My Vernaccia Nera hunt at its origins

There’s only one way to really know a wine and that’s going to its birthplace. Or at least that’s what I’ve done during a trip to Marche, Italy, in search of the Vernaccia Nera and all things Fontezoppa. Or Fonte Zoppa, which literally means The Fountain of the Lame.

Now what does Vernaccia mean in a country famous for Montepulciano, Sangiovese or the Chianti recipe? You wouldn’t be able to find the Nera (black/red variety) even on Wikipedia. Various types of Vernaccia Bianca are relatively more widespread, but from what Mosè Ambrosi, the absolute and undisputed head of the Fontezoppa operations told us, there are only about 75 hectars of Nera in the World and Fontezoppa owns 20 of them. Actually this is the reason I’m doing this in English: any amateur interested in such a wine is very likely to have good English knowledge; otherwise, Fontezoppa products are also available in Romania via VM Products Italy.

The cultural excuse

Back to the Vernaccia, taking a look at its name starts to disclose its nature. Vernaccia means more or less local wine. The most probable origin of the name is vernaculum, the latin word which also gave us vernacular language, the (native) language in a certain place, as opposed to lingua franca, mutually understood by various populations. So Vernaccia is some kind of substratum wine, something known to be local in a certain region, as opposed to more recent, distinct grapes. I’ve found various stories about a white Vernaccia said to have been brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians somewhere BC, but actual historical data only begin in the thirteenth century. Which is still very old. I don’t even believe the word is related to an individual grape, especially if we take into account the white varieties, but, since I’m not an expert, I’ll leave you with these already verbose considerations.

The tasting

By all means, Vernaccia Nera lives up to its etymology. The people at Fontezoppa managed to turn it into an upright, distinct wine, although available in more versions (most of the reds you can find on the site). I’ll spare you of the usual, specialized wine descriptions of whom I’m totally inept, and say Mrs. Vernaccia Nera can immediately create some intimacy with Romanian consumers, since it’s a strong (around 14,5 degrees, depending on the procedure) and wild wine, to a certain extent similar to the Feteascas and Cabernets we make in Valea Prahovei.

Similar, but not the same. Try some Moro or Falcotto to convince yourselves. Once again, I’m totally incapable of acurately describing a wine with that specialized kind of oddball language, said to be very precise. Whenever two such gurus say mineral or fruity, they actually mean the same thing, but I could go on and on with metaphors only to confuse enthusiasts and disgust experts. I’ve heard such gurus in particular, repeatedly using expressions such as cat piss for Sauvignon, which is a further proof of their consistence, because otherwise one would call Sauvignon anchovy urine and the other, something like bat vomit.

The binging

Having already exposed myself as the kind of vulgar person that would rather drink the wine instead of tasting it, I have to add that Marche and Civitanova, the city where Fontezoppa is based, do provide serious opportunities for a successful career start – or end – in alcohol binging. Probably we were given a priviledged, obliging treatment by Mosè, Fontezoppa’s supreme commander, but he did it with the same energy that made him transform a little local grape into an experience in itself. Powered by as much as eight espressos per day, Mosè Ambrosi drove, entertained, overfed and perfused us with Vernaccia and other Fontezoppa liquids at a pace which I had not experienced previously. Us meaning a gang of five relatively dissenting food and wine amateurs, consisting of two superstars (1, 2), a professional wine taster and two people with hazy qualifications, one of them claiming to be the DoP of the expedition and myself, that I also carried around a camera, plus I can act like a web celebrity. Number 6 was Violeta, the Romanian importer, that had the talent to totally and shamefully mingle with the rest of us since the very beginning of everything.

Răzvan Exarhu, Diana Pavelescu, Bogdan Mustățea, Mosè Ambrosi, Violeta Popa, Cosmin Tudoran and myself

Răzvan Exarhu, Diana Pavelescu, Bogdan Mustățea, Mosè Ambrosi, Violeta Popa, Cosmin Tudoran and a foolish version of myself

Basically during more than three days we’ve lived an alternance of short drives to Mosè’s vineyards, long meals and shocking wine consumption which makes memories difficult to separate. One peculiar aspect of it is we’ve managed to narrowly avoid tipsiness, in spite of starting the routine everyday around noon and finishing it at midnight. Maybe the reason is we’ve constantly matched our wine overconsumption with steady and perpetual food hovering. I’ll only mention the delicious prosciuttos and salamis (one of them even had some liver in it) which supported and boosted red wine lust. All the greed somehow arranged itself neatly into the extended Italian meal format, which includes extra-dishes such as antipasto, between starters and main. We were able to discuss extensively wine and other things, even in Dante’s beautiful language. Which, on a second thought, is pretty problematic since only Mosè, Violeta and Diana actually knew Italian.

The raw delicious hairy mussel

Speaking of second thoughts, one night we were taken out to a raw seafood dinner, to match the array of white wines Mosè wanted to present us. I’ll only mention the Ribona (Maceratino) and Passerina, local grapes from the Marche region, hardly similar to anything else. Plus the Metoddo Clasico Rosé, although I’m not sure it fits here, made of Vernaccia Nera. I’ve found it very good, although once again I’m a vulgar person, hardly into the fashionable rosés. And, yes, you can bring Ribona, Passerina or Metoddo Clasico R. at home, but in order to taste the pesce crudo (raw seafood) a trip to Civitanova is mandatory and worth. The tenderness and freshness of lobsters, shrimps, oysters and mussels is impossible to describe and it has nothing to to with sushi, because it’s plain and simple seafood that plain and simple Italians enjoy regularly. You can only find such stuff on a piece of ground surrounded by water.

All of this is raw

All this in a place that also looked just like a normal restaurant for locals, called Il Secondo pensiero/The Second Tought. But in Italy things have a tendency to uncover themselves slowly. On the napkins the name read Il Secondo pensiero doppo la cozza/The Second Thought after the Mussel. And then, when checking in on Facebook, it turned into Il Secondo pensiero doppo la cozza pelosa/The Second Thought after the Hairy Mussel. Now don’t ask me what this is supposed to mean, because I’ll give you the same silent, grinning stare Violeta gave me when I’ve asked. Maybe hairy clam is more suggestive in English. But maybe I’d better not make any more suggestions.

Anyway, Il Secondo pensiero offers much more than raw seafood and white wines. It turned out to be maybe the only place in the World with a house band hidden behind a clothes stand. I really don’t know why they put the two gentlemen there. Maybe they’re not allowed to look at clients or maybe it’s an acoustics issue, althought the Italian pop music came from behind the stand unmuffled. There was a second line of defense consisting of some kind of red upholstered box where the two gentlemen seemed to get along very well.

Can’t believe your eyes? Here it is with sound:

Actually, to stop mockery, most of the singing was good. Another night we got scared about a karaoke party which was announced at Locanda Fontezoppa. When it started, we’ve realized it’s something very different than Romanians do, which is getting totally wasted before embarassing themselves by yelling out of tune. Italian karaoke is music among friends, like it used to be done before the invention of the gramophone, in spite of the instrumental tracks: just sing, as well and as earnestly as you can. And Italians can sing.

Mostly.

The conclusion

Mosè Ambrosi told us more than once that what Fontezoppa does is honest wines, with low sulphur compounds, stuff meant to be drunk without giving you any hangovers. Hardly a self-flattering description and it downplays the specificities and quality of the wines we’ve tasted. Trying to mentally fit all the things we did around Locanda Fontezoppa and Civitanova with other wines is an impossible experiment. But it proves that any wine is a story, if it’s a real wine.

Post your thoughts