“I’m a really traditional sommelier when it comes down to it,” says Erica O’Neal. “I’m not into pét-nat [short for pétillant-naturel, meaning “naturally sparkling”]. I’m not really into the latest greatest thing. I really just like straightforward, traditional wines with straightforward, traditional food.” And when Italienne opens in New York City’s Flatiron neighborhood later this fall, that’s exactly what customers should expect from O’Neal and chef Jared Sippel, a welcome breather from esoterica.
The two are creating a program that’s based on northern Italy, with a nod to Sippel’s affection for the cuisine of Provence, where he trained in his early chef days. At first, this seems like an unlikely match, but then you get O’Neal talking about the wines of the two regions, and suddenly there’s no reason why a northern Italian-Provençal hybrid wouldn’t make sense—they share similar grape varieties.
O’Neal has a very geographical way of thinking about wine, finding links between regions both from the standpoint of physical landmarks, as well as winemaking philosophies, which makes northern Italy particularly appealing to her. “When you get into northern Italy, altitude is a big thing, she says. “You’re already getting into the Alps or in Barolo; you’re in the foothills, and that affects the structure of these wines. What I really love to look at and trace, too, are the rivers and the lakes that happen in these regions that come off of the Alps. I mean, the Rhône River starts in the Alps—it goes through Switzerland and comes down.”
Erica O’Neal (image: Michael Rush)
That same geography has also sort of isolated the regions in the north of Italy from the rest of the country but from one another, as well, which means that each has carved out its own style of winemaking over the course of hundreds of years. And the methods haven’t changed that much over time. “They’ve always produced these wines a certain way and they’re rustic and singular because of it,” says O’Neal.
So while she’ll have some bottles from the Rhône (she’s especially excited about her Châteauneuf du Pâpe bottlings) and Provence, the bulk of O’Neal’s wine list will center around northern Italian wines, from small producers. “I love Giuseppe and Bartolo Mascarello wines and sure, I’ve had some really fantastic Conterno and Rinaldi, but I want to focus on producers who maybe aren’t as well known but who maybe might also have been producing wine for hundreds of years as a family and who really emulate what that region is about,” she says.
This time of year, O’Neal’s reaching for bottles that can bridge that gap between end of summer produce into fall. “I don’t know what’s built into us, but for me because I’m from Atlanta, as soon as it goes below 70 degrees, I’m done with rosé. There’s something ingrained in me that’s like, “I’m ready for red wine; I’m ready for something that’s kind of peppery and meaty and warming.” She hunts down wines that capture freshness of fruit but still have some slightly developing flavors—and nothing too heavy, as far as body and structure. Both of these are factors in making northern Italian wines especially suited to fall drinking.
Below, O’Neal gives recommendations for six Italian reds that are well-suited to fall.
“This Langhe nebbiolo [$25] is one of the best I’ve ever had. Fratelli Alessandria is located in Verduno, the northernmost commune of Barolo, that benefits from slightly higher elevation and the temperature regulating effect of the river Tanaro. It has bright, juicy red fruit and velvety tannins—not your tough nebbiolo from Monforte but a great bridge between wanting more body in a red wine without having to wait forever for it to show its guns. The family-run Fratelli Alessandria winery makes wine exclusively from its own vineyards and is located in a great 18th-century house near the historic center of Verduno.
“Because of how this is made, it has a really fresh pop of fruit but still has a warming aspect, which I really like about the wines from Lombardy or the Valle d’Aosta. These Alpine-y wines are a little bit more herbaceous. You start seeing more woodsy herbs being used in cooking this time of year, instead of fresh cilantro or parsley and those kinds of woodsy herbs that really pull from the Alpine region.”
“This is like the Volnay of Alto Adige; it’s fuller and more silky-bodied than your typical schiava. Gumphof is a father-son farmstead located in Fiè allo Sciliar in the Isarco Valley, a tiny Alpine village nestled along the steep, rugged mountain slopes stretching north of Bolzano up to the Austrian border in the northerly reaches of Trentino—Alto Adige. Markus Prackwieser and his father, Johann, have been tending pergola vines of pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, schiava and pinot noir since the late 1970s. Markus is among the region’s best and most talented winemakers.
“This wine [$23] bridges the gap between late summer vibes and slightly more chilly fall nights. Traditionally, a glass of schiava is enjoyed with a plate of speck as an appetizer at mealtime, but the softer black pepper and tobacco notes allow the wine to be enjoyed with end-of-summer peppers and tomatoes while also gripping enough for something like a roasted rack of lamb.”
“Marco Speri is the son of a well-known amarone producer, Benedetto Speri, who learned what his father was doing and was like, That’s awesome, I want to go off and do something different. He branched off his father’s winemaking and sought to make a more ‘modern’ Valpolicella by using natural yeasts, a different vineyard training system and low-temperature fermentations in stainless steel to produce a more balanced, approachable and elegant Valpolicella.
“He has accomplished that task here in this bottle [$20]. I like this because I know what the corvina grape variety tastes like when I taste the wine, rather than just getting a bunch of sugar. With rich and just ripe plum and cherry fruits, this wine shows the spice and dark floral characteristic that is eminent in corvina. The body is moderate, and the wine finishes dry with a fair amount of acid. This wine is great with your roasted chicken dinner or pizza. It’s a good comfort food pairing for the fall.”
“Who doesn’t love barbera? This wine [$20] is the most elegant and softest Barbera you will ever taste. For a long time, Barbera was just thought of as the wine that farmers and winemakers drank while they were sitting around to ready. And it somehow became commercialized over the years. But now there are winemakers, mostly younger ones, who are showing how Barbera can emulate the region that it’s from.
“Winemaker Fabrizio Iuli captures the spirit of the Monferrato hills, an area that was once more important than the Langhe hills, in each of his certified-organic Barbera bottlings. I really want to get his name out there, because he’s someone who I think has started this revolution with the idea that Barbera is an ancient varietal and has been in this area forever; let’s treat it like the noble varietal that it is. Iuli wants to showcase how mineral-driven this variety could be without it being all about fruit. This has nice brambly fruit with blueberry pie notes, roasted herbs, and fresh violets and lavender. It’s good with eggplant dishes and last-of-season tomatoes and also gamey main dishes.”
“Refosco’s a traditional variety in Friuli. It’s a second cousin to syrah and provides many similar characteristics. With dark blackberry notes and a peppery undertone, this refosco [$25] has a great amount of acid and finishes dry with a licorice and anise flavor. It’s one of my favorite types of wine to pair with dishes that may have a little more roasted or grilled cooking techniques to it, but it’s still nice to enjoy on its own.
“Ronchi di Cialla has been owned by the Rapuzzi family since the ’70s and quickly became a darling of Friuli for its schioppettino bottlings, an obscure varietal now known all around the world. The children of Dina and Paolo, who have agricultural and food degrees, have now helped take over the estate and keep it in the family.”
6. 2012 Sandro Fay Carteria
“In the Alps of Valtellina, this estate is known for its sforzato style of wine, where part of the grapes are dried (passito) but then fermented completely dry. It has similar body to an amarone but with no sugar left over after fermentation. Sandro Fay started this estate in 1973, and his focus has always been on making single site wines to express the unique terroir within Valtellina.
“This Carteria [$36] is a single-vineyard bottling of chiavennasca, the local term for nebbiolo. It’s a second nebbiolo on this list, yes, but it’s quite different from the Fratelli Alessandria because Valtellina is very, very high-altitude. It’s up at 2,600 to 4,000 feet, so it’s cool, but you’re very close to the sun, so the grapes get ripe, but the acid is preserved. They wines are very perfumey, very pretty; they have a really nice lighter style of fruit, like just-ripe strawberry and a little almost craisin, too. This one smells of eucalyptus and hibiscus and also has spicy and meaty characteristics that makes you ready to sit by the fire as fall settles in.”