonte 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Campi Raudii, Catuli Ara 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Campi Raudii, Gattinariae 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Campi Raudii et Catuli Ara, Riserva Catulus 1961
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Castello di Montalbano, Camino 1964
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Castello di Montalbano 1968
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Cinque Castelli 1967

We drank other things too, but these old Nebbiolos (Spanna is another name for Nebbiolo) were the point of the dinner. Levi wanted to understand these wines better, and he figured this would be a good way to do it.

I took a few notes and I'll share some thoughts on the wines, but honestly I was more interested in focusing on the wines and talking with my neighbors than on keeping tasting notes.

We drank the wines in several flights and the flight that I liked the best was the one with the wines from 1964, 1967, and 1968. These wines truly fascinated me - I could have spent the whole dinner with only them and walked away happy, if still a little confused. Levi opened the wines hours before hand, by the way. And still, poured from the bottle, the wines changed a lot in the glass. The 1964 (supposedly a great vintage) and the 1967 (a good vintage) both showed this amazing bouillon cube savory character on the nose. At first this dominated the nose, but the wines grew a bit in the glass, became more detailed. The '64 was an amazing wine - vibrant and fresh on the palate, fruit and spice, savory and herbal, mature and regal, gentle and perfectly balanced. The '67 was excellent too, and I thought it was of the same cut as the '64, although not as perfect of a wine. The '68 was more overtly brawny, and although it was delicious, I didn't find it to be as compelling as the other two.

The 1961 Riserva Catulus was also excellent, but very different from the wines that preceded it. It felt as though some of the grapes had been dried before pressing, perhaps in the style of an Amarone. The trio of wines from 1958 were all interesting and it felt like history in a glass. But I must say, these wines felt remarkably young and fresh considering that they are over 50 years old. There was talk at the table about whether or not these wines had been reconditioned, and the consensus was yes, they had.

There were other interesting questions about the wines - were they in fact made of pure Nebbiolo? If not, what else was in these wines? This has gone on long enough already, so I'll save that discussion for the next post. And I will leave you with this, two of the best things I have eaten in a while, both from this dinner:

Terrine di Coda di Bue e Fegato Grasso, or country-style oxtail and foie gras terrine, pear mostarda, and pickled chanterelles. Utterly ridiculous with old Nebbiolo.

Sformato di Mandorle con Lumache, or robiola and almond sformato (like a flan), braised snail ragu, topped with shredded almonds and black truffles. Again, with old Nebbiolo, this was a sort of hedonism that one isn't often able to indulge in.

Thank you again Levi and Alto for this fantastic evening!

A discussion of the specific contents of the bottles up next...


Anonymous said...

When did this blog turn into "Look at how well-connected I have become in the NYC wine world?"

Anonymous said...

seriously. i miss the "wine of the week" posts - something for the littles!

honestly, i find the Spanna post novel, but the post seems so much about getting to go to this dinner. What percentage of your readership will ever even come across this wine? Less than 5%? If so, who is this written for?

Brooklynguy said...

i don't tend to converse with people who are anonymous, but your points are interesting to me, so in this case i will. and i hope that if we continue the conversation, you'll consider identifying yourself.

i used to love doing the Friday Night Bubbles posts and then "wine of the week." but there were a few problems with them. first of all, it began to feel like i was buying and drinking wine for the purposes of the blog, as opposed to drinking for my own pleasure and learning. that became a chore. and then, and perhaps more importantly, it was costing a load of money and 2009 was a bad year for me business wise. i just didn't feel like shelling out the money to buy a wine solely for the purposes of putting it up on friday.

as to the topic in this post - Vallana Spanna, and other posts like it, if you look back at the start of this blog, and throughout, i've been doing the same thing for years. i write about what i am learning and what interests me, what i am enjoying. and i write for myself. if people want to read it, great. it's my soapbox and no one has to stand and listen.

if at other points in this blog's journey you found yourself more connected to what I was writing about, i understand that. it's rare that i find myself taken with the same writing, musicians, artists, or anything creative for more than a few years.

i have to continue to write about what interests me, what i am doing and enjoying. yes, the content has changed a bit though, true. that should be a good thing - i'm experiencing new things and sharing them. but i'm still the same guy. i can't make it something it isn't, and i don't want to. i'm sure you can understand that.

that said, there should be space for constructive criticism here, and i appreciate what you both (unless you're the same person twice) have suggested. feel free to make more suggestions and i will listen to them with an open mind, especially if you continue to be pleasant about it, and if you can use your name when we communicate.

manhattanguy said...

I appreciate you reaching out despite my relative anonymity. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can refer to me as manhattanguy.

I want to assure you that my comments do come from a constructive (if a little overly critical) place. As an avid reader, I've very much enjoyed your soapbox.

My concern comes out of a feeling that recently and I do mean very recently, the soapbox has changed - It has become more of a wine social calendar than a record of your personal wine experience. Obviously both involve you and wine but the former has this promotional flavor that makes the soapbox taste a little different.

I disagree with my Anonymous co-reader. I actually like the occasional novel/obscure wine post. It's horizon-broadening.

I can understand the bursting of Friday Night Bubbles.

The Artist formerly known as "Anonymous 10:41pm"

Asher said...

I really like the posts where Brooklynguy writes about the fish being sold that day by the fish guy in the farmer's market, and how BG prepared said fish, and what he drank with it. And what Brooklynlady thought. And what his daughters were doing that day. And about the herbs growing in his garden. He's a real guy, sharing his passions.

But if BG gets invited to a dinner where he drinks forty year old Nebbiolo, I sure want to read about that too. And if he gets invited to more and more of those types of tastings, then I can look forward to more and more such posts. And let's not forget the reasons he gets invited to those tastings: because he's a good writer. That fact doesn't change, whether his subject is a $12 bottle of Gamay or a Chateau Latour.

Nowhere have a found any bragging or boasting about increasingly fancy tastings and opportunities. Just the same honest appreciation that BG has always conveyed.

Anonymous said...


I am really happy that you had a nice evening. I really enjoy spending time in your company, as you so clearly love wine.

Good for you that you had fun.

-Levi Dalton

Weston said...

I dont know If I went to a cool wine event I would totally post it, and getting to those events is really about who you know or just timing. But hey thats life in general.

I like those pics btw

wine student said...


My man Brooklynguy!

Buddy - I hear where you're coming from about buying wines just to blog them - if it wasn't for my taking the ISG Sommelier program, I would find it difficult. My wife would find it even more difficult (lol).

I also write about the $10 extreme value I find, or the 40 year old Armagnac I tried with a real Cuban Cohiba... it's all knowledge, it all good food/wine fun & to me - it's all interesting.

Please. Keep writing the way you do. Not everyone will like it, or appreciate it - but then - you don't write for EVERYONE do you?

Guglielmo Rocchiccioli said...

It is necessary to cite what is written on the Cappellano (an important producer of Barolo) label: “…the comparison, reduced dogma by the slothfuls, is a disarming numerical symbol and not shared human labour”. In other words, the value of the wine is clear and neat in the glass, not in the score of the specialized … magazine.


ESAME VISIVO : limpido, rosso granata, abb.consistente
ESAME OLFATTIVO : intenso, complesso, fine
DESCRIZIONE : floreale(rosa), speziato(cannella, pepe rosa), fruttato(frutta rossa matura, lampone), erbaceo(muschio, terra), tostato(torrefazione), animale(pellame)
ESAME GUSTO – OLFATTIVO : secco, caldo, abb. morbido abb. fresco, abb. tannico, sapido / di corpo abb. equilibrato, intenso, persistente(7/8), fine
CONSIDERAZIONI FINALI : maturo, abb. armonico

Anonymous said...


The two critical commenters above should keep in mind that, as you noted, these wines were priced very reasonably when the big slug of Vallanas hit the market years ago. I remember when that happened and should have bought some. Alas, I looked at them more as a curiosity at the time and didn't know quite what to make of them. Shame on me.

But again, it isn't like you were writing up the typical ego-driven dinner where someone discusses just how many mags of Musigny, RSV and La Tache one can drink with the cheese course before staggering back to the private jet terminal at La Guardia. Those dinners always strike me as a monumental waste of great wine.

Mike Klein

keithlevenberg said...

Further to Mike's post, several cases of this stuff were on sale at Chambers Street Wines just a few weeks ago (and for all I know, still are), so the answer to the question "who is ever going to come across this stuff" is "pretty much anyone who cares to look." Great post and followup, can't wait to open the bottles I picked up from CSW.

I'm a huge fan of non-Langhe nebbiolo with a particular fixation on Gattinara. I think Jeremy makes a great point that the emergence of Barolo and especially Barbaresco as the blue-chip nebbiolo regions is a fairly recent development that doesn't reflect any longstanding historical consensus on relative greatness.

King Krak, Oenomancer said...

I envy you, again. I've only twice tasted (had a glass) of old Vallana Spanna, and both were wonderful.

I've since acquired three bottles over the past 4 years via Rare Wine Co. and Winebid. I also know of an SF restaurant that has some (but they're not on their wine list). So, hard-to-find, but not impossible.

Apparently these wines were released 10 or so years ago at about half the price they are now.

adam said...

Heading to Bern's Wednesday for some birthday fun...they have the '76 traversagna and '74 montalbano on the list for 35 and 40 dollars, respectively. No, seriously.

Bern's is the only good thing about Florida.